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Farm laws’ repeal: In India, democracy isn’t dead

Farmers gesture as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament, in Shambhu in the northern state of Punjab, India, September 25, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Friday’s announcement on repealing the new farm laws in India affirms how no government, irrespective of the strength of its mandate, can afford to disregard voices of people emerging from the ground.

Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Wire on November 20, 2021.]

Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday repealing the three new farm laws is proof that democracy is still alive and kicking in India. The laws had resulted in widespread protests from farmers congregating on the borders of the national capital since August 2020. The decision, which comes a few months before the state assembly elections due in the ‘grain bowl’ state of Punjab and the politically significant Uttar Pradesh, is proof that sustained public pressure on policy issues cannot be ignored by any government notwithstanding its might in Parliament.

Commentators on Indian politics have expressed fears that the country’s democratic credentials are slowly eroding ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party formed a majority government and returned with a stronger mandate in 2019. The fear is not misplaced as the government has demonstrated high-handed tactics in its handling  of the farmer protests and other such acts critical of the government, to suppress dissent. The framing of sedition charges against journalists reporting the farmer’s protests on January 26 via social media, on a day when, ironically, the nation was celebrating its founding as a democratic republic was perhaps a particularly low point during the struggle. Hundreds of farmers also lost their lives while braving rough conditions.

Authoritarian present and past

The BJP government passed the three farm laws in September last year bulldozing parliamentary procedure and ignoring Opposition demands for wider consultation. Prior to that, the country witnessed the arrest of students and activists opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – amended in 2019 to allow the state powers to arbitrarily declare citizens as terrorists. The government also suspended the fundamental right to freedom of assembly to citizens in several parts of India in the wake of the anti-CAA protests in 2019. The CAA made religion a basis for granting citizenship in India, striking at the very root of India’s secular credentials.

In September last year, as I was conducting my doctoral fieldwork in India on the right to information movement, social activist Aruna Roy told me that she found the current state of “undeclared emergency” in India far worse than what had happened during the Emergency in 1975 under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. In 1975, Roy had quit her job in the Indian civil services to pursue social activism in rural India and oversaw a grassroots struggle for a right to information law to empower citizens to ask questions of those in government.

Commentators have often drawn parallels between the governments of Mr. Modi and Mrs. Gandhi for its similarly authoritarian tactics. But in 1975, the government had a justifiable legal basis for the widespread suspension of civil rights; today there is none. The 1975 Emergency was a lawful suspension of the law. Between 1975 and 1977, Mrs. Gandhi had suspended fundamental rights, arrested political opponents and critics of the government, muzzled the free press, and plunged democratic India into a deep darkness that shook the intrinsic faith of the average Indian in the benevolent state. Several leaders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the right-wing political party that was the forerunner to the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had come under attack back then. The assault on India’s democratic spirit, thus, is not new.

Crisis as opportunity

But, if there is one thing that my research on India’s right to information movement has made evident, it is that every crisis also presents within itself an opportunity.

As Sunil Khilnani noted in his book ‘Incarnations: India in 50 Lives’: “the enduring effect of her (Gandhi’s) rule was to open the state to a deeper and more accessible democracy”. In 1975, attempts by the Congress government to muzzle dissent resulted in the rise of a strong political opposition. Mrs. Gandhi was accused of electoral malpractices by her political opponent Raj Narain resulting in a legal battle. To verify charges that the Prime Minister had abused the state machinery for the elections, the Allahabad High Court demanded the official ‘Blue Book’ containing details of the Prime Minister’s campaign trail. The government refused to share the Blue book with the court citing state privileges and official secrecy provisions. However, the court refused to accept that argument noting that citizens in free India had a right to know about the activities of their elected representatives. The government relented eventually, resulting in the framing of charges against the Prime Minister for the first time in Indian history, nullifying her election. While this court judgment, later overruled by the Supreme Court, served as the immediate provocation for imposing an Emergency in 1975, the high court order nonetheless heralded the struggle for a right to information law in India.

