Our Education System: From Mean Girl to Something More

Life is stranger than fiction, which is why a fluffy teen comedy about American high school
students became a cultural milestone, spreading its influence down to fashion, cooking, music, philanthropy, and politics. When Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei compared Israel to a malignant growth, the Twitter handle of the Israeli Embassy responded with a Mean Girls GIF saying, “Why are you so obsessed with me?”

Mean Girls was a watershed moment in depicting high school cliques. The film was akin to watching reality television about your day-to-day school life. Of course, American high schools have a different social fabric from Indian institutions. However, I believe that in any school, such groups remain; the popular kids, the bullied kids whose vulnerability is the foundation of the former’s popularity, the ignored misfits, and the controversial ones who primarily functioned as school gossip. Any school you go to, you will find them. Any school you go to has the same fight for being in the best circle.

Without an iota of doubt, I was a prejudiced popular kid. In an English-medium school in West Bengal, you are a popular kid if you exhibit some or all of the following “qualities”: 

  1. Possessed excellent academic records.
  2. Demonstrated a skill that teachers can cash upon.
  3. Participated in inter-school competitions and returned with certificates.
  4. Looked down upon “weak” students.
  5. Had equally illusioned “friends” who thought this was power.

I wish I didn’t have to admit it, but this was me in school. Illusioned and enjoying a brittle power that now seems downright silly. However, as I was pushed into the real world, I began to see how myopic Indian schools can be and the long-lasting impact of their short-sightedness on students. I was fortunate to have broken through that mould. It took precisely one semester in Miranda House to show me how blind I had been and the real world that lies behind a shining mark sheet. As I spent more time in that world, I realised how unfair we are to those who cannot seize power in school. Because that is what school is, right? A long-drawn battle where teachers and a group of star students run behind the newspaper front page showcasing board toppers while the “rest” gasp for identity and attention.

An optimist would like to believe that with India’s exciting New Education Policy (2020) and the powerful global conversation on mental health, mainstream educational institutions are waking up to the non-negotiable importance of fostering talent rather than mindlessly pushing for higher grades. However, as a realist and the elder sibling of a Class 11 student, the truth is far from progressive. While schools are still armed with butterfly nets that restrain independent thinking, a more dangerous problem threatens quality education. That problem is the absence of empathy. I do not wish to paint a grim picture but only express the emotional pressures that terrorize children who have a comparatively more challenging time making it to the top 10 or 15 students in a class of 60. If you are reading this as an adult, ask yourself. How significant are such achievements? How important was 98 out of 100 in chemistry as you attempted to file tax returns? If, as adults, we can see through these fragile ideals, why do we force them on students?

I have a brilliant 16-year-old sister. She is a fantastic cook, a wizard with kids of all ages, and a compassionate human with exceptional emotional intelligence. On the contrary, I am an under-confident and mediocre 24-year-old whose finest skill was rote learning. Trust me; I know very little beyond that. Unfortunately, rote learning is the one thing my sister could not master. Thus began my family’s fight with the system. A battle with outdated curriculum, poor learning practices, a lack of counselling facilities, and the rampant encouragement of an environment where test scores are directly proportional to the resources and care received from the teaching staff.

In this journey, my family has interacted with several others who suffer in silence because schools cannot accommodate realities like attention deficiency disorders, anxiety, situational or long-term depression, dyscalculia, bullying, and adjustment issues. Institutions continue to brush them under the carpet rather than try to create an inclusive environment. This sort of attitude to learning is stressful. The children feel demotivated and belittled. The parents, unable to receive support, are forced into situations where they pressure kids to adhere to a uniform and unrealistic standard. It is a mess that needs rigorous training and awareness. The fear that remains is if schools need so much time and resources to change, what happens to the children caught in the flux? If a massive reformation needs another decade, what happens to the morale of those fighting today? Do we call such students and families collateral damage?

I am not a changemaker. Neither do I exert influence in education and policymaking. However, as a sister and someone who has been both the proverbial excellent in school and the frowned-upon mediocre in college, I think substantial change is simpler than we think. It will take time before large-scale institutional modifications are executed. However, it should not take that long to make school a more enjoyable and accommodative place. So, I have put together four of the simplest ways to make a difference. All of them are things I have experienced and tolerated along the way. So have countless others, and I desperately wish someone listens.

A Vocabulary Change

Recently, the government cancelled CBSE board exams for class 10 students. While it was a massive relief for every family, there was a subsequent conversation wherein the move was being described as being especially beneficial for “weaker” students. Who is a weak student? According to our sensibilities, they are students who will not score above 90%. “Weak student,” “slow learner,” “takes time to catch up with the rest,” “not up to the class average” are some of the age-old phrases that are not going anytime soon. I am not asking teachers to give a false sense of achievement and progress but instead of focussing on the student’s area of improvement, we compare them to an ambiguous bar that has been set most arbitrarily. I understand why this happens. There is no place for holistic evaluation of strengths and weaknesses in a country notoriously famous for its terrible student-teacher ratio. If that cannot be fixed, start by not justifying a student’s lower grades by unabashedly calling them a slow learner in a forum like parent-teacher conferences. Not every kid can get a 95 in mathematics. Frankly, it is not required. By pitting them against their seemingly “superior” friends, you are doing more harm than good.

Take Counselling Seriously

I cannot explain enough the importance and role of compassionate and experienced counsellors in a school. Times are changing, and complexities are increasing. Students are at a greater risk of several roadblocks in areas such as mental health, learning, adaptability, so on and so forth. While it is encouraging to see parents seeking professional help to motivate their children and help them overcome emotional difficulties, it remains a half-baked journey because schools cannot internalise these developments. They do not have full-time counsellors. If they do, most counsellors fail to connect with the students or parents and end up taking substitution. There is no data I can give you for this fact but we know that this is the truth. Schools must wake up to two realisations. First, the world is not the same as it was when the school was founded. Second, students are not a uniform block of clay from which you mould toppers and discard the rest. It sounds harsh, but I have seen the impact of such an approach on bright minds whose greatest “sin” is their inability to reproduce every word written in textbooks. When schools have dedicated counsellors, it makes them aware of diversity. It establishes a better connection with parents and their children who may require additional help to cope with academics or social deliverables. One teacher cannot constantly inform another if a student has particular learning needs. An experienced counsellor can keep a tab of such requirements and ensure a safe milieu. They can successfully address bullying, unhealthy classroom environments, marginalisation of students or practically, any problems that arise.

Prioritise Extracurriculars

Schools in 2021 have marketing budgets. This means professional pamphlets and videos advertising all the exciting activities they have. However, does it necessarily translate into productive offerings? That remains a question. There are practical problems. Extra-curricular teachers never stay beyond a term. The syllabus for such activities is not structured or, in some cases, even existent. Most arrangements are ad-hoc. Especially during the pandemic, extra-curricular subjects were given odd time slots such as 3 PM. Most students don’t attend them. Instead of offering a vast range, schools should evaluate what resources are available. Depending on that, they can provide a range of activities and take each one seriously. It is an excellent opportunity to explore their areas of interest without parents having to look for expensive private classes. It opens avenues that kids can consider as career options but all of this is contingent on extra-curricular activities leaving the glossy pages of pamphlets and become structured pursuits with dedicated teachers, syllabus, and outcomes.

Stop Corporatizing Schools

Schools are not multinationals. Yes, both are organisations with employees with a critical set of deliverables, have families to feed and have human limitations. However, certain professions come with an added sense of responsibility. Teaching is one of them. Therefore, you have to think twice before inserting concepts such as KPIs in an academic environment. A long time back, my mother requested a teacher to pay extra attention to my sister. She denied doing so and cited her KPI as the reason. I understand that as a teacher, she has quantifiable goals to achieve by the end of the academic year. However, to hold them above student support is terrible. A few years ago, I met one of my old school teachers, and she lamented about the growing absence of personal touch. She told me about a new teacher anxious about the roll number allocation because it was too much for him to remember the student’s names. My journey from being a mean girl to someone with more perspective was comfortable. That is because I never faced the brunt of the system. I watched from the outside, making remarks, and philosophizing about a better time. However, I also know someone who is fighting the battle every day. I am proud of her tenacity, but I want to ask every educator, institution, educational board and school out there, “Is this mindless struggle necessary?”. I hope I am not misconstrued as someone opposed to challenges, academic achievements, or pursuit of excellence. I am against the idea that every child’s notion of excellence is identical. This is going to be a long fight. I hope that we all have the power to sustain it. Till then, all I can be is a proud sister.

