Thursday, July 23, 2009

Let's Face the Truth

Let’s face the truth. Let’s admit there’s a bit of a voyeur in all of us. Our ordinary, mundane lives, stitched together by humdrum routine, make us easy prey for TRP hunters. We ogle, we leer and we drool at the sight of nasty idiot box sirens exposing their oh-gawd-how-terrible past. We watch the sizzling emotional striptease in rapt attention. So, if Sach Ka Saamna confronts an Urvashi Dholakia with the disrobing question if she had been expelled after she conceived during her college days, the prude in each one of us says yes and no at the same time. In public, we let the nays have it. We have to make a show of the verbal abuse we can rain down on the Moment of Truth. We love it but we shout out aloud from rooftops how deeply offended we are.

That is the despicable plateau of what we presume to be the moral high ground of Indian culture. We allow ourselves to be titillated but we would never on this godforsaken earth admit the fact of that titillation. We forget that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Hypocrisy is an integral part of every culture. The Taliban builds its morality superstructure on foundations of fantastic hypocrisy. Even the open and frank Americans are neat and tidy hypocrites. The degree of advancement of a civilization depends on the subtleties and finesse of its inherent hypocrisy. It can’t be as crass and obvious as that of our Rajya Sabha MPs who raised the Sach Ka Saamna issue in such a helplessly offended manner.

Societies and their moral policemen survive on concealing their women’s attitude to sex or lust. Dholakia made the viewers quite excitable with her admission that she loved watching male strippers. Another contestant gave away the truth that she would have probably loved sleeping with somebody else other than her husband. Skeletons like her husband was an alcoholic tumbled out with liquid ease. There may have been even more interesting episodes, similarly sparkling in content, which I unfortunately didn’t have the time to watch. Kambli’s revelation that Sachin never did much for him was a relatively innocent confession and paled into insignificance in comparison with what followed.

Our politicians who believe it is their business to have an opinion on everything have now intervened. They want the content suitably inspected before the show-host goes on air. Censorship is the only option available to politically-inclined wise men when they find new truths have overtaken their stagnant lives. Their response, therefore, has been predictable. Culture is a living entity and it knows that it has to be finally answerable to the logic of commerce not to the stale wisdom of politicians imprisoned in medieval inhibitions.

At the same time, let’s agree also there’s nothing to laud about Sach Ka Saamna. It is possibly a fixed entertainment show planned carefully with out-of-job entertainers. It’s a game with your dirty linen that you play in public for money. If the credulous audience laps it up, so be it. I subscribe to the fundamental logic that every society gets the soap or reality show it deserves. A political protest, which doesn’t have the open backing of the viewing public, is bound to help the ratings soar. More people will be attracted to the nudity of a soul whose old wounds are yet to heal and sores fester before the powerful camera lenses.

Drab lives they say feed on lives that are lived with a greater degree of fun and sin. For some, as Robert Frost explained, the road not taken would always be a regret. Let not a discussion on the indefinable word -- Culture -- lose its way in that labyrinth. Let's not analyze the reasons for greater viewing of Saach Ka Saamna. Let’s only admit there’s an insatiable hunger for a confession-based reality show in today’s India.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shabana Azmi's Afghanistan speech

