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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.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


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

Against All Odds

In an interview by Tasha Robinson, Danny Boyle is asked if it was difficult to get permissions while filming Slumdog Millionaire in India. Boyle replies:

There’s lots of things that can be solved with cash. [Snickers.] And there’s occasional things that can’t be solved with cash, which become a bureaucratic nightmare for some reason, and there’s no distinction between the two. There’s no way of reading a situation and saying, “Yes, that’ll be a bureaucratic nightmare, but that one we’ll be able to buy off.” It just depends on the day, apparently. The most extraordinary thing, you’d be given permission for, and then the weirdest, simplest things, you just wouldn’t be able to obtain permissions. And it would go on and on and on forever and ever, and there was no way to know. You have to kind of approach it with an open, quite optimistic mind, no matter what’s thrown at you, because it will only ever result in damaging the film if you let any kind of despondency get to you. You have to remain optimistic, and that’s clearly how people live their lives there. Against all the odds, they retain kind of a spirit which allows them to get through against insufferable odds. The poverty, the traffic, the lack of infrastructure, the flooding during the monsoons—there’s just so many things that are coming at you at the whole time that your spirit has to remain, and that’s certainly true.

“The poverty, the traffic, the lack of infrastructure, the flooding during the monsoons”—and the bureaucracy: Are the first four made worse by the fifth, you think? If we’re reconciled to that, are we not then automatically reconciled to the rest?

(Link via email from Arun Simha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Small thoughts


Adultery And The Indian Penal Code

A couple of years ago, I’d blogged about the law that makes adultery a criminal offense in the Indian Penal Code:

497. Adultery

Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor.

I had two issues with this. One, I found the wording of the law to be extremely offensive—by invoking “the consent or connivance” of the husband, it implies that women are merely property of their spouses, not humans with autonomy and volition. Given that the IPC was framed by the British in Victorian times, it’s hardly surprising that the law is worded thus. By why does it still apply to us?

My second objection was that adultery should not be a criminal matter. Marriage is basically a contract between two people, and if that contract is breached, it should be a civil case, not a criminal one. (It’s a separate problem that two individuals cannot frame the terms of their own contract, and have to go by a standard template enforced on them, but leave that for now.) For cops to come and arrest one of the parties involved is ridiculous—especially when, according to the law above, it’s the outside dude, who is not even breaching anyone’s trust.

But that said, barring violence and suchlike, which is a separate criminal case, the police should not be involved at all. Well, guess what: our enlightened government is planning reform—but instead of scrapping the law, they are expanding its scope. The Times of India reports:

A woman who cheats on her husband may land in the dock if the Union home ministry has its way.

Despite vehement protests from the National Commission for Women (NCW) two years ago, the Centre is quietly going about seeking a response from each of the 30-odd state governments to the Mallimath committee’s recommendation that adulterous wives be penalised.

Double WTFness. First, WTFness at the law itself; and then, WTFness at our government planning to extend it to women instead of scrapping it entirely. The 21st century, did you say?

Previous posts on stupid IPC laws:

Don’t Insult Pasta (on 295-a)
The Matunga Racket (on 377)

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


Buffalo Rehabilitation Authority?

The Times of India reports:

Can buffaloes be included under a slum rehabilitation scheme and packed off in 225 square feet apartments? That’s the question raised by a petition before the Bombay high court challenging a proposed scheme by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority on a large plot of land in Malad (East).

Read the full report—this is not a story about buffaloes, but about property rights. And government—right at the end of the piece, we are informed that “the petitioners had not furnished licences from the cattle controller.”

Arbit question of the day: Can one bribe a cattle controller with milk?

(Link via email from JSV. Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 November, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


The Amartya Sen Fallacy All Over Again

Long, long ago, my good friend Aftab wrote about the Amartya Sen Fallacy, which he illustrated with the following chain of reasoning:

1. We need government-run schools because private schools aren’t up to the task
2. But government schools aren’t doing a great job either, the reason is that competition from the private tuitions are taking resources away from them.
3. Hence we should ban private tuitions.

So what reminds me of the Amartya Sen Fallacy today? This post by Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch:

In August I wrote about a carpooling startup called PickupPal. The idea is that people can gather on the site to find others traveling to the same places, and carpool there to save gas.

Great idea, right? Wrong. The bus companies freaked and sued under an Ontario law that limits carpoolers to traveling only from home to work and back, riding with the same driver every day and paying only by the week, among other restrictions. [...]

Anyway, the court case was decided and PickupPal lost.

