Archive for the ‘ India Shining ’ Category

An Education: The diversity in India’s classrooms is its greatest strength

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 is the latest example of public welfare laws to be passed by the Parliament. Even though this law promises to make elementary education more accessible to every child, there are several apprehensions as to its actual outcome.

The Supreme Court in its judgment on 12th April 2012 in the matter of Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan v. Union of India, declared the RTE to be a child-centric law to support its decision in upholding the constitutionality of a provision in the law that mandated private and specified category schools to provide free elementary education to 25% children belonging to a weaker section and disadvantaged groups on admitting them to Class I. Although there are reasons to see why its detractors perceive it as an infrastructure-centric law.

Take for example, the provisions (See S.18 & 19) that necessitate every private school to fulfill a minimum number of criterion, that can be economically burdensome on a lot of financially weaker private schools, to obtain a Certificate of Recognition, without which they risk losing recognition, and consequently, shut operations. (Don’t worry, the children are taken care of. A provision mandates that no school shall be forced to close operations unless the children are transferred to another school, although it is again debatable how many schools are equipped to absorb such children of de-recognized schools).

The other main criticism is directed at the ambiguous procedure prescribed for the admission of reserved category students in private and specified schools (See S. 12 & 13).  Critics say that in the process of outlawing any screening procedures in private schools for such 25% of children belonging to myriad classes of disadvantage (viz., SC, ST, economically weaker section, cultural/linguistic or gender minorities) private schools would now be forced to explore a lottery system in order to ensure that the admissions for the reserved quota of students is based on a purely random selection method, in which case the odds are in favour of children who belong to categories such as SC, ST and the cultural/linguistic or gender minorities who may NOT be poor, and consequently poor families who cannot afford to educate their children have a smaller chance to get in. Yet it is a considerable improvement from until just a couple of years ago when a poor parent couldn’t even dream of affording a private education for his/her child.

I support the rationale in eliminating any screening procedures like interviewing or testing a child, or the parents, which are meant only to profile and eliminate ‘undesired’ candidates.

Why am I upbeat about the RTE then, you ask?

Well, infrastructure and economics is not my forte. I will leave the hard issues, or as I like to call them, boring issues, to persons who are qualified to comment on them to suggest changes in that department. I will talk about the soft issues, or as I like to call them, fun issues. There is a more nuanced criticism of the RTE that is couched in a language that purports to be politically-correct, but the dirt behind it is for everyone to see if they choose to.

This is my defense of the RTE’s policy on inclusive education.

The most contentious issue was the provision of the RTE that made it mandatory for a private unaided school and specified school to admit children belonging to a disadvantaged group and from weaker sections to the extent of at least 25% of class strength to Class I, and continues to remain so inspite of the SC order.

The SC declared this to be a reasonable restriction placed on private schools in pursuit of their trade/profession, as is permitted under the Constitution of India. The economic argument against it is understandable, as poorer schools may have to do with 25% lesser funds during the Academic Year. Although RTE  says that the Government will reimburse every private school the amount of expenditure it incurs on the education of every such child that is admitted based on the 25% quota.

The sociological argument against it is the one i have a problem with; one that suggests that children belonging to poorer families won’t “fit in” with children dominantly belonging to middle class to richer  families.

In a country where 700-800 million people are poor and have health-charts that are comparable or worse than several countries in that continent everybody loves to compare its failing benchmarks with, Africa, it is an affront to the elitist schools’ free-market sensibilities to reasonably expect of them to provide free education to a quarter of children in their classes upto elementary level. These so-called bastions of elite education worry that their “standards of performance” will suffer once anyone without merit is allowed to gain admission. Whose standards of performance are we measuring first of all? And if only merit were to be a criteria to deserve an education and be a have-it-all, why does P Chidambaram act like he’s got a big one stuck up his backside?

Perhaps the most acidic expression of distaste towards this step of more inclusive classrooms comes from an article titled “The RTE Act: A cruel and unusual punishment”:

“We live in a deeply segregated and hierarchical society. The poor are regarded with contempt, as lesser beings who are to be kept at bay. We want our maid to clean our bathrooms, but we don’t want her kid in our son’s classroom. The level of hostility  these children will encounter will be no less, more so since most private schools are virulently opposed to the act.

So these children, between the ages of 5 and 14, will enter an environment where they are barely tolerated, and in many cases, treated with disdain – by their peers, teachers, and authorities. Merely outlawing mental or physical harassment in law doesn’t eliminate it in life – especially not in India. Rather than remove “the psychological barriers” that hold these children back, it will likely reinforce them, and at a very tender age.

A recent Outlook story on Dalit student suicides revealed the intense hostility faced by them in places like AIIMS and IIT – which often drives them to depression and suicide. How do we think a six year old will bear up in that kind of an environment? And how much do we think they will learn?”

Notice the tone of the language used. These are loaded-statements about social biases. Yes, one can generally win a TV-debate by exploiting the dark history of racial and class discrimination in Indian society, and its prevalence in contemporary times. But the RTE is not a TV-debate. Even though it may be flawed with various misgivings about the mode of delivery of the service, it is seeking to create a system of opportunity to encourage more children to seek at least elementary education, and with “quotable-quotes” by forthright argumentative Indians such as above, a poor child looses yet another opportunity to see the inside of a elementary school.

These ideas are so redundant they make me want to quote a line from a song by that hack of an activist-turned-rocker (or was it the other way around?), Bono: ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same’. Yeah, take that FirstPost!

It is outright class-discrimination. Observe also how unapologetic the argument appears about the exploits of abuse by our fee-paying kids against the protected ones. It is as good as giving approval to the kind of offensive sensibilities one hopes to educate children against when they are sent to school to become more intelligent persons. Instead of condoning such dangerous and irresponsible acts, the critics would do well to understand that it is primarily a parent’s job to inculcate a sense of civility and harmony in their child to understand and be polite to persons from varied backgrounds.

