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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, August 16, 2017

Voice from Gorakhpur

It's been a few days since the Baba Raghav Das Medical College, Gorakhpur story broke out. 

There has been a lot of discussion about it since. Normally I'm never at a loss for words or for an opinion, but, to be honest, right now, I'm in no frame of mind to discuss the subject here.

Anyway, I’m sure it will eventually settle down, like all stories do. And everyone will just move on.

But right now, I'm STILL struggling to get my head around it.

How can we be SO callous as a society, that too towards babies? 

Some have tried to brush this off, saying it is routine for Gorakhpur due to encephalitis attacks. I’ve seen claims that there have been about 40,000 such deaths in the last four decades, so what’s the big deal now?

That is a horrendous number – I don’t even know if it is anywhere close to the truth. But whatever it is, this is a truly pathetic attempt to rationalize, or justify, these deaths.

If anything, it only shows how shamefully inadequate our healthcare is, especially outside the major metros. And, in particular, for those depending on government hospitals, not being of the AIIMS (or near-equivalent) label.

One can only hope that at least this shocking incident is a catalyst for serious and immediate action to step up healthcare in India.

None of this helps my current, tormented, state of mind though.

I've just not been able to get these deaths out of my head. Those pictures of babies in their parents' arms are haunting me.

Today, after a very long time, I wrote a few rhyming lines (I wouldn't dignify this by calling it poetry). I still write random stuff, mostly in my head, when I'm troubled within. It usually gives me a bit of relief.

So this is what I wrote today, with the face of that little dead baby in my mind all the time. I felt like he was talking to me, talking to all of us. 

Aaya tha jahaan mein tumhaare
main ek nanhaa taara
socha tha aanchal mein tumhaare
milega mujhe sahaara

chhod diya kyon maut ke dar par
tha nahin main bechaara?
jeene ka mujhe haq nahin kya
haq hai ye sirf tumhaara?

yaad main aaoon, aansoon laoon
mujhe nahin ye ganwaara
jab tak na hota yakeen mujhko
ye kabhi na hoga dobaara

I'm SO sorry, I'm SO sorry! 

Friday, June 30, 2017

On #NotInMyName - and those who protest a protest

It’s been ages since I last penned my thoughts on this blog.

Not for want of material – there’s been plenty.

But I’ve just not had the motivation to compile my thoughts in a coherent manner and put them up here. It’s so much easier to just tweet them randomly. I do tweet quite a bit. That way I get my thoughts out of  my system. But I’m not sure this is always the best way to get thoughts across, even if a topic is well-threaded. I guess, to some extent,  it depends on the topic too.

Today I decided I’d take the “hard” way out on a topic that’s bothering me a bit. So instead of taking the easy Twitter route, I’m putting down my thoughts here, on this blog post.

I want to talk about the #NotInMyName protests against mob lynching that took place a a couple of days ago. They happened in various cities across the country and in London.

Thousands participated in these protests, despite rain and traffic. Without these hindrances, and had it been on a weekend, there’s every reason to believe the participation would have been even higher. People of all age groups could be seen – suggesting the youth and elderly both felt strongly enough about the issue to brave the odds and be physically present at the protest venues.

There was physical presence from the Hindi film industry (Bollywood) too in the form of Shabana Azmi. In Bangalore, Girish Karnad could be seen in the protests. Others, like Diya Mirza and Varun Dhawan, expressed solidarity through Twitter.  There might have been others – I wasn’t keeping track of this.

But this post isn’t about who was present, or who supported the protests.

It’s about those who didn’t.

I believe there is a significant number of persons who had reservations about the protest and didn’t support it one bit. Forget their not being present at the venues, they were fairly vocal in their objection to the protest itself.

I’ve tried to understand the reasons for this. I even put out a Twitter poll before the event to try to get a sense of the reasons, but, given my very limited reach, there were only a handful of responses. Too small a sample size to be of any use.

To my simplistic mind, these protests were against lynching. So anyone who’s against lynching would naturally identify with the cause. So even if he or she couldn’t be physically present, he or she would support it online, or, at least in spirit.

But things are rarely that simple in the real world, are they? That’s one reason I feel increasingly out of place here – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Yes, things are usually not black-and-white in this world – I’ll be the first to concede that. Binaries are not just simplistic, but even dangerous because they lock you in, without considering you might not be entirely with, or against, one of the arguments. There are many intermediate points between two ends of a spectrum, between a Yes and a No, creating various shades of grey. The world might be becoming digital - but issues aren’t. They’re still nuanced – and that nuance must be respected.

