Monday, 29 December 2014

The Interview: India can learn from Obama

A still from the movie The Interview
It might not have hit a theatre near you but the Christmas release of Sony pictures’ The Interview is good news for everyone who upholds democratic values and wishes to stand up against cyber bullies.
After hackers (believed to be from North Korea) attacked Sony’s servers in November, leaked sensitive documents and threatened movie theatres that screened The Interview — a satire about an assassination attempt on North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco — Sony cancelled its release.
United States President Barack Obama criticised the production company’s decision as a “mistake”, following which Sony decided to have a limited release of the movie. Sony, by releasing the movie, and Mr Obama, by voicing his support, have showed that no matter how big the threat is, bullies must not be entertained.
Shelving The Interview would have set a wrong precedent. As rightly put by Mr Obama, “imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone whose sensibilities probably need to be offended”. Unfortunately, we, in India, are not alien to such self-censorships.
Be it the release of a book by Wendy Doniger (The Hindus: An Alternative History), or the screening of a war documentary by Callum Macrae (No Fire Zone) or a joint art exhibition by Indian and Pakistani artists in Ahmedabad, the organisers and government have caved in at the slightest hint of protest from fringe groups. Rather than protecting the enshrined right to freedom of expression, the government has often taken the easy — and lazy — option of banning works of art, academia or literature.
There is a lesson New Delhi can learn from the ‘Interview’ saga — when the rights of an organisation or a person are  threatened, it is the duty of the State to step in and ensure that they are protected. It is not enough if Mr Obama is invited as the chief guest for the Republic Day or more H1B visas are granted to Indian techies in the US.
Along with pushing for greater economic ties, New Delhi should also imbibe Washington’s zeal, as seen in this case, to protect free speech. Often India and the US are compared as great democracies, but it is the State’s approach towards these principles that defines the character and depth of a democracy.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Sundarbans oil spill: A wake up call for India

Mangroves are classified as the most sensitive to oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s environmental sensitivity index. The fragile ecosystem, with its rare flora and fauna, is sensitive to even small accidents that can irrevocably tip the ecological balance in the area. Given this, a December 9 accident between a cargo vessel and a tanker carrying furnace oil is posing a grave threat to the Sundarbans, a Unesco-declared World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, what turned the tragedy into a catastrophe, whose impact is yet to be assessed, is that Dhaka was woefully underprepared to deal with the situation, the main being how to contain the spill. There was also a delay in the government’s reaction to the accident because of a confusion over the jurisdiction between the forest and shipping departments. It was also ill-equipped to contain and clean up the mess.  In an utter disregard for the safety of the people, the local villagers were asked to mop up the oil using sponges and pans — oil thus collected could be sold back to the company that owns the sunken oil tanker. All of these are irresponsible steps in the extreme. However, the delayed response has resulted in the slick spreading from River Shela, where the accident occurred, to River Passur and other canals clogging over 350 sq kms of the mangrove forest.
Though a bit late in the day the United Nations has sent in its team to assess the disaster and help with recovery, and has asked Dhaka to impose a ‘complete ban’ on commercial vessels in the mangroves. This might not be possible given that these channels are the major lifeline for oil supplies reaching many cities and towns in Bangladesh. But governments need to maintain a delicate — but necessary — balance between economic viability and environmental safety. The oil spill is a wake up call — not just for Bangladesh, but also for India, which shares the Sundarbans with it. Indian officials are on high alert and though the spill has not reached the Indian side of the Sundarbans, India can lend its expertise and help to Bangladesh in its time of need.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

It's time the BJP asked Vaiko to leave the NDA

Back then: Vaiko (centre) with Pottu Amman and Prabhakaran
The timing could not have been more off the mark. When the nation was observing the sixth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, some political leaders in Tamil Nadu were celebrating the 60th birth anniversary of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
For those who cannot recall the name, Prabhakaran was the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was responsible for the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. It was also behind the deaths of many more government officials and ordinary people caught in the crossfire of its war with the Sri Lankan government. Since 1992, the LTTE has been designated a terror organisation by India and this makes MDMK leader Vaiko’s support to the group and its leader almost treasonous.
Vaiko has often boasted about the rapport he shared with a terrorist like Prabhakaran. It is also not the first time he has openly expressed support to the LTTE and a separate Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. This chest-thumping, by the likes of Vaiko and other fringe leaders, can be dismissed as nothing else but an attempt to remain relevant in Tamil Nadu politics.
But his party is an ally of the ruling coalition at the Centre. To celebrate the birthday of a terrorist who assassinated a former prime minister is beyond the pale and should be condemned by all political parties. In fact, the BJP should review its ties with the MDMK. It may be in Vaiko’s interest to keep the Tamil Eelam issue on the boil, but the major political parties in the state have, by their silence, shown themselves to be somewhat spineless and prisoners of votebank politics.
Vaiko’s antics are anti-national and political parties should have called a spade a spade. Vaiko has every right to celebrate whatever he wants in his private space. But to make common cause with a terror organisation is unacceptable and the sooner he is told that the better. And in fact, the government of the day should act against this anti-national activity on his part.