For Indians, especially, this kind of thinking will surely seem familiar. I asked some friends on an email group for examples. Mohit Satyanand wrote, “The most egregious parallel is in education, where anyone seeking to set up a school has to obtain an ‘Essentiality Certificate’ from the local Education officials which is issued after they ascertain that the proposed venture will not have any impact on the schools already operating in the vicinity.” (More on this from me.)

And Devangshu Datta said: “FM channels and foreign-owned magazines cannot disseminate news. Technically the FM guys are in violation when they warn you that there’s a traffic jam.”

And then there’s our Department of Posts:

Most people prefer to have a courier collect mail for delivery instead of standing in line at the local post office. Hence it is not surprising that India’s Department of Posts has been feeling threatened by the courier industry, which is now worth US$800 million in India.

The result of the department’s insecurity is a proposal to amend the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 to ban private courier companies from carrying packages that weigh less than 500 grams and to make carriage of this category of parcels the exclusive domain of the Indian Post Office. The proposed amendment also seeks to raise the registration fees for courier companies to about US$2,272, with renewal fees of about US$1,136 a year.

Sigh.

(Tech Crunch link via email from Visu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2008 in Freedom | India | WTF


Noah’s Ark 2008 (And Rama’s Bridge)

Gaurav points me to this modern retelling of Noah’s Ark, which serves as a nice little parable about government regulation.

And can you imagine Rama’s men building a bridge to Lanka in modern India? I can see Rama at the local government office asking for a license to build the bridge. “Why do you need to build this bridge?” he is asked. Rama tells them that his wife’s been kidnapped. “File an FIR first at the local police station.”

So Rama lands up at the local police station to file an FIR. “Hmm,” says the inspector in charge. “First I need birth certificate, as proof that you exist. Then marriage certificate. Then ration card. Then pan number. Then chai-paani.”

Rama, with Laxmana’s help, provides the documents and a cup of hot tea. “This is not what I mean by chai-paani,” says the inspector, “but never mind. See, I can’t file your FIR because the kidnapping did not take place in my jurisdiction. You need to file it in the local police station there.”

Elsewhere Hanuman, caught trying to leap over the sea into Lanka, has been detained at customs because his passport is not in order. It’s all a mess.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 November, 2008 in Freedom | India


A Ban For Mr Ramadoss

Rohan D’Sa of Daily Humor sends a correspondent to interview Anbumani Ramadoss. Here’s what happens next:

(Comic reproduced with permission. If you enjoy such comics, also check out Fly, You Fools. Excellent stuff.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 November, 2008 in Freedom | India


Defaming Maharashtra?

PTI reports:

Accusing Hindi news channels of orchestrating an anti-Maharashtra campaign on the small screen, the Shiv Sena on Tuesday warned them of a “fitting response” to protect the image of the state.

Referring to NCP president Sharad Pawar’s reported refusal to speak to the media for distorted coverage, the Sena mouthpiece—Saamna—said, “Pawar has given a verbal lashing to these elements but this may not suffice while dealing with those bent on defaming Maharashtra.”

[...]

“Maharashtrians are being projected as an uncivilised and violent community on the basis of isolated incidents happened recently,” it said.

If anyone is distorting the news, it’s Saamna—nowhere in the media have Maharashtrians been projected as “an uncivilised and violent community”. Maharashtrians are thought of, to the extent that stereotypes hold, as peace-loving and hard-working people, and there is nothing in the media recently to counter that.

On the other hand, the media has faithfully reported what the Shiv Sena and the MNS has been up to recently, and those reports might well give the impression that those two parties are “uncivilised and violent”. That seems pretty accurate to me, and it has nothing to do with Maharashtrians, for these parties represent no more than a lunatic fringe.

Saamna’s editorial also says:

If this tirade against Maharashtra continues, we shall be forced to take concrete measures in the interest of the state. And when we do it, your so called freedom of expression could be a casualty.

Hmmm.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 November, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Objects In The Rear View Mirror

image

The Local reports:

Officials with Sweden’s Road Administration (Vägverket) have denied a driver’s request for a licence place with what at first glance appears to be a completely innocent combination of characters.

Recently, the agency received a request from an individual who wanted a licence plate reading X32IARO.

Despite no obviously offensive reference in the desired combination, Vägverket nonetheless rejected the application.

[...]

When read in reverse, as it would be seen through a rear-view mirror, X32IARO suddenly appears as ORALSEX.

Apparently, Vägverket’s ‘guiding principle’ is that “a licence plate shouldn’t be offensive”—but oral sex is surely offensive only to those who don’t get any, by which logic they could also ban all BMWs.

