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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Open Letter to Shri Anna Hazare

Dear Annaji,

I am writing this letter to you in the hope that you will take the trouble to read it, deliberate on it with your team and find some value from it. This is about the anti-corruption movement that you are leading in the country today.

At the outset, I would like to inform you that I am not a politician, I am not a lawyer, I am not a social activist, I am not a mediaperson, I am not affiliated to any business - I have no interest whatsoever other than in the capacity of a common man of India (aam aadmi) in writing this.

Having said that, I have been following your anti-corruption movement from April this year when you went on your fast at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. I have also been following ever since, on a daily basis, the various developments on this topic through various media (print, TV, internet). I was also one of the attendees at the meet arranged by India Against Corruption (IAC) at Bangalore in June this year.

I therefore feel invested enough to write this letter to you with my views and some suggestions.

First of all, I’d like to say that there is hardly anybody in India who does not agree with you that corruption is rampant (and that’s an under-statement) in our society. As you and others in your team have repeatedly said, corruption exists at all levels in the country. To get a birth or death certificate or passport or driving licence, you need to bribe somebody. And, at the highest levels of the government, corruption is being unearthed regularly. We are all aware of the various scams like CWG, 2G and the Adarsh Housing Society scam that have come to public knowledge recently. So your point on this is indisputable and well-taken.

Secondly, I totally agree with you when you say that one of the major reasons for corruption in our society is that our current laws do not have adequate deterrents to check corruption and punish the wrong-doers.

Thirdly, you are right in saying that our existing institutions have often been found wanting in addressing corruption matters. We have a justice system that seems to be painfully slow (and sometimes not entirely independent) in meting out justice. We have institutions like the CBI and the CVC which seem to have either limited powers or questionable independence. Why, we even have Parliament where our elected representatives are supposed to act in the interests of their constituents but have often been found to misuse their powers for personal gain. So I think it is fair to say that our institutions have not quite delivered to their brief.

All of this is true and I totally agree with you on these observations.

I would like to now share with you some of my own thoughts on this corruption subject.

In my humble opinion, there are several ways to address this scourge of our society.

One way of course is the Lokpal approach. If we have a Lokpal, an effective Lokpal, with Lokayuktas in various states, the common man can approach this institution with his grievances and hope for redressal. The Jan Lokpal Bill that you have been espousing so strongly and passionately for so many months now is geared towards the setting up of this institution.  You and your team have been working day and night to ensure the Bill contains all the provisions and safeguards for an effective Lokpal institution. I will not debate this – all I will say is that it is an option to fight corruption, yes. One option.

I would also like us to consider other options. Our objective is one and the same – both of us want to fight corruption. It is just that there need not be only the Lokpal way.

I know there is history behind this Lokpal subject. The country has been trying to get a Lokpal Bill passed for over 40 years now as its instrument to combat corruption. But that, in itself, is no reason to continue to pursue ONLY on this path. As long as our objective of fighting corruption is achieved – by legal and viable means – we should not need to quibble over whether it was done via a Lokpal or through another method.

Let me give you an analogy. It may not be completely comparable to the Lokpal subject but I hope it helps to understand what I am trying to get at.

Till 15 years ago, connectivity via telecommunication in India was limited to only a few who could afford landlines. The rest of the country had to use public booths , if they were available, or go without telecommunication connectivity at all. Today, thanks to explosion in telecommunications technology,  almost everybody seems to be connected. We did not invest in more landline production to scale to our needs (though we could have technically done so), we just exploited mobile technology that had arrived. Our objective was telecommunication for all, not a landline phone for all.

Similarly, I would think the objective here for all of us is to find a solution against corruption, NOT the creation of a Lokpal. They are two different things and we need to understand this.

Now if we ARE considering alternatives, I would like to take the following approach. This is not, by any means an exhaustive list of steps we could take. It is only indicative of an approach I would like to consider.

Strengthen our existing laws: We already have a Prevention of Corruption Act. I am not competent to comment on its provisions but if it lacks enough teeth, let us push for change in this piece of legislation and make sure it has teeth. Similarly if we have other laws that have loopholes that encourage corruption or do not have strict enough provisions to deter corruption, let us push for change in these. If any of this requires a constitutional amendment, so be it.

Strengthen our existing institutions: Through electoral reforms, let us work on ensuring accountability in our elected representatives in Parliament. Through judicial reforms, let us work on improving accountability and transparency in our justice system. If we feel bodies like the CBI and the CVC lack independence or powers, let us work on the necessary changes required to give them these.

Exploit technology to create transparency and ensure faster and direct delivery of services: In this day and age, a lot can be achieved through smart use of technology to replace inefficient and outdated practices and completely redesign new systems and ways of doing things. For example, the UID (Aadhar) project is one which could considerably improve transparency of our social benefits system and help plug leakages in it.  There are other areas too where technology could make life easier for the aam aadmi and eliminate middlemen (read, reduce corruption).

Improve transparency in land and other natural resource ownership patterns: I believe a large part of corruption (and black money) in the country stems from land-related dealings. A lot of land / property is held in benami ownership,  ownership and valuations are not transparent, most of our court cases are property-related, I can go on and on. So, if we want a quick win in our fight against corruption, it would make sense to make this a high priority area to streamline and completely make transparent.

Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list. We can add to this. But I do believe that if we even do just the above (which is a lot and is going to take time and effort), we will see a significant reduction in corruption in our country. And this would be without the creation of a Lokpal. It would only be with the use of, and strengthening, our current infrastructure. And building progressive infrastructure for the future which would be systemic and not human-dependent.

I know the Lokpal debate has been raging for a long time now and is now in its advanced stages, virtually on the verge of approval by both Houses of Parliament. It would appear that this letter is being written after the ship has sailed (or the horse has bolted the stable, whichever metaphor you prefer). Maybe this is true - but as long as the Lokpal is not officially there and functioning, I have hope that other alternatives can also be considered.  Yes, it would mean a lot of energy and effort of the last eight months for the Jan Lokpal Bill would seem to have been for nothing but for something as structural and long-lasting in its impact as this, what is eight months?

I would also like to add that, should you consider the alternative approach and decide to withdraw the demand for a Lokpal, it should most certainly not be seen as a failure of any sort for you or your team. You have already achieved a lot in terms of raising awareness amongst a traditionally indifferent Indian public and that is an achievement in itself. This is not about winning or losing, it is about doing what seems to make most sense.

Thank you for your time and patience in reading this.

With warm regards and wishing you the best of health,

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ra-One ka maheena

Ra.One is apparently a Diwali release (still a week to go!) but the relentless bombardment of promos and interviews this month on every TV channel (except possibly Doordarshan) has got to me!

I've always considered myself a Shahrukh fan, I've rooted for his Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) IPL team for him alone.

But there's only so much I can take. I do not know what Shahrukh is expecting to achieve with this repetitive numbing of his TV audiences but I will not be surprised if I'm not the only one feeling a sort of repulsion towards this movie now. A sort of backlash triggered by this sustained attack on my senses.

I would perhaps not have minded so much if the film promotion had dominated the entertainment channels alone. Zoom, UTV Stars, MTV et al. But when I find the news channels blaring Ra.One when I'd rather see them discussing Telangana or Occupy Wall Street, I don't take too kindly to this intrusion in my TV watching experience.

This also happens to be protest season. Not just in India but all over the world.

So I decided to compiled my own form of protest about Ra.One. Not that anybody cares but it feels good to be able to get this out of my system in this non-violent manner. The other option would have been to ram my fist into my TV - but then only I would have been the loser.

Now can somebody please get this over to Shah Rukh Khan? It is in good humour and is only my way of saying "aur nahin bas aur nahin, Ra-One ke chhaaley aur nahin".

Here goes:

Ra-One ka maheena
Har channel karey sor
Jiyara re lagey hai aise
Naatak hai ye koi ghor

Shahrukh ghajab dhaaye
Bhale hi mere bhaiya
Chaahe wo kharcha kare
Lakhon hi rupaiya
Dekha jaaye naahi
Phillum ye laage bore
Jiyara re lagey hai aise
Naatak hai ye koi ghor

Shahrukh karey joron se
Humko ishaara
Naahin phansenge bhaiya
Binti karey bechaara
Marzi hai hamaari
Karta jaaye wo sor
Samjha kaa hai sasuraa
Saha jaaye na ye aur!!!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Lokpal Bill - horizon looms beyond the stormy seas?

So after a period of drama and needless distractions in the last two months, there will be a Lokpal Bill that will be put to Parliament in the monsoon session. While there are no guarantees that the Bill will become an Act of Parliament by the end of the session, there does seem to be a reasonable likelihood of this happening.

Why then, as somebody who has been following developments on this every day since Anna Hazare’s fast on April 4th, am I not elated at this potentially historic development?

Something tells me that we may still not get quite the legislation to fight corruption that we, the people, are hoping for. I hope I am wrong but that is my gut feel right now.

Let me explain.

The Joint Committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill have ended their series of meetings with serious differences on some points. Although the government is trying to underplay these by talking about convergence on about 43 out of 50 points, the ones that remain are significant enough to be worrisome. While there will be one overall Lokpal Bill put up to Parliament, both versions (govt and Anna Hazare team) of these contentious points will be drafted into the Bill for Parliament’s discussion.

I have looked at these points and, while I am no expert, I must say that the overriding feeling I get is that the common man will be short-changed yet again if the government version is accepted by Parliament. That’s my high-level takeaway because to me the government version is largely just tinkering with the status quo and does not reflect the fundamental paradigm shift in modus operandi for handling corruption that the common man of India wants.

There seems to be a major difference in the vision of the Lokpal that the Anna Hazare team has, as compared to what the government seems to have. This is reflected in the details of the differences.

