Is India’s democracy under threat?

On May 4, I took part in an Oxford-style debate on the topic of whether India’s democracy is under threat. The debate was organised by the non-profit organisation Asia Society in Switzerland and the other panelists included Christophe Jaffrelot, Debasish Roy Chowdhury, and Tripurdaman Singh. You can view the full debate here:


Missing the bull’s eye

A Jallikattu event underway at Alaganallur,, Madurai. PHOTO: Flickr (Vinoth Chandar)

[First published in The Hindu THread dated January 14, 2017]

You aren’t a true ‘Tamizhan’ if you haven’t tamed a raging bull during the annual harvest festival of Pongal in January. Or so it would seem if one were to follow the recent arguments being made in favour of conducting the bull taming sport of Jallikattu that the Supreme Court of India banned in 2014 on charges of animal cruelty. While for the city dweller the sight of men chasing bulls may appear savage and crude, proponents of the sport from the agrarian community invoke tradition and culture to justify its continuation. Unfortunately both sides, while positioning themselves as acting in favour of the animal, are simply speaking past one another, ensuring the debate goes on endlessly.

It is well established that Jallikattu is an ancient sport symbolising man’s conquest of wild animals for the purpose of domestication. Archaeologists have discovered ancient-era inscriptions showing men chasing bulls for sport some 5,000 years ago. One such inscription has been preserved in the Government Museum in Tamil Nadu and another ancient seal depicting the same has been displayed at the National Museum in Delhi. A cave painting, estimated to be about 2,500 years old, discovered near Madurai depicted a lone man trying to control a bull,  according to a 2013 report in The Hindu .

K.T. Gandhirajan, archaeologist and researcher, told this writer that the present form of Jallikattu has a history dating back approximately 10,000 years ago, when humans first began to domesticate cattle.

Continue reading “Missing the bull’s eye”

Jerusalem, Ayodhya and the God question

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (mosque) in Jerusalem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[I wrote this long read travel essay in 2018 after a vacation trip to Israel-Palestine.]

The streets of Jerusalem lay empty the day we landed there. It was 10 am. The winter sun peeked from in between the puffy, white clouds, but not a single person could be seen walking down the streets. The shutters of shops were shut.

“Is a curfew on here?” a co-passenger wondered aloud, as we stepped out of the sherut, a local shared taxi, hired from Tel Aviv.

“No. It’s Shabbat today. A weekly holiday for Israelis,” the driver replied.

I soon began explaining to my co-passenger how God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he decided to take rest, which is observed as Shabbat, the day of prayer and rest, by believers. The driver nodded in agreement.

“God made the world, alright, so he needed a break. But what did the people do to deserve this break?” my partner chuckled.

The driver nodded with a sheepish grin, “All we do is eat and sleep!”


With only places of worship open that Saturday morning, we decided to start our visit with the Sandemans Holy City Tour, offering an introduction to the three major faiths — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity —  that emerged here. The tour group assembled at the Jaffa Gate, part of an uneven wall encircling the Old City. Made of Palestinian limestone, also known as the ‘Jerusalem stone’, the wall shone like marble under the noon sun. It was the last week of December, just before Christmas, and as expected, a good number of tourists from all over the world had descended upon the city for a vacation.

We noticed how the number of armed police stationed at the Gate was disproportionately high, for, except the tour group, comprising mostly outsiders like us, there were few people around. Only a lone street vendor stood peddling baguettes and steamed corn in one corner.

“The Old City is where a large number of ‘P’s live, I think,” my partner whispered into my ear, glancing warily at the 50-odd security men wielding large sniper rifles. We had decided to use only code words for sensitive subjects (‘P’ for Palestine, for instance).

As part of the tour, we walked ‘from one epoch to another’, as Mahmoud Darwish describes the experience in the poem In Jerusalem. The tour guide, a young Jewish woman in her late 20s, started by narrating the story of how Israel came to be.

Continue reading “Jerusalem, Ayodhya and the God question”

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”

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



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”


बस इतनी सी है ख्वाहिश
कि थोड़ा सा जहान मिल जाए।
थोड़ी सी ज़मीन, और थोड़ा सा आसमान मिल जाए।

बस जाएंगे किसी कोने में कहीं,
बस थोड़ा सा आफताब मिल जाए।
थोड़ी सी ज़मीन, और थोड़ा सा आसमान मिल जाए।

थक गयी है रूह दुनिया की दीवारों से भिड़ते भिड़ते।
और कितने दिन गुजरेंगे यूहीं जमाने  से लड़ते लड़ते?
ठहर जाएंगे अब कहीं कि थोड़ा सा आराम मिल जाए।
बस थोड़ी सी ज़मीन, और थोड़ा सा आसमान मिल जाए।

© Vidya Venkat (2023)

Nilavo – a song

Wrote and composed a Tamil song recently. I’m sharing the lyrics here.

பாடாத பாட்டை பாடும், கேட்காத வார்த்தை கூறும், நிலவோ?
காணாத காட்சி காட்டும்,
ஓயாத ஆசை தூண்டும் நிலவோ?

