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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: Politics

The hypocrisy of the Left

Reader Ila Bhat writes in:

When Salil Tripathi says this:

the clueless British Left, which has such a deep bias against the United States and Israel that it ends up making common cause and an intellectually dishonest alliance with Muslim groups that are anti-women, anti-gay, and far from being progressive, articulate extreme positions.

... he could well be talking about Karat and company, no?


Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2007 in India | Politics

Celebrating Pratibha Patil

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If you are an Indian, your heart should swell up with nationalistic pride today – and perhaps even explode. India elects a president as you read this, and it is likely to be Pratibha Patil. There has been much talk in the media about how she is unfit for that post, an opinion I have also expressed. But now I have seen the light. I was wrong.

Competence and intellect are optional attributes for a post that only has ceremonial value. Our president represents India to the world, and should be someone who people can take one look at and say, “Ah, so India is like that!” For various reasons, Pratibha Tai embodies much of India in her slender frame.

Consider, first, her spirituality. We are a spiritual nation, and Pratibha Tai actually converses with spirits. When she was nominated for the presidency, she revealed that she had been told by an enlightened soul that she was destined for bigger things.

“I had a pleasant experience,” she told an audience at Mt. Abu, where she had gone to meet a lady named Hridaymohini aka Dadiji, who runs a “World Spiritual University”. She had chatted with a gentleman named Dada Lekhraj, who died in 1969 but has presumably hung around since. “Dadiji ke shareer mein baba aye,” she told the audience. (“Baba came in Dadiji’s body.”) This, you will notice with pride, also has a touch of the erotic about it, which is quite appropriate in the land of Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra.

There are many advantages of having a president who can speak to spirits. She can chat with Gandhiji (Mahatma, not Sonia) over breakfast, and let us know his views on the world and Lage Raho Munnabhai. If George W Bush comes visiting, she can impress him by chatting with Saddam Hussein and asking him where those WMDs are. (“Dadiji je shareer mein Saddam aye.”) And so on. Lucky Dadiji.


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

WTF site of the day

Name my vote!

If there was such a site for India, there wouldn’t two options, but 86. Or suchlike.

(Link via email from Ojas Sabnis.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2007 in Politics | WTF

Libertarians and the Iraq War

Gautam emailed a while earlier to point me to a piece by Randy Barnett in the Wall Street Journal on how libertarians were divided by the Iraq War. It reminded me of an excellent post by Don Boudreaux on Cafe Hayek in which he nailed it:

Libertarians properly don’t trust government to run our pension plans, to deliver health care, to educate our children, or to provide disaster relief. Why be so trusting of government to wage war?

Much to my embarrassment now, I supported the Iraq War when it happened. If every intelligence agency in the world believed Iraq had WMD, I figured that must be credible. Removing the evil regime of the monstrous Saddam Hussein would also be a great benefit. The thought of democracy in the middle east also made me happy. Well, naive, stupid me.

I changed my mind on the war once it became apparent how badly the Americans handled the aftermath, with their inflexibility and arrogance exacerbating their serious strategic errors. Given how government functions, how it is essentially just a collection of people with the wrong incentives spending other people’s money, how could I possibly have expected otherwise?

I’m not an American citizen or taxpayer, so it may seem that I don’t have to bear the costs of the war. (I don’t mean merely the monetary ones.) But I am—as are you, I would imagine—on the same side as them on the War on Terror, and their screw-ups affect us all. There are no islands, as John Donne might have said.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2007 in Freedom | Politics

“The western culture of sexual relation”

Somebody please tell me what this quote means:

I think the government wants to import the western culture of sexual relation between student relation to India.

That’s Murli Manohar Joshi, speaking out against sex education in Indian schools in a report by Chetan Chauhan of the Hindustan Times. More from the report:

He [Joshi] said introduction of sex education was what multinationals did to create the desire for sex among teenagers to sell their products. “It is not sex education. It is education to sell condoms,” he alleged.

In a similar vein, Joshi is quoted as saying in another report:

The whole concept of such a syllabus is aimed at creating market for global brands of MNCs and would result in global domination.

At least there is one thing that unites the loonies on the Left and Right of our political spectrum—an irrational and self-serving hatred of MNCs. There’s really not that much difference between Prakash Karat and Murli Manohar Joshi. (I know both of them would feel insulted by this comparison, which adds to my pleasure at making it.)

(Link via elbow-nudge from Rahul.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 July, 2007 in India | Politics | WTF

Licensed to toast

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“You may now need licence to own toaster,” read the headline of a news report this Tuesday in the Hindustan Times. The article began: “You do not use the Toast Authority of India’s toasting services, but may soon have to pay a one-time licence fee for the toaster you own and an additional tax on any new toaster you buy in the future. Why? To support the Toast Authority of India and its employees.”

“Wait a minute,” you tell me, “you’re pulling a fast one on us. This is way too absurd to believe. Our gentle, compassionate government would never do something like that.”

Right. Well, I did make some of that up. The headline actually said, “You may now need license to own TV.” And in the para I quoted, replace “TAI’s toasting services” with Doordarshan, “toaster” with “TV” and “TAI” with “Prasar Bharati”, and there you have it.

Now tell me, is that any less absurd?