Shabana Azmi's speech at a UN function, Kabul, Afghanistan, 8 July 2009


• Where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Where adult literacy for women over 15 years of age is less than 15 percent and in many areas even less than that.
• Where one woman dies every 27 minutes due to pregnancy related complications, amounting to around 25,000 deaths per year.
• Where violence against women, both in the public and private sphere is a normal every day occurrence for many women. Many of whom are subjected to sexual violence and find that, not only are they the ones who are condemned to a lifetime of stigma and shame if this crime becomes public, but that they are further victimized in a justice system that fails them and may prosecute and convict them for the crime of the ZINA.
• Where women participating in public life are threatened, harassed, attacked and even KILLED.
This unfortunately, ladies and gentleman is the reality in Afghanistan today. We have gathered here in solidarity and sisterhood knowing that SILENCE is VIOLENCE and that together we must break this vicious cycle.
We know that violence against women and girls has the tacit approval of society, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world. In the United States for example, one out of every six American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their life time. In India, in spite of the great strides women are taking, it is also a sad fact that female foeticide is being practiced, even in big metropolitan cities cutting across class structures. More often than not, violence against women is practiced across countries due to patriarchal mindsets, often under the cover of "religion". Harmful traditional practices are often about not challenging the misconceptions that are reinforced by skewed and distorted views of religion that are allowed to propagate.
But identity is fluid and has many aspects. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a wife, a daughter, an actress, a Muslim and an activist etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity. Unfortunately however, there seems to be a concerted effort to compress identity in to the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, erasing all other aspects so I become a Muslim, she becomes a Christian and you become a Hindu. This construct of identity is a tool to control, to subjugate, to deny visibility to women. Fortunately there are forces of resistance that exist against this domination and are gaining strength with each passing day.
All over the world it is being recognized that the progress of a society or a country can not be measured in terms of its GDP alone. It must be measured in terms of its human development index in which empowerment of women must become the most important yardstick of progress and development.
I was very fortunate to be born to parents who were progressive and liberal. My father, the noted Urdu poet Kafi Azmi, wooed my mother, theater actress Shaukat Kaifi, 60 years ago by reciting his poem ‘Aurat’/ ‘Woman’. In an age when the women were expected to stay confined to the four walls of her home while the husband braved the world, my father wrote ….., "Jannat ek aur hai jo mard ke pehlu mein nahin, uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe…," which roughly translated means, ‘There is another heaven that awaits you that is not in the arms of your man. Arise my love, come march with me…. ’
India has a long history of democracy. I believe democracy is a critical factor in the empowerment of women. I have a stake and a claim in the democratic space my country gives her citizens. I shout from the roof top when my community is victimized but also have the freedom to tell my fellow Muslims that it falls upon them to tell the world that Islam is not a monolith. It resides in more than 53 countries in the world and takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. It is moderate in some, liberal and others, intolerant and fanatic in some. The liberal moderate must stand up against the intolerant fanatic of his own faith. It is not one religion against another. Unfortunately all too often the debate descends in to a clash of civilizations theory that closes the door on sane dialogue and intervention. Deliberate distorted views of religion must be challenged or else the space that women get will continue to shrink even further.
I repeat that democracy is a critical factor in empowerment of women. Not just in terms of their vote, but in how democracy responds to women -gives public space to get messages across and their voices heard and responds to their needs.
This belief is reinforced by my own experience as a parliamentarian for six years in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. Our participation in all aspects of political life enables us to bring attention to issues that concern us, be involved in the processes that affect us and challenge laws and policies that restrict us.
The key issue in Afghanistan is that the very space that women have negotiated for themselves is under attack.
Women not only need to be encouraged to enter public life, society also needs to welcome them and the state needs to protect them in the face of any kind of threat. Women want to be included in local, national and global dialogues and discourses - they need to be able to participate fully and on an equal footing with their male counter parts.
I was heartened when I learned that Afghanistan has 25% of parliamentary seats allocated to women. Of course this does not automatically translate into effective participation but this figure is huge. Civil society needs to support these women parliamentarians so that they get informed by the women’s agenda as a primary concern. Access to security, health, education, employment - access to equal rights must be non-negotiable. If a quarter of Parliament speaks and acts as one, let alone other male defenders of women’s rights who join them, then the results could be better than the best.
Across Asia, we women must unite and challenge ideas, theories, beliefs and indeed laws that keep our sisters in servitude. When discrimination against women is endorsed by society, or the state, then we all become partners in crime. We cannot remain silent, we must not remain silent.
India is in my view getting it right because it is placing women at the centre of development and support for the girl child. We have strong laws in place to protect women. For example, in the past rape victims were silenced into not reporting rape because the kind of proof that was demanded, the verbal assault they were subjected to, where it was assumed that the victim must have somehow ‘invited’ the rape, the shame and stigma that the girl’s family had to face, the ostracisation by society was terrifying. But because of relentless advocacy by women’s rights groups and parliamentarians things are changing. Convictions for rape are rising and there has been greater sensitization of the police on these issues. Women also have the freedom of in-camera proceedings. The onus of innocence lies on the accused and there is a seven year non-bailable imprisonment at the very least if found guilty.
In Afghanistan laws on rape and protection of rape victims needs to be similarly strengthened. I understand from Afghan activists that this process is underway. I sincerely look forward to following this process and I salute all the activists in this room who have campaigned against the sanctioning of sexual violence and for the rights of victims.
We all know well however, that laws alone can not bring about change. Legal reform does represent an important first step but what is needed is a mindset change that treats women as second class citizens.
I end with a couplet from the famous Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Bol ke lab azaad hain tere Bol Zabaan ab tak teri hain Bol yeh sutwan jism hai tera Bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak ….
Speak: your lips are free Speak: your tongue is still yours Speak: this lissome body is yours Speak: this life is yours Speak: so that the truth can prevail ….
Thank you