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Death by a Thousand Rallies, Modiji’s Surgical Strike On India’s Population Explosion

I am not sure how many feel insulted by all the election rallies happening around us these days. I certainly do. When COVID-19 patients continue to suffer and die in thousands for the lack of adequate medical care and facilities, our politicians have once more proved that we are nothing more than  a single vote – a step in their ladder to power. On other days, one vote could be a powerful identity but as things stand out now, it is nothing more than a mockery of our democratic functions, values, and commonsense.

All the states that went or are going through elections – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, and the union territory of Puducherry saw politicians from all shades and hues. The campaign rallies by their star campaigners drew huge crowds at every occasion in complete disregard of the healthcare bloodbath our country is going through. When you know that for most of these rallies, people are enticed to attend using money, liquor, and other kinds of allurements, two sets of voters can be distinctly seen in this reality. The first one is the poor voter who knows that the offered money can help him fend off for a few days. The second set is that of the greedy voters who have consciously put a price tag on their attendance as well as their votes, and in this case, also their lives. While you may feel that we can’t do much about the first set, the second set is not going to disappear anytime soon either.

Under the given circumstances, who must take the blame for such gross violations of COVID-19 protocols laid out by the Election Commission (EC) of India? Of course, the political class. But before we go there, the EC itself must be held accountable. The fact that this body has not been able to do anything about these huge rallies has shown us again that it lacks the teeth it wants us to believe it has. Even with all the reforms, the commission has remained a tiger that can only roar after its hunt has been robbed away by the hyenas, hyenas being the political class of our country. Our vote is their meat. 

Since the BJP is in power and Mr. Modi is our Prime Minister, a huge part of the blame of such a vulgar joke on us must lie with them. It is not that they did not know. We have had similar rallies during the Bihar elections. Most states in India have pathetic numbers on all kinds of healthcare charts, and still by not doing anything to prevent these rallies or not exploring other options for campaigning, they have put our healthcare infrastructure under extreme stress. The doctors and medical staff find themselves in the same situation they were in a year ago. So, while the common citizenry is told to ring bells and sound plates to applaud and encourage the corona warriors, our supreme leader is hitting record numbers rally after rally to insult the very same people.

Come to think of it, hasn’t our democracy been always this way? I feel insulted but not surprised by this apathy displayed by the most important people of our political system. Right from our Prime Minister to candidates fighting for a seat, no one has had the strength to lead by example. BJP, DMK, AIADMK, TMC, CPI – there is no party that has not made a joke out of the pandemic. The surprising part is that most of these people have experienced the pandemic first hand. Even then, they have conducted themselves in a way that has proved that selective amnesia is a more dangerous disease. For example, our Home Minister Amit Shah has himself recovered from the virus but can still go on from one state to another in search of vote count. Amit Shah is one example but there are several politicians who have suffered or are suffering due to COVID-19, including the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. How is it possible then that they can treat the pandemic with such callousness?

Are we then taking these people more seriously than they deserve to be? Are they mere instruments of the electoral institutions and processes of our country? If electoral victory is the only deity these political parties have, are we all just being pushed into the sacrificial fire as offerings to this deity? If decades of politically engineered Hindu-Muslim faultlines, caste based seat allocations, minority appeasement, cash for votes have not adequately underlined this fact, the pandemic has settled the debate. At present, we are not more than a single vote that can fetch victory for a political ambition. Our lifespan starts at the ‘massive rally’ claim tweet of our politicians and ends at the button press on the EVM. After that, even if we get infected by the virus and die, it will be for the good of the polity of our country.

When they say, we must be prepared to die for our country, they actually mean ‘die for the polity’, and perhaps nothing else. We refuse to believe this for a good night’s sleep. The first thing they did was to coin the term ‘corona warrior’ so as to attach a sense of pride in dying at work while our politicians keep at their criminal election campaigns. Second thing they did was to bring out the thaalis and diyas to pay pompous respects to these corona warriors. Then they organized political rallies and offered 200 bucks and alcohol to the attendees in order to create noble causes for our corona warriors to die. There is not one missing link, no loose ends in this political drama.

If you are more religious than political, not that there has remained much of a difference between the two, you can also visit the Kumbha Mela. They have made state-of-the-art arrangements for you to get infected. In any case, going by the popular saying , “Modi ji kar rahe hain toh kuchh soch kar hi kar rahe honge”, it could very well be ‘Modiji’s Surgical Strike’ on one of our lingering problems since Chacha Nehru’s time – India’s population explosion.

Note: The image used in the article has no scientific basis and is purely based on political hearsay. For more accurate data and charts, please refer here.

Why Indian Media Should Stop Obsessing Over Kamala Harris’s Indian Roots

Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States of America on January 20th. The same day, Kamala Harris became the 49th Vice President of United States of America. In doing so, she created history by being the first ever woman to become a US Vice President. She also created history by being the first Person of Color to be selected to the second highest office in the US. You must be wondering why I did not refer to Kamala Harris as an Indian American. Before I address that, let us understand who a Person of Color is. In the US and rest of Anglosphere, Person of Color is an accepted and respectful way of describing someone who is not White or Caucasian. Now let us get to why I call Kamala Harris a person of color, instead of Indian American.

After keeping the American public guessing for almost a year, Joe Biden finally, on 11th August 2020, invited Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate for the US Presidential election. While her name had been floating around for months as one of Biden’s top five choices, she was relatively unknown to most people within and outside the US until that day. Soon after the announcement, there were several articles, and opinions in the US media about her bi-racial background, the cases she handled in her law career, and her accomplishments as a US Senator since 2017. Other than the occasional op-eds and media rantings about whether she was really for the Black people (based on her prosecutorial record as a District Attorney and Attorney General), the American media remained focused on Joe Biden and Trump. Her name came up again in the news when Biden won the presidency in November, and last week, when she was sworn in as the VP.

This is a far cry from what has been happening in the Indian news and social media since her name was announced as the VP candidate. It has been fascinating to watch sections of Indian media racing to connect the dots of Kamala Harris’s Indian background. Not a day has gone by in the past five months, when I did not see an article about her mother, her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu, how she speaks fluent Tamil, and her love for Indian food, especially Idli. Just this morning, I saw a famous Indian chef cooking Puliyodarai to celebrate the US VP’s south Indian roots. When Kamala Harris uttered the word “My Chittis” (a Tamil word for maternal aunts), during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, the Indian media went into a frenzy. One news anchor even went as far as proclaiming that Kamala Harris was creating history for India on global stage by using an Indian word in her speech. My well-meaning friends also started sharing video clippings of her speech on WhatsApp. After watching all this, anyone not in tune with the realities of American politics, would be convinced that Kamala Harris was surely going to come up on stage one of these days, waving the Tiranga!

The facts, as usual, are starkly different. A simple online search would provide sufficient information about her life, both personal and professional. One would learn that she went to Howard University, a historic African American college, not Harvard University, as promoted by some Indian news sites. In that same speech where she used the word Chitti, she also said, “My mother instilled in my sister Maya and me, the values that will chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong, Black (African American) women, and to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.” She then went on to describe her mother, as a hard-working immigrant single parent, who spent her time providing for her daughters, helping them with school, and getting them to their church choir practice.

This was a brilliant strategy if you ask me, and kudos to her speech writer and staff! Joe Biden had already secured the votes of progressive women, the day he nominated Kamala Harris as his running mate. Now, with that speech, she had also endeared herself to millions of Blacks, Evangelical Christians, and those Indian Americans who are US citizens, and can vote. The first three groups are well organized, and extremely important to win over, if a candidate wants to be the President. Winning over the Indian American voters who would lap up anything “Desi“, was just an icing on the cake. This last group does not really change the election outcome, but it does provide a steady source of individual and business donations towards election funds. The tried and tested principle of employing Sam, Daam, Dand, Bhed is applicable to Rajneeti everywhere!

