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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

The Freedom To Trade…

... is one of the most important freedoms there is. It is at the heart of human progress, for the only way we can improve the quality of our lives is by trading with others to mutual benefit. This is true at the individual level—and it is true when it comes to trade between nations. This is so apparent that it shouldn’t even need to be said—and yet, it is forever under threat.

Check out the wonderful video below about the perils of protectionism—it looks to the Great Depression, and shows how the Smoot-Hawley tariff, by severely constricting free trade, harmed economies across the world. It is relevant to America today, where protectionism is in danger of making a resurgence—and it’s relevant to India as well.

If you agree with the video, do sign the Freedom To Trade petition. And here’s the Facebook group.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 May, 2009 in Economics | Freedom


Jhappi + Pappi

The Hindu reports:

Actor and Samajwadi Party leader Sanjay Dutt was on Saturday booked on an obscenity charge for allegedly saying that given a chance he would give jaadu ki jhappi (magical hug), made famous by his Munnabhai flicks, to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati.

“A case has been registered against Sanjay Dutt for making derogatory and undignified remarks against BSP supremo Mayawati during an election rally on the K.P. Hindu College ground in Pratapgarh on April 16,” a senior police officer told PTI.

Mr. Dutt allegedly said he “will give jaadu ki jhappi and pappi (magical hug and kiss) to the people of Pratapgarh and given a chance I will do the same with the Chief Minister and BSP supremo Mayawati.”

I find obscenity laws immensely silly, and it’s quite WTF that when politicians are going around spewing venom at the each other, this dude is getting booked for jokingly offering jhappi and pappi. Yes, Dutt has the brain of an infant, but unless he actually forces himself on Behenji and gives her a jhappi-cum-pappi, the law shouldn’t come into play. Are we such an immature nation that we can’t even talk of these things?

*

Anyway, imagine this: Mayawati hears of Sanjay’s comments, and expresses disgust. She finishes her work for the day and goes to bed. And then, lying alone in the darkness, turning with a heavy heart on a soft bed, thinking of all the sacrifices she has made for her people, she sighs softly. She remembers: Jhappi! Pappi!

Just then the doorbell rings. She waits, and the seconds seem like hours. Then the intercom buzzes.

Madam, her minion says on the other side of the line, A politician from the Samajwadi Party is here to see you. He’s a filmi kind of guy.

She pauses. Ask him to wait five minutes, I’ll just get ready.

She gets up, switches on the light, and in record time combs her hair, washes her face and brushes her teeth. She puts on her best silk salwar suit. And she applies a dab, just a dab, a subtle pappilicious dab of lipstick. Then she picks up the intercom and says, Send him in.

A few seconds go by.

And then Amar Singh walks in.

(Link via email from Archana.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Mai-Baap Circular

Rediff reports:

Sports Minister M S Gill on Thursday flayed the ‘casualness’ of India’s cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh for skipping the Padma Shri function and said the Ministry would soon issue a circular to ensure sportspersons treat national awards with utmost respect.

Dhoni and his India teammate Harbhajan were conspicuous by their absence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan [Images] ceremony, where they were expected to receive the Padma Shri from President Pratibha Patil.

[...] The Sports Minister… said he would not brook such casualness by anyone. [...] And to ensure it does not happen again, the Ministry would issue a new circular soon, he said.

I don’t get this crap about issuing a circular to “ensure it does not happen again”. Gill makes it sound as if Dhoni and Harbhajan thrive under the patronage of the government, and are therefore beholden to it. That is not true. On the contrary, the taxes that Dhoni and Harbhajan and you and I pay are responsible for keeping Gill’s AC running and the fuel tank of his official car full. He talks as if he is our master, but really, a minister is no more than the servant of the people. Our government is notionally there to serve us, but behaves as if it rules us.

In my view, Dhoni and Harbhajan bring honour to the country, and the Padma Shri, like other government awards decided by an essentially political process, do not bring any additional honour to these fine sportsmen. Their fidelity is to their sport, not to the politicians running the government, and that is how it should be. Sure, Gill is entitled to hold the opinion that it was tasteless on the part of these two to not receive the award personally. But a circular? Give me a break.

And do note that these circulars and awards are all paid for by the sacrifices you and I and my maidservant are forced to make. Do you think it’s worth it? I don’t.

PS. In case you’re wondering whether I’m against the government spending taxpayers money on sport, well, I am. The reasons for that are pretty much the ones I’d articulated against government spending on the arts in my piece, Nadiraji Wants Your Money. If you think Padma Shris and sports ministries are a worthy cause, you fund them with your money. Why force me to pay?

