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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Freedom

The Shame Game

This is the 9th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.

Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens.  He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.

The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.

One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.

There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.)  Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?

You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.

That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.

Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?

The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.

The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.

*

Also read:

Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped
The Matunga Racket

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2014 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media


I Have Something To Ask You

This is the fifth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ No writer will deny that this is the implicit premise of the very act of writing columns. This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live? Anyway,in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.

Question 1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?

Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s ok. But Q5, If so, what is that first principle you draw from?

Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact of society.) Q6,  Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7, If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8, If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government fucked up spectacularly? Q9, If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10, If so, should these include freedom? Q11, If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12. If you value some of these over others, why so?

(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one: Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?

If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15, How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?

Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)

I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

The Minister’s Lament
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Seven Thoughts on Modi’s Mandate

All right, here are some quick thoughts on the election results:

One, I’m overjoyed that the Congress got hammered. We are close to seeing the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in politics, which is fantastic. This vile family has caused incalculable damage to our country with its destructive economic policies, which has kept our country poor for the seven decades since independence. It’s impossible to quantify the effect of this, but I believe that this family has orders-of-magnitude more blood on its hands than, say, a Narendra Modi would even if all the allegations against him were true. I’m glad to see them finished as a political force, though it is likely that they will continue to be a political spectacle for a while yet, which I welcome. Pappu provides much amusement.

Two, I’m ambivalent about Narendra Modi but I’m glad he has a decisive mandate. Here’s why I’m ambivalent: I’m classical liberal (or minarchist libertarian, if you will), and freedom matters a lot to me. I want a free society with free speech and free markets. In conventional terms, I’d be right-of-centre on economics and left-of-centre on social issues. The BJP is right-of-centre on both. So I worry about issues like freedom of speech—but remember that the Congress had a deplorable record on this front, and was, in fact, the party that banned the Satanic Verses. We have so far been a reasonably pluralistic society; that, and our (meagre and somewhat inadequate) constitutional safeguards should protect us if the RSS nutjobs get out of hand. One can only hope.

On economics, Modi can’t do worse than the UPA did. Yes, I worry about crony capitalism, but Modi has done a lot to create a conducive environment for small businesses in Gujarat, and his main campaign slogan, ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ is music to my ears. But it will take a lot of doing, and this is why I’m glad his mandate is so overwhelming, and he is free of the constraints of coalition politics. He now has the power to get the job done, and no scope for excuses. He can carry out the measures that are essential if we are to be the manufacturing superpower that he has said he aspires to make India. (I’d start with labour reforms.) He can reduce the number of ministries at the centre, cut down on red-tapism throughout the country, and reform agriculture and education, moving from a culture of patronage to one of empowerment. He has the power to do all this; we will now see if he can walk the talk.

Three, this is a seminal moment in Indian politics, and the political landscape has changed forever. It is estimated that around 100 million people voted for the first time in these elections, part of a demographic shift that is going to continue. If these new voters alone were a country, that country would be the 12th largest in the world, bigger than Germany, France or the UK. This country is where the Modi wave happened.

While this nebulous wave might have been embodied in the figure of one man, consider what it stands for, and why so many first-time voters exercised their mandate: These people are shrugging aside considerations of identity and patronage politics: caste or the Gandhi family do not matter to them. They want progress, development and also, implicitly, the eradication of poverty, which goes hand-in-hand with the first two. For seven decades, parties have only paid lip service to that last aim, and followed policies that perpetuated poverty and nurtured vote banks. Modi embodies the hope that we can break away from this. Even if he doesn’t deliver, and these new voters, and other new voters to come next time, abandon him, we can see the parameters based on which they are making their choices. Those won’t change. The parties that don’t adapt themselves to this new political marketplace will be ejected with, as Pappu would say, ‘the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

Four, It will nevertheless not be easy for the BJP to replicate this performance the next time around. Consider that a big part of this wave was the party winning 71 out of 80 seats in UP, masterminded by their brilliant strategist, Amit Shah. Now, one can expect the BJP to also win the next UP assembly elections. So at the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, they’ll face double incumbency in UP. They’ll be fighting on the basis of performance, not promises, and perceptions of the former will depend not just on Modi’s governance, but also extraneous factors like the last monsoons and the state of the world economy. A few percentage points could lead to a huge swing in terms of seats.

Five, Consider the percentages. In terms of seats, the BJP did 6.4 times better than the Congress. In terms of vote share, they did 1.6 times better. (31% to 19% of vote share respectively, nationally.) The Congress is moribund, relying on feudalism, led by morons, and I expect their vote-share to drop. But note that relatively small swings in terms of votes can lead to much bigger swings when it comes to seats in parliament. Don’t take anything for granted in 2019. A 4% swing away from the BJP, for whatever reason, would almost certainly result in a coalition government.

Six, AAP has shown itself to be the political economy’s equivalent of candlelight vigils and online petitions, both futile gestures made by self-righteous people who want to feel good about themselves and lack an understanding of how the world works. Leave aside its constituency, the party itself was a meld of contradictions, defined only in opposition to others. It articulated a faith in government and leftist economic policies that would take our country backwards, not forwards. It claimed to speak for the common man—but the common man chose the chaiwallah over the income-tax officer.

What really got my goat was the coverage given to AAP by our Delhi-centric media. This was a party expected to get at best 10 seats in a parliament of 543. (I expected them to get one [Rakhi Birla], they surprised me and got four [Punjab].) And yet, from the media coverage given to them, you’d think they were a major contender to form the government. William Dalrymple, in fact, referred to Arvind Kejriwal as one of ‘the three front-runners’ in these elections. Immense WTFness.

Seven, What about 2002? Was Modi personally responsible for engineering the riots? If he was, nothing else matters, and that would be enough to condemn him. But was he? I’ve spent a fair bit of time going through the evidence to implicate him (quite convincing) and the defences in his favour (also, weirdly, convincing). I know that almost all my friends will jump on me for saying this, but I no longer believe that it is possible for anyone on the outside to know, for sure, whether he engineered those riots. The facts are such that what you choose to believe will be what you want to believe, and will reveal more about you than about him. This is an epistemological position, not an ideological one; and I therefore have no choice but to consider him innocent until proven guilty, though he can be proven neither innocent nor guilty, but I know where the burden of proof lies.

In any case, as I’ve written before, I believe that Modi acts purely out of self-interest and not ideology. At the centre, he will do whatever he believes will increase his political capital. I don’t think communal violence will be part of that equation. I think development will. That gives me hope.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2014 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics


The Minister’s Lament

This is the fourth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I love group photos. All the ministers of this new government had gathered to be shot, and I was dressed in my finest khadi. My party wasn’t originally part of this coalition, which consisted of one national party and 16 regional ones, and ended with 269 votes. It needed three seats, and I had four, mostly thanks to biriyani and fractured votebanks. They promised to make me a minister. ‘Actually we’ve run out of ministries,’ I was told, ‘but we’re creating a few new ones to keep up with demand.’ I took my place in the group portrait. The photographer stood a long, long way back.

The next day I showed up at the newly built Secretariat 3, was shown into my office, and met my secretary, Mr Batra. As we waited for word from the PMO about what we were supposed to do exactly, he showed me what Twitter was. Who knows, he said, it might come handy sometime.

Who woulda thunk? That evening, word reached us that I was now the first ever Minister for Social Media (MSM). I was asked to go to the PM’s office within an hour, where I would be handed a statement that I would read out at a press conference. We duly headed off. We could have walked, but I chose to be driven in my official Honda Accord with a red beacon on top. Sitting inside, siren blaring, beacon flashing, I remembered the village where I had been born.

‘The Ministry for Social Media,’ I read out, ‘will empower the youth of our country by ensuring the smooth functioning of social media. We will make sure that poor and disempowered people everywhere have access to it. Everyone will have a voice. Thank you.’

‘Minister,’ a voice piped up behind the many television cameras, ‘social media functions well enough on it’s own, and already gives a voice to the disempowered. What more will you do? Will you censor social media?’

‘No questions,’ barked Rameshwaram, the secretary from the PMO, and ushered me backstage. As I left he told me, ‘Good luck minister. And a word of advice: keep a low profile.’ I pondered on this as I was driven home, siren blaring, beacon flashing, trying my best to be low key in the car. People stared.

When I reached office the next morning, Batra was exultant. ‘I’m already at work on budgets, sir,’ he said. ‘We’ll need new departments. One each for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube. Hahaha, Yummy!’ I wasn’t quite so happy. The ministry did not give licenses for anything. No one had to come to me for permission to do phallana dhimkana. I controlled nothing; and therefore had no sources of revenue. All these years of building my political career and this was my reward: a cow without teats. But I did have power. Now, how would I use it?

Soon enough I started getting phone calls from ministers. A sex tape of Ram Lakhan Yadav had just been uploaded on YouTube. (‘It’s doctored, of course, but even then, my good name is being besmirched, samjhay na?’) The PMO called to say that there was a fake Facebook page up purporting to be the official PMO page. Mrs Goel, minister of women’s welfare, informed me that some people on Twitter were abusing her. And so on. I was asked to get these pages removed, the users banned, and in one case, arrested. (He had threatened to attack Mrs Goel.)

We couldn’t go through with the arrest because the culprit turned out to be a 65-year-old professor of anthropology in the US, but YouTube videos and Facebook pages were removed, Twitter users banned. I even assigned a few minions to edit and monitor the Wikipedia pages of my fellow ministers. My ministry grew; we were never short of work.

And yet, policing social media felt like trying to empty out an ocean with a bucket. By the end of the first month, there were six Facebook pages pretending to be the PMO’s official page. We’d ask for one to be taken down, two more would pop up. Ram Lakhan Yadav could have started a TV channel, there were so many different clips of him engaging in carnal contact with members of both sexes. (‘All doctored, this is a conspiracy against me. I think the CIA is involved, samjhay na?’) Mrs Goel had a fan club bigger than Scarlett Johansson, and horror of horrors, there were even people attacking me on Twitter, the audacity of it.

It got worse. Three big corruption scandals broke out via social media in month 2 of the government. I felt a certain schadenfreude at that, and was secretly gleeful that they happened at ministries I was denied. Meanwhile, the PMO was frantic. I told Rameshwaram that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all complied with our requests: but there was only so much they could do. ‘Can’t we just stop the internet itself?’ I asked. ‘Let no one in India access it?’

Rameshwaram sighed. ‘I set up a committee to examine the matter,’ he said. ‘But the only thing the bastards on the committee did was surf porn. No, we’re stuck with the internet, I’m afraid. Find another solution.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sat with a glass of my favourite single malt at 11pm in my office when I got a new email. The subject: ‘Your naked pictures are now on Twitter.’ I instantly clicked through to the link provided, but Twitter didn’t open, some other site did, and then my computer went blank. So did I. You have seen the video by now on YouTube: I stood up, punched the monitor off the desk, threw my glass of single malt across the room, slammed my phone down on the ground and banged the wall saying ‘Shit, Shit, Shit.’ (All this while my peon was shooting the action like he’s Govind Nihalani.) Yes, I banged that wall, till my fists bled and I was sobbing. I never thought it would come to this, that I would be a minister in the biggest democracy in the world, and I would. Feel. So. So. So. Helpless.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Bombzooka Question

I have three hypothetical questions for you guys. Humour me and try and read all the way through.

