Monday, 30 November 2015

CHAPAL MEHRA - Having the Freedom to Love Freely, Above All Else

They mock me if I fall silent
I’m done for if I dare speak
– From Kafi 16, Madho Lal Hussein.

On November 29, a few thousand people will walk in Delhi to celebrate queer pride. As they do so, they will be reinforcing their right to love. This event is particularly poignant in times of love-jihad and intolerance. As they march, they will be walking a well-plotted path in the sub-continents history, which has celebrated and accepted expressions of same-sex love in the past. A history that was systematically decimated by our colonial rulers to end our diversity and plural traditions, one that we are also actively working to destroy today.

The story of Madho Lal Hussain, one of the most celebrated and revered medieval saints of the Indian subcontinent, is an illustration of this tradition. A Sufi, Hussain’s passionate love for a young Hindu man named Madho is well-known. He loved him so fervently that he came to be known as Madho Lal Hussein. These lovers, Madho and Shah Hussein, lie buried next to each other outside the Shalimar Gardens. Each year thousands congregate at their mazaar to commemorate their love – both spiritual and worldly.

Rereading Shah Hussein in these intolerant times, when one may as easily be killed for professing love that questions societal boundaries as easily as one may be for eating beef, is particularly comforting. Though neither of these acts are criminal either by law or by historical tradition.

Ironically, recent claimants to the sub-continent’s golden past and historical traditions often obfuscate the truth about its greatest tradition of accepting love in all its diverse forms. There are numerous stories of same-sex love across religious cultures in the Indian subcontinent. We have always celebrated love in every hue and form and considered it a path to the divine. The story of Madho Lal Hussain makes many transgressions that would barely be tolerated today in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, yet his story endures and, if we look closely, guides us through our history.

Still negotiating their colonial baggage and history, nations in the Indian subcontinent seem determined to accept notions of Victorian morality instead of understanding and celebrating their own traditions of love. The right to love, the right to dissent and right to question seem now more at risk within these countries than ever before. Ironically, they deny their traditions of tolerance and diversity, unable to recognise that we had achieved a certain inclusiveness that the West is only aspiring for today. 

A Hindu loving a Muslim, a Dalit loving a Brahmin, a man loving another – crossing such boundaries can be punished in numerous ways by law and by society. But none are more severe than a denial of love itself; if we are not allowed to love freely, how do we negotiate other rights? What do they really mean?

In that crowd on November 29, there will be parents, lovers, friends and supporters. The press will be jostling for mesmerising images. The crowd will carry on unperturbed because they couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of them. There are those that will be forced to wear masks – that does not mean that their right to love has been curtailed. That they still chose to walk merely reaffirms it.

The right to express same-sex love may not exist today but the ability to love always will. A court may give or take a right, a society may not grant equality and acceptance, but the human condition seeks what it wants. If it wants love, it will seek it no matter how 
illegitimate you make it.

Archaic laws, intolerance, prejudices and ignorance will not stop this seeking. Instead they will spur it. In times of growing intolerance, a parade like this will only reinforce the right to love, to live in equality and with freedom. It’s a protest against a deliberate inequality that society inflicts on millions that are different. It’s also a reminder to those intolerant ones that expressions of love are diverse.

Those that will watch from the sidelines may be startled; few others may look away in disgust or in apathy. How the onlookers view this parade is insignificant. It will not matter to those who participate in it. Like Shah Hussein they are used to derision 
toward expressions of their love.

Love will thrive, even in these intolerant times. The more you forbid it, the more fervently we will love. Here, too, Shah Hussein provides hope and courage when he writes: 

Let’s live, next to the lover let’s live; 
Litany of sins, heaps of mockery, 
let’s bear it all living close to the lover.

Mohammad Taqi - They shut down my column: Under General Sharif, the Pakistan army is carrying out a war against diversity of opinion

Pakistan’s globetrotting Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has been peddling the ostensible success of a military operation called Zarb-e-Azb in assorted world capitals. The director of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa, has unleashed a social and conventional media blitzkrieg that creates a halo of accomplishment, nay infallibility, around his boss, General Sharif. But in tandem with the military’s media blitz is its undeclared war on dissent, which impugns, maligns and tries to ostracise those in the intelligentsia who refuse to buy the military’s version of events. This low intensity, systematic war on the diversity of opinion in Pakistan barely gets local or international attention.

During my morning ritual of going through emails this past Friday (November 27), I spotted one from my op-ed editor, which read: “It is with an extremely heavy heart that I regret to inform you that Daily Times will be unable to accommodate your daring and conscientious articles. Due to the climate under which print media operates in these times such pieces are constantly being put under scrutiny and so the newspaper with it. It is also my unfortunate duty to inform you that Rashed Rahman has resigned as editor-in-chief due to the same reasons of continued interference in the affairs of the editorial department and as a soldier for unbiased truth he is now serving his three months notice”. As the lead weekly columnist for the liberal Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, I have written extensively about how the dissenters in the Pakistani media, academia and the political class were hounded rel-entlessly; that the undeclared censor’s guillotine had fallen on my hand, was not a shock. What was surprising was that it took six years for it to do so.

