#Jayalalithaa: Feared, hated, admired, deified. Never loved.

The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments.  Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?

I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me.  I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa  gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.

The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest!  When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused.  I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.

When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!

As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.

Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.

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!

#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.

The #PakistanProblem: Taking recourse to Philosophy

 

Philosophy is a potent weapon in the arsenal of the optimist – some might even say the last resort of the diehard.  But for a citizen of a country that bears the burden of a Mahatma and is stuck with a fanatic neighbour that fabricates fairytales even for its history, Philosophy, perhaps, is a natural option.

Says Duryodhana, scion of the Kuru family, in the Mahabharatha, ‘I know what is right but I can’t seem to do it; I know what is wrong but can’t seem to give it up’.  Duryodhana had several qualities that could have made him the hero of the epic. But the quirk in his character immortalised him as the ignoble prince whose obduracy and single-minded pursuit of a flawed goal led to the annihilation of an entire race – almost.

How does one treat an entity like Duryodhana? Says Tiruvalluvar: ‘The good alone deserve affection is a refrain of the ignorant; it is the only tool to handle the wicked as well (araththirkkE anbu sArbenbar ariyAr; maraththirkkum adhE thuNai).’  We don’t know the context in which he wrote these words (Tirukkural: verse 75).  But peaceniks in India zealously follow this ideal and lecture the rest of India on the need to adopt this attitude towards Pakistan: Talk with them … keep talking … talks are the only way …, they say. But, as another Indian philosopher put it, generosity towards the undeserving can be called anything but virtue.

Trampling on faith

 

Turf Clubs are exclusive public places. There is no space there for activists who would question the right of a human to goad a horse to trot at a pace faster than it would like or to force the animal to negotiate hurdles wilfully placed on its path.

Temples, too, are exclusive public places. They are meant for believers to congregate, worship and offer prayers with devotion.  They are not spaces for activists to try their hand at modernising practices they consider archaic or to mock the unquestioning acceptance of traditions by the faithful.

In much the same way as activists, non-believers who run-down one or another deity cannot appreciate the sentiments of the faithful. Be they #Durga worshippers or #Mahishasura worshippers, Vamana-Trivikrama or #Mahabali worshippers, they are all together under the band of the devout. They find qualities that are noble in the object of their worship. This belief is not mere fodder for political adversaries to settle scores.

Deepavali, Demons, and Democracy

“This has been gained by me today; this too I shall obtain. This wealth is mine, the other too shall be mine”,

“That enemy has been slain by me, and others too I shall slay.  I am the Supreme Being, personification of delight, successful, powerful, happy.”

Thus deluded by ‘ignorance’ do those of demoniac temperament fall into hell, says the Bhagavad Gita (Ch.16; v. 13, 14).  The soundbytes on television, post #BiharElections, seem to indicate that our polity has thrown up many leaders with such dispositions. My concern is not their redemption, but that of the people of Bihar, who, I fear, they may drag to hell with them.

To quote that book for all seasons and all reasons, the Gita, again: “Perplexed by many a fanciful hope, entangled in the net of delusion, and addicted to the gratification of desires, they fall into foul hell (Ch.16; v. 19).”

Those who were not victorious in the #BattleForBihar may wish to ponder whether it was their disposition towards demoniacal tendencies of this nature that led them to ‘hell’, and if there is any way they can redeem themselves.

As we celebrate Deepavali, the victory of the divine over the demoniac, I wonder if, in our democracy, the choice, often, is between people who fall on the same side of this divide.

The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!