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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.

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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

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

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Freedom

Vibrating condoms and Indian culture

Everywhere there is joy and squealing. CNN-IBN reports:

The Madhya Pradesh government has banned the sale of Crezendo condom in the state saying it’s against Indian culture.

Public Works Minister in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh Kailash Vijayvargiya has taken up cudgels against Hindustan Latex Ltd’s condom on behalf of the government.

Vijayvargiya says the condom is a sex toy and will not be allowed to be sold in the state.

I’d argue that the penis is a sex toy and should be banned from Madhya Pradesh as well. And I’m also most curious to know what a public works minister is doing commenting on this matter. What public works?

CNN-IBN’s TV news report on this is also hilarious—I love the back-and-forth between the anchor and the reporter, and I’d take their tone as mock seriousness if they weren’t always like this. The vox pops are immense fun too. These reporters are going to put satirists out of work. Watch:

(Links via separate emails from Anand Krishnamoorthi, Gautam John and Ashutosh Jogalekar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Freedom | India | Media | News | WTF

Why government regulation is counter-productive

“Competition is a better option than controls in ensuring quality,” writes Premchand Palety in an excellent piece in Mint, “Scrap this regulator for business schools”, in which he explains the damage that government regulation has done to the business schools of this country.

It’s a familiar story across sectors, frankly, with MBA education in India being just one illustration of it. Competition in the marketplace always results in better products and services than well-intentioned government regulation. Imagine, for example, what would happen if the government looked at blogs, found that most of them are terrible, and decided to regulate the blogosphere to ensure quality. That’s a scenario Ravikiran Rao examined in his magnificent post, “Most Blogs Are Terrible,” a couple of years ago. Do read, I think it is hard to disagree with his conclusions.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 June, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India

Don’t let it be

[A] big danger of our world today is obsession . . . an even bigger danger is indifference.

—Vaclac Havel, quoted in “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Bret Stephens.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2007 in Freedom | Miscellaneous | Politics


SV Raju writes in Mint about his efforts to revive the Swatantra Party, in response to this piece by Jerry Rao:

[I] tried to register the old Swatantra Party (there was no registration required in the old days) but my application for registration was rejected.

An amendment to the Representation of the People Act made when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister stipulated that the constitution or the rules and regulations of political parties should contain a provision swearing loyalty to democracy, secularism and socialism. The Election Commission sent me a form for registration which I completed and returned, accepting democracy and secularism but rejecting socialism, as the Swatantra Party was opposed to it in principle. The registration was turned down.

A friend and I filed a writ petition in the Bombay high court in December 1996. The writ was admitted. It has still to come up for hearing. This is the hurdle. Under current law, no party that refuses to accept socialism can get registered as a political party. So much for our democracy!

Indeed. And so much for any freedom party.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 June, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

How to disturb communal harmony

Start a group on Orkut.

That, according to Abhijit Panse of the Shiv Sena’s student wing, is enough to pose a threat to “communal harmony” in India.  Panse is upset that everyone doesn’t adore the leaders he worships, and some have even started hate groups against them on Orkut, which he wants to ban. Rediff reports:

It is not only Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and our leader Balasaheb Thackeray but leaders like Indira Gandhi and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar too. Some mischief-mongers have also started a ‘I hate India’ campaign on Orkut and they want to disturb the communal harmony in our country,” says Panse.

“We have time and again raised this issue but nothing is being done about it so we feel the best solution would be to ban Orkut in India,” he adds.

Note that this isn’t even about religion. These holy cows are flesh and blood people, three of them politicians, and while I don’t know enough about Ambedkar to comment on him, the other two have been malevolent forces in Indian politics. (More on Indira: 1, 2.) For Panse, though, any deviation from what he and his troops believe is unacceptable, and will be handled with physical violence.

When pointed out that the Internet is a free medium and there is no way for him to prevent someone sitting in, say, Australia to post anti-India messages, he said, “I know this. Our software engineers are working on this front and we will track down such people. If that person is even sitting in America we will go and thrash that person. We want to catch hold of such culprits who do such things and thrash them.”

Such courage. Meanwhile, the rest of India quivers as the “I hate India” group on Orkut threatens its very existence. And harmony. Heh.

(More posts on Orkut: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

And my essays on free speech and censorship: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2007 in Freedom | India | News | Politics

No one to defend freedom

Jerry Rao writes in Mint:

With the possible exception of Narasimha Rao (and that, too, for a short period), no Indian leader or party seems to have a genuine sympathy for, or commitment to, market-friendly principles in a political sense. At best, they pay obeisance to the market when forced to. By upbringing and temperament it is an interventionist state that they are comfortable with. At the first chance, or under the slightest pressure, they revert to the tired socialist doctrines of envy and distribution of largesse. The BJP preferred not to privatize oil companies when it had the chance. The patronage associated with doling out petrol dealerships was too important to lose. The Congress seems to suffer from nostalgia for the “Hindoo” rate of growth because if no one gets wealthy, there is no one to envy!

That is why we are forced to ask ourselves: should we not have a political party that is a khullam-khulla defender of markets and an opponent of an intrusive state?

Well, that is quite the question I’d asked as well in my first piece for Mint, “Where’s The Freedom Party?” Sure, we should spread those ideas of freedom, but how? I’m not sure writing a blog or a few columns makes any difference at all.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

Edward Heath, pandas and Indian politicians

Best paragraph ever, in a piece by Johann Hari on Edward Heath:

At the time, the rival Labour politician Barbra Castle looked at these achievements and said: “We do not know if Mr Heath is a repressed homosexual or a repressed heterosexual. All we can say is that he is a repressed something.” He seemed so sexually unusual that his biographer John Campbell records a rumour that swept across London during his Premiership. Every Friday night, it was said, a black limo was pull up outside Number Ten and he would be whisked to Regent’s Park. The gates to London Zoo would silently swing open and Heath would be led to the panda den - into which he would descend for a long fuck-session with the Chinese bears.