I get all that, I really do. I read a fair bit of political and social commentary, hopefully getting different perspectives on a subject to enrich my understanding of it.

 But I wonder whether we sometimes don’t just overdo it.  And, as a result, end up with nothing to show.

Sure, it makes for fine copy. You get appreciated for your intellect, and for your analytical abilities. But what have you really achieved, other than throw another spanner in the works?

So I think it might be useful to take a step back and look at an idea for WHAT it’s trying to do, instead of being immediately dismissive of it. Or worse, finding some reason to  run it down. Fact is, nothing being perfect, there will usually be a reason that can be found. Certainly if one searches hard enough. That’s how critics often make a living.

Let me put this in the context of the #NotInMyName protests.

Broadly, from what I could gather,  the objections to it took the following forms:
1.      How dare you use the #NotInMyName hashtag
2.      All this is a waste of time anyway, we all know it’s not going to make the slightest difference
3.      This is all agenda-driven. These guys are trying to make it look like the situation is much worse than it really is.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – they were just the most common reactions I came across. If there were any other reasons for objecting to it,  I’d be happy to know.

Let’s examine each one now.

1. Use of the #NotInMyName hashtag
I totally agree with those objecting to it. If you’re against lynching of all types, this doesn’t say it clearly.

This hashtag, taken at face value, implies, it’s meant for Hindus to use to protest against “Hindutva”, which is responsible for recent incidents of lynching of Muslims by Hindu bigots. That’s what this implies.

 Technically, that excludes the lynching of the Kashmir police officer, Ayub Pandith, because he wasn’t lynched by a Hindu mob.

Technically,  that makes Hindutva the target of this protest, no one else. This, while savarna Hindus themselves have been responsible for countless lynching of Dalits over centuries. Now they find  fault with Hindutva bigots but if they have look into the mirror, they’re as much worthy of being a target of protests, as the target they protest against.  The irony of this #NotInMyName tag didn’t escape Dalits.

Personally, I’d have preferred to use an action-oriented hashtag like #StopLynchingNOW. Yes, it doesn’t have the ring of a #NotInMyName – but it’s far more inclusive and far more direct.

 A #NotInMyName tag says, “I don’t endorse what’s happening”.  A #StopLynchingNow goes further – it says “I don’t endorse what’s happening AND I want you to stop it RIGHT NOW”. It demands action – in that sense, it goes a little bit further than just a “disclaimer” protest.

Maybe this would have caused less resentment amongst those who objected to the protests because the tag itself put them off.

Personally, I believe the protesters didn’t mean to exclude anyone.  They were protesting just as much against the violence towards Ayub Pandith as they were for Junaid and others. This was even visible in places where Ayub’s name was specifically mentioned.

But there are enough folks out there who will exploit every slip you make, however unintentional. Times now are such (pun entirely intended).

One thing I will say though in favour of Dalits who rejected the protests. For centuries, they’ve been at the receiving end of the worst types of atrocities from the upper caste. How many upper-caste folks  have protested at Jantar Mantar or Town Hall for them, demanding rights for Dalits?

When Dalits do protest in their own way, every effort is made to quell their protest, as if they’re committing a crime. In fact, many upper-caste don’t even want to acknowledge the issues Dalits face.

So maybe at least some Dalits saw this #NotInMyName protest as being for the right cause,  but not with the right people. To be honest, I can’t blame them. I’d like them to have participated – but the platform probably wasn’t one they feel comfortable with.

Moving on, to point 2.

2. It’s a waste of time, it’s not going to make a difference anyway.

This attitude too, I can understand. I don’t agree entirely with it – protests HAVE made a difference in the past, though a large number end up being just an expression of discontent, rather than being a catalyst for change.

The thing is, in a democracy, apart from casting his vote every so many years (once in 5 years, in India), a citizen really doesn’t have much power to influence policy just on his own. Even if he approaches his representative, he’ll most likely be told “get me x number of signatures to prove there’s a mass demand for this”. That is, if he is given a hearing at all.

That is why we have petitions made in public interest, which seek  to get as much public support as possible. The power, and credibility, lies in numbers.

The same applies to protests on streets. If there’s a sizeable number on the streets for a cause, there’s a chance it’ll be considered by those sought to be influenced.

