The price of idealism

Over the last few days, our social media feed and news outlets have been preoccupied with the controversy arising out of 20-year old Gurmehar Kaur’s picture where she is seen holding up a placard that reads, “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP”.

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The beginnings.

This was in reaction to the recent clashes between members of the RSS affiliated, ABVP, and another set of students in Delhi University’s Ramjas College in North Campus last week. While this post attracted attention towards her, what really shone the spotlight on her was a video that was made last year where she is seen holding placards endorsing peace between India and Pakistan. What drew the ire of many was one particular placard which read: Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.

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The placard that brought a storm.

This placard is one among the many she holds up during the 4.23-minute video where we learn about her own prejudices and how her mother helped her overcome them.

Due to the uneasy relations between India and Pakistan, many people took to social media to blast her, accusing her of disrespecting her father, Captain Mandeep Singh, who died in the Kargil War. Some even went on to mock/imitate the video including former Indian cricketing great Virender Sehwag who posted a picture with a placard saying: I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did.

Others such as Arunachal West MP and Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju weighed in on the matter asking: Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?

In all of this there have been many opinions that have been voiced by people across various spectra. Predictably, those in the right have slammed her while some have even said that Rijiju’s statement is sexist; that he made the statement because Kaur is a woman and such questions arise out of ingrained misogyny that propagates the idea that a woman is incapable of independent thought. I would like to address this quickly before moving on to a larger issue.

I personally disagree that the minister made that remark because Kaur is a woman. Considering his recent form over the past year from saying that people in the country have developed a habit of questioning everything (as if that’s somehow wrong) to his recent conversion comments, it was only expected that he would say what he did. In fact, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t made such a statement. I personally believe that he would have made a sweeping statement like that even if it was a man who had said it.

Now, moving on to the subject of how people have reacted to that placard. The entire issue exists because people are shaped by their experiences, what they consume from the media and often by jumping into conclusions without seeing the bigger picture.

Amongst the many who have slammed her, there may be some who are themselves relatives of war veterans and martyrs and therefore feel a sense of betrayal when they see someone, who in any other circumstance would have been considered one of their own, disregarding the memory of the slain.

To those people, I respect and empathise with your loss but must admit that I will never truly understand the loss you have suffered. It is in the same manner that I will not understand how Kaur can take the stand she has. I suppose different people react differently to the same situation. But it isn’t as if she did not harbour hate too.

If one watches the video in its entirety, you will see that she admits that as a child she hated Muslims because she thought all Muslims were Pakistanis- the subject of her hate- and who she blamed for her father’s death. She also once tried to stab a burkha-clad woman when she was six years old “because for some strange reason” she thought the woman was responsible for her growing up without a father. It was at that moment when her mother explained to her that Pakistan did not kill her father, war did.

Any sensible person with an iota of common sense who can think logically should be able to deduce that her message here is to tell people to resist war instead of going to war. For millions of Indians,  Pakistan may be the enemy but why is that? Is it not because we see them as such and they see us as enemies too? Will the world be a worse or a better place if relations between the two countries improved?

I ask these questions not disregarding the realpolitik of our current world but from Kaur’s perspective as someone who has suffered the loss of a parent and realises that soldiers across the globe follow orders given by people living miles away from the real danger of bullets and those who are more concerned with ballots.

Unfortunately, so many of us are unable to see beyond the immediate and the now. We see one image, fixate upon it and form our opinions from it. Voicing a world-view is not wrong; threatening rape is.

To all those criticising her and questioning her patriotism, I ask, what is so wrong with wanting peace? Is it so wrong to want better relations with our neighbours and expect the same from everyone? Wouldn’t the world actually be a better place if we lived in a world without wars? Is it a fallacy to believe in such an ideal world? Perhaps, so. But just because we do not live in an ideal world does not mean we should not strive towards one.

Then again, my idea of an ideal world will differ from yours. At least let’s talk about it.

PS: As for Virender Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda’s comments- their juvenile behaviour is not even worth talking about.

Media, moral policing and manipulation: Who lost when Metropolis was shut down?

Since 2013, Metropolis Urban Winter Festival held in Guwahati, Assam had managed to bring together artists, musicians and others from the creative fields to showcase their work, exchange ideas and bring ‘urbanity’ to the city. This year was to be no different until the last day when it was hastily shut down by authorities, reportedly following a tweet by a senior minister.