I think Indian politicians should also be provided pandas. I’d rather have them screwing the pandas than screwing the country. After all, who cares if pandas are over-regulated, over-taxed and don’t have enough individual freedom? Not me. Bring them on.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

Anatomy of a marriage

Bunty Walia tells Mid Day how Suman Ranganathan “betrayed” him. He makes her sound pretty horrible, but he makes himself sound quite horrible as well, with a statement like “I gave her too much too soon — freedom, liberty, love, affection, sincerity and dedication, which probably went to her head.”

So was she his property that freedom and liberty were things that he granted to her? It sure sounds like that’s what he believes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India

Keep the ‘Free’ in ‘Free Speech’

A version of this piece was published today as the 16th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I should be grateful that you are reading this column. I have often written about how free speech is threatened in India, but we are nowhere near as bad as some other countries, such as China or Iran or North Korea. There you’d probably read me one week, and then I’d vanish. Here the press is somewhat freer.

Nevertheless, I think you’d agree that things could be better. In India, films are routinely censored, books are often banned, and artists have been roughed up and put behind bars. Often, the constitution allows this and our laws support it, and there seems to be a common consensus that there should be limits to free speech.

A famous case for such limits was made by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr in 1919 in a US Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States. The defendant, Charles Schenck, had been indicted for distributing leaflets to people likely to be drafted for military service. The leaflets asked the men to “assert opposition to the draft” on the grounds that it went counter to the provisions against “involuntary servitude” in America’s 13th Amendment.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Schenck, and the judgement written by Holmes said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Since then, this hypothetical example, of a man falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, has been brought up by people who argue for the imposition of limits on free speech. Naturally, having cited this example, they often tend to propose their own limits.

Well, my view is this: I don’t think that there is any need for limits to be imposed on the right to free speech that are not already implicit in the way they are defined. Shouting “fire” falsely in a crowded theater would be wrong even without any restrictions placed on free speech simply because the right to free speech is fundamentally a property right, and does not extend to other people’s property. Let me explain.


Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through

Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Barack Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope:

We all agree… that society has a right to constrain individual freedom when it threatens to do harm to others. The First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater; your right to practice your religion does not encompass human sacrifice.

Well, alongside the Harm Principle, there is a more fundamental reason why shouting “fire” in a crowded theater would be wrong: it is because that theater is someone else’s private property. All our rights, including the right to free speech, are nothing but extensions of property rights. As Murray Rothbard writes in “‘Human Rights’ as Property Rights”:

[T]he concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.

In the first place, there are two senses in which property rights are identical with human rights: one, that property can only accrue to humans, so that their rights to property are rights that belong to human beings; and two, that the person’s right to his own body, his personal liberty, is a property right in his own person as well as a “human right.” But more importantly for our discussion, human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good.” As I wrote in another work:

Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.

[...] [C]ouching the analysis in terms of a “right to free speech” instead of property rights leads to confusion and the weakening of the very concept of rights. The most famous example is Justice Holmes’s contention that no one has the right to shout “Fire” falsely in a crowded theater, and therefore that the right to freedom of speech cannot be absolute, but must be weakened and tempered by considerations of “public policy.” And yet, if we analyze the problem in terms of property rights we will see that no weakening of the absoluteness of rights is necessary. [My emphasis.]

Read the full piece, it’s wonderful. I try to get the same point through when people tell me that if I support free speech I should open comments on this blog—such a suggestion conflates private property and the public domain. For more, read my post, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster v Private Property.”

(Rothbard link via email from Sumeet Kulkarni. And do read Obama’s book: Few politicians write as well as he does, and much of what he says is a refreshing change from the usual political rhetoric that flies around, even if I have some minor misgivings about his thoughts on economics.)

Update: In case it needs to be spelt out, the references to shouting “fire” in a theater by Obama and me are obviously in a hypothetical instance in which the theater is not actually on fire. Heh!

Update 2: In Libertarianism: A Primer, David Boaz quotes Rothbard on this subject and then elaborates:

When we understand free speech this way, we see what’s wrong with Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes’s famous statement that free speech rights cannot be absolute because there is no right to falsely shout ‘Fire!” in a crowded theater. Who would be shouting “Fire”? Possibly the owner, or one of his agents, in which case the owner has defrauded his customers: he sold them tickets to a play or a movie and then disrupted the show, not to mention endangered their lives. If not the owner, then one of his customers, who is violating the terms of his contract; his ticket entitles him to enjoy the show, not to disrupt it. The falsely-shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater argument is no reason to limit the right of free speech; it’s an illustration of the way that property rights solve problems and of the need to protect and enforce them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 May, 2007 in Freedom | Politics

Orthodox culture demands a visible belly

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from this news report:

A man told a judge in the Calcutta High Court that he and his family did not want his wife, whom he had driven out of home, to wear a salwar kameez.

The husband, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, drew the attention of Justice Partha Sakha Dutta to the red salwar kameez his wife Rupali was wearing during the court proceeding, a dress worn by millions of Indian women.

“We are an orthodox family. We cannot accept such dresses, she should wear a sari,” the husband told an astonished Justice Dutta.

What I find sad is that the judge “directed Dibyendu to take his wife and child home and asked him not to create problems over such trivial issues.” I presume she was constrained by a lack of economic independence, for why would any sensible woman want to live with a man like that?

Also, how could “millions of Indian women” have worn “the red salwar kameez his wife Rupali was wearing”? Couldn’t they have worn their own salwar kameezes?