One. Knives can be used to kill people. They can also be used to cut vegetables. But because they enable murder, to users so inclined, should they be banned? Or is that an abrogation of individual freedom?

Two. Guns can be used to kill people. They can also be used for self defence. Should they be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

Three. Bombzookas are a new invention of mine. I’ve created an easily mass-produced semi-nuclear device that can be sold over the counter in retail outlets everywhere, like knives. A Bombzooka destroys everything within 20 square km of it. It’s easy to use—you can place it somewhere and activate it via mobile phone—and obviously lethal. Like knives and guns, it can be used to kill people. Should Bombzookas be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

The answers to my first and third questions should be uniform, regardless of what ideology you believe in. Even the most ardent libertarian would surely agree that Bombzookas should be banned. The strongest supporter of gun control would agree that knives should be legal. The inevitable dispute over the second question, of gun control, thus seems to me to simply be about where we draw the line between a knife and a bombzooka? It hinges on the quantum of damage the instrument can cause. In other words, it isn’t about principle at all, provided we accept that Bombzookas should not be sold over the counter.

No?

*  *  *

As for where I personally stand on gun control, well, I’m a libertarian but I’m happy that guns aren’t sold over the counter in India. If they were, someone would have put a bullet through my head in some underground poker game or the other at some point in time. ‘You busted my aces again. Blam!’ Or suchlike.

I can probably construct an elaborate argument for my position, but I’m feeling too lazy right now. So shoot me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 December, 2012 in Freedom | Small thoughts


A Tale of Two Cities

I was on a CNN-IBN show earlier this evening, where the topic under discussion was the arrest of two girls over a Facebook post one of them made (and the other one ‘liked’) about how the city should not be shut down just because Bal Thackeray had died. The channel seemed to be treating it as if the event was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t. It was same-old, same-old, in two distinct ways.

One, it illustrates the legacy that Thackeray has left behind. In my mind, Bombay and Mumbai are two separate entities: Bombay is a thriving cosmopolitan city which embraces immigrants and the entrepreneurial energy they bring with them, and is a harmonious melting pot of cultures. Mumbai is an intellectually repressed place, the creation of a divisive demagogue that thrives on intolerance. These two girls were arrested in Mumbai, the city that Thackeray built. Bombay is the city some of us cherish and are trying to save. And even though Thackeray might himself now be dead, his dangerous legacy clearly lives on.

Two, while in the studio they kept discussing Section 66 of the IT Act, the truth is that the problem is a broader one than just social media and the IT Act. The Indian Penal Code contains sections that are just as draconian, such as Sections 295 (a), 153 (a) and 124 (a), and Article 19 (2) of the Indian constitution lays down caveats to free speech, such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation and, thus, to misuse. It’s sad, but our constitution does not give free speech the same kind of protection that, say, the First Amendment of the US constitution does, and our laws, many of them framed in colonial times, allow authorities to clamp down on free speech whenever they so desire. (For more, read: ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) It’s not just the IT Act that is a problem here.

So Thackeray is dead, and free speech is ailing. Such it goes.

Also read

Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies—Rohit Chopra
Fear and Loathing in Mumbai—Vinay Sitapati
Why I can’t pay tribute to Thackeray—Markandey Katju
Thackeray could have done so much more for Marathis—Aroon Tikekar

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2012 in Freedom | India | News


The Gathering Birds

‘Before anyone else was interested in the ornithology of terror he saw the gathering birds,’ Salman Rushdie writes about himself in Joseph Anton.

Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm.

It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors, and things.

Read the full thing. I know people who are turned off by the stylistic flourishes of his novels, but Joseph Anton brims with clarity and insight, and is well worth your time.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2012 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom


First Lessons

The quote of the day comes from Thomas Sowell:

The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

I got the quote from an excellent piece by David Boaz on the fallacies in many arguments for a bigger role for the state: The Empty Case for Big Government. Read the full thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2012 in Economics | Freedom | Politics


Small Brother is Watching You

Some people demonize CCTV as something as a threat to our privacy, as a tool for ostensible Big Brothers everywhere to potentially be watching us. But in many ways, I think they can do just the opposite: they can empower common people, and act as a check on oppressors, who thrive on controlling the flow of information. As an example, check out this video below, which compiles CCTV footage to show the following sequence of events:

1] Rabia Imran, daughter of Shahbaz Sharif, visits a bakery in Lahore on a Sunday morning. The bakery is closed.

2] One of her minions gets it opened. There’s a sweeper inside, who informs Rabia that the shop will open in the afternoon, and he obviously can’t sell her anything right away.

3] But Rabia needs her sugar kick. She needs it now.

4] She calls another minion. The two minions take the sweeper aside and slap him around. They leave.

5] A few hours later, three more minions, accompanied by uniformed cops, come to the bakery.

6] They take the sweeper outside and thrash him.

7] Then, with the police watching, they bundle him into a van. A few hours later, we are informed, he is dropped off bearing marks of severe assault.

And all this is on CCTV, undeniably there. They can’t even deny it.

Of course, you could argue, so what, we all know this happens, this is hardly a revelation. True. But I think there is a possibility that if Big Brother knows that Small Brother is watching, he might be inclined to behave just a little better. So thank goodness for all the tools of surveillance and of spreading information that empower all of us.

*  *  *

I hardly need to add that even though this particular footage is from Pakistan, this kind of attitude and behaviour is endemic in India as well. We’re also a developing nation with a feudal mindset. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 October, 2012 in Freedom | Politics


Ban Nudity! Ban Nightlife!

Our right-wing lunatics are so funny sometimes that it’s hard to hate them. Balbir Punj has a bizarre (but typical, so maybe not so bizarre) rant up on the New Indian Express about how Western values are ruining our country. His arguments are so priceless that you have the read the whole thing, I can’t just excerpt for WTFness. Among other things, he thinks that ‘nudity’ and ‘nightlife’ are “Western aberrations”, and rants against same-sex unions on the grounds that they only take place for ‘pleasure’, which, in his opinion, is a bad thing. Punj has it exactly the wrong way around: the rising divorce rates he rails against are, in my opinion, something to celebrate, and the decline of family values is a damn good thing.

Ooh, I can imagine Punj choking on his coffee if he reads this. But wait, coffee must surely also be a Western aberration, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2012 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


India’s Second Freedom Struggle

This is the 37th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 23.

It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.

Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.

There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.

One: Limit the power of government

As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.

Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj

The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.

It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.

Seven: Reform Schooling

The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?

Eight: Reform Agriculture

We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.

I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?

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Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

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My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder


To Hell With Family Values

This is the 35th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 26.

As news items go, this one is both absurd and sad: the authorities in Bhakti Park, a 90-acre-complex in Wadala consisting of 24 buildings, have banned its residents from going to the terrace. The reason for this is two separate incidents, in different parts of the city, of housewifes pushing their kids off the building, and then jumping themselves. By cutting off access to the terrace, these authorities presume, they can prevent such copycat suicides.

I’d assume that if someone wanted to pop themselves, they could easily find other ways of doing so, like jumping off their own balcony. But leave aside methodology: while these recent incidents are tragic and poignant, and unusual in that they involved the murder of children, they are not an anomaly. Almost every day, you can open the newspapers and read about some housewife somewhere killing herself. (It is so commonplace that I wonder if it should be even considered ‘news’.) A week ago, in fact, my fellow Yahoo! columnist Deepak Shenoy pointed me to a rather telling statistic: going by data for 2009 (pdf link)—there’s no reason it should be any different today—around 20% of the people committing suicide in India were housewives.  Indeed, many more housewives commit suicide every year in India than farmers, despite all the hoo-ha around the latter.

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

We Indians tend to pride ourselves on our family values. The typical middle-class Indian is brought up with the default programming that they’ll get married in their early-to-mid 20s, have kids within a few years of marriage, and have steady settled careers in conventional professions. This default programming is horrible for women. Many of these women who killed themselves no doubt grew up daydreaming about the domestic bliss that lay ahead of them. They did not try—or were subtly discouraged from trying—to turn themselves into proud independent women who did not depend on others for subsistence, and whose self-esteem did not need validation from a man and his family. They duly got married, some of them had kids, and when the marriage went bad, when the man turned out to be an ass, they could not find a way out. Even if they could have supported themselves, what about the social stigma of a broken marriage? And so, in dispair, they walked up to the terrace.

A few years ago, I’d written a piece titled ‘We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates.’ I continue to get more hate mail for that piece than any other I’ve written, but I couldn’t stand by it more strongly. As I wrote then, rising divorce rates are “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If divorce was easy and socially acceptable, and if every father in the country brought up his daughter to be independent, we’d have far fewer housewives committing suicide. Indeed, we’d have far fewer men taking their wives for granted and treating them like shit. Marriage would not, then, be the prison it is for so many women.

*  *  *  *

I know many couples, married and otherwise, who have decided not to have any children—much as I have. It exasperates us all a little to be questioned about this. Being a parent transforms your life, and limits the options open to you in terms of career and lifestyle—especially for women. The question ‘Why?’ to my mind should really be asked to those making this huge choice, rather than to those who choose not to have kids. Not having kids should be the default.

Of course, this will never be the case as natural selection has programmed us to be procreating machines, and too many of my friends go oooh, how cuuuute when they see a noisy, messy baby I would be glad to deposit inside a mixie. But that’s okay. We’ve all got a right to make our choices—just don’t look at me as if I’m nuts when I tell you I don’t want to be a father.

Indeed, speaking of producing kids, you could say that I enjoy the journey but never want to get to the destination. Natural selection, go screw yourself!

Also read: Philip Larkin’s great poem, ‘This be the Verse’.

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I’d also love to see the day when marriage is no longer so sacrosanct in India. If two people are in love, what is it between them that a piece of paper can change? Either they’re committed to each other, in which case who needs it registered in a government office, or they’re not quite that committed, in which case why trap yourself? And why marry someone without living with them first to see if it works? Would you buy a car without test-driving it, or a pair of headphones without checking out the sound first? Isn’t selecting a spouse a far more important decision?

The only plausible reason to get married is if you want to have kids and being married makes it easier for them in a society like India’s. Otherwise, as an expression of love, it seems a bit overblown to me. Is it insecurity, and a need to assuage it, that drives some of us to marriage? Is that a good reason?

My arguments aren’t prescriptive, of course. You have to do what works for you. Just think about it first, is all I’m saying.

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A final thought on that database of suicides that I linked to earlier in the piece. If you go through it carefully, many interesting narratives come up. One of them is this: despite more than 60% of our population being involved in the agricultural sector, only about 14% of people committing suicide are farmers. That would indicate that, despite the rhetoric of the likes of P Sainath and Pankaj Mishra, there is less average misery among farmers than among non-farmers. So however many anecdotes they may come up with about farmers driven to kill themselves by unscrupulous moneylenders, the fact remains that the plural of anecdotes is not data. And the data tells quite a different story.

