Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Terror disclaimers

Terrorism poses a real and potent threat. In Australia, the announcement of the raising of the terror threat levels by the PM and subsequent public interventions have been accompanied by attempts by politicians and the media to both downplay and assuage community fears and apprehensions. At the first press conference on 12 September, the PM and the AG, George Brandis, emphatically stated that this was not about any one particular community or religion but about crime and tackling criminality. After the Sydney and Brisbane raids last week, police commissioners and ASIO officers made similar statements exhorting the public to refrain from 'stigmatising' 'any one community or faith'. Now, after the assault on two police officers in Melbourne and the death of the teenage assailant, someone who had been apprehended earlier for his threatening actions at a shopping mall (he is said to have brandished the Islamic State flag and made threatening remarks at a mall in Dandenong), the premier of Victoria, Dennis Napthine, and the police commissioner, Ken Lay, have yet again reiterated that the broader community should not 'pass judgment' on 'any one faith group' and should remain calm. I am curious to understand the impulse behind these repeated exhortations and demands. While now a part of the obligatory political posturing that accompanies real and potent terror attacks and threats, why do politicians and officials feel the need to 'warn against racism', to quell any community reactions? Is it because such a reaction (and I am curious about the manner in which discourse and commentary are included in this, that is, the reaction proscribed is not only the kind associated with retaliatory violence, which is highly unlikely, but also that which has to do with public opinion), or 'backlash', is a real possiblity? Do they fear that members of the Australian public might 'blame' Muslims in general in the media? I fear this perception is wide off the mark. I believe people are extremely aware of the nature of the threat; people are conscious of the very specific character of terrorism and fundamentalist activity. Gone are the days of indiscriminate community-bashing. People today are very sensitive and politically conscious and are aware that terrorism is propagated by pockets of extremists with radical views. Truly, there is no need to repeat ad nauseum the inane assertion that Muslims should not be stigmatised. Muslims will not be stigmatised. Specific groups and individuals will. Another very problematic 'gesture' or action that follows these incidents is the 'reaching out' to 'community leaders'. After every such news event, comments will be sought from 'community leaders' and 'representatives', who will invariably condemn the incident in question, and these comments will feature in all media reporting on the case. Firstly, I have a problem with the arrogation or assumption of leadership that this implies - what makes someone a 'community leader' and what kind of authority does this imply? Secondly, I find these obligatory condemnations and 'disclaimers' (for all intents and purposes) very condescending. Yes, the wider public is aware that this is wrong and morally repugnant and that you, like everyone else, deem it so. I don't think it needs to be repeated ad nauseum.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A case for open dialogue, transparency and critique: Rotherham, multiculturalism and media reporting