Posted by Amit Varma on 12 July, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through

Dear Mrinal Pande

Dear Mrinal Pande

In your column today you insinuate that all opposition to Pratibha Patil is based on her gender. That is unfair. Some of us are opposing Ms Patil not because we’re worried about the empowerment of women, but because of personal flaws that have nothing to do with her gender. Allow me to ask you two questions.

One, are you comfortable with a president who claims that she can converse with spirits? To me, this would indicate a mental health problem, and I hope you would agree with me that our president needs to be of sound mind.

Two, Ms Patil had once expressed her support for forcible sterilization of people with hereditary diseases. Is it not fair to ask that she at least indicates that she has changed her mind on the subject, even if she doesn’t actually apologize for it? Ms Patil supported Indira Gandhi during and after the Emergency, and surely it is fair to worry that she might still represent those values.

Please note that I am not expressing my support for Bhairon Singh Shekhawat by opposing Ms Patil. I am merely bemoaning the fact that the UPA did not choose a better candidate. I would have been delighted if that candidate was a woman, as long as she had the character and intellect that the office of president deserves.

If you would care to stand for the post, Ms Pande, I would support you wholeheartedly. But not Pratibha Patil.


Amit Varma

*  *  *

Previous posts on Pratibha Patil: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 July, 2007 in India | Letters | Politics

A strange cocktail of contradictions

Barkha Dutt’s recent columns in the Hindustan Times have been excellent, and in her latest one she writes:

For too long now, any discussion on the state of India’s largest minority has been entangled in extremities. On the one side is the intolerance and prejudice of the Right, and at the other end is the patronising, politically correct blindness of the Left. There is the indisputable fact that ordinary Muslims in India live on the margins of development and economic wellness. Then, there are the ‘secular’ politicians who play self-appointed benefactors with one eye constantly on elections. There is the unforgettable blemish of the administration-aided riots in Gujarat. And finally, there are the fatwa-happy fanatics — the maulvis and preachers who drag their own people down the hellhole of hatred and are never condemned as strongly as they should be.

It’s time to ask ourselves a blunt question: what exactly is this strange cocktail of contradictions breeding?

There are no easy answers to that question, and Dutt doesn’t pretend otherwise. But it’s important to ask—political correctness be damned.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 July, 2007 in India | Politics

Sangh Parivar goons attack Shivaji Panicker

Hate is being sold wholesale in Gujarat state, it is sadly the state’s biggest export currently.

—Shivaji Panicker, speaking to Mumbai Mirror journalist, Vishwas Kulkarni.

Panicker’s words are hard to disagree with, after what happened to him in Ahmedabad recently, where his car was surrounded by Sangh Parivar activists when he was on his way to attend a function. They threw stones, bricks and “a large, rusted iron drum” at the car, and were only prevented from dragging him out by the intervention of the brave Shabnam Hashmi, an organiser of the function, who stood near the door of the car and blocked their way. (The function, ironically, was the National Student’s Festival for Peace, Communal Harmony and Justice.)

Ms Hashmi’s account of the events is reproduced below the fold—the attitude of the police is particularly shocking. (For some background to this, please read my posts on the Baroda controversy, “Fascism in Baroda,” “Only live in fear,” “The Hindutva Rashtra.”)

These events remind me of Ranjit Hoskote’s words:

[T]he roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.

No doubt many Hindutva followers will take issue with that, and will proclaim that the goons involved in the attack on Panicker are not representative of Hindutva. Fine. Then I suggest that they do one of these two things:

1] Condemn the attacks unequivocally, call for the expulsion of the gundas involved here from any Sangh Parivar organisations that they might belong to, and articulate precisely what Hindutva stands for that these goons went against.

2] Accept these gundas as representative of Hindutva as it stands today, with intolerance at its heart, and a sanction for mob violence.

The first act will be worthy of respect. The second will at least be honest. But they really cannot have it both ways.

What I expect, of course, is rhetoric that makes Panicker out to be the villain of the piece, the ingrate who insulted Hindus and had to be taught a lesson. That is the template strategy in such cases, isn’t it?

Below, Ms Shabnam Hashmi’s account of events, reproduced without any changes:


Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

Arpita and the Bombay Plan

This is the 21st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Much amusement came yesterday when I read of Arpita Mukherjee ranting against singing shows on television. Arpita, in case you haven’t heard of her, is a singer who came to national attention by taking part in singing reality shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Fame Gurukul. She has an album out now called Yeh Hai Chand, and in the course of a recent interview she said, “Reality shows create unnecessary hype.”

She went on to disparage the voting mechanisms of such shows, and said, “most of the competitors who are not talented win music talent hunt reality shows.” Critics of such shows would no doubt be pleased at Arpita’s outburst – she is a beneficiary of the shows she lambasts, which seems to make her criticism credible. Fans of those shows would rail at her hypocrisy and ingratitude. Actually, her comments are entirely rational and predictable. In fact, she reminds me of JRD Tata and GD Birla.

In 1944, with India on the verge of independence, a group of industrialists that included Tata, Birla and other notables like Purushottamdas Thakurdas, AD Shroff and Kasturbhai Lalbhai came up with a document called “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” – also known, famously, as the Bombay Plan. In this, instead of arguing for free markets, they made a case for massive state involvement in the economy. Fans of big government held it up as a sign of validation – India’s biggest businessmen were putting their faith in central planning instead of free markets. In his wonderful book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.”