I am sure Kamala Harris loves her Indian heritage, as much as she loves her Black heritage. I have also no doubt that she speaks some Tamil. Like millions of Americans, she also loves Indian food. None of those things, however, matter to people in India, nor should they. The US foreign policy, which includes India, will be what Joe Biden chooses to adopt, and if the early indicators are accurate, it will be like what his old boss Barack Obama adopted. China and Russia, not India, will influence that policy. Depending on the direction the wind blows, India, Africa and middle east will have roles to play in the grand scheme of things. Make no mistake, her Tamil speaking skills, and love for Indian food aside, Kamala Harris will always do what is in the best interest of the United States of America. The Indian media should take a page from her book, and devote its precious time to doing what is best for India.

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Kings of Indian Democracy and Their Love for Constructive Criticism

Do you know a politician who does not say, “Criticism is healthy for a democracy”? This statement does not come out without its paradoxical context. Most of the time, a politician is telling you this only because he has been recently criticised by somebody and the offence has been taken, rather openly. This politician is hurt, and dangerously sulking. Once you begin to take note of their actions just before or after they have made such a statement, you realize that such statements are made as if they are talking about a distant alien mass of land known as democracy that nobody has seen or been to and the more it is kept that way, the easier it becomes for them to tell us these unknown things about democracy.

Bihar government has pulled a new rabbit out of its hat – a circular on 21st January which states that “individuals and organisations who post “objectionable and indecent” comments (online) against the State Government, Ministers, MLAs, MPs and officials could be booked under the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code”. Before you start outraging on how shamelessly this law stands against all the principles of democracy, let me tell you a lot of chutzpah has been lost in translation. The circular is in Hindi and reads like this –

eow-bihar-converted-388058

In practice, our fundamental right – freedom of speech with ‘reasonable restrictions’ is constantly being appended with a copious amount of ‘unreasonable’ restrictions.

However, since 2020 was a dark year for almost everyone and one of my new year resolutions is to make 2021 a better year for myself and everyone around me, you are in luck. Even though, this circular appears to be a terrible thing for the people in the state, if our police system had any interest in poetic justice, or any flair for drama like the UP police have expressed theirs with criminal-containing jeeps turning turtle, or at least slightly more empowered than having to draft such circulars after all those years of preparations for Public Service Commissions and subsequent training, this circular can become a blessing in disguise.

In fact, if adopted across all the states of India with some minor modifications, our democracy might actually get healthier. Rahul Gandhi can be sent to prison for offending all the chowkidaars and of course our Prime Minister if he says, “chowkidaar chor hai” one more time. Mr. Modi can be sent to jail for offending people who are still waiting for INR 15 lacs in their bank accounts. Even if Amit Shah gets him out, he can still be dispatched back if he finds anything wrong with Nitish Kumar’s political DNA again. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar can be sent to jail for offending his honest alter ego if he collaborates with the RJD again and offending his secular alter ego for joining hands with the BJP now. Sushil Modi can be arrested for offending the flood affected population of Bihar by himself becoming homeless during Patna floods in 2019. Tejasvi Yadav can be arrested for offending Nitish Kumar by drawing larger crowds than the latter. Tej Pratap Yadav can be arrested for offending himself every now and then. Lalu Yadav can be arrested for.. er…ok…he is already in the jail for offending the entire cattle community of the state.

Bottom line is, the circular, first of all, must be applied to all the politicians who keep abusing each other on social media as well as on unsocial media (NDTV, Times Now, Republic, Zee News, India Today, etc.). Can you feel the democracy breathing again, just like the planet was breathing once again during the COVID-19 lockdowns?

India is a great country, and also a funny country; or perhaps all countries are, not as great as us (UNESCO has already said we have the best national anthem) but definitely funny and funnier. Our politics and policies do not only expose the hypocrisy of our political class but also the person living next door or in our twitter feed. About a month ago, a similar circular was introduced by the Kerala state government – BJP fans fumed and raged. Now, the Bihar government has joined the party, Congress and Communist comrades are outraging.

Our governments hate criticism. Our bureaucracy abhors the ones asking questions. It is our everyday experience, the one that cannot be denied and can never be forgotten, because it repeats itself.

Forget the previous paragraph. That was Suresh Raina’s nephew again. Four children in one hospital bed is a lesson in ‘sharing is caring’, patients lying around on the floor of a better known hospital of the state is ‘remaining grounded and humble’, and annual floods have great potential for ‘water sports’ in the state. The biggest problem Bihar faces today is ‘online criticism’ or the lack ofconstructive criticism. Our sincere politicians and bureaucrats have come together to solve this problem. It is an occasion to celebrate our healing democracy, a gift to the people of Bihar for the Republic Day by the kings of our democratic republic.

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Video: Five LGBTQ Books to Read by Indian Authors This Pride Month

June is celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising Movement. We bring to a suggestion list of five books around and about LGBTQ lives to read by Indian authors. For more such videos, please subscribe to the YouTube channel.

To show your support, you can also take part in the #21DaysAllyChallenge being run by Pride Circle.

Music: Bleach
Musician: anatu
URL: https://icons8.com/music/

Amphan-Kolkata-Trees-Uprooted

Super-Cyclone Amphan’s Trail of Destruction: Despatch from Kolkata

Our housing society was a battlefield that day. Our beloved Hercules was up against the fire-breathing Cacus. As per the legend Hercules was supposed to emerge victorious. He had stood the test of time; had been there since our birth, deeply rooted. Every morning his residents would sing beautiful songs to wake us up. He was our saviour, our friend, someone who never asked anything in return for his services. He was our hero in every sense!

Suddenly, the window panes crashed against something hard. Shattered glass was all over the floor. One branch of our beloved ‘Neem gaach’ (Neem tree) had smashed into our living room window. It was an ominous sign. To our horror, the giant tree lay uprooted. Cacus had won this time. Only that it was called – AMPHAN! Imagine an old family member, someone whom you have seen every day of your life since your birth passes away one day, all of a sudden, due to a fatal accident. We felt the same when our beloved Hercules lay felled as good (or bad) as dead!

Amphan unleashed its terror in the City of Joy that ill-fated afternoon. The city was already reeling under the pressure of rising COVID-19 cases, Amphan added to the ordeal. The super cyclone was slated to arrive in the afternoon and it did with precision. Thundering winds with rising speeds multiplied the uneasiness, every passing second. We were constantly checking our phones for live updates on the wind speed. The winds soon crossed the century mark, and another half century in a jiffy. By five in the evening the cyclone was at its harshest, taking away anything and everything that blocked its path. One could only hear (didn’t have the audacity to slide the windows and see) glass panes smashing here and there, trees being wrecked and temporary roofs flying like gigantic kites. Let alone a person like me in his early thirties, it was something unseen even by the older generations. Those few hours felt like a live terror attack with guns and explosives blazing outside and we, the common people hiding in our shelters praying for all of it to end.

There is an age-old tradition in Bengal where people blow conches and recite verses praising Goddess Kali in times of deep trouble. There is a strong belief that the Divine Mother will protect her children. That evening was no different. A series of conches blew and Women from every household produced the sacred ‘Ululudhvani’ as if asking the Goddess for mercy. Call it the power of prayer, the Super cyclone diminished into a thunderstorm by eight in the evening and into a nagging drizzle late into the night. We thought it was the end of the battle. However, it was just the beginning, there was more to come!

At around 10pm the power went off. We switched on our mobile phone lights to find the mobile network gone as well. So, we were there disconnected from the rest of the world plunged into darkness. That night we could sleep quite peacefully; the weather was cool and the wind had turned into a breeze. When the power did not restore in the morning, was when the real trouble started. With no power overnight, the water tank was empty. Rest need not be explained! Carrying heavy buckets of water from a community tube-well to the fourth floor of the building with no lift was a pain. Even more annoying was to stand in the long queues there maintaining social distancing. A few people made a business out of this as well. They filled the 20 litres mineral water jars with the underground water and started selling them at Rs. 100 (yes you read it right!) apiece. The days after a cyclone are generally hot and humid and this one was no different. It was a penance to sit in the hot tandoor that our apartment had become by the afternoon. With no retrieve in sight people were cursing their stars! The troubles compounded in the night. People shifted their base to the terrace for some respite and it did work. The mosquitoes had a feast that night; gallons of human blood at their disposal!  