Held from January 6 to 8, the festival’s main venue was Nehru Park. This year’s edition played host to a 72-member delegation from Bhutan, including those from the Thimpu-based Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). Private partners aside, the festival also had the support of state authorities including Assam Tourism and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). And while things ran fairly smoothly for the first two days, the GMDA shut down proceedings on the last day, allegedly because the venue had become a den for illicit activities.

 

POLITICAL GAMES?

A source in the organising committee of the festival said that the GMDA had given them permission for three days but that the same GMDA shut them down on the last day after a tweet from senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma criticising the “atmosphere” at Nehru Park.

On Sunday, Sarma had tweeted, “Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated”.

Some say that Sarma’s reaction is fuelled by a “clash between two ideologies”. The festival reportedly enjoys the “blessing” of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son and Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who in fact expressed his support for the festival on social media.

On January 8, a Facebook post (reportedly from Gogoi’s profile) read, “From day one I have supported the Metropolis festival in Guwahati as a celebration of youth, art and creativity. I would even take the Ex CM Tarun Gogoi to the festival where he would encourage everyone. The youth of Northeast are full of talent and creativity, and their initiatives should be supported and not obstructed.”

Then on Twitter, Gogoi took a dig at the BJP government in Assam when he tweeted, “Assam govt opens wine shops earlier in the day but shuts down youth arts festival for being a nuisance”. Two days later he again took to Facebook stating that the “GMDA should return the booking money that it collected from the Metropolis festival organisers. It is unfair to first give permission and then cancel for no rationale”.

One person who is part of the organizing team said there “may be some misinformation about the involvement of certain people”, hinting at Gogoi while dismissing his level of involvement.

 

MEDIA AND MORAL POLICING?

The people behind the organizing team claim that things escalated after some local news channels and papers blew things out of proportion.

“There is no evidence that liquor was served in the venue or any gambling took place as reported by some channels,” said one person part of the team.

Another member of the team said that the main venue is located near the Cotton College and the DC’s office and that the organisers never served alcohol to attendees.

They also say that some channels claimed that the venue had become a place of “nudity”.

“The trend in the media here is that anyone wearing clothes that show skin is labelled as promoting ‘nudity’,” said one. “This is Talibanization of Assam,” he added.

Another member of the team said that in Assam there are “no news channels and only views channels”. He added that the situation was escalated because most channels are either owned by politicians or enjoy their backing and therefore “look into things with the perspectives of the politicians”.

A journalist who works for a Guwahati-based channel that covered the event defended his channel’s actions.

“Whatever we reported was based on an internal report that the GDMA had compiled,” he said, adding that the channel did not investigate the claims independently.

He did however, say that the organisers had disrespected the Ashok stambh and Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue in the venue by covering their faces.

News channels also alleged that the bone of contention was that a ‘children’s park’ was being misused as patrons were smoking and drinking at the main venue. Not everyone is convinced by this claim.

 

POINT OF VIEW

Child rights activist from Guwahati, Miguel Das Queah, who held a session on corporal punishment in schools during the festival took to Facebook to express his views.

“I met lots of lots of children, along with their parents, who told me that they were absolutely enjoying the festivity. The festival had hundreds of vibrant young students, scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, designers, dancers, social workers, activists, actors, couples; each one celebrating the beautiful occasion of childhood and youth. There were no brawls, no misdemeanour. How can such a beautiful thing vitiate the atmosphere?” he wrote.

A city-based journalist working for a Delhi-based news outlet said that there was some amount of littering in the place but that the venue is far from what can be deemed as a ‘children’s park’ and serves more as a place for young couples to meet.

“There may have been some issues but it could have been handled differently,” the journalist added.

Amidst the din of what amounts to culturally-appropriate behaviour and possible politically-motivated moves, the primary aim of promoting the arts was relegated to the background.

“Nobody reported that we showcased three classics of Assamese cinema or the amazing performances by children,” one of the organisers said.

 A version of this report first appeared in The Citizen

Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.

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A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.

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Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.

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Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.

Catfights over cattle: Tasting India’s (in)tolerance

Last month, as the numbers of the Bihar election results poured in, television news channels began attributing the success of the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav mahagatbandhan to many factors and reasons. The one that gained the most prominence was that the victory was a defeat of the Hindu right and a growing environment of intolerance in the country. In my humble opinion, that is too much of a simplification of the Indian polity and certainly of the Indian electoral politics.

