Sharell has already done a post on the Indian proclivity for spitting in public. And I quite like the numbering convention she’s come up with, so I have taken the liberty of borrowing that for my post.

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We all know that we’re the sort of people who like to treat the world as our spittoon. But this post is about some specific aspects of that general trait.

I was driving to work the other day, and there happened to be a bike as well an auto in front of me.  Up ahead, there was the carcass of a dog on the road, clearly roadkill from the night before. As the bike swerved to avoid the mangled remains, both the rider as well as the chap sitting pillion spat at the corpse in synchronised unison. Ptooeey, ptooeey. Two wet globs of spit landed on the carcass. Not to be outdone, the auto guy followed with a contribution of his own, his phlegmatic discharge twinkling in the morning sun as it, too, found its mark. Bizarre. Almost made me wonder if I was breaking some hoary tradition by not following suit.

That got me thinking about other strange Indian spitting rituals. Have any of the male readers here noticed what goes on around them in the men’s restroom at any multiplex, especially when it’s chock-a-block during the interval? Invariably, many of the men there extend their necks (gingerly) and then spit (not so gingerly) into the urinal before tucking themselves (again, gingerly) back into their flies. Now, I’m nothing if not a Scientific Simian. I therefore decided to observe this phenomenon afresh, and, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, visited a multiplex over the weekend. The results, I must report, were the same. A good number of people (statistically significant?) went thoooh in the loo. I don’t know what pissed them all off, but they did end up looking like spitting images of each other.

So folks, can anyone explain these rituals to me? Why would people passing by roadkill spit on it? And why do men feel the urge to spit while they are peeing? I, for one, am completely baffled. Any answers?

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It’s official. We’re now a banana republic. I had this sneaking suspicion that we were well on our way when Kapil Sibal started his machinations last year; no doubts remain now that a Professor at Jadavpur University has been arrested for “spreading” a cartoon that shows Mamta Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi and Mukul Roy in “a poor light” (sic)

Poor light? Really? Newsflash, Didi. Idolising their subjects is not the way cartoons usually make people laugh.

Arresting somebody for expressing his views to people on his email list? Is that the kind of country we have become? First it was obscenity or “offending religious sentiments”. Now it seems you can be imprisoned for cartoons that express dissent, disapproval or just a different point of view.

The way we’re going – corruption, institutional decay, rising intolerance in both the private and public spheres, the economy down the crapper – I seriously need to contemplate emigration. Perhaps a country which, over the next couple of years, might be in a place better than where we’re headed.

Quirkynorthkorean? Has a nice ring to it, I must say.

Indyeah has resurfaced with another long (no surprises there!), well-meaning post that asks why we seem to be Punjabis, Jats, Malayalis, Yadavs, Dalits and Kannadigas, but not Indians. A post written, I suspect, more in hope, idealism and perhaps frustration than anything else.

So, who is an Indian? Ask me. I really don’t belong anywhere – including the place where my ancestors lived. At any place in India, wherever I go, my identity and acceptance –and therefore my ability to function as a normal human – seem to hinge on my speaking a particular language, or my belonging to a certain caste, a certain religion, a certain ethnicity. The boundaries of identity that we have been drawing around ourselves seem to be getting tighter and tighter, as we discover reason after reason for some new fissure, a fresh fracture. Ironically, the only place within India where I will be labelled and identified (and therefore hated) as Indian is Kashmir.

I don’t see this changing. If anything, I see these fissures getting wider and deeper. Why, you ask? Well, for one, constitutionally-guaranteed-right-to-work-anywhere-in-India or not, migration will always happen. Both from within the country and outside. We might grow from 6 cities that are economic magnets, for instance, to 12 cities that attract the bulk of the migrants. But the flow of migrants is not going to stop – at most, it might ease somewhat. Then there’s this wonderful concept of identity, honed to a fine art in this country called India. The politics of identity feeds on the concept of the ‘other’. My thesis is that migration will not stop. Ergo, the conclusion is that neither will the politics of identity. Not here, not anywhere. But here’s what’s worse – even if I am wrong, and migration does stop, the politics of identity will never go away. If there’s no ‘other’ from ‘outside’, well, a new ‘other’ will be created, from the existing, deceptively homogeneous mass. There will always be new players who will want power and a piece of the pie – and they will slice and dice identities until, quite literally, there might come a day when the politics of identity will reach ridiculous levels. You know, when we have political parties like the Mylapore Dravida Nadar Catholic Kazhagam, or the Nizamuddin East Punjabi Hindu Khatri Janata Vikas Manch.

