“Why does the River Ganga run through UP?” asks the joke. Because, the wisecrack answers, if it walked, it would be mugged!
The joke is a particular favourite of mine, mainly because it achieves a rare balance; that of suggesting a terrifying truth through humour. That nobody – and nothing – is safe in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh is a well-established fact, but the River Ganga, revered as a Goddess, shouldn’t be spared either is the shocking post-script.
The Kumbh Mela officially ended this week, and a river which is muddy at best and downright filthy at worst, has gone way beyond the point where adjectives could be used for descriptive purposes. The Mela, which at 80 million visitors, is the largest religious gathering anywhere in the world, offers a very simple solution to cleanse a lifetime of sin: Take a dip in the holy river, and while you emerge from the dip a pure and unsullied person, the river moves on, a wee bit filthier. You may then move on to partake in the other activities the Mela has to offer; open-air camping, ablutions by the riverbed, watching a few thousand naga sadhus frolic merrily in the water, and by and large have a good time, the river be damned.
The river has never really been clean, but as recently as during Indira Gandhi’s reign, a clean-up project was instituted, although bureaucratic logjam ensured things remain as bad, if not worse. It’s not difficult to fathom why. The riverbank is home to one of the biggest civilizations in the continent, with sprawling townships having sprung up here since centuries. They also brought with them small and large industries which dumped their toxic effluents, human habitation and all the perils that brings, power projects and sewage sites. And of course, the burial sites, where thousands of bodies get thrown into the river apart from thousands of more cremations. The cumulative effect of these on the Ganga is enough to make one wonder where the line between river and sewer got erased.
A clean-up operation would never succeed if not followed up by strict monitoring of activities around the ghats, and that is sure to ruffle a few feathers. But for inspiration, they only need to look at the spectacular transformation of the River Thames, which used to be as bad, if not worse, until a few decades ago. Today, it’s a pristine waterfront occupying a pride of place in London’s landscape. Similar examples could be found on the Seine in Paris, the Hudson in New York, even Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati where a massive riverfront project is set to transform the cityscape.
The good news for the Ganges, meanwhile, is that the Kumbh Mela is over. And there isn’t another one due for 12 years.
By arresting a cartoonist on charges of sedition, the government has yet again showed that it's far better to be corrupt in this country than to point out corruption.
In hindsight, Aseem Trivedi should have seen it coming. The government, after all, has been trying to curb dissent for the best part of the last one year. But their threats to block (relatively) harmless content on social media obviously wasn’t taken too seriously by the cartoonist, who perhaps felt he too could get away by criticising the government. With the result that he now faces the much more serious charge of sedition. But while the Congress goes about trying to ape China’s freedom of speech laws with a view to ape its economic progress, you and I must tread cautiously, lest they doubt our patriotism.
When Kapil Sibal first mooted the plan a year ago, he was faced with such a vociferous backlash that the plan was put on the backburner. And then some fool circulated hate messages targeting the Northeast community last month, and the government has its closing arguments ready once again. Sure there was another backlash, and sure it still had some sting to it. But the hate messages were just the shift in the goalpost the Congress needed, and there was no way they’d miss the spot kick this time.
Now whether or not Aseem’s cartoons amounted to “sedition” is not something I’m in a position to judge, nor are most of the people out there demanding his swift release and possible repealing of laws that curb their freedom of speech. Nor am I here to discuss whether or not content created by some enterprising Pakistani websites were directly responsible for the Northeast exodus last month. What I can, however, say with some degree of authority is that censorship never solves anything. If you have mischief on your mind, if your actions are directed towards causing chaos and confusion, the minor matter of getting past a firewall is not going to stop you.
Then, of course, is the fact that the issue is highly subjective. What is immoral or spiteful or in bad taste for one, may be perfectly fine for several others. The laws, considering they must remain uniform, would be utterly insufficient to tackle these shades of grey. And as a writer, I’m not willing to let my hard work and content be blocked just because some official somewhere decided it’s “offensive”. Our politicos have a lot of things, but one thing they really don’t have is a sense of humour. Given their absolute inability to identify, let alone appreciate, sarcasm, irony, parody or satire, I don’t trust them with the power to decide what should pass and what shouldn’t.
Here’s an alternative suggestion instead: Let’s not ban anything, and let’s not make criticising the government or its policies an offence. For I really want to point out the irony that they would let the corrupt ones go scot free while arresting the ones who point this out. And also, what about the fact that by arresting a cartoonist on a charge like this, all you’re doing is raising awareness to the piece he created. Indeed, had it not been for the action taken by the authorities, I would’ve blissfully gone through life never knowing what he created.
Of course, I’m well aware of the presence of the trolls out there, those who post something not to make a point, but to seek a reaction. And as long as there exist trolls, there will exist inflammatory content on the Web. The solution is not to ban but to track down the ones who post incendiary content online and punish them severely. Of course banning everything outright could be more effective, but this, I do believe, is one instance where cure is better than prevention. Like one humourist once pointed out, chopping off your lungs would ensure you never get lung cancer, but it’s not necessarily the best way to deal with the ailment.
How many more shootings will it take before the US rethinks its gun control laws?
