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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

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:

Read more...

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


Betting and match-fixing

I’d written in my column yesterday, “Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes,” of how legalising betting would reduce match-fixing in cricket. Andy Mukherjee has an excellent column in Bloomberg today, “Woolmer’s Murder Shows India Must Allow Betting,” that expands on that point. Do read.

A couple of readers wrote in to say that they weren’t quite clear about how it would work. I reproduce my answer to one of them below:

If betting was legal, and as a punter you could choose from a) an HDFC subsidiary offering betting facilities, b) a Taj Group company and c) some shady outlet like the ones you can choose from now, you’d obviously choose one of the more legit ones. Being public companies, and part of bigger brands, they would be far less prone to fix matches. That would reduce bookie-led match-fixing.

As for punter-led match-fixing, consider that paper trails would exist of all bets and transactions, and suspicious activity would be far easier to ferret out.

Of course there will still be scams, for we are human, but they will be lesser in number. Consumers would have more choice and, because of greater transparency, more control. The cops would find it easier to catch suspicious activity.

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


The Ministry of Wet Dreams

I fear that one day I will look up in the sky and see a giant zipper shutting itself, as a voice from above booms, “Tsk tsk.” What other way is there to control this thing they call “public morality?” CNN-IBN reports that the Indian government has banned FTV:

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said the programmes telecast by the channel were “against good taste and decency and denigrated women.”

Such shows were likely to adversely affect public morality, the Ministry said.

Needless to say, enforcing ‘morality’ is the responsibility of our government. Boys get wet dreams? Won’t do. Where’s the Ministry of Wet Dreams? Girls show cleavage? Won’t do. Where’s the Ministry of Cleavage Inspection? To paraphrase from Zero Wing, all your mind and body are belong to them.

(Link via separate emails from Gautam John and Sridhar Vanka. Also read: my WSJ Op-Ed, “Fighting Against Censorship.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Freedom | India


Don’t punish victimless crimes

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

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


“Ban jokes on the internet?”

I have often written about how giving offence in India is treated as a crime, but it’s being taken to a ridiculous extreme now. The Times of India reports:

Buoyed by a successful campaign against a publisher of joke books, members of the Sikh community have now approached the Mumbai police to block any form of humour on the net targeting them.

The cyber cell department of the crime branch has received a plea asking it to “ban jokes on the internet” which portray Sardars as objects of ridicule.

The article goes on to tell us that a gentleman named Ranjit Parande has been arrested under Section 295-A of the India Penal Code for publishing The Santa and Banta joke book. I have written before (1, 2) that, like so many much of the antiquated Indian Penal Code, Section 295-A should not exist. Let me reproduce it here in full:

Section 295A. Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.

Note that this is a non-bailable offence, and I suppose I should be glad to be a free man given that I am an equal-opportunity religion basher. Isn’t it ironic how those who show the most hubris about their Gods are most insecure about the damage that mere words can do to those Gods? Tsk tsk.

Or perhaps I should look at this as an opportunity and demand that The Flying Spaghetti Monster be incorporated as an official protected deity by the Indian government. Pastafarianism is no less worthy of protection than any other religion. No?

(Link via breakfast conversation with Manish Vij.

Comments are open, but if you insult the FSM, I shall make sure you pay for your words!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2007 in Freedom | India


An “I, Pencil” moment

Banker Friend writes in:

I have been working this week on a credit limit for a customer of ours who export most of their production to Africa where its used as raw material by local FMCG industries. The application will run into trouble with Credit Acceptance because the customer’s repayment record has not been faultless.

So probe. Why hasn’t his account been faultless? Because he was late on an export bill payment.

Why was he late paying the bill? Because his export customer, a distributor in Ghana, didn’t have the cash to pay the full amount, and delayed paying our customer.

Why didn’t the customer’s customer have the cash? Because his customers, the manufacturers in Ghana had temporarily stopped manufacturing and weren’t buying raw materials any more.

And why is that? Because there have been severe power cuts in Ghana and industries have had to cease production.

Not that I like having to answer even more queries from credit, but I find the fact that a power shortage in Ghana creates extra work for me in India to be weirdly delightful.

It reminds us (me and Banker Friend) of one of our favourite essays, Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.” If you haven’t read it, please do, it is magnificent, and illustrates the power of freedom better than whole books on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom


Is begging free speech?

