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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

In India, Adults aren’t Adults

My friend Rahul Bhatia has a fine story in Open about Dibakar Banerjee’s experience with the censor board during the evaluation of Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Not that there’s anything new about censorship in India, but Dibakar wanted an ‘A’ certificate for his film, and still had to make cuts and compromises. Why do adults need to be protected from sex and bad language? How effing condescending is that? Disgraceful.

Thank goodness I’ve chosen to be a novelist. Imagine if a committee had told me to cut the orgasm from MFS.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | WTF

Topless Women and the Indian Government

The Times of India reports:

The government has banned Fashion TV for nine days after finding a program it aired offended good taste and decency by showing women partially nude.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry statement said FTV channel would go off the air later Thursday until March 21. The statement cited an unnamed FTV program aired in September that showed women with nude upper bodies.

It’s immensely WTF that someone should think that topless women offend “good taste and decency.” Women have breasts. Straight men are attracted to them. These are just ho-hum facts of biology. Only massively repressed and resentful men and women would find partial nudity offensive—and one factor in their repression, certainly, would be this attitude against anything sexual. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop—the more you repress, the more repressed they get, the more you find reason to repress them further. In the 21st century, its all a bit bizarre.

What is even weirder is that the continuing spread of the internet threatens to make all this moot. Far wilder things than mere toplessness are a Google search away, and its practically impossible to filter all of that out. And why would you want to do that anyway? Sex is healthy, so let’s be open about it, and not whisper while talking about it or blush when the subject comes up. Or censor boobs.


Earlier posts on the subject:

‘A Trial Balloon’.
The Ministry of Wet Dreams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

An Offence That Cannot Be Ignored

The WTF statement of the week comes from a Dubai cop:

The woman confessed that she had sexual intercourse with her fiancé and that she had alcohol. We cannot just ignore such an offence.

The woman is question is a British tourist who complained on New Year’s Day that she had been raped by a waiter the previous evening. The cops “arrested her after she revealed during questioning that she had drunk alcohol and had sex with her fiancé, with whom she was on holiday.”

As for the waiter, he’s presumably still on the loose, still waiting.


And while on Dubai, check out this superb article by Johann Hari: “The dark side of Dubai.” (Link via Sonia Gupta.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 January, 2010 in Freedom | News | WTF

The Free Speech Cop-Out

The Times of India reports:

In a significant ruling, a three-judge bench of the Bombay high court has held that in India criticism of any religion is permissible under the fundamental right of freedom of speech, be it Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or any other religion, and a book cannot be banned for that reason alone. But the criticism must be bona fide or academic, said the court as it upheld a ban issued in 2007 by the Maharashtra government on a book titled Islam—A Concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims.

Aah, that first line sounds so nice, gives so much hope. And then the second one makes it meaningless. Why should only “bona fide or academic” criticism be allowed? Who decides if a particular critique is “bona fide or academic”? The judges there paid lip service to free speech—and in the very next sentence, added caveats that took the ‘free’ out of it.

It could be argued, of course, that the bench merely followed a precedent already set by the framers of our constitution. They too, in Article 19 (1) (a), paid lip service to free speech. And in article 19 (2), allowed restraints on it on grounds such as “public order” and “decency and morality” that are open to interpretation, and make it easy for those in power to stifle free expression. Such it goes.

Also read: Don’t Insult Pasta.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2010 in Freedom | India | News | WTF

‘They Did Not Have Any Purdahs Inside Their Body’

As I blogged a few days ago, the TED Talk at TED India that most moved me was by a lady named Sunitha Krishnan, about trafficking and sex slavery. That talk is now online. Watch:

Also, check out this follow-up interview with Krishnan.


When Krishnan’s talk was over, and the standing ovation subsided, a woman in the audience stood up and said that she would donate US$10,000 to Krishnan’s organisation if ten other people would make the same commitment. Within moments, 10 other hands were raised. These weren’t empty promises. Krishnan says in her interview that she has received around US$200,000 so far, but because she “did not bribe an income tax official”, has been asked to pay taxes of around half that amount. Go figure.


