Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

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140 Years of a habit called “The Hindu”!

On the 20th of September, the very popular newspaper from the South – The Hindu completed 140 years since its first issue! In these “cash out and exit” times, one cannot but acknowledge and revere the newspaper for 140 years of sustenance and survival. For those from South India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular and for those who were born in the pre-liberalisation era, The Hindu is not just a newspaper but a habit!

I presently live in Mumbai and I don’t read The Hindu daily these days and my Hindu reading is limited to when I travel to Tamil Nadu. On and off, I do get to read some interesting articles from The Hindu which land in one’s social media timelines!  This week, my memories flash back to my growing up days when reading The Hindu daily was a karma one performed religiously.

I probably started reading The Hindu newspaper when I was in class 2 or 3. Initially it was just the last page which was the Sports section where one would catch up on the previous day’s action mainly of Cricket and later Tennis! I have vivid memories of writer Rajan Bala’s lucid writing on some of the test matches accompanied by some fantastic action pictures from the cricket field.  Once Rajan Bala moved on from The Hindu, the cricket column was taken over by R.Mohan. Both were extremely knowledgeable of the game and with their command over the Queen’s language, brought the nuances of the game in front of our eyes in the pre-TV era. The following day in the school, we used to discuss not just the game but also the style of writing and the language used. Such was the impact of the writing on us!

Gradually, we graduated from the last page sports columns to the first page political news and also the Sunday supplements. The Hindu those days had an impeccable reputation for being factual and accurate in News reporting. So much so, the joke those days was that even if a murder happens in broad day light right in front of its office at the Mount Road in Chennai and their reporters saw it with his/her own eyes, the news will get published only after the police FIR was filed and police confirmed that it was indeed a murder!

For many in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu was the teacher for the English language! The newspaper was seen as an ultimate authority on the language. One could hardly find a mistake in the spelling or the grammar those days. These days it is no more the case, I’m told. ‘Know your English’ – a weekly column which used to appear in the newspaper was extremely popular and as kids we used to read the same with immense interest and curiosity to discover unknown aspects of English!  If today, I am in a position to write this blog in half decent English, some credit certainly goes to The Hindu!

After being in the habit of reading The Hindu, whenever I used to travel outside Tamil Nadu and got to read other English newspapers, the difference used to be glaring! One, The Hindu those days was in the forefront of adopting technology, though from a very conservative and traditional ownership background. So the typesetting and page layoutting were top class. You will never find an article in the first page with “Continued in Page ….” line. I see this even today in papers like The Indian Express! The reproduction of photographs even in the B&W era was again of highest quality. Talking of adoption of technology, I clearly remember that The Hindu was the 1st to use “facsimile” technology to transmit and receive pictures from outside when reporting events outside of Chennai. Those pictures used to carry a line (received through facsimile technology!). That fax as a technology became very common place later is a different aspect altogether. When The Hindu adopted it, it was a pioneering effort.

As far as I remember, political reporting of The Hindu used to be pro-establishment. It never used to taken an antagonistic line. But, I reckon that this changed when N.Ram took over as the Editor. Ram as an individual is known to be unapologetically left leaned and since him taking over the reins, one can clearly say that the paper ceased to be neutral.

It was under Ram’s leadership that The Hindu broke one of the biggest corruption story of the country namely the “Bofors scandal” which broke the back of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Any pretensions of The Hindu being pro-establishment ceased after that. Somehow, for reasons not very clear, The Hindu didn’t pursue the Bofors story to its logical conclusion. In fact, journalist Chitra Subramaniam who was the architect of that story had to continue her expose in the Indian Express later!

When I moved to Bombay in the late 80’s, no filter coffee and not able to read the The Hindu every morning, meant serious withdrawal symptoms! The Hindu used to be available only with select newspaper vendors that too in select suburbs like Matunga! The day’s paper used to be available only by 4 pm. Initially for a few Sundays going to Matunga in the evening to have filter coffee and pick up the Sunday Edition of The Hindu was a routine that I did not miss. Slowly, one got weaned over this habit and started getting used to The Times Of India albeit very, very reluctantly!

Today, when I go to Tamil Nadu and pick up a copy of The Hindu to read, I do see it as a pale shadow of its former self! The language is no more engaging and the political reporting has clearly moved from being neutral to be clearly biased. And I notice that this is what many of my folks also felt.  Even those who were very loyal to The Hindu those days, talk of it with a tinge of irony!

