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


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)


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]


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




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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Aman ki Asha


I’m perturbed after reading the news about the war-like situation brewing between India-Pak and the cheering of it in some quarters. Wrote this poem:




*अमन की आशा*

जंग का ऐलान करके
हैं खड़े सीना तान के
छप्पन इंच चौड़ा हुआ है 
वीरों के रक्तदान से 

वतन के वासियों
ना जंग से यूं प्यार कर
दे जवानों की बलि यूं
इस मिट्टी को तू लाल कर

याद करना उस छवि को
जिनमें विधवाएं कईं
आँसुएँ पोछ रही जो
वीरों की माताएं कईं

जंग का करके जश्न यूं
वतन के वासियों
ना अमन को कर ख़त्म यूं
वतन के वासियों

© Vidya Venkat (2019)



आसमान अमृत कलश करके बूँदों की बौछार
प्रेम रस में डुबो देता हैं धरती का आकार।
गर्जना से गूंज उठी, जब होती बादलों की टकरार,
रोमांचित धरती अपनी खुशबू फैलाती दिशाएं चार ।

ख़त्म हो चला हैं अब खुशियों का वह त्यौहार।
सूख रहा धरती का सीना, पड़ गए उनमें दरार।
अब तो बादल भंवरो के भांति मंडराते आते जाते हैं ,
और धरती, तुम फिर कब आओगे, केवल पूछे जाती हैं …

© Vidya Venkat (2005)


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

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

© Vidya Venkat (2006)



हलाक़ में अटकी रहे वो अल्फाज़ हो तुम,
ज़िन्दगी भर भुला ना सकें वो ख्वाब हो तुम।

उम्रें गुज़र जाएंगी शायद मुलाक़ात की उम्मीद में,
रब से जो मांगी जाए वो दरख्वास्त हो तुम।

हलाक़ में अटकी रहे वो अल्फाज़ हो तुम।

ऊंची से ऊंची दीवारें पार की हमनें
फिर भी तुझ तक ना पहुँच पाए, क्या राज़ हो तुम ?

चहचहाती भीड़ में खामोशियाँ हूँ ढूढ़ता
शोर में जो सुन ना पाएँ शायद वो आवाज़ हो तुम।

हलाक़ में अटकी रहे वो अल्फाज़ हो तुम।

© Vidya Venkat (2019)


[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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