I recount this nugget of history here to demonstrate how an effort to suppress dissent by the government became the starting point for a citizen’s movement later on. The post-Emergency era in India not only witnessed the cementing of a political opposition against the Congress, which had enjoyed untrammelled power for the first three decades since India became independent, but also saw several people-powered movements take shape outside of the sphere of formal party politics. The civil society organisation – Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan –led by Roy is one such example. Though it took several more years of struggle before the Right to Information Act was finally passed in 2005, it is evident how the Emergency era provided the impetus for the grassroots struggle for the information law on the ground.

While the Constitution of India clearly empowers the state to assume an authoritarian position, it is equally true that the people on the ground are able to creatively exercise their agency to resist the state through popular struggles. This is what India witnessed recently in the form of the farmer’s protests. Soon after the protests had gained momentum, the government of India was pressurised to retract some of its earlier steps, such as the decision to criminalise stubble burning, and modifying the electricity subsidy provisions for farmers. Friday’s announcement with respect to completely repealing the new farm laws only further affirms how no government, irrespective of the strength of its mandate, can afford to remain deaf to the voices of people emerging from the ground.

Often, in mainstream discourse one comes across such declarations that the Constitution is dead or that the idea of a democratic republic, which our founding fathers envisaged, has been murdered by the ruling powers. What such analyses overlook are the countervailing forces that authoritarian aggression generates.

It is worth remembering that the idea of India the Constitution embodies was itself the result of such a protracted struggle waged by the people against the colonial powers.

Hence, the obituaries for India’s democracy can wait.

*

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On the idea of ‘the people’

[First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, October-December, 2020]

am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.

The title of political theorist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s latest book invokes an imagery of the masses as described by Sandburg’s poem of the same title. But the book is not about those people per se, but an exploration rather of the phrase. Summoned by many a political aspirant on the election campaign dais, ‘the people’ is an ambiguous construct after all, whose constituency keeps shifting depending on the expediency of the moment of its invocation.

What Chatterjee does in this book is to trace a history of the idea of “the people”, providing an overview of the rise of populist politics, focussing, largely on the Indian experience. He draws amply upon the works of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau in the process, demonstrating the manner in which the meanings conveyed through the phrase have shifted since the end of the Second World War, and also prescribing ways in which a counterhegemonic strategy could be devised to address the current crisis of liberal democracy. Based on the Ruth Benedict lecture series he delivered at Columbia University in 2018, this book builds upon the academic’s previous oeuvre on nationalism and colonial history that foregrounded the postcolonial experience of southern nations. Chatterjee contends that “various features that are characteristic of democracies in Africa or Asia are now being seen in Europe and the United States because of underlying structural relations that have long tied metropolitan centers to their colonial and postcolonial peripheries” (preface). His central argument is that while in the West, populism emerged as a result of the contraction of the integral state, in India, it has been a survival tactic for political parties expanding along with the reach of the state.

Read the rest of the essay here: https://www.academia.edu/44754168/On_the_idea_of_the_people

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India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

Vidya Venkat, SOAS, University of London

Since India overtook Brazil in September to become the country with the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world (after the US), the response of the government of Narendra Modi has come under even tighter scrutiny.

In late March, Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a special fund to address the emergency situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Called the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund), it has attracted controversy right from the start.

According to its official website, the fund was set up to collect donations from India and abroad to “undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency”. The website says the fund will provide financial assistance and grants to affected populations.

But the prime minister’s office has refused to provide exact details of donations made to the fund or make public decisions about how the donations are being used.

Several information seekers, including me, have tried to use India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, which facilitates access to government files and records, to find out more details about the fund. We have been blocked, with a number of requests for information turned down by Modi’s office on the grounds that the fund is a public charitable trust and not a “public authority” as defined under the RTI act.

Continue reading “India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy”
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Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture

Unfortunately, all policies today are related to corporate powers. What about food security and 50 crore farmers?

MSSWAMINATHAN
M.S. Swaminathan. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 16, 2017 

It is 11 years since agronomist M.S. Swaminathan handed over his recommendations for improving the state of agriculture in India to the former United Progressive Alliance government, at the height of the Vidarbha farmer suicides crisis, but they are still to be implemented. To address the agrarian crisis and farmers’ unrest across the country, he urged the government to take steps to secure farmers’ income. As India marks 50 years of the Green Revolution this year, the architect of the movement tells VIDYA VENKAT sustainability is the greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture. Excerpts:

The greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture 50 years back was achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production. What is the greatest challenge today?

