Thursday, December 20, 2012

Article on adoption in The Age

Today's edition of The Age has an insightful article on adoption and adoption law in Australia. The article, a full-page feature on its last page, discusses the relatively recent changes in the law (enabling access to information regarding the identity of the biological parent) against the backdrop of the personal struggles of several children adopted between the 1950s and 1970s to learn more about the conditions surrounding their birth. The article focuses in particular on the stories of two people from Melbourne who've spent more than 30 years trying to discover the identity of their respective birth mothers. Their inquiries have been thwarted by the fact that the adoption papers of their generation often contained factual anomalies - their birth dates and other details were changed to evade later identification. A historian at ACU argues that this is because adoptions, particularly of children born of unwed mothers, weren't socially publicized. This led several adoptive families to "effectively erase" any vestiges of their children's prior identity, including their prior name (if any) and birth information. For the two people profiled in the article, this has meant an unending, tenuous and difficult emotional journey. One of them discovered that he was adopted only after the death of his mother in 1980. He found, among her personal effects, albums with photos of his boyhood years but none of his birth, which led him to ask some difficult but pertinent questions. He found pictures of his mother dressed as a bride but none of the bridegroom, leading him to suspect that her wedding was a "mock-up". The other, a lady, found her birth mother's name on her birth certificate, which said that she was a nurse who'd arrived from London. She went to England in search of any remaining relatives or friends who could shed some light on her mother but returned unsuccessful. She said, "Not knowing is like a black hole and sometimes I feel as though I am falling into it."

The article raises several important questions about the nature of identity and the ways in which it can become the overriding determinant of a person's life. I personally believe that greater transparency in adoption laws, and in social relations surrounding adoption, is a necessary and important development. I find it hard to imagine being in the shoes of the two people mentioned in the article and undoubtedly those of several others like them. It is also important to recognize that it must be equally difficult for the adoptive family to process the emotional uncertainties, vulnerabilities and pitfalls inherent in the journey. Adoption is beautiful and life-changing. But it is also an onerous undertaking. There is so much at stake. The loss of the adoptive parents' primacy in their child's life can be devastating, and the journey towards self-discovery can be painful and arduous. Openness and some serious thinking about the support mechanisms available to families would definitely contribute to better understanding and improved communication between families.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The right to voice an opinion: Mumbai politics and the arrest of two young women

In the city of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray, the leader of the nationalist and far-right political party Shiv Sena, died on November 17. A de facto bandh (or daylong curfew) was observed immediately after his death. A 21-year-old woman in a town near Mumbai called Palgarh put up a status message on facebook questioning the rationale behind observing a complete shut-down in a city as busy as Mumbai. A friend of hers 'liked' the post.

Both were arrested by the police upon receipt of a complaint made by a party functionary, and reportedly at night, which is against Supreme Court guidelines pertaining to the arrest of women. They were charged with "causing enmity between classes" and instigating religious conflict or hurting "religious sentiments" under provisions of the IT Act. Their uncle's clinic, as reported in the press, was vandalized by around 30-40 people, causing losses estimated somewhere between 15 and 20 lakh INR (around 35k AUD).

While it has been acknowledged by rational-minded individuals that her comment had nothing to do with causing religious offense - democracy ensures and safeguards the right to an opinion on political matters - the damage has already been done. The girls, in their interaction with the media after their arrest and release on bail, said that they had deactivated their facebook accounts and would think several times before posting anything again. They apologized for the comment and accepted responsibility for their actions. It is evident that a climate of intimidation and violence leads to self-censorship. It is also evident that a person cannot exercise his or her right to freedom of expression when political parties and the police, powerful arms of the state, react in such a manner, causing mental trauma and often physical hurt. Although women's rights groups, civil society and several political parties have condemned the incident and sought reparation, and though the courts may intervene, the fact remains that the damage has already been done. The purpose of intimidation is to spread fear, and fear is most potent when handed out by the arm of the law. The lesson lies not in the arbitrary nature of the arrest, it lies in the retraction of the girl's comments, her submission and her apology. It lies in the fact that she conceded she would never post anything again without thinking twice. Whether justified or not, the arrest has served its purpose. It will remind several others of the dangers of voicing an opinion.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One-way traffic

This post is a bit academic, and is taken from something I'm putting together today, so I may as well leave in all the in-text references for greater coherence.

One of the interesting things about globalization theory is the wide range of opinion on it (Held 2000). While several critics (Tunstall 1977; Schiller 1976; Fejes 1981; Golding 1983; MacBride 1980, etc.) have argued that globalization necessarily implies a Westernization of developing societies, and hence a form of cultural imperialism, several others have also called it an inevitable by-product of the process of universal and simultaneous modernization, thereby undercutting the idea of intentionality or its relation to "imperialism" (Tomlinson 1991; Barker 1997, Giddens 2002). In academic theory, there is growing consensus that the multifarious processes of globalization imvolve complex interactions between the global (mostly understood to mean Western) and local (mostly non-Western), emphasizing hybridity, confusion and inter-operability (Giddens 2002; Pieterse 1995). Several have noted the phenomenon of global corporations and entities modifying themselves to suit local contexts and situations, in order to deliver what's important to local consumers (Robertson 1995; Madden 2002). There is a sense that the global needs to conform to the local in order to produce something that is uniquely trans-local, i.e. the phenomenon many refer to using the neologism "glocalization".

(Now, for the non-academic/ blog bit -)

Yet in all of this, there is some degree of unidirectionality. Everything seems to flow from the global to the local, or from the Western to the non-Western. Either this is a pecularity of theory, or there is something essentially true about this particular characteristic of global flows. Maybe it is indeed a one-way process. Many would argue that it isn't, and that local flows do make their way (back) into the dominant paradigms of the West. However, isn't this what we call "multiculturalism", i.e. the presence of the non-Western in Western paradigms? And this term evokes some degree of critical (e.g., Schmitt 1992) and journalistic (e.g., Andrew Bolt and others) anxiety. So, in a way, there is something universal about the flow of the global to the local, and simultaneously something problematic or disorienting or disruptive about the entry of the local into the global. A lot of these concepts are somewhat antedated now (surely because of the cotinuous success or effectiveness of globalization?), but it's still interesting to see how they relate to each other even today.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Media scholarship in India

