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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: India

“Momma, momma, he called me Donkey”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

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

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

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

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


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

Even an anthem’s got feelings

CNN-IBN reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, family!

Vinod Nayar, Arun Nayar’s daddy, is upset because Liz Hurley didn’t treat him well during her wedding to Arun, from which he was apparently ‘ejected’. Nayar has been quoted as saying:

May be they didn’t really want my side of the family there. They didn’t even have the manners to invite my 87-year-old mother. I have totally disowned them (his sons). I want nothing more to do with them or their wives. It was important for her (Hurley) to get celebrity faces there.

No matter how much Liz may dislike Arun’s family, she should thank her freakin’ stars that it’s nothing like this one. Indian families contain unspeakable horrors. The only way to put an end to the monstrosity is to ban copulation. You with me on this?

Ok, fine, forget it. Have a good day.

(KSBKBT link via email from reader VatsaL, though not in this gory context.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | India | News

Don’t regulate either ghee or endorsements

This piece first appeared on Rediff.

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

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


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

Cricket banned as “young boys go astray”

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

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

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

(Link via email from Lalbadshah.)

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

The dance of a headless chicken

Don’t be taken in by all the activity that’s going on around Indian cricket. You’ll see movement all right, but it’s all headed nowhere.

PS: Of the glut of pieces out there on the subject, I recommend you read “The Real Culprits” by S Rajesh. It lays bare India’s shortcomings on the field of play. As for the dramas of the dressing room, we’ll never have the full story, though different versions of events will no doubt emerge. (You get a sense of Greg Chappell’s version of events here and here. Ian Chappell’s broadside against Sachin Tendulkar the other day now becomes explicable. Heh.)

Anyway, watch the dance if it entertains you. I’m not throwing any more grains.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2007 in India | Sport

Crime wave spreads across Mumbai

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

(Link via feedback from reader Annette.)

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

The Matunga Racket

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

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

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

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


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

Man lynched at Nithari

An ice-cream vending contractor caught raping a six-year-old girl at Nithari was lynched by a mob yesterday. Apart from the anger you’d expect the crowd to feel, what else did the lynching demonstrate? Their lack of faith in the cops and the justice system, that’s what.

The mob might well have felt, “The courts will take years to punish this man, if they ever do at all. Why should be not take matters into our own hand and ensure that justice is done?”

Now, I’m against mobs and lynching and so on. But how do you answer that question?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 April, 2007 in India | News

Three percent of GDP

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


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

Betting and match-fixing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Wet Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does Bollywood crave validation from abroad?

Amitabh Bachchan is quoted as saying in the Times of India:

India’s economic progress is largely responsible for the Indian films getting recognised abroad. When the economy is doing well, everything connected with the country, its food, culture, colour, art and films get noticed.

I have a question: Are Indian films getting “recognised abroad?” To the best of my admittedly minuscule knowledge, only the diaspora really cares much for it, and as the diaspora has grown, overseas markets have become prominent. But non-Indians don’t really notice it, and the stories that the international press occasionally does on Bollywood treat it as exotica.

I have another question: Why do Bollywood people crave recognition abroad? Are the millions of Indian who watch their films not validation enough?

Update: DeCruz Pulikottil writes in:

I would have never expected to have been greeted by an African man inside a Costco (huge wholesale store) and asked if I was Indian. When I said yes, he had a broad smile on his face and asked if I like Bollywood movies. Apparently, Bollywood movies are all the rage in Africa. If you google online for Romanian Bollywood dance troupe you’ll find a group of all Romanians who pick up their dance moves from Bollywood movies who dance at weddings and other functions. Bollywood is insanely popular in Eastern Europe. My Cambodian friend tells me how back in the home country, they consistently watch Bollywood movies that do show. Even here, at a private university in Southern California that has one other Indian person that attends here, I popped in a Bollywood movie (Rang de Basanti) and many white people enjoyed it. So yeah, I’m answering your question. Bollywood is becoming immensely popular overseas and not just among the diaspora.

Hmm. And when I was in Singapore a millennium ago for a conference, a local girl sidled up to me and said, “I like Shah Rukh Khan .” Then she fluttered her eyelashes. Ever the naive nerd, I had no idea why she was telling me that. I think I said something to the effect of “Pah!” And then I toodled off to look for a bookshop.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | India

Don’t punish victimless crimes

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

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

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


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

Politics and caste

One question: will Bhavna Koli be any better or any worse a corporator if her caste certificate turns out to be genuine?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2007 in India | News | Politics

Hiding the author

In a feature in the Guardian by Geraldine Bedell, AL Kennedy is quoted as saying:

The authors I first loved all had initials - JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, E Nesbit, ee cummings - and I actively didn’t want to know who they were or have them get in the way of my enjoying their story and their voice.