Probably this is a sign of the times where not just The Hindu, but media in general have lost their moral compass and have started to pursue an agenda. Even amidst this, I do feel that The Hindu commands a sense of respectability among its peers. With Times of India invading into the South, The Hindu is no longer the dominant newspaper it used to be till the beginning of this decade. Still in these days of 140 characters of Twitter journalism, for The Hindu to chug along for 140 years, is no mean achievement. To the habit called The Hindu, here’s wishing another 140 years of a re-engineered future!

Postscript: While on the newspaper reading habit, please do read my humorous take –‘Paper Vandhaacha?’ (Read here) on how the newspaper is intertwined with the lives of a Tambrahm mama!

Pic Courtesy: The Indian Express!

Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

An Onam minus the Sadya!

Yesterday was Onam – the biggest festival for Malayalis in Kerala and all over the world which is usually celebrated with much fun, flowers, food and festivities. This year though, the absence of all these was palpable. Kerala is just recovering from one of the worst floods it has seen in the state’s history. It will take many weeks if not months for the state to fully get back on its feet. Roads and highways need quick mending and probably re-laying in many parts. Agriculture is almost finished in the near term. Power infrastructure needs a quick fix. And above all, personal and individual properties and assets in affected areas need to be refreshed.

Understandably, not just in Kerala, but even all over, the festivities around Onam in the back of such a huge natural calamity were muted. Usually on Onam day, one’s social media time line is flooded with greetings with pictures of colourful Pookalam (Artistic arrangement of flowers), Ona Sadya (the traditional feast) and stuff like that. The Ona Sadya is an inherent part of the festival. Strictly vegetarian, even pictures of the Sadya are enough to incite one’s taste buds. So much so, one could easily mistake Onam for being just a festival of food!

However, yesterday, it was pictures of different kinds. Pookalam was mainly of the map of Kerala with a message to rebuild the state! Greetings were with the King Mahabali making aerial surveys of the flood ravaged state or moving around in boats and shedding copious tears for Kerala to spring back to normalcy soon. And almost no picture of Sadya in sight!

In Mumbai where I Iive, the Kerala Bhavan at Vashi in Navi Mumbai hosts the typical Ona Sadya on the day of Onam. Last year, I remember the waiting for a place before the banana leaf was minimum an hour! There are few other places in the city which also have the Ona Sadya! This year though all these organisations gave the festival and its Sadya a miss, understandably. There is no doubt that it was the saddest Onam in a long time!

Even as Kerala was reeling under the impact of the floods, the many fault lines that exist in the society surfaced with impeccable alacrity.

Centre Vs. State: Even as the relief work was underway, with co-ordination from multi-level agencies, the squabble between State and the Centre over funds allocation in public left a bad taste. It is understandable that in India, politics is in the centre of everything. In a federal structure, it is not always that the same party rules the Centre and the state. But as citizens what we expect in times of calamities like this is for parties to raise above their political identities, put a united face and commit to relief and rehabilitation efforts in unison. Instead of having their own channels of communication with the Centre regarding need of funds, was there a need for the CM and the state finance minister to routinely communicate through the media regarding shortage in allocation of funds? Added to this was the unnecessary confusion over the US$100mn financial aid from UAE. Was there a bickering needed in public between 2 governments (centre and state) regarding the stance to be taken? Didn’t we at the end of the day showcase ourselves as being churlish in the eyes of the world?

Ruling party Vs. Opposition: For the initial few days, it was heartening to see the leaders of the ruling left and the opposition Congress visiting affecting areas together and expressing their solidarity to the public. As we saw later, this unity was short-lived.  The opposition leader of the Congress Ramesh Chennithala couldn’t resist himself from hitting out on the Chief Minister and the government for mis-handling the flood situation and for not being pro-active enough! So much for the solidarity!

One State Vs. Another State: In times like these, social media does a great job in mobilising support from people far and wide. Help poured by way of money and material from states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and others to Kerala. Even as this was happening, Kerala filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that the sudden release of excess water from Mullaperiyar dam by Tamil Nadu was one of the cause for the floods. We now hear that Tamil Nadu is preparing to file a counter affidavit refuting Kerala’s claim and putting the blame on Kerala’s non-readiness to handle torrential rains of this year’s magnitude. This tu tu-main main I am sure, will continue till the cows come home!

Right Vs. Left: We all know that in India, the hegemony of the Left is being questioned left, right and centre these days (pun unintended)! The Right is trying desperately and aggressively to catch up on the lost time to dismantle established narratives. Even admitting this as par for the course in a diverse country like India, one felt that the spinning by certain quarters of the Right that the floods were caused because of the recent attempts to allow entry of women to Sabarimala was stretching a bit too far! The argument was in bad taste and not surprising that it was taken out of circulation quickly.

And there were more – North Vs. South, Kerala Vs. Others and so on.