And don’t think I’m trying to be funny here. (Well, maybe a little…). But isn’t it true that we have moved into an era of even greater fragmentation, where everyone seems to be getting violently agitated about the same things – caste, language, religion, region – but in a more granular way? Witness the rise of the sub-categories: sub-castes, dialects, sects, sub-sects and sub-ethnicities.

Of course, we will have the usual apologists who dole out the same tired clichés about how great India is notwithstanding all this…their arguments (and that’s being charitable) seem to be in the form of ‘only 60 years, so much progress, growing economy, survived global recession, hum honge kaamyab, superpower’ without looking at either our trajectory or the direction in which we are heading.

A bunch of businessmen getting richer and entering the global list of billionaires is great. The emergence of a middle class more prosperous than the previous generation is wonderful. A million or so bloggers having collective orgasms about India’s place in the world is fantastic. But we seem to forget that timelines have been seriously crunched in this age we live in. Each generation demands faster and quicker change. All this optimism – we shall overcome, we are the best and other such infantile fantasies – does not seem to have much basis in reality, unless of course the reality is that these optimists live in a mythical India far, far way from the dust, grime and poverty of the real one. The real India in which – depending on which definition you use – around a third of the population lives in poverty. The real India in which a great part of the country is wracked by a deeply-entrenched and violent Maoist insurgency. The real India where half the children are underweight. The real India where the forgotten millions live, struggling to make ends meet, without access to water or basic health care. Did I mention primary education? This cheery list could go on.

But Indyeah’s article was more an attempt to find solutions. Well, to be proud of being Indians, we first need to be proud of India. And we can be proud of a better India. So there we go. That’s the ultimate question, as far as we are concerned. Do you want Better India? Yes. Can we expect anything good from Our Great Rulers? No. So now it’s down to us.

I believe small things can make a difference. While Indians don’t give back to society and are not philanthropists in any sense of the word, we could – and should – guide the next generation in that direction. We can just start by behaving like good citizens. Let’s be courteous to our fellow citizens – in small ways, in the way that we dispose off our trash, in the way we drive, in the way we stand in queues and generally in the way we behave, especially in public areas. Let’s teach our children these small things. Perhaps they’ll be better people than us. Better People.

Pay for an underprivileged child’s education – fees, books, the works. Any child in your immediate vicinity. Ideally, as far as resources and time permit, do more than that – take an interest in her education. Monitor her progress. Interact with her. Hopefully, that child will learn something other than what is in books, and perhaps the India of 2030 might be a slightly better place than the one of today – and that’s not really a big ask!

I truly believe this is something small enough to easily do, but big enough to matter.

(The Original Cynical QI Will Be Back In The Next Post)

Edited to add: A little over a year after we first had this discussion, Indyeah has written another post on the Freedom of Expression. Not much has changed in this one year – at least not for the better. Both the editor and publisher of The Statesman were arrested in Kolkata for reprinting a certain article, a certain word was beeped out of a song in the film Kaminey, Hussain accepted Qatari citizenzhip in the face of continued exile from his country and an article allegedly written by Taslima caused riots in Karnataka. We still have people rising in defence – rightly so – of Hussain’s Freedom of Expression. These very people seem a little reluctant to give Taslima – or the duo from The Statesman – the benefit of that same right.

The arguments of those condemning Taslima range from the ridiculous to the stupid. For instance, a few people claimed that as a guest in this country, she shouldn’t have written what she did. Let us, for a moment, concede this point, preposterous as the argument may be. But what about the right of an Indian newspaper – both the paper in Karnataka and The Statesman in Kolkata – to publish an article written by a foreign national?

Amidst renewed clamour for even more restrictions on our already constitutionally-curtailed right to the Freedom of Expression, something that has taken considerable beating from all kinds of goons and hooligans, it is absolutely critical that we safeguard and cherish that right. As I concluded in my post a year ago, this right is the only thing slowing our eventual transformation into a banana republic.

Unfortunately, we seem to have made rapid strides in that direction in this one year.

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Indyeah wrote two passionate posts on why the freedom of expression should be restricted so as to not offend certain people. I left a comment on her blog, but had some further thoughts, so I may as well write on it here. I wrote:

“I agree, freedom should be accompanied by responsibility. However, the responsibility can never be ‘forced’. If I were to give my position in one line it is this: Your freedom of expression has more value than my right not to get offended.

I might disagree with your statements, your books, your drawings, your views. But I cannot deny you the right to have that freedom. I might not allow it on my blog (because that’s my property), but I will never question the freedom you have to put it on yours, or the freedom of other people who show the stuff on their blogs/newspapers/channels.