Well, I find Arpita’s and the industrialists’ actions to be analogous, and not remotely befuddling. The shows Arpita criticises enabled her entry into the music business, but now that she has got her break, they are a threat to her. They provide an assembly line of singing talent to the music industry, acting as a filter for talent, and are the biggest source of competition for Arpita. Who likes competition?

Similarly, state controls on the Indian economy shut out competition, and helped entrenched players like Tata and Birla. It is a different matter that the controls and license raj went too far and hurt even the industrialists who had been in their favour, but they did prevent competitive markets, which was in their interests.

It would be presumptuous to conclude that either Arpita or the Bombay Plan authors consciously intended to shut out competition, but their incentives were certainly aligned that way. And while Arpita’s comments will have no impact on the viewership of reality shows, businessmen who fear competition have harmed this country immeasurably.


Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Prices as signals

From the price of machetes before and after an election, there is so much we learn about the political culture of Nigeria.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

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

AB Bardhan defends Pratibha Patil

Or at least he tries. Of all the charges against Pratibha Patil that I’d outlined in my post, “Why Pratibha Patil should not be president”, the one that shocked me post was the statement she made during the emergency on forced sterilization. Karan Thapar quizzed AB Bardhan on that:

Karan Thapar: Speaking in the Maharashtra Assembly as health minister on December 10, 1975, Mrs Pratibha Patil said we are thinking of forcible sterilisation of people with hereditary diseases. First of all, do you approve of forcible sterilization?

AB Bardhan: I don’t, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything she does or says.

Karan Thapar: Let’s explore this a little further. People with hereditary diseases include people with heart disorders, diabetes, should such people be forcibly sterilised?

AB Bardhan: I don’t think there should be forcible sterilisation of at any stage

Karan Thapar: So, you completely disagree with her?

AB Bardhan: I disagreed with this whole policy of Congress at one stage

Karan Thapar: Then how come such a woman who said this in the assembly - it is recorded in the assembly records - is your nominee for President?

Heh. Nominating Pratibha Patil for president exposes the hypocrisy of the Left, which tries to take the moral high ground on so many issues. Where is their sanctimony and self-righteousness now? After they correctly scuttled the candidacy of Shivraj Patil because he believed in Sai Baba, they supported someone who claims to speak to spirits and believes in astrology. It’s all about politics, not principle.

In more news, Patil comes forward with a bizarre explanation of her purdah comment (link via email from Confused), and India Today informs us (subscription link) that Patil “managed the kitchen in Indira Gandhi’s house when her son Sanjay had died.” I’m sure her puran poli must be delicious.

(Previous posts on Pratibha Patil: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

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

A counterweight to the Marxists

Andy Mukherjee joins the chorus for a political party that supports economic freedom alongside all others. He writes:

Urban middle-class young people are so engrossed in seizing the opportunities presented by the opening up of the economy that they are taking prudent, pro-market policies for granted.

If only they paid more attention to the rise of left-wing politics in Latin America, they would be less sanguine.


Unless there is a counterweight to the Marxists from an equally powerful group that can influence the policies of future coalition governments, there is no hope of quickly freeing the economy from the remaining tentacles of the state.

Without job creation, economic inequality is bound to rise in a country where half the people can’t read or write and even more haven’t been taught the skills needed for participation in the rapidly growing modern economy.

That, in turn, is fertile ground for left-wing extremism, which is already recognized by the government as probably the largest security threat facing the country today.

Would the mere presence of such a party bring about that counterbalance? Our voters being the way they are, even if a classical liberal party did exist, it would probably gain little support in the political arena. The Marxists might have all the wrong ideas, discredited completely by history, but they are couched in the right language, the language of compassion. Support for an interventionist state is far easier to whip up than for free markets, whose mechanisms—spontaneous order, the invisible hand—are so unintuitive.

Still, one lives and blogs in hope.

(My earlier pieces on the subject: “Where’s the Freedom Party?”. “Minoo Masani and the Swatantra Party.” And even earlier: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Also see: “A Liberal Complaint.”)

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

Pratibha Patil on astrology

In my post yesterday, “Why Pratibha Patil should not be president”, I outlined a number of reasons for my opposition to Pratibha Patil. Well, another minor reason emerges—while launching an astrology website last year, the lady had remarked:

Considering the fact that there is so much interest as well as faith in astrology in India, there is need for in-depth study of the possible impact of the recent astronomical findings about the planets. Sometimes we read about 12 planets instead of nine earlier.

Astrology is a serious and deep subject which has a great influence on our society. The growing expectations of the people from this subject requires application of science and technology.

I have no issues with the private beliefs any individual may have, but it does strike me as undesirable for the president of our country to be a superstitious simpleton.

The BJP has asked the UPA to reconsider her candidature, but here’s the irony: If Patil had been a BJP candidate, the UPA and their allies would have been up in arms against her alleged misdeeds—Prakash Karat would have radiated sanctimony—while the BJP would have been supporting her, and the two parties would have accused each other of partisan politics. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which foot the shoe is on: It’s going to trample us no matter what.

(Astrology link via email from Nitin Pai. Previous posts on Pratibha Patil: “Why Pratibha Patil should not be president.” “Wretched.” “The Politics of Division.”

Some earlier posts on superstitious nonsense: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21.)

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

A Liberal Complaint

This is the 20th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Erudita, the Goddess of Words, was snoozing up in heaven when she was woken up by a sudden noise. Deep down in the Vocabulosphere, there was turmoil. “I should go and investigate,” she thought.

