Category Archives: Current Events

‘One Part Woman’: A Book review of a heartbreaking book and some impressions on the pain of dissent in India

I really have to work on those long titles.

Dissent is not dead in India. It exists and is robust. It pops up often like a hard to remove carbuncle on a vain person’s nose, in the middle of summer. However, dissent in India is painful. Kind of like that carbuncle. Some would argue that it should be. Would dissent really be dissent if it was convenient? But we shall return to this theme later. Right now I want to tell you about ‘One part woman’.

‘One Part Woman’ is a book written by author Perumal Murugan, a well known Tamil writer and poet. The reason I ordered this book, was that I wanted to take my own personal revenge on fundamentalists.But the book came to mean much more to me.

You see, Perumal Murugan was hounded by fundamentalist groups who protested his portrayal of certain practices that took place in relation to the Ardhanareeshwar temple in Tiruchengode. For my non-Indian readers, Ardhanareeswar is an androgynous form of the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanareeswar is depicted as half-male and half-female, spit down the middle, and can be considered to be the ‘perfect being’ due to the balance of the male and female elements. The ancient practice, described in the book, that stirred up a hornet’s nest was that of ‘Gods’  having sex with women who desired to have a child. This practice took place on the 14th day of a famed Chariot festival in Thiruchengode. Of course, there were no ‘Gods’ that were impregnating the women, but the mere mortals from that area. But the practice, in the guise of divinity, had everyone’s approval.

The protests by the fundamentalist groups, who were incensed at the portrayal of the practice, were successful. The author decided to not write anymore.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone,”  He said.

In those words I can sense his pique and anger. But it is a pity that Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Because his book is breathtaking. I bought this book as my own personal act of dissent, sitting in faraway South Bend, Indiana (unsure of what it would be like and what it was about).

The book tells the story of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love. But they are constantly reminded of what they lack, by everyone around them. Ponna is considered barren and inauspicious, while Kali’s manhood is doubted on every occasion.  Things go on this way, till Ponna is pressured to go to the festival on the fourteenth day, to get the gift of a child from Gods. Does she agree? I will not giveaway anything here, because that is not really the point of a review.

What is remarkable about the book, is that despite its piercing and acute social commentary, on gender, women’s rights, caste, and masculinity, it remains a book about love. Murugan provides insights about a love that can only be born of years of knowing each other, burrowing into one another’s bodies. He describes longing and desperation in a couple in far away Thiruchengode with a universality that can touch cords in people everywhere. He describes in painstaking detail all the things that the couple do to please the Gods. The endless sacrifices, the penances, the sinking feeling when Ponna’s period comes with clockwork regularity every month.

Kali and Ponna could be any other couple, in another context, trying to attain what is unattainable.  And haven’t we all been there. Running after a scorecard, or a waistline, a salary, or love (depending on what your poison is). We have all had the crippling anxiety that makes us forget to live in the moment, and be prepared to make sacrifices before an unyielding idol. We have all allowed others to determine what makes us happy. That cruel master: social approval.

The author also uses a portia tree as a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between the couple. The tree is a source of cool shade, support, and when times are bad, a sinister menacing presence. As we turn a page we hope that the couple will find peace, will be able to live in the bubble of their love, without worrying about not having a child. Out of every page in the book there emerges a sort of lyricism, that enchants you and ultimately leaves you heartbroken.

But what left me more heartbroken was the fact that ultimately, a bunch of people who do not have any appreciation of art won. What sort of a person does it take, to read something so delightful and heart wrenching and then say that I shall have it banned? What left me the saddest was Perumal Murugan ‘the author’ is dead, though P Murugan the man lives. I always had an idea of my country in my head, and it was never one where fundamentalists thrive and authors hide.

I was asked at a dinner party in the United States, to name the one thing I loved and hated the most about America. I made up some polite sounding bullshit. But what I took away from living there was a sense of freedom. I know that not everyone enjoys that freedom to the same extent, and America (like any other nation) has insidious divisions. But I remembered the sense of freedom with which I could express myself there, and think. Nuance, that elusive thing, hovered in and out of discussions. Perhaps it was the university environment, but the sense of freedom was like coming up for air. Now I feel that I shall have to spend my entire life, unlearning that. That every expression of a contrarian view will be a struggle. The recent spate of bans does not make me any more confident. But I may be wrong. Are most of our universities still centers of intellectual curiosity (I know some are)? Is a divergence of views respected? Have you, dear reader, enjoyed an academic and cultural environment where you learnt to dissent, to question? Can we be a nation where authors can thrive, and fundamentalists respect their space to do so? ( In their defense, they would not be very good fundamentalists if they did so). Leave your views in comments below, and don’t forget to read this book.