Friday, July 10, 2009

Don't Judge the King

Why are we so frightened of the judiciary? Why don’t we want to know what happened in the mysterious Justice R.Reghupathi case? Did the Madras High Court judge receive a phone call from a union minister or not? Here is the strange story of a judge insisting in open court that he had been called up by a Union Minister requesting him to grant bail to two accused in a mark-sheet forgery case. A week later when the accusation by the judge has snowballed into a major controversy, Justice R. Reghupathi, son of a respected freedom fighter, withdraws his allegation.
Withdraws? Withdrawal of a charge as serious as this and, that too, against a Union Minister? Is such an act of submission expected of a proud High Court judge, sworn to the Constitution and under oath to be the fairest of them all? Yet, this happens. Long after the judge had removed himself from hearing the case, he woke up one fine morning to the revelation of a new and completely different truth – he hadn’t received any phone call at all.
By then, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley had gone on record saying that nobody was a king or a rajah (alluding to the much maligned Union Telecom Minister of Spectrum notoriety , A. Raja) that he enjoyed the right to bully the judiciary. A Raja’s name was publicly mentioned by AIADMK supremo, J.Jayalalitha. Her political emissary in Delhi, Maitreyan asserted as much in the Rajya Sabha. Newspapers reported that the Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) himself had demanded to know the whole truth from Raja.
Raja whom the Prime Minister never wanted as part of his Cabinet in the first place was ducking for cover. He sent word through his aides that he was being unfairly made the fall guy. He reiterated he hadn’t made that astonishing phone call. Subsequently, he overcame his initial reluctance and stepped out to tell the intrusive television channels he hadn’t dialled Justice R. Reghupathi’s number.
Why did then Justice Reghupathi say what he had said in full public view in the first place? Obviously, he was agitated. He was so furious that he wanted the secret out. He wanted the world to know that a Union Minister had dared to humiliate him. Then why did he withdraw his charge and retract despite the insult the retraction heaped upon him? Obviously, the powers-that-be in Chennai and Delhi wanted him to shut up. Reghupathi knew that his future was more secure if he kept his mouth shut and forgot about the strange affair of the telephone.
Interestingly, when he was interviewed by journalists in Delhi, Chief Justice of India, K.G.Balakrishnan said that it was up to Justice Reghupathi to reveal the minister’s same. Speaking to CNN-IBN, Justice Balakrishnan did not take any name but did denounce the minister who had made that call. There was strong disapproval in his voice. It seemed as though the highest judiciary in the country was seriously peeved.
Ninety six hours later, after the demand for the minister’s resignation had gathered volume, the Chief Justice of India said that the judge had never received any call. There appeared to be little further explanation. It was as though the perturbed judiciary had suddenly been lulled into quiet submission. Gone were the days of intense and healthy confrontation between the judiciary and the executive. Here lay the bruised and battered example of compliance and of surrender.
Justifying the retraction, the chief justice said that the fault was actually that of the advocate appearing on behalf of the accused. It was he who had brought out his mobile phone and had requested the judge to talk to the Union Miniser who was reportedly interested in the case. Chief Justice Balakrishnan argued that the politician had not actually spoken to the judge. So, the phone call had only been suggested. It didn’t actually happen.
The explanation raises two questions which haven’t been answered. How does a High Court judge fail to distinguish between an actual phone call and a mere insinuation or the suggestion of a phone call? The judge had given clear indication from day one that he had felt threatened or, at least, pushed. If the phone call hadn’t happened, he shouldn’t have lost his composure and raised the issue in open court. Secondly and more importantly, why doesn’t anybody suggest any strong action against the offending lawyer who handed over the mobile phone to the judge?
Karunanidhi’s blue-eyed boy and DMK’s Dalit face, A.Raja was all along suspected to be the one who had made that unconstitutional and irresponsible telephone call. He comes from the same Perambalur district from where the two accused, the third year MBBS student of a Pudducherry private medical college, S. Kiruba Sridhar and his doctor father, C Krishnamurthy also hailed. The father-son duo was involved in the mark-sheet forgery case and had sought anticipatory bail in Madras High Court. Raja’s aides admitted that the minister knew the family.
There is no way of denying that an effort was made to influence a verdict by somebody wielding enormous political clout. The judiciary possibly retraced its steps fearing a backlash from the political establishment. For those of us rooting for undiluted independence of the Indian judiciary, the Reghupathi episode is worse than a setback – it is hell of a compromise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Naming Game