(You can read my other posts mentioning salwars here and here. I’m a huge fan. Cows should wear salwars.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | News

Photographs of Iranian censorship

I love it when you can actually see censorship in action. In the 1980s, when I’d come across foreign magazines in India, I’d often notice bits blacked out from the pages. Maps of India showing a controversial Kashmir generally got a stamp stating the map wasn’t accurate, and I distinctly remember an issue of Esquire made doubly delicious by the necessity of imagination. “That’s the job I’d love to have,” I once thought to myself. Sit all day looking for bare skin in magazines and then blank them out with a tender caress of my black marker pen.

Well, it’s much worse in Iran, of course, where even bare shoulders are a problem. Reader Corporate Whore points me to an old post by Jonathan Lundqvist with many examples of Iranian censorship in action. Immense amusement comes, for the black markings focus more attention on the objectionable object than the picture itself would have.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 May, 2007 in Freedom

Dilip Chitre responds to Arun Jaitley

Some of you may have read Arun Jaitley’s deplorable piece in the Indian Express a week ago, in which he invoked the concept of blasphemy to justify the violation of free speech that took place in Baroda. (Blasphemy as a concept happens to be “alien to Hinduism,” as Salil Tripathi pointed out in this excellent piece.) Well, I was having an email conversation with the renowned poet and artist, Dilip Chitre, in the course of which he sent me a response to Jaitley’s piece. With his permission, I publish it below in full:

Crisis in Culture

by Dilip Chitre

The real crisis in contemporary Indian culture—where any dissent can be seen as an act aimed at ‘hurting sentiments’—is that few of us are prepared to celebrate the heterogeneity of our cultural heritage; and by dissent I mean any non-conformist self-expression. 

Politicians have always exploited religion and sectarian faith to create law and order problems. Today, they only need to announce that their followers’ ‘sentiments are hurt’ and we all understand the not-so-veiled threat to take the law into their own hands. The State—representing the political will of the people—is only too glad to clamp down bans, tighten censorship, and muzzle dissent. It only increases the State’s own power over the individual citizen and the minorities.

The latest example is the row between the Shiromani Akal Takht and the Dera Sachha Sauda. But our history provides ample examples of various inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian clashes among ‘Hindus’, Muslims, and others, not to speak of internecine communal conflicts. Religious sentiments are easy to hurt unless we accept heterogeneity in a religion-neutral sense as our common way of life. 

Caste has been constitutionally abolished in India. In practice, however, by drawing water from the same source, a dalit offends supposedly more chaste Hindus. The Hindu’s ‘religious sentiments’ are ‘hurt’ and the provocation is enough for caste Hindus to physically attack dalits, wherever they can be found isolated and vulnerable.

As regards ‘blasphemy’, it is true that British, European, and American law tacitly accords Christianity the title to all religion and the entire sacred domain. Our Constitution—-on paper and perhaps in spirit—-is more secular. But the catch here is the word ‘secular’. In India it is often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’. 

Via politics, religion has wreaked enough havoc in India since independence. Revivalists and atavists have succeeded in taking us back to a mythologized past which should have become increasingly irrelevant to our public life since we embraced our present Constitution. If the executive gives in to populist pressures and violent threats to any minority, and if even the judiciary succumbs to majority public opinion, all minority opinion and individual expression is doomed to go forever underground in this country.

Adult franchise gives each individual a vote. What if despite adult franchise no individual is allowed to voice dissent? For those who don’t believe in God, there can’t be any blasphemy. For those who don’t believe in fundamental rights, there can’t be any democracy. Whether God or democracy is our priority as citizens of this nation cannot be left to God to decide. He is not a registered voter in India.

That last para superbly puts it in perspective, as also the bit about the term ‘secular’ being “often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’.” Indeed, it strikes me that when the Hindutva right condemns the Congress for being pseudo-secular, they seem to be expressing their support for genuine secularism, in the sense in which Mr Chitre articulates it. That, sadly, could not be further from the truth.

(My posts after the Baroda incident: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.” “Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

“A trial balloon”

On the subject of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, the information and broadcasting minister, playing the moral police, an unnamed news channel head is quoted as saying:

I don’t see why we are surprised a Congress government is playing moral police. All parties want to control a powerful medium like television. No political party can afford to ban a news channel. But going after soft targets like AXN and FTV is like floating a trial balloon. It sends a shiver down the spines of all broadcasters.

Well, hardly anyone protested. So will there be more balloons?

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Media | Politics

At what point do you stop being a slave?

I won’t be blogging for the next few hours—it is rumoured that I have a life outside of blogging—so for that time, I leave you with “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick. Magnificent.

(Link via Cafe Hayek.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2007 in Freedom | Politics

Hijab or bust

In an old piece I came across today, Salil Tripathi explains his belief in free speech:

I derived my position not only from Voltaire’s defence of ideas he disagreed with, or Milton in Areopagitica, or John Stuart Mill’s thoughts, but also from my own traditions and thinkers.

The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wanted India to awake in that heaven of freedom ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.’ Mahatma Gandhi had said freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.

Freedom of expression, then, was not only the product of Western Enlightenment; it belonged to all of us. And it included the right to say something outrageous, something offensive and even something stupid. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Pnina Werbner of Keele University says: ‘There’s a difference between a novel of great merit … and ... cartoons that are in many ways trivial, have little artistic merit and are deliberately provocative and gratuitous.’

But who decides artistic merit? What constitutes provocation? In the neat world of academic distinctions, Werbner may be able to separate the two and say, Rushdie yes, cartoons no. But the assassin will target both.

If the priority is to avoid provoking him, we have lost the battle already, for he wants total silence. To take a sartorial analogy, it is like telling women not to wear miniskirts because they’ll inflame passions. There are no half-measures, like checking the appropriate length of the skirt. It is hijab or bust.

Indeed. In discussions with people, I am often tempted to just burst out, “What part of ‘Free Speech’ do you not understand?” I am tired of the ‘but’ people, who will say, “Oh, I believe in free speech but...” and “Hey, I believe in free markets but...”