Can customers crack-down on Child Labor?

In 2014 India’s Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai shared the Nobel peace prize. Ironically, it was a time when border tensions had resurfaced between India and Pakistan. But hopefully this shared peace prize is going to remind people on both sides of the fence that there are values we share.  The future of our children is hopefully one such value.

Kailash Satyarthi is an activist who has worked, over a period of thirty years, to eliminate the practice of child labor in India. In 1983 he formed the ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’ (the Save Childhood Campaign), which has since rescued about 80,000 children from illegal and hazardous work across India.[1]  Subsequently, he founded ‘GoodWeave international’ (formerly known as Rugmark) to rehabilitate children working in the handmade carpet industry.  GoodWeave approaches the problem from a ‘supply chain’ and ‘consumer’ perspective.

GoodWeave international is an organization that certifies rugs (that meet certain standards) as ‘child labor free’. [2]It also provides education and other opportunities to children rescued from these rug factories. [3] But before talking in greater detail about the work done by GoodWeave, it will be useful to understand the widespread problem of child labor in the rug industry.

Children between the ages of 4 to 14 are kidnapped or sold and forced to work for up to 18 hours a day to weave rugs meant for export markets in places such as the United States and Europe. [4] The working conditions in the rug industry lead to these children developing malnutrition, impaired vision, deformities caused due to sitting hunched up in loom sheds and respiratory diseases from inhaling wool fibers. [5] Further, girl children who are trafficked for the purposes of the carpet industry are often forced into commercial sex work. This situation makes the work done by GoodWeave International very important.

The GoodWeave model uses the concept of business goodwill to combat the practice of child labor. The certification system is premised on the notion that consumers would prefer to buy products that they know have been ethically manufactured. In order to earn the GoodWeave label rug exporters and importers need to sign a contract to adhere to GoodWeave’s no child labor standard. GoodWeave insists on extensive monitoring and auditing in every stage of the supply chain. The contract requires the exporters to agree to surprise inspections and to pay a licensing fee that supports the educational programs run by GoodWeave. GoodWeave’s arrangements with importers in markets such as Europe and USA, ensures that they import only from GoodWeave certified exporters in South Asia.

Let us turn now to the effectiveness of this movement. Rugs carrying the GoodWeave mark constitute 5% of the import market in North America and Europe.[6] The reason for the pervasiveness of child labor in the larger rug industry is that there is a ‘market demand’ for child labor. Since employing children means that employers can pay lower wages, the manufacturing cost of the rugs in driven down. This is where the certification plays a role by creating consumer awareness and a demand for ethically sourced products.

But it must be noted that labor activists have shared concerns that the complexity of the modern supply chain does make assurances difficult. This difficulty is highlighted by the fact that since its inception, 3700 workers have been ‘rescued’ from factories that were affiliated with the GoodWeave brand.[7] However, the GoodWeave logo is as close as one can get to an assurance of child labor free products.

Concerns with child labor are not restricted to the rug industry only. According to the ILO (Global Child Labor Trends 2008- 2012) there are 168 million children involved in Child Labor all across the world[8]. Concerns in relation to child labor are prevalent in industries like garment[9], electronics[10], and chocolate. [11] The International Labor Organization has Conventions that govern the field. These are the ILO Convention No 138 (the Convention Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Work) and the ILO Convention No 182 (On the Worst Forms of Child Labor). The ILO has also issued the Recommendation 190 (on the worst forms of child labor) and the Recommendation 146 (the minimum age recommendation). Sadly, India (with a very high number of child laborers) is among the few nations that have not ratified the Convention on the Worst forms of Child Labor. Despite this there are stringent laws relating to Child Labor in India, in addition to the Juvenile Justice Act and Article 24 of the Indian Constitution.[12] The problem, it seems, is in the implementation.

Though there has been a decrease in the numbers over the years, child labor is still a problem of massive proportions. One of the ways in which this can be tackled (along with laws being well implemented) is through supply chain monitoring (of which the GoodWeave model is a species). It seems appropriate that countries should have laws that require their Corporations to share supply chain information (or at least the lack thereof). Such a law has already been passed by California and is known as the Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010.[13] It requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the State (having more than $100,000,000 in annual worldwide gross receipts) to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains for tangible goods offered for sale.  This kind of legislation will ensure that there is supply chain transparency, and allow the consumers to make more informed choices. It will also bolster certification systems like GoodWeave, that can use the licensing fees they obtain from the businesses to rehabilitate the rescued victims of child labor.

