Friday, December 14, 2012

The Unpredictability of Love

Among other things life fosters unpredictability.  At times for good, mostly for the worse. There is a furor against it. An upheaval of emotions searching for the missing link. In desperation, heartaches and anguish it’s difficult to fall in line with life as usual. A permanent haze sets in as dusk to a ravishing dawn.

She was a born lover. It was like a twinkle in her kohl black eyes. From the beginning she opened her arms wide in joy, overwhelmed with life. Life was a celebration of its colors. The freedom to dance in the quilt of clouds. In longing to explore the hidden invisible corners. It was the simplicity of her zeal. The madness of her enthusiasm. And the mere independence of her style that made her love. In short, life overtook love. 

He too was a born lover. It was deep inside his nervous heart. From the beginning he stood for his commitment in all fairness, devotion. Love was beyond everything. Love was a lifelong worship. It was madness of a different kind. It was a full blown emotionally fulfilling. In trance he remained. Forever. Oblivious to the mistakes. 

She was perched high. With her loud voice, out in open. There was determination to conquer. 

He was slanted low. With his roaring nervous heart, in longing. There was hope against hope.

She now sleeps in solitude to live a dream. 

He wanders alone to be a part of the dream. 

Both separated by silence. In waiting he remains to be her sunshine; she his moonlight.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Solitary Flames of Tibet

The self-immolations by suppressed Tibetans continue to tarnish Beijing's image while some have now even begun to  question the Dalai Lama's continued silence over the gory cycle of fiery deaths, writes Aditya Raj Kaul

Located in the northeast corner of the Tibetan plateau, the traditional province of Amdo is plush with beautiful grasslands and rugged mountain ranges. But the picturesque beauty of the brilliantly white stupas and pretty monasteries is marred by the presence of massive security forces over the last few months. The police crackdown is a result of the increase in self-immolations by monks at the restive Kirti Monastery, a 600-year-old temple in the Aba prefecture of Sichuan province, which borders Qinghai and Gansu. Of the 90-plus people that have self-immolated inside Tibet since February 27, 2009; as many as 20 were monks or former monks at the Kirti Monastery – the latest being two teenaged Tibetans who set themselves afire near the eastern gate of the temple on August 27.

The influence of Kirti Monastery is now visible across the region in many small and big temples. Most towns and cities in Tibet are heavily guarded by police and anti-riot SWAT forces, while a reserve of the military is forever stationed on the outskirts of major townships. While CCTV cameras peek surreptitiously from vantage points at most public places, informers in plainclothes have penetrated just as deep into the personal spaces of monks, nuns, students, housewives, artists, farmers and nomads across the region. Armed Public Security Bureau (PSB) units regularly patrol streets carrying machine guns, fire extinguishers, iron rods and riot shields. Authorities have also formed SOS fire brigades at sensitive locations.

Suppressed rage against China’s continued occupation of Tibet and despair among people in the region has reached such a nadir that in November alone there has been one self-immolation a day on an average – mostly by monks facing difficulties in religious freedom, teens running out of patience with the Dalai Lama’s middle path and the aged seeing no other way to support the ‘Free Tibet’ movement. Beijing’s repression of Tibetans is no longer hidden from the world.

November was also the month when the Chinese Communist Party unveiled its new leadership slate, headed by Xi Jinping. But far across in the Himalayan plateau, the wave of self-immolations in the Tibetan region has only increased since the leadership change. “Tibetans have responded to China's extreme repression by setting themselves on fire to call for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama. These heartbreaking acts of nonviolent protest deserve an immediate and stronger effort from the global community to hold the Chinese government accountable for its atrocities in Tibet," says Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.

"Tibetans and Tibet supporters on five continents are laying down a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping: stand on the right side of history and answer the Tibetan peoples' demand for freedom,” adds Dorjee.

The 14th Dalai Lama, meanwhile, is unnaturally silent over the ball of fire that continues to scorch Tibet – attributing the wave of self-immolations to the brutal crackdown by the Chinese authorities on Tibetan culture and religion or what he refers to as “cultural genocide”. The revered leader, who relinquished his political role in March 2011, according to Lobsang Sangay, the Prime Minister of Tibetan government-in-exile, “spends more time on his spiritual pursuits.”

Several Tibetan writers, scholars and activists have called upon the Dalai Lama to issue a formal appeal to stop the self-immolations, but the spiritual leader’s silence, many believe, is encouraging the gory phase of violent deaths as the final means to achieve freedom for Tibetans.

Earlier this year on being asked whether Tibetans should stop setting themselves on fire, he replied with a firm, “No answer”, raising quite a few eyebrows. “Past history clearly shows that violence cannot solve problems,” tweeted the Dalai Lama on November 12 from Japan. The same day Nyingchak Boom and Nyingkar Tashi, both in their youth, died of self-immolation in Rebkong County of Tibet.

China, which is desperately trying to douse the fires raging across Tibet, accuses the Dalai Lama of inciting these self-immolations. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, the Dalai Lama’s accusation that the Chinese government has failed to investigate the root cause of despair and hopelessness among Tibetans, was designed to only “gain his political end of splitting China.”

"Not only did the Dalai not condemn them, but he actually glorified these acts, which are against the national law and religious principles," Hong said.

