Bhagwati Denies Communalism

Jagdish Bhagwati in an interview with Barkha Dutta (Source: NDTV website)

 

Jagdish Bhagwati’s opinions aired on NDTV and his op-ed in LiveMint are both laughable and obnoxious.

In the op-ed he begins with the classic Friend Argument. Talking about how his family and friends are ‘minorities’ and how that makes him “pro-minorities”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

He then goes on to use the not-all-Hindus rhetoric, painting a picture of the likes of Mohan Bhagwat (who controls the biggest Hindutva group, the parent organisation of the ruling party, and not to mention the fact that he is the mentor of the Prime Minister) as being outliers among Hindus. He also denies that the Modi government has any responsibility over nutjobs like Bhagwat. While I do not think that every single Hindu is responsible for Bhagwat or the attacks, shrugging them off as fringe elements, when they clearly are not (especially when they are afforded generous platforms in national public TV and radio by the present government), is at best irresponsible and at worst enabling of such lunatics.

Then he has the nerve to ask Christians to “relax”, while denying communal motivation in any of the church attacks. His only reference for the denial being Rupa Subramanya (yes, the same person who shrugged off untouchability as a matter of hygiene), whose “admirable investigative report” is nothing but an anthology of police statements which she gulped down as facts without any questions asked.

Then he ends it all with such nuggets as Hinduism is “inclusive, not exclusive” and “… why did (Ambedkar) not pick Islam or Christianity? He instead picked Buddhism because Buddhism is not into conversion in the way in which these two religions are.”

Jagdish Bhagwati is what you get when you combine Hindu pride with neo-liberalism, and articulate it in academic mediocrity and dishonesty. It’s pathetic!

Looking at the Civilising Mission in the Mirror

With full disclosure, I am against the proposed ban on Leslee Udwin’s film; at the same time not a big fan of the film myself. But, I am not here to talk about the film. I am here to say why the positions taken by many of the Indian detractors of the film, um well, annoys me.

A few days ago, Kavita Krishnan wrote an open letter declaring that “we” don’t need a civilising mission. Reading the very title two questions came to my mind. 1. What does she mean when she says we, and 2. who or what does she think is the civilising mission? The answer to the first is quite clear. By using “we” in her statement, she has constructed an identity that clubs herself with the nation’s most underprivileged and everyone in between, and at the same time makes herself and her company at AIPWA (and by extension the larger liberal and left intellectual and activist class of India) representatives of the entirety of India. This leads us to the second question: who does she think constitutes the civilising mission? Reading the opinion piece, the impression one gets is that the BBC, Udwin, and the entire neo-imperial West form and drive the civilising mission, as an extension of the colonial “white man’s burden”. So to put it simply, Krishnan thinks of herself as part of the Third World India standing up against the First World cultural hegemony.

There is a big irony here, illustrated by the fact that she is one of the activists featured (that too very prominently as compared to the rest) in the film. I can’t help but wonder, if the civilising thing ever occurred to her when she agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers, knowing that it’s a British production primarily supported by none other than the BBC. This irony in the film is representative of the delusional stand that is taken by many post-colonial intellectuals and activists, including Krishnan. The delusion being that they believe themselves to be different or rather outside the colonial/neo-colonial system they so vehemently oppose. And it is this delusion that leads Krishnan and her comrades to distance themselves from the civilising mission, not realising the fact that they are very much the part of it. Let us not forget that this is the same Kavita Krishnan who admonished the many Dalit activists of the country, for speaking up against the appropriation of Ambedkar by Arundhati Roy and S. Anand’s Navayana, by conflating their discourse with the rabid nationalists and Hindutvavadis. She always acted like the missionary of civilisation, and continues to do so with her use of “we”.

But she is part of the larger class of urban bourgeois Savarnas, who are beneficiaries of the neo-colonial system, who speak, write and think in the colonial language, and who have no problem with dissecting, studying and judging the spaces of the “subaltern” (while leaving the spaces that they occupy untouched and pristine). They are the ones who go around the West talking about the problems ‘back home’, they are the ones who get featured in newspapers and documentaries of the West, and they are the ones who have the gall to represent the many subalterns of this country and fight for them (Note: And there should be no doubt that I belong to this class).

The Savarna bourgeois of this country very clearly needs to snap out of our delusions and need to wake up to the harsh reality that we are part and parcel of the same colonial and capitalist systems and institutions. Like a male feminist fighting against patriarchy, there is nothing wrong in attacking the system that is essentially ours. But the bare least we must do is to start acknowledging the privileges we acquire from it and contextualise our ideological and normative positions with the relational positions of our self. For that, our class as a collective needs to reflect.

