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Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Anna-gony of weak minds…

With anti-corruption fervour reaching a crescendo, India unfortunately has a lot of its usual naysayers come out of the woodwork. This is not surprising as there is a mentality of certain people who enjoy taking a contrarian stance, not out of conviction but out of habit (more often than not, these creatures lack the ability or the desire to understand the issues to form a conviction either way). Perhaps psychologists have already identified this as a condition emanating from the inability to garner attention in their lives, I don’t know. Or perhaps I am mistaken in considering myself the biggest cynic around, and it is these people who really deserve the title who are so afraid of expecting anything good in their lives lest they cant handle disappointment afterwards. Even if it were to end in disappointment, I believe in trying to give my all to the present and to such people I can only say, you cannot not go to a party tonight because you are scared of a hangover tomorrow.

Most of the arguments against the ongoing ‘Team Anna’ movement are focussed on the peripheries given that having substance to arguments takes efforts and intelligence. Since I know most people form views and then shut their minds tight (if they exist) from any information that is contra to what they believe, I have chosen to call my discussion facile points and my indulgence of those facile points rather than questions and answers:

Facile point 1: Once a government is elected, it is wrong to blackmail them

Indulgence 1: Weak minds like buzzwords, like ‘blackmail’. Another good one is ‘fake’. These words, to them, are arguments in themselves not requiring any further corroboration. “Once I call someone ‘fake’, that will seal the case” seems to be the refrain. Have you noticed very bad salespeople using a lot of buzz words? I remember Barkha Dutt keeping on harping about “Khabar” when she was caught red handed allegedly passing messages in what appears to be a horse trading transaction.

While clearly buzzwords carry weight among equally weak minds (it must, else it would not have been advanced as an argument anywhere), it really doesn’t hold any water. It is the constitutional right of everyone to protest and to brand that right is blackmail is to take someones right away. It is similar to taking away the right to freedom or right to free speech. If the protest is wrong or useless it will die down. Sometimes the protest is valid but does not capture public imagination and dies down, harshly. An example is the 73-day fast of Swami Nigamananda against mining near the Ganges which ended with his death. Notably, here the BJP was in power in that state (Uttarakhand). No one cried ‘blackmail’ then!  In fact I am sure that most people reading this article will only have a passing knowledge of this incident. So what these people are calling blackmail is actually the governments surprise on seeing mass support, as can be gleaned from the Ganga mining case, a person fasting to death alone is not ‘blackmail’ this government!

Facile point 2: People get the government they deserve, so live with corruption

Indulgence 2: Though I partially agree with the point, thankfully the Einsteins who make this argument blindly did not write India’s constitution. It is a sign of a mock democracy (covert dictatorship) if people elected parties but were then kept away from participative process of running the country. That’s a quasi dictatorship. If it was not, then the Indian constitution would have banned protests! Why it would have banned an opposition or even the holding of assembly sessions!

But that’s going too far, if this argument was true then several countries would not have been free and South Africa, U.S and most of the European world would have had legalised racial discrimination.

If this argument was really believed in by its proponents, then they should have protested against the National Advisory Commission which is also a self styled civil society body (though headed by Sonia Gandhi) which suggests ridiculous (in my reading) pieces of legislation such as the Communal Violence Bill, 2011.

But I know, no protests were forthcoming because the resistance of this fringe idiocracy was not due to ideological opposition to the concept of a vibrant democracy (which India did not appear to be till a few weeks back) but solely to make up for attention deficit in their personal or professional lives.

Facile point 3: Anna is corrupt/ he doesn’t represent the people/ he should stand for elections and then get his Bill

Indulgence 3: This logic is so far up the ridiculous scale that even its proponents believe that it’s a good argument.

The most striking feature of this argument is that from very general objections, this one is more specific, more personal. But again, specific arguments against the Jan Lokpal Bill itself (the real issue) are not advanced, because that would require a thorough reading of both the government and Anna’s draft, and that would mean efforts and bring into question the debaters mental abilities. We cant have that!