There are two major challenges before Indian agriculture today: ecological and economical. The conservation of our basic agricultural assets such as land, water, and biodiversity is a major challenge. How to make agriculture sustainable is the challenge. Increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm is the need of the hour. In Punjab, and in other Green Revolution States, the water table has gone down and become saline. Further, during the Green Revolution the population was about 400-500 million; now it is 1,300 million and it is predicted to be 1.5 billion by 2030. The growing population pressure has made it pertinent to increase crop yield.

Also, the economics of farming will have to be made profitable to address the current situation. We have to devise ways to lower the cost of production and reduce the risks involved in agriculture such as pests, pathogens, and weeds. Today, the expected return in agriculture is adverse to farmers. That’s why they are unable to repay loans. Addressing the ecological challenge requires more technology while the economics requires more public policy interventions. In my 2006 report, I had recommended a formula for calculating Minimum Support Price, C2+50% (50% more than the weighted average cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices). This would raise the current MSP and has now become the clamour of farmers and the nightmare of policymakers.

The NDA government has said it wants to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. But they haven’t implemented the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission Report that you submitted to the UPA government in 2006.

Yes. All kinds of excuses have been given by governments for not implementing this recommendation like food price inflation. But the question is, do the farmers of this country, who constitute nearly half of the working population, also not need to eat? The government is willing to pay Seventh Pay Commission salaries to insulate government servants from inflation, but they cannot provide a higher income for farmers to improve their lot? If you really look at what is happening now, farm loan waivers are posing a bigger burden on the government exchequer compared to what higher pay for farm produce will incur. But the government is not prepared to give the ₹20,000 crore or so for farmers by way of higher MSP. In 2009, the UPA government gave ₹72,000 crore as farm loan waiver, but no government is prepared to take long-term steps to ensure the economic viability of farming.

Continue reading “Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture”

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Thirty years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Bhopal gas tragedy victims slapping a picture of Warren Anderson. Photo: The Hindu

[First published in The Hindu dated Nov. 2, 2014]

Come December, it will be 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred. The leakage of the deadly methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) factory in Bhopal went down in history as one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. But after all these years, has anything changed in India with regard to adoption of environmental safeguards before promoting industries and related projects? More important, what is the fate of the victims of polluting industries?

Tragedy continues

According to a January 2013 report of the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, the soil and groundwater within 3.5 kilometres from the UCC factory site is contaminated with cancer- and birth defect-causing chemicals. “The contamination of soil and groundwater actually predates the disaster,” says activist Satinath Sarangi, who has fought for the cause of gas leak survivors.

“From 1969 to 1977, Union Carbide used to dump its toxic wastes at 21 spots, most of them unlined pits, inside the 68-acre factory premises. Despite 17 agencies, including government and non-governmental organisations, carrying out studies over the past two decades, a comprehensive plan for remediation of the soil and groundwater has not been prepared,” he says.

On Friday, October 31, when the news of Warren Anderson’s death spread across Bhopal, survivors of the tragedy got together to spit on a photograph of the former UCC CEO, the first accused in the case and a fugitive from justice. Survivors are unhappy with the court proceedings and compensation. “While over 25,000 people have died in the disaster, the government has paid compensation for only 5,295 deaths. The government acknowledged in June 2010 that the compensation it accepted from Union Carbide was indeed inadequate. Following this, both the Central and State governments have filed curative petitions in the Supreme Court seeking additional compensation of $1.2 billion,” Mr. Sarangi says.

Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says three generations of gas leak victims have suffered, with their children being born with disabilities but little was done by the government to help victims and to give medical assistance to their families. Through the Chingari Punarvaas Kendra, run by Ms. Bee and her survivor friends, nearly 750 children are now being treated with the money that came with the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004.