What’s that? You think I’m crazy? Okay, let’s even assume this argument is born out of the best intentions. Still, giving legitimacy to it will be perpetuating segregation of the worst kind. The critics would rather exhort the Government to increase spending on public education and allow good access to education for poor kids. It’s alright, but it’s never happened. It’s tantamount to saying ‘Separate, but equal’. I’m sure the level of distrust between Hindu and Muslim society post-Independence must have been at its peak, but did that mean their kids studied in exclusive schools?

This brings me to my second point.

As per the proponents of this argument there exist only two worlds in our classrooms that need to reconcile their differences: the rich/middle-class and the poor. Allow me the opportunity to burst your bubble. Following is a list of   persons that all along existed in a parallel universe with you fabulous ones, while you were busy planning to go out for a “cheese pizza” with your hot classmate (these are just some that come to mind at the moment) :

  1. Children that are Muslim.
  2. Children that ethnically belong to the North-Eastern states like Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
  3. Children that belong to socially disadvantaged groups like a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe.
  4. Children that are gay and lesbian (If you are bi, stop complaining, that was always a cool thing).
  5. Children suffering from a disability.
  6. Children that are not ‘hot’. (Granted, this might seem like a cosmetic issue, but people around you will testify that teenage bitchiness is as upsetting as classist barbs).

It has always been the case that, generally, children from dominant social positions have ruled the school-hierarchy, (Too much political-correctness itself becomes politically-incorrect, hence, I am merely stating facts from personal experience without taking away the merit from anyone who has been an asset to their schools). While children from   weaker social positions have been often subjected to verbal abuse (being called a terrorist, Paki, cutlet, chinky, Gurkha, chamar, bhangi, homo, faggot, hijra etc.), and very often also physical abuse for exactly this: possessing a distinct identity. Assimilation of diverse identities has always been an uneasy issue all over India (for some without choice), so why this hullabaloo when the same is desired to be achieved at the smallest levels of our system, where such issues can be nipped in the bud?

Try substituting ‘a Muslim, Dalit or a gay child’ instead of a poor child in the excerpts from the article quoted above, and see if it still makes sense(don’t go verbatim). Also, try asking any of your friends who might belong to one or more of the categories mentioned above, what it was like going through school where they might have been exposed to a hostile environment because of their identity. It is difficult enough for many young adults to understand their distinct identities, and then to face ridicule, insult and discrimination from peers and having come out of it with strength is a different learning experience altogether. If asked, I’m sure many would say school was a bleak time in their life, but would still choose to go through an integrated school and learn valuable life-lessons rather than go through an artificially-created comfortable environment that could push them over the edge once exposed to the world outside school. Our classrooms have been privy to several battles, and they have not fallen yet, which is a testament to the reconciliation of our divisions, at least to some degree. If stories of violence against children who hail from North-Eastern India or who belong to any disadvantaged group of society should teach us anything, it should be that parents are increasingly getting alienated from their children’s lives, and due to  inadequate nurturing and a lack of a sound value-system, the child is prone to victimize other vulnerable groups of children. Home is where things need to be re-visited at, for it to translate into healthy classrooms.

This brings me to my other point. While it is true that a lot of this hate and discrimination is still going around, the children are smartening up too. I’m sure many of us have seen an insensitive remark gone un-forgiven by friends. Just last year, my 11-year old sister realized that one of her friends was being disrespectful to another girl in their friend-circle, because she is Muslim. I don’t blame the child entirely to harbour such ideas, because her mother is known to blurt her stupid thoughts around her. I don’t know what exactly transpired between the girls, but today, all of them still play together, except the problem-child.

All children go through different kinds of trouble at school, some more difficult than others. The point is, we all learn to develop some basic survival skills(some go to Self-Deprecatory Humour Class, while others go radical with Emotional-Eating 101) and eventually turn out as fine adults, so please don’t under-estimate the children because of some dumb problem created by bigots centuries ago. Give them a chance, and they’ll show us they’re smarter than we think they are.

There are a hundred good reasons to segregate children and put each of them in exclusive social-category schools. Do we give in to the worst in our human nature, or do we accept it as a challenge and make it work by re-thinking social attitudes?

But there is an even better argument to make them all go through the hellish period of school together, which is perfectly encapsulated in one of my most loved speeches of all times. When leading Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 5th April 1968, Robert F Kennedy (then Presidential candidate) delivered a speech that reflected on what it meant to live in a diverse society. A few excerpts from ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ are reproduced below:

“For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short span of life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hated or revenge.

 Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

 But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

 Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

If you still don’t get it, watch Remember the Titans now!

Notes –

  1. Summary Analysis of the Supreme Court decision by PRS legislative Research –
  2. The RTE Act: A cruel and unusual punishment, Firstpost –
  3. Let’s stop pretending there’s no racism in India, The Hindu –
  4. Full-extract of ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ speech by Robert F Kennedy, John F Kennedy, Presidential Library and Museum –

Why the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme Volunteers should buy Life Insurance

On 13 September 2011, Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh announced a brave initiative called the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme. The Ministry of Home Affairs has identified 60 districts as Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) affected areas, in lieu of which the PMRDF plans to ‘deploy’ around 180 Fellows comprising of working professionals from private organizations and fresh graduates from fields of law, management and medicine to assist the District Collectors in better civic administration for the Maoist/Naxalite ‘infested’ areas.

The Ministry of Rural Development plans on rewarding the Fellows handsomely. For the 2 year contractual agreement that the Fellows will be working in these areas, each will be paid Rs. 65,000 per month for the first year and Rs. 75,000 the next.

