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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bol: Interrogating the Human Condition

We all have grown in a specific environment that has contributed to the mental makeup that we possess presently. Our surroundings have contributed immensely to mold ourselves to become the kind of person that we are today. Our current psychological forms are largely a result of the beliefs, values, traditions and culture that we have inherited from our society. Yet, human tendency tends to act in an inchoate and unpredictable manner that sometimes produces such results which not only shatter our long held dogmas, but also provide us a completely new understanding of the material and the emotional. When such rebellious emotions translate on the screen, the result is not upheld for its moral content or philosophical undertones, but is adored, braced, defended and endorsed by all and sundry for the raw energy that it unleashes in the comatose intellect of the social order. 

The Pakistani motion picture, Bol, is the result of such recalcitrant impulse of acumen which questions the deep rooted hypothesis of existence in our community. To sit through the film is a chilling experience, as you feel yourselves connected to one or the other characters portrayed in the story and the situations seem to spring out from your very past contact with the community. Every scene is a depiction of the miseries haunting the humanity around us, every dialogue is a biting satire on the accepted norms of survival. The film is not a moral treatise or theoretical examination of the human condition, rather it is a question mark on the set standards of normalcy and decency that we have created, or rather imposed on ourselves and others.

I am not interested in indulging in a scene by scene dissection of the film. Rather, I am interested in communicating the lessons that I drew from some of the stunning scenes that this film portrayed. An ordinary way to start would be to proceed chronologically in accordance with the timeline of the movie. Please mind that these conclusions are totally my own, and that you are more than free to differ.



What grabs your attention from the start is the farewell meeting between the convicted prisoner, Zainub (Humaima Malik), and her mother and sisters. The prisoner seems to be walking in delirium, and hardly has any sense of existence or belonging. She is escorted to her family members to bid them adieu. As if delivering her final message, she exhorts her sisters and mother to throw away the burqa, which, to her, is a sign of bondage and slavery. She urges them all to become independent and to break loose the restrictions that the society has placed on them by virtue of them being women. 

This, to me struck as a paradoxical interpretation of the niqab or the burqa. Here in our country, I have come across women who fiercely protect their right to wear burqa in public places by defending it as a sign of their independence (independence!) and as an inalienable part of their identity. Similar protests have been recorded in France, Italy, USA and other European countries, who have passed, or tried to pass legislation banning this 'symbol of slavery' from the public places. When it comes to the Pakistani society, the burqa is a symbol of slavery for some, and yet here in India, it is a part and parcel of a Muslim women's identity. Why? Was the character in the movie wrong in reading the significance of the burqa? Or did she really echo the views held by most? The answer I think, is not difficult to understand.

In the kind of fiercely religious and conservative society that Pakistan has evolved itself into today, religious dictum is being taken to be embossed in stone and is regarded to be unquestionable. Even the smallest of divergence from the religious norms is seen to be a sign of bigotry and heresy. The result, obviously, is especially punitive to the historically weaker and under represented sections of the society by virtue of their exclusion from power (in this case, they being the women and the religious minorities). Due to such stringent, rigid and remorseless interpretations of religion, religious symbols and values cease to be a denotation of reverence and morph into a cross of social existence which one must bear, no matter how unbearable the pain, in order to survive. While we, on the other side of the border, have been marginally more successful than our neighbors in enforcing a culture of mutual respect devoid of double standards, our friends across the line of control are bearing the brunt of the selfishness and a culture of contradictions which they promoted since independence. As a result, the burqa, which is a symbol of identity for Muslim women in India, turns into an emblem of subjugation across the border.

The most horrific rendition of remorselessness is echoed in the scene where the father (Manzar Sehbai), kills his own child (Amr Kashmiri), who happens to be a eunuch. The actors have acted so brilliantly, that the intensity of the hatred prevailing in the society towards that uncatalogued and unnamed gender hits you with full force. 

What compels a father to such an extent so as to suffocate the last vestiges of life out of his own child? The rough hatred towards the 'other' in most of the societies in most of the countries around the world is such that we emphatically refuse to assimilate their identity into the mainstream and furiously oppose any move to normalize their existence. The Character of Amr Kashmiri has startling resemblances to that of Ravi Jhankal's Munni in Shyam Benegal directed Welcome to Sajjanpur in that both are continuously harassed when they try to take part in the ordinary scheme of things. Such an absolute refusal to change our preconceived norms of ordinariness betrays the insecurities of our own society and the egotism of one's own conscience. And the eagerness to prove one to be normal, to be a vibrant part of the mainstream, to be an obedient member of the laws and rules of the community is the driving force behind such rough hatred, hostility and neglect.

The character of Zainub, is a classic example of what happens when the voice of reason and rationality shuns and rejects the set dogmas and superstitions of the humankind. She is rebuffed, rebuked, slapped and showered with myriad forms of abuses for arguing against the ordinary course of thought. Since she is nearly divorced (which makes her a bad company for children, taboo for the outside world and a burden for the family), her status is downgraded to that of a ghost, whose opinion has no value and whose presence is not favorable. No standards of dignity seem to apply to her. Religion fails to protect her and the grinding weight of patriarchy conspires to stifle her voice.

Yet, the overarching theme of the film, which questions the root of all the ills prevalent in the society, is the constant lust for the birth of a boy child due to which the father keeps on impregnating his wife, only to be punished with another girl child. His lust seems to be unquenchable as he goes on producing a girl after another girl even though his income dwindles day by day. This Frankenstein of his own creation lurches him to one problem after another, makes him to commit one bigotry after another, destroys his religion and shatters his reputation in the household, ultimately resulting in his murder by Zainub.

Bol isn't an ordinary Pakistani movie. Its a mirror reflection of the narrow mindedness of our public. Its a documentation of the ffanaticismseeping slowly in our surroundings. Its a tale of the oppressed and downtrodden. Its a challenge to array of accepted beliefs in the world. Its a colour full story narrated through the colour less lens of patriarchy to a colour blind audience. Its a loud resonance of our own shame and contrasting principles.

Bol speaks and silences.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Aman Ki Asha? The Dynamics of a Subcontinental Nobel for Peace


Perhaps the most anticipated announcement of the whole year is that of the Nobel Prize. Awarded in the disciplines of Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, Economics and Peace, the Nobel Prize, in the eyes of many, is the ultimate recognition of one's contribution to the chosen field. In the past, Indians have won the prize in the fields of Literature, Economics, Physics and Peace. This year, another Indian, Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, was awarded the Nobel for Peace along with the 17 year old Pakistani child education activist Malala Yousufzai.