The Anna Hazare team sees the Lokpal as an independent institution, not attached to the Government of India. It will have authority to investigate complaints and prosecute offenders, without any political interference or influence.

In order to be independent, it will need to be set up by an independent, non-political panel. Similarly, if the Lokpal needs to be removed from office, this power will also only vest in an independent, non-political panel.

A similar structure will be set up as the Lok Ayukta at the state level. Completely independent from the state government and fully empowered to attend directly to citizen complaints of corruption against state government officials.

On an administrative level, the Anna Hazare team has kept the common man in mind. Recognizing that it is very difficult for the common man to prove a case of bribery or corruption, the onus has been passed to the government to prove that corruption has not happened in case time-bound tasks are not delivered within the timeframe. Thus, perhaps unintentionally, a framework for improving efficiency of the government in serving its citizens is also being proposed to be set in place.

Similarly, to ensure that the deterrents for corruption are meaningful and not token or symbolic (as is often the case at the moment), the Anna Hazare team proposes deterrents that include not just convictions but also liability to reimburse to the full extent the damage caused by such corruption.

In the view of the Anna Hazare team, nobody is above the law when it comes to corruption. And if we don’t want to allow loopholes in our attempt to address this scourge, we cannot allow any institution to be outside the purview of the Lokpal. (There are checks and balances proposed to ensure the Lokpal itself is made accountable). Thus the Prime Minister and the higher levels of judiciary are also sought to be brought within the ambit of the Lokpal.

That, in a nutshell, is the vision of the Anna Hazare team. A truly empowered and independent anti-corruption body in the Lokpal (and the Lok Ayukta), accessible to the citizens of the country for their grievances against corruption.

Like Dr. Kiran Bedi says “Today if we want to call the police, we dial 100 (or some number). If we want to complain against corruption, what number can we dial?”

The government vision, on the other hand, is very different.

While it constantly professes to be serious about fighting corruption – and I would like to give it the benefit of (the huge) doubt on this matter – it seems to me to be uncomfortable with the whole “powerful, independent Lokpal” concept.

The fact is that a truly independent and powerful Lokpal would make many government officials squirm.

Up until just about a year ago, the so-called independent institutions in the country, for example, the CBI, the CVC, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, did not disturb politicians’ sleep too much. Yes, they may have made the odd remark or produced the odd report but, at best, it caused a minor flutter and was quickly forgotten in a country with numerous distractions.

Even the judiciary, supposedly neutral and the pillar of justice in a democracy, seemed to be reluctant to take a strong view of any government actions.

The media, “the fourth estate in a democracy”, seemed to be chugging along with its usual fare of reporting. Nothing spectacular. Just the usual news, interviews, debates.

It was pretty much “business as usual” for the government.

And then the corruption scams began getting exposed, one by one. The scale of the scams was so staggering that it left a nation, used to corruption for decades, horrified.

The media, whether sensing TRPs or genuinely outraged, became relentless in its coverage of these stories. The usually sedate Supreme Court decided to express its outrage and began issuing strong messages to the government.

Now I may be appearing to be digressing from the main topic but I think it is very important to mention all this because it serves as the backdrop for understanding the government’s attitude to this Lokpal Bill.

It is normal human psychology that when you are losing control of something, you make every effort to regain control, otherwise you lose it for ever. This applies to everything in life.

We need to remember that the government had proposed a weak Lokpal Bill earlier. One that would, if passed, meet its professed commitment to fighting corruption but would not bring about any real change at the grassroot level for the common man.

We need to remember that although we have a Lok Ayukta system in place even today, it is hardly effective because it does not have true independence from the government.

So, while it was working towards continuing the status quo with purely cosmetic changes, the government is hardly likely to now suddenly start embracing something that, if implemented in its purest form, could be the government’s worst nightmare.

Not only would the government lose control over institutions (that would be bad enough!) but ministers, bureaucrats and others currently used to zero-accountability to the public would suddenly become as “ordinary” as other members of the public, answerable for corruption cases just like anybody else. And with strict punishment to boot.

So clearly the government’s vision of the Lokpal is far more limiting than that of the Anna Hazare team. If at all there needs to be an institution not entirely controllable by the government, surely the next best thing is to limit its scope?

The government has extremely erudite and articulate representatives on its drafting panel and they make extremely strong arguments for their case. They argue why they feel the Lokpal could end up becoming another “parallel” government, why it would be a “leviathan”, why it is not practical or feasible to cover so many government employees (central and state) within the ambit of the Lokpal, why it is na├»ve to assume that the same, supposedly corrupt, government employees today would suddenly become clean if under the Lokpal.

I do not agree with any of this. First of all, accountability does strange things to people. A lot of today’s corruption comes because of lack of accountability. Lack of a redressal mechanism for the aggrieved is a huge reason for corruption too. Introduce a “dial-a-complaint-number” and see what happens. Add to that the fact that punishments are not just a gentle tap on the wrists anymore. I believe that if the citizen chooses to use his powers under the new legislation, a large number of petty corruption cases will just disappear because the system would have been strengthened. So we do not need an “army”, as the government representatives would like to have us believe.

These representatives have also been at pains to explain why they feel the Prime Minister’s office and senior members of the judiciary should be excluded from the ambit of the Lokpal. And why ministers should continue to get immunity (as provided for in the Constitution) for their actions inside Parliament.

I can see their point about the PMO’s office though I don’t agree with it. I may just agree with their point about senior members of the judiciary, provided the judicial reforms they talk about then are as strong as the Lokpal in dealing with corruption in the higher judiciary. If they came within the ambit of the Lokpal, that would already be within a standard framework, but if not, then similar independence, transparency, punitive measures would need to be set up. Seems unnecessary. As for immunity for ministers in Parliament, this needs to go. If this requires a constitutional amendment and could delay the process of this anti-corruption legislation (although some amendments seem to miraculously get passed very easily), I’d push for this at a later point in time.

To me, as a common man, these are not the points that dishearten me the most in the current debate. I know these have been the hottest subjects of debate but what matters most to me are a couple of other things.

Apparently, a state can opt for whether it wants a Lok Ayukta or not. I just do not understand the logic of this. Surely we should have a unified, simplified mechanism across all states for fighting corruption? We are trying to build a sustainable institutional framework here for the entire country, not something arbitrary for a part of it. The common man in every state has considerable dealings with his state government and is entitled to expect the same support and redressal mechanism that others with a new-look and empowered Lok Ayukta will have available to them. Why try to invent different solutions for different states?

The other point I am concerned about is the independence of the Lokpal and Lok Ayukta. The government seems to want to introduce government representatives into the panel that can remove a Lokpal. Why? Surely this can compromise the independence of the Lokpal?

There seems to be divergence also on the funding of the Lokpal. Apparently both parties agreed that it will be funded out of the Consolidated Fund of India but the mechanics are under debate. Anna Hazare’s team wants complete financial independence whereas the government seems to want this funding to be provided for by the Finance Ministry. This is no small matter – after all the talk about the Lokpal’s independence, it would be ridiculous if it is capable of being influenced due to financial considerations of budget allocation. Yet I think there is a point to the government’s position too. I am not very knowledgeable in this area but I will only say that if the government proposal is approved, hopefully the Lokpal’s functioning will be transparent enough for us to know if it is is being hampered by its funding or not. There is no way, having come so far, that this can be allowed to weaken the Lokpal’s functioning.

All in all, the struggle is still far from over. Mind you, all this struggle is just to get strong anti-corruption legislation in the country in the first place. This is just to get the framework in place - after that, we have to make sure it works! There will be start-up problems, there will be attempts to scuttle it even after the law is passed, there will be skepticism.

Nobody has ever claimed that this will be a panacea for solving India’s corruption problems. Let’s face it – corruption starts with each one of us. And it goes way beyond the government, we all know that. But if this legislation comes out the way the common man would like it to, it should at least make the government much cleaner and more accountable than they are now. That’s about as much as we can hope for.

A couple of things. I’ve used the term “Anna Hazare’s team” throughout instead of talking of “civil society”. That’s because the government prefers to use this terminology as it believes that “civil society” has multiple voices. I’ve deferred to the government terminology but that does not change anything in the way I perceive this struggle. The movement that Anna Hazare and his team are leading to bring about strong anti-corruption legislation in the country has the backing of the entire nation, even if some may differ on his methods or on the details of some of the proposals. And that is the bigger point here. And what’s in a name anyway? Call it “civil society”, call it “Anna Hazare’s team”, it is the goal that is more important here.

Also, throughout this piece, I’ve not mentioned any specific political party or even the UPA government. It is not a struggle against a particular party, it is a struggle against a system.

I will be continuing to follow progress on the Lokpal Bill with great interest. I have been following this subject ever since Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar on the 4th of April. I attended his rally at Bangalore on the 28th of May.

In all these years, I’ve never seen such a concerted effort in the country for changing a system. I was not old enough when the Jayaprakash Narayan movement happened in the country, so I cannot comment about it or draw parallels with Anna Hazare’s movement. All I know is that Anna Hazare and his team seem to me to be driven in their effort to bring about this change in the country.

Finally it is upto the Members of Parliament to pass this Bill and make it an Act. If it is not all that we had hoped for, it is certainly not due to any lack of effort on the part of Anna Hazare’s team. In any case, it is likely to be much, much better than a toothless bill that would have passed off as anti-corruption legislation in the country. Having said that, if it turns out not to be effective enough, we might need to make our voice heard by the government again.

So I am under no illusion at all that we’re close to anything right now. We’ve still got a long way to go. But as long as we keep up our efforts, as long as we do not allow ourselves to go back to our indifferent selves, as long as the government realizes that it cannot take us for granted anymore, we have hope for change.

