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.

 

‘Indian’ from India

Today being Columbus Day in the US, here’s an old clip of the ever astute and hilarious Hari Kondabolu:

And Arvind pointed out this clip from Good Will Hunting, where the two kinds of Indians are differentiated based on dots and feathers. I know the “dot” refers to dotheads, a pretty ignorant stereotype about Indians originating from the fact that some Indian women wear a “dot”. And though I’m not familiar with American Indians, given the context, I’m guessing that the “feather” reference is an equally silly stereotype.

 

Haider – everything that’s wrong with Appropriation

Vishal Bharadwaj released his latest film, Haider. Set in the mid-90s in Kashmir Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before we begin, it should be noted that this is a film conceptualised, directed, produced, and starred largely by Indians, or non-Kashmiri Indians. Such an overwhelming absence of Kashmiris, in itself, makes the film an act of appropriation. But many are unconvinced regarding how that can be possibly bad or a problem in itself. Why can’t the privileged speak for the underprivileged? A similar question was once asked by Rahul Pandita,

A few years ago, confided a friend, a prominent Dalit intellectual had mentioned my work at a book launch. At this, another Dalit intellectual remarked: ‘But he is a Pandit after all!’ Now I don’t know why this should be a problem! As a Brahmin, does it make me less sensitive to the plight of the poor or the marginalised? Why is it such a big deal that I can wear my Janeu, recite my Hanuman Chalisa, and yet go to Bant Singh’s house in Bhurj Jabbar, thirstily gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story? Where is the contradiction?

and Kuffir gave an appropriate reply to this privilege-blind question,

yes, why is it such a big deal that he wears a janeu etc? i don’t believe the practice of rituals etc make a brahmin. so giving them up won’t make one less of a brahmin, either, in my view.

the big deal is that bant singh can’t just get up and go meet rahul pandita in delhi or mumbai or wherever he lives, gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story. bant singh was attacked because he wanted to do exactly what rahul pandita does. get up and go do the things he wanted to do.

the big deal is that rahul pandita has the freedom to do so and bant singh doesn’t.

One needs to locate appropriation within privilege (sometimes used as a polite alternative to inadvertent oppression). When Bharadwaj, an (non-Kashmiri) Indian, chooses to speak about human rights violation in Kashmir or when Arundhati Roy, a Savarna, chooses to introduce Ambedkar, they do so with the freedom afforded to them by the privileges they carry with their social identity. When they tell the story of the underprivileged while being from the side of the privilege, they establish an hierarchical relationship akin to that of charity. When they narrate the story they also have complete discretion over the narrative and the tenor. They can choose to include or omit whatever or whoever they want to. And consequently the outcome ends up being a story that will be plagued by a narrative, more or less, conditioned by their privilege.

In the end this narrative becomes the authoritative one. The one on which the oppressors, the privileged, and the far-removed would fall back for reference. Look at the fact that almost every course on Ambedkar would primarily include a screening of Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar or when it comes to Gandhi it is Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. [And this is also the how an overwhelming section of the Savarna-dominated Indian academia are of the opinion that “some of the best works on Dalits are written by non-Dalits”]

So let’s come back to Bharadwaj. To be honest, I did like the film as an adaptation of Hamlet. But in this case I see no reason in divorcing the art from the politics, so here goes. (needles to say SPOILER ALERT)

  • Firstly, the portrayal of the Oedipus Complex between a “half-widow” (a term used for the wife of a disappeared person not declared dead, see here and here) and her son. Even if one is to take the argument that Hamlet had a certain infatuation for his mother (an argument that is highly contentious to this day), to show that using a half-widow, a lived reality of scores of Kashmiri women, is just not done.
  • Secondly, the manner in which Bharadwaj dealt with the conflict it is clear that he borrowed heavily from New Delhi’s narrative of a scheming, politically greedy Kashmiri ruling class, as presented by Khurram (Claudius) and Parvez (Polonius), misleading gullible Kashmiris against the Indian state in the name of Azadi. But before that, we need to revisit the original Hamlet and the politics of the nation surrounding the story. In Hamlet, the corruption and degradation of the Danish political system is entirely because of the Danish people, or atleast its political elite. Gertrude, Hamlet, and Claudius are supposed to represent the different streaks of the Danish political class. Gertrude representing the helpless and the pragmatic, Hamlet representing the agitated and the idealistic, and Claudius representing the corrupt and the greedy. Bharadwaj, to be fair, did the same with Ghazala, Haider, and Khurram. But Hamlet’s Denmark is not Haider’s Kashmir. Hamlet lamenting about Denmark being a prison has a completely different connotation from when Haider remarked that Kashmir is Kaidkhana. Demark in Hamlet was imprisoned by the Danes themselves, but Kashmir in reality is imprisoned by the Indian State. Yet what we see is a Kashmiris repressing Kashmiris, killing Kashmiris, lying to Kashmiris, and getting fooled by Kashmiris. Locating all of this in a film about the conflict, and not a film merely about the life and times of average Kashmiris is extremely colonial. In this entire picture we see the Indian State, represented by the military, as a distant oppressor, who does not deal with Kashmiris themselves (a picture far removed from reality, atleast in the mid-90s).
  • Thirdly, the reduction of the entire Azadi movement to Inteqam (revenge). Sure, it would have been too much to expect for the filmmakers to present the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as an Inquilab (revolution), but it was not even given the dignity of a Bagavat (rebellion) either. For the film it was merely a vain and petty act of vengeance by the Kashmiris against the Indian military and perhaps the State. Again, the makers were staying true to the original story rather than reality, but one thing was very visibly missing in the entire film: Hamlet’s dilemma.
  • Finally, absence of Haider’s dilemma when turning to the other side. In the original, Hamlet consistently ponders on the basis and the morality of his actions and his intentions. Until the ‘Mousetrap’ Hamlet was completely unsure about the claims made by the ghost. In fact, the very reason for “the play within a play” was to ascertain his uncle’s guilt. This dilemma, this progress of the character from a confused rebel to a convinced murderer was absent. This is a little concerning, when one takes into account that Haider becomes a rebel after meeting the Roohdar (ghost). It is as if he convinced himself almost immediately that he has to kill his uncle and turn against the Indian State (the euphemism of ‘going across the border’ is used, insinuating that the militancy is fomented by Pakistan, or at leas from Pakistan). There was no dilemma, no doubt, but absolute conviction to the words of a stranger who calls himself “the ghost”. The omission is of such gravity that one really must question the intent of the makers.

All in all, Bharadwaj created an adaptation of Shakespeare, where he tailored and truncated the experiences of the Kashmiri people to fit the script. If Kashmir was so secondary and merely a setting to the entire plot, he could have set the adaptation anywhere in the whole of India. Instead he chose Kashmir, possibly to drive home a political argument. If that’s so one can not judge and review the film merely for its artistic value. The politics of the film is equally, perhaps more, relevant. Haider (as Ashwani Mishra of Kashmir Dispatch points out) is representative of an emerging liberal nationalist argument, where the abuse by the military and the draconian nature of the AFSPA while is recognised, the conflict is still seen as petty and the calls for Azadi as deluded.

In conclusion, everything that is wrong with the film is because in the end all of it boils down to appropriation of the lived experiences and narrative of a people for commercial gains, in which distortions are but natural. One needs to be extremely wary these days when someone chooses to tell the story of another.

Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I realise that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back), and I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think of me of belonging to the highest caste. They never use cusswords when talking to me, while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. Now I notice that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual as an individual for simply being human. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a casteist society.