Friday, June 22, 2007

That space atop Raisina Hill

As politicians and pundits get serious about the presidential polls, the blogs are agog. They even have a suggestion: Why not Bill Clinton?

A petition to get President Kalam has been going around the internet for over eight months now, so when amidst rumours of Shivraj Patil, Somnath Chatterjee and Pranab Mukherjee, the name Pratibha Patil came up, the blogosphere went into a tizzy. IndieQuill applauded the latest nominee (lovingly called ‘President Aunty’) and introduced her to its readers — “You know her, of course, from... er, um...” A list of pros and cons was devised. (The most convincing pro — ‘not Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’).

A victim of tokenism? Don’t feel offended, Pratibhatai, some said, after all (as Hindustaniat explains) so many before you have been token presidents — Sikh, Muslim, what’s the difference? In fact, it’s because she is difficult to oppose — India Interacts calls it “the advantages of being a lightweight”.

Try the question Grandma’s Tales puts up: why does the Union government oppose Kalam if he appears to be the people’s choice? Mixed Bag pushes further and asks for a merit-based answer, why (either) Patil or Kalam? But it adds an interesting little sidenote — Pratibha Patil’s wikipedia page was updated instantly. So, our netas have discovered the internet. Who knew?

Many are unsure if Patil can live up to Kalam — as The Utterances of a Peculiar Mindset wonders, “where is the stature?” The Indian Muslim Blog is not impressed with Pratibhatai’s history — the Mughals were not invaders as they settled down in India, and the purdah system was already there — and she is confused between purdah and hijab. Tut, tut.

But do we even need a president, asks E=mc^2, calling the post “a waste of resources”. Patil may have more political merit than Kalam, but since the country apparently has no idea of what merit is, what does it matter? The thought is echoed by India Syndicate, which wonders why it makes a difference at all. And more importantly, who is going to Parliament while all these deliberations and negotiations happen? On the other hand, My Desi Blog is suspicious about the fight parties are putting up for this post. Is it because all concerned parties want to be able to use (and abuse?) the special powers of the president?

And the blogs are not fooled by the argument that this is a proud day for women’s emancipation. India Uncut wonders if the BJP goes against any future choice the Congress makes for any position — and if the candidate is a man — will it mean that it is “blatantly against the cause of men?” Really, at least let her ride on her laurels!

So what can be done about this sad state of affairs? The nomination seems like settling for second best; the person chosen is stature-less; and the justification for the choice seems empty at best.

Never fear, suggestions are here!

Churumuri has a novel idea. Why not appoint Bill Clinton as president of India. No, really. Among the stellar reasons given, the three most convincing are: if the Indian cricket team can have a foreign coach, why not a foreign president? If Hillary wins, and with Bill in Rashtrapati Bhawan, the nuclear deal is a given. But the last tops it all, because, “finally, we will have someone who will make use of all 340 rooms atop Raisina Hill.”

We’re not done. It’s India Time has another suggestion. Why not Musharraf as president (of India?). Before you gasp with shock, read on. It’s the only way to bring democracy to Pakistan (ha ha), it will be seen as a warm gesture and Pakistan will give up its claim to Kashmir (we’re listening), Musharraf will have to come with his nuclear briefcase making the sub-continent safer (go on...) and finally, he only fears mango trees, and since India has so many mango trees, it will be enough to make him behave... (Sold!)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Space Police


A site called Orkut is at the centre of a billowing controversy. The Shiv Sena’s student wing, the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, is protesting against ‘defamatory matter’ on Chatrapati Shivaji and Bal Thackeray on the website. What is Orkut? Can the internet really be censored? Mahima Kaul takes on the questions

What is Orkut?

Orkut is Google’s social networking website. It was launched on January 22, 2004. Members create profiles, upload pictures and personal information, leave ‘scraps’ (messages) and join communities. Orkut has become especially popular with the Indian youth who are often not allowed to mix as freely in real life as they can on the internet.
However, its virtual communities have been getting the site into trouble. In 2006, the US was concerned that terrorists may be using the site after groups supporting Osama bin Laden began mushrooming on it. But the majority of Orkut communities are non controversial.