After such a ‘but’ there is no way back.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2007 in Freedom | India

Socialists - 1. Madisonians - 0

Shruti Rajagopalan, fellow libertarian and gurgling buddy, has an excellent piece in Wall Street Journal Asia today titled “Indian Property Wrongs.” (Subs. link, but the piece is also on her blog here.) It narrates the story of how “the socialists managed to out-shout the Madisonians” when our constitution was being written, which led to property rights not being adequately protected in India. And as a result of that, we have Singur and Nandigram. Fine piece, do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India

Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal

Vir Sanghvi makes an immensely valid point here:

Every liberal I know argued that MF Husain had the right to paint a naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata. Yet, hardly any liberal of my acquaintance extended the same principle to the Danish cartoons. The liberal position was that Hindus should be tolerant of the manner in which their gods and goddesses were portrayed but that Muslims were right to complain about any visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed.

By ‘liberal’, of course, he is referring to the Leftists who have appropriated that term (both in India and the US), and are hardly liberal in the classical sense. So while liberalism is all about individual freedoms, many Indian ‘liberals’ are actually against economic freedom, and their support for social freedoms depends on convenience. As Sanghvi points out, many of them have double standards, speaking out for free speech on issues where the BJP is involved, but being silent when people of other religions act in an equally repugnant manner. As I wrote here, such ad-hoc support does nothing for the cause.

(Readers of this blog would know that I invite abuse from intolerant people everywhere by speaking up against violations of free speech regardless of the religion of the violators: one of the most-read posts on this blog is the one speaking up for the Danish cartoonists, and I’ve expressed myself on the subject adequately in “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”.)

What gets my youthful goat, however, is when Hindutva supporters use the hypocrisy of some of the protesters against the Baroda incidents to distract from the larger issue of oppression and free speech. Focussing on people instead of issues is a typical diversionary tactic, and I think they would be much better off simply stating, “We do not believe in free speech. We believe our religious sentiments are more important than your individual freedoms. So there.” That would at least be an honest position, and would address the issues involved. But public discourse in India focusses more on personality than on issues, ignoring arguments while attacking the people making them. Pity.

(My posts on the Baroda incidents: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

Mother and Taliban

Here are two lovely excerpts from pieces published today. First, from S Mitra Kalita’s moving letter to her mother:

I realize now that much of your rearing was spent making sure I didn’t have the life you did.

And from Salil Tripathi’s comment on the Baroda affair:

[I]f Muslims can get Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” or the Danish cartoons banned, they [Hindutva supporters] want Mr. Husain’s—and now Mr. Chandramohan’s—freedom restricted.

At last, it seems, Hindus have secured the parity they believe they’ve been denied. They have their own Taliban.

Both make me sad in different ways, and remind me of how futile this whole game is. And so, recursively, we progress.

(My posts on Baroda: 1, 2, 3.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 May, 2007 in Freedom | India

The Hindutva Rashtra

This is the 14th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of a speech given by Shri Adolf Shah at the Baroda University on 17 May 2022.

Dear Friends

I welcome you to Baroda University for this special ceremony. This day marks the eighth anniversary of Shri Neeraj Jain’s appointment as vice-chancellor of this university by our honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. We have seen some glorious days under him, and have grown almost analogously with our Hindu Rashtra, as India has officially been for the last decade. Indeed, these two stories are interlinked, and if you permit me, I shall take you through some of our most glorious moments. The monitor on top of the stage will instruct you when to clap; please do so.

Shri Jain first came to our notice when he protested against some paintings at the now long-defunct fine arts faculty around 15 years ago. Shri Jain said the paintings offended his religious sensibilities, and his valiant thugs manhandled the painter, who was sent to jail. Many people protested, including the dean of the faculty, who, in contrast with protesters of later years, was lucky to get away with just a suspension. It was an important moment for us, for reasons other than just the emergence of Mr Jain.


Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Only live in fear

The placard in the picture below, from the protest in Mumbai about the Chandramohan affair, says it all (click to enlarge):


My summary of the events that led to the protest is in the post, “Fascism in Baroda.” The turnout at the protest was immensely encouraging, and Ranjit Hoskote and gang did a great job of organising it. Senior artists like Tyeb Mehta, Jehangir Sabawala and Jaideep Mehrotra turned up, and I spotted many younger artists among those gathered, such as Riyaz Komu, Payal Khandwala, Apnavi Thaker, Julius Macwan and Dhruvi Acharya. There were also others like Syed Mirza, Anil Dharkar, Pratap Sharma and Keku Gandhi present. A few speeches were made. The people gathered seemed attentive, and committed.

I have two concerns, though.

One, in rightly condemning the gundas, I worry that we might forget about the laws that enable such gundagardi in the first place. The Indian Penal Code has simply too many draconian laws that need to be scrapped, starting with Section 295 (a). These are not archaic laws that rarely gets used: As I outlined in my piece, “Don’t Insult Pasta,” these laws have been invoked with alarming regularity in recent times.

Two, I worry that protests such as these might turn out to be ad-hoc events, and not part of a broad-based movement to defend free speech. For example, as Peter pointed out in a chat when I mentioned this worry, when Blogspot was blocked by the Indian government, many bloggers rose up in arms because they were affected, but have not been heard from since. Similarly, the artist community has rallied superbly behind their man, but will they show the same commitment towards free speech if the moral police attacks someone from another profession tomorrow? For example, how many people protested when the publisher of a joke book was thrown in jail because the “religious sentiments” of some people were offended?

The issues here run deeper than one bunch of goons attacking one painter and his work. I hope the scope of the protest expands beyond that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Politics

Fascism in Baroda

I suppose many of you would be familiar with the recent events in Baroda. An internal evaluation of students is on at the Fine Arts Faculty in Baroda. A BJP leader named Neeraj Jain storms in with a bunch of gundas. He has a problem with some paintings by a student named Chandramohan that use religious imagery. Jain and his gundas beat up Chandramohan, and abuse faculty members and students. Things are getting out of hand when the police arrive. They will surely arrest Jain and put an end to this, you would think.