Can somebody please tell me what the late Rajiv Gandhi has got to do with the Worli Sea Link? He was a wonderful Prime Minister who had ushered in an era of technological reforms. Along with Sam Pitroda he had championed the STD revolution. But those who have known Rajiv Gandhi from a close quarter will vouch that he was a proud man who wouldn’t have lent his name to an engineering marvel he was not associated with.
Then why does the Gandhi family agree to the sycophancy of nomenclature? Is it because they are aware that in India, history bears no animus towards myths and legends and that the perpetuation of a family’s name by any means serves the great electoral purpose decades later? Frankly, this is cynical politics – a kind of politics that a free and liberal democracy of the 21st century cannot be indulgent towards. Such politics gives enough leverage to a Mayawati when she erects her own statues as though Dalits deserve their separate brand of idolatry.
Who said there’s nothing in a name? Why should grandchildren of those who drove around the Bandra Worli Sea Link for the first time as proud Mumbaikars be compelled to remember Rajiv Gandhi’s name every time they drive down the corridor fifty years from now. In the past we have hero-worshipped our freedom fighters to such a ridiculous extent that there are more than two roads named after Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru in most cities of the country. Greatness is acknowledged far better when later generations comprehend the essence of the man. One wonders if today’s India is eager to understand the values and principles Gandhi and Nehru stood for and find out what their legacy is all about. Naming a road or a sea-link is a desperate effort to enforce greatness where it is possibly far from due.
So, let’s admit that the naming of the Bandra Worli Sea Link after Rajiv Gandhi is a deliberate attempt to capture a place in history in a silly but purposeful manner. The Congress attempt to glorify its heroes rather unabashedly has given birth to the phenomenon of competitive history writing. The saffron intelligentsia has been demanding for quite some time that the likes of Veer Savarkar, Hegdewar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay be granted greater space and visibility in modern Indian history. It’s no doubt an unfair demand given the limited impact they had on the lives of their contemporaries but there’s no denying that the demand has been borne out of the Congress propensity for bestowing extraordinary greatness on its leaders.
What also offended sensibilities is the manner in which the naming of the Bandra-Worli Sea-Link was accomplished. Maratha strongman, Sharad Pawar, has fallen out with the state Congress leadership after his pre-poll flirting with the Third Front and his optimistic eve-of-the-election projection of himself as a Prime Ministerial hopeful in the case of a badly hung Parliament. The Congress-led coalition came back with a stable majority reducing Pawar to a minor political player on the national stage. He managed to secure his old, respectable portfolios but the guru of cricket knew he was on a sticky wicket; so much so the state Congress in Maharashtra had begun baying for his blood and insisting that it could take on the Shiv Sena-BJP combine alone. The NCP was truly marginalized.
No wonder then that Pawar grabbed the opportunity which came his way when he was sharing the dais with UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi. Conveniently forgetting that this was the woman whose authority and source of power he had questioned a decade ago, Pawar lobbed the suggestion that the corridor be named after Rajiv Gandhi, given the slain leader’s scientific vision and temperament. And when such suggestions are made, Congress politicians traverse the traditional, much-trodden path. Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who seconded Pawar’s proposal was a delighted man. He said yes with a respectful smile that even the most pliant of yes-men would be embarrassed to wear. Worse, even Sonia Gandhi agreed gratefully, giving the definite impression that the charade was not of her making anyway.
But it was a charade in the end, a charade that will only fetch disrepute for an otherwise healthy democracy.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