Also, here’s Sunitha Krishnan’s blog.

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

Censors and Psychotics

Here’s David Cronenberg, in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, talking about censorship:

When I had to deal with the Toronto Censor Board over The Brood, the experience was so unexpectedly personal and intimate, it really shocked me; pain, anguish, the sense of humiliation, degradation, violation. Now I do have a conditioned reflex! I can only explain the feeling by analogy. You send your beautiful kid to school and he comes back with one hand missing. Just a bandaged stump. You phone the school and they say that they really thought, all things considered, the child would be more socially acceptable without that hand, which was a rather naughty hand. Everyone was better off with it removed. It was for everyone’s good. That’s exactly how it felt to me.

Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion. People worry about the effects on children of two thousand acts of murder on TV every half hour. You have to point out that they have seen a representation of murder. They have not seen murder. It’s the real stumbling-block.

Charles Manson found a message in a Beatles song that told him what he must do and why he must kill. Suppressing everything one might think of as potentially dangerous, explosive or provocative would not prevent a true psychotic from finding something that will trigger his own particular psychosis. For those of us who are normal, and who understand the difference between reality and fantasy, play, illusion—as most children most readily do—there is enough distance and balance. It’s innate.

Besides the consequentialist argument, there’s the small matter of censorship being morally wrong. But leave that aside. In times like these, when images of sex and violence are practically ubiquitous, censorship fails even in its own aims. Indeed, in another couple of decades, it will be as impotent as it is redundant. Censor boards will still continue to exist, of course, like the telegram-wallahs who ring the bell every Diwali to ask for bakshish. Such it goes.


And really, all actors or filmmakers or artists of any kind who have ever been part of a censor board should be ashamed of themselves. Check out the disgraceful Sharmila Tagore, head of India’s censor board, talking about how she believes that “censorship must go. But I firmly believe the time hasn’t come yet for India.” Such condescension.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 December, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India

The Ministry of Masturbation

The Guardian reports:

It is a subject that would make most governments blush, but officials in the Spanish region of Extremadura have launched a major programme to encourage what could be described as a more hands-on approach to sexuality.

The region’s socialist government has launched a €14,000 (£12,600) campaign aimed at teaching young people how best to set about “sexual self-exploration and the discovery of self-pleasure” – or to put it less delicately: masturbation.

“Pleasure is in your own hands” is the slogan of a campaign that has sparked political controversy and challenges traditional Roman Catholic views on people having sex, even on their own, for non-reproductive reasons.

The logical next step, of course, is to give licenses for masturbation to those who trained by the government in it, and arrest anyone found masturbating without that license. Indeed, there could be masturbation inspectors authorised to peek into bathrooms and suchlike to catch offenders, with the aid of government-installed cameras. For those of a certain orientation, the act of watching potential offenders could itself lead to the offence being committed.

But leave aside the satire. We can all express outrage at taxpayers’ money being spent like this, and go WTF at the thought of the government getting involved in such a private act—but consider for a moment the principle behind our going WTF: that the government has no business bothering about what we do with ourselves. Our own government might not attempt to teach us how to masturbate—but it interferes in our private lives in hazaar different ways that we accept and take for granted. It punishes various victimless crimes, and even treats attempted suicide as a crime, which is silly if you accept the right to self-ownership. It treats us as subjects, not as citizens—and in countless different ways, is no less outrageous than the regional government in Spain that teaches wanking.

So why is that WTF and not this?


Okay, so if the Indian government was actually to start a Ministry of Masturbation, who would be the first masturbation minister?

Why, Mahinder Watsa, of course!

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2009 in Freedom | News | WTF

Why Ayn Rand was a ‘Genuine Capitalist’

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand’s work: Her prose is mediocre and her novels are cheesy. Even though I agree with many of her beliefs, that is neither here nor there, as they weren’t original to her, and the brand of classical liberalism (or minarchist libertarianism) I believe in took off at least a century earlier than her. So I am never quick to defend Rand when she is being criticized. I’ll make an exception, though, for a recent piece on her in The New York Times by Adam Kirsch.