To this my rebuttal is simple. Maybe Anna is corrupt, so are you saying he is bringing an Act that will make it easier to arrest him? So you are saying he is smart enough to create a media circus, draft an actual bill, fight with an government and be corrupt at the same time but he is stupid enough to commit political suicide? Pick one guys, either decide he is smart and non-corrupt or decide he is stupid and corrupt. Perhaps that is too much effort? But that is the long form version of my answer, my personal view is, I don’t care either way. Show me what you find objectionable in the Bill. I too have my reservations on the Jan Lokpal but that is to be debated in the parliament and revised, but the governments Jokepal is so atrocious that I am willing to live with my reservations on Jan Lokpal not being considered rather than facing a Jokepal.

Anna does actually represent the people, he was appointed by a notification in the official gazette as a part of the team that represented the civil society. If the government did not think he was representative then were they so incompetent/ stupid to let him in anyway with a official gazette notification? If it is so, then do we want a incompetent/ stupid government at the helm or are we better off holding elections? That is my question back to these newtons. Anna does not need to stand for elections to get his Bill discussed as he was already part of the joint drafting committee. Also, if one were to wait for someone to get near 300 seats in elections before doing anything then nothing would happen in this country!

Facile point 4: Anna wants his copy of the bill to be passed.

Indulgence 4: This argument was completely wrong till a few days back but now its only partially wrong. The original demand of Anna was only that his bill be tabled along with the government’s draft in parliament for debate and voting. However, from what I see in the media Anna is now demanding his Bill be passed. However, Anna is also willing to concede to things like removing judiciary from its ambit. So in fact Anna was always willing to reconsider some of his view on the bill and that’s why he wanted it to be debated in parliament. Such debate would have also shown the country which party supports stringent anti corruption laws and which doesn’t!

Facile point 5: Everyone/ most who is protesting are corrupt themselves or have paid bribes

Indulgence 5: While this is a factual statement to a degree, it is hardly an argument for someone not to protest. The people protesting against corruption have been victims of corruption at some point, so should they not protest? This is like saying a rape victim should not ask for stringent punishment for rapists! It sounds illogical but this is exactly the argument that is being advanced. The proponents of this logic are somehow arguing that the poor bribe payer enjoyed giving the money away so he cant protest against it (why else would there be a moral issue in bribe payers fighting the corrupt?!), so are they also saying the rape victim enjoyed the act, hence cant fight for justice?! How preposterous is that!

It is also worthwhile to discuss what exactly one means by corruption as well. Subramanian Swamy has given us a ‘demand-side’ definition, ie. If anyone makes gains by the misuse of public office, then that is corruption. So if a husband demands dowry it is not corruption, its extortion, since no ‘public office’ was misused. So even if Baba Ramdev may have received donations (as the Congress alleges to try and discredit him) from black money pools, he cant be called corrupt (Swamy gives a good taxi driver analogy to make his point), since he has not used a public office for illegal gain. Moreover, his books are clean and available for examination so appears to have not been any cheating on the way the money was spent.

I propose to look at corruption from the ‘supply-side’. I divide it into two categories: a) corruption for undeserved benefit and b) Corruption in the nature of extortion. The first type is the one of the kind telecom companies allegedly indulged in, they were not qualified for legal and technical reasons to gain 2G spectrum but they bribed the telecom minister who misused public office and conferred undeserved gain. This type of corruption would seldom be complained against by its parties since both have gotten something out of it which they didn’t deserve. A telecom company got a scarce national resource for peanuts and the minister allegedly got billions and billions of dollars.

The second type of corruption affects common man (though arguably it’s the first type that’s worse for the country financially). Indians pay bribes for driving licenses, for almost every other sort of license, to get into colleges, to get passports done and what not. In poor areas people may be paying bribes to get government sponsored scheme benefits, to get out of jail, to get into government hospital, to get into public schools, to get food, to get water, to get anything. I think it’s a cruel joke, in very bad taste and a reflection of the uncouth culture of the person who equates both types of corruption knowingly.

So yes, most people protesting have paid bribes but they are the victims of the second type of corruption. Yes, a lot of them could have avoided (though sometimes that is not possible!) paying a bribe but people have lives, they cant afford to (not that they don’t want to) keep circling government offices for decades for something that should take 48 hours. This is like saying Mumbaikars go to work the day after serial blasts due to some sort of an ‘Mumbai spirit’ that only politicians seem to be able to see. People go, fearing for their life and limb, because they have no choice! They go because, unlike leaders, they don’t have money stashed away in swiss bank accounts to allow them to stay indefinitely at home without work. If anything a bribe payer of the second type has the most locus standi to protest!

