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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Freedom

Paperwork (aka The Corruption Rant)

One of my friends is in the process of setting up a new business, and I was chatting with him a few minutes ago. Here, with his permission, is an excerpt from the transcript:

[Friend]: I spent half a day in the excise department office yesterday
it’s one of the most depressing places on earth

me: jesus. bribes and shit?

[Friend]: yeah, paperwork

That says it all, but my friend then chose to elaborate, so here’s his unedited rant in full, which I throughly enjoyed, below the fold:

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India


Politics and the Free Market

Like many of my friends in Mumbai, I am delighted that private taxis now ply in the city. They can be summoned by telephone and provide comfort and great value for money. In particular, I use Meru Cabs, whose service I was also pleased with when I used them in Bangalore recently.

A triumph of the free market? Perhaps. But now Raj Thackeray, who owns Maharashtra, wants a piece of the action. DNA reports that the MNVS, the transport union of Raj’s party MNS, has “registered 450 drivers attached to Meru as its members and has demanded the drivers be made permanent.”

Now, I have no issues with drivers joining unions and making demands, provided all negotiations are peaceful and there is no coercion or violence being used. But does that sound like Raj Thackeray to you?

If the negotiations fail, MNVS has a separate plan to execute. On Friday, it gave a glimpse of what may follow. Some Meru drivers who are now with MNVS assaulted their 10 colleagues for plying the cabs despite a strike of sorts in Dharavi and Matunga.

“Till now, the fight with Meru was held in a democratic way. If Gupta refuses our demands, we will turn the fight into undemocratic ways. I need not explain what those ways would be,” Sheikh warned.

He hinted that if Meru were to shut down its business due to MNVS attacks, the party will start its own cab service. “We will not allow the drivers to remain unemployed. We will take care of them,” he said.

In other words, either the MNVS has its demands conceded and becomes a powerful interest group within Meru Cabs on the basis of nothing but the threat of violence, or it uses violence to get Meru out of the market so it can take its place. Once it does that, no doubt it would then also find similar ways to deal with competition.

A free market, of course, can only exist when the rule of law is strong. Not in India; not in Mumbai. I have no doubt that Mumbai’s police will not protect Meru’s drivers and property, or take action against these thugs after they strike. I’m sure Meru’s owners know that as well. All that remains to be determined is the nature of the hafta—and whether it is paid to the MNS or to a stronger gunda (Balasaheb?) for taking care of the MNS threat. (The stronger gunda may even be the government, mind you.)

So if ever a Meru driver is late or misbehaves with you, a possible reason is that he is not accountable any more with a gunda union protecting his ass. The point of the business, instead of being customer satisfaction, will become the provision of jobs, which is exactly the wrong way around. And just because it is a private company, don’t blame the free market for it: it doesn’t exist in this sector.

The article also sheds light on how Meru managed to get set up at all, given the licensing restrictions that exist everywhere.

A heavyweight politician from Uttar Pradesh is believed to have helped V-Link Taxis Private Limited, which runs the Meru service, to revive the expired national permits from New Delhi. A Meru driver, Nana Sonawane, revealed, “Maharashtra government has not issued any taxi permit since 1996. Hundreds of permits had expired because they were not transferred. V-Link legally got those permits renewed by paying a heavy penalty. They even paid Rs1 lakh to the drivers who owned the permits.”

Imagine, then, how hard it will be for entrepreneurs without political connections to set up a business in this space. What kind of free market is this?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics


A $100 Speedway Gas Card

I think this is a shocking story—on two levels.

One, two consenting adults get together in a room to make a transaction, and both are arrested because the state knows better than them how they should live their lives. Their mugshots end up on the website linked to above, as they are publicly humiliated for a private act that harmed nobody.

Two, part of the payment for the woman’s services was made “with a $100 Speedway gas card,” and that predictably becomes the headline for the story: “Sex for Gas.” Is that supposed to be funny?

The story says: “A local prosecutor noted that it was sad to see someone selling their body for gas, in this case about 25 gallons worth.”

Given that she chose that option over all others available to her, is it not even sadder that we condemn her to worse? It’s a disturbing story, for I do not see the difference between me and that woman, selling her services for a living, or that man, satisfying his needs peacefully without infringing anyone’s rights. Who are we to tower in judgement over them?

Some earlier pieces:
Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes (March 29, 2007)
A Choice to Sell Sex (September 11, 2007)
Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped (May 4, 2008)

(Link via email from Srini Sitaraman.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2008 in Freedom | Journalism | Media | WTF


Offending Dalits

Regular readers of India Uncut will know that I keep ranting about how giving offense has effectively become a crime in India because of some of our silly laws. Well, Rediff informs us:

Amid high drama, the editor and two journalists of a leading Telugu daily Andhra Jyothi were arrested on Tuesday night for publishing an allegedly offensive story on Dalit organisations and its leaders.

[...]

The police said the arrests were made by invoking the provisions of the stringent Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act following publication of a lead story in the second largest circulated daily of Andhra Pradesh last month that criticised unnamed Dalit leaders and their organisations.

While I’ve often written about section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, (Don’t Insult Pasta, for example), this law is new to me. For your reading pleasure, here’s the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The only part of that law that could have been applied in this case, as far as I can tell, is put forth in section 1 (3) (x) of the act, which recommends punishment for “[w]hoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view.”

Firstly, doing a story on Dalit organisations and their leaders obviously should not fall within the purview of this clause. Secondly, should insulting someone be a criminal matter at all? Should the state get involved if some random person calls me names? If your answer is ‘no’, does that answer change if I happen to be a Dalit? Why?

Most of the other clauses in that act seem perfectly fair to me. But those things—taking away somebody’s land, coercing someone into forced labour etc—are criminal acts regardless of the caste of the victim. What does it say about our country, the state of our legal machinery and our politics that we have a separate act to protect Dalits from things that all of us should be protected from anyway?

Update: Krishna Prasad has more details and analysis.

And BV Harish Kumar writes in:

This law is (ab)used a lot in Government offices where people keep threatening their bosses and other colleagues with this Act. IIRC all one needs to do is send a postcard to the SC or someone that ‘atrocities’ are being committed and there will be an enquiry and I think the person in question (the offender) can be suspended from duty till the completion of the enquiry.

(Churumuri link via email from Gautam.)

Update 2: Elaborating on Harish’s letter, quoted above, Harish’s dad, B Phani Babu, writes in:

I know one such case—When a charge sheet was filed against a person on charges of forgery and tampering of records, he (he belonged to the Reserved Category) took an offensive step of complaining to the SC/ST commissioner that he was being harassed. It was my signature and my documents that were tampered with and we almost became the defendants in the case. Fortunately we had a written statement from this person admitting his guilt. Otherwise our heads would have rolled!