As a researcher looking at the Indian media, you may encounter certain impediments. The first is the ostensible lack of media scholarship. A lot of the extant scholarship comes from the pre-1990s era, and a sizeable portion of that lacks rigour. There are several reasons for this. Media studies have not gained an academic foothold yet. Journalism and mass communication courses do cater to the professional requirements of the industry, as they should, but do not focus too much on the need for consolidating scholarship on the media. A part of this has to do with the nature and constitution of academia in India - the resistance to innovation and scholarly forays into new fields; administrative suspicion of traditional academic values such as creativity, learning and old-fashioned erudition; the corporatization of education and reformulation of what constitutes a "good education"; and the somewhat more basic and worrisome lack of a strong research culture. Apart from this, one is compelled to acknowledge over time, in opposition to Amartya Sen's understanding of the "argumentative Indian", that Indian culture and society neither promote nor seem conducive to rigorous intellectual enquiry, either formal (as institutional academia) or informal (as the less quantifiable but more important constituent of civic life conceptualized as the "public sphere"). There are many ways to argue this point but a simple way is to point out that most students, including students of the Humanities, are indifferent to reading the newspaper or watching the news, believing, as some do, that what happens in politics and society does not affect their daily lives. What does it all mean for the student of media? Plain old grumbling about the lack of this and the poor quality of that? No. It means that you are looking at a very specific kind of social framework - the framework of the anti-intellectual society, wherein bureaucratic demands and market forces subsume knowledge and learning; as also a framework that privileges politicking, sub-standard quality over learning and talent. If, as a researcher, you find yourself embedded in this framework, you need to understand what this means for you and you need to come to terms with your limitations. There is no one answer and there is no position of "privilege" if you seek meaningful ways of understanding your society. On the issue of writing and reportage, even the way language is constructed and constituted in the public domain impacts its overall meaning - the sometimes unclear and difficult-to-read reportage of newspapers reflects on the nature of society too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What the Seema Azad verdict says about us

It has been a while now since Seema Azad and her husband, Vishwa Vijay, were first sentenced to life imprisonment by a UP sessions court and then granted bail by the Allahabad High Court. The case did not get as much attention in the national media as the Binayak Sen case (2007-11), but the PUCL and other democratic organizations fought consistently through the years of their incarceration for their freedom and vindication. They are social activists in UP who have written extensively on illegal mining in the state and have worked several years to highlight instances of state oppression and injustice. At the time of her arrest, Seema was the organizing secretary of the state unit of the PUCL. They were arrested in February 2010 and charged with being members and supporters of the banned CPI (Maoist). On June 8, 2012, after they had spent two years in jail without reprieve, the Allahabad sessions court found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The verdict was based primarily on the so-called "pro-Maoist" literature recovered from their residence and a purported confession made in police custody (which is inadmissible by law). While a lot of the literature cited as incriminatory in court was essentially political in nature (it's an ironic comment on Indian "democracy" that anything remotely to do with social justice is selectively interpreted as inflammatory or "seditious", re sec. 124-A of the IPC), the judge also reportedly admitted the confession as valid and based his judgment on it. The high court, in granting her bail earlier this month, obviously took note of these anomalies; however, the appeal against the sessions court verdict, given the pace of judicial review, will now only come before the high court much later (some estimate that it may even take 30 years).

What does the verdict say about us? That we are essentially an undemocratic and repressive police state with a judicial system that often contradicts itself and undermines its own stated principles?

The Supreme Court has set several precedents (e.g. Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, 1962) that delimit the law of sedition (eliminating any factors that do not survive the test of free speech guaranteed by the constitution) and has established, through various judgments, the fact that mere membership of a banned organization does not by itself constitute a crime. There is virtually no plausible explanation for the fact that so many people are sentenced to jail on non-existent, untenable or fabricated evidence despite a clear and unambiguous history of judicial review that impugns such judgments and unequivocally rejects the doctrine of "guilt by association" (especially if such association is patently fabricated and specious).

However, this isn't primarily about the judicial process. The police persecute social activists and the state actively sanctions their persecution, with government after government supporting the existence and continuance of draconian "anti-terror" laws. This is primarily about the suppression of dissent and the punishment of those who speak out against oppression. While almost all liberal democratic countries have done away with the crime of "sedition", Indian citizens continue to languish in jail on the basis of such obsolete and insidious colonial-era laws as the one on sedition. The Indian state thrives on the brutal suppression of dissent and of those who question or obstruct its path of expropriation, exclusion and even annihilation. There are thousands of people trapped in jails across the country on false cases and false allegations, simply because they chose to question the logic of exploitation and fight against their oppression. Moreover, the persecution of activists and human rights workers slips in and out of mainstream national discourse, and due to decreased and inconsistent media scrutiny, many instances remain unreported, hidden and ignored. We have grown accustomed to state violence and see nothing special about lives wasted in jail. What this verdict says about us is that we live under active state repression and our democracy is constantly besieged by internal, implosive forces. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mass exodus

Thousands of migrant workers and students from the north-east are fleeing the southern cities now, particularly Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. For the past few days, there have been stampedes at railway stations crammed with multitudes of people desperately waiting for a number of specially scheduled trains to take them back to Guwahati. Every such train that arrives at Bangalore railway station precipitates a virtual stampede, with thousands of panic-stricken passengers, with or without tickets, pushing into overcrowded compartments. Railway platforms have become veritable makeshift camps, with stranded passengers anxiously waiting to board the next train, uncertain about the possibility of making it in time. To ameliorate the situation, the railway authorities have arranged for additional services but these are nowhere near commensurate with the sudden and tremendous upsurge in demand. Yesterday, there were 7,500 ticketed passengers boarding four Guwahati-bound trains in Bangalore, including three special trains apart from the regular Banglore-Guwahati Express. Workers, students, professionals from the north-east are reluctant to go back to their lives in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai (and towns like Madurai, Coimbatore and others). The perceptible threat of ethnic conflict in the air makes any pretense of normalcy impossible.

What is particularly insidious about this "threat" is that it's been instigated by "rumours" and the circulation of doctored videos. A report in the papers yesterday quoted from a Pakistani blogger's study of the videos doing the rounds in Indian cities, which found that the videos, purportedly of the Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam, contained a number of shots from previous incidents of violence from other places. These videos were not of the Assam riots but were circulated as "evidence" of the atrocities committed in Assam. While hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in Assam and continue to languish in makeshift IDP camps, these calculated attempts to incite further violence in other parts of the country are opportunistic and extremely dangerous. North-eastern migrant workers in Chennai speak of "rumours" and implicit threats to leave the city by August 20. In Mumbai, 58 policemen and 5 civilians were injured when a crowd clashed with the police at a protest meeting organized by the Raza Academy in Azad Maidan. Two people died in the police firing that followed.

The home minister of Karnataka arrived at the railway station in Bangalore on Wednesday evening and made an appeal to the passengers to return to their homes in the city. He assured them that security would be maintained at all costs. His appeal was drowned out by the angry responses of the passengers. The police held meetings on Thursday with north-eastern and Muslim representatives. The fact of the matter is that no ethnic conflict in the past has been mitigated by police vigilance. The people, fearing for their safety in a polarized and violent political climate, have no alternative but to rush back "home" and hope for some semblance of normalcy and security.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

China-India: the cultural myth

In the Indian media, China and India are often clubbed together in political and economic discussions. There is a tendency on the part of Indian journalists to refer to the two countries as one intelligible unit, mainly using the perspective adopted by certain international bodies and organizations in matters of economic policy. However, aside from the obvious and well-recognized fact that there are gargantuan differences between their respective socio-economic profiles, there are also great cultural differences that are elided when such references are made in the media.

