Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

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#DonaldTrump, #NarendraModi and the Media

The so-called ‘Hindu’ Right’s fondness for them is not the only factor that Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have in common. They also share the mainstream media’s hatred. Hacks rip the remarks of these men out of context, view their words through deep yellow lenses, and go blue in the face trying to cause the maximum damage to their bête noires.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, ‘the puppy analogy’ as it came to be known was repeatedly thrown at the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. A Reuter’s interviewer asked Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, about the mob killing of scores of Muslims in his state in 2002 after the burning of a train carrying Hindu devotees:

 Do you regret what happened?, Modi was asked.

“…if we are driving a car.. even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad…” replied Modi (see more of the interview here).

The media and its minions pilloried Modi and his mindset, claiming he had compared Muslims to dogs. The interview was in English, but even on English television channels, anchors and panellists would deliberately translate his remark into the vernacular as the corresponding Hindi expletive ‘kutta ke bachcha’ is particularly provocative and damaging. Incidentally, soon after the #GujaratRiots, Modi had been asked about it by another anchor for an Indian channel. Modi’s response had been similar. But Modi had then used the analogy of a flower that gets crushed. (You can catch the 2004 interview with Shekhar Gupta for NDTV here)

Trump has, similarly, been derided today for ‘his unwillingness’ to ‘respect the integrity of the electoral process’ and for ‘challenging one of the pillars of American democracy’:

Trump was asked whether he would accept the electoral verdict, regardless of the outcome.

 Trump said “I will look at it at that time.”

 And then, after a lengthy explanation about the reasons why he thinks the election isn’t free and fair – corrupt media, crooked Hillary and all the rest – he was brought back to the topic.

  “…Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” asked Chris Wallace.

  Trump, in his characteristic, sardonic way, said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

It was a spontaneous attempt at irony, no more – for where is the question of not conceding? It is a non-sequitur.

In the second debate, a fortnight or so ago, Trump was torn to pieces for “threatening to jail Hillary”.

Hillary’s said, ‘… it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.’

Trump met the spiteful comment with a dry, ‘Because you’d be in jail.’

The drollness was lost on the media and the question of Hillary’s disappearing e-mails escaped scrutiny in the hullaballoo the media contrived to cause over just a bit of wit – probably unexpected, and therefore unacceptable?

To end with a #Trump-Modi comparison again, all those who are Modi haters, and therefore Trump haters as well, would be on the side of the media that is revelling in pouring scorn on Trump right now for his horrifying “lack of presidential temperament” in seeming to question the electoral process, one of the pillars of American democracy. Interestingly, their clique in India is the very same group that talks of Modi as “your” Prime Minister, refusing to concede that he is their Prime Minister too as he is the Prime Minister of all of India, elected by a popular mandate that they were not able to undermine despite their raucous clamour.

A manic media vs The meditative Modi

 

Having buttressed their TRP ratings with Modi-speeches all through the day, the media went hammer and tongs at him all evening, trying to salvage the self-inflicted damage to their ideological baggage:  This amusing, oftentimes exhausting, serial unfolded day after day in the run-up to India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The media – at least the Indian, English language media – has never been for Modi.  Whereas the regional language channels present a mind-boggling array of ‘India-s’, with no two regional channels seeming to talk about the same people, places or events, the English television channels conform to a pattern, each feeding off the other even as they engage in a Darwinian fight for survival.  In the race to ‘break news’, they often end up breaking eggs on their own faces. No matter, though; it’s only a question of who’s got less yellow and more white.  The most recent example of this syndrome, which I have named ‘simply wipe the egg off the face and get on with the show’, is L K Advani’s ‘emergency’ comment that came like a bolt from the blue a week or so ago. 

For one whole day, politicians of non-saffron hues and a pliant media poured vitriol in voyeuristic delight, demonising Narendra Modi to their heart’s content. ‘There’s a deep and widespread conspiracy’…, they said, ‘… dark and threatening forces are taking over the country …’ ; ‘… sinister right-wing forces are at work …’ ; ‘There are both visible and invisible threats’ ; ‘These forces are weakening social justice, hatching fascist designs’, and so they went on and on all day.   Twenty-four hours later, Advani in an interview to Karan Thapar clarified that in saying ‘the Emergency could be imposed again’, he was alluding to the Congress’ complete lack of remorse for 1975 and not about Prime Minister Modi’s proclivities.  One would have expected that there would be some semblance of shame or at least a retraction from the media or the politicians after they were shown up. But zilch.  Instead, they just moved on to another story, once again cautioning the people, warning the nation about the ‘dark forces that are out to undermine democracy’, derail the nation, destroy its dignity and what not.  In a brazen show of unethical reportage, some media houses and personalities continue, even as I write, to harp on the wrong message they had been touting before Advani’s clarification.

Interestingly, those haranguing against #PrimeMinisterModi [see quotes in the previous para] use the same language, indeed the very words that the apologists of the 1975 #Emergency used as they cautioned the nation to be ‘united and alert’ and the Indian people to be ‘vigilant’ about divisive forces!

But it is not only the media that is going overboard with its fly-by-night accusations in its attempt to provoke a Prime Minister who remains apparently indifferent to their laboured perorations.  A representative of the ‘intelligentsia’, a scion of Mahatma Gandhi’s family writes, of Modi joining the Yoga Day celebrations in RajPath, ‘By personally leading, like an adept instructor, the phalanx gathered on the Rajpath lawns he has choreographed yoga into an opera of mass power… What we have to be wary of is … the robotisation of our minds into a ‘yogic’ acceptance of one drill – majoritarianism – and its masterful drill-master’. (See ‘Mastering the Drill of Democracy’, by Gopal Gandhi, The Hindu, June 25, 2015).  When intelligence becomes the hand-maiden of ideology, one loses both innocence and inspiration and is left harbouring only illusions.  Amidst this nation of nay-sayers, the Prime Minister’s silence comes as a balm to battered sensibilities.

