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.

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!’ 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The first three estates

“The first three estates” appeared in The Hans India, an English daily published from Hyderabad and other centres in its issue dated November 10, 2011.   

‘What are the first three estates?’ screamed the woman police officer in Tamil-accented Telugu, in a scene in a popular Telugu movie. For some inexplicable reason, the Telugu people seem to love it if their speech is disfigured. In movies, Telugu is often spoken by Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and north Indian actors in their own accents. ‘Accented speech’ is used as a comic relief in movies in other languages, but in Telugu movies it appears to be de rigeur. If one goes by the movies made of and for the ‘younger’ generation, Telugu is often spoken in them in anything but a Telugu accent. As Telugu movie script writers are not partial to any language they mutilate English too - and not just in pronunciation but also in meaning - in their ‘Telugu’ dialogues. Then there is this ‘Telugu’ television presenter who conducts interviews with film celebrities and politicians in English-accented Telugu. And why not? If English can be spoken with a Telugu accent, why not the other way round?

‘I don’t know madam’, mumbled the cowering television journalist. ‘The first three estates are legislature, executive and judiciary’, the police officer pompously informed the journalist in a spirit of imparting wisdom, sweetly addressing him as ‘scum’. What she ‘endearingly’ called him doesn’t translate well into English, nor is ‘very’ printable, but that was the gist of it. One might wonder whether in real life senior police officers treat television journalists with such contempt or whether general knowledge quizzes forms part of police interrogation. Does the scene reflect a dumbing down of values in the highly competitive movie industry? But these questions are beside the point.

There was a time when movie scripts were well researched for accuracy. Therefore they were generally devoid of factual errors. Now everyone works to tight schedules and tighter deadlines. This is the electronic age; the age of SMSes and e-mails, and the need for instant gratification in everything. If anyone bothers to ‘research’ at all, Google is the gospel and Wikipedia the Veda. There is of course nothing wrong in using the internet but only as a starting point. A factual error in a dialogue in a minor scene in a movie may not raise an eyebrow. But it certainly does if it is repeated by the editor of a national news magazine. The north Indian editor of an English magazine could not have picked it up from a Telugu movie. But he made the same error in a last page editorial. Watch out, for there may be many more such pearls of wisdom in his much publicised memoirs slated to be released this month. In another last page editorial he referred to P. V. Narasimha Rao’s autobiographical novel, ‘The Insider’ as ‘The Outsider’. Deadlines, bloody deadlines! It is precisely for this reason, nowadays many newspapers run a ‘Corrections’ column.

All this confusion about the first three estates arose because of the use of the expression, ‘the fourth estate’. In the movie scene described earlier, the television journalist whimpers that he is from the ‘fourth estate’ adding helpfully as we Indians do when groping for words, ‘you know’. The officer would have none of it. She had time only to imparting wisdom and mouthing obscenities. 

The coinage of the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ is attributed to Edmund Burke. In his book, ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ (1841) Thomas Carlyle says, Burke used it for the first time in a speech in the British House of Commons in 1787. Burke’s speech marks a very important occasion, that of opening parliamentary proceedings to the press.  Looking up at the press gallery he said, “There are three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The three estates Burke referred to were the Lords Spiritual (the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords), the Lords Temporal (the secular members of the House of Lords) and the House of Commons. There is some dispute however to the quote attributed to Burke but the definitions of the first three estates were well established. In any case the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ connotes that the press is the fourth pillar of democracy, whose function is to provide checks and balances to the parliament and the executive. The first amendment to the US constitution specifically prohibits making any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. In India every time our rulers feel insecure – because of some expose or other - the first thing they look askance is at freedom of the press. They seek to weaken the fourth pillar!

The expression ‘fourth pillar’ might have led to the misconception that the other three pillars nay estates were the legislature, executive and judiciary. Then there is a fifth estate with various meanings attributed to it but generally refers to a class that is none of the four estates. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Between black and white...!

The article ‘Between black and white...!’ appeared in The Hans India, Hyderabad on October 26, 2011.