It is not about Anna Hazare and his five-member team. It is about each one of us.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Indian Politics Today - in a lighter vein

The last four days have seen a lot of petty drama in Indian politics. It seems to have stooped to a new low. Following the news, I couldn't help feeling that the events of the last few days would put even a Bollywood masala film to shame. If Indian politicians can keep this up, you've got to think that a few producers in Bollywood would be seriously worried that they'd be out of business very soon.

Where there's Bollywood, there's song and music, and - without meaning any disrespect to the serious business that governance is - a few songs did cross my mind as I watched the events unfold.

A sample:

1) Dayanidhi Maran, now Textiles Minister but once Telecom Minister, was dragged into the 2G scam. He vehemently denied all accusations and rubbished claims from former Aircel owner, Sivasankaran, that he was "arm-twisted" by Maran into selling Aircel to the Sun group.

Dayanidhi Maran (in Anil Kapoor mode):
2G, No jee, meri bhi suno ji
Main hoon beqasoor ji
Karna hai tumko jo, jaao karo ji
Sivasankaran, aur tu mat ban
My name is Maran
My name is Maran

2) Four senior minsters of the UPA govt welcomed Baba Ramdev at Delhi airport and held talks with him, apparently trying to placate him and ask him to call off his proposed fast. Apparently a deal was struck but Baba did not honour the deal. Kapil Sibal was enraged that the Baba reneged on his word, and went about flashing to the media, a written commitment from the Baba to the government, agreeing to its terms.

Kapil Sibal (in Jagjit Singh mode):
Wo kaagaz pe likhi, wo jhoothi kahaani
Ye dhokey ka anshan, ye badhti hairaani

3) Baba Ramdev, in turn, blasted the UPA govt, specifically saying he never wanted to ever see Kapil Sibal again

Baba Ramdev:
Badi mushqil hai
Mushqil main Sibal hai
Koi usse khai se uthaaye naa
Jaake kahin wo doob hi jaaye
Koi phir milaaye naa

4) Kapil Sibal lashed back at Baba Ramdev.

Kapil Sibal:
Tum to, dhokebaaz ho
Waada karke, bhool jaate ho

5) An angry government, now determined to “rein in” Baba Ramdev (Kapil Sibal’s words, not mine!) decided on a sinister midnight strategy

Raat baaki, baat baaki
Hona hai jo, ho jaane do

6) The police gate-crashed Baba Ramdev’s party, burst teargas shells, dispersed the crowd and tried to capture Baba. Although he tried to escape, dressed in woman’s salwar-kameez, the police did get to him.

Bach ke, bach ke, bach ke
Bach ke kahaan jaaoge
Bach ke kahaan jaaoge

7) The next day, there was a huge outcry all over the country. Even hitherto supporters of the UPA began to express outrage at this overnight action. The BJP, main opposition party in the country, saw its opportunity to cash in.

The BJP celebrated, singing:
Sab kuchh seekha tum ne, na seekhi hoshiyaari
Sach hai Congress-waalon, ki tum ho anaari

8) The PM of the country, Dr. Manmohan Singh, true to style, kept his silence about the midnight police action. Finally, breaking his silence, he defended the govt action but admitted that it was “unfortunate”.

Dr. Manmohan Singh:
Kya se kya ho gaya
O Baba, tere fast pe

9) The Supreme Court, considerably alert nowadays, got into the action and served a notice on the UPA govt to explain the rationale behind the midnight police action.

Supreme Court:
Ye kya hua, kaise hua,
Kab hua, kyon hua

10) At a Congress briefing, a man, posing as a journalist for a Rajasthan publication, managed to put a couple of questions to Congress general secretary, Janardhan Dwivedi. More interestingly, he managed to get to the podium, and just towards the conclusion of the briefing, removed his shoe and threatened Dwivedi with it.

Maar diya jaaye
Ya chhod diya jaaye
Bol tere saath kya salook kiya jaaye

11) Meanwhile, the BJP decided to organize its own protest / rally at the Rajghat in Delhi. Sushma Swaraj, BJP leader, was caught on camera dancing as part of the event. She came in for immediate criticism from the Congress party but, true to form, remained defiant, insisting that there was nothing wrong with singing and dancing to patriotic songs, and that she would do this again if the situation arose.

Sushma Swaraj:
Jab tak hai jaan
Main nachoongi

12) In parallel, the BJP decided to welcome back to its fold, Uma Bharti, one-time prominent leader, who had been dismissed from the party in 2005 for open dissent with L.K. Advani. But these are different times, the BJP needs to win votes in UP/MP and their new leader, Nitin Gadkari, was happy to forgive and forget. A warm welcome was therefore accorded to Uma Bharti.

Nitin Gadkari:
Tum aa gaye ho
Noor aa gaya hai
Nahin to chiraagon se
Lau jaa rahi thi

13) Uma Bharti’s response was equally warm towards the BJP. She claimed that being in politics, she always belonged to only the BJP and no other political party:

Uma Bharti:
Jeene ki tumse
Wajah mil gayi hai
Badi bewajah
Zindagi jaa rahi thii

14) The UPA govt, keen on finding dirt on Baba Ramdev, gunned for his close associate, Balkrishna, claiming he was not of Indian origin and had fake passports. Balkrishna defendend himself strongly but finally broke down.

Cheekhne waalon zara, mudke dekho mujhe
Ek bhartiya hoon, main tumhaari tarah

15) In all this, the poor Anna Hazare camp continued to try to stick to its agenda of the Jan Lokpal Bill. While they expressed their unhappiness at the callous manner in which the government seemed to consider their views, the media was more interested in masala and whether Baba Ramdev had upstaged Anna, whether Anna would support Ramdev (considering Ramdev’s rally had assumed political colour following the appearance of the Sangh parivaar members onstage). Poor Anna Hazare was left wondering at what was going on and what he was doing there.

Anna Hazare:
Ye kahaan aa gaye hum
Yunh hi saath saath chalte


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Who said crucifixion's a thing of the past?

My last post on the whole anti-corruption Bill furore (extremely unfortunately also known as the Anna Hazare furore) left me a bit emotionally exhausted. I do not consider myself a seasoned blogger who can produce post after post with amazing regularity, without compromising on the quality of the post. I admire such people – but am acutely aware of the fact that I do not belong in this league.

I was therefore not expecting to post to my blog so soon after my previous post. But this subject of the Jan Lokpal Bill does not just not go away, it continues to claw away at me, to drag me down in a manner that I must confess I’ve felt only on a few occasions in the past. Normally I’m a pretty upbeat person (I think those who know me will vouch for this!) but in the last week, something’s not been right – and I know that the one subject that has dominated my mind in the last week has been this Jan Lokpal Bill. Maybe it is a reflection of how empty my mind (and my life!) otherwise is, but that’s how it’s been.

I therefore find myself sitting here, once again dumping my thoughts on this subject on my blog, in the hope that I will get some sort of closure on this matter. Once again, this is mainly for myself – if others want to read it, they’re welcome to. I’m keeping it public for that reason. But if they don’t , I’m just fine with that too. But I know I really need this.

I will not repeat all that I’ve already said. At least I will try not to. But there is more that I think I want to put down on this subject.

First of all I want to say that I am extremely saddened by a lot of what I’ve read and heard on this subject. Like I said in my previous post, it is only to be expected that opinion on a subject like this would be divided. And in a democracy, people are entitled to express their views too, their different positions on any issue.

But is THIS how it needs to be done? Even the gutter will feel insulted if I say that some of the stuff doing the rounds belongs there. I’ve never EVER in my life come across writing that is SO vitriolic, SO humiliating, SO demeaning to another, in an attempt to drive home a point.

So you disagree with what Anna Hazare has done. Fair enough. You call it a circus. Fair enough. But please do not ridicule him just because he is an old man from a village. By all means, challenge him on issues. But do you really have to say things like “Anna Hazare, a former driver with the Indian Army who has the useful Indian talent for sitting cross-legged for long periods…” ?

And this was from the editor of a news magazine! And this is just one of many examples that I have come across in just the last few days.

And this really saddens me. Maybe that explains to some extent my disturbed state of mind.

As I’ve said before, I have no problem if people disagree with Anna Hazare. Or even if they want to lash out at him. But surely there can be a more dignified manner of bringing one’s point across?

These are educated people, probably highly educated people. Part of the intelligentsia of the country. They have excellent writing skills and their ability to use humor and sarcasm to bring their point across effectively is exemplary. They are extremely savvy with modern media tools like blogs and Twitter, so their ability to distribute their message across a wide section of society, all over the world, is massive. And given these qualities, they will not only attract readers, they will also become influencers in society.

Maybe this is just how it is in today’s world. Maybe I am the one who’s grown old, who still believes that issues should be debated with dignity and respect towards the other party. And that it should be the ISSUE that is the focal point of the discussion, nothing else.

And that is why I started this post by saying that it is extremely unfortunate that the furore has become an “Anna Hazare furore” instead of being an “anti-corruption” furore.

Reading through all this vitriol (I will admit that I winced several times), I did find valid points. Yes, the constitution is sacred and we need to respect it. Yes, vesting too much power in one authority is a bad idea. Yes, the ideal solution is to get the people to vote intelligently, without duress of any sort. Yes, ideally we should have less government and more governance in the country. And yes, there are a ton of issues that the Jan Lokpal Bill (even when modified) will not address.

I agree with all of these. They are no-brainers. The big issue is that this ideal situation that everybody talks about requires electoral reforms, it requires education of the electorate (a small matter of a few hundred million voters across the country), it requires non-interference of politicians and anti-social elements in the electoral process, it requires considerable overhaul of institutions (and in some cases, elimination of institutions) if we want less government, thereby resulting in less corruption.