Yes, says a court in Ireland, striking down a 19th century law against begging.

I don’t understand why Reuters carries the news in its Oddly Enough section. What is odd: begging or free speech?

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2007 in Freedom | Journalism


Haysoos needs protection?

No, says Gautam Adhikari, quite correctly. What good are supposedly divine figures if they need human aid. Huh?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2007 in Freedom


Reading about libertarianism

There’s a feast of good reading on libertarianism available at the moment: the latest issue of Cato Unbound has a lead essay by Brian Doherty mapping the growth of libertarianism through the last few decades and speaking about its prospects. In a reaction essay, “Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World,” Brink Lindsey explains why he feels optimistic despite the fact that:

As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one.

Tyler Cowen’s essay, “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” takes a contrarian view, which is responded to superbly by Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan. Also read Tom G Palmer’s essay, “Libertarianism or Liberty?” in which he explains the perils of confusing “the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism.”

The greatest insight of all, though, comes from a fine essay, “Horror and Freedom,” in which we are informed: “Cthulhu is the State.” Immense trembling ensues.

(Links via separate emails from Confused, Kuttan, Gautam Bastian and Nitin Pai.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics


Free markets and democracy

Imagine you want to buy a cola. But you’re not allowed to just buy the cola you want. Instead, all cola drinkers in the country get to vote for a cola brand of their choice. Whichever brand the majority chooses, that’s the one you’re forced to drink. So if you like Coke and the majority votes for Pepsi, too bad. Coke will have to wait four years.

That’s the difference between democracy and free markets.

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that we all have the MP we want and have separate governments for each of us. That would be absurd, if enjoyable to watch. The point I’m making is this: people who praise democracy for empowering individuals with the power of choice should like free markets even more, for offering that empowerment to a much larger degree. But too often in our country, votaries of democracy rant against free markets. Isn’t that strange?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics | Small thoughts


Orkut and censorship in India

Orkut has been at the heart of many storms in India (1, 2, 3, 4). Well, no doubt facing the threat of being blocked in India, they have agreed to cooperate with the Indian government to catch people who post “objectionable material on the web.” Indian Express reports:

Following a meeting between representatives of the site and the Enforcement Directorate last month, the Mumbai Police and Orkut have entered into an agreement to seal such cooperation in matters of objectionable material on the web.

“Early February, I met three representatives from Orkut.com, including a top official from the US. The other two were from Bangalore. We reached a working agreement whereby Orkut has agreed to provide us details of the ip address from which an objectionable message or blog has been posted on the site and the Internet service provider involved,” said DCP Enforcement, Sanjay Mohite.

The big worry here is what Mr Mohite means by “objectionable message or blog.” As I’d outlined in my WSJ Op-Ed, “Fighting Against Censorship,” free speech is coming under sustained attack in India, and giving offence is too often treated as a crime. I hope the Indian government won’t misuse this to act as a cultural or moral police: India isn’t China, and should have nothing to fear from free speech.

There’s more on this subject on Slashdot and Boing Boing.

(Links via separate emails from Neha Viswanathan and Kunal.)

Update: Brazilian authorities also get special access to censor Orkut. Details on Boing Boing.

Update 2: Google responds. (Scroll down.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2007 in Freedom | India


Singur: Media bias or media ignorance?

ATimes of India report begins:

Protests against Bengal’s industrial revitalisation could receive a new fillip after the suicide of a 62-year-old cultivator, an organiser of the Krishi Jami Raksha Committee (KJRC) in Singur, who lost nearly an acre of land to the Tata Motors project.

This is either dishonest reporting or shoddy journalism, and I shall give the benefit of the doubt to the reporter and assume that it is the latter. The protests at Singur are not against “Bengal’s industrial revitalisation” but against the forceful appropriation of land by the government. As I wrote in an earlier post on eminent domain and Singur, it really does not matter if the farmers got compensation: if they did not want to sell, it is theft.

Now, eminent domain might be justifiable as a last resort for matters of public use, such as building roads, but it is outrageous when it is applied to take land from poor farmers and give it to a rich industrial house. The irony here is that Tata would probably have been willing to negotiate with the farmers for the land directly, but by law, farmers aren’t allowed to sell their agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. Yes, that’s right: even if Tata was willing to talk to the farmers and negotiate with them, and farmers were willing to sell, it would have been an illegal transaction. So Tata had no choice but to go to the government, which, of course, is not into negotiating, and simply took the land by force.