I have endeavoured to answer all the facile arguments I have seen made on various social media mostly by people who are not doing anything in this fight and want to ride on Anna’s fame by deriding him. Deride him all you want, just tell me….what do you think is wrong with the Jan Lokpal Bill!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

World's most expensive blog post

This is the story of an ordinary man travelling from Dubai to India after a brief working-vacation.

The man in question was carrying a flat screen TV (which are about 60-70% cheaper in Dubai than in India) back home. He had read up on all customs duty rules that told him the import duty on the TV would be about Rs3500-3800, a great deal cheaper than a similar TV in India. Ah, but the presumption (and it was being presumptuous!) being the existence of at least one honest Indian, that has become something of a Loch Ness monster, everyone has heard of, but no one has seen it.

The hapless traveler was accosted by six customs officials at the booth who took away his passport without reason and assessed the value of the TV at 4 times what was stated in the bill. The resultant duty demand was raised at Rs40,000. (about 10x as much). Given that the Indian Customs rule do not allow anyone carrying more than Rs7500 in cash to the country, instead of raising this demand, the customs officials, if acting in good faith, should have confiscated the said import. 

Surprised by the sudden development, the traveler took the high road downloading customs duty rules on his iPhone and showing the 'gang' the correct duty that is to be levied. The customs officials gave him two choices:

1) the traveler stay in their 'custody' for an unspecified duration, of course without a warrant or any official notification till such unspecified time they feel he has been harassed enough to pay up; or
2) he pay the duty that he is calculating and leave. But there is a hitch, in words of the head of customs at the airport, "If some policeman happens to search you as you leave the airport, and if he happens to find something seriously contraband on your person, what will you do, you will be in serious trouble!"  

So the traveler has two choices, either to remain in custody indefinitely or then run the risk of being arrested with a gram of cocaine or something of the sort being surprisingly 'found' on his person. 

There is a third choice that is offered by the loyal servants of government of India themselves..."why dont you just take care of the situation privately?". So the traveler who has so far prided himself of not having ever paid a bribe ever is forced to go to an ATM that is conveniently placed just past the customs station (wondering if that is the sole purpose of it!) to withdraw cash to pay Rs13,000 to these people. Given that honesty and fair dealing is extremely important to this man, he agrees with himself that these are just fees he has paid for a) learning how honest people are forced to pay bribes by the threat of an arrest of a possible drug related charge that would end his life and career and b) investment advice on not investing in a country that is in a terminal decline.

After making the payment to a policeman who collects the money in the cleaning room, who also escorts him out of the airport, the traveler is struck by the need to make a police complaint. But he remembers that it is one of the gravest crimes in India to give a bribe. This would lead him to be liable for an arrest when he goes to the cops about being ripped off and then they will demand more money to let him go lest they charge him with some other crime. Clearly, the framers of this law either believed that people like giving money away, most of all to corrupt government officials and this law should be enough to prevent such illicit happiness from spreading or then the lawmakers did not want to clog the police stations with corruption complaints that would not be acted upon anyway.

The man also realises as he walks to a cab that his other luggage has not been scanned or searched. It also answers the question on how explosives are smuggled into India to kill 100s of people in bomb blasts. 

All it takes is a TV and Rs13,000.

*The above work maybe the work of fiction and resemblances to real people or situations is coincidental.*

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Ahimsa is not a universal truth

Gandhi’s insistence for the principal of non-violence (ahimsa) and his experiments with the concept are well known. To be fair they inspired people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela who once remarked “At a time when Freud was liberating sex, Gandhi was reining it in, when Marx was pitting workers against capitalists, Gandhi was reconciling them; when the dominant Europe thought had dropped God and Soul out of the social reckoning, he was centralising society in God and the Soul; and when the ideologies of the colonised had virtually disappeared, he revived them and empowered them with a potency that liberated and redeemed”

That Gandhi was a pioneer in his style of resistance is of no doubt to anyone, but his apparent insistence on a “one size fits all” was the bone of contention of many. I am reading an excellent book “The untold story of India’s partition” by Narendra Singh that chronicles the period leading upto the tragic date of rending India, beginning with the duration of the second world war. While Narendra’s book seems to squarely place the blame for the partition on the British and the Muslim League (which at every point appeared to advance British interests over India’s) this is for you folks to decide on reading this book, that I highly recommend. Narendra also blames the Congress for its haphazard policies, no clear stand, knee jerk moves and divergent opinions on hastening the process of division. But personally, I think while the Congress may have been guilty of incompetence, their intent (at least in those days) was not malicious to India’s detriment. The book also suggests the gradual side-lining of the great Subhash Chandra Bose by Gandhi and the rest of Congress as his popularity soon over shadowed those of the Grand Old Party’s tallest leaders! It also hints at how Gandhi’s ahimsa was extremely irritating for even members of the Congress, a charge that they now conveniently hurl at only the RSS.