In his piece, a review of a biography by Anne C Heller, Kirsch relates how Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, wanted to edit out Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. Rand refused. Then:

Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. [...]

Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

This is a strange comment, and I have two points to make:

One: Rand might well have agreed to the chop on commercial considerations alone. She might have calculated that the book would sell more copies if it included the speech, and that the extra royalties from those extra sales might offset the 7 cents per copy that she gave up.

Two: “Genuine capitalists” would look to serving their self interest as much as possible. But they need not view this in purely monetary terms. Rand might have placed a higher value on spreading her ideas in the world than on merely making money. It would then be entirely rational for her to accept a notional monetary loss for the sake of keeping a speech that many of her supporters today regard very highly. This is entirely consistent with being a capitalist.

The deal between Rand and Cerf was one between two private parties that involved no coercion. Both of them got what they wanted. It might even have ended in a double ‘thank you’ moment. How on earth could it non-capitalistic?


On a personal note, I regard myself as a capitalist as well. And pretty much all the important decisions I’ve made in the last few years have reduced my income vastly. First, I opted to give up a senior job in journalism to become a freelancer; and then, I opted to give up freelancing to focus on writing novels. In the short run,  this has decimated my bank balance. And yet, I have no regrets over these decisions—and they are not noble in any way. They arise out of sheer self-interest. I’m a greedy capitalist pig.

But Heller and Kirsch would probably think otherwise.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 November, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Small thoughts | WTF

The Bastiat Winners for 2009…

... have been announced. My congratulations to John Hasnas for winning the Bastiat Prize for 2009. Hasnas beat out former winner Robert Guest with this superb piece of his: “The ‘Unseen’ Deserve Empathy, Too.” Going by previous years, I have no doubt that all the nominees were most worthy.

I won the prize in 2007, and the prize candlestick, which I can see now across the room, is one of my treasured possessions. The prize money enabled me to give up freelance journalism and focus on writing novels, an effect that, for the Bastiat organisers, was surely in the category of “that which is not seen.” I’d count it as a one-off positive externality, so all’s well.

This year, the Bastiat guys also instituted a separate prize for online journalism. I was one of the judges for this, along with Jimmy Wales, Esther Dyson and Scott Banister, and was blown away by the quality of the entries I read. I’m delighted that the prize has been shared by Daniel Hannan and Shikha Dalmia—both of them deserve it, and this is a fitting result.


Oh, and here’s the column I wrote after I won the Bastiat Prize in 2007: “Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.” And here are the three pieces I’d entered that won me the prize:

“Where’s the Freedom Party?”
“A Beast Called Government.”
“The Devil’s Compassion.”

You can read all 48 installments of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through, here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Personal

‘The Epics are For Everyone’

So says Amitava Kumar in his Rave Out of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

The wonderful thing about our epics is how open-source they are. Over the centuries, people have been free to remix them and interpret them as they like. Indeed, Hinduism itself has been open-source, to the extent that you can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. Pwnage, no?

Sadly, in recent times, pseudo-fundamentalist forces have tried to reshape Hinduism as a static, puritanical religion—the same kind of people who protest at Paley’s film, and who object to all kinds of things in the name of Hinduism. They have been strident and militant, and their claims to standing for Hinduism are taken more and more seriously because the counter-claims are too muted. Indeed, the finest counter to the likes of the BJP and the RSS is perhaps not from a standpoint of liberalism or secularism or anything like that, but from a standpoint of Hinduism itself. The intolerance of Hindutva is anti-Hindu—that is a potent case to make, because it strikes at their very raison d’etre.

Having said that, if recent election results are anything to go by, most people get that intuitively anyway.

In related reading, check out this superb interview of Wendy Doniger, on similar lines to the subject of this post. And also my friend Prem Panicker‘s Bhimsen (pdf link), a retelling of the Mahabharata from Bhim’s point of view.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Small thoughts

Dear Rahul Gandhi

Dear Rahul Gandhi

You have been quoted today as saying that you don’t believe in caste. Bravo. That is a position I applaud.