Freedom of speech and expression can never be compromised. Because once you compromise and give in to one pressure group – however loud or violent their methods, or however hurt they may be – you have opened the doors for everyone else to come in. And that is the end of freedom. Yesterday it was Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin. Today you have objections to Water, Fire, Deshdrohi, the term “Slumdog”, and the term “Barber”. Tomorrow it might be something equally stupid. Once you give in to one group, and compromise, what reason can you give other groups? That their offended feelings are not good enough? Where do you draw the line?

Every freedom, every liberal principle derives from the freedom of expression. Take it away once, and you are already rolling downhill towards intolerance. India is a prime example.

And for all those who are offended: please don’t watch the films, read/buy/gift the books, view the cartoons, see/buy/gift the paintings, or put up links to those on your blogs. But you can’t stop the person from his right to have that opinion, and the rights of others to publish or display it.

For example, you may choose to not publish this comment. You have every right to do so, as it is your blog. But I have every right to retain my views, and express them freely on my blog, or on any other platform that might allow me to do so. Ditto for Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima, Danny Boyle and the girls who went to the pub in Mangalore.

Because the moment the state upholds the right not to be offended over the right to free expression, it is just a matter of time before Mangalore happens. Please remember that.”

Further, my view is that anyone who believes that Rushdie, MF Hussain or Taslima should have exercised “creative restraint” (an oxymoron) is no different from Muthalik. Shocking? Let me explain why.

Implicit in Indyeah’s argument is the judgment that the hounding of Rushdie, the killings of Theo van Gogh and Hitoshi Igarashi, the vandalism, violence and persecution that MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin, Deepa Mehta and the supporters of Laines’ work have been subjected to were ‘invited’, because their works and expressions hurt people, ‘immature’ people who then resorted to violence as a form of protest. It is also implied that ‘creative restraint’ would have negated the need for ‘provoked’ violence.

So how is this different from Muthalik? He is offended that Indian women were drinking alcohol and wearing clothes that hurt his sentiments – both of which were legitimate ‘expressions’ of the women concerned. Legitimate expressions of emancipation, modernity, an independent income, a culture they believed in, legitimate expressions of their right to choose. Muthalik and his goons were offended, and they resorted to violence, exactly like the Islamic fanatics in the case of Rushdie and Taslima, and the Hindu fanatics in the case of Hussain, Mehta and Laines. By the same logic, if the women had exercised ‘restraint’, the violence (implicitly ‘invited’ and ‘provoked’) would never have happened.

What gives any of us the right to condemn the latter, without condemning the former? Who am I to decide that Muthalik was wrong in feeling offended – and resorting to violence – but that the people who attacked Hussain et al. were legitimately offended and worthy of support?

I feel her argument condemns Muthalik (and rightly so), but seeks to exonerate (against every civilised principle) the other goons for similar crimes.

Freedom of expression cannot give in to pressure groups. And to counter her argument’s biggest fallacy, it is not just about artists glorifying genitalia (and so what if they do?) – it is about all of us and our choices. Once you compromise, where do you draw the line? There will be more Muthaliks tomorrow who will be offended by the most trivial things, none related to art.

Indyeah mentions, in support of her thesis, that we already have restrictions on our fundamental rights, so why the fuss? Correct. The exceptions to the Right to Freedom are so vaguely worded that the government can see just about anything as violating all of those provisions. But the fact that it’s a fait accompli doesn’t make it right.

She asks, what is the solution in India? No one knows. But I know the solution does not lie in curtailing freedom. It does not lie in capitulating, as the state has, to certain pressure groups – because that only signals to others that the state is willing to compromise, depending on the levels of noise and violence. The battle’s lost right there. Such surrender, and restrictions on freedom, will only embolden newer fanatics. Is that what we want?

Finally, contrary to her assumption, I have no illusions about India ever turning into a civilised, tolerant nation. I would, however, value freedom of expression because it is one of the few things that will slow – not stop, just slow – our inevitable transformation into a banana republic. We’re almost there, anyway. While it is my fond hope that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’m not holding my breath.

The honourable Congress MP from Goa, Shantaram Naik, made a statement in Parliament to the effect that women who socialise with strangers beyond midnight invite rape. His remark was later expunged – I love this word – from the records of the House. It’s as if those words were never said. Would that it were that easy for the victims to expunge the memories of rape…..as if it never happened. And why blame this man, when the Chief Minister of Delhi, herself a woman, believes that a woman travelling alone at night invites trouble? And, given her liberal parole-granting record, we can safely guess that she also believes a woman working in a bar after midnight is asking to be shot.