The announcement has come at a time when both India and Pakistan have seen an escalation in tension along the International Border. The governments of both countries have traded charges of breaking the ceasefire and heavy civilian casualties have been reported from both sides of the border. Add to the fact that both the nations are nuclear rivals with a history of four wars behind them, and you have a world sitting up to take notice of the ongoing escalation of hostilities. A Nobel Prize shared by the citizens of these two hostile neighbors then, is a very subtle hint by the world community to deescalate confrontation along the border.

Tensions in Islamabad

Things had not been this rough from the start. After taking over the reins of government in May 2014, the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi reached out to all the heads of the SAARC nations including Pakistan and invited them to his oath taking ceremony. Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was gracious enough to accept the invitation although there was much debate at home before he could do so. At that time, the two Prime Ministers agreed to cooperate to ensure peace in the sub-continent.

However, in the past few months, Mr. Sharif’s government has wobbled at home on account of the twin protests headed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chief Imran Khan and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) Chief Tahir-ul-Qadri. These protests, calling for the resignation of Mr. Sharif and fresh elections, have paralyzed any activity in Islamabad and have forced the government on back foot. However, Mr. Sharif still retains a strong backing from the majority of parliamentarians who want him to continue.

The protests have had their consequences though. As pressure on the government mounted, many political observers within Pakistan began to anticipate an imminent coup. However, the military chief General Raheel Sharif (not related to the Prime Minister) rebuffed any suggestions towards the same, even when 5 out of the 11 core commanders of the military were in favor of the army intervening to end the political crises. The army chief, however, successfully managed to get the government to ‘cede space’ to the military in the areas of Security and Foreign Policy. This means that the Prime Minister does not have the capability to take independent decisions anymore when it comes to Indo-Pak relations and the decisions are ultimately taken and approved at the meetings of the National Security Council, which has been criticized in the past as providing legal cover for increasing the role of military in foreign affairs.

Tough Response from New Delhi

One of the major reasons for the growing hostilities along the border has been the hardline approach taken by the new right-wing government headed by Mr. Modi in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister had relentlessly attacked his predecessor for continuing dialogue with Pakistan even when the latter engaged in a 'proxy-war' of terrorism and militancy in Jammu & Kashmir through infiltrations effected by repeated ceasefire violations.

After becoming the Prime Minister, although Mr. Modi displayed his softer side by inviting Mr. Sharif for his oath taking ceremony and agreeing to cooperate in the future, he was also quick to break off dialogue after Pakistan did not heed a warning to disengage the separatists. The issue of Kashmir has always been a sensitive one for both the countries, and Pakistan’s repeated attempts to engage the separatists operating from the Indian side of Kashmir had been viewed as a way to pinprick the Indian establishment and to keep the Kashmir issue alive in the international arena.

At the recent UN General Assembly session, Mr. Nawaz Sharif tried to remind his international audience about the importance of some sort of resolution of the Kashmir dispute as a pre-condition to the improvement of bilateral ties between the two nations, while Mr. Modi rebuffed his counterpart by stating that bilateral issues would not be solved by raising them on international platforms.

The repeated ceasefire violations by Pakistan are being seen by the Indian administration to be an attention seeking move now that India is not engaging its hostile neighbor with talks and flag meetings. Instead, Mr. Modi's government has asked the border troops to answer a bullet with another bullet which has significantly raised the morale of the armed forces and has resulted in heavy casualties on the other side of the border. Although this tough response has soothed the sentiments of Mr. Modi's domestic audience, on the whole it has only resulted in the escalation of hostilities to newer heights.

Nobel to the Rescue

The west recognizes the fact that a confrontation between two nuclear armed rivals does not only pose a threat to the stability of the subcontinent, but can possibly have catastrophic consequences for the peace and tranquility of the entire world. A joint Nobel at this juncture to citizens of both the countries is being seen by many as a subtle hint by the world community to both the nations to deescalate the tensions at the border.  This is not to say that both these activists did not deserve the Nobel prize on the basis of their own incredibly inspiring hard work. Instead, it is to reaffirm the fact that the world sees more areas of cooperation and a potential for rapid progress through peace and cooperation between the two countries, rather than hostility and strife. 

Sandip Roy of Firstpost.com, a prominent digital news website, christened this prize as the 'LoC Nobel'. Predictably enough, 17 year old Malala Yousufzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize and only the second person from Pakistan to be thus honored, expressed her desire to see the Prime Ministers of both the countries in attendance at the Nobel Award ceremony in December. She also exhorted both the countries to stop fighting each other and instead fight for peace, development and progress.

However, the Indian Prime Minister has been reluctant to answer the call. In a statement released to the media, he congratulated both the people for the prize, but remained tight lipped on the proposal by the Pakistani teenager. The Pakistani Taliban, however, has been quick to read the significance of this Nobel. According to a report published in Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have commented that Malala did not represent Islam and threatened that people like her who continued to take 'anti-Islamic' positions would continue being targeted.

As the last lines of this article were being written, India accused Pakistan of yet again violating the ceasefire in its Poonch sector, after a 41 hour calm. Whether this Nobel succeeds in cooling down the tensions between the countries, only time will tell.

(This was published in Youth Ki Awaaz)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: One Life is not Enough, An Autobiography by K. Natwar Singh

I picked up the copy of K. Natwar Singh's recently released autobiography "One Life is Not Enough" from a railway station in Delhi while on my way home to Madhya Pradesh. The book had been the source of much discussion in the media as it contained an insider's account of life and politics at 10, Janpath, the official residence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Close on the heels of the party's devastating defeat in the 2014 General Elections, several books by those who had a chance to work for or in the UPA government have been released. "An Accidental Prime Minister" by Prime Minister's former media advisor and the former Editor in Chief of Economic Times, Mr. Sanjaya Baru and "Not Just an Accountant: The Diary of the Nation's Conscience Keeper" by the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, Mr. Vinod Rai are few examples.

Before reading the book, I happened to come across an interview which Mr. Natwar Singh gave to Madhu Trehan of Newslaundry where the latter complains that the amount of Nehru Gandhi family sycophancy evident in the book makes one's teeth ache. I fully endorse this critique after having finished reading the book. What the author has tried to portray as loyalty towards the family is nothing but slobbering sycophancy.

