Thursday, January 29, 2009

Moral police?!

Terrorist attacks all over the country, a looming economic recession, corporate scams, corruption at all levels of government plus the usual poverty, illiteracy and disease. All of these mammoth problems and yet the “patriotic nationalists” of the Bajrang Dal and the Sri Rama Sene decided our most pressing problem was a bunch of young women having a drink or two in a pub. The recent attacks in a pub in Mangalore are particularly hard to digest, because having spent a considerable part of my formative years there; I do not remember ever having to deal with anything similar during my time there.

There are so many things wrong with this horrendous attack. The so called protectors of Indian culture didn’t just attempt to close down the place, but hit at, abused and molested a bunch of young women. From all accounts, it seems, these hooligans could have been beaten down by the sheer number of people present there at the time, but who only stood by watching, all except one man. And to top it all the state BJP government’s response to this incident has been nowhere near as condemning, hard and immediate as it should have been.

These attempts to impose on society one particular set of moral/cultural values are not new to us. Every year around February we hear of various nationalist/ Hindutva groups denouncing the degrading of Indian culture and threatening possible Valentine’s Day revellers with loss of limb and more if they attempt to celebrate. In a nation as diverse as ours who are these people to decide what constitutes Indian culture? Why does society let them get away with these acts of vandalism when they shouldn’t even be allowed to give out these threats? Why do we have politicians of various hues from the Congress’ Ashok Gehlot to BJP’s Yeddyurappa mouth off on what we should and should not be doing in our private lives without any fear of public reprisal? The truth is that if society stays silent in the face of these kinds of attacks, then it only emboldens these hooligans to carry out more attacks. It is time we stood up and declared that this sort of moral policing will not be accepted anymore. It is time we declared that ours is the land of the Kamasutra and a few young couples choosing to celebrate Valentine’s Day does not in anyway threaten our national/moral fabric. It is time Hindus all over this country shouted down the so called Ram bhakts and declared that the Lord Ram we worship respected women and would never raise His hand against them. It is time we firmly asked government or anyone else who nurtures moral policing ambitions to stay out of our private lives and that what we do within the confines of our homes and within the limits of the law should strictly stay there. It is time we reclaim our right to live as we choose, with whomever we want and how we want to. It is time to impose our own brand of moral policing. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Change, but can we believe?

Every generation has at least one epochal event in their lifetimes when they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it occurred. Ours seems to have more than its fair share and most of them not positive ones. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the destruction of Babri Masjid or the events of 9/11 are just a few. But on the 20th of January 2009, the inauguration and swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the USA was an event to stand back and savour.

As an Indian who has never had to face racial discrimination of any sort it’s hard to imagine the thoughts or feelings of the millions of African-Americans for whom the colour of their skin decided where they studied, or what they did for a living and at what wages, or where they lived. In a nation where up until 1965 black people could not vote, it must be a truly remarkable and inspiring feeling to watch a black man lead his successful black wife and kids into the White House. But Obama’s presidency also marks the end of the Bush years. How America managed to send George W Bush, not once but twice, to the hot seat will forever remain an enigma and an embarrassing one at that. So it is with relief, hope and a tremendous amount of global goodwill that President Obama begins his term.

Barack Obama has had a meteoric rise from small-time state level politics to the most powerful job in the world in the span of 5years. In that time he has been put under the scanner and given the media spotlight like no other politician before him. He has been honest, in a spectacularly articulate manner, about his origins, his influences and his political ideologies. He is probably the first President to be elected after admitting drug use in college. With a white Texan mother, a black Kenyan father, a part Indonesian step-sister and brought up in Hawaii by his white grandparents he truly brings a touch of the exotic to the White House. But make no mistake about it; Obama is where he is today not because his is a compelling story, which it is, but because he is a very smart politician.

His message of change and hope resonated with American voters, during a time of crisis the likes of which has not been seen in the last two generations. And that, along with his electrifying oratory, rock star appeal and a brilliantly run campaign has brought him where no other African American has gone before. But at the end of his term if that is all President Obama will be remembered for, it would be a massive disappointment. He has been accused often enough of empty rhetoric and inexperience. He has also, with some justification, been accused of being vague on the details. But the time has now come to walk the talk. Most commentators agree he will be given an extended honeymoon and that his initial efforts will be directed towards the ailing American economy. And that is but expected. But he would do well to remember that in the run up to the November elections, polls showed him ahead of McCain almost worldwide. That is a testimony not only to American influence on global issues, but also to the weight of expectations his candidacy has aroused. He has already brought to fruition the first of his campaign slogans; “Yes We Can.” The world waits for him to realize the second; “Change we can believe in.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Selfish Indian