My editor, Rashed Rahman, a seasoned journalist and a veteran leftist political campaigner, had insulated me and others like me from the interference of what he calls “the powers that be” — a euphemism for Pakistan’s military establishment — for years. After the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the high-profile owner of the Daily Times and the then governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province at the hands of a religious zealot, his family continued with his liberal tradition and continued to afford me, and others like the veteran Baloch activist and writer Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, the space for speaking our mind. It seems, however, that the cushion against the military’s stealthy interference was wearing thin since the ascent of General Sharif, not just at our paper but the media in general.

Along with putting the Pakistani COAS on a pedestal, his media team was actively weeding out his detractors. For example, about a year ago, the editorial staff advised Talpur to take a break from writing on Balochistan since that issue draws flak from the military. After a hiatus, Talpur wrote a sca-thing criticism of the virtual colonisation of Balochistan by the Pakistani military. The owners finally told our editor Rashed Rahm-an this past Thursday to shut down both Talpur’s and my weekly columns.

A six-year association with the Daily Times thus ended under pressure from Paki-stan’s almighty army. I say army because none of the cultural and music pieces or the personality profiles that I did would have offended anyone. It was my criticism of the army’s duplicitous policy vis-à-vis the jiha-dist terror unleashed in Afghanistan that annoyed the army.

My premise has been simple: The Pakistani army has caused irreparable damage to Pakistani society through its patronage of the jihadists since at least the mid-1970s and despite its proclamations to the contrary, it has not changed as far as the use of jihadist proxies against Afghanistan and India is concerned. I have consistently underscored the fact that the biggest price of the army’s jihadist venture has been paid by the Pakistani people, especially the Pashtuns and the vulnerable religious groups such as the battered and beleaguered Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. The army’s massive human rights abuses in the restive and resource-rich Balochistan has stoked the separatism there and closed the door on a meaningful political reconciliation with the Baloch seeking independence — or secession — depending on one’s perspective. I have strived to give voice to the voiceless sections of Pakistani society because each one of them has touched my life in some way and enriched it in the process.

When I saw my friends and dear ones being shot, the Pashtun leaders that I knew personally being killed and the All Saints Church where I played cricket, being blown to smithereens — all in my hometown Peshawar — by the Taliban, I wanted to bear witness and chronicle those atrocities, which in my opinion were a direct blowback of the Pakistan army’s jihadist project. After the heinous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, the army cracked down on what it had described once as the “bad Taliban”, that is, the ones that hit inside Pakistan. While it claimed that it is going after jihadists of all shades, I contended that it was sparing the “good Taliban”, that is, the ones who attack inside Afghanistan.

My last Daily Times column pointed out that General Sharif speaks with a forked tongue, pledging to fight against terror and bring peace in Afghanistan while jihadists infiltrate Afghanistan from Pakistan unchecked. The army and its minions perhaps could not take it anymore and my column was shut down for good.

The media and press freedom in Pakistan under General Sharif’s leadership is a myth. A multitude of media outlets, including the television channels, create the illusion of diversity but are effectively churning out the various shades of army-approved hyper-nationalism that passes for patriotism. One can perhaps slip in a critical column or a show, but to do so in a sustained manner is nearly impossible now. The troubling part is that the political class has abdicated its role to define patriotism. The Pakistani intelligentsia can make a case for wresting back the power to define the national interest, but unless politicians are willing to do the heavy lifting, we’d be fighting an uphill battle in which many more columns will be shut down and writers banished from the public view.

Pratik Kanjilal - Ban on Satanic Verses: We now have a global culture of complaint which justifies violent responses

Twenty-seven years after the event, P Chidambaram, former cabinet minister of the Congress party, has admitted that the ban imposed on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by the government of Rajiv Gandhi was ill-conceived. Indeed, it must number among the least palatable actions of that government but since it only limited access to one book, and since the Internet now allows the embargo to be run very easily by those who want to read it, it seems to have faded from public memory.

In the Rajiv Gadhi era, the politically sanctioned 1984 violence against Sikhs in Delhi set a precedent whose shadow now falls across the country. Bofors set the keynote for gigantic scams to come. The Shah Bano case was a shameful infringement of the legislature on the turf of the judiciary. In comparison, the banning of a book seems trivial, but it was the first shot across the bows in a global war on culture which continues to intensify.

The timeline of the Satanic Verses controversy shows India in a rather poor light. The government banned imports of the novel on October 5, 1988, on the plea of Syed Shahabuddin. It was the first ban which the book faced, two weeks before Muslims in Britain petitioned their government for curbs. Downing Street rejected the idea, preferring to commit itself to a long-drawn protection programme which became controversial because it was publicly funded.

