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[Essay published on the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day in Economic & Political weekly]

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Picture credit: EPW

On the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day, it is worth considering how the very foundational idea of a republic, in which supreme power is held by the people, is at risk despite free and fair elections. To arrive at that argument, this article delineates the historical trajectory of India’s Right to Information movement as arising out of the need to address the unfinished agenda of democratisation since independence. It then discusses how the movement has strengthened oppositional politics by expanding the terrain for political participation and has also empowered individual citizens in their struggles to claim their entitlements from the state. By resisting scrutiny under the Right to Information Act and attempting to dilute the law’s empowering potential, political representatives and bureaucrats are subverting democracy itself. 

Read the full essay here:

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Picture credit: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

[Republished in leading Indian news sites: Scroll and Quartz]

Back in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended to power in India, it did so on the promise of running an open government accountable to its citizens that would eliminate corruption. But nearly five years later, and with an election due between March and May, the track record of Narendra Modi’s government on upholding citizens’ right to information has raised doubts about its commitment to accountability.

The BJP’s predecessors, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Indian National Congress party, were instrumental in passing the Right to Information (RTI) law in 2005. Its aim was to undo the culture of bureaucratic secrecy encouraged by the colonial Official Secrets Act of 1923.

For the first time, the law compelled government departments to provide official information in the form of records or documents to citizens when specific requests were made. This helped to expose corruption in government as state authorities could no longer hide information on the way they made decisions or spent taxpayer’s money. The exposés contributed to the UPA government’s political downfall at the 2014 elections.

Yet, ever since the RTI law was passed, successive governments have sought to suppress it one way or another. In recent years, public authorities affiliated to the central government have denied information to citizens under the law on matters of vital public interest.

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(First published in The Hindu Sunday magazine dated Nov. 18, 2018)

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Her hazel eyes have witnessed utmost suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed remains stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian people started an uprising against the country’s dictatorial regime led by Bashar al-Assad. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down as the regime saw the children studying there as a threat.

“The boys from our school used to hold demonstrations against the government. They wrote graffiti on the school walls demanding the fall of the government. After shutting the school down, many of the children were arrested and tortured by the Army,” she recounts calmly. Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out as a result. But what happened at the same time in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, near the Jordan border, jolted her completely. “Twelve children, all under the age of 13, were tortured and two of them killed by the regime for writing wall graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she continues, anger welling in her eyes.

This was the precise moment when public rage exploded in Syria. In the city of Hama, for instance, half a million citizens demonstrated on the streets demanding change. In May, 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up by the Army for voicing opinions in favour of the Arab Spring in college.

“They arrested my brother-in-law as well for holding opinions against the regime. As of today, there is no way for us to confirm whether they are dead or alive…”

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[First published in The Hindu dated Jan. 15, 2015]

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The Charlie Hebdo Jan 14, 2015 cartoon. Picture credit: Wikipedia

Back with a Prophet Mohammed cartoon on its cover, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has resolved to take on Islamic fundamentalists, after a terror attack on its office premises in Paris last Wednesday claimed the lives of 10 staff members including that of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier. In an interview to Vidya Venkat, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, author of ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror’, explained the difference between critiquing a religion and ridiculing it, and why it is one thing to oppose censorship and quite another thing to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Edited excerpts:

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, there is widespread condemnation of Islam itself. George Packer, in his New Yorker article, for example, had held Islam and its tenets and those believing in them responsible for the attacks. Are we misdiagnosing the problem here?

In my view, George Packer’s is a knee-jerk response. It fails to recognise what is new about the Charlie Hebdo killings. The information we have so far suggests that it was a paramilitary operation. Though carried out by a local unit, decentralised in both planning and execution, the attack was strategised and sanctioned from headquarters. The killings need to be seen as a strategic and organised military attack. As such, it is different from the kind of grassroots demonstrations we have seen in the past, such as in responses to the Danish Cartoons.

Proponents of the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour and satire see the need to share and endorse the culture of “free speech”. Your view?

I support the right to free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent.

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[A shorter version of this appeared in The Hindu’s op-ed pages on Jan 4, 2016]

 

The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come

 

 

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Bullet holes in the wall at Bataclan, Paris terror attack site

New Year is the time for making resolutions, for turning back on the year that went by and reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the past so we do not repeat our mistakes. Last year, Paris witnessed one of the worst terror attacks, besides those in Beirut and Baghdad. It also saw the climate change agreement being finalised. Could the latter be an answer to the former?

The thought had originally struck me while I was standing outside the Bataclan café in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, staring at the bullet holes on the walls of the building at the site of the November 13 terror attack by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. It was the last week of November, and I was in the city to attend the UN climate summit – the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – where heads of states of over a hundred UN member countries were working out a deal to save the earth from the climate catastrophe.

