Saturday, January 28, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many in the Government who are absolutely chuffed at the ease with which Operation Stop Rushdie was played out. First, the Rajasthan Police (or was it the Central authorities?) informed the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival that sundry assassins financed by the Mumbai underworld were on the prowl. That ensured Salman Rushdie didn't check-in for his flight to India. Secondly, once it was known that the organizers would use technology to circumvent the unofficial Congress ban on Rushdie, the local hotelier and the organizers were deftly arm-twisted into cancelling the video linkup for fear of violence and police indifference.
Yes, there were voices of liberal outrage at the subversion of democratic freedom. However, since the indignation was confined to a class that rarely bothers to vote, has no worthwhile electoral influence and, if the chairman of the Press Council is to believed, still harbours a colonial mindset, it could be safely ignored in favour of the satisfaction among those who, apart from being more authentic, also control powerful Muslim vote-banks.
What was witnessed last week was cynicism perfected into a fine art by a government that has excelled in the art of subterfuge. Where the regime wants to offset protests against free speech, it does so unapologetically. In Punjab, crowds at a public meeting to be addressed by Rahul Gandhi were compelled to leave their shoes and any black apparel outside the venue for fear that these could become either missiles or black flags. In Jaipur, however, the authorities chose to be cowed down by the threat of small groups of demonstrators. The champions of intolerance won in Jaipur because their victory was facilitated by the might of the state.
Yet, many apologists argue that the events of last week don't necessarily imply any waning commitment to democratic freedoms. Rushdie, it is said, was the exception because his mere mention sends many Muslims into an apoplectic tizzy. And, say the apologists, the timing of the celebrated author's visit was all wrong. If there had been no elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress regimes at the Centre and in Rajasthan may well have been more inclined to showcase India as a place where the bar of intolerance is generously high.
Recent trends suggest otherwise. It is becoming increasingly clear that the kerfuffle over Rushdie was no unfortunate aberration but part of a bid to replace an argumentative society with a regulated democracy where freedom is circumscribed by constant reminders of the limits to freedom.
The attempts to muzzle free speech in the social media and the cyber world can no longer be wished away as obsessive concerns of individual ministers with particularly thin skins. Since September 5 last year, the department of information technology has held five meetings with organizations such as Facebook, Google, Blogspot and Yahoo to force a code of conduct governing their content. It is not that the government is concerned with lewd pictures and pornography. It has demanded that the social media sites "scan and screen/filter the content hosted on their websites for objectionable content about Constitutional authorities, council of ministers in Centre/states, political leadership, public authorities and disable them on their own or as and when brought to their knowledge in writing by an authorized representative of such authorities." A public interest litigation protesting the "damage (to) the secular fabric of India" is also before the Delhi High Court.
In plain language, the government is demanding the right of pre-censorship of all potentially "objectionable content" relating to public life and politics--a demand that has striking resemblance to the censorship practiced by the authorities in China.
It is, of course, possible to dismiss these moves as trivial concerns that will affect a minority of internet loonies who are unaware of the niceties of parliamentary decorum. The only problem is that when the right to determine what is objectionable is given to people who are unaffected by the charms of pluralism, the consequences can be very dangerous. The Rushdie affair last week has vividly demonstrated that for a section of the political class, the right to offend does not count as a permissible freedom. India is being forced into a mental straitjacket.
By Swapan Dasgupta
The establishment of an all-embracing “nanny state” has been a cause of concern to many sensible, right-thinking citizens of the European Union (EU).
In Britain, to cite just one example, there is anger and exasperation over the way apprehended illegal immigrants have been able to avert deportation by falling back on the EU’s human rights legislation. The so-called right to family life has been successfully used by those who have broken the law to prevent constituent nations from acting against them.
So absurd is the situation that illegal immigrants were even able to cite the ownership of a cat and membership of a local cricket team to earn for themselves the right to stay in a country where they had overstayed their welcome.
It is against this bizarre backdrop of an over-regulated state, replete with gratuitous codification of daily life, that we must view the strange case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, Indian citizens resident in the Norwegian town of Stavenger.
