Category Archives: India

Social media in India and its political impact

Here is a nice list of essays, articles and other interesting thoughts on social media and its impact on political upheavals and outcomes.

Many commenters and mainstream media journalists often condescendingly quip, “Elections are not won on social media, they are won on the streets.”

I totally agree. Social media is definitely not for short-term political gains. Right now it is too disorganized to manage concerted political campaigns. But it is definitely a medium that people can use to disseminate disparate information, and it is already being done. This is the sort of purpose right now social media solves in India. For instance, if there is a piece of misinformation being spread by vested interests, it can be immediately countered by social media.

Take for instance the controversy involving narendramodiplans.com. Someone created this spoof website that was basically a pirated version of a similar website created to lampoon Mitt Romney who contested presidential elections against Barack Obama. There was nothing wrong until the person who had hosted the website started crying that he was being harassed by Modi supporters and hence he had to take down the website. First the link was promoted by Twitter celebrities such as Shashi Tharoor:

And then suddenly the news came that the website had to be taken down due to the harassment meted out to the owner, or the webmaster, or whoever he or she was.

Go through this Storify compilation titled “Unfolding the conspiracy [narendramodiplans.com]” about how within a few hours the Tweeple were able to find that the entire affair was hatched up Congress supporters – a motley mix of journalists, politicians and its political trolls on Twitter.

Now, initially, even a person like me, who is a supporter of the BJP and Modi, was slightly pissed off the way the site had to be taken down but then eventually I discovered that the story of harassment was concocted just to show what sort of goons Modi supporters are.

To that extent social media is useful. It is also definitely useful for scoring brownie points.

But does it change political opinion? Can it affect election results? As far as in India, there is no concrete data that can prove that interactions on Facebook and Twitter can impact election results too. Yes, the opinion on the Internet, especially on the social media websites, is heavily tilted towards the BJP in general (mostly because they are heavily anti-Congress like myself) and Modi in particular (because people are desperately looking for a decisive leader who doesn’t bullshit), but how much this tilt percolates at the ground level it is hard to tell. Primarily there are 3 reasons:

  1. The penetration of the Internet and of social media is not as dense and deep as it is in many other countries despite mobile phones and computers
  2. It is mostly in English that interactions happen on social media websites and the vote bank that actually makes an impact isn’t very well-versed with the language
  3. In the country where people vote for parties based on who can give them more bottles of liquor, blankets, free meals and color TVs, (for that matter even naked girl dance parties) they’re not going to vote based on ideology and opinion

The 3rd point is perhaps the undoing of India. No matter how much people try and succeed on social media, unless people on the ground level seek political change that can actually change the destiny of the country, nothing concrete is going to happen.

I will give you a small example. My permanent address belongs to Sarita Vihar and compared to many parts of New Delhi, in terms of education and money, it’s a pretty well-off locality. But immediately after 16 December when the entire capital was simmering with anger and there was a huge anti-Congress wave all over the city, a Congress candidate won in the municipal elections for this constituency. We were shocked, really. So if this is the condition in a constituency that has educated and the so-called aware people, what can you say about towns and localities where people are less educated and more prone to voting for immediate gains?

So how should social media be used? It can be used as an underpinning for a massive information dissemination campaign. Instead of trying to change political opinions (most of these opinions are any way motivated and hence, cannot be changed) social media should be used to raise awareness and to coordinate political activities. One can get lots of timely information from social media and then use that information to spread awareness in towns and villages, among people actually walking and working on the roads.

Roadside barbers

Ever since we moved to Indirapuram I have been having my haircuts from roadside barbers whom I find better and cheaper (obviously) compared to salons and other trained hair designers. Up till now I had been either calling barbers home or going to one of those Habib’s stalls that are present in every neighborhood mall these days. The barbers working at the Habib stalls – although very polite and courteous – aren’t very well-trained, maybe because in a limited amount of time they have to cater to many customers, both males and females. They use trimmers and other gadgets, but no matter how many times you tell them how to cut your hair, they ultimately end up giving you less than exactly what you want. You feel like sitting on the conveyor belt of some assembly-line production unit.

The roadside barbers on the other hand mostly work manually. They just have their rusted scissors and plastic combs. They are very eager to know what you really want, and they take every sort of hair cutting job as a challenge. So tell them what you want and they put their entire focus onto that. Despite presenting to you the archetypical image of a perpetually poor and hungry Indian, eternally lost in the swamp of deprivation, they take pride in their work.

A big plus point for me is that I don’t need to get off my power wheelchair. They very eagerly move aside their wooden chair so that I can place my wheelchair exactly in front of the mirror.