Besides waking up late to the developmental agenda for these zones, the MRD’s official website makes no secret of the fact that PMRDF is launched with the hopes of weaning the influence of the Naxalites amongst the tribal villagers. It’s a tough task to eliminate from public memory the fact that the Naxalites re-distributed more than 3,00,000 acres of forest land amongst the tribal villagers in Dandakaranya(covering parts of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) over the course of their revolution.

I’m not skeptical about the PMRDF. If anything, my respect for Jairam Ramesh has notched higher every time he has walked the tight-rope of sustainable development with a lot of sensitivity to its ramifications on human rights. As Union Minister for Environment and Forests he protected the villagers of Orissa from Posco’s forced land acquisitions, prevented large-scale environmental degradation and displacement of the Kondhs in Orissa due to unbridled mining and saved the people of India from a harmful, genetically modified brinjal. For all that and more, the people ought to be proud of Ramesh for steering our ‘growth-story’ in the right direction.

But I have serious misgivings about the success of PMRDF. The timing couldn’t be more wrong.

Due to the pressure exerted by various groups of human rights activists and public intellectuals, the Home Minister had earlier maintained that the Government is always ready for ‘peace talks’. After several overtures on behalf of the Naxalites to drop weapons and come to the table, the Home Ministry had a sudden change of heart and went in an over-drive with “rendering the Naxalite movement headless”. With fake encounters of two senior politburo members, Cherukuri Rajkumar and Koteswara Rao (alias Kishanji), not only has the Government lost all its credibility, but also an opportunity to mediate with the “gravest internal security threat” toIndia. And if the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee’s latest press release after Kishanji’s encounter is anything to go by, the Naxalites consider Jairam Ramesh a collaborator of the Home Minister’s agenda too.

In such a climate of hostility, the PMRDF is nothing short of a suicide-mission. It’s alright to say that the working professionals and graduates who’ll be employed in these conflict-zones have squat to do with the decades of dispossession suffered by the tribals and are coming in as Good Samaritans, and thus we must expect, nay, demand immunity for them from the violence prevalent in the LWE affected areas. In the event that they’re caught in the cross-fire between the State and the Naxalites, it would be arrogant to support the Government’s plan for on an all-out offensive on the Naxalites. (Just a thought – Can the Indian State be so callous that the PMRDF has been engineered in a fashion to sway public opinion in the government’s favour in the event of guerilla attacks?)

This is war. You don’t start re-building the battleground right in the middle of the war. I hope that the 180 individuals who’ll be selected for the Fellowship know what they’re getting into. I personally love this idea of committing two years of your life in an exercise of nation building the way Gandhi saw village-level independence and be handsomely paid for it too; when was the last time fresh graduates felt so valued in a government job then a private one? But I don’t see myself going there anytime soon. As long as this ‘threat’ persists, which even Jairam Ramesh identifies as a socio-economic crisis emerging out of government apathy for decades, it is not only dangerous, but also insensitive to tread on this path considering the degree of distrust between the tribal villagers and the government. Never the less, I would be the happiest person if proven wrong, to see the civil administration successfully ‘winning hearts and minds’ of our tribal communities. Until then, if you’re heroic enough to participate in the PMRDF, you might as well buy yourself some Life Insurance. It’s just good sense.

My two cents: Chidambaram and Ganpathy really need to sit down over a bowl of ant chutney and have a heart-to-heart.

(The descriptions Naxal and Maoist are used inter-changeably in the article. The Maoist struggle as we know it today, has its origins in 1960s Naxalbari, a small village in Darjeeling, Paschimbanga.)

Whose sin is it anyway?

Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, visited KC College in Mumbai on 6th January 2012 to manufacture consent on the subject of legalizing a class of bribes amongst many ideas for readying India for the global stage.

 Many Indians responded with anger when Basu first made this statement a few months ago, in the light of the brewing 2G spectrum scandal. This was soon followed by the czar of the Indian IT industry, Narayan Muthy, giving credence to Basu’s idea and promoting it. There was more anger. It certainly did not help the situation when Law Minister Salman Khurshid, on the SC rejecting the bail pleas for the 2G spectrum case accused, remarked that institutions of  the government had to factor in the “political-economy” that we are faced with today, lest it would have a freezing effect on our investor relations.

 I was very angry at this absurd suggestion too. I wanted to disprove it as much as I wanted P Chidambaram to discontinue as our Home Minister. So when Kaushik Basu published an initial paper on his new theory on his website, I thought it a good opportunity to do some homework. After all, we’re supposed to be living in the age of reason, so let’s try and discuss the merits and de-merits of this “out of the box” idea.


 Harassment Bribes

Basu begins the paper with the premise that a disproportionate amount of cases of bribery that take place between government officials and a private person (here, person shall mean a citizens well as organizations) are harassment bribes. For example, a person goes to register his land titles and the government official won’t budge unless he gets some chai-paani.

What Basu states is that, as per the proposed legislation the bribe-giver be given total immunity in lieu of his coerced bribe-offer, and the government official be fined to pay back twice the amount of money that accounted as the bribe money. Hence, once the act of bribery is done, and as per the proposed legislation, the interests of the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are at a divergence. If apprehended, the bribe giver will have total immunity from prosecution as he was coerced into giving a bribe, while the bribe-taker faces a hefty punishment.

Since a bribe giver is immune from prosecution and is likely to co-operate with the investigating officials in getting the guilty government official caught, this creates a psychological barrier in the mind of the potential bribe-taker to ask for bribes, hence significantly reducing instances of corruption, argues Basu.

The most patronizing part of Basu’s paper is where he imagines that once the proposed law comes into force, the aam-aadmi will record some evidence of the bribery – a secret photo or jotting down numbers on the currency notes handed over and so – so that the victim can immediately turn in the evidence for swift action. Do we really need a new law to motivate us to be more proactive in being more diligent while dealing with government officials? What’s stopping us now from doing that?