I totally endorse all of this and would be very happy if all of this happens. The sooner the better. Citizens can themselves get actively involved in educating others about the value of their vote. Bringing about electoral reforms, overhauling government institutions is going to depend on legislation and Parliamentary sanction – and that once again makes it dependent on the elected representatives in Parliament.

Which brings me back to the point I made in my earlier post – about significant numbers. In a democracy, the vote is king, even in Parliament. Majority votes are required for most decisions. Whether simple majority or two-thirds majority. And that is where the cracks begin to appear.

Not with the Constitution. Certainly not. I believe the Constitution has provided us with an excellent framework, with systems defined for most things, including the roles of the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary. We need to respect it.

Yet, the representatives we have had have repeatedly failed us. As a collective unit in Parliament, regardless of which party has been in power. And, in the case of certain individuals, in living up to the standard that they are public servants and accountable to the public, not masters of the public.

And that is why, while we continue to work on improving the effectiveness of our democracy, while we continue to work on educating our electorate, while we continue to do all that we need to do to reduce corruption, not just in government but also in society (let’s not deny this bit – we need to look at ourselves in the mirror too!), we also need a mechanism – and rather urgently - to make our representatives accountable to us.

For, if there is one thing that I think nobody denies, this accountability is not just essential, but absolutely crucial, for effective functioning of the democracy. It is intertwined with much of what we are trying to accomplish. Yes, we keep coming back to the vote as the tool in the hands of society, but we are still decades from an electorate that can be expected to elect representatives who will, suo moto, introduce and pass strict anti-corruption legislation that makes them accountable.

That is where the current movement, the current push for introducing such legislation urgently comes in.

The people who are attacking Anna Hazare and his associates for their methods, those who are questioning the civil society representatives on the joint committee as not being “elected” representatives of the public – I grant them that they are technically right.

But why doesn’t anybody think that none of this would have been necessary at all, if just like the plethora of legislation we have in the country on a whole lot of things, the government had, on its own, set up strict anti-corruption legislation for members of Parliament by now?

THAT is the issue that hardly anybody in the intelligentsia seems to talk about. Instead I see a wave of agitation that democracy has been undermined (as if successive governments have not undermined it for years, but let’s not go there!). I see a rush to defend the government because these are “elected representatives” who are being “blackmailed” by some “self-professed representatives of civil society”.

Let’s be clear – nobody ever WANTED to do this. The protesters who assembled at the Jantar Mantar, and elsewhere in the country and even overseas, did not do this because they had nothing better to do.

They wanted to get a message across. They wanted to get their voices heard. They find themselves caught up in a situation where millions of apathetic Indians, having equal voting rights as themselves, end up either not casting their vote at all or selling it to the highest bidder. It is the visible voice of frustration, more than anything else.

I would like to think that if the government is stung by this and comes up with a time-bound action plan to introduce a strong anti-corruption Bill in Parliament, if it can assure the public that this will also be passed as legislation, then all would be fine. Everybody is focused on the results. Personally I could not care less if there is a joint committee or not, if the provisions of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill are taken as the basis or not. If the end-result is powerful legislation, that is all that matters. The ONLY reason the protesters have insisted on a joint committee and on equal representation on the committee, is the total lack of credibility of the current government.

I agree this lack of credibility is not healthy but it is not entirely unjustified either. So let’s also make an effort to understand the genesis of this whole issue instead of just crying foul at the “undermining of democracy by Anna Hazare”.

Before I close this discussion (and I really hope this is closure for me), I want to touch on one other point.

I have seen a lot of ridicule coming the way of the protests from the intelligentsia. Apparently some of the placards had "over-zealous" slogans. I have seen references where these protests have been compared with Tahrir Square or Jayaprakash Narayan’s protests in the 1970s and ended up been mocked at, as a result of this comparison. I have seen comparisons of Anna Hazare with Gandhiji, resulting in mocking of not just Anna Hazare but in certain cases, even Gandhiji.

In both my previous post and in this one, I’ve steered clear of making comparisons. Comparisons make good rhetoric, and the media in particular loves them, but, in my opinion, they only serve as excellent distraction material. The discussion soon degenerates into whether the protests were comparable with Tahrir Square or not or whether Anna ‘s movement is comparable with Gandhiji’s or not.

I would say – who cares? I, for one, don’t. I do not want the focus of the issue to be diluted. The discussion from the first day to this day for me, has been only about corruption, anti-corruption legislation and nothing else. It has not been about personalities.

It is a pity that inspite of having such an excellent Constitution, we have allowed corruption to not just exist but grow to an alarming proportion in the country. We, as citizens, are as much to blame for this as anybody else. We are a very big part of the problem, let’s not point fingers only at the government.

Having said that, let’s also not sling mud at a few fellow-citizens who have chosen to not be as apathetic as most other Indians. Yes, some of us may not like them speaking on our behalf because we feel we have our own voice. But surely, given the scamfest that the country has been “enjoying” in the last year, if their voice makes the government sit up, realize the mood of the public and act, surely that cannot be too bad a thing?

We don’t have to give credit to somebody if we don’t want to. But living as we are in a civilized society, we also don’t have to discredit him in such a brutal fashion.

I think, in hindsight, it would have been best if nothing had happened at all.

Anna Hazare, Kejriwal and the others should never have got into this mess.

We could also all have just gone on with our business as usual.

And I would also not have got so worked up and would have have been able to sleep well too.

Yes, that’s how it works in India. We are like that only.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why, despite everything, I'm supporting Anna Hazare!

I can hardly believe that it’s been just over a week now since Anna Hazare, the 71-year old social activist, started his fast at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. His cause? To push for passing a stringent anti-corruption bill (Jan Lokpal Bill) in Parliament that will act as a strong deterrent to corruption for politicians and bureaucrats alike.

The movement gathered momentum, the media began giving it coverage, social media caught on, making it viral – and soon Indians all over the world seemed to be talking about it.

Is it because a seemingly unassuming and simple 71-year old man was taking on the powerful establishment at the Centre, threatening a fast unto death? Or is it that the topic of corruption still resonates with many Indians in some form or the other, inspite of their being desensitized to it from an early age? Or is it just the media playing it up?

Whatever it is, this has arguably been the most discussed subject amongst Indians in the last week. It has been a week of opinion-churning, for sure.

As is not uncommon in a country like India, opinion has been divided on this matter. And, as is to be expected in a democracy, opinion has been expressed freely and in abundance. Across platforms and channels. There are opinions expressed in the print media, there are debates on national television, there are umpteen personal blogs out there on the interwebs with everybody wanting to voice his opinion on this subject.

I have been following all of this very keenly. I’ve rarely, if ever, not had an opinion on social and political issues. And I’ve rarely been shy to express my opinion :-).

But until now, though I’ve been putting out the odd sound byte as a comment on a blog or on Facebook, I’ve not sat down and compiled my thoughts on this matter in the form of a post on my blog. I didn’t feel there was much I could add to what was already out there. So my thoughts were only in my head.

Until I read a tweet a short while ago. It was from Dr. Kiran Bedi. And I must say it has touched a nerve in me. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Dr. Kiran Bedi , right from the days when I was in high school in the mid-late 1970s and she was a fearless police officer. There was something about her spirit, her courage, her uprightness, her attitude that made her a person I respected tremendously.

Her tweet said “Those who raised their voice against corruption are persistently being driven to justify why they did it and whether it was right to do.”

I suddenly got the feeling that I cannot sit, with all these thoughts in my head, and not do anything about them. I am therefore, much against my original intention, putting down my thoughts on this blog, for whatever they are worth. Like I’ve said before, I have no illusions that anybody reads my blog but at least it is a place for me to dump my thoughts.

I will talk here about the dissenting voices that seem to be pretty strong at the moment.

Let me start by saying I totally understand that there is dissent. And I strongly believe that dissent, if brought across in a constructive and meaningful manner, can be valuable in ensuring a measured course of action takes place, instead of one based purely on enthusiasm but not necessarily conceived well enough.

The dissenting voices seem to have two major issues with the whole Anna Hazare protest.

I am not considering here some voices that have questioned his own personal integrity. I am not considering here voices that have claimed he is a proxy for a political party. I am not considering here voices that have rubbished him in other manners (and there have been a few).

I can waste time on these points too but I do not want to dignify such voices with a response. I would rather concentrate on the substantive issues that some of the dissenting voices have expressed.

The two major issues that I think are worth responding to are
- the concern about content of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill, and
- the concern about the means adopted to bring about action on this matter.

In addition, there is plenty of scepticism, typically along the following lines
- Corruption is so deep-rooted that it’s not going to go away, Bill or no Bill.
- There is so much corruption in other sectors, like corporates, media et al. What about that?
- What about the other problems in society? Nobody seems to be doing anything about that.

Understandable concerns. Understandable scepticism too.

I’ll take them up one by one.

First, the content of the Jan Lokpal Bill.

I will not discuss every detail (partly because it will take too much time, but more because I am totally incompetent to do so). I do know however that the major concern here is that the bill vests too much power in one authority, the Lokpal (Ombudsman). There is also a fear that the scope of what the bill is trying to achieve is not entirely clear, what type of grievances it will cover is not clear. That it is trying to bring under its scope authorities that are already covered by other legislation. And so on and so forth. There is a fear that this will become another monster institution, if one goes purely by the current content of the Bill.

All I will say is that, from my observation so far, those who have drafted this Bill seem to be open to suggestions for change or improvement. Nobody claims that it is perfect. In his interview on Karan Thapar’s “Devil’s Advocate” show, Arvind Kejriwal, social activist and one of the prime drivers behind the Bill, reiterated this point several times.