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[First published in The Hindu dated 11/11/17]

Fifty years after India’s first Naxalite uprising, the Maoist movement today has nearly disintegrated, with several movement leaders now dead, arrested or having surrendered. Ajay Gudavarthy’s edited collection of essays raises the vital question at this juncture: Is violence necessary for revolutionary change in a democracy? While not being completely dismissive of the ideology or the exigencies driving the movement on the ground, the book presents perspectives both from within and outside the Maoist movement illuminating its raison d’être as also limitations.

An Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gudavarthy sets the tone for the book in the introductory essay outlining arguments in favour of, as also critical of Maoist violence. While acknowledging that violence is seen as a less viable strategy in allowing for contesting ideas in a democracy, he argues that Maoists are in armed conflict with the Indian state because while democracy initiates a complex process of inclusion and exclusion, there continues to be a minority that is necessarily structurally produced, which the promise of democracy fails to lure. For Maoists, revolutionary violence is a necessary mode of political mobilisation to counter the structural violence of the current political system.

While democratic sensibilities urge us to disapprove of such violence, Gudavarthy reminds us of the other forms of violence endemic to Indian democracy such as caste and religion-based violence. Raising this in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the author argues that citizens in Gujarat elected the same government that oversaw the riots thrice. Yet, why is Maoist violence represented as more endemic while other forms of violence are seen as episodic, he asks? Various essays in this volume revisit this logic of revolutionary violence.

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Another freedom struggle

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[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jul.-Sep. 2018]

It is ordinary people who often make history yet historians typically focus only on the victors and the leaders associated with popular social mobilisations. That is the reason why Magsaysay Award-winning social activist Aruna Roy decided to narrate the story of how ordinary people from the fringes of society – daily wage labourers, marginal farmers and small shopkeepers – in rural Rajasthan helped shape the demand for and saw through the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation in India. During the Chennai leg of the promotional tour of The RTI Story: Power to the People the former bureaucrat-turned-activist told me that her main purpose in putting this book together was to give credit where it was due: to celebrate the common men and women who had participated in the nearly two decade-long struggle to get the RTI law passed. It also explains why Roy has not claimed solo authorship for the book but jointly with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Collective, the civil society organisation she co-founded with activist Nikhil Dey and trade unionist Shankar Singh in 1987. As the narrators state in their Introduction, “The RTI narrative is a celebration of ordinary people and their immense contribution to strengthening the pillars of democratic justice in modern India.”

Read the full review HERE

Rights to the forest

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[First published in The Hindu dated 15/4/17]

Rights to the forest have been among the most contested subjects since colonial times. In Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico, Prakash Kashwan uses a comparative political analysis approach to show how India, Tanzania and Mexico, with their varied forestland regimes, have negotiated the conflicts arising out of claims to forests for subsistence, industry and cultivation. In the process, the political scientist based at University of Connecticut in the U.S. shows that the state cannot always be the best arbiter of forest rights.

Kashwan’s thesis was supervised by political economist Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her scholarly work investigating how communities succeeded or failed at managing common pool (finite) resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters won her the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Ostrom’s work marked a departure from the fundamental Lockean economic principle that private ownership of property incentivised economic actors to ultimately act in the general interest of society. She demonstrated rather how community ownership of common pool resources resulted in better management of these resources.

Kashwan deploys this idea in the context of forestland management. Using the case of Mexico, he shows how the country’s community-oriented approach to forest governance, fares better when it comes to addressing questions of environmental conservation and social justice (of forest dwellers), compared to India or Tanzania, where the state reigns supreme.

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Picture used for representative purposes. Source: pri.org 

What conspiracies are you hatching inside that big, horned head of yours?
I can see that you have been contemplating some serious issue for quite some time.
Is it the scarcity of fodder that has been bothering you or your master’s tyranny?
The having to feed on wall posters sometimes, eating out of dustbins, and getting whipped? 

I can understand your problem dear, but tell me, is this any solution?
You lift your wiggly tail upwards just when I’m about to cross you by
And splash hot, thick, yellow urine right in the middle of the road.
Now, what point is it that you are trying to get across, eh? 

I want you to use a little bit of common sense now. Is your mooing and dunging
And peeing in public gonna do you any good? You only end up messing up the streets
Our Government lays after much deliberation. You may claim your liberty to raise
Your tail as a mark of protest for all the pains that you undergo in everyday life,

But, I will not tolerate your nonsense dear. I can’t take your shit and crap!
Oh! How you remind me of these politicians who mess up civilian life for their own cause!

© Vidya Venkat (2005)

[Reproduced here from an old blog]