In May 2011, the child welfare department of the town took the couple’s two children, a son aged two and a daughter then barely five months old into custodial care. The Bhattacharyas were accused of dereliction of parental responsibilities.
What were the faults of the Bhattacharyas, a normal middle-class couple with the husband working as a geo-scientist with Halliburton, a well-known US company? In the courts where the case was heard, the account of parental negligence was provided. These included the absence of separate rooms for the children, the lack of appropriate toys, the absence of a separate diaper changing table and the fact that the son slept in the same bed as the parents and was fed by hand — which allegedly amounted to “force feeding”. The mother was also guilty of breast feeding the daughter in an unsuitable way.
According to a report in an Indian newspaper, filed from Oslo, the authorities argued in court “that when the mother breast-fed the infant, she put her on her lap without holding her, holding the head against the breast but not close to her body”.
Taken together with the fact that the mother had admitted to once slapping her son — a prohibited act under Norwegian law — the Child Welfare Service concluded that the mother failed to look after the children’s emotional needs. The larger interests of the children, it felt, were better served by placing them in foster homes.
The city court of Stavanger agreed with the Child Welfare Service and sent the children to foster homes. As an act of generosity, it allowed the parents to see their children — one of whom was still being breast-fed — twice each year for two hours. In a further revision by the Country Board of the Child Welfare Service it has now been stated that the children must remain in foster homes till they are 18 years of age but would be allowed to spend three hours each year with their parents in three separate visits of an hour each.
The sheer inhumanity of the Norwegian state defies belief. What happened to the Bhattacharyas is not merely the result of the perverted thinking of authorities that believe they know better than the natural parents of children.
It is also an outcome of insular Europeans not knowing and not bothering to appreciate the fact there is no prescribed way of bringing up children. That a child does not have a separate room and the fact that diapers were changed on the bed rather than on a table of a prescribed size are niggling issues. These have more to do with their parents’ financial priorities than a bid to wilfully scar the children emotionally.
Indian children routinely share a bed with their parents or grandparents. This is often a function of space or gestures of affection and they haven’t resulted in India becoming a nation of the emotionally traumatised.
Equally, if feeding a child by hand constitutes an inhuman act of force-feeding, more than 95 per cent of Indian parents would be found guilty of cruelty. Norway cannot dictate how an Indian family chooses to eat. By this absurd logic, Westerners in India should be advised that toilet paper is unhygienic and environmentally unsound!
Like many prosperous but insular countries, the authorities in Norway possess an infuriating sense of sanctimoniousness, believing that their habits, customs and worldviews are the only routes to well-being. There is no common sense view of right and wrong.
In the matter of bringing up children, what the Norwegian authorities are demanding is not emotional sustenance but homogenisation. These are the hallmarks of a totalitarian system that believes children belong primarily to the state. Norway is not a totalitarian state but its social codes resonate with checklists of uniformity.
It is heartening that the Government of India has responded to the sense of outrage at home by summoning the Norwegian ambassador to South Block. It is said that a solution may be worked out with the grandparents of the children giving a helping hand to the Bhattacharya couple.
In other words, Norway will be given a face-saving way out that stops short of its authorities admitting that what happened to the Bhattacharyas was a gross violation of their human rights, particularly their right to a family life and their right to pursue cultural practices. India has a moral duty to rescue two of its children who have become victims of judicial abduction.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Thursday, January 19, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
Ever since the time a CPI membership or connection was the best passport for entry into journalism, the Indian media has been excessively charitable to the Left. A loosely Left-liberal set of assumptions including anti-Americanism, a distaste for the private sector and a loathing of ritualised religion were hallmarks of the English-language media—at least until aggressive TV news channels with sharply divergent value systems re-established balance.
The most important consequence of this slanted politics was that the Communist parties (and their fellow-travellers) were able to punch much above their weight. In its 34 years of government, the Left Front in West Bengal benefitted considerably from the goodwill and generosity showered on it by a national media enamoured of its progressive credentials. Copious tears, for example, were shed when the CPI(M) Politburo turned down the United Front’s invitation to Jyoti Basu to become Prime Minister of India in 1998. However, very few column inches were devoted to examining the realities behind Basu’s reputation as a capable administrator. For an influential section of the editorial classes that had once fought battles on behalf of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, the Communist parties were the holy cows and West Bengal their sacred pasture.