Of course, there’s every chance it won’t. Much depends on the attitude of the authority. The more receptive and responsive, the more likely it will work. I leave it to you to judge how receptive and responsive this government is, with regard to this particular issue.

PM Modi today made a statement condemning killing in the name of cows. Some see this as a “victory” of the #NotInMyName protests.  There might well be  some truth in this, especially since international media like BBC and New York Times covered the protests – and we know how sensitive the government is to anything that might tarnis its international “stainless” image.

My own take on this is – I couldn’t care less.

My skepticism, honed over 40+ years of following politics and listening to politician-speak, makes me reject all talk, and focus on action. Action always talks louder than words – so, if you don’t mind, I’ll applaud when I see gau-rakshak violence actually stop.

By the way,  I’ve never asked “why didn’t the PM condemn Dadri or A or B?” I don’t believe in it. What will  we get? “Kadi ninda”? We see it ALL the time. In my entire life, I’ve never seen “kadi ninda” solve any issue –yet it’s the first thing everyone expects, and leaders often offer, in a situation. Sure, we shouldn’t drape a criminal in the tricolor, but I think we should have slightly higher expectations of governance from our leaders than just words. )

Back to this issue.

Even if this particular protest is seen as futile, the fact that it elicited so much response, ON THE GROUND, is itself noteworthy. We’re used to armchair warriors, typing furiously, but reluctant to get out of their armchairs. That this made some of them actually go on the streets is a victory of sorts in itself.

Was this the right issue to pursue? Weren’t there better issues that should have been protested more? Like farmer suicides. Or demonetisation.  Valid questions that were asked.

The thing is, it’s not either/or. One can protest this AND protest farmer suicides. One doesn’t have to run down one protest by doing whataboutery with another. Besides, it is often a series of protests over time that makes an impact, rarely just one isolated protest.

Moving on to point no.3

3. This is agenda-driven. The situation isn’t as bad as it is being made out to be.

Maybe I should add a line “These people are Modi-bashers anyway.”

Maybe another one “Where were these guys when lynching was happening during UPA? Why were they silent then?”

This point really doesn’t merit too much discussion. I’m a bit tired of every critique being turned into an “anti-Modi” accusation. Surely some of us are better than that?

How bad does a situation need to be? How many deaths are “ok” to happen, before a protest can get their nod?

As for those who say “why didn’t you protest during UPA-time lynching”, one approach to counter this would be to show numbers. Indiaspend did come up with numbers to show that cow-based lynchings have gone up in the last couple of years.

Even so,  I’d rather just say “Yes, maybe we should have protested then too.  But you know what? Just because we didn’t protest then, is no reason not to protest now.” Two wrongs don’t make a right.

For me at least, it’s not about a BJP govt or a Congress govt or any party’s govt.  It’s about the issue. And we need to keep raising the bar on ourselves too – if we failed in the past, we need to learn not to repeat those mistakes again.

This is about lynching – my simple mind asks, how can any protest against it be wrong?

And THIS is what has been bothering me. (I did start this post by saying that something was bothering me.)

I keep asking myself – how can you NOT support a protest against lynching?

I totally accept the points made by those against the #NotInMyName hashtag.

I even accept that, as one standalone protest, this one might not make any difference.

But…but…does that mean the protest against lynching is wrong?

People are being killed – shouldn’t we all be united against this killing? So some people want to organize a protest against it – must we weaken their efforts by running them down?

If power truly lies in numbers, we’re doing our best to ensure we aren’t united. Guess who wins when we are not united?

Yes, we have our differences.  Show me one cricket or football team, with 11 players who are in perfect harmony with each other. There are differences between players, their background is different, their conditioning is different, they have egos – and yet, when they have a cause that brings them together, they keep all that aside. They need to, because they need to fight for a bigger cause. They need to try and win the game – together as a team.

We know that those who fought for India’s freedom from the British had differences between themselves too. But they didn’t let these come in the way of their collective struggle – the British would probably have liked to see them break up, and thus break their resistance.

We have a lot of differences amongst ourselves – and I don’t mean to trivialize any of these. They might well be valid too – but there are times when we need to park them aside and unite for a purpose.

A citizen protest against lynching (or rape, or any crime) is one such purpose.  Unless one supports the crime, this isn’t the time to let one’s differences come in the way.

Heck, even the US teamed up with Russia/USSR to defeat Hitler in the Second World War. And we know how ideologically different the US and Russia/USSR were, otherwise.

Which is why I was disappointed.