Before I conclude, I would like to tell you dear reader, what you can do to tackle this problem. You may not buy rugs, but I am pretty sure you buy chocolates, clothes and electronics. If you are Indian, I can bet you buy crackers on Diwali. I want you to start asking questions about where the stuff you buy comes from. Are those crackers child labor free? Are those clothes made in sweat-shop conditions? What about that delicious piece of chocolate or the cool phone? Some of you, who are more sartorially inclined might want to check out the Ethical Fashion Forum. [14]  It will not be easy for you make lifestyle changes immediately, and some of you may elect to not care. It doesn’t matter. ASK. On some brands you will find information quickly, on some you won’t, but when you ask for information, you become a part of a process to effect change. Your questions will create a demand for answers, and once it is out in the open that a company uses child labor or sweatshop like conditions in manufacturing the products, there will be a loss of goodwill for those companies. This is already happening, and we need to create a momentum for it. It is time that we gave information to consumers, and created a market where there is a disincentive for unethical practices. It is also time consumers asked!

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/10/who-is-indias-kailash-satyarthi-the-other-nobel-peace-prize-winner/

[2] http://www.goodweave.org/about

[3] Ibid

[4] http://www.goodweave.org/child_labor_campaign/child_labor_handmade_rugs_carpets

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[7] Ibid

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[9] http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2014/08/31/time-to-get-children-out-of-factories-and-into-schools/

[10] Ibid

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[12] http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1540780/

[13] http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/164934.pdf

[14] http://ethicalfashionforum.com/

That in which I contemplate the effects of punching or getting punched in an Uber!

Uber provides a service by which people who need a ride can just log into the Uber application on their phones, and request a ride. This application pairs them with drivers who happen to be in the area, and are available to give them a ride. Uber receives a credit card payment from the customer, most of which is given to the driver.  This has been described as technology that has revolutionized how we see the taxi service.[1] Someone with a mobile phone and the right app, can call a cab. And anyone with a car, the app, and driving skills/ licence, can be a driver (at least that is how it started out). They can use their phone to pay the driver, as well as rate them. This has given Uber great success, and it has even become the face of peer to peer economy (along with Air BnB). Uber has encouraged this narrative of peer-to-peer economy

Peer to peer economy (or a sharing economy) is one in which an owner is not using something, they rent the thing out, with the help of a technology that gets the buyer and seller (or a renter and leaser) together. This company charges a fee for this. The company (Uber in this case) says that it is not an employer, but a facilitator of micro-entrepreneurs. It does not pay for overheads like fuel, insurance, vehicle maintenance, and neither does it cover liability for any accident on the job. Why would it? It is not an employer. According to Lyft (a company that has a similar modus operandi), the drivers are really doing a service for the passenger, and ‘Lyft is a by-stander of sorts, analogous to e-bay’[2].

But there is just one problem in this narrative. This practice of companies that are employers claiming that they are not employers is age-old. It is done to get over the hurdles of paying benefits to their workers, and covering on-the-job accidents. Consider this case reported in the Forbes magazine. Omar, an Uber driver in Los Angeles took his passengers to their apartments at 2:30 AM at night. Two of the passengers beat this driver up, and he ended up being admitted to the hospital.  [3] This, however, is not an isolated incident. This same newspaper reports multiple incidents of cars being stolen and drivers being assaulted. The problem is, given the narrative of the company being a ‘facilitator’ and not an employer, these workers cannot get any assistance from Uber.  While we shall be dealing with the legal issue in subsequent paragraph just think of what this means. It is the idea that a man working at the behest of a Corporation (valued at billions of dollars), and getting hurt on the job, is not paid a dime of assistance. Does this not militate against the idea of fairness?

However, Uber’s problems don’t end here. Uber has been publicizing the idea that it can be an avenue for creating jobs for women. In fact it aims to create 1 million jobs for women. (It is difficult to understand how one can create jobs without being an employer, but okay, I guess they plan to facilitate a million entrepreneurs). Despite their admirable goals, the fact remains that if there is a case of sexual assault on any of their drivers in the course of work, Uber claims no responsibility to compensate the victim. UN Women, which had earlier decided to partner with Uber in this project, has now dissociated itself, citing concerns with sexual assault on women. [4] Interestingly, Uber got a lot of bad press in India, when, after a rape case involving an Uber driver and a passenger (who was the victim), it was shown that Uber did not even conduct background checks on its drivers. [5] In fairness to Uber, they have now started to put more stringent checks in place in India. Also here is a detailed description of the background check procedure that Uber follows. But there is also a very real loophole in the legal framework. What happens to a female driver who gets sexually assaulted? Does Uber take responsibility to provide compensation? If they say they are not employers, then NO. Similarly, there is no clarity on Uber’s liability to pay compensation to passengers who get assaulted in the vehicle.  I am not suggesting that an Uber ride is less safe than other taxis. That may not be the case, but certainly the legal position on compensation in case of injury in the cab is not clear.