But no, they arrest the painter, for his art is the crime under the Indian Penal Code, not the hooliganism showed by Jain and his cohorts. Chandramohan is whisked off to jail. Five days later, as I type these words, he is still behind bars.

The artist community obviously rises up, and organises an exhibition documenting erotica in Indian and Western art. It is a peaceful way of showing their protest. The pro-vice-chancellor of the university arrives and demands that the exhibition be terminated. The dean of the faculty, Dr Shivaji Panikkar, takes a stand and refuses to do so. He is suspended. As I type these words, he is in hiding, worried about what the ruffians could do to him.

The matter is being followed at Art Concerns, who have a detailed chronology of events up here. Do also read what Ranjit Hoskote, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Johny ML have to say, as well as this piece by Abhijeet Tamhane. Peter Griffin has more links here, as well as details of a public protest I intend to be part of in Mumbai.

My feelings on this will be known to regular readers of India Uncut, and have been laid out in pieces like “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”, as well as many posts (such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) It is ludicrous that giving offence is a crime in India, and shameful that the Indian Penal Code actually enables this suppression of free speech, and empowers oppression. For Chandramohan the artist to be in jail for five days (so far) and for Neeraj Jain the gunda to walk free is a slap on the face of all those who think that our nation respects and protects individual freedom.

No doubt some readers will be upset that I used the word “Fascism” in the headline to this post. Well, I hesitated before doing so, wondering if such a strong word was advisable. Then I went to the Wikipedia entry on Fascism, and came across this excellent definition by Robert Paxton (from this book):

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

The Wikipedia article then quotes Paxton as summing up the essence of Fascism thus:

1. a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions; 2. belief one’s group is the victim, justifying any action without legal or moral limits; 3. need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts; 4. right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint; 5. fear of foreign `contamination.

All this sounds immensely familiar to me. And so I shall end by quoting the end of Ranjit Hoskote’s fine piece:

It appears that the champions of a resurgent Hindu identity are acutely embarrassed by the presence of the erotic at the centre of Hindu sacred art. As they may well be, for the roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.

What happens next? Will the champions of Hindutva go around the country destroying temple murals, breaking down monuments, and burning manuscripts and folios?

Also, isn’t a Hindu then entitled to say that his religious feelings are offended by Hindutva? Huh?

Update: Chandramohan has got bail, but I am informed that things are still tense in Baroda. The protest there has been called off, but is very much on in Mumbai at least.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

India and the USA

Nitin Pai send me an email forward that puts it well:

In USA you can kiss in public places but cannot shit; in India you can shit in public places but cannot kiss.

No doubt one can argue that shitting is not against our culture. Heh.

(I couldn’t find the source of this forward, but will be glad to attribute if someone can point it out.)

Update: Quizman points me to a piece on Churumuri: “Kissing isn’t part of our culture? Pissing is?

Update 2: Anand Krishnamoorthi writes in:

The piss/kiss thingy was part of Tamil comedian Vivek’s routine from about a year ago. The scene is set in Australia when Vivek kisses this
girl after he steps out of her car and some righteous Tamil brethren question his actions. That’s when he comes up with the line. Do not remember the name of the film…

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2007 in Freedom | India

The Devil’s Compassion

This is the 12th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the transcript of a speech given by the demon Beelzebub at the 90th Annual Convention of Demonic Beings.

Comrades and Monsters,

Welcome. I can barely express my joy at the unspeakable horror of being present among such hideous monsters as yourselves – demonic beings dedicated to the ruin and damnation of humanity. In various ways, under the cunning guise of doing good, we have brought sadness and misery upon humanity. We have perpetuated poverty, hatred and ill-health. I wish today, for the sake of the young apprentice beasts present here, to speak about our primary tool of achieving all this: Compassion.

Humans, you see, are fooled by appearances. Come to them as a wrinkled monster with horns, and they recoil. Pretend to be a loving grandpa, and their defences are down. We senior demons realised long ago that to hurt the humans, we have to pretend to care for them. Even as we have nothing but their marination in mind, we must appear compassionate. Stating the most noble intent, we must unleash the very worst of policies. Even better, we must fool some humans, who themselves wish to appear compassionate, into pushing these very policies.

And how we have succeeded! Everywhere there are politicians sincerely pushing well-intentioned policies that are disastrous for the people they are supposed to help. Of course, some people see through our evil designs and protest, but they are dismissed as cruel and uncaring, for they are questioning compassion itself. The irony!


Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

The committee decides everything!

Karan Thapar is grilling Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi on banning FTV. The following delightful exchange takes place:

Karan Thapar: When does taste become good and bad?

Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi: When the committee feels it’s good, it’s good, when it feels its bad it’s bad.

Haysoos! This is a parody of itself. What comment can writers like me possibly make?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

On inspiring suicide and smashing TVs

Scott Adams writes, “Every time the media makes a big deal about a high profile suicide there’s a 100% chance it inspires additional suicide.”

So what to do, stop reporting suicides, or ban songs and movies that inspire people to kill themselves or commit violent acts? I would argue not. We have to treat people as being responsible for their own actions, and not try to second-guess what will inspire them to do this or that.

Mandira Bedi and Charu Sharma’s pretence at being knowledgeable about cricket makes me want to go and smash every TV in Mumbai. Banning Extraaa Innings is no solution to that. Punishing me if I actually damage someone else’s TV is. As this commenter points out, it’s all about personal responsibility.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | Journalism

Discarded poetry causes terror alert

Actually, the dark skin of the poetry discarder was the problem here. Not the poetry, which would be entirely more understandable, given how most poetry is.

