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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

‘Big brother’ wants to watch!

“The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of “The Red Sari”, Spanish writer, Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?”

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bête noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

'Big Brother' wants to watch!’, was first  published in The Hans India of December 12, 2011.
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Kapil Sibal has certainly set the cat among the pigeons when he demanded executives of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to screen content posted on social networking sites. The Information Technology (Electronic Service Delivery) Rules, 2011, the government notified earlier this year in April, are considered to be the most stringent compared to those in any democratic country. The rules require ‘the intermediaries’ (like Facebook, Google, Orkut etc) that provide a platform to users to post comments and create their own content to remove ‘offensive’ content based on an e-mailed complaint from an aggrieved person.

The immediate provocation for Kapil Sibal’s demand appears to be a cartoon posted on Facebook lampooning Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Sibal termed it ‘unacceptable.’ In a party that lays great store by loyalty to ‘the’ family, Kapil Sibal, as Information Technology Minister cannot be seen to be deficient. In addition to loyalty Sibal has another reason to be chagrined with the internet, especially the role played by Facebook and Twitter in bringing the government to heel in the recent Indians Against Corruption (IAC) movement.

The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of The Red Sari”, Spanish writer Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?

Indian politicians, who strongly believe in the dictum ‘some animals are more equal than others’, have rarely taken kindly to criticism. They certainly could do with eulogy, thank you. Like Kapil Sibal in 2011, in 1987, M. G. Ramachandran’s government wanted to teach a lesson to irreverent journalists. S. M. Balasubramanian the editor of ‘Ananda Vikatan’ was summoned by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly on April 4, 1987 to tender an apology for a cartoon the magazine published in its issue dated March 29, 1987. The Editor refused to do so because he was not given an opportunity to explain his stand in the matter. The assembly passed a motion by voice vote to award three months rigorous imprisonment to Balasubramanian. The sentence elicited strong reactions from the press and other quarters. Known for hunting with the hound and running with the hare, the Congress party played a curious role in the affair. After supporting the motion in the state assembly, its Home Minister at the centre, P. Chidambaram wished to defuse the crisis by offering an apology to the assembly - on behalf of Balasubramanian! The issue was resolved after M. G. Ramachandran appealed to the assembly to rescind the sentence. Balasubramanian was released after spending two nights in prison.

A similar drama was enacted in Andhra Pradesh during the reign of N. T. Rama Rao as Chief Minister. In 1985 the state legislative Council summoned Ramoji Rao, Editor of ‘Eenaadu’ over the caption of an editorial the paper published criticizing a ruckus in the Council. Ramoji Rao approached the Supreme Court for redress and the issue would have blown into a legislature-judiciary spat. N. T. Rama Rao, already unhappy with the Council’s intransigence over legislative business, resolved the crisis by abolishing the Council.

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bete noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

Much as Kapil Sibal and his government would wish to govern the internet to ensure ordinary folk show due respect to the politicians at all times, it is easier said than done. There are an estimated 100 million netizens in India. We are the third most populous netizen country in the world after China and the US. But how does the Indian government police content posted outside India? If every article, cartoon, video and comment posted on the internet had to be screened and cleared before publishing, the process would simply crash the system. 

Secondly, regulating information flow had never worked. The erstwhile Soviet Union did It for 70 years deluding itself that the ‘worker’s paradise’ was really popular with the masses. Nearer home, though Indira Gandhi bowed to international pressure and ended the infamous emergency in 1977, she called for elections with the smug satisfaction that her regime was popular, which was the impression fed to her by her own propaganda machinery. For it was she who disbanded four private news agencies and created her hand-maiden Samachar!

TAIL PIECE: There are many ‘iron curtain’ jokes but this one on the popularity of Russia’s mouth piece PRAVDA, though seemingly apocryphal, has a tell-tale lesson for the Kapil Sibal’s of this world: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a citizen of Moscow went to his favourite coffee shop and asked a waiter to bring him a cup of the brew and the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely informed him, ‘Sir, I will bring you your coffee, but I am afraid I can’t bring PRAVDA because it was closed down.’ 

As the waiter deposited his coffee cup, the man asked him again to bring the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely replied again that the PRAVDA was closed down. However the man continued to ask for PRAVDA every five minutes. Finally, the exasperated waiter lost his cool and shouted, ‘How many times do I have to tell you Sir that PRAVDA was closed down?’ The man replied with obvious relish, ‘I want to hear it again and again and again!’ 