The story went on for almost a week. There was hardly any cash left. The entire contingency cash usually kept aside by every family for such times was about to finish. There was no network for online payments and the cash machines (ATMs) were all out of order. However there was no problem in managing essentials as the local shop owners and vegetable vendors were co-operative. I realised the futility of online shopping and delivery apps that day. In times of trouble, the local shopkeeper and sabjiwallah comes to your rescue. The system was exposed like never before. It seemed the government did not care for its citizens or perhaps it cared but was just not capable enough to deal with the crisis. The electric supply company stopped responding to calls after giving umpteen false hopes. Every morning someone would say the power would be restored by the evening and in the evening, the next evening! Amidst all this we were unaware of the situation outside our housing society. Firstly, there was no Power so all modes of communication were long gone. Secondly, the lockdown; one could not look beyond the boundaries of one’s own home! Finally, after the combined effort of the people the power was restored on the ninth day. We breathed easy. The mobile network was still elusive, but the thought of running water in taps itself was a reliever!

After another two days the mobile and Television were buzzing again. It was then, that we realized the actual impact of Amphan. The plight of the Sunderbans dwarfed our troubles. The videos and images of people dying of hunger and diseases pricked our hearts. The number of destitute rose day by day. We learnt that The Honourable Prime Minister had visited Bengal and promised a hefty relief package as well. Many social organisations are working with the government to help the affected. Here I want to mention my friend Dr. Deb. He along with his team of volunteers visited coastal villages and areas around Sunderbans. They organised many relief camps distributing food, medicines and other essentials to the people. He is not alone in this venture. Many NGOs and other philanthropists have come forward in this time of calamity. The government is also working on rehabilitating the homeless and providing the relief. The pace is slow, given the pandemic engulfing the entire world right now!

Now after almost three weeks life is limping back to normal. However, Amphan has shown us some harsh realities of life, which we often tend to ignore. The only certainty about life is that it is uncertain. One moment you are building castles of happiness; the next moment a wave grief sweeps away all the sand. In the era of technology and automation, one should not forget the humane touch. We should remember technology is secondary, humanity is supreme!

Cover Image – A tree uprooted during heavy rain infront Tipu Sultan Masjid after the landfall of super cyclone ‘Amphan’, in Kolkata (Photo Credit: PTI)

Christopher Hitchens, Photograph by John Dempsie, c. 1978

Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens, and the Art of Exhausting the Limits of the Possible

The ability to change opinions in the face of new facts is a dying skill. I do not know many people who would readily examine a fact or development and let it affect their stance on the matter at hand or political predilections they have been holding sacrosanct so far. In most cases, the opposite is true! The hardened ideological preferences are used to explain changing circumstances and the boat of life remains anchored on the banks of safe hypocrisy. In fact, this is how ideological fanaticism survives and breeds. When it is fed with the potion of power, it metamorphoses into the monster of totalitarianism. When the other boats that sailed to challenge themselves in thoughts and through actions return, there is no place left for them in the depraved lands.

If you want to visualize this more lucidly, imagine the ideologue or the intellectual you adore and follow as the head of your community, captain of your sports team, or the executive head of your country. Now, from their existing body of work, try to deduce what these people would allow and disallow once they are in such positions. This will define the limits of your liberty under them.

If you want an example, please refer to the recently released 7 point guideline from the “leading economists, intellectuals, and activists.” 7.1 gives ample sense of what such groups are capable of doing if they are given executive powers. Although, after a severe backlash from the netizens, the group had to completely replace the point but not before getting their lack of seriousness about the issue entirely exposed.

 

 

In the foreword to his book, Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens quotes Pindar Pythion III – “Do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.” By the time he wrote down the foreword, Hitchens had already been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. So in retrospect, when you look at his work after the diagnosis, you realize how earnestly he took to that utterance. Till the last days of his life, even though he seemed to have lost much of his muscles, he did not part with his astuteness and sense of humour that run through the chapters of his memoir – Hitch 22. Hitchens stood true to Pindar’s tenet and in many ways exhausted more than the limits of the possible.

Hitch 22 begins with a heartfelt chapter on Yvonne – Hitchens’ mother. This and the chapter on his father – Commander, are two of my favourite chapters in the book. In describing his childhood years, the role of his mother in his life, and the personality sketch of his father, he triumphs as a writer who has taken upon himself the daunting task of writing about his parents. He does not judge either of his parents and gives us a glimpse rife with emotions and delectable prose into his formative years. The fact that he never published any fiction, will remain a lamentable loss for the genre.

Hitchens was a brilliant storyteller and the book contains stories from around the world – the jocular ones as well as the grave tales of human suffering. He takes the reader on a ride through some of the major political developments of his time across the globe. The Vietnam war, Salazar’s regime in Portugal, expedition to Cuba as a young leftist a few months after Guevara’s demise, the Gulf wars, the 9/11 attack, Saddam Hussein’s fall, American war in Afghanistan, and the question of Anti-Semitism – Hitchens speaks about all of them, never hiding his opinions or the side he took.

In many of these narrations, even though he identifies himself as a Trotskyist, he keeps noticing the doublespeak of the Left or the waning of the ideology itself.

As 1968 began to ebb into 1969, however, and as “anticlimax” began to become a real word in my lexicon, another term began to obtrude itself. People began to intone the words “The Personal Is Political.” At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was – cliche is arguably forgivable here – very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic “preference,” to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: “Speaking as a . . .” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this much for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment when the Left lost or – I would prefer to say – discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time that I was to see the sellout conducted so cheaply.”

Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

 

In the chapter ‘Mesopotamia from Both Sides’, Hitchens gives a detailed account of events that turned him into an Iraq war supporter from his previous anti-war stands. This was also the time when most of the Left was positing against the war and naturally attacked Hitchens for his views. The chapter ends with an affecting account of a young man named Mark Jennings Daily who was inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens on the moral cause for the Iraq war and had signed up as a soldier for the war. All these are towards the end of the book, including his fallout with Noam Chomsky whom he found to be on the opposite side about the American response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So much of our life is lived beyond the commonly used crutches of left-wing and the right-wing that an honestly-lived life will have to fly without any wings many times. Individual honesty offends the group-think and Hitchens’ life is a true testimony before us. His was the boat that was not meant to anchor on fanaticism in the garb of unflinching loyalty to the ideology. Christopher Hitchens greatly admired George Orwell and you will read Orwell finding a place in the book at several instances. It is not surprising then to see Hitchens questioning his own opinions and re-examining them many times over in his one lifetime. Quite naturally, Hitch-22 stands as an intellectually honest work that must feature in the ‘Read’ list of any serious reader of world politics.

You can purchase the book here.

 

Aarogya Setu App Has Brought Privacy Laws Under Public Surveillance Yet Again

On 25th May 2018, the European Union (EU) took the reins of data protection in the global digital economy with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Internet users worldwide were faced with a brand new umbrella of terms and conditions that global technological giants scrambled together for GDPR compliance. A month earlier, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had already apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with “…I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time…”

Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica
Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica | Source: Jenny Kane, Associated Press (ABC News)
App-Based Contact Tracing
Fig. 1 App-Based Contact Tracing | Source: Nature

Before the world was burdened with the Covid 19 pandemic and the surveillance of contact-tracing apps (Fig. 1), the maze of global data mining ensured a large percentage among digital consumers worldwide was happily unaware of the technological possibilities of location tracking and data protection. Simultaneously, there has been ample evidence globally of the vulnerability of technological information systems. As recently as April 2020, Zoom had photobombed meetings by uninvited intruders, Google is being sued for illegally collecting children’s biometric data, and multiple Android apps are obscuring malware and spyware distribution. With the uncertainty of Covid 19’s one-week incubation period, governments worldwide faced the issue of weighing public safety against individual privacy in trying to contain an unknown infectious spread. As a result, privacy concerns have entered the mainstream, and the possible ubiquity of Covid-19 surveillance has finally dawned on the global digital consumer.