As far as the employer-or-not issue is concerned, now there are Uber and Lyft employees that have decided that they are not buying the by-standers positions, and the two companies face a class action lawsuit that could possibly change the topography of the peer-to-peer economy. These employees in the USA claim that though they are classified as independent contractors, they are actually employees and the companies owe them reimbursement for overheads, and compensation for injuries on the job. This is something that concerns employment lawyers everywhere, so really this case is worth following.

The legal defense of Uber, and a seemingly solid one, can be summed up in the words of an attorney with the Employment Law Group, “They don’t have to show up to work on Monday at 9 a.m. if they don’t want to…What they’re not understanding is that this lack of control — where they can have a two-hour lunch if they want, or no lunch at all — that freedom comes at the price of if they’re in an accident, the company doesn’t have to pay.”  [6]

At the moment, things seem to be going in favor of the complainants. Uber’s request for summary judgment, and a declaration that its drivers were independent contractors was rejected by the District Court. The matter is now going to Trial before a jury. One strong argument in favor of the drivers is the economic realities test.This test does not only focus on the level of supervision involved in a job, but also the extent to which employees depend on the existence of the business in question. Some of the factors that are considered to determine ‘economic realities’ are mentioned under the Fair Labor Standards Act. [7]   These are as follows:

  • The extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business: This is a factor that goes in favor of the drivers, because Uber or Lyft would not have any utility without the service provided by the drivers.
  • Whether worker’s managerial skills affect his opportunity for profit or loss. Given that Uber assigns the passenger to the driver, whose job is to take said passenger to the pre-determined destination, it can hardly be said that this job requires managerial skills.
  • The relative investment in the equipment and facilities by the worker and the employer. In this case the drivers made a pretty significant investment of their car and fuel money. However, I would argue that it is not at all comparable to the investment made by Uber in running and developing the application.
  • The worker’s skill and initiative. To show that a person is an independent contractor, it must be shown that he or she exercises independent business judgment. That does not seem to be the case here.
  • The permanency of the relationship between the worker and the employer. Permanency suggests that a worker is an employee, and this is one factor that strongly goes against the drivers. They do have the independence to stop working for Uber anytime they desire, or not work whenever they feel like it.
  • The nature and degree of control by the employer. Like the preceding factor, this one also goes against the drivers, given that there is a very limited degree of control exercised over the drivers by Uber.

Given that none of these factors are dispositive, there is a chance that the drivers may win the lawsuit against Uber. But one must stop and ask the question, are mis-characterization lawsuits (i.e the one’s where you claim that the workers have been characterized wrongly) really the way to go here? If the employees do win this lawsuit, and end up owing huge sums of money to the workers, what impact will it have on the long term health of the peer to peer economy?  And is it really a good idea to try and fit a revolutionary new concept into old tired methods of classification of labor? This does not mean that Uber and Lyft should continue with their unfettered business model. There is a very strong need for regulation, but there is also a need to understand that shared economies are sui generis, and old methods may not work on them. Perhaps new laws can be enacted that place a burden on these companies to take liability for injuries or accidents at the workplace, but not reimburse for overheads? The drivers could be given some sort of quasi-employee status, so that the regulation does not ultimately kill this new method. There must also be some framework of compensation for people who get hurt or sexually assaulted during their cab rides.

I would also like to ask whether there is a possibility for the unionization of Uber and Lyft drivers. What would this relationship be like? What kind of bargaining power would the union have, given that there crowd-sourcing makes the supply of drivers willing to do the job on the terms of Uber inelastic. Further, can unions play a significant role in the dynamic, changing relationships that the drivers and Uber have at the moment? Only time will tell.

[1] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-06-12/don-t-stop-the-uber-revolution

[2] http://uberlawsuit.com/Time.pdf

[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenhuet/2015/01/06/workers-compensation-uber-drivers-sharing-economy/

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/23/united-nations-uber-womens-safety

[5] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/11/us-uber-india-courts-idUSKBN0JP18T20141211

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenhuet/2015/01/06/workers-compensation-uber-drivers-sharing-economy/

[7] http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs13.htm

Trade Promotion Authority and Labor Rights

(I have been working on these small articles for a class I have been taking in the law school. Since the topics were so interesting, I thought it would be good to publish some of them on the blog. I have of course taken the Professor’s permission for this. I would love some input and information on these issues, from those of you more in the know. To Indian readers, the perspective here is very American, which is unusual in my posts. But I hope you enjoy reading it anyway.)

Free trade agreements (FTAs) or Regional Trade Agreements have become increasingly popular since the 1990s. [1] These are agreements where the parties (which can be states or customs unions) agree to greater integration through lower tariffs and liberalized trade regimes between each other.