A Male Feminist’s Dilemma

So yesterday I was faced with a big dilemma, both as a man living in a patriarchal universe and as a feminist. I was out tonight with some of my friends to watch a play, after which all of us decided to go out for a quick detour for some drinks, before dinner. After the end of the “detour”, it was decided that I would accompany one of my friends (an adult woman) to the train station in a cab, even though both of us were high if not drunk.

We had to walk for a couple of minutes, to get to a corner of one of the arterial roads, so that we will have a better chance at hiring a taxi that would be willing to take us to the station that my friend had to get to. While we were walking, my friend (a feminist herself) made it very clear that she was both annoyed and offended by my attitude. The fact that I felt it was my responsibility to accompany her to the station at 10:30 pm, was very clearly something that she did not appreciate. All the while she had a very straightforward question: “Do you not trust me in taking care of myself?”. The answer was very obviously that I do trust her to take care of herself (and neither do I believe her to be someone who needs a man to protect her or accompany her late at night). But then the question also had multiple implications, because if I had complete trust in her ability to be self-reliant, what is it that made me feel insecure about her boarding a taxi all alone, at night.

The answer then became very clear to me at that moment. I did not trust the working class, the taxi drivers in this case, enough to not inflict violence on my friend. Neither did I trust them to be human and not opportunistic sex offenders. I realised the prejudice in my reasoning, at the same time I also realised the patronising attitude  that I exhibit quite often towards women around me. I realised that while my elitism did not make me trust the rest of the world to be decent human beings, I was also at the same time guilty of making public spaces inaccessible and insecure to women.

At the end of the road, where we got a taxi that was willing to go to the station, I finally decided that I had to trust both my friend and the taxi driver. At the same time, I had to convince myself to not be an apparatus in perpetuating patriarchal norms and practices, the ones which I so fervently oppose in public. It was very difficult to do and I was restless till she called me from her home, and I am still not convinced that I should have left her alone in the taxi. I will be faced with the same dilemma, the next time a female friend tells me she would be using public transport to reach home without any company. But I keep telling myself that things need to change if we aspire for a better tomorrow.

This India Will Not Mourn For Al Saud

Never, perhaps, in the history of international relations does one see the kind of charade that is being played right now, over the death of a warlord. After the death of yet another Al Saud, we see leaders across the globe overcome by grief and sadness and international news agencies fawning over an autocrat. It seems that death, unquestioned loyalty to Western powers, and huge reserves of oil can work wonders. It can turn an autocrat and tyrant of a parochial oligarchic state, that runs a slave enterprise and continuously exports and aids horrifying hate-mongers and terrorists, into the face of moderate Islam, a closeted feminist, and a peacenik.

To top all this, we have the Indian government declaring 24th of January as the national day of mourning for Abdullah. We at Nirmukta condemn this decision by the government, and exhort everyone in India to stand against it. Let us all publicly dissociate ourselves with such blatant abrogation of our secular and republican ideals, done to mourn the death of a person who doesn’t deserve a minute silence.

Let’s Talk About Tim Willcox

Image Source: Mail Online (www.dailymail.co.uk)

 

So I hear that Tim Willcox apologised. For those of you who do not know, Willcox is a BBC reporter who was covering the Paris rally in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. He came under fire for doing something as messed up as asking a random Jewish woman about Israeli atrocities in Palestine. Here’s a report:

During a live report from the streets of Paris, Willcox was speaking to a number of participants in the march, including one woman who expressed her fears that Jews were being persecuted, and ‘the situation is going back to the days of the 1930s in Europe.’

To this, Willcox, who was broadcasting on the BBC News channel replied: ‘Many critics though of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.’

When the woman, shaking her head, responded saying: ‘We can’t do an amalgam’, he told her: ‘You understand everything is seen from different perspectives.’

She was identified during the broadcast as ‘Chava’, and told Willcox when she was introduced on screen that she had lived in France for 20 years, but was originally from Israel.

In no time the social media started trending #WillcoxMustGo and very rightfully so. The repercussion was so much so that he had to apologise for the question the very next day. The case should have closed then and there. But today in my news feed I see that a few in my friends list had found it in them to condone his statement; the reasons being free speech and Willcox’s supposed “bravery” to point out the plight of the Palestinians.

The notion that Tim Willcox’s freedom of expression was suppressed is both misguided and, to say the least, absurd. Of course one has the right to express oneself, but that does not give one the right to be an insensitive fool. Willcox wasn’t being brave when he asked that question, he was being stupid and also borderline bigoted. The attack in Paris has only recently highlighted the spiraling anti-semitism in France, which triggered the flight of thousands in 2014. The attack on the kosher store has, reportedly, created a situation of heightened fear and anxiety among the Jewish population in Paris, who barely even got the chance of moving on from the anti-semitic violence that erupted last year at Sarcelles in a pro-Palestinian rally. In a situation like this, when you as a journalist find a Jewish woman ready to speak to you about the experiences of the Jewish people, it doesn’t take a genius to know that making her answer for the atrocities committed by Israel on the Palestinians is not only irresponsible but outright racist.