For God's Sake, Lift Thy Veil

Multiculturalism is a funny word. It means many things to many people. Most people are insensitive to the plurality phenomenon that multiculturalism seeks to represent. Yet, they mouth it with the reverence and ardour of the newly converted. And in their eagerness to embrace every multicultural, multiethnic expression, they even vote for universal acceptance of a burqa or a hijaab. They argue that a tolerant society cannot afford to be choosy or selective. Almost by a sleight of hand and by a strange twist of the illogical, the burqa magically asserts its right to co-exist in a tolerant, liberal society.
The fact that the burqa, by its very definition, questions gender equality and tries to make a lesser mortal of a woman are conveniently forgotten. Also, the fact that the burqa symbolises the centuries-old right of the male to sexually dominate a woman is carefully erased from the grotesquely simplified argument. The hijaab, the ghunghat are hideous inventions of men who have hunted the female of their species. Multiculturalism doesn’t necessarily grant the licence to absorb and assimilate rotting symbols and practices that have long lost their shelf-life in the medieval era. It is ridiculous that even women who wear the hijaab are joining the veil debate and are emphasizing the right to express themselves about their choice of clothing.
Nobody wants the state to enforce a dress code. The French President is the last person to do so. It’s preposterous to view him as a xenophobe. The French do guard their language with a near-xenophobic zeal but when it comes to propagating rational virtues, the French mind is wider than the Pacific Ocean. Let’s forget about the Sarcozy prescription momentarily and ask ourselves why we are forgetting the basic premise of this debate; that the burqa would not have been born without a dress code. Concealing your face is against nature. No creature does so. Except possibly the turtle which has to seek refuge in its shell when faced with a threat to its life.
Simply put, the hijaab is not a multicultural asset. Along with the ghunghat, these represent the life-force of a form of tyranny that refuses to die and continues to give the Taliban its raison d’etre; even its sustenance.
I think the only serious flaw in Nicholas Sarkozy’s argument is that he uses the word homogeneity without explaining its contours. Interesting, though, that France is again showing the way to a new intellectual destination where plurality needs to be respected beyond mere appearances and superficial exterior. Conversations and dialogues in the 21st century often fail to take place between those who are clean shaven out of individual choice and those who wear their beards because their religions command them to do so. The 21st century is the battleground of personal versus collective religions. We can’t allow megaliths born out of soulless, collective religions to trample upon individual rights and prevail upon the right to decide alone, in one’s own sacred privacy.
I adore Sikhism. I think the Sikh religion provides the perfect platform to imbibe the finest of human values. The Sikhs are the privileged because they owe their allegiance to a religion that propagates the existence of a community-support system. But then Sikhism with all its dimensions cannot be defined or restricted by issues concerning the Sikh’s appearance. The religion is far bigger than that. In fact, the inner happiness of the average Sikh is a mirror to the cleanliness and purity that thrive in his religion. At the same time, younger Sikhs are quietly and gradually giving up some of their religious duties like sporting long hair or moving around with the kirpan. Now that they have comprehended the inner essence of their religion, their parents are not thinking it prudent to chastise and reprimand them. Sikh religion will not just survive but will also prosper even more without the external symbols.
In Turkey, a confluence of cultures with a Muslim majority, wearing a fez in a public place is a choice which is forbidden by the law and not even socially appreciated. It only goes to show that sporting your obvious identity immediately enforces restrictions and prevents a free dialogue. Nobody is insisting on what to wear but one would appreciate if citizens chose not to opt out of a possible conversation and free mingling by emphasizing one’s faith and thereby limiting the boundaries of that limitless exchange of thought.
The 21st century is expected to be one of dialogue among religions and among ethnic groups. Before that happens, we cannot put barriers and assert our right to silence by covering our face. For God’s sake, take thy veil off and let’s discuss if our civilizations can thrive under the same sky.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