Having said that, one cannot deny that the author presents a very vivid account of his life in the foreign service and instances where his expertise in handling matters relating to international affairs saved the face of the government of the day. Mr. Singh joined the foreign service in 1953 under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru. He goes on to give his evaluation of Nehru's foreign policy and points out his three major mistakes: "his disastrous handling of the Kashmir issue, his misplaced trust of the leaders of the People's Republic of China and his turning down of the Soviet proposal to give India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council". By and large, a large number of people well read on the matter of foreign policy would agree with him.

Yet, the author lets go of a golden opportunity to delve deeper into the issues of foreign policy in which he has extensive professional experience and instead makes the book into an expanded slambook by namedropping the who's who of the literary and creative arts field including E.M. Forster, Nirad Choudhuri, M.F. Hussain etc. with whom he came to develop close relationship due to the nature of his work. I was disappointed to see an autobiography being reduced into an egoist monologue listing the bragging rights that the author achieved in the course of his career. One expected better of such a seasoned politician and diplomat.

Then of course, there is politics. Anything to do with Sonia Gandhi or the Gandhi family as a whole elicits a flurry of excitement from our media because:

1) Our media has stopped covering the real issues that are worthy of media coverage long, long ago.
2) The first family of the Congress party has jealously guarded their privacy unlike other families in the public life and their day to day dealings remain one of the favorite subjects of gossip and speculation in Lutyens Delhi.
3) Everyone in the media establishment wants to keep the Gandhi family in good humor as many expect that sooner or later, another Prime Minister would emerge from 10, Janpath.

Hence, one could understand the amount of buzz the release of this autobiography generated as Mr. Singh was at one point of time, extremely close to Sonia Gandhi and had also served Indira and Rajiv Gandhi before her.

The juiciest revelation that the book had to offer was that in May 2004, as the results of the General Election came in and the UPA seemed set to form the next government, it was not the inner voice of Sonia Gandhi, but the tough resolve of her son Rahul, which prevented her from occupying the seat of the Prime Minister. For a decade while the Congress was in power, an aura of sacrifice hung around the UPA chairperson for refusing the PM's post. Mr. Singh busts this myth in a single paragraph by recounting how Rahul Gandhi presented his mother with an ultimatum to refuse the post as he was afraid that like his father and grandmother, she too will become a victim of some future tragedy.

I think this single paragraph is the major selling point of the book. Thanks to Natwar Singh, we now know how political parties in power are adept at manipulating and creating an alternative history of events. In fact, this book has rendered a great service to the historiographers of the future generation by bringing out many secrets of the 10, Janpath Durbar out in the public domain. There is some sentimentality attached to the abuses that Mr. Singh heaps on the UPA Chairperson largely owing to the treatment meted out to him. However, by and large, I believe, the picture painted of the Congress Party as a den of bootlickers vindicates the perception that the party had come to acquire among the public long long ago.

All in all, Mr. Natwar Singh's autobiography belongs in the category of those books whom you just cannot ignore. Peppered with interesting anecdotes and eye catching revelations, the book is a breezy read for anyone interested in Indian politics. Moreover, by busting the myth of sacrifice of the PM's chair by Sonia Gandhi which was perpetuated so successfully by the Congress Party for over a decade, Mr. Singh has shown  that it will take many more books like these to finally bring out the truth.  One hopes that this autobiography turns out to be a trendsetter. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chinese Maritime Silk Route and South Asia

China’s ‘New Silk Roads’ policy seeks to enhance land connectivity with Central Asia and establish ‘Maritime Silk Roads’ to connect it with the ASEAN countries and the coastal cities of South Asia.

As the Chinese Premier Xi Jingping gets ready to visit India next month, his foremost priority would be to get India to participate in China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route project. The concept first emerged during Xi’s trip to Southeast Asia last October where he called for increased maritime cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries. Since then, the concept has expanded to cover not only the ASEAN states, but also the subcontinent, the Middle East and the coast of Africa. 

This is not a new concept. The movement of goods has been taking place through this ancient maritime silk route since many centuries and reached its peak in the 15th century. By reviving this ancient trade route, China hopes to set new benchmarks for ‘neighborhood diplomacy’ and seeks to improve ‘regional stability’. However, its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and strategic encirclement of India in the past has made it difficult to regard this proposal without a jaundiced eye.

The Indian Dilemma

India and China are already cooperating in the development of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor which will connect the Yunnan province of China with the other three countries and will form an important segment of the Southern Silk Road. The Chinese accord special importance to India in their silk roads plan as it lies at the intersection of the overland silk roads and maritime silk routes. However, India has so far resisted signing on the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project not only due to the opaque nature of the project, but also because it sees this project as an attempt by China to establish a foothold in the Indian Ocean. Despite projecting MSR as an exclusively commercial venture meant for the development of massive maritime infrastructure, China has been surprisingly unforthcoming on the specifics of the project which has lead others to suspect its geopolitical motives. 

India has been wary of any Chinese attempt to raise its naval profile in the Indian Ocean and has scorned at Chinese construction of port infrastructure in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) in the past. However, the sheer scope and scale of the new MSR project and the potential commercial benefits arising out of it are bound to make the new NDA government seriously weigh the implications of rejecting participation in it. 


Response from the Neighborhood

In contrast, the Sri Lankan response to the MSR proposal was enthusiastic as it became the first country to express its support for the project. China is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner after India, and both the nations recently signed a Strategic Cooperative Partnership (SCP) agreement during President Rajapaksa’s visit to China in May 2013. The Bilateral relations between both the nations are at their peak as President Xi Jinping will become the first Chinese premier to visit the island nation next month. With the MSR project, Sri Lanka seeks to enhance its strategic identity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by emerging as a financial hub in South Asia and a link to Africa and the Middle East while China wants to legitimize its increased role in IOR even as it increases the economic viability of its many port infrastructure projects. Both the countries are expected to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to further bolster their ties by the end of 2014. 

Besides India and Sri Lanka, China has also been trying to woo the Maldives to be a part of its pet project. In a meeting with the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen in Nanjing, President Xi invited the Maldives to be a part of China’s ambitious MSR plan. Earlier in July, the Chinese had offered to train the Maldivian Maritime personnel and to increase their involvement in the infrastructure projects in the small island nation. It is not very difficult to understand why China would want the Maldives to be a part of its MSR initiative as the island nation acts as a converging point for hundreds of cargo ships both from the east and the west and can help in expanding east-west trade.

China and Pakistan are moving rapidly towards the implementation of multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The corridor connects China’s Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port. 