It is both depressing and ironic that a company named “Satyam” is involved in the biggest corporate scam of recent times in India.  The shocking revelations by former chairman B Ramalinga Raju added significantly to corporate India’s gloom this new year. Thankfully, Mr Raju may be forced to face the consequences of his actions although he seems to be resorting to the usual tricks such as suddenly developing severe medical complaints to avoid time in jail. But hopefully the law will take its course this time. But the powers that be are asking if that will be enough? Whether making an example of Mr Raju will repair the dent in corporate India’s shining image? But shouldn’t the question be why something like this should happen in the first place? Why would the senior management of one of India’s biggest financial success stories resort to fraud? Or even bigger questions like, was this whole scandal inevitable considering our Indian nature?

A book I read recently, Games Indians Play by V. Raghunathan, uses game theory and behavioural economics to understand the reasons behind the way we do things. It raises some interesting observations. Occurrences and behaviours that we consider part of modern Indian society, when put under a scanner, should really shame us. For example, our complete lack of public hygiene, the impunity with which we cross red lights at traffic signals, our complete disregard for corruption at all levels in our society. Mr Raghunathan in this delightful book suggests that the problem lies in our inherently selfish nature. His theory is that most Indians use their famed intelligence to assess any situation to see how it can be beneficial to them. Now this by itself is not a problem, the problem arises when it is associated with a complete disregard for the rule of the law. The author in his book says most Indians have a low degree for self regulation and will take the easy less painful solution to any problem. Thus urinating in public or littering is simply done because we can and we know that everyone else does it with no real personal consequence. We totally disregard how this behaviour affects society at large. Similarly cutting a red light is alright because we know that cop most likely will not be on duty, or even if he is will not be bothered enough to catch and fine us, or even if he does apprehend us will accept a bribe lower than whatever fine we would be required to pay. So its a win-win situation over all. Here both the cop and the person cutting the red light are behaving selfishly and ignoring with impunity their larger responsibility to society.

While we may disagree with the basic premise of the book that most Indians are inherently selfish, it is hard to ignore the fact that all of these behaviours are part of our daily lives. In some way or other all of us have at one time or other done some of these things, thinking that its not our individual responsibility when no one else seems to bother.  Surely some of these problems will be controlled if only we had effective implementation of the law. But that is again passing the buck. If on the other hand each one of us decided we will follow the law, in letter and spirit, or that we will not litter, or display better traffic etiquette, imagine how much of a difference it would make almost immediately to society.

Most nationalities are associated with a derogatory adjective; the prudish Brit, the snobbish Frenchman, the arrogant/ignorant American. Generally for us it has been the sly Indian which all things considered isn’t so bad. It would be infinitely worse if that became the selfish Indian.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


So we're four days into another new year and the effects of all that revelry is just about wearing off. Now granted that the first few hours of a new year hardly constitute a time for profound introspection (or introspection of any sort for that matter), but there's something about the idea of yet another year being seen off that brings about just that kind of unwelcome thought bubbling to one's mind. Anyway there I was, in the wee hours of the new year wondering what this signifies for me and for all of us in general. Not the best way to start the new year.
At the end of every year we gear up for a round of partying to signal the end of one year and to ring in the new year. But what's the point of all this partying. What is it that we are celebrating? At the end of all it most of us just have to drag our sorry selves to work the next day where nothing really has changed. We are still doing the same things we were doing last year, still surrounded by the same irritating people we try and avoid getting into conversations with, still bundled with the same same amount of obligations, financial or otherwise, and thats assuming we didn't end up doing anything really silly the previous night. So whats there to be really happy about? Whats there to look forward to? Now, on the other hand, if we were given a clean slate where all our cumulative mistakes, debt and skeletons in closets were wiped out at the end of the year, then there would be reason to celebrate and be hopeful. Since thats not going happen we really have very few choices to make any new year happier than the previous one. Resolutions to achieve specific goals have a tendency to fizzle out before the first month is over. We are too involved in our lives to spare the time to lose those extra pounds, or read that new book or go on that vacation. Just as we were last year. 
But what we can hope to change is how we interact with our neighbour, how we view our position in our family and our society, how we assess our self worth. Too much effort in our daily life is spent on just getting through the day. We could all do with a lot more patience and equanimity. We always end up wanting more in our lives, most of it material. The best things in life, however, we cant measure. 
Now if all of this sounds like I'm still hungover, that could just be true. But come this new year, I'm just aiming to be happier, in every way possible. And thats the wish I want to send out to the world. HAPPY NEW YEAR.