If Indian democracy has evolved and matured, it has done so after the untimely and unfortunate demise of Indira Gandhi. Not that the Nehru-Gandhis are to be blamed for carefully elevating themselves to the status of royalty and thereby encouraging the millennia-old Indian proclivity towards dynasties. They did play upon and pander to those sentiments often subtly, occasionally blatantly. But the fact remains there was a tendency in Indian society to continue its tryst with feudalism and repose continuous faith in the Nehru-Gandhis, ostensibly for democratic governance but in reality for benevolent despotism.

For an entirely non-Orwellian reason, 1984 was the year of change. Mr Clean Rajiv Gandhi brought with him a new kind of democratic vulnerability. That his Opposition found enough Bofors artillery three years later to destroy that image, almost in the manner in which the barbaric Taliban wrecked the Bamian Buddha, is another story. Rajiv Gandhi represented the remnants of a feudal order, an order where you didn’t even have to do a Rahul-like discovery of India to figure out that you are a prince, the silver spoon spontaneously sprouted on your lips and whatever you mouthed was politics. Rajiv Gandhi was innocent, almost ethereal and had inherited his grandfather’s romanticism without either the Nehruvian intellect or vision.

Sonia Gandhi had to put up a bigger and more intense fight. Yes, the Italian woman of possibly small town sensibility bridged a gap, which was threatening to widen and subtract politics from the Gandhi family after the cruel assassination of Rajiv. If Rahul’s transition to the upper echelons of the Congress party is smooth, it’s because Sonia Gandhi nee Maino has done remarkable groundwork and covered the length and breadth of the country untiringly for almost a decade on his behalf. You can sense the exhaustion on her face. The Nehru-Gandhis are still a dynasty, there is still the family-first syndrome, there is still the legacy of typical Congress sycophancy but the next generation is learning grassroots politics the hard way, the more democratic way. Dynasty is a good calling card but no longer the perfect recipe for success.

This article is not about the Nehru-Gandhis. It is about the growing significance of democratic humility in Indian politics. If P.V. Narasimha Rao completed his term despite being at the helm of a minority government it was not because he had a flexible political spine or encyclopedic knowledge of the country, which he put to excellent use. It was because knowing that he was from Andhra Pradesh, knowing that his wasn’t the most acceptable face in northern India and aware that his language skills alone could not help him transcend cultural barriers, he chose political humility as a strategic weapon. The Chanakya that he was, he imbibed the science of artful compromise without having to suffer indignities.

Even H.D.Deve Gowda and I.K.Gujral who followed were rank outsiders and neither survived the bare minimum of a year. But in their own ways, they were great believers in modesty and the politics of accommodation. If they hadn’t run up against a wall called Sitaram Kesri and an equally obstinate unwillingness of the Congress to prop up secular governments from outside, both of them would have possibly extended their lifespan by a few more months.

And if there was anybody who could be described as political humility personified, it was the incomparable Atal Behari Vajpayee. He is and will be remembered as the father of coalition politics in India. He showed how the infidel and the faithful could not only survive under the same roof but could also come to each other’s aid in times of distress. It is not homogeneity but unity in diversity, which has been an intrinsic feature of the Indian ethos. Vajpayee assimilated that and even became its flawless practitioner. He was a man whose spirit of reconciliation and unquestioning trust in the theory of live and let live became a refreshing coalition mantra in a complex multi-party democracy.