From a lay perspective, Chinese culture and Indian culture most certainly fundamentally differ in an indefinite number of ways. Let's look at it from the point of view of migrants. The Chinese migrant in a foreign country forms or reinforces a distinctive cultural identity and usually becomes part of a visible and cohesive group of fellow compatriots. The Indian migrant, like the African emigre, does not necessarily become part of a cohesive group. There is a discernible lack of cohesion in Indian migrant communities, and there are several linguistic and cultural factors underpinning this diffuse state of being. There might be specific instances of well-formed and discernible groups of Indian migrants, but if you notice a little more carefully, you will usually find that they belong to a single ethnic or linguistic community. This difference in tendencies of migrant group-formation is reflective of internal cultural vicissitudes. While the Chinese can claim to have a certain degree of linguistic uniformity, Indians can only claim the exact opposite. There are several other factors that contribute to their mutual distinctiveness, and many of these are less palpable. There are subtleties of speech and conduct that cannot be adequately translated from direct experience to writing.

How does one explain the difference in the approach of the Chinese storekeeper from that of the Indian storekeeper? The petty bourgeoisie as a class constitutes the most visible segment of all migrant communities taken collectively. In my experience, while certain storekeepers of Indian origin (including those from countries such as Mauritius and Fiji) express a sense of familiarity that borders on the curious and informal, Chinese storekeepers tend to assume a more incurious, subdued and taciturn demeanour. A strict sense of formality marks their speech and interaction with customers in general, even their Chinese customers.

One gets the sense that the Chinese emigre is more inward-looking and self-content, exuding a sense of self-sufficiency quite unique in international settings, and yet simultaneously more likely to become part of a support network of fellow migrants. The Indian emigre does not identify with a pre-existing or nascent group of fellow migrants as easily. Considerations of class, language, ethnicity and background tend to effectively create more lacunae among Indian migrant communities. There are many different facets of each culture that cannot be adequately understood from this limited perspective, but overall, there are several nuances that distinguish the two cultures. Any and all references to the China-India combine as a homogenized entity, particularly in the Indian media, are, as mentioned earlier, not only politically and economically inaccurate but also culturally misleading.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Pagoda Street, Chinatown

I haven't updated my blog in a while, and so I thought I'd write about my recent transit week in Singapore. Singapore is a truly beautiful city, but its beauty can so easily be miscontrued as clinical modernity and organized perfection. The drive to the city from the airport is deliberately designed, unlike many other places, in such a way as to astound the visitor with its overabundance of greenery and sense of endless space. The moment you leave the airport, you're sold. But the city itself is so much more fascinating for its absolutely pragmatic and yet aesthetic conception of space and access. Chinatown, for example, is a thriving historical and artistic amalgam of European and Chinese architectural elements that commingle so effortlessly and yet in such a planned and deliberate manner. The lines of brightly coloured buildings are punctuated by temples and concrete complexes housing hawker centres, against a backdrop of gigantic apartment complexes on one side and the towering clusters of the CBD skyscrapers on the other. In this area, the intimate and uber-chic pubs and restaurants on Club Street open out into the wide, open grids and gigantic structures of the CBD. Arab St. and Haji Lane are quaint, totally bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) and so fantastic. Little India has a lot of atmosphere, and you can feel the departure from regular Singapore. Geylang, where we stayed, is a sea of Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants, arrayed in a highly visually arresting manner. Its shops, restaurants and bars are open all day and night, till 6 in the morning. It's also the red light district of Singapore and the centre of the most pulsating noctural gathering of old and young alike. The atmosphere of familiarity, openness and directness is a far cry from any suggestion of hypocrisy. It's vibrant and alive.

People in Singapore are extremely private and inward-looking. From a lay traveler's point of view, traveling on the MRT is a good indication of how people interact with each other (or not). Most passengers on the buses or MRT will obsessively engage with their phones or ipads and maintain an equilibrium of silence. People avoid eye contact like the plague. What becomes really obvious when you use public transport is the tremendously cosmopolitan nature of the city. While people of Chinese origin constitute approximately 85% of the population, Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Japanese form a large swathe of the people you encounter on the streets. While most of the city speaks English (or Singlish, its local hybrid form), many Chinese vendors in Geylang (for instance) do not speak the language. As for food, not even an entire tome would do justice to the wonderful and endless variety of cuisine available. For me, the best kind of restaurant in Singapore is the Chinese buffet, where rice is for 50-70 cents, each kind of vegetable for 50-70 cents and meat for 1 dollar. So, for a full meal of rice, vegetables and perhaps two kinds of meat, you'd pay approximately 3 dollars.

Most of Singapore's landscape is populated by high-rise apartment buildings, and because the state needs to be economical about its use of space, many of the private condominiums and Housing Development Board (HDB) buildings offer small but perfectly complete and aesthetically designed living quarters. The government offers various family planning incentives to citizens as well, which I learned from my family friends there. While buying a house close to your parents gets you a 50 grand rebate, having a certain number of kids by a certain age (I think 30) will allow you to avail of special tax benefits. In HDB buildings, a set ratio of ethnicities is maintained. A Chinese owner can't sell his apartment to a Malay or Indian buyer, and vice versa. There are strict regulations governing these aspects of life. Morever, discussions of religion, ethnicity and certain other subjects are socially (and perhaps legally) frowned upon.

Singapore, like certain other cities in Asia, has a very special kind of atmosphere. Its modernity, its technological prowess and its ambitious aestheticism combine to produce a unique effect on the traveler. Simply put, I really like Singapore. I think I'd like to go back again. It's a young country but there's a lingering sense of history, and simultaneous renewal. It's hard to describe this. Most people see a modern, developed Singapore but there's a distinct memory of the past that underlies its very fabric. I started reading the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew on my last day there (first prime minister; discusses the Malay-Chinese problems of the pre-partition days and consequent independence from Malaysia) but couldn't finish it. Could be interesting to locate it again and read about the development of Singapore from his vantage point.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Stress can be quite tough to handle. A very few people have the capacity to endure difficulty without much mental agony, and most people suffer immensely. There's very little you can do when something terrible happens and it's completely out of your control. There's a lot of pressure that comes with feeling powerless to change things. In a system where you are not afforded protection against the effects of arbitrary events and occurences, you are bound to feel more stressed and pressured than if you had a sense that events beyond your control wouldn't impact you. Yet they do. There are many things that will damage or hurt you, directly or indirectly, and you will need to be strong to overcome them. Many times I have heard it said that one should remain calm in the face of difficulty. I have come to realize that I cannot be calm or at peace; that I am highly prone to pressurizing myself, and that's just who I am. It's least helpful but stress comes to me almost automatically and that's how I deal with problems. I endure the most restive, unproductive, stifling but ultimately necessary kind of stress until I know that I've reached a kind of resolution.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother

Finally read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother at one go till three in the morning last night! It is a simple yet stupendous work that inspires you at so many wonderful levels, your mind is left buzzing with an infinity of questions, perspectives, doubts and convictions. More than anything else, it is a tale of love, commitment and hardcore determination. It is a tale both of success and failure. It is a story that inspires an abundance of warmth, trepidation and courage all at once. Amazingly, it is also a book about music - the most important theme that pervades the novel. The way in which music flows through her memoir on parenting is fantastic! There is an incredible lot that one could say about the Tiger Mother, but one thing is for certain - she is brutally honest, forthright and brave. The book teaches you the value of discipline and the power of commitment. It demonstrates the arduousness that underlies the process of raising children, and it celebrates the triumph of solid foundational values. The fact that she is scathingly honest in her book about her views on what she calls Western-style parenting frightened the American media into a tailspin of paranoia, defensiveness and uninformed opinion-mongering upon its publication last year, but Battle Hymn speaks for itself and teaches you some crucial lessons. You can agree or disagree with her views, but you've got to admire her sheer grit and determination!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mamata's Woes

Before the story of Mamata Banerjee's persecution of newspapers critical of her government can die down, there are other stories out in the media highlighting the inanity and sheer madness of her political vendetta. In today's papers, there are reports of a TMC minister's injunction, no doubt mooted by MB, on TMC members attending the weddings of CPI members or their relatives. The minister clarified that he had nothing against the members of the two political clans inter-marrying, if such miscegenation could indeed be imagined, but he wanted no form of social interaction or contact between them!

MB has gone from one paranoid assertion of conspiracy to the next without any introspection. She has brushed aside rape cases, hospital deaths, railway budgets, facebook cartoons/ caricatures and several other things as conspiracies to target and embarrass her. She recently even transferred the senior lady police officer in Calcutta who "dared" to go against her diktat and investigate the Park Street rape case, making no attempt to veil her vindictive intent. Partho Ray, a scientist and activist critical of state violence, was arrested on April 8 for "obstructing the police during an eviction drive" in the city, even though his friends claim that he wasn't even present at the purported site. Amidst all this mindless paranoia, fear mongering, politicking and "fascist" conduct (in the words of Mahasweta Devi, who supported MB during her election campaign), she has had the time to meet a Samajwadi Party representative to discuss the prospect of a national alliance. Her parochial attitude and dictatorial manner of functioning are detrimental to politics in general, and she would no doubt become a national burden if foisted on the national stage in any more significant proportion.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The General as Whistle-blower

The general confusion regarding General Singh's comments is a little perplexing. Yesterday, reading Praveen Swami's article on defense acquisitions and military preparedness in India, I realized that a lot of people were in panic mode. (Swami's article serves to reassure those questioning the country's perceived instability vis-a-vis China, and to debunk the notion of progressive increases in budgetary defense spending.) What is at issue here, however, if not in the media then certainly in parliament, is the locus standi of the general - can the chief of the armed forces make public statements about the state of the nation's military without prior sanction and permission from the civil authorities? While MS Yadav, Laloo Yadav, Sushma Swaraj et al seem to be vehemently against the perceived "insubordination" of the general, several military men are all too aware of the internal contradictions of military hierarchy and see the general's outburst as an opportune moment to publicly scrutinize the corruption that is strangulating military expenditure.

At another level, it is also about the political class's intolerance for whistle-blowers. While "quick action" in some form (cosmetic or otherwise) necessarily follows a media expose, the discussion in political circles necessarily centers on the audacity of the whistle-blower and possible punitive treatment. This hypocritical mentality is deeply rooted in legislative bodies. The Karnataka assembly's report on the "porngate" scandal is an exercise in self-justification and media-bashing. While the former ministers caught on camera watching a porn video on one of their mobile phones have more or less been exculpated (spam video, etc.), the majority of the report is apparently dedicated to criticism of the media's audacity in publicizing the event and focusing on the errant ministers rather than the business of the house. Yet again, one media channel in particular has been singled out for harsh criticism. The whistle-blower is always the main problem in political circles, not the act of corruption or misconduct itself.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Gag the Media?

Recent events and developments highlight the vulnerability of the media in the face of multifarious onslaughts. Over the last few weeks, there have been several reports of the Supreme Court's recent concerted attempt to frame guidelines for court reporting in response to a growing anxiety within the judiciary about the power of the media to influence judicial proceedings. The argument that has been made by the Editors' Guild in court highlights the need to hold discussions instead of framing guidelines. There already exist several precedents and codes of conduct that govern court reporting. Any further injunctions and impediments in the path of free speech may make the media's role defunct. Access to information on current judicial proceedings is an important aspect of civic activism. If the judiciary is an arm of the government, which it explicit is, then it is incumbent on the judiciary to uphold the expected levels of transparency demanded of other gubernatorial institutions as well. Likewise, if the judiciary devises for itself an exclusive mechanism of public reticence, then it may provide legal incentive for the other arms of the government to follow suit. The two articles currently being discussed in the court are Article 19 (freedom of expression) and Article 21 (right to uphold life and personal liberty). The latter is, in a sense, being used as a reasonable restriction on the former (prejudicial reporting on cases under trial), which argument the Guild's counsel has debunked. A third article pertains to the power of the court to execute substantial justice (Article 132), which is not really relevant to the discussion since there is no specific appellate petition at hand. The argument of postponing the publication of reports is also detrimental to the freedom of the press, since belated reports are bound to become irrelevant and dispensable.

On the other hand, in West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee's government has issued a circular restricting the number of newspapers available in publicly-funded institutions. The explicit aim of the order is to remove those newspapers from public institutions that are critical of her government. She hasn't even attempted to obfuscate or veil her purported intent. At a press conference, she even unwittingly threatened more drastic action against critical newspapers, saying that she wasn't incapable of imposing further restrictions. Other than the legal nullity of such threats, it is evident that her despotic mentality is wreaking havoc in the state. Her desperate attempts to portray all criticisms as conspiracies are fast making her a politician unfit for the demands of democratic politics. Whilst there is something patently farcical about her media-gagging exercises, there is also something perceptibly dangerous implicit in the overall scheme of things.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Trial in Norway

As is evident from the case of the Bhattacharyas and their two children in foster care in Norway, the country's Child Welfare Services is shrouded in secrecy and bureaucratic inscrutability. A recent report states that a Sri Lankan couple in Norway too are currently in a similar predicament - their teenaged children were forcibly separated from them last year and placed in foster care. Last November, the parents received a summons from the Child Welfare Services. When they arrived at the office, they found their children waiting there as well. The children had been taken out of class and escorted to the department office. The parents were summarily informed by the department that their parenting methods were inadequate, and their children were immediately placed in foster care - they too were separated and sent to two different homes - without any explanation. They are currently awaiting a review of their case. The children are allowed to meet their parents on scheduled dates, but the latter have recently been informed that their meetings are far too long for the children's own good. The children are perplexed and obviously traumatized. They cannot comprehend their situation at all and keep asking their parents to take them home.