Continue reading “Thirty years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy”
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Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change

AMITAV.G
Amitav Ghosh. Photo: The Hindu

“We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see”

[First published in The Hindu Books page dated July 17, 2016]

It was happening. We knew that at the back of our minds, yet we continued to ignore it, until one fine day it came to claim our lives… Climate change — the upsetting of weather patterns across the world — forms the core concern of Amitav Ghosh’s latest work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It is dealt with a touch of Márquezian magical realism as Ghosh speaks about the inevitability of the very real ecological disaster unfolding in our midst, so familiar yet unfathomably fantastic in its proportions. The book, parts of which were delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, not only raises crucial questions about our lack of intellectual engagement with this natural phenomenon but also calls for a radical dismantling of the Enlightenment-era hubris possessed by mankind, which sees “nature” as something outside of man.

In a freewheeling conversation in New Delhi, where he is a writer-in-Residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ghosh acknowledges that within Western academia, and particularly at the University of Chicago where he delivered the lectures, there is a strong awareness and interest in climate change and the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity has dominated the planet. How human-induced climate change affects our history, thought and consciousness are major questions they are grappling with. But this cannot make up for the conspicuous absence of discussions on climate change in works of literature and art, he points out.

Continue reading “Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change”

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Shadow Power

BOOK REVIEW

emergency chronicles

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jan.-Mar. 2019]

On January 26, 2019, India observed its 70th year as a constitutional republic. The country celebrated the Constitution of India as a document that empowers Indian citizens to chart their own path to progress, in which their rights (‘Fundamental Rights’) are upheld and their development is guaranteed through the state (‘Directive Principles of State Policy’). However, historian Gyan Prakash urges us to revisit that moment in which this document came into being, compelling us to recognise its troubled legacy. While most analyses of India’s 21-month period of Emergency, starting in June 1975, attribute its occurrence to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian and strong-arm tactics as a political leader, in his latest book, Prakash makes a departure from this personality-centred analysis, arguing that Mrs. Gandhi’s “perfidy alone cannot explain the perversion of a system of law and politics” as witnessed during the Emergency, and that “historical forces were at work”. The framers of the Constitution left us with such a strong state that it could deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms at the slightest hint of any threat. And that is what, he argues, exactly happened during the Emergency.

 

State of exception

Drawing upon the idea of a ‘state of exception’ developed by political theorist Carl Schmitt and later, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author explains how the paradoxical “lawful suspension of the law” was written into the Constitution of India adopted in 1950, as its chief architect B.R. Ambedkar felt that the system of constitutional democracy had to prevail over the culture of street protests. Therefore, if and when the state was faced with a threat, it could suspend the law to assume control over a situation. Now that the foreign ruler had left India, and the people were choosing their own government, it was only fair that the state was thus empowered, the framers of the Constitution thought.

Ambedkar’s exhortation that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution after attaining Independence led him to put in place rules that in the hands of an authoritarian government could turn into a nightmare for citizens. In chapter 2, where the author discusses the framing of the Constitution in detail, he notes how once the nationalists were in power in India following the departure of the British, “they felt no qualms about incorporating the arsenal of executive powers granted by the colonial law”. Ambedkar justified copying a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, which retained vast executive powers with the British ruling class at the time of its adoption, saying “there is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing”. The colonial-era Indian penal code of 1860 was also retained, which included section 124A on sedition, used to quell dissent in colonial India.

Continue reading “Shadow Power”

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Gitanjali – A Poet’s Prayer

[I had originally written this essay in 2005 for a class on ‘Indian Writing in English’ as an undergraduate student of English Literature at Madras Christian College. The essay is an attempt at an original interpretation of Tagore’s collection of poems ‘Gitanjali’, which fetched him the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am republishing this from my old blog here as a tribute to Tagore on his 159th birth anniversary.]

GITANJALI

There is a distinctly spiritual flavour to the verses of Gitanjali. Going through them, anyone is capable of getting transported into -what in poetic idiom is often referred to as- ‘poetic heaven’. As Yeats too had expressed, in his introduction to the Gitanjali, the verses depict a poetic world that can only be dreamt of by most of us. There is an other-worldly feel to it. These words can only be uttered by a person who has transcended the physical world to explore what lies beyond it. But isn’t that what every poet wishes to achieve? Gitanjali is labeled as ‘religious’ poetry by critics, but to Tagore, these verses were just poetry and it is these classic poetic qualities of Gitanjali that are dealt with presently.