It is interesting to note that Britain’s insistence for partition came from its desire to have troops stationed on the subcontinent to counter any Russian adventure in the region. The British knew that an independent India would not allow for foreign troops to be stationed on its soil if India become independent. The next thing was the use their good offices with the Muslim League and a rabidly ambitious Jinnah (who knew he was dying anyway) to conspire for the division of the country so get a base in North West India (now known as Pakistan) for their troops. This is also evident from the fact that soon after partition Pakistan did join with Britain in a couple of cooperation and military pacts. The book also identifies the Aga Khan as one of the persons responsible for the flowering of the idea that hindus and muslims are different nations.

Anyway coming back to, the failure of Gandhi to apply his one size fits all philosophy that eventually saw his get assassinated is evident from a few instances mentioned in the book. The first example is the conversation that took place with Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy, in the summer of 1940 soon after Hitler had overrun France. In a chat that left the Lord white in the face with no words, Gandhi said:

“Let them (Germans) take possession of your beautiful island, if Hitler
chooses to occupy your homes, vacate them, if he does not give you
free passage, allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered”

This outburst led many in the British establishment question Gandhi’s sanity. This is also the moment perhaps that endeared the British to the Muslim League and away from the Congress. On the other hand I cannot help but note with sarcasm how many more lives Gandhi was willing to sacrifice for his Ahimsa instead of a resistance, which in this case, almost certainly would have cost fewer lives!

Anyway, the next para that I pick verbatim from the book, highlights what I have always felt about the concept of Ahimsa and other means of non-violent protests:

“At the core of the great mans confusion at this stage of his life was whether or not or how far to continue to adhere to the policy of non-violence in a situation that was changing grom a purely colonial struggle to something different, more akin to one faced by independent states in their dealings with other states. The true power of the satyagraha lay in provoking deep moral stirrings in the oppressor by the willingness of the oppressed to withstand all atrocities even to the extent of calmly facing self-annihilation. It is a tenet for action by individuals who risk their lives or those of their near and dear ones. It cannot be a gospel for leaders of sovereign states to fight aggression by another country.

No leader of a country can afford to turn the other cheek to an invading army and risk defeat of his country and annihilation of perhaps millions. Non violence could be used to fight racism (as in S. Africa) or colonialism (as in India) practiced by people who are capable of doubting the morality of their own policies and actions. It cannot be a policy to fight pressures exerted by people with totally different ethical or moral values or by fundamentalists or jihadis”

This is a most succinct exposition of what I believe of the principal of non-violence and I am sad that I am not as articulate as the author!

Gandhi’s own doubts are evident from his statement to Vincent Sheen, his biographer, two days before his death. He said “Mind you, no ordinary government can get along without the use of force”. Or his statement on 29th October 1947 that the Indian army would have to “do or die” in Kashmir. This from a man who very recently had advocated a genocide of British in their own country rather than a armed resistance to an invader!

But much as it may surprise readers, I actually admire this about Gandhi. As a staunch believer of the premise “when the facts change, I change my mind” Gandhi’s doubt was a sign of intelligence that he himself doubted the veracity of his belief that non-violence could be applied to any and all situations. However, the interim doubt and contradictory positions he took often, especially during the religious riots leading up to the partition of India was what takes some sheen off MK Gandhi, in my humble view. If he had started with the thought “Ahimsa is a great idea, but it will not work all the time and will need pragmatic application”, he, in my view, would not have stoked the mentality that eventually led to his tragic assassination.

It also brings us to a bigger question. That Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare fasted against the Indian government with no success. So is one correct in assuming that the Indian government lacks the ability to doubt the morality of their own actions? If so, then it would squarely put the Indian government in the league of fundamentalists and jihadis, would it not?

Once again all credit (and source reference) to this excellent book I mentioned earlier and I recommend it to all Indians.