But that’s a subject for another column on another day, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


The Game of Skill

This is the 34th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 12.

I’ve been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt’s newest paper: ‘The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker’. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer’s achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt’s excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.

As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling furiously to get online poker banned in America. Since a bill to this effect was unlikely to pass on its own merits, he tacked on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) onto legislation about protecting the ports of the country, and got it through at the fag end of a session before the senate went on recess. The bill didn’t ban online gambling per se, but prohibited the use of US banks and credit cards for depositing money into those sites.

While that hurt online gaming, Americans continued to play poker at sites like Pokerstars and Full Tilt, as the sites presumably used a variety of methods to get around the issue of accepting and giving payments. They were indicted on Black Friday, though, as the legality of some of these methods came into question, and American players have been barred from playing at these sites. This has hugely affected the livelihood of many online grinders, who played poker for a living. Besides that, it is also an infringement on the rights and freedoms of Americans from their own government, which is depressing, considering that in other aspects, like freedom of speech, America sets an example to the rest of the world.

This will get sorted out. Sooner or later it will be legally settled, once and for all, that poker is a game of skill and not luck. The UIGEA will cease to apply to it, and the debate will be moot. Levitt and Miles’s new paper might well play an important part in that. It’s something most Americans understand anyway: poker is a quintessential American game, and it can even be argued that its history would be different without it. Richard Nixon funded his first political campaign through his poker winnings, and Barack Obama, according to David Remnick in The Bridge, used poker sessions with local bigwigs as a networking opportunity during his formative political years in Chicago. (By all accounts, he is tight-aggressive: cautious when it comes to entering a hand but, as his recent play in Abbottabad shows, not afraid of putting all his chips in the middle if he feels the situation demanded it.)

Given the legal status of gambling in India, a US ruling about poker being a game of skill would also help the game grow in India. At the moment, poker tournaments and cash games are legal only in the offshore casinos in Goa. An underground scene thrives in every city—and that’s understating it—but it’s all a bit precarious. Once it is as legal as, say, Bridge, I predict a poker explosion in India that will make it, within five years, the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. You’ll have the whole gamut of entertainment options: televised tournaments, high stakes cash games with hole cameras, poker celebrities as instantly recognisable as Gautam Gambhir. All stoked by the illusion that we all get the same cards, and any of us could be up there in the spotlight. It will happen; remember that you read it here first.

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I’ve written in the past about why poker is a game of skill, so rather than go over old territory, let me direct you to some old Viewfinder columns on this subject:

The Beautiful Game of Poker
Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea
Poker and the Human Brain

You can also check out my bi-monthly column for Cardplayer India, Pocket Quads.

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At one level, the argument about whether poker is a game of skill or not should be irrelevent in a legal sense, because it is my contention that even games of chance should not be banned. There are two reasons for this: One, as I’ve argued before, practically everything we do in our lives, from investing in the stock market, selecting a job or choosing a spouse is a gamble of some sort, in the sense that we make an estimate of the odds of our investment leading to a good return, and act accordingly. In many of these matters, we are sometimes too optimistic—but that’s life.

The second reason is more fundamental. What I do with my time and money is my business alone, as long as I do not infringe on anyone’s rights. This right of mine, over my life and my property, is something that the government is supposed to protect. For it to actually curtail and infringe these rights defeats the purpose of government itself. Governments exist to serve us, not the other way around. And yet, we the rulers allow ourselves to become the ruled. On a matter or principle, thus, all laws against gambling are wrong.

That said, from a poker player’s perspective, proving that it is a game of skill is lower-hanging fruit. Let’s get there first.

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Since we’re talking poker, I’ll end by telling you about a sick call I made the other day. I’m at the button in a five-handed game, with the blinds at 100-200, and stacks ranging from 30k to 100k. It’s five in the morning, and the game has become very loose and aggressive. Everyone limps to me, and I look down at red pocket 8s. I raise to 1000, and everyone calls. The small blind, who has been very frisky and seems to be tilting, announces “check in dark.”

The flop is Ac2sAc. (Two aces, two clubs.) I’m ready to give up the hand if someone bets, as one of the callers could easily have an ace, but the action checks to me, and I choose not to build the pot by betting: I check. Before the turn opens, the frisky small blind announces, “Bet in dark. Four thousand.” (Into a pot of five.) The turn is the king of clubs; there are now three clubs on the board. I’m ready to fold if someone calls or raises him, but the action folds to me. My read is that he does not have an ace, which he is trying to represent, because from what I know of him, he wouldn’t play it like this. I call.

The river is the ten of clubs. There are four clubs on the board, and also two aces, one king and one ten. Any of them beat me. Frisky boy bets 16 thousand into a pot of 13. You’d think this is where I fold, but wait, not so fast. I tank, and think through what he might have. His range, in my view, is very polarised. Either he has the nuts or he has nothing. I can’t see him betting a random club here because he has showdown value. Ditto a king or a ten. He wouldn’t bet trips here because there’s a flush on the board. He wouldn’t bet a flush because there’s a repeat ace on the board, my preflop raising range has many hands with an ace in it, I did call his turn bet, and I’m capable of slowplaying a full house. In my estimate, either he has some sort of full house, and is overbetting the pot to get value from a flush, in case I have one, or he has nothing.

I talk to him. He talks back, smiles sheepishly. The physical tells I’m getting are of weakness, so I call. He mucks his hand, and I take down the pot with two red eights on a board with four clubs, two aces and two other overcards. I don’t show emotion much at a poker table, but I’m overjoyed at my analysis and my reads turning out to be right, and I punch the air. “Come to Papa,” I exclaim. Poker is a game of luck, you say? My ass it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Sport | Viewfinder


Where Anna Hazare Gets It Wrong

This is the 31st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, which resumes this week. It was published on April 14.

Today’s column begins with a fashion update: A ribbed, silk green gown from Vivienne Westwood’s spring/summer 2010 collection has been selected as Fashion Museum’s Dress of the Year. Androgyny has become the latest trend on the catwalks. In India, The Times of India, who should know, informs us that “yellows are in.” And oh, have you heard about Anna Hazare? He’s quite the flavour of the month.

Yes, that’s right, I’m an Anna Hazare cynic. I understand that like Yuvraj Singh, he’s in the zone right now. I get it that he stands for the battle against corruption, one of India’s gravest problems. But I’m amused that most people supporting him haven’t read and understood the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which Hazare has been fighting for. I’m appalled that they don’t understand that this bill does nothing to fight the root causes of corruption, and may instead add to the problem. And yes, I’d be astounded if they care about this bill or the man two weeks from now, when the fashion would have changed, yellows would be out, and purples would be, like, so in.

That corruption is one of the biggest problems India faces is a banal truism. But where we go wrong in thinking about it is that we treat it like a disease, when it is really a symptom. Corruption arises from power. When people have power over our lives, they will misuse it: that is inherent in human nature. When you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including “a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms”, there is a recipe for corruption right there. When every government servant you encounter while doing some routine work, from a driver to a peon, can delay you or derail you, corruption is inevitable.

Corruption is inevitable in India because the government has too much power. If a hotelier did not need 165 licenses—and there is no reason why he should need any—that would be 165 bribes less to pay. (I’m assuming one bribe per license, which is honestly quite optimistic.) If our mai-baap sarkars did not have control over so many elements of our lives, there would be less scope for chai-paani. In practically every area of our lives, there is government interference or oversight, either overt or covert. And, to repeat that old cliche one more time because it is both pithy and true, power corrupts. That’s just human nature.

So what is the solution to corruption then? Since the problem lies with power, you need to tackle that first. You need to, first of all, question the many ways in which the government controls our lives. Completely dismantling the license-and-inspector raj is one way to do. Scrapping every ministry that has no reason to exist, at both the central and state level, would be another. (We’d be left with just three or four of them.) Governments should exist to implement law and order, to protect our rights, and to provide basic services—nothing else. The more we move towards this ideal, the closer we come to rooting out corruption.

Obviously these specific goals are high-hanging fruit. Those in power will never willingly give up any piece of it. But an equal part of the problem is our default attitude that our government exists to rule us and not serve us. This must change. Equally, we seem to believe that the solution to bad government is more government. This is exactly the opposite of the truth, and broadly the mistake that Anna Hazare is making.

The Lokpal Bill does not tackle any of the root causes of corruption. Instead, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it in his wonderful critique, the bill amounts to “an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power.” In other words, in a situation where the problem is power, we create an entity that has even more power and, what is more, has appointed officials instead of elected ones. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta writes, this is not “the deepening, but ... the profound erosion of democracy.”

I’m not as skeptical of Hazare as my friend Manu Joseph is—I think Gaurav Sabnis’s view is more balanced. I’m sure the man is well-intentioned, and has achieved much in the past. But he is fighting for the wrong thing here. You do not cure a diabetic man by feeding him sweets; equally, you cannot root our corruption by creating more centres of power.

I must admit, though, that Vivienne Westwood makes some funky dresses.

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I’m always amused to see how a worthy cause acts like Red Bull to our chatteratti. From the meaningless, feel-good candlelight vigils after 26/11, to countless self-righteous online petitions about this and that, to support for Anna Hazare, the new middle-class icon. (Who woulda thunk?) Why, I even heard about a movement on Twitter that was trying to get everyone to fast for one day in solidarity with Hazare. One day! How far we have come: from “fast unto death” to “fast until midnight.” This is progress, India.

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Speaking of androgyny being in fashion, it strikes me that most foreigners, when they hear his name, must think Anna Hazare is a woman. I would so love to see a desi Lady Gaga clone on MTV soon, calling herself Anna Hazare. She’d have to be really thin, of course, because not only is that fashionable, she’s been fasting. I have the title of her first single already “Would you like to be my lokpal, baybeh?” I can see her in my mind’s eye, and lemme tell you, it’s corrupting me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder


It’s Only Words

This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.

The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?

Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?

A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “... and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’

Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.

I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?

*  *  *  *

My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Such a Wrong Journey

This is the 24th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 14.

You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, “as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable.” This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn’t where he’s from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?

Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn’t been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena, reportedly instigated the student wing of the party, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, to launch a protest against the book. The reason, according to the BVS chief, was that the book “uses extremely obscene and vulgar language in its text and also makes anti-Sena remarks.” The university’s vice-chancellor, presumably not wishing to be beaten up by Shiv Sena thugs, duly took it off the syllabus.

Thackeray Jr. justified his decision in an interview to Mid Day saying, “It is a question of people’s sentiment and India is a very sensitive country. There is a man (Balasaheb Thackeray) who has millions of followers and the author insults him purely on the basis of his own opinion and not the facts. That is where the problem lies.” Watch the video of the full interview on that page, it’s fairly amusing—and also quite scary. When Thackeray says, “You can’t just abuse someone,” it’s not just the immature voicing-off of a random 20 year-old kid, but a portent for the future, from the inheritor of a political party that uses intimidation and thuggery as its political weapons of choice. True, it is not the only party doing so—but it is the primary party responsible for what my friend Salil Tripathi, in an excellent column published today in Mint, calls “Bombay’s decline into Mumbai.” This is what we are becoming, and these are the people who will take us there.