Mamata Banerjee by contrast was always an object of intense suspicion. Ever since she emerged to occupy the main anti-Left space in West Bengal she was portrayed as a maverick, an incorrigible populist and an utterly irresponsible individual. This reckless image persisted through the 2009 general election when it was lamented that Prakash Karat had facilitated his own party’s downfall by his decision to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh Government over the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Indeed, a section of the fourth estate clung on to the belief that her Lok Sabha success was a fluke and that she would be stopped at the gates of Writers’ Buildings by a determined Left. Even as late as a month before the May 2011 Assembly poll, the media watering holes in Delhi were full of tales of how there was a ‘late swing’ to the Left resulting from a popular realisation that Mamata would be too costly a burden for West Bengal. The results told another story.
The Congress which had entered into a grudging ‘mahajot’ with the Trinamool Congress after the Left withdrew support to the UPA Government was both a producer and a willing consumer of the negative perceptions of West Bengal’s most famous Didi. Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister were no doubt grateful to Mamata for teaching Karat a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry, but this was coupled with concern over the consequences of the gentlemanly Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee being replaced by an unguided missile. In 2011, the Congress wanted the Left Front to lose but it hoped that the TMC would fall short of an outright majority and enable it to play a balancing role—a euphemism for insisting Mamata dance to its tune for the next five years.
These calculations were upset by last summer’s resounding and categorical endorsement of Mamata by the West Bengal electorate. Mamata was now her own boss with very clear ideas of how she would manage relations with her national ally.
At the local level she moved fast. First, she gave inconsequential portfolios to the Congress ministers she inducted into her ministry. Second, she sought to undercut the remaining Congress bases in North Bengal.
The Congress High Command didn’t respond to these provocations too adversely. Traditionally, the Congress has always viewed its local units as subordinate to the national party. As long as Mamata played ball in the Centre, the Congress was willing to turn a blind eye to her local transgressions.
Unfortunately for the Congress, Mamata had her own ideas. Angry at being fobbed off with mere lollipops instead of the grand Bengal package she had banked on, she did what most non-Congress chief ministers from Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi to Nitish Kumar have done: elevate the battle to a principled tussle over federal relations. It is federalism that has governed Mamata’s prickliness over matters as diverse as the Teesta Waters Treaty with Bangladesh, the Communal Violence Bill, the Lokpal Bill and the Food Security Bill. In addition, she used her representation in the Cabinet to raise awkward questions on fuel price hikes and the decontrol of retail trade. More to the point, she used her numbers in Parliament to join hands with the Opposition and embarrass the Government.
The CPI(M) had a position similar to Mamata’s in the four years it provided ‘outside support’ to the UPA between 2004 and 2008. It used its strategic clout far more discerningly and in characteristic Communist style: to support the ‘progressive’ initiatives by Sonia Gandhi and oppose the ‘neo-liberal’ policy moves of the Prime Minister. In addition, it used it good offices to secure the appointments of ‘progressives’ in positions of influence and authority, particularly in the realms of higher education. The CPI(M) more or less replicated the approach of the CPI between 1969 and 1977 when it upheld the ‘progressive’ regime of Indira Gandhi, particularly in her fight against the ‘reactionary’ Syndicate.
Mamata, on her part, has not been so calibrated in her approach as the Comrades. She has been principled insofar as she has focussed on the big questions and not bothered at all with trivial issues of appointments to governorships and quangos—something the Congress is innately more comfortable with. The result is that Mamata does not have backers among either those who look to 10 Janpath or those with one eye to the wisdom emanating from Race Course Road. After she embarrassed the government in the Rajya Sabha over the Lokpal Bill, the exasperation of the Congress with her scaled new heights—to the point where senior ministers are now singing praises of the sweet reasonableness of the Left. As of today, Mamata is regarded as the joker in the UPA pack and the Congress is itching to be rid of her.
