Thursday, December 20, 2012

They can't rape it out of me.

There was this Sweet Valley book where one of the characters gets assaulted and the other raped. I don’t know if you are familiar with Sweet Valley, but in my teenage world, this was akin to Barbie getting raped. It just didn’t compute. But then, something wonderful happened. The book, called ‘Take Back the Night’, showed the main female characters pulling in all their strength, including a march on campus, and going to court and confronting their attacker. It was probably been 15 years since I read it, but it still swims in my head. It was the first time, I think, that I’d read an account of sexual assault and rape. But it also taught me to be strong and overcome the fear.

A lot has changed in those fifteen years. I’ve been to court with a rape victim, I’ve driven in Delhi at all odd hours alone, I’ve been around this country for work – with only men surrounding me – I’ve read so many more serious accounts of violence and rape, and I’ve also understood how to exist in a New Delhi bubble. This rape, like so many of the others I’ve heard about, struck a deep chord in me. It’s because I like to travel by myself, for myself. For an NGO project, I had a video editor who lived in Adarsh Nagar and I took the metro almost daily to sit with him. I’d come back when it was sundown, and the station was often lonely. I always sat in the womens compartment. I wasn’t very worried about my safety, to be truthful, but my father was quite upset. He really didn’t want me travelling on my own to such a distance. All's well that ends well, and I never had any trouble.

We are a society who thinks erring on the side of caution is the way to be – and who can blame us. Instead of looking at out Constitutional guarantees and saying that we will go/be because we are free to choose where/how/when we want to go, we think it’s safer if we avoid any “trouble”. To the level that I’ve had girlfriends sit me and down and tell me to never drive after 9pm. But I’ve always held that if I want to drive myself to dinner and back, why should I be too scared to do so. It seems silly now, doesn’t it? These little battles we have within our social constructs. I’ve been all over South India with a cameraman I barely knew, touring small villages and town for work. One afternoon, I was out on a fishing boat, getting shots for a video. I got off, and found a number of men had converged as I was the newbie, this fair skinned girl, seemingly alone, in the middle of this hectic beach. One of them was drunk and was close to groping (or perhaps pushing me) when a number of people intervened and took him away. I didn’t know who he was, I hadn’t even engaged with him. But because of that, my cameraman became quite protective. On the way to another small town in Tamil Nadu, he was upset that our tickets weren’t in the same compartment. I told him I was totally fine and would just pass out, but he came to check in on me as he was worried about my safety. I appreciate that even more now, as I think I was lulled into a false sense of safety because of my very genuine bravado.

Truth is, I rarely feel unsafe. Nervous, yes. But I always seem to think I can stop the men from misbehaving. I’ve had many, many unwarranted comments coming my way all my life, and I always look that man in the eye and get him to stop. Sometimes I laugh it off so that it doesn’t esclate. I don’t like to show I’m nervous because I fear that will help the situation spiral.

Of course, I’m an idiot. All these strategies should be okay, the same way sitting on a bus with a friend – and a man that too – should make you safer. That if my driver was driving the car instead of me, nothing would go wrong. Or better, if I never left my house, no harm would come to me.

I work, I read, I opine, I earn, I spend, I travel, I vacation. I’m really holding my end up as an urban young woman. But I am up against some huge challenges. Of course, this means I’m going to be told that I’m moving too fast. That if it’s not my ability to take trains to small towns (almost) by myself, then it’s that outfit I wore this weekend. If it’s not the fact that I dare drive my car – bought with my own money – then it is that I can be seen drinking in the company of men.

I don’t know much about this girl, but I do know she is a medical student that tells me she works much harder than me. Being a woman doctor, she was certainly upholding her end of urban-young-woman bargain. And for some men, this makes them insecure. They will pummel and rape this strength out of us.

My friend Christina and I were discussing this over an afternoon coffee. We wondered, at what point do these guys decide that they are going to GANG RAPE. I can imagine one starting to tease, the other crossing the line to physically touching. But is there a silent nod, a secret handshake, a longing desire, to one-by-one rape this trembling, bleeding, screaming girl? Because she took the bus. Because she sat with a guy who might not be her brother, father or husband. Because, maybe, she has a better deal in life than you.

I know rape is as mental an act as it is physical. When I was interning in DC I became obsessed with a book about rape called ‘Against our Will’ that I’d bought in one of those street book-sales. It talked about how rape was the final nail after soldiers won the war, how it was a way to mentally defeat your opponent by saying ‘here, I just raped YOUR woman, you have lost’. It’s the first time I learnt that concept and I was horrified. I feel like its extended to some version of – you are not as independent as you think you are, because I can rape you and finish you any time I feel. We don’t need to have names, or histories. We just need to have lives.

So what am I going to do about this in my daily life? I’m GOING to continue to have one. I might carry mace and a few select numbers on speed dial, but I will not be scared into submission. And on YOUR part, I hope you do the same. And on OUR part, we have to demand better policies, better protection, better justice.

Where are the feminists? I see an election platform for 2014 coming up.

We are going to TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Better Life for Delhi’s Dogs

Residents of Vasant Vihar in southwest Delhi might have spotted Sarita Paswan going about her rounds. For over a decade, she has been feeding street dogs in the neighborhood twice a day, every day.

She takes bowls and a bucket of food to give the dogs in their little pockets of the colony — behind guard boxes, inside the local club grounds, next to rows of parked cars. As she approaches Mohindra Taxi Stand next to D-block market, a portly gentleman calls out to Ramu, Kalu and Laliya, whose tails wag as he encourages them to eat their dinner.

Back at the home of her employer, Neelam Vaderah, Ms. Paswan reports on the dogs and their welfare. Ms. Vaderah has been a relentless champion of the cause of “desi dogs” for years. She has adopted seven that live inside her house and another 45 outside that she feeds and takes for regular medical checkups. The guards are the best source of information, she says, because they keep track of all the strays and tell her when something goes wrong. Often, people steal the winter coats she puts on the dogs, she says, adding that the only dogs that retain them are the ones sleeping under the watchful eye of the guards.

Ms. Vaderah, Ms. Devi, and the assortment of guards in Vasant Vihar are part of a larger network of people who constitute the “anti anti-desi dog brigade.” Stray dogs have long been a menace in Indian society. A 2009 Municipal Corporation of Delhi report put the number of stray dogs in the capital at over 260,000. Many resident welfare associations have complained about packs of dogs harassing and even attacking passersby, with some incidents of fatalities. According the World Health Organization, India has an estimated 20,000 cases of rabies deaths each year, mostly children who have come into contact with infected dogs.

But people like Ms. Vaderah, who spend their time and resources feeding these animals, believe that human interaction makes the dogs less aggressive, and easier to take in for sterilization. That thought is echoed by animal shelters in the city, where vets encourage residents to keep a watchful eye on any stray dogs that might be living on their streets.

Friendicoes is a clinic tucked away under the Jangpura flyover in south Delhi. Around 8-10 dogs are brought in daily following accidents, maggot wounds and also for regular checkups. Many are brought in by good Samaritans, while the Friendicoes van also picks up animals when called.

The shelter behind the clinic houses desi dogs, cats, monkeys, and even the occasional donkey. Many of these animals are seriously wounded with little hope of ever getting adopted. Some have been hit by big cars, only to be brought in by a poor rickshaw driver who can scarcely afford to pay for medical treatment. Others, older dogs of various pedigrees, have been abandoned because they got too old and families didn’t want pay for their medical treatment or take care of them.