Institutional details

Basu then goes on to critique the existing anti-corruption law in the country, The Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The overtones of the language in the paper clearly suggest Basu’s disapproval of the Act considering the act of giving a bribe as abetment of the offence of bribery.

Section 12 of the POCA 1988, the provision that punishes offences described u/s. 7 or 11, goes as follows –

“Whoever abets any offence punishable under section 7 or section 11 whether or not that offence is committed in consequence of that abetment, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall be not less than six months but which may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine”.

S.7 and S.11 deal with acts of public servant when they accept gratification or a valuable thing for an official act.

S. 24 of the POCA, 1988 states the exception to the rule of prosecution for punishing acts of bribery, and goes as follows –

“Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force, a statement made by a person in any proceeding against a public servant for an offence under sections 7 to 11 or under section 13 or section 15, that he offered or agreed to offer any gratification (other than legal remuneration) or any valuable thing to the public servant, shall not subject such person to a prosecution under section 12”.

Basu is gracious enough to cite this provision, and it is exactly at this point in the paper that you begin to see through the propaganda. When there’s already a provision of law (S. 24 above) that protects a bribe-giver in instances of harassment bribes in a situation when he is willing to turn a witness for the prosecution, then why do we need a new law that presumes all government babus to be corrupt and give the benefit of the doubt to the aam-janata? It’s just good politics, silly! The government loves to act like the Messiah who gave power to the people. By reposing such faith in the incorruptibility of the ordinary citizen, the government is running a massive disinformation campaign to engineer a citizen versus the government official revolt, the results for which are likely to climax in a big agenda election campaign.

Non-Harassment Bribes

Basu then goes on to discuss the occasional cases of non-harassment bribes, where the bribe giver benefits from offering a bribe to the government official as he has something substantial to gain. Should the bribe giver be given full immunity be given in such cases? His answer is ‘No’.

This proposed law will have to answer a big question – how does the prosecution come to the conclusion that ‘harassment’ occurred or not? Does it get any more circumstantial than this? Will this new law make it easier for persons like those accused in the 2G spectrum case to get away because of the presumption of guilt going against the public official? The current procedure of following the due process of law in determining the guilt of the accused only after a thorough investigation is our best bet, for the offence of corruption has surpassed the categorization of a ‘white collar crime” due to its pervasiveness in our system. We need to consider both the parties, the bibe-giver as well as the bribe-taker as equally guilty.

This brings us to Basu’s bias against the public servant. He advances the argument while discussing non-harassment bribes that the punishment meted out to the bribe-giver should be substantially lesser than that given to the bribe-taker, as the public servant is tasked with the moral responsibility of being the guardian of public resources, hence his punishment should be more severe. So in Basu’s world there is no such thing as Big Industry “lobbying” with the governments. He just came short of suggesting that A Raja bullied Ratan Tata into paying up a bribe. What’s interesting to note here is that the hierarchy of the act of bribery reverses when you go from the bottom to the top. As middle-class citizens, many of us would be aware of the reluctance of the authorities to act unless offered some chai-pani(it’s disgusting how the popular reference for bribes in our national language has come to mean money for basic sustenance), while it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine A Raja arm-twisting Ratan Tata into stashing away crores of rupees in NGOs managed by him and his family members. With the 2G scandal investigations and trial it is now amply clear how a PR Executive(that designation commonly passes for a lobbyist) orchestrated political negotiations between the Congress and the DMK to allow A Raja to occupy the seat of the Minister of Communications and Information Technology. In Basu’s worldview when Eve accepted the Devil’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, it is Eve alone that shall be punished for her sins. We need to factor in the “political-economy” of the situations in which these acts were committed, and have quick reforms to deter Eve from succumbing to temptation again. Let the Devil run amok, that’s okay.

Just as the public servant is tasked with the moral responsibility of protecting public resources, shouldn’t it be our moral responsibility too, to not abet the breach of such responsibility? I guess that is a whole different debate how we as an increasingly “developed” society demand our Rights, but shirk off our Duties.


Basu suggests that if the proposed law comes into existence it will also make it difficult for the serial-briber to operate. It moves ahead on another preposterous presumption that the serial briber now will have to weigh the cost of:

a)      Loss of credibility amongst the corrupt circle of officials with whom he lobbied with to get his plans to fruition; against

b)      The gain of getting his money.

I certainly don’t think so that Basu is ignorant of the modus operandi for such shoddy deals, with a new category of agents coming into effect to safeguard the high and mighty, in exchange for some big compensation for the big sacrifice they’re willing to make – the ubiquitous fall guy. All our notorious Prime Ministers have survived their terms by ‘activating’ a sleeper-agent whenever it suits their interests. Manmohan Singh would himself be the greatest case-study on this subject.

Basu’s game theory can be turned on it’s own head, where he says that human ingenuity is so great that no matter how many plugs we put into to stop corruption, people will almost invariably find a way around it. If the instances of high-level bribes continue plague the system, it will be inspite of this law, not despite it.

Notes – 

1. See Kaushik Basu’s paper on “Why, for a class of bribes, the act of giving the bribe should be treated as legal” –


2. Unblanking the Tapes, Outlook cover-story –

V for Vedanta

I watched Avatar this afternoon, and it reminded me of a long-forgotten blog I was supposed to do which got delayed because of college and work; but here it is now. Maybe now I know better to enable me to write on this subject.

As the expression goes, ‘Get them early’, I would recommend all parents to treat their kids for a screening of Avatar as soon as possible. Of course the expression is abused often to teach our kids all kinds of things way too early – sexism, racism, greed, passing on Ayn Rand’s gift to the world-virtues of being selfish et cetera; all things necessary to win in this world, because after all Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest  has a blanket application to every specimen on this planet, and we are all specimens.