Conclusion

China’s eagerness to induct India in its MSR proposal has raised some eyebrows within the strategic community. While Indians remain deeply suspicious of any attempt of strategic encirclement by China through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, Chinese experts have pointed out that the only purposes of China in the Indian Ocean are economic gains and security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). 

The announcement of a 10 billion Yuan ($1.6 billion) fund for financing the MSR project has shown the seriousness that China attaches to this proposal. The potential short term benefits arising out of this are hard to ignore and can benefit local economies enormously. However, even if the economic benefits of this project were to be delivered, India’s choice must be based on the impact its geopolitical interests will have from such a development in the IOR. The NDA government will have to consider both - the desperate need of connectivity and the threat from China in the IOR before taking any decision on the subject.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Vindictiveness and Autocracy : "Achhe Din" Defined

Ever since the BJP led NDA government took charge on May 22, its leader and our new Prime Minister hasn't stopped preaching to us the value of working together to build the nation. That's all fine. However, if one were to analyze his words and deeds over the past few days, it would reveal a gap so vast as to make the Grand Canyon look like a small crevice.

Throughout the elction campaign, the auditory and visual senses of the voters were bombarded with the promise of 'achhe din' or 'good days'. We were told that since Independence, all the governments which had been elected by the people of India with full majority had pulled wool over their eyes and had not succeeded in bringing in the much needed development. In short, institution building for the proper functioning of a democracy, development of the heavy industries and manufacturing sector, a successful space programme, nurturing of premier educational institutes, decentralization of power and evolution of a robust federal structure of government did not really count as development as they did not result in the Nifty and Sensex markers going haywire. What was needed, we were told, was a CEO style of governance which would put India on the fast track of prosperity to emerge as a superpower of the 21st century.

Now, we are indeed being given the taste of a CEO style of governance which involves a heavy dose of vindictiveness and autocracy. 

Eyebrows were first raised when the new government decided to coerce the incumbent governors of the states appointed by the previous government to resign from their posts and thus make way for the new favorites. This was directly in contravention of the judgement passed by the Supreme Court in B.P. Singhal vs. Union of India where the court had laid down that the power to remove a governor cannot be exercised in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner and should only be exercised in rare and exceptional circumstances for valid and compelling reasons. The whole situation was ironical because it was the BJP which had first raised a hue and a cry in 2004 when the newly elected UPA government decided to remove the governors appointed by the NDA regime.

The Supreme Court judgement did not deter the new government from transferring the governors from one state to another with impunity leading to the resignation of the Governors of Uttar PradeshChhattisgarh, West Bengal, Nagaland and Goa. 89 year old Governor of Gujarat Mrs. Kamla Beniwal, who had not so cordial relations with Mr. Modi during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was transferred to Mizoram with just five months left in her tenure. 

Close on the heels of the whole controversy surrounding the transfer of governors came the refusal of the government to elevate Mr. Gopal Subramanium, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, to the post of a judge of the apex court as recommended by the collegium of judges. The Chief Justice hit out at the government for segregating the file of Mr. Subramanium from the other three nominees without his knowledge and consent. 

Mrs. Indira Jaising, writing in the Business Standard, sadly noted that the institutions of governance had surrendered their autonomy and lambasted the CBI for doing a complete volte-face regarding Mr. Subramanium's clean record after the change of government at the center. She also remarked that "no ruling party can be allowed to pick and choose its judges in a cloak and dagger manner".

However, it was clear for everyone from the start that the real reason for witholding Mr. Subramanium's elevation as a judge of the Supreme Court was not his alleged affinity with the previous UPA government, but his role as an amicus curiae in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case where he opposed the bail application of Mr. Modi's right hand man Amit Shah. This motive bacame even more clearer days later with the elevation of Mr. Shah as the President of the BJP.

Accused of fake encounters involving Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Tulsi Prajapati among others, Amit Shah spent three months in the Sabarmati jail before he secured bail in 2010. He has also been caught on tape discussing the ways in which the investigation in the case of Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case could be thwarted. Most disturbingly, Mr. Shah has been accused of orchestrating the daily surveillance of a particular woman on behalf of Mr. Modi, a scandal which eventually came to be known as 'snoopgate'. 

All these controversies and the fact that Mr. Shah has a record of being as divisive and polarizing on religious matters as Mr. Modi hasn't deterred the Prime Minister from having his way and appointing him the new BJP chief. 

All these developments make Mr. Modi's promise of ensuring the safety of women in the country and cleansing the polity by barring the entry of criminals sound like a most fantastic chimera. The joke doing the rounds on social media these days is that the Prime Minister promised 'Achhe Din' not for the general public, but for his own partymen! With the exit of reputed legal luminaries like Mr. Subramanium and the rise of alleged criminals like Mr. Shah, that surely seems to be the case.

This Post was Published in CounterCurrents

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Whose University, Whose Rights? Revisiting the FYUP Debate



Over the last week, the University of Delhi, India's largest public university and the one in which I am currently enrolled, saw the culmination of a very shrill debate that had been going on for the past year and a half over the switching of undergraduate programmes from a three year to a four year scheme. While several critics lashed out at the university administration for their hurry in implementing a half-baked Four Year Undergraduate Programme (henceforth FYUP) full of drawbacks, others pointed out at the several benefits of the scheme and the need to kick-start the long-pending 'reforms' in the education sector of the country.

The new government which assumed charge at the center in May had promised to roll back the FYUP in its election manifesto. As the admission season approached, the cacophony of voices advocating or criticizing the FYUP got louder and it seemed that even this time the university administration would succeed in admitting students under the FYUP. However, a last minute intervention by the University Grants Commission (UGC), the country's university watchdog, which had stood by in the past as the DU administration implemented the four year scheme, compelled the Vice Chancellor to roll back the programme and revert back to the three year scheme.

Now that the admissions have started and dust has settled on the whole issue, it would be pertinent to revisit the main arguments for and against the programme to sift the wheat from the chaff and to impartially interrogate the merits and demerits of the infamous FYUP.