 

According to MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker (Fig. 2), 4 countries among 22 which have launched contact-tracing apps have made installation mandatory for its citizens. Although India’s Aarogya Setu installation is a mandatory requirement only for travellers, Qatar has made it compulsory for all its citizens and Turkey requires installation for only those citizens testing positive for Covid 19. Among these 4 countries, China’s “health code” system on Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s Wechat has been ‘rolled out in more than 100 cities across the country’, and is ubiquitous for its extensive surveillance of citizens. The resultant worldwide privacy concerns have caused many social activists to question data protection and retention policies.

MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker (Flourish)
Fig. 2 Covid Tracing Tracker | Source: MIT Technology Review

 

Aarogya Setu - Bug Bounty

Despite the United Kingdom’s ambiguous response to Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings’ 419 KM excursion to County Durham, the government is quite clear about the necessity of Covid 19 contact-tracing. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has announced that its ‘test and trace system’ will maintain records regarding “personal data about people with coronavirus” for 20 years, with their contacts’ information stored for five years. In India, Mr. Robot-aliased French Ethical Hacker, Elliot Alderson’s exposé of security concerns about Aarogya Setu prompted the Indian government to announce its Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol . Recently, Aarogya Setu’s source code has been released on GitHub, and a bug bounty was announced.

Of course, the vulnerability of global data information systems was confirmed recently by CyberNews’ security analysts when they discovered “800 gigabytes of 200 million detailed user records on a publicly accessible server” including data files ostensibly attributed to the United States Census Bureau. According to the CyberNews Team, “Certain codes used in the database were either specific to the Bureau or used in the Bureau’s classifications.” Unprotected databases are not the only global privacy concern. Data mining is often hidden among unnecessary app permissions or the terms and conditions of registration that generally users do not pay attention to. For example, on 27th May 2020, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the United States filed a lawsuit against Google for its “willfully deceptive and unfair acts and practices” regarding collection of users’ location information despite “Location History disabled” and “Web and App Activity.”

As governments join the global data surveillance for Covid-19 tracking, privacy concerns are no longer the limited purview of the individual consumer. The MIT Technology Review team which is “watching the Watchmen” considers Singapore’s Trace Together at the forefront of contact tracing apps with its decentralized approach, open-source license, and ‘opt-in’ feature. For the Senior Editor of the MIT Technology Review, Patrick Howell O’Neill, “The way forward is to ensure transparency in contact tracing apps in terms of data collection and retention. With the Chinese health codes determining movement in public spaces as well as private establishments such as offices and restaurants, contact tracing apps and Covid-19 surveillance is likely to remain a glaring reality in our daily lives for a few years to come.

Cover Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A makeshift shop destroyed by the sea waves at Bakkhali due to the landing of Cyclone Amphan, near Sunderbans area in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal (Photo Credit: PTI)

#PrayForBengal Is Not Enough to Recover From Amphan, We Need a #DoForBengal

West Bengal, Odisha, and Bangladesh have been mercilessly ravaged. The casualty mark in West Bengal is just short of 100 so far. This figure is excluding animals and all the mighty trees the cyclone has managed to fell. When COVID-19 has been already battering the state, the present crisis has deepened the wounds. Life has encountered an exclamation mark while the comma of Coronavirus continues to linger. This further attests to the fact that Mother Nature is not quite motherly after all. Much of the human history before man made enemies of themselves has been a story of struggling against the forces of nature. As much as we like to love nature and worship her, part of the awe rises from our fear that has travelled through our past generations of men and women who lost everything at the hands of not so benign avatar of nature. We have coexisted but not without our constant struggles through millennia.

A picture tells a thousand tales. However, the images of one of the first modern cities of India, Calcutta or Kolkata in the aftermath of Amphan cyclone, no matter how heart rending, are quite tragically hiding a thousand tales. Even as the images of the devastation are trickling through, there are many areas which haven’t yet received their power supply, have not regained access to telecom network, and are fighting shortage of drinking water, food supplies etc.. There are many images yet to come. The exact measure of the destruction will be felt away from the shallow attention spans of the social media platforms, part of it immediately and part slowly.

Even before the cyclone struck, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had a fair idea of the damage that was about to come. As a result, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) had carried out massive evacuation. Bangladesh too had carried out such evacuations to minimize the loss of lives. If the death toll doesn’t rise any higher, we should still be thankful to the people on the field carrying out these exercises with all the handicaps of our Indian bureaucratic machinery. Electricity will be restored, the mobile network will come back, and the urban life will be back on its toes soon, or so we hope.

However, if we keep talking just about Kolkata, then we are making the same mistake that the self-proclaimed ‘National’ media makes – assuming New Delhi to be the sun with other states being in constant motion around this sun, the same mistake a lot of pure urban generations of Kolkata or Mumbai make – assuming Kolkata or Mumbai to be the centre of the universe with rest of the state thrown to the fringes. Let us shift the focus to the region which took the direct hitting of the cyclone. Nature can be swift but it also knows how to kill slowly. Mud embankments of the Sundarbans have been breached and sea water has entered the agrarian lands. This means doom for the farmers of the region as they are completely dependent on rice cultivation throughout the year. According to some reports, about 17,800 hectares of agricultural lands may have been damaged thus. In West Bengal alone, initial estimates tell that more than 1 lakh farmers have been affected. In Odisha, the losses are being calculated in the excess of $129 million. These farmers will need as much help as possible from the state machinery, central government, media, and citizens from other parts of the country.

West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has a huge task at her hand and she did the right thing by calling on the Prime Minister to survey the affected areas. She will need all the help our country has at its disposal – money, minds, and hands. The PM has announced an advance package of 1000 crore for the state. I believe the state is going to need much more than that even if the funds are utilized judiciously. These are the hottest months in the state of West Bengal, more so in Kolkata and adjoining areas, another reason to fast-track the road to recovery. Additional NDRF teams have been sent, Odisha has extended help, Army is on the ground to ensure road and tree clearance in different parts of the city (Tollygunge, Ballygunge, Rajarhat, Diamond Harbour, and Behala). In the coming days and months, the country will need much more resilience and the willingness to recover than ever before – thanks to COVID-19 and now the cyclones.

All this is praiseworthy but what if another cyclone comes next year or 3 years later? People from deluged parts of Sundarbans will migrate to other places now but slowly come back in the next few years. Cyclone is nature’s dialect and there is no stopping it, so it will come again causing similar destruction all over again. This happens because the retreat is not strategic and permanent in nature. An article on the issue of minimising damage in the Sundarbans has been published here. The article in its conclusion says, “Strategic and Managed Retreat instead of repeated disruption and ad hoc temporary resettlement, though expensive, is known to outweigh the upfront costs in most cases. Globally, this is an accepted mode of adaptation! An increase in the frequency of extreme events is symptomatic of the fact that tropical depression forming in the Bay of Bengal has a high probability to reach to severe cyclone stage. Hence, the administration and the people of the Indian Sundarbans have little choice but to consider voluntary relocation to safer locations, but in a participatory manner so as to minimise possibilities of conflicts.”

The article also quotes the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. Considering the number of crises our country faces year after year in different parts of its geography, it appears we let each one of them go to waste.

Consider Bihar. 76 percent of Bihar lives under constant threat of floods. This means when a flood comes in Bihar, about 76 pc of the region is immediately impacted. Now for the uninitiated, Bihar gets its due share of floods almost every year. Loss of human lives, cattle, crops, homes occur annually. Patna and surrounding areas were flooded as recently as last year where even the deputy Chief Minister of the state was seen vacating his house.

study on the flood risk of Kosi basin says, “…It (flood) is the very mechanics of river formation which demands that highest discharges would not be confined within the channel and overbank flooding will occur. The risk from flooding becomes greater because of the increase in population pressure as more and more floodplain is occupied thereby necessitating the efforts to reduce the flood risk to be stepped up. However, it is very rarely possible to provide complete protection against floods, and therefore, all flood management programmes have to be designed in such a way that it does not give a false sense of security to the people living in the region, as is normally the case in India…”

It follows that the areas which should be under constant strategic upgrades and adaptation in the face of natural disasters are left to themselves for the rest of the year. High risk areas which should not be colonized by humans because floods and cyclones are the ways of nature and no amount of preparations can ensure zero destruction to lives and properties are being stressed with overpopulation. The affected survivors are now habituated to see helicopters flying up above them where a politician surveys the affected areas and announces a relief package, only to repeat the exercise every year. Our forefathers died crying over the deaths in floods and cyclones, we will do the same. Particularly in Bihar, flood has become a way of life and inevitably, also a way of death.