Reading the report prepared by the department, the parents learned that the CWS believed that they did not know "how to raise" their children (contextual determinants unexplained) and that they gave their children "too much chocolate" - all apparently decisive factors in the children's forced dislocation from their family and home environment. Until recently, the Bhattacharyas remained entirely ignorant of the department's charges against them, but a newspaper report revealed a few weeks ago that the CWS had deemed them incapable of handling their children's "psychological stress", which had resulted in their children being forcibly taken away from them and placed in foster care.

A Norwegian academic published an essay in The Hindu a month ago and spoke with gratitude of the outrage in the Indian media over the treatment meted out to the Bhattacharyas and the consequent debate generated in Norway about its child-care system. She detailed the nuances of the state welfare systems supporting the cruel and arbitrary child laws in Norway (and in Scandinavian countries in general) and provided several other instances of forced institutionalization. She recounted a case in which the children of two Turkish-origin Norwegian parents were abducted from Turkey by the CWS and brought back to Norway to be placed in institutional care. The essay cited several other instances of bizarre and unwarranted state intervention. A Norwegian mother was once summoned by the department and warned about prospective punitive action against her because her son had painted in his art class a fishbowl with a goldfish in it - the department told her that they believed the goldfish in the bowl symbolically "represented" psychological entrapment and stress, and that she as a mother would lose custody of her child if he persisted in manifesting mental "trauma".

The Bhattacharyas' case, from all accounts, appears to be headed in their favour, largely due to the Indian government's intervention in the matter. The Sri Lankan parents whose children were taken away last year have no such leverage - they are officially Norwegian citizens. They have no choice but to follow the instructions of the CWS in filing their review petition.

I recently re-read Kafka's The Trial. The strangeness and cruelty of Kafka's dystopian world are manifest in the Norwegian state and its child-care apparatus. In the novel, K is thrust into an existential nightmare when he finds himself confronting an implacable and unfathomable judicial system, fighting a case against him that he knows absolutely nothing about. He is able to determine neither the allegations against him nor the means of redressal. Yet imperceptibly, he gradually plunges further and further into the bureaucratic labyrinth that threatens to overpower him. In the end, he is calmly executed by the nameless, faceless agents of the state, who know as little of his purported crime as K himself. He dies without ever discovering the charges against him.

The CWS in Norway accuses parents of unspecified crimes and then arbitrarily snatches their children away. These accusations of neglect, incapacity and irresponsibility eventually come undone when parents are told the specific instances on which the charges are based, charges that by any moral standard then appear baseless and dismissible - by that time, however, the children are already in foster care. Many are never returned to their parents.

The state's interventionism should never become so draconian as to dehumanize individual families and subject them to arbitrary destruction and dissolution. A state that intrudes so viciously into the realm of the personal is a state that threatens to become all-consuming, destroying the individual completely and abandoning all hopes of individual freedom and self-determination.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Police Assualts and Evictions

The Supreme Court recently vindicated Baba Ramdev's stand on the Ram Lila eviction drive, in which the Delhi police rescinded the permission granted to him to hold a protest meeting and arbitrarily assaulted the attendees and supporters gathered there in the middle of the night in a unannounced evacuation operation. The police action was deemed brutal, unnecessary and arbitrary. The court has ordered the police to prosecute those of its personnel who used undue force in the operation and has also determined the amount of compensation to be paid to those who were injured. We await to see the police follow through on these court directives. The eviction drive drew great national media attention when it took place, and the incursion on fundamental rights drew the ire of watchdogs everywhere.

According to a report by Manoranjan Routray (, on the 21st of February, in Narayanpatna and Bandhugan in Odisha, 5,000 tribals on their way to a two-day tribal convention at Balipeta Hatpada were assaulted and beaten by the local police. They were attacked by the police, who lathicharged them, and were forced to return to their villages. They attempted to recoup in a nearby village and find an alternative route to the venue, but they were dispersed again.

The convention, organized by local civil rights groups and the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, at Balipeta Hatpada, was to be attended by 10,000 tribals from across Koraput district.

The convention center - its furniture and tents - was set on fire and burned down by security personnel standing guard there. At another location, the police assaulted and dispersed another 1,000 tribals on their way to the convention. According to the report, about 9 tribal men have been arrested and illegally detained by local Border Security Force (BSF) personnel near Balipeta. Their families still haven't heard from them.

Baba Ramdev's interests and rights were vindicated by the Supreme Court, but it leaves one wondering whether the rights of 10,000 Odisha tribals in Koraput who were brutally assaulted by the police and prevented from attending a community convention there will ever be addressed by the law.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Murder of Chandrika Rai

Last weekend, Chandrika Rai, a freelance journalist writing for the Hindi daily Navbharat and the English daily The Hitavada, in Umaria, Madhya Pradesh, was found murdered at home along with the rest of his family - his wife, Durga and their two children, Jalal and Nisha. Rai wrote regularly about the illegal mining racket in the area, and recently wrote a series of articles investigating the involvement of a local BJP leader in illegal mining. As reported in the mainstream media, the police in MP are currently investigating a possible link between the Rai murders and the recent kidnapping of the son of a local government official, downplaying the possibility of mafia involvement. As indicated by the fact-finding team constituted by the Press Council of India, the police have "almost discarded" the theory of the involvement of the illegal mining mafia at this stage, choosing instead to focus on the latter link. Whatever be the veracity of the police investigation, the fact remains that the lives of journalists are constantly threatened in India. The lack of reliable evidence often leads to obfuscation in cases, and the perpetrators go scot-free. Many journalists, as well as activists, find themselves confronting hostile officials and criminals, sometimes coterminous entities, on a daily basis. In the case of the recent burning of Dalit homes in Lathore, a local journalist's report on the illegal businesses of the local mafia was cited as one of the reasons for the "revenge attacks" perpetrated by the Meher-Agarwals. The levels of intolerance and lawlessness in the rural hinterland are exceedingly high, and such attacks on journalists, when they do occur, often go undetected and unpunished.