*  *  *  *

The Sena does not have a monopoly on intolerance: instead, it is actually written into our laws, and in our constitution, neither of which respect free speech. (I’ve been writing about this for years, for example in my old piece, ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) The Indian Penal Code, framed by the British in colonial times, contains a number of laws that make giving offence a crime, and throttle free speech. For example, there’s Section 295 (a), which makes it a non-bailable offence to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” There’s Section 153 (a), which seeks to punish “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. There’s Section 124 (a), which prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government”—something that any critic of any government could be accused of.

The constitution, framed not by the British but by the freedom fighters who got us independence, cops out when it comes to free speech. While Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) lays out “reasonable restrictions” such as when it applies to matters such as “public order” and “decency or morality”, matters which are, of course, open to interpretation. I’d love it if we had something like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which contains no such caveats—but sadly, we don’t.

Adults should not run around complaining about the words of others. Even in school, the kid who ran to the teacher demanding that the boy who called him a monkey should be punished was laughed upon by everyone. But in our public life, it has somehow become quite okay to complain that someone who has offended you should be punished. If giving offence is a crime, then free speech is impossible, because anything you say can potentially offend someone or the other. And people who take offence so seriously are demeaning both themselves and the entities on behalf of which they are getting offended.

If Bal Thackeray is indeed such a great figure, then why should the words of one Rohinton Mistry bother him? Are any of our religions so fragile that they need to be protected from the criticism of mere humans? God, if He existed, would no doubt be exasperated by the things humans do on His behalf. “Am I so powerless?” I can imagine him asking. “Am I so petty? Jeez, you humans suck. Stop this videogame already.”

My fellow Yahoo! columnist Nitin Pai coined a term a few years ago that I find very apt: Competitive Intolerance. It’s become a rising trend in politics in recent years, especially in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena and the MNS, with their warring Thackerays, are constantly finding grievances to complain about. These have nothing to do with the state of public services or infrasructure or poverty or any of the urgent issues that should concern us all, but silly things like mere words in a book. Like, really, come on.

*  *  *  *

It, of course, remains a lasting matter of shame that India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Until that ban is reversed, do not tell me that India is a free country. We accomplished part of the job in 1947—but much remains to be done, in so many different areas. Sadly, most people don’t care. Do you?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Happy Birthday, Mr Bastiat

Reader Sridhar Loke writes in to inform me that today is the birth anniversary of Frédéric Bastiat, one of my intellectual heroes. I had once won a prize named after him, and had a written a tribute to him shortly after that. Here it is: Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.

And here is his classic essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2010 in Economics | Freedom | Personal


Beware of the Cronies

This is the ninth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

In 1944 a group of seven businessmen, including JRD Tata, GD Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, came together to produce a document titled A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India. As the name indicates, it outlined an economic vision for soon-to-be-independent India. It envisioned a mixed economy with strong government intervention in markets, a huge public sector, and much protectionism so that Indian companies would be sheltered from foreign competition. Jawaharlal Nehru’s eventual economic policy would be on the lines of what this document laid out, and one of its authors, John Mathai, was even a finance minister in Nehru’s government. Because ‘A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India’ is a most unfunky name, the document eventually came to be called The Bombay Plan. (Just as Hindus may be offended at their religion being associated, in name only, with the Hindu Rate of Growth, I am not too happy about that document being named after my beloved city. Ah, well.)

In his fine book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha cites the Bombay Plan as an example of the support Nehru’s Fabian Socialism got from industrialists of the day, and writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.” At a colloquium of classical liberals I attended a few days ago in Bangalore, one attendee wondered why more industrialists in present-day India don’t speak up for economic freedom. The answer to this is simple: big business is as much the enemy of free markets as big government is.

The cornerstone of free markets, competition, is great for consumers, as it delivers better-quality products and services at lower prices. But it is terrible for established businesses, which are constantly under pressure to keep prices low and salaries high, and may be wiped out by more innovative and efficient competitors. There’s nothing they’d like more than high entry barriers in their industry, so that their place is secure. Thus, to expect the established industrialists of the 1940s to support free markets would be naive: economic freedom is actually against the interests of big business. The journalist Seetha Parthasarathy pointed out at the colloquium I attended last week that the Swatantra Party, which spoke up so ardently for free markets in the 1950s and ‘60s, hardly got any funding from businessmen and industrialists of the day. That makes perfect sense: they would have felt threatened by it.

This is why it irritates me no end when critics of free markets point to the evils of big business as a repudiation of our principles. The truth is that a libertarian or classical liberal is as wary of big business as a socialist is. Indeed, now that communism is dead, one of the greatest threats to freedom everywhere is not socialism, but crony capitalism. To look after the interests of the common man, we must beware of the cronies.

*  *  *  *

Death, taxes and crony capitalism are inevitable. When I am in a pessimistic mood, generally after a bad meal or a spell of television surfing, I lose hope that we will ever have economic freedom. Free markets, indeed, seem slightly utopian. After all, we don’t live in an economy that is a blank slate. We live in times of big government. Big governments only get bigger, not smaller. (This is true even in the West, when the size of government expanded even under fiscal conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.) It is not in the interest of those who run governments to curtail their power or the money available to them. (Like, duh.) It is a beast that keeps on growing, and feeding on us.

Power and money always go together. The more power government has, the more it can subvert markets, the more big business runs to it, with big money, to safeguard its own interests. Crony capitalism is inevitable. Big government is one ass cheek, big business is another, and together they’re shitting on capitalism.

*  *  *  *

What about the recent financial crisis in the US? The notion that it illustrates the inadequacy of free markets is a simplistic one, like most narratives generated by the media. The crisis came about because of a melange of complex factors, and we’ll be debating the respective merits of those for decades. There is no shortage of actors to blame. The low interest rates of the Fed in the early 2000s played a key role. (It amuses me when Alan Greenspan is sometimes described as a libertarian. Whatever his youthful infatuations may have been, the chairman of a central bank can no more be a libertarian than General Dyer was a freedom fighter.) Defenders of free markets will also point to the Community Reinvestment Act, and the role played by Fannie and Freddie, both quasi-government entities. But it is true that there were structural issues with the way markets themselves functioned at the time.

Short-term incentives in the finance industry weren’t aligned with long-term interests. If you worked in Lehman Brothers, and had to choose between chasing massive short-term profits (with the consequent bonuses for yourself) that carried a long-term risk to your company, and a prudence that would put you out of step with your peers, for absolutely no benefit to you and the risk of losing your job, what would you do? C’mon, it’s human nature. As Chuck Prince famously said, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

How does capitalism deal with this? Simple: when companies screw up, their bottomline gets affected, and sometimes they go bust. The learning percolates through the markets, and the incentives change for future players. The problem here is that when the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviour hit the finance industry, the government stepped in. Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust, but others were bailed out on the grounds that they were ‘too big to fail’, and that their failure threatened the entire economy. (Was this really so? We’ll never know. We’ll just have to take their word for it.) The result: Moral Hazard. The sort of short-term risk-taking that led to the crisis wasn’t punished, and the incentives haven’t changed. On the contrary, the financial whizkids out there will now be further emboldened to keep taking wild risks, secure in the knowledge that when things go bad, the government will bail them out.

What would you call this? Free markets? I don’t think so.

*  *  *  *

Until 1991, capitalism in India was crony capitalism. The license raj ensured that the markets were a tijori and the government held the key. All big industrialists had liaison offices in Delhi whose job was to deliver adequate chai-paani to government officials in exchange for licenses and other favours. Money chased power; power sought money.

The liberalisation of 1991 didn’t really change much. Firstly, it was a limited liberalisation, and most markets in India remain unfree. Secondly, the government still retains enormous power. As this paper (pdf link) points out, crony capitalism continues to thrive in India. R Jagannathan wrote in DNA last year: “In his current avatar as PM, Manmohan Singh, architect of the initial reforms involving delicensing, deregulation and downsizing, has presided over the largest expansion of government spending in living memory. In the current fiscal year (2009-10), government will borrow more than Rs 400,000 crore (probably Rs 500,000 crore, if you consider off-budget items like oil bonds), a figure that’s larger than the entire central expenditure for 2004-05, the first year of the UPA. Large government is invariably accompanied by crony capitalism. Reason: when government spends more, private companies do more business with it.”

And here’s an excerpt from a speech Manmohan gave in 2007: “Are we encouraging crony capitalism? Is this a necessary but transient phase in the development of modern capitalism in our country? Are we doing enough to protect consumers and small businesses from the consequences of crony capitalism? [...] Do we have a genuine level playing field for all businesses? What should be done to inject a greater degree of competitiveness in the industrial sector?”

One has to wonder, why on earth was he asking those questions? He’s the prime minister, no?

*  *  *  *

So should I be pessimistic? Naysayers of free markets argue that they’re a utopian construct, and that a perfect free market, with a government that limits its role to administering the rule of law and enforcing contracts, does not exist anywhere. Perhaps. But here’s the thing: perfect good health is also a utopian construct, and there is no one in the world who is perfectly healthy. And yet, it is something to aspire to, and as individuals, we’re constantly trying (or should be trying) to get as close to it as possible. (Just don’t ask me what I had for dinner last night.) Similarly, it is my contention that free markets are the surest route to prosperity, and we should keep fighting to make our markets as free as possible. We, the people, the consumers, are the biggest beneficiaries of this. Not the fat-ass businessmen, in bed with the sleazy politicians, who just want to milk us dry. As long as we are aware of this, there is hope—for we do live in a democracy, don’t we?

*  *  *  *

Further reading: I’d written a column on this subject a couple of years earlier: ‘Arpita and the Bombay Plan’.

My column last week was on a related subject: Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

Also, here’s a superb debate on Cato Unbound: ‘When Corporations Hate Markets’.

Previously on Viewfinder

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Postscript:  My thanks to Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Mana Shah, Raj Cherubal, Sumeet Kulkarni, Deepak Shenoy, Vikramjit Banerjee, Parth Shah, Seetha, Arun Simha, Sunil Laxman and Devangshu Datta for their part in discussions that helped me refine my views on this subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2010 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

This is the eighth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Earlier this week, I spent two days at a fascinating colloquium on Indian liberalism in the outskirts of Bangalore. At night we slept in airconditioned tents, and in the day, gathered in a conference room and discussed weighty matters like the definition, relevance and scope of Indian liberalism. I was awed by the intellectual firepower that I was privileged to be in the company of—but, at the same time, there hung in the air a whiff of the same kind of dissonance that the airconditioned tents evoked.

To begin with, what is ‘Indian liberalism’? The term ‘liberal’ has been so debased and so variedly used as to have practically no meaning left in it. I consider myself a classical liberal, believing in individual freedom, negative rights and a free society, which is how liberals in continental Europe would see themselves. Yet, in the US, the term means practically the opposite, as American liberals, from the Left, are opposed to free markets, which makes their appropriation of the term oxymoronic. (Some of my friends would remove the ‘oxy’ from that judgment.)