Even a lay reader with no feel for poetry will be able to recognise, how these verses, though framed in the simplest of vocabulary, manage to articulate thoughts and feelings of the highest order. To comprehend them may not be possible for all. Such is the talent of Tagore and such is his inspiration. In Gitanjali, I see a poet’s gratitude finding expression. Every single utterance of the poet is soaked in this gratitude felt towards that Supreme Being without whose will, a poet would never have been born. The very fact that God has appointed him to accomplish a poet’s task is elevating. And when the recesses of a poet’s mind, impregnated with divine feelings, reach the state of maturity, it is but a moment’s labour for a poem to be born through the channel of language.

To a true poet, every poem comes as a blessing granted after numerous prayers have been offered at the altar of the Supreme Being. Gitanjali is an embodiment of these several prayers that the poet has offered at the feet of the divine giver of inspiration. While praying, we do not always plead for something, sometimes we praise our God and sometimes we just share our sorrows and joys as if talking to a friend. At other times, we simply meditate in order to compose our minds. Prayers are a means to achieve inner harmony. The quality of poetry depends upon the intensity of this prayer. Tagore’s Gitanjali is evidently a prayer, a poet’s prayer, and manifests in itself that harmony which the poet has experienced.

Continue reading “Gitanjali – A Poet’s Prayer”

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A divided bench

0_50255465._SY475_Taking up ten forgotten cases, a writer explains how the judiciary in India has at times been ‘more executive-minded than the executive’

[Book Review first published in The Hindu ]

At a time when faith in the independence of the judiciary in India has diminished, Chintan Chandrachud provides us with a historical perspective on the uneven legacy of the courts in his new book. He elaborates the course of decision-making in ten ‘forgotten cases’ that may have faded from public memory but left an indelible imprint on the course of justice in India, nonetheless. 

Lost opportunities

With the apex court entering its seventieth year in 2020, the book is timely in its critical assessment of the functioning of the courts. Unlike commemorative volumes, this book demonstrates how the court has not always risen to the occasion to safeguard us from the “indiscretions and misadventures of Parliament and the government”.

Continue reading “A divided bench”

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Mortar and pestle

Mortar-and-Pestle

Thank you, Amma,

for buying me a mortar and pestle

when we went shopping one day,

soon after my marriage.

 

Among my vivid childhood memories

are watching you pound

that mixture of rice and skinned black gram,

soaked overnight,

on a large granite mortar

placed on the floor of our house in Calcutta.

 

How you would be at it for hours!

 

I recall

how the sound of the pestle

scraping against the mortar

dissolved into the sound

of the clanky Khaitan ceiling fan

that would never run fast enough

to dry those beads of sweat

running down your forehead.

 

Only, I was too young

to understand back then

that you were grinding grief.

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

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Pottery lesson

pottery

The first lesson in making pottery

Is: be willing to get your hands dirty.

‘Cos when you place that clay mound

At the centre of the spinning-wheel,

Then wet your palms to wrap them around,

The slurry splatters on you.

And at times, with fingers placed gently,

As you drag and pull inwardly,

The mound comes undone,

Collapsing into a lump.

But, if you get past this stage,

And your mound is still in place,

The task of centering can make

The clay go out of shape.

 

Three attempts and I give up.

My instructor says,

“No one’s made their perfect pot

As soon as they set out.”

In the potter’s hut, I find on display

A collection of odd pots:

Some cracked outside,

Some charred inside,

No ode-worthy Keatsian urns.

“I sell the good ones,

And keep the odd ones

In honour of the endeavour.”

 

(This poem is inspired by the memory of attending a pottery making session at DakshinaChitra museum in Chennai many years ago.)