A month and a half after India banned The Satanic Verses, a domino effect was seen in countries across half the world, from South Africa to Indonesia. The climate of opinion had gathered momentum to the extent that a global fatwa could be heeded, and Ayatollah Khomeini was at hand in February 1989 to issue one.

Since that time, the politics of hurts sentiments has progressively divided the world into nations, cultures and groups which support free speech, and those which are quick to take offence. In the former, where India claims its place, the ban is an anachronism. And yet, a series of governments of diverse political persuasions have been happy to keep it in force.

Chidambaram has spoken his mind on The Satanic Verses when his party is in the opposition. His statement may have been inconvenient when it was in power, because Indian bans tend to be durable. And now, in addition to them, there are unofficial, unstated, fuzzy bans like the circumstances which led the Tamil author Perumal Murugan to announce his own death as a writer. The illiberal trend which started with the government’s ban on The Satanic Verses and the fatwa which followed has created a global culture of complaint which justifies violent responses to imagined cultural slights.

Alissa Scheller - 2 Degrees Will Change The World // Protesters gather around the world for a strong climate change deal

World leaders are meeting in Paris this month in what amounts to a last-ditch effort to avert the worst ravages of climate change. Climatologists now say that the best case scenario — assuming immediate and dramatic emissions curbs — is that planetary surface temperatures will increase by at least 2 degrees Celsius in the coming decades.

This may sound like a small uptick, but the implications are profound. Rising temperatures will destroy plant and animal habitats, and reduce yields of important food crops. More people will be exposed to the ravages of flooding and drought.

But if the nations involved in the Paris talks stay on their current emissions track and don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures could go up by almost 6 degrees Celsius this century, according to the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the U.K. government on climate issues.

The consequences of a heating globe are already being felt in Alaska, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. Rising temperatures have thawed frozen soil in some areas, leaving coastlines vulnerable to storms and tidal activity. Shishmaref, a remote village that sits on an island 30 miles outside the Arctic circle, is losing as many as 9 feet of land a year — chunks of coastline that simply break into the sea... read more:

Ashutosh Vandana - A voice, under 35: Right place, wrong T-shirt

I was detained at the film festival in Goa for wearing an FTII T-shirt

Come November and the cinephile in me gets ready to return to Goa. Each year, I come to this beautiful state because I love being by the sea, feeling the cool breeze in my hair, eating the local food, the warm smiles and easy conversation of Goans — but, most importantly, I return because I want to immerse myself in the world of the films playing at the International Film Festival of India (Iffi). I have been visiting the festival for the past five years and can say with some authority that it is the most exhaustive and exciting film festival in the country. One gets to see big releases and also small, obscure films; old classics as well as experimental works. One gets to meet movie lovers and develop new friendships, forged over the ties of cinema.

This year, however, things have been different. I have been denied the chance to be a part of this cinematic carnival — only because I am a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). I am from Delhi and the cinema bug got me early in life. In 2011, I joined the FTII as a student of cinematography and have since availed of the institute-sponsored trip to Iffi every year. This year, we were told that the institute was sponsoring only “first-timers”, so I decided to go on my own. On the morning of November 21, at 8.30 am, I was standing in line to inaugurate my rigorous viewing schedule at the festival — I was planning to watch five films a day, from 9 am to 11 pm, over the next 10 days. Suddenly, I heard a police inspector briefing a group of security guards mention “the Film and Television Institute of India”. 

Being an FTII student, I was curious and approached the huddle. The inspector noticed me and stopped to ask if something had happened. I told him that I was a student of the FTII and since I had heard him mention the institute’s name, I was wondering what was happening. He asked me, “Why are you here, at Iffi?” and I told him that I was on a study tour — attending Iffi is part of our curriculum — signalling to my T-shirt bearing the institute’s name.

Suddenly, a huge commotion broke out and before I knew it, I was being dragged away by the guards. My person violated and my film-watching plans dashed, I was hurriedly rushed out of the premises and taken to a police cell. Once there, they began “checking” me as if I were a criminal — I was frisked, my phone and wallet were pored over without my permission, and I was asked all sorts of questions about who I was, where I came from, what I was doing at the festival, and what my “intentions” were. I was taken to be a “dangerous protester”, a subversive who intended to disrupt the festival. Simply because I was wearing an FTII T-shirt.

The previous evening, two ex-students of the institute had staged a protest at the film festival’s inauguration ceremony held at the Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee indoor stadium, Taleigao. Just as the ceremony was about to conclude, they stood up holding placards and shouted slogans against the politically motivated appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairperson. Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley, who was up on stage, was caught unawares, as was the rest of the auditorium. Chief guest Anil Kapoor, who was busy entertaining the audience with a “dance number”, seemed so shocked that he remained frozen mid-move. The audience was confronted with a resounding “What about the FTII?”, shifting focus to the ongoing struggle at the institute against the I&B ministry’s meddlesome attitude and anti-student policies of the last few months.