The Chinese authorities have not faced such massive unplanned resistance in their own backyard in recent times and Beijing’s paranoia continues to grow. The authorities have now announced a reward of $ 7,700 for those who inform police about the planned self-immolations.

A notice pasted around the region states, "Anyone who reports and informs the legal authorities on the people who plan, incite to carry out, control and lure people to commit self-immolation will be awarded 50,000 yuan ($ 7,700)." The notice, which refers to organised groups of Tibetans who plan self-immolations as "black hands", assures a reward of 200,000 yuan to those giving advance information about planned suicides.

"The Tibetans who are self-immolating  have clearly not been dissuaded by the security buildup or other means of official intimidation," International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) head Mary Beth Markey has said. “Unless and until there is some initiative that can break through the cycle of repression and protest, I think we all acknowledge that more Tibetans will be prepared to take the agonising action of self-immolation,” she added. Worried about the status quo in the region, Lobsang Sangay even issued an urgent appeal to the international community recently to support the 'Solidarity with Tibet' campaign in 2013, to be organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile to lobby support for their cause amidst silence over the increase in self-immolations across Tibet.

Undoubtedly, the strained relationship between China and Tibet has grown much more than the geographic distance of 2000 kms between Beijing and Sichuan. It would only become clear in the next few months if new Chinese leader Jinping will overcome internal resistance and change  his nation's stated position and bring peace to the troubled region. Either that or the Dalai Lama must exercise his religious sway and urge Tibetans to stop this fiery cycle of death. Until then, the flames of agony are likely to keep burning bright.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Exclusive: The Narendra Modi Interview - The Sunday Indian Magazine

A man for all seasons 

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in conversation with Aditya Raj Kaul


Narendra Modi avoids the media like plague. What has to be said is told in the public domain, interviews of any kind are a strict no no. Yet the Gujarat strongman agreed to talk to Aditya Raj Kaul in an exclusive and rare interview, propounding his world view like never before. TSI had first approached him for an exclusive chat in August. Four months later, the reticent Chief Minister agreed when convinced this was not another hatchet job.


Narendra Modi is the man of the moment in Indian politics. Forever in the headlines with his earthy humour and home spun quips, the forthcoming Gujarat Assembly elections have taken Modimania to a new hysterical level.

A sneeze here, a veiled attack there, a breezy reference to the Gandhi family, all are cannon fodder for a media driven by the Gujarat chief minister, making him easily the most watched politician in the country today.

Narendra ‘bhai’ as he is known to Gujaratis, is no West-educated yuppie in the mold of several Congress wannabes. With a somewhat modest education, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in his teens and has continued with the parent organisation since.

As chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, this enfant terrible of Indian politics has spent a decade or nearly three terms in office. It may seem like a long period but by no stretch of imagination can it be described as a cake walk.

Modi's legion of powerful critics are a force to reckon with. He has been accused of being a 'mass murderer' by those who see in him a combination of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. He has been charged with sitting through, or worse, being involved in the Godhra riots of 2002, the prelude to an orgy of communal rioting in Gujarat which continues to reverberate even today. Since then, an entire human rights industry has spawned around Modi, backed by unrelenting judicial activism.

The riot focus on this former RSS pracharak has dissolved, just a bit, after the Supreme Court-appointed SIT recently gave Modi a clean chit in the post-Godhra Gulberg massacre case and sought its closure as it found no evidence against him. Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was among the 69 killed in Gulberg in the 2002 massacre.

The Congress too has shifted its criticism to his politics of development, struggling to find attractive ways to strike at his formidable base. At 62, with over a million followers on Twitter, Modi is slowly overcoming his pariah status. The United Kingdom recently sent its High Commissioner to meet him in Ahmedabad and no less than the Americans – avid watchers of the Indian scene as they are – privately believe that he could be India's next prime minister in 2014.

Ahmedabad itself is a riot of colours. There is virtually no road, lane or market which does not have his smiling, bearded visage, looking out from giant hoardings, as if trying to connect with the people. The story is much the same in rest of the state. Despite some naysayers – and there are a few – the Gujarat state Assembly elections are virtually Modi vs the rest.

The day of the interview turned out to be auspicious for the Hindu strongman. The BJP manifesto on Gujarat was released and politically he was breathing easier with unexpected party support from the likes of veteran Lal Krishna Advani and Sushma Swaraj. The constant power struggle in the BJP has ensured that Modi keep his cards close to his chest. He is, as yet, to bet big on Delhi because Gujarat is in the way.

"Secularism is in India's DNA"

What does 'secularism' mean to Narendra Modi?

Secularism is a term interpreted in many different ways. For me, it has always meant something very simple – putting India first; designing policy, taking decisions and ensuring action in the best interests of the nation. When we look after India’s interests, the interest of every Indian is automatically ensured. My government  functions on the principle of ‘justice to all and appeasement to none’. Gujarat’s successful inclusive and sustainable growth model is driven by the idea of 'sabka saath, sabka vikas' (all together, development for all). We have always achieved universal objectives – ‘water for all', 'education for all', 'health for all', 'power for all' and so on. Every member of our six crore Gujarati family has benefited from a decade plus of all round, sustainable and inclusive development. That to me is true secularism. It is also important to remember that secularism is in the DNA of Indians. We have, for centuries believed in vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is our family). Why then the need of dividing countrymen along sectarian lines? The so-called ‘secular politics’ is nothing but vote bank politics. Such vote bank politics is the bane of our nation and only when it ends will we be able to understand and live up to the true meaning of secularism.

