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.

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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.

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Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?

Interview with Louis Pouzin, a pioneer of the Internet and recipient of the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, the highest civilian decoration of the French government
French computer scientist Louis Pouzin. Photo: Wikimedia

[First published in The Hindu dated September 2014]

Louis Pouzin is recognised for his contributions to the protocols that make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet. Most of his career has been devoted to the design and implementation of computer systems, most notably the CYCLADES computer network and its datagram-based packet-switching network, a model later adopted by the Internet as Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol (IP). Apart from the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, Mr. Pouzin, 83, was the lone Frenchman among American awardees of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, given to the inventors of Internet technology in its inaugural year, 2013.

Ahead of the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) from September 2-5 in Istanbul, Mr. Pouzin shared his concerns regarding the monopoly enjoyed by the U.S. government and American corporations over the Internet and the need for democratising what is essentially a global commons. Excerpts from an interview, over Skype, with Vidya Venkat.

What are the key concerns you would be discussing at the IGF?

As of today, the Internet is controlled predominantly by the U.S. Their technological and military concerns heavily influence Internet governance policy. Unfortunately, the Brazil Netmundial convened in April, 2014, with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), following objections raised by [Brazilian] President Dilma Rousseff to the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on her government, only handed us a non-binding agreement on surveillance and privacy-related concerns. So the demand for an Internet bill of rights is growing loud. This will have to lay out what Internet can and cannot do. Key government actors must sign the agreement making it binding on them. The main issue pertaining to technological dominance and thereby control of the network itself has to be challenged and a bill of rights must aim to address these concerns.

What is the way forward if the U.S. dominance has to be challenged?

Today, China and Russia are capable of challenging U.S. dominance. Despite being a strong commercial power, China has not deployed Internet technology across the world. The Chinese have good infrastructure but they use U.S. Domain Naming System, which is a basic component of the functioning of the Internet. One good thing is because they use the Chinese language for domain registration, it limits access to outsiders in some way.

Continue reading “Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?”

What a Himalayan trek taught me about perseverance

The Bhagirathi emerging from the Himalayas. As seen at Gangotri National Park. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[First published in The Hindu, MetroPlus dated Aug 26, 2016.]

My sole climbing feat before I set out on a high-altitude trek of 14,000 feet in the Himalayas was climbing a 50-feet-tall water tank in Puducherry. And that too nine years ago. I often recollected, with an odd mix of amusement and shame, how my knees got wobblier as I ascended the rusty rungs of the tank’s metal ladder, thanks to bouts of intense acrophobia… That is why, when folks at home greeted my brave decision to scale the Himalayas with stares of disbelief, it did not seem out of place.

And then there was the gruelling fitness regimen to boot…

An online group for aspiring trekkers recommended an hour’s exercise every day, which included both cardio and strength training, for a minimum of three months. “You think you can do that?” my mother asked, glancing furtively at the muffin top that I have been trying to get rid of for over two years now…

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