What is the current controversy about?

While the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena initially demanded that internet caf├ęs be closed down and that internet service providers (ISPs) ban Orkut, they have now registered a complaint with the Mumbai police. Sify, Mumbai’s biggest ISP, refused to ban the site. Sify says that unless there is an official directive, Orkut can sue them for blocking its site. Also, it is one of the main reasons young people visit cyber cafes.
The Controller of Certifying Authority (under the IT ministry) is reviewing the complaint. It is authorised to monitor online content and block offensive sites.

Have websites been banned before in India?

In India, the first such incident took place in September 2003, when government wanted to ban Yahoo Groups because one of their groups was allegedly linked to Kynhun, a separatist group from Meghalaya. However, because the ISPs did not know how to ban a single group, all groups on Yahoo ended up being banned for two weeks. In July 2006, government ordered a ban on 17 websites, but again due to the ISPs’ inability to ban specific sites, whole websites ended up being banned. There was a major uproar in the media, the ban was lifted.

What kind of things are censored the world over?

Certain countries restrict the internet more than others. According to the OpenNet initiative, China, Vietnam and Iran are the worst offenders.
The two biggest reasons officially cited for restricting the internet are child pornography and support for terrorism. In the US, the Common Decency Act (1996) restricts online speech that could be seen by minors. In the UK, schools, public libraries etc are encouraged to install software called Cleanfeed, which is a content filter. In the past, the Home Office had asked ISPs to block access to articles that glorified terrorism. This is within the purview of their Terrorism Act, 2006.
Countries, like Pakistan, Egypt, Iran are critical of sites that criticise the government. Recently, an Egyptian blogger was sent to jail on that count. China’s strict control of the internet is well-known, and in North Korea it is available to only a few people.

Why is the internet difficult to control?

Accessing blocked sites is made easy by proxy servers. Proxy servers are un-banned websites that can display banned content. All one needs to do is put in the address of the banned site on the proxy server website and the page will be opened. Similarly, programmes such as Psiphon (popular in China) and JAP allow users to browse the web anonymously.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

close encounters of the gujjar kind

I had gone to Bangalore for the weekend when the Gujjar agitation made national headlines. Before I could wrap my head around it, they were everywhere, not restricted to Rajasthan at all -- from my TV to the Noida toll bridge! Normal life was being disturbed and violence ensued.
Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje called the Gujjar leader and discussed their demands -- reservations for the community on the basis that are too, ST -- and they called off the protests.

So this morning, when on my way to work, my boss called me to say 'Idea Exchange -- Colonel Bainsala -- I was interested to hear what he had to say for himself. I mean, I know they want ST status and all that, but I had been paying close attention to the mainstream media's long debates on whether it was ethical for the Gujjars to have blocked roads and railway tracks for their own interests.

At Idea Exchange, Colonel Bainsala and co were asked by various reporters to explain why they thought they fit into the ST category. They had this notebook which spelt out all the customs etc of ST communities and they said that theirs were just the same. I don't know how it works really, but till they attain this status will they have to ensure that their community (in Rajasthan) remains in the dark ages? The good news is that a committee will take a call on this issue in 3 months. But at the same time, it really does sound like a race to the bottom.

Is reservations good? Many asked him why he thought that reservations would make them any better -- and I really appreciated the answer. He said that it might not, but now that the mechanism exists, they want to be part of it. To my mind, it all boils down to the fact that simple governance is lacking and the only way to ensure any help from the government is to be deemed 'special'. And our middle class mindset sometimes makes us doubt reservations, or view it suspiciously, as a political tool or even an easy out for hard work, but the other side of the coin -- this one -- it is perceived as a lifeline.

And what if they are not found to be worth of ST reservations? They said they would continue their struggle because they wanted to bring their community out of the dark ages. They gave us many facts and figures of how there were no women MBBS or persons in the IAS from their community.