May I then assume that you don’t believe in reservations also? After all, by discriminating on the basis of caste, reservations perpetuate the same kind of divisive thinking that the caste system did. They don’t solve the problem—they make it worse.


Amit Varma


Link via @iyerdeepak. More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2009 in Freedom | India | Letters | Politics | Small thoughts

Preemptive Censorship

HT reports that the I&B ministry has just given the go-ahead to the producers of a film called The Indian Summer to shoot in India. However, after going through the script, it wants four scenes deleted from the film—these show “a kiss between Nehru and Edwina; a dancing scene; one where Nehru says ‘I Love You’; and a scene showing them in bed.”

Normally, when two people have an affair, there is kissing, there are confessions of love (or lust), and there is carnal action. I don’t see the point of pussyfooting around all this—an affair without these would not be an affair, so why should a film about an affair have to avoid these?

The government also insists that the film carry a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction. Why not keep those scenes then?

The ministry says it is doing this because it doesn’t want anyone to “show Nehru in a poor light.” That is bizarre: I don’t think his alleged affair with Edwina shows him in a poor light—the guy was human, after all. (Most Indian men would probably think more highly of him because he scored with a white chick, but leave that aside.)

And even if it did show Nehru in a poor light, so what?

Anyway, as revenge on the Indian government for this preemptive censorship, I suggest that the producers get Salman Khan to play Nehru, and have him sing a Himesh song as Edwina runs around a tree. That will show them.


And for what I think of the I&B ministry, see point 3 of this old wishlist of mine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

Sleeping With The Alien

One more priceless case in the annals of taking offence. BBC reports that Nigeria’s government “is asking cinemas to stop showing a science fiction film, District Nine, that it says denigrates the country’s image.” Apparently the Nigerian ganglord in the film has the same surname as a former Nigerian president—Obasanjo—among other sins. Their information minister, Dora Akunyili, has been quoted as saying:

We feel very bad about this because the film clearly denigrated Nigeria’s image by portraying us as if we are cannibals, we are criminals.

The name [of] our former president was clearly spelt out as the head of the criminal gang and our ladies shown like prostitutes sleeping with extra-terrestrial beings.

Imagine the misunderstandings that this could lead to. For example, a Nigerian lady could be walking home from the supermarket when an alien steps in front of her. ‘Excuse me,’ says the Nigerian lady, ‘please let me pass.’

‘No,’ says the alien. ‘I am horny. First we will copulate.’

The Nigerian lady gasps. ‘Oh, how dare you? I am not that kind of woman.’

‘Gimme a break,’ says the alien. ‘I’ve watched District Nine. I know the truth. All Nigerian women sleep with aliens.’

Yes, yes, I know that’s a bit far-fetched. But I didn’t start it!

(Link via @nilanjanaroy.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Dialogue | Freedom | News | WTF

Potency, Fertility and Marriage

While on the subject of treating people like cattle, CNN-IBN reports:

Veteran Tamil Actor Manorama says that couples should be made to take potency tests before getting married.

Manorama says it should be made compulsory for both men and women to produce medical certificates before getting married and in the case of the groom the certificate should prove that he is sexually potent.

“There should be a certification that he is potent and he doesn’t have HIV. In case of women… she is a woman and she’s fertile and does not have AIDS. And if the doctor gives a fake certificate, then he should be jailed,” said Manorama.

If two people choose to get married, it is surely a business of those two alone, and not of the state—or of Manorama. People get married for various reasons, including companionship, and a couple may choose to hitch up even if the guy isn’t potent or the girl isn’t fertile. So what? That’s their business alone, as long as they’re honest with each other.

And in any case, how is a doctor supposed to ascertain that a guy is potent? Will an issue of Playboy do the trick? What if images don’t do it for him? What if self-consciousness about getting aroused prevents him from getting aroused? Procedural problems abound—as anyone who’s ever been an awkward young man could tell you!