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


Offensive Elephants

In the last few days, we’ve learnt that slumdogs are offensive, barbers are offensive—and now we find that elephants are offensive. The Times of India reports:

Hindu Jagran Manch and other Hindu organisations have objected to allotment of “elephant” as an election symbol to any political party and have urged the Election Commission to withdraw it.

[...]

“Hindus revere elephant as Lord Ganesha and its use in election provides scope to political parties to use it for sloganeering and its akin to degrading the god thereby hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus,” [HJM functionary Om Prakash] Misra said.

Being an FSM bhakt, I hereby demand that no party is allowed to use pasta as its symbol. Otherwise my religious sentiments will be hurt, not to mention my culinary sentiments and, because I loved pasta as a child, my sentimental sentiments. No one should use pasta for sloganeering (or even catering). If my demands are ignored, I will collect a mob and we will boil all the rice in Bombay. So there.

(HT: Sandeip.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 March, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Provocative Dressing And Wine

Remember Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? (My posts about them: 1, 2, 3.) They famously inspired the Taliban with their enforcement of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia, and the Hindu now reports from Riyadh:

The chief of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice said on Saturday that his department would not impose any dress code, but was against “provocative dressing” by women.

Addressing presspersons here, he said that provocative dressing by women was responsible for various crimes, including rape and suicides. However, it was difficult to define what provocative dressing was, he said.

[...]

Moral policing was necessary to prevent illegal and unethical activities. This work could not be left to the Government and the police alone.

“It is the duty of every citizen,” he said.

To another question he said he was against both men and women consuming liquor in pubs. “Alcohol and wine have led to corruption. We want a wine-less society,” he said.

Oops, wait a second, I’m growing old—I read that report wrong. It’s not from Riyadh, it’s from Udupi. And it’s not about the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but about Pramod Muthalik and the Sri Ram Sene.

Hmmm.

(HT: Vishwas.)

PS: If you took a plate of salad and put Thousand Island on top of it to form the shape of a crescent, what would Muthalik call it?

Ans. Provocative salad dressing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Naive Or Mad?

You have to be either naive or mad to start a business in India, I believe—and if you are the first of those, you may soon become the second. Check out this piece by Sandeep Kohli on the difficulty of doing business in India: “The License Raj Is Dead. Long Live the License Raj.”

Honestly, Kohli’s piece makes it appear that he had it easy. I have friends who run businesses in India who have been driven to the verge of nervous breakdowns by local authorities out to fleece them. In most places in the world, a business is successful when it fulfills the needs of its customers; in India, you first have to fulfill the needs of a thousand assorted babus—only then do you reach your customers, with your costs already so high that you can’t give your customers anywhere near as good a deal as you otherwise would be able to.

Check out The Corruption Rant for an example of what a businessman in India has to go through. Also consider the fate of the Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai, the opening of which “was delayed by at least two years” because “the hotel needed 165 government permits - including a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” 165 government permits. Licenses for weighing scales. What kind of crazy country are we living in?

Also read: India’s Far From Free Markets.

(HT: Reuben and Mohit, separately, for the Kohli piece; Reuben for the Four Seasons piece.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 February, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | India


It’s Not About The Chaddis

Sagarika Ghose, in her latest column, speaks out against The Pink Chaddi Campaign. “[S]ending pink underwear to perverts is pretty undignified,” she says, and argues that “[w]hile the ghastly cultural hoodlums must be dealt with sternly by the law, the lifestyle norms we choose, especially in public, must be attuned to our surroundings.” She writes:

Young people choosing urban lifestyles that are desi imitations of Sex And The City, is hardly a matter of celebration. Fears about ‘westernisation’ are so deep that with the exception of U.R. Ananthamurthy, few of Karnataka’s galaxy of public intellectuals have come to the defence of the young women drinking at the Amnesia Lounge in Mangalore on January 24.

Ghose misses the point here. What supporters of The Pink Chaddi campaign are defending is not an “urban lifestyle” that is a “desi imitation of Sex And The City,” but the right to choose our own lifestyle—any lifestyle. Ghose speaks with admiration of “the Nehruvians of the 40s and 50s” who “drank, smoked and romanced, yet were discreet”, and she is welcome to live as they did. Indeed, the members of the Sri Ram Sena should also be free to live their lives in a manner of their choosing—as should women who want to go to pubs and hang out with members of the (gasp) opposite sex. The issue here is not lifestyle choice—it’s freedom.

