Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Politicians are not above the law — Boston showed that to Azam Khan

In what can be only seen as a new high — or low — in political paranoia UP urban development minister Azam Khan has said that his detention at the Boston Logan International Airport late last week was a conspiracy hatched by external affairs minister Salman Khurshid to defame him outside India. The detention — which according to some media reports was for about 10 minutes — ruffled a lot of feathers in the UP government. Reacting to it UP chief minister Akilesh Yadav cancelled his talk at Harvard University and also chose to skip a reception hosted by the Indian consul general at New York. Thus what should have been a routine security check has been blow out of proportion and the Samajwadi Party is chasing a phantom of its own imagination. Anyone who has travelled to the United States, Europe or even Israel will list out the inconvenient, and at times unpleasant, experiences of security checks one has to go through at the airports there. One cannot overlook the positives of being extra cautious, especially at times when the organisations and people with bad intentions are getting innovative by the day.
Azam Khan is missing the woods for the trees in his charge that he was singled out because he was a member of a particular religious community and was thus unfairly targeted. Security checks, irrespective of race, religion, etc, are norms different countries adopt to ensure safety of its citizens. The UP minister is not the first person to be ‘humiliated’ in such a scenario. Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan and former Union minister George Fernadez was also subject to such security checks. Most notably, former president APJ Abdul Kalam was frisked at JFK airport in 2011. While Kalam played down the incident and was not irked about it, the leader from UP is in no mood see reason. Given that the Azam Khan incident — if at all a routine security measure can be called so — comes a few days after the Boston marathon bombings, one cannot find fault with the airport authorities if they were a wee bit extra cautious in their duty.
Winston Churchill, former British prime minister, had a point while saying “The price of greatness is responsibility” and responsibility, it seems, is a trait wanting in many of our netas. What seems to have been hurt in this process is the fragile ego of our leaders. Much used to having all doors being open and royal treatment being meted out — often to the discomfort of others —politicians find it below their standing to follow the rules. Such an attitude might pass off in India but there is no point in getting miffed when asked to comply by the laws when abroad. One would have thought that such measures would dawn upon our leaders the realisation that when it comes to security, no one is above the law. Is it too much to ask from our politicians?
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on April 30)

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Twitter and Facebook are taken Awfully Serious

Two recent news items point to a disturbing trend where the Internet — social networking sites to be precise — was used to abet crimes. The first one was of a man selling off his grandchild to a businessman in Delhi for Rs8 lakh after striking a deal using facebook. The other was how the Dow Jones fell by 143 points after hackers sent a message — ‘Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured’ — from the Twitter handle of a news organisation. The Syrian Electronic Army, which had hacked Reuters feed last year, took credit. Social networking sites, to use a popular phrase, have made the world smaller, much smaller, and have connected millions of people like never before. However, its dark underbelly has more dangerous potent and governments around the world have not been able to control its negative effects.
China, despite it denying any part in it, has been notorious for its cyber attacks on countries and organisations that have spoken against its interests. A recent example of Beijing’s use of cyber space to stymie unpalatable views was the attack on the New York Times’ website after it ran a feature exposing former premier Wen Jiabao wealth. Many countries, including India, have been victims of Chinese hackers. Al-qaeda has been using the Internet, especially video-sharing platforms and social networking sites, for propaganda and recruitment. Instances like this pose the question whether enough is being done to check the side of this virtual world?
To think that a single tweet can affect international markets and in other cases escalate tension between two nations is spine-chilling. Does this mean that the government should roll down the shutters on social networking sites? Definitely not. Real-time censoring of Internet traffic, given the volume (which is only going to increase), is unthinkable. Governments, especially in India, should, through its various wings, create more Internet awareness and give cyber monitoring cells in the police and other agencies a fillip. Internet and social networking sites are here to stay and evolve; shying away from them or banning them will be counterproductive. Governments need to device innovative ways to reap the benefits these Janus-headed platforms throw up. It should be one step ahead of forces that exploit these platforms for nefarious purposes.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on April 25)