The recent independent inquiry by Prof. Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, into the child sex abuse in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 that shocked Britain’s conscience has led to a spate of articles and reports expressing outrage, anger and disbelief in the UK and Australia. New understandings of the purported link between 'cultural sensitivity' and state failure to tackle social problems have flooded British and Australian online portals. Examining media coverage and the commentary on online articles, one finds a palpable sense of betrayal, distrust of state and media institutions and frustration with what is perceived as a noxious regime of unofficial censorship. In Australia, the fact that one of the top bureaucrats responsible for Rotherham child services between 2005 and 2008 is now employed by the Victorian Education department has also prompted some debate.
Prof. Jay’s inquiry report offers a stunning indictment of South Yorkshire police and child support services. Despite numerous complaints from victims and their families, the latter failed to properly investigate the crimes and prevent the recurrence of pervasive abuse. Their unwillingness to contend with the issue of the perpetrators’ background (and thereby recognise their ostensible modus operandi) undoubtedly exacerbated the situation and allowed it to fester. But how do we now grapple with the ramifications of this failure and the backlash that has followed? How can one begin to understand the deleterious impact it has had, not only on British institutions and public discourse but on public opinion across western societies?
The report indicates that a fear of contending with the issue of ethnicity or cultural background (essentially, the fear of being ‘seen as racist’) interfered with and compromised the effectiveness of state interventions. Furthermore, apprehensions about reporting on the abuse, and identifying patterns in the background and modus operandi of the alleged gangs, prevented mass media from giving the issue the serious consideration it deserved. These conclusions have prompted condemnation from various quarters and have resulted in a potentially dangerous association in the public mind between multiculturalism, the fear of being seen as racist and censorship. The notion that multiculturalism (which is often used as a metonym for the tensions that are associated with it) is or ought to be above critique is a specious argument and one that is unfairly attributed to popular sentiment among minority communities. There could be no greater disservice than the proscription of open and rigorous critique of any social issue; than the bowdlerisation of public discourse. This is the absolute inverse of everything that’s desirable in a democratic, secular polity. Discussion of no subject, no issue of public importance should be anathematised. This is neither conducive to integration nor necessary for cohesion. If anything, it will slowly but surely desiccate the moral foundations and institutional underpinnings of society, gradually sowing the seeds of mass distrust and discontent. Nobody, not even the alleged proponents of communitarian ideologies, can possibly benefit from such an outcome. A weakened state with its secular institutional fabric torn asunder is a nightmare for everyone alike.
In media commentary following the report, the reticence, equivocation and “mealy-mouthedness” of media outlets have been criticised. The unwillingness of the media to explicitly identify and unambiguously state the nature of the abuse has handed critics a powerful (but unavoidable) charge – that there is a clear Rubicon when it comes to the reporting of crime and social issues. The way in which this has been wielded against outlets like the Guardian and BBC has been devastating. Allegations of pusillanimity, double standards, censorship and (ideologically-motivated) complicity can severely erode public confidence. No media outlet can claim to be representative or vigilant if it deliberately obfuscates major crises or issues.
It is incumbent on state services, the police and media to openly confront what are identifiable social problems, to be transparent, to engage with the public without any of the deliberate omissions, condescension and malfeasance we have been warned about in Prof. Jay’s report. No community, whether national, local or ethnic, can possibly benefit from hollowed-out, compromised and inept state and media institutions. Above all, what should be stated emphatically is that the circumventing of critical issues in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’ is a specious and counterproductive phenomenon that actively militates against the welfare of ethnic communities. No British Pakistani wants to be saddled with the imputation, running through this sordid saga, of complicity in abuse. Every right-minded, law-abiding member of society wants to see the perpetrators of the abuse in Rotherham tried and held accountable for their crimes.
One should be disabused of the notion that specific ethnic communities may condone such abuse. Crimes of such magnitude should be met with universal denunciation. No British Pakistani could countenance or desire to be complicit in the silence and inaction that have exacerbated the crisis in Rotherham. The equivalence between crime and community complicity has a devastating effect. It behoves journalists to speak out and to incisively criticise misogyny, hate and violence wherever they see it. This is why I have such admiration for people like Jasvinder Sanghera, who have shown the strength of their convictions by openly confronting social problems in the face of the reticence and trepidation of state services in Britain. 
The British media need to recognise that critique of misogyny and violence is an essential part of media discourse in ‘Asian’ societies. In Pakistan, writers like Asma Jehangir, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie, and even western-based Pakistani academics like Ayesha Jalal, constantly talk about and condemn what they see as widespread social ills. It is not ‘racist’ to condemn crime. But the pretence that accompanies the illusion that not condemning crime will somehow safeguard a community is patently wrong and damaging.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