There are too many of us who support freedom only if they approve of what is done with that freedom. So when Ghose says that “the lifestyle norms we choose ... must be attuned to our surroundings,” I wonder at her choice of language. “Must be attuned to our surroundings?” Why?

I think the gesture of sending pink chaddis was a far more effective one than sending bangles or chappals or suchlike. It grabbed attention. And the support it got virally sent an unambiguous message out to both the bigots and the detached bystanders. “We will not let you terrorise us,” that message said. “Here, have a chaddi.”

Meanwhile, in unrelated news, the Sri Ram Sena has called off the protests it had planned in Bangalore in Valentine’s Day.

(HT: Aadisht, who also blogs about a bunch of fine gentlemen who, “[a]rmed with red chillies and pepper, ... have announced that they would be lying in wait across Delhi on February 14 to take on those opposing and obstructing Valentine’s Day.” Heh.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | Politics


Sarees For Chaddis

Pramod Muthalik has chosen to respond to the Pink Chaddi Campaign by buying sarees as a return gift for the chaddi-givers. He also wants to debate Indian culture with them.

I suggest the saree recipients wear those sarees without a blouse or petticoat when they next go to a pub or kiss in public. After all, stitched clothing came to India relatively late—much later than kissing—and must surely be against Indian culture.

On another note, I was planning to send a pink chaddi myself, l’that only. What on earth will I do with the saree I get in return?

(HT: Sumant.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


“Kissing Is A Vedic Habit”

Sunil Sethi reveals:

Behaviour analysts are also divided on where the habit [of kissing] originated. Some believe that kissing, in fact, is a Vedic habit. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist from Texas quoted in the International Herald Tribune, believes that the first recorded kiss, around 1500 BC, is in scriptures which mention people sniffing with their mouths; later Vedic texts describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth”.

Far from being a European import, he says, kissing went west from India, after Alexander’s conquest of Punjab in 326 BC. If such is the case then the Romans and Latins, whose kisses range from the overtly sexual to the deeply spiritual, are truly the kissing cousins of the Aryans.

Just imagine kissing going west. Savita Bhabhi, in an earlier birth, is carrying it with her. She is stopped by US customs. Anything to declare? asks the customs officer. Yes, says Savita Bhabhi. Lean forward.

(HT: Salil. More on Savita Bhabhi: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.)

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


Do You Have A Spare Pink Chaddi?

If so, take part in The Pink Chaddi Campaign, and send it on to the Sri Ram Sena.

You can also join the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women on Facebook. I have—though I will leave the group if we are required to post pictures of ourselves wearing pink chaddies in pubs, which would be a bit problematic for me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2009 in Freedom | India


Pramod Muthalik, Master Satirist

Until recently, I thought that Pramod Muthalik was a right-wing bigot, much like the Thackerays and Togadias of the world. But I have changed my mind. It is now obvious to me that he is really an artist of the highest calibre, exposing the silliness of the right-wing bigotry around him with satire that would do Jaspal Bhatti proud. Consider his recent announcement that his men will “forcibly marry off couples found dating in public” on Valentine’s day.

Our activists will go around with a priest, a turmeric stub and a mangalsutra on February 14. If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.

What outstanding satire! We are lucky to have such a powerful artist in our midst, commenting on the world around him not in an artistic space, but in a political one. What an idea!

PS: Of course, if Muthalik really is serious about this, then think what a boon it is for young lovers whose parents oppose their marriage. All they have to do is be caught by Muthalik’s ‘activists’ on Valentine’s Day, get married, and then go home and tell their parents, “But Daddy-Mummy, we were forced into it by those scary men, it’s not our fault. But now that the deed is done, we must live up to our responsibilities. Aashirwaad please—and hurry up with it, we have a train to catch for our honeymoon.”

PS 2: Married couples can kiss in public, says the Delhi High Court. And lovers engaged to be married can blow kisses. (Ok, not that last bit.)

PS 3: Check out this protest being conducted in Delhi to protest such moral policing.

(Muthalik link via separate emails from Balakrishnan, Unni, Arjun and eyefry. Kissing link via separate emails from Dev and Neelakantan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


Family Matters And Noodle Straps

In the WTF news of the day, The Times of India reports:

In a brazen act of violence, remniscient of the Shri Ram Sene goons in Mangalore, a man kicked and stamped his wife because she was dressed “as a man”.

Adding insult to injury, the police promptly dispatched the battered woman, who suffered the ignominy in full public glare, to her in-laws house, terming it as a “family matter”. No case was filed.