Truth and justice suffer greatly in an intolerant and corrupt society that feeds on lawlessness and muscle power. The culture of corruption has roots so deep, human lives, let alone constitutional principles, lose all value. Freedom is an illusion sustained by the elite, when a large majority of people live under conditions of threat and duress.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lathore Dalit Atrocities

In the village of Lathore, Balangir district of Odisha, on the 22nd of January, 45 houses of Dalit families were burnt down and looted by Meher-Agarwal-RSS gangs in the area. A Students for Resistance (SFR) fact-finding team from Delhi visited the location of the mass burning and found in their preliminary report evidence of the collusion of the district administration in the atrocities. The District Magistrate (DM) and police were informed beforehand of the assault and mass gutting and anticipated around 500 perpetrators in the area. The DM called local workers before and in the middle of the raging fires to ask them to organize a "relief camp" in a nearby school. The perpetrators forcibly entered the houses, looted them and then set 45 of them ablaze. The local media and the administration cited the stealing of a shirt by a Dalit boy from Bharat Meher's shop as the precipitating cause of the attacks. As the SFR report states, this is reminiscent of the Mirchpur atrocity, in which two Dalit boys were set afire because their dog barked at some Jat youths passing by. The fact that the media and administration could even cite these mindless charges as the causes of these attacks betrays a botched sense of justice and acute caste-discrimination. A local Dalit journalist in Lathore, whose house was also gutted, recently published a report on the black market in the district, targeting the illicit liquor, kerosene, forest wood, public distribution items (wheat, rice, etc.) businesses of the local mafia.

On being asked questions, the DM, AK Dey, threatened the SFR team, but he also betrayed two significant pieces of information. He admitted that the local police were present at the scene of the crime and did not do anything to intervene, for which he provided two reasons - they didn't have the resources and they were engaged in combing operations against the Maoists. (As it happens, in this district, there are scores of highly-equipped paramilitary forces, stationed there for the sole purpose of conducting these so-called combing operations.) Secondly, he stated that the administration couldn't register cases against the accused under the SC/ST Act because the mass burning had "nothing to do with caste". In addition, he said that they couldn't do anything about it at the moment because of the elections around the corner. The government released a compensation of 1L for 38 families, but the administration said they couldn't take on the responsibility of rebuilding their houses (unlike in natural calamities). A "peace committee" recommended the immediate arrest of the accused and the seizure of their properties within seven days, but no action was taken against them.

At the moment, 193 people are living in the four rooms of the relief camp on inadequate rations, unable to rebuild their lives. Most of them were relatively well-off Dalits with jobs, businesses and concrete houses before the carnage. One of them, a girl who in a widely-reported case in 2005 fought for the right to enter a temple in the area, said that they would wait to fight their collective battle through constitutional means, failing which they wouldn't hesitate to join the Maoists.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Russia & Syria

Recently, Russia and China vetoed the UN resolution on Syria in the Security Council, thereby stemming the tide of yet another NATO-led intervention. However, the manner of their combined public posturing indicates two deliberately manipulative and repressive states buttressing the atrocities of another. While it would be true to say that the Russian foreign minister Lavrov's statement - that the continued perpetration of violence in pro-Qadhafi areas in Libya, like Sirte, at the moment proves that armed intervention leads to a cycle of violence - may have great validity, his usage of the concept of 'sovereignty' and his exhortation to Syrians to resolve the conflict 'independently' are evidently emanations from one repressive state directed at another. While Russia and China continue to consistently repress pro-democracy movements within their sovereign territories, they also seem to be able to expeditiously use terms such as 'sovereignty' to undermine the legitimacy of protests in Syria. The politicking inherent in the diplomatic maneuvers should appear visible to anyone. It is impossible, in the world of realpolitik, to trust any one state actor without due vigilance and skepticism. The fact that Assad's forces killed another 58 people in the city of Homs on the day of the Russian announcement of diplomatic rapprochement (taking the overall death toll to 6,800, according to the Syrian Observatory) strongly indicates the hypocrisy of the efforts. It is impossible to conceive of sovereignty and independence in such a conflict, because the balance of power is overwhelmingly skewed.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

About Bakhtin and the Academy

A few days ago, I heard from a friend of mine that Bakhtin scholars today are earnestly discussing some claims that he plagiarized from the work of another writer (the German scholar, Cassirer) in his dissertation thesis, Rabelais And His World. The article cited as the source of this debate is one published by Brian Poole in the South Atlantic Quarterly (Duke University), 2001. The wikipedia talk-page on this issue, where Bakhtin scholars discuss the claims made by Poole and its viability for inclusion in the main wikipedia page on Bakhtin, is instructive:

It is apparent that some scholars, such as Poole (2001) and Hirschkop (1998, 2001) are convinced that Bakhtin did plagiarize some parts of his dissertation thesis (which, for the record, was finally rejected - he was denied his doctorate by his university in Soviet Russia because of the perceived subversive nature of his dissertation and his arguments on the power of freedom of expression contained therein) from Cassirer's work on Renaissance philosophy. However, as all Bakhtin scholars point out, it would be difficult for any contemporary academic to understand the conditions that he worked under in Soviet Russia, fighting inter-war poverty, institutional control on scholarship and the so-called pressures of academic recognition.

I am no apologist for plagiarism, as I hate plagiarism in all forms and consequently harbour some kind of strong personal dislike for all those (especially in my university) who plagiarize without guilt or consequence. Whole papers are plagiarized at Delhi University - no one could dispute that. Plagiarized papers are, as per standard academic practice, penalized. However, I have seen many people present arguments in class or during tutorials without due citations. Such forms of "plagiarism" are more difficult to detect because they are conducted verbally. In principle, I believe that citations should be made when using specific references taken from someone's work, but general arguments do not need to be supported by citations.

At the same time, I am also against the kind of extremist arrogance of American academia that leads to claims of discrediting whole works of scholarship based on a few instances of plagiarism. I am against the seemingly "fundamentalist" approach used in unilaterally "discrediting" scholars based on perceived inadequacies. I am mainly against the arrogant language of opposition used to transact such discourses. American academia and American universities in general suffer from a kind of professional self-satisfaction.

If American academics wish to point out that something or the other is plagiarized, I would rather have them literally point it out - and that's all. I will decide for myself, if at all, whether or not I wish to re-examine the worth of someone's contribution to scholarship and knowledge.

Also, Anglo-American academia tends to promote a kind of structural fallacy - you have to fall into a certain structural "category" suitable for academic purposes. Here is an excerpt on Bakhtin (Pollard 2008): "This means that however little we know or understand [of] Bakhtin, we can make him mean what we want him to mean and the greater the historical and epistemological distance we are from him, the less likely are we to be challenged." Her preceding argument refers to the many-dimensional aspects of Bakhtin's works that apparently make him a jack of all trades, to use a less academic idiom.

I think it is unfair and logically inconsistent to expect any scholar, a human being, to devise a particular "school" or "canon" - for posthumous academic use basically - within his lifetime, ensuring that his interests and ideas remain loyal to that one particular thing or set of things. Academia betrays a lack of spontaneity.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

JLF '12

Here are some of my blog entries at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where I blogged for the festival organizers. These are a few of the sessions I was asked to blog about, not all the ones I attended, such as the ones with Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins, Ayesha Jalal and others.