Uncharacteristic Haste 

Writing in The Hindu on 29th April, 2013, Mrs. Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University questioned the haste with which the FYUP was pushed through.
“There was little in the form of discussion before introducing the programme. No concept papers were circulated by the administration and no feedback was formally sought from any segment of the university...The scheme of the programme was passed by both the Academic Council and the Executive Council in extraordinary haste without any substantial debate.”
Such speed and lack of real discussion, she wrote, seriously undermines even the most minimal academic standards. Similarly, Apoorvanand, a Professor of Hindi in the University, writing on the popular opinion blog Kafila said:
“The FYUP can be used to pilot test the XIIth five year plan strategy for 're-crafting undergraduate education' but its reckless speed of implementation threatens to wreck all positive potential and derail the national reforms process....The enhancement of DU infrastructure promised earlier is yet to materialize, especially classroom space. Around 3,000 UGC sanctioned teaching posts have remained vacant for three years. On this already overstretched infrastructure, the FYUP will inevitably impose an additional burden of 33%.”
He added that a major reform like FYUP has been initiated without the backing of a national policy statement or white paper explaining its rationale. The good reasons why the nation must bear the additional cost of a year, he said, must be spelt out and publicly debated.

The Need for Reforms

However, defenders of the FYUP rebutted the charges of haste in the implementation of the program. Mr. Chandrachur Singh, an assistant professor of Political Science in the University, writing in The Hindu, explained why the FYUP was a good idea.

Rubbishing allegations that the programme had been implemented in a hurry, he said
“The VC Mr. Dinesh Singh has created new channels of communication where none existed, aside from the politically fragmented Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), for communicating with students and teachers of this vast university which has between 4-5 lakh students on its rolls....In their eagerness to trash the FYUP for its alleged haste in implementation, critics tend to ignore the massive transformation in communication styles. Assembly based discussions and deliberations have made way for cyber discussions where conclusions and consensus are much easier to reach.”
One of the main features of the FYUP, he said, was that the students who were earlier dropping out of the university at the rate of 40-45%, would be able to leave with some sort of formal award – thus increasing their employability, instead of leaving with nothing. Alleging that the critics of FYUP were ideologically biased, Mr Singh added that the scheme enjoyed support from the younger members of the academia and their participation in large numbers in the Academic Congress as well as in the framing of the syllabi proves it. 

Writing in the Op-Ed column of the same newspaper, Mr. Shashi Tharoor, the former Minister of State for Human Resources and Development, under whose watch the programme was implemented, made a strong case for the four year scheme. He wrote:
“The economic reforms of the last 20 odd years have unleashed our economic potential, and the governance reforms of the last 10 years have raised our civic awareness. Education as a sector remains the last frontier largely untouched by reforms and we need to completely overhaul our educational systems and processes if we are to realize the full potential of the demographic potential that awaits us in the coming decades of the 21st century.”
“Relative to the national per capita income, our teachers enjoy a salary structure that is one of the most favorable in the world. And yet, by any measure of performance, as repeatedly shown in a number of professional surveys and global rankings of universities, we are languishing at modest to mediocre levels of educational achievement.”
FYUP: Disadvantage Dalits?

What in Mr. Chandrachur Singh's view was one of the strong points of FYUP, was turned on its head by a powerful critique offered by Mr. Udit Raj and Mr. Hany Babu, members of Joint Action Front for Democratic Education. Questioning the rationale behind multiple exit points offered by the new scheme, the authors, writing in The Hindu, said:
“Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes/ Other Backward Classes (SC/ST/OBC) groups have advocated caution on the potential of the new programme to make the reservation policy mandated by the constitution nugatory, as a large number of students of SC/ST/OBC groups may not be able to complete 4 years of education. The multiple exit points may become death traps for these students. They will exit with unequal degrees, the equalizing force of education will be lost and the social stratification will be further hardened”
“The question is not about the autonomy of the university, but whether the government of India can turn its face the other way when the mandate of the constitution is made a mockery by the university...The government cannot shy away from its responsibility when the national education policy of the 10+2+3 system is replaced by another system without a national debate, especially when it threatens the fundamental policies of social affirmative action mandated by the constitution.”
The Purpose of Liberal Education

However, in midst of these quibbles over procedures and merits/demerits, the larger questions about the purpose of a liberal education eventually sought to be achieved were raised by Mrs. Nandini Sundar, a professor of Sociology in the University and Mr. Gautam Bhan, Professor at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. 

Mrs. Sundar, writing on her blog, advocated for an 'Indian education for Indian students' and said:
“Instead of enabling a few elite students to merge seamlessly into the US like higher education system, the MHRD should think of the ways to improve what passes by the name of higher education in the country as a whole....An education policy that confines itself to less than 10% of employment that the formal sector constitutes, is bound to shortchange the remaining the 90%.”
Mr. Bhan, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, quoted Martha Nussbaum and said that liberal education is related not just to particular ends such as employability and skills, but also to a project of building and sustaining the quality of human personhood, democratic societies and everyday life.
“Teaching techniques at the cost of analytical skills may answer an immediate market demand, but it creates a generation of university graduates unable to evolve with the inevitable changes in technique...India today is marked by a deeply contested trajectory of growth and development, a growing trend of intolerant and un-democratic impulses, as well as persistent social, political and economic inequality. Any curriculum must face this moment and prepare its graduates to live and work within it.”
Attacking the FYUP, he added that “students taking the course will learn a set of facts that will be outdated nearly as soon as they leave the classroom. But more importantly, they will lack that deepest promise of a liberal education: the ability to seek and assess knowledge independently because they have been given the conceptual tools to do so.”

Conclusion

The tussle over FYUP has seen numerous protests throughout the last year. It is true that the higher education scenario in India is in urgent need of reforms. Yet, such reforms have to be publicly debated and a consensus has to be formed around any proposed measures.

The failure of FYUP is a tale of the failure of the university administration to properly consult all stakeholders and clearly spell out its vision for the university. By pushing through the FYUP without any substantial debate or discussion in a mere 10 months, the Vice Chancellor Mr. Dinesh Singh sought to introduce overnight change in the university. However, instead of having his cake, he has ended up with burnt fingers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Tale of a Rape Accused in Modi Sarkar

While horrendous reports of rapes, molestations, kidnappings and murders of women across the country continue to pour in every day, the new government has recieved an additional cause of worry with a sessions court in Jaipur, Rajasthan issuing summons to Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Mr. Nihalchand Meghwal along with 17 others in a four year old rape case. The Minister is accused of sexually assaulting a woman from Haryana.

The opposition, justifiably, has demanded the resignation of the Minister until the completion of the enquiry. Coming close on the heels of the shocking Badayun gang rape and double murder case, the presence of a rape accused occupying a ministerial berth in the cabinet deflates the government's claim to be tough on crimes against women. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Meghwal has vehemently refused to resign and has instead tried to brazen it out by asking hostile reporters "Did you make me a Minister?"
  