I have three reasons for outrage here.

One, at the dude, who presumably thought he was behaving like a man by beating up a woman.

Two, at the cops, for denying the woman her rights, and treating her as if she was the property of her husband and in-laws. This attitude, by the way, is actually enshrined in some of our laws.

Three, at ToI, which printed “remniscient” instead of “reminiscent”. All hail India’s No. 1 English newspaper.

*

Elsewhere, women are being warned not to wear noodle straps.

Can’t dress like a man, can’t dress like a woman, what’s a chica to do?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


“The Systematic Use Of Terror”

Reader Ila Bhat writes in:

I don’t know if this comment will ever make it to your blog but I’m writing it anyway in the hope more of your readers will understand that terrorism is not just that which comes from Kasab’s gun.

Someone I know was ill-fated to be at both the Oberoi on 26/11 and the Intercontinental last week, when the SS attacked the hotel. He recalled breaking out in a sweat thinking it was happening all over again. he thought he was the ultimate resilient Mumbaikar and was most gung-ho after 26/11, but after this latest incident landed up having to visit a shrink. He recounted the horrors of those first minutes when the Sainiks started their assault. He is a 3rd generation Marathi Mumbaikar and has voted in the past for the SS. Never again, says he.

In a city still scarred by 26/11, the Thackeray cousins have been granted taxpaid security to wreak havoc and terrorise. How different are they from Kasab?

On the one hand, I’d be wary of drawing a moral equivalence between the Shiv Sena and the Lashkar: The Sena doesn’t go around shooting people with machine guns, or setting off bombs in crowded marketplaces. (Well, not yet.)

On the other hand, let’s look at the definition of terrorism according to Merriam-Webster: “The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

What else do these loony right-wing groups, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal and their offshoots, do if not this? In the last few days, we have had:

1] Women beaten up in a Mangalore lounge-bar because drinking and spending time with boys was considered un-Hindu.

2] Vandalism on the Mumbai University campus “over a perceived injustice to the Marathi language.”

3] An attack on a Pune theatre for showing a Kannada film.

4] An attack on North Indians in Nashik for daring to sing Bhojpuri songs.

5] The forced changing of a shop’s name from Karachi Sweets to Jai Shri Krishna Sweets.

Is this not “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”? And in all these cases, some of the accused might get arrested, but are released in no time and are back in business. As I’d once written, mobs in India have the license to do as they please if they do it under the banner of politics or religion. If you and I go and vandalize a hotel lobby or beat up women in a lounge bar, you can bet we’ll be thrown into jail, and rightfully so. But if we do it under the pretext of defending our culture or our religion, then anything goes. The rule of law, in such situations, is a joke.

It has become clichéd to talk of the ‘Resilience’ of Mumbaikars. I think that’s the wrong quality to speak of. Shall we talk ‘Apathy’ instead?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Some Sharaab, Much Bawaal

Some of my friends are at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and one of them, Sonia Faleiro, interviewed Vikram Seth on the opening day of the festival. Much fun was had by all, eyewitnesses and participants tell me. There was even some wine on stage—and why not?

Well, according to this report in Dainik Bhaskar, local writers are up in arms because they feel that drinking wine on stage was a “kalank” on “sahitya, kala [and] sanskruti”, and are demanding that the state government take action. (If I was the state government, I would confiscate the bottle.) It’s hilarious stuff—if you can read Hindi, go through the piece, it reads like an India TV script.

And if you can’t read Hindi, even better—this Google translation of the page is much more hilarious. I especially loved what Google made of Nandlal Burner’s quote:

Public exemplary conduct of the writer should be. Tire or Kabir, Rskhan or basil, or Muktibod offerings, those who write them live too.

That surely has to be the last word on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


Vir Sanghvi Exercises His Free Speech

Who doesn’t love a good media brawl? Vir Sanghvi’s just put up a blog post explaining why he won’t write for Mint any more. An excerpt:

I will not write for a publication that censors its columnists and denies them the right to free speech while writing long, impassioned pieces about the freedom to criticize others from the Prime Minister downwards. All of us exhibit double standards to some degree. But Mint’s hypocrisy takes my breath away.

Notice what is curious about that excerpt? While Sanghvi is accusing Mint of denying him the right to free speech, he is exercising that very right on his own blog. The very fact that he is able to make the accusation, thus, invalidates the accusation itself.

From what I can make of the controversy, Mint refused to carry Sanghvi’s piece criticizing them. It is their paper, their space, and they were within their rights to do this. They did not stop Sanghvi from publishing the piece himself—as indeed he has. They exercised their right to their property—he exercised his right to free speech. For him to claim that they censored him is just factually incorrect.