She zoomed down. There, bang in the middle of the political spectrum, the word Liberal was pacing to and fro. Left to right. Right to left. Left to right.

“What’s the matter, Liberal?” She asked. “You seem agitated. Is everything okay?”

“Everything okay, everything okay?” mocked Liberal. “Everything is not okay. I want to quit.”

“Quit?” said Erudita. “You can’t quit. As long as humans need you, you have a job to do. Just do it quietly, and all shall be well.”

“Humans,” said Liberal, “are the problem here. A century ago I was happy and peaceful, sure of my identity. I knew what I meant. But in the last few decades, I have been brutalized. My original meaning has been wrung out of me, and now I stand for different things to different people. I have become a label, and a cuss word, and a badge to people who don’t even know what I stand for. Aaargh!”

“Whoa, hold on there,” said Erudita. “I thought you were one of the most important words in modern history, for everything that you embodied. What’s gone wrong? Start at the beginning.”


Posted by Amit Varma on 28 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Why Pratibha Patil should not be president

I had mentioned my misgivings about Pratibha Patil in a post yesterday (“Wretched”), and today, while I was too busy in the morning to blog, as many as eight readers wrote in to point me to this bizarre news about the lady:

Close on the heels of the veil controversy, United Progressive Alliance-Left presidential nominee Pratibha Patil has kicked up another row having claimed that she had a ‘divine premonition’ of greater responsibility coming her way after speaking to a late spiritual guru.

“I had a pleasant experience,” Patil told a gathering in Mt Abu in February recounting her meeting with the head of Brahma Kumaris World Spritual University, Hridaymohini, also popularly known as ‘dadiji.’

Dadiji ke shareer mein baba aye (Baba came in Dadiji’s body),” she said. Her reference was to Dada Lekhraj who founded Brahma Kumari sect. Lekhraj died in 1969.

Patil claimed the late Baba spoke to her indicating that she should be prepared to shoulder greater responsibility.

Haysoos! So now we will have a president who can speak to spirits. But there is more reason to worry about Patil than just the likelihood that she is delusional. Here’s a list:

1] She supported Indira Gandhi during and after the emergency, and once made a statement as health minister:

We are also thinking of forcible sterilization for people with anuvaunshik ajar (hereditary diseases).

2] She ran a bank that had its license revoked in 2003 for “alleged financial irregularities.” Among the reasons: Waivers of loans to her relatives.

3] A sugar factory started by her allegedly defaulted on a loan of Rs 17.70 crore. It’s only fair to ask: Where did the money go?

4] Her knowledge of history is severely flawed, almost simplistically so. (She did provide us with the ironic image of a woman with her head covered asking for the abolition of the purdah. Heh!)

5] There are allegations against her that she protected her brother from a murder charge.

There’s more on the subject from Nitin Pai and Yossarin. Nitin also urges us to put up a banner on our websites asking for answers to all these allegations: I’m carrying it below, and if you want to as well, you can pick it up from here.


Given the gravity of these charges, I think it is reasonable to ask for at least an explanation before she becomes president. And an apology for her role during the emergency. No?

Update: On the subject of Patil’s nomination, do read my piece “The Politics of Division.”

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

Global warming (or will it rain this weekend?)

Emily Yoffe writes in the Washington Post:

Since I hate the heat, even I was alarmed by the recent headline: “NASA Warns of 110-Degrees for Atlanta, Chicago, DC in Summer.” But I regained my cool when I realized the forecast was for close to the end of the century. Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it’s supposed to be a sign I’m in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).

There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I’m oddly reassured. We’ve seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.

Speaking of hubris, I was born in December 1973 in what I am told was the coldest day in North India in many years. And that was about the time when Global Cooling was the rage everywhere. The same certainty, the same hubris.

Of course, I’m not saying that global warming is not happening: there’s no doubt that it is. But some of the forecasts and doomsday scenarios seem baseless and wildly exaggerated. Ronald Bailey writes on the subject in his review of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth here, in which he points out that while Gore is right on the broad issue of the existence of global warming, he overstates the specifics somewhat.

For some of the recent history of climate-change skepticism, I recommend you check out The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. (Here’s a review of it by Denis Dutton.) Also, read Swaminathan Aiyar’s “Global Warming or Global Cooling?” and “The Theology of Global Warming” by James Schlesinger.

Of course, what one believes may also depend on one’s existing worldview, which makes most arguments on it pointless, as they become discussions of faith as much as science. This may apply as much to skeptics as to alarmists. Cantankerous complications cascade.

Meanwhile, will it rain this weekend? Who knows?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 June, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics


I love our politicians. Such things they say. Here’s Bal Thackeray, announcing his support for Pratibha Patil:

It is Maharashtra’s fortune that a Marathi woman is for the first time becoming the President. Those opposing it should be termed as wretched.

Quite. Ms Patil, by the way, supported Indira Gandhi after the Emergency. A bank she set up had its license revoked by the RBI in 2003 for “alleged financial irregularities”, for reasons the Indian Express documents here—among them are waivers of loans to her relatives.

But oh, we mustn’t bring that up, she’s Marathi and all of Maharshtra must be proud of her. Otherwise we’re wretched.

Also read: “The Politics of Division.”