It took almost two years to sentence the chap. It was a very mild punishment - just an increment down. He continued ‘serving’ and enjoying all monetary benefits like Overtime etc.

This is the most powerful weapon for an ‘SC/ST’ employee in Government Service. He can get away with anything! I can vouch for the above incident as I myself almost became an affected party!

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2008 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics


You are Free!

But do read the small print first.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 June, 2008 in Freedom


How Horny Are Indians?

A question like that makes absolutely no sense, but it must be asked—because I say so. Here’s the evidence:

Exhibit 1: According to this survey by askmen.com, India is not one of the ten horniest countries in the world. The nationalists among you should be distraught at the news—what has the country of the Kama Sutra come to (no pun intended)?

Exhibit 2: On the other hand, Google does no evil and Google Trends does not lie. Indian cities top the list when it comes to searching for ‘sex’, ‘naked’, ‘boobs’, ‘fuck’ and ‘Salma Hayek’.

My expert conclusion: We lag behind when it comes to overt horniness, but are No. 1 at repressed horniness. This calls for a freedom movement. (Jokes about a Danda March will not be tolerated. Don’t even think about it.) No?

(Askmen.com link via email from Krishna Prasad.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2008 in Freedom | India | Miscellaneous


Overweight in Japan?

Hide. The Seattle Times reports:

Japan, a country not known for its overweight people, has undertaken one of the most ambitious campaigns ever by a nation to slim down its citizenry.

[...]

Under a national law that came into effect two months ago, companies and local governments must measure the waistlines of Japanese people ages 40 to 74 as part of their annual checkups. That represents more than 56 million waistlines, or about 44 percent of the population.

Those exceeding government limits — 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women, which are similar to thresholds established in 2005 for Japan by the International Diabetes Federation as an easy guideline for identifying health risks — and suffering from a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after three months they do not lose weight.

Immense Mommy-Daddy-ness. What the Japanese government is effectively saying here is that the adults who have voted it into power don’t have the ability to make decisions about their own lives, and the government must goad them in the right direction. What if someone doesn’t mind being overweight, and considers the extra hamburgers worthwhile? How patronising is it for the government to try and change his behaviour, as if he is a chubby little baby who must be looked after?

But what I find even more bizarre is that the Japanese are worrying about being overweight. It reminds of an old joke about a Japanese businessmen who, when asked why he likes Indian women, says, “Oh, because they’re so three dimensional.” Before any Indian ministers start getting ideas from this, I’d request them to cast a glance downwards at their own, ahem, paunches.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2008 in Freedom | News | Politics | WTF


Knives on Planes

On Sunday morning, while catching a flight from Chandigarh to Mumbai, I saw the following sign at the airport:

Categories of banned items

* Knives of any length, composition or description
* Most cutting instruments, including carpet knives and box cutters (and spare blades), any device with a folding or retractable blade, ice picks, straight razors, and metal scissors with pointed tips.
* Note: Sikh passengers have been permitted to carry a kirpan (upto 6” blade and 3” handle) in domestic flights only.

So basically, all knives, box-knives, nailcutters and perhaps even nail polish are banned on flights—unless you’re a Sikh, in which case your religious beliefs trump all other considerations. I find this caveat immensely disturbing.

It’s based on article 25 of our constitution, and I have no issues with the right to religion. But, like all our other rights, this right extends only to the point that its exercise infringes no one else’s rights. For example, if your religion requires you to stand on your head naked, you are free to do so—but you ask for too much if you demand entry into my house and wish to use my living room for that purpose.

Similarly, if a private airline wishes to ban knives on board, that is entirely its prerogative. Anybody’s right to religion is irrelevant here, because exercising it would infringe the airline’s right to its property. Airlines across the world do not allow knives on board, and I’m sure that would be the case in India as well: this caveat is enforced by the government, pandering to a religious minority with a rule that endangers all of us.

Ideally, airlines should be able to set their own guidelines, and we should be able to choose our airline accordingly. All things being equal, I’d rather fly an airline that allowed no exceptions on this issue than one that did. Equally, some Sikhs may prefer to fly one that allows kirpans, and many customers may be indifferent to the issue. We should all—airlines and customers—be allowed choice in the matter. But our government would rather impose its preferences on us, for what are we but mere subjects?

Also, I took a picture of the sign at Chandigarh airport, and urge you to read it. You will note that “baseball/softball bats” are banned, but there is no mention of cricket bats. Ski poles are also banned. That indicates to me that the sign was copy-pasted from a similar sign in the US, with our babus not even being able to frame these rules in an Indian context. Only the caveat about kirpans was added by them, with its odd size restrictions. (I wonder how they arrived at a limit of six inches. “Not enough to decapitate someone, so it should be safe,” I can imagine a babu saying.)

There is great scope for a Savita Bhabhi storyline here, though:

Savita Bhabhi is in an aircraft, savouring the private thrill of wearing no underwear under her diaphanous saree and two-sizes-too-small blouse. Suddenly, the plane is hijacked by terrorists pretending to be Sikhs with kirpans. They are navigating it to my home in Andheri to crash it there. Savita Bhabhi, alarmed at the impending attack on her favourite blogger, decides to intervene. The terrorists happen to also have weapons longer than their six-inch kirpans but Savita Bhabhi, ahem, disarms them.

Okay, enough now. Have a safe journey.

(Sikhnet link via email from Rohan Oberoi. More on Savita Bhabhi: 1, 2.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics | WTF


A Disincentive to Helping Others

The Times of India has a story today headlined “Crowd watches as man bleeds” that describes how “a 35-year-old accountant lay trapped and bleeding under an overturned auto for about 15 minutes” as crowds gathered and watched. Finally a passing doctor took the accountant to hospital, and later told the paper that this was the fourth time he had “brought an unattended accident victim to the hospital.”

The bystander effect explains this only partly. People don’t help accident victims in India mainly because of the legal hassles involved. The commonsense thing to do, then, would be to remove these legal hassles, these disincentives to helping others. Most of those are unnecessary anyway. But no, as in so many areas of our lives, the government won’t let us help each other, or ourselves.

The last line of that ToI story says:

People also fear getting involved in legal tangles, Sharma said but added, “The bottomline is that saving a life should take precedence over anything else.”

In an ideal world, of course it should. But this is not an ideal world, and instead of sanctimoniously speaking about what people should do, it would make more sense to examine why they don’t do it, and fix that. The government is the villain here, not the bystanders.

Update: Reader Chandni Parekh points out that the Supreme Court sometimes shows more sense than our government, as this judgement from late last year demonstrates. The salient lines:

Your responsibility ends as soon as you leave the person at the hospital.

Most people still don’t know this, of course, and thus hesitate.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2008 in Freedom | India | News


Savita Bhabhi and the Moral Police

I’d like to humbly suggest a brief storyline to the fine creators of Savita Bhabhi:

It is a hot summer day. Savita Bhabhi is relaxing at home in a skimpy choli and petticoat, and no underwear. The doorbell rings. She opens the door and finds three stern-looking policemen.