Others are abandoned police dogs. Constable Ramkumar of the Delhi Police Dog Squad says individual dog squads could offer some help if they wanted, but there are no set guidelines. Geeta Seshamani, vice president of Friendicoes, feels it is much better for these dogs to be given to an animal shelter where they are taken care of instead of being auctioned off. New owners often work them as guard dogs, even in their old age, she says. The Friendicoes staff wants to give them a retirement befitting their service to the country.

Stray dogs are gaining acceptability as house pets. I found my own dog, Ally, abandoned in the grounds of St. Stephens College over a decade ago. She has since grown up to be a South Delhi memsahib. Some people were shocked that I had adopted her and not bought a pedigree from a breeder, but today there is a small, but palpable change.

Social media is filled with calls for adoptions. Premlata Chaudhary, who runs an animal clinic in Anand Niketan, feels the younger generation in India is becoming more open to taking in street dogs. She has also arranged over 900 adoptions of desi dogs overseas in countries like Canada, the U.K., Holland, Germany and Australia. She has to apply for a permit before sending the dogs to the country of adoption. Airlifting a puppy to Canada can cost up to $700, she says. While there is no quarantine period in Canada or in most European countries, a dog’s papers need to be in order. Places like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are stricter, with a one-month quarantine period only after the animal has stayed in a non-rabies country for six months.

A chance meeting with a Canadian lady, Barbara Gard, who wanted to take her desi dog home, led to the idea of encouraging desi dog adoptions abroad. Ms. Chaudhary’s website “Adopt a Desi Dog” has helped not just puppies, but older dogs and even accident victims with three legs find loving homes. She keeps the dogs with her when they arrive in Canada, and only hands them over the adoptive parents if she feels their personality matches the dogs. New owners also have to attend training school to understand how to deal with the demanding personalities of desi dogs.

Ms. Chaudhary also set up a Facebook group called “Desi Furries Worldwide,” through which people can update about their desi dog adventures. Yes, that could be a Delhi street dog you just saw being taken for a walk in Vancouver or Berlin. If only that happened a little more in Delhi itself. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fatwa calls for ban on female receptionists

A recent fatwa issued by a leading Indian Islamic seminary advises women to refrain from working as receptionists, describing the job as un-Islamic and against Sharia law. The influential Darul Uloom Deoband offered the ruling in response to a question posed by a Pakistan-based company on 29 November on the seminary’s website, and states that Muslim women cannot work as receptionists because they are not allowed to appear before men without veil.

There are approximately 160 million Muslims in India, of whom 60 million are women. An overwhelming majority of them are illiterate.

Muslim journalist Bilal Zaidi told Index that although the Deoband is one of many schools of Islamic jurisprudence in India, it does have an impact on media and perception-building in general. The Deoband has a strong web presence, and as a result its fatwas are easily picked up and disseminated via mainstream media. Zaidi added that although the fatwa is just an opinion, “in practice, there are many who feel such fatwas are law… and then a large portion of the Muslim society tries to enforce them. Eventually, the opinion becomes identity.”

Some who support the logic of the fatwa, such as Saeed Hashmi, a columnist for the conservative Urdu newspaper Dainik Inqelab, point out that it is not mandatory. Hashmi told Index he feels this fatwa is a sensible warning to protect Muslim women from prying eyes, but understands it is difficult for everyone to follow such a directive in a big country like India.

In her paper analysing the effects of fatwas on Indian Muslim women, academic Shazia Shaikh feels that while the Darul Uloom Deoband has in the past brought about reforms in the Muslim communities, fatwas that seek to stop Muslim women from taking government jobs, becoming judges, and even working as receptionists, are nothing but misogynist, despite the fact the Koran is claimed to guarantee women’s rights.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Worried about girls marrying for love? Just ban them from using mobile phones

A village council in Northern India last week banned women from using mobile phones. The leaders of Sunderbari village, population 8000, hope that fining unmarried women (Rs 10,000, or 114 GBP) and married women (Rs 2000, or 23 GBP) will stop premarital and extramarital affairs.

The men’s logic is simple: these affairs that have led to elopements — at least six in the past year —  and humiliate the village. Manuwar Alam, council member, explains: “We had to hide our faces out of shame.” Local government officials took a serious view of this “unlawful diktat” and questioned the village council. In an about turn, the council now denies it announced fines.

While India has made efforts to work towards gender equality, ridiculous restrictions placed on women in the name of curbing chances of shame are still a problem. National debate focuses on how to empower women, be it through reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in parliament or the use of mobile phones. Yet on the ground in much of India, men are clearly threatened by any move toward’s increasing women’s independence.

This isn’t the first time a village council has tried to ban women from using mobile phones. In July, a village in Uttar Pradesh banned women from using them on the streets, mainly to stem the tide of “love marriages” in a culture that believes marriages should be arranged between families. The next month, a similar diktat in a village in Rajasthan ordered all girls below the age of 18 to stop using mobile phones, so that they would not get “distracted”.

This repressive instinct travels beyond village councils and right up to members of Parliament. In October, a former minister from Uttar Pradesh, Rajpal Singh Saini, cautioned his audience against giving girls mobile phones, saying: “What are the girls missing without mobiles? Did our mothers, sisters, did they die without mobiles during their time?”

The problem goes well beyond mobiles. Local khap panchayats (village councils) in India’s north regularly indulge in honour killings to send a message to young lovers who elope that inter-caste marriages are not allowed. So regressive is the thinking that a former chief minister of Haryana went as far as to suggest that the marriage age of girls be lowered to prevent the rising number of rapes in his state.

Beyond the joy of simple conversation, the mobile phone has become a powerful instrument to empower women in India. In Bihar itself, health workers have been given mobile phones so that they can connect with the local public health officers while out on their field, and also to facilitate mobile money transfers. In Uttar Pradesh, women have used them to learn the alphabet through the use of mobile phones. UN Women Singapore recently gave a grant to a Rajasthan-based project that helps women sell feminine hygiene products to others via mobile.

Even the government of India is moving forward to connect all 250,000 village councils with broadband connections to bridge the digital divide. Osama Manzar, director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation which is helping the government train village officials to become digitally proficient, told Index that for a village council to ban mobile usage is uncalled for. “I see this more as an issue of cultural change which the older generation is not used to and not aware of much and does not know how to comprehend. The sooner we make our society digitally literate, such issues will be a non-happening.”

Yet it seems that the by-product of having a phone — that women’s personal choices and confidence are increasing — is what has threatened the chauvinist Indian man. Manuwar Alam, of Bihar’s Sunderbari village has said:

[The] mobile phone is the cause of all evils in our society, including increasing love affairs and the incidents of elopement.

But mobiles do not cause these problems. Repression does.

Friday, November 30, 2012

India and social media: When will it be safe for the average citizen to critique the powerful?

Last week, in the small town of Palghar, Maharastra, a 21-year-old  was arrested for a Facebook post questioning a citywide shutdown to mark the death of a regional leader. Her friend was arrested for ‘liking’ her status. The two women, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, faced charges under the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008.