As expected, the protesting duo were physically assaulted, hauled to the nearest police station and slapped with supernumerary charges — conspiracy, trespass, impersonation and assault on a police officer — because they had “embarrassed” the government at this prestigious international platform. The extreme security measures I was subject to had been put in place to avoid more such “untoward incidents”. Given the huge contingent of media present, the I&B ministry, under which both the FTII and Iffi fall, did not want its dirty linen aired in public.

During their 139-day-long protest that began in June this year, students of the FTII tried everything to convince the ministry to overturn its decision on appointing Chauhan as chairperson of the FTII board. The government did not budge, and Chauhan stays on as chairperson. As a student of the institute, I would like to now ask him, Mr Chairman, where were you when FTII students were being assaulted by Goa Police? Where are you, now that false and brazen charges have been slapped on us? Where were you when I was being dragged away by a group of guards simply because I was wearing an FTII T-shirt? My phone was taken away from me and its contents — personal messages, images, mails, private recordings — were browsed by all the police personnel at the station. The station head officer used grossly inappropriate language while “interrogating” me. Mr Chairman, this was your moment to build bridges. Is this how you expect students from your institute to be treated?

At Iffi, I have been declared persona non grata. My authorised delegate pass has been cancelled permanently because I am a “potential threat” to the festival and to India’s image. What’s more, an entire section of the festival that was dedicated to screening FTII student films every year has been scrapped this time, because the government fears that students will screen “anti-national” and “subversive” films. In response, the students have started a parallel film festival, which is energised by the support of audiences eager to catch the “other” show. Hon’ble Minister and Mr Chairman, you can throw us out, you can put us behind bars, you can even chain our hands, but you cannot choke our voices. Cinema is our birthright and we shall have it!

The writer, 30, is a final year cinematography student at the FTII, Pune

Book review - Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Atheism in the Ancient World - by Tim Whitmarsh

The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, beloved by generations of Columbia University students (including me), was known for lines of wit that yielded nuggets of insight. He kept up his instructive shtick until the end, remarking to a colleague shortly before he died: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” For Morgenbesser, nothing worth pondering, including disbelief, could be entirely de-¬paradoxed.

The major thesis of Tim Whitmarsh’s excellent “Battling the Gods” is that atheism — in all its nuanced varieties, even Morgenbesserian — isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world. The period that Whitmarsh covers is roughly 1,000 years, during which the Greek-speaking population emerged from illiteracy and anomie, became organized into independent city-states that spawned a high-achieving culture, were absorbed into the Macedonian Empire and then into the Roman Empire, and finally became Christianized. These momentous political shifts are efficiently traced, with astute commentary on their reflection in religious attitudes.

But the best part of “Battling the Gods” is the Greek chorus of atheists themselves, who speak distinctively throughout each of the political transformations — until, that is, the last of them, when they go silent. If you’ve been paying attention to contemporary atheists you might be startled by the familiarity of the ancient positions.

So here is Democritus in the fifth century B.C. — he who coined the term “atom,” from the Greek for “indivisible,” speculating that reality consisted of nothing but fundamental particles swirling randomly around in the void — propounding an anthropological theory of the origins of religious beliefs. Talk of “the gods,” he argued, comes naturally to primitive people who, unable yet to grasp the laws of nature, resort to fantastical storytelling. The exact titles of his works remain in doubt, but his naturalist explanation of the origins of conventional religion might have made use of Daniel C. Dennett’s title “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.”

Or take the inflammatory title of Christopher Hitchens’s book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” Lucretius, who lived in the first century B.C., chose a more neutral title for his magnificent poem, “De Rerum Natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” but he concurred with the sentiment expressed in Hitchens’s subtitle. He focused not just on the groundlessness of beliefs proffered in ignorance of the natural causes of physical phenomena, but also on their behavioral consequences. In the grip of religious conviction, a person will commit acts too horrific to otherwise contemplate. So Agamemnon, advised by a priest, made a human sacrifice of his daughter to appease the goddess Artemis, who had been offended over the killing of a deer. “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” Lucretius wrote: “Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to induce.” Though the religion may have changed, the point remained sufficiently pertinent for Voltaire to quote the line to Frederick II of Prussia in urging the case for secularism… read more:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able, and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Epicurus' trilemma.

Shirin Dalvi case: The tyranny of hurt sentiment
MRINAL PANDE - What Lies Behind the Hairsplitting Over Dharma, Panth and Secularism

MRINAL PANDE - What Lies Behind the Hairsplitting Over Dharma, Panth and Secularism

It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha’ government justify the use of violence in defence of their ‘dharma’

For authorities fearful of free and open debates, semantic impoverishment... weakens the autonomy of individuals. As the political lexicon shrinks, so does the space for free debate. 