When I first watched Avatar, i marvelled at its brilliance. No, i am not referring to it’s trippy visual effects or even the pro-environment message,  i am talking about it’s India-connection. As i left the theatre-hall i discussed with my friend if James Cameron had any inkling as to what his movie has the power to do for the gravest internal security threat in the country. Before we try and  generalize Avatar as a theme of good versus evil, lets look at the avatars of good and evil that the agents take in the film.

Inspired by the motion picture Avatar, this file photo shows protesters from NGOs Survival International, Action Aid and Amnesty International gathered outside Vedanta Resources' Annual General meeting in London.

In mineral rich Pandora, hundreds of indigenous tribes people are battling to stop RDA Corporation from extracting unobtanium from underneath what they say are their sacred sites including the Tree of Souls. Now, if i have to make a conservative guess, and i say this well-meaningly, i’d say a majority of the people who saw the movie rooted for the Na’vi to protect their homeland from the mineral-hungry industrialists(if you are one of those few who rooted for the RDA, please recognize that you have issues to deal with and see a shrink as soon as possible). And i rooted for the Na’vi too, not only because there is a human story behind all the magical special-effects, but because as an Indian I feel more empathetic to their plight as we have Avatar playing day in and day out in our country in the mineral-rich jungles of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. And what riles me up most is that while the crowds lap up the jingoism as Tarok Macto avenges the destruction and loss caused by the industrial race, but soon as they walk out of the theatre-halls, they display utter disdain to the Maoist/Naxalite struggle. Are movies just meant to entertain? Or is there more to Alan Moore’s quote from V for Vendetta – “artists use lies to tell the truth” ? Why else would Survival International, Amnesty International and Action Aid organize demonstrations outside Vedanta  Resources’ HQ in London in 2010, while the champions of industry discussed profits from the last fiscal year within?

Let’s focus on what’s been happening in our country. In impoverished but mineral-rich Orissa, hundreds of indigenous tribes people are battling to stop London-listed Vedanta Alumina Limited from extracting bauxite from what they say is their sacred mountain, the Niyamgiri Hills.

Could this be any more obvious?

What i would like people to understand, and hope that the movie would awaken them to, is that there is no reason to shy away from admitting to yourself that our  governments can be as avaricious and evil as any villain in the best of the dystopian movies we’ve seen. And Avatar is doing just that for contextualizing the Naxalite struggle – forced exploitation and deprivation boomeranging back as reactionary violence – you get the gist. Seldom do events come by when they surpass their own being and skyrocket to popularity because it rings with  the popular sentiment of an angry and frustrated longing for making some sense of the world, and that is why Avatar, at least for us Indians, is not just a movie. If only more artists would realize the power of connecting society by art, they’d be humbled by their responsibility. Was Woodstock about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll?

Let’s see why the movie provides much food for the Indian soul. First of all, the logic as furthered by many a viewer that Indians aren’t as moved by the movie on another level as others around the world because they fail to appreciate the exotica of their own indigenous tribals enough to root for them, is utter hogwash!!! What do you suggest then? Convert all the men and women of the Republic of India into Middle-Earth trotting creatures to milk sympathy out of Good Samaritans to save our lives?

Dongria Kondh tribe members protest against Vedanta

Has India's gravest internal security threat issue turned into a slug-fest of exotica one-upmanship?

Secondly, i don’t think  Indians realize that the situation on ground-zero in the Naxalite-dominated forests is much worse than they can imagine from Avatar. Certainly stories of systematic rape and authorities shitting in the locals’ wells to demoralize them and cut-off their supplies, all for grabbing their mineral-rich lands to be turned over to mining corporations didn’t make it to the reels of Avatar. Maybe what could help is an acquaintance with the native tribals of Orissa who’re under imminent threat from Vedanta Alumina and Posco, for their ancestral forest lands are up for grabs to be turned over for industrial production – which is what i shall attempt to do. The forthcoming material is sourced from the Report of the Four Member Committee For Investigation into the Proposal Submitted by the Orissa Mining Company For Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri, prepared by Dr. N C Saxena, Dr S Parusaraman, Dr Promode Kant and Dr Amita Baviskar that they submitted to the MoEF on 16th August 2010, that is also open for public reading online. This study, i believe, shall put to rest a lot of myths.

***The forested slopes of Niyamgiri Hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the Central Government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection under the Constitution of India. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is estimated at 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution enjoins the Government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes, which consequently applies to the entire Niyamgiri Hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.

Now this is where fact and fantasy converge. In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease(PML) area is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja – the giver of law. At a clearing at the foot of Niyamgiri, hundreds of Kondh tribes people gather to worship the mountain god who provides them with food, water, shelter, medicine and livelihood. They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. All the Dongaria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).

The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia(ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri(urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.

With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resources satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only 4 households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage. (This is one of the most important rebuttals to the “Growth Story’ tellers of Indian Inc., who presume that tribals yearn to share a piece of the modern Indian growth-pie, when in fact, we have absolutely nothing that they need to have fuller lives. One of the reasons why the farmers in Singur agitated when Tata Motors bought their agricultural land in exchange for wage-labour to manufacture cars in 2008, is because they were perfectly content with having a self-sufficient economic model working for them, whereas had Tata Motors not yielded to their demands, they’d be subjugated to private contractual obligations and lost total independence. The business class perceives this sentiment as being anti-development or backward, when in fact we need to stop, stare and introspect our urban lives in gross contrast to the tribes of Orissa who have realized a sacred relationship with nature and co-exist in a symbiotic system, where one does not feed off the other, but provides for the other).

The Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating(lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger are their most popular produces. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.

The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy.

The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom the Committee spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8,000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor(Not too shabbs!). Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.