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

Salman Rushdie in short skirts

“When did the poisonous habit of blaming the victims of crime for their suffering spread to Britain?” asks Johann Hari. Citing Salman Rushdie’s case as an illustration of this, he writes:

[A]cross the political spectrum, people have reacted by blaming Rushdie for being the victim of wannabe-murderers. “He cost us £10m!” sneers the right-wing press in unison. You might as well say the Soham victims Holly and Jessica “cost us” millions because we had to investigate the crime against them; it makes as much sense.

Ah, the critics say, but he brought it on himself. He wrote things he knew were “provocative”. George Galloway, completing his journey to the theocratic far right, has sneered that his novel is “indeed positively Satanic”, and said “he turned 1.8 billion people in the world against him when he talked about their prophet in a way that can only be described as blasphemous.”

This is exactly analogous to saying a woman wearing a short skirt is responsible for being dragged into an alley and raped. It is also flecked with a form of soft racism, since Galloway assumes all Muslims are excitable children who can only react to querying of the Koran with attempted butchery.

Dead right. “Don’t offend people and make them angry.” “Don’t wear short skirts and arouse potential rapists.” Same difference.

And this tendency is common in India as well. Pioneer editor and Hindutva fascism apologist Chandan Mitra took exactly this approach during a talk show on the Baroda issue, asking why Chandra Mohan had to make paintings with a religious theme. In another talk show on another subject, another apologist asked why MF Hussain didn’t paint his mother nude. But then, in a country where giving offence is a crime, why should we be surprised that Chandra Mohan and Hussain were being treated as the culprits?

My posts on the Baroda affair: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.” Also read: “Don’t insult pasta” and “Fighting against censorship.”

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

How voters fail democracy

My review below of The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan, appears in today’s Mint.

Oh, how we bemoan politicians in India. We call them corrupt, undereducated, sometimes criminal, occasionally senile, and we complain about how they do nothing for the country. And then, again and again, we vote in the very people we rant about. Is this a failure of democracy? If so, what causes it?

The traditional answer economists would give you, from public choice theory, is “rational ignorance”. The costs of casting an informed vote outweigh the potential benefits. Our vote, let’s face it, would count only in the immensely unlikely event of a tie. To gather and evaluate all the information required in terms of the policies that a government should follow are too time-consuming for us. Thus, it is rational to remain relatively ignorant. And because of this rational ignorance, bad governments come to power, and are in the sway of special interests, for whom the benefits outweigh the costs of influence.

This is not just an elegant theory, but also politically correct. Voters aren’t stupid, it tells us, merely rational. Well, along comes Bryan Caplan, who teaches at the George Mason University in Virginia and is a popular economics blogger, to tell us that democracy fails not because voters are rationally ignorant, but because they are irrational. In the introduction to The Myth of the Rational Voter, he writes: “In the naïve public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want. In the view of most democracy sceptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.”

Caplan’s book is written in an American context, and is yet profoundly relevant to India, and will evoke jolts of recognition from readers here. For a significant part of the book, he outlines the different biases that people tend to have, in the face of all evidence. There is the anti-market bias, people’s inability to “understand the ‘invisible hand’ of the market”. There’s the anti-foreign bias, a distrust of foreigners and an underestimation of the benefits of trading with them. There’s the make-work bias, which causes people to “equate prosperity not with production, but with employment”. And there’s the pessimistic bias, which makes people “overly prone to think that economic conditions are bad and getting worse”.


Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics

Instructions for Pratibha Patil

WTF headline of the day: “Hang Modi: Afzal’s diktat to Pratibha.”

Uh, wait, actually it’s “Hang Afzal: Modi’s diktat to Pratibha.”

Same difference. Both Modi and Afzal have no business giving diktats to Patil. Though it is understandable that one of them should have delusions of grandeur. FSM save us all!

(Link via email from reader Nina.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 June, 2007 in India | Politics | WTF

Irshad Manji is offended

In an excellent article, Irshad Manji explains why she is offended by the Muslim world’s reaction to Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. She sums it up by saying:

Above all, I’m offended that so many other Muslims are not offended enough to demonstrate widely against God’s self-appointed ambassadors. We complain to the world that Islam is being exploited by fundamentalists, yet when reckoning with the opportunity to resist their clamour en masse, we fall curiously silent.

In a battle between flaming fundamentalists and mute moderates, who do you think is going to win?

Of course, it’s not only in Islam, or even religion, that we see battles between flaming fundamentalists and mute moderates. But that’s the biggest battleground of our times.

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

Pictures that define our times

Gautam points me, via email, to this collection: Images that changed the world. There are some stunning photographs there, many of which you would have seen earlier. They’re worth revisiting, if only to be reminded of the turmoil of the last 100 years. What event will the next such photograph capture?

My favourite among all of them is one that stands for so much more than just the time and place it was taken. Here you go:


Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Freedom | Journalism | Politics

The politics of division

This is the 19th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Politics in India sometimes seems like a card game. A few days ago, when Pratibha Patil’s candidature for president of India was announced, the newspapers were full of how the UPA was playing the “gender card.” Her record in politics was not at the heart of her nomination – Patil is a woman, and because of that alone, politicians were expected to support her.

Vir Sanghvi wrote last Sunday of how Prakash Karat vetoed every name the Congress threw at him till he was outwitted by the choice of Patil. “If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil,” wrote Sanghvi, “he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.” A news report told us of how the Congress “attacked the BJP for not supporting Patil for the post of the President of India and accused the saffron party of being ‘blatantly’ against the cause of women.” (It can be presumed that had the UPA’s candidate been male, the BJP would have been “against the cause of men.”)