Do you believe the post-Godhra riots issue is a thing of the past in the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections and development has taken centre stage?

Gujarat has enjoyed unprecedented peace in the last ten years with no communal riots, curfew etc. Development has clearly taken centre stage and will be the sole agenda in these elections. My message to everyone continues to be very simple – if you want to defeat me then do more for the people and deliver more development. I have always championed ‘developmental politics’ and am glad to see the Congress being forced to do the same. The idea of evaluating governments on development has already become the core focus across the country and it is time the Congress awakens and catches up.

You have alleged that the central government has been handing out step-motherly treatment to Gujarat.

It is a matter of great concern today that the federal structure of India has come under increasing strain, contrary to the spirit enshrined in the Constitution, merely to suit the whims and fancies of the rulers in Delhi. What we are witnessing today is a gradual and systematic dismantling of the federal structure. There has been brazen Central interference in powers assigned  to the states in the name of ‘development’, ‘public welfare’ and ‘people's rights’ in recent years, even on issues that are marked out on the state list. These are imposed on the states without taking into account their capacity and financial burden. The Right to Education and National Food Security Acts are examples of such imposition of financial burden on the state by the Centre. The Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Bill (GUJCOC) passed in the state Legislative Assembly has been waiting for four years for a Central government nod. This despite Gujarat being a very sensitive border state. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the Union Home Ministry is another such attempt at interference. Real federalism should be partnership, not prescription. Instead, steps such as the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) order are Delhi's backdoor attack on the constitutional powers of the states. In this case, the central government has not even bothered to discuss the issue with state governments before passing such an order, a direct violation of the federal spirit of the Constitution. The Sarkaria Commission appointed by Indira Gandhi and the Punchchi committee recommended that whenever the Union government proposes a legislation on the Concurrent List, there should be prior consultation with the state government. Instead, more and more centralisation is taking place. The drafting of the Communal Violence Bill without adequate consultations with state governments is another case in point. Instead of helping the states, central institutions are used to corner opposition-ruled states and chief ministers. Unleashing the income tax department on investors of 2011 Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit and CBI on chief ministers of opposition-ruled states prove this point beyond doubt. There are numerous other instances which show the centre's anti-Gujarat bias. For example, Gujarat contributes Rs 50,000 crore to the central treasury in Delhi every year and gets only Rs 6,000 crore in return. Yet the Central government takes out full page ads in Gujarat’s newspapers publicising this Rs 6,000 crore as being the reason for all of Gujarat’s successes. Similar is the case of cotton production. Although Gujarat leads the country in production and export of cotton, yet the state's farmers face massive losses because of central government policies which bans cotton export. I have these concerns not only as chief minister but also as a common citizen. It is time the Centre realises that giving the states what rightfully belongs to them will not weaken the government in Delhi. States must coordinate with the Union government and not remain subservient to it. There should be cooperation federalism not coercion federalism. Central funds are not an obligation but the right of every state to further development. But the recommendations of the 13th Finance Commission reinforce the trend of centralisation. Despite the collective demand of all the states for a 50 per cent share of tax proceeds, there has been a mere increase of 1.5 percentage points from 30.5 per cent to 32. Isn’t this a gross injustice to India’s development dreams? It is imperative to understand that Indian citizens have identities beyond the common factor of being Indians. Respecting the diversity of this land, at the same time ensuring unity, the founding fathers of our Constitution envisioned a federal structure of government in which the states are equal stakeholders. Sitting in New Delhi, one cannot do justice to the potential and needs of the various states across India. Decentralisation makes the system both accountable and responsive.

Do you think Rahul Gandhi is a serious contender for the chair of the Prime Minister in 2014?

Dynastic politics is being practiced in the guise of giving way to the younger generation. India needs a fresh breeze of ideas and fresh breed of leadership. The people of this country have in fact already answered your question in repeated state elections. The common man is very intelligent and knows what is best for him – janta saab kuch jaanti hai’(the public knows everything). I have no doubt that the citizens will choose a strong, experienced and visionary leader to be their PM.

How would you rate Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in these two terms even as his government and several ministers have been under the scanner facing corruption charges.

The UPA government has been saddled with political instability, indecisive governance, policy paralysis and rampant corruption. As its leader, the prime minister is answerable to the nation. Unfortunately, however, he does not seem to be able to do much about anything. Rather than making progress, the country seems to be going backwards. The economic growth rate has fallen to a nine-year low of 5.3 per cent, inflation continues to remain very high and reforms have come to a virtual standstill. Further compounding troubles, the UPA government has become a government of scams – 2G, CWG, Coal-gate – the list goes on and on. Such abuse and pelf has vitiated the very integrity and foundations of our government systems, institutionalising corruption, cronyism and political patronage. People are losing faith in the government and more importantly, the India Story itself. The PM has not been able to provide the leadership and vision required and his government has miserably failed to deliver.

How difficult has it been to be constantly demonised in public?