(Link via email from Meera.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 September, 2009 in Freedom | News | WTF

‘Tweet is a Very Lonely Man’

I was on Times Now yesterday defending Shashi Tharoor in this ridiculous Twitter controversy, going over pretty much the same points I’d made in my post, “A Cattle-Class Country?” The videos of that debate are embedded below the fold. I didn’t get too many chances to speak, but that’s okay, because Tom Vadakkan, the Congress spokesman, did—and he was hilarious. Check out this bit, which comes in the third video clip below:

Let me tell you something: I did a little research after you phoned me, to find out what is the basic cause for this tweet business. Some of the survey reports that I received was Tweet is a very lonely man, and he needs counselling.

There was much else that was WTF about the discussion, and I leave you to discover the rest of that for yourself! (Videos below the fold.)


Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2009 in Freedom | India | Politics | WTF

‘I’d Like To Ask For Sinead’s Hand In Marriage’

Check out this brilliant commercial:

(Link via email from Deviyani.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 September, 2009 in Freedom

Where Your Taxes Go: 40

On bribing people to delay having kids.

This is wrong on three levels:

One, the premise that population growth is a problem is mistaken. Malthus is dead in more ways than one.

Two, such social engineering is unethical. What business does the government have influencing the personal choices of people in this manner?

Three, that’s our money being spent there.

Coming to think of it, this whole business is a bit perverse even from the government’s point of view. They’re spending taxpayers’ money to ensure that there are less taxpayers in the future. WTF?

(For more on how our taxes are misused, click here.)

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

Court Ka Saamna

A few days ago, discussing an MP who wanted Sach Ka Saamna to be banned, I wrote:

If [Samajwadi Party MP Kamal] Akhtar is so disturbed by Sach Ka Saamna, I have a suggestion for him—change the channel.

And today, Indian Express reports:

Delhi High Court today threw out two petitions against the game show Sach ka Saamna, saying “moral policing” was not its job, and advised those offended by the show to turn off their TVs.

The judgment, ruling on a PIL against the show, is just as I’d have it:

There are far more serious problems in this country which we have to settle… Our culture is not so fragile that it would be affected by one TV programme.

I am not sure whether the show has brought out the truth of many people but it is certain that it has brought out the hypocrisy of various ministers and parliamentarians.

Bravo. Given that the recent landmark judgment to decriminalize homosexuality was also delivered by the Delhi High Court, much admiration comes. Would it be self-aggrandizement to call those judgments wise and enlightened simply because I agree with them? I’ll take that risk.

(IE link via separate emails from Aadisht and Sidved.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News

You Gotta Do Sach Ka Saamna

Here’s the WTF headline of the day:

Politicians want ban on Sach Ka Saamna

Sach Ka Saamna is the recently started Hindi version of The Moment of Truth, and is riveting once you start watching it—even if it does overlap with that other reality show, Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao. So what problem do our politicians have with it? Well, Kamal Akhtar, a Samajwadi Party MP, doesn’t like it that “obscene questions are asked by the anchor of the programme.”

“The host asked a woman in the presence of her husband if she would have physical contacts with another person to which she said no,” he said. “But her polygraph test said the answer was wrong. What kind of impression would it have created?” He sought a complete ban on the show.

I don’t get it—on whose behalf is Akhtar complaining? The participants of the show take part in full knowledge of the risks they incur, and that’s a choice for them to make. As for viewers, well, Akhtar is being hugely condescending when he assumes that we impressionable folks will be swayed by the show into infidelity, or suchlike. Listen, we already know what the world is like; we already know what human beings are like; we understand our urges, and know the consequences of giving in to them. Akhtar may want to foist a fantasy world upon us where nobody has anything to hide and everybody speaks only the truth—but that world does not exist, and is faker than the fakest Ekta Kapoor serial.

If anything, Sach Ka Saamna drives home the truth that most human relations contain some element of deception. In a viscerally direct way, it reveals the human condition. That can only help us become better human beings—to begin with, it might make us a little less sanctimonious.