To those who are familiar with the ways of working class women in the north coastal Andhra districts, it is no surprise to see them carrying their cash, notes and coins in a small cloth bag tucked into the sari at the waist. The small bag that can be closed with a draw string, tucked into the waist is safer than a man’s pocket. Also to those familiar with the area it is no surprise to see cigars smoked with the burning end held in the mouth. Perhaps the nicotine intake provides the necessary physiological relaxation from back-breaking manual labour under a blazing sun but nobody could ever explain how the weird habit of smoking with the burning end in the mouth came about. Both men and women indulge in this rather bizarre habit that is cause for statistically significant incidence of oral cancer in the region.

However I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman take out a mobile phone and a battery charger from her receptacle at the waist and seek a socket to plug it in. She was the maistree for women manual labour. She has on call a number of women workers. They assist masons in construction work by carrying in bricks and cement mortar and carrying out debris in large metal basins as a head load. This was in 2008 when I spent a couple of months back home for renovating our ancestral home. The masons and the coolies commenced their work between 9 & 10 AM and broke for lunch at 1 PM. The men went to the terrace for a smoke and a snooze and the women retired to the hall. Unbidden, they switched on the ceiling fan and lied down for a brief rest. It appears they have fans and colour televisions at home and on the days they didn’t work, watched the telly, especially the ‘serials’.

But according to the mason-contractor (having graduated from mason to contractor he didn’t do manual work any more!) who engaged them there were no days when they didn’t work. During summer they were busy in construction work. In early monsoon, they worked as farm labour. And there was construction work again between the monsoons. He said thanks to the rural employment guarantee scheme nowadays it was difficult to engage them.

Rajiv Gandhi had the candour (or naiveté) in his early days as a professional politico to confess that of every rupee the government spent only eighteen paise reached the intended beneficiaries. That his acolyte Mani Shankar Aiyar – who is never tired of singing Rajiv carols - put a new spin on the economics of poverty alleviation in a recent television debate is another matter. According to Mani, who can spin words as well as the next man the eighty-two paise which fall through the cracks in the system were actually ‘administrative’ expenses. You can’t beat Mani in ‘spin’. He loves the sound of his voice, can pontificate in a phoney Oxbridge accent and make the most inane utterance sound ‘intellectual’ as if to say, ‘I’m Sir Oracle; let no dog bark when I speak!’ He quotes Marx and Engels and many others with unpronounceable names to make a point that India would be better off without computers and blue jeans. For him it would be best if the stock markets were closed as they were the play-fields of only the super rich; that Pakistan is really a ‘saint’ state and an ally.     

The rural employment guarantee scheme may be full of chinks and the system might be leaking like a sieve making many middle men rich but their hard work did enable the working class women (and their men) to watch colour television and loll under a ceiling fan on a hot day. These people may not have been aware of a gentleman called Pramod Mahajan whose tenure as telecom minister made it possible for the woman maistree to carry her cellular phone (and charger). They may not also be aware of a gentleman called A. Raja who milked the same telecom for his ‘social justice’ projects. He is a part of the society, isn’t he? What’s wrong if he did some ‘social justice’ for himself?  It is true, not all of us were aware of the enormity of A. Raja’s ‘social justice’ projects, back then.

But then this is the third India between the India of the rich and the ‘other’ India that is the darling of the prophets of doom, the ‘raison d’ etre’ of our bleeding heart liberals. Between the black India that can stow away cash on the black in those famed Swiss banks and the white or the ‘other’ India that sets hearts racing to bleed there are a myriad shades of grey. 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

‘Chanakya’s Chant’ – An intelligent man’s guide to governance and foreign policy!

Had Chānakya been a Western philosopher (like Plato or Aristotle), history probably would have treated him with much more respect. His Arthaśāstra is easily the Earth's first treatise on statecraft, which dealt with economy and governance, foreign policy and war strategy. Indian history, written first by the aliens and then by the left-liberal crowd, with its obsession with a nebulous ‘composite culture’, has not done justice to the great political-philosopher. Westerners, in their ineffable arrogance, used to refer to Chānakya as the Indian Machiavelli although the former preceded him by about two millennia.

Writing a novel steeped in history is no easy task, because the author has to balance historical accuracy with an engaging plot. Ashwin Sanghi's Chānakya's Chant is a fascinating saga of two Chānakyas, the original political-philosopher of the fourth century BCE and his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar Mishra. As the story swings to and fro with a gap of 2300 years, the reader is gripped by its enthralling narrative, delicious irony and accurate rendering of Indian idiom into English, without losing the flavour of either, which is no mean task. The novel is characterized by meticulous research, great felicity of expression and suave story-telling. 