While the BJP did not succumb to this dubious logic, they were certainly worried. Their assumed ally, the Shiv Sena, had reacted to Patil’s candidature by applauding the fact that she was from Maharashtra. The Maharashtra card! (At the time of writing, the Sena is yet to make a final choice – they haven’t yet put all their cards on the table.)

Cards, cards, cards. Ten years ago KR Narayanan won support across the political spectrum because of the “Dalit card”. Five years ago APJ Abdul Kalam benefited from the “Muslim card”. Both men have their fans, and I even know one person who likes Kalam’s poetry, but the political support they got derived from their Dalitness and Muslimness respectively. Parties that could not afford to be seen as anti-Dalit or anti-Muslim found it hard to oppose them.

The office of president is largely ceremonial in India, and it doesn’t bother me if we choose our figurehead according to caste or religion or gender. But the very fact that these factors count underlines the grip of identity politics in this country. The primary factor in Indian elections is not governance but identity, not what you do but who you are.


Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Why should Pratibha Patil’s gender matter?

One would imagine that while putting up the name of Pratibha Patil as their presidential candidate, the UPA would cite her career record as the reason for the nomination. Instead, all we get to hear about is her gender. Because she is a woman, the rhetoric goes, everyone should support her. Mumbai Mirror reported yesterday:

The NDA has made up its mind to keep its nominee in the presidential fray after its top leader Atal Behari Vajpayee said the alliance would not agree to the candidature of UPA nominee Pratibha Patil. But the Congress is unhappy. It attacked the BJP for not supporting Patil for the post of the President of India and accused the saffron party of being “blatantly” against the cause of women.

“It is very unfortunate that at this crucial moment in India’s history, the Opposition BJP does not have the political grace, social commitment or the moral fibre to support the candidature of Patil,” party spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan said.

She said any political party which has even a minimum commitment to the cause of women would have come forward to support UPA in this “historic” initiative.

And no doubt in the past when the BJP refused to support the Congress’s choice for president, and that choice happened to be a man, they did so because they were “‘blatantly’ against the cause of men.” Figures.

Meanwhile, Mumbai Mirror also reports the following exchange between Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee:

Sonia: Main paheli baar aapse kuch maang rahi hoon.

Vajpayee: Humne to aap ko desh de diya hai. Aur kya de sakte hain?

Heh. And while Karan Thapar unwisely confesses that he is responsible for Pratibha Patil’s nomination, Vir Sanghvi points out:

[L]et’s not get carried away by all this politically correct pro-woman hypocrisy. At least six names were considered by the UPA and the Left (Pranab, Arjun Singh, Karan Singh, Shivraj Patil, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Motilal Vora and more). Not one was a woman.

The only reason Pratibha Patil’s name came up was because the Congress had wearied of Prakash Karat’s veto. No matter what name the party came up with, Karat refused to move beyond Pranab or Arjun Singh. When even dull but deserving Shivraj Patil was turned down, the Congress had the bright idea of coming up with a woman compromise candidate. If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil, he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.

This is where I point out that Mahima Chaudhary is a woman. This is also where I point out that had a Mango been nominated, no one would have dared oppose it, for that would have seemed both anti-national and anti-fruit. What other healthy food is there, then? Spinach?

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 June, 2007 in India | Politics

Why Jug Suraiya supports Shivraj Patil


Also, doubts have been expressed about how Pratibha Patil will carry our a president’s onerous duties if she continues to wear a saree. DNA quotes a protocol officer as saying:

[I]f she wants to jump onto a tank or climb into a fighter, or spend a day out at sea with the Navy, as the past Presidents have been doing, then she may have to think of adding salwar kameezs or trousers to her wardrobe.

At this point, let me just say that I sincerely hope that Ms. Patil does not want to “jump onto a tank or climb into a fighter, or spend a day out at sea with the Navy.” Those aren’t essential tasks for a figurehead, and there is no need for her to be macho.

And much as I like salwars, I can’t think of any essential presidential duty that Ms. Patil cannot perform in a saree. Hell, even Abdul Kalam should wear them. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2007 in India | News | Politics

Don’t let it be

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Indeed. And so much for any freedom party.

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

The comfort of a worldview

This is the 18th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The other day I was at a party with some highly intelligent people with strong views on the world. We talked about politics, economics, movies, and, as you’d expect from Indian men, cricket. Among the subjects that stirred up heated arguments were global warming, farmer suicides and the existence of God.

You might think that of all these worthy subjects, debating the existence of God is pointless. It is a matter of faith, and lies beyond reason. I agree. But I’d point out that for all practical purposes, the other subjects we argued about aren’t too different.

Everyone present there had strong views on global warming, but none of them completely understood the science behind it, or could explain the difference between a climate model and a ramp model. All of them vociferously offered conflicting solutions for our agricultural crisis, but their belief was rooted in intentions, without a historical perspective of what had actually gone wrong, and how markets and prices work. As the hours slipped by and the pegs piled up, we conducted opinionated drawing-room discussions on complex subjects whose intricacies none of us had mastered.

Now, this is not a condemnation. The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive shortcuts to understanding the world. Such shortcuts often result in neat little packages known as worldviews.