The Dongaria Kondh the Committee met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As one Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”***

The Committee established beyond any doubt that the area proposed for mining lease and the surrounding thick forests are the cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Dongaria Kondh. The Forest Conservation Act recognizes these rights and these facts are undisputed. The Orissa Govt. has to formalize the procedures of ascertaining forest rights claims of the indigenous communities and the rejection of the claims of the Primitive Tribal Groups on any grounds is illegal on part of divisional or sub-divisional committees. Based on this the Committee recommended the  Govt. of India to withdraw its clearance to the proposed project.

Pest Control?

One of the most glaring examples of the collusion between government authorities and the private mining corporations is evident from the Report’s find that Vedanta Alumina Ltd had already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six-fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per the requirements of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 0f 2006 under the Environment Protection Act. This illegal and gigantic expansionist strategy of the corporation shows its disregard for the laws of the country; but that disregard pales in comparison to the unimaginable wanton damage that would be caused to the ecosystem in Orissa had no one apprehended it.

Enter Rahul Gandhi(that expression seems tailor-made for him considering  how frequently and unsolicitedly he drops in and out of opportune events). For months on we read in the papers about the determined resistance of the Dongaria Kondhs and how for the first time the Central Government was in a pickle because non-violent adivasis were protesting against the land sharks, when in comes Rahul Gandhi and steals their show…i mean, how desperate is he for attention? How needy is this guy? Though i understand where he’s coming from…people have gotten to hate UPA-II so much for all their corruption-happy ways, he has to stoop to the level of wrestling with the Kondhs for sharing credit in getting the MoEF to reconsider the clearance given to Vedanta in Orissa and ultimately rejecting it. All this pro-aam aadmi posturing shall last so long as he’s campaigning to be the next PM. Soon as he’s elected, he’ll be surrounded by a coterie of Ivy-League educated lawyers and managers who will more likely than not ignore domestic issues and concentrate on consolidating India’s position as the rising economic-power. How then will he defend his pro-adivasi stance to his investor friends in the US/EU? I’m not sure if Rahul Gandhi suffers from selective-amnesia or not, but that must be why he never apprehended Mahendra Karma for disbanding the Salwa Judum, an armed civilian-vigilante group of upper-caste villagers and landlords in Chattisgarh who were trained to fight and resist “Naxalites”, created by the Congress’ Chattisgarh MLA, considering how much power he wields on policy-making within the Congress without holding any portfolio within the Government. In July 2011, in the matter of Nandini Sundar and Ors. v. the State of Chattisgarh the Supreme Court has since declared the Salaw Judum to be unconstitutional and asked for it to be disbanded immediately. But you’ve got to appreciate the poetry in the name they chose for the illegal militia – Purification Hunt for purifying the state of those who choose to resist the state in acquiring their resources and uprooting their livelihoods for the sake of turning them over to private interests for our ‘growing economy’, in exchange for pittance. The compensation the rural folk receive for forcefully giving up their lands is a steal. Perhaps the most serious indictment of the collusion between private corporations and the government is the Ministry of Rural Development’s draft report of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, and i quote:

A civil war like situation has gripped the Southern districts of Bastar, Dantewada and Bijapur in Chattisgarh. The contestants are the armed squads of tribal men and women of the erstwhile People’s War Group now known as the Communist Party of India(Maoist) on the one side and the armed tribal fighters of the Salwa Judum created and encouraged by the government and supported with the firepower and organization of the Central Police Forces. This open declared war will go down as the biggest land grab ever since Columbus, if it plays out as per the script. The drama being scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel who wanted 7 villages or thereabouts, each to mine the richest lode of iron ore in India…Behind them(Salwa Judum) are the traders, contractors and miners waiting for a successful result of their strategy. The first financiers of the Salwa Judum were Tata and Essar Steel in the quest for ‘peace‘. The first onslaught of the Salwa Judum was on the Muria villagers who still owed an allegiance to the CPI(Maoist)…640 villages as per official statistics were laid bare…3,50,000 tribals are displaced, their women folk raped, daughters killed and youth maimed…Villages sitting on tonnes of iron-ore are effectively de-peopled and available for the highest bidder…Essar and Tata Steel are willing to take over the empty landscape and manage the mines.”

The final report of the MRD has conveniently edited out the inconvenient truths that could potentially kill India Inc’s image on the global stage. I can imagine that the Tatas and Ruias won’t be jumping with joy with corporate-genocide on their resume.

Let’s not forget that the current Home Minister, whose main job it is to ensure the security of the nation, and who is mainly in news for his hardliner approach in dealing with the Naxalites, what with deploying the CRPF men in areas of Chhattisgarh and the Maharashtra border-district of Gadchiroli earlier, or now bringing in the army in Chhattisgarh since June 2011, served on the Board of Directors for Vedanta Resources Ltd. and also provided legal representation to them until his job as the Finance Minister in 2004. Is it hard to imagine that P Chidambaram is karmically-indebted to his friends in the mining industry; ‘cleansing the forests’ of Chattisgarh  at their behest?

If mining is permitted on this site, not only will it be illegal but will also destroy the most sacred site for the Kondhs; centuries-old trees, hundreds of species of plants with medicinal properties, endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods and scores of perennial streams which flow down the mountain will be lost, say activists. Our Constitution enjoins us with a special duty to protect our tribals as it considers us developed enough to be responsible for them; developed in the sense of evolved human beings, not industrialized . Everytime we fail to protect the meek, we destroy the idea of India that we pride ourselves for; a country where multi-culturism never found it hard to make a place. For those who doubt India’s ability to uphold multi-culturism, remember, Hindu and Muslim villagers from in and around Ayodhya themselves never had any issues with the alleged existence of the Babri Masjid over Ram janmabhoomi. 

Let us salute the brave protesters from the tribal villages of Bhubaneshwar, Orissa in their peaceful struggle to reclaim their lands and yet again show to the world that the idea of justice can kick big money in it’s face…even $12 billion  of it!