In India, the term is used in a woolly way, and one can never quite be sure what it’s meant to mean. Ramachandra Guha, in his essay ‘The Absent Liberal’, referred to PC Mahalanobis as a liberal, and in a talk he gave us before the conference, to Jawaharlal Nehru as one. Labelling people is a complex matter, especially when they are politicians and contain multitudes of multitudes, and such a label is often both true and false, depending on perspective, as with Nehru. (His institution building and commitment to democracy and secularism mark him out as a great liberal; his economic policies, which so ravaged India, do not.)

Almost all of us at the conference were classical liberals, at siege in a world where the values we believe in have either not been accepted or are being questioned. The broad theme of the conference was how to spread liberal ideas, and the task seems hard for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the classic truths of liberalism are all counter-intuitive, such as the non-zero-sumness involved in progress, the concept of spontaneous order, and the fallibility of all human beings—the last especially important in the context of the blind faith we have in government, which is always a collection of flawed human beings, often with perverse incentives.

Secondly, economic liberalism is under increasing attack from people who point to the economic crisis in the US as a failure of free markets, or wonder why India has so many inequalities despite being supposedly liberalized. These kind of attacks deserve a serious and respectful response, but I don’t see much of that in the media around me. In next week’s column, I will attempt a partial response, and share my views on why neither the financial crisis nor India’s inequalities represent a failure of free markets. But for now, let’s get back to the subject of the colloquium, and this column: how can we spread classical liberal ideas in India?

Some of my fellow participants referred to the Swatantra Party, and were exploring whether a classical liberal party of that sort could build a following in the politics. More power to those who try, though I believe that such a political party is a pipe dream, and a waste of time. (I didn’t always hold this view.) A political party might start out liberal, but the many necessary compromises of politics will soon dilute any ideological stance it takes, till it ends up indistinguishable from the parties around it, slave to the imperatives of the political marketplace, where niches are formed more on the basis of identity than ideology.

Instead, I think classical liberals need to ask themselves the question, Why are we liberals? For me, the answer is not just that liberalism gives me an intellectual framework with which I can make sense of the world, but also that I believe that it has solutions to most of the political and economic problems that the world, and modern India, faces: from farmer suicides in Vidarbha to rising prices to deepening inequality. If this is the case, and my liberalism follows from the practical utility that it provides, then what I need to promote is not liberalism itself, but these immediate solutions to the urgent, pressing problems of our times, whose merit lies not in their being liberal but in their being both right and practical. Then I can avoid labels and focus purely on solving real-world problems with all the real-world constraints that a utopian vision of the world does not always taking into account.

This being the case, we do not need a separate liberal political party to spread liberal ideas. Instead, if we offer practical ways to make the world a better place, our ideas can spread through osmosis into every political party. Liberalism can then triumph in the political battlefield by winning in the marketplace of ideas—perhaps without the label attached, for ideological labels often hinder the spread of good ideas.

*  *  *  *

One example of such real-world problem solving comes in the work of Parth Shah, the founder of the Center for Civil Society in India, and the moderator of the sessions at the colloquium. For years now, Parth and his team have been promoting the concept of school vouchers. Many dogmatic classical liberals would be opposed to this idea, for it assumes state spending on education. But India is a poor country, education is key to our progress, and it is a given that the government will spend money to make this happen. The problem here is that our government, over the last 63 years, has achieved very little in this space. How can it spend its money more efficiently?

School vouchers, first championed by Milton Friedman, enable competition and the free market to lift the standards of education. The quality of government schools is abysmal, teacher absenteeism is a constant problem, and the incentives are all skewed. There’s one way to change these incentives, and to bring accountability into the system: fund the students, not the schools. If the students are given school vouchers, which they can take to whichever school serves them best, whether it is public or private, schools are forced to lift their standards in order to survive. The power shifts to students and their parents, and the quality of education necessarily rises.

Instead of writing op-eds and policy briefs about school vouchers from an armchair somewhere, Parth and the CCS gang have spent years talking to politicians and bureaucrats across the country to make it happen, offering real-world models of implementation, alongside studies of how low-cost private schools are already transforming education for the poor. To see the pilot projects that are already in place, and the difference they are beginning to make, check out their website. (Also, here are my earlier articles on this: 1, 2.)

*  *  *  *

Another of the participants at the colloquium, Raj Cherubal, offered me his prescription for how liberals can drive change: ‘colour pictures.’

Cherubal works as a coordinator at Chennai City Connect, and holds the view that politicians and bureaucrats, sometimes caricatured as the villains in the piece by dogmatic liberals, are often on our side, and agree with us about the nature of the problems. But giving them abstract ideas about what to do is pointless, for they don’t have the bandwidth to take them further. The only effective approach is two-pronged: One, show them case studies to demonstrate that our solutions have worked elegantly elsewhere; Two, give them a detailed road-map of how to implement the solution.

Raj offered an example of this from the domain of urban planning. His team went to the Chennai city authorities with a proposal to modernise LB Road. The babus were skeptical, and threw up various objections to this, such as how there wasn’t enough space to get the job done, what would happen to the hawkers, and so on. Cherubal and his team then walked the streets, measured every inch of space available for themselves, and drew up elegant redesigns and colour charts (‘red for footpath’) that showed exactly how the street would look when redesigned, how much space was currently being wasted, and the precise actions that could be undertaken to transform that space, right down to costs and so on. The project was approved, and is now underway. What made it happen? “Colour pictures,” said Raj.

In a similar proposal about transforming the T Nagar neighbourhood, Raj’s team showed the Chennai authorities detailed photographs of identical streets in Bogota and Manhattan as an example of how these Chennai streets, with identical space, could be transformed. (T Nagar’s Panagal Park can be just like Manhattan’s Union Square, Raj tells me.) Again, the colour pictures made all the difference.

Raj uses the term ‘colour pictures’ as a metaphor and a proxy: what he actually showed these men in power was “a vision for a better future”. He made it compelling and tangible, with no vague head-in-the-clouds talk about grand ideas. These examples are not examples of liberal ideas per se, but this is exactly the approach that classical liberals in India should take: Eschew the grand talk, get down to brass tacks, bring out the colour pictures.

An aside: The airconditioning in those tents actually worked wonderfully well. Who woulda thunk it?

Previously on Viewfinder

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


We Are All Gamblers

This is the seventh installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Atish is 24, tall, dark, okay-looking, middle-class and drunk at this suburban pub in Andheri. He sees a pretty girl across the room, sitting with her friends, sipping on a cocktail, and the way she smiles is so beautiful, he cannot take his eyes off her. He has met her once before, at a friend’s party, but he cannot remember her name. He found her attractive then; he aches with longing now. Maybe it’s the beers—or maybe, he thinks, destiny. She gets up to go to the salad bar. She glances at him once—her eyes linger for a second longer than they should, and then she looks away. This is the moment to go up to her, reintroduce himself, and make casual conversation. Will he make a fool of himself, or will this be the start of something beautiful? He weighs up the odds, and decides that he has more to gain than lose. He gets up and walks towards her.

Two tables away, Mr Chaddha is nursing a glass of Black Label, along with grievances that carry a stronger aftertaste. His friend, Mr Bhatia, told him three months ago that he had inside information about a company whose stock was sure to take off, that it was the right time to buy. Mr Chaddha parked 16 lakh rupees in that stock. That investment is now worth 3 lakhs. Mr Bhatia also lost money, and was last seen muttering about ‘black swan events’ and suchlike. Mr Chaddha wishes he had invested in a mutual fund instead. Little does he know that he will do so and, a year later, regret it as bitterly. The scotch will continue to flow, as inevitable in Mr Chaddha’s life as shehnai at an Indian wedding.

As Atish walks towards the salad bar and Mr Chaddha looks into his glass of whisky, Meena walks past outside. Meena is 21, dusky, tall for a girl, graceful, a little introverted, a journalist. She has always liked to write, and her first poem as a child was: “My mommy, she has lovely hair/ My daddy is a grizzly bear/ My sister’s skin, I love to touch/ I love them very, very much.” She was seven then, and 14 years later, she decided that she did not want to get married so young, that she did not need to walk around a fire seven times to have sex with young men, and that she wanted to be a journalist in Mumbai. So she fought with the grizzly bear and made her mother with lovely hair cry, and landed up in Mumbai, where she got a job in a women’s magazine. As she walks past, she is thinking of how much she hates her boss, her job, the lecherous peon in office named Mishra, and these new shoes of hers that are biting her feet as if in mockery. But it could be worse. She could be trapped in a bad marriage like her friend Geeta, whose husband beat her up last Thursday and, when Meena reacted in horror on the phone, said, “Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I did something wrong.” Who wants to live like that?

Decisions, decisions, choices, choices. Every day in a hundred different ways, we gamble with our lives. We weigh up the odds, calculate pros and cons, and choose which way to act.

Atish’s decision to go and talk with that pretty girl is, to my mind, not very different from a poker player’s decision to bet half the pot when he sees he has middle pair on the flop. Mr Chadda’s investment decisions occupy the same moral and mathematical space as a punter who lays a bet on all odd numbers between 13 and 24 on the roulette wheel. Meena is thinking about giving in to her parents by moving back home to Chennai, but continuing to be a journalist there, which on a Blackjack table could be considered ‘surrender’. In the casino of life, they are all gamblers—and so are we.

This is why I am outraged that ‘gambling’ is banned in India. Firstly, such a ban is morally wrong. If an adult makes a decision about a particular course of action, or two consenting adults enter into an arrangement about anything at all without infringing the rights of anyone else, it should be nobody’s business but theirs. The government is violating their rights by getting in the way.

Secondly, such a ban is hypocritical. We already allow most forms of gambling, so to ban just a few makes no sense. Investing in stocks, for example, is as risky for the average investor as most things you could do in a casino. All the governments that have refused to legalize gambling have themselves gambled consistently: consider the Emergency, the politicisation of the Mandal Commission Report, the BJP’s decision to stick with Narendra Modi after Gujarat, and the decision of the UPA to push away the Left Front so that the nuclear deal could proceed. Some of these backfired, some did not, and some are still open to interpretation. But these were all gambles by governments that don’t allow gambling.

What sense does that make?

In these modern times, government should exist to serve us, not rule us. Yet, our government routinely behaves as if we are mere subjects. It patronisingly tells us that we are not mature enough to decide many things for ourselves, and furthermore, should not have the right to do so. It censors the films we watch, even the adult ones. It limits our freedom of speech so that we don’t offend anyone, as if we are children in a playground. Besides taxing us prohibitively, it does not allow us to decide what to do with our money. What business is it of any government if I wish to bet on the outcome of a cricket match or at a Blackjack table?

Besides the moral argument, there is also a practical case for legalizing gambling. When you outlaw what is essentially a victimless crime, such as gambling, you don’t finish it off, you merely drive it underground. Gambling thrives in every city and town of India, but is run furtively from shady rooms by unaccountable operators. Often, it runs on trust, and no one gets ripped off. But where it gets most lucrative, the underworld is involved, and things get dicey. If gambling was legal, and the entities that ran it were as respectable as HSBC or Kotak Mahindra, I doubt there would be matchfixing scandals. There would be transparency, accountability, and though my libertarian friends will hate me for saying this, I would not object to regulatory oversight by the government. The incentives of the operators would then change, as would those of punters, who would no longer need to be underground with the underworld.