While those in the protest said they felt exhilarated by it, the protests against the protests showed me, as if I needed evidence,  the fault lines in our society. The hate, the contempt, the mistrust we have for each other.

Once again, this isn’t about BJP or Congress or any government.

It’s about us – and how we’re letting hate into our lives.

There’s a LOT of work we need to do on this front. 

And we need to do it NOW.

Otherwise, if we let this hate get the better of us, it will destroy us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Punjab elections, and why what should be a victory for AAP feels like a defeat

We live in times of instant gratification.

Just look around us.

T20 is the flavor of cricket today. Test cricket is “too slow” for these busy times.
(Typical conversation:
 This goes on for the WHOLE day?
No, not one. Five.
 Five? Five full days?
Yes. And even after that, it could be a draw. No winner or loser.
You want to kill me? Kill me NOW.)

News too has imbibed this supreme sense of urgency, an outcome of this instant gratification urge. Every outlet, in its rush to be “the first” to break the story, is happy to just push it out there, not fact-checked, unedited. As long as it is “the first”.  People’s attention span probably ensures  they’ll just skim through it anyway – assuming they go past the headline first. And news comes at them at such a rapid pace anyway, they’ll forget this piece the moment the next one appears in their inbox, or is delivered on social media.

That’s the world we live in today. And that’s ok – these are fast-paced times.

Patience isn’t a virtue anymore. In fact, it is probably scorned upon.  (See cricket discussion above).

But this also means we sometimes miss the essence of something significant because we are too caught up in our instant gratification trip. It’s not happening fast enough for our minds to appreciate any movement at all. So we conclude, nothing is happening . But it’s happening in ITS time, not ours. Something we will appreciate only if we give it ITS time.

Ok, let me stop talking in this Deepak Chopra-esque lingo and come straight to the point.

I am referring to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its evolution.

When the results of the Punjab Assembly elections were announced today, there was a huge sense of  disappointment amongst AAP supporters. Many of them had worked incredibly hard for the party, giving it their everything. They'd even guarded EVMs, fearing they might be manipulated during the 5-week waiting period between voting and counting. 

AAP came in with "just" 20 seats out of 117. This, when at one time, a few months ago, they were talking of 80+ seats, even 100 seats!

That’s quite a comedown!

The incumbent, the Akalis, did even worse. Expectations from them were very low anyway, so they probably matched, or even surpassed, these low expectations.

The runaway winner was the old hand, the Congress Party. Thanks to a leader the electorate largely trusted, Capt Amarinder Singh. And of course, the organization at ground level that this grand old party has.

So AAP ended up a very distant second. But, even so, having come in second, it is the main opposition party in the Punjab Assembly.

This made me think.

Was I expecting AAP to sweep Punjab? Not really. I certainly expected them to do much better than they did, but I never once underestimated the other two big parties.

 Both Congress and the Akalis are entrenched parties, with cadres loyal to them. They’ve both fought many elections before and are surely aware of the tricks of the trade, especially how to woo the electorate. Both are deep-pocketed and can comfortably call upon resources from outside Punjab whenever required.

Compare this with AAP. It’s a 4-and-a-little-something year old party, with very little experience of contesting elections. Although it did contest general elections in Punjab in 2014, this was the first time it was seeking votes from Punjab voters to govern them in their own state.

AAP’s footprint, at least that which could have been relevant to the Punjab voter, was almost entirely in Delhi. It might claim to have a good report card to show for its two years in Delhi – but it was still a relatively unknown commodity for  the Punjab voter.  Many of the AAP candidates must have been new names for the voters.

Compare this with the Congress and SAD. In 2012, Congress got about 40% of the voteshare, even more than SAD's 35%, though SAD won the elections. So this time even if there was huge anti-incumbency in Punjab, wouldn't it be natural to expect these anti-incumbency votes to go to a party that is already extremely well-entrenched in the state? That has a very strong local leader in Capt Amarinder? 

Why would a voter pick an untested name from an untested party over a familiar, trusted, one?

On what basis then were the predictions of 80-100 seats for AAP based? 

Based purely on euphoria from seeing crowds at campaigns held well before election date?

At least if these crowds had assembled just a few days before election date, one could have made a case for AAP having a realistic chance of winning.

There were probably many reasons for AAP’s less-than-expected performance. I don’t want to dwell on them here.

 I do want to however dwell on the expectation itself. That's because I strongly believe the disappointment stems from this expectation.