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

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सूखी पाती

dryleaf

कभी सूखी पाती से पूछना उस ऊंची डाली का छोह।
बिछड़ कर पीले होने पर वो हरियाली का मोह।

तन सूखा है मन सूखा है पर जीवित उसकी आशा है।
पड़ी हुई है गुमसुम सी पर याद अभी तक ताज़ा है।

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

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Another freedom struggle

812ikVREopL

[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

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Reclaiming the Republic

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

republicmain
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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The farmer’s ‘mann ki baat’

farmer oped
The father of a farmer in Haryana, Bijender Mor, who committed suicide, holds up the picture of the son with his wife. Picture credit: Vidya Venkat (The Hindu)

[First published in The Hindu dated May 13, 2015]

Everybody has an opinion on farmers these days. Be it politicians, policymakers, editors or economists. In fact, ever since the Parliament reconvened for the Budget session on April 20, the deteriorating condition of farmers has clearly dominated discussions. But even as the issue of agrarian crisis, farmer suicides (especially after >Gajendra Singh’s suicide in a New Delhi rally) and the controversial land Bill rocked Parliament, one question nobody asked was: what did the farmer have to say?

As the >Budget session was on, during a visit to Haryana this correspondent noticed how farmers had a strong sense of pride; the shame and guilt attached to the act of taking one’s own life meant they would rather die in the privacy of their fields. One such case was that of Bijender Mor, a Jat farmer, all of 27 years, from Baroda village in Sonepat district. Unlike Gajendra Singh, he consumed pesticide in his field and left no suicide note behind. Mounds of wheat piled up in the corner by the wall greeted my eyes when I entered his house. “It is of no use to anyone. This year’s harvest is of such low quality, that we cannot even use the grains to feed ourselves, forget selling it in the mandi,” his mother said. On March 9, Bijender went to check whether his 20-acre wheat field had not been destroyed by the rains, which arrived unexpectedly. He went late in the afternoon and never returned. And this is not the only instance of farmers dying across the country, either by committing suicide or from heart attacks following the shock of rabi crop loss.

Continue reading “The farmer’s ‘mann ki baat’”

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The ‘good’ elephant and the ‘bad’ elephant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Picture credit: Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Hindu thREAD on Jan. 22, 2016]

Here’s the tragic part about being born as an elephant. Sure, you may get to eat a whole lot of food and grow into a 3,000-kilo giant, but if your fate is to be ordered about by a puny human, how are you supposed to feel about that? Happy?

Taking a joyride atop an elephant (that costs a hundred rupees per head) at Dubare Elephant Camp in Coorg, I observe the scrawny animal course the walkway as its mahout periodically pokes it with a sharp metal rod. Halfway through the ride, the mahout rewards it with a roll of dried grass for its obedience. After we get off the elephant’s back, my mother buys a dozen bananas and gives it to the mahout in the hope that it would land up in the creature’s belly. Whether it truly does, we never know.

A short drive away from the Dubare elephant camp lives Karnataka’s state-appointed honorary wildlife warden Nirad Muthanna. Muthanna is strictly against the taming of wild elephants in such camps. “Their place is in the jungle, not in these circus grounds,” he says. Situated in the midst of coffee plantations, Muthanna’s house overlooks the Cauvery river, beyond which stretches the Dubare Forest where sightings of wild elephants and tigers are fairly common.

Sitting by the riverside, we discussed the dilemmas foisted on these animals by us humans. He recounts an anecdote from 2014 to make me understand why peaceful animals like elephants have learnt to be suspicious of — or even hate — human beings over the years.

Continue reading “The ‘good’ elephant and the ‘bad’ elephant”
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India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election

conversation image
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.

Continue reading “India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election”

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Fall

Picture credit: Sharath Kuchi/Flickr

The sky remains silent:
A witness to the winds growing wild.
Rain beats the suspended particles of dust to ground.
Leaves on tree tops get drenched.
Life seems to come back
As if with a sudden throb of the heart.
And two broken twigs, each in their own world,
Lie miles apart.

**

The end of a leaflet briefly touches
As it topples from the top of a tree,
And I take a look at the sovereign duchess
Who had once been so prime and so green.
There is she fallen, now yellow and rotten,
Trodden by careless feet.
There will she perish with but longing alive
As the season of summer retreats…

**

Branches of trees stand out bare
With only a leaf or two that stare.
The beat of my lone heart echoes within,
Stirring the void of the sullen self.
Moments and memories frozen like mist,
Hang above me; heavy is the air.
Summer is past, now winter’s to come
Nothing remains but for despair…

**

Look at the sky now.
Painted with shades of grey,
Even this inanimate sky mourns
The departure of innate beauty
From human hearts.
Save these precious teardrops
From heaven and drench
Your parched souls…

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

Published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

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Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist

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

kholoud_mag3

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…”

 Continue reading “Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist”

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Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy

[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.