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Some people may hate the show, and are entitled to do so. But that is where the matter should end—not in calls for a ban. If Akhtar is so disturbed by Sach Ka Saamna, I have a suggestion for him—change the channel.

Or actually, no. He might then catch Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao and demand a ban on that because it reminds him of parliament.

(Link via email from Arshdeep.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF

Criminalizing Zardari Jokes

IANS reports:

It would seem that in Pakistan, there is nothing you need to watch out for more than making a joke about President Asif Ali Zardari by SMS (Short Messaging Service).

If you mistakenly, or just for fun, share with a friend one of the hundreds of derisory jokes about the leader floating around electronically, you could get a 14-year prison sentence.

Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik announced last week that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been tasked to trace SMS (or text messages) and e-mails that “slander the political leadership of the country” under the vague Cyber Crimes Act. In addition to facing up to 14 years in the jail, violators could have their property seized, Malik said, adding that the government would seek Interpol assistance in deporting foreign offenders.

I think whatever the jail sentence announced for each accused person, Zardari himself should be made to serve 10 percent of it.


I particularly like this Zardari joke from the report above:

Robber: Give me all your money!

Zardari: Don’t you know who I am? I am Asif Ali Zardari!

Robber: Okay. Give me all my money!

Oops, wait, I’d better watch it, or there’ll be an Interpol notice out on me for having a Zardari joke on my blog. Maybe Pakistan will suggest a Lakhvi for Varma swap. We’ll give you the terrorist mastermind, they could say, if you hand over the blogger who dared to joke about our esteemed president.

(Link via separate emails from Mihir Modi and Luv.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2009 in Freedom | Politics | WTF

Yoga’s Greatest Challenge

Can it cure Baba Ramdev?

(Link via email from Mahendra Shikaripur.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | WTF

Another Independence Day

July 2, 2009—mark this day. It’s a big day in the history of independent India because today the Delhi High Court effectively decriminalized homosexuality. As of today, it is no longer illegal to be gay in India.

I’ve often written about how India gained its independence in 1947, but Indians weren’t free in some many different ways. Well, notch one up for individual freedom. There will be no more Matunga Rackets, no more harassment of gay people by cops, no more busting of gay parties. (And I’m sure there will be some mighty spirited ones tonight.)

Also, see item no. 5 of my wishlist for 2008. It wasn’t all wishful thinking!

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have suddenly become an enlightened society. There will still be much homophobia, stereotypes of gay people will abound in popular culture, and many young people, discovering that their sexual orientation doesn’t conform to the approved norm, will still feel confused and lonely and angry.

But at least it isn’t illegal any more. How big is that?


To clarify, the ruling decriminalizes consensual homosexual sex between adults. Section 377 can still be used to prosecute coercive sex or sex with a minor. And that’s just fine. As long as consenting adults can do what they want.


And hey, of course there’s a backlash. Religious leaders have already spoken out against this ruling, citing worries like “the culture of Indian society.” And a representative of the Church has expressed a worry that “such practice will increase paedophilia [sic].” Heh. (Via Mohit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News

Savita Bhabhi Fights Censorship

A dull government office. A pot-bellied bureaucrat in a safari suit sits behind a table on which many dusty files are gathered. Sweat gathers on his upper lip; he is too lazy to wipe it off. There is a knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ he says.

The door opens, and the bureaucrat gasps. A stunning young woman, bootilicious, bodacious, mammacious, walks into the room, in a red chiffon saree on which the palloo seems an inadequate afterthought, wearing a low-cut blouse that almost need not be there.

‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Are you the Chief Secretary of Internet Banning in India?’

‘Yes. Yes, yes, yes! But who are you?’

‘I am Savita Bhabhi. I believe you have banned me. I thought I should pay you a personal visit to ask you why you have done such a thing.’

‘Savita Bhabhi? Wow! My God! Er, sorry, what was your question again?’