Bonus link: Check out this XKCD guide to numerical sex positions.

(Links via email from Salil and Sumant respectively.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 October, 2008 in Freedom | News | WTF


My Congratulations…

... to Barton Hinkle, the winner of the 2008 Bastiat Prize. And also to Swaminathan Aiyar and Fraser Nelson, who came second and third respectively. Their shortlisted articles are here (pdf link). I particularly loved the first of Barton’s pieces—it’s satire that Bastiat would have been proud of.

Barton was also shortlisted last year, and his pieces then were also exceptional—you can read them here (pdf link).

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2008 in Freedom | Journalism | Media | Personal


Sex Ok. Condom Not Ok

Our censor board is ridiculous. DNA reports:

At a time when ads on TV are advocating the use a condom, the Indian Censor Board has chopped off a scene from Atul Agnihotri’s upcoming film Hello where Gul Panag asks her co-actor (Sharman Joshi) whether he is carrying a condom before they have casual sex.

[...]

Gul says, “The scene has me and Sharman making out. Like any educated woman I ask Sharman whether he is carrying a condom before we get into the act. Though the lovemaking scene will be retained, the ‘condom’ dialogue has been chopped off.

So sex is ok, but safe sex is not. Go figure.

And really, the very thought of a censor board makes steam come out of my ears. Why should a committee of people have the right to tell a filmmaker what he may or may not show in his film? What gives them the wisdom to decide what is appropriate viewing for me and my fellow countrymen? Pah.

Thank FSM our government doesn’t take blogs as seriously.

Also read:

Mommy-Daddy, Go Away
The Ministry of Wet Dreams
Fighting Against Censorship

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 October, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


Not Allowed This Navratri

1] Free distribution of condoms.

2] Backless cholis and low-waist ghagras.

3] Blogging.

Ok, fine, I made that third one up. I can’t (yet) cite the moral police as an excuse for my recent blogging slowdown—I’ve just had a bout of blogging fatigue, which, after close to four years and more than 6000 posts, I’m allowed. Immense listlessness has come. Massive pointlessness is felt. And so on.

Anyway, I’m resuming now. Let’s see how it goes.

(Links via emails from Mahendra and Mani respectively.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 October, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal


The Moral Police Strikes Again

One more rave party busted. Immense déjà vu comes.

On victimless crimes: 1, 2.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 September, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Mere Desh Ki Dharti

Salil Tripathi, in an email conversation about Mahendra Kapoor (quoted with permission), writes:

[H]e took chamchagiri to new depths during the Emergency. He was invited to perform at a function in Delhi, and he sang “Mere Desh Ki Dharti” from Upkar. And he did the Indian version of airbrushing history. Remember, there’s that stanza -

Rang Hara Hari Singh Nalwe Se
Rang Lal Hai Lal Bahadur Se
Rang Bana Basanti Bhagat Singh
Rang Aman Ka Veer Jawahar Se

Kapoor, taking sycophancy to new lows, sang:

Rang Hara Hari Singh Nalwe Se
Rang Lal Hai Indira Gandhi Se
Rang Bana Basanti Bhagat Singh
Rang Aman Ka Veer Jawahar Se

Salil quotes from memory, of course, and the excerpt above is an aside—Kapoor was a great singer, and his death is undoubtedly a tragedy for his family, friends and fans.

It can’t be denied, actually, that the dharti of our desh was made lal by Indira Gandhi, in more ways than one.

Salil also writes:

Kishore Kumar, too, was invited to perform at this program, in aid of family planning. Kishore refused. Result: All India Radio and Doordarshan were asked to ban Kishore Kumar’s songs.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Politics


Classical Liberals In India

Abheek Bhattacharya has an excellent piece today in The Wall Street Journal on the growth of classical liberalism in India. Your favourite blogger is quoted in it.

Also read:

Where’s the Freedom Party?
A Liberal Complaint

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics


Society Decides

The WTF lines of the day come from an affidavit filed by the Home Ministry:

Indian society strongly disapproves of homosexuality and disapproval is strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offence even where consenting adults indulge in it in private.

So individual rights be damned: We must all live according to the preferences of ‘Indian society’, as determined by the men who run our country. Sometimes I wish I was an ant.

Also read:

The Matunga Racket.
Mommy-Daddy, go away!

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Accused = Guilty…

... according to Raj Thackeray’s calculus of justice.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, other Rajs are getting arrested. Quite surreal.

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


The Idol Worship Of Mahatma Gandhi

Do check out Salil Tripathi’s superb piece in Mint, Admiring A Flawed Gandhi.