36. ‘Reckonings’, Philip Gourevitch, moderated by Akash Kapur, supported by Tata Steel

Philip Gourevitch, long-time writer at The New Yorker and author of books like Standard Operating Procedure: The Ballad of Abu Gharaib and We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, spoke about his work as a journalist investigating conflicts and conflict-torn regions. He said his primary focus was the aftermath of conflicts – the experiences of the people affected and their rehabilitation. He spoke about the Rwandan genocide, in which the majority Hutu government persecuted the Tutsi minority. He examined in particular the “withdrawal” of the major world powers from the conflict. He said he was primarily interested in how the conflict-torn people experienced the aftermath of the genocide and what repercussions it had for them. He cited the case of the UN refugee camps opened 50 kms from the Rwandan border immediately after the cessation of the genocide that protected and gave refuge to several of the people who were the perpetrators of the genocide – he emphasized the inconsistencies of conflict-resolution practices and the possible “humanitarian exploitation” of former perpetrators seeking protection against retributive attacks. He also examined key terms such as “interventionism” and what is sometimes called “never again-ism”. In the context of the former, he explained the mechanisms that made the NATO intervention in Libya last year an act of “smart opportunism” rather than a humanitarian intervention. He also focused on the journalistic processes of reporting on conflict and made a very interesting observation. He said the use of terms such as “unimaginable, unthinkable, incomprehensible” to describe violence only served to make the act of violence less tangible and less accessible, and therefore the reader more prone to withdrawal.

43. ‘Mothers and Children’, Amy Chua, moderated by Puneeta Roy

Amy Chua discussed with Puneeta Roy her latest book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother. She discussed the different aspects of the book and the controversy it attracted in America. With respect to the latter, she described her experience of being assaulted by a barrage of negative and uninformed criticism in the American media. However, the discussion focused more on the book itself and her journey of writing it. She said it was a memoir chronicling her childhood and her immigrant parents’ expectations and methods of parenting. As a child, she was deeply influenced by her parents’ hard work and strenuous jobs, which imprinted in her mind their drive and determination to see her succeed. She spoke about the transfer of values across generations and contextualized the different environments in which different generations of her family have had to grow up. She emphasized that her book was a humourous attempt to introspect on her own parenting methods, vis-à-vis her parents’, and the values that her own children would now carry into their adult lives. Gratitude and discipline were the key foci of her thoughts on parenting. She spoke about “authenticity” and how the realities of her parents’ lives made their demands and expectations authentic, and how, in turn, her own expectations of her children would need to reflect the authenticity of their lives. On a lighter note, she recalled how her father, who she idolized, was something of a rebel, though he abhorred any signs of rebellion in her. She said rebellion was important and necessary, and that the media’s misinterpretation of her book as a record of the stifling of her children’s rebellion completely misses the point of her warm, compassionate and heartbreaking story.

50. ‘Open Road’, Samanth Subramanian, Philip Marsden, Katie Kitamura, Akash Kapur, Katie Hickman, Tim Butcher, moderated by William Dalrymple, supported by British Council

This session was about travel writers and their experiences in travel writing. All of the writers read out excerpts from their books. Samanth Subramanian read out from Following Fish, a book about coastal communities across the country. His excerpt was about his grandfather’s traditional medical remedies. Philip Marsden read out from The Chains of Heaven, which is about his Ethiopian journey. William Dalrymple read out from From The Holy Mountain, which chronicles his journey along early Christian lands. Tim Butcher read out from Chasing The Devil, which is about her Liberian journey. Katie Hickman read out from Travels With A Circus, which chronicles her travels with a circus troupe in Mexico. Akash Kapur read out from India Becoming, his latest book about contemporary India.

54. ‘Lucknow Boy’, Vinod Mehta, moderated by Tarun Tejpal

Vinod Mehta discussed his latest book, chronicling his journey as a political journalist, editor and writer. He focused on his childhood and his experience growing up in the hinterland of North India, and his journey from ignorance to political wisdom, from childhood academic troubles to his final reconciliation with the world of knowledge and information.

60. ‘A Second Sunrise: The Literature of Protest’, Cheran, Gogu Shyamala, Charu Nivedita, K. Satchidanandan, moderated by S. Anand

This session focused on the need for authentic voices of protest and dissent in India. The discussion explored the contextual realities of the speakers and the different ways in which they contributed to their own experience of expressing dissent. One of the interesting points that emerged from the discussion was the recognition of the fact that in several parts of the country, and in the south in particular, there were fewer avenues of protest because the popular imagination was occupied by actors and politicians who masqueraded as the sole representatives of public opinion and usurped the space ought to have been occupied by “authentic” voices of protest. Shyamala, a Dalit woman from the Telangana region, read out from the English translation of her work. She said that she came from an extremely impoverished Dalit community, living in a village where she was perhaps the first girl to be educated. She said her father’s desire to have her educated emerged from the need to have one literate member in the family to read land records and transaction papers. She identified herself as a writer writing against the grain of Brahmin supremacy and domination, writing against the whole tradition of subjugation.

79. ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’: Representing Slum Dwellers and Migrant Workers in Narrative Non-fiction, Katherine Boo, Aman Sethi, moderated by Chiki Sarkar, supported by Baillie Gifford

In this discussion, the speakers spoke about their latest books, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. Sethi said that he started his work on the book by trying to look at the changing nature of Delhi, especially in the period preceding the Commonwealth Games. Katherine Boo started work on her book by trying to understand the complexities of the slum dwellers of Mumbai, their lives as reality and not as a representation of deprivation. Both speakers explained their respective processes of their becoming better acquainted with the people they sought to write about, their closeness and ultimately their friendship. They emphasized the need for patience and for long-term commitment. Boo said that she had decided that she would need to spend a lot of time, years altogether, simply following some of the people in the slum around to get to know them better. She emphasized the fact that none of them would have been in a position to talk about their lives for the purposes of a book because of the pressures and stresses of daily survival and sustenance. She wanted to understand them better and to explore their complexities more deeply. Sethi spoke about his experience of getting more and more drawn into the circle of migrant workers he was writing about and about the prominence one of them came to occupy in his book, becoming its protagonist. They tried to understand the commonalities and differences in their works – Boo felt that they had in common several of the daily experiences that their respective communities shared, whereas Sethi felt that the people of slum represented a motivated, driven and upwardly-aspiring community, while the migrant workers in Delhi were more disillusioned with the idea of upward-mobility and more resigned to the idea of life as a daily struggle for money.

95. ‘Journeys’ Readings: David Davidar, Kunal Basu, moderated by Nilanjana Roy, supported by Hindustan Times

In this session, David Davidar and Kunal Basu read out from their recent books, Ithaca and The Yellow Emperor’s Cure respectively. Davidar, who has worked as a publisher for almost three decades now, most prominently with Penguin Books, has written three novels so far. His latest book is about the publishing industry and is also a thriller. He spoke about his primary motivation for writing the book, namely the desire to “demystify” the publishing industry to the extent possible, given the general confusion in the public mind about the inner mechanisms of the industry and the incentives guiding publishers and authors. The excerpt he read out was a passage explicating the protagonist-publisher’s escape from the turmoil gripping his office in London to the idyllic mountains of Bhutan. Basu is a professor at Oxford University who teaches courses in Business & Management. As Roy pointed out, he has several works to his name, all of them unexpectedly different from each other. He read out a passage from his latest book, an excerpt about the Portuguese protagonist of his novel who goes to China to find a cure for syphilis in order to help his father overcome the hitherto fatal disease. The protagonist encounters a mysterious Chinese medicine-man and his disciple, with whom he trains to discover the inner mechanisms of the human body. The discussion after their reading focused mostly on the motivations and workings of the publishing industry. Questions were directed at both speakers seeking answers about what guided them, what inspired them, and what constituted their own notions of good writing. While Basu spoke about the experiences of the author on being published and in the aftermath of publication, Davidar spoke about the needs and demands of the publishing industry, particularly its monetary determinants and pressures.