In two different incidents, separated by barely two weeks and about 1,000 miles, 18 precious lives were lost. In both cases – one at Denver, Colorado and the other at Milwaukee, Wisconsin – crazed gunmen went out of control and started firing at innocent bystanders. The police is still investigating the incidents, and there might be more to it than meets the eye – a hate crime or a racial motivation, perhaps – something that would give the authorities just enough to bury the more important, and more difficult, argument here: It’s time to re-think the gun control laws.
A gun is a very simple tool, something that comes with a one-point agenda. Once invented, there was always going to be but one utility for the gun: To kill. Unlike other objects which can be used to kill, like a knife or income tax, a gun cannot be used for anything else. A person who goes to a shop to buy a gun, almost certainly has murder on his mind. And if murder is illegal, then I, for the life of me, cannot understand how purchasing a gun can be legal.
The friendly folks over at the Republican Party seem to disagree with me, however, and insist that a gun can be, and must be, legal. (They instead target birth control, on grounds that it amounts to murder). By means of argument, they say it’s the American way of life. The three most popular theories put forth by those in favour of less restrictive gun laws are: Self defence, recreational use of guns, and to help an individual resist government tyranny. I shall give you sufficient time to recover from the bout of laughter these theories undoubtedly induced.
The arguments are so preposterous, that it’s a modern day miracle that there are actually those who still believe in them. Helping individuals resist government tyranny? Surely, if the government wanted to suddenly turn tyrannical, waving a gun at them cannot count for much. And how about legalising gun ownership as an example of tyranny? Then comes the recreational usage of guns. As I put it so eloquently in the preceding paragraph, a gun can be used for precious little apart from killing and maiming. Not exactly recreational activities, those. Unless of course, one plans to open a bottle of beer with a bullet. In which case, he deserves to be shot. As for self-defence, the best way to ensure this is by keeping guns completely off the streets, not equipping every second person with a loaded firearm.
But since sound logic has seldom convinced the Grand Old Party, maybe some statistics will. Nearly 50 per cent of all households in the US has a firearm, the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world. 30,000 Americans on average die each year through gunshot wounds. You are free to put 2 and 2 together now.
Unfortunately, however, the ones in favour of less restrictive gun control laws are also the ones with the money and the influence on Capitol Hill. And as long as they continue financing their pro-gun ownership campaigns, tighter gun control remains a distant dream. As an aside, Wisconsin, the state where the Sikh massacre took place, passed a bill last year making it easier for citizens to procure firearms. One scarcely needs reminding of the Virginia Tech massacre or the Columbine High School shooting. Another one, it’s chillingly obvious, may be just around the corner.
Is Lokpal really the only solution to India's problems? Is it a solution at all?
Much has changed in the last one year. The country’s growth and inflation rates are hurtling in opposite directions, and not directions that would make Manmohan a happy man; Wikileaks whistleblower Julian Assange is busy not leaking cables, rather arranging a legal team to help him with his court case; Roger Federer is back on top of the tennis world, while Spain…well, Spain still remain European and world champions of football…but you get my point: A lot has changed over the last 12 months. Not in Anna Hazare’s world though.
So exactly a year later, Anna and his band of not-so-merry men were back to where it all began: Fasting for a Lokpal Bill at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. And though we didn’t get a bill out of a week full of fasting, we could well get a brand new political party, one that will be built on the promise of a strong Lokpal Bill, a viable “fourth alternative” to the country’s established parties. Why, then, am I still not convinced that Anna Hazare is the greatest thing to have happened to the country, that he is the answer to all of life’s problems? Perhaps I can hazard a guess or two here to articulate my concerns.
My problems are chiefly about the methods used by the man in getting what he wants. Before even coming down to questions of how beneficial will the Bill even prove to be, I have a major problem with the way he has held the country to ransom, time and time again. There is a place for debate, and there is a manner to protest. By bypassing both, instead using the “my way or the highway” argument — that too with a democratically elected government — he is playing truant child who knows he won’t get his way without playing dirty. The ends justify the means argument doesn’t hold water here, for it is a perspective that Lokpal is a valuable asset to the country, not a proven theory. If everybody was to go on hunger strikes demanding the government pass the bills they want passed, it will be nothing short of anarchy, and you cannot make different rules for different people even if they are backed by an army of hungry supporters.
Then comes the question of entrusting all responsibilities, all rights and privileges, and all authority in the hands of a single body. I’m not doubting Anna’s intentions here, nor do I fear the integrity of the people in charge of running the Lokpal, but I feel it’s just plan common sense to not put all eggs in one basket, to not invest all power in the hands of one body. There’s a reason why they say absolute power corrupts, and it’s pertinent to pay heed to this adage. There is every chance that the body in charge of investigating allegations of corruption could be swayed by some greasing of the palms, that they could even use their power and authority to get back at those who opposed them earlier. Who will watch the watchmen, someone asked once, and we really need to ask ourselves who will oversee the Lokpal. The beauty of democracy is the system of checks and balances it has in place, and without these, we would be setting sail on a dangerous course.
Democracy, of course, could correct a lot of these problems, and if Anna was to come to power via a democratically elected mandate, he may well pass this and several other laws. It won’t make things right, but it would at least justify things. If for nothing else, we will have a political party coming to power on the basis of one agenda! And also, it would be great fun watching how the new party deals with dissenters using the hunger strike as a means of protest!