‘Why have you banned me?’

‘Er, you see, actually, Indian culture, our traditions…’

‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ says Savita Bhabhi. ‘You are my elder, and tradition says I should touch your feet.’

She goes up to him—he is standing, in his excitement, pun intended—and bends down to touch his feet. Her tender caress of his toe is unbearably erotic. Her palloo falls. An expanse of the most beautiful, bountiful flesh rises up to meet him—and brushes for the briefest moment against a certain nameless appendage. Her lips, broad, red, inviting, open up seductively just in front of him, as she moves in closer, and he feels like he will explode. And then she says:

‘So, once again, what are your reasons for banning me?’


Right, you get where I’m coming from. India Uncut is a fan of Savita Bhabhi, as my many posts on that fine lady indicate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.). And I’m appalled that she has been banned. And the chief reason that I’m appalled is that we don’t know why she has been banned.

If the government takes any action against an individual or an entity, there should be due process. If the government wants to ban a website, it should clearly state why it is doing so, and what provisions of the law make it possible. And the owners of that website should have a right of appeal.

That is not the case here: Deshmukh, who runs the Savita Bhabhi site, does not know why it has been banned, and has no means of appeal. This is arbitary, this is wrong—and it could happen to any of us tomorrow.

On that note, do read this excellent piece by Sevanti Ninan on Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, which should worry anyone who cares about free speech in India. Savita Bhabhi should drop in and say hi to A Raja, you think?


And in some WTF coverage of this, click here, scroll down and read what “cyber law expert” Mukesh Goyal has to say on the matter. Especially his third and fourth paras. I’m speechless!

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | WTF

‘My Mother’s Fault’

My friend Salil Tripathi was in Bombay this week to promote his marvellous new book, “Offence: The Hindu Case.” This is part of a series that examines the growing intolerance around us in the name of religion: Kamila Shamsie looks at the Muslim case, Brian Klug at Judaism and Irena Maryniak at Christianity. Regular readers of IU will know that this is a subject close to my heart: I’ve unleashed countless rants on how giving offence is treated as a crime in India, and of the consequences of that for free speech. Salil’s book lays out the case for free speech wonderfully well, and if the subject interests you, I recommend you buy it. (You can pre-order it here or here, and it will also be on the stands soon.)

But this post isn’t just a plug: one of my favourite parts of the book is a poem Salil wrote for his mother, Harsha Tripathi, dedicating the book to her. I was quite moved by it, and with Salil’s permission, I’m reproducing it here:

My Mother’s Fault
by Salil Tripathi

You marched with other seven-year-old girls,
Singing songs of freedom at dawn in rural Gujarat,
Believing that would shame the British and they would leave India.

Five years later, they did.

You smiled,
When you first saw Maqbool Fida Husain’s nude sketches of Hindu goddesses,
And laughed,
When I told you that some people wanted to burn his art.

‘Have those people seen any of our ancient sculptures? Those are far naughtier,’
You said.

Your voice broke,
On December 6, 1992,
As you called me at my office in Singapore,
When they destroyed the Babri Masjid.

‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said.

We had.

Aavu te karaay koi divas (Can anyone do such a thing any time?)
You asked, aghast,
Staring at the television,
As Hindu mobs went, house-to-house,
Looking for Muslims to kill,
After a train compartment in Godhra burned,
Killing 58 Hindus in February 2002.

You were right, each time.

After reading what I’ve been writing over the years,
Some folks have complained that I just don’t get it.

I live abroad: what do I know of India?

But I knew you; that was enough.

And that’s why I turned out this way.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India

Questioning The Astrologer

Oh man, this is delicious. AFP reports:

Sri Lankan police say they have arrested an astrologer after he predicted serious political and economic problems for the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.


“The CID (Criminal Investigations Department) is questioning the astrologer,” [police spokesman Ranjith] Gunasekara said Friday, adding that they wanted to find out the “basis” for the prediction.

I can just imagine how the dialogue goes.

Astrologer: [Pointing to chart] See, here’s the basis for my prediction. Note where Rahu-Ketu are.