The other practical reason for legalizing gambling is the revenues this would bring the government. Ten years ago, it was estimated that “during an India-Pakistan match over Rs 10,000 crore is reportedly generated in the country.” A tax of 5% of that comes to Rs 500 crore for just one day. I have heard estimates of the amount of betting during the IPL that dwarf this. And these figures are just for cricket. I’m willing to wager, if I am allowed to, that if the government legalized all forms of gambling, and taxed them conservatively, it would make enough money from it to cover the expenses of the NREGA. And much more.

To summarize, gambling should be legalized on a matter of principle, because what consenting adults do with their own money should be nobody else’s business. It should be legalized because if it is not, it remains a victimless crime, a category that makes no sense. It should be legalized because doing so reduces the scope of the underworld to exist. And finally, it should be legalized because the revenues that would then go to the government instead of the black economy could fund many of its pet projects. Legalizing gambling is a no-brainer, and I am sure that if the government weighs up the odds, it will see more pros than cons. Will it fight inertia and make this play? I hope it does.

Also read: Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should be Scrapped.

Previously on Viewfinder

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


The Trials of Khushboo

ToI reports that the Supreme Court has “quashed 22 criminal cases filed against South Indian actress Khushboo for her remarks in various magazines allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex.” This is an encouraging judgement—especially the following words from the bench:

When two adults want to live together, what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence? Living together is not an offence. It cannot be an offence.

Well put. And extending that further, if two adults want to do anything together, by mutual consent, without harming or involving anyone else, what is the offence? Should there be an offence? No freaking way.

And yet, such “offences” are to be found all over the Indian Penal Code. I hope one day they are scrapped.

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The cases against Khushboo were filed in 2005. It took five years for this trivial matter to be sorted out. Imagine the state of someone spending years living through the tension of more serious cases. In our legal system, the process can be the punishment.

And oh, while confirming when the cases against Khushboo were filed, I came across this masterful headline:

‘Kushboo enlarged on bail’

One can only presume she had a really good meal when she was released.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Small thoughts


The Drain

In Thomas Friedman’s latest column, I come across the following names:

Sunanda Sharma, Arjun Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, Akhil Mathew, Paul Masih Das, Namrata Anand.

And a thought strikes me: They could have been Indian—but we fucked up.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2010 in Freedom | India | Small thoughts


In India, Adults aren’t Adults

My friend Rahul Bhatia has a fine story in Open about Dibakar Banerjee’s experience with the censor board during the evaluation of Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Not that there’s anything new about censorship in India, but Dibakar wanted an ‘A’ certificate for his film, and still had to make cuts and compromises. Why do adults need to be protected from sex and bad language? How effing condescending is that? Disgraceful.

Thank goodness I’ve chosen to be a novelist. Imagine if a committee had told me to cut the orgasm from MFS.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | WTF


Topless Women and the Indian Government

The Times of India reports:

The government has banned Fashion TV for nine days after finding a program it aired offended good taste and decency by showing women partially nude.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry statement said FTV channel would go off the air later Thursday until March 21. The statement cited an unnamed FTV program aired in September that showed women with nude upper bodies.

It’s immensely WTF that someone should think that topless women offend “good taste and decency.” Women have breasts. Straight men are attracted to them. These are just ho-hum facts of biology. Only massively repressed and resentful men and women would find partial nudity offensive—and one factor in their repression, certainly, would be this attitude against anything sexual. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop—the more you repress, the more repressed they get, the more you find reason to repress them further. In the 21st century, its all a bit bizarre.

What is even weirder is that the continuing spread of the internet threatens to make all this moot. Far wilder things than mere toplessness are a Google search away, and its practically impossible to filter all of that out. And why would you want to do that anyway? Sex is healthy, so let’s be open about it, and not whisper while talking about it or blush when the subject comes up. Or censor boobs.

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Earlier posts on the subject:

‘A Trial Balloon’.
The Ministry of Wet Dreams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


An Offence That Cannot Be Ignored

The WTF statement of the week comes from a Dubai cop:

The woman confessed that she had sexual intercourse with her fiancé and that she had alcohol. We cannot just ignore such an offence.

The woman is question is a British tourist who complained on New Year’s Day that she had been raped by a waiter the previous evening. The cops “arrested her after she revealed during questioning that she had drunk alcohol and had sex with her fiancé, with whom she was on holiday.”

As for the waiter, he’s presumably still on the loose, still waiting.

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And while on Dubai, check out this superb article by Johann Hari: “The dark side of Dubai.” (Link via Sonia Gupta.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 January, 2010 in Freedom | News | WTF


The Free Speech Cop-Out

The Times of India reports:

In a significant ruling, a three-judge bench of the Bombay high court has held that in India criticism of any religion is permissible under the fundamental right of freedom of speech, be it Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or any other religion, and a book cannot be banned for that reason alone. But the criticism must be bona fide or academic, said the court as it upheld a ban issued in 2007 by the Maharashtra government on a book titled Islam—A Concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims.

Aah, that first line sounds so nice, gives so much hope. And then the second one makes it meaningless. Why should only “bona fide or academic” criticism be allowed? Who decides if a particular critique is “bona fide or academic”? The judges there paid lip service to free speech—and in the very next sentence, added caveats that took the ‘free’ out of it.

It could be argued, of course, that the bench merely followed a precedent already set by the framers of our constitution. They too, in Article 19 (1) (a), paid lip service to free speech. And in article 19 (2), allowed restraints on it on grounds such as “public order” and “decency and morality” that are open to interpretation, and make it easy for those in power to stifle free expression. Such it goes.

Also read: Don’t Insult Pasta.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2010 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


‘They Did Not Have Any Purdahs Inside Their Body’

As I blogged a few days ago, the TED Talk at TED India that most moved me was by a lady named Sunitha Krishnan, about trafficking and sex slavery. That talk is now online. Watch:

Also, check out this follow-up interview with Krishnan.

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When Krishnan’s talk was over, and the standing ovation subsided, a woman in the audience stood up and said that she would donate US$10,000 to Krishnan’s organisation if ten other people would make the same commitment. Within moments, 10 other hands were raised. These weren’t empty promises. Krishnan says in her interview that she has received around US$200,000 so far, but because she “did not bribe an income tax official”, has been asked to pay taxes of around half that amount. Go figure.

*

Also, here’s Sunitha Krishnan’s blog.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 December, 2009 in Freedom | India


Censors and Psychotics

Here’s David Cronenberg, in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, talking about censorship:

When I had to deal with the Toronto Censor Board over The Brood, the experience was so unexpectedly personal and intimate, it really shocked me; pain, anguish, the sense of humiliation, degradation, violation. Now I do have a conditioned reflex! I can only explain the feeling by analogy. You send your beautiful kid to school and he comes back with one hand missing. Just a bandaged stump. You phone the school and they say that they really thought, all things considered, the child would be more socially acceptable without that hand, which was a rather naughty hand. Everyone was better off with it removed. It was for everyone’s good. That’s exactly how it felt to me.

Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion. People worry about the effects on children of two thousand acts of murder on TV every half hour. You have to point out that they have seen a representation of murder. They have not seen murder. It’s the real stumbling-block.

Charles Manson found a message in a Beatles song that told him what he must do and why he must kill. Suppressing everything one might think of as potentially dangerous, explosive or provocative would not prevent a true psychotic from finding something that will trigger his own particular psychosis. For those of us who are normal, and who understand the difference between reality and fantasy, play, illusion—as most children most readily do—there is enough distance and balance. It’s innate.

Besides the consequentialist argument, there’s the small matter of censorship being morally wrong. But leave that aside. In times like these, when images of sex and violence are practically ubiquitous, censorship fails even in its own aims. Indeed, in another couple of decades, it will be as impotent as it is redundant. Censor boards will still continue to exist, of course, like the telegram-wallahs who ring the bell every Diwali to ask for bakshish. Such it goes.

*

And really, all actors or filmmakers or artists of any kind who have ever been part of a censor board should be ashamed of themselves. Check out the disgraceful Sharmila Tagore, head of India’s censor board, talking about how she believes that “censorship must go. But I firmly believe the time hasn’t come yet for India.” Such condescension.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 December, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India


The Ministry of Masturbation

The Guardian reports:

It is a subject that would make most governments blush, but officials in the Spanish region of Extremadura have launched a major programme to encourage what could be described as a more hands-on approach to sexuality.

The region’s socialist government has launched a €14,000 (£12,600) campaign aimed at teaching young people how best to set about “sexual self-exploration and the discovery of self-pleasure” – or to put it less delicately: masturbation.

“Pleasure is in your own hands” is the slogan of a campaign that has sparked political controversy and challenges traditional Roman Catholic views on people having sex, even on their own, for non-reproductive reasons.

The logical next step, of course, is to give licenses for masturbation to those who trained by the government in it, and arrest anyone found masturbating without that license. Indeed, there could be masturbation inspectors authorised to peek into bathrooms and suchlike to catch offenders, with the aid of government-installed cameras. For those of a certain orientation, the act of watching potential offenders could itself lead to the offence being committed.

But leave aside the satire. We can all express outrage at taxpayers’ money being spent like this, and go WTF at the thought of the government getting involved in such a private act—but consider for a moment the principle behind our going WTF: that the government has no business bothering about what we do with ourselves. Our own government might not attempt to teach us how to masturbate—but it interferes in our private lives in hazaar different ways that we accept and take for granted. It punishes various victimless crimes, and even treats attempted suicide as a crime, which is silly if you accept the right to self-ownership. It treats us as subjects, not as citizens—and in countless different ways, is no less outrageous than the regional government in Spain that teaches wanking.

So why is that WTF and not this?

*

Okay, so if the Indian government was actually to start a Ministry of Masturbation, who would be the first masturbation minister?

Why, Mahinder Watsa, of course!

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2009 in Freedom | News | WTF


Why Ayn Rand was a ‘Genuine Capitalist’

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand’s work: Her prose is mediocre and her novels are cheesy. Even though I agree with many of her beliefs, that is neither here nor there, as they weren’t original to her, and the brand of classical liberalism (or minarchist libertarianism) I believe in took off at least a century earlier than her. So I am never quick to defend Rand when she is being criticized. I’ll make an exception, though, for a recent piece on her in The New York Times by Adam Kirsch.

In his piece, a review of a biography by Anne C Heller, Kirsch relates how Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, wanted to edit out Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. Rand refused. Then:

Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. [...]

Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

This is a strange comment, and I have two points to make:

One: Rand might well have agreed to the chop on commercial considerations alone. She might have calculated that the book would sell more copies if it included the speech, and that the extra royalties from those extra sales might offset the 7 cents per copy that she gave up.

Two: “Genuine capitalists” would look to serving their self interest as much as possible. But they need not view this in purely monetary terms. Rand might have placed a higher value on spreading her ideas in the world than on merely making money. It would then be entirely rational for her to accept a notional monetary loss for the sake of keeping a speech that many of her supporters today regard very highly. This is entirely consistent with being a capitalist.