I am not for once suggesting that these fault lines didn’t exist before and are a recent phenomenon. I do believe however that the proliferation of media in general and social media in particular has emboldened these fault lines like never before.

This is indeed unfortunate and in the times to come one hopes fervently that the same proliferation of media and social media will help to unite us a society and make us more mature in responding to situations like this.  We are in a democracy and it is within our right to question and criticize our governments and for opposition to pillory the Government. However there is a time and place to do so. It could well be after the rehabilitation process is complete. And not squabbling on the full glare of media when people are struggling in relief camps with big question marks about their tomorrow. Even if governments and parties do so, the least as public we can do is to not give such squabbles traction in our day-today social media conversations (read as forwarding on WhatsApp/Facebook/Twitter)

As Onam passed by minus the traditional Sadya this time, that is some food for thought for us as a society!

Pic courtesy: Mathrubhumi English

Life without Google!!!

On the 27th of July this year, which was observed as Guru Purnima day – a day where we remember our gurus/teachers in life, a meme which was going viral on WhatsApp showed a student prostrating before “Google” and paying his respects on Guru Purnima day to the search engine! As much as it’s a joke to laugh about, one cannot miss the irony looking at the reality of the search engine’s clutch on our lives today!

Google today, is a gargantuan Eco system. But here, we are referring to its earliest avatar –the search engine.  For this generation, their first and probably only chosen resort for discovering answers to any question is “Google”! School is just for parents’ reassurance! Our generation which studied and survived without Google in those days seem so dated now! In conversations among our peers, this dialogue is often said and heard – “In our times there was no Google. We all worked so hard. And look at kids these days! They just Google and get all information what they want without moving their a**s!” That the lines are often pregnant with envy which is never missed by the kids is another matter!

Well, forget this generation. What will happen to “us”, the “Doordarshan” generation of the 70’s and 80’s if the search engine stops working one fine morning???

  • Where will we get those “thought for the day” messages for circulating every morning in the WhatsApp groups??
  • How do we take important decisions like whether to dry clothes inside or outside? Go back to the old fashioned way of searching the Newspaper for weather forecast! And use the thumb rule of drying clothes outside if IMD says heavy rain is in store for the day!
  • Travelling and reaching a new place means calling up and asking for proper directions and landmarks and religiously noting them in a piece of paper and not forgetting to put that in your pocket before leaving and leaving sufficiently early to be there on time and,… and,…
  • Did you just get used to the Uber or Ola App after repeated pestering by your kids? Then time to get back to the old ways of hailing the cab on the road and haggling about the faulty meter or the amount “above” the meter!
  • One may have to think many times before taking up the challenge of trying out some new exotic recipes at home! And have to go back to the time-tested way of calling the mother for any recipe! And have to start maintaining that cooking book!
  • And imagine what will happen to the parents when faced with school assignments and projects without Google!!! And get used to taunts like – “Dad, the answer you taught yesterday for the problem is totally wrong!!”
  • And as parents, forget about becoming heroes in the eyes of children by answering some weird, tough questions on general knowledge or some such thing by   surreptitiously checking on Google!
  • Tieing that saree the very traditional way for the puja is going to be nerve-wracking!
  • Where will you get the jokes for the all-important seminar the next day?
  • And where will one find answers to all those silly and not so silly “How to…” questions?
  • So and so forth

I am just listing the obvious.

It’s clear that not this just generation or the Gen Next, even the older ones today, cannot pass a single day without Google.

Google spent or is still spending tonnes of dollars on traditional media like TV for popularising the idea of “googling” with older generation as their main target audience! When you have the most popular online platform trying to spread awareness about itself through TV commercials, Billboards, Newspaper ads, irony just “googled” for the best way to commit suicide!!!

Look at these TVCs here! These are certainly endearing but I wonder if today is there a real need for anyone to advertise virtues of “Google”???  Well, probably this will fall under CSR for Google for helping the economy of the country with its huge ad spend!

Jokes apart, Google is participating in real CSR for example with projects like providing Free Wi-Fi at Railway stations. But the larger game plan must be to make people get used to the Google Ecosystem which is today omnipresent! From Search to Mails to Video sharing to Smart phone OS to Cloud sharing to Photo sharing to so many things! While there are options and semblance of competition in others, for internet search, competition is non-existent or is far off.

Any product with no competition is worrisome. We can see today how SEO techniques are being used by most to influence search results and increasingly are either not reliable or dis-honest! Time to have a challenger to Google!

Postscript: Did I say competition for Google search is non-existent? Well I take back. I am married. Don’t you remember this??? I just googled and found this 😀

Pay to forward – the way forward???