Manmohan Singh can be faulted for transferring his political centre outside himself, beyond his office compounds to Sonia Gandhi’s sprawling bungalow at 10 Janpath. But you can never accuse him of losing his moorings and becoming disturbingly egoistic. In fact, the opposite happened. His humility was mistaken for weakness. His critics chose to ignore the fact that he was hemmed in by circumstances. He couldn’t ever escape the fact that he was a nominated Prime Minister. Viewed from that perspective, the nuclear deal followed by the political realignment, with the Left replaced by Samajwadi Party, was quite an achievement. His opponents are finding it easy to target him during the current electoral process because his mental strength is not reflected in his demeanor, in the way he conducts himself. For the past five years, Manmohan Singh has learnt what co-existence in a political joint family is all about. Occasionally, may be, he has conceded too much but his government could not have sustained itself, if he rode roughshod on allies.

Lal Krishna Advani has also learnt the hard way that rajdharma, as wonderfully explained by Vajpayee, is about walking with everybody. Advani’s politics has become much more nuanced in recent years. He is no longer walking the strident, lonely path as he used to in the late Eighties and even for a period in the Nineties. Advani knows beyond doubt that leadership is not about throwing your weight around. Being a lauhpurush can be a negative virtue given the chaotic democracy that India is. If Advani excelled only in converting ideology into political opportunism, he would have also been linear enough to make a show of his indulgence towards Varun Gandhi. Advani has moved on. He is now given to the idea of nation-building and has realized to achieve that goal, you need to shake hands with everybody – irrespective of creed, caste and religion.

I am not one of those who would jump to conclusions about Narendra Modi. I do not see any reason to subscribe to the cynical theory that once you are branded a communalist, you remain a communalist forever. Narendra Modi doesn’t want to be reminded of his past but he has now made his journey to another era, to the age of development which he has spiced up with generous doses of populism and popular rhetoric. Modi is being applauded and hailed by industrialists, Gujarat is setting a new benchmark in development indices, Modi is giving every indication that he has now acquired enough experience to replicate his Gujarat model elsewhere, Modi is knocking at the door for a stellar role in Delhi. But in this brutal game of politics, perceptions are often forever and are, on occasions, irreversible. However, much you try, the taint doesn’t go away. Even an electoral victory, as Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar found out, is not a guarantee that you have been freed of a riot stigma. You cannot be a Prime Ministerial hopeful if you are unable to face the past, unable to talk about the bloodshed in public with fearless candour. You cannot make probing newspersons disembark from your aircraft because they want you to talk about Godhra while you want to tell them everything about good governance.

Modi has to begin a dialogue with his critics, with those who refuse to forgive him for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots. Till the time he is able to do that, his geography will be coloured. He will only receive fabulous response in areas that already have a distinct saffron tinge. With his inability to convert those hostile to him into friends, he will always get a fractious, divisive mandate. It is not the kind of mandate a genuine statesman will want to achieve. Modi probably believes that he is a leader in the tough-talking Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel mould, one who needs to sell his hardliner image all the time, relentlessly. He is afraid his grasp may loosen and his politics weaken if he takes ownership of what transpired in Gujarat seven years ago after the Godhra carnage. Sometime later in his career, a few years from now, Modi will have to utter the five letter word, Sorry, if he wants to be a serious player on the big stage.

It is said that some leaders are a creation of their times, they are the children of destiny and they become what they become because they are at the right place at the right time. There are also the handful distinguished few who chart out their own paths, become leaders in spite of the times they live in and leave their imprint on the era they preside over because they write their own destiny. Till the time Modi learns to talk about the violence that rocked Gujarat seven years ago, he’ll remain a creation of his time, restricted by a divided agenda. He can aspire to be the BJP’s 150 seat-man, not someone who can help the party take the big leap forward and cross the majority mark on its own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Two films without underwear

Pramod Muthalik’s band of moral warriors is gradually fading from studio discussions, page seven headlines and even the creative world of SMS humour. Facebook continues to host the pink chaddi andolan because in India every action calls for a greater and, on occasions, unnecessarily power-packed opposite reaction. The young men have been described as Indian Taliban and Muthalik, a desi version of the one-eyed Mullah Omar. Going by physical appearance alone, the young men would have probably frightened pariah dogs and stray cats. At best, they could have been as harmful as small-town roadside Romeos – more like Georgie Porgie who makes the girls cry and disappears when the boys come out to play.