“Yes, gentlemen,” she says. “How can I help you?”

“Er, we are from the moral police,” the chief inspector says. “We have come to warn you about your behaviour.”

“What behaviour?” says Savita Bhabhi.

“Your lewd and lascivious conduct,” says one policeman.

“You are corrupting the youth of our country,” says another.

“Sex is not in our culture,” says their chief. “We grow babies on lotus flowers.”

“Oh really,” says Savita Bhabhi. “Then I promise to behave. But why don’t you gentlemen come in and have some nimbu sharbat? It is a hot day, and all of you are sweating.”

Well, you know what happens next—it ends in, ahem, free expression. And here, via email from MadMan, is what inspired me to think of this storyline.

Also, Sanjeev points me to the line of the day, from the Savita Bhabhi website:

All the positions in the Savita Bhabhi team are voluntary and honarary.

Heh.

Earlier…

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Dialogue | Freedom | India | News


Teacher, Teacher, Chintu Called Me ‘Donkey’

DNA reports:

A senior Punjab Police officer on Sunday lodged a complaint against Kings XI Punjab co-owner Ness Wadia for allegedly publicly insulting and using derogatory language against him during Friday’s IPL match between the Punjab team and Deccan Chargers at PCA stadium at Mohali.

Mohali police chief Ranbir Singh Khatra lodged a complaint with Mohali deputy commissioner that Wadia had used “insulting” language on him.

[...]

Expressing displeasure at the treatment meted out to him by Wadia, Khatra said, “What hurt me the most is when Wadia said he didn’t want to talk to small and mean people.”

And this presumably adult police officer filed a police complaint for that? How small and mean.

A ToI report elaborates that Wadia accused the cops “of selling tickets for the IPL matches in the grey market and also ignoring unauthorized entry of people into the stadium.” He also “charged policemen on duty at the pavilion of stealing several liquor bottles and Mohali team T-shirts.” Obviously I can’t comment on this particular case, but from what I know of the system, his accusations seem plausible to me. You?

The report ends:

In a related development, police sources confirmed that the Mohali police had recorded a complaint against IPL commissioner Lalit Modi for smoking at a public place in the stadium.

Related development?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 May, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Sport | WTF


We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates

This piece of mine was published this Sunday in Mail Today (pdf link).

We live in times when progress is often denoted in statistical terms: the Sensex rises by this much, the economy grows by that much, inflation is so much, poverty is that much, and so on. In a complex world, any single piece of data always tells just part of the story. So which statistics do a good job of illustrating India’s progress? One very good one, in my view, is the divorce rate.

Divorce rates are going up across India. The figures that exist for our cities and towns show a sharp increase in the last decade or so. Many commentators bemoan this trend, speaking of the breakdown of families, the loss of family values and the influence of the West. But to me, the rising rate of divorces is a trend to celebrate. It is the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.

Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news. We do not need to credit either feminism or Western culture for this – the emancipation of women in real terms, across the world, has been enabled by technology, and can be explained most easily with economics.

Economics

In economic terms, the biggest factor behind human progress is the division of labour. If we all hunted our own meat and grew our own food, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to illustrate how division of labour improves productivity: if one man attempts to make pins all by himself, he might make about one pin a day; but his productivity can increase by as much as five thousand times if every person in the factory focuses on just one aspect of the pin production. This is true of everything in our lives, such as this newspaper you are holding: if every employee of Mail Today set out to write, design and produce the whole newspaper, it would take weeks for each person to put together a single issue, and they would all be substandard in one way or another. Instead, they specialise, and the result is in your hands every day.

Well, in the words of Tim Harford, who devotes an excellent chapter to this subject in his book The Logic of Life, the family is “the oldest pin factory of all.” In old days, before the advent of modern technology, for a single man or woman to earn a living and look after the household all by himself or herself was immensely difficult. It became a little easier if two people came together and split both tasks half and half. But it became exponentially easier if they specialised. For evolutionary reasons, and because women were stuck with child-bearing, it so happened that men traditionally got the role of earning a living while women raised kids and looked after the house. 

These gender roles evolved out of circumstance, and not necessarily because women weren’t capable of earning a living. Indeed, in cases where the wife was better at both earning a living and keeping house, the traditional role allocation would still make sense for them as a unit if the husband was especially bad at housekeeping. (Economists call this “comparative advantage”.) Thus, the incompetence of men at keeping house might have played a greater role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes than any shortcoming women might have had in the workplace.

These gender roles got reinforced culturally. If men earned a living and women looked after the house, it made economic sense to bring up children to specialise in those areas. Thus, the boys got a better vocational education while the girls were taught to cook. This also reinforced prejudices in the workplace, intimidating women from taking up a profession. Women thus became dependent on men, unable to break out of bad marriages because they simply didn’t have choices available to them. No wonder divorce was so rare.

All this changed in the 20th century. The catalyst for these changes was technology.

Technology

Technology freed women in two ways in the last century. One, household technology made it possible for women to finish off household work quickly, while it was otherwise enormously time-consuming. The cooking range, the microwave, the mixer-grinder, the pressure cooker are all commonplace kitchen items today, but imagine how arduous preparing a meal was before they existed. (It still is in poorer parts of the world and our country, which partly explains why the oppression of women varies with class.) Once these gadgets entered the kitchen, women found themselves with more free time at their disposal, which they could use to take up a job or to get an education.

Two, the pill allowed women to delay child-bearing and plan parenthood. This meant that they could be sexually active without the risk of pregnancy, and thus delay marriage. That allowed them to study further and be as qualified as men for the workforce. And, most importantly, it gave them options.

A qualified woman who chose family over work is much better placed than a woman who hasn’t got any skills to help her earn a living. She has more leverage within the relationship. One, it is easier for her to quit the marriage if she feels unhappy with it. Two, because that option is open to her, her husband cannot take her for granted, and has to treat her better than he otherwise would.

Harford, in his book, points to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that showed that as states across America passed ‘no fault’ divorce laws, allowing women easier routes to divorce, “domestic violence fell by almost a third.” When incentives were in place for men to behave better, men tended to behave better. Thus, technology not only enabled women to walk out of bad marriages, it also made them more powerful within a marriage.

In India affluence acts, in some cases, as a substitute for technology. In Mumbai, for examples, the typical middle-class house is too small for household devices like washing machines and dishcleaners. But in families that can afford household help, maids take care of those functions, freeing up women’s time in ways that technology does in the West.

Tradition

Families have such sanctity in Indian tradition because until recently, people needed the division of labour that a family provides. Indeed, joint families used to be common here because, when we were a poorer country, they made economic sense. (A common kitchen for 20 people provided economies of scale.) But times have changed, incentives have changed, and to value these things for the sake of tradition alone is irrational. 