Indeed, that is quite the problem with our times, especially in India: too much of the focus is on the author. That’s because most of us don’t read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism

India’s water crisis

The Times of India has an eye-catching headline on its website: ‘India to face severe water crisis by 2045’.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, my mind wanders to Paul Ehrlich, and his bet with Julian Simon. Now, why did I think of that?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2007 in India | News

Alcohol. Tobacco. LSD. Cannabis. Ecstasy

Here’s an exercise: list the five substances named in the headline in the order of harmfulness as you perceive it.

Then see how, according to the Lancet, they actually rank.

Does it surprise you to know that the three that are the least harmful in this list are the ones that are banned in India?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 March, 2007 in India

Bal Thackeray’s culture

PTI reports:

Stating that “winning and losing is a part of the game”, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on Monday asked the disappointed cricket fans not to attack the players’ houses.

Conceding that India’s defeat to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the World Cup was a cause of anguish, Thackeray said in a statement that attacking players’ houses and taking out their mock funeral processions was not the way to express anger.

“This is not our culture…It does not behove us. Nowhere in the world do such things happen,” Thackeray said.

Immense amusement bestows itself liberally. We all know what kind of culture Mr Thackeray believes in. Do we not?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 March, 2007 in India | News | Politics

Beauty contests in rural India

PTI informs us:

Homegrown major Dabur India Ltd is planning to host beauty pageants - Dabur Amla Sundar, Susheel, Yogya Pratiyogita - across rural India. The competition for finding beautiful, good-natured and capable women from villages as part of its strategy to relaunch the firm’s flagship hair oil- Dabur Amla.

I wonder what will happen when these contests are held in rural Bihar and UP. Will you have local mafia dons demanding to be judges, and insisting on bikini rounds? Cadaverous caravans cascade.

I wouldn’t be worried about women being commodified by these contests, by the way. Women are already treated as sub-human in much of rural India. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2007 in India | News

The palaces of North Calcutta

Stuart Isett has an excellent photo feature in the New York Times, with audio commentary, titled “The Palaces of North Calcutta.” The eighth photograph, of what is left of a palace on Muktarambabu Street, is particularly evocative.

Why does it take a paper based in New York to do a wonderful story like this? What’s our media up to?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism

India’s loss to Sri Lanka

I’m travelling for the rest of the day, and won’t get to blog much. Before I go, a couple of quick thoughts on the India-Sri Lanka game.

One, why do so many Indian fans have such a strong sense of entitlement? They behave as if they were entitled to a win, as if they paid good money to see a film, went into the hall, and were shown a film with a different ending than the one they were promised. This is not cinema, dramatic as it is. This is sport. Shit happens. No one betrayed anyone. One team played better than the other on the day, that’s all. Having said that…

Two, it was clear that India weren’t merely unlucky, but were simply not good enough to win the World Cup. The reasons for this have to do with preparation, not ability. Contrast our fielding with Sri Lanka’s. Contrast the number of dot balls we faced with how Sri Lanka did. These don’t depend on the vagaries of the day, but on how well one prepares for the event.These two things are the most tangible reflections of a coach’s impact on the team. I don’t see how even Greg Chappell, if he is honest with himself, can deny that he has failed.

But here’s the thing, O Crazed Fans: it was not a wilful failure, but a human one. Chappell certainly wanted India to progress as much as any of us did, and he and poor Rahul Dravid must be terribly gutted now. There is certainly cause for us to feel disappointment. But anger?

And that brings me back to my first point…

(Comments are open.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 March, 2007 in India | Sport

What to do about Moninder Singh Pandher?

I’ve just been watching the TV news channels, and they’re all a little psyched right now. The CBI has announced that Surendra Koli is solely responsible for the Nithari killings, most of which took place when Moninder Singh Pandher was either out of the country or not in his house. The anchors and reporters are bewildered, and are hinting at all manners of dark conspiracies. There are soundbytes of relatives of the victims protesting against the “injustice.” One thing is clear: many of these people decided long ago, after a rapturous media trial, that Pandher was guilty of the serial killings. Now that he’s not even being charged of the killings, they don’t know how to deal with it.

This is especially so because a significant part of the media made it a class issue. They focussed a bit too much on the subtext of a rich, influential businessman killing off poor, defenseless kids in his neighbourhood, and much of the outrage about the Nithari killings came from the class difference. Now that storyline is sinking, and they’re trying to figure out what angle to take. Perverted psychopath killing and eating a whole bunch of kids is less juicy if it’s the servant and not the master we’re talking about.

