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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

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

Mango for president

It seems that APJ Abdul Kalam is unlikely to be re-elected India’s president, so this is an appropriate time to suggest a successor. My candidate is the Indian Mango.

I ate a Mango a couple of hours ago, and it was immensely refreshing. Most importantly, it did nothing that would be inappropriate for the president’s office. Indeed, the Mango has many qualifications that make it ideal for that exalted post, and I list some of them here:

1. Mangoes do not write poetry.

2. Mangoes do not want to waste taxpayers’ money to put Indians on Mars.

3. Mangoes will not try to keep themselves out of the scope of the RTI, despite getting a salary from taxpayers’ money.

4. Mangoes will not make the news for trivial reasons, and will stay away from celebrityhood.

5. Mangoes will not have hairstyles.

And so on. You do realize that I can keep adding to this list, I’m sure. It is quite clear to me, and I hope you agree, that the Mango should be our next president. What’s that? What did you say?

How dare you? Let me reiterate my motto of the day: Mangoes are people too.

Thank you. Do come for the inauguration.

Update: An anonymous reader writes in:

I disagree with your choice. Amartya Sen would make a better president. How will a mango carry out the duties of the office?

What duties?

Update 2: Jim O’Neil writes in with a dramatic point of view that has made me think again about my endorsement. I reproduce his email below the fold:


Posted by Amit Varma on 23 May, 2007 in India | Personal | Politics

At what point do you stop being a slave?

I won’t be blogging for the next few hours—it is rumoured that I have a life outside of blogging—so for that time, I leave you with “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick. Magnificent.

(Link via Cafe Hayek.)

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

Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal

Vir Sanghvi makes an immensely valid point here:

Every liberal I know argued that MF Husain had the right to paint a naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata. Yet, hardly any liberal of my acquaintance extended the same principle to the Danish cartoons. The liberal position was that Hindus should be tolerant of the manner in which their gods and goddesses were portrayed but that Muslims were right to complain about any visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed.

By ‘liberal’, of course, he is referring to the Leftists who have appropriated that term (both in India and the US), and are hardly liberal in the classical sense. So while liberalism is all about individual freedoms, many Indian ‘liberals’ are actually against economic freedom, and their support for social freedoms depends on convenience. As Sanghvi points out, many of them have double standards, speaking out for free speech on issues where the BJP is involved, but being silent when people of other religions act in an equally repugnant manner. As I wrote here, such ad-hoc support does nothing for the cause.

(Readers of this blog would know that I invite abuse from intolerant people everywhere by speaking up against violations of free speech regardless of the religion of the violators: one of the most-read posts on this blog is the one speaking up for the Danish cartoonists, and I’ve expressed myself on the subject adequately in “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”.)

What gets my youthful goat, however, is when Hindutva supporters use the hypocrisy of some of the protesters against the Baroda incidents to distract from the larger issue of oppression and free speech. Focussing on people instead of issues is a typical diversionary tactic, and I think they would be much better off simply stating, “We do not believe in free speech. We believe our religious sentiments are more important than your individual freedoms. So there.” That would at least be an honest position, and would address the issues involved. But public discourse in India focusses more on personality than on issues, ignoring arguments while attacking the people making them. Pity.

(My posts on the Baroda incidents: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics


The New York Times reports:

The United States is continuing to make large payments of roughly $1 billion a year to Pakistan for what it calls reimbursements to the country’s military for conducting counterterrorism efforts along the border with Afghanistan, even though Pakistan’s president decided eight months ago to slash patrols through the area where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are most active.

[...] So far, Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion under the program over five years, more than half of the total aid the United States has sent to the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not counting covert funds.

As I’d written in my essay, “General Musharraf’s incentives,” the carrots aren’t working. And the US is too scared to try the stick, having bought Musharraf’s bluff of après him le déluge. And so it goes…

(Link via email from Manish Vij, who has recently returned to the US, and after numerous emails about how his broadband is 82 times faster than mine, has started sending me screenshot evidence. Fug you, Mr Vij. Fug you and your broadband. We have culture and family values here in India. You can stig your broadband you know where, and make that broad too. So there.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 May, 2007 in Personal | Politics

Mumbai buses blamed for blasts in Hyderabad

There have been bomb blasts in Hyderabad, at the the Mecca Masjid compound near the Charminar. Shivraj Patil has said that a crude bomb caused the blast, while AP chief minister, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, has stated the obvious.