107. ‘The Afropolitans’: Ben Okri, Teju Cole, moderated by Taiye Selasi, supported by JCB

In this session, Ben Okri, Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi had a very lively conversation about their writing and experiences as writers. The session opened with a rejoinder to the Times of India’s purported use of the ‘Dark Continent’ metaphor in a report on the African authors attending the JLF. Curiously, the session also ended on the same note, returning to the original use of the metaphor, although in a different context and in an extremely jovial and intellectually rigorous vein. Cole read out from his book, Open City, and Ben Okri read out from his essay, ‘Healing the Africa Within Us’, which enunciates the anxieties and aspirations of Africans. Some memorable lines from the latter pertain to the need for the “rediscovery of Africa”, a much needed rediscovery, as the first encounter between Africa and Europe was really “not an encounter but an appropriation”. The conversation progressed to issues of responsibility and identification, to questions about the role of the writer and his particular responsibility to represent a composite African reality. All the writers, in their own unique ways, reasserted their primary responsibility to write well, and to produce good writing first and foremost, as good writing would inevitably constitute a certain truth and represent a certain reality. While Okri’s essay was lauded by the other two speakers for its unbounded hope and optimism, Cole said, in a lighter vein, that he was more of a pessimist and believed that “things are going to get worse” and that people like him “frown darkly in a corner”. Okri responded by saying that it wasn’t really a matter of pessimism or optimism but more of transforming people’s perceptions. He also recounted the history of the academic debate amongst African writers on their historical role and responsibility and concluded the argument by saying that it was time to move on, that the debate had outlived its course. On the same issue, Cole said that there were all kinds of writers and each of them had their own place and their own freedom to explore their creative talents. Selasi explained the use of the term “Afropolitan”, which she coined in an online essay responding to the need to explain her diasporic identity. The session ended on a vigorous note, with a lively debate on a question asked about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its political/ historical implications. Okri, Cole and Salesi all engaged the audience really well.

112. ‘A Dark Place’: Readings, Linda Spalding, Ilija Trojanow, moderated by Annie Zaidi

In this session, Linda Spalding read out from Who Named The Knife: A Book of Memory and Murder, a book (a memoir, she grudgingly conceded) about her experience as a juror in the murder trial of defendant Maryann Acker, and her subsequent friendship with the convicted woman. The book explores a lot of questions, particularly Maryann’s relationship with her ex-con husband, who was instrumental in her conviction, and Spalding’s intuitive sense of Maryann’s innocence. Spalding was at the last minute excused from the jury for being five minutes late, an unprecedented departure from standard American judicial procedure (jurors are usually never excused on the last day of trial, regardless of extenuating circumstances), and Maryann was convicted, which she wouldn’t have been had Spalding voted ‘not guilty’. After her reading, Spalding responded to a question from the audience about the trial and said that she was told at the time that the prosecutors and the court were determined at all costs to convict Maryann. Ilijah Trojanow read out from The Collector of Worlds, a fictionalized account of the infamous life of British colonial officer and translator, Sir Richard Burton. He read out an excerpt from a part of the book dedicated to Burton’s life in India and his relationship with his peculiar and enigmatic Indian mistress, who consistently eluded him and who clung stubbornly to her notions of propriety and class-based distance despite his many attempts to breach the gap. He also read out from another section of the book dedicated to Burton’s life in Kenya.

114. ‘Indian Military History: The Missing Links’, VK Singh, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, RTS Chhina, Anit Mukherjee, moderated by Manoj Joshi

In this session, Manoj Joshi, a military historian, discussed the problems of Indian military history-writing with former servicemen, VK Singh, RTS Chhina and Anit Mukherjee, and former diplomat, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta. All the speakers have written about and published on the subject. Dasgupta began the discussion by stating the need for a strong tradition of military history-writing and explicating its relationship with larger state objectives and determinants. Singh spoke about the paranoia and secrecy of the Indian government and its military establishment, as well as the lack of access to most original military records and sources, which was the central problem and lacuna of research in this field. He said that there were several impediments in the way of independent research, two of which were the government’s refusal to grant access to military records and the willful destruction of these records. He said that it was unfortunate that Indian defense institutes today continued to teach strategic studies courses on the two World Wars and completely ignored all the battles thereafter. Chhina spoke about the historical role of the Ministry of Defense and its rigorous record-keeping and analysis until Independence. He said that the disclosure of all public records was mandated by the Public Records Act, but access to military documents was often denied by circumventing the former law using the Official Secrets Act (1923). He spoke of his experience in the military and said that records were often willfully destroyed by military units and committees that did not perceive their historical significance. Mukherjee spoke about his own experience of failing to get access to historical records, despite being a senior official in the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (part of the Ministry of Defense) – he said he had to use the Right to Information Act to apply for access to files in his own department, and that his requests were repeatedly denied. All speakers focused on the meaningless secrecy and paranoia surrounding military documents and focused on the need to form stringent mechanisms for declassifying and disclosing all records after a stipulated period of time. The speakers emphasized the need to breach the gap between the civilian and military populations in the country.

132. ‘Women Mystics: Love, Longing and Liberation’, HS Shivaprakash, Parvathy Baul, Ranjit Hoskote in conversation

In this session, the speakers, who have all studied in different ways the Bhakti poetic tradition of India, spoke about the poets who have been the most important to them. Parvathy Baul is a poet and Baul singer from West Bengal and practices the poetic form as much as she studies it. She sang a few songs from the “perfected words” genre of Baul poetry, which focuses on the transformation of the body through sound rather than text. Ranjit Hoskote is an academic and writer and recently published a translation of and commentary on the poetry of Lal Dad, the mystical Kashmiri Shaivite Bhakti poetess. He read out some of the poems translated in his book. HS Shivaprakash is a Kannada poet and playwright and he spoke about Akka, the famous Kannada Bhakti poetess. The leitmotifs in their discussion were the spiritual rigour of their respective poets and the socio-cultural exclusion, as well as immense popularity, they shared in common. They spoke about the problems of truly understanding the spiritual transformations embodied in the poets’ songs and expressions of devotion. They also focused on the historical technicalities of the different forms and branches of the Bhakti movement.