Monday, 28 October 2013

NSA snooping: Merkel likes her phone, Obama likes it better

For decades intelligence agencies in the United States have stuck to the Russian proverb made famous by former President Ronald Reagan ‘trust, but verify’ as a guiding principle in its relations with other countries. In September, speaking in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington had updated Reagan’s quote to “verify and verify”. This is not surprising given the reports of large-scale electronic snooping by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), made public after intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked the data to news agencies.
What makes the latest expose on US snooping startling is that it says Washington was extensively spying, not just on potential terror suspects, but also on close allies, right up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Earlier French President François Hollande had raised objections with US President Barack Obama after it was revealed that the NSA had indulged in widespread phone and Internet surveillance of French citizens. The heads of the European Union meeting in Brussels have raised serious concerns over the NSA’s actions. Merkel was quoted by her spokesman as having told Obama that: “between close friends and partners, there should be no such surveillance of the communications of the head of government”. These acts of snooping by the US seem to reiterate that Washington still holds on to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's idea: "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. Something, it seems, Merkel forgot. On Friday, Germany and Brazil got working on a UN General Assembly resolution to safeguard Internet privacy.
That this information would not have been available to the world if not for the revelations by a whistleblower, and consequentially, the NSA and other agencies would have gone about snooping not just terror suspects but also government heads and officials, points to how close we are today to the dystopian world seen in George Orwell’s 1984. Also pertinent is the issue that at present all the major internet-related data storage is America-centric. Last month, Brazil had planned a legislation to ask Google and other major networks to locally store data after widespread electronic snooping by the NSA was reported. Unfortunately, there is at present no better alternative to secure data storage than the US. It is in the interest of every nation, including India, that this imbalance is addressed to protect national-level confidential data from going into the wrong hands, even if it is the NSA.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Muslims keep abreast with social trends the halal way

Mention the word ‘halal’ and what promptly comes to mind is the meat shop in an old part of the city, or the ‘We Use Halal Meat’ signage hung at an eatery. Well, not anymore if you are in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Thirty-eight-year-old Turkish businessman Haluk Murat Demirel recently opened a first of its kind online sex shop ( What makes this shop stand out is the claim that all the good sold and services provided are certified ‘halal’ —in other words, in keeping with Islamic law. The website in addition to selling condoms and herbal aphrodisiacs also counsels about ‘halal’ sex.
While it might be preposterous to think of Haluk Murat Demirel as a pioneer or visionary, his venture should get us thinking. The ‘helalsexshop’ shows Demirel’s entrepreneurial skills but more pertinently it points towards an increasing trend where so-called social ‘needs’ and services are being tailor-made to address the requirements of any particular community.
In 2010, following the controversy after images of Prophet Mohammed did the rounds on Facebook with the page 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day', IT professionals in Pakistan launched ‘MillatFacebook. Similarly, in 2012, Salamworld was launched in eight different languages as an alternative to facebook. The Washington Post quoted Abdulvahed Niyazov, one of Salamworld’s owners, saying that “the content that is being used on other social networks is not very secure and full of haram”.
On the larger picture both what the ‘helalsexshop’ and Salamworld is trying to achieve is to cater to the ‘worldly’ needs of a growing young population within the community and, at the same time, trying to stay within the precincts prescribed by the religion.
Such developments, though it might sound ‘haram’ or queer to many, reflect a changing society and are important because it goes a long way in deconstructing the Westerner’s image of Islam, which is heavily loaded against it after 9/11. As William Stoddart in What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World? writes: ‘That the Western public conflates terrorism and Islam is the lamentable achievement of the ‘Islamic terrorists’.’
A positive to take from this is that rather than getting cowed down by the threats by radical groups, like the Taliban, the youth are innovating ways to keep themselves abreast with a fast-changing world.
Religious exclusivity is not a new phenomenon. For a very long time we have had educational institutions and areas demarcated in cities and villages that are ‘exclusive’ for members of a particular religion/caste. This exclusivity is no confined to one particular faith and can be seen across religions in various hues and shapes.
Humans adapt to the changes around them and so does a religion. As anthropologist Professor Richley H Crapo in Anthropology of Religion notes ‘religion is part of the system of culture’ and plays a role in the ‘human adaptation to the circumstances of survival’.
While orthodox views are still prevalent in all religions and more often than not supersede the moderate and liberal voices, not all hope is lost. Haluk Murat Demirel’s venture is an example.
(An edited version of this appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 24)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Banning menace: Reason for Bollywood to cheer