The deal between Rand and Cerf was one between two private parties that involved no coercion. Both of them got what they wanted. It might even have ended in a double ‘thank you’ moment. How on earth could it non-capitalistic?

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On a personal note, I regard myself as a capitalist as well. And pretty much all the important decisions I’ve made in the last few years have reduced my income vastly. First, I opted to give up a senior job in journalism to become a freelancer; and then, I opted to give up freelancing to focus on writing novels. In the short run,  this has decimated my bank balance. And yet, I have no regrets over these decisions—and they are not noble in any way. They arise out of sheer self-interest. I’m a greedy capitalist pig.

But Heller and Kirsch would probably think otherwise.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 November, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Small thoughts | WTF


The Bastiat Winners for 2009…

... have been announced. My congratulations to John Hasnas for winning the Bastiat Prize for 2009. Hasnas beat out former winner Robert Guest with this superb piece of his: “The ‘Unseen’ Deserve Empathy, Too.” Going by previous years, I have no doubt that all the nominees were most worthy.

I won the prize in 2007, and the prize candlestick, which I can see now across the room, is one of my treasured possessions. The prize money enabled me to give up freelance journalism and focus on writing novels, an effect that, for the Bastiat organisers, was surely in the category of “that which is not seen.” I’d count it as a one-off positive externality, so all’s well.

This year, the Bastiat guys also instituted a separate prize for online journalism. I was one of the judges for this, along with Jimmy Wales, Esther Dyson and Scott Banister, and was blown away by the quality of the entries I read. I’m delighted that the prize has been shared by Daniel Hannan and Shikha Dalmia—both of them deserve it, and this is a fitting result.

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Oh, and here’s the column I wrote after I won the Bastiat Prize in 2007: “Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.” And here are the three pieces I’d entered that won me the prize:

“Where’s the Freedom Party?”
“A Beast Called Government.”
“The Devil’s Compassion.”

You can read all 48 installments of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through, here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Personal


‘The Epics are For Everyone’

So says Amitava Kumar in his Rave Out of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

The wonderful thing about our epics is how open-source they are. Over the centuries, people have been free to remix them and interpret them as they like. Indeed, Hinduism itself has been open-source, to the extent that you can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. Pwnage, no?

Sadly, in recent times, pseudo-fundamentalist forces have tried to reshape Hinduism as a static, puritanical religion—the same kind of people who protest at Paley’s film, and who object to all kinds of things in the name of Hinduism. They have been strident and militant, and their claims to standing for Hinduism are taken more and more seriously because the counter-claims are too muted. Indeed, the finest counter to the likes of the BJP and the RSS is perhaps not from a standpoint of liberalism or secularism or anything like that, but from a standpoint of Hinduism itself. The intolerance of Hindutva is anti-Hindu—that is a potent case to make, because it strikes at their very raison d’etre.

Having said that, if recent election results are anything to go by, most people get that intuitively anyway.

In related reading, check out this superb interview of Wendy Doniger, on similar lines to the subject of this post. And also my friend Prem Panicker‘s Bhimsen (pdf link), a retelling of the Mahabharata from Bhim’s point of view.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Small thoughts


Dear Rahul Gandhi

Dear Rahul Gandhi

You have been quoted today as saying that you don’t believe in caste. Bravo. That is a position I applaud.

May I then assume that you don’t believe in reservations also? After all, by discriminating on the basis of caste, reservations perpetuate the same kind of divisive thinking that the caste system did. They don’t solve the problem—they make it worse.

Regards

Amit Varma

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Link via @iyerdeepak. More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2009 in Freedom | India | Letters | Politics | Small thoughts


Preemptive Censorship

HT reports that the I&B ministry has just given the go-ahead to the producers of a film called The Indian Summer to shoot in India. However, after going through the script, it wants four scenes deleted from the film—these show “a kiss between Nehru and Edwina; a dancing scene; one where Nehru says ‘I Love You’; and a scene showing them in bed.”

Normally, when two people have an affair, there is kissing, there are confessions of love (or lust), and there is carnal action. I don’t see the point of pussyfooting around all this—an affair without these would not be an affair, so why should a film about an affair have to avoid these?

The government also insists that the film carry a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction. Why not keep those scenes then?

The ministry says it is doing this because it doesn’t want anyone to “show Nehru in a poor light.” That is bizarre: I don’t think his alleged affair with Edwina shows him in a poor light—the guy was human, after all. (Most Indian men would probably think more highly of him because he scored with a white chick, but leave that aside.)

And even if it did show Nehru in a poor light, so what?

Anyway, as revenge on the Indian government for this preemptive censorship, I suggest that the producers get Salman Khan to play Nehru, and have him sing a Himesh song as Edwina runs around a tree. That will show them.

*

And for what I think of the I&B ministry, see point 3 of this old wishlist of mine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Sleeping With The Alien

One more priceless case in the annals of taking offence. BBC reports that Nigeria’s government “is asking cinemas to stop showing a science fiction film, District Nine, that it says denigrates the country’s image.” Apparently the Nigerian ganglord in the film has the same surname as a former Nigerian president—Obasanjo—among other sins. Their information minister, Dora Akunyili, has been quoted as saying:

We feel very bad about this because the film clearly denigrated Nigeria’s image by portraying us as if we are cannibals, we are criminals.

The name [of] our former president was clearly spelt out as the head of the criminal gang and our ladies shown like prostitutes sleeping with extra-terrestrial beings.

Imagine the misunderstandings that this could lead to. For example, a Nigerian lady could be walking home from the supermarket when an alien steps in front of her. ‘Excuse me,’ says the Nigerian lady, ‘please let me pass.’

‘No,’ says the alien. ‘I am horny. First we will copulate.’

The Nigerian lady gasps. ‘Oh, how dare you? I am not that kind of woman.’

‘Gimme a break,’ says the alien. ‘I’ve watched District Nine. I know the truth. All Nigerian women sleep with aliens.’

Yes, yes, I know that’s a bit far-fetched. But I didn’t start it!

(Link via @nilanjanaroy.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Dialogue | Freedom | News | WTF


Potency, Fertility and Marriage

While on the subject of treating people like cattle, CNN-IBN reports:

Veteran Tamil Actor Manorama says that couples should be made to take potency tests before getting married.

Manorama says it should be made compulsory for both men and women to produce medical certificates before getting married and in the case of the groom the certificate should prove that he is sexually potent.

“There should be a certification that he is potent and he doesn’t have HIV. In case of women… she is a woman and she’s fertile and does not have AIDS. And if the doctor gives a fake certificate, then he should be jailed,” said Manorama.

If two people choose to get married, it is surely a business of those two alone, and not of the state—or of Manorama. People get married for various reasons, including companionship, and a couple may choose to hitch up even if the guy isn’t potent or the girl isn’t fertile. So what? That’s their business alone, as long as they’re honest with each other.

And in any case, how is a doctor supposed to ascertain that a guy is potent? Will an issue of Playboy do the trick? What if images don’t do it for him? What if self-consciousness about getting aroused prevents him from getting aroused? Procedural problems abound—as anyone who’s ever been an awkward young man could tell you!

(Link via email from Meera.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 September, 2009 in Freedom | News | WTF


‘Tweet is a Very Lonely Man’

I was on Times Now yesterday defending Shashi Tharoor in this ridiculous Twitter controversy, going over pretty much the same points I’d made in my post, “A Cattle-Class Country?” The videos of that debate are embedded below the fold. I didn’t get too many chances to speak, but that’s okay, because Tom Vadakkan, the Congress spokesman, did—and he was hilarious. Check out this bit, which comes in the third video clip below:

Let me tell you something: I did a little research after you phoned me, to find out what is the basic cause for this tweet business. Some of the survey reports that I received was Tweet is a very lonely man, and he needs counselling.

There was much else that was WTF about the discussion, and I leave you to discover the rest of that for yourself! (Videos below the fold.)

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2009 in Freedom | India | Politics | WTF


‘I’d Like To Ask For Sinead’s Hand In Marriage’

Check out this brilliant commercial:

(Link via email from Deviyani.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 September, 2009 in Freedom


Where Your Taxes Go: 40

On bribing people to delay having kids.

This is wrong on three levels:

One, the premise that population growth is a problem is mistaken. Malthus is dead in more ways than one.

Two, such social engineering is unethical. What business does the government have influencing the personal choices of people in this manner?

Three, that’s our money being spent there.

Coming to think of it, this whole business is a bit perverse even from the government’s point of view. They’re spending taxpayers’ money to ensure that there are less taxpayers in the future. WTF?

(For more on how our taxes are misused, click here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 August, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Old memes | Taxes | WTF


Court Ka Saamna

A few days ago, discussing an MP who wanted Sach Ka Saamna to be banned, I wrote:

If [Samajwadi Party MP Kamal] Akhtar is so disturbed by Sach Ka Saamna, I have a suggestion for him—change the channel.

And today, Indian Express reports:

Delhi High Court today threw out two petitions against the game show Sach ka Saamna, saying “moral policing” was not its job, and advised those offended by the show to turn off their TVs.

The judgment, ruling on a PIL against the show, is just as I’d have it:

There are far more serious problems in this country which we have to settle… Our culture is not so fragile that it would be affected by one TV programme.

I am not sure whether the show has brought out the truth of many people but it is certain that it has brought out the hypocrisy of various ministers and parliamentarians.

Bravo. Given that the recent landmark judgment to decriminalize homosexuality was also delivered by the Delhi High Court, much admiration comes. Would it be self-aggrandizement to call those judgments wise and enlightened simply because I agree with them? I’ll take that risk.

(IE link via separate emails from Aadisht and Sidved.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News


You Gotta Do Sach Ka Saamna

Here’s the WTF headline of the day:

Politicians want ban on Sach Ka Saamna

Sach Ka Saamna is the recently started Hindi version of The Moment of Truth, and is riveting once you start watching it—even if it does overlap with that other reality show, Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao. So what problem do our politicians have with it? Well, Kamal Akhtar, a Samajwadi Party MP, doesn’t like it that “obscene questions are asked by the anchor of the programme.”

“The host asked a woman in the presence of her husband if she would have physical contacts with another person to which she said no,” he said. “But her polygraph test said the answer was wrong. What kind of impression would it have created?” He sought a complete ban on the show.

I don’t get it—on whose behalf is Akhtar complaining? The participants of the show take part in full knowledge of the risks they incur, and that’s a choice for them to make. As for viewers, well, Akhtar is being hugely condescending when he assumes that we impressionable folks will be swayed by the show into infidelity, or suchlike. Listen, we already know what the world is like; we already know what human beings are like; we understand our urges, and know the consequences of giving in to them. Akhtar may want to foist a fantasy world upon us where nobody has anything to hide and everybody speaks only the truth—but that world does not exist, and is faker than the fakest Ekta Kapoor serial.

If anything, Sach Ka Saamna drives home the truth that most human relations contain some element of deception. In a viscerally direct way, it reveals the human condition. That can only help us become better human beings—to begin with, it might make us a little less sanctimonious.