These agreements, in some cases, can cause job losses in industrialized countries, like the United States of America. This is because jobs could move from the more industrialized nations, where wage rates are higher, to less industrialized nations with lower wage rates (and a weaker framework of labor rights). An example of this is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On its website the AFL-CIO claims that nearly 700,000 American jobs have been lost since the NAFTA took effect in 1994. [2] This website also states that 20 years after NAFTA was passed, all fifty American states have had jobs lost or displaced to Mexico. [3]

Now it must be remembered that there is an economic logic to these free trade agreements, and they have played a role in maximizing consumer choice. In the developing countries they have created jobs, albeit with scanty worker protections. However, in the USA these F.T.As have come under attack from labor groups, due to the job displacements which have had a significant social impact. An illustration of the grave impact of job-losses/ displacement can be seen in the rust belt of the USA, with high rates of poverty and crime. Particularly moving is the story of Gary, Indiana, which turned from a steel-city to a crime hub (at the risk of oversimplifying things.) [4]

The Trade Promotion Authority (or Fast Track) as it is known, has been in the public eye of late. President Obama is seeking the Fast Track authority in order to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (T.P.P).  Fast Track is meant to facilitate negotiating trade deals. It works by providing for a framework of close collaboration between the members of the Congress and the President of the United States. This means that members of the Congress (through the Congressional Oversight Group) get a seat at the table during trade negotiations. In exchange for this, the Congress has to vote for trade-agreement implementing legislation without amendments (i.e. it is a Yes-No vote), and within a specific time frame. [5]

The advantage of Fast Track is that it strengthens the USA’s hand during trade negotiations.[6]  Other countries have a greater faith in the USA negotiators because they know that the USA speaks with one voice at the negotiating table. [7] The fast track authority also assures the trading partners of the USA that the completed trade agreements will be decided quickly and without any amendments. [8] But this efficiency comes at a cost.

The Public Citizen’s Global Trade watch has described the Fast Track Authority as an ‘undemocratic path to unfair trade’. [9] This is because Fast Track limits the kind of debate that would otherwise take place in Congress, and restricts special interests groups (like labor unions) from opposing trade agreements that could cause job losses. This is what, according to AFL-CIO and Public Citizen’s Trade Watch happened with NAFTA.  This is exacerbated by the fact that Trade agreements today are far wider than the simple tariff arrangements of the past. Which brings us to Obama and the TPP.

Leo Gerard, the President of the United Steelworkers, has spoken out against Obama’s request for Fast Track, noting the 400 million tons of over-capacity in steel manufacturing in China, which will continue to eat into the US markets. In fairness, China is not a part of the TPP yet (though it has been showing a lot of interest in it of late).  It is also important to note that U.S. wage rates have not increased in ‘real terms’ since 1973, since Fast Track was passed.[10] The ‘right to work’ is enshrined under Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which has attained the status of customary international law),  and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (which the USA has not ratified). The ILO Convention 122 on Employment policy (to which the USA is not a party) also lays down that , ‘each Member shall declare and pursue, as major goal, an active policy designed to promote full, productive and freely chosen employment.’[11] However, it is difficult to make out a case for a hard international law obligation on part of the USA to avoid large-scale job losses. But the USA is a member of the ILO and is bound by the principles in the Declaration of Philadelphia, which includes the goal of ‘full employment and raising the standards of living’.[12] Further, the large scale job losses do severely diminish the capabilities of communities and people affected by them.

In conclusion, it seems that the chances of the T.P.P going through without the Fast Track authority are slim. Further, there is a large body of economic literature that swears by the economic logic of comparative advantage. Taken at face value this would make the signing of the T.P.P is pivotal for US interests. Further it may not be entirely fair to describe the Fast Track process as undemocratic, given that the President of the USA (who signs off on these deals, is democratically elected).  However, social impact of the job displacement is real, and the fears of trade unions and labor groups cannot be wished away. Before canvassing for Fast Track authority, the President should provide a clear and coherent vision of how he plans to tackle the issue of job losses.  It is possible that through vocational training and rehabilitation (programs dealing with which which already exist to a certain extent), the impact of job losses can be minimized, but such policies must be developed by taking the views of all stakeholders into account. Holding back the trade agenda, however, seems difficult.

[1] http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/region_e/region_e.htm

[2] http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Trade/NAFTA

[3] Ibid

[4] http://prospect.org/article/where-work-disappears-and-dreams-die

[5] Report to the Congress on the Extension of the Trade Promotion Authority, United States Trade Representative, https://ustr.gov/archive/assets/Document_Library/Reports_Publications/2005/2005_TPA_Report/asset_upload_file834_7514.pdf

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] http://www.citizen.org/fast-track

[10] http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=2124

[11] http://www.ble.dole.gov.ph/issuances/ILO_122.pdf

[12] http://www.un-documents.net/dec-phil.htm

A few thoughts on the NLU Delhi comedius interruptus Incident.