So, to all those dissenters out there who are bashing the Bill for its “ridiculous” content, I would say “Please, please give your valuable feedback to those in the joint committee. There are various ways of getting your message across to them. Use these channels, come up with your suggested provisions, clause by clause, if you like. The more specific you are, the better of course”.

Remember, this Bill may have been drafted by some persons in the legal profession but it is being done on our behalf and we are entitled to express our opinion, constructively, in its development.

While on this, let me also say that I, for one, am not in any hurry to push through legislation that has not been thought through, purely for the sake of a deadline (whether it be the monsoon session of Parliament or whatever). This is way too important and structural to be dictated by deadlines. So yes, we’ve waited for 42 years and there is a sense of impatience and urgency. But I would be happy if the joint committee appointed to come up with the Bill, could come up with a rock-solid Bill (well, about as rock-solid as a legislation of this type can be) that may even take the rest of the year to stitch together.

Onto the next concern – the means adopted to bring about government action on this Bill.

This is a huge concern. And I can totally see why people are concerned. They feel that this could set a precedent. That anybody tomorrow could just pick up a cause, go on a fast-unto-death action and try to blackmail the government to concede to the person’s case.

Here I’d like to say that we need to give our government a little bit of credit. Not every fast-unto-death action is going to result in the government conceding to the demands being made. If this were the case, we would have had plenty of fast-unto-death actions by now in the country.

No, a responsible government will weigh each protest on its merit, keeping in mind the larger interest of the nation, as opposed to just the interest of the protesting party. And where such larger interest is not affected, where there is merit in the case, there is a good chance that the government concedes. And why not?

I don’t see what the problem is with this approach. It is a peaceful method and, in general, will fly only if there is substance in the argument.

The big criticism here is that this method has no place in a democracy, that it is unconstitutional. Dissenting voices quote from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Grammar of Anarchy” speech . I quote it here

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

I would request those who quote from this speech to try to see it in context. This speech was made at a time when India had just become free from British rule. A time when the Indian Constitution was being put forth as a framework for solving all those issues that existed during British rule when methods such as civil disobedience and satyagraha were the only peaceful recourse for Indians protesting against the establishment.

Dr. Ambedkar would not have expected that a situation would arise in India where there would be a need again for a satyagraha. I thin, had he been alive today and seen the nature of the beast that was attempted to be tackled, he might not have had a problem with Anna Hazare’s method at all.

That brings me to the nature of the beast. It is a peculiar beast here that we are trying to tackle. It is no ordinary legislation that we are seeking to bring about. It is legislation that will rein in politicians, that will make them accountable for their misdeeds, that can result in sending them to jail or paying up huge fines for their corrupt acts. In short, this legislation directly affects their personal interests. It makes them ordinary persons, no different from you and me, the common man or woman.

Unless you are clean or you see yourself as no more a public servant than any other, you are unlikely to be comfortable accepting such legislation for yourself. And that may well explain why this piece of legislation has not been passed yet in Parliament inspite of ten attempts over 42 years!

I am sure there are honest elected representatives in Parliament. I don’t buy the statement “sab neta chor hain” (all ministers are corrupt). But somehow these representatives seem to be outnumbered by those who seem not to have the will to push through an anti-corruption bill that could affect their personal interests. The bottom line is – it has not happened. And there were no signs of it happening in the foreseeable future. Maybe a cosmetic Bill but certainly not one with teeth.

It has been argued that even then Anna Hazare’s action is uncalled for. After all, in a democracy, the instrument to bring about change is the vote. So why not get the right-minded representatives elected, so that legislation can be introduced and passed in Parliament without need to resort to Hazare-like actions?

I agree with this in theory. But I have a huge problem with this in practice. Given the nature of our electoral systems, the nature and maturity of our electorate, the likelihood of a significant number of “right-minded” representatives being voted into Parliament is extremely remote. And by “significant”, I mean a number big enough to be able to draft and push through the required Bill to make it law.

There may also be a bit of a Catch-22 situation here where the candidates’ motivation to get elected may be fuelled by the lack of legislation to check their transgressions in the first place. So you get candidates of questionable integrity lining up for elections. These then use their muscle power to work their way into Parliament. Can we then honestly expect the desired legislation to happen?

Once more I want to say that I am not making a sweeping statement about politicians here. I am just talking about “significant” numbers.

It can be argued that times are a-changing. With a more enlightened society, higher levels of education all round, we may be moving towards higher-quality election candidates and, consequently, a cleaner set of representatives in Parliament anyway. So there was no need to adopt the Hazare method.

I know I’m sounding extremely pessimistic here (and let me tell you, I’m not – you’ll see that later), but I don’t totally agree that there will be a cleaner set of representatives in Parliament purely because of changing times. A more educated set, yes. A cleaner set? Hmm…for me at least, the jury still needs to be out on that one, I'm afraid. Maybe I am battle-scarred (and carrying some baggage) but I was one of those hugely enthusiastic high-school boys when the country ushered in the new Janata government in March 1977, voting an Emergency-afflicted Congress government out of power. The faces changed, some policies did change – but did corruption stop? Nah!

To me, corruption is a function of greed, opportunity and deterrent. As long as you have people whose desires exceed their legitimate means AND they have the opportunity to meet these desires through not-so-kosher means AND you do not have adequate deterrents in place to prevent them from straying, it should not surprise anybody if somebody is found to be corrupt. This applies not only to politicians but to the common man too. Unless we are talking about somebody like Mahatma Gandhi, we should be practical and accept that this is human nature.

So if every five years, we vote out and vote in political parties - but we do not have the critical mass to push through a strong anti-corruption bill to act as a deterrent for corruption – I wonder whether we are not just being theoretical about pursuing democratic means to bring about change for this particular purpose.

Like I said, it is a peculiar beast and one that does not seem to listen to democratic methods. So, I for one, in this particular case, see no harm in using a different, non-violent method to tame the beast.

Ok, that was a long one. But a very important one.

Moving on, and coming to the scepticism.

Yes, this Bill will not eliminate corruption in the country. We need to set everybody’s expectations right. Let’s face it – there is plenty of corruption in the country that has nothing to do with the government. Private business, the media, the common man – everybody is into it in some form or the other. There would be no corruption if there were no bribe-giver for a bribe-taker. Refer to my earlier point about greed.

But that is not to say that this Bill will not help. It will, in its amended version and when converted into legislation, hopefully increase the chance of corruption claims in government being raised more easily, addressed faster and with more definite outcomes. There is a provision for whistle-blower protection, so that should also help bring to light more cases of corruption.

Of course, all this requires execution according to the legislation. Pure legislation has never solved anything without appropriate implementation and execution. But I am hopeful – I have to be, I have no choice – that the situation will be much better than it is today. At least there will be a framework to rein in corruption in public office. And having come this far – and with so much pain – I do not want to think that the last step (the execution) will let us all down. Granted that it is key, but let’s not shoot it down now itself. See, I am not all pessimistic, am I? ;-)

Since the government is a significant party in most dealings with the public and also in allocation of the country’s resources, we should expect to see less corruption in both these areas.

That should be a start towards reducing corruption in society in general. I must say it is only a start. We have miles to go – but every mile starts with the first inch.

While on this, I am reminded of something I heard last week on TV.

In all the noise on this corruption subject, I was impressed by a statement made by somebody in public (a certain young gentleman by the name of Mascarenhas) in one of the TV shows (it was either on TimesNow or CNN-IBN). He said something like this “Even after the Bill is passed, there will be corruption no doubt. But the way I see it is this : Ten percent of people will always be corrupt. Ten percent of people will always follow the clean path. But the remaining eighty percent will go one way or the other. If you find that the corrupt go unpunished or that the clean people are not appreciated for being clean, then people will move towards corruption. So it is for this eighty percent that we need to have a strong anti-corruption law”.

I thought it was a pretty simple but very lucid point he made.

And now another thing that some people are sceptical about.

The fact that an anti-corruption bill will not solve so many other problems that we have in society. Like our water scarcity problem, our lack of sufficient healthcare in the country, and many others.

True. And nobody claimed that this Bill is going to be a panacea for all ills. It is focused on a limited scope and that should be clear to everybody.

On the other hand, if there is less corruption in government, there will be more money spent on those initiatives that the government announces and even allocates funds for, but which often see only a fraction of the funds actually reaching the end purpose.

So while there are several challenges out there that will not be addressed by this piece of legislation, some of them may be benefited.

And if it appears that we are making such a hue and cry about a piece of legislation of which the benefits are not clearly translatable for the masses, it says more about the struggle that this Bill has had to face than anything else.

We have miles to go and lots of challenges. Just economic growth is not enough. Not if the social fabric of the country does not evolve too. And corruption is only one of the areas that eats at this social fabric. There are others that I hope will also be addressed as the nation continues on its path towards progress. It is not without reason that India is ranked very low on the Human Development Index in the world.

But right now the focus is on corruption, so let's get our energy directed towards this issue.

Now that Anna Hazare ji has woken up people of the country, let’s not go back into slumber again. Yes, we can debate his methods, we can argue on the technicalities of the legislation sought to be introduced but let’s see the bigger picture here and what we are trying to achieve.

It is massive and potentially hugely paradigm-shifting for the country. Our economic resurgence may have started in 1991 but it is only now, 20 years later, that our social resurgence seems to be gaining momentum.
Let’s all be part of it!

We owe it to our future generations.

And THAT is why I am supporting Anna Hazare!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Women's Day, Sahir Ludhianvi and "Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko"

Today is the 8th of March.

Which happens to be International Women’s Day.

And, today the 8th of March 2011, also happens to be the 90th birth anniversary of one of India’s greatest poets of the 20th century, Sahir Ludhianvi.