In the end, I find the incident, while unfortunate, a little ironical. Where else do we hear about persons of a community being made to answer (and sometimes pay) for the crimes of extremists among them?

Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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The Indian Culture Tamasha

kiss-of-love-protest.jpg.image.784.410

A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Recently after the vandalising of a restaurant in Kozhikode (Kerala) by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth-wing of the BJP) people in cities across India have taken to protesting moral policing, with protests being titled ‘Kiss of Love’ (it even has its own Wikipedia page!). From there on what came about was a competition between the progressives and the conservatives of this country regarding who knows the Indian culture best. A similar competition erupts every time the religious right in our country declares homosexuality or short dresses as against Indian culture. Progressives try to reason with Kamasutra and the temples in Konark and Khajuraho. But what they do not understand is that every time they fall back on that mythical creature  called the Indian culture to validate actions of people living in modern societies, we lose and we lose big. This Tamasha, this charade, that the progressives and conservatives play is dangerous and does more harm than good.

In the case of trying to rationalise LGBT rights in India, Devdutt Pattanaik asks two questions that liberals and progressives need to answer before we begin educating the cultural vanguards about liberated sexuality in ancient India.

… how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values?

And further adds a note of warning:

… we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.

While we accuse the conservatives of cherry picking from the scriptures to forward their parochial agenda, we often ignore the part where we cherry pick from the same set of scriptures to justify our rights. The intentions might be different, but the consequences of both are the same. It affirms the status quo.

Let me make it clear about what I think of those citing religious texts and mythologies. You endorse one quote, you endorse everything that comes with it. So for instance, those who cite the Kama Sutra for the different techniques of kissing to validate people’s right to display affection in public are also, in my eyes, endorsing the fact that the work was written by Vatsyayana primarily for savarna men. They are endorsing the fact that women were, except for young brides for the sake of their husbands’ pleasure, were considered unworthy by Vatsyayana to read and learn Kama Sutra. And also regressive and horrible prescriptions like the one on how the wife of one’s enemy is to be used as a tool for revenge, or Vatsyayana’s admonishment of homosexuality, or his categorisation of non-vaginal sex as the job of a kliba (eunuch) or a prostitute. So my dear progressives and liberals take it on the chin and accept the fact that when they say something like “not our culture”, it probably is true.

We need to realise the fundamental flaw in justifying human rights with texts and philosophy written thousands of years ago. It doesn’t help in anyway to bring in change, instead it strengthens and affirms the status quo. This reminds me of that one tweet by a Muslim feminist in response to those claiming that one doesn’t need feminism when there is Islam: I know Islam gave women rights a thousand years ago, but can we please have them now (paraphrased). Human rights cannot be reasoned on the grounds of an outdated idea. It needs to be justified on the grounds that the beneficiary of these rights is a human being and hence totally deserve to enjoy it. Anything else is just not good enough.

P.S.: For those who still feel the need to validate their public display of affection with Indian culture, here is what a friend of mine has to say: “Since I’m Indian, anything I do becomes a part of Indian culture.”

Memories of 1984

A short collection of memories of Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

With the thirty-year anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom around the corner, Hartosh Singh Bal’s Caravan article “Sins of Commission” is worth reading in full. It describes all that happened then, and all that has happened since – thirty years, nine commissions of inquiry, zero justice.

I was in Delhi back then, and have been trying to recall my memories of those days. I decided to ask others to share their memories as well, and put all the accounts together into this blog post. I’m not sure what I hope to accomplish with it; I just know that it’s important to remember all this — “the struggle of memory against forgetting”, to use Milan Kundera’s famous quote.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart, on the New Delhi railway station platform. Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart on the New Delhi railway station platform (November 1984). Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.
(Photo via IndiaTV; links to source.)

The memories follow below; each numbered account is from a different person.

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Traffic Safety in India

Lecture titled “Accidents, Mythologies and Science of Traffic Safety” by Prof. Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi (with notes).

Via South Asia Citizen’s Web (a fantastic site, add it to your feed) I came across a video of this lecture on road safety in India by Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi – a well-known proponent of road safety research in India. It’s part of a monthly public lecture series on science, held at the India International Centre in Delhi. I highly recommend watching it when you get time (it’s 1h:30m long including Q&A), but since it’s a rather large video file some might not be able to – so I took down notes while watching it. Here they are. (Note that the notes aren’t exhaustive or error-proof!)