Villagers and their children lie at the proposed site of a $12 billion steel plant by South Korea's POSCO during a protest in Orissa June 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

(The descriptions Naxal and Maoist are used inter-changeably in the article. The Maoist struggle as we know it today, has its origins in 1960s Naxalbari, a small village in Darjeeling, Paschimbanga.)

Notes – 

1. Report of the Four Member Committee For Investigation into the Proposal Submitted by the Orissa Mining Company For Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri:

2. Judgement of the Supreme Court in the matter of Nandini Sundar & Ors. versus State of Chattisgarh –

3. Ministry of Rural Development’s draft report of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, Vol. 1, March 2009 –

Fear and Loathing in Hindustan

Joseph Lelyveld, an ex-NYT Editor, has attracted a lot of flak recently from various quarters of the Indian society(correction: the Hindu Fundamentalist society), for a book he recently authored on Mohandas K Gandhi. Lelyveld’s book is the result of pouring over extensive records of correspondences that Gandhi exchanged with his friends staying in South Africa and Germany after he returned to India in 1914. His controversial find? That Gandhi might have had too much of a soft-corner for his German friend, Hermann Kallenbach, as the careful reading of the letters suggest, Gandhi was gay…at most, bi-sexual!

This is tantamount to blasphemy according to Indian standards. Very sadly, when it comes to unflinching, political commentary on national leaders in India, there is a silent code of self-censorship that a great majority of us exercise, all ingrained by overt acts of violence, threats and divine displeasure that is directed at outspoken citizens by politicians. The Congress as well as the BJP are deft at creating demi-gods of their senior leaders; and once the mythological heroes have mounted the tree-stumps, they develop a protective sheath around them, that manifests itself either in the form of swashbuckling, saffron-decked fanatics who swear by the BJP’s ideology of a Hindutva nationalism of a by-gone era, or a coterie of Ivy League-educated lawyers and managers who spew jargon to confuse and threaten the Indian electorate while keeping it content with the ‘prospects of a globalized world’ . Of course, then there’s those of us who choose to monitor ourselves, despite being better-off than the vulnerable majority, for no other reason than utter lack of moral courage.

Several people from the sports and entertainment industry, apart from the political class, have chosen to speak out on Lelyveld’s attempt to ‘besmirch’ the Mahatma’s reputation. Let us reserve our commentary here to the responses of three primary ‘persons of interest’, if I may, to the issue at hand here, and really try to analyze the problem.

Person of interest – Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the State of Gujrat

In Gandhi’s birthplace, which once held the promise to be the cradle of many ideas of an independent India, ideas which now seem to be relegated to the proverbial dustbin, Narendra Modi was quick to retaliate the very next day the book was announced in the Indian media. Modi spoke of how ‘saddened’ he was to watch somebody ‘humiliate’ a world icon who influenced people globally in the better hope of a peaceful world. As a self-appointed custodian of Indian values, Modi launched into his rhetoric of how Lelyveld had ‘offended’ Indian sentiments by ‘defaming’ an international icon. He then threatened on pursuing legal action against Lelyveld for ‘defamation’. Next step, he maneuvered his State machinery to ban the sale, distribution, publication and broadcast of the book, and even lobbied with the Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily on proposing a country-wide ban on the book, which shockingly, the Minister connived to. Modi’s famous for being a prompt decision-maker and tough administrator – like in 2002 when he and his friends from the BJP led a murderous mob in Godhra and committed  genocide against Muslims.

Person of interest – Manvendra Singh Gohil, openly-gay member of the royal family of former Princely State of Rajpipla

Manvendra’s ordeal of coming to terms with his own homosexuality and finally coming out to his family in his 40s is something that obviously made him speak up in this case, though not necessarily in its favour. He’s well-known for his contributions to the LGBT community in India; he established the Lakshya Trust in Gujrat which educates people of the LGBT community on HIV/AIDS, and has already added a hospice centre which caters to senior citizens globally. As India’s second-most famous openly-gay personality after Ashok Row Kavi, Manvendra spoke up against ‘irresponsible practices’ in journalism and how one needs to be ‘delicate’ when dealing with history while he also invoked that shaky bogey that is ‘public sentiments’.

Peeling the Onion – We couldn’t have asked for two better people for commenting on this ‘burning issue’, one diametrically opposite from the other, for reasons of morality, of course, and yet there is a disturbing conformity to their reactions.

I have a problem with the way this entire episode has shaped up for either ulterior reasons, or much less, with much greater prejudices and bigotry under the surface. What is Modi really saying when he ‘defends’ Gandhi against Lelyveld’s imputation of homosexuality to him? What is Manvendra being apologetic for when he begs writers to be more careful with history, lest they offend public morality? Is everyone missing the obvious here, that at the most Lelyveld could be guilty of perversion of history if his research proves to be less than authentic? Or are they? This collective-hurt of the majority of the society on ‘defaming’ Gandhi; what does it really say about us?

Allow me to quote from one of the best pop-culture references that is the film Philadelphia, where Joe Miller defends his client Andrew Beckett against a wrongful dismissal for being homosexual –

“Because this case is not just about AIDS, is it? So lets talk about what this case is really all about: the general public’s hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual”.

So the AIDS is the notion of a gay Gandhi in this story. How great is that?

The Delhi High Court’s judgment in the matter of Naz Foundation v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi & Ors. in 2009 as it read down a part of S. 377 of the Indian Penal Code that formerly criminalized consensual acts of sodomy between men, thus outlawing homosexuality, was a landmark judgement that spelled an evolution in India’s progress towards protecting individual freedoms and liberties. More importantly, what Chief Justice A P Shah and Justice S Muralidhar need to be celebrated for is their pronouncement that homosexuality is not a physical or psychological aberration, but in fact a natural expression of an alternative sexuality, and it was finally time to rid the  homosexual community of the notion of being unapprehended criminals and proudly embrace their identities. The Judiciary finally reconciled with the boastful history of sex in India as is depicted at the Khajuraho Temples. Hell, if the highly graphic erotica at Khajuraho is anything to go by, the Delhi bench would have to read down the entire S. 377, which currently forbids buggery and bestiality.