As the authorities start providing all acceptable definitions, citizens gradually cease to be aware of the fact that there are moral values beyond the platitudes of ‘development’ and ‘India first’ that uphold real democracy and which they must fight for...

In the days to come, the struggle for the future of India as a free and truly inclusive democracy is going to take place more and more in the realm of language. And it will be made even more intense by the mass media and social media.
The word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Indian Constitution – signifying tolerance, equality under the law and safety for all citizens – has suddenly begun to be reviled as a pejorative, mostly by quarters supportive of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government of Narendra Modi.

On the first day of the winter session of parliament, November 26, now proclaimed as ‘Constitution Day’, the Union home minister chose to voice his deep resentment over the charge of religious intolerance against his party, parivar and government . It is time, he said, that ‘secular’ – which he described as the constitution’s “most misused word” – and its Hindi synonym ‘dharma nirpeksh‘, were replaced in daily political discourse by the term ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian), as is written in the official Hindi translation of the preamble of the constitution.

In Hindi or Sanskrit, the word dharma (as in raj dharma) basically means duty, not just religion, says constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap. To him as to the home minister, the term panth means a denomination and so the term panth nirpeksha is infinitely preferable to the present term dharma nirpeksha to denote a truly sect-neutral state not wedded to any denomination, which could also be religion.

Semantic legal sabre rattling of this kind brings to mind the astringent poetry of Kabir. How shall your heart and mine be one, he asks, you who talk of what is written on paper whereas I describe what is happening before my own eyes. You wish to keep the threads I disentangle, entangled forever:

मेरा तेरा मनवा कैसे एक होई रे,
तू कहता कागज़ की लेखी, मैं कहता आँखिन की देखी
तू कहता उरझावनहारी मैं राखूं सुरझाई रे ||

It is worth noting that virtually all dictionaries continue to describe panth as sampraday, or an ideological group inclusive of religious sects that are major deviations from mainstream Hinduism such as Nath panth, Siddha panth, Gorakh panth, Sikh panth and so on.

In the lexicography of those who are pathologically averse to and dismissive of dissent, the word ‘secular’ is seen as an affront to the majority’s dharma. It is not a coincidence that in the same speech, the home minister also spoke of Lord Ram as an exemplary Hindu ruler who proved his democratic credentials by exiling his pregnant wife to the forest at the mere lifting of a finger by ‘sabse nichli seedhi ka aadmi’ – read,  a ‘low caste’ man – against her. Never mind if Ram was copping out of his own dharma as a husband. Or that he also put to death the tapasvi Shambuk for engaging in a ritual that was above his status as a shudra.

It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha‘ government, party and parivar tell Hindus they must fight for their dharma by attacking cow traders and beef eaters and the supporters of secularism.

At the same time, what’s with this Talmudic hairsplitting over terms such as ‘secular’? There is a method in this madness. For authorities fearful of free and open debates, semantic impoverishment – the evisceration of a people’s political vocabulary by stripping terms that describe the human condition of their essence – weakens the autonomy of individuals. As the political lexicon shrinks, so does the space for free debate. As the authorities start providing all acceptable definitions, citizens gradually cease to be aware of the fact that there are moral values beyond the platitudes of ‘development’ and ‘India first’ that uphold real democracy and which they must fight for.

The home minister’s speech also reveals how in the India of 2015, the authorities have suddenly begun to read every text, including our constitution, as allusive, a double text as it were. And each wave of dissent, instead of bringing them to public platforms for a free discussion with the disenchanted groups, makes them more cagey and cross. As a result, all the agencies of the state are constantly sniffing for duplicity. Under such circumstances, any open confrontation with the authorities and the propaganda machines of the state, such as the one mounted by writers, artists and film makers, will be seen and treated if not as outright treason, then as a paid revolt instigated by the opposition for settling political scores.

It is appropriate, therefore, that a debate on the subject of dharma versus panth, secular versus non-sectarian, has been flagged off, inadvertently or otherwise. As foreseen and foretold by the dissenting writers and artists, arming oneself with as many languages as one can will be very important for all those who wish to keep up the healthy tradition – the parampara, if you will – of the argumentative Indian. In the days to come, the struggle for the future of India as a free and truly inclusive democracy is going to take place more and more in the realm of language. And it will be made even more intense by the mass media and social media. Watch this space.

see also
On Jeremy Corbyn and Islamism: You can’t be progressive some of the time
The emperor's masks: 'apolitical' RSS calls the shots in Modi sarkar

Ratna Kapur - The Dark Shadows of Tolerance

The concept operates as a gatekeeper, drawing a line between those we like and those we do not. It does not offer any vision of transformation and, in the face of systemic or structural inequalities, becomes a substitute for justice.