The story of the original Chānakya runs parallel to the known history of the political philosopher with subtle adlibbing to make it an interesting read. As Chānakya fulfills his vow to banish Dhanananda and coronate Chandragupta, he meets his childhood love, Suvasini after prolonged separation but sacrifices his love for the sake of Bharat, which he strove hard to build. For the great political philosopher it was country before self. In return he earns her wrath and curse. She however offers him a means of redemption that was to come several thousands of years later. It ordains that a man should meditate upon a mantra Suvasini cites, and ‘use it to advance a woman’. Two thousand three hundred years later Chānakya’s modern incarnation Gangäsagar Mishra, a professor of history, chances upon the mantra (Chānakya’s Chant) in the form of an inscription on a granite block. 

Gangäsagar enthrones his protégé, Chandini Gupta, the daughter of a poor pan vendor as the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy by clever manoeuvring. The novel begins with Chandini’s swearing in as the Prime Minster of India, watched on television by her terminally ill mentor from a hospital bed. The rest of the story was told as a flash back. It lays bare every nuance of contemporary politics: caste, gender and religion and of course the Indian brand of secularism. Careers were made and broken; reputations made and willfully sullied. Human life is worth nothing if it does not suit someone’s political ascendance and no strategy too mean. Favours were granted and called; honey-traps laid to bring enemies into submission and hemlock flowed to eliminate them. If a fellow politician were to be sacrificed to swing public sympathy and electoral gain, well, it was worth doing it. There is a hijacked plane, engineered riots and stage-managed shootouts. There is the nexus between industrialists and politicians. Industrialists were used to bankroll elections and the recalcitrant ones were brought into submission with the aid of pliant trade unions and law enforcement agencies. Secret service personnel were used for political ends. Honest journalists were trapped and manipulated to perform sting operations on political enemies. And there is even mention of land allotment to SEZs and the telecom scam.  The rumour about a former prime minister’s illegitimate child, sensationalized by his political secretary in a tell-all book about palace intrigues and amorous exploits, was used with thin disguise.

India did pay a great tribute to the author of Arthaśāstra by naming the diplomatic enclave in Delhi ‘Chānakyapuri’, but, how one wishes India had a foreign policy mandarin of the calibre of Chānakya or his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar! While Chandini as the suave foreign minister wows her own party and opposition members on the floor of parliament, her mentor pulls ‘RAW’ strings to play China against Pakistan by having the Chinese arrest a Pakistani spy who was ‘about to foment trouble in China’s Uyghur minority province’. It is certainly feasible, for Xinxiang is China’s ‘Achilles’ heel’ and Pakistan is the world’s crucible and exporter of Jihadi terror. Another stratagem pulled off by the wily Gangäsagar was to have adopted Russian designs for gas centrifuges (presumably for nuclear reactors) sold to North Korea and Libya, both pariahs for the US, making them believe they were actually buying them from Pakistan. If only India could pull off such a stratagem to sow dissension between Pakistan and the US!

Contrast these coups with Jawaharlal Nehru’s starry-eyed idealism in being obsessed with NAM (a body comprising of tin-pot dictators and banana republics) or I. K. Gujral’s idiocy in giving away India’s ‘intelligence assets’ to Pakistan. It takes years for intelligence agencies to place and cultivate assets in the higher echelons of an enemy nation, not to speak of great personal risks its officers take.

Sanghi’s otherwise meticulous research was marred by a few factual errors. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar used to send eighty five and fifty four representatives respectively to parliament (p.392), but before these states were bifurcated in 2001. After the creation of UttaraKhand (5) and Jharkhand (14) the number of constituencies in UP and Bihar were reduced to 80 and 40 respectively. Similarly, in the Indian constitution, there is no provision for President’s rule at the centre (p. 404). However, this error was corrected two pages later with reference to a caretaker prime minister’.

Sanghi did not bother to please the left-lib crowd by highlighting filth, poverty and squalor. Nor did he use 'adultery, incest and masturbation' to make it to a Booker's list, although the novel is not devoid of sex. There is just a modicum of it, natural and otherwise, that is germane to the story and no more. But is it necessary for India's woman prime minister to have a fling with her male British counterpart?