The love and support that I have received from the people of Gujarat and India at large has been overwhelming. They are my driving force and I remain focused on working for them without being distracted for even a second. Such things are being engineered by a small group of vested interests. Democracy cannot exist without criticism. I therefore appreciate and even welcome criticism, as long as it not from people with vested interests. In fact, when such people throw stones at me, I make stairs out of those stones to take Gujarat even higher up the ladder of success.

On social networking sites your supporters are running a campaign – `Modi for PM'. How close is Narendra Modi to reaching 7 Race Course Road?

I have always lived by the principle of  aspiring to ‘do’ something rather than ‘become’ something. My life is therefore dedicated to working for the welfare and well-being of my  country. While it is gratifying to see our work being appreciated, I firmly believe that a strong India needs not just one strong prime minister, or even 28 strong chief ministers – it  equally needs hundreds of strong mayors, thousands of strong sarpanchs and so on. In fact, we in Gujarat have always seen our work and success as ultimately being India’s success.

Do you expect mid-term polls?

The UPA government has been a huge disappointment – it has lacked neeti, neta and niyat – and is fundamentally threatening the India Story. The manner in which this country is being run from Delhi is there for everyone to see. Ironically, for a government having come to power on the name of the ‘aam admi’, it is the ‘aam admi’ who has ended up being the biggest sufferer. The common man has lost complete confidence in such a government amidst various scams, scandals, lethargy and indecision. Plummeting growth, sky-rocketing prices, anti-people decisions and political bullying are pushing India to the brink. While the nation suffers, the government is busy clinging on to power through manipulation and coercion. Having clearly lost its moral authority to govern, it is only a matter of time before it implodes.

You are considered the most tech savvy chief minister in India. Has it helped in your mass popularity and appeal?

Technology is the cornerstone of modern day society – thus any person willing to learn and grow should embrace it. I have always pushed for leveraging on cutting edge technology for progress and development. I have embraced technology to directly connect with citizens and well-wishers of Gujarat, engaging with them for the rapid development of the state. Through technology, I can reach out to people on a daily basis, talking to far away villagers and farmers from my office itself. Moreover, I am sure that social media is the tool of the future in facilitating an open, transparent and consultative relationship between the government and its citizens. eGovernance to me is easy, effective and efficient governance. It delivers tremendous benefits: transparency, openness, curbing of corruption, increased efficiency, macro-linkages and so on. My government has therefore taken unprecedented steps in ushering eGovernance in all aspects of government functioning. Consider the following: we have the largest Wide Area Network in the Asia Pacific; we are the first to provide broadband connectivity in all schools and villages; we make maximum use of video-conferencing including trial of prisoners; a number of our other eInitiatives have received numerous national and international awards. Prominent examples include: Swagat, eDhara, eProcurement, eGram, Jan Seva Kendra, Talim Rojgar, Vatis etc. Our ICT-based Grievance Redressal System (Swagat) has been honoured with the United Nation's Public Service Award for ‘improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness’. People's voice is the key driver in a democracy and listening to that voice is the key test of good governance. Swagat operates on this very principle and every month my team and I consider grievance cases through multi-video conferencing with all 26 districts and 225 taluka offices. This is the first time that the common citizen can access the highest level of office with officers present in real-time through video-conferencing. The advanced technology system allows attention and monitoring of grievances across the state to ensure resolution.

How does your government see the recent move by the central government on FDI in retail?

FDI in multi-brand retail as it is has been implemented recently, will harm small shopkeepers, adversely affect domestic manufacturing and create joblessness. It will also result in cheap goods produced outside being dumped into India. We must therefore first strengthen our manufacturing base before opening up to FDI in retail – ensuring maximum material sourcing domestically. While the President of a liberalised economy such as the US himself urges people to buy from small business instead of large malls as a bulwark against unemployment, our government seems hell bent on destruction. With such an anti-people move, the PM and Central government seem to have redefined democracy as `of the foreigners, by the foreigners and for the foreigners.' Any government should be for the common people and their benefit and we will be standing against any decision which hampers the interest of the common man.

How big a loss is the passing away of Bal Thackeray for you? How would you remember him?

Losing a great patriot like Balasaheb Thackeray is indeed a loss to the nation. Such leaders leave behind an imprint that is not easily forgotten. Full of life, Balasaheb Thackeray was an epitome of courage and valour. He kept himself away from the corridors of politics and built an entire political party. Moreover, he never compromised on patriotism.

What would be your concern and challenge if you come to power yet again in January 2013?

Gujarat’s developmental story is talked about across the world today. We have done a lot, but are still not satisfied. We are not ready to rest on our past laurels and are focused on building an even brighter future! We have already set high benchmarks for ourselves across various developmental domains and people’s expectations having correspondingly risen as well. Our real challenge will thus be to not only meet but exceed our own expectations and benchmarks, to achieve my vision of placing Gujarat among the league of developed regions of the world, build a glorious Gujarat which offers greater opportunities than the most promising  places in the world.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Media Under Siege - Cover Story - Media Watch "The Sunday Indian Magazine"

A gag on freedom?