The use of the term ‘tolerance’ is being bandied around in the public space in ways that invariably assume it has a progressive meaning. In response to protests by writers and others against acts of violence and intimidation and the government’s failure unequivocally to condemn them, ruling party ministers and spokespersons have insisted that they are “tolerant” and that India is a country where “tolerance” is a way of life.

In reality, tolerance means different things to different people and the use of this word as a shield underlines the problematic nature of the concept. In the context of the colonial encounter, tolerance was the glue that enabled civilizing missions and colonial adventures in the name of taming the ‘barbarous other’ who was viewed as intolerant and uncivil. Tolerance served as the device to deny full legal equality to the native while also managing their claims for greater recognition and empowerment and thus served in part to legitimise colonial rule.

In encounters with indigenous peoples in white settler colonies, tolerance has taken the form of apologies and entertaining claims for reparations by indigenous aborigines such as in Australia without addressing the underlying racist premise of the liberal state. And as recent encounters in Europe have evidenced, the flow of refugees is testing the limits of tolerance, where `racially integrated’ countries are determined to keep their countries both white and Christian, while also stemming the flow through strengthened border security, fences and if necessary, drone attacks in an effort to eliminate the threat that difference poses.

Tolerance and its limits
In the period immediately after independence, tolerance in India initially functioned to protect the rights of religious minorities in the aftermath of the bloody partition and to consolidate the identity of the modern Indian nation-state. Tolerance was and continues to be invariably linked to religious tolerance. And in the contemporary context of the emergence of the RSS Hindutva project, tolerance has come to be equated with appeasement, and assimilation has replaced it as the dominant demand. Difference is perceived as threatening, demonstrating a lack of patriotism, and a threat to the unity of the nation.

The remarks of Bollywood stars or writers and film makers returning their national awards are not read as part of the right to dissent and protest, but as a lack of national pride and in some instances have even been described as treason. The response to these protests must be zero tolerance! And the punishment for those who refuse to march in goose step with the unity and uniformity of the nation is invariably the same – go to Pakistan. This is the message of tolerance when placed inside the mouths of those who would weed out every element of plurality, diversity and disagreement from the national polity. While religious minorities, especially Muslims, are the central target of this brand of zero tolerance, other ‘others’ are addressed with equal disdain and disapproval for contaminating the cultural space – whether these be migrants, homosexuals, sex workers or ‘skimpily clad’ women.

This is not to say that tolerance is a bad thing. In fact, it has a vital place in a liberal democracy for it is the primary defence to compulsory assimilation. But to have any progressive meaning, tolerance needs to be delinked from its majoritarian religious proclivities. One option is to adopt a pluralising strategy that highlights the historical roots of tolerance in the multiplicity of India’s religious traditions, that demonstrate there is no one Hindu faith, Christian faith or Muslim faith. Such an approach has two limitations. First, it runs the risks of nostalgic idealism and cultural essentialism – of searching for the elusive authenticity of religious and cultural traditions, of assuming that those traditions can be discovered rather than constructed and negotiated, and of reconstructing those traditions as static, immutable, and monolithic. Second, a religious conception of tolerance still does not extend beyond tolerance of religious difference.

It is unlikely that religious tolerance could speak to the importance of tolerating those who think, act and live differently, if those differences were based on something other than religion. Such a strategy may not tolerate sex workers or homosexuals, and may continue to encourage the incarceration of homosexuals and reinforcement of gender stereotypes. In these instances tolerance operates as a gatekeeper, policing the boundaries and drawing a line between those we like and those we do not like. It does not offer any vision of transformation and becomes a substitute for justice. A principle of tolerance must be one that is up to the challenge not only of promoting respect for difference along religious lines, but also along a range of other fault lines.

A shift towards delinking tolerance from its so-called religious moorings and towards a more political conception of tolerance – and living with difference and diversity rather than in opposition to it – appears to be a more promising model. But this idea is also fraught with limitations, and may again end up foregrounding religious identity, and relinquishing too much autonomy to highly conservative, even orthodox communities to manage their own affairs without sufficient concern for tolerance within their own ranks.

Struggle for equality
A more robust political conception of tolerance may certainly move away from the thin version of tolerance based on mere visibility and the premise of accepting people and their practices despite disagreements and disapproval. But the rub lies in the fact that tolerance does not resolve the underlying hatred and animosities felt about difference – as recently demonstrated in the responses to statements by Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan – that lie just below the surface. A more robust political understanding of tolerance draws a line, but it is not the solution. While this call for tolerance can play an important role in reducing, if not altogether preventing harassment, incarceration, violence and abuse, it has also become an alternative to arguing in favour of full legal equality.