Friday, 26 April 2013

Media's love for 'branding' victims

The media — be it the print, broadcast or Internet — has a social responsibility to the general public it serves. While great care is often taken to ensure that this responsibility is maintained, there are times when they are flaunted with no apology.
The December 16 gang rape of a paramedic in Delhi greatly shook the nation and saw unprecedented protests in many parts of the country. The rape of a five-year-old in Delhi, a few days ago, along with other reports of rape and police insensitivity, has produced similar anger and protests. Posed with a dilemma of not being able to disclose the names of rape victims (as it is a punishable offence) and the challenge to highlight the above mentioned two cases — one does not understand why these two cases — media houses lining Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg and other places decided to ‘name’ the victim. Thus the December 16 gang rape victim got the names: Abhaya, Nirbhaya, Amaanat, among others and the five-year-old was christened Gudiya and Masoom. While on the face of it it appears to be an innocent and ‘helpful’ move, this nom de guerre is prompted more by news desk compulsions — a name, even an assumed one, makes good copy.
Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code and the Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India prohibits the publishing of the name of a rape victim; publishing it is a punishable offence. This anonymity of rape victims poses a great challenge to the media. This was fine as long as the number of rape cases being reported were far from few. But of late, with a sharp spike in the number of rape cases being reported and with media presence much greater than what it used to be a few years ago, this faceless, nameless identity posed a problem for the media.
The most essential aspect before getting a product out in the market, and one which plays a crucial role in its success, is its branding. A product with a catchy name is more likely to be a hit than a product with a stale, unexceptional name. When it comes to the reportage of news relating to incidents of rape, some media houses tend to take this approach. Often this ‘branding’ of a rape victim is done with the excuse that it will help in furthering the cause of the victim, sensitising the public about the issue and serves a greater purpose of bringing tougher laws. This is as poor an excuse as it can get. Such ‘branding’ or commodification of a victim might help in giving attractive headlines, snazzy news packages and help in boosting sales/TRPs.
By using such disingenuous euphemisms the media cocks a snook at the law of the land and more importantly dehumanises a person who has already been subject of brutality. It is altogether another argument on whether the name of a victim should be made public. Minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor, after the December 16 Delhi gang rape, rightly wrote on Twitter that “she was a human being w/a name, not just a symbol”. He was arguing for naming the victim (if the parents were for it) and honouring the victim as a real person.Hewlett-Packard president and CEO Margaret Cushing Whitman’s view that “When people use your brand name as a verb, that is remarkable” might be good for a product and business. But to apply the same logic to sensitive issues like rape/molestation is unfortunate. To say that such a pattern of reportage is cruelly insensitive is an understatement. The fourth estate, as much as it is touted to be a mirror of the society, should be sensible enough to know where to draw the line. The difference between responsible journalism and sensationalism is blurred in these cases.
How naïve of William Shakespeare to have written: ‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on April 25)

Monday, 22 April 2013

Beautiful Soldiers, Brave Daughters

‘Do you have it in you’ is a tagline the Indian Army uses for its recruitment drive. They say you walk in as a boy into the armed forces and come out as an officer and gentleman. All these, one thought, was enough to the get the blood rushing through the veins and jump the queue to get recruited into the army. And how wrong a notion that was is evident in a rather novel way a local recruiter for the army chose to advertise. A billboard in Shillong with the photographs of Priyanka Chopra, Anuskha Sharma, Preity Zinta, Gul Panag and Celina Jaitley had the caption: If you want to have Beautiful and Successful Daughters JOIN INDIAN ARMY’. What is common among the Bollywood actors mentioned is that they all belong to army families.
There are many examples of successful women who can be associated with the army — the billboard advertisement being an example. It’s robs reason as to why it was not thought motivating enough to feature testimonies of women officers in the force? Another point that gets us pondering is how do the recruiters vouch for ‘beautiful’ daughters? To find answers we plan to approach the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune and maybe even call on at the DRDO Bhavan in New Delhi to check if they have come up with a secret formula that will bring the cosmetic industry to a grinding halt.
What about the ‘sons’ of those who join the Indian Army? It’s hard to recollect if any of them lost their way into Bollywood or stardom. Then again, in the great skewed Indian patriarchal society, isn’t it a sine qua non that ‘sons’ are successful. We guess it was this paucity of successful and handsome sons that got the local recruiters to focus on daughters. In all likelihood womens’ organisation will not see red over this — after all it is showing women as successful. We’re also not getting critical about the idea and have come up with a suggestion: rather than putting up such an advertisement in Shillong, Meghalaya, which is way up on the sex ratio table in India, the agencies should think about such moves in Chandigarh, Delhi and Haryana — that sit comfortably numb at the bottom of the table. This might help improve the sex ratio and increase the applicants to the Indian Army. Two birds with one stone they say.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on April 22)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Riots in India: A longing for justice