India’s national and regional media has never been quite as active in reporting fearlessly on scams and scandals erupting across the country. The social media has added its own chutzpah to the growing momentum. But is there an attempt now to put a muzzle on dissenting voices, asks Aditya Raj Kaul

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Narrating the truth comes with its own consequences. Manipulating and muzzling the press is not new to India’s vast media industry and the trend only continues to grow. Instances of physical and verbal attacks on journalists often do not make headlines but are an almost daily occurrence in today’s  24X7 news environment. Freedom has become a prison for journalists of courage who continue to fight obstacles in order to do justice to their reportage. The moot question in all this however, is whether routine muzzling of the press has gone largely unchecked by agencies with vested interests. Either that or a greater percentage of media seems to have submitted to the diktats of the state and non-state actors who boisterously continue to control  a sizeable portion of the press.

Acknowledging that the freedom of the press is under threat in many states across the country, Chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI) Justice Markandey Katju had said in February this year that fact finding teams would be sent to ascertain the ground situation in states from where complaints related to violation of freedom of the press have been pouring in. “Since I feel that this freedom is under threat in many states, I intend to send fact-finding teams to some of the states from where we are getting a large number of such complaints,” Katju said.

Katju added that the Freedom of Speech and Expression was a right guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. “Under Section 13(1) of the Press Council Act, 1978; it is the duty of the Press Council to preserve the freedom of the Press,” he had said. “I have been receiving reports from several states that the freedom of the Press is in various ways being imperiled,” he added. Not stopping at that, Katju specifically went on to name errant state governments (such as the Nitish Kumar administration in Bihar and Prithviraj Chavan’s government in Maharashtra) which allegedly put undue “pressure on journalists to mend their ways or face the music”. Katju elaborated that these government pressures take the shape of threats, coercion and even pulling out all ads from the paper which dares to take an anti-establishment stand.

The use of the cane by the government was most-recently seen at a live-telecast press conference by Union Minister Salman Khurshid who lashed out at an Aaj Tak reporter for having exposed the said Minister’s hand in alleged misappropriation of funds of an NGO run by him for the physically disabled. The Union minister even publicly threatened to convert India Today into ‘India Yesterday’ in court for exposing the scam.

The growing popularity of social media is becoming yet another eyesore for those wishing to curb the spread of ‘bad news’. More than three decades after the draconian 19-month-long emergency, when the people and the press were subjected to unchecked suppression, UPA II took a leaf out of those unpleasant days by banning several social media websites recently declaring that they harbour hateful content. A notification to this effect was served to ‘All Internet Service Licensees’ on 20th August 2012 by none other than the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) under the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The curbs on social media started after the exodus of the people of northeastern origin from certain parts of the country, but some of the sites and handles blocked caused many to raise eyebrows. Among the banned pages were several news websites including The Times of India, Al Jazeera,,, etc., and handles of two prominent journalists – Kanchan Gupta (@KanchanGupta) and Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor), among others.

Arguing its case, the government said that the internet censorship was necessary to quell hate speech inciting rumors across Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and leading to an exodus of people from the North-East. The rumors, they said, had its origins in Pakistan which circulated inflammatory misinformation through morphed pictures and other communal content.

Government agencies stormed into action without delay by announcing a cap on sms circulation across India, restricting it to a limit of 5 each day. Soon after came the DOT notification blocking several websites. The move led to a massive outrage over the social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook where people overnight turned their display pictures black and wrote with the hash tag of #GOIBlocks and #Emergency2012, which remained key trending topics for weeks on end.

Even as the outrage continues over alleged censoring of government critics in the garb of quelling rumours, sources told Media Watch, “that the union government had indeed been contemplating a ban on a few websites ever since it found itself swimming through a tide of corruption accusations, more so after the recent CAG report on the alleged coal scam.”

“I think the recent crackdown singling out individual journalists for reasons that have never been made clear, was completely unjustified. Using the pretext of hate mail and material being disseminated via social media (a valid reason for concern), the government then went the whole hog. I actually think there is a lot that is absolutely vile on the internet. I think reasonable restrictions on free speech as laid down by our Constitution are a good thing. But you cannot use it as a fig leaf to arbitrarily shut down people for reasons that were never made clear”, says well-known columnist Namita Bhandare.

While the outrage against the crackdown continues, there are others who believe that social media in India is still at its nascent stage and it will take some more time for the industry to develop and agencies to co-relate laws and their behavior in accordance. Madhu Trehan, a veteran journalist who initiated the famous video-magazine Newstrack in India and now runs says, “Social media is evolving into a strong news source with an added punch. Readers/viewers can give their opinions; interact with authors on an immediate basis which you cannot do with mainstream media. It is more democratic and is not controlled so far by the government, though the government keeps trying.Mainstream media is a completely different editorial and revenue model. I don’t think they can be compared.

Media trainer and author Harini Calamur adds a different perspective, declaring that non-state actors have also begun to play a fair role in muzzling press freedom. “Non state actors and groups have been asserting their identity and flexing their muscles for quite some time,” she says and adds that their arm twisting tactics include writing, sponsoring, threatening boycott of advertised products in media, peaceful demonstrations, legal and illegal action, and more.

“The government in liberal democracies rarely takes suo moto action unless there is a risk of law and order going awry. Non-state actors are becoming more intolerant, more aggressive. But it is important to note that the media is also a non-state actor. The role of government is to keep the peace between the different non state actors in the case of a conflict,” she says.