So, I thought to myself, let me get this argument straight. What do we have here? What does this argument, so often touted by our law-makers, imply? Well, here’s what Naik actually wished to say but couldn’t fully articulate (he’s a politician after all!): a prostitute deserves being coerced into a sexual act by cops. A woman out at night with strangers deserves to be raped. A woman out at night with friends deserves to be raped. A student travelling on a rickshaw with her brother deserves to be raped. A female tourist in India deserves to be raped. A girl spending time with her boyfriend deserves to be raped. A two-and-a-half year old child deserves to be raped. A mentally-challenged twelve-year old girl deserves to be raped.

Well, I know I am a little slow, but I finally got it. What Naik and his ilk actually meant is this: if you have a vagina, you deserve to be raped.

I think that’s a very clever argument. And we are extremely fortunate to have such people decide our destinies. It’s just a matter of time before these bright sparks figure out that this line of thinking – ‘blame the victim’ – can be extended to many other sticky situations. Say I die in a terror attack. Clearly it was my fault. Why was I out shopping, or eating out, or even travelling in a train? I should have stayed home. I deserved it. And if I die because the overloaded boat I’m on capsizes? You guessed it. My fault again. Who told me to take a holiday? I should have stayed home. I deserved it.

Ok, I get it. I should be home. But what if I die at home? Say terrorists attack my building and shoot me dead. Or, if I wish for a relatively more prosaic ending, my unauthorised, bribe-enabled and therefore sub-standard building collapses. What then?

Why, then we have the failsafe! That’s right, you suckers, we’ll expunge that awkward question!

See? It’s as if it was never asked.

Expunged. I just love that word.

In 1947, there were approximately 568 princely families controlling our destinies. They, along with a few thousand zamindars and other members of the minor royalty, formed an elite corp, completely insulated from the rest of India. Going by their incomes and lifestyles, they may as well have been from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as the rest of India was concerned. By and large, these families had no abiding interest in the progress, development or betterment of their fiefdoms and peoples and sought only to perpetuate their power, which was the source of their incomes and therefore lifestyles. The faceless masses, with their aspirations, dreams and nightmares, may as well have been from some other planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as this bunch was concerned.

In 2009, there are approximately 543 princely families controlling our destinies. They, along with a few thousand MLAs, MLCs, Corporators and other members of the minor royalty, form an elite corp, completely insulated from the rest of India. Going by their incomes and lifestyles, they may as well be from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as the rest of India is concerned. By and large, these families have no abiding interest in the progress, development or betterment of their fiefdoms and peoples and seek only to perpetuate their power, which is the source of their incomes and therefore lifestyles. The faceless masses, with their aspirations, dreams and nightmares, may as well be from some other small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as this bunch is concerned.

We sure have come a long way!

On 26 November 1949, the Constituent Assembly unanimously adopted the Constitution of India. In the debate leading up to that event, Dr. B.R Ambedkar, as Chairman of the Drafting Committee, spoke at length about the way the committee went about preparing the draft for the document that was to be the Constitution of India. But he also, in the latter part of his remarkable speech, made a few incredible observations that ring truer today than at any time in the past. Dr. Ambedkar, quite apart from being an extremely erudite man, also had great foresight.

For example, he wondered if India would lose its independence again, and said: “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only has India once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of her own people”. He cited quite a few instances in our glorious history to underline this point.

And then he went on to say: “….in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place their country above creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know, but this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever.

He listed three things that he felt were essential for the preservation of our constitutional democracy:

The first thing in my judgment we must do is hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives…..it means we must abandon the methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha……these methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy….

The second thing we must do is observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions…..This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

The third point he made in this connection was how critical it was to integrate and incorporate the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in our democracy. And not just by mouthing platitudes.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, as President of the Constituent Assembly, said in his speech that followed Dr. Ambedkar’s: “…..I would have liked to have some qualifications for members of the legislatures. It is anomalous that we should insist upon high qualifications for those who administer or help in administering the law but none for those who make it except that they are elected. A law giver requires intellectual equipment but even more than that capacity to take a balanced view of things, to act independently and above all to be true to those fundamental things of life – in one word – to have character. It is not possible to devise any yardstick for measuring the moral qualities of a man, and so long as that is not possible, our Constitution will remain defective”.

The rising trend of politicians and parties to relegate the larger interest to the garbage bin and focus on self-aggrandisement instead, the increasing prevalence and acceptance of unconstitutional and usually violent means of protest and of making your voice heard,  the growing cult of nepotism, dynastic succession & absolute power as well as our apathetic surrender of the reins of the country to those whose place is actually in prison –  all in the name of the will of the people – this was foreseen, more than sixty years ago, by those who gave us our freedom and our constitution.

Eerily prophetic, both of them. Our country truly misses leaders of this calibre.

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If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, we sure as hell haven’t paid for ours.