Chānakya's Chant is the story of contemporary India told boldly with sardonic humour. And for once, the blurb about the book being ‘cracker of a page-turner’ is true! As the story winds down to a stunning dénouement it makes readers hold their breath.

Chānakya's Chant. Ashwin Sanghi. 2010. Westland. Chennai. Pages x + 448. Price Rs 195

The review is part of the BookReviews Program at BlogAdda.com Participate now to get free books!

Friday, June 17, 2011

UPA’s NAC Rule Dictatorship In Disguise?

Democracy is a funny thing. When you don’t have it, you yearn for it. When you have it, you are not happy with it. True. India fought for nearly a century to attain independence from the British. Yet, ask anyone who was born at about the time of independence and they would remember their elders yearning for the “good old” British days when things were better! 

In 1975 when Indira Gandhi imposed an “internal emergency”, for reasons that have nothing to do with any internal disturbance, there were sections of the society—not affected by midnight knocks and summary arrests—who welcomed it, at least in its initial stages. Their reasoning was, there was discipline in government offices and “trains were running on time”. It could not be dismissed out of hand as silly, for trains used to run so late that if a train ran two to three hours behind schedule, it raised no eyebrows. In coastal Andhra Pradesh there used to be a joke about the Bokaro Express running between Bokaro in Jharkhand and Chennai (then Madras). If it was on time, so went the joke that people said “it was probably the previous day’s train!” There was an instance, when a gentleman was asked if his train was on time, he replied “Yes it was on time; just thirty minutes late.” Funnily enough, “trains running on time”, was also one of the reasons officially adduced to justify the internal emergency. 

During the nineteen-month internal emergency, Indira’s government used to issue large advertisements in newspapers, with the caption, “Let us consolidate the gains of emergency”, whatever it meant. 

Coming back to democracy, in essence, it is rule by consensus. In India’s case the consensus was codified into a “Constitution”, to draft which, many wise men expended hundreds of hours; each clause of which was then debated and finally adopted. The process took nearly three years, and produced the longest written constitution in the world, which was expected to accommodate the divergence and plurality of the constituents of the nation. However, codifying principles of governance is one thing and following it in letter and spirit is another.

Leaders, however democratically minded they are, do not like to be tied down to a code of conduct, however sacrosanct it may be, not necessarily because they are selfish or venal but because they have such immense confidence in their wisdom and their ability to determine what is good for the general public. Therefore, no sooner than the ink on the draft was dry India’s nascent “Constitution”, than its “altruistic” leaders began amending it. The “Constitution” was adopted on January 26, 1949 and the first amendment was carried out on June 18, 1951 barely fifteen months later. It was, incidentally, moved in the parliament by Jawaharlal Nehru, “the epitome of democratic values” and was intended to, among other things, “place reasonable restrictions on the citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression”! 

From then on, whenever the rulers found it difficult to adhere to the code of conduct prescribed by the “Constitution”, they have been amending it with gay abandon. The amendments include the thirty-ninth, passed on August 10, 1975 which retro-actively placed the election of the “empress of emergency” above judicial scrutiny.  Of course, an amendment, in constitutional parlance means that “the said clause shall be deemed always to have been enacted” – in the amended form.    

In addition to amending the “Constitution” whenever required to suit the express purposes of the executive, it has been resorting to other means, which, in so far as they were not mentioned in the “Constitution” may be termed extra-constitutional. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government resorted to this course of action in right earnest in by establishing the “Planning Commission” in March 1950. The “Planning Commission” website tells you its history, but does not tell you whether it was constituted under an act of parliament, if any.  It lists its members but does not tell you how they were selected. So how do they get into it in the first place, in a system in which there is a due selection process even for recruiting the lowest cadres of employees? Based on the whims and fancies of the government in power? The “Planning Commission” we are told, functions under the overall guidance of the “National Development Council”. Now, what the hell is, “National Development Council”? However, we are told that the lofty objective of the “Planning Commission”, functioning under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, was to “promote a rapid rise of the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country”. How well did it do so in the next fifty years needs no elaboration! Is it not possible for the Finance Ministry to perform the functions of the “Planning Commission” and any residual functions relating to other ministries transferred to them? 