Otherwise, getting 20 seats in a state you're contesting for the first time, against two formidable opponents would normally be considered a victory for a new party.
I think it all started with the Delhi landslide.

67/70 is mind-blowingly phenomenal by any standards.

But it is also ripe for the creation of illusions.

Had AAP won Delhi with a more modest 40/70, nobody would've been throwing numbers like 100/117 in Punjab. That is an obscene domination, but when you’ve seen 67/70, a 100/117 looks, well,  doable.

Which, for the party itself, is just fine. You contest to win. And to win every seat you contest.

But when the “new normal” being talked about becomes 80/117 or even more, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

After all, Delhi is history, Punjab is a fresh election. You need to start from scratch to win over every single voter all over again. One vote at a time, building up to one seat at a time, building up to a majority. It is a painstaking process, requiring huge amount of investment of time and money.  Unlike other deep-pocketed parties, AAP largely depends on volunteers for both their time and money.  It was going to be a real tough ask to harness these resources for 117 constituencies.

Seen this way, AAP should have been an underdog to start with. That it wasn’t, is down entirely to unrealistic expectations, whether created by the party itself or by others.

Also seen from this bottom-up angle, that AAP has managed to get 20 seats, contesting for the first time in Punjab state elections, should be  seen as positive by the neutral observer. Until now, Punjab had seen mostly a bi-party contest. This time, a third party entered the fray – and ended up being the main opposition party in the Assembly.

This might serve as a good experience for AAP in Punjab. By the time the next state elections come along, AAP might have settled in better in the state, and  broadened its base. This is part of the evolution process of a political party.

Which brings me to the evolution of AAP, as whole.

And brings me back to the point I started this piece with. On these fast-paced times and the concomitant lack of patience to allow things to evolve.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that AAP is not even 5 years old. Compare this with entrenched parties, who’ve been around for decades, with strong organization structure and cadres around the country. AAP is nowhere close to this at the moment.

Yet, the buzz is all about where AAP is going to contest next, and how it is going to “shake” the biggies in that state. Gujarat next? Then what?

Much as I appreciate the excitement that seems to follow any AAP indication, or even speculation, of contesting elections,  I think we need to temper our electoral expectations on AAP. Enough of this hype.  It’s not like other parties are sleeping and are just going to let AAP walk all over them.

Yes, by all means, AAP should contest every election it wishes to, if it has the resources to do so. Even if it wins one seat (or, as in the case of Goa, not even that one), it might be a first step to making its presence known in that state. It might have a small vote share which might not translate to seats, but is an encouraging vote of confidence from those few voters.

But, for heaven’s sake, keep the hype down. Put in all the effort to win – but don’t go about making statements like “we’re going to sweep it”. Your volunteers might need pumping up, but there are better ways of motivating them.

Otherwise you set yourself up for situations like today. 

What should be seen as a victory of sorts in Punjab – becoming the second largest party, and therefore the main opposition party – now feels like a defeat.

All because of hype and unrealistic expectations.

AAP is still evolving. It’s still very early days for it – we don’t know how its footprint will be 5 years from today, 10 years from today. It might have a significant presence in many states by then. It might be in government in a few, maybe the main opposition party in others. Especially given the state of the Congress party at the moment, AAP might become the biggest national party after the BJP.

Or it might not. Already, based on just today’s results, some have written the obituary of the party. Somewhat reminiscent of what happened after the LS elections of 2014.

All of this is, of course, in the realm of speculation.

What AAP can do is keep doing its job, and building credibility as a party. This might not win it elections  in the short run, since it is still very much an outsider, fighting for mind space against entrenched parties with established cadres and networks.

But as it gains credibility, as its work gets talked about more, as it builds more institutional strength and capability, it has every reason to hope for more electoral gains too.  This might take time but if it is on the right track, it should eventually see results for all its good work.

In between, there will, of course, be electoral hits and misses. These just need to be taken in its stride, without getting carried away - or agitated - about a hit or a miss. After all, an electoral result is not an absolute reflection of one party, it is relative to how voters perceive others in the fray.

So my advice to AAP would be, just be grounded. And patient. It might be frustrating at times, but play it like a Test match. Build the capabilities that enable you to be that “lambe race ka ghoda”. 

Where you’re in government, let your work speak for you. Where you’re in opposition, be a tough opposition, demanding performance from the government. Either way, the winner will be the people of that state or constituency.

This is what is in your hands.

The rest should just follow. And will, in due course.