Imagine, for example, if Raj Thackeray was to come to your house and demand that he make a speech from your living room window. Obviously you’d say, “This is my house, get the hell outta here!” Would you then be censoring Thackeray, and denying him his right to free speech?

I am not defending Mint here, merely quibbling with Sanghvi’s careless choice of words. If Mint portrays itself as being open to criticism, and denied its star columnist freedom over what he writes, then Sanghvi’s allegation of hypocrisy might well be justified. But I don’t know the details of this case, and will withhold judgment.

Disclosure: I used to be a columnist with Mint until last year.

Also read:

1] Anant Rangaswami’s rejoinder to Sanghvi’s criticism of his publication, (Not) learning from Vir Sanghvi. The semantics at the end of his post are much fun.

2] For more of my thoughts on the basis of the right to free speech, as well as all other rights, check out these three pieces:

a] The Origin of Human Rights.

b] Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

c] The Flying Spaghetti Monster v Private Property

(Sanghvi and Rangaswamy links via emails from Rahul and Salil respectively.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


Offended By A Tattoo

And here’s the WTF story of the week:

Pak girl beaten up for sporting tattoo in Urdu

The entire story is so bizarre that I can’t find any part suitable for excerpting. Here’s the summary: A Pakistani girl called Saba Najam was shopping in Hypercity Mall in Malad when a dude named Riyaz Ahmed Talukdar spotted “a tattoo in Urdu” on her back. (Don’t ask why he was looking there.) In his words, “When I saw the tattoo I was furious as holy words from the Quran were on her back.” So he did what he has probably been trained to do when he gets furious—he went and complained to his mother.

His mother came to the mall with a few other women. They “confronted Saba in the washroom” and “slapped the girl several times before the mall management intervened.” What did the mall management do? Their manager was quoted as saying: “Since both the parties concerned are our patrons we simply referred the matter to the police.”

So all these women were taken to a police station, where “Saba apologised profusely and said she hadn’t known that the tattoo would hurt anybody’s sentiments.” She also said that “she would get the tattoo removed through laser surgery in the next three days.”

The demented women who should have been booked for assault got away scot free, while Saba, poor girl, was terrorized into going back to Pakistan. And Riyaz Ahmed Talukdar is presumably in some Mumbai mall, looking at women’s backs. I can imagine an angry chica asking him: “Why are you staring at my backside?”

“It is my religious duty,” he replies. “Show me your tattoo, baybeh!”

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | WTF


Slumdogs Of The World Unite

We live in times when satire is redundant—for what can beat real news such as this?

An office bearer of a slum dwellers’ body has filed a defamation case against music director A R Rahman and actor Anil Kapoor [Images] alleging that the award winning film Slumdog Millionaire calls Indians dogs and slum dwellers slum dogs.

[...]

The meaning of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in Hindi is the millionaire dog of slum-dwellers, Vishwakarma alleged, adding that such a name was a violation of human rights and honour.

Vishwakarma said he has already approached the national and state human rights commissions for necessary action against Rahman and Kapoor, who portrays the role of a game show host in the film.

On an email group I’m part of, Devangshu Datta says, “Now what we need is a millionaire to file alleging insult at being compared to a slum dog.” And lo, Hari Shenoy does the needful.

Also, Paras Berawala suggests: “Let’s also draft a petition by dog owners against Tapeshwar Vishwakarma for implying that ‘dog’ is an insulting word.”

The possibilities for such WTFness are endless: Someone can sue the makers of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi on behalf of God, alleging that they insult God by implying that one can see Her in any random person. Every Indian Idol contestant criticized by Javed Akhtar can sue him for the way his son sang in Rock On. The Chinese government and the Chandni Chowk mohalla committee can sue Akshay Kumar for you-know-what. Torture academies can sue Himessss Reshammiya for making them redundant. And so on and on. Immense potential simmers.

(Rediff link via Prem’s Twitter, which Salil pointed me to. ??! also wrote in independently with the link.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF


Hidden Prejudices

The Economist carries a report on a couple of fascinating studies carried out by a group of researchers from the University of Chicago that use conjoint analysis “to study implicit biases in more realistic situations,” and quantifies “what has been dubbed the ‘stereotype tax’—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions.”

In their first study, Dr Caruso and his team recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine they were taking part in a team trivia game with a cash prize. Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and asked to rate them on their desirability.

The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions.

Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points—about 50% of the range of IQs available—for a colleague who was suitably slender.

In a second study the team asked another group, this time of students who were about to graduate, to consider hypothetical job opportunities at consulting firms. The positions varied in starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss.

When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.

I’m guessing that if you do a similar study among Hindu landlords in Mumbai, giving them criteria like age, salary, marital status and religion, their stated preferences would match their actions for the first three of those—but not the fourth. My friend Manu Joseph had done a superb story for Outlook many years ago, about how he pretended to be a Muslim looking for a place on rent in Mumbai, and was continuously turned away. Another friend recently told me about a Muslim pal of hers who came to the city, tried unsuccessfully to find a good place on rent, and left in disgust when brokers kept recommending that he try looking for places in Muslim-dominated areas. (“Forget Worli, sir, why don’t you try Mahim?”)

Many of these landlords turning away Muslims would no doubt consider themselves secular and non-prejudiced. And really, if a friend of mine who owns a flat tells me that he’s got two equally attractive prospective tenants, one of whom is Muslim, and he’s going to give the flat to the Hindu just to be on the safe side, I’m not going to condemn him as a bigot. That is a preference he has a right to act upon when it comes to his own property. But thousands of such reasonable decisions, in the aggregate, ghettoize a city and polarize its people—and that vicious circle gets worse and worse. Sadly, that’s exactly what is happening in Mumbai.

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)

PS: Javed Akhtar, who keeps announcing on Indian Idol that there is a bias against women among viewers of the show, might want a similar study on a few sample viewers. But here’s the dilemma—every individual who sends a vote has a right to his or her preferences, and if he or she likes male voices more than female ones, that’s fair enough. (My favourites this time are both women—does that mean I’m prejudiced against men?) I’d consider it churlish to pass judgment on individual voters for their preferences—so is it fair to generalise and pass judgment on a larger group of people?

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Small thoughts


The Call Of Conscience

Lasantha Wickramatunga, the chief editor of The Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper, was shot dead last week near Colombo. He had survived earlier attempts at murder, and had known that further attempts were likely. So he wrote an editorial with the instructions that it be published in case he was killed. Here it is.

All of the essay is remarkable, and it seems unjust to quote just a bit of it, but this excerpt seemed particularly relevant:

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Contrast this with The Times of India, whose editors, according to a memo from their boss that I got to see recently, were instructed last month not to focus too much on depressing news. Do you think anyone there would lay down his life for you?

(Link via separate emails from Rishab, Arun and Kevin.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics


Cleaning Up The Internet

All hail the WTF headline of the day:

China to ‘clean up’ the internet

It seems the Chinese authorities want to get rid of “unhealthy, vulgar and pornographic content on the internet,” in an operation that “is being co-ordinated by a total of seven government ministries.” Yes, not one or two or even three ministries, but seven. I can imagine a Chinese minister dude setting up the operation:

Minister Dude: So, Mandarin Vermin, let’s clean up the internet. How many websites do we have to go through for this. One hundred? Two hundred?

Mandarin Vermin: Sir, I’m afraid there are many more sites than that. There are millions of them.

Minister Dude: Millions? And do they all have licenses?

Mandarin Vermin: No sir. You see, in other countries, they don’t need permission to express themselves.

Minister Dude: This is shocking. No wonder civilization is under threat. This is unhealthy. This is vulgar. In fact, if one gets down to specifics, its probably even pornographic.

Mandarin Vermin: Like the printouts in your drawer, sir?

Minister Dude: Stop it. Its my job to monitor those. Anyway, we need to clean up the internet, and we need all the help we can get. Organise a few ministries for this. Calculate the number of websites in the world, divide by the number of people in those ministries, and get them to work.

Mandarin Vermin: Sir, its not so simple…

Minister Dude: Don’t argue. Remember Tiananmen?

(Link via email from Neel.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2009 in Freedom | Politics | WTF


Grains, Grains Everywhere

This is quite the WTF headline of the day:

Govt may run out of space to store grains

I find it astonishing that no one questions the existence of the Food Corporation of India. If the free market was allowed to operate in agriculture, prices would be lower and distribution would be far more efficient, as supply would follow demand. We certainly wouldn’t have the perverse situation where lakhs of people are in danger of starving while government godowns overflow with grain. (Some of this grain, a friend informs me, may be as much as two decades old, which is beyond surreal.)

Imagine if there was a Soap Corporation of India, doing to soap what the FCI does to food. What a stink there would be.

(Link via email from Rajeev Mantri.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


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


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