The case has triggered a massive public outcry here in India over the last ten days, leading to the charges being dropped. Section 66A, now instantly quotable by India’s Twitter generation, allows for “punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service”, which include messages that cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred and even ill will. This very loosely defined law has led to a series of arrests around the country in the past year, some of which have only just come to light. Arrests included a professor from Kolkatta forwarding jokes about the West Bengal chief minister via email, an ordinary citizen from Pondicherry for tweeting that he believed the son of a senior cabinet minister is corrupt, a cartoonist in Lucknow whose sketches alleged that corrupt politicians have led to the debasement of democracy in India and two Air India employees in Mumbai who were arrested and held in custody for 12 days after they apparently insulted the prime minister and the national flag in their Facebook posts.

Bowing to public pressure, the Minister for Information and Communication Technology, Kapil Sibal, has spearheaded moves to quickly add guidelines to the section. These new guidelines require an inspector general or district commissioner of police (DCP) to process every complaint under 66A. Twenty-eight states and seven union territories have an inspector general, and each of the countries 657 districts has a DCP.

However, experts have warned this step is not enough to prevent unwarranted arrests and say the section itself needs further revision. In a further development, the Supreme Court of India has just accepted a public interest litigation case calling for the section to be scrapped on the grounds that it violates the right to free speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

These arrests have shown how easy it is for powerful politicians to silence and intimidate their critics using the law as a crutch. Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan were arrested after a local political leader complained to the police. Even though the case has now been dropped, frightened by the mobs and media spotlight, Shaheen has left her hometown for some “peace”. Soon after, another boy, Sunil Vishwakarma, was questioned by the police for apparently making “vulgar” comments against Raj Thackeray, the nephew of the deceased leader. The police have since released him, as he maintains his Facebook was hacked by someone else to stir up trouble.

The misuse of Section 66A has revealed serious gaps in the legislative process and shown that junior police ranks lack the understanding and training to correctly implement this order. The IT Act was amended in haste in 2008 and passed in parliament without a debate. Under the Indian Penal Code (IPC),  the charge of defamation carries a maximum jail sentence of two years, in contrast to the three years Section 66A carries for the same offence. But the IPC requires a warrant for an arrest for the offence, while arrests ordered under the IT Act do not. Further, Section 66A had no explanations or guidelines attached to it, which is why the government’s  first step in response to the public outcry over these arrests has been to “modify” the section and provide guidelines.

These arrests — assaults on free speech — have revealed the nature of politics in the world’s largest democracy. These high-profile cases all involve the average citizen critiquing powerful politicians. The freedoms at risk – the right to tweet, update a status, forward a cartoon without the fear of becoming a political pawn, have galvanised and angered the netizens of India. There is a serious backlash against those political parties who seek to use the tools of social networking to control them.
India has a legal convention that allows a member of the public to act as a judicial activist and the the public interest litigation currently before the Supreme Court says:

"unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law as it stands is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country."

This is a welcome step. The people are of India are gaining the confidence to use constitutional tools to fight back the top-down status quo of the country.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are India’s politicians scared of social media?

A war over free expression between Indian citizens and their government is raging, with social media serving as the battlefield.

Two girls were arrested in Mumbai today, one for having updated her Facebook status asking why the city was observing a bandh — a city-wide shut down — to commemorate the death of an influential regional leader, Bal Thackeray. The other simply ‘liked’ the comment. The update was brought to the notice of Shiv Sena local leader, outraged at the insult to his party’s founder he went to the police and had them arrested. The pair were released on bail today, but not before one of the girl’s uncle’s orthopaedic clinic was ransacked by an angry Shiv Sena mob.
Shaheen Dhadha, 21, had written:

People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that.

The incident comes only a month after India’s first Twitter arrest. In October 2012, Ravi Srinivasan, a small-town businessman was arrested for tweeting to his 16 followers that that Karti Chidambaram, a politician belonging to India’s ruling Congress party and son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram, had “amassed more wealth than Vadra” [Sonia Gandhi's wealthy son-in-law].
Srinivasan was arrested for suggesting one cabinet minister’s son is more corrupt than the son-in-law of another senior politician.

The seemingly politically motivated arrest has just added fuel to the fire to a heated debate about how defamation and hate speech on social media should be dealt with. It also raises the question — is the government more interested in protecting itself than its citizens?

At a forum, The Power of Social Media for Governance organised in March 2011, while praising social media and e-government/commerce initiatives, Information minister Kapil Sibal suggested that social media users also discuss the dangers of this new platform:

All kinds of opinions are put forward and that is dangerous. Freedom of speech has some caveats. How do you ensure that (social media) sites incorporate constrains [SIC] of freedom of speech?

The comment seemed to be aimed at social media users using these new mediums to criticise the many corruption scandals in Indian public life. The Indian public were furious at their political leaders. Sibal’s predecessor, A Raja, was a perfect example. He was forced to resign after becoming embroiled in a huge telecom scam.
Although there had been a story the previous month about a riot that apparently broke out due to a Facebook page that denigrated the architect of the Indian constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, social media had not really been used for positive political action in India.

In October 2010, however, an anti-corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare slowly began to caputure the imagination of the nation. As Hazare, compared by the Indian press to Mahatma Gandhi, protested corruption, the media and the public rallied behind him. The movement, now known as India Against Corruption [IAC] used Facebook and Twitter to connect with urban Indians — the middle class — who had borne the brunt of corruption for years. IAC racked up followers and fans by the thousands, and in April 2012, Hazare went on an indefinite hunger strike to force the government to draft a stronger anti-corruption bill. It was all India social media users could talk about. The web was key to Anna’s success. Today, the IAC Facebook page has over 754,000 supporters.

2011 was marked by a face-off between the government and “civil society” that may mark a turning point in India politics. The sleeping giant, the middle class, woke up and logged on.

Toward the end of 2011 it was revealed that Sibal suggested pre-screening of social media content  to ensure that “objectionable content” was removed before it could offend.

According to leaked reports, Sibal pointed to a Facebook page that maligned Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and said “this is unacceptable”. At the time, experts like Pranesh Prakash from the Center for Internet and Society pointed out that the existing IT Act (amended in 2008) allows people who send information “that is grossly offensive and of a menacing character” to be sentenced to three years in prison. Prakash argued that the amount of content was too vast for social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to pre-moderate and would delay their immediacy. More importantly, why should a third party be forced to judge what is objectionable or not, if there were already laws in place?

This idea of pre-screening content has been revised. But the theme has been coming up again and again as the government seems to be unsure of what strategy it should employ to stop both really offensive material, but also, it seems, any criticism of itself from social media networks.

In February, Facebook agreed to comply with local laws and “remove content, block pages or even disable accounts of those users who upload contents that incite violence or perpetuate hate speech.” This, Sibal insisted, was not censorship but he still raised the spectre of new laws designed to curtail social media in India. It wasn’t long before #KapilSibalisanidiot started trending on Twitter. Later that month it was revealed in a Google’s Transparency Report that the government of India had asked the search giant to remove 358 items  in the first half of 2011. Only eight of these items were classified as hate speech; the vast majority were criticisms of the government (including videos on Youtube and posts on the social network Orkut.)