Social media these days is on a Meta trip! At least in India, for sure. News in social media is dominated by news about itself.

Day in day out one gets to see news of violence, lynching and even deaths, all in the light of fake WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Tweets which get forwarded in no time and whipping up a frenzy. Recently, a report said that WhatsApp based rumours have killed at least 22 people so far in India!

These days we also get to see warnings and threats from the ruling executive to these platforms asking them to mend their ways or face stiff action. This is particularly after the Cambridge Analytica expose.

In response, of late we also see news of these platforms showing increasing concern of the misuse and the resulting lynching, deaths and related violence. WhatsApp recently claimed that they were “horrified by the terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly”.

In short, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and more importantly WhatsApp which are also in the business of disseminating news are in the news themselves, all for the wrong reasons! These platforms which were all conceived with a noble intention of “bringing the whole world together” have ended up being misused by the users and the owners alike. In using the platforms to manipulate public opinion, both the sides are culpable.

From the Government side, we have repeatedly seen threats of action. However one wonders, to what extent they can make the platforms accountable apart from slapping fines which some of the Governments have already done. Can they completely ban these platforms considering the fact that social media is completely intertwined with the lives of people today?

Look at WhatsApp. Apart from being a platform for exchanging messages at a personal level, it has become an important tool in business communication as well. Here, WhatsApp is used efficiently and widely, saving time and money while improving “good productivity” (Like good cholesterol and Bad cholesterol, there is a view that WhatsApp improves and on the other hand affects productivity!)  Even in the medical field, reports are exchanged over WhatsApp to save time and thereby probably lives!

Similarly, a medium like Twitter has become the foremost medium for direct communication by political parties and their leaders. For example, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi can afford not to engage with the mainstream media and still get his views across to the public through his tweets or other social media tools a thing which was unthinkable few years ago. Donald Trump could call of a summit dialogue through social media!

Ergo, it’s almost impossible for the Government to just shut these platforms down. And so the way forward is only to work with these platforms to contain the damage.

In response to the call for action, Facebook and WhatsApp announced a slew of measures recently and these also have been in the news. Post Cambridge Analytica expose, Mark Zuckerberg had said that they were committed not to interfere with the elections in India. They reportedly tied up with Boomliv.in a fact checking site in India to filter out fake messages being circulated through Facebook. However on WhatsApp, Facebook has professed that WhatsApp being an end to end encrypted medium, they cannot pore over messages and filter them.

What is certainly visible is a set of actions they have kicked off in India. Few days back newspapers were splashed with solus ads by WhatsApp educating about the use of the medium to tackle the spread of misinformation. Seemingly on cue, there was a rollout of an optional feature by which only the administrators are allowed to send messages in a group.

All of a sudden on my phone, I could see the label “forwarded” since last week on WhatsApp messages which were actually forwarded. Apparently this is another measure to differentiate if a message is forwarded or not. Frankly, I am not sure how this feature will help in preventing people to do a forward! Of course it helps in some of the groups in which I am there, which have banned forwards!

And more actions have followed since. Like empowerment to individuals to report unwanted messages from a user or block a person. On Friday, WhatsApp announced that it is testing a new feature by which the number of times a message can be forwarded will be limited to five! And also plans are afoot to remove the quick forward button next to media messages!

So far so good. The question is, are they good enough? In WhatsApp, the elephant in the room is the anonymity! As long as a sender can hide under the cloud of anonymity of a mobile number, it is difficult to trace the origins of a designed fake message which goes viral.

I must add here that political parties which are also part of the Government use the same tool to spread fake news when it’s convenient to them.

Vivek Wadhwa, himself a technology entrepreneur, in an interesting piece calls for putting the onus of finding a solution to get over this encryption on the tech platforms. As per him, Facebook must be made liable for deaths that have happened due fake messages spread through its WhatsApp platform. As per him, tech companies have always found a way of solving problems when profits are at stake. I tend to agree with him on this.

So, what could WhatsApp do? My simple and at the same time wild suggestion is make forwards or just group messaging chargeable! As long it’s free, we all have fun and indulge in forwarding without giving a second thought. We endlessly forward messages to the myriad groups we are associated, even sometimes not realising that the message was posted by someone else already!

When it is chargeable, we will think twice before hitting the send button. If it’s for a genuine cause or for a business purpose, we must not hesitate to pay! So truly if one wants to control the monster called WhatsApp, make it chargeable!

Will you pay to forward, going forward?

Postscript: As of now it’s still free. If you like the piece, don’t hesitate to hit the forward button when you see it on WhatsApp!

Image courtesy: Businessday Media online.

Time to end the Post Poll Alliance Plot!