I wish I could say that such an attitude is shocking, but frankly, it is not. For anyone familiar with India's political landscape, such issue specific somersaults have become frustratingly common. They signify the classic doublespeak of the quintessential Indian politician who promises all the riches and wonders at the time of campaigning for elections and conviniently turns his back on those promises when in power. The present administration rode to power with women empowerment being one of its major electoral planks. In the 15th Lok Sabha, speaker after speaker belonging to the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), then in opposition, slammed the UPA-II government for failing to do enough on the question of women's security. Most of those speakers, who have been re-elected to the 16th Lok Sabha while their opponents cool their heels outside the parliament, have gone oddly quiet now.


It is important to recognize the fact that a major part of the whole problem starts when political parties decide to field tainted candidates in the elections. According to a Press Release by Association for Democratic Reforms dated 9th May 2014, 1398 (17%) of 8163 candidates contesting the Lok Sabha 2014 elections declared criminal cases against themselves with 58 candidates declaring cases related to crimes against women on them. 6 candidates declared cases of rape. Out of 58 candidates with cases related to crimes against women, 6 candidates were fielded by BSP, 3 candidates by AITC, BJP, INC and SP each, 2 candidates by JD(U), 1 candidate by AAP, CPI, CPI(ML)L, MNS, RJD, Shiv Sena and YSRCP each and 18 candidates contested as independents. Fortunately, only two contestants with cases related to crimes against women on them, Adv. Joice George (an Independent from Idukki constituency, Kerala) and Ahir Hansraj Gangaram (BJP, Chandrapur constituency, Maharashtra) were able to emerge victorious (ADR Press Release dated 18th May).

Voices have begun to emerge questioning the Prime Minister's silence on this issue. This, after the rape victim revealed that the concerned Minister sent his men to threaten her to take back her complaint and offered her a job. While Mr. Meghwal may have succeeded in getting his name cleared in obscurity with resources and political power backing him in Jaipur, it would be interesting to see if he can repeat the same under the glaring spotlight of the media and the hawkish scrutiny of the National Commission of Women, whose chief has expressed her intention to write to the Prime Minister seeking his dismissal. However, this whole case has further highlighted the fact that regardless of the political party in power, the disparity with which law applies to the commoners and those held dear by the establishment continues to hold.

Mr. Modi would be well advised to rectify this imbalance.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review: Steven Zaillian's "The Civil Action"


We live in a world where huge multi-national corporations have more annual income than the entire GDP of many nations. While elected governments can be held responsible for the crimes committed on their behalf in the court of law, how does one compel the MNCs to accept their wrongdoing when they have huge resources to make a mockery of the entire legal process? Steven Zaillian’s The Civil Action is a legal take on the traditional David v. Goliath battle which assures its viewers that there can be a victory beyond defeat. 

The hard bargain that takes place over the worth of an individual's dignity at the beginning of the movie epitomizes the extent to which life has been commoditized in contemporary America. The clearly artificial concern that Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta’s character) shows for his clients in the courtroom, starkly contrasting with his own abundant and luxurious lifestyle, highlights the propensity of the practitioners of the legal profession to use the argument of morality in pursuit of their borderline immoral ends.

It is such frustratingly effective argumentative capability that sums up Jan's outlook towards his work when he says that “the lawyer who shares his client's pain, in my opinion, does his client such a great disservice, he should have his license to practice taken away”. Ignoring the ridiculously meagre measurements of the proverbial box that such an outlook confines the definition of the term 'service' to, one is not surprised to see him almost reject the 'Woburn case' even though it involves the death of eight children - due to the absence of any defendants with deep pockets. Yet, deep pockets emerge from the margins of the case and Schlichtmann, Conway and Gordon Co. begin their work to drill holes in those pockets.

Suddenly, we see a parallel fight emerge. This is a fight beyond that of the plaintiff, the respondent or even the courtroom. This fight is the my-brand-is-better-than-your-brand fight and the name of the two fighters is Harvard and Cornell. Jan refuses to submit to an inferiority complex while practicing law in the backyard of Harvard despite not being its alumni. His reasoning is simple – he sees Harvard alumni as bullies and simply refuses to submit to them.

In deposition after deposition, we hear affected families narrate the manner in which they lost their children, sometimes on their way to the hospital, due to leukaemia caused by the contaminated water in their neighbourhood. Jerome Facher, played by the brilliant Robert Duvall, who represents one of the two corporations implicated in the lawsuit, repeatedly patronizes Jan as if he does not know the law at all. The evening before the settlement talks are to commence, we see a contemplative Travolta sitting in his car near the affected neighbourhood, imagining his clients trying to resuscitate their dead baby on the way to the hospital. Is there an ideological change in his character? Has his pride been hurt? Or has the grief of the victims – brought out in the detailed depositions that they gave narrating their loss – finally stirred something at the core of his heart?

As the chances of his securing a conviction grow thinner and thinner, Schlichtmann continues to be patronized by Fascher with an even blunter worldview than that held by him before. “The courtroom isn't the place to find the truth” Fascher says, “you'd be lucky to find here anything that resembles the truth”. Sitting in the hallway of that court, waiting for the jury to return with the verdict, we finally come to know of Schlichtmann's transformation in five odd words: “Eight children are dead, Jerry”. Your heart skips a beat as you realize that he has broken his only cardinal principal in the profession; he has shared his client's pain.

Often, while following the progress of the case, one gets tangled in the technicalities of the law so much that (s)he forgets that in most cases, it is the lawyers that matter in the courtroom. This movie beautifully brings out this facet of the legal profession through the eventual bankruptcy of Travolta in pursuit of justice. Through his bankruptcy, we are reminded of the tagline of the movie: "Justice has a price".

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Horror Postcard from Uttar Pradesh

The picture of two low-caste girls hanging from a tree in Badayun powerfully conveys the sense of urgency that is required to curb the crimes against women taking place all over the country.

The non-stop media coverage of the terror of rapes and molestations that women in Uttar Pradesh are living under for the past few days have rained down as hammer blows on the conscience of our nation. Scarcely had we begun to condole the family of the two unfortunate girls in Badayun who lost their children in such a reprehensible crime, that we were told about the manner in which such violence was taking place all over the state in some or the other form. In Aligarh, two men tried to rape a civil judge in her well protected home and forced her to drink pesticide. Exactly a week after the incident in Badayun, another girl was found hanging from a tree in Sitapur district in the state. A minor girl was thrown off the train near Bareilley when she tried to resist the advances of three youngsters.