In August 2012, India found itself in an unprecedented situation caused by text messaging and social media. Rumours of an attack against Assamese migrants by Muslims were being sent across the country via SMS. Many Assamese, over 400,000 by some estimates, in different parts of the country started heading home, fearing their lives. The government put in place a restriction to only five-SMSes per day to control the rumour mill. Soon after, the minister gave more interviews about social media, suggesting that incidents like the Assamese exodus were the reason he wanted the help of intermediaries in helping curtail the influence of anti-national elements and protecting the sensitivities of individuals and communities. However, as Twitter agreed to comply with the government in blocking any communally charged tweets, the Twitter accounts of some journalists also got blocked, forcing the minister to clarify that the government was not seeking to block individual accounts. The damage was done, as most observers felt that the government had tried to silence its critics on social media instead pursuing any larger objective.

Which brings us back to the first Tweet (as well as Facebook update) induced arrest. Srinivasan was booked under Section 66A of the IT Act (amended 2008). This can jail, for up to three years, anyone convicted of disseminating material that is “grossly offensive”, has “menacing character” or is false with the aim of causing “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult,” among other related cyber crimes. The women arrested for the Thackeray Facebook post were arrested under the same Act (and also Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code that relates to religious sentiments, event though they were discussing a political, not religious, figure).

Section 66A — the very piece of law that internet experts flagged  as an alternative when Sibal suggested pre-screening social media content, is now being abused. The current controversy is layered. The first point of contention is that the arrest would never have been made so swiftly if the “victim” had not been the son of a powerful minister. The second is that Section 66A (IT Act, 2000) is unclear, which means, say experts, its open to abuse, as can be seen by current events.

In India, the distrust of the political class has never been sharper, with extreme reactions from the establishment. In 2012 itself, a cartoonist was arrested  under Section 66A (IT Act, 2000) for mocking the chief minister of Bengal, while elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, another cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code for mocking India’s corrupt politicians. How the government balances Indian citizens’ right to free expression against the need curtail genuine incitement will be a test of its democratic credentials.

Monday, October 29, 2012

India changes its internet governance position — backs away from UN proposal

Following outrage from India’s civil society and media, it appears the country’s government has backed away from its proposal to create a UN body to govern the internet. The controversial plan, which was made without consulting civil society, angered local stakeholders, including academics, media, and industry associations. Civil society expressed fear that a 50-member UN body, many of whom would seek to control the internet for their own political ends, would restrict the very free and dynamic nature of the internet. The proposal envisaged ”50 member States chosen on the basis of equitable geographic representation” that would meet annually in Geneva as the UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (UN-CIRP).

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Indian parlimentarian and critic of the proposal, said: “CIRP seems like a solution in search of a problem”. At present, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a non-profit with ties to the US State Department, serves as the platform for internet governance, using an organisational structure that allows input from the wider internet community and not just governments of the world.

However at the 4-5 October Conference on Cyberspace in Budapest, the Minister of State for Telecom, Sachin Pilot, indicated that India was moving away from the “control of the internet by government or inter-governmental bodies”, and moving instead towards enhanced dialogue. Pilot has now confirmed the change to Index, saying that the Indian government has now decided to “nuance” its former position.

The sudden move can be explained by India’s decision to now develop its own stance, claiming that it was initially just supporting proposals made at the India, Brazil and South Africa seminar (IBSA) on Global Internet Governance in Brazil in September 2011. However, there are indicators that the country might have played an active role in pushing for the new body.

The government representatives present at the IBSA seminar drafted a set of recommendations focused on institutional improvement, which pushed for the UN to establish a body “in order to prevent fragmentation of the internet, avoid disjointed policymaking, increase participation and ensure stability and smooth functioning of the internet”. The proposal was to be tabled until the IBSA Summit on 18 October 2011, but according to a Daily Mail report, Indian bureaucrats publicly discussed the proposal at the 2011 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kenya, saying that the move “was criticised across the board by all countries and scared away both Brazil and South Africa.” The report also alleges that the Indian government only consulted one NGO — IT for Change — in drafting the proposal presented in Brazil, despite repeated offers from other participants to pay for members of the country’s third sector to participate in the seminar. India’s proposed UN-CIRP was slammed for moving away from multi-stakeholderism and instead opting for government-led regulation.

Whatever the truth behind the Indian government’s motives in proposing UN-CIRP, its new and more “nuanced” position is a welcome move. It remains to be seen if India will maintain its new stance at the upcoming IGF, which will be held from 6-9 November in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sedition laws: India’s colonial-era threat to free expression

Aseem Trivedi’s arrest for his anti-establishment cartoons shocked and outraged India. Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, under which Trivedi was arrested, is reserved for anyone who “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government,” with disaffection meaning “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity”. Although a majority of Indians found the cartoons crude rather than clever, public opinion overwhelmingly believed the cartoonist was well within his rights to publish them.

Trivedi has since been released on bail, but the incident has triggered debates about future of India’s repressive sedition laws. Even the Mumbai High Court lashed out against the police for arresting Trivedi in the first place, stating: “We live in a free society and enjoy freedom of speech and expression. Sedition is a pre-independence [law]…”

Cartoon by Aseem Trivedi, from
(Cartoon by Aseem Trivedi, from

The complex political layering of India often tosses up headlines where charges of sedition have been levied against persons who, by official accounts, seem to be sympathetic to anti-national elements. Take, for example, the case of Kashmir University lecturer Noor Muhammed Bhat, who was arrested in December 2010 for asking his students to translate the following lines from Urdu to English: “Kashmir is burning again. The blood of youth is being spilled like water. Kids are being beaten to death by police and forces…”. The paper was given to students at a time when the Kashmir Valley was reeling from pro-independence riots in the form of stone throwing from students, sometimes drawing police fire in return.

Bhat also asked students to write an essay on the topic “Are stone throwers the real heroes?”. Bhat defended his actions, saying he was merely drawing from newspapers, and posing a question which students were free to answer as they liked. However, the High Court termed his paper “seditious and rebellious in character.” Bhat was ultimately granted bail and released in January 2011, but not before he was barred from setting or evaluating exam papers for the next five years.

Contrast that with a case in south India this year. About 8,000 people, including children, have been charged under IPC Section 124 for protesting against the planned construction of a nuclear power plant in the fishing village of Idinthakari, Tamil Nadu. Their crime? As a sign of protest, on Independence Day this year, the villagers refused to hoist the national flag, and put up black flags instead.

For the hundreds of academics, teachers, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens who have been charged for sedition on the most dubious grounds, Aseem Trivedi’s predicament might, in the long run, be the turning point. Trivedi wasn’t protesting a particular project in a far corner of the country, nor was he caught up in an extremely contentious political hotbed like Kashmir. He was representing, visually, a frustration with government, politics and corruption that has been best captured by the India Against Corruption movement, of which he is a member. For Indians for whom corruption is today’s most important issue, it was easy to look at Trivedi’s cartoons and decide for themselves if it was really a case of sedition or an anti-establishment protest. There could have been no better trigger for Indians to understand what “sedition” meant and grasp the import of abuse of sedition law.

The court case has inevitably led to debate about sedition laws in the media and courts, highlighting the many others cases where people have been wrongly arrested. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous speech, made when he was charged by the British government for sedition in 1922, has been dug up and quoted by many columnists:

"Section 124 A… [is] designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence."

Was Lenin Kumar Roy contemplating, promoting or inciting violence when he wrote a book accusing Hindu extremists of violence against minorties in Orissa?  Was the Indian state’s controversial charge of sedition against Dr. Binayak Sen, the doctor and human rights activist who worked in the Maoist areas of Chattisgarh, legitimate? Sen, released on bail by the court that did not find enough evidence to support the government’s claim that he had been aiding Maoist rebels, has called the application of sedition “contrary to the spirit of democracy".