Ever since H.D. Kumaraswamy became the Chief Minister of Karnataka through a post poll alliance between his party JD(S) and the Congress, he and Karnataka have been in the news, mostly for all the wrong reasons. From the wrangling over members of the cabinet, allocation of ministries and decision over waiving of farm loans, the so called “Unconditional” support of the Congress to the JD(S) has come with the “Conditions Apply” water mark! This is a coalition government formed after elections where, the Chief Minister in his own admission is at the mercy of the Congress which won more seats in the assembly and one that he fought a bitter battle against, during the elections. This has brought to the fore the moral legitimacy of a post poll alliance and the raison d’etre for this post!

This sort of a post poll arrangement is not the first and constitutional provisions remaining the same, will not be the last either. In the last few years, we have had similar post poll alliances being cobbled up in Maharashtra between the BJP and Shiv Sena and in Jammu & Kashmir between the BJP again and the PDP. In Bihar, we had the pre-poll alliance partners JD (U) and RJD coming together, winning, forming a government successfully only to fall apart in just under 2 years. The same JD (U) has now got into an alliance with the BJP, which it fought intensely against during the elections and is now running a coalition government! One glance at the political situation in all these states presents a similar and not so encouraging picture. Of an unease, under the veneer of partnership.  Of open differences in day-to-day functioning, even after coming to power with an understanding of a common minimum programme.

In Maharashtra, though the coalition government has been in power for more than three years now, there have been serious differences between the BJP and Shiv Sena on the vision, programmes and the idea of development.  The Shiv Sena opposes these in the media for public consumption while continuing to be a part of the very cabinet which takes these decisions. There cannot be a bigger deceit on the voting public than this!

In Jammu & Kashmir, the coming together of BJP and PDP was itself a very strange occurrence. Here were two parties who ended up with complimenting geographical presence (PDP in the valley and BJP in Jammu, Ladakh area) but with different ideological outlook to the state. Not surprising that decisions related to governance like handling of militancy and response to the ground situation,… were viewed through their respective ideological prisms and were subjected to pulls and pressures.  Not surprising again, that the alliance finally broke off last week!

In Bihar also, we keep hearing of murmurs of rumblings under the still surface of the Kosi River!

In all these states, it is indeed a legitimate democratic process that threw up hung verdicts which essentially reflected the mood of the public. And hence it may appear that the formation of a coalition government though based on a post poll alliance, is indeed a reflection of the rather muddled mandate. And in that sense one could argue that, democracy won at the end.

And as Indians we have still not forgotten the many short stint governments and Prime Ministers we had in the mid 90’s all thanks to post poll plots! Have we?

 If democracy is just about free and fair elections and installing “a” government as an end result of that process, probably, we should not grumble much about how governments function once they come to power. However, I do believe that democracy is not just about the election process but also about the outcome of the process as a reflection of the collective will of people as demonstrated by the election results and the ensuing governance.

From that point of view, is a post poll alliance, where 2 or more parties who contested and fought against each other bitterly before the elections come together and form a coalition government, fair? Is that arrangement a fair representation of the mandate or the collective will of the people? Is it not fooling the voters if, the party against whom you raised a stink over issues like corruption during the election campaign is now part of your government, for example? And there are more legitimate questions like these.

In a pre-poll alliance, parties “come together” probably with a common ideological plank or against a common enemy or some common promise or premise. This is transparent to the people when they go to vote. In a post poll scenario, parties “cobble up together” an alliance.  And there is a big difference between the two!

Apart from the moral issue of a post poll alliance government going against the will of the people, the other obvious issue with it is the thriving of “resort politics” – a phrase today associated with deal cutting and other “Direct Benefit Transfers”! Today, we are a witness to all this happening before us but have to be silent because post poll alliances are deemed acceptable under the constitution! Even the Supreme Court expressed its inability to term post poll alliances as invalid!

One of the main argument in favour of post poll alliances is that, today the constitution doesn’t dis-allow such an arrangement. Has the time not come to look at reviewing this aspect of it and make amends?

One of the other vocal arguments that is used to legitimise post poll alliances is saving public exchequer on expenses over another round of elections. For parties who raise this, it is just a convenient argument to come to power somehow.  In the case of a hung verdict, it is clear that the people are not convinced of the credentials of a single party or a pre-poll alliance. Giving an opportunity to a post poll alliance is the biggest charade that can be inflicted on the public.

If one looks at all angles, post poll alliances don’t check any of the boxes in public’s favour in a democracy. And it’s time as a country we have a debate around it and look at other alternatives of handling a hung verdict than the post poll plots which parties draw up.

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya