When reality resembles satire

Over the last week, much that has happened across India resembled something out of a satirical novel or a dystopian play. 

The news from JNU and the subsequent court drama took me back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As I looked at the direction we have taken in the last two years, the parallels with Swifts masterpiece satire became even more stark. Written in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical travelogue capturing the voyages made by Lemuel Gulliver, to remote and beguiling corners of the world. While filled with nonsense characters and countries, Swift’s book is a cynical comment on the rot prevalent in the politics, society and imperceptibly, human nature of his times.

Each voyage represents the sordid reality of Swift’s age. In Lilliput he is given shelter and refuge and he helps the Lilliputians pacify their neighbours, the Blefuscudians. However, he does not help Lilliput make it a colony, and is charged with ‘treason’, convicted and sentenced to be blinded, before he escapes. The commentary on the politics of the age is omnipresent. The despotic and ceremony obsessed emperor of the small Lilliputians was actually based on King George, the first, King of England from 1714 to 1727. The Low heels and the High heels – the two political parties of Lilliput – represent the Tories and Whigs. The reasoning behind the justice system and the flailed understanding of treason and sedition underline this section.

In another voyage, Gulliver is stranded on remote islands near India. Here he is rescued by a flying island, where science, mathematics, music, and astronomy are promoted, without pragmatic ends. The interests in innovation lacks scientific temper, reasoning or rationality. The citizens cannot develop infrastructure because their instruments of measurements are compasses and quadrants, rather than tape measure. They believe in astrology and live in houses without right angles. The society is male dominated and women want to leave, and never return. The leaders throw rocks at the cities on the ground, to curb dissent and discontent. In another country, resources are spent to uncover the political conspiracies of suspicious persons by examining their excrement. The citizens extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and mix paint colours by smell instead of pigments. Elsewhere, Gulliver encounters utopia, however, under the rule of beast like creatures called Houyhnhnms, over the savage humans – the Yahoos.

Over the last week, much that has happened across India resembled something out of a satirical novel or a dystopian play. Bedrocks of a liberal democracy – freedom of speech and expression were threatened. Sedition was diluted to problematic and misinformed slogans by a bunch of  students, and suddenly, dictated interpretations of nationalism, patriotism and citizenship were in vogue. Grave issues of national security were based on tweets by parody accounts, giving legitimacy to a response by hardened terrorists – to the home Minister of India. Law and order became subverted notions to be debated and discussed, rather than implemented. Lawyers beat up journalists, in front of a court, and the police defined this incident as a mere ‘scuffle’. A 207 feet tall national flag across universities, is now looked at as a solution to all the problems that seemingly ail higher education in India.

When good satire is written, it adds intellectual capital to the field of literature. It is entertaining and interesting for a reader to look beneath the lines, dissect and unbundle the metaphors and allegories. Whether it be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Joseph Keller’s Catch 22 or even Kafka’s Metamorphosis, each depicts reality through the author’s reimagination of it. However when reality starts to resemble satire, its ends can be frightening.

Over the last two years, we have often seen the ridiculous gain traction as legitimate news across the country. It has been best to ignore these and move on. The meat of an animal being used as evidence for harassment, mob violence, and even murder; Unpunished and casual shouting of “Go Back to Pakistan” by members of a ‘fringe’ to legitimate Indian citizens, sans condemnation. Ghar Waapsi and Love jihad emerging as actual concepts; Valentine’s Day being renamed as Matru Pitru Pujan Diwas; (Most recently, a criminal goat getting arrested in Chattisgarh.) These absurd headlines are funny, when you read them at first. However, ignoring each of them and letting them fly past as silliness of a population segment, have eventually allowed serious and grave discourses be converted to satirical and dystopian realities.

It should be worrying, that a few days before the national Budget, (and during the Make in India week in Mumbai) India’s discourse was concerted on student politics and dissent – within a single university. The gross breakdown of law and order tarnished the credibility of institutions, and the enforcers of the rule of law. The government – one which was able to shed its controversial past, reconstruct its image, and emerge as a credible alternative across masses – has lost its plot over absurd issues. Instead of appropriating and propagating issues related to growth, development, foreign policy, investment, employment, education – terms with tangible outcomes that it once promised to address, it is allowing majoritarianism, and all associated rot to percolate down to its core and infiltrate the system. It is losing sight of governance, law and order, and needs to urgently recalibrate its priorities and agenda. Unless its mandate now legitimately includes making contemporary India resemble one of Gulliver’s many satirical voyages.

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The questions over the refugee crisis

How will countries mitigate the contrast between realism and protecting national interests – while allowing for humanitarian assistance and migrant absorption?

As of August 2015, over 300,000 refugees have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe. 2500 have died in this attempt. The refugee (or migrant) crisis in Europe is touted as one of the gravest challenges facing the continent since the aftermath of World War 2. This crisis has allowed for binary arguments over the issue. On one hand, the domestic response in many European nations, triggered by the tragic photo of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned at sea, has led to public outcry. In many countries, the public consensus is that Europe cannot sit idle to a humanitarian and migration catastrophe taking place in Syria. On the other hand, State response to the migration by many European countries has been more pragmatic and nuanced.

A country such as Germany has a strong economy along with the financial, administrative and legal resources to tackle the challenges of the flow of migrants. The demographic reality of the country is that a third of Germany’s population will be over the age of 65 by 2060. The country will struggle to pay for care and pensions for its elderly, and the working age people could shrink by one-third to 34 million. As an ageing economy, migrants offer work force and skilled labour for the country and in the long term, allow for technical and entrepreneurial expansion. Germany absorbing thousand of refugees within its borders sends out another strong signal. Criticised heavily for its role in the Greek debt crisis, Germany created a very different narrative for itself in European Union, and Angela Merkel who had previously received disapproval for the austerity measures imposed on Southern Europe, emerged as a leader with compassion for humanitarian assistance and pragmatic reasoning to look at the German national interest outside the ambit of pure altruism.

However, migrant crisis always come with their own risks and challenges – no matter how robust the physical and policy infrastructure of the host country. Integration of a religiously, ethnically and culturally diverse population segment takes massive effort on the part of the host country, and the willingness of the migrant population to accept the new. Even in Germany, incidents such as the sexual assaults on women during New Year’s celebrations in Cologne have shifted local perceptions towards the migrants, and threatened the rule of law, with the German Law minister confirming that many migrants will now be deported. Such incidents have led to an immediate trust deficit and a sense of insecurity at both ends. Countries such as Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Denmark and Lithuania have been explicit in stating that they have constrained resources and they lack the experience to integrate non-European (and often non-Christian) population segments.

In the past, whether it was the aftermath of the World War, or other events that triggered mass migrant movement, the challenges facing the host country were primarily to do with the conflicts between the local and the alien. Issues of culture, language and identity played a role, along with the need for realistic integration strategies. Outside of this, issues of welfare, taxation and employment were the core concerns. However, the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the crisis in Syria, and the growth and infiltration of the ISIS has led to a change in the political and social topography of West Asia, and its impact across the world. In the recent terror attacks in Istanbul, the Turkish Prime Minister confirmed that the terrorist was a migrant from Syria who was not on any watch list, hence unmonitored. Turkey has accepted and absorbed almost 2 million refugees and migrants on humanitarian grounds.

In the age of radicalised and networked terror outfits, entrenched ideological dogmas, and extremism stemming from the insecurity of identity (whether political, religious or national), the real challenge that nations will now face with respect to migrant or refugee populations will be defining the role of the migrants within their borders, and carving their place in a new society. The question to ask about the future of migration (especially of the nature seen in Europe) is how will migration change the borders of countries and travel? When stuck between a rock and hard place, how will countries mitigate the contrasting dichotomies between realism and protecting national interests – while allowing for humanitarian assistance and migrant absorption? How does a liberal democracies with active civil societies respond to the pull of protecting and assuring human rights and privacy of individuals while at the same time, seeking to protect their national security and garner intelligence on each citizen? Each of these questions will need a reasoned take, with countries introspecting complex and often conflicting issues.

(Studying the the flow of refugees into India in the past (the Tibetan refugees in 1959, the Chakma infux in 1961, the Bangladeshi refugees in 1971, the Afghan and Myanmar refugees from the 1980s, refugee movements from Bangladesh over the years or the Tamil refuges from Sri Lanka in 80s and again in 1995) and the reasons for their integration could be a useful exercise.)

(This particular piece uses the terms refugee and migrants loosely in the context of the situation it addresses. I will be writing a post on the distinction between the two in the future.)

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A case of The Trial

A review of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial which looks at the history of the criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the trial of OJ Simposon.

“Each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy.”

The law is reason, free from passion. Or so said Aristotle. The crux of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial attempts to prove the opposite. Kadri’s ambitious book looks at the western criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the more recent trial of OJ Simpson. It traces the contours of law, and finds the interdependence of reason with passion, juxtaposing one with the other. Each chapter navigates a particular era, rummages through its social fabric and seeks to explain the evolution of the law. The book is divided into eight thematic and chronological chapters. Kadri explicates notions of fairness and justice, emotions and passions and correlates each to the society and its norms.

While modern criminal trials in western societies are considered secular, founded on reason, their existence has been shaped by religion and superstitions. Kadri tries to poke into these aspects in the first chapter, which looks at the conflict between the need to ‘punish’ and the fear of mistakes. The idea of the law “descending directly from the gods”, and hence the onus of its adjudication on them, is tacitly explored. Kadri uses the story of Oresteia, by Aeschylus – “The oldest courtroom drama” to reflect on the tension between the two ideas of justice that were at odds with one another. The first, assumptions that people were at fault only if they had done evil deliberately. The second, that some deeds demanded punishment, regardless of the perpetrators intention, if the rage of the gods was to be forestalled. Kadri then goes through the trials of the Greek and Roman eras, describing their rationale in detail. He mentions practices such as ordeal (drowning, freezing), combat, compurgation (proving innocence by making gathered crowds swear it) to carve out the idea of justice.

The chapters on The Inquisition (or orthodoxy revisited), The Witch Trial, and the Trials of Animals, Corpses and Things (even against weevils that threatened vineyards, and the “defunct decedents” who died before they could be called for their cases, but were tried after their death) are downright fascinating. They challenge every modern notion of rationality, and portray the banalities that societies across the world considered fair and legal at some point in their history.

The subsequent chapters delve into modern times, starting with the Moscow Show Trials. The chapter on the “War Crimes Trial” – rips the visage of idealism and justice with respect to international law, from the Nuremberg Trials onward. What Kadri calls a “shameful little secret of international criminal law” is the fact that “Nuremberg was conceived in Moscow and came into being despite the wishes of the western allies rather than because of them.” Kadri explains how the western Allied leaders “resolved to reiterate Churchill’s earlier proposals for extrajudicial killings. Stalin would be asked to approve a loss of “50–100… world outlaws” who were to be “executed summarily on capture and without recourse to the method of trial, conviction and judicial sentence”.

The last chapter dedicated to the Jury Trial looks at the modern Jury system and the role and significance of evidence. Kadri details how the Jury system has become a part of every country that saw the shadow of the British Empire, barring a few. He talks about it being a venerated system of justice in the US and UK. Kadri argues that jury trials outline perpetrators as ‘bad’, so as to define what is good. That in exposing criminals to a community denunciation, it reestablishes to the citizens that they are law abiding, morally sound characters in contrast to the immoral defendants being persecuted. Through multiple cases and their absurd resolutions, Kadri then goes on to note how juries are fallible. The most disputed questions at a criminal trial are the credibility of the witnesses, the reasoning behind the beliefs and doubts, and whether such issues demand “social legitimacy” rather than “fiendish cleverness”. He concludes that jurors may not be oracles, but their diversity allows their potential failings to cancel each other out. The “prejudices and stupidities of like-minded professionals are less likely to – and those of one judge never can.”

The Trial is not an easy read. It is encyclopedic and at times hard to digest, given the magnitude of information that has been condensed within its pages. While Kadri notes that the book is specifically on the jury system of criminal trials, it does not adequately address why countries such as India, Singapore and Malaysia do not follow this system. Nor does he assess the deficiencies of other systems in comparison to the Jury system. Though it is thematic, it often digresses from case to case, making too many points at once. However, Kadri’s writing, his analysis peppered with fascinating examples, and passionate interjections absolve most of its flaws and keep the pace. Like his other book Heaven on Earth – a legal history of the Sharia laws across the Muslim world – The Trial attempts to analyse multiple themes and ideas, and then contextualise their relevance through time.

Kadri’s views of the criminal trial often make the reader introspect on the nature of justice. How is justice defined and what does it mean to each stakeholder – the society, the defendant and the victim? Assessing this is not simple. It means understanding the norm, beliefs, identity and geographies of the lands where it was served. It also means understanding that law and order that seek to be evidential and rational, are products of evolving sentiments and emotions, and it is these which eventually frame notions of justice and fairness. Kadri is often pessimistic and cynical of the criminal trial. He reveals its rot and decay, its fallacies, inconsistencies and the blatant misconstruction of the ideas of justice. He looks at the problems with evidence, and the manipulation of arguments that distort the empiricism of the jury.

However, his conclusion is not pessimistic. Like its namesake by Kafka, the book delves into the surreal aspects of a judicial system. Each chapter is punctuated with quotes from Kafka’s novel that reaffirm the absurdity of a system perceived to be an ideal. But the case Kadri does make in his cynical view of the trial is that it is the best of all the alternatives, and that the current form of the judicial system in Western nations has evolved into this state of imperfect perfection, after centuries of trials, errors and realisations. He says that the crucial question remains whether there exists an alternative that can command equal respect and more confidence.

He concludes that each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy. The criminal trial portrays “a state that is sufficiently self controlled to precent public officials from unilaterally deciding anyone’s fate, and humble enough to trust its citizens to watch the law in action – even, sometimes, to do justice themselves”. Kadri affirms that the criminal trial literally enacts the meaning of human dignity –“showing a civilization that treats its most despicable enemies with respect – presuming them innocent, confronting them as equals, and giving them a champion to argue their cause”.

Trials then are more than just idealised or flawed spectacles. They stand as testimonies to the idea that despite human inconsistency and irrationality, the best form of reasoned and well-argued deliberations should always triumph over any instinctive and savage desire for punishment or retribution.

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Amendment to the Child Labour Law

The Amendment to the Child Labour Law is not ideal, but its provisions are better than the existing Law. However, there is a need to demand for bigger, more tangible structures and reforms with respect to children. 

Response to the Amendment to the Child Labour Act, passed by the Cabinet, allowing children below 14 years to work in non-hazardous industry has been passionate. The original Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 banned employment of children below 14 in “only 18 hazardous industries“. The Amendment passed today completely bans children (below 18) from working in any hazardous industry. It allows children below 14 to work in non-hazardous, and family owned enterprises, but only after school and on vacations.

The Amendment also stipulates stricter punishment for employers for violation. While a parent will not be penalised for the first violation (but for subsequent ones), an employer would be liable for punishment from the first time. The penalty for employers has been increased form the existing 20,000 to 50,000. A subsequent offence for employing any child or adolescent in an illegal industry will result in a minimum imprisonment of a year, extendable upto 3. By defining, allowing and forbidding the employment of children in certain types of industries, the Government believes that this provision would act as a deterrent against the offence of employing a child or adolescent in contravention of the law.

Children below 14 in India are heavily exploited. Be it the chai-wala’s at railway stations, shoe polishers on pavements, waiters, domestic workers, young girls digging on agricultural lands – working children are a common sight. The appalling reality is that for many such children, this is the only way to earn a livelihood, support their family, attain rudiments of an education, and survive – especially children who are abandoned, runaways, on the streets, and not identified by the State to belong to one of the two categories – in Need of Care & Protection or in Conflict with the Law.

The problem with this Amendment is not that it allows children to work. It is more than that. First, In India, it is extremely hard to empirically define what is ‘hazardous’ and what is “non-hazardous”. This Amendment also allows children to work in “family business” which is equally ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. It is easy to use child labour in hazardous settings and argue that it is non-hazardous. Industries work on the basis of procurement, production and supply. If a child works in the supply side of hazardous industry (selling), or on the production side, (with heavy machinery), in a non-hazardous industry – how would it be tackled, unless the industry is explicitly defined as one of the two? Earlier, only 18 industries were defined as hazardous. Now, the definitions will need to be expanded to all, with details and precision for each.

Second, This Amendment in principle goes against the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which mandates the state to ensure free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. If a child is allowed to legally work in a non-hazardous industry, would she go to school? And what is the intervention if she does not? To what limit can a child (below 14) be stretched, physically and mentally, between education and employment? A condition set forth in this Amendment is that children should work only after school hours or during vacations. But ensuring this condition is easier in theory than in practice.

Third, while the Government believes that such an Amendment can deter children working in industries in contravention to the law, it also does send out a very negative message. And that simply being, it is now legally OK for children below 14 to be employed. In the last decade, India has seen a plummet in the number of child labourers (from 12.6 million down to 4.3 million). This is believed to be because of enrollment in schools. With this Amendment, education, while mandated can easily become an option and not a compulsion, especially for girls, who because of social norms already demonstrate a high dropout rate in schools.

Child Labour is by no means a desired situation. No child should voluntarily or forcefully be pushed into employment at the cost of his education or even childhood. However, the problem in India is complex. When it comes to children – child labour, protection, welfare, and rights – it would be silly to paint it in black or white. One simply cannot have a monochromatic view of this population group. The stakeholders and situations at play are subjective, and numerous. State machinery and institutions, family – parents and dependent siblings, family circumstances and structure, societal and class norms (where gender and caste play a central role), education and accessibility, the child’s mental and physical condition, specific situations – each has a say and role in the life of a child, before the child. No two cases are the same with respect to child labour and protection.

Child labour takes place in the private confines of homes, and in the public eyes, across the city scapes. When such an Amendment is in the news, instead of assuming the state to impose a reality that we don’t already encounter, there is a need to demand for bigger, more tangible structures with respect to children, which are indeed missing and rectifiable. Robust child protection and welfare setup, terse implementation of child policies, augmented budgets for schemes for children (which was reduced in 2o15), an impartial juvenile justice system, better reformation homes, trained and permanent staff, and so on. Simultaneously, the number of schools, the enrollment, dropout and graduation rates, the quality of teachers, the infrastructure in schools – each needs to me monitored and analysed. While we want to wish away child labour, we also need to wish for things that can be changed with simple policy planning and amendments, and that go a long way in favour of a child.

This Amendment is not an ideal, by any stretch of the imagination. What it advocates for, is not desired. There are multiple loopholes, and flaws in it. But its provisions are better than the previous Law. Opposing such an Amendment is right in principle and in signal. But does it really do anything, when everything that exists before and after the law is often dysfunctional and neglected?

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A State that counts

Pakistan needs tangible numbers that prove the existence of its citizens.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has recently approved a timeline to hold the population and housing census in Pakistan, in March 2016. The preliminary data will be completed by June 2016, while the district wise data reports, will be completed by December 2017. If held as planned, the 2016 census will be the first in 17 years.

Since it creation, Pakistan has held only 5 censuses. The Pakistan Census Organization was established by the new Pakistani government in 1947. The first census, numerating east as well as west Pakistan was held in 1951, followed by the second in 1961. The war of 1971 pushed the next deccenial census by a year, to 1972.  The fourth census was held a decade later, in 1981. The census scheduled in 1991 was mired in political controversies and was held 17 years later, in 1998. The cost of this census was estimated to be 27 million dollars. 170,000 military and 130,000 civilian personnel were a part of this particular exercise. Still, there were apprehensions about the procedures followed, and the authenticity and accuracy of the data produced are questioned till date.

Calls for a census have been made in Pakistan for a long time. The year 2011 had been named the “Population Year” by the Government but this yielded no tangible results. The reasons for this range from flooding in parts of the country, lack of training for the 225,000 census takers, apalling security situations and the complex political scenarios. Pakistan was experiencing rapid urbanisation. The third of the country’s population had long lived in rural areas and 50 percent was expected to live in cities by the 2020s. According to Michael Kugleman, most of Pakistan’s political leadership drew its power from rural landholdings, power that could be greatly reduced if a census confirmed this migration toward cities.

In the 1960s the federal government reorganised West Pakistan into provinces, and each so on the basis of ethnic composition of the population. Punjab
was identified with the majority of Punjabis and Sindhi population. Baluchistan with the Baluchis, and the Northwest Frontier Province with the Pakhtuns. The provinces were each given a quota, reviewed periodically based on the data from the census. This quota determined aspects such as jobs in the Government, revenue expenditures, education (school and university), representation in federal governments, among others.

However, the need for census data in Pakistan is not only to understand population demographics but also for the seat shares in the Parliament, local municipal elections, National Finance Comission Award, subsidies and welfare schemes, infrastructural development, the delimitation of electoral constituencies, security and for any future policy matter.

It is not just the financial allocations and seats in the Parliament, or the ethnic composition of regions that could tip the order in the country. According to Anita M Weiss, the reasons for not holding the census in Pakistan are complex:

First, A census in Pakistan would reveal the ethnic composition of Baluchistan.
Second, it could reveal the growth rate of the city of Karachi and commensurate representation in the national Parliament, and higher quotas for government jobs, university admissions, and the like.
Third, Punjab, the most populous province, would have its share of federal jobs and funding undercut if other provinces falsely boost heir population count.
Fourth, Rural landholdings elites would lose seats in the National Assembly if it turns out that there has been significant population growth in urban areas.
Fifth, Sectarian disputes between Sunni and Shia groups would escalate as one group will certainly decry over counting of the other, thereby fueling the ravaging widespread and random acts of terrorism that these disputes already have wrought;
Sixth, Population growth rates that might be over 3 percent would serve to underscore the state’s failure to raise the status of women. It would further antagonise the culture war brewing between those who advocate the state’s active pursuit of the empowerment of women versus those who advocate state suppression of outside forces, seen as seeking to exploit women and lead them away from their prescribed roles within the culture.
Seventh, it would impact the planning and policy implications, as decisions on where to invest resources are based on population figures and acknowledged needs of such targeted communities.

Any country – even one as convoluted as Pakistan – needs to identify its own statistics. Pakistan’s inability to conduct a stable and empirical census only underlines its volatile and misplaced policy aims. Pakistan is now facing the wrath of the very demons it created. In trying to understand its terrible human development indicators, correct its misplaced infrastructural concerns, or tackle the imploding security challenges – the country needs tangible numbers that prove the existence of its citizens, outside of imprecise guesses. One can only hope that the census takes place as planned next March, with sound results, and the country’s schizophrenic politics do not delay it for another 17 years.

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The Amendment to the JJ Act

There is still a long way to go for holistic reforms within the Juvenile Justice setup.

The Cabinet recently cleared the Amendment to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of children) Act 2000. This Act is the primary act for all cases of Children in Need of Care and Protection and Children in Conflict with the Law. While calls for the amendment to this Act had been making rounds for years, it was after the 2012 Delhi Rape case that it gained traction. One of the prime accused in the case, a minor, was eventually sentenced with the most severe punishment possible under the JJ Act. The Act stipulated that no juvenile could be sentenced to life imprisonment, and the harshest punishment that could be handed out was sending the juvenile to a reformation home for three years. This sentence raised public outrage, and irrational calls for a harsher sentence for the adolescent crimnal, who had already recieved a legally fair sentence, well within the system.

The hue and cry around this sentence was misplaced. The problem was not with the judgment, but with the Act which ignored the realities of contemporary India, and did not pay attention to each case at an individual level. It was then that the need to amend the law accordingly, and discussions on it gained momentum. I have, in the past, written on this topic and on the need for this amendment. One cannot ignore the complexity of this amendment or this population group. However, three reforms have to be made, to overhaul and correct the juvenile justice setup in India.

First, According to the NCBR data (from 2011), 64 percent of all juvenile criminals fall under the category of 16 – 18. While this population is not an adult population, it cannot be clubbed with 8 year olds. There is a need for a special category for ‘adolescents’, between the ages of 16–18, to be dealt with at a case-by-case basis. The cognitive and the emotional capacity of adolescents should be taken into account. The circumstances and background, the nuances of the crime – including intention and outcome – should also be analytically assessed. The sentence should consider the reformation and rehabilitation of each adolescent. This categorisation would allow for empirical and sound judgments at a case-by-case basis, and not in silos (or popular public demand/outrage). The Amendment that was passed, takes this point into account.

Second, to reform the Juvenile Justice system and child protection setup, it is important to keep in mind the pragmaticism and the sensitivity needed to handle this population. This includes serious reformation and restructuring of the juvenile homes, the Special Juvenile Police Unit (The unit of the police that manages cases of children), a rehaul of budget allocations, and relook at the implementation of the key child protection policy – the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. There is also a serious need for experts, trained professionals and legal aids within this sector.

The third has been for assessing all cases with respect to children with empiricism, rather than heady emotion. Each judgement should keep in mind that this adolescent population is the future citizenry, and there is a need for its reformation, rehabilitation, and when needed, protection, along with a fair trial and sound judgements.

The Amendment is a welcome move. However, there is still a long way to go for holistic reforms within the juvenile justice setup. The practice of the law will need to match the theory. Below are some of the pieces on different aspects of juvenile justice and child protection that I had written and blogged on, in the past.

No exceptions please
(On reforming the entire juvenile justice system)

Child’s play
(On the weak implementation of laws and policies governing child protection setup across India)

Fixing the whole
(On the problems of juvenile policing and reforming the Special Juvenile Police Unit)

Child before the Law
(Who is a child in the Indian context?)

Reforming the juvenile homes first
(On the dire need to reform the juvenile homes across the country)

Child protection in India
(Gaps in the rescue, keep and rehabilitation of minors in India)

What else needs to be done?
(On the action items in reforming juvenile justice and child protection policies in India)

Strong policy, meagre spending
(On the poor public spending on child protection policies)

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A Fine Balance

Thoughts after finishing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. 

The older I get, the more I long to read as I did a few years ago. Maybe, I have more distractions now and hence the urgency with which I turned pages, say 7 years ago has dissipated. But once in a while, I chance upon a book so wonderful and deliciously rich in its narrative and plot, that I find people, usual distractions, and pressing priorities, blanched in comparison to what its pages hold. One such book that I came across four days ago was Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance on a friend’s bookshelf. Within two days and three nights of extended reading (an entire day was spent being anti-social at an airport terminal and long bus rides) I finally finished the book and was left wishing I had read it earlier.

Set in post partition India, spanning till 1984, the book is about 4 characters who cannot be more different from the other. Dina Dalal – a Parsi widow with a bright future, who becomes a victim of her own circumstances and spends most of her life fighting them. Ishwar Darzi and Omprakash Darzi – two Chamaar tailors who escape the wretchedness of prejudice against their caste and try to find livelihood in Mumbai. And Manek Kohlah – a sheltered student who ends up as Dina Dalal’s paying guest because of brutal ragging in his hostel at a Mumbai college.

The book traces the period from pre-Partition India, upto 1984, with most of the narrative taking place during the Emergency. The unnamed “Prime Minister” and the State despotism of the age are always omnipresent. For many of us born years later, the Emergency period in India is a blot on its otherwise unblemished democratic record. We have heard of its impact and read about the initiatives. But this book, humanises it and reveals its impact on the lowest common denominator, the ordinary individual, with little to do with politics or power, who is simply trying to survive and get on with her days. Mistry portrays a dystopian country – with aborted rights and freedoms, forced labour camps, razed shantytowns and slums, barbaric beautification programmes, family planning centres, numbered vasectomies and thoughtless amputations – and those who are impacted most by the Emergency. On the peripheries of this, is the rise of religious chauvinism, regional and sectarian sentiments, majoritarian agendas and communal riots.

The one aspect of the book which is the sheer genius on the part of Mistry, is his depiction of the relationship between the four unlikely protagonists, and its soft evolution into an unlikely, often strange friendship. You want each of these characters, soiled in their own misery and in the seediness of their times, to find comfort in each other’s company – and they so often do. I loved the rich backstory of each character, their history, family life and circumstances, explored to describe how they emerge as the people they are. Mistry balances the squalor of the times he portrays, with the humanity of his characters and their relationships. As a character explains “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’, he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance”. The author is also brilliant in narrating the most disturbing scenes of violence and grime without any dramatic effect. He is as casual in his descriptions of the tragedies and ironies of India, as we are in consuming them daily on our television screens and newspaper headlines. There are bits in the book that make the hair at the back of your neck stand, yet these bits last for a mere sentence or two.

Fiction can be rewarding and equally depressing at times. While it can provide one with the illusion of escapism, it can create worlds far more reprehensible than our reality. However, when fiction mirror’s reality so accurately that it becomes hard to distinguish between the two, its impact on each reader is unique. A Fine Balance reminded me of so many books that I have read and loved. There were parts that reminded me of Katherine Boo’s non-fictional Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about the slum dwellers in an aanganwaadi in Dharaavi. Especially bits about the brutality of ordinary daily life for a particular class in India. There were bits that made me think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – especially the way in which it explicitly comments on the politics and ideologies, through the characters and their life. I found myself comparing it to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, in its panoramic depiction of multitudinous Indian identities and diverse perspectives at a particular point in History. And most of all to Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, in terms of its gritty depiction of Mumbai, replete in its crimes and grime, and in the relationships that form and evolve between otherwise incompatible characters. Like all of these, it depicts the flux between idealism and realism, hope and pessimism and mostly, the unabashed inconsistancy of time. Yet it is markedly distinguishable from each.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is not among my favourite books. I found its balance tilting towards the depressing. However, it disturbed me in a way few books (especially literary fiction) have. Maybe it’s because it is a book written two decades ago, but with much relevant even today. That much of the distortion portrayed – cruel caste prejudices, religious fragmentation, political decay, fundamentalism, state despotism, poverty, institutional failures – and its impact on individual (and uncounted) lives, still casually exist and throb across the country. That we can so easily and effortlessly descend into chaos, as individuals and populations, if we cross the thin lines drawn to confine us as a civilisation. It is a book that is profound, and needs time and serious thought to be digested. However, after a long time, a piece of ‘fiction’ (and I will emphasise on that to console myself) made me forget everything and everyone around me, and become so involved that sleep became a distraction.

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The Turkish conundrum

An important signifier of a liberal democracy is its power to introspect and retain its identity, especially when its politics shifts.

A government in a liberal democracy that comes into power with a strong majoritarian mandate needs to pay attention to two things. One, if it claims to create a bold new policy, it needs to act boldly when the situations call for it. Two, it must introspect and understand its own identity and then formulate its internal policies and agenda, balancing the push and pull factors from within. The evolution of Turkey into what it is today was not an overnight instance, but the ignorance of the factors stated above.

In the decade since it came to power, the AK party got many things right in Turkey, including the conceptualisation of a new foreign policy, securing stronger ties with Western countries, talks of membership into the EU to promote economic ties and a focus on its own internal economic growth and development. However, internal politics marred in corruption, conservative ideologies, and parochialism hijacked Turkey’s original agenda from a decade ago. Within a span of the last two years, Turkey not only lost focus of its foreign policy, but it also lost its credibility and position as a secular liberal democracy because of its internal policies, tinted with religious ideologies and illiberal stances.

Under Ahmet Davutoglu as its Foreign Minister, Turkey formulated a bold foreign policy, with its pivot in the Middle East, established relations with the west, a strong presence within NATO and an eye on the membership to the European Union. Davutoglu announced the new “Zero problems with neighbours” policy and initiated reconciliation with Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf monarchies. The aim of this was to establish Turkey as a leader in the region, and ensure its influence strengthens Turkey’s position as the beacon of democracy, and a country with its present and future fervently grounded in its past.

However, a policy perfect on paper started to unravel in practice, when Turkey implemented it to navigate through the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Turkey’s initial involvement with the Syrian crisis proved to be disastrous, when despite interventions, the Syrian government remained uninfluenced, and Assad went ahead with his plans to curb the Syrian dissent. The previously warm ties between the two countries crumbled as the crisis unfolded, and Turkey decided to arm rebels and open its borders to Syrian refugees. This decision eventually cost Turkey dearly, as it led to the influence of ISIS within its Southern borders and its territory.

Turkey’s relations soured with Iran after Davutoglu’s decision to support the Kurds in Iraq. It was only recently, with a new Government in Iraq, that Turkey salvaged its relationship. Turkey’s look East policy collapsed further after its bilateral relations with Egypt broke off. Turkey’s fierce support for Morsi and refusal to accept the “coup regime” eventually led to a series of dramatic events and the removal of the Turkish Ambassador from Egypt and vice versa. Turkey’s relationship with Israel worsened since 2009, and its efforts to influence Israel-Palestine crisis, failed. A complicated history with the country and a series of events, (starting from Israel’s raid of the Gaza bound flotilla killing 9 Turkish citizens), have ensured that the relationship will see little immediate change.

Earlier in 2014, Turkey’s membership to NATO also came under severe criticism, with questions being raised about its commitment. Despite the Turkish Parliament voting for it in October 2014, the country refused to allow the NATO forces to operate from the Turkish airbases or participate in any US led operations and airstrikes against the Islamic State.

Turkey’s internal policies over the last few years have led to the mangling of its overtures for a membership into the EU – something that the country has been aiming at, since 2005. There is skepticism across the EU towards the Government’s crackdown against media persons, anti-government protestors, and corruption probes. The European Commission’s 2014 Turkey Progress Report criticised the country on multiple grounds, including independence of judiciary, separation of powers, banning of social media, censorship and freedom of assembly. Contradicting his previous statements about not being a slave to Europe, President Erdogan, recently demonstrated renewed vigour towards the EU membership and called it Turkey’s strategic choice.

Democracy breathes through the decisions of a majority. However, a democracy is only democratic, if it considers opinions of all diverse elements of its population, along with regarding the founding principles of its Constitution and national structures. The AK party came to power in the last decade on the hopes of robust economic reforms, strong governance and a populist support base. For a country – whose founder and military have propagated radical secular ethos – the strains of conservative ideologies and religious Right wing agenda slowly seeped into public life. This, along with frequent crackdowns against anti-government protests, illiberal government stances against censorship and propaganda, Erdogan’s seeming authoritarianism – eroded Turkey’s founding liberal ethos, diluting its secular credentials.

An important signifier of a liberal democracy is its power to introspect and retain its identity, especially when its politics shifts. How does it balance internal push factors with external pull factors? What are its long-term goals with respect to its short-term goals? Is nationalism defined as reigniting pride for the past or is it focusing on the future, agnostic to the preservation of another age? Is religion a marker of individual identity or broader politics? Ataturk’s Turkey and the military attempted to create a radically secular state that shunned its Ottoman past or religious colours. This was often said to be divorced from the reality of the population that was deeply religious and ideological. However, over the last decade, the AK party managed to dilute Turkey’s Kemalist ideologies and bring back a conservative, Islamic ethos into public life. Further internal political chaos, the initial influence and eventual discord with the Gulen movement (and its founder), standoffs with the military, and factionalised public opinion, further led to changes in Turkey’s overall identity.

Whether it was the Syrian crisis, managing relations with Egypt and Israel, taking a stand with NATO, or leveraging its unique position in the Middle East and Europe – Turkey eventually lost its own plot and aims, because of its inability to deliver more than rhetoric. Neither was it able to demonstrate astute diplomacy nor muscular military power. It let go of the opportunity to emerge as the credible leader it had aspired to become within the region, and to be the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, that its geographical position allowed it to be.

Maybe this is what the Turkish population wants at this point in its history. But this want has pulled Turkey back in attaining its explicit goals. The internal schizophrenia has hurt the country on all sides. Does Turkey still want to be the leader in the Middle East and retain its secular democratic ethos? Is the membership to the EU a relevant idea for the country? If not, then what are its alternative choices? In terms of balancing its international aspirations and its national aims, the Turkish government should introspect over what is best for it – unless it redefines its goals, identity and orientation. And this kind of introspection holds true for governments in liberal democracies, including India.

This piece was first published in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review on 26th January, 2014.

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India’s tragedy

Aristotle’s conditions for a good tragedy need to be fulfilled for the severest calamity to get our media’s attention. That is the real tragedy.

Aristotle’s Poetics has a substantial definition of the perfect tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions…”

The primary shaper of narratives in India is the media. Once the media has covered an event, the authorities of higher power usually have little choice but to take an interest in it because evidently that is what the “nation wants”. Whether good or bad, what usually gains media attention is dependent on multiple reasons. National significance, relevance, popularity, viewership/readership, associated politics, stakeholders involved, sensation and shock value, tweetability, and of-course the leanings of the reporting media, among other reasons. But what happens when events of similar nature and outcome take place? How does one event gain more attention than others of equal significance, especially if they are both tragic in nature?

The Badaun rape case in May received ample attention, with the ghastly visuals of two young girls hanging from a tree. Not to take away from the seriousness of this particular case, but multiple barbaric incidents of similar nature took place in Uttar Pradesh after that particular case, including the hanging of another girl from a tree. Outside of a few snippets in a news column, these events, among multiple others, saw little coverage, outrage or national sympathy. Last year, the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots were made refugees in their own backyards during a harsh winter. Their displacement and predicament was noticed only after media coverage, and subsequent political mud slinging and parrying. Whether the immediate situation of the victims was resolved or not, the outcome of the riots were not of national consequence until players of national consequence got involved. Reports state that there were a total of 247 cases of communal violence across Uttar Pradesh last year. Each of these would have had consequences. How many were covered by the local and national media and how many were considered serious?

Over the last few days, news that has garnered attention and opinion has been diverse. Visits by neighbouring Presidents (and simultaneous Chinese incursions), horrific floods in Jammu and Kashmir, a national daily disrespecting an actress’s body, our PM’s visit to the US, the initiation of a bold campaign to attract growth and development, India’s successful Mars mission, among many others. In a large country of over a billion, not everything can become a topic of national significance. And sometimes, even the worst stories from certain parts of the country remain unheard.

In August, it was reported that over 12 lakh people had been affected in the Assam floods. Over 163, 052 people had to take shelter in 212 relief camps across the districts. The situation has only worsened over the last few days both in Assam and in Meghalaya. The entire region has been put under flood alert at the moment. According to a report in The Hindu “Flash floods and landslides in four districts of Assam: Goalpara Kamrup, Kamrup (Metropolitan) and Dhubri claimed 37 lives including 18 in Goalpara and 12 in the Kamrup district. In Garo hills region in Meghalaya, the death toll mounted to 41…” The infrastructure and livelihood of both the states has altered significantly. Meghalaya’s deputy chief minister said the state suffered a loss of almost Rs 1170 crore and that the restoration of the road communication alone would require Rs 500 crore. More than 32,000 people are currently in the 108 relief camps that have been set up. According to the NDRF Chief, the current total death count in the region is 85, with 39 deaths in Assam and 46 in Meghalaya. Outside of a few news reports and tweets, these floods have gained little attention of the prime-time media or the opinion shapers.

Coming back to Aristotle. In his definition of tragedy, Aristotle also defines the six components of a good tragedy, which determine its quality. These are: plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle and melody. We should study each component closely. Aristotle’s definition one can guess, was limited to the Greek stage that created fictional accounts of reality. However, in India, death, destruction, violence and injustice are never tragic enough. To be a tragedy of national significance, the casualty must be Aristotelian in its nature. Having the precise components that make it tragic and dramatic enough for a reaction from its audience, with more. It must be timely, that is at a time when we are not too exhausted outraging over other events. It must be unique, not similar in nature to other events that have recently incensed us. It must be events in the important parts of the country, represented by important people, who deserve media attention. And most significantly, it must not take place at a time when other important ‘national’ events are taking place. How else do we explain the lackadaisical coverage and national attention towards the Assam and Meghalaya floods, which have altered the infrastructure and livelihood of the region and killed dozens, as opposed to all the other events that are currently being covered?

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Lines drawn in sand

This piece was first published in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review

A review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island. 

Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island is not a travelogue or a memoir. Nor is it a political thriller, a singular piece of academic oral history, or a journalistic account of someone covering a war. It is all of the above and more. To categorise this book within a single genre would be undermining its narrative and topic. It touches multiple premises within the history, politics, religion and society of a war torn Sri Lanka and unravels the minds and psychology of people affected in the most brutal of ways, by each of the above.

Subramanian delves into the history of Sri Lanka after its independence in 1948, and how the demands of Sinhalese nationalists found voice. The “real commencement of hostilities” in Sri Lanka began in 1975 when Velupillai Prabhakaran assassinated the mayor of Jaffna, and in 1976 created the Tigers. The civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese dominated government began in 1983, only to find an end with Prabhakaran’s death in 2009. Describing the Sinhalese–Tamil divide, and the ‘muscular’ nature of Sinhalese Buddhism (“a coiled and wary creature, its reflex always to be aggressive in defence”) the author sets pace for the rest of the book. He touches on the political violence that gnaws at the nation as a result of the Civil War and Black Friday riots, and describes how historically, the “schisms between the country’s various ethnicities started to dilate – coaxed by the British” and how “Novel ways were discovered to emphasise differences – communal representation in electoral bodies, for instance – and even to define identity, to dice finer and finer the peoples contained within this small island”.

The war and its chronology emerge gently through the book. Never explicit but often meandering in and out of the stories of the people, are the bits of information and facts about Sri Lanka’s political history. The Tamil existentialism in Sri Lanka, the state’s reaction and nationalism, the significance of the Mahavamsa and the legand of Dutugemunu ­(its history and influence on Sinhalese Buddhists and their juxtaposition of Rajapaksa with Dutugemunu), Prabhakaran’s life and its impact on the Tigers, Rajapaksa’s version of nationalism and its political appeal, the significance of temples, monasteries and mosques… each is dissected among others topics. Sri Lanka’s idiosyncrasies often emerge to explain its character. The cars of Jaffna represent its history and inability to move forward. Restaurants serve beer named ‘Lion’ and ‘Tiger’. Feral stray dogs often follow a sprinting Subramanian in the lanes of Jaffna, where one night, his nerves fail him and he decides to take a lift from a stranger rather than dare to run. That aside, the security forces assidiously track journalists, including the author.

Subramanian’s explication of Sri Lankan politics is conversational but at no point superfluous. The violence and brutalities committed by the Tigers, the subsequent and equally brutal handling by the Army and the long-term ramifications of the violence on both the sides are delved into through experiences narrated by people. Subramanian’s talent as a writer emerges through two main points in the book. First, his ability to explore the multiple players on either side of the war­ – The Sinhalese, the Army, the Tamils, the Buddhists, the Muslims– and represent their schisms and simultaneous stories without extreme value judgments. And the second, his portrayal of these innumerable people, who emerge as unforgettable characters within the confines of their narrative, each as strong as the subject the book deals with.

Each person’s experience of the war is distinct. Ravi, a former Sri Lankan Tamil army officer in Canada, whose identity (as a Tamil), and exile constrast his profession and what it had entailed him to do. Ravi’s story of alienation from the army and his own community is representative of the schizophrenic nature of ethnicity and identity in war torn Sri Lanka. Raghavan and Nirmala in London narrate their perspectives from the Tiger’s side and eventually as individuals disillusioned by the armed struggle and cause. A chapter rummages specifically into the Muslims of Jaffna – the spectators and not participants in the struggle – and how within a span of a few hours in 1990, “the tigers emptied Jaffna of its 24,000 Muslims…” A nationalist Sobitha (to whom the faith needs to be defended even at the cost of human lives) claims the Sinhalese Buddhists as Sri Lanka’s most “patriotic citizens because they constituted 99 percent– his statistic­– of the armed forces that had fought the Tigers.” A determined Ananthi zealously hunts for her husband, in the debris of knowing that he will never return after the Army takes him. In Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, Sandhya desperately searches for traces of her anti-government journalist husband who disappeared one night, while others in the landscape paint hazy dreams of a future struggle. In a country divided between majoritarianism, ruthless bigotry, savage revolutionaries, and fundamentalists of ideology, religion and causes, the violence and its consequences are brutal and condemned. However, who is right and who is wrong is never defined.

The book is divided into four parts– The Terror, The North, The Faith and Endgames, each of which explore multiple fragments of the divided island. However perceiving the book through structures and themes would be unfair to a beautifully understated and sinuous narrative. Subramanian explores complexities that define Sri Lanka’s history and politics and how religion and identity slither into every aspect of a long drawn war, influencing and augmenting it over decades. The book’s strength lies in the amount of information and emotion it conveys without being overwhelming. There is an unspoken resignation of representing the sordidness of life as it is and an underlying frustration at the inability to understand the madness and brutality of the war and its scars on a country. The poignant endings of each chapter strike a fine balance as a sighing closure to the heaviness of the subjects they initially delve into. The author’s empathetic voice is present in every page, but rarely is it judgmental or melodramatic.

There is no great revelation in this book. There is no seething beginning or a grandiose end.Those looking for a cut and straight one sided opinion, or deep geopolitical insights about the Sri Lanka problem will be disappointed with this book. Instead This Divided Island is a peep into a slice of a nation’s history through its people and an introspection on a miserable age in time. As the author says early on in the book “We all now live in societies injured to violence, but the violence of a full fledged war is unique in its refusal to hide, in how openly it declares its intent to harm other men and women. I wondered how a country transformed when such violence started to feel routine instead of rare– or even whether it could ever feel routine­– and how people tried to reclaim and lead an ordinary life out of all this extraordinariness.” This book is an extraordinary exploration into a life that has become ordinary for Sri Lankans. Divided by each other on the basis of multiple blurry lines, the one thing binding the Sri Lankans through all of this is their individual ideological underpinnings, shared experiences of tragedy and loss, displacement and alienation, and the unfinished endings for each, even after the end of the war. This Divided Island is an intricate and intense read. It should be read in a single sitting and then slowly re-read over a period of time, simply because it is that brilliant.

This piece was first published in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review

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