With the media and public-spirited Indians calling for a comprehensive examination and even repeal of the law due to its blatant misuse, it is worth restating that the right to free expression and peaceful dissent is a must for any democracy (freedom of speech is guaranteed as a fundamental right by the Constitution of India, albeit with restrictions). Sedition is a very serious charge that should never be levied against any individual lightly. The situation becomes even more urgent with the internet fast becoming the urban Indian’s vehicle of choice to debate and disagree.

The concepts of sedition and censorship need serious examination.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

India discusses proposals to regulate the internet

The Indian government’s proposal to the United Nations General Assembly, to form a 50-member United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) to “regulate” the internet has been met with controversy since it was tabled last October. On 19 September, one of India’s leading industry bodies, the Federation of Indian Chambers and Commerce Industry, FICCI, held a panel discussion bringing together government, business groups and civil society for the first time to debate the proposal.

Currently, a US-based nonprofit called the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates Internet domain names and IP addresses; with a sophisticated system of councils set up to address the concerns of various stakeholders (corporations, governments, Internet user groups, etc.) across the world.

Although the US government has no direct role in ICANN’s decision making process, many other governments have been increasingly uncomfortable with its seeming proximity to Washington. At the same time, governments have increasingly found that they need to rely on internet intermediaries (such as social networking sites) in order to censor content, and are looking for more direct control over these issues. The Indian press has questioned the government’s motives for the proposal, as it can be seen as taking internet governance away from multistakeholderism and the ICANN — and moving it more towards a bureaucratic, government-led UN committee.

Speaking on behalf of the government, Ambassador A Gopinath made a spirited case for the document at the panel discussion, emphasising that the CIRP is part of an effort to fill a need for “enhanced cooperation”, building on the political consensus achieved by the 2005 Tunis Agenda — the resulting document from the World Summit for Information Societies (WSIS), which was a series of discussions around bridging the digital divide. Even though Gopinath stressed that the CIRP would be transparent and multilateral, he was almost entirely drowned out by business voices as well as civil society members outraged by the government’s decision to present the proposal to the UN without consulting with them.

“CIRP seems like a solution in search of a problem,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an Independent Member of Parliament.

Industry expert Kamlesh Bajaj, CEO of the Data Security Council of India, stressed that while governments may choose to focus on trademark and intellectual property issues, civil society is concerned with civil liberties regarding the Internet.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, president of the Foundation for Media Professionals, pointed out that the fear that governments seek to subtly control what people read and watch is real.

Panelists and members of the audience also raised concerns about authoritarian governments using the 50-member CIRP to seriously limit freedom of expression. The consensus was that the Indian government had failed on two accounts: consulting industry and civil society groups before drafting the CIPR, and later, in adequately explaining why this was not done.

As the way forward, many speakers suggested that the Indian government either withdraw the proposal or seek to revise it after holding further discussions with the public. As Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society said, “the proposal would have won more friends if it was clearer about if it wants to regulate, and whom it wants to regulate.”

The government assertion that CIRP would be a “quick-footed and timely” decision-making body was laughed at because it would — by its own suggestion — meet for only two weeks in the year. Behind the scenes, sources suggest that the Indian government’s enthusiasm for pushing this proposal has waned, even at the highest levels. Perhaps this forum, which FICCI admitted was encouraged by the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, is a first step to revise this position.

Friday, September 14, 2012

India's telecoms revolution must be extended to all

Across the world, debates around freedom of expression have intensified, in part due to people’s increased participation because of the many avenues communication available today. Confidence seems to follow connectivity. But think of the people who remain disconnected — excluded from national and international discourse — because of the lack of wires and signals. As tempting it is to believe that the whole world is connected, the truth is very different, especially in developing countries such as India. The numbers speak for themselves.

According to the latest figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the total telephone subscriber base in the country stands at 965.52 million. This looks encouraging for a population of roughly 1.2 billion, until one considers the urban-rural divide hidden by these numbers. The overall teledensity in urban areas is an impressive 169.03 per cent compared to 40.66 per cent in rural areas. The majority of Indians, 68.84 per cent, live in rural areas. For a country that wants to reach 100 per cent rural teledensity by 2020   — this  ambitious target includes extremely remote areas — India has a long way to go.

The Indian telecoms industry has been viewed as a success story because of the rapid proliferation of mobile phones, largely through private enterprise.  But the future impact of the now infamous scandal, caused by collusion between government and big business, on further corporate investment is yet to be determined. The experience highlights the fact that in order to ensure universal access, the government cannot depend on the market alone. In fact, the government needs to review its track record and policies that guide connectivity, especially last-mile connectivity in India.
Indian telecoms have been tarnished by controversy at the highest levels with senior politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives fighting charges of corruption in court. The former Minister of Communications and Information Technology, A Raja, has been accused of favouring corporate telecom players by selling bandwidth at undervalued prices and by rigging the allocation process. The Indian media has closely documented the scandal. Ironically, the undervalued bandwidth spectrum led to stiff competition among mobile operators and lower prices for the end users.  However, the damage to the end users has been limited – as MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar puts it, these scams are seen as victimless crimes. as the impact is a loss to the exchequer, but not to service.

The Universal Service Obligation Fund, created by the government of India in 2002 to “provide access to telecom services to people in rural and remote areas of India at affordable and reasonable prices”, has not come close to achieving its objectives. USOF’s mandate was increased in 2006 to include mobile telephony and broadband. The idea was to encourage private players to roll out services in rural areas by incentivising it. Telecom companies are required to contribute five per cent of their adjusted gross revenue towards the fund. Their function of providing rural access is then to be subsidised by USOF. As of March 2011, the fund had collected $7.44 Billion USD of which $2.69 Billion USD has been spent.

In 2011, the Indian media suggested that private service providers who had bid aggressively to become USOF operators were now trying to escape their license condition to roll out rural telephony. News reports suggest that the reason was because they finding it commercially unviable, and would prefer paying a less expensive penalty imposed by the government for abandoning the project. The fact is that some of the villages that need to be covered have very small populations — ranging from 500 to 2000 people — making those geographies are very expensive to connect. As a result, the government is planning to use the USOF to roll out a National Optic Fibre Network to connect every panchayat by 2014, to further facilitate e-governance initiatives. The hope is that the government run Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) will successfully complete what the private companies found unprofitable — last mile connectivity.