As a society, our highest value should be to ensure that every individual has the maximum opportunities possible to find happiness. This means educating our daughters to be independent and removing the stigma that comes from a broken marriage. Every divorce means that two people have a better chance at finding fulfillment than they did in the marriage, and that is surely cause for celebration. In America, divorce rates climbed back down after the surge of the 1970s, mainly because young people took greater care in getting married, and premarital relationships were not considered sinful. Change is happening at different rates across classes in India, and the divorce rate will continue to rise for many, many years. That is a sign of progress, and we should be happy about it.

*  *  *

For more on this subject, I highly recommend checking out the chapter on divorce in Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. It’s written in an American context but its insights are universal, and it cites a number of studies that you can Google and read for yourself. My review of Harford’s book is here. I’ve also briefly touched on this subject in these two old posts: 1, 2.

For more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 May, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Science and Technology


On Art

Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics.

RIP, Robert Rauschenberg.

(Pic courtesy NY Times.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom


Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped

This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.

DC Madam is dead

Three days ago, Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s body was found in a shed outside her mother’s home in Tarpon Springs, one of Florida’s top tourist destinations. Palfrey had earlier been convicted of running a “high-priced call girl ring”. She was awaiting sentencing. She did not want to go to jail. A nylon rope was handy.

It’s easy to imagine the emotions that must have run through Palfrey’s mind in her final moments: despair, fear, loneliness. It would be ironic if remorse was one of them. For Palfrey hadn’t harmed anyone. The tragedy of her case is that she was the victim.

The purpose of laws, I think you’d agree, is to protect the rights of individuals, and to punish those who infringe them. Every law that exists should serve these ends. But there is a category of laws, not just in the US but in India and everywhere else, that punish what are called “victimless crimes.” They are used to prosecute people who have harmed no one. They come about because of the universal human tendency to impose our preferences on others. And there is nothing we try to impose as much as our morality.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 May, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom


Mallika Sherawat Causes Mental Agony

What a headline:

Is Mallika Sherawat’s dress too revealing?

Apparently some politicians in Chennai are upset that Sherawat, by wearing allegedly revealing clothes at a function, caused “mental agony to the people of Tamil Nadu.” The report is unclear on whether this was caused by her wearing too much clothing or too little, and I can only hope that the mental agony gave way to some kind of pleasurable physical relief.

But really, look at this picture from the event. Sherawat looks more ‘ugh’ than ‘mmm’, and I find the other chica with her much more attractive, with her pretty smile, dignified posture, well-tailored sleeveless kurta and the hint of a diaphanous churidar. Her name is Asin Thottumkal, and her website reveals that her “attitude to charity” is summed up by the following words: “What is done by the right hand is not to be known even by the left hand.”

Is there a lesson there for the people protesting Sherawat?

PS: Don’t miss the comments underneath the Rediff story.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


‘Moved By The Idea Of Being Moved’

Salil Tripathi begins a piece on P Sainath thus:

The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.

Read the full piece. Sainath, I have always felt, is an excellent reporter when he is doing the honest reporter’s job of reporting facts. But when he lets his ideology take over, his pieces lose their way. Faulty government policies are responsible for the plight of our farmers, and it is disingenuous of Sainath to offer more such government interference as a solution. It is convenient to blame “neoliberal economics”, as if free markets have ever been allowed in agriculture or in rural India, but the truth is that only free markets and free enterprise can give our farmers the choices they deserve. (I’ve written on this subject often, but points 15 and 16 of this post sum up my thoughts on it.)

In other words, Sainath rocks at description but sucks at prescription. What a pity.

Also read: Salil’s cover story on farming in the April 2008 issue of Pragati.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


Grains of Wheat

Check out this beautiful passage from Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, a novel set in early-18th-century Peru:

The Abbess was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women. At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the house she would fall into insane visions of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi, or in the workrooms of cloth merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights. But always the next morning she had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance; and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress. She had never known any country but the environs of Lima, and she assumed that its corruption was the normal state of mankind. Looking back from our century we can see the whole folly of her hope. Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age. Yet she continued diligently in her task. She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon. Such persons are raised up in every age; they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of bystanders. ‘How queerly they dress!’ we cry. ‘How queerly they dress!’

I wonder if, in 2308 AD, this is how they’ll speak of today’s libertarians. How queerly we dress!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | Small thoughts


The Trial

The Times of India reports:

One morning, when Jatinderbir Singh woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.  He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections.

Hey, wait a minute! That’s not ToI! That’s Kafka! This is ToI:

An Army man has learnt the hard way that marriages are made in heaven and marital ties are difficult to sever, with the Supreme Court asking him to resume married life despite an estrangement of 17 years, 14 of them spent in litigation.

In other words, Jatinderbir Singh doesn’t want to live with his wife—indeed, they’ve been separated for the last 17 years. But the court knows what’s good for him better than he does. Gadzooks. Wake up, Franz, you got work to do!

Earlier: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 April, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Dear Mitra Kalita

Dear Mitra

You write in your column today that your support of reservations “is not a socialist stance.” Quick question: Are you aware of the meaning of the word ‘socialist’?

A socialist society typically redistributes wealth—reservations redistribute opportunities. Same difference.

You speak about “universities (and eventually the private sector, I hope)” being “forced” to implement reservations. Forced? So you see coercion as the basis of social justice? That sounds familiar.

You write at the end of your piece: “[A] day might come in the rest of India where you ask two young men on a college campus what caste the other is—and each will say he doesn’t even know.” Well, I wasn’t aware of my caste in my college years, or that of my friends. With prosperity and an open economy, barriers of caste gradually erode. Yes, India has a long, long way to go before we’re prosperous enough and open enough, but consider that reservations actually increase one’s awareness of caste, and exacerbate tensions between them. You cannot fight injustice with injustice.

Warm regards

Amit

*

Link via email from Nitin Pai. More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2008 in Freedom | India | Letters | Politics | WTF


Self-Preservation Over Self-Respect

Amitabh Bachchan’s made his choice.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


Yeh Dil Maange Chicken

The opening line of the day comes from Jug Suraiya:

Instead of the peacock, India should adopt the chicken as its national bird.

No dhaba in Delhi sells Tandoori Peacock, but that’s not the sense Suraiya means it in.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 March, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics


Play That MMS Again, Please

Mumbai Mirror reports:

Government Railway Police (GRP) constables posted at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus are there to provide security to passengers who take long-distance trains, but for most of the time, they are checking male passengers phones for porn: not for watching, but extorting.

These cops stop young men at random and on the pretext of security check, demand to see their phones, and if they find some porn clips stored, they threaten arrest on grounds of obscenity. The only way out is of course if you pay a ‘suitable fee’ that could range from Rs 1000 to 5000. [...]