You walk along the edge of a forest
filled with the song of lyrebirds
and the frantic laughter of kookaburras;
you look at sunlight through canopies of green
and squint as it makes patterns on your face;
you saunter behind an old couple
walking arm in arm
and catch bits of their whispered conversation -
'And before you know it your lives are so entwined';
you're entranced as you shuffle past hordes of tourists
milling around a flock of parakeets and cockatoos,
feeding the trusting birds sunflower seeds
and squealing in delight when one of them perches on their shoulder;
you march deeper into the woods,
the silence now deafening,
the solitude overpowering.
The sun overhead descends into clouds
and the chatter of birds grows less frenetic, more cautious;
you slip on moss-covered logs obstructing steep downward slopes
and you climb again, further and further up until you've ascended all the thousand steps
of the Kokoda Walk;
you're now at the summit.
The city lies below,
an endless expanse -
the glimmering evening lights
promise a beautiful tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Of late, I have come across several discussions whose main theme is the issue of positionality: who is saying what, and to what effect. For instance, several essays about the Wendy Doniger case bring up the issue of western academics writing about non-western subjects - while refraining from making unambiguous claims about the writer's intentions, they nevertheless cast aspersions on the same by intermittently evoking 'Orientalism'. So, while we are told that we are not to misconstrue their take on the Doniger case as a critique of her purported 'Orientalist' position, we are constantly nudged in that direction. Similarly, a few critiques of the film Blue Is the Warmest Colour tell us that the director's male gaze produces a rendition of female sexuality that is reductive and exploitative. These critiques excoriate the specifically 'male' depiction of sexually voracious female characters and locate the work within a paradigm of 'male' control over representations. The underlying argument that emerges from these critiques is that the artist's or writer's identity and location can legitimize or delegitimize a work of art or scholarship. It is not so much 'what is being said' but rather 'who is saying what' that determines its critical reception. This, to me, serves to undermine not only the artist or scholar, which is obvious, but also art and scholarship in general. Interrogating positionality is no doubt essential and is something that emerged from various histories of anti-hegemonic struggles, but making positionality the overarching schema of criticism is opportunistic and self-defeating.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Outrage and the Khobragade affair

On 12 December 2013, the deputy consul general of the Indian consulate in New York, Devyani Khobragrade, was arrested on charges of visa fraud.  She was charged with “[causing] a materially false and fraudulent document to be presented, and materially false and fraudulent statements to be made, to the US Department of State in support of a visa application for an Indian national employed as a babysitter and housekeeper at her home in New York”. The housekeeper, Sangeeta Richards, alleged that she was underpaid and mistreated at Khobragade’s home. 

Dubbed “Nannygate”, this incident precipitated an unexpected crisis in India and created a rare diplomatic rift between the two supposed allies. While the case does indeed merit serious attention for the plethora of issues involved (primarily, the issue of diplomatic immunity and domestic workers’ rights), the way it was covered in the Indian media (December 2013-January 2014) was largely one-sided and occasionally blatantly sensationalistic. What started off as an ‘operational setback’ in Indo-US relations soon became a full-blown crisis, provoking the most vociferous protestations and strident displays of indignation on television and in print. The Indian government’s ‘unusually strong response’ was lauded and the US’ intransigence and seemingly intractable position on the matter was excoriated as poor judgment – the underlying implication being that the Americans would be hurt by their ‘tactless’ handling of the matter as ‘they’ had more to lose in the equation. The merits of the case were obscured by the emotive valence invested in the diplomatic falling-out. However, as it unfolded, the tenor of the coverage changed as well. Nationalistic pride and outrage gave way to equivocation. This shift may be explained by the trenchant position of the US on the matter and the evidently counterproductive impact of jingoistic invective.    

Initial news reports were relatively restrained. The arrest was described as an “operational setback” in Indo-US relations – “already on a plateau on account of policy paralysis in New Delhi and a crisis of confidence in economic decision-making in India”. The Indian embassy in Washington was said to have “conveyed its strong concern to the US government” and urged the Americans to “resolve the matter with due sensitivity”. 