I have therefore decided to borrow one of Sahir saab's poems/songs today and dedicate it to the occasion of Women's Day.

Everytime I hear this song, my eyes go moist. And it's not just because it has so much depth and pathos (which it does!).

It is because the lament here is, unfortunately, as much valid today as it was 53 years ago when Sahir saab penned these lines.

Even today, many women in India (and in many other parts of the world too) play second fiddle to menfolk.

Even today, there are many women, used and abused by men - and the saddest thing is that most of them just accept it as their fate.

Many of them have been so conditioned to this treatment from their childhood itself that they are not even aware that they are being abused. They are not even aware that there could be an alternative lifestyle for them.

Many women in India are so bound in tradition that they believe that breaking out of it, in fact even challenging it, is fundamentally wrong. Now, respecting the good aspects of tradition is just fine but when such tradition only imposes restrictions on women, instead of empowering them, surely it cannot be worth perpetuating for tradition’s sake?

The fact that TV, with its powerful reach now into even the remotest corners of the country, still churns out sickening woman-humiliating stereotypes in prime-time soaps is an indication of how powerful persons in the media (ironically, some of them actually women) perceive the role of women to be in society.

And hardly a day passes when there is no news of a rape or sex-trafficking or sexual harassment or exploitation or some such offence against women.

I’d like to think it is not all doom and gloom. And it does look like things are improving, what with improved education levels amongst women, more women being employed, increased awareness amongst womenfolk. Yes, there is progress.

But much of it is in urban India only. A large part of rural India is still caught up in a time warp, at least as far as women’s empowerment is concerned.

So there’s a long way to go still.

And I am ashamed to say that I cannot vouch for any significant progress in men’s attitude towards women. I should not generalize and paint all men with the same brush (there are a lot of good-hearted men out there who have tremendous respect for women) but there is an equally large (possibly larger) group of men out there who carry enormous baggage in their heads about their being the “superior” and “more powerful” gender.

It is to THIS group of men that I actually want to play this song.

I want them to listen to this song, every word of it. Let every line sink in.

I want them to remember where they have come from, who carried them in their wombs for nine months, who rocked their cradle when they were babies.

In my opinion, this song should be compulsory education in every boy’s high school. This version is in Hindi but there should be regional language versions of this too. And one in English too.

Or, if this version is not quite “modern” enough for today’s youth, maybe somebody can come up with a more modern version for today’s generation. Surely, this is worth a junoon (revolution)? Let’s make it viral.

I believe that every effort, in any which way, to reduce the incidence of offences against women, can only be a good thing. It will reduce the pressure on organizations like Prajwala which are working day and night to prevent sex-trafficking and to help the victims of sex-trafficking.

With this in mind, and with a little bit of hope, I am posting here “Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko” from Sadhna (1958).

(Aside: Sadhna is one of India’s less-known but most progressive movies made by BR Chopra, one of my favourite directors. BR Chopra challenged Indian society, he discussed uncomfortable subjects like widow remarriage (Ek Hi Raasta), prostitute aspiring for and marrying into “respectable” society (Sadhna), experiences of a wedlock-born child (Dhool Ka Phool), Hindu-Muslim tensions around partition of India (Dharam Putra), adultery (Gumraah) and many more. I wish we had more directors like BR Chopra today).

I also sometimes write a guest article for a very popular Hindi song blog belonging to one of my friends. I chose to write about Sahir and this particular song there too. Since his is a very popular blog (and that's something I certainly cannot say about mine ;-) ), hopefully the message will reach more eyes and ears. Here it is.

Finally, here is the song itself. What a gem from Sahir saab! Listen to every word of it.

My friend, Madhulika Liddle, who has a wonderful blog of her own here recently provided the transliteration and excellent translation of this song in English on her blog. I am taking the liberty of reproducing it here for the benefit of readers. Many many thanks to Madhu - it is an outstanding translation.


Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko
Mardon ne use bazaar diya
Jab dil chaaha masla-kuchla
Jab ji chaaha dhutkaar diya
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Tulti hai kahin dinaaron mein
Bikti hai kahin bazaaron mein
Nangi nachvaayi jaati hai
Ayyashon ke darbaaron mein
Yeh woh beizzat cheez hai jo
Bant jaati hai izzatdaaron mein
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Mardon ke liye har zulm ravaan
Aurat ke liye rona bhi khataa
Mardon ke liye laakhon sejein
Aurat ke liye bas ek chita
Mardon ke liye har aish ka haq
Aurat ke liye jeena bhi sazaa
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Jin hothon ne unko pyaar kiya
Un hothon ka vyopaar kiya
Jis kokh mein inka jism dhala
Us kokh ka kaarobaar kiya
Jis tan se uge kopal bankar
Us tan ko zaleel-o-khaar kiya
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Mardon ne banaayi jo rasme
Unko haq ka farmaan kaha
Aurat ke zinda jalne ko
Qurbaani aur balidaan kaha
Ismat ke badle roti di
Aur usko bhi ehsaan kaha
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Sansar ki har ek besharmi
Gurbat ki god mein palti hai
Chaklon hi mein aakar rukti hai
Faaqon se jo raah nikalti hai
Mardon ki hawas hai jo aksar
Aurat ke paap mein dhalti hai
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Aurat sansar ki kismet hai
Phir bhi taqdeer ki heti hai
Autaar-payambar janti hai
Phir bhi shaitan ki beti hai
Yeh woh badkismat maa hai jo
Beton ki sej pe leti hai
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko

Woman gave birth to men
And men gave her the marketplace
To crush and trample at will
To reject and cast off at will
Woman gave birth to men…

She is weighed somewhere in dinars
And sold somewhere in bazaars
She is made to dance naked
In the courts of the debauched
She is that dishonoured creature
Who is shared out between the honourable
Woman gave birth to men…

For men, every torment is acceptable
For a woman, even weeping is a crime
For men, there are a million beds
For a woman, there is just one pyre
For men, there is a right to every depravity
For a woman, even to live is a punishment
Woman gave birth to men…

The lips which gave them love:
They traded those very lips
The womb in which their bodies were formed:
They reduced that womb to mere merchandise
The body from which they grew, like buds:
They shamed and abased that body
Woman gave birth to men…

The customs that men created
Were given the name of rights
The burning alive of a woman
Was decreed to be sacrifice
In return for purity she was given bread
And even that was called a favour
Woman gave birth to men…

Every disgrace in this world
Is nurtured in the lap of hardship
The path that begins in hunger
Leads inevitably to the brothel
It is often the lust of men
That takes shape in the sin of women
Woman gave birth to men…

Woman is the destiny of the world
But she is still the one abased by fate
She bears reincarnations and prophets
But she is still the Devil’s daughter
This is that ill-fated mother
Who lies on the bed of her sons
Woman gave birth to men…

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 3)

I will admit that it is with considerably reduced motivation that I set out here to continue my saga on the events of the 21st of August 2004, headlined here in previous blog posts as “When Holland staged an India-Pak cricket match”.

While I repeatedly tell myself that I do not write for an audience – and when you keep repeating something, you begin to believe in it yourself ;-) – the fact is that if you know somebody is interested in reading what you write, it does serve as additional motivation to do so.

The overall response to parts 1 and 2 of this story has been somewhat “meh” and if I hadn’t felt obligated to do a Magnus Magnusson (“I’ve started so I’ll finish” act - Mastermind), I’d probably not even bother with a part 3. After all, “no feedback” is also feedback.

But here is part 3 – and even if there isn’t ONE person interested, that’s just fine. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d be speaking to myself – and, by the looks of it, it won’t be the last. :-)

So there I was, at the cricket ground in Amstelveen for this India-Pakistan one-day international (ODI).

I have described the atmosphere a little bit in part 1 but I need to talk about it again here because it is central to the story of part 3.

Considering that cricket is a religion in both India and Pakistan, and given that it is often (sadly) used as a proxy for war, the atmosphere for any India-Pakistan cricket match is bound to be charged.

One has only to follow the discussions that take place on forums in cyberspace to gauge the extent of passion that fans of both countries have and the extent of opposition-baiting that they indulge in. As someone who has spent a lot of time in cyberspace on cricket, I can safely say and you have to take my word for it – it is ugly. And certainly not for the overly sensitive.

Now transpose this to a live match situation, where you are right there at the scene of action, in a packed stadium, flanked on all sides by not just supporters of your own team but also supporters of the opposition.

In many stadia, supporters of the two teams are seated separately. There may be many reasons to do this but one of the reasons is quite likely to be to minimize crowd trouble during the game. Fans can just get a bit too caught up in their emotions, and if there is alcohol also flowing, the odd word or wind-up can quickly snowball into a very unpleasant situation. In Holland, everybody is very familiar with this, thanks to the legendary football rivalry between Amsterdam-based Ajax and Rotterdam-based Feyenoord.

And this was India-Pakistan, easily of the same trouble-creating potential, if not more.

I do not know whether grounds in India or Pakistan have country-specific seating arrangements, but at the Amstelveen ground there was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was a very informal setting. A couple of pictures - this was not my seating area though.
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

As it turned out, I occupied a “ring-side” view , very close to the boundary rope. Stretching it a bit, I could have actually even stretched out and touched players fielding on the boundary - well, almost. :-) Here's an example of one such fielder, VVS Laxman, obliging fans with autographs.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

I was flanked on all sides by both Indian and Pakistani supporters.

It might have rained for a good part of the morning but the rain certainly did nothing to dampen the spirits of the fans. Many of them were not even from Holland, they had come many miles, mostly from the UK, but also from other European countries and even from the USA to watch this match.