Imagine if one day everyone wakes up to find that their skin colour has changed. All the whites are black, all the blacks are white, all the browns are also white, all the yellows are also white, even chimpanzees and gorillas are white. What fun, no?

(Link via Amitava Kumar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | Politics

Flag and Mandira Bedi

Anthem is napping. The phone rings. (You know the ringtone.) He picks it up. It’s Flag.

Flag: Anthem, Anthem, wake up, guess what happened.

Anthem: Er, give up. What happened?

Flag: I was on her body. Her body, Anthem. Her body!

Anthem: Wait, hang on here, whose body? Someone has a body?

Flag: I was on Mandira Bedi’s body! She wore me on her saree during Extraaa Innings! On her saree!

Anthem: Happiness explodes! Which part of her saree? Were you on the palloo, draped around her, um, ah? And why do you sound so upset?

Flag: Upset? I’ve been insulted! Here, here’s what Cricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary says:

11.40am We are told that there is a row brewing in India where people are angry because Mandira Bedi is sporting a saree that has different flags stitched on it ... and the Indian flag was near her feet and that is supposed to be an insult.

Anthem: That is monstrous. Sadness implodes! Uproar downloads!

Flag: Wait, ah, ooh, there is an update:

12.10pm Meanwhile, Mandira Bedi has changed her saree ...

Anthem: Ah, that’s okay then, for a moment I was worried about India. This would have damaged our country. Our nation might not have recovered from the blow.

Flag: I know. Back to the cricket now. Sigh.

Earlier: The Anthem and the Flag.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2007 in Dialogue | Freedom | India

The Ministry of Blogging

We could have one if some chappies in our government read this and get inspired. Can you imagine what would happen if Arjun Singh ran it?

(Link via email from Scribbler.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 April, 2007 in Blogging | Freedom

Freedom in Pakistan

The most delightful thing about good satire is that a lot of people inevitably don’t get it. Read this piece, and then read the comments. Joy.

It’s especially bracing to discover that humour deficiency isn’t an Indian ailment alone.

(Link via separate emails from Arjun Swarup and Anand Krishnamoorthi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 April, 2007 in Freedom

The Anthem and the Flag

This is the 11th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through. It has its genesis in this post.

It was a hot April afternoon in Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Barista was empty. A waiter lounged by the counter, patriotically indulging in the national pastime (see 94th amendment) of doing nothing much. Then two customers walked in: National Anthem and National Flag.

“Sit,” said Flag to Anthem. “It looks like it’s been a tough month for you.”


Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2007 in Dialogue | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through

Summer vs Iranian Police

There’s a “fashion crackdown in Teheran,” it seems. Needless to say, the cops are going to win.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard rumours that even women in Islamic nations are naked under their clothes. Shocking!

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 April, 2007 in Freedom

Understanding inflation

If you have a few minutes, and the slightest interest in the subject, I urge you to read Sumeet Kulkarni’s excellent post, “Inflation for dummies - by a dummy.” It explains, among other things, why “inflation is a tax which we pay equally, independent of our income,” how Indian’s export successes are subsidized by “you and every Indian citizen – including the poorest,” and why “export-import balance” is a meaningless term.

(Link via email from Gaurav Sabnis.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India

Who enrolled you to be a poet?

While writing my previous post, I went across to Joseph Brodsky’s Wikipedia page, and found this fascinating conversation there, from his 1964 trial in the Soviet Union:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge: Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it ... comes from God.

Hmm. Now, before you ask who enrolled me to be a blogger…

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 April, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom

Where your taxes go: 20

Spending thousands to deny Rs 2:

The Department of Posts is prepared to spend thousands of rupees on expensive litigation in the High Court to prevent a 75-year-old pensioner from getting an additional benefit of Rs 2 as part of his pension.

Sigh. And how ironic that every time this gentleman buys something, he is contributing to the thousands of rupees spent to deny him his Rs 2. Such it goes.

(Link via email from Kunal.

Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19. Also see: 1, 2, 3.

My essays on taxes and government: Your maid funds Unani, A beast called government.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes

Don’t insult pasta

This is the tenth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I have a word of advice for the readers of this column: Do not make fun of pasta. My religious sensibilities will be offended, and I shall compel the government to take action against you.

You see, I belong to a religion called Pastafarianism, and we worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). We follow a religious text called the Loose Canon. If we stay true to its principles, we shall get to Heaven, where there are beer volcanoes and stripper factories. What’s more… wait, why are you snickering? Are you making fun of the FSM? Do you not realise that I am protected by Indian law against being offended?


Posted by Amit Varma on 19 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through

Mughal entitlement

The Telegraph reports:

[S]he has blue blood running in her veins, no mixes anywhere. Her name is Sultana Begum and she is the great granddaughter-in-law of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Neither the Bengal government nor the Centre has — in her own words — bothered to help her or shown any respect to her bloodline.

Well, why should they? I can’t think of a good reason why our tax money should go towards helping someone purely because she is the heir of a former emperor. Her sense of entitlement is baffling. She is welcome to private charity dispensed willingly, but to demand that the hard-earned money I pay as taxes go to her upkeep is outrageous. Such shamelessness.

On the other hand, if I was Bahadur Shah Zafar’s descendant, I’d want the Kohinoor back. “That’s mah stone,” I’d yell. “Give me mah stone, and mah throne while you’re at it. And where’s the harem? I want an harem. Organise!”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 April, 2007 in Freedom | India | News

Where your taxes go: 19

Subsidies for pilgrimages. The Times of India reports:

In its determination to protect Haj subsidies, particularly in view of the ongoing elections in UP, Centre has told Supreme Court that it was ready to offer similar support, at state expense, to pilgrimages organised by other communities.

Positing its offer as being in sync with the “secular ideals” of the Constitution, Centre virtually made a policy announcement by agreeing to provide financial assistance to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and other religious communities.