I am bringing Bihar into this discussion for one more purpose. Right from the time Amphan made its landfall, the ‘Antifact Slacktivist Internet Bengali’ also made his presence felt like a netquake. This Antifact Slacktivist group exists for other states too. These rebels without a cause, (or if you want me to be more respectful, rebels with a meaningless cause), obsessed with a self-serving obligation to express their racial superiority to the rest of India is the closest to a Nazi Indian you will meet, of course with all the Che Guevara sugarcoating. They keep themselves busy alienating the rest of India from Bengal by raking up fake movements over ‘we eat meat during Durga Puja, so we are better than you’, ‘we don’t worship Ram, so we’re better than you’, ‘we have given you National Anthem, so we’re better than you’, ‘we threaten the airport staff for speaking in Hindi, so we’re better than you’ all their life. Not surprisingly, their first response to the cyclone was to curse the rest of India for not trending #PrayForBengal on facebook. This lot is fast appropriating the whole of Bengal on the internet and is whitewashing the diversities that have existed in West Bengal for centuries. Most of these people have a very tinted understanding of Bengal’s own history and culture, leave alone that of the country.

Each of such crises and the following outrage is an opportunity to propagate their politics and ideology. If every single reaction or its absence is to be put as a test of nationalism, then the first people to fail this test will be this kind of Internet Bengalis. At least, I don’t remember to have seen any trending #PrayForBihar (not that I care) response from them when Bihar – a close neighbour having its capital city at a distance of about 500 KM from Kolkata – floods every year. When the farmers and the poor of the state who happen to be the worst affected of all and need all the support coming their way from all across the country, this self-posturing is a fraud being committed on the people who have no stake in the ideological battles and who would really welcome help from any part of the country with both arms wide open right now.

Having said that, it is important for us to differentiate between the ideological warriors and the victims of an ecological disaster. These victims cannot fill their bellies with our national anthem, cannot get their crops back by winning the Hindi-Bengali debate, and cannot have their cattle back with the victory of Kali over Ram. Keep the self-serving warriors aside and please come out to help Bengal. It will serve us well to keep in our mind the words of a great teacher from Bengal who embodied an enormity of heart and incisiveness of intellect that made him the true heir to the legacy of both Gautam Buddha, who attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya of Bihar and Adi Shankara who travelled from Kerala to the length and width of the country for the spiritual unification of India.

“You merge yourselves in the void and disappear, and let new India arise in your place. Let her arise – out of the peasants’ cottage, grasping the plough; out of the huts of the fisherman. Let her spring from the grocer’s shop, from beside the oven of the fritterseller. Let her emanate from the factory, from marts, and from markets. Let her emerge from groves and forests, from hills and mountains.” – Swami Vivekananda

Please donate generously and help the ones who really need your help by visiting this link and send whatever amount you can – https://donations.belurmath.org/appeal-amphan-cyclone-relief-services-98376.

Cover Image: A makeshift shop destroyed by the sea waves at Bakkhali due to the landing of Cyclone Amphan, near Sunderbans area in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal (Photo Credit: PTI)

 

Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

COVID-19, Lockdowns, and Our ‘Typical Indian Problems’

We have now crossed the 100,000 mark. Every new day is beating the previous record of one day spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The numbers refuse to budge. Lockdowns have gotten feebler every passing phase. The state leaderships which were collecting adulatory coins till now on social media from film stars, seem to be giving up in a very trumpesque manner. One look at different state governments tells you what they are keeping busy with. Fighting litigations to open Tasmac shops, fudging the numbers on coronavirus, choosing to deliberately get oblivious of the violations of social distancing and lockdown norms by the high and mighty, and cancelling emergency trains because the builders can decide the rights of a poor Indian in a closed door meeting with the Chief Minister, we have seen everything.

Considering the difficulty of our time, the socio-economic diversity of our country, and of course our population, the chinks we are developing are inevitable. In spite of these misdemeanours, the government and bureaucracy have been toiling to contain the pandemic. The pressure to do better than other affected countries is palpable on the face of our leaders. The inconsistencies that we have seen in our political class and bureaucracy is a reminder for us to notice similar patterns in citizens too. While many have cooperated with the law enforcement agencies and the local administration, a huge number for some reason, is determined to dilute all the efforts and our national discipline, assuming it exists.

Back in my hometown, I remember something distinctly from my childhood. I would watch these individuals boarding a bus and on being asked for the ticket charge, they would just utter the word ‘staff’. That was the magic word. Some conductors did not dig deeper than this. A few would ask for an identity card. This would invariably turn into some sort of argument. The word – staff, was just one word from the freeloader (tu jaanta nahi main kaun hoon) vocabulary. This is still common in many parts of our country. I am sure you have seen words like ‘Army’, ‘Police’ on motorbikes and cars. Those are declarations of authority. Even when these vehicles are not being driven by the original owners, these signs have the same power. The point is, once we are made aware of this sort of vocabulary, we use these words whenever we are bending the system for our benefit. In effect, most of the people on the streets are either powerful in some way or are pretending to be. Ask any dhaabawala how many policemen pay their bills.

Last week, I ventured out after about 10 days to get some vegetables and while I was picking my veggies, a woman appeared out from a car without a mask towards the shop. When I asked her about her mask, she went back reluctantly towards the car but came back empowered with the male company who was on the wheels. On being asked again, they went into an argument overkill to defend their choice – “you don’t tell me, who are you?”. All that did not surprise me. In fact, when I answered with – “I am a citizen of this country, and I have a right to point it out if you are doing something so wrong for public health”, she dug into her freeloader vocabulary and retorted – “I’m a doctor. So I know. You don’t tell me!” If only irony were an academic discipline, this lady would win a Nobel.

Delhi customs has confiscated illegal export consignment of PPE kits. Karnataka government has already received requests for opening up mosques for prayers from MLC C.M. Ibrahim. People are coming out in large numbers for religious congregations, Maharashtra is doing everything that could be seen as opposite of a lockdown. It is almost as if people are volunteering for herd immunity by infection. All my visits to the bazaar have brought me face to face with people who don’t care about following social distancing norms or wearing a mask. Closer home, a house had some religious ceremony and entertained guests over a period of 3 days. A neighbour has carried out a complete makeover of his house using around 5-7 workers every day of the lockdown. These workers took the masks from their pockets only when I happened to request them. At all other times, they stayed inside the pockets. Interestingly, the homeowners used masks for themselves. After initial prohibitions from the governments on spitting in public places, I had hoped for some change. I didn’t realise spitting is something that completes our Indianness.

I’m sure you must have come across such situations in your own outings during these lockdowns. Of course, I am assuming you are not the one violating these norms in the first place. Now that the governments have given up on the lockdown restrictions and we are on our own, it is perhaps time to look into our behaviour as individuals during the last couple of months. Our attitude, both at the beginning and now, can finally explain the ‘typical Indian’ problems. I list a few of them here –

  1. Why do we indulge in rash driving and honk like we are composing some Bollywood ‘item number’?
  2. Why does our saliva keep asking for ‘aazadi’ from us every time we come out in public spaces?
  3. Why do our public hospitals spread more diseases than they cure? 
  4. Why does corruption fit so well under ‘essential services’ for us? 
  5. Why have our ponds, lakes, and rivers shapeshifted into exaggerated drains?
  6. Why do we smoke, pee everywhere apart from the places designated for them?  
  7. Why queues are synonymous with waterboarding for Indians?
  8. Why do Indian women get the definition of women-empowerment wrong so often? 
  9. Why do Indian men deny the existence of condoms?