There is a lengthy list of such crimes. According to a report by Center for Social Research, in 2010, out of a total of 213585 crimes against women recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 20169 were in UP (9.44%), the highest in the country. According to a Times of India report, the state recorded 23,569 crimes against women in 2012, which included 1,963 cases of rape, 7,910 cases of kidnapping, 2,244 cases of dowry death, 3,247 cases of assault on women with intent to outrage modesty, 505 cases of Dowry Prohibition Act, 7661 cases of cruelty by husband apart from other acts of violence against women. In 2013, the state registered 126 rape cases in one week alone.

Despite such chilling statistics, the state government headed by Akhilesh Yadav, son of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, is smug in its defense. Akhilesh's uncle Ramgopal Yadav blamed the media for disproportionately focusing on the crimes in Uttar Pradesh and ignoring other states. During the Election season, Mulayam Singh himself caused an uproar by casually stating that "boys will be boys and they will make mistakes" and promised his supporters that if his party was voted to power, he would change the law prescribing death penalty for those convicted of rape and murder. Akhilesh Yadav too tried to brazen it out of the current crises by asking a journalist to worry about his safety and to leave the safety of the women in the hands of the state government.

Such responses do not surprise anymore. It became apparent after the December 16 gang rape incident that the instinct of those in power in times of crisis is not to solve that crisis, but is instead to shift the limelight so that they can cling on to their power. Although not surprising, this behavior is disappointing as it comes from a government headed by a Chief Minister who was considered a part of the country's younger generation and hence embodying the hopes and aspirations of millions of his counterparts. Yet, instead of taking strict action that could have helped in healing the wounds of the aggrieved families, the Akhilesh Yadav led government has been following the routine investigation-is-going-on track. It took a week for a state government official to even visit the family of the two girls in Badayun to offer his condolences and to assure them of speedy justice in the matter.

Apart from leaving the state government red-faced, these incidents have also pointed to an urgent need to improve the sanitary conditions in India's countrysides. Various reports published in the aftermath of this incident (see, for example, here, here and here) have pointed to the absence of toilets as one of the primary threats to the safety of women. The central government slammed the Uttar Pradesh government for not utilizing Rs 293 crores out of a total of Rs 543 crores allocated to it under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme for building toilets in the state. Considering that the new Prime Minister himself had outlined his policy of "Toilets first, Temples later" during the election campaign, ensuring an end to the practice of open defecation should become one of the top priorities of the new administration.

As news of the horrific incident in Badayun spread, political leaders from various parties made it a point to visit the grief stricken family for a photo-op. It is an image that people in India have grown accustomed to. One can say with some surety that what the public would really like to see is the image of the culprits, heads lowered in shame, being sent on their way to long prison sentences. It is up for the new government to decide which image will prevail by the time its term comes to an end.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What Shahid taught Me

As a law student, you are often taught that your duty is to defend your client and it is the judge's duty to determine whether (s)he is guilty or not. You look at the legal high society and find people like Ram Jethmalani, who have made an illustrious career for themselves by strictly adhering to this maxim. Any law student would know that in litigation you cannot afford to be choosy as clients are hard to come by and establishing a successful practice is dependent upon your argumentative skills and not judgemental ones. Many young and honest lawyers have to swallow their rightfulness and pride to defend those clients whom they know to be guilty simply because of the nature and pressures of the business.

Gradually, you begin to internalize and rationalize these ideas and the humanist within you starts giving away to the realist. You begin to question the veracity of your judgements and the foundations of your assumptions. You cannot decide whether this change taking place within you is for the good or for the bad. You do not know whether your questions and endless queries are just arrows in the dark or purposeful taunts on a conscience unaccustomed to such piercing interrogation. When you read the law it is fairly simple and straightforward and as soon as you start reading the cases, a maze of ifs and buts and whys and why nots crops up. Every day, you find yourself sinking deeper and deeper into the ideological morass of your own creation.

It is when you are still fighting with these questions that you see Shahid, a movie based on the life and times of Shahid Azmi, a noted lawyer and human rights activist who was killed for successfully defending many innocent muslims falsely implicated in cases of terrorism. You see Shahid as a vulnerable, sensitive young man trying to find his feet in the world with the help of the law. He is passionate and hard working individual who believes in the fights that he is fighting and quotes Roy Black with impunity:
“By showing me injustice, he taught me to love justice. By teaching me what pain and humiliation were all about, he awakened my heart to mercy.  Through these hardships I learned hard lessons. Fight against prejudice, battle the oppressors, support the underdog. Question authority, shake up the system, never be discouraged by hard times and hard people.  Embrace those who are placed last, to whom even bottom looks like up.  It took me some time to find my mission in life – that of a criminal defense lawyer. But that ‘school’, and that Teacher, put me on my true path.  I will never be discouraged. Even thorns and thistles can teach you something, and lead to success.”  
Slowly, as the movie progresses, the humanist within you starts fighting back. The ability to distinguish between white and black is called common sense, it retorts. Sure, defending the guilty will bring great rewards and recognition but what about the idea of law as a public service? What about the moral compass of the society which operates by the fundamental belief of everyone that justice will be done, truth will prevail and that the guilty will be punished? What about the corruption of that moral compass by the agony of countless irreproachable paupers pitted against the might of the state?

Throughout the movie, you see Shahid as a lone warrior fighting against the legal system, the media, the society and even his own family to stand for what is right and what is correct. You cheer as victories come his way, you froth with indignation as wrongs are heaped upon him. Gradually you realize that more than just being a tool for making money, law can actually be used for serving the cause of social justice - a cause for which it was promulgated in the first place.

Long after the movie has ended and you realize that Shahid is no more, you sit thinking about the role of law and its practitioners in the society. You think about all the questions and counter questions that cropped up in your mind during those brief two hours and realize that you won't be able to stand a lifetime of such questions. The ideological dilemma solves itself, the mind is unburdened and sleep creeps its way inside among the thoughts of justice, equity and good conscience.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lessons for the Aam Aadmi Party

The general elections are in their full swing and everybody is looking forward to the May 12 battle of political behemoths in the Uttar Pradesh in the last leg of the elections. The results are to be announced on May 16.

Regardless of the outcomes of the elections, the Aam Aadmi Party is to emerge as a debutante national party experienced with fighting its first general election and which is here to stay. What are the lessons that it will have to learn to continually relevant?