Fast forward to 2004 and we come to ‘Chapter II’ of governance by executive fiat. This time around, the institution of the “Chairperson of the UPA” is created. Though not stated, its intent was to bypass national resentment and objections to a foreigner becoming the Prime Minister of India. The new institution of “Chairperson of the UPA” wields untrammelled power—without responsibility—and, in fact functions as the Super Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was nominated by her and is all but a figurehead. The “Chairperson of the UPA” is neither responsible nor answerable to the parliament, the supreme political body of directly and indirectly elected representatives in the country. 

In 2009, the “National Advisory Council” (NAC) was established as an—hold your breath—"interface with civil society”. This time around we moved a step ahead because unlike the “Planning Commission”, and the invisible “National Development Council”, the duties of which were merely confined to executive inputs to the government, the NAC would provide “policy and legislative inputs”.  We are told that the NAC “comprises distinguished professionals drawn from diverse fields of developmental activity”. We are, as before, not told whether there was any due process by which these “distinguished professionals” were selected but that through them, the government will have “access not only to their expertise and experience but also to a larger network of Research Organisations, NGOs and Social Action and Advocacy Groups”. 

NAC, the Super Prime Minister's kitchen cabinet, which in fact is its latent function, comprises of a motley crowd of left-illiberal intellectuals and sundry individuals who represented non-Hindu religious interests. It derives its power (again without responsibility or answer-ability to the parliament) from the Super Prime Minister but unlike the “Planning Commission”, whose sole function is allocation of resources, it drafts legislation. In view of its status in the scheme of things, its arbitrary nature of functioning is not questioned nor can be questioned by the sycophantic ruling party or its coalition partners. However, the silence of the opposition in not questioning it or demanding its abrogation is strange. 

Ever since its institution, the NAC got down to business without losing time and what gems did it draft? The first one was to institute the ‘Mahama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’ (MNREGS). There is some criticism that the MNREGS or MNREGA as it is generally known, has been generally doling out wages for unproductive work and spawning governmental corruption. In rural areas farmers complain of shortage of labour because of it. Therefore, agriculture which forms the mainstay of our economy is suffering. So is the burgeoning construction industry. 

As is clear from its many reviews, the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill (PCTVB), drafted by the NAC is totally one-sided and dangerous in the extreme if ever it becomes an act. Under one of its far-reaching clauses, for example, if a Hindu male sexually assaults a woman of the minority community it is “rape”. But if a male member of a minority community sexually assaults a woman of the Hindu community is not “rape”! A small—even informal—formation of Hindus is an “association” whereas a “group” could only be of members of a minority community. These definitions assume importance because under the proposed act members of an “association” can only be assaulters and members of a “group” are always victims. There is no bail available for offences cognizable under the act and the onus of proof is on the accused, not on the prosecution. A government official can be punished for “dereliction of duty” by imprisonment of up to two years if he/she does not act on a complaint. You can imagine the consequences of such a provision.  By the way, under the act, the executive has judicial powers too.

Another instance of over-reach by the NAC is the recent drafting and promulgation of internet regulation rules in April 2011.[1] The entire exercise seems to have been done keeping in view only one small community, viz. the pejoratively called “Internet Hindus”. It is only because of its intolerance of criticism that the ruling cabal has gone to great lengths to control internet content. It flies in the face of the vaunted “freedom of expression”. If this isn't an undemocratic act, one doesn't know what else is! To give two instances of how the rules can be misused: Seema Mustafa could call a duly elected Chief Minister, the “ugly Indian” in print, but to describe her as a “Pakistani Agent” on the internet would be an offence. She can complain and the service provider should have to remove the offensive content. Similarly, Vir Sanghvi could describe the duly elected Chief Minister, a “mass murderer” in print, but to call him a “political prostitute” on the internet is an offence.

Yes, political parties do have ideological coteries but these do not have a direct hand in governance. Only in communist regimes do they overrun parliaments. For example, in the erstwhile USSR, the CPSU, the Politburo and the Central Party Presidium were more powerful than the “Duma”, which was a rubber-stamp parliament.  The creation of the two institutions discussed above appears to be a throwback to the USSR type of governance. The USSR has abrogated such institutions as anachronistic. But we seem to have put the clock back.

In western democracies there are such bodies but they function in an open and transparent manner and are answerable not only to the executive, but even the parliament. For example, the appointment of members to the “Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)” by the US President, need ratification by the Senate.  The role of the CEA is limited to provide advice to the executive. It does not draft legislation. 

Is the UPA’s NAC rule, dictatorship in disguise?