Initially the fatality rate was growing at 4% a year, which increased to 6% around the time Maruti was introduced. For the last few years, it’s increasing by 8% a year. Due to increase of “energy levels” (more vehicles, bigger roads and highways) – but not better “designs”.

There are around 20 countries with decreasing fatality rates (e.g. Netherlands, UK). The decrease started around 1965-70, probably due to a wide variety of changes including safety regulations.

About 400 people are killed every day. About 1200 people are permanently disabled every day. About 8000 people are hospitalised every day.

There is a lack of data on the profile of accident victims (which vehicles etc.)

Paradigm shift from “Adapt PEOPLE to manage traffic SITUATIONS” to “Eliminate risk factors from road traffic SYSTEMS”. Both road design and car design was changed dramatically via regulation.

Instead of blaming and educating people, better to treat people as “normal” and focus on the system.

Car industry has not changed its attitude. Sexist, macho, not concerned with safety. Airbags still not the default for ALL models.

No correlation between fatality rate and per capita income. There are safe countries amongst both the rich and the poor.

Accident injury should be considered using epidemiological models just like other diseases – damage to the human being from the environment that it lives in. It is a public health problem. Accidents are not “acts of god”. The “agent” of the disease is mechanical energy. To reduce injury, reduce the energy i.e. reduce the velocity, increase the distance, increase the area of contact. Our cars today are much safer due to these simple principles.

Behavioural science – it takes a few thousand hours of driving before you become a safe driver. All drivers have high crash rates in the first 2 years of driving. Children need a few thousand hours on the road to understand speed. Human beings are not good at judging speed.

The “theory of rare events” – the more rarely a certain risk factor is encountered, the larger its effect on accident rate.

The “theory of complexity” – the more information a road user must attend to (per unit time), the higher the probability of error. No cellphones!

Two slides from the lecture - they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn't wearing a helmet) is killed.

Two slides from the lecture – they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn’t wearing a helmet) is killed. The first diagram shows the existing practice of focusing on individual behaviour – the car driver is booked for rash and negligent driving, and culpable homicide. The second diagram shows the recommended approach of trying to fix systems – such accidents could be reduced by systemic practices such as – bright light at junction, roundabouts, speed cameras, police presence, and helmet laws.

Summary of studies:
– no clearly proven relationship between knowledge and attitude on one hand and behaviour on the other hand.
– Education programmes by themselves are usually insufficient to change behaviour.
– Contrary to the view that education cannot do any harm some of these programmes have been shown to make matters worse, esp for young children. Cochrane review of road safety programmes for children shows that effects on injury are unknown. Similarly, school based driver education increases crashes, because it encourages early licensing.
– Teaching licensed drivers how to drive better has no effect (again Cochrane review).
– Fines as penalties and deterrents have little effect. Only when subjective probability of detection of sufficiently high – i.e. when you think you’re going to get caught – that’s when you follow the law. Making penalties higher as an isolated measure has little effect.

Sweden’s “Zero Vision” road safety bill is based on the notion of “allowing” accidents to occur, but at a level of violence that does not threaten life or long-term health. The system must also be such that it accomodates the individual who has the worst protection and the lowest tolerance to violence. The responsibility of every death or loss of health in the road system lies with the person who designed that system.

IIT studies on fatalities by road user type in around 10 cities shows that:
– pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists constitute 80% of fatalities. Interestingly, probability of fatality in an autorickshaw trip is lower than that in a car trip.
– vehicle role at societal level (adjusted for exposure) shows that cars are the worst – they kill others as well as occupants. Autorickshaws are the best.
– data from US cities suggests that cities with wider and longer roads have more fatalities

Other findings:
– buses must be moved away from pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.
– roundabouts reduce fatalities by 70-80%.
– when a pedestrian is hit by a car moving at 30kmph, probability of death is 10%. At 50kmph it becomes 80%.
– mixed traffic on highways is dangerous. largest number of deaths on highways is pedestrians.
– illegal speedbreakers put up by villagers are saving around 20-40 thousand lives a year.
– medians on highways are dangerous. Other solutions like guard rails should be implemented.
– Alcohol accounts for about 40% of the fatalities.
– If motorcyclists use their headlights during the day, fatalities reduce by 10-15%. (Because others can see them better.)
– Establishing a good central government “lead agency” is essential. Create jobs and expertise. No country in the world has improved road safety without doing this.
– The “National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill”, 2010 has been pending in parliament for three years. The govt refuses to push it. This is after the 4 years it took for the bill to be formed.
– Free left turns inside cities should be forbidden.

Postscript: Please take a look at Nirmukta’s Organ Donation Campaign and register to be an organ donor after death. Given the number of road deaths we have – all those organs are going to waste – at least some good can come of these tragic and unnecessary deaths on the road.