By the way, a small fact: having a porn clipping on your cell phone for personal/private use is not illegal. It is sale, distribution, exhibition (in public or to another person) and distribution that is barred under law.

In my view, even “sale, distribution [and] exhibition” of porn clips should not be “barred under law”, for these are victimless crimes that harm no one, and barring them infringes on the rights of the consenting adults involved. (The argument that some of the porn may have been created under coercion doesn’t work for me, for the coercion itself would be a crime then, and you don’t need to ban all porn to end the coercion. Furthermore, driving the porn business underground by keeping it illegal makes it harder to protect the rights of those potentially coerced.)

Laws against such victimless crimes serve just one purpose: they give the police a revenue stream, for they can dangle the threat of prosecution and extort money from citizens who have harmed no one, instead of looking after law and order, which exists just notionally in this country, and works mainly for the rich and well-connected.

You think I’m generalizing, and this is an isolated instance? Well, remember this?

Also read:

Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes
The Matunga Racket

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 March, 2008 in Freedom | India


Writing About Classical Liberalism

A couple of months ago, I had praised Gautam Adhikari for setting out a classical liberal direction for the Times of India editorial pages. Well, Sauvik Chakraverti writes in to argue that my praise was undeserved, as demonstrated by a recent editorial in the newspaper that Sauvik calls “illiberal, intolerant and unsympathetic.” Sauvik has a piece on it that I recommend you read. An excerpt:

[T]he editorial is blind to reality. It asks the totally stupid question: “How is it that the drug trade in Goa is flourishing, that too, in full public view and under the nose of the state police who’s duties include cracking down on such activities?” The drug trade is flourishing all over the world, including New Delhi. I myself scored marijuana in London a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Scotland Yard. The duties of the Goa police also include ensuring road safety. Every Goan, local as well as tourist, would be safer if this duty was performed. The drug trade should be legalized – but this is probably ‘too liberal’ an idea for the editor.

I admire Sauvik immensely, and agree with his thoughts here, but I have a problem with the way he expresses them. Consider this sentence: “This illiberal, unsympathetic and ignorant editorial then descends to rank idiocy.” This may be true, but the harsh language alienates the neutral reader who might be coming across some of these ideas for the first time. A better approach would be to calmly lay the facts and the argument out, and to respect the reader enough to let him come to his own conclusion without shouting it at him. This is especially true when those ideas—legalizing the drug trade, for example—sound radical to a normal guy, which makes it important for the tone to be measured and reasonable.

I hope I’m not coming across as preachy here, for Sauvik is a much sharper thinker than I am. (He also won the Bastiat Prize a few years before I got lucky.) But I’m angry that such a fine mind, which can open so many doors for so many people, does not find a platform on the editorial pages of a single major newspaper in India, many of which are filled with mediocre writing. I’m quite sure that the tone of the writing, not the content, is responsible for that.

And while on drugs and Goa, I’d mentioned in a recent post that I was in favour of legalizing drugs as well, and will elaborate on that in a longer piece soon.

Update (March 21): Sauvik writes in to inform me that he does indeed have a regular column in the Sunday edition of the New Indian Express. My apologies. I shall watch that page regularly.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


Guns For Vasectomies

Indian Health News reports:

A bandit-infested region of India is trying to persuade men to undergo sterilisation by offering to fast-track their gun licence applications, an official said on Tuesday.

Officials in central Madhya Pradesh state’s Shivpuri district decided to adopt the policy—already tried out by some neighbouring states—to increase the low vascectomy rate.

“I came to know that it had to do with their perceived notion of manliness,” said Manish Shrivastav, administrative chief of Shivpuri district, part of the Indian Chambal region, which is famed for its lawlessness and bandits.

“I then decided to match it with a bigger symbol of manliness—a gun licence,” he said. “And the ploy worked.”

It’s innovative, and some would argue that more guns would also help lower the population. But flippancy aside, the problem with our country is not our population but our government. Our people, all of whom possesses the ingenuity, creativity and enterprise to put more into the world than they take from it, are constrained by a system of government that doesn’t allow them to fulfill their potential. India doesn’t need less people—it needs less government interference in our lives.

(Link via email from Nox Rupawalla.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Politics


Scarlett Keeling and the Goa Underworld

Jug Suraiya writes in the Times of India:

If drugs were not banned, would Scarlett Keeling, the British teenager who was raped and murdered in Goa, be alive today? Perhaps.

It was not drugs that killed Scarlett; it was the criminalisation of drugs that led to her death and to the subsequent cover-up attempt by the local police who allegedly are in collaboration with the drug mafias, mainly from Russia and Israel, who have reportedly set up operations in the state.

Read the full piece. In a nutshell, Jug’s point is that banning drugs takes it into the realm of the underworld, and makes drug use difficult to monitor, and drug users difficult to protect. (”[T]he growth of the mafia in the US has been traced to prohibition,” Suraiya reminds us.)

Think about it: if drugs were legal in Goa, and sold as openly as cigarettes and alcohol are, would the underworld be there at all? Why? What would be their revenue stream, their raison d’etre?

More reading:

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Creaky Paradise, in which he describes how Goa has gone to pieces over the last couple of decades.

My essay on the subject a few months ago, Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes.

(ToI link via email from Abhishek Saha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2008 in Freedom | India | News


Intangible But Precarious

This is a great quote:

The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism. If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors, rather than to give up what is intangible but precarious, it will not long be found at all.

Richard Weaver, as quoted by Jonah Goldberg.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2008 in Freedom | Politics


Dear Salman Khan

Dear Salman Khan

You can either take a stand or not take a stand. But how silly is it to take a stand and then demand that it be kept secret?

Regards

Amit Varma

PS: For the record, here’s my take on the issue.

More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 March, 2008 in Freedom | Letters | Politics


Two Things I Oppose

1. Raj Thackeray and his brand of politics.

2. The gag order on Raj Thackeray.

We should punish Thackeray, I believe, for his actions—he should be prosecuted for his part in the violence committed by MNS activists last month. However, if we seek to silence him, then we are no better than him.

However odious Thackeray’s opinions are, he should be allowed to air them. He thinks North Indians should be kicked out from Mumbai. I think Raj Thackeray should be made to listen to 48 hours of nonstop Himesh Reshammiya. Both of us have a right to our opinions—but if either of us tries to force it upon others, we are overstepping our bounds, and should be punished.

Yes, I know, one might argue that the gag order makes sense because Thackeray’s words incite others to violence. Well, let’s stop condescending to those moved to violence, and hold them responsible for their actions rather than pass the buck somewhere else. If someone riots, put him in prison and let the law take its course. Do that often enough, and well enough, and the words of demagogues like Raj Thackeray won’t matter, as his followers will refrain from breaking the law out of self-preservation. 