Colonel Bainsala and his two colleagues are obviously intelligent men. They argued their case with passion, speaking in both Hindi and English. I found their story very interesting because they told us that they had been protesting peacefully for seven years now, but only after violent incidents (which they did not plan) did the state take them seriously. Shouldn't there be a mechanism for these things?

Its the largest questions that bugged me the entire time -- how does a small community get any attention in this country without resorting to violence? Bainsala and co. were ready with facts, passages from the Constitution, the findings of earlier committees on the state of scheduled tribes -- in fact, it was endearing to see how hard they tried to work within the system. But it was very disturbing to see that the system doesn't reward them for playing by the rules at all.

We have just dealt with Muslim reservations, and for that matter, even SC questions have such an emotional tinge that the debate is naturally on the frontpages of newspapers. After all, do you really want to keep a religious community behind? Or do you think, as upper castes, the lower castes should stay in 'their place?' No? Then debate it dammit. But this debate stirred no such emotions, in fact, they were even asked why they used priests during weddings if they consider themselves tribals and I silently thought 'this is NOT the point and we are getting distracted by stupid nitpicking. They are here because they want progress, education, medication, roads, electricity, a good life. It has nothing to do with who uses and doesn't use priests for wedding ceremonies.'

For a democracy, we certainly thrive on chaos. And inaction. They have been asking for a leg up for seven years. And no one paid heed till somebody died. Is that democracy? For heaven's sake... why do we have a consitution and constitutional mechanisms if we don't seem to want to use them??? The real test is not when they work for the have's -- its when they work for the have-not's. We need to function by the book, not by emotion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Head bangers’ ball

From all corners of the country they came. College students and managers. Musicians and journos. eye hitched a ride with the Great Indian Rock Fan who goes anywhere the music is

A sea of heads bobs to the music. Ripples of hands and camera phones. Steven Tyler has danced on to the stage. Joe Perry takes the microphone, “India, do you know why we love you? It’s because you gave us the Kamasutra!” Thirty thousand voices roar back lustily.

It’s a spectacle that has drawn Akshay Dhar, a HR trainee and industrial social worker in Puducherry, to Bangalore. Friends Colin Fernandes and Harsher Singh have flown in from Delhi. They aren’t alone. Guitar slung over shoulders and tattoos on show, college students from all corners of the country have hopped on to trains to be part of this headbangers’ ball. Managers in pinstriped suits have junked their laptops and PowerPoint presentations to catch a flight to the city of watering holes.

Meet India’s new breed of city-hopping concertgoers, who think nothing of bouncing around the country in search of good music. Says Dhar, “The fantastic thing about going to watch Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Roger Waters and others perform is that we get to experience these bands in our lifetime—live. Just look at the thousands who get together to hear the music. It’s the intensity of the crowd and the passion for the music that makes the difference. Sitting in a bar or in your room and listening to the same music just doesn’t compare.”

When Raghav Modi and his friends, young graduates who have just started working in Delhi, heard about Roger Waters coming to Mumbai, these Pink Floyd fans knew this was a show they couldn’t miss. “There were about 20 of us who ended up going. We knew this was the closest we would ever get to Waters!”

For Dhaval Mudgal, a member of the immensely popular Delhi band Half Step Down, Pink Floyd was as good as it gets. “The Roger Waters concert was a life-changing experience for me not only as a listener, but as a musician. I was blown away by the organisation and the visuals—I absorbed a lot about performance.” Mudgal had to miss Aerosmith last week, but only because his band was performing in Mumbai the same weekend.

Unfortunately, there are always those who miss the show. “It’s always some other city,” cribs Dwaipayan Banerjee, who recently finished a Masters in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics and is off to pursue a Ph.D. at New York University this fall. “We grew up with this music. So of course you want to hear these bands. I only wish that more bands, like Franz Ferdinand, Keane, were coming. And don’t think there is no demand, because even when Herbie Hancock came, and Delhi is not a city known for its jazz taste, it was sold out. So, I really hope more acts follow!”Banerjee’s wish might come true. The buzz is that the next acts in town will be Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Metallica.

Back at the concert, the band is in exit mode. But like all good bands, they come back for one last song. Don’t wanna miss a thing it is. A mite soppy but the crowd loves it—they sure were never going to miss this.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Who's news?