Posted by Amit Varma on 14 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Ten Commandments for Manmohan Singh

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar is bang on target here. I love the way it ends.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2007 in India | Politics

Poverty and planning

Historically, poverty has never been ended by central planners. It is only ended by searchers, both economic and political, who explore solutions by trial and error… A Planner thinks he already knows the answers: he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance: he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.

—William Easterly, quoted in Niranjan Rajadhyaksha’s column in Mint today, “Antidotes to Poverty.”

Also worth reading: Nitin Pai’s “The Great Leap Backward.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2007 in Economics | Politics

The next Indian cricket coach: APJ Abdul Kalam

Now that Graham Ford has turned down the chance to coach India’s cricket team, who should the BCCI turn to? Himanshu Gupta writes in to suggest APJ Abdul Kalam’s name. His reasons:

1. Abdul Kalam can give inspirational speeches (not like mangoes), so he can do a better job of India coach rather than Graham Ford who was supposed to give speeches only to players.

2. He’ll write one bestseller book: Indian cricket team in 2020. Revenues will give the BCCI huge financial strength and money through legal avenues.

3. He’ll make Dhoni realize that there’s more to cricket than growing long hair by giving him sufficient competition.

4. A coach’s job can’t be scrutinized through RTI. So, as is obvious, Abdul Kalam also will love to have this job.

I agree with Himanshu, and have an addition to make to his list of reasons: Kalam can continuously motivate his players by reading out his poems in the dressing room. There’s no way a batsman out in the middle would then want to return to the pavilion.

I also suggest that the BCCI give Kalam a large enough budget to conduct a space program on its behalf. He can then send some of our players to Mars, which would not be entirely a bad thing.

On the other hand, even a Mango would make a good coach.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 June, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics | Sport

General Musharraf like Nelson Mandela?

Do read Dr Farrukh Saleem’s open letter to General Pervez Musharraf. Good points, but will Musharraf listen? Not a hope in hell.

More: General Musharraf’s Incentives.

(Link via email from Murali Reddy.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2007 in Politics

“Free-range lunacy”

Joe Klein’s complaining about America’s left-wing blogs. Heh.

(Link via email from Sanjay Sipahimalani.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2007 in Journalism | Media | Politics

How to disturb communal harmony

Start a group on Orkut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link via email from Gautam John.)

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

No one to defend freedom

Jerry Rao writes in Mint:

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

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

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

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

Mobs are above the law

This is the 17th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I felt an intense desire yesterday to go out and burn a bus. There was no specific reason for this – it was like a craving for ice-cream – and I also figured that I would throw stones at shop windows afterwards. Being in a social mood, I called up a couple of friends to ask if they would like to join me. They politely declined. Oddly, they also asked if I was okay. “I’m just fine,” I told them. “You go have latte and feel sophisticated.”

But I understand their apprehension. Had a couple of us gone out and burnt a bus, we would have been arrested instantly, and later thrashed in the lock-up. On the other hand, had a couple hundred of us gone, nothing would have happened. We would have been allowed to burn buses and throw stones, and even hurt or kill a few people as long as they weren’t anyone influential. All we’d need was a banner or two, or even just some slogans to shout. “We want justice,” we could proclaim, while figuring out whether you set fire to the tyre before or after it’s around the hapless passerby. It takes skill.

In India, mobs are above the law. The events in Rajasthan in the last few days are an illustration of this. The losses to business because of the protests by the Gujjars and their clashes with the Meenas are estimated to run in the hundreds of crores, and I think you’d agree with me that a lot of it was avoidable. Most mob violence in India is.


Posted by Amit Varma on 07 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Where your taxes go: 21

Building malls.

You have to wonder what we have learned in the last 60 years. The BMC is reportedly planning to “construct ‘municipal malls’ at various spots in the city,” where “prices of commodities would be regulated ... so that they could ‘cater to the masses’.” Mumbai Mirror rightly lashes out:

All this focus on a ‘business enterprise’ comes at a time when hundreds of roads across the city are still dug up, a large part of the Mithi river is yet to be cleaned up though the monsoon is already here, the city’s massive parking problems need urgent solutions, the Jijamata Udyan needs a thorough clean-up, octroi evasion is depriving the BMC of crores of rupees, the question of adequate and 24/7 water supply is still to be resolved, most BMC schools are on the verge of closure, and Mumbaikars on the whole want the city’s crumbling civic services to be improved.

The populist rhetoric accompanying the proposal is startlingly naive. These malls, a ‘civic official’ is quoted as saying, will “accommodate small shops that have been forced to shut because of big malls and also the BMC’s development projects.” The BMC should ask itself a few basic questions: If some small shops have shut down because of big malls, why is that so? When they don’t regulate prices outside those malls (with good reason!), how will regulating them inside the malls help? If those shops could function at a price lower than the market, wouldn’t they have destroyed the big malls, instead of the other way around? Isn’t the whole point of a market to satisfy the needs of the consumer, and is there any point accommodating stores inside government malls that the consumers have rejected outside them?

My prediction: If any such malls come up, they will become vehicles of enrichment for rent-seeking officials. Space within the malls will be allocated to merchants at the discretion of municipal officials, and corruption will be rampant. These malls will not turn a profit. You and I, again, will end up as shmucks. And the roads will still have potholes.

(Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Also see: 1, 2, 3.