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Some people may hate the show, and are entitled to do so. But that is where the matter should end—not in calls for a ban. If Akhtar is so disturbed by Sach Ka Saamna, I have a suggestion for him—change the channel.

Or actually, no. He might then catch Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao and demand a ban on that because it reminds him of parliament.

(Link via email from Arshdeep.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


Criminalizing Zardari Jokes

IANS reports:

It would seem that in Pakistan, there is nothing you need to watch out for more than making a joke about President Asif Ali Zardari by SMS (Short Messaging Service).

If you mistakenly, or just for fun, share with a friend one of the hundreds of derisory jokes about the leader floating around electronically, you could get a 14-year prison sentence.

Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik announced last week that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been tasked to trace SMS (or text messages) and e-mails that “slander the political leadership of the country” under the vague Cyber Crimes Act. In addition to facing up to 14 years in the jail, violators could have their property seized, Malik said, adding that the government would seek Interpol assistance in deporting foreign offenders.

I think whatever the jail sentence announced for each accused person, Zardari himself should be made to serve 10 percent of it.

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I particularly like this Zardari joke from the report above:

Robber: Give me all your money!

Zardari: Don’t you know who I am? I am Asif Ali Zardari!

Robber: Okay. Give me all my money!

Oops, wait, I’d better watch it, or there’ll be an Interpol notice out on me for having a Zardari joke on my blog. Maybe Pakistan will suggest a Lakhvi for Varma swap. We’ll give you the terrorist mastermind, they could say, if you hand over the blogger who dared to joke about our esteemed president.

(Link via separate emails from Mihir Modi and Luv.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2009 in Freedom | Politics | WTF


Yoga’s Greatest Challenge

Can it cure Baba Ramdev?

(Link via email from Mahendra Shikaripur.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Another Independence Day

July 2, 2009—mark this day. It’s a big day in the history of independent India because today the Delhi High Court effectively decriminalized homosexuality. As of today, it is no longer illegal to be gay in India.

I’ve often written about how India gained its independence in 1947, but Indians weren’t free in some many different ways. Well, notch one up for individual freedom. There will be no more Matunga Rackets, no more harassment of gay people by cops, no more busting of gay parties. (And I’m sure there will be some mighty spirited ones tonight.)

Also, see item no. 5 of my wishlist for 2008. It wasn’t all wishful thinking!

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have suddenly become an enlightened society. There will still be much homophobia, stereotypes of gay people will abound in popular culture, and many young people, discovering that their sexual orientation doesn’t conform to the approved norm, will still feel confused and lonely and angry.

But at least it isn’t illegal any more. How big is that?

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To clarify, the ruling decriminalizes consensual homosexual sex between adults. Section 377 can still be used to prosecute coercive sex or sex with a minor. And that’s just fine. As long as consenting adults can do what they want.

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And hey, of course there’s a backlash. Religious leaders have already spoken out against this ruling, citing worries like “the culture of Indian society.” And a representative of the Church has expressed a worry that “such practice will increase paedophilia [sic].” Heh. (Via Mohit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News


Savita Bhabhi Fights Censorship

A dull government office. A pot-bellied bureaucrat in a safari suit sits behind a table on which many dusty files are gathered. Sweat gathers on his upper lip; he is too lazy to wipe it off. There is a knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ he says.

The door opens, and the bureaucrat gasps. A stunning young woman, bootilicious, bodacious, mammacious, walks into the room, in a red chiffon saree on which the palloo seems an inadequate afterthought, wearing a low-cut blouse that almost need not be there.

‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Are you the Chief Secretary of Internet Banning in India?’

‘Yes. Yes, yes, yes! But who are you?’

‘I am Savita Bhabhi. I believe you have banned me. I thought I should pay you a personal visit to ask you why you have done such a thing.’

‘Savita Bhabhi? Wow! My God! Er, sorry, what was your question again?’

‘Why have you banned me?’

‘Er, you see, actually, Indian culture, our traditions…’

‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ says Savita Bhabhi. ‘You are my elder, and tradition says I should touch your feet.’

She goes up to him—he is standing, in his excitement, pun intended—and bends down to touch his feet. Her tender caress of his toe is unbearably erotic. Her palloo falls. An expanse of the most beautiful, bountiful flesh rises up to meet him—and brushes for the briefest moment against a certain nameless appendage. Her lips, broad, red, inviting, open up seductively just in front of him, as she moves in closer, and he feels like he will explode. And then she says:

‘So, once again, what are your reasons for banning me?’

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Right, you get where I’m coming from. India Uncut is a fan of Savita Bhabhi, as my many posts on that fine lady indicate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.). And I’m appalled that she has been banned. And the chief reason that I’m appalled is that we don’t know why she has been banned.

If the government takes any action against an individual or an entity, there should be due process. If the government wants to ban a website, it should clearly state why it is doing so, and what provisions of the law make it possible. And the owners of that website should have a right of appeal.

That is not the case here: Deshmukh, who runs the Savita Bhabhi site, does not know why it has been banned, and has no means of appeal. This is arbitary, this is wrong—and it could happen to any of us tomorrow.

On that note, do read this excellent piece by Sevanti Ninan on Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, which should worry anyone who cares about free speech in India. Savita Bhabhi should drop in and say hi to A Raja, you think?

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And in some WTF coverage of this, click here, scroll down and read what “cyber law expert” Mukesh Goyal has to say on the matter. Especially his third and fourth paras. I’m speechless!

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


‘My Mother’s Fault’

My friend Salil Tripathi was in Bombay this week to promote his marvellous new book, “Offence: The Hindu Case.” This is part of a series that examines the growing intolerance around us in the name of religion: Kamila Shamsie looks at the Muslim case, Brian Klug at Judaism and Irena Maryniak at Christianity. Regular readers of IU will know that this is a subject close to my heart: I’ve unleashed countless rants on how giving offence is treated as a crime in India, and of the consequences of that for free speech. Salil’s book lays out the case for free speech wonderfully well, and if the subject interests you, I recommend you buy it. (You can pre-order it here or here, and it will also be on the stands soon.)

But this post isn’t just a plug: one of my favourite parts of the book is a poem Salil wrote for his mother, Harsha Tripathi, dedicating the book to her. I was quite moved by it, and with Salil’s permission, I’m reproducing it here:

My Mother’s Fault
by Salil Tripathi

You marched with other seven-year-old girls,
Singing songs of freedom at dawn in rural Gujarat,
Believing that would shame the British and they would leave India.

Five years later, they did.

You smiled,
When you first saw Maqbool Fida Husain’s nude sketches of Hindu goddesses,
And laughed,
When I told you that some people wanted to burn his art.

‘Have those people seen any of our ancient sculptures? Those are far naughtier,’
You said.

Your voice broke,
On December 6, 1992,
As you called me at my office in Singapore,
When they destroyed the Babri Masjid.

‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said.

We had.

Aavu te karaay koi divas (Can anyone do such a thing any time?)
You asked, aghast,
Staring at the television,
As Hindu mobs went, house-to-house,
Looking for Muslims to kill,
After a train compartment in Godhra burned,
Killing 58 Hindus in February 2002.

You were right, each time.

After reading what I’ve been writing over the years,
Some folks have complained that I just don’t get it.

I live abroad: what do I know of India?

But I knew you; that was enough.

And that’s why I turned out this way.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India


Questioning The Astrologer

Oh man, this is delicious. AFP reports:

Sri Lankan police say they have arrested an astrologer after he predicted serious political and economic problems for the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

[...]

“The CID (Criminal Investigations Department) is questioning the astrologer,” [police spokesman Ranjith] Gunasekara said Friday, adding that they wanted to find out the “basis” for the prediction.

I can just imagine how the dialogue goes.

Astrologer: [Pointing to chart] See, here’s the basis for my prediction. Note where Rahu-Ketu are.

CID officer: We have outlawed Rahu-Ketu.

Astrologer: Eh? When did this happen?

CID officer: Five minutes before this interrogation began. Hehehe. Bet you didn’t see that happening.

No, but seriously, the government is crazy, clamping down on free speech like this, even if it is the free speech of a charlatan. Even charlatans have rights.

(Link via email from Neel. And previously, in Rahu-Ketu news...)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 June, 2009 in Dialogue | Freedom | News | Old memes | Astrology etc | Politics | WTF


Freedom And The Burkha

In world news today, Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France, has announced his support for a ban on wearing burkhas. I think this is colossally wrong-headed, and goes against the very principles Sarkozy claims to uphold.

Classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, as I do, are appalled by some societies for the way they treat their women. The burkha is a symbol of this oppression, and obviously our hearts go out to women forced to spend their lives hiding their faces and their bodies from the world. But the operative word here is ‘forced’.

We are troubled by burkhas because they represent coercion. But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.

In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.

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The issue of coercion is, of course, more nuanced than this. A woman may not be explicitly forced into wearing a burkha, but for a young girl born into a devout Muslim family, there may be subtle pressures that will take her in that direction. Non-conformity carries greater costs in traditional families and societies, and she may rationalize her wearing a burkha and represent it as her choice. I agree that this is problematic—but I maintain that in the absence of explicit coercion, it’s none of the state’s business.

Also, many women do make that choice in the absence of either coercion or any kind of pressure. Check out Shagufta Pasta’s excellent satirical post on this, “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide.” (This link is via Chandni.)

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Barack Obama, by the way, has spoken out against Sarkozy’s move, “saying the US values religious freedom and would never ‘tell people what to wear’.” Much props.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2009 in Freedom | News | Politics


‘A Totally Negative Sense’

Nobody messes with the national anthem. Rediff reports that the Supreme Court has slammed Ram Gopal Varma for his “distortion of the national anthem in his forthcoming film Rann.” The “vacation bench” has been quoted as ruling:

We have read it. It gives a totally negative sense. It seems every line of national anthem has been proved wrong. Nobody has got a right to tinker with the national anthem.

So remember, not only do you not have the right to express your opinion on a song, but songs, especially anthems, have rights. Don’t tinker with them.

Also read: The Anthem and the Flag.

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


The Cigarette Quota

The London Telegraph reports:

Local government officials in China have been ordered to smoke nearly a quarter of a million packs of cigarettes in a move to boost the local economy during the global financial crisis.

The edict, issued by officials in Hubei province in central China, threatens to fine officials who “fail to meet their targets” or are caught smoking rival brands manufactured in neighbouring provinces.

Even local schools have been issued with a smoking quota for teachers, while one village was ordered to purchase 400 cartons of cigarettes a year for its officials, according to the local government’s website.

Yes, that’s The Telegraph, not The Onion. Reality is reinvented as farce. The thing is, this is no less absurd than any protectionist measure. Think of any subsidy or tariff, and at its heart it amounts to forced cigarette smoking. We don’t laugh about most of that, though.

(Link via email from Aniket Thakur.)

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I couldn’t help but remember Frédéric Bastiat when I read that news, so here’s a reminder that the Bastiat Prize, which I won in 2007, is now open for submissions for 2009. They have an additional prize for online journalism from this year, so all ye freedom-loving bloggers, go forth and enter.

Also read: Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Politics | Small thoughts


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