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.