When I met these defaulters during my lockdown outings, most of the responses betrayed a sense of invincibility, like ‘it’s nothing, it won’t happen to me’. Another response tried to tell me that since I was safe by following the rules, I should keep shut and not bother others. It is not innocence. It is not any sort of self-sacrifice. It is just a refusal to fall in line, a refusal of responsibility. We do not care. We are great at throwing the blame on someone else. It’s not that we don’t care at all, we do. In fact, as Manu Joseph puts it, we have ‘immense stamina for useless issues’. For example, we care enough to slap a film-maker because his film hurts our group-pride. However, no amount of gutkha spitting hurts our group pride because we haven’t yet identified with any group that takes offence for gutkha spitting. Of course, Maharana Pratap didn’t sacrifice his life fighting the gutkha spewers, how can we take offence for that then?

 

The group that is still largely unrealized and unknown in our land is called ‘enlightened citizenry’, a concept discussed in detail by Swami Ranganathananda in his lecture and now book on Enlightened Citizenship and our Democracy. An individual’s awareness of his social responsibility is at the centre of such a citizenship. Since we have not yet understood this difference between an ordinary ‘adult citizenship’ and an ‘enlightened’ one, our other group associations dominate enlightened citizenry for much of our lifetime. It is up to us then to step back every time our pride is wounded and identify the group we are associating with to inflict this wound upon ourselves. If we find that this group is anything other than ‘enlightened citizenry’, we have our answer to most of the problems that begin with ‘a typical Indian..’.

 

Cover Image: Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

 

Down With COVID-19, the Hospitality Industry Remains Hospitalised With No Vaccine in Sight

“Hello sir, I want to cancel my booking for the month of May. Can you please process the refund? Here are my account details,” read a whatsapp message from Mr. Sinha, our guest to be in our latest Sikkim property. I thought of requesting him to change his mind and accept our offer for extension instead of cancellation but resisted the temptation. It was futile though. Almost everyone before him had turned down the offer. Almost every advance booking had been cancelled by now. Transferring the refunds was a big challenge. Once you receive a payment, it does not stay in the bank account. Either it gets invested or spent in various other business activities. No one ever thought of a cent percent cancellation rate and we cannot blame anyone for this. The current COVID-19 crisis has left everyone vulnerable.

Most of the hotels across India work on the lease system. Instead of buying a property from the owner or building it from scratch, it is always beneficial to opt for a lease. This way, one has an option of winding up the business, lest it fails to click. This is the segment the recent COVID-19 crisis has hit the most. Most of the business owners rely on the summer months to cover up the lease value. The school break, peak wedding season and an intolerable heat wave across the country make the summer months an ideal time for family vacations.

People plan their trips well in advance. The advance bookings start right from the winter season. Now that the turn over for this quarter will be a big ZERO, there are now question marks on even recovering the lease amount, let alone the profits. Summer season has always provided meaty profits to the hospitality industry. The outcomes are swollen bank accounts and a hope of a profitable season. These are high motivating factors as hotel industry is cost intensive. Property and staff maintenance require hefty sums. A little negligence on any front can lead to a below par rating across web portals leading to negative publicity and drop in sales. No one in the hotel industry can afford this.

 

Despite the revenue dropping down, staff salaries need to be paid. Staves who have been with the owners through thick and thin also have families to feed. While discussing their hardships I should mention the case of Mr. Pratap, our head chef. Once the situation worsened and we stopped operations, naturally, he desired to leave for his native place in Bengal. However, he was stopped at the Sikkim Bengal border. The Sikkim government had sealed the borders the same morning. Poor chap has been staying in a small lodge near the border and paying for his rent and food, away from family and work.

Some of the hotels have been converted into quarantine centres while some are hosting the stranded tourists. The hoteliers still receive regular electricity and utility bills at commercial rates. The tour operators who form the backbone of tourism are also under immense pressure. The fleet of vehicles need regular maintenance and timely overhaul. Owing to lockdown extensions, the machines will face degradation. Most of the transport services thrive on bank loans. In these turbulent times the EMIs pose a serious challenge. Till now, nothing concrete has been said or done in this regard. Several places where tourism serves as the sole source of income for the people have been the worst affected. List of people affected the most include hotel and lodge owners, drivers, travel agents, tour guides, owners of small restaurants and eateries, and regional craftsmen and artistes.

The government has been mostly proactive in dealing with the pandemic. The nationwide lockdown and economic package for the poor bear a testimony to this. The Prime minister in his latest declaration has announced a substantial chunk of GDP as a relief package for medium and small enterprises. It is still unclear how much of that is aimed for revival of hospitality industryan industry that contributes close to 10 percent of the GDP and employs over 8 percent of the labour force. One can just hope of a generous share out of the package. It may just be the panacea for an industry whose death is imminent. State governments also need to lend a supporting hand. Lowering electricity and other utilities rates, suspension of various local taxes and easing other regulations may also reduce the burden. Waiver of the bills for the next few months will be a welcome measure.

Across the country we have SEZs, why can’t centres of tourism come under the ambit of SEZs? Such centres may be provided with some additional perks like tax relief, subsidised rates for hotel supplies, subsidised fuel etc. Since the goods producing industries will now operate with a much lower labour force, the cost of production will also increase. Add to it the mandatory sanitization protocols, the prices of general use items may shoot up by 25 to 30 percent. All this will trickle down to the customers, the tourists, in this case. This will also act as a deterrent to tourism. Exempting tourism from GST might just pull down the rise in cost. The tourism industry is thus at the mercy of the government.

 

Once the lock down is lifted, other economic activities will resume, albeit slowly. Agriculture will restart, markets will reopen and production of essentials and even non-essentials will commence. Now that people focus on bare essentials, planning a vacation will be the last thing on their mind. Various modes of travel are suspended. Even if the services resume, people will hesitate in stepping out. The future is bleak and there are no signs of recovery for the future. The hospitality industry is looking into a dark tunnel with no ray of hope.  

One solitary positive aspect of the COVID-19 has been the restoration of nature. Mother nature has been at her prime in the past few weeks. Pollution levels have dropped and air and water quality have improved significantly. A deep breath of the mountain air or a gulp of the clear river water is sufficient to rejuvenate the gloomy minds. Hope sustains life! So one can be just hopeful of a COVID vaccine sometime soon. It is the only development that can restore faith in people’s minds. People will travel to new places, meet new people, make new friends without hesitation. Well, all this needs to be seen in the future, but till then the heart can only pray for the well-being of all.

“सर्वे  सन्तु  निरामयाः”

 

Cover Image by K. Kliche from Pixabay

Palghar Lynching and the Individuals Who Make the Mob

Observe yourself. Look at your thoughts. Understand your speech. Fathom your actions. Now, with all those weapons at your disposal – do you stand with the lynched, the mob that lynched, or the policemen who served the Sadhus on a silver platter to a bloodthirsty mob? If this doesn’t help, ask yourself if you have done anything in your life to prevent such a blood-curdling incident, or on the opposite, have your weapons actually further strengthened such forces? We incessantly post hateful comments, we alienate people we don’t like, we write a deceitful article, we keep hiding the flaws of things and people we love, and then we go to bed with a self-bravo on our back while remaining completely unaware of what we have contributed to. There are people of course who do it on purpose and paycheck but I’m not writing to them.

 

We choose a side according to our predilections. Our group identities are running on a rampage. First, we are Hindus or Muslims or Brahmins or Dalits. These group identities give anonymity to the individual. The individual no longer has to bear the burden of his face and individual identity. He becomes part of a group – no matter how small or big. The group has a mask. This mask hides everyone. The question is who is it hiding the individual from? 

 

The first person an individual needs to hide from is himself – his own conscience. We keep judging our actions everyday. Imagine how much you judged and punished yourself the last time you reprimanded your kid. How is it possible then, that an individual goes and kills 3 people with such nonchalance? The mobocracy hides the individual from his own conscience and this makes it easier for him to do what the mob does. “We were not wrong when we voted our Member of Parliament in on the basis of our group identity, how can we get wrong now? This person must be punished.” The second person this individual is hiding from is the person standing next to him. It’s not that it’s just you who judges yourself. Usually, if you are a youngster, more specifically a juvenile, and you get into a silly fight with your friend out in public, someone will come and chide both of you to end the scuffle. That’s a responsibility an individual of a civilized society takes upon himself without anyone telling him to do so. Why then, the person standing next to a kid who is about to murder someone does not do the same thing when he is part of a mob? Of course, the other person is hiding from his own conscience first. Secondly, he also needs protection from the kid’s conscience. The symbiotes assist each other, become stronger than they were alone, and feel the rush of all-consuming power from inside out before they go for the kill. A life or several lives end. People outrage. People blame the group they hate. Job is done. Only problem – the symbiotes keep coming back.