I entirely agree with Shruti Rajagopalan when she writes here that the fundamental right to property, revoked in 1978, should be reinstated in our constitution. An “industrial revitalisation” is only sustainable when property rights are sacrosanct. Otherwise it’s a mockery.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Politics


On rave parties, victimless crimes and shooting the messenger

All the newspapers today are full of the “rave party” that was busted by cops near Pune yesterday. It is a party that I might well have gone to in my youth (I never did drugs, but I did like to rebel), and I feel sorry for the kids who’ve been arrested for activities that harmed no one. It is a pity that so many victimless acts are treated as crimes in our country. If I want to snort a little of whatever it is kids these days snort, what business is it of anyone else? Unlike cigarettes, where bystanders can be hurt by passive smoking, most recreational drugs don’t even harm anyone else.

But then, who cares about individual freedom in this country?

An aside: And do check out the following line in Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2007 in Freedom | India | News


Newspapers and regulation

I spend the whole day at the Kitab festival, hanging out with pals like Jai, Chandrahas and Manish, meeting the litty sorts and bitching about them like bloggy sorts should. I was also part of a session on journalism in India, and found some eminent people expressing the view that journalism needs to be regulated in India. The logic: The Times of India is indulging in monopolistic practices, and, in Delhi, forming a cartel with the Hindustan Times. To ensure competition, there should be government regulation.

I couldn’t think of a worse solution to the problem. (Leave aside the issue of whether there really is a monopoly emerging; Mumbai alone has HT, DNA and IE on the stands, among daily broadsheets.) The industry actually needs fewer controls, not more. If foreign capital was allowed to pour into that sector, and foreign ownership of media was enabled, there would be more competition, and monopolies and cartels would be less likely. Consumers would be empowered with more choices. Competition is the best regulation.

Government regulation, no matter how well-intentioned to begin with, always ends up favouring the entrenched players, and making it harder for newer players to enter. The protectionist lobbying that some of the top media houses in the country have done to keep foreign media out is a good example of this.

In my clumsy, inarticulate way, I did try and make this point, but I’m a better blogger than speaker. Anyway, the high point of the evening was the presence of Bhaskar Das, the executive president of the Times Group, who rightly got assailed about how the Times of India sells editorial space. “We don’t do it on all the pages,” he argued. “Only some of them.”

The best moment came when someone asked Das why the ToI didn’t have the basic decency to indicate which articles were paid for. His reply:

“The clients wouldn’t like that.”

Joy. It reminded me of Devi Lal, in that it was honest, and shamelessly so.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 February, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Media


A celebration of erotica

Gautam John brings my attention, via email, to a place called “Love Land” in South Korea, which is a theme park “crammed with soft porn memorabilia.” Check out the pictures. Do you think such a place would ever be allowed to come up in India?

No, na?

But once, they allowed Khajuraho...

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


Reading Rushdie in Iran

I would never have imagined that reading a book could harm anyone, but consider this family’s story:

The family’s complicated journey began after the couple fled Iran and arrived in Toronto in January 1995. They lived here for 10 years while seeking asylum, giving birth to a son. But on Dec. 6, 2005, with all legal avenues exhausted, the parents were deported back to Iran.

The boy’s father claimed he had been originally persecuted in Iran after he was discovered with novelist Salman Rushdie’s book. Once they were sent back there from Canada, they were detained and tortured for three months while the boy lived with relatives. Once released from custody, they again fled, reaching Turkey with the help of relatives. They bought fake passports and eventually travelled to Guyana, the parents said.

On Feb. 4 they boarded a direct flight from Guyana to Toronto aboard Zoom Airlines, planning to seek refuge again in Canada. The boy’s father said the plane was diverted to Puerto Rico after a passenger suffered a mid-flight heart attack.

There, they were detained for having the fake passports they’d earlier used to escape persecution, and sent to a detention centre in Texas. There they remain as I type these words, still trying to get away from the consequences of reading a book by Salman Rushdie. I hope they make it to Canada and get asylum, but they’re just one family, and at least they got so far. What about the millions of people still in Iran, unable to find escape even in a book?

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2007 in Freedom


Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Empowerment, not slavery

A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.

Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


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