Okay.

a) I apologize for the appalling headline. I was just trying to illustrate that humor is not for everyone.

b) This is going to be a short post, because those International Dispute Resolution readings are not going to do themselves.

c) Frankly, I know everyone wants to throw in their two cents about this incident, and you are entitled to roll your eyes at one more such effort. But as I have said before, my blog my rules.

Now, what is this about? Abish Matthew, an Indian comedian, went to N.L.U Delhi (a law school) to perform a stand up act. He made certain jokes about Malayali men beating their wives, the appearance of a female politician and women’s ability to drive (or so the news says).  Now some students were offended by his humor, and walked out of the venue. Subsequently, they returned holding a placard that said ‘Get out, sexist pig’ and showed their middle finger to the comedian. They continued to heckle the comedian till he decided to cut his act shot. After this the irate audience turned on the women, pushing them and commenting on their clothes. Now I was not there (and this is second hand news from newspapers), so if I have got any of the details wrong, please correct me.

Well there are really three things I want to say:

1)Is Sexist humor okay? 

Personally, I don’t like that brand of humor at all. I think that it is lazy. Why would a comedian want to hide behind stale stereotypes to evoke laughter? I know a lot of great comedians who don’t have to do that (such as John Oliver and Jon Stewart). Secondly, one must remember that behind sexism, lies a sea of historical discrimination and sometimes violence. Look at domestic violence. Having seen it happen to neighbors and on the street (and having tried to intervene) and spoken to survivors of violence, I don’t find it an appropriate subject. This is especially because, if I were a comedian, I would think about what would happen to a victim of domestic violence, if she were sitting in that audience.

However, I am not a comedian, nor am I very funny (though I have my moments). I cannot imagine what is going through his head, but  Mr Matthew is young, and is developing his art (or his ‘voice’ as the hip people say). He must be trying to come up with stuff to keep things edgy and have some element of shock value in his act. Comedians often do that. Sometimes, they use their humor to throw light on a subject that bothers them (like child sexual abuse, a war, corruption). I am willing to believe that this might be what Mr Matthew was trying to do.

Now, it is up to him to ask himself whether not making fun of domestic violence takes something away from his jokes? Does he have an obligation to respect the sensibilities of victims who might be in the audience? And, whether his humor will be prone to misinterpretation. That is for him to figure out, because if comedy is art then you cannot expect an artist to be dishonest with it. He must display what he feels is the most authentic expression of his world view.

2) Was the protest wrong?

Well, in my opinion, no. Just as Mr Matthew has the freedom to decide the best comedic expression of his world view, the students who protested have a right to express their anger and outrage at the humor. That is the way democratic life is supposed to be. The girls did not vandalize the venue. They did not resort to violence. They did not take support of the coercive mechanism of the state. All they did was hold a placard, and show the middle finger. Frankly, showing the middle finger and using the f-word, is the sort of stuff A.I.B (which Mr Matthew is allied with?) has been very gung-ho about protecting. Though a lot of their humor is political satire, it is also fully of hip thrusts and ball licking gestures. (*graphic image alert* :\) So yeah, if we love freedom of expression, then we should support both freedoms. Now if Mr Matthew wanted to make a point, he could have powered through the act. The girls could have gone on holding their placard and heckling. You don’t like that? Well suppressing those voices, leads to the vandals and the vigilantes being born.

It should also be remembered that freedom of expression is not freedom from all consequences. It is merely freedom from violence and coercive mechanisms of the state. But people who don’t agree with you are free to heckle you or hold placards.  I think I much prefer their brand of protest to the lawsuits of a certain Dinanath Batra, the F.I.Rs lodged against the A.I.B roast, as well as the vandalizing that various political parties do.

3) A small word to the girls who protested. (who may never read this)

I don’t know you. And I don’t know what your law school is like. But I know what a college experience is like and the crushing weight of conformism on all of us. If I was in that auditorium, I probably would just have walked out, and written about what offended me. Your method of protest is not something I have a natural affinity to. You chose what one might call a more ‘militant’ protest. But you did something. You stood up for your convictions, when you knew that there would be a backlash from your peers.

You cared enough about something, to stand up to an auditorium full of irate people.

For that. Thank you. 🙂

Our ‘beef’ with secularism

The Indian state of Maharashtra has, in a new law, banned the possession and sale of beef. This has been made punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine. I think this development merits some discussion. It also requires a reflection on what secularism is, and why we need it.