In January this year, while inaugurating a book The Tribune 130 Years: A Witness to History written by historian VN Dutta, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reported Indian Express, asked the media to introspect, suggesting a “degree of self-regulation”.

On the “inevitable highs and lows” in the media, Singh pointed out that there was “sensationalism, driven by a desire to sell a story at any cost... there are stories without a clear understanding of the underlined issues. There is reporting which is prejudiced. There is trivialisation of important matters. There is corruption. The prevalence of the practice of ‘paid news’ exposed recently has come as a shock to all right-thinking people.”

Of course there is ample truth in the prime minister’s words. But will media houses take his tough words seriously given that Dr Singh’s government itself seems cornered from all sides with allegations of scams and scandals being uncovered from every hidden closet? Instances of curbing freedom of speech by those close to the government further take the sting out of the his cutting remarks. Not many days ago, Ravi Srinivasan of Pondicherry became the first person in India to be arrested for a Tweet. The Tweet, which was addressed to no more than 16 followers said that Karti Chidambaram, son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram had “amassed more wealth than Vadra (son-in-law of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi)’. The Tweet followed a police complaint. Police charged Srinivasan under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology [IT] Act, and demanded 15 days of police custody. Pondicherry’s chief judicial magistrate however declined the remand and granted bail instead.

Incidentally, the same law has been used to arrest a professor earlier this year for posting cartoons on the net ridiculing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.  Latest in the chain has been section 66A being used to arrest two young girls from Thane in Maharashtra for their Facebook post questioning the shutdown of Mumbai after Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s death. Such instances have not only sparked outrage among the Twitterati and other netizens but also exposes the deliberate attempts by sections of the political elite to shoot the messenger.

In fact, a sensational instance of shooting the messenger – in this case TV news channels – was played out in Karnataka earlier this year. After a private TV channel caught former Cooperation Minister Lakshman Savadi and Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil watching porn on a mobile handset inside the state legislature this February, the first reaction of the state government was to sack the concerned ministers from the cabinet the very next day. But their next move was to propose a ban on live telecast of the proceedings of the legislature by private TV channels altogether. They did not mention porngate even once when making the announcement. But the message was amply clear: go against us and we know which buttons to press for your continued compliance. Touche!

"We don't take pride in telling the truth"

Veteran journalist Carol Andrade, editor of Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, talks to Aditya Raj Kaul about the muzzling of the press and how we ourselves are to blame for it.

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Have there been increasing incidents of muzzling of the press in India by state and non-state actors?
Not overtly but in a furtive and covert way. Everybody knows that it is around, but you do not talk about it. A lot of it is actually is driven by the need to protect yourself.  It also comes from the knowledge that we do not have a free press. We do not have recourse to a lot of higher processes; we cannot expect authorities to protect us. Even our judicial process is against us. Every journalist is afraid of being tied up in the legal process. Automatically, you censor yourself. Government would muzzle us less than the non-state actors (corporates, underworld et al).  Money talks louder than anything else.

How did you react to the Aazad Maidan violence in Mumbai?
I think the police were caught unawares themselves. The suddenness of the attack and the sheer irrationality surprised everyone. It was a failure of intelligence, not the police. We are so used to it by now that we are not even surprised about it. A lot of us know what happened to those police women at Aazad Maidan, for instance and nobody is talking about it. Even the press is silent. It’s probably because we cannot get confirmation about it. Police could not do much to protect the media. What was shocking was the people who attacked the media actually knew that they were attacking cameramen; they would have somewhere in their minds known that they would not get away with this! It was just that they were in such huge numbers that they might have thought they would.

Was it foolishness on part of the government to arrest cartoonist Aseem Trivedi?
It was plain foolishness. I think it was a kneejerk reaction. There were calls for his arrest and they simply went out and did it. After that, the easiest thing in the world was to slap a sedition case against him, which is such an outdated thing that it has lost all relevance to what is happening in this country. How many cases of sedition have ever been probed? It is an 1816 law which was brought in to protect rulers from the natives. Those cartoons were stupid. They are badly drawn too. His perception of the parliament as a toilet was childish. It was distasteful toilet humour. I cannot imagine RK Laxman indulging in this kind of a thing. The media made a hero out of him and he behaved as a martyr, as if he was the only champion of free expression. The authorities and the media made a mountain out of a molehill.

Have there been efforts to bring in a law to protect the journalists in Maharashtra?
It will not be useful because you may bring in the best laws in the country but it is the implementation where we suffer. It is the execution where we suffer. We have ourselves to blame that we have not stood out as an industry or a profession that prides itself on integrity and telling the truth.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cover Story - JNU:Why the Nehru dream is DEAD - The Sunday Indian magazine

A pale shadow of its past

Faculty and students alike bemoan the falling academic and infrastructure standards of Jawaharlal Nehru University, a once beautiful Utopian dream, writes Aditya Raj Kaul


India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has always had an intellectually superior halo around it. The 1000 acre campus has been called the ‘Kremlin on the Jamuna’ for its strong leftist leanings, a Utopian dream for its unique culture of democracy and dissent and an intellectual fortress for its almost four decades of academic supremacy.