Meanwhile, back in Mumbai, some chaps have reacted to this by stoning buses in Kurla. Why? What have buses in Kurla got to do with it? Have buses planned these attacks? Do we even know yet who has carried out these attacks? Who are we stoning?

I think I’m just going to go and get stoned now. If anything significant happens on this story, I’ll update this post and maybe make it sticky.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 May, 2007 in India | Politics

The Hindutva Rashtra

This is the 14th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of a speech given by Shri Adolf Shah at the Baroda University on 17 May 2022.

Dear Friends

I welcome you to Baroda University for this special ceremony. This day marks the eighth anniversary of Shri Neeraj Jain’s appointment as vice-chancellor of this university by our honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. We have seen some glorious days under him, and have grown almost analogously with our Hindu Rashtra, as India has officially been for the last decade. Indeed, these two stories are interlinked, and if you permit me, I shall take you through some of our most glorious moments. The monitor on top of the stage will instruct you when to clap; please do so.

Shri Jain first came to our notice when he protested against some paintings at the now long-defunct fine arts faculty around 15 years ago. Shri Jain said the paintings offended his religious sensibilities, and his valiant thugs manhandled the painter, who was sent to jail. Many people protested, including the dean of the faculty, who, in contrast with protesters of later years, was lucky to get away with just a suspension. It was an important moment for us, for reasons other than just the emergence of Mr Jain.


Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Question of the day

Why is the average age at nudist camps steadily rising?

My guess is that young people come to check it out, find themselves surrounded by older, fatter people, and don’t bother to turn up again. Meanwhile, older, fatter people who turn up see people like themselves, and feel comfortable enough to return. It’s a vicious circle—or a virtuous one if you don’t like youngsters around.

And what if someone started a nudist camp in India? My guess is that there would be no women and 80,000 men, all craning their necks madly to spot the women they fantasized about, and discreetly checking out each other’s, um, size. Social networking in the buff, until the moral police descends and points out that nudity is against Indian culture.

(Link via email from Abhinav.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2007 in India | Miscellaneous | Politics

Only live in fear

The placard in the picture below, from the protest in Mumbai about the Chandramohan affair, says it all (click to enlarge):


My summary of the events that led to the protest is in the post, “Fascism in Baroda.” The turnout at the protest was immensely encouraging, and Ranjit Hoskote and gang did a great job of organising it. Senior artists like Tyeb Mehta, Jehangir Sabawala and Jaideep Mehrotra turned up, and I spotted many younger artists among those gathered, such as Riyaz Komu, Payal Khandwala, Apnavi Thaker, Julius Macwan and Dhruvi Acharya. There were also others like Syed Mirza, Anil Dharkar, Pratap Sharma and Keku Gandhi present. A few speeches were made. The people gathered seemed attentive, and committed.

I have two concerns, though.

One, in rightly condemning the gundas, I worry that we might forget about the laws that enable such gundagardi in the first place. The Indian Penal Code has simply too many draconian laws that need to be scrapped, starting with Section 295 (a). These are not archaic laws that rarely gets used: As I outlined in my piece, “Don’t Insult Pasta,” these laws have been invoked with alarming regularity in recent times.

Two, I worry that protests such as these might turn out to be ad-hoc events, and not part of a broad-based movement to defend free speech. For example, as Peter pointed out in a chat when I mentioned this worry, when Blogspot was blocked by the Indian government, many bloggers rose up in arms because they were affected, but have not been heard from since. Similarly, the artist community has rallied superbly behind their man, but will they show the same commitment towards free speech if the moral police attacks someone from another profession tomorrow? For example, how many people protested when the publisher of a joke book was thrown in jail because the “religious sentiments” of some people were offended?