They had come to have fun – and fun they would have, in any shape or form. There were flags of both countries to be seen all around the stadium, each one trying to outdo the other. There were fans tooting on vuvuzela-equivalents, there was beer flowing freely (as one would expect in Holland). In general, rain or no rain, everybody was having a fun time.

When the match started, the support lines got more clearly defined of course.

The Indians around me were amazingly passionate about the Indian cricket team. Far more than I was, actually. There was even a group that had come all the way from Bombay (Mumbai) – they were part of some sort of tour and were due to attend a Shah Rukh Khan / Preity Zinta concert in Rotterdam later that day. (I saw SRK/PZ sitting in the VIP area).

These Indian fans were somewhat middle-aged and were initially a bit shy (after all, they were not used to Holland) but when I started singing Hindi songs (I am always singing!), they opened up and joined me. There was instant camaraderie – nothing like Bollywood songs for bonding. 

The Pakistani support group around me was different. They were obviously very passionate about Pakistan – but they were far more vocal too. The Indian applause for a good performance by an Indian player would be drowned many times by the Pakistani cheering for a Pakistani player.

Considering the way the match went, considering there was precious little for Indian fans to cheer, you can imagine how one-sided the overall support situation would have been. I can never forget the cries of “Shu-waib, Shu-waib” for Shoiab Akhtar as he came charging in, from his long run-up, to bowl.

Somehow when we Indian supporters tried to scream from the top of our lungs for Balaji, it did not quite sound the same. Or was it just the speed difference between Akhtar and Balaji that was being reflected in our relative screaming levels?

Anyway, we tried our best. There was nothing more we could do than support our team from the sidelines. We screamed, we waved the Indian flag, and on the few occasions that our team gave us something to cheer about, we even gesticulated “thumbs down” to the Pakistani supporters. Needless to mention, we got more than our share of this from their side but that’s how the game was playing out that day. Most importantly, it was all in good spirit and was a lot of fun.

As the match progressed, and it became increasingly clear that India would be losing, the Indian fans began losing their spirit too. They began getting quiet and the flag-waving became less visible as it became almost an embarrassment.

The Pakistanis were obviously getting more and more animated. Their flags easily began outnumbering the Indian ones. I even saw Chacha Cricket (Pakistan’s most famous cricket fan, who tours all over the world to watch every Pakistani match) doing the rounds around the stadium, with a Pakistani flag.

I tried to lift up the spirits of the Indian supporters around me, but they were just not in a mood.

The moment the match got over – and that was the moment most Pakistanis were waiting for, because they knew they were winning – a whole lot of Pakistanis invaded the ground and began making their way to the presentation area.

The mood was absolutely euphoric for them, there were only Pakistani flags to be seen all over the place. Looking at the Indians around me, it was like a funereal mood.

And then I did something that shocked everybody around me.

I borrowed a flag from one of the Pakistanis around me and began waving it, alongwith the other Pakistanis.

The people sitting around me, who by then knew each person’s allegiance, were stunned. The Indians could just not believe what I was doing. I had been one of the most vocal supporters of India right through the game. And now, instead of feeling bad about India’s defeat, I was waving a Pakistan flag in celebration of Pakistan’s win?

One of the Indians even asked me “Are you really Indian?” When I said “yes”, he said “Are you not ashamed?”

Now I could have had a long debate with him on the subject right there but I did not want to create a scene – that was certainly not the place for it. I just smiled and said “No”. I could sense the Indians around me distancing themselves from me, disgusted with my behavior. One of them even said “Abhi agar ye India mein hota…” (If only this had happened IN India..).

The Pakistanis were also equally stunned. They could not have imagined that an Indian would ever wave a Pakistani flag.

But wave it I did – sharing totally in their moment of celebration.

On some of the occasions (not all), when I’ve narrated this story to my Indian friends, I’ve met with a look of disapproval from them. Some of them have only shaken their heads, some of them have called me a “pseudo-Indian” – and worse.

When I think back on the incident, and wonder, if the situation arose again, whether I’d do the same thing, I find myself saying “yes”.

The thing is, I feel we make too much of a fuss about certain things.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand how symbolic a national flag is. Waving a country’s national flag is an expression of solidarity with, of support for, a country.

So by waving the Pakistan national flag it appeared as if I was supporting Pakistan.

And yes, at that moment, I was. I was celebrating a Pakistan win, hand-in-hand with other Pakistanis there. And what’s wrong with that? Some people have told me “But you don’t need to wave their flag?”. True, I didn’t have to – but if their celebration consisted of waving their flag, I didn’t see anything wrong in joining them in this manner.

Yes, I could have continued to wave an Indian flag – and I would have gladly done so. But it was a celebration moment for Pakistan, not for India. So, other than to continue to show my loyalty to my country (which I didn’t think I needed to), there was no point in waving an India flag. It was Pakistan’s moment, not India’s. And I wanted to congratulate Pakistan.

Besides, I found no need to behave like most of the other Indians there. Yes, I was also not one bit happy that India lost. And lost pretty badly too. But I had come there to enjoy a day out, to enjoy a day of good cricket. Regardless of who’d win and who’d lose. One team had to lose anyway. It was just that Pakistan played the better cricket that day, so my team ended up on the losing side.

But the way most of the other Indians were behaving, you’d think somebody had died. If I’d not wanted to avoid a scene that evening, I’d have told the Indians around me to get perspective. It was just a game. Nobody had died.
I am not claiming that what I did was right. Maybe it is one thing to congratulate a winning side, it is another to celebrate their victory. At the end of a tennis match, the loser and winner shake hands, it does not mean they have a drink together to celebrate the winner.

I don’t know – all I know is that the atmosphere was one of fun and celebration for Pakistan and I saw nothing wrong with joining in. Throughout the match I had been rooting for India – even when they looked totally down and out. I didn’t need to prove my allegiance on this count to anybody. I didn’t then. I don’t now.

Besides, while it is a fierce contest on the cricket field – and the rivalry is great and wonderful – one should not carry this into one’s personal life, in my opinion. It is precisely this overflow, outside the sporting arena, that is disturbing and unhelpful to person-to-person contact between the two countries. Sport is sport and let’s keep it at that.

It is incidents like this that however remain in my mind after all these years.

I’d gone ostensibly to see a cricket match that day.

I returned however with non-cricketing things on my mind, questions about propriety.

Whether I did right or wrong.

By waving the Pakistan flag.

By putting on an act of being a Pakistani with that Pakistani gentleman, to make him feel at ease.

If any reader is interested at all – and has bothered to read through this whole story – I’d love to know his or her point of view. :-)

Friday, February 18, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 2)

In the previous (first) instalment of this 3-part story, I had talked about some of my experiences at an India-Pakistan cricket match at Amstelveen, Holland. That was one eventful day and I feel the need to have to split the story into three parts, each with its own story to tell.

Anyway, onto part 2 now. In the 24 hours that have passed since the publishing of the first part, exactly one person has evinced interest in part 2. That’s very encouraging – and already one more than I was expecting! ;-)

To recap, I was in Amstelveen, Holland, on the 21st of August 2004 to watch an India-Pakistan one-day international cricket match.

I have promised to keep the match narrative short and I shall try to do so.

Not that there is much to talk about anyway. It turned out to be a reasonable disaster of a game.

For one, it rained for a good part of the morning, so the game started a couple of hours late. It had to be curtailed to a 33-over game (from a 50-over game).

Pakistan batted first and, except for some exceptional bowling by Balaji, it was one-way traffic as Pakistan dominated the Indian bowling. India’s son-in-law-to-be (by virtue of the Sania Mirza connection), Shoiab Malik, was particularly impressive.

The chase was never going to be easy for India though Sehwag and Ganguly did make a decent effort upfront. But when Rahul Dravid got run out (not grounding his bat, I might add!), as a result of a freak direct hit from Inzamam-ul-Haq (of all fielders) right from the long-on boundary straight to the keeper’s end, it pretty much sums up the cricket for you if you are an Indian cricket fan. Yes, it was just that type of a day.

India got roundly thrashed – and that is all I am going to talk about the cricket. If you are really into checking the scoreboard, you can find it at

Now, onto the main story for this part.

Like I said, it rained a lot that morning and there was practically no play till almost 1.00 p.m.

While a lot of people were missing the cricket, personally, I did not mind the rain very much because it gave me an opportunity to walk around a bit and meet up with the celebrities. I could always see a cricket match again in my life but when would I get a chance again to talk to Mandira Bedi and Kapil Dev? (not sure I’ve got the order right there, not if I claim to be a cricket fan ;-)).

So I was doing just that when I realized that it was lunch time and I had better grab something to eat before the game finally did start.

What I had not reckoned with was the food arrangements. To be fair to the KNCB (the Dutch cricket Board responsible for the event), they could not have foreseen such a crowd. There was just one covered tent-like structure, housing all the food items available (a lot of them were Indian/Pakistani cuisine of course). It was a buffet system, but since the tent was bursting inside with the crowd, we had to wait outside to get our chance to get in. And boy, that was some queue outside!

I was getting hungry but I had no choice. I just had to wait like everybody else.

In front of me, there was this middle-aged gentleman, with a little boy of about seven clinging to his arm. From the look and dress of this gentleman, I guessed he was of Pakistani origin.

Since there was nothing we could do except wait, he decided to engage in conversation with me. He was really nice and soon he was telling me everything about himself, his family, how he had moved to England from Pakistan, how he missed Pakistan, all that. I listened with a lot of interest – it may surprise some people but I am a reasonably decent listener and I do love listening to such stories.

Anyway this was going on for a while, and you can call me dumb, but it was not until he began saying things like “jaisa hota hai na, hamaare Pakistan mein” and “aakhir hamare Pakistan ki khushboo”, that it struck me that this gentleman was laboring under the impression that I was a fellow-Pakistani.