India is a far more animated – and honest – democracy than the US. Political propaganda through a national television network is not India's forte – ironically, that belongs to 'the land of the free'. Because America seems to be moving towards an almost regimented political correctness, it becomes difficult to gauge what they really think about issues. By contrast, here in India, although corruption is institutionalised and general chaos prevails, somehow people behave exactly the way they are. So chairs are thrown in parliament and laundry gets washed in public. In part, of course, the credit goes to the freedom our media enjoys.

So, when the DMK contemplates launching a new channel -- because consequent to the Karunanidhi-Maran dispute it is losing valuable air time -- it is adding to the already overcrowded airwaves in Tamil Nadu that are almost entirely monopolised by political party owned (or backed) channels. So the AIADMK has Jaya TV, the DMK had Sun TV (till the split with Dayanidhi Maran) and the PMK has Makkal TV.

Tamil Nadu type developments in the media are a cause for serious concern. What happens when government or a political/private player starts to dictate news content? The ready example we have is US and it is worth exploring it to understand the dynamics. In 1996 Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It has grown to become the country's most popular cable news channel, mainly for its decidedly opinionated news coverage. Although Fox mottos read 'Fair and Balanced' and 'We Report, You Decide', it is in fact, anything but. Liberals have widely accused Fox for operating as a mouthpiece for the Republican government. Proof, they said, came the from the internal memos that were leaked by someone in the organization. The memos highlighted the channel's agenda-driven stance on issues, including the Iraq War which, read, "It began Monday morning (NY time) with the US and Iraqi military surrounding Fallujah. We will cover this hour by hour today, explaining repeatedly why it is happening. It won't be long before some people start to decry the use of 'excessive force'. We won't be among that group..." Fox News also painted the world in black and white, something that appealed to the American viewer. For those who knew no better, they accepted opinion as fact, and support for the Iraq war increased because any anti-war sentiment was equated with anti-nationalist sentiment.

In the same vein, imagine if politically backed news channels in India started to broadcast agenda-driven news. While different channels in Tamil Nadu may applaud the ruling party's policies or trash them, depending on its ownership, the matter could get dangerous if party agenda driven subjects began to focus on communalism, casteism, or secession. And like in the US, if a national channel in India were to be launched by a vested interest, the scale of misinformation, especially in a country where the percentage of uneducated and impressionable people is high, would be all the more devastating.

The scenario is not far-fetched. Consider this, in its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, 2005, Reporters Without Borders found the US placed 44th out of 167 countries. India was placed at 106, Nepal at 160 and Pakistan at 150. In 2006 the US had moved down to 53 while India had performed marginally better at 103. Nepal remained at 159, and Pakistan dropped to 157. Thus if the world's sole superpower has only the 53 rd freest media in the world, subversion of the Indian media is a distinct possibility.

Political ownership of the media always proves problematic because objectivity can be easily lost. When a political party publishes a newsletter, it makes abundantly clear that party's stand on issues and events. Even in a newspaper, the editorials take stands on issues, although technically, the front page reflects the news of the day. But if a television channel does not openly admit to its political affiliation, it could nevertheless editorialise news bulletin to promote specific political ideology while presenting the news. Take, for example, that while introducing a segment on how American movies were popular in the Arab world, a Fox News anchor said "They hate what we stand for, so why do they love our movies so much?". Instantly the difference between news and opinion is blurred. The danger is in the delivery of content, because unfortunately, people enjoy sensationalism, so that if a media organisation is not inherently responsible or particular about how it portrays events, misinformation and biases take root.

Another reason why political party backed television in particular is worrying for India is because the millions who cannot read rely on the radio and TV for information. And people trust what they see, and there is plenty of room for manipulation. In such a scenario propaganda will turn our vibrant, albeit often messy democracy, into a country of pod-people.

On the other hand, top down censorship is always easy to identify. If the government were to censor certain topics or suppress news, the media would be up in arms. During the Emergency, the Indian Express carried a blank editorial in protest! But, it gets trickier when one is not sure of the mandate that may drive a media house, especially if the accuracy of the news is not questioned and assumed to be true.