But before I go on, it will be important to define what I mean by secularism. This phrase has a lot of meanings and confusion is easy. So for the purposes of this blog, secularism is a view or a framework which requires the state to treat all religions equally, and to promote religious tolerance in public life. Be aware that I have chosen this definition because the kind of strict Church state separation that is often associated with secularism, is very hard to maintain in India. Religion, all religions, are so important to the Indian people that they bleed into public life. Sometimes, religion is culture. And lest the Hinduta-vadis (i.e Hindu fundamentalists) get too smug at this, I think in India there is a tendency for all religions to expand and take cultural significance. We have seen this with Christmas, which the young in India celebrate with gusto. We see it with Eid, which though not as culturally mainstream as Christmas, is seen often as an occasion to  celebrate some wonderful cuisine. I know that when I was in school, irrespective of what religion we belonged to, we would hug and say Eid Mubarak, just like we said happy Holi. That was not a sanitized secular environment, but it was a secular environment.

These days, when I speak to some people on the Hindu right wing, they say that secularism is the pet of the upper class liberals, with no resonance for the common man. Of course the people making this statement often happen to be N.R.Is or those working in high paying jobs in Indian metropolis. I lack their perspicacity, but I have never been able to figure out how they get the right to speak for the ‘real India’ (whatever that means). But I don’t buy this argument that secularism, as I have defined, is something only the elites believe in. Yes, India is peopled with those who are deeply religious. But the same people often live in harmony with each other. Despite the importance of religion to Indians, it took a long time for a Hindu right wing party to form a Government in India, and even longer for them to get a decisive majority. And while instances riots and intolerance get publicity, instances of Hindu and Muslim girls getting together to celebrate Durga Puja (and Eid and Christmas) are not publicized. This lets people get away with the lie that secularism is the pet of the liberal elite. Sure, some versions are. But to say that Indian masses have been tricked into accepting the idea of secularism which they don’t believe in, is to say that the people are idiots. And no, that is just not true. Further, to think that the ‘masses’ represent one entity, with no difference of opinions, that thinks with one mind, is the height of condescension.

My mind goes back to a time, when religion really interested me. Not just my religion, all religions. I had heard of the incredible sense of peace that comes from praying in a Mosque, and I decided to try and enter one. So one day, while I was walking around in a small town in Orissa, that I shall not name, I chanced upon a small mosque, really a room against a wall. I wanted to go in. However, I felt that I should (in all fairness) tell the caretaker of the mosque that I was Hindu. When I mentioned it to him, his reaction was to laugh. We don’t discriminate between people, he said, and let me in to the mosque. This man may not have traveled much, but he showed a wisdom so many of our political leaders lacked. He was not a part of the liberal media nexus, just a man who was incredibly secure in his faith. So that makes me ask, isn’t his Islam and my Hinduism, versions that seek harmony with each other, as real as the chest beating of the fundamentalists?

We have a richness few countries are endowed with. We have diverse languages and religions that co-exist without crushing ethnic strife. This is a gift for a country to cherish. And if we are to cherish this gift, doesn’t the idea that the State should not play favorites, make a lot of sense?

Now, speaking of playing favorites, I want to deal with the issue of cow slaughter. Legally speaking, I don’t think a ban on cow slaughter is necessarily bad. Given the fact that even the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, mentions the prohibition of cow slaughter. My problem is, however, with the provisions of this particular Act. Up to Five years imprisonment for cow slaughter, is disproportionate punishment. This, combined with the fact that the people caught under the ambit of this law are going to be poor, given that beef is often a meat eaten by the poor. I don’t even want to talk about the fact that making beef akin to contraband is going to make it out of reach for the poor, diminishing their nutritional status. There is a more fundamental problem. If you begin prosecutions under this law, the poor (you know, those guys that can’t afford good lawyers), are going to be caught in its net. Given the deplorable state of our prisons, do we want people to spend 2, 3, 4 or even 5 years in jail for possessing and selling beef?

But that does not begin to address the problems with this ‘cow slaughter is criminal’ political discourse. Imagine if passions are whipped up about this, and someone floats a rumor that there is cow meat being sold in ‘so and so’ locality. Does that not seem to be a fertile ground for a riot to spring up. If you need evidence on what the politics of polarization does, just have a look at what his going on in Uttar Pradesh.

So here is a small request to our policy makers. If cows mean a lot to you, then work on building shelters for them. Take them off the roads, where they imperil themselves and people. Improve their nutritional status. Crack down on the leather industry. Convince people that cow slaughter is not a good idea. If you must ban it, then have fines. But whatever you do, don’t impose disproportionate punishments for things that are really, well, religious crimes. This is not too different from bans on apostasy or blasphemy (and those who will make the argument that it is about helping all animals, well… note the fate of the water buffalo). We do not want to be a nation where state power backs one religion over all others. Because the people who lose are not just the minorities. We all lose a bit of ourselves.