This is not secularism. To me, secularism has two implications:

1 A complete separation of state and religion.

2. Every person in this country having the right to follow a religion of their choice, as long as they don’t impose it on others.

The right to follow a religion of your choice, of course, is completely different from a right to having your religion sponsored by other people’s money, which is nothing short of theft. Do remember, after all, that “state expense” comes from my pockets and your bank account and suchlike. Money does not fall from the skies, and even if the government actually printed money to afford these subsidies, inflation would result, which is an indirect form of taxation.

If Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh genuinely believe that pilgrimages deserve to be funded, I recommend that they shell out their own money for the purpose. There is no justification for taking away our hard-earned money and spending it on building votebanks for themselves.

(Link via SMS from little n.

Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. Also see: 1, 2, 3.

My essays on taxes and government: Your maid funds Unani, A beast called government.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Miscellaneous | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

“Momma, momma, he called me Donkey”

Like babies we are, seriously. Something offends us, and off we run to mommy demanding that punishment be handed out.

First there was the matter of the anthem and the flag. And now, more news keeps flooding in of babies running to momma. First, a gentleman named Vishnu Khandelwal has filed a case against Arun Nayar and Liz Hurley for having a Hindu wedding. He says that they “hurt the sentiments” of Hindus and intended to “malign the spiritual sanctity of Hinduism and Indian mythology.”

Elsewhere, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee has lashed out at Mandira Bedi for “dancing on the ramp wearing a tattoo of Eik Omkar Sikh’s religious symbol on her back [sic].” The secretary of this formidable organisation has apparently said that “the religious sentiments were severely hurt due to her act.”

My sentiments are routinely hurt by watching Bedi make a mockery of cricket, especially when she makes fun of the Duckworth-Lewis system without having the slightest knowledge of how it works, or an alternative to present. I don’t go running to momma, though, because that’s not what adults do. Anything anyone says holds the possibility of offending someone or the other, and the only way to stop all offence would be to stop free speech altogether. (That’s not an unlikely trend: 1, 2.) Even if Momma is drunk on power—hell, especially if momma is drunk on power—we children really should behave.

Damn, I hope you aren’t offended by this post!

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2007 in Freedom | India

The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

This is the ninth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I caught an episode of the charming show, Koffee with Karan, in which Karan Johar was chatting with Shobha De and Vijay Mallya. I enjoy the rapid-fire round on this show, because it reveals much about the celebrity-culture of our times, as well as about our celebrities. One question Johar asked De and Mallya on the show stood out: “Rahul or Priyanka?”

Now, Johar wasn’t asking De and Mallya which of the two Gandhis was better looking or suchlike. He wanted to know who they preferred as a politician. There was an implicit assumption that one of them is certain to be a future prime minister. This has nothing to do with with their political skills or leanings, of which little is known. It is all about their last name, which is the most powerful brand in the biggest market of India: our democracy.

Rahul understandably wants to exploit this, and build the brand: a few days ago, while campaigning in UP, he spoke of how the Babri Masjid would never have been demolished had the Gandhi family been active in politics. It’s natural for Rahul to invoke the Gandhi brand, given the resonance it carries in this country. But it’s also somewhat ironic. Despite their iconic status among our economically illiterate masses, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been nothing but disastrous for our country.


Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Even an anthem’s got feelings

CNN-IBN reports:

Infosys Chief Mentor and Non-Executive Chairman NR Narayana Murthy landed in a mess on Tuesday after it was revealed that he may have unwittingly insulted the national anthem during a function at the company’s Mysore campus on April 8, where President APJ Abdul Kalam also took part.

It seems the anthem got up and walked off in a huff, and later called its friend, the flag, to whine about being insulted. “I hate being insulted like this,” it said. “You and I should emigrate and then, without us, the nation will have nothing to be proud of. Whaddya say?”

“Quite right,” said the flag. “I’m tired of this pole, in fact. You have no idea what nonsense it gets up to.”

Anyway, here’s a heated Ryze discussion on the subject. I think someone should just implant a chip in the brains of all these uber-patriots that plays the anthem 24/7. They’ll have to sleep standing up then.

(CNN-IBN link via email from reader Siddharth Chhikara. Ryze link via email from MadMan.)

Update: It seems that Sachin Tendulkar has committed “a crime under section 2 of the prevention of insult to national honour act of 1971.” He allegedly “cut a cake in the colours of the national flag during the Indian team’s stay in the West Indies last month.”

Do you think our “national honour”, whatever that is, can be endangered by the cutting of a cake? Pah!

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2007 in Dialogue | Freedom | India

The mullahs and Musharraf

Gautam brings my attention, via email, to a story about how radical clerics from Islamabad’s Red Mosque are demanding that a minister be sacked from Pakistan’s government because she dared to hug a foreign man. As it happens a Pakistani journalist who is a friend of mine sent me an email a couple of days ago about this very mosque, in reaction to my piece on General Musharraf, “General Musharraf’s Incentives”. With his permission, and keeping him anonymous for obvious reasons, I reproduce some of it below:

To add further fuel to the theory that it is entirely in [Musharraf’s] interests to prolong this war against terror, this war against extremism, I wonder if you have been following the curious case of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad?

In short, it is a madrassa illegally occupying government land in the heart of the capital, staffed by thousands of burqa-clad women and run by some hardcore maulvis who are, for all intents and purposes, running a state within a state.

They have Taliban-type aims - they have set up a department of vice and virtue - and recently kidnapped some women claiming they were running a brothel. And then some policemen too. Now they’ve set up a parallel court on their premises, they go around threatening dvd rental stores and take down license plate numbers of female drivers in the capital to harass them for being non-shariah compliant later. All this in the capital. With the President on one side and the PM on the other and all the intelligence agencies nearby.