The point is, it has been two great years since another weight of guilt has been lifted from India’s collective conscience, but discriminatory sexual-profiling is still rampant. Consider the case of the Aligarh Muslim University Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. Siras was expelled in February 2010 because a group students on campus unlawfully recorded him having consensual sex with another man and showed it to the authorities at AMU. Having consensual sex in the confines of your own apartment apparently is a shocking scandal that no institute of great repute can tolerate, that merited Siras’ expulsion. It gets worse. The media kept reporting that Siras was with an auto-rickshaw puller when he was caught in the act. I’m not sure if it is the media or the AMU that chose this narrative, but it reeks of fascist classism. How does it matter if Siras was in bed with an auto-rickshaw puller or the Dean of AMU?  Siras died two months after the incident. Unlawful gross breach of privacy, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and classist – looks like the AMU has blood on it’s hands.

"I spent two decades here. I love my university. I have always loved it and will continue to do so no matter what. But i wonder if they have stopped loving me because i am gay."

If Modi considers himself to be a guardian of Indian morality, he is sadly very delusional. He must not confuse his electoral victories as the the electorate’s declaration of him as a great leader. Sure enough, he’s turned around the developmental scene in Gujrat – revenue for the state by roping in big corporate, employment and an endorsement by Amitabh Bachchan(a big-time sell-out…very, very shameful!) – but does that compensate for all the gross abuse of human rights that his government is responsible for? He’s even barred from travelling to USA and Canada, in recognition of his roles in inciting riots and genocide against Muslims. But the US is contemplating a classic turn-around on this commitment as Modi is projected to be the next Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP, and claims of an industrial revolution in Gujrat are having a Pavlovian-effect on Washington.

Truth is, against all likelihood of gay rights soon being recognized all over India, it drove a stake of fear right through Modi’s heterosexual-supremacist heart in coming to terms with the fact that soon he would have free men who love men walking unabashedly on the streets of Gujrat…unless he created an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance to send out a message, the message being that to be even considered gay, is a slap on the face, an abomination, a disgrace, a disrepute – hence the smooth transition from perversion of history to defamation in attacking not just Lelyveld’s book, but homosexuals as well. Modi’s words and actions are outright un-Constitutional, in that they’re violative of the freedom of speech and expression and the right to life.

I am also surprised at Manvendra’s timid reaction. Notwithstanding his contribution to the LGBT community and appearing on Oprah, I expected him to be the first one to point out the utter irrelevancy of the issue of defamation in this case, as anyone who brings defamation and homosexuality together is suggesting that homosexuality is a debasement, a lowering of reputation, something disgusting or something that shocks the conscience of society – all of which has been ruled against in the Delhi HC’s 2009 judgement, wherein it upholds homosexuality just as natural as heterosexuality. Where’s your gay-pride, Manvendra?

Person of interest – Tushar Gandhi, Founder of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Grandson of M  K Gandhi

Tushar Gandhi has lived up to the reputation of belonging to a lineage that chooses swaraj over slavery, be it from the colonialism of the British, or the corrupted ideologies that Indian leaders now promote. I applaud him for reacting to the situation with the dignity and intelligence that we beg for in our national leaders, when he said ‘How does it matter whether Bapu was straight, gay or bi-sexual? Each time he would still be the same man who led India towards freedom‘.

Think about it – Would Leonardo da Vinci’s art be anymore/less beautiful had he been heterosexual? Would Elton John’s music be anymore/less wonderful had he been heterosexual? Would Edward Norton’s movies be anymore/lesser great had he been homosexual? Would Noam Chomsky’s political commentary be anymore/less thought-provoking had he been homosexual? Would Tina Fey be anymore/less funny had she been homosexual? Would Gandhi’s ideas be anymore/less revolutionary had he been homosexual?

Even as sixteen year old sexually frustrated teens, when we watched Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as part of our history lessons at school, for all his talk on civil disobedience and self-rule, we sniggered everytime Gandhi appeared semi-naked in the company of his female devotees…even worse, sleeping with some of them in the same bed to test his avowed celibacy. We told ourselves, ‘This is why you want to become great, so that one day you can fool them into sleeping with you under the pretenses of attempting to unlock some hidden human potential’. Let’s presume without admitting that Gandhi whored around with these women. Obviously that doesn’t make him the best husband in the world, but failing that, does he automatically also fail the test of a humanitarian who pushed the boundaries of peace like no one had attempted before? In effect, are character and chastity mutually exclusive ideas? It also brings up one of my favourite unresolved topics – Do great humanitarians make great humans themselves? (just by the way, the not so great part about Gandhi that i’m talking of refers to his difficult relationship with his wife, Kasturba, not his ambiguous sexuality)

Modi’s initial reaction, which might’ve well been shared by a vast majority, was that of ghastliness as he tried to make semblance of the book that dared to ‘disrobe’ a great figure; one who inspired many by demonstrating that peace can have an audience too. Let us try and imagine a homosexual Gandhi. I am not positing Gandhi’s sexual orientation, I am merely asking you to and try and reconcile the two seemingly divergent Gandhis – Mahatma and homosexual, in an attempt to appreciate the difference between character and chastity. Would the course of the independence struggle and post-independent India be any different had he been gay?

If only Gandhi was openly gay or bisexual, we wouldn’t be coming out on the streets today, now would we?

Notes – 

1. State of Gujrat declaring an unqualified ban on Great Soul –

2. Judgment of Delhi High Court in the matter of Naz Foundation v. Governemnt of NCT of Delhi & Ors –

3. Prof. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras’ ordeal as reported in The Hindu –