A Delhi sessions court by setting aside the CBI closure report on the 1984 Sikh riot case has brought to the front an issue that has been festering in the minds of thousands of its victims for almost three decades now. Riots, irrespective of where they happen or who are affected, not only bring untold misery but also leave scars that refuse to heal with time. Independent India has seen numerous riots: the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad, the 1984 Bhiwandi riots, the 1980 Morabadad riots, the Mumbai riots, the 2002 Gujarat violence, etc to name a few. Every now and then these blood-stained episodes in our history are brought to public gaze when fresh details emerge and court hearings occur. While there might be different accounts regarding the causes for a particular riot, there’s no two views that its effects are protracted, at times stretching for decades together.
Owing to the large number of people involved in it and the multiple views and accounts, enquires into riots, much like mob violence, are time-consuming processes. This, however, is little excuse. A reason why riot cases prolong is the inadequate or haphazard investigation and evidence collection at the initial phase and this lacuna affects the course of the case. Even in instances where there have been comprehensive investigations and detailed reports, governments of the day for various political exigencies have chosen to sit on it — or worse rubbish it. The Justice B N Srikrishna Committee report on the Bombay riots in 1992 and the blast in 1993 were rubbished by the Shiv Sena government and till date has not been acted upon by any of the Maharashtra governments that followed. Ignoring a commission report defeats the purpose of instituting it and also gives the victims of the riot a sense of further being wronged — this time by the state.
Rather than festering such wounds the government should come up with mechanisms to ensure speedy justice. The pursuit of justice in the case of riots is important, but equally so is the need to compensate and rehabilitate victims. Often the rehabilitation of riot victims has been shoddy. The government, both at the Centre and State, has more often than not failed to provide a sense of closure to victims whom the state is duty-bound to protect.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

No Country for Children

 Reports in the media of women getting raped and further being traumatised by an indifferent system is recurring with nauseating frequency. What is more disturbing is that there seems to be a rise in the number of minors being victims of sexual abuse. Last week a 45-year-old businessman was arrested for sexually abusing his 16-year-old daughter in Gurgaon. In mid-February three sisters — all minors — were allegedly raped and dumped in a well in Bhandara district, Maharashtra. Now comes the report of a 10-year-old girl being raped by an upper-caste man in Bulandsahr, Uttar Pradesh. What makes the Bulandsahr incident glaring is the reaction of the police to the victim and her mother. While in many cases the victims are pressurised by the police and local society to withdraw the complaint, here the police women in the Bulandsahr all-women police station ill-treated the victim’s mother and locked up the 10-year-old victim. The Supreme Court has taken suo motu cognisance of media reports and has sent a notice to the state government; but the fact that the court had to intervene shows that the system is cripplingly handicap to carry out even its basic duty of protecting citizens.