And this is the crux of the matter. Discussions on tolerance divert attention from addressing the discriminations that have been experienced by sub-groups – sexual, religious, caste, as well as on the basis of gender. Substantive equality in law does not demand sameness in treatment and conformity; it demands that historical, structural and systemic disadvantages be addressed –  which requires at times difference in treatment, in order to ensure equality in result. Tolerance becomes the mechanism for denying full legal equality to those on its receiving end – a method for ensuring majoritarian rule as well as sustaining an antagonistic posture towards difference and the continuing perception of that difference or `otherness’ as threatening or toxic.

see also

Yubaraj Ghimire : How the growing chasm between India and Nepal is widening at all levels

The expanding hiatus between the governments of Nepal and India seems to be replicating itself at various levels of the society on both sides.

Last week, school children waving placards– mostly appeals to Narendra Modi to the end humanitarian crisis in Nepal– formed a human chain in as 17-km perimeter ring road in Kathmandu. While the students paraded on the streets, the government framed a protest letter against the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) for shooting at four Nepali citizens in the eastern Nepalese Sunsari district, from within Nepal territory allegedly as part of the drive against fertiliser smuggling.

A similar incident took place on Sunday as 13 SSB personnel, six of them armed, entered another district in the east, allegedly in hot-pursuit of dacoits. Security agencies of Nepal took them in custody for few hours, and then released them after the Indian side said such incidents will not recur. However, with trust deficit increasing on both sides, motives are being attributed to the incident.

Meanwhile, TV cable service providers have reacted to the ongoing stalemate, by blocking distribution of Indian news channels and accusing them of being a part of the Indian government’s ‘propaganda’ and giving a ‘distorted’ view of the stand-off between the two countries.

Nepal and India do not have a new version of the extradition treaty or mechanism for mutual legal assistance. In the past, however, the two sides have cooperated when it came to handing back suspected terrorists and extremists. Nepal has handed over Sikhs, LTTE and Islamic extremists to India, while the latter has handed over Maoists facing trial in Nepal before 2006, and other criminals wanted in Nepal.

India has expressed regret for its security personnels’ activities on two previous occasions: first, while arresting Sucha Singh, an accused in the murder of former Punjab chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon in late 60s and again during a raid by Indian police in Kathmandu in 1993.

As the current impasse has hit almost all sections of Nepalese society, protests and displays of jingoism and an overdose of anti-Indian sentiments are becoming almost routine. The stand-off over the SSB has overshadowed the cooperation and mutual trust of the past. And still there are no indication from the authorities if the obstruction in the supply of essential commodities that has brought Nepal and its economy to a grinding halt, will end soon.

Book review: Aziz Ansari on modern romance

Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
reviewed by Devapriya Roy 

Getting married and starting a family was once seemingly the only reasonable life course. Today we’ve become far more accepting of alternative lifestyles, and people move in and out of different situations: single with roommates, single and solo, single with partner, married, divorced, divorced and living with an iguana, remarried with iguana, then divorced with seven iguanas because your iguana obsession ruined your relationship, and finally, single with six iguanas (Arturo was sadly run over by an ice cream truck).

When we do marry, we are marrying for love. We are finding our soul mates. And the tools we have to find our soul mates are incredible. We aren’t limited to just the bing bongs who live in our building. We have online dating that gives us access to millions and millions of bing-bongs around the world. We can filter them in any way we want. When we go out, we can use our smartphones to text any number of suitors while we are out barhopping. We aren’t constrained by landlines and relegated to whomever we have made firm plans with.

Our romantic options are unprecedented and our tools to sort and communicate with them are staggering.

And that raises the question: Why are so many people frustrated?

Actor and standup comedian Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance is a clever sort of a handbook. Filled in with as many charts and graphs as jokes and digressions about food (Ansari is open about his acute food obsession), the book tells you how to navigate love, sex and dhoka in the contemporary world, in which “(wo)men may come and (wo)men may go” but your primary commitment remains to your smartphone. 

Modern Romance tells you many useful things, ranging from exactly what kind of profile picture is likely to get you maximum “Heyyy!s” or “Wsups” on online dating sites – “based on this data, the answers are clear: if you are a woman, take a high-angle selfie, with cleavage, while you’re underwater near some buried treasure” – to predicting your dating future with a hundred percent certainty if you are a man who uses the word “texty” in his first SMS to a girl (here’s the prediction: you’re not getting a date, even though your resume is dotted with Ivy League names).

The offspring of medical professionals from Tamil Nadu who moved to South Carolina, Aziz Ansari is definitely the coolest desi in the US. Well, after Mindy Kaling, that is, let’s be feminist in this matter please. As we speak, his recent show, Master of None, remains by far the quirkiest mainstream series being downloaded and binge-watched in the English speaking world – maybe even Japan – and his Twitter feed is getting newer and newer followers (at last count it was 8.12 M).Modern Romance is his first book.