In February, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari tweeted: ‘Committee on Cinematographic framework (will) give latitude to review every aspect of certification process holistically & ensure integrity’ and the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee has used that latitude to come up with a progressive model Cinematograph Bill to replace the Cinematograph Act 1952. The I&B ministry setup the Mudgal panel after the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu banned Vishwaroopam. This was not a one-off case. While Prakash Jha’s 2011 film Aarakshan was banned in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar was banned in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP. Other films include Parzania, Firaaq that won two national awards, Madras Cafe, Bandit Queen... the list is endless. Done to not ‘hurt’ the sentiments of a particular section in society, such arbitrary bans have not only hampered artistic freedom but has also emboldened keening fringe groups to have their five minutes of glory by raising frivolous excuses to stall the screening of a film. It should be noted that these films run into troubled waters even after getting the go ahead from the censor board, thus rendering such vetting processes meaningless.
In the wake of such issues, the suggestions put forward by the Mudgal committee are noteworthy. The committee’s suggestion that the selection to the advisory panels of the Centre Board of Film Certification be more professional, consisting of members who are skilled, is spot on. The present practise of political appointments, often with people who have no inkling of the job required, is detrimental. Another suggestion is to increase the mandate of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) to hear cases regarding an objection to any particular film, rather than a plaintiff approaching court as it happens at present. The suggestion to have more categories for classification of films and to bring age-specific divisions is a step in the right direction. The committee has also suggested that in cases where a state uses law and order as a reason to ban a film, ascendency must be given to the powers of the Cinematograph Act. Law and order being a State subject, this suggestion is likely to run into rough weather — and that would be unfortunate.
While the Mudgal committee has come up with astute insights, it is still a long way before these are implemented. There are many stumbling blocks in the way that might force this report to end up in the dusty pile of unimplemented reports submitted by various other government-appointed committees in the past. The Mudgal committee has done its job. Now, it is up to the government, both at the Centre and states, to see that it is implemented without much delay.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Commonwealth: Stephen Harper’s boycott throws light on defunct world bodies

“I never worry about action, but only inaction.” This Winston Churchill quote sums up the problem the Commonwealth is facing today. After the recent exit of Gambia, on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed that he would be boycotting the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in protest of the human rights record of the host nation Sri Lanka. That this will be the second high profile leader giving the November summit a miss is definitely not good news for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which has been working overtime to play the good host and divert the UNHRC heat over its questionable human rights record. Queen Elizabeth II, citing the distance of travel, will be missing the summit for the first time in 42 years.
The Commonwealth is facing a lack of credibility and ceases to command the respect it did a few decades back. This is not a problem unique to the Commonwealth, but is faced by many similar groups. The eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a prime example of how futile can a group be if its objectives are hijacked by member nations. For a greater part of its 27 years of existence, the SAARC has been a forum where ties between India and Pakistan have been more in focus, than the proceedings of the group. In such a situation, the very purpose of the group is lost in the cacophony of the narrow agendas pushed by the dominant members in the group. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is still afloat — never mind that the Cold War is over and that many member nations have warmed up to the two superpowers.
In contrast to this, as a sign of the times, groups formed on an economic-trade objective seem to wield more power and sway than groups formed for ‘promoting peace, co-operation and justice’. The BRICS — consisting Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — is an example. And so is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has created forums, like the East Asia Summit. The fact that larger non-member nations like the United States, Russia, China, India, etc attend such forums reflects the prominence of the group. Similarly groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Gulf Cooperation Council have prominence because they remain relevant in the present scheme of things. The same cannot be said of the Commonwealth, NAM, or even the SAARC.
The purpose and necessity of these relics of a bygone era should be assessed. These groups have been rendered obsolete in the present world order and, more often than not, tend to stick on like a bad habit. Rather than sticking on to their objectives, they tend to take the middle path, in order to avoid differences and harsh actions on member states that violate the group’s core principles. For these groups to remain in the reckoning, it is essential that they reassert the principles for which they were formed. Failing which, they are best remembered for past actions.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Global AgeWatch Index: Ageing gracefully is not an option in India

In a country that has more than 50% of its population under the age of 35 years, it is expected that the older people are taken good care of, if not revered. That, sadly, is not the case in India where the older people are often seen as cheap labour or as a liability. Instances of children abandoning their parents by the roadside or at old age homes reflect this. The economic pressure and the breakdown of the joint-family system have adversely affected the dignity of life of older people. This plight is worsened as, unlike many developed Western nations, the safety net of social security is absent. As is always the case, when faced with a crisis, it is the older women who doubly suffer.
Given this, it is not surprising that India is ranked at an unimpressive 73 among the 91 countries surveyed as ideal for older people to live. HelpAge International launched on Tuesday the first-ever Golbal AgeWatch Index ranking ‘countries according to the social and economic well-being of older people’. The parameters for developing the index were: the income status (including the pension coverage, poverty rate in old age), health (including life expectancy at 60, and psychological wellbeing), education and employment (including educational status of old people) and the living environment (including physical safety, civic freedom and access to public transport). Sweden tops the list, followed by Norway and Germany. India can take cold comfort in the fact that Pakistan (ranked 89) and Afghanistan (91) are at the bottom of the table. On the other hand, China (35) and Sri Lanka (36) have fared much better. Colombo’s long-term investments in education and healthcare have paid off providing a better standard of living for its older people, and New Delhi should take note of this achievement. The study dispels the myth that the wellbeing of older people is better in wealthier economics. None of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — that accounted for 40% of the global population and 25% of the world’s GDP based on the purchasing power parity in 2012, figured in the top 20 nations on the index. The high ranking of countries like Bolivia and Mauritius showed that smaller economies could also be good places for the old. The West, especially Scandinavian countries, has done well and this is mainly because the system is geared towards the demographic shifts taking place.
India has at present about 8% of its total population above the age of 60 and in the coming decades this is set to increase. The index shows that India’s rank in health is low. This is mainly attributed to the lack of availability of good healthcare facilities in rural India where most of the country’s ageing population resides. Some states, like Kerala, already have a significant number of older people and in the coming decades, unless farsighted policies are implemented, the quality of life for older people will not improve.