That this takes place only days after the president okayed an anti-rape law shows that stringent anti-rape laws will be rendered ineffective if our police force and hospital authorities — the initial points to which victims of abuse go to — are insensitive, and worse abusive, to the plight of rape victims. No amount of sermons about uplift of women safety and safety of children will help unless the authorities are sensitised to the delicate nature of such the situation and the importance of their role in giving the victim a sense of protection and comfort. Owing to public stigma, family pressure and the related trauma of being seem as ‘immoral’ seldom do victims of sexual abuse report to the police. And when they do muster the courage and complain it is the duty of the state to give them the support and protection that is required.
The February report by Human Rights Watch titled ‘Breaking the Silence: Child Sex Abuse in India’ highlights how the government’s response to children who are sexual abused fails to protect the victims. The Bulandsahr incident reiterates the HRW observation and poses the question: what is the level of sensitisation and preparedness of police personnel towards dealing with such an issue? Sexual abuse, especially of minors, is on the rise. Anti-rape laws with stringent punishment may be on the way but unless the attitude of the authorities concerned does not change ours is no country for women and children.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times)

Monday, 8 April 2013

The discomfort of importance: India's love for the lal batti

It might be more than 60 years since the first Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry left India signalling the end of British colonial rule. However, many people refuse to abandon colonial vestiges, like an extended retinue that goes against the basic tenets of a democratic republic. It was this colonial hangover and feudal mindset that the Supreme Court was chastising while observing that red beacons used by politicians and government officials on vehicles have become a “fashion and status symbol”. The apex court’s observation, on Thursday, that state governments should drastically cut down on the number of red beacons used on VIP vehicles concurs with the sentiments of many people who are victims of the traffic violations these vehicles create. The SC Bench has suggested that if necessary the Motor Vehicle Act should be amended to restrict the number of officials entitled to use red beacons.
While it is a positive sign that in the recent few months the court has taken note of this grotesque display of ‘importance’, experience suggest that it is too much to expect our politicians to see reason. In the past efforts have been taken to reduce the number of politicians enjoying a security cover but these have had a temporal effect. In many countries except for the president and a few others the rest are not provided with security cover. In India, unfortunately, in some states even panchayat heads are given a security detail.
While in 2009 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised to the family of a person who could not access the emergency area of PGIMER, in Chandigarh, because the PM was attending a function at the hospital, on a daily basis there might be many patients who are caught in traffic snarls because of roads being blocked for VIP movement. Such attitudes and practises need to change. Imposing a greater fine, as suggested by the SC, might be one option. Politicians and government officials need to shed the skewed logic that red beacons and security cover reflect a high status and level of importance, and be more accessible to the people who they are duty-bound to serve.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on Monday, April 8)

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Vijender Singh made a mistake; so did the system

Boxer Vijender Singh’s fairytale story of ‘rages to riches’ in the sporting area took a serious beating on Sunday when the Punjab Police said that between November 2012 and February 2013 Vijender Singh and boxer friend Ram Singh took heroin 12 and five times respectively. Mobile phone records, which the police have access to, expose Vijender’s initial claim that he had no association with drug peddlers Anoop Singh Khalon and Rocky. Vijender’s refusal to give blood samples lends more suspicion to police claims. What adds gravity to the situation is that Vijender is a national sporting hero on whom the nation conferred the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in 2009 and the Padma Shri in 2010. That Vijender is a DSP with the Haryana Police also shows that instead of abiding and protecting the law, he might have broken it.
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), heroin is a narcotic that is prohibited in the in-competition phase. According to WADA’s Word Anti-Doping Program an in-competition test ‘is a test where the athlete is selected for testing in connection with specific competition’. Irrespective of whether or not heroin is a banned drug under anti-doping guidelines, the abuse of this drug for recreational purposes often leads to addiction and in worse cases fatality.
While it is disappointing to see a ‘small town boy’ who shot to prominence through hard work get caught in the trappings of fame, thought should be extended to the institutional mechanisms that allow elephants slip through the net. The International Boxing Association’s ban on the Indian Boxing Federation has put the future of many boxers in jeopardy. This uncertainty can lead athletes to lose their focus. National Anti-Doping Agency director general Mukul Chatterjee has said that the last Vijender gave his blood sample for testing was in July 2012 — what was the agency doing since then to keep a tab on him? Had the agency been strict or if there was a system in place that took stringent action against erring athletes, perhaps better judgment would have prevailed upon Vijender. The 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medalist has erred and failed to live up to the youth icon status he is, but if he is to walk the plank of public scrutiny and scorn, giving him company should be the limping sports bodies and anti-doping associations that have contributed to this fall from grace.
(An edited version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on April 2)