However, the case escalated immediately thereafter and precipitated a full-blown media storm in India. Politicians denounced the arrest as an ‘insult’ to and ‘slap in the face’ of India; an attack on India’s ‘honour’ and ‘sovereignty’. The foreign minister declared that he would not return to parliament if he failed to extricate the diplomat from the imbroglio and “restore her dignity”. In a series of announcements, the government rescinded certain privileges accorded to US missions and set in motion a slew of ‘retaliatory’ measures aimed at ‘downgrading’ Indo-US relations. It announced dates for the revocation of airport passes, import and customs clearances, and withdrew the identity cards of all US diplomats in India. It asked the US embassy in New Delhi and the US missions in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad to submit details of salaries paid to all personnel (Indian and foreign), specifically earmarking for scrutiny the visa and employment details of all teachers at American schools. Politicians and civil servants cancelled scheduled meetings with members of a visiting American Congressional delegation. Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party considered most likely to win the federal elections in 2014, announced on Twitter, “Refused to meet the visiting US delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to [sic] our lady diplomat in USA.” Another BJP leader, describing the arrest as “savage” and “barbaric”, suggested opprobriously that India ought to “take action against US personnel in India [with] same-sex companions following the Supreme Court order against gay sex”. (On 11 December, the Supreme Court of India overturned a 2009 Delhi High Court order decriminalizing gay sex.) Most prominently, the government ordered the removal of security barricades outside the US embassy in New Delhi. The removal of the barricades made for spectacular television news and inspired grandiloquent headlines such as, “We’ll bulldoze you, Uncle Sam!” The government’s ‘retaliatory’ rhetoric was matched in tone and fervor only by the media’s overeager lambasting of the US. 

Humiliation’ was the key notion underscored by the reportage. Much was made of the fact that the arrested diplomat was a woman. Infusing belligerent nationalism with conservative outrage, the ‘humiliation’ of a ‘woman diplomat with two children’ was seen as especially execrable. The fact that she was arrested in public, strip-searched in custody and temporarily placed in a general prison (before being let out on bail) formed the basis of this perception. On the whole, the main point of contention was the treatment meted out to Khobgrade – the way in which she was arrested received far more attention than the substance of the allegations. “Searing” descriptions of the US Marshals’ protocol on the conduct of strip-searches were embedded in front-page reports, a latent prurience undergirding the outrage at her treatment. Also inviting censure was the revelation that she was allegedly handcuffed upon her arrest (a claim that is denied by the US) and housed in a general population cell “with common criminals and drug addicts”. 

Indian officials, reading the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which prohibits the arrest or detention of a diplomat unless the head of the mission approves, believed Khobragade was entitled to diplomatic immunity. The Americans, citing the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which grants immunity only for acts committed in the line of work, argued that it could not be invoked in Khobragade’s case. 

Moreover, the New York authorities responded to the charge of ‘mistreatment’ by conducting an internal review of the arrest, which concluded that the lady was afforded courtesies beyond those extended to an American citizen. Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry evinced empathy “with the sensitivities [voiced in] India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest” and “expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship”.  

At the core of the New York district attorney’s ongoing case is the issue of visa fraud. In the Indian media, however, the issue of visa fraud was downplayed. Other than some equivocation around the purported salary of the maid, no refutation of the charge of fraud emerged in the public domain. In fact, this bureaucratic ‘misdemeanor’ (in legal terms, perjury) was later implicitly countenanced by the Indian establishment. In television news discussions, it was described as a ‘routine practice’ that the embassies of developing countries view as par for the course by virtue of their inability to pay the minimum wages benchmarked in host countries. The fact that Richards was paid a salary ‘far higher than domestic standards in India’ was used as an extenuation. 

Richards alleged that Khobragade forced her to sign a second contract before their departure for the US which stipulated the payment of a far lower salary than that originally stated in the visa application submitted to US immigration authorities (USD 560 against 1560). Clauses requiring the employer to “abide by all federal, state and local laws in the US” and protecting the employee from “other forms of exploitation and abuse” were reportedly expunged from this second contract. Richards also alleged that Khobragade confiscated her passport (an official Indian passport) upon their arrival in the US, made her work long hours with few breaks and deducted her salary when she was taken ill, in contravention of their contractual agreement. She left Khobragade’s Manhattan apartment in June 2013 (having started work in November 2012) without notice  and approached an American immigration lawyer and anti-trafficking agency. In a purported meeting in July between Richards and Khobragade mediated by the former’s lawyer, Richards demanded USD 10,000 as compensation, a regular passport (in lieu of her official one allegedly held by Khobragade) and immigration assistance. The Indian government, notified of Richards’ disappearance and the subsequent meeting, immediately revoked her passport, thus rendering her an illegal migrant. However, she was granted a T-1 visa (for victims of human trafficking) around the same time by the US State Department. 