Salil reads the right blogs, that’s for sure.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2008 in Freedom


Mahatma Gandhi At A Barbeque

Does this advertisement offend you?

I like the ad, and the campaign that it is part of. (Check out the Jyllands-Posten ads with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.) But I suspect that if the Gandhi ad was seen in India, there would certainly be so-called Gandhians getting upset by such a portrayal and demanding an apology from Jyllands-Posten—thereby missing the point entirely.

(Link via email from Ambuj Saxena.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 September, 2008 in Freedom | Media


Dear Amitabh Bachchan

Dear Amitabh Bachchan

In the context of the recent attacks by Raj Thackeray on you, DNA has reported that you and your family are “willing to face any punishment if found guilty.”

Guilty for what? For hurting Marathi pride? However tasteless you or Raj may find it, do you see it as a crime that deserves ‘punishment’?

That is what your statement implies, and it does a disservice to your fellow citizens and to the cause of free speech.

Also, it actually furthers Raj Thackeray’s agenda. I hope you sleep well at night now.

Regards

Amit Varma

*

More open letters here.

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


Two Indian Libertarian Blogs

“I have a complaint about India Uncut,” a reader writes in. “Once upon a time, your blog was a goldmine of libertarian thinking, especially when you were writing your column for Mint [Thinking it Through]. Now you rarely blog about libertarian matters. I still enjoy your posts, and am addicted to your blog, but I wish there it had more political and economic commentary.”

Ok, I plead guilty. There are three reasons for why there is less libertarian stuff on my blog these days:

1] I have given up writing columns and Op-Eds, and am trying to be a full-time novelist instead. So those impassioned (sometimes too impassioned) essays about freedom and suchlike are a thing of the past—at least for a while.

2] While reacting to the news around me, I often find I am repeating myself. How often can I rant about the nature of government or free speech or the wastage of the taxes we pay?

3] I am blogging less frequently than I used to: once I did five or six posts a day; now I write about half that much.

So if you agree with the reader above, I apologise. But you should not worry, for there are two relatively new Indian libertarian blogs out there which are just terrific. Indeed, I wish I could write as powerfully, and with as much insight, as these two guys.

First, there is the old gun, Sauvik Chakraverti, a former winner of the Bastiat Prize. Sauvik blogs at Antidote, and pays no heed to political correctness or the fashion of the day. He is always thought-provoking, and I enjoy reading his blog immensely.

And then, there is the new kid in town, Vipin Veetil. Vipin blogs at Catallactics, and his trenchant economic commentary is a joy to read.

Go check out these two blogs. I’m a fan.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 September, 2008 in Freedom | Personal


“Listen, And Ask Questions”

Salil Tripathi writes:

A week ago, slogan-shouting students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), opposing American “imperialist” policies, succeeded in preventing the US assistant secretary of state, Richard Boucher, from speaking at the campus about Indo-American relations.

In the grand narrative of the Indian Left, this might go down as a major victory, even if it was entirely pyrrhic. Their symbolic act will not make an iota of difference to US foreign policy. Instead of taking on the US diplomat intellectually, the Leftists behaved like Mao’s finest cadres during the so-called Cultural Revolution. [...]

Contrast the Leftists’ juvenile performance with the way an American university dealt with a speaker it had no sympathy for. In September last year, Columbia University invited Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at its World Leaders Forum. Ahmadinejad not only denies the Holocaust, his regime has been intolerant of gays, dissidents, and has restricted women’s rights. Columbia faced pressure from local and national political leaders, including a few Jewish groups, not to invite Ahmadinejad.

Instead, Columbia went ahead, and its feisty president, Lee C. Bollinger, gave a startling address, where he stressed that universities should be committed to the pursuit of truth. They do not have the power to make war or peace. But they can listen, and ask questions.

Read the full piece. Lest Lefties think that Salil has a special fondness for them, let me assure you that he brings up the Hindutva Right later in the piece—their behaviour during the Baroda controversy was no better.

And really, what is it that so much of the politics in our country, even in the non-political space, consists of demeaning the other side instead of trying to have an honest argument? My friend Peter Griffin once told me something that I wish was a commonplace sentiment (I quote from memory): “Speak as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.”

Conviction is not scarce in India, or in the blogosphere; humility certainly is.

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


“Please Understand. It’s Ganesh Chaturthi”

I can hear the drums outside as I read this post. Welcome to India.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Indian Customs…

... and traditions.

I feel immense schadenfreude whenever government officials are caught on the wrong side of the law, but I must point out that none of these men, or the women with them, should have been arrested. There was no coercion involved, no one’s rights seem to have been infringed, and the state had no business interfering.