Thus, I agree with the Bollywood and theatre people who have signed a petition opposing the gag order on Thackeray. I just hope they’re not doing so because they agree with him.

(Link via Dilip D’Souza.

Also read: Mobs are Above the Law.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics


Spamming Isn’t Free Speech

David Chartier reports that Jeremy Jaynes, a resident of North Carolina, has just been sentenced to nine years for spamming—in particular, for “sending what authorities believe to be millions of messages over a two-month period in 2003.” Jaynes’s lawyers argued that spamming was free speech, which the courts correctly threw out because the spam he sent broke “the US CAN SPAM law’s condition of giving recipients a means of contacting the sender.”

If Jaynes really wanted to exercise his free speech—Hey there, is your nose big enough?—he could simply have sent those mails to himself, or put them on a blog where they wouldn’t be invasive in any way. But a person’s email account is his private property, and by invading that, Jaynes went beyond the bounds of free speech. Sure, it is evident that we can’t possibly take prior permission to email people before emailing them, which would be delightfully surreal, but when I get an unwanted email, I should have the option to tell its sender not to write to me again. If that opt-out option isn’t there, it amounts to theft, as it encroaches upon my storage space, bandwidth and time.

Also read: The Origin of Human Rights.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2008 in Freedom | Miscellaneous | News


Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Not necessarily yours. Indeed, you can’t be trusted to take decisions in some of the most important areas of your life. Mid Day reports:

Our courts believe in the institution of marriage. And they feel ‘incompatibility’ is not reason enough for a divorce. In February, the Bandra Family Court referred as many as seven mutual consent divorce petitions back to matrimonial counsellors, urging couples to “understand one another” instead of parting ways. None of the petitions was even considered.

Note that these were not cases where there was a dispute between two people that the court needed to sort out. Instead, two adults decided that they no longer wanted to be together, thinking that this would surely be their decision alone. His Highness disabused them of this arrogant notion.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go file a petition. I need permission to pee.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Arrested For Flirting

BBC reports:

Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia have begun investigating 57 young men who were arrested on Thursday for flirting with girls at shopping centres in Mecca.

The men are accused of wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing in order to attract the attention of girls, the Saudi Gazette reported.

They were arrested following a request of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The concept of clothes being indecent is bizarre, isn’t it? I’ve heard the term used, idiotically, for women’s clothing, but this is the first I’ve heard of it in the context of men. What were they wearing, I wonder, miniskirts?

Hmm, suddenly I remember this report...

Earlier:

Vice, Virtue and Saudi Arabia
No Red Roses in Saudi Arabia

(BBC links via email from Shrek.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 February, 2008 in Freedom | News | WTF


Politics and the Law

Raj Thackeray is priceless. Writing an open letter to Sudheendra Kulkarni in the Indian Express, he says:

[D]o political movements need to obey the law? Political history learnt by me tells me that breaking the law, getting arrested, braving lathis and getting jailed are symbols of a principled agitation.

In recent times, the rulers and opposition parties indulged in movements of political compromise, in which morchas are taken out, the share of benefits of the government and opposition parties are decided. Then the protesters and their companions go home and sleep peacefully! This is called todbazi (compromise). The word political movement is an equivalent word for breaking the law!

Most Indian politicians would surely agree with Thackeray that politics in India has become all about “the share of benefits of the government and opposition parties”—though few would state it so openly. Our politicians treat this country as government property, theirs to use as they please when they come to power, and theirs to bargain for when they are in opposition, using the threat of violence. For them, the law is a tool to oppress the common man, and not something that their activities need to be subject to. No wonder they ask, do political movements need to obey the law?

And really, what’s the difference between them and the British Empire we fought to overthrow. That was just timepass, or did we really want freedom?

Also read: Nitin Pai’s astute take on the subject, and my earlier essay, The Republic of Apathy.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


A Trend To Welcome

With India’s new affluence comes the divorce generation, says a headline in the International Headline Tribune. The story, by Anand Giridharadas, described how divorces are on the rise in India. It gives me great hope for the country.

I know there will be voices bemoaning the breakdown of the family and suchlike, but to me, more divorces = less women trapped in bad marriages. An increasing divorce rate indicates that women are being empowered with more choices, and that is a great trend. I hope it grows.

Also read: My review of Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, which summarises his take on the “divorce revolution” in America. And my old post, “Does economic growth lead to family breakdown?”

(IHT link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 February, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India


Vice, Virtue and Saudi Arabia

Remember the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice? Well, Aadisht has an informative post on them, which informs us, to begin with, that the correct term for them is the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Aadisht then shares glimpses of their history with us.

It turns out that they once banned pets in Saudi Arabia because they were considered a Western influence.

“One bad habit spreading among our youths is the acquisition of dogs and showing them off in the streets and malls,” wrote Aleetha al-Jihani in a letter to Al-Madina newspaper. “There’s no doubt that such a matter makes one shudder.”

“Then what’s the point of dragging a dog behind you?” he added. “This is blind emulation of the infidels.”

This is harmless, but not what they did in 2002, when they “stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress.” Fifteen girls died.

I can just imagine the following scene:

Eight members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are walking along the road. From the opposite side, a young man approaches. The young man is walking a dog. The dog is clad in a burqa.

The Committee goon stops him. “Hey boy,” he says. “How dare you walk a dog? Do you not know that is vice?”

The young man says: “I am not walking a dog, I am walking my sister. She is short. Being a good Saudi girl, she is all covered up. That is virtue.”

The Committee goons look at each other.

The young man continues: “Do you want me to prove it is my sister? I’ll have to remove her burqa for that?”

The Committee goon says, “Eh, no, no, no, continue. It’s okay. Have a good day.”

The young man moves on. The Committee goon’s sidekick looks at the Committee goon and says: “Did you hear his sister bark?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2008 in Dialogue | Freedom


Picasso, Guernica, Free Speech and Islam

Flemming Rose has a superb Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal today, Free Speech and Radical Islam, that I recommend you read in full. My favourite quote from the piece:

It is not cultures, religions or political systems that enjoy rights. Human beings enjoy rights…

Sadly, it is human beings—insecure, immature, cowardly human beings—who march on behalf of these cultures and religions, claiming offense. Such it goes…

Also read:

Do not draw my unicorn
Don’t Insult Pasta
The Origin of Human Rights

(Link via email from Mohit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 February, 2008 in Freedom


Rule vs Serve Redux

You can’t say Indian cops are very different from this—unless they’re dealing with someone rich and well connected.

The clip’s on YouTube, by the way—just go through the comments, some bizarre stuff there.

(Link via email from Vipin.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2008 in Freedom | News


No Red Roses in Saudi Arabia

“Saudi Arabia’s religious police,” reports Reuters, “have banned red roses ahead of Valentine’s Day.” The decision has been taken by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which sounds like something right out of Kafka.