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 June, 2007 in Economics | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

Reservations for nerds and geeks!

Nitin Pai sends me an email titled “Nerds & Geeks are Scheduled Tribes.” He points me to the criteria for being recognised as ST:

The first list was thus promulgated on Sep.6, 1950 and is known as the Constitution (ST) Order 1950. The criteria fixed for inclusion of a community in the list of STs are:

1. Indications of primitive traits,
2. Distinctive culture,
3. Geographical isolation,
4. Shyness of contact with the community at large, and
5. Backwardness

Nitin’s got a point. I think nerds and geeks should just get together and organise a bandh now. Dweebs of the world unite!

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 June, 2007 in India | Politics

Edward Heath, pandas and Indian politicians

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

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

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

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

Who pays Dick Cheney’s salary?

Makes me wonder.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2007 in Politics

The medium of dissent

Garry Kasparov writes in Business Week:

During my years as a hero of the chess-crazed Soviet Union, I appeared regularly on state-controlled television and in newspapers. What I would give for such access today! Since I retired from chess two years ago to enter a new fray, the fight for democracy in Russia against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin, traditional media have been closed to me. Instead, I’ve gained an appreciation for a less-traditional means of communication: the Internet.

I feel both cynical and hopeful about what he’s saying. Cynical, because if the internet ever becomes a threat to Putin and his men, they’ll clamp down on it instantly. Hopeful, because it is still useful in telling the outside world how things really are in Russia. Cynical, again, because who cares? Hopeful, again, because Kasparov, I believe, is an immensely shrewd man, and will find a way to win the greatest game of his life. Cynical, again, because he has to defeat not just a corrupt regime, but the weight of history.


PS. He hasn’t forgotten chess.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2007 in Politics

Mob rules

Capital chaos continues amid Gujjar protests,” the Times of India tells us.

Really, I don’t care what these chaps are protesting, or whether I agree with their cause or not—protests that inconvenience others in this manner should simply not be allowed. An ideal protest should be peaceful and non-intrusive, but in India the law turns a blind eye on all public displays that cause damage or disturb other people’s everyday lives, as long as it’s for a political or religious reason. Bandhs, morchas, processions, if they get in someone’s way, the law should crack down strongly. Period.

Sadly, that rarely happens. So the next time you want to protest, gather a mob and set some buses on fire. A lonely, civil voice counts for little.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 June, 2007 in India | Politics

In the prime of old age

Mint has a piece up today on some possible successors to APJ Abdul Kalam. They’ve profiled eight men, and I’d like to share their ages with you: 70, 78, 71, 83, 71, 65, 74, 75.

Now, I know that it’s a ceremonial post, but barring the 75-year-old Kalam and the 83-year-old Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, all of them are active politicians: They include the prime minister, the home minister, the foreign minister, the power minister and the HRD minister. So while our country may supposedly be full of youth and vitality, and our leaders aren’t, well, quite so young.

Meanwhile, in London, Tony Blair is set to leave politics at 54. And in Paris, the 52-year-old Nicholas Sarkozy has just taken over as president. In India, they’d still be wearing political diapers.

At this point, looking forward to my post-lunch fruit, I reiterate my support for the Mango as president of India. Amitava Kumar, who agrees with my recommendation, had written in saying, “Haan, theek hai. President bhi aakhir aam aadmi hota hai.” Quite, and fresh as well, if you choose carefully.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in India | Politics

Religion isn’t just a personal matter…

... it can also be a political statement.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with political statements, and I wish these neo-Buddhists well, and respect their decision. But I wonder what the Buddha would have thought.

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

Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Barack Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics is different

The employee of a corporation who buys something for $10 and sells it for $8 is not likely to do so for long. Someone who, in a family setting, does much the same thing, may make his wife and children miserable throughout his life. A politician who wastes his country’s resources on a grand scale may have a successful career.

Ronald Coase, quoted in The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, a book I’ve just started reading.

The excerpt above reminds me of Milton Friedman’s brilliant quote about the four ways in which you can spend money. But why don’t voters punish such extravagance? Well, that’s what Caplan’s book seeks to explain, so if you see it at a local bookstore, pick it up. I love what I’ve read of it so far, and you can read more about it from Tyler Cowen, Don Boudreaux and Greg Mankiw.

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

Dilip Chitre responds to Arun Jaitley

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

Crisis in Culture

by Dilip Chitre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion = Immunity

Dawood Ibrahim missed a trick. He should have established himself as a religious leader, and then entered the world of crime. The law would have been far more lenient towards him. Consider this Hindustan Times report:

Hardening its stand on seeking removal of Dera Sacha Sauda sect campuses from Punjab, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) Wednesday said it did not matter even if the move was unconstitutional.


Queried about the legality of the Akal Takht’s hukumnama, or edict, seeking closure of all Dera properties by May 27, SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said he was “ignorant” of laws or the constitution.

“For us the Akal Takht is supreme and its hukumnama will be implemented. I have not read the law or the constitution and do not bother. We will ensure that the Dera activities are completely stopped in Punjab,” Makkar said. [My emphasis.]

I hope the law protects the victims of Makkar’s intended actions. But it does worry me that he can make such statements with such impunity, when even the mafia would not be so open about it. What gives him such confidence?

(Quiet! That’s a rhetorical question!)

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

“A trial balloon”

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

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

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

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

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