The issues here run deeper than one bunch of goons attacking one painter and his work. I hope the scope of the protest expands beyond that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Politics

Fascism in Baroda

I suppose many of you would be familiar with the recent events in Baroda. An internal evaluation of students is on at the Fine Arts Faculty in Baroda. A BJP leader named Neeraj Jain storms in with a bunch of gundas. He has a problem with some paintings by a student named Chandramohan that use religious imagery. Jain and his gundas beat up Chandramohan, and abuse faculty members and students. Things are getting out of hand when the police arrive. They will surely arrest Jain and put an end to this, you would think.

But no, they arrest the painter, for his art is the crime under the Indian Penal Code, not the hooliganism showed by Jain and his cohorts. Chandramohan is whisked off to jail. Five days later, as I type these words, he is still behind bars.

The artist community obviously rises up, and organises an exhibition documenting erotica in Indian and Western art. It is a peaceful way of showing their protest. The pro-vice-chancellor of the university arrives and demands that the exhibition be terminated. The dean of the faculty, Dr Shivaji Panikkar, takes a stand and refuses to do so. He is suspended. As I type these words, he is in hiding, worried about what the ruffians could do to him.

The matter is being followed at Art Concerns, who have a detailed chronology of events up here. Do also read what Ranjit Hoskote, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Johny ML have to say, as well as this piece by Abhijeet Tamhane. Peter Griffin has more links here, as well as details of a public protest I intend to be part of in Mumbai.

My feelings on this will be known to regular readers of India Uncut, and have been laid out in pieces like “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”, as well as many posts (such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) It is ludicrous that giving offence is a crime in India, and shameful that the Indian Penal Code actually enables this suppression of free speech, and empowers oppression. For Chandramohan the artist to be in jail for five days (so far) and for Neeraj Jain the gunda to walk free is a slap on the face of all those who think that our nation respects and protects individual freedom.

No doubt some readers will be upset that I used the word “Fascism” in the headline to this post. Well, I hesitated before doing so, wondering if such a strong word was advisable. Then I went to the Wikipedia entry on Fascism, and came across this excellent definition by Robert Paxton (from this book):

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

The Wikipedia article then quotes Paxton as summing up the essence of Fascism thus:

1. a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions; 2. belief one’s group is the victim, justifying any action without legal or moral limits; 3. need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts; 4. right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint; 5. fear of foreign `contamination.

All this sounds immensely familiar to me. And so I shall end by quoting the end of Ranjit Hoskote’s fine piece:

It appears that the champions of a resurgent Hindu identity are acutely embarrassed by the presence of the erotic at the centre of Hindu sacred art. As they may well be, for the roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.

What happens next? Will the champions of Hindutva go around the country destroying temple murals, breaking down monuments, and burning manuscripts and folios?

Also, isn’t a Hindu then entitled to say that his religious feelings are offended by Hindutva? Huh?

Update: Chandramohan has got bail, but I am informed that things are still tense in Baroda. The protest there has been called off, but is very much on in Mumbai at least.

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

The Devil’s Compassion

This is the 12th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the transcript of a speech given by the demon Beelzebub at the 90th Annual Convention of Demonic Beings.

Comrades and Monsters,

Welcome. I can barely express my joy at the unspeakable horror of being present among such hideous monsters as yourselves – demonic beings dedicated to the ruin and damnation of humanity. In various ways, under the cunning guise of doing good, we have brought sadness and misery upon humanity. We have perpetuated poverty, hatred and ill-health. I wish today, for the sake of the young apprentice beasts present here, to speak about our primary tool of achieving all this: Compassion.

Humans, you see, are fooled by appearances. Come to them as a wrinkled monster with horns, and they recoil. Pretend to be a loving grandpa, and their defences are down. We senior demons realised long ago that to hurt the humans, we have to pretend to care for them. Even as we have nothing but their marination in mind, we must appear compassionate. Stating the most noble intent, we must unleash the very worst of policies. Even better, we must fool some humans, who themselves wish to appear compassionate, into pushing these very policies.

And how we have succeeded! Everywhere there are politicians sincerely pushing well-intentioned policies that are disastrous for the people they are supposed to help. Of course, some people see through our evil designs and protest, but they are dismissed as cruel and uncaring, for they are questioning compassion itself. The irony!


Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

The committee decides everything!