பகல் இரவு பல வண்ணங்கள்,
வரைத்திடும் இந்த வானத்தை,
நிலவே நீ பூசிக்கொள்ள வா.
நிழலோடு வசிக்கும் உன்னை, ஒளியோடு சேர என்ன தயக்கம்?

இரவு இருட்டு அலைபாயும் இங்கே.
கனவுகள் குளிர் காயும் இங்கே.
வானத்தை ஒளிர்த்திட வா.

நொடி, ஆண்டுகள் ஆகும்முன்னே.
படி, பாதைகள் ஆகும்முன்னே.
என்னோடு சேர்ந்து செல்ல வா.

மின்மினிகளின் கூட்டம் உன் கண்ணில் நான் பார்த்துக்கொண்டேன்
அந்த கண்களை தானே நான்  வியக்கிறேன்

பகல் இரவு பல வண்ணங்கள்,
வரைத்திடும் இந்த வானத்தை,
நிலவே நீ பூசிக்கொள்ள வா.
நிழலோடு வசிக்கும் உன்னை, ஒளியோடு சேர என்ன தயக்கம்?

நீயும் நானும் சேர்ந்து வாழ்ந்த அந்த நேரம்
வானில் மேகம் போல ஊர்வலம் போகும்

கண் விழித்து நானும் அதை தானே தினம் பார்க்கின்றேன்,
கையில் வந்திடுமா தொலைந்த நேரம்?

தினம் தினம் எதிர் பார்க்கின்றேன்,
கேட்பேனா உன் குரலை?
கண்ணா, என்னை மீண்டும் வெல்ல வா.
நிழலோடு வசிக்கும் என்னை ஒளியோடு சேர்க்க நீயே வருவாயா?

© Vidya Venkat (2022)

Incorporating People’s Will in Governance

PM Modi’s convoy. PHOTO: IANS

[First published in Seminar journal in the ‘India at 75’ special issue in Aug. 2022]

ON a December evening in 2021, as I was leaving the premises of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Teen Murti Marg, New Delhi, the guard stopped me at the gate saying that the prime minister’s motorcade was about to pass. The roads had to be cleared as part of a security protocol. The Indian prime minister was journeying back to his residence, a few blocks from the library, in his shiny new Mercedes Maybach 650, along with police convoys and security personnel, as we waited inside the gates in silence.

I had spent most of December conducting archival research at the library for my doctoral thesis. When I boarded the Uber taxi to head home that evening, the driver apologized for his delay as he was held up on the other side of the road. The cabbie complained about not being able to relieve himself behind a bush as a policeman had caught him, asking him to get back into the car quickly because the PM was about to pass by any moment!

During the rest of the trip, we chatted about how the common man often felt insignificant before the ruling powers who displayed their power and pelf unabashedly. At that point, I asked my driver if he knew anything about the right to information movement – the topic of my research – and how the Right to Information (RTI) Act was meant to empower common citizens to hold the ruling class to account. He knew very little about the law, or the history of the struggle behind it, but asked a question that has remained with me ever since: ‘Did it make any difference at all?’

In this essay, I approach that question by elaborating on the formative phase of the right to information movement, when a disclosure policy was prepared in India with civil society organizations playing an influential role in the process. I use the files and records of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan1 held in the NMML archives to narrate how a people-centred vision of governance was created and sustained within the movement, which eventually found its way into the political mainstream. In keeping with the overall theme of the symposium, I unpack the idea of ‘the people’ here by visibilizing a specific constituency of the Indian people and demonstrating how the actors concerned mobilized the idea of a rights-bearing citizen to incorporate the will of the people into the framework of the RTI Act.

Read and download the full essay here. https://www.academia.edu/83981416/Incorporating_Peoples_Will_in_Governance

ये रात बीत जाने दो

मिट गया हो जब आँखों से काजल,
अंधकार हो आसमान,
आसूओं से जब भरें हो बादल,
छिप गया हो चन्द्रमा,

रात को जब चिंता सताये,
हो ह्रदय में वेदना,
पूर्ण हो पाए ना निद्रा,
हो परेशान जब जहान,

उस समय में याद कर तू
सूर्य धुंधला पश्चिमा;
बीत जायेगी ये संध्या,
सूर्योदय है प्रभात।

Ⓒ Vidya Venkat (2022)


नेता है जैसे कोई नयी तरकारी
आज ताज़ी तो कल बासी
है ये चमचा सरकारी
जो पटाता है भाषण देकर दुनिया सारी
ये है वोट मँगा भिखारी

इसने बड़ी बड़ी मुश्किलें खड़ी की
जैसे बाबरी,
अनपढ़ भी बन जाते नेता
जैसे राबरी…

सर पर टोपी और गले में माला
पहनकर करते हैं ये गड़बड़ घोटाला
अरे लोगों इनकी बहकावी बातों में न आना
अपना वोट सोच समझकर डालना

वर्ना इस देश की हो जाएगी बर्बादी
ख़ाक में मिल जाएगी पछत्तर वर्ष की आज़ादी।

Ⓒ Vidya Venkat (1998)

[I originally wrote this poem at the age of 13 ahead of the general elections that year in 1998. I’ve tweaked it slightly to make it relevant for present times.]