The whole truth of the matter will hopefully emerge as the trial proceeds, and it might well turn out, as some of the reporters are insinuating, that Koli is covering up for Pandher. But it might also turn out that he’s telling the truth. Either way, should we not suspend our decision until the facts are established?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 March, 2007 in India | Journalism | News

Air Deccan incompetence, and courtship at Mt Abu

Air Deccan’s getting much attention from CNN-IBN, and rightly so: their disregard for customers has been so blatant for so long that something had to give. Well, Gautam John points me, via email, to an excellent comments thread of people relating their experiences with Air Deccan. One of them, in two parts, by a gentleman named Saurabh Chauhan, is particularly hilarious, and I carry it below the fold.


Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2007 in India | News

Sex education in Madhya Pradesh

IANS reports that “[s]ex education will no longer be imparted in schools in Madhya Pradesh.” MP’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, has explained his decision with the following words to HRD minister Arjun Singh:

The union government has devaluated [sic] Indian culture and its values. I believe that the text material on the subject was not submitted before you in a proper manner or else you would have not approved it.Instead, the younger generation should be taught about yoga, Indian culture and its values.

How these old fogies take kids for granted! Biology is stronger than culture, and these kids will get their sex education whether the schools provide it or not. As for Yoga, if you teach it to them at school, they might end up hating it for the rest of their lives. Such naïveté.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2007 in India | News

Where your taxes go: 18

Advertising campaigns for governments.

It’s quite possible that Amitabh Bachchan did the ads for UP for free, but my contention is that the government shouldn’t be wasting our tax money in producing and broadcasting advertisements for itself.

(Update: Reader Hemant brings my attention, via his comment below, to an Amitabh quote in the article in which he says that the ads were funded by the SP. If so, then this is clearly a wrong example, as your taxes may not be involved in this particular case. My bad, sorry! My larger point about government advertising, though, remains.)

A government should not need to advertise, its efficiency or inefficiency will be evident to all the people it governs. By all means, let a political party advertise its achievements with its own money, but to spend taxpayers’ money on it is a waste.

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

“Ban jokes on the internet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Link via breakfast conversation with Manish Vij.

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

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

Alcohol advertising and free speech

It’s okay to sell and drink alcohol in India. But it’s not okay to advertise it on television. Immensely silly, I think.

Now I’m off to get me some packaged drinking water.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2007 in India | Small thoughts

Look who’s making demands now

CNN-IBN tells us about the All Kerala Drinkers’ Welfare Association, an association that “pledges to protect the rights of alcoholics.”  This association has apparently “presented the government with a 15-point demand that includes a room for the lower-middle class drinker.”

I wonder why they haven’t asked for reservations yet. Don’t government offices discriminate against alcoholics?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2007 in India

A beast called government

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

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.


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

Courtroom on the idiot box

High-profile court trials live on TV soon,” reports the Times of India. The report elaborates:

The government is speaking to major SMS operators to examine the feasibility of having major cases decided by public voting.

Ok, ok, I made that second bit up. The government doesn’t need to do that. It has other revenue streams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2007 in India

Let us trade with Pakistan

My belief in how we should deal with Pakistan was outlined in an earlier post, where I wrote:

I embrace what appears to many to be two contradictory approaches: an uncompromisingly hard line when it comes to terrorism, and a deepening of trade and people-to-people contact. Both work towards the same end.

I remmbering discussing this with Nitin Pai over a series of emails, trying to bring him round to my point of view, and Nitin has now come out with an excellent Op-Ed in Mint that elaborates on my point about using trade to subvert the military’s hold on Pakistan, and explains how the peace process should be re-engineered. Do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2007 in Economics | India | Politics

Orkut and censorship in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2: Google responds. (Scroll down.)

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

Indian food, Western food and fat Indians

Why do I find this conversation fascinating?

Shut up. That was a rhetorical question.

(Link via email from MadMan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2007 in India

Singur: Media bias or media ignorance?

ATimes of India report begins:

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

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

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

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

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

India in the 19th century

Most of the Indian women I know who are around 30 years old are unmarried—and they’re happy that way. That is why I was somewhat bemused by this line in a Reuters report of Liz Hurley’s wedding:

Indian women are commonly married off in their teens to a man of their parents’ choosing, and are a cause of despair if they are still a spinster at 30.

Clearly the reporter in question, Jonathan Allen, had just flown down to India for the wedding, and obviously hadn’t spent any time here to get to know the place. Perhaps he even read Kipling for his research.

In tune with their coverage of India in the 19th century, another Reuters headline reads, “Horses, elephants to star in Hurley’s Hindu wedding.” I’m relieved that there is nothing in the text about how Indians worship the cow and consider it their mother. Joy.

(Link via Divisha Gupta via email from Gautam John.)

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

The entitlement industry

Everybody wants a share of the pie. Reservations, pah!

(My feelings on reservations have been expressed here. What else is there to say? The divisions grow…)

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2007 in India | Politics

Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.


Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport

God appears!

A 30-year-old gent from Mumbai has reportedly approached the Bombay High Court asking that they declare him to be God. HIndustan Times reports:

“I am the supreme lord and the god of all religions. I am Jesus Christ, Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and even Gautam Buddha. Earlier, I was born as Alexander the great,” Dharmendra Mishra told the court.

This supreme god had one prayer to make to the high court — ask President APJ Abdul Kalam to officially declare him as god and hand him the affairs of the nation.

“Give me the power to rule the country, the world and the United Nations,” he told the division bench of acting Chief Justice J.N. Patel and Justice S.C. Dharmadhikari.

This is savagely joyful. To my unending dismay, the court dismissed his petition, “saying that such a case does not fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary.” Pah.

But the most delightful element of it all is that the fellow works in a call center. I can imagine some poor housewife from Texas calling a helpline because her washing machine isn’t working, and this guy picks up and says, “Hello, this is God on the line. How may I help you?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India

Why Liz Hurley is good for India

Because the economy benefits from her marriage to Arun Nayar. Times of India reports:

The hospitality sector estimates that the Jodhpur wedding [between Nayar and Hurley] should cost about Rs 1 crore.

I’m assuming that with so many foreign guests coming down, and some of them perhaps being tempted to return later, the indirect benefits of the wedding will be even greater than that. And much of the money spent may not have been spent within India if not for Liz Hurley. Thus, however much we may envy the rich their ability so spend so ostentatiously, we should actually encourage them to do more of this, because it ends up creating jobs for people at the bottom of the ladder throughout the hospitality industry.

Also read: “Lavish weddings are good for the economy.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | India

8 billion dollars

Or rather, US$7.922 billion. That’s how much money a Punekar named Hasan Ali was allegedly worth until recently. CNN-IBN reports:

The Income Tax department claims to have traced unaccounted wealth valued at Rs 35,000 crore to accounts operated by a Pune-based businessman Hasan Ali.

If true, and if that is the sum total of Mr Ali’s wealth, he would place No. 62 in the Forbes list of the richest men in the world. What I find stunning is that with this kind of money, he didn’t simply buy himself immunity from the legal system by putting top politicians and bureaucrats in his pocket.

And on an entirely unrelated note, is it only me who finds the following line, from the Wikipedia page on the Sahara Group, somewhat amusing?

Sahara india parivar is the largest family in the world. [sic]

Such procreation must happen!

(CNN-IBN link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India

The silent revolt against government schools

Naveen Mandava had an excellent Op-Ed in Mint today, which he reproduces on his blog, titled “The Unknown Education Revolution in India.” It adds to the argument for school choice in India, and illustrates how lesser government regulation can lead to greater growth.

Also read: My WSJ Op-Ed on the subject, “Why India needs school vouchers.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India

Your maid funds Unani

This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.

These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.

On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”


Posted by Amit Varma on 08 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Thinking it Through

Where your taxes go: 17

To the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy.

This year’s budget allocation: Rs. 563.88 crores. (PDF link.)

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes

On the Taliban, DJs and cows

When the Taliban bans music in the areas where they’re in charge—this one is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan—it’s hardly surprising: we all know what they’re like. But you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people in Haryana to ban DJs, would you? Well, they have. And here’s one reason why:

Due to high volume of music preferred by DJs, people can’t milk buffaloes and cows in the morning as the animals are unable to sleep at night.

Monstrous. Even cows have a right to pardy!

(Link via email from Gautam John, who spotted it on Youth Curry. And yes, I know I said no more cow posts, but the public demand is driving me nuts. So here you go. 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.)

And in case you missed it, the Taliban has also effectively banned shaving. It’s good news for Afghan lice, but it adds an urgency to the War on Terror. After all, Gillette needs to expand into new markets.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Cows

God sulks

You’d think in a poor country such as ours, food would be almost sacred. Well, check this out:

In a country where millions go to bed hungry, Rs 1 million worth of food meant as a holy offering at Orissa’s Jagannath temple was destroyed on Friday because a foreigner had entered it—an act seen as defiling the premises.

Ooh, God is so sensitive, She sulked and refused to eat because a foreigner entered Her dwelling place. Ooh, poor thing.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2007 in India

On rave parties, victimless crimes and shooting the messenger

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

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

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

On internet connections

Dear readers

For your enjoyment, an email conversation is reproduced below, between me and my kind friend Manish Vij, who has consented to the publication of this most-enlightening exchange. Please read from the top. As I am blogging this via broadband, the grain of rice in front of me lies unsullied.

Warm regards and Happy Holi



Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2007 in India | Personal

Where your taxes go: 16

In paying too much for condoms.

(Link via email from reader Jayakamal Balasubramani.

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes

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