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Memoirs of a man of letters!

This tongue-in-cheek take on  ‘memoirs’ appeared in The Hans India on November 25, 2011.
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‘Guruji, I need your help’, gushed a breathless Subbu. He has this habit of barging in on me with news of ‘earth-shaking events’ or ‘momentous’ requests.  Subbu is a decent sort of chap, helpful to others and eager to learn but when he gets a ‘bee in his bonnet’ he is quite a bother. Considering his nature, it would perhaps be a little unkind to say he is exasperating at times.

‘What’s it?’ I asked politely, adding sotto voce, ‘this time’ with a silent sigh. ‘Guruji, I want to publish my memoirs’, said he eagerly. I understood. This is the season for publishing memoirs. Everyone who is anyone is up to publishing them. Some do this to get ‘it’ off their chest; some because they want to bitch on their colleagues and others with whom they want to settle scores. And some do it to make a quick buck by cashing in on salacious tidbits they are privy to, before signing off. But Subbu? I couldn’t imagine the editors of Penguin, Harper-Collins or other publishing houses queuing up before Subbu’s residence to buy off his memoirs. ‘Why do you want to publish your memoirs?’ I asked politely hoping that I might be able to dissuade him. ‘I have so many memorable events in my life, which I want to share with the world.’ Of course, everyone thinks so. Only the cynics call it human weakness or vanity .

‘OK’, I said, ‘let’s begin with your childhood’. Why does everyone who writes a memoir include a chapter about childhood? “As a child, I and my friends used to play in the dusty and muddy by lanes of a small village in the outback of rural Bihar….I used to walk four miles every day to school….Our class teacher was a tyrant and he used to make us stand in the hot sun all day as a punishment.” This will help the reader understand, (a) the writer was a poor boy; (b) his heart is in the right place because he did not forget his humble beginnings and is not ashamed of speaking about them; and (c) he made it big in life although he came from a very humble beginning. 

Subbu said, ‘As a boy, I used to steal my father’s cigarettes to smoke with my friends.’ I forbore to say, show me any boy who didn't do it, for it would kill his enthusiasm. I told him, ‘we will make it cigars in the memoirs; but not the country variety. Havana or Cheroot would look classy.’ He considered it a moment, and then nodded.

‘What else did you do as a boy?’ I continued. He said, ‘I kissed Meena’. I exclaimed, ‘who’ but then added, ‘she would be old enough to be your grandmother’. ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean Meena Kumari. This girl was our neighbour in Tamil Nadu.’ ‘You couldn’t have done it’, I said, ‘because Meena is young enough to be your daughter now.’ ‘Guruji, you are mistaken’, Subbu said with a little impatience, ‘I was not referring to either the Hindi tragedienne or the Telugu movie queen; I was referring to a sweet little girl, my friend’s younger sister.’ Then his ‘kiss’ would not excite readers, sending their pulses racing. However, I did not want to dampen his enthusiasm, so I continued. ‘What made you do it?’ He said, ‘I saw my uncle, my father’s younger brother kissing our maid behind the haystack and thought I would do it too.’ Freud might be able to explain this impulse, or is it Jung? Anyway it was not up to me.

‘What next?’ I asked. ‘I would like to devote a chapter deriding the editor of…’ He named prominent English daily. Privately I was a little disappointed. I thought he would have more of the ‘kissing Meena’ stuff. There would be no queer men or naked women, which would go down well with readers and, more importantly, reviewers. For instance, no reviewer who reviewed the memoirs of a celebrity (I do not remember whose memoirs it was) left out this bit: “...and then she removed her clothes and lay completely naked before me on the carpet.” The reviewers did not tell us what happened afterwards.

‘What do you have against the editor?’ I asked.  Subbu nonchalantly replied, ‘He never published my letters. You know, I regularly write letters to the editors of various newspapers, mostly on topics of national importance.’ ‘But the editor of that newspaper doesn’t even get to see your letters’, I explained. ‘The letters are vetted by the junior most trainee sub-editor. He is directed to choose letters that broadly follow the paper’s editorial policy. His job is to correct spelling and grammar and slash the letters to make them concise. And yes, he gets to decide whether 'of' should follow 'Apropos' or not!'