[1]The Supreme Court mercifully struct down the relevant Sec. 66A of the IT act in March 2015. See “SC strikes down Section 66A of IT Act, says it violates freedom of speech”, “India Today”, March 24, 2015.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Would the "Communal Violence Bill" have reduced Hindus to the status of Jews in Nazi Germany?

A casual glance at the opening parts of National Advisory Council’s proposed “Prevention Of Communal And Targeted Violence (Access To Justice And Reparations) Bill, 2011” (PCTVB) is unnerving. The range and sweep of the draft bill is awesome to say the least. It is diabolical in design and appeared to be intended as CongI’s 2014 election manifesto. For in the aftermath of a plethora of corruption scams, and the self-goals it scored in Andhra Pradesh which returned 33 MPs each in 2004 and 2009, nothing but nothing is going to prevent its decimation in the next election.

Indira Gandhi began diluting the processes of democratic institutions in 1969 culminating in their complete subversion in 1975. She had then ‘incarcerated the whole nation’, figuratively speaking, in order to safeguard her political power. Did her daughter-in-law seek to reduce the status of 85.5% of the nation’s population to that of Jews in Hitler's Germany? The analogy of Jews and Hitler's Germany seem perfect because the NAC appears to draw parallels from Hitler’s rubber-stamp Bundestag.  

Only in this case the NAC is nominated, but in a nation where the highest political office is nominated, it is no surprise. The greatest irony of India, trumpeted as the world’s largest democracy is its rule by an extra-constitutional body like the NAC. Second, in India, Sonia Gandhi’s extra–constitutional kitchen cabinet seeks to subjugate the majority population into submissiveness by stamping it under its legislative jackboot. If the chapter on definitions makes the bill’s invidious intentions unambiguously clear, the twist in the tale comes in Clause 129, which unveils its diabolical designs.

Targeting Hindus 

Without any subterfuge, Clause 3 (e) makes it abundantly clear that the bill seeks to protect only “religious or linguistic minorities.”  The insertion of the word “linguistic” is clearly a diversion, for there were no instances of serious strife between one linguistic group and another in the past, unless the NAC wants to send Bal Thackeray to spend what little is left of his life as Azmal Kasab’s neighbour in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail.  

The next part of the sentence, “in any State in the Union of India” does not mean anything, because, for any Central law to be applicable to Jammu & Kashmir, concurrence of the state legislature is necessary. Therefore, Clause I (2) is simply superfluous.  If the naïve believe that it is possible to extend the law to Jammu & Kashmir, perish the thought. The sleight-of-the hand Clause 3 (m) negates any such possibility: “In the event this Act is extended to the State of Jammu and Kashmir” (please note the conditional clause at the beginning of the sentence, not ‘when’, for the NAC knows that the state legislature can sit tight on it till Kingdom come!) “…any reference in this Act to a law, which is not in force in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, shall, in relation to the State, be construed as a reference to a corresponding law, if any, in force in that State.” In plain English, shorn of legalese, the law will never be applied in Jammu and Kashmir. [1] This is not surprising in view of the derision that an exalted member of the NAC has for the state’s minorities, the Kashmiri Pandits. She wrote in an article in Deccan Chronicle some time ago that the issue of Kashmiri Pandits has been ‘highly romanticized’ (sic).  

Please also note the capitalization of ‘S’ every time there is a reference to Jammu and Kashmir ‘state’ which means that Jammu and Kashmir shall remain a separate nation for ever, loosely attached to India only to drain its coffers. This also means ‘religious minority’ has one meaning in Jammu and Kashmir and quite a different meaning in the rest of India. More importantly, the act creates a group of ‘more equal’ citizens, giving ‘equality of justice’ that the Constitution promises all, a go by. 

If the objective of the bill is to protect the religious minorities, from whom does it seek to protect them? The definition of ‘association’ in Clause 3 (b) is scary and makes you and I shudder to think when the policeman knocks. You don’t have to be an enlisted member of any association ‘whether or not registered or incorporated under any law’. For if the ‘association’ need not be legally constituted to be accused of an offence, where is the question of ‘enlisted’ membership? If you are ipso facto a member of an ‘association’, it is enough for the act to take cognizance. [Of what, you may wonder. Please hold on for the nonce.] But it needn’t be organisations like the RSS or the VHP that may be described as an ‘association’ under the law. By implication, even the street-corner youth welfare association, which celebrates Ganesh Chaturdhi every year, is covered under the ambit of the proposed law. 