Khobragade’s complaint of ‘aggravated harassment’ against Richards in a New York court was dismissed but her complaint to the Delhi Police, accusing Richards and her husband Phillip (based in Delhi) of conspiracy and extortion, was admitted by the Delhi High Court. In September, the court passed an interim injunction restraining the Richards from pursuing any action against Khobragade in a foreign court, and in November issued an arrest warrant for Sangeeta Richards in Delhi. Ironically, a July petition filed by Phillip at the same court, seeking punishment for Khobragade and the repatriation of his wife, was dismissed on the grounds that the court did not have “jurisdiction [over] a crime committed on foreign soil”. 

Phillip alleged that he and his family in Delhi were harassed by the Delhi Police at the behest of Uttam Khobragade, Devyani’s father and a former senior government official. On 10 December, Phillip and his children left Delhi for New York on T-2 and T-3 visas (for family members of victims of trafficking). Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York two days later. 

The Richards’ “evacuation” from India was viewed as a deliberate ploy on the part of the US to undermine Indian sovereignty, judicial proceedings and offers of a diplomatic resolution. It was seen as reflective of a “trust deficit” between the two countries, or worse, a “conspiracy” by the US, aided by “overenthusiastic” human rights groups, lawyers and evangelical organizations, to “humiliate” India. The Richards’ conduct was thus viewed through the prism of ‘asylum-seeking stratagems’. Richards was accused of “preying on the gullibility of [American] do-gooders who are accustomed to viewing the Third World as an undifferentiated area of darkness”. By charging her employer with violating her human rights and “depicting herself as a victim of servitude [and] Indian tyranny”, Richards, as per this view, insidiously manipulated the Americans’ ‘pious humanitarianism’ in pursuit of her own ‘American dreams’. 

The Americans’ decision to provide visas to the Richards in spite of the Delhi High Court’s arrest warrant prompted sharp criticism in India: “The implication of this remarkable [decision] needs to be considered very carefully with regard to the implicit comment it makes about the Indian legal system, Indian law enforcement authorities, and the responsibility that legal officials of a foreign government seem to arrogate upon themselves with regard to the nationals of another country.” 

Indian commentators also criticized the hypocrisy and double standards at work vis-à-vis America’s disregard for local laws when its own agents and officials commit crimes abroad. The Raymond Davis affair in Pakistan was mentioned several times in this regard. The fact that American embassies have in the past steamrolled authorities in foreign jurisdictions and circumvented local laws to shield American agents from criminal prosecution rankled those who found its steadfast resolve in this case disingenuous and self-serving. (The US State Department refused to intervene in the ongoing investigation and expressed its unwillingness to comply with the Indians’ demands regarding the repatriation of the Richards.) 

Another criticism pertained to the “tut-tutting in the western press about [the] low wages paid to domestics [sic] in India”. As one commentator put it, “None of these reports mention that even middle-class Indian incomes scarcely cross what are considered poverty thresholds in western countries. The point, after all, is to be judgmental… A species of McCarthyism, if you will, but one that stigmatizes poor nations…” Here, an added dimension was the vilification of Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York: “Interestingly, McCarthy in this case happens to be of Indian origin. Bharara is an Obama nominee who’s reported to harbor political ambitions. If he goes up for high political office, acquiring a few Indian scalps on the way and thereby exorcising his origins would be useful.” (Bharara successfully prosecuted Indian-American businessman and hedge-fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam and former McKinsey & Co. CEO Rajat Gupta, among others, for insider trading in 2011-12.)  