#Lesson 1: Rational decision making: One of the major criticisms that was hurled on the AAP by the opposition parties was that it ran away from its responsibilities of running a government in Delhi. AAP national convener Mr. Arvind Kejriwal too has accepted this criticism labelled against him and has called his decision to quit as Delhi CM a 'mistake'.

Maybe this mistake could have been avoided if the AAP leader had not acted in haste. The Delhi CM could have called a press conference and given the opposition parties a deadline to reconsider their stance regarding the Jan Lokpal Bill. He could have threatened to quit if the stance of both the parties remained unchanged and he could have made political villains out of the Congress and the BJP. In short, through rational decision making, he could have actually gained from the resignation.

One wishes that Mr. Kejriwal has learnt his lesson and would act more rationally than emotionally in such situations which can have bearings for the electoral fortune of his party.

#Lesson 2: Muscle Power counts: The many physical attacks on AAP leaders all over the country have been embarrassing and have become issues to be concerned about for the party. It has made them look like infantiles who have wandered by mistake in the political arena. People see them as a party which talks about protecting the country and yet is unable to protect its own leaders.

The AAP will need to worry about such an image. People do not want a mob to rule the country. They want genuine leaders, who not only think like one but also act like one. Party leaders need to be and appear to be strong, with a mass appeal across different sections of the society. Being pelted with eggs and ink is hardly helping.

#Lesson 3: Allies are important: One cannot remain forever secluded in politics. Democracy is all about resolving differences and coming together to find a solution.

The Aam Aadmi Party will need to fine tune its allegations for maximum political effect. It will need the backing of other political parties to be able to exert uneasy political pressure in order to emerge as a politically astute alternative worth being given a chance to govern the country. Allies will be important in this regard as they will add to the strength of the party and help them win over hostile segments of the population. They will also be important as the alliance can give a chance for the party to play the clean politics v/s dirty politics dichotomy to their advantage to a wider section of the society.

#Lesson 4: Media Management: One unforgettable lesson that the rise of the AAP has provided contemporary Political Scientists is that the media is crucial part of any election campaign. In the west, the newspapers and television channels do not pretend to be objective and openly declare their support for a particular political party before the general elections. The rise of a biased media can either be criticised endlessly, or can be supported for the best interests of the political parties and to improve the level of debate and discussion in television and print journalism.

The Aam Aadmi Party cannot dump the media like it dumped Vinod Kumar Binny for 'anti-party activities'. Instead of leveling allegations against the media, it would be prudent if the AAP learns to manage it. This is a liberal argument and the Aam Aadmi Party is free to accept it or reject it.

If the Party is able to learn some of these lessons and bring about change within it, it would greatly improve the prospects of it standing a realistic chance of acquiring power in the next general elections. It can also choose to ignore these suggestions at the risk of its own peril.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Marquez in my Imagination



The last book that I read by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was A Chronicle of Death Foretold. I carried it along with me the last time I went back to my hometown in December and casually started flipping through its pages before getting hooked by the narrative. The train journey was 12 hours long in which I had completed reading the novella twice and stopped myself only to play the story over and over in my mind: to picture Angela Vicario’s wedding to Bayardo San Roman, to think about his anger when he found that she wasn’t a virgin, to envisage the feeling of humiliation experienced by the Vicario brothers and to visualize the expression on Santiago Nasar’s face when he was finally stabbed. In short, I stopped only to imagine the imagination of the writer.

Such is the magic of Marquez. As a first year student in Delhi University, I came across a copy of the despondently titled One Hundred Years of Solitude when it was brought to the college by a friend who was halfway through it. I kept thinking of the title and stole glances at the cover and after a few days, borrowed it to read it myself.

 To say that I was blown away would be an understatement. My first introduction to Marquez caused the equivalent of a nuclear explosion in my imagination and transported me to a world that I could hardly believe could be made to exist by the power of mere words on paper. Yet here I was, roaming the streets of Macondo, clapping wildly at the magic fair after seeing the tricks performed by Melquiades and listening intently to Jose Arcadio Buendia as he explained his every new invention. I was a soldier in Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s rebel army who felt sorry for him when he lost Remedios the Beauty. I admired the longevity of Ursula and cross checked the list which she made to document the 17 Aurelianos. I was a fly on the wall as seven generations of the Buendia family passed by and I was the awe, the horror and the surprise that swept Macondo along with the great wind when Aureliano Babilonia decoded the parchments written by Melquadiez.

After completing the book, I held it and admired it and went to sleep with it – an honor previously reserved for my cricket ball. I returned the book with a heavy heart and never bought a copy again. Marquez’s magical realism held the potential to singularly destroy my academic grades by drawing me in its beautiful world while Huntington, Fukuyama, Hobsbawm and Rawls scowled in a corner. Yet, when I found it again in my final year of graduation in an acquaintance’s book rack, I couldn’t resist but borrow it. I had to part with a couple of my own valued books for the exchange, yet I could survive it as meeting my old love had made me a kid in Macondo once more.

Yesterday, while passing through Kamla Nagar, I spotted a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. It is one novel by Marquez that I haven’t read yet – partly because of my own embarrassment with the concept of unrequited love, having been both on the giving and receiving side of it. Still I had difficulty walking past without stopping to flip through its pages. Anyone who has read Marquez will tell you that his words are a magnet to the reader’s heart – to ignore them is to attempt the impossible. I stopped for a couple of seconds, just to admire the beauty of the words. With my respects to his writing paid, I marched on into the evening. 

Today, my peace of mind was rudely interrupted by the news of his death. At the age of 87, he finally “shook off his mortal coil”. They say he is not with us anymore. And I emphatically deny it.

Men like Marquez do not cease to be with their death. Men like Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes, in short, men like Gabrial Garcia Marquez, have already immortalized themselves in the world of our imagination. They shape it, expand it and color it every time a word written by them is read anywhere on this globe. Their memory is refreshed and tributes are paid to them every time a copy of their work travels from the bookshop to a reader’s home. Their lives is a cultural phenomenon, their work a literary event and their deaths a historical bookmark. And bookmarks are made to remember which page you were reading the last time and can never be equated with the finality of a full stop.

I never got to speak to him or hear him speak. Yet, its his words that have affected me, moved me and made me smile. The 30 million reverberations of One Hundred Years of Solitude continue to echo throughout the world and my imagination is filled with its music. Today he lays hundreds of miles away in Latin America and I will never get to go and see him. But that does not mean I cannot bring him to my own home.

I just need to walk to Kamla Nagar for that.