 

So, what are the group identities involved here? A group of offended muslims because a group member’s daughter loved a Hindu boy, a group of offended gaurakshaks because a few muslims were smuggling cows, a group of offended villagers because somebody stole their child, and a group of angry policemen determined to prove their worth to the country as well as their power over a failed judiciary – these are a few groups that have in recent times been accused or found guilty of lynching. For the entire length of their lives on media – social or otherwise, these killers are referred to with their group name – a few more often than others sometimes. The 2 sadhus and 1 driver – namely – Sushil Giri Maharaj, Nilesh Telgane, and Chikane Maharaj Kalpavrikshgiri were being referred to as thieves or alleged thieves by the media outlets till the time those agonizing visuals came out. On one side, there was hardly any outrage before this and on the other side, once the visuals came out and it was conclusively proved that these were sadhus, a very consorted movement was launched to pin the blame on muslims. On the opposite camp, the people who usually lose their heads and leave no stone unturned to shame every Hindu of the country when an individual of Islamic faith loses his life in a similar situation began to shed ‘I told you so’ and ‘Now, you know how it feels’ tears of joy over the corpses of these men. 

It is not very difficult to see that if we cared about the individual, the outrage would have come two days ago. If we had cared enough to understand that no matter the group identity, an individual’s life should not be lost this way, we wouldn’t hurt each other in riots after riots. If we had cared about the life of the last person standing in the queue of our country’s civilizational progress, we wouldn’t have beaten up the doctors and nurses who have become our first line of defence in these disheartening times. 

 

Research Psychologist Irving Janis (1918-1990) who coined the term ‘GroupThink’ (inspired by Orwell’s DoubleThink) gives eight symptoms to identify GroupThink – 

 

Type I: Overestimations of the group — its power and morality

  • Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

 

Type II: Closed-mindedness

  • Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

 

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

  • Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  • Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  • Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  • Mindguards— self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

 

To see an example, between 347 and 504 unarmed people were killed by the U.S. Army soldiers in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War on 16 March 1968. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated as were children as young as 12. In Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing, a veteran described talks about the “ordinary, basically decent American soldier”

“You put those same kids in the jungle for a while, get them real scared, deprive them of sleep, and let a few incidents change some of their fear to hate. Give them a sergeant who has seen too many of his men killed by booby traps and by lack of distrust, and who feels that Vietnamese are dumb, dirty and weak, because they are not like him. Add a little mob pressure, and those nice kids who accompany us today would rape like champions.”

 

Add social media to the mix and groupthink becomes a godzilla that we can essentially refer to as MobThink. I can be meaner on social media than I would normally be with you in person without much of a regret. We create echo-chambers where we keep listening to thoughts and people we like. We hate with much greater gusto augmented by a sense of apathy for the opposite side. We mock people with gau-mutra slurs, we keep calling them puncture-wala, we insult each others’ Gods, we keep insulting the migrants in our states, we keep junking languages our mothers didn’t speak, we keep blaming Brahmins for all the wrongs done to us, we keep discriminating against the Dalits, this is a never ending list. There is always someone else responsible for our failures and problems. 

 

The other group or mob loses all its rights to exist. While social media has come to the party late, its rise and ways retrospectively explain what has been happening in our society for a long time. We are raised to conform. We inherit groups and segregations of caste, language, culture, wealth status, religion, dietary choices and what not. Naturally, we inherit groupthink too. The inheritance might not have been a problem if the individual is given his due place but we spend a lifetime being taught that a group is bigger than the individual. Conformity is expected, resistance is condemned, and quickly a whole society forgets that it is made up of individuals who must have the freedom to think, to question, to discriminate between ideas to become a productive unit of the society. That is a utopian dream though. The group-leader who keeps flipping between leading the groupthink and falling victim to it, is the only individual who is important. Rest are born to follow, propagate the virus of group-thinking, and die facing dystopian realities. 

 

To use an analogy from the story of Ramayana, Vibhishan, who was the only one to see the right in the middle of so many wrongs and could stand against the groupthink of Ravan and his associates is remembered more as a traitor than an individual who had a mirror of truth in his hand to show to the society. On the other hand, Ram had a group of people around him who thought differently and had different solutions to the same problems. From Lakshman who wanted Ram to punish the Ocean God against Ram’s preferred way of prayers to Hanuman who finds out Sita’s whereabouts and Angad who happened to be the son of Baali who was earlier killed by Ram, each individual had a specific role to play in the victory of Lanka. While the epic was written for us to perhaps aspire and work for individual excellence leading to a group’s progress, we have degenerated into clusters of Lanka where the only task at hand is to protect Ravans of the society and their criminal behaviour. Vibhishans are still unpopular and are getting kicked out from their groups with the same disdain and alacrity. This way, mobs preserve their homogeneity and commit to thoughts and acts where everyone is always a participant and no one is ever guilty.

 

What part of the incident should we choose to get shocked at? Should we be shocked that a group of people can kill three people without a moment of hesitation? Or should we be horrified at the fact that the police, which employs a large number of individuals who otherwise derive great joy and frolic by carelessly raining lathis over the vulnerable, literally handed over these men to the hunters as if they were the mob’s marked prey? Or should we be surprised that such an incident could happen in a country under strict lockdown? The lockdown doesn’t surprise us anymore though. Since it began, we have read news about doctors and nurses becoming victims of mob violence in different parts of the country. As recently as yesterday, there are reports coming from Tamil Nadu that the ambulance carrying Simon Hercules’ body, a doctor and medical entrepreneur who ran the New Hope Private Hospital and died of a coronavirus infection, was attacked and his cremation resisted by a mob. 

 

As long as we keep hiding behind the mask of a mob or a group, this is not going to change. The mask has to fall and it is time to bring the individual in focus, the same individual that was taught to us as the basic unit of society and then conveniently forgotten. Individualism holds that a person taking part in society attempts to learn and discover what his or her own interests are on a personal basis, without a presumed following of the interests of a societal structure (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not follow one particular philosophy, rather creates an amalgamation of elements of many, based on personal interests in particular aspects that he/she finds of use. On a societal level, the individualist participates on a personally structured political and moral ground. Independent thinking and opinion is a common trait of an individualist.” For Carl Jung, individuation is a process of transformation, whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality. It is a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche to take place. Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development. 

 

Evidently, our current central process of human development is rotten and individuals go unaccountable. Since mobs either have no answers and generally possess the demonic power of mob-justice with them, can we absolve ourselves from the sins of these groups? Do we stand the rigours of morality an individual must abide by? We don’t! There was a time when to get such results, psychologists needed elaborate experimental setups. Several psychological experiments of the past have shown that if put in a situation where we – yes, I and you, had a choice to follow a mob to commit an act of crime or not, we are more likely to join the mob.

 

Right now, social media is a live laboratory of several experiments and one doesn’t need to make much effort to see how we join warring mobs online – sometimes against another mob and many a time against an individual. We keep killing our own individualism and vacate more spaces for the mobs to assemble and kill more individuals. When we keep planting the seeds of hatred every day in our lives, how can we expect to out-outrage the lynch mobs? Our polity is filled with individuals hiding behind these hate-mobs, our universities and institutions are saturated with hate-mobs, our media has prime-timed hate in our living rooms. Our government system has accepted people who come out during the elections, use the power of this mob to spew venom against other groups, and then crawl back to their hole with zero accountability or repercussions. Our public discourse is largely ‘against somebody’ than ‘for anything’. Our inner dialogue has disappeared under the pressures of conformity to the lynch-mob psyche. Why does it surprise us then that three people have been killed in the most gruesome manner possible? Are you sure that you are not the rumour-monger of the town who will effect more such killings in the days to come?