For the Congress, the way out of West Bengal lies in Uttar Pradesh. For the past month, relevant circles in Lutyens’ Delhi have been abuzz with talk of ‘secret’ negotiations between the Congress and Samajwadi Party. According to those who make it their business to fish in troubled waters, the ‘deal’ involves a post-poll coalition between the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress in UP and the SP joining the UPA at the Centre in return for Cabinet berths. The Congress, it would seem, has made up its mind to swap the TMC with the SP. This may explain why Mamata has sharpened the intensity of her attacks on the Congress.
There is still one imponderable. The Congress needs both the TMC and either the SP or the Bahujan Samaj Party to get its candidate into Rashtrapati Bhavan later in the year. It would be in difficulty if a discarded Mamata decides to back a united opposition candidate. The possible way out, which is being explored courtesy a Politburo member of the CPI(M) is for the Left to bail the Congress out in return for an agreement on the candidature of the present Vice President.
The Left has been playing a quiet role in accentuating the differences between the Congress and Mamata. Having been severely battered in the Assembly election, its only hope of a recovery lies in Mamata self-destructing and a split in the anti-Left votes in West Bengal.
The Telegraph, January 20, 2012
Saturday, January 14, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
The extent to which the discourse on the vexed issue of reservations has changed over the years is quite remarkable. When the Constitution was being framed, the remnants of the Muslim League argued that independent India should persist with the reservation of seats in legislatures for Muslims and other religious minorities. Predictably, in the aftermath of a Partition that many attributed to the system of separate electorates and the notorious Communal Award, the demand drew a sharp response from the Congress benches.
Intervening in the debate on August 28, 1947, the then home minister Sardar Patel had some harsh words for the proponents of minority reservation: "I once more appeal to you to forget the past…You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and, remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan…What is it that you want now? In the majority Hindu provinces you, the minorities, you led the agitation…Now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For God's sake understand that we have also got some sense..."
Had a politician of standing delivered a similar speech today, it is certain that the liberal media and the assembled army of secularists would have construed it as a textbook example of ahate speech. Over the years, thanks to changing political fashion, the sharpness of political discourse which was a feature of the national movement, has been blunted and replaced by squeamish angst. This is particularly evident in the debate over the proposal of the Congress to introduce a 4.5% quota-to be raised to 9% if the party wins Uttar Pradesh-for religious minorities in government jobs and higher education.
In line with the recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar committee report, the issue has been presented as an aspect of India's quest for social justice. Since many Muslim communities are understood to be even worse placed than dalits in their socio-economic status, the imperatives of social justice, it is argued, demand they be given a helping hand to help them enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. If the politically consequential Other Backward Classes can enjoy the benefits of reservations, or so the argument goes, it is against natural justice to deny similar benefits to people just because they follow a different faith.
It is a compelling argument and one which has moved the liberal elite. Against this is the letter and spirit of a Constitution that is quite clear that special privileges for minorities must be limited to their absolute right to manage their own religious, cultural and educational institutions-a privilege denied to non-minorities. The Constitution is also categorical that religionbased reservations in government jobs and political representation constitute a big No. Small wonder there is subterfuge involved in concealing the real motives behind the proposal.
For the Constitution-makers, the status of minorities posed a dilemma. There was a consensus on postponing a common civil code to help Muslims get over their post-Partition disorientation. Yet, the Constituent Assembly was not at ease with the principle of differentiated citizenship. In a landmark intervention, B R Ambedkar, for example, confessed that "I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast expansive jurisdiction so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field."
The extension of job reservation to Muslims threatens to add a new dimension to differentiated citizenship. From separate personal laws and full cultural and educational autonomy, minority rights are sought to be extended to other arenas including the handling of sectarian conflict. The road is being readied for political reservations at a future date.
There may be strong electoral compulsions governing the move to institutionalise a separate Muslim identity. But before jumping headlong into legislation, the political class must enter into wider public consultations. The issue is not who is 'secular' and who is 'communal'. The stakes are higher: the very character of the Constitution and the meaning of nationhood.
Friday, January 13, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
A recent assertion by Union law minister Salman Khurshid at an election meeting in his parliamentary constituency that the Congress was intent on enhancing the reserved quota for backward Muslims from 4.5 per cent to nine per cent has, quite predictably, created a stir.