Why I reluctantly began to like Kejriwal

So here is the thing.

I am a snob. I am not proud of it. But I can’t help it. I was born this way.. when it came to choosing a baby formula, I am pretty sure I told my mother that ‘cerelac’ was too mainstream (actually I don’t think I was fed formula, but I am trying to make a point here). A shiver runs down my spine when Chetan Bhagat or Salman Khan are discussed.  I can only watch ‘Jab We Met’ if I tell myself that I am being ironic. I could go on and on, but I think that you have got the picture, dear readers.

So you can imagine what my feelings would be about Arvind Kejriwal when he first became popular. To everyone, he was the new messiah (and I don’t believe in messiahs). His ‘dharna’s’ caught the imagination of the masses, his persona enthralled them. Kejriwal was going to change Indian politics. He would fix corruption. It was a recipe I was doomed to dislike.

And let me be clear here, it was not just my snobbery that made me suspicious. I don’t believe that deep rooted practices can be changed by one man or party calling for honesty (though yes, one party can be a catalyst for change). I do not think women’s safety is ensured by sitting on vigils after high profile rapes (though yes vigils are important to show solidarity). There needs to be much plodding in terms of policy implementation. Much introspection in the general population about why we live in a society with endemic corruption and gender discrimination .  During the 49 days AAP was in power, I was concerned with the conduct of the AAP law minister in relation to the Khirki raid, which if not racist, was certainly authoritarian.

So you will wonder why I am writing this? Is it some long drawn plan to diss Kejriwal? No. I actually began to like him. A lot. And this post is about explaining it to myself as much as to my dear readers. So this blog post may have a bit of a dear diary vibe, and I hope you will forgive me for it.

Kejriwal had a brief lull in his popularity after he resigned as the Chief Minister of Delhi. While the core volunteers of AAP must have remained loyal, there was an exodus of some of the more visible faces. For a brief while the media had written off the AAP, in its Narendra Modi frenzy. At that time people began to snicker about how Arvind Kejriwal had been slapped on the campaign trail. People found this hilarious, and it became the fodder of SMS jokes.

When I heard these jokes, I began to wonder whether I knew any other present Indian leader who was approachable enough to the people to be slapped. It made me sit up and think. I did not know of any other leader that dealt with the people as an equal: as an aam admi. Of course Kejriwal has a carefully crafted persona, just like any other leader. But he has also given a great deal of deference to the experiences and wishes of the people he is supported by. His tendency to sit on dharna even as the Chief Minister was annoying, but also showed that he was not going to go anywhere. People would be a central part of his scheme of things.

Then came the Supreme Court’s judgment upholding S 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes ‘unnatural sex against the order of nature’ (read non-hetero-normative sex). I was astonished that the AAP made a statement which expressed disappointment with the Court’s judgment.  This was a party with a primarily north-Indian middle class base. A backlash was foreseeable, but they went ahead and made this statement. I was pleasantly surprised.

But I was the most surprised by the fact that after the media wrote him off, Kejriwal did not go into a self-destructive spiral. He went back to his base. He worked on consolidating his position in Delhi. He addressed the Delhi debacle head on. He apologized for what he did/ or failed to do by resigning as the Chief Minister. Again something very refreshing. A politician apologizing for a mistake, and asking for a fresh chance. I don’t remember seeing something like this in the 12 years that I have followed Indian politics.

So here is what I realized about Arvind Kejriwal. He is not perfect. But he has humility. He is willing to call his mistakes what they are: mistakes. He is willing to  learn. He does not eddy around in currents of megalomania.  He does not get so carried away by populism that he forgets the mandate of the Constitution (though of all his faults this is the one to watch). He brings up his volunteers almost all the time, and never hesitates to give credit.

These personal qualities of Mr Kejriwal aside,  AAP also occupies a crucial place in the scheme of things in India. It can use the popularity it enjoys to become a healthy check on the party in power. No matter how good the BJP leadership is, absolute power corrupts.The AAP can be a force that keeps a check on the great power that the BJP enjoys.  Further, through five years of solid governance in Delhi (if it wins the elections) AAP can instill values like transparency and accountability in the institutions it controls. This will be far more effective than ‘Dharnas’, because it will be slow institutional change. Change of that kind is really hard to kill.

I think Arvind Kejriwal has what it takes to be a leader who can bring about that change. I think he can work to be a credible and stable force in Indian politics. But he needs supporters who disagree with him. Who have problems with some of his discourse. He needs supporters (like me perhaps) who don’t think he is the best thing since sliced bread. But he is pretty good, and I hope he proves me right.