There is a complete social milieu around the barbers. For instance, the barber to whom I went today, is in the midst of many other shacks where people sell cigarettes, cold drinks, and whatever snacks that can be cooked on the makeshift roadside ovens. There was a cobbler to give us company. Just two shacks away a tailor was vigorously working on his sewing machine. The place was teeming with buzzing flies, discarded razor blades, cigarette butts, a couple of naked urchins and remarkably, lots of used and partly-used incense sticks poked into the stem of the tree under which the barber had his shop.

There were many loafer-type lads sitting around smoking, drinking Coke, laughing, chatting and cursing each other. Those Coke bottles were not even chilled; they were simply placed in a container and people would just pay for a bottle, use the opener lying there, open the bottle, and start drinking and smoking, reminiscent of the beer bars and pubs they show in Western movies.

The place was quite dirty, and so were the people, but once you become a part of them, they’re quite nice and friendly. The barber told me how he has been working at the same spot for the past 10 years. The residential buildings and apartments were being built at that time and there were thousands of laborers working there. The business was so brisk that he would keep working past 10 PM. Now that all the buildings are complete, there are no laborers left. He goes home by 4 PM. In fact the business is so low that his son has become a contractor, instead of taking over the barber job from his father.

What Sanjay Dutt did was a lot more than purchasing illegal weapons

The latest to join the bandwagon of “pardon Sanjay Dutt” is Mamta Bannerjee, the whimsical chief minister of West Bengal. Before her, almost entire Bollywood, the so-called “prominent” political leaders and even a mentally befuddled member of Judiciary have been advocating his pardon, and in fact the whole thing has become an obsession with the who-is-who of the country.

This has totally baffled the common citizens, especially, thanks to the Internet, those who have access to detailed information and not the expurgated form that appears in mainstream media. They know that even if Sanjay Dutt wasn’t a terrorist, he definitely hobnobbed with the top terrorists and underworld members of the subcontinent, and that too, knowingly.

Up till now my knowledge of what actually happened in 1993 and to what extent Sanjay Dutt was involved was quite limited. For instance I only knew of the purchase of a couple of guns. I had no idea that he had purchased multiple AK-56s, magazines as well as grenades. To make matters worse, these weapons were a part of the consignment that had been smuggled into the country from the neighboring Pakistan to cause large-scale destruction and disturbance in the country. Many may say that (as Diggy has insinuated that he was just a kid at that time) he had no knowledge of why the weapons had been smuggled into the country but one has to be a total buffoon in order to be ignorant of such a fact, especially during those days. Even secretly he never tried to inform the police that weapons were being imported and some terrorist activity was going on. His detractors also claim that he knew of the impending blasts. Doesn’t that make him an accomplice?

The law agencies at every stage have tried to mitigate his involvement. Bizarrely, he is only being punished under the arms act whereas many of his accomplices were booked under TADA. According to this old Tehelka article, Sanjay Dutt was in direct contact with Anees Ibrahim who is the brother of the notorious underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. This portion is quite revealing:

The crucial information that Sanjay had been calling Anees came from the filmstar himself. Says MN Singh, who headed the investigation, “He himself said that he had made the calls. This information came from him and only then did we get the supporting mtnl printouts.” The printouts showed that seven calls had been made to Anees’s number at White House in Dubai. The police also took a sworn affidavit from the Indian Embassy in Dubai saying that the Dubai number to which the calls were made by Sanjay was indeed that of Dawood’s brother. The police also procured the Dubai telephone directory which mentioned the same number against Anees’s name. Only a few of the over 150 accused in the serial blasts case had been in touch with either Dawood or Anees while the blasts conspiracy was being hatched. Sanjay was one of them. All these records were handed over to the CBI. However, when the time came to pin Sanjay down in court, the CBI chose to omit the record related to the telephone calls in its final submission against Sanjay before the TADA court. The prosecution’s submission, a copy of which is with Tehelka, reveals that the CBI has not brought the telephone conversation-related evidence on record. Sources in the CBI said that since the court had not accepted the telephone records as evidence against Sanjay, they decided to delete them from their written submission. Maneshinde also revealed that the calls “have not come on record”.

In what appears to be a dilution, the CBI also failed to press the charge of destruction of evidence against Sanjay in their written submission. Initially, when the Mumbai Police filed the chargesheet, a copy of which is with Tehelka, they had slapped Sanjay with that charge. Nullwala, who destroyed the weapons on Sanjay’s instruction, has been convicted under the Arms Act. Commenting on the disparity, he told Tehelka, “This will always happen… this is nothing new… See this thing… politicians… they do every possible thing… nothing happens to them… Why? It comes in the paper… it comes on the idiot box every single day… but what happens… it’s always people like us, we have to suffer… you know, we are the example for the world…”

According to this article the CBI totally muddled that case by failing to establish that the arms that reached Sanjay Dutt’s house were the same arms that had been smuggled into the country to cause widespread unrest and this is what totally mitigated his involvement.