Minority Matters

In recent days I have been listening to two flawed arguments involving ‘minorities’ in India.  One pertains to a social minority – the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trangender ( #LGBT ) community and another concerns the religious minorities – particularly Christian and Muslim communities.  I just want to present two simple counter-arguments to the popular opinions that have been occupying media space.

On the LGBT community, those who are not in favour of homosexuality argue that same sex cohabitation or marriage is ‘against Nature’ and ‘against religion’.  A simple counter to this would be: Aren’t notions of sexual morality, marriage, and religion themselves social constructions, albeit systems that have been with us since millennia and may even be considered to have stood the test of time?  In any case, Nature, in its physical manifestation, delights in overturning established theories and scientists are hardly agreed even on the fundamentals of Nature as it has to do with the mind.  So, whether you want to consider homosexuality as a physical aberration or a mental deviance – either way you aren’t on a strong wicket.

Coming to the second concern: The argument of the religious minorities is that there is a sense of insecurity among the Christians and Muslims in India due to acts of aggression against their communities ever since the BJP government was elected to the Centre.  My counter to this is: Rather than allow themselves to feel persecuted, which subsequently clouds reason and provokes biased judgements, religious minority groups may want to weigh their disquiet against a few systematic intrusions into the Hindu’s religious space over the years:

The recent opening of the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s vaults and proactive political intervention to get the treasures ‘protected’ albeit due to judicial intervention [The court observed, ‘“Since the deity is a perpetual minor in the eyes of the law, the court has jurisdiction to protect it.”] has upset several Hindus, whose visit to seek peace in communion with their God has been perpetually marred by the subsequent draconian security. Hindu personal laws have also been repeatedly adjudicated upon and amended [“The Hindu community has been tolerant to these statutory interventions. But there appears a lack of secular commitment as it has not happened for other religions,” observed the Supreme Court in 2011].  However,  neither these nor co-equal interventions of a political nature in other temples and aspects of their life been seen by the Hindu community as an act of aggression by the parties in power.  They have not been projected as the face of authoritarianism by adherents of the Hindu religion regardless of the religious, social or political affiliations of those at the helm.

When words lose their meaning, and meanings their import

What does it mean to have the right to #FreedomOfExpression?  Is it simply to say whatever comes into your head? Is it to flirt with the scurrilous to ensure your media outfit gets all the ears and eyeballs?  Or is it to simply follow the flock so that you may not get left behind trying to tread a path less trodden?

No doubt it is important to question a policeman’s public rage at his daughter’s personal choice of spouse.  But as a father, was he given the media space to freely express his opinion about why he considers the choice of partner less wise?  When students having a party at a bar or getting intimate in a park are bashed up the media is right to call the vigilantes retrograde.  But the media should not shy away from using their right to also ask where the line should be drawn, especially when a young life is lost because a juvenile drove a car into a tree in the wee morning hours, killing the minor girl he was with.   A thali can be considered as much a regressive hangover of a patriarchal conservative society as a burqa.  Equally, the agents of choice are the individuals concerned and their voices have the right to be heard undiluted by scepticism.

The right to freedom of expression – whether on social or other media – should not be more for some than for others. The right to express freely on some topics is not more, and, equally, it is not less so if you take certain positions.

Re-visiting the #DelhiVerdict one month on

 

Was the #DelhiVerdict a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance or a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials?

I had expressed this doubt a month ago, soon after the Delhi election results were out. I imagined the trigger of suspicion was natural: Nothing in the run-up to the elections gave us to believe that there was such a groundswell of support for AAP that the mandate would be so lopsided.  Even the most optimistic projection gave them a little more than 50 seats – not a near sweep.  Kejriwal himself had been laying the grounds for explaining a possible defeat (EVMs dysfunctional; voter lists doctored; EC deliberately indulging in go-slow policy on voting day …).  So, what could best explain the massive mandate?  I argued that the fear of a truly clean combine in the form of a Bedi-Modi duo scared the vested interests so much that they preferred the untested entity called Kejriwal, who, by then, had possibly been ‘found out’ by these interests.  The gullible Delhi voter, of course, contributed in good faith.  But people just drowned me out, and branded me an unapologetic cynic who could never see a good thing even when the world slams it in the face.

With the AAP story now unravelling quicker than a party bunting, I assert with greater certainty: The #DelhiVerdict was less a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance and more a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials.  There are unlikely to be sniggers this time round.  And I am more likely to be seen as a seer than a sceptic :>)

#ModiMeetsThePress

 

The Prime Minister of India met the Press today. As always, on his own terms. He came. He spoke. He walked off or rather walked into the crowd of celebrity journalists, generously disbursed handshakes – hundreds of them, stuck a broad smile on his face for scores of selfies, spouted a few trademark one-liners, and went off without answering a single question. But none of the media anchors seemed to be complaining – not even the hard-boiled ones. Indeed, they had spent a couple of hours speculating over all the Ws and the H of the meeting. What was it all about? Why was it being held? Who were all invited and attending? And, how would it all end up! Well, to me it seemed it ended up with the media having egg on their face, but which they were loath to either see or wipe off. The last I heard, they were still going gaga over what a great guy Modi was, to have simply shaken their hands!!

Is this what the media in India has come to? Granted journalists in India are so starved of soundbytes from the powers that be they have forgotten what a true interaction with the press ought to be. Still it seems comical, even absurd, that 200+ hacks could wait 2 hours simply to get a handshake and a selfie with a PM, and to have tea and biscuits without him, even if the PM is the man for whom the clock never stops.