The BJP has been vocal in its opposition, arguing, quite legitimately, that the Muslim quota is at the cost of the Other Backward Classes who have hitherto been the principal beneficiaries of the post-Mandal extension of reservations all over India. Others have seen it as an overdue measure to correct the implicit discrimination against Muslims (and, for that matter, Christians) in the matter of reservations.
The debate on Muslim reservations has just about begun and the coming months will witness rival groups mustering public support for their respective positions. This is exactly as it should be in a democracy — policy announcements being deliberated with passion at different levels, particularly during elections. That is why it comes as a surprise to learn that the Election Commission has issued Mr Khurshid a showcause notice for his promise to enhance the Muslim quota.
By making this announcement about what the Congress intends to do in the unlikely event of it being voted to power in Uttar Pradesh, Mr Khurshid, it is being suggested, violated the model code of conduct for candidates and parties.
Regardless of our personal views on the Congress’ attempts to play the minority card with gusto, the EC’s action against Mr Khurshid is somewhat ridiculous and smacks of needless over-zealousness. An election is a festival of democracy, an occasion when the ordinary citizen gets an opportunity to elect both a government and representatives to law-making institutions of the state.
Like in most festivals there is both seriousness and frivolity in elections, and the process is governed by a drill. The EC exists to ensure two things. First, it is responsible for ensuring a degree of fairness which is possible if there is a semblance of a level playing field. And, secondly, it assumes overall responsibility to guarantee that the festival is orderly and does not degenerate into a drunken brawl where unruliness and muscle power prevail.
Over the years the EC has demonstrated its ability to be counted as one of the institutions that works. Beginning with the imperious T.N. Seshan, successive Chief Election Commissioners have maintained and upheld the independence of the body and freed it from political interference. In the process they have ironed out many of the creases from the electoral process.
Although no system can be regarded as perfect, the EC has done its bit to ensure that election expenditure by candidates and parties are not extravagant, that voting is peaceful and orderly, and that the counting of votes is accurate. There have been occasional lapses but these owe mainly to the laxity of individual election officers.
It is precisely because the EC is an exemplary institution that occasional criticisms of its operations deserve to be taken seriously and viewed as exercises in democratic improvement.
The foremost criticism of the EC is that it often seems preoccupied with a draconian implementation of the rules at the cost of the spirit of democracy. The showcause against Mr Khurshid is a classic example of bureaucratic over-interpretation.
The Congress is well within its rights to propose a nine per cent Muslim quota in government jobs and educational institutions. It is also within its rights to propagate this ridiculous scheme, just as Mulayam Singh Yadav is fully within his rights to promise free water and power to farmers. Both sets of assurances are populist and calculated to create social and economic distortions in the polity. But that is not the point. Democracy cannot be artificially sanitised or confined to an ideological straitjacket.
Parties are at liberty to advocate national suicide in the garb of national salvation. Other parties are at liberty to denounce their opponents. As long as no one advocates violence or makes a hate speech, the EC need not concern itself as an ideological ombudsman. Like the norms governing free speech, the idea is to give a campaigner wide latitude.
Unfortunately there are occasions when an attitude of disdain towards rumbustious democracy is manifested in the conduct of election officers. In the Karnataka Assembly election of 2008, the script of Sushma Swaraj’s TV broadcast was censored because it contained a sharp attack on the government for its failure to control prices of foodstuff. Otherwise, too, election officers in their role of censors have disallowed parody, interpreting humour as being tantamount to personal attacks.
The election authorities have also adopted an excessively rigid distaste for the public display of posters, cut-outs and flags. This has prevented political parties from publicising their candidates and has been a deterrent to political information, a perquisite of informed choice.
These are not major complaints but they are needless babu-inspired hurdles to the proper celebration of democracy. The EC is quite right to keep a strict eye on the conduct of political parties and the candidates. However, it would also be well advised to give all its election officers lessons in the spirit of democracy.
The application of rules in a thoughtless manner by officials who may be out to get their own back on arrogant politicians doesn’t enhance the quality of India’s democracy. Having established some order in the conduct of elections, it’s important the EC doesn’t err on the side of arbitrariness.
Saturday, January 07, 2012
Friday, January 06, 2012