Karan Thapar is grilling Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi on banning FTV. The following delightful exchange takes place:

Karan Thapar: When does taste become good and bad?

Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi: When the committee feels it’s good, it’s good, when it feels its bad it’s bad.

Haysoos! This is a parody of itself. What comment can writers like me possibly make?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

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

Discarded poetry causes terror alert

Actually, the dark skin of the poetry discarder was the problem here. Not the poetry, which would be entirely more understandable, given how most poetry is.

Imagine if one day everyone wakes up to find that their skin colour has changed. All the whites are black, all the blacks are white, all the browns are also white, all the yellows are also white, even chimpanzees and gorillas are white. What fun, no?

(Link via Amitava Kumar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | Politics

George Orwell and Ashwani Kumar

George Orwell once wrote, in his classic essay “Politics and the English language”:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

A fine illustration of the kind of sloppy language Orwell warned us about appears in the Hindustan Times today, in a piece written by a minister in our national government, Ashwani Kumar. He writes:

For the record, and by way of a gentle reminder, it needs to be reiterated that Nehru’s contribution as the architect of modern India and as the leader of the freedom movement is firmly established in the annals of modern Indian history. Nehru’s pre-eminence is assured for his idealism and for being the one who articulated in his vision the will of his age and redeemed his promise through ceaseless service of his people.

That second sentence, especially, is monstrous, and I worry when the language of our politicians is so shabby, for it surely reflects in the way they think as well. (“Will of his age”? Individuals have a will, ages don’t!) And yes, it is entirely possible that Mr Kumar’s first language may not be English, but there is then surely all the more reason for simple writing. The rest of his piece, in which he defends the Nehru-Gandhi family with all the eagerness and lucidity of a well-trained labrador, is quite as worrying.

(As if you haven’t read it already, here’s my piece on the Nehru-Gandhi family. And yes, I know a case can be made for the family as well, but for FSM’s sake, make it well then!)

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

Does the two-rupee coin reflect a communal agenda?

A few weeks ago, Prabhu had alerted me to a strange controversy over the new two-rupee coin. It seemed too bizarre to blog about: there are weirdos everywhere, and while they cause much amusement, it is best to leave them alone. Well, now reader Annette writes in to inform me that the BJP has taken up the issue, and wants to debate it in parliament. (Parliament runs on taxpayers’ money, I need not remind you.)

And what is the controversy about? Well, in the first article I linked to, a gentleman named V Sundaram pointed out that there is a cross with four dots on the back of the new two-rupee coin that is very similar to one issued by issued by Louis the Pious in the ninth century. See the picture below:


Mr Sundaram claims that this “calculated national mischief” reflects, in the words of a gentleman he approvingly quotes, “the calculated motive of the Italian-led government [...] to spread Christianity in India.” He writes:

Ever since the UPA government under the dynastic stranglehold of Sonia Gandhi came to power in New Delhi in May 2004, it has been following a calculated and damnable policy which I have often described times without number as ‘Christianity-Coveting, Islam-embracing and Hindu-Hating in stance, posture, ideology, philosophy, programme and action.’

Now, I’m no fan of the Nehru-Gandhi family, but I’m quite sure that Gandhi has no such “damnable policy” on her mind, “calculated” or otherwise. Indeed, when I first read that piece, I thought that maybe Mr Sundaram was trying a parody, and had gone slightly over the top in the process. Can anyone really think that someone would try to spread Christianity in India through a cross on a coin?

And now we have Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the BJP saying:

It’s the ruling Congress which is pursuing communal agenda in virtually every sphere, from social, political, economic, military to now in national currency.

A communal agenda in national currency? Our nation certainly needs humour, but these gentlemen aren’t comedians, they’re politicians, and they might rule us some day again. They’ll surely issue new two-rupee coins then, and we’ll get confused all over again. Sigh.

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

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky

The next time some self-righteous gentleman rants about Bill Clinton’s blowjob, kindly send him to this page.

Sure, perjury was the problem with Clinton, not the sex. But still, his deception was a lot less harmful than the self-deception of some others. And he only deceived us about matters that were no business of ours anyway.

(Link via email from Prabhu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2007 in Politics

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