Now it was not the first time that I had been mistaken to be of a nationality other than Indian. In Europe, I have been mistaken several times to be Turkish. And, in the Middle-East, people have spoken to me in Arabic assuming me to be a local. Even in India, in the immigration queue at the airport in Delhi, I was told years ago to stand in the foreigners queue based purely on my looks.

So being mistaken for a Pakistani was not strange in itself – but it came as a shock at the moment of realization. What’s more, I suddenly realized that such had been the bonhomie created by then between us that springing the news to him, at that reasonably late point in our association, that my origins were from across the border might not have been the best way to proceed, if I wanted the conversation to continue without awkwardness. No, I am not suggesting that he had anything against Indians. But the nature of the conversation until then had given me every reason to feel that his comfort was clearly linked to an assumed common nationality.

Maybe I should have come clean with him then and there and just let things happen. But I could not bring myself to do this. He was SO engrossed in the conversation and I somehow felt that there was no need to rock the boat.

So I went with the flow. Never once did he ask me what my country or place of origin was. So I did not have to lie to him at all. That would have been difficult because I am a hopeless liar. But when I did have to speak (which was thankfully not very often), there was a fair spattering of Urdu thrown in. Although Urdu is my favourite language, my Urdu is pretty pathetic but the other option would have been Punjabi – so Urdu it had to be.

I still remember, after all these years, some of the words I used. I remember throwing in words like “awaam”, “milkiyat”, “tabdeeli”, “maslah”, “lutf” and one of my favourite Urdu words “muqtalif” (I use this word whenever I can!). I remember saying Hindustan instead of Bharat or India. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable though - I am very surprised he did not notice how much I was squirming. All those years of listening to Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and to All India Radio’s Urdu Service were finally beginning to pay off.

Finally it was our time to enter the tent – it could not come soon enough for me. And not just because I was really hungry by then. I was glad to say “khuda hafiz” to him and attack the food.

At that point, I thought I had seen the last of him. Not quite. When the match got over, Pakistanis all around the ground (and many on it since they had invaded the pitch) were celebrating. They were in no hurry to leave, they wanted to savor the moment. The Indians, on the other hand, had already starting making a move towards the exit well before the game got over and in any case were in no mood to hang around.

Although I stayed for much longer than most Indians (more on that in part 3), when the crowd began to dwindle, I too began making a move towards my car.

Just as I was nearing it, I saw him again. This time he came running towards me “Mubarakaan, mubarakaan” (congratulations!), grabbing my outstretched hand (meant for a handshake) with both hands. “Itni jaldi tashreef le ja rahe hain aap?” (You are leaving so soon?).

I said “Haan ji, kuchh zaroori kaam aan padaa hai” (Yes, some important work has come up). And I beat the hell out of that place. At that stage in the evening, though he came across as a really nice guy, I just did not have the energy to go through another exhausting play-act performance.

When I think about it now, it is not an experience I am particularly proud of. Technically I did not lie but I did contribute to his wrong impression and to that extent it does not feel very right. Although it is such a silly thing that it is not worth thinking about. In fact it was one of those experiences that you would typically see on Seinfeld (most probably happening to George).

In any case, it made for a memorable experience and the fact that I still remember it, to a fair degree of detail after all these years, just shows how strongly it has taken bed in my subconscious. And to think that I usually cannot remember what I had for dinner last night! Talk about selective memory!

So that was another interesting experience on the day that Holland hosted an India-Pakistan cricket game. Far more interesting than the game itself, for sure.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When Holland hosted an India-Pak cricket game (Part 1)

The cricket World Cup starts within the next 48 hours. Similar to the football World Cup and the Olympics, this event also comes around only once in four years. So you can imagine the excitement in the cricketing fraternity right now.

As if this once-in-four-years anticipation is not enough, this time it is being hosted in the Indian sub-continent. For security reasons, Pakistan is not a hosting country, so it is going to be India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh who will have the honours of hosting the tournament.

The excitement and the hype right now, at least on internet sites and forums, have reached crescendo level. Although I am not physically in India right now, I can only imagine how the mood must be in that cricket-crazy country, especially as it is hosting the tournament and is one of the hot favorites to win it.

But I am not going to write about the World Cup here. There is SO much being written about it, it has reached saturation point. Everybody is suddenly a cricket “expert” making predictions, everybody is going nostalgic about his/her World Cup experiences. And while it all makes for a reasonable read – and I do have my share of World Cup memories - I do not want to add more noise to what is already out there. At least not on my blog.

What the cricket World Cup has however done is to rekindle certain memories in my mind about some personal experiences I’ve had at a cricket ground, here in Holland. These memories have less to do with cricket and more to do with me being the guy who somehow gets himself into situations that either nobody else gets into or other people easily get out of. :-)

I will keep the cricket-related aspects of the narrative to a minimum because I think it may not interest many here. (not that the non-cricket related aspects will interest many but, as is my wont, I will ramble on anyway).

It was the 21st of August 2004. India and Pakistan were scheduled to play a one-day international game. Not in their home countries but at a neutral venue.

Amstelveen, Holland.

Now, anybody who knows anything about India-Pakistan rivalry and cricket as a religion in both countries will know that no game between these two countries is “just another game”. The passion of fans, and players too, reaches a different level altogether and the bragging rights are more cherished than many other trophies in the game.

Besides, normal cricketing ties between the two countries had only just resumed a few months earlier, after a hiatus of almost five years, following the war in Kargil, Kashmir in May 1999. So cricket fans were even more eager than ever to lap up any cricket between these two countries.

Fans had come from as far off as the US. As one of them, who got friendly with me, told me, where else would he get a chance to see an India-Pakistan game? Not in the US (maybe in the future, but not at that time). There were fans from all over Europe, from Spain to France to Poland. Almost all Indian or Pakistani-origin, of course.

It was quite a sell-out that day in Amstelveen, much to the surprise of the KNCB, the Dutch organization that runs cricket in the country and responsible for running this event. I could see them struggling at times to cope with the crowds – I am sure they had not anticipated this level of popularity for a cricket event in Holland. I read later that they were very happy with the event because it had made them a lot of money. Good for them.

As for me, I was so excited, I took the day off from work – I just had to be there at the game. I had booked a ticket online, making sure I got one of the best seats in the house, in line with the stumps and almost at touching distance of a player if he were to cross over the rope. It also happened to be right next to the media box. Although I did not realize it at the time, this would turn out to be a hugely “strategic” seating arrangement for me. Though the ticket did cost me an arm and a leg, I did not think twice about it then.

And it turned out to be totally worth it. I suddenly found that being next to the media box meant that I had access to various celebrities who would pop in and out of the media box for a break or for a snack or so. In India it would have been unthinkable but in Holland, the security was not strict at all. The entire atmosphere was very casual and festive. The Dutch are basically fun people and, I think, though they were outnumbered 9 to 1 on that day, those who were there were just happy to soak in the atmosphere very unlike a football match that they must be so much more used to.

Anyway, I got to meet and chat with the media team, including Farokh Engineer, Kapil Dev, Barry Richards, Sanjay Manjrekar, Arun Lal, Sivaramakrishnan, Rameez Raja, Michael Slater and even Mandira Bedi. It was a lot of fun, especially because they were also extremely relaxed.

I got to take pictures with them (thanks to a digital camera I had borrowed a day earlier from a friend of mine – am SO thankful to him for lending it to me). A couple of days later I got to take some pictures with some then-current cricketers, including Tendulkar, Dravid, Yuvraj, Kaif, Balaji, McGrath, Gillespie and others but that is another, less interesting, story because it was just pictures and nothing else. I’d rather have a chat with somebody than have just a picture taken.

Anyway, a funny thing happened at the ground. Probably as a result of my “strategic” positioning AND my grey hair (lending a totally misleading impression of wisdom) AND the fact that I had a laptop with me (yes, I had to drop in at work first to finish something before heading for the game), I was mistaken for a knowledgeable person (and possibly even a media-person) myself.

So I found myself being interviewed by NRC Handelsblad, a reputed, somewhat “high-brow”, newspaper in Holland. They carried a half-page story on the cricket match the next day and, typical of NRC, “positioned” the match in the context of India-Pakistan relations.

I was also interviewed by the national Dutch TV channel. It was not planned, I was just picked out of the crowd (the grey hair may have helped ;-) ) and a mike thrust in my face. It was about 2-3 minutes (longer than I thought!).I was mainly asked about what an India-Pakistan game meant to me.

I remember saying that it meant a lot to me in the context of furthering relations between the two countries and was therefore more than just a cricket match to me. I intentionally wanted to underplay the enmity/rivalry side of the relationship that Western hawks are so keen to project about India-Pakistan. I did say that, though there is intense rivalry between the two countries, there is a lot in common too and cricket, as one of those common elements, is an excellent medium to build a relationship from.

I was also interviewed by a BBC radio channel representative – maybe their Asian network, I am not sure. The guy, typically (BBC after all!), asked me questions about the Dutch cricket structure, the clubs and league system (similar questions to what Anil Kumble had asked me way back in 1996 when I’d met him in Holland). I don’t think this particular interview went too well – anyway I never got to listen to it though the guy did tell me when it would air.

This was all a load of fun – I would never have had these experiences in India, for sure. It is these things more than what actually happens on the cricket field itself that make a visit to a ground worthwhile.

And this was just at the start of the day. As the day progressed, I had other experiences, whether trying to get something for lunch or celebrating during and after the match.

To prevent this post from becoming one long, unreadable post I am going to split this story into three parts so that I can then have three, relatively short, unreadable posts. :-)

So here was the first of those, with two more to come. Watch this space.