Continue reading “Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy”

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A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015

[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.

Continue reading “A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015”

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Trapped lives

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Picture sourced from flickr.com for representational purposes only.

(This is an account of a meeting I had back in 2009 with women trafficked from Bangladesh)

Bina* is not sure if she should be happy about the birth of her son. She sits staring at the 15-days-old child wriggling in her arms, leaning against a wall in a dimly lit room of the Government Vigilance Home in Mylapore, Chennai where she has been kept for the last eight months.

The woman, trafficked from a poverty stricken village in Bangladesh, was caught in a raid conducted by the Anti-vice squad of the police in a lodge in suburban Chennai. She says she had been brought to India by a broker in her village who promised to get her a job as a maid.

There are several others like her at this Home, who crossed the porous border between India and Bangladesh, mostly unwittingly, in the hope of finding a job that would help them survive and landed up instead in brothels and shady lodges in Indian metros.

Sheela*, the mother of two children, says an agent had convinced her family to send her to Dhaka to work as a maid. But this woman was first taken to Kolkata, then to Bangalore and finally to Chennai, where this broker, on whom she was completely dependent for everything, including food, would make her attend as many as 20 clients in a day.

Continue reading “Trapped lives”

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Between Gandhi and Hitler

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Social activist Anna Hazare observing a fast at Jantar Mantar in 2011 in Delhi as a mark of protest against corruption

The dust raised by the “Indian spring” is yet to settle and Mukul Sharma’s book ‘Green and Saffron’, recently published by Permanent Black, has arrived to raise another storm. An entire chapter in this book has been devoted to a careful exposition of the politics behind the Gandhian leading India’s much-watched anti-corruption movement – Anna Hazare. Though the book itself is a larger thesis exploring the linkages between environmental politics and Hindu nationalism in India, its unique selling point has been an account of the environmental movement in Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, from where Hazare started his anti-corruption crusade.

The ‘Bharat mata’ (Mother India) symbol in front of which Hazare famously sat during his April 2011 fast-unto-death demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill to fight corruption in India, had already stirred doubts regarding the political affiliations of the movement. The evidence of support from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres further clouded the secular credentials of the movement. Though Sharma’s book does not provide any obvious evidence of an open affiliation between the Hazare camp and right-wing political parties, it shows how a movement rooted in an authoritarian, traditional, Hindu ethos comes to occupy a common epistemological space with the Hindutva ideology, thus helping to reinforce it.

If Gandhi was infamous for his sexual experiments, Anna will be remembered for his chillingly disciplinarian tactics.

Continue reading “Between Gandhi and Hitler”

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The birdwatcher

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Bar-headed geese. Picture credit: Flickr

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies. Dropping their wings, they landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Continue reading “The birdwatcher”

Unicorn and the stars

Artwork by my nephew Aniruddha (7)

What is the distance between the earth and the stars?”

My five-year-old nephew asks, wide-eyed.

The rocking horse in his bedtime story book

Summons a unicorn and goes wherever it wishes.

I want to ride on that horse and get to the stars.

I want to ask amma why she went away so far…

[When my sister passed away in February, I told my nephews that she is a star now.]

खाली घर

बचपन में, घर के पास जो खाली घर था,
वहाँ मैं और मेरी दीदी, ऊंची आवाज़ में,
अपने नाम को पुकार कर उसकी गूँज सुना करते थे।
आज सालों बाद खाली घर में अपने नाम के बजाय
किसी दूसरे के नाम को गूँजता सुन कर
ये ख्याल आया : बचपन और जवानी में यही फर्क़ है
कि उम्र के साथ केवल यादें रह जाती हैं…

© Vidya Venkat

तंगदिल

वो कोई तंगदिल ही होगा,
जिसने प्यार के बदले प्यार ना दिया।
अब हम गिला करें भी तो किस से,
जब मुझे ठुकराने के चक्कर में
वो खुद बर्बाद हुआ…

© Vidya Venkat