Legally, anyone can own a television channel. And if political parties in India are jumping into the fray, whether they admit it or not, media watchdogs and regulators are bound to monitor them. In fact, I&B ministry has a Broadcasting Code to ensure just this, because as Jim Morrison of the Doors said, "Whoever controls the media, controls the mind."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Butterflying to rock 101

In the watering holes of Bangalore, between beers and cigarettes, the Aerosmith concert is being discussed animatedly. The visuals were incredible, one thinks, but nothing can compare to the production that Iron Maiden put up last year. What about the giant floating pig at the Roger Waters concert in Bombay, asks another.

Meet India's new breed of city hopping concertgoers. Most in their twenties, they think nothing of bouncing around the country in search of good music. They'd be the same crowd who did London summer holidays with the parents while in high school and have now graduated to a European adventure with friends this summer. You'd find them anywhere from non descript bars that play only rock in their own cities, to schmoozing at five star hotels with the other Page 3 lites.

So what exactly does a rock concert weekend entail? It's rather simple. Since I'm fresh off the boat, I'll walk you through it. A friend (covering it for Maxim) and I take the afternoon flight. Walking out of the airport, I bump into another friend from NDTV. "The band's arriving now", he says excitedly, all poised with a microphone and quick quips. The band arrives, looking like they just did mushrooms and got eaten by a bear. "Duuude," drawls Steven Tyler, "where are the elephants, where are the cobras?" We smile with glee. It's going to be quite the show.

At night, the Blue Bar at the Taj is buzzing. Not only is the band staying in a special suite at the hotel, but Joe Perry is eating in the restaurant that leads into Bangalore's Friday night hotspot. As air kisses sweep the open air bar, the DJ asks the crowd, "Who can name all five members of the band? Free tickets for the correct answer!" NDTV friend bounces in as I sit with some others marveling at the beating the Delhi heat – "I just went to their suite! It's amazing" he gushes, "We have to go for the after-party there!"

It's Saturday now, and people have been lining up since six to get inside. I haven't picked up my reserved ticket yet and just as I reach the booth, my boyfriends eye's light up at the thought of lounge tickets. There is a special entrance. It's above the mosh pit (think private boxes at the Opera). At the back is a room, complete with dinner and a bar. A bit of hobnobbing – Vijay Mallya, Milind Deora, Ashvin Kumar, a few models scattered here and there. A big screen in the corner, and couches for the ones who don't want to brave the crowds. But the most wonderful thing is that the age group is so diverse. And everyone knows the lyrics!

The concert starts. Steven Tyler is a performer to the hilt – although he looks fairly scary up close. They said no cameras allowed but I can see a wave of camera phones swaying to the music. I try and call a friend in Mussurie, because she just has to hear this! Joe Perry takes the microphone, "India – you know why we love you? It's because you gave us the Kamasutra!" as the crowd roars with laughter. Snippets of conversation everywhere – "Hiiiii.. you came too??"; "I really want them to play Janie's got a gun"; "Where is the after party dude, I heard Bangalore shuts early"; "Who else is here from Delhi?"; "I love this song!!"

The band leaves, but as all good bands do, they come back for one last song. As they start to play "Don't wanna miss a thing", the whole stadium has turned into sentimental sops. And before you know it, it's over. My phone rings. "After party at a friends farm…"

Walking out is another 'event'. "Well hello there, I had no idea you were coming!" More air kisses. It's good to be young. It's good to have the money to spend and the weekend to spare. After all, you only live once!

And there we are, back home, back to work, and already making the next plans. Safe to say, I'm a new convert to the concert going city hopping crowd. "Why not," I tell my best friend persuasively, "it's better than just a weekend away, it's a weekend away with something to do!" As she nods enthusiastically, I think, one more soldier down.

It's a bandwagon worth jumping on.

(I'd actually written this for my paper -- the features -- but I think it wasn't working class enough... [I kid, she wanted it to be more about the music, less about air kissing] so wait for another article)