The truth is that both the cases mentioned above, through government and corporate action, have resulted in intangible and tangible loss to the Indian public. By very rough calculations, it would appear that about 498 million residents of rural India are still living in the dark disconnected shadow of the digital era — an embarrassingly high number for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global superpower. And while the government’s National e-Government Plan promotes the idea of universal digital inclusion, actions on the ground need to mirror the ambition of policy documents.
Ultimately, the test of a healthy telecom sector should not depend only on its contribution to the GDP (which, in India, is around three per cent ). It should also be measured on the basis of the voice provided to every Indian, unfettered by geography and bank balance. The cost of delaying rolling out telecom services has resulted in widening the digital divide. Beyond the cities, we need to think about the village that barely has a landline connection, let alone a mobile phone.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Dawood’s meteoric rise, told in true Bollywood style

S. Hussain Zaidi’s book is rich in details and unveils the story of India’s biggest don. Yet, in certain places it is a bit too speculative for a work of non-fiction, says Mahima Kaul

About 200 pages into Dongri to Dubai, I suddenly remembered the Hindi movie Rajneeti. It too began with the crafting of political alliances among power brokers, but soon dissolved into an incredible spate of killing sprees and shootouts that defy conventional logic. So goes the story of the Mumbai mafia, but its journey is far more insidious. From the making of dons to the supremacy of gangs, the mafia morphs into the personal fiefdom of Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, and finally plunges into a story about international terrorism. S. Hussain Zaidi paints a colourful — albeit made for Bollywood — picture, often with some sympathy and awe for his main characters. In the middle, your head might start spinning with the detailed accounts of brazen murders carried out in the heart of Mumbai. And when the colour of the mafia turns blood red communal following the unfortunate 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, it immediately stops being a story about an outlandish turf war between the D-Company and its discontents.

There are many central characters in Zaidi's account of the six decades of the mafia, spanning dons like Haji Mastan, the dangerous Pathans, Amirzada and Alamzeb, the BRA gang, Chotta Rajan, Chotta Shakeel and of course, Dawood himself. But the story, in true Bollywood style, is of India's biggest don, who was actually the son of a poor police officer. In a twist of fate, because of his closeness to crime journalist Natiq and being the son of a police officer, the budding hoodlum was propped up by the Bombay police as a tool to break the power of rival gangs. Dawood's meteoric rise is worth reading about, and Zaidi adds romance, spice, and enough gore to keep you riveted to the action.

A sidenote — at times you can't take this book as a work of non-fiction as certain scenes are clearly based purely on speculation. Feelings of apprehension or foreboding gangsters had before their deaths, sex scenes which most certainly get raunchier as the book progresses, and very 'filmy' descriptions of conversations between dons behind closed doors has the reader wondering how this could be fact. Taken with a pinch of salt, they add to what can otherwise be a very grim story about death and destruction.

There is feeling of helplessness as you read about Bombay's bloodbath — shootings of businessmen right in front of the Mumbai police station, grenade attacks on jails, attacks on gangsters by gangsters at JJ hospital, the massive shootout of Lokhandwala. Later, when it is revealed that it was a call from the Mantralaya that allowed Dawood to escape to Dubai, you felt cheated of the names of politicians clearly in his pocket. From Dubai, Dawood retains control of his empire and even builds it up, but his involvement in the 1993 Bombay terror attacks is painted with a light brush by Zaidi. Apparently Dawood did not know the size of the attacks that were to be carried out, and only really financed them to get rid of rival Tiger Memon from Bombay. Shocked, that at first the Muslim community had looked to him for retaliation for Babri, but then furious with him for his involvement with the attacks that followed, Zaidi says Dawood was "flummoxed". He offers to come back to India, with certain preconditions, to clarify his position. It is vested authorities in India that don't let him back in. Now, unable to clear his sullied name, he is forever to be associated with the ISI, "leaving him with almost no control over his destiny anymore". It's hard to feel sorry for a cold-blooded killer and the (assumed) orchestrator of terror attacks that killed hundreds of innocent people, but you could come close to it at this point.

On the other side of the coin are the Indian authorities. Time and time again it seems they are simply unable or unwilling to take action at the appropriate times. Despite Mumbai police's strategy of encounter killings and phone tapping, you get the sense that the police has remained helpless against taking firm action against the mob while the upper echelons of Indian society have, in the past, been wining and dining them. Also, that the Pakistani government is in cahoots with Dawood, and that he started financing terror groups in that country to retain political influence, has been painted as a survival strategy and not ideological. The same can be said for his links with Osama Bin Laden.

The story is certainly not new — it's the telling that is. Despite it being a work of non-fiction, it can read sometime like the script of an exciting movie. There is great detailing, even with minor characters. It is the weakest, in my opinion, right in the end when the book attempts to fit larger geopolitical politicking into the narrative. Things change after 9/11, and L.K Advani presents a dossier on Dawood's D Company to the US, which finally declares him a global terrorist (a victory that took India over a decade to achieve), but it is still unwilling to hold Pakistan to task for harboring the criminal. But these themes need much more analysis than is afforded in a book that is essentially the inside-story of the ups and downs of dons and their kingdoms.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are these the voices that will find answers for young India?

Aashti Bhartia’s book is an important tool in understanding the substance ­— or lack thereof — in the next generation of leaders. It asks questions that youth want answers to, writes Mahima Kaul

At Aashti Bhartia's book launch, one of the panelists commented that the only thing missing from the book was a chapter on Aashti herself. He wasn't wrong. To understand the real strength of her book, the Introduction chapter is crucial. Bhartia is not a political journalist, although she has clear interest in the subject. She is instead, a storyteller. Vote of Confidence attempts to tell the stories of 17 of India's young members of Parliament, fleshing them out as more than media cut-outs. This storytelling is guided by her admitted curiosity about these MPs. As she writes, "I was intrigued by the idea of poking around Ministries, figuring out what the young politicians are up to, and clearing the cobwebs of party politics."

This curiosity helps keep her essays interesting and informative. In explaining each person, she gives some background about their parties and the issues most concerning the state, and it helps even the most casual reader build up context. Bhartia admits that she chose her MPs rather randomly — she wrote about those she had read about and those who could give her some time — and she laments that she has only featured one woman MP. Nine of the 17 MPs are hereditary MPs, but that is perhaps reflective of our democracy in general.

The chapters have no standard format. Some are almost completely interviews while others paint portraits. There's even a love story or two mixed in! I found some chapters more compelling than others — those were typically the ones about the lesser-known MPs and their struggles to build a political base in their constituency. In some ways, this book offers great advice to future political aspirants. Ghanshyam Anuragi (SP) talks about how he would visit post-mortem houses, hospitals and police stations regularly when he was out of power, to lend a helping hand to those in need. He even collected donations to fund weddings for those couples who couldn't afford one. Ajoy Kumar (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha) runs though a different area of Jamshedpur every morning when he's there, ending at a tea shop. That is where he picks up on what people are talking about. Janadhana Swamy (BJP) talks how one can convince the authorities that you are a "good product" and you should contest elections, revealing he joined the BJP and requested an interview with the CM to discuss his ideas before he actually asked for a ticket. Meenakshi Natarajan (Congress) talks about sloganeering and the importance of being able to design a movement around an issue.

The book allows, through its many essays on hereditary MPs, to delve a little deeper into what always seems like the "poor-little-rich-boy" syndrome with star kids. Most people know about Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia's stories already. But then there are cases like Nilesh Rane, formerly of the Shiv Sena and now the Congress, who was offered a ticket as part of a settlement the Congress Party had with his father, Narayan Rane. The fast talker muses about the demise of the Shiv Sena, dishing on the stylings of Bal, Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, as well as Sonia and Rahul Gandhi before telling Bhartia, "I don't talk that much." Bhartia notes the ease with which Deepinder Hooda has been able to clear projects for his constituency, Rohtak, as his father is the chief minister of Haryana. But she also notes that instead of typical Haryanvi bluster, Hooda focuses on using statistics and data to "drop references to what project was promised and what work was done after he visited the village last..."