But the lofty academic edifice seems to be crumbling in the 21st century with tales of defective admission policy, discrimination in examinations, hunger strikes by students, lack of adequate infrastructure, shortage of teaching staff and progressively increasing failure and dropout rates of students.

Take for instance JNU’s prestigious BA (Hons) courses. As per last records available, almost 40 per cent of the total number of students admitted in various undergraduate courses at JNU dropped out or failed in 2010. The corresponding number for the various MA/MSc/MCA courses was 20 per cent. Scrutiny by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has revealed that during academic years 2005-06 to 2009-10, “the percentage of student dropouts as compared to enrollment during first year was in the range of 19 to 64 per cent in five undergraduate courses.” The dropout range in postgraduate courses in four centers of JNU was in the range of 15 to 82 per cent during the said academic years. Worse, the institution kept no record of the high rates of failures and dropouts as if unconcerned that this blip had any power to shake its deep-rooted sense of academic superiority.
When quizzed by the CAG, university authorities merely attributed the phenomenon to students leaving for jobs or other opportunities. But is that really the case? Over the years, has not a sense of academic complacency enveloped the JNU campus teeming with green trees and mystic caves? Instead of becoming a haven of intellectuals, has JNU become a mere preparatory ground for civil service aspirants? Urvashi Sarkar, a student of International Relations at JNU believes, “A sizable number of students join JNU with an objective to prepare for the civil services examinations. Not only is it cheap, it hass a great atmosphere to study, libraries open till midnight, you can go to reading rooms any time of the day or night and enjoy free internet access.” Observers say that the institution seems to have lost its pan India character and is today mainly catering to students from UP and Bihar. Notably, JNU receives almost10,000 applications from these two states every year, while less than 1,000 applications come in from 17 to 20 other states.

Today, JNU’s popular Ganga Dhaba does not resonate with heated political exchanges or ideological explosions. Instead, it is the affordable paratha and tawa chicken that lure late night birds to this mouth-watering venue. Even the library now boasts a large reading room where UPSC aspirants spend their days and a large part of the nights.

Anand Kumar – who belongs to one of the first batches of students at JNU and is now a professor at the Center for the Study of Social Systems at JNU – believes that the civil services leaning among JNU students is part of the institution’s founding DNA. According to him, rumour has it that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her pro-left phase of politics created a home for leftist intellectuals in JNU. “Some of them were straightaway taken into Rajya Sabha by her,” he says, pointing towards a cozy harmony between the establishment which was pro-left in that period and the JNU academic community. “There was a popular joke in the campus community that some read Marx for revolution, others read Marx for marks. Marxists in the campus were later on found to be preparing for the IAS,” explains the professor.

While preparing for the civil services is not a crime by itself, what is really frustrating for academic observers is the alleged falling standard of research studies on campus and slackening of the self-anointed goal of academic excellence for the institute.

A case in point is the acute shortage of teaching staff on campus. The 2011 CAG audit points out that over 33 per cent of the total sanctioned posts in teaching cadres were vacant as of March 2010. In an interaction with TSI, JNU Vice Chancellor (VC) Professor Sudhir Kumar Sopory admits the shortage but attributes it politically sensitive disagreements related to reservations. “Certain people felt there should not be a reservation policy, while others felt there should be one. After a few meetings, we decided to have two per cent reservations for assistant professors in SC/ST/OBC and also at associate professor and professor levels,” he says, adding that 35 of the 85 vacant faculty positions have since been filled.

The question is, did JNU really require a nudge from CAG to begin addressing the deterioration these vital ingredients which form part and parcel of its pursuit for excellence? Sopory who took over as Vice Chancellor about two years ago himself has a publicly-stated vision of JNU becoming one of the top 100 universities in the world. But is that even possible given the present inadequacies? “You expect students to be of international standard without giving proper books, Wi-Fi and proper hostels. At the age of 29 or 30 years when students are on the verge of completing their research and take on responsibilities for family that you stop the scholarship and leave him to fend for himself. Will he then try to fulfill his social obligations or focus on research? Why are scholarships stopped in the last year when students need it the most?” asks V Lenin Kumar, recently elected president of the JNU Student Union.

“JNU has failed in its mission. The autonomous nature should have opened floodgates of research but the institution has become restricted by its limited approach,” says Krishna Kumar, New Delhi based education consultant.

Among other reasons, including ineffective use of grants for sponsored projects/fellowships, a seemingly innocuous indicator hampering research activities by students and faculty has been the casual approach towards installation of equipment in various labs of the institution. A Transmission Electron Microscope purchased in October 2007 for Rs 245.72 lakhs, for instance, was installed in JNU’s Advanced Instrumentation Research Facility after a delay of more than a year. This casual approach is by no means an isolated incident. CAG’s examination reveals that as many as 30 pieces of equipment purchased by JNU for Rs 10 lakh and above were installed with a delay ranging from 3 to 23 months between 2005 and 2010.

There is also the baggage of the paucity of requisite infrastructure at JNU – a must for sustaining a positive learning environment as befits the stature of a higher learning center. Khyati Singh, who has completed her Masters in Political Science from the Center of Political Studies (CPS) in JNU says she was dissatisfied with the facilities. “I did not get accommodation in a hostel. I was informed that new students stay as a 'third room-mate' with senior students, till they get a hostel. Also, that this was the 'JNU Culture'. This sounds fine, but to tell you the truth, seniors help only those new students who join/support their political party, directly or indirectly.”