In the run-up to the elections, various incidents of violence arising out of outdated ideas of what being an Indian means were reported from across the country. At no time in modern Indian history has cattle dominated discussion as much as in the last 18 months. From Mizoram to Dadri, beef was on everyone’s tongue, but ironically, not allowed on anyone’s plate. Until recently, that people in India ate beef was an accepted truth. When it came to this touchy subject, most people followed a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Recently, though, that has changed.

Any one person being killed for apparently consuming something surely cannot be palatable to anyone. And even some in the ruling party came out to condone the act (albeit it was a delayed reaction). But do this and other such incidents suddenly make India an intolerant nation? I am not so sure.

It can be said with a certain amount of certainty that since May 2014, some Hindu right groups have shown the ugly side of India. Whether news channel anchors or right-leaning individuals want to call them ‘fringe groups’ or by any other name is redundant. A lot of today’s discussion is dominated by the argument that such incidents are the workings of fringe groups and do not reflect the nature of a country or community.

Fair.

Now can we apply the same argument to Naga, Kuki, Bodo insurgents or Kashmiri militants? Can we simply call them fringe elements of Naga, Kuki, Bodo or Kashmiri communities? Why can’t ‘fringe groups’ of a majority who terrorize people also be called terrorists? Or is it a term over which ethnic and religious minorities alone have ownership? Can it also be denied that these ‘fringies’ have become emboldened enough to act with such impunity in the last 18 months?

My argument is simple: those who kill and terrorize other people are terrorists, regardless of their faith/ethnicity/sovereign aspirations. So let’s call them that – terrorists.

Now back to the Bihar elections.

Attributing the RJD-JD(U) victory as a rejection of fundamentalism is an oversimplification. In all fairness, that may well have been one reason, but any sound-minded individual must admit that an election is not won or lost on one agenda. Not in a vibrant democracy as ours. The BJP went into damage control mode soon after the elections and offered many reasons for its defeat. While all of those plus the ‘tolerance-intolerance’ issue surely played an important role, the best reason for the BJP’s defeat was offered by the party elders.

From Shatrughan Sinha to LK Advani, the old guard has said that consensus within the party was not taken to plan the election strategy. While I am not privy to the BJP’s meetings, surely such stalwarts making such statements has to be given some miniscule amount of credence, no?

But why speak about this now?

You see, the Bihar election and the reasons affecting its result are of the least interest to me; just in the same way that election results in the Northeast hold absolutely no interest to the rest of the country. The reason I write this is because I am a shallow and a hollow individual who feels it is time to write this because Aamir Khan is under attack for his comments on the issue. The perfect time to write about this would have been soon after Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and his son were killed in Dadri. But I didn’t and I am sorry. But here we are.

So, was the actor or his wife, director Kiran Rao, right? Who knows? I am the least bit qualified to judge the merit/demerit of Mr Khan’s comments. But because I am a cynical and judgmental person, I am going to do it anyways.

In my very personal and humble opinion, I think the actor was wrong because the country was always filled with such intolerance. It is not a new phenomenon.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the retaliatory bomb blasts in present-day Mumbai were acts of intolerance. Fatwas issued against writers? Intolerance. Banning Valentine’s Day celebrations? Intolerance. In fact, our television and newspaper space has been filled with people who somehow seem to find themselves unable to take an intelligent stance on the issue: that extremist groups of all communities have always existed in this country and that doesn’t necessarily make India an intolerant country. But it doesn’t make it a tolerant one as well.

Detractors of Mr Khan’s statements (and others who find themselves in such situations) are often told that if India was not tolerant then they will not be able to make such statements in the first place. You see, herein lies the rump.

India is a democracy that guarantees its citizens the freedom of speech. It is enshrined in the Constitution of the nation. For me to be able to practice (or not practice) a faith or speak my mind freely is my birthright. It is not and should not be seen as something that the majority has chosen to bestow upon me that I should feel indebted and grateful for. While asserting my rights, I must say that it is incorrect to say that my views should be the be all and end all of every argument. I am not the alpha and the omega and this is where the beauty of our democracy lies.

Mr Khan may have been right or wrong or left in his statements. In fact, he was merely recalling a conversation with his wife and stating his opinion on an issue. Is he not entitled to his opinions? Surely he is, just as much as those who are criticizing him. So feel free. Voice your opinions. Just don’t tell anyone what’s for dinner.

PS: While the country was busy debating India’s tolerance levels, 26 November passed us by quietly. The day of the terrible Mumbai terror attacks. Although many people on Facebook (rightly) expressed their solidarity with the French, how many remembered the 167 victims of Mumbai?