In view of the slant, words like ‘group’ and ‘association’ have in the act, all its clauses can be applied only one way and not the other. For instance, under Clause 3 (f) (i) of the act, a member of an ‘association’, causing ‘hostile environment’ against a ‘group’ as defined above, by ‘boycotting of the trade or profession of such person or otherwise making it difficult for him or her to earn a living’ – is a cognizable offence. Clause 3 (f) (v), which reads, ‘whether or not it amounts to an offence under this Act, that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment’ tightens the noose further. Consider the following scenarios: 

Example 1:

You have had a tiff with the neighbourhood grocer belonging to a  minority religion for underweighting or passing off substandard goods. You informed your neighbours of this and they stopped buying from him. Does it amount to ‘boycotting of the trade or profession of such a person or otherwise making it difficult for him or her to earn a living’ [Clause 3 (f) (i)], or ‘mental psychological or monetary harm?’ [Clause 3 (j)]? 

Example 2:


Alternatively if employees belonging to the majority religion strike work in an establsihment being run by a person belonging to the minority religion, and as a result of which the establishment closes down, does it amount to ‘boycotting of the trade or profession of such a person or otherwise making it difficult for him or her to earn a living’ [Clause 3 (f) (i)], or ‘mental psychological or monetary harm?’ [Clause 3 (j)]? 

If you think these are extreme examples, the product of a feverish imagination, please think again. The first act of UPA upon coming to power was to repeal POTA under the pretext that it would be misused against the minorities. 

By the nature of definitions of ‘group’ and ‘association’ as defined by the act, Clause 8 (Hate Propaganda) can only be indulged in by the majority religion and not vice versa. 

Clause 9 (1) could be interpreted to mean mere membership of an impugned organisation is enough for cognizance of an offence under the act, irrespective whether an individual member has committed the offence or not. The onus of proving innocence is on the accused. 

Clause 9 (2), which enunciates, ‘…reasonably presumed that the public servant charged with the duty to prevent communal and targeted violence has failed to act to prevent’ read with Clause 13 (Dereliction of duty, punishable by imprisonment of up to two years under Clause 120), is sure to make officials over zealous in their ‘treatment’ of real or perceived offenders of the majority religion. 

On the other hand, Clause 12 (Torture) makes police officials wary and lenient if the offenders happen to be from the minority religion. For if the charge can be proved, the official/s could be punished with rigorous imprisonment of up to seven years under Clause 119. 

It is difficult to understand what ‘non state actors’ in Clause 15 means but a reading of the lengthy provisions in the clause makes one wonder whether it was not intended to ban Hindu organisations like the BD / RSS / VHP at the first available opportunity.Clause 20 empowers the Central government to invoke Article 355 and dismiss any state government, except of course Jammu and Kashmir. Clause 21 empowers the Central government to constitute a supra-judicial ‘National Authority’ which has both executive and judicial powers. However, a person who has ‘in any manner, exhibited bias against any group, by acts or in writing or otherwise’ is not eligible to become a member of the ‘National Authority’. By implication this might mean only persons with a left-liberal agenda could be appointed to the supra-judicial body – a permanent meal-ticket for some of our jholawallahs. 

A contentious issue in the Jan Lok Pal bill being discussed is about confiscation of property of a person accused of corruption. Whereas the Santhi Bhushan Committee wants such a provision, the government argued that it would amount to ‘needless harassment’ of the accused as litigation in India is a long and slow process. No such compunctions hamper the National / State Authority from not only confiscating but auctioning property of the accused under Clauses 81 & 82 of the PCTVB. 

Twist In The Tale 

The twist in the tale comes almost at the end of the lengthy draft in Clause 129 (Non-applicability of limitation). According to the clause the statute of limitations shall not apply to offences cognizable under the act. The implications of this clause are far-reaching. If for instance cases being investigated by the SIT in Gujarat fail to convict the well-known target of any complicity in the 2002 riots, a revision of the cases may be sought in a superior court – and to be tried under the new act. It is important to note that ‘offences’ under the act are non-bailable.

[1] The 2019 Constitutional amendment that abrogated Article 370 changed all that, but back in 2011, the authors of the PCTVB did not know that.