Premkumar Heigrujam, a Masters’ student of Political Science here from Thoubal district of Manipur, chose to study at JNU thinking it was the best university in the country. But there were problems galore, he discovered. “The library is outdated; the footpath needs fixing; the dust around canteens and dhabas is a serious problem,” he points out, adding that the “old hostels need renovation as they look like octogenarians waiting for their last breath.”

The faculty has not got it any better. “At any given point of time, 25 per cent of the faculty is living in one and half room apartments – the so called transit houses which are more like pigeonholes. The infrastructure planning at JNU is very deficient. The classes which were made for about 50 students have to accommodate more than 70 students now,” avers Anand Kumar. Pointing around his office, the professor adds that his room becomes a furnace during April to August every year. “The electricity and water crisis is acute. In the last fortnight, for five days we had no water supply at all,” he says.

Agrees Pushpesh Pant, former Professor of Diplomatic Studies at JNU. "The university's ‘new’ schools – Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences and the School for Arts and Aesthetics – are approaching middle age. Some have acquired an enviable reputation and continue to attract promising scholars. But the rate of attrition is quite high," he rues.

What is more disheartening is that the inability of JNU to build its physical and academic infrastructure as per requirements is despite its coffers being flush with funds. As per the 2011 CAG report, the University did not use almost 31 per cent of its infrastructure grant and its savings in grants increased from about Rs 7 crore in the year 2005-06 to almost Rs 38 crore in 2009-10.

While JNU Vice Chancellor Sopory says the university administration is responding to every recommendation made by the CAG, he adds that the implementation will just take a bit more time (see the full interview below)

Meanwhile, the shadow of the CAG report and errors and omissions of the past will remain etched on the campus. Clearly, something somewhere has gone amiss in this Nehruvian dream of academic and intellectual excellence.

"JNU has to be No.1 within the country"

JNU Vice Chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory talks to Aditya Raj Kaul about the past, present and future of problems and prospects for the university.

How challenging have the last 20 months as the JNU VC been?
There are a lot many things that have not changed in JNU but some things have changed. The open culture of JNU, space for everybody to express viewpoints and interactions have continued over years. But there are fewer interactions between various faculties. Initially because the old schools and centers were of very small size, there was lot more crosstalk. As the number of faculties increased to 500 and students are almost 7000, that interaction and understanding among teachers has slowly reduced. One of the challenges for me since I came has been to bring that culture back. We should have more seminars and discussions. In fact, for the 12th plan we have suggested to create such trans-disciplinary clusters where we can initiate new innovative programmes.

The CAG report says that funds allocated for infrastructure in JNU were left unspent. What have you done?
The performance audit by CAG came just when I joined. We have responded to all the issues. The final report after our response has dropped most of the charges. A system has been built up where accountability for each officer will be there. I think from the financial point of view, we are much more robust but for the rest, it will take time. Infrastructure grant was not transferred; there were certain problems with it. The grant for buildings was utilised. By and large, things are under our control. The teaching positions were vacant because certain people felt there should not be a reservation policy, while others felt there should be. We have reconciled many issues now and out of 85, we have filled 35 positions already.

The student union recently was on a hunger strike with long pending demands. Have you reached a consensus with them?
The students told me that there is some discrimination at examinations. I never felt that faculty can discriminate. There could be discrepancy but not discrimination. However, the data produced by students was compelling. I told them in the last academic meeting that as a scientist, I look at data. Instead of taking only specific cases, why not evaluate the data of last five years. The students wanted me to take a decision on it as an administrator. Even before we could come to any conclusion, they sat on a hunger strike. My personal idea is that such academic matters should not be left in the hands of the administration alone. There needs to be a discussion and a decision with mutual understanding. We have constituted a committee to look into the specific demand of reducing the viva marks. But the students chose to continue with the strike.

You said you would like to see JNU among the top 100 universities in the world. Have you earmarked a deadline?
Each ranking agency has its own parameters. I think this ranking too is something within my mind. I think JNU has to be No 1 within the country in terms of academic output. We need to have some new innovative thought and programmes and the quality of research that we produce has to be good. For any university to excel, its academic output has to be of a very high quality. This has to be coupled with other facilities on the campus. We are going ahead with recruitment of good faculty as it has not taken place for quite some time. Once the faculty takes charge, they will take the university to the top ranking. It is on the path but will take time.

JNU has never had a placement cell. Will there be consensus on it now?
I think we have already been able to convince most people. I had a meeting of all deans a few weeks ago where we decided to have a placement cell. I am happy that this demand has come from the students' union. This time, we are going to put it in place.

The CAG report states that JNU mostly caters to students from UP and Bihar? Can you change that?
Numbers do not tell the real story. We just finished the admission process for the new session. UP, Bihar, Delhi and Rajasthan are areas from which the number of students appearing is large. If you take the ratio of how many appeared and how many got through, the ratio is still small. In quantitative terms, you might see that 5 or 6 states are doing better than the rest. There is no discrimination; students come from all over.