According to another article in The Indian Express,

The masterminds of the 1993 bomb blasts in Bombay had a twin agenda. One was to attack the city through a series of explosions, and the other was to arm members of their community well enough to hold their own in communal clashes the blasts were expected to trigger.

For this, assault rifles, pistols and hand grenades were brought from Pakistan and several young men were also taken to Pakistan and given arms training, police officers linked to the investigation recalled after this week’s Supreme Court verdict in the 20-year-old case.

The arms landed at two places in Raigad district and one in Gujarat. The Gujarat consignment was hidden in the cavity of a vehicle and brought to Mumbai by road, driven by Abu Salem, who went on to become a prominent gangster.

Salem and his accomplices needed a quiet place to open the welded cavity and remove the arsenal. The office of Magnum Productions, owned by Hanif Kadawala and Sameer Hingora, on Linking Road in Bandra, was chosen. Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Anees called Hingora and Kadawala and told them to allow Salem to use their compound.

The partners, however, were involved in a dispute with their landlord and did not want to risk catching his attention and suggested using actor Sanjay Dutt’s house instead.

Dutt was contacted and he agreed. Hingora went with Salem after the latter feared he would not be allowed inside by the guards, and the vehicle was taken to Dutt’s garage.

“The Mumbai Police had provided some guards for Sunil and Sanjay Dutt in light of the 1992-93 riots, and the garage was in direct line of sight from where they were stationed. Dutt asked them to move over to another gate, after which the cavity in the vehicle was opened and the arsenal extracted,” said one officer.

Isn’t it strange that when dreaded terrorists were looking for a place to open the welded cavities of the van in which weapons had been concealed they decided to contact Sanjay Dutt, just like that? Actually, just like that. Would gangsters and terrorists randomly call someone, and that too the son of an influential politician, to help them retrieve weapons from a vehicle simply because they don’t have any other place? Even if he hadn’t kept the arms illegally with him, isn’t it quite extraordinary that the top terrorists of the subcontinent were so comfortable with him that they could trust him with such knowledge? Doesn’t this establish the fact that he already enjoyed close links with such elements to such an extent that they easily took him into confidence while carrying out such a serious operation?

Just illegal arms act? Error of judgment? Youthful indiscretion? Who are we kidding?

It was also brought to my notice that even in 2002 (and the recording was played on live TV) he was calling up gangsters to sort out another actor Govinda. And this was something that was caught. Who knows what all operations he has been running with his underworld contacts? Alarmingly, people support him across political and ideological lines despite his long-standing association with the underworld. The late Balasaheb Thakerey said about him, “All the boy needs is three tight slaps.”

This only means two things: these people are totally dumb or unconcerned about the safety of the country, or at one stage or another, they have benefited from this association of his.

 

 

Why were the Italian Marines forced to come back to India

Recently the Italians cocked a snook at the Indian government by refusing to send back the Italian Marines who are accused of murdering two Indian fishermen in the Indian Ocean. These Marines have already had a very easy go. First they were allowed to attend Christmas at their native Italian places, and then they were allowed to go back to their country to cast votes. It is also rumored that the families of the murdered fisherman have been given Rs. 1 crore each to bury the hatchet and let the Marines go.

Call it political compulsions or whatever, the case has attained national, and now international highlight. On top of that, the recent stunt pulled by the Italian government even got the European Union involved. Anyway, this is not the point.

According to the grapevine on Twitter and other social networking websites, the escape of the Italian Marines was planned in full connivance of the Indian government that too has its own Italian connections. The plan was, on one pretext or another, the Marines would be allowed to leave the country, and in protest, the government would expel the Italian ambassador under whose guarantee the Marines had been allowed to go. Under a seemingly well thought of plan, the Marines were first allowed to leave fully according to the Indian law, and then later on the Italian government sent a note varbale that the two will not be coming back as the Indian courts had no jurisdiction over the case. Not even in their dreams they had thought about the juggernaut called Subramanian Swamy.

Contrary to what the Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshied is saying – that it was the diplomatic efforts that changed Italy’s posturing – it was Subramanian Swamy who swiftly got into action and requested the Supreme Court to stop the Italian ambassador from leaving the country under any situation. All the airports in the country were instructed to look out for the Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini, who had given the assurance that the Marines would be back on time. So it was the arm-twisting that actually worked. Unless the Marines were sent back, the Italian ambassador could not leave the country, and since the press was (yes, our system is such that, a semblance of press still exists) closely following the case, unlike the infamous Mr. Q, the Indian government couldn’t felicitate his escape.