TV ban: Dear Govt, Don’t decide for the viewer

For those of us used to our daily fix of sitcoms, the government’s watchful eye could well be trained on you. Recently, English comedy channel Comedy Central was pulled off the air on the grounds that the government found its content unsuitable for young people in the sense that it was obscene and vulgar.
On November 25, the Delhi high court upheld the Centre’s 10-day ban issued in May 2013 on Comedy Central. The channel went off air for four days last year and resumed after an appeal against the ban was filed in court. The high court had ordered the channel to remain off air for the remaining six days. However, the Supreme Court has now stayed the high court’s ban.
The court rulings apart, the government’s argument is flawed on two counts: One, it is shortchanging India’s youth and taking decisions on their behalf. Second, if the government is so concerned about the potential that certain shows “deprave, corrupt and injure the public morality and morals” it should turn its focus to our desi soaps which obviously have a greater reach and connect than the English TV programmes. Many Indian-made soaps, across the vernacular spectrum, show women being victimised and in perpetual suffering, and should catch the attention of the gatekeepers of our ‘culture’.
Soaps, which show women as inferior to men and which reinforce patriarchal norms where the woman is always the underdog do not seem to generate as much opprobrium as they should.  And how can a discussion on showing women as a “commodity of sex” be complete without mentioning the damage cinema, especially Bollywood, does to the Indian woman and ‘culture’. A UN-sponsored global study of female characters in popular films across the world showed that more than 35% women are objectified on screen. Last heard the government has done little to address this anomaly.
While the present government may not have moved for the ban, there is every reason for the present I&B ministry to look into the case and make sure that in future such blackouts and bans come into place only when there is a transgression that warrants severe action. It is also important that such provisions are not misused by those who claim to be the custodians of our collective ‘culture’.
Above all, it is not the government’s business to police the television-watching habits of the people. This is not to argue that all’s well with our entertainment media. There’s plenty of room for improvement and the I&B ministry can play a pivotal role here. What the people want are better and informative content — and not the state policing what they should and shouldn’t watch. Give the people quality content and let them be the masters of their decision. It is simple, if you don’t like something, switch off your TV.

Govt must rethink its Maoist strategy

They have been lying low for a while. But when the Maoists struck again, it was with venomous fury, killing 14 CRPF personnel and injuring more than 15 at Sukma in Chhattisgarh. This shows that the Maoist threat is clear and present. It was only the other day that Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh had said that the Maoists ‘would soon be finished’.
Monday’s attack was the second ambush in the area in the past 10 days and contrary to the government’s view the insurgents seem to be growing in confidence. In the last two years more than 70 people have been killed in Maoist ambushes, including the May 2013 attack in Bastar that killed 25 state Congress leaders.
This attack comes at a time when there are reports that the Intelligence Bureau and the CRPF are at loggerheads over a botched-up operation to nab a top Maoist leader in early November.
Clearly, there seems to be a lack of communication among various government departments and the attack in Sukma, which shares its border with Odisha and Telangana, shows that when it comes to inter-state co-operation there are far too many loopholes.
Incidentally, on Friday, the Raman Singh-led BJP government will be completing 11 years in power in the state. The BJP came to power at the Centre and many states promising development and ‘achhe din’, but there are still development lacunae in the state that are exploited by the Maoists.
According to the ‘India Human Development Report 2011’, by the Planning Commission, Chhattisgarh’s Human Development Index was 0.278, which was the lowest in India and below the national average of 0.467. According to the Tendulkar Committee Report 2009, almost 70% of the state’s population is poor. It is this deprivation and neglect by the state that the Maoists thrive on.
The Sukma attack yet again proves that the Maoists are India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’ but to rely heavily on force to ‘smoke them out’ is not the best solution. There is a need for a policy mix that entails a demonstrable improvement in state capacity aligned with a vigorous push for inclusive development in Maoist-affected areas.