To write Modern Romance, Ansari collaborated with Eric Klinenberg, American sociologist and author of the pathbreaking 2012 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Together, they conducted focus groups and interviews with tens of hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita, Monroe (NY), Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris and Doha.

Their subjects not only shared the most intimate details of their romantic lives with the interviewers, but even gave them complete access to their phones, so their dating encounters could be tracked with accuracy through their e-mail, text messages, online dating profiles and even their swipe memories on Tinder. Ansari and Klinenberg also created a Modern Romantics subreddit forum on Reddit, where thousands of responses were received and analysed.

All this authentic, virtual oral history stuff provided the researchers with a vast pool of resources from which, through Klinenberg’s number-crunching, broader trends emerged – trends that, among other things,  help Ansari come up with the nuggets about the high-angle selfie and the dude who used “texty”.

With chapters titled Searching For Your SoulmateThe Initial AskOnline DatingChoice and Options,International Investigations of LoveOld IssuesNew Forms: Sexting, Cheating, Snooping, and Breaking Up and Settling Down, there is no doubt Modern Romance is a fun, breezy book, and you are going to learn a great deal about why unlimited choice is often leading to sub-optimal decision-making in relationship games and  a sense of ennui quickly descending upon the soul. (Do note: Ansari’s arguments primarily pertain to the First World, though they certainly apply to the classes whose lifestyle choices approximate First World memes in other parts of the globe).

Now, there’s one question that I must raise here. I’ve often been confronted by this as a reader. Following the laws of perceived expectation and rewards in reading (I just invented this law, btw, but bear with me), if the news of a book advance does the rounds before a book is out – Ansari was paid $ three million in advance – does the fact of this advance colour its reception? In other words, does a book ever live up to its $ three-million advance? (Well, the answer is yes for me, but only because of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.)

But with Modern Romance, you do find yourself murmuring at the end, hmm okay, it’s a great-ish book though there is nothing wildly revelatory in it, and the fact that there are others suffering from the same condition does nothing to comfort me in this needle-in-haystack hunt that online dating has become, but I suppose the advance is a really great statement for brown people as a whole, brown actors in showbiz and writers in general. So that’s alright, I feel. So on and so forth.

Incidentally, there were a spate of articles in the press about how one had encountered such a song-and-dance about Lena Dunham’s $ 3.7 million advance for her memoirs Not That Kind of Girl – is a 26-year old woman worth it? – but there’d been no such controversy about Ansari’s book deal, as though it’s perfectly okay for male actors and comedians to get that kind of money, especially if they throw in a few charts and graphs and “social science” questionnaires.

But controversies aside, here are five super-interesting concepts that you will learn about from Ansari’s book.

Herbivore men: This term has become popular in Japan in the last few years, as Japan tries to cope with its fast-diminishing fertility rates and dwindling number of marriages. (The Japanese government is probably the only government in the world that runs an online dating service for its citizens). “Herbivore” men are Japanese men who are very shy and passive, and display no interest whatsoever in sex. They may or may not be in deep relationships with their video games.

The chongo: In Argentina, the word “chongo” literally means “strongman” or “muscleman”, something akin to the Indian bahubali (I am going out on a limb here though). But in popular culture, it is often extended to refer to a casual sex partner or a friend with benefits. Ansari writes:

One married woman at a focus group (in Buenos Aires) told us that during her previous relationship she’d had a chongo whom she saw regularly for several years. “It was just skin,” she explained, to make sure we understood she wasn’t cheating on her relationship, only meeting a sexual need. “I didn’t even know his parents’ names.”  

Monogamish: Journalist and sex columnist Dan Savage came up with the term “monogamish” to describe his unique open relationship with his partner, wherein they are allowed to have sexual activity outside the relationship (within terms and conditions previously agreed upon by both parties) though they have a deeply committed relationship to each other. But “monogamish” is not a rigid category. Each couple is welcome to riff their own particular variation.

Snapchat: An app developed by Stanford students, Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, in 2011, Snapchat is unique because the photos and images sent through it get deleted after a maximum of 10 seconds. The anti-Kodak moment approach is thus deemed perfect for sexting. In Doha, for example, Snapchat has revolutionised dating. Ansari writes:

“We have always been a photophobic society,” one of the Qataris we interviewed told us. People don’t want any record of themselves in public…Then came Snapchat. The app has allowed young Qatari singles to take risks in the privacy of their phone world that would be unthinkable otherwise. “People send all kinds of photos, from explicit to casual,” a young woman explained. “The technology is making people more ballsy.”    

Tenga: This is the latest “game-changing” invention in the colourful world of Japanese sex toys, Tenga advertises itself as “the future of masturbation”. Their signature product is a single-use silicone egg that men are supposed to fill with a lubricant inside and take a go at. When one is done, one simply seals it up and throws it away. The intrepid Ansari tries it out in the interest of research. But to find out his verdict, you have to read the book.