That, however, is the crux of the problem. The Mangalore pub attack was always about making the girls cry. It was a stupendous fuss about women going out and drinking. Mind you, don’t dismiss Mangalore violence as a stray incident. Muthalik knew there is a grey area in Indian society where the virtues of a woman as defined in the middle ages are cast in stone. This is the same dark patch in the Indian psyche where a woman has inalienable rights to the kitchen and kitchen alone. Television serials seldom grant the Indian woman an identity beyond that of a gloriously proper housewife. She drinks Limca or plain nimbu pani. It’s a sin if she sips vodka; she is considered a complete social deviant if she graduates to whiskey.

Muthalik, therefore, does represent a credo, a belief system, which cannot be countered by extreme and often counter-productive measures like a pink chaddi or a pub bharo agitation. In a chaotic democracy like ours, it takes centuries for the value system to be redefined and recast. The progressive struggle is a continuous process and social standpoints evolve through a range of arguments and counter-arguments. Muthalik cannot be sedated with a miracle drug. He won’t wake up tomorrow to speak another language. The language has to be hammered into his brain through democratic tools.

And, fortunately, those tools can now be found in unexpected places. There was a time when Bollywood would sing hosannas for the predictable conformist and for the bored as well as boring homemaker. When Muthalik was hijacking Mangalore to the medieval era, two filmmakers from Mumbai pleasantly surprised everybody with their gender-sensitive perception of a changing India.

In Luck By Chance, Zoya Akhtar’s portrayal of a starlet’s journey in the shadowy world beneath Mumbai’s glitz and glamour doesn’t stop at a critical evaluation of the casting couch phenomenon. In fact, it accepts the problem because it cannot be wished away overnight. In this case, acceptance, however, should not be mistaken for condoning. The debutant director creates a Sonam Mishra from Kanpur who has escaped home and regressive parents to do what she likes doing best and believes it to be her vocation – acting. She is undeterred by the fact that flesh opens the doors to Mumbai’s studios and the experience doesn’t make her cynical.

Even betrayal by the producer she slept with doesn’t make her cynical. She persists with her efforts and makes it big as a small screen actor. She suffers a lot, jilted by her boyfriend, Farhan Akhtar. Suffering makes her stronger. She exudes a kind of confidence, which is not quite typical of the Indian woman Pramod Muthalik visualizes. Nor would Muthalik approve of the manner in which she views sex. Custodians of morality of the kind we have witnessed in Mangalore would have described her as a woman of easy virtue.

Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D completely changes the context in which Saratchandra Chattopadhyay had conceived of his Devdas. Dev D is the son of a sugar-mill owner and his masculine sense of possession dominates his perspective after he swallows hearsay that his betrothed Paro has been sleeping around. He takes to the bottle and only gets to know the real truth about Paro’s fidelity when she has already been married. Like Devdas, alcohol and lowlife carries him to Chandramukhi. A debauched virgin hunter lands in the lap of a prostitute and even learns to love her --- not exactly the storyline that would have satisfied the proponents of Sriram Sene.

These films reveal remarkable transformation in Indian attitude towards sex. In Kashyap’s film, Paro is daring enough to forward a scanned portrait of herself in the nude. Sonam Mishra in Luck by Chance has casual sex with Farhan Akhtar. Sex is a biological craving which a woman shares as an equal participant with a man. Sex is not an activity enforced and performed by a man on a plastic doll, as Muthalik would like us to believe.

Mangalore is not just about the woman’s right to go to a bar. It’s much more than that. It’s about a society’s collective attitude to gender. We cannot alter Muthalik’s perspective by dressing him in a pink chaddi. We can only dare with him with the creative work of those who proudly harbour and subscribe to an alternative sensibility. Let Chandramukhi taunt Muthalik from her celluloid pedestal that her world is possibly more real than Muthalik’s. Let Sonam Mishra explain to Muthalik that his worldview died with the Licence Raj. Despite the recession, moral policemen cannot jettison the global outlook that the new economy has sown in Indian soil.