Notwithstanding these criticisms, the fact remains that this case, which provided ample opportunity for India to reflect on its treatment of domestic workers, instead became a test case of muscular diplomacy. The issue of workers’ rights was relegated to the periphery. One cannot argue that the case lends itself seamlessly to an analysis of workers’ rights in India (Richards’ salary and benefits far surpassed those of domestic workers in India, and her case, therefore, can hardly be considered representative), but surely some degree of extrapolation and intersectionality would have been apposite? The issue of minimum wages for various categories of manual workers (observed largely in the breach), labor laws, workplace conditions, treatment of workers, timely payment of wages, pensions, and recourse to workplace and commercial justice are all pertinent areas of concern. These concerns are rarely ever addressed in a comprehensive manner. One could also dispute the claim that the economic melioration of low-wage earners is circumscribed by the comparatively low income threshold of middle-income families. The upper classes and middle classes (the middle classes were estimated at 250 million in 2007 by McKinsey & Co.) comprise a large number of households who earn incomes on a par with their western counterparts. One would thus expect an incremental and corresponding increase in lower-rung wages.    

Moreover, the issue of diplomats in the US underpaying their employees is one that the State Department does not take lightly. According to a report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 2000 and 2008, 42 diplomats were accused of abusing or mistreating their foreign employees. One third of the accused diplomats were from Africa, 15 percent from Asia and 2.5 from Europe. The law was strengthened in 2008, leading to a number of cases against diplomats from, for instance, India, Taiwan and Mauritius. The charges in this case and ongoing trial are, therefore, neither unique nor unprecedented. 

In the end, the Indian government even spurned the offer of a plea bargain and suspended jail sentence, demanding that the US drop all charges against Khobragade. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the diplomat did indeed provide false information in her employee’s visa application, the US found it impossible to do so. As a result, Khobragade, whose husband and children are American citizens, was ordered to return to India.  

The prospect of general elections in 2014 no doubt played its part in ratcheting up the political rhetoric in India. But the demagogic hectoring and anti-American diatribes, on television news channels in particular, were impelled by other factors. A few argued that one of these more imperceptible factors may have been a sense of entitlement – an overweening belief in the ‘right’ to employ domestic workers, and enjoy the lifestyle enjoyed by the upper and middle classes in India, on one’s own terms and conditions, abstracted from local laws and circumstances. Some critiques of the American position were indeed justified and necessary. Several others were petulant and born of an obstinate refusal to recognize any wrongdoing on the part of the diplomat. This anomalous situation gave rise to an array of responses – from a querying of American double standards in diplomatic affairs on the one hand to homophobic posturing and allegations of conspiracy on the other. 

Furthermore, a question needs to be asked about the priorities of the Indian Foreign Service. Between July and November 2013, more than 130,000 Indian laborers working in Saudi Arabia (of a total of 2.8 million expatriate Indians there) were forced to leave the country after the introduction of the ‘Nitaqat’ (classification) policy and tougher migrant labour laws. In the ensuing confusion, allegations emerged of Indian embassy officials demanding bribes from the beleaguered workers for the rendering of basic consular services. These allegations caused not a murmur of protest in India. In December 2013, a riot erupted in Singapore’s Little India district and around 400 Indian workers, mainly employed in the construction industry, were said to have been involved. In the aftermath of the riot, an indeterminate number of people were interrogated in police custody, around 28 were charged with rioting, more than 50 were deported and more than 3000 workers across the city were informally questioned. (Singaporean law does not allow legal representation during the process of interrogation, making consular vigilance and assistance all the more crucial.) Questions were asked by Singaporean rights activists about the possible underlying causes of the riots; concerns were raised about the workers’ living conditions; allegations were made about employers routinely deducting workers’ salaries to pay off company levies. The Singapore riots received the bare minimum attention in India. 

Why is it that the welfare of millions of expatriate Indian workers matters so little to the Indian government and its diplomatic arm, or perhaps to the doyens of public opinion, in comparison to the welfare of a single officer? 

The answer, of course, lies in the logic of class and its immutable hold on Indian society.