CID officer: We have outlawed Rahu-Ketu.

Astrologer: Eh? When did this happen?

CID officer: Five minutes before this interrogation began. Hehehe. Bet you didn’t see that happening.

No, but seriously, the government is crazy, clamping down on free speech like this, even if it is the free speech of a charlatan. Even charlatans have rights.

(Link via email from Neel. And previously, in Rahu-Ketu news...)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 June, 2009 in Dialogue | Freedom | News | Old memes | Astrology etc | Politics | WTF

Freedom And The Burkha

In world news today, Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France, has announced his support for a ban on wearing burkhas. I think this is colossally wrong-headed, and goes against the very principles Sarkozy claims to uphold.

Classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, as I do, are appalled by some societies for the way they treat their women. The burkha is a symbol of this oppression, and obviously our hearts go out to women forced to spend their lives hiding their faces and their bodies from the world. But the operative word here is ‘forced’.

We are troubled by burkhas because they represent coercion. But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.

In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.


The issue of coercion is, of course, more nuanced than this. A woman may not be explicitly forced into wearing a burkha, but for a young girl born into a devout Muslim family, there may be subtle pressures that will take her in that direction. Non-conformity carries greater costs in traditional families and societies, and she may rationalize her wearing a burkha and represent it as her choice. I agree that this is problematic—but I maintain that in the absence of explicit coercion, it’s none of the state’s business.

Also, many women do make that choice in the absence of either coercion or any kind of pressure. Check out Shagufta Pasta’s excellent satirical post on this, “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide.” (This link is via Chandni.)


Barack Obama, by the way, has spoken out against Sarkozy’s move, “saying the US values religious freedom and would never ‘tell people what to wear’.” Much props.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2009 in Freedom | News | Politics

‘A Totally Negative Sense’

Nobody messes with the national anthem. Rediff reports that the Supreme Court has slammed Ram Gopal Varma for his “distortion of the national anthem in his forthcoming film Rann.” The “vacation bench” has been quoted as ruling:

We have read it. It gives a totally negative sense. It seems every line of national anthem has been proved wrong. Nobody has got a right to tinker with the national anthem.

So remember, not only do you not have the right to express your opinion on a song, but songs, especially anthems, have rights. Don’t tinker with them.

Also read: The Anthem and the Flag.

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | WTF

The Cigarette Quota

The London Telegraph reports:

Local government officials in China have been ordered to smoke nearly a quarter of a million packs of cigarettes in a move to boost the local economy during the global financial crisis.

The edict, issued by officials in Hubei province in central China, threatens to fine officials who “fail to meet their targets” or are caught smoking rival brands manufactured in neighbouring provinces.

Even local schools have been issued with a smoking quota for teachers, while one village was ordered to purchase 400 cartons of cigarettes a year for its officials, according to the local government’s website.

Yes, that’s The Telegraph, not The Onion. Reality is reinvented as farce. The thing is, this is no less absurd than any protectionist measure. Think of any subsidy or tariff, and at its heart it amounts to forced cigarette smoking. We don’t laugh about most of that, though.

(Link via email from Aniket Thakur.)


I couldn’t help but remember Frédéric Bastiat when I read that news, so here’s a reminder that the Bastiat Prize, which I won in 2007, is now open for submissions for 2009. They have an additional prize for online journalism from this year, so all ye freedom-loving bloggers, go forth and enter.

Also read: Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Politics | Small thoughts

Return Of The Cow

Sure, we can complain about faulty implementation of the RTI and the resistance to it, but boy, when it works, it’s one powerful weapon. I mean, Gobind Dubey got his cow back! I think that’s awesome.

As for bigger changes and more accountability, well, let’s start with baby steps and low-hanging fruit. Once people get used to the idea that they can actually hold their government accountable to them, they’ll start asking for more. Surely.

(Link via email from Abhishek Jain. 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, 108, 109, 110, 111.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 May, 2009 in Freedom | India | News

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.


(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

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