In one of the more interesting chapters, Bhartia profiles two politicians who stand on opposite ends of the development debate in Orissa: Sidhant Mohapatra and Kalikesh Singh Deo, both of the Biju Janta Dal (BJD). The former is a famous movie star in the state who once played a Naxal in a movie, leading to him understanding and sympathising with the cause. The latter, from royal lineage and with a strong business background, believes in "a trickle-down theory, assisted by government-led social development." In contrast, the weakest chapter for me is Jayant Chaudhary (RLD)'s profile, which is more about politicking and numbers than his personal story.

Bhartia's book also has moments when her relative freshness into the world of politics reveals her naivety, and that, in my mind, cements her voice as the voice of the typical Indian youth looking for some answers. She is impressed by Janardhana Swamy's scientific past and his passion for public service, only to be disappointed to learn his name featured in a suspect land deal later. She muses, "I can only hope he doesn't prove himself lazy in years to come, fattened and jaded by politics." She isn't able to force Deepinder Hooda to delve into detail about how he would solve the problems of Khap Panchayats and Jat-on-Dalit violence in Haryana. He pleads his own version of the Fifth by telling her various incidents did not fall under his constituency. And despite ex-movie star Mohapatra's pro-Naxal stance, after the 2010 Dantewada incident, where Naxals killed CRPF soldiers, he doesn't really bother to discuss the complexities of government response with her when she calls.

Like a patchwork quilt, Bhartia's book goes from state to state, story to story, struggle to struggle, weaving for us colourful portraits of India's new youngest politicians. Along with it is the voice of the urban educated youth who wants to know where to begin understanding politics today. To answer that question, you might want to start right here!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Empire of the Sun

I was sitting in my hotel room at the Gold Coast, discussing the next day's plans with my roomies Emmy and Jo. Jo mentioned trying to avoid rush hour in Brisbane, and I started laughing. Emmy turned to me and said, "I love you! Anything happens here, you say this is nothing, you should come to India and see!" I laughed even more and told her, "When you see rush hour in India, you'll know why I'm laughing at Brisbane traffic!"

Emmy was an highly adventurous young Swedish girl. She'd left her boyfriend behind to travel alone, and despite some stabbing guilt at the fact, she was determined to try everything, which included scuba diving and bungee jumping. Jo, on the other hand, was far more cautious, preferring a smoke and a drink accompanying her loud laughter and group of new British friends. I had found myself with a curious mix of characters as I attempted to see Australia without the comfort of my own friends from back home. I had come on a fellowship at the University of Melbourne, and once done, took almost three weeks off to travel the length of the East Coast of Australia.

Travelling by yourself, even if you are with a group, is a wonderfully lonely and liberating experience. I went camping along the Great Ocean Road, sharing my tent with a 18 year old French hairdresser called Tressy. I spent hours sitting on a bus alongside Andreas, a German who runs a golf club in Nuremburg. I befriended Nina and Puck, two Dutch girls I later caught open air concerts in Melbourne with. I met the wonderful Anne, in her late 60s, not letting the passing of her husband dampen her enthusiasm for life. I met Steve, a Canadian student and history buff, who I drank and talked politics with. The cast of characters kept growing as my experiences kept building, and in part they did because Australia just expects you to go have an adventure. Its that kind of place.

Unlike India, there is no long history of a bloody independent movement in Australia. There is no caste system, no glaring poverty, and no serious problems outside of alcoholism. Australia was established as a British penal colony, after the explorer James Cook declared the island as "terra nullis" (no one's land) despite it having inhabitants -- the Aboriginals. Over time the convicts, many of whom had been arrested for petty crimes, were allowed to remain on the island as free men. Cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth were established, while a large portion of the country remains uninhabited because of harsh terrain. The relationship between the original inhabitants of the island, the Aboriginals, and the European/British Australians has been complicated. A misguided attempt to mainstream Aboriginals in the 1960s resulted in the horrifying chapter called the "stolen generation" where babies were taken away from Aboriginal families and given to "white" families, with no contact with the biological family. In 2008, the Australian government made an official apology for all the past wrongs by successive governments to the indigenous Aboriginal Australians. But the ordinary (read: white) Australian seems removed from all this. The oldest buildings date only to the 1880s and there isn't a majestic sense of history one experiences in India, or Europe or any of the old civilizations. There is, instead, a deep and fierce appreciation of all things natural, and lifestyles that don't revolve around urban jungles. The country hasn't been hit by a recession and the mining industry has kept it affluent. Beaches, mountains, farms and waves. That is what you can expect from an Australian adventure. The fact that it isn't weighed down by a sense of self importance makes it one of the most fantastic experiences for a traveller. I felt that in Australia, more than any other place I’ve been to, you had to be ready to physically let go. Be ready to take that plunge.

I'm a journalist, so I'm rather used to travelling and meeting new people. But this was different. Outside of the holidayers (which would include me), the backpackers I met were so refreshingly different. All were either British or Europeans. Most were in Australia on work-stay visas which means that you can find a city, get a casual job such a bartender, make some money and travel again. And when you're cashed out you rinse, lather and repeat. Many of them young -- between 19-25 -- they were going from city to city deciding where they'd like to set up base first. "I'm staying in Byron Bay for a few months to learn English," said the German Anne. Best friends from England, Becky and Kim, hadn't yet picked a town to call home. Everyone had a story that was a mixed ball of apprehension, adventure, homesickness, and enthusiasm. Kim and Becky both had similar reasons for doing this -- one big adventure before they settle into what they imagine will be a routine life back home. It’s the ultimate "finding yourself" journey. I was marvelling at this complete freedom to just leave your home, come to another country with no job, no plan, not even a degree to fall back on (in some cases). Its helpful to be part of the exclusive "White" club which allows these kids to jump in and out of each others countries -- and I have to say, I felt a little jealous. One evening, while were sailing around the Whitsundays, I told Alan, the resident hottie, that I can't imagine doing the same. Indians -- and only affluent Indians -- often use studying abroad as the excuse to go experience other countries. And while its a rather generous gift from the parents, for the most part, its understood that the grades and resultant job better be worth it. The weight of expectations are heavy on our shoulders, with the entire family invested in your achievements. "My parents are so supportive with everything I do," I was telling Alan, "but I can't imagine them saying, alright, go to Australia for a year and discover yourself. No need to get a real job as long as you have adventures!" It just isn't in our DNA.

This made me wonder if given the choice, would we still be adventurous? (Without the added benefit of alcohol, I might add!) I spent a night at Kroombit Park, a cattle ranch. After an evening of successful clay pigeon shooting and some superbly embarrassing mechanical bull riding, I spent the next morning quad biking around the ranch. It was fantastic! Later, as I lunched with Al, the owner, I asked him if any Indians ever came around. (Keep in mind it is a beef exporting ranch, and he probably had a mini heart attack that an Indian had arrived in the first place!) Some, he said rather carefully, but they don't like to participate. The further way I from my cultural reality, the more keenly aware of it I was. Challenge accepted, I thought to myself, I'm going to do whatever I can possibly do.

So I did. Some camping, trekking, surfing, sailing, snorkelling, quad biking, mustering goats, finding frozen banana stands, bowling…. That’s not all: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian Open and Andrew Llyod Weber. Add to that walking around Melbourne and Sydney for hours, bobbing my head to 'Empire of the Sun' on my ipod, smiling to myself. But, most of all, add to that a sense of freedom from the complicated histories that keep us in chains. It's enough to make me book my ticket back there.