Having said that, I’d love to work there. To prevent vice, one has to study it, and I’d undertake that arduous task with great enthusiasm.

(Link via email from Aishwarya.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 February, 2008 in Freedom | News | WTF


Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word

The Library of Economics and Liberty (or econlib.org) is one of my favourite websites, and has many superb essays on economics. I’m happy to say that an essay I’ve written for them has been published today: Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word: The Transformation of India. Do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


The Principles of LK Advani

The headline of the day:

“Advani takes up cudgels for Husain”

Er, whoops, sorry, I mistyped a word there. The actual headline is:

“Advani takes up cudgels for Taslima”

What a pity that we’ll never see Advani defend Husain as he defends Taslima. After all, the principle involved in both those cases is exactly the same.

Earlier

Dear VK Malhotra
The Hypocrisy of Indian Politics

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 February, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Politics


Where Your Taxes Go: 26

IANS reports:

Rising hemlines saw temperatures going up in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Tuesday with an actress’ short dress triggering a demand from the PMK for a law imposing a dress code and the ruling DMK counselling its ally that it should exercise restraint.

While the DMK advised the PMK that restraint, not the length of a skirt, was the solution, M K Kanimozhi, daughter of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and MP, was attacking the ‘hypocrisy’ of imposing a dress code on female actors elsewhere in the city.

The fundamental problem here is that our governments want to rule us, not serve us. And that negates the purpose of parting us from the taxes we pay. No?

(Link via email from Karthik. For more on what happens to our taxes, click here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 January, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Old memes | Taxes | Politics


Security v Privacy

It’s a false dichotomy, argues Bruce Schneier. Superb post.

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2008 in Freedom


On Taking Offence

Space Bar emails to point me to this superb conversation between Jesus and Mo (Click on image for the original, bigger version):

image

There’s much more at jesusandmo.net. Check it out, much fun.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom


Me the Person on We the People

I’ll be appearing as a panelist on tonight’s episode of We the People, which telecasts on NDTV 24x7 at 8pm, and then at half an hour past midnight. The subject under discussion was whether we take national symbols —like the flag and the anthem—too seriously, and whether the state should use coercion to disallow disrespect of those symbols.

Other panelists included, in alphabetical order of last name so that no one’s national honour is offended, Bharat Bala, Sarnath Bannerjee, General Cordoza, Smriti Irani, Jaideep Sahni, Harish Salve and Shiv Viswanathan. Good fun came, so do watch me make a fool of myself, and note that my core competency is writing, not speaking. That’s the only excuse I can offer in advance!

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 January, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal


We Indians Are Proud Of All The Wrong Things

This piece of mine appeared today in Mail Today.

Sometimes satire simply cannot keep up with real life. A few days ago I read a piece in the Indian Express about a 28-year-old gentleman based in Bhopal named Prakash Kumar Thakur. Thakur specialises in persecuting those who ‘insult’ India’s national flag. He recently filed a court case against Sania Mirza because she was photographed with her feet on a table on which the Indian flag was also kept. The case was filed under something called - I’m not making this up - the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act.

The maximum sentence under this act is three years in jail. A distraught Mirza reported that she considered quitting her sport. Thakur reacted to that response by calling it “emotional blackmail.”

Thakur, the report tells us, had earlier filed cases against Sachin Tendulkar and Mandira Bedi. Tendulkar had cut a cake designed like the tricolour. Bedi had worn a sari with the flags of various countries, including India, on it. 

Thakur’s advocate, RK Pandey, had filed a similar case against MF Husain. They recently also sued a publisher of a class VI textbook for not printing the tricolour properly.

In the best line of the report, Thakur is quoted as saying: “Me and my friends will move around the city from 2 pm onwards on Republic Day collecting flags lying everywhere and destroy them in private with full dignity.”

Yes, even flags have dignity. And, presumably, feelings. I hope Thakur and his friends had a good time yesterday.

Patriotism

The national flag is not the only symbol of national pride that patriots like Thakur worry about. There’s also the national anthem, which was allegedly “insulted” last April by NR Narayana Murthy. Indeed, in Mumbai, it is played in cinema theatres before the start of every film, and it is compulsory to stand. 

This is what we’ve reduced patriotism to.

In my view, there are two kinds of patriotism. The first kind involves feeling that your country is, in some way or the other, greater than others. Often, self-esteem is involved. Patriots of this kind will want others to share their feelings about their country. They might feel offended if someone suggests that their country is not all they imagine it to be.

The other kind of patriotism involves loving certain things about one’s country. This is a personal love, different in each individual’s case, and patriots of this sort will enjoy their patriotism without demanding that others share it.

If we were to be flippant about such grave matters, we could call these kinds of patriotism Mera Bharat Mahaan and Mera Bharat Mujhe Pasand

I see myself as the second kind of patriot. When I think of the things I love about India, I think of concrete things in the real world, such as its food, its music, the languages that I’m fortunate to know. These don’t blind me from the many things wrong with the country - nor do I have any desire to impose my preferences on others.

The Mera Bharat Mahaan kind of patriot, on the other hand, is involved with a narrative of greatness. A key part of his identity is his Indianness. For this reason, he needs to believe that India is a great country, superior to others. 

Symbols like the flag and the anthem are, thus, important to him. They represent his nationalistic fervour. Equally, a display like the Republic Day parade makes him feel proud. Its purpose is validation.

Pride

This need for validation was understandable in our early years as an independent country. We’d just gained independence after decades of being humiliatingly colonised. It was a mini-miracle that we existed, bridging such linguistic, religious and cultural divides. We needed to believe in ourselves as a nation. 

And, let’s face it, there was a bit of a collective inferiority complex running through the country.

Sadly, even after 60 years of independence, that craving for validation remains. Why else do we make such a hue and cry every year about India’s entry to the Oscars, and ignore our own national awards? Why else do we rush to claim any foreign achiever with an Indian background as a national hero? (Sunita Williams, born in Ohio and raised in America, has been awarded the Padma Bhushan this year.) Why else do we go gaga with excitement when we hear of Madonna practising yoga or Gwen Stefani putting a Bindi on her head? Why else do we celebrate when Shilpa Shetty wins Big Brother, and ignore poor Rahul Roy, who won the desi version?

India has advanced leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, but we still haven’t acquired the self-confidence that a mature democracy should have. Too many of us are still sensitive about symbols of our nationhood, and that’s a pity. We are proud, I believe, of entirely the wrong things.

As a nation that won its independence with such difficulty, if there is one thing we should be proud of, and should continue to aspire towards, it is freedom. Not just the freedom to vote, but freedom in every social and economic sense. As long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others, we should be free to express our sexual preferences, to trade with others, to watch the films we want, to read the books we want, to say what we want. And yes, free to disrespect a flag or refuse to stand up when the anthem is played. 

What’s the point of being a free country otherwise?