Basically, the government is not doing anything about it, ostensibly because “they are women and we don’t want to hurt them and we’d rather negotiate with them”. (Balls - that didn’t stop them beating up Asma Jehangir last year when she tried to run a marathon.) The belief is though that it acts as a scary reminder of what the country may lurch towards if the President wasn’t around fighting the forces of extremism and playing saviour.

My friend also pointed me to an article by Masood Hasan in which Hasan describes Pakistan as “a banana republic which has run out of bananas.” Heh.

And also, via email from Quizman, here’s a letter by Hameed Haroon, the publisher of Dawn, about how Musharraf is clamping down on the press. In any case, Musharraf’s shameful behaviour during the Mukhtaran Mai affair should be enough indication of how deeply illiberal he is. He’s masterfully built an image of himself in the West as a moderate moderniser, but that facade is slowly and surely falling apart.

Update (April 12): Nitin Pai writes in to add some nuance:

The mullahs of Lal Masjid are not the same chaps that were long held as bogeys. Leaders of the MMA have not only have had little influence over this business, but they have actually criticised the Lal Masjid brigade for, well, politicising religion. The Lal Masjid brigade has everything to do with Khalid Khawaja-Hamid Gul & Co which are parts of the establishment. Since your post is about Mush using the Mullahs, I thought it is worth pointing this out.

(Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that Mush controls Gul & Co entirely. They may be trying to replace one Mush with another.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 April, 2007 in Freedom | Journalism | Politics

Don’t regulate either ghee or endorsements

This piece first appeared on Rediff.

Indian cricket has many problems, but imagine the following scenario: An investigative committee formed by the BCCI finds out that the reason many Indian players are unfit is pure ghee. On their time off, it seems, many of them eat food cooked in pure ghee, and as a result put on weight and become lethargic. It starts with Virender Sehwag, spreads to Sachin Tendulkar, and soon they all became pure ghee addicts and lost their vigour on the field.

The mandarins at the BCCI come up with an obvious solution: ban pure ghee! Or rather, ban the cricketers from having any food cooked in it, even in the off season. “Our cricketers are losing their focus on cricket because of pure ghee,” they argue. “We can only counter this with strong action.”


Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Sport

Cricket banned as “young boys go astray”

IANS informs us that cricket has been banned in a few villages in Haryana because, in the words of a panchayat head, “[t]his game is making the young boys go astray.”

When will these old fogeys understand that drugs and rock & roll and cricket and sex and so on are all just red herrings. There’s just one thing that makes the youth “go astray.” And that is youth.

That’s both sublime and tragic, but you can’t ban it, can you? Huh?

(Link via email from Lalbadshah.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2007 in Freedom | India | Small thoughts

Crime wave spreads across Mumbai

It seems that couples across the city are holding hands. That too, in public spaces, as if they belong to the public. But worry not: the police is countering this moral, social and epistemological crisis with an iron hand. Aren’t you relieved?

(Link via feedback from reader Annette.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2007 in Freedom | India | News

The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.


Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through

Beware of the West!

Eleven-year-old children are having sex in America. Hai hai! I think we should instantly protect Indian culture by banning all television, all books, all films and all music. And ah, clothes also pick up trends from there. Ok, all clothes as well.

Happy now?

(Link via email from Anand Krishnamoorthi, who was no doubt using the internet. Ban the internet!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 April, 2007 in Freedom

Legalize poppy production in Afghanistan

The Independent informs us:

Tony Blair is considering calls to legalise poppy production in the Taliban’s backyard. The plan could cut medical shortages of opiates worldwide, curb smuggling - and hit the insurgents.

This is immensely smart. George Bush is opposed to it, but it’s probably about time that Blair said to him, “I’m a poodle, here’s my paw, it has a middle finger.”

And do check out General Musharraf’s quote in the piece about buying all the poppy so that it can be destroyed—what a clown.

(Link via email from Gautam John. And on the subject of legalizing drugs, here’s my essay, “Don’t punish victimless crimes.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics

Three percent of GDP

After reading my piece, “Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes,” and the follow-up post to it, my friend Devangshu Datta was kind enough to send me an old article of his on legalising betting. It’s a wonderful piece, and was first published in Business Standard, though they don’t have it online anywhere. With Devangshu’s permission, I’m reproducing some paras below the fold. Note that it was written in January 2001, but though the absolute numbers would have changed, the arguments and the macro percentages probably remain valid:


Posted by Amit Varma on 31 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Sport

The Flying Spaghetti Monster v Private Property

Check out this report:

A student has been suspended from school in America for coming to class dressed as a pirate.

But the disciplinary action has provoked controversy – because the student says that the ban violates his rights, as the pirate costume is part of his religion.

The religion in question, of course, is Pastafarianism. As a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster myself, I feel the child’s pain. In this particular instance, of course, I am with the school—as perhaps that cunning young man intends us all to be.

We all have a right to religion, but the rights that we have do not extend to other people’s private property. For example, I have a right to fart, but if you have set a “No Farting” rule in your house, I don’t have any right to impose my farting on you. I can fart all I want in the public domain and in my own space, but not in your house.

Similarly, the school has a right to ban pirate costumes—or turbans and veils, other such religious objects of controversy—on its property. Anyone who feels offended is welcome to take their business elsewhere. You do have a right to religion, but not a right to impose your religion on spaces that belong to other people.

That goes for free speech as well. Your right to free speech applies to the public domain and to your own property, but it is immensely silly when you invoke free speech to ask a blogger to open comments on his blog, his private property, or not monitor them when they are open. (Manish tells me that Sepia Mutiny gets that argument all the time.) It conflates private property and the public domain, and without the sanctity of the first, all other rights would be meaningless.

Pastafarianism illustrates the absurdity of many religious claims beautifully. The next time you hear of someone insisting on taking a kirpan into a plane or wearing a veil to a school that does not allow it, do remember this pirate boy.

(Link via separate emails from Sharath Rao and Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 March, 2007 in Freedom

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