Reprinted in the Outside Inside Literary Magazine (with some changes):

Thursday, May 03, 2012

It's mainstream vs social

Mainstream and social media share an increasingly uneasy relationship.

The Abhishek Manu Singhvi CD scandal brought into focus the increasingly confrontational relationship between social media and mainstream media. When a court order kept the mainstream from broadcasting the CD, social media took centrestage in spreading it online and keeping a buzz about the scandal for days. Many termed it as a "victory" for social media. Others slammed social media users as "eternal voyeurs" and wondered why they seemed to be above the court order. In return, blogs went as far as to title a post, "Why the Indian MSM (mainstream media) Wants Social Media Dead".

A quick recap: after the CD leak, Singhvi moved court to stop certain media organisations from telecasting it. The Delhi High Court gave an ex parte order that "the defendants (media house), their agents ... are restrained from publishing, broadcasting and disseminating or distributing in any form or any manner..." However, people caught hold of the video and kept linking it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. It went viral. Singhvi resigned from all political posts and settled the matter out of court. In his statement of resignation, Singhvi's bitterness at the role of social media was apparent: "in either event it raises no public interest issue... contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind." I will save you a Google search: contumacious means to be wilfully disobedient to authority.

There are questions to be asked. Who was the 13 April court order aimed at? Is Singhvi's proposition that an internet violation took place true?

The order was explicitly binding on only specific organisations (Aaj Tak, India Today Group and Headlines Today). The rest of the mainstream media showed remarkable restraint. In the case of the video being linked on social media, it was users' prerogative, as they were not covered under that order even though Singhvi's statement suggests otherwise. However, there is another angle to consider. Social media users would have broken the law only if the video content itself was objectionable. "If the video is judged to be 'obscene', then under s.67 of the Information Technology Act, 'causing [obscenity] to be transmitted', is also a crime," says Sunil Abraham of the Center for Internet and Society. So, the question is, was this video obscene? While my journalistic integrity did not extend to watching the video, I've been told it has neither nudity nor explicit sexual activity, and cannot be considered obscene. Therefore, it appears that social media has functioned well within its rights.

What remains, then, is the view that social media "should" be restrained. How? A court order could stop users from linking the video online, but it would only be applicable in India. Also, there are already provisions in the IT Amendment Act 2008, which allows for "offensive" material to be removed by the intermediary, or site blockage by the government. Twitter has already announced national policies of censorship, although this incident would probably not qualify for such a drastic action. Sunil Abraham adds that the court could also give a "John Doe order" against prospective offenders that enables the IP owner to serve notice and take action at the same time against anyone who is found to be guilty. However, this step is to be taken with caution. In criticising the existing order on the Singhvi case, Arun Jaitley wrote in an editorial that "a pre-publication injunction (should) ... be exercised with great caution specially in a case of libel and slander," because in this case it was yet to be proven that the CD was indeed fabricated.

It seems there is offline outrage about online outrage. However, for mainstream media to call for restraint on social media based on their own actions seems to be hypocritical in this particular instance, because they did so only because of a court order. One need to look at stories ranging from the Mumbai attacks to the Arushi Talwar murder case to understand the invasive nature of mainstream media in India. What is more worrying is that the mainstream media is equating itself with social media in some ways, wondering why it needs to have editorial checks if citizens can gossip away on Twitter. In return, social media is counting its victories against the mainstream in a manner that suggests that the two consider each other competitors. Although most conversation on social media would not exist without mainstream news sources, ultimately their function in society is not the same. The media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy, while social media is considered an "unofficial" channel. If either is found indulging in illegal or harmful activities, they can and must be checked. But, in the end, it serves freedom of speech to keep the two functioning in context, not in confrontation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CCTV BRICS India documentary out!!

Alright peoples I know.... The CCTV BRICS documentary is out and online. Now, I know its in Chinese but some of you might be having a slow day (and all the interviews are in English... mostly) So here you go:

Part 1:
Part 2:

If you make it, let me know :)

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Right to a Heart (and Education, while we're at it)

I'm all for RTE. Yes, there are not enough seats in schools and yes, some of our elite babies might have to suffer culture shock (more the parents than the children it seems sometimes) but in such a segregated country, it is needed. However, I'd like to add my 2 bits to the subject. Years ago, my dhobi's son finished high school (a government school) and got into Delhi University. I think it was Dyal Singh college. Everyone was proud and it seemed like this amazing moment where barriers were being broken. However, it soon became apparent that because of the fact that he couldn't invite friends home and at times felt horribly aware that his social and financial situation was not the same as the friends he was making. His parents came to my parents to ask them for help, he was suffering severe depression. He was taken to a therapist and long story short, is totally okay now, and has a government job.

Cut to a few years later when my mom put my cooks kids in an English medium school here in Delhi. The difference is that now she sits with them practically every single day and does homework. She buys them new clothes and uniforms, and cycles and skateboards, and what have you. I get them all kinds of science gizmos and chocolates and DVDs of cartoons etc. I know a lot of parents and families offer the same support. This is not to make a hero out of anyone, but its to shine a light on a simple fact: when kids come home -- they need help with homework and with some amount of confidence building. If the parents cannot speak English, how the hell will they help with homework? Therefore, when we talk about RTE, I hope schools or the government has though about putting in place mechanisms to help these kids absorb education in a language which is definitely not spoken at home, and also, to emotionally deal with the fact that they might live in a servants quarter which is the size of somebody else's bathroom. These are not things that can't be dealt with - don't get me wrong - I just mean I hope we are sensitive to some human emotions while we go about these massive changes.

I'm saying this very specifically because some of the arguments I've read pro-RTE seem to be saying -- "the middle class is so full of itself, throw these poor children into the mix and let them suffer". Yes, we are insufferable. But please don't use these poor little kids as a weapon to punish us. Make the same argument, put do it with some heart.

On the other hand, there are those who say government schools need to be fixed, they are absolutely right. Obviously, as a journalist, I've visited lots of government schools around the country and their quality ranges from good to bad. The other day I went to meet some kids as part of an after-school activity in Madanpur Khadar J&J Colony (around Kalindi Kunj, New Delhi). My foundation and Bring Home Stories (which is Sapna's as many of you might know) are getting together to get these kids to produce a film and we were there to figure them out. Sapna had met them the week before and asked them to prepare a 3 min speech on what story they would cover if they were a journalist. The sheer confidence with which they spoke, and the fact that all of them had done their research, blew me away. Very, very impressive. I took videos, so you can see what I mean. But if you ask me, why do you think it was that these kids from a government school living in just another city slum were so impressive? Its because they have not only a good school but great after school activities organized by some local NGOs which have given them the confidence and the training to be better. Sapna and I have it easy, because we're working with such sharp kids to begin with.

My point is this: there needs to be sufficient arrangements to make sure that kids - in this case (RTE) if they are shifting over to private schools have the back up they need to survive this huge, huge tectonic shift they will experience. I just feel like too many people are focusing on the top down effect (suck it, middle class) and that doesn't help. Be productive. How will you help these kids adapt? Start learning so many subjects in English? Keep up with some amount of cultural references the other kids are talking about? Deal with the inferiority complex that might arise from such a huge change. Lets do it. But as I said earlier, lets do it with heart.