Freedom

The main issue involved in all the cases that Thakur has filed is not patriotism - Thakur has the right to feel warmly towards the national flag. But he does not have the right to impose his feelings and his preferences on others. The issue here is freedom.

India, sadly, has never given freedom of expression the level of protection it deserves. Article 19 (1) (a) of our constitution speaks of protecting free speech, but Article 19 (2) immediately limits it by making it contingent on concepts like “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation by bureaucrats, judges and mobs. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has a number of laws which effectively make it a crime to give offence. 

Section 295 (a), a non-bailable act, is particularly notorious: It punishes actions “intended to outrage religious feelings”, and has been used against Ravi Shastri when he said he liked eating beef, and against a publisher for publishing a Santa and Banta jokebook. 

The IPC, of course, was drafted in the 19th century. It needs an overhaul - as does the attitude towards national pride that many of us have. We are a vibrant democracy now, and the idea of India cannot be harmed any more by a few displays of disrespect towards emblems and symbols. We should stop insulting our country by behaving otherwise.

*  *  *

My thanks to Himanshu for pointing me to the IE story. Some related pieces by me: The Anthem and the Flag. Don’t Insult Pasta. Indian Idolatry.

You can check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India


Liberalizing Politics

“India could use the same kind of competition in the ideological sphere,” writes Shruti Rajagopalan in the Wall Street Journal, “that’s starting to work for the economy.” This competition of ideas does not officially exist, as all political parties have to swear by ‘socialism’ in order to be allowed to compete in elections.

Also read: Barun Mitra’s piece on this subject from a few days ago, All are welcome, as long as you are a socialist!

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics


Bribe ‘Em With This!

1_zero-rupee-note.jpg

I didn’t notice it at the time, but this DNA report from August 2007 tells us:

Next time when you are asked to cough up extra money to get a driving licence or a birth certificate, shock the bribe-seekers with a ‘zero rupee’ note.

This is a novel campaign launched by ‘5th Pillar,’ a non-profit non-governmental organisation formed to fight the common enemy of the nation—corruption.

The ‘zero rupee’ note, which resembles an original thousand rupees note, is a sign of unwillingness to bribe. It has the picture of Mahatma Gandhi on it with a pledge “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe” printed both in English and Tamil. It also resolves to ‘eliminate corruption at all levels.’

This is quite cool, but to eliminate corruption from the system, we need to change the system. That means giving our government, and by extension government servants at all levels, less control over our lives. The less discretion they have, the less corruption there will be.

We also need to find mechanisms to make them more accountable, and the RTI is a fabulous instrument in that regard. As for the zero-rupee note, try actually using it!

(Link via email from Ajoy Philip Babu, who found it at Mutiny.in. I took the image from RTI India.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 January, 2008 in Freedom | India


Weddings and the Mai-Baap Government

WTF news of the day:

The Punjab and Haryana High Court has asked the Punjab Police to crack down on expensive wedding celebrations ... on the basis of the Anti-Dowry law.

This is quite ridiculous: people should be allowed to spend their money as they please, without the state passing judgment on it. And if lavish weddings are a form of dowry, criminalizing such weddings will merely shift the mode of payment to something else. The only beneficiaries of this will be the cops, who will now have yet another revenue stream open to them.

And really, what’s the judiciary doing getting involved here?

In other news, the supreme court has ordered “all states and Union Territories to bring in suitable legislation within three months to make registration of marriage compulsory.” Eh?

(IBN link via Smoke Signals.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 January, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


The 2008 Index of Economic Freedom…

... is out now. Find India:

image

I’ve taken the table from Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s comment in the Wall Street Journal, in which she explains:

[T]he evidence is piling up that neither government nor multilateral spending on education and infrastructure are key to development. To move out of poverty, countries instead need fast growth; and to get that they need to unleash the animal spirits of entrepreneurs.

[...]

The nearby table shows the 2008 rankings but doesn’t tell the whole story. The Index also reports that the freest 20% of the world’s economies have twice the per capita income of those in the second quintile and five times that of the least-free 20%. In other words, freedom and prosperity are highly correlated.

It really is no surprise why India is still a poor country, is it?

(O’Grady link via Cafe Hayek.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 January, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India


Classical Liberalism and the Times of India

Gautam Adhikari, in an important piece on the Times of India edit page, lays down the philosophy of the ToI edit pages:

[W]e are a ‘liberal’ newspaper in the classical sense of the term. Our job is to offer you a wide variety of opinions to help you reflect and form your own views. When we want to express opinions as a newspaper, we do so in our editorials.

Thus, we chose to publish [Ashis] Nandy’s and Praful Bidwai’s (January 2) critical views of Modi for much the same reason we carried columns favourable to Modi written by Swapan Dasgupta (December 30) and Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar (January 6). Our own take on the Gujarat elections we elaborated in a long editorial published on December 24.

[...]

Yes, we have a motive. It’s to stick openly and steadfastly to liberalism. Unfortunately, the political landscape in India leaves little room these days for the play of liberalism as we understand it. Our liberalism compels us to be socially tolerant and economically as well as politically ‘free to choose’. That’s why we are neither socialists nor extreme nationalists. And that’s why we support market forces, which are all about choice, while continuing to believe in an effective role for the state as regulator, facilitator and provider of security for life and property so that, with good governance, we can lead peaceful and prosperous lives in an interconnected world.

Strangely, in an age when you might presume it’s improbable in a modern democracy, it’s actually difficult to belong to our bandwidth in the Indian political spectrum. It isn’t only because the extremes of a fiercely Hindu nationalist right and an obtusely Neanderthal left, with the Congress party being a muddle in the middle, leave little space for reasoned debate along classically liberal lines.

I quote at length because I approve wholeheartedly of such a direction. Apart from publishing voices from across the spectrum, I hope Adhikari also ensures that ToI‘s editorials reflect this classical liberal way of looking at the world, and defend freedom in all its senses. Niranjan Rajadhyaksha of Mint had made a similar commitment when that newspaper launched, but ToI, with its massive audience, could have a far greater impact on public discourse.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 January, 2008 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


Foul-Mouthed Dress Insults Indian Culture

PTI reports:

A local Hindu organisation in Chennai has lodged a police complaint against actress Shriya, who starred opposite Rajnikanth in the Tamil blockbuster, Sivaji-The Boss, objecting to the outfit worn by her during the 175th day celebration of the film.

In a complaint, the Hindu Makkal Katchi (HMK) alleged that Shriya’s outfit had ‘offended Hindu culture,’ police said.

The complaint was under investigation, they said. The outfit had been called to the police station for questioning, but had arrogantly refused, hurling a stream of expletives at the police officer who delivered the summons.

Ok, fine, I made that last line up. But not the rest of it. Sigh.

Also see: Indian culture?

(Link via email from Madras Maverick.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


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