The WTF line of the report is the one where the cops says that “no prior permission was taken for the party.” Prior permission for a party?

Also read: Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2008 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Do You Think Kashmir Is An Integral Part Of India?

If so, indulge me and try the following exercise:

1] Frame an argument, or even your position on the subject, that states why Kashmir should remain part of India.

2] Then replace the word ‘India’ with ‘the British empire’, and ‘Kashmir’ with ‘India’.

I suspect that your sentiments will then appear rather similar to those expressed by Winston Churchill when he opposed India’s independence. The principle that our freedom fighters fought for then was that Indians alone should be in charge of India’s fate, and not the British; it could similarly be argued today that Kashmiris alone should be in charge of Kashmir’s fate, and not other Indians. Anything else is imperialism.

I write this post because of heated discussions on a couple of email groups about two articles that appeared this weekend:

1. Independence Day for Kashmir by Swaminathan Aiyar.

2. Think the Unthinkable by Vir Sanghvi.

“As a liberal, i dislike ruling people against their will,” writes Aiyar, and suggests a plebiscite in which “Kashmiris decide the outcome, not the politicians and armies of India and Pakistan.”

Sanghvi writes: “If you believe in democracy, then giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination is the correct thing to do.”

I agree with both of them—and my concern extends to the North-East, where we treat the people as badly as the British once treated us, if not worse. Of course, given the imperatives of Indian and Pakistani politics, a plebiscite is impossible, and no solution to Kashmir exists. The wound will fester on. Nationalists need not worry.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 August, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics | Small thoughts


Independence Day

Well, Happy Independence Day, and all that. A couple of publications asked me to write pieces for their Independence Day issues, but I chose not to because I had nothing to say beyond what I already did in my piece last year, The Republic of Apathy. That should tell you why August 15 leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Independence, yes; freedom, um…

I have much to blog about, but have been travelling for the last three days, and am in Chennai today after going from Chandigarh to Delhi to Mumbai. Regular blogging will resume once I’m back in Mumbai this weekend.

Until then, a question for Cthulhu fans to ponder: If unspeakable horror leads to shrieking insanity, what does unshriekable horror lead to?

While you ponder this deep theological ctheolhogical question, ta da.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal


The Matunga Racket Has Been Busted

Remember the Matunga Racket? More than a year after I wrote that story, it’s been busted.

I’m delighted, of course, but the central problem here is the system, not an individual or two. They arrested one cop—but the incentives, the accountability, the perverse laws, they all remain the same. Illustrations of this from my earlier posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

(Link via email from Doc.)

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


A Treatise On ‘French Values’...

... should perhaps begin with the principle that you shouldn’t have the right to live your life as you deem fit?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 July, 2008 in Freedom | WTF


Kharcha Paani

Reacting to my post, “Paperwork (aka The Corruption Rant)”, Jitendra Mohan writes in:

I am reminded of a similar incident.

It was 27th of June, 2002 (yeah, such was the shock that I still remember the date). Despite having all the required documents, I had to literally run from pillar to post to get my emergency passport to be able to take GRE the next day. No one was even ready to listen to me even though there wasn’t any paper-work missing. I was a poor student then..and pleaded helplessly. No one even glanced at me. Finally, after 8 hours of running around when I lost my temper at the Chief Passport Officer (CPO) she asked her assistant, yadavji, to ‘help’ me. And this guy calls me in his private chamber and shamelessly says “thoda sa kharcha paani kijiyega tab na hoga”.. and I was like “i have all the documents and i am just a student. mere paas paisa nahi hai utna”. He goes: “sabji mandi samajh rakhe hain kya?”

I had never felt more helpless in life before. My misery was exploited to the fullest and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even complain against the harassment as everyone from top to bottom was corrupt. Atrocious.

This is not a problem with the people in power—it is problem with power. Give people power over others, and they are likely to exploit it. Give government servants discretion, and they will use it for their self-interest. That’s human. The solution is to a) make sure that there is a limit to the amount of power any individual has and b) there are safeguards against the misuse of power.

Too often, we forget that our government should serve us, not rule us.

This doesn’t just apply to government, of course. My passport expires next month, and to renew it I need a document from my housing society stating that I live there. The old fogies who man the society office, retired people who otherwise probably get no bhav, are giving me a tough time, demanding all kinds of paperwork that has no relevance to my residence here. I have no choice but to comply. The cost of fighting the system is greater than the cost of just giving in. So it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 July, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal


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


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