It was not Sonia Gandhi’s “tough stand”. It was not MMS’s “unacceptable” filibustering. It was the quick action by Mr. Swamy who forced the Italian government to send the Marines back.

 

We need to read, and, understand our epics

Indian epics

Ever since the December 16 gang rape the and brutal murder of a young physiotherapist, scores of articles have been written analyzing what prompted those men, and thousands of other men every year, to commit such unspeakable atrocities upon women. Is something contemporary driving people insane and barbaric, or is there something rooted in our culture and upbringing that makes us consider our women as objects and assets?

There are many people who find faults at the very crux of our culture, mythology and religious practices. According to ancient texts, they say, a woman is a possession: like a slave or livestock, she can be sold and purchased, she can be abducted and held against her will, she can be punished publicly if she goes against the wishes of her master known as her husband and it is her foremost duty to consider the male members of her family in general and her husband in particular, divine (and hence, above reproach).

Do our epics and religious texts actually mean that, or they have been contorted to suit vested interests? Although this thought has been playing inside my mind for a very long time, what has prompted me to write this is my recent reading of two entirely different chains of thought when it comes to correlating mythological/religious texts and the way we treat our women.

Nilanjana Roy begins her recent Business Standard article with:

In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.

Then, citing various instances from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata she explains how abduction, confinement, abandonment, revanchist disfiguration and rape of women are sanctioned in these epics. Whether it is the abduction of Sita by Rawana, her abandonment by her own husband Rama, the cutting of the nose of Surpanakha (Rawana’s sister), the abduction of Amba and later on her abandonment by Bhishma or the stripping of Draupadi in front of everybody, these epics are filled with atrocities on women. According to this logic, the same attitude percolates our society today and makes our men look at women with contempt or consider them an object of sleaze and sexual fulfillment, not to mention a sense of ownership.

Nilanjana further writes:

Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and, running parallel to it, the disfiguration of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana — two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and the sanctioned rapes of Amba and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.

The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.

I came across this particular article via Sandeep’s lengthy response to her article in a series of blog posts titled “The Rape of Our Epics”. He begins his first blog post with

Nilanjana Roy’s Business Standard piece on Jan 08, 2013 entitled A woman alone in the forest is just the latest in what has become a much-lauded fad. A fad whose staple diet consists of a distorted reading of Indian epics, misinterpretations aplenty, sleights of hand, concealment, and open falsehood. We’ve seen the disastrous results of what happens when such untruths come to be accepted as truth—simply put, they multiply and over time gain such wide currency that even when the truth is pointed out, people simply dismiss it as propaganda or ranting or both. This problem is made worse in a country like India where the English media refuses to give voice to opposing and/or honest viewpoints.

He further says

it’s interesting that Nilanjana chooses to see only bloodstained lines, violence, and rape in them instead of a wealth of learning, high philosophy, a harmonious worldview, a divine view of women, and a solid value system they contain and espouse.

So which chain of thought do you follow? In this regard I am not a learned person. My best exposure to Ramayana is Abhyudaya by Narendra Kohli in which he has tried to retell the epic from a human angle (so nobody has supernatural powers and God-like abilities). I haven’t read the original Valmiki Ramayana. The same goes with Mahabharata. I intend to change this very soon.

But really, how much do we know about our epics? You can easily make out in Nilanjana’s article that she hasn’t done proper reading of the epics and she writes with a preconceived notion that she has acquired via certain type of reading. Sandeep’s style of expression may seem acerbic, but he is right when he says that the English media not only distorts facts when it comes to the cultural interpretations, it also refuses the alternative opinions to be expressed. That’s why you see so much anger and cynicism in the way he writes. I totally agree that there is this particular section of writers and intellectuals who don’t write for scholarly analysis, but to perpetuate an agenda. There is this ongoing effort to paint a dark aura around our ancient scriptures, especially when it comes to Hinduism, and I say this as a non-Hindu. I’m not sure whether they do it intentionally or unintentionally, but this happens, and it happens with amazing frequency.

This brings me to the topic of this blog post. When it comes to knowing our epics, there is very little that we know. We normally read opinions and interpretations, or at the most the digest forms of these monumental works of literature. We know individual stories – maybe 5-6% of them – and a big chunk of the epics remain unread. A person like me knows more about Greek mythology than our own (thanks to some issues of the National Geographic magazine).

There needs to be a concerted effort so that these epics become more accessible in terms of language and availability. Not everybody knows Sanskrit and not everybody knows which are the best available interpretations. Just like there are book reading sessions, there can also be epic-reading sessions, not only sponsored and promoted by religious institutions. I’m not sure if universities encourage their students to have discourses on Indian epics, from all corners of the country. What about schools?