Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where are our Lasantha Wickramatungas and Ramakrishna Pillais?

Sometimes I get the feeling that the age we live in doesn't have legends any longer. All the great characters have long gone and our world has been left with only the Shahrukhs and the Salman! Just when you are close to giving up all hope you read a story that makes every hair on your body stand on their ends. You hear about greatness in your midst. Greatness not of the kind of Alexander the great or Julius Caesar. Not of the kind that captures large territories and were close to being emperors of the world. I'm talking of the kind of great bravery amidst oppression. Greatness of the kind of M.K. Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. Those who looked into self-professed kings/rulers/reformers in the eye and had the guts to say

"You're wrong! You may hit me, blind me or even kill me, but I stand by what I say."

Not the kind that wins Nobel Peace Prizes, but the kind that doesn't need them. This is bravery that can strike fear into the hearts of the most fearful of people on earth. This is strength of character, this has no words to define it well.

Lasantha Wickramatunga was the editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper in Sri Lanka and these were his last written words:

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader (his newspaper) is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted.  Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

Lasantha was shot dead by motorcycle borne gunmen on his way to work on January 8th. His gunmen still unidentified got away. Due to his fervor of unbiased reporting, we don't know and may never know whether the government or rebels were responsible. You can read his whole editorial here.

I have never heard of the Sunday Leader before this. Neither did I know Lasantha existed. However this news saddens me greatly because Lasantha was a rare species. Someone who still had the courage to say what people with power or firepower didn't always like to hear. Someone who didn't change at being shot at earlier (this was not the first attempt).

This reminded me of a little known great former journalist of British India. Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai. He lived in a time that Kerala was still governed by Diwans appointed by the British. His newspaper editorials in the Swadeshabhimani reprimanded the diwan, the maharajah of Travancore and the British administration for the level of corruption and injustice in the society at the time. The swadeshabhimani was started and owned by Vakkom Mohammed Abdul Khadir who resisted all enticements and threats from the administration and other oligarchs to shut his editor up. Its one thing to say the truth and another thing to completely stand by a man you believe only shouts the truth. Abdul Khadir did just that.

Eventually Ramakrisha Pillai's firebrand journalism had the effect of shaking the roots of the whole diwan system and they had to silence him by arresting him (without a warrant mind you) and banishing him from the princely state of Travancore at the time and sealing the press at the time. Ramakrishna Pillai spent the rest of his life in the Presidency of Madras. All Indian newspapers at the time decried his banishment. Abdul Khadir got his press back when India became independent, but by then he had lost voice behind it to death.

It's almost a 100 years later. Not even the Prime Minister of India with an absolute majority can stifle our freedom of the press for long any more. Yet I feel we've lost something to annals of time here in India. We've lost the truth. Instead we have sensationalism, journalism guided by ad revenue and "Kissa Kiss ka.. Jaari hai".

Where have they gone?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Welcome Mr. Advani to our world

So L.K. Advani started a blog. I'd say a very positive step. I thought I should also contribute my tuppence to the myriad number of comments to his inaugural post giving him solutions to everything from world hunger to creating "potting soil" in India. More on potting soil here. Here's the comment I posted. Oh and if I haven't said this before, I'll say it now. Comments are more than welcome. I believe in the freedom of speech and unless you're trying to sell me male organ enhancing pills or weight loss magic drugs I promise to accept all comments on my blog. Here goes:

This is a very progressive step for the BJP. I have long held the view that Indian political parties are not using the web enough to promote their own agenda. Additionally I believe Indian political parties have the additional responsibility of educating the public on their democratic duties and helping them make the right decision for their own future and that of the country and the internet is an excellent medium for the same.

My only complaint to you Sir, is the fact that more of party leaders aren't doing the same. I was a big fan of the BJP government in 1999-2004 due to the fact that the cabinet and the leadership was a portfolio of stars. Atalji, the two Aruns, Mr. Fernandes and the others on your cabinet were all forward looking visionaries and every day I heard India developing on several fronts. It was a time of positive energy in the whole country. That is far from what I can say about the current government. They have a few achievements of their own, but the cabinet and the party leadership seems so uncharismatic and banal that I feel we have a rusty government. As we approach the next Lok Sabha elections, my wish is that BJP come back to power with a strong mandate. However your current campaign seems to promote that I'd be voting for yourself or Rajnath Singh rather than the greater force that is the BJP. I want to be convinced that what I'm voting for is not 1 or 2 individuals but that portfolio of stars. This is also a perfect way to illustrate differentiation from the Congress which begins and ends at Soniaji.

Thank you for taking the time to read my comments,
Sujeet Pillai

As election season heats up watch out for more of my posts on that little debated topic. The Indian Polity.

Full disclosure: I'm a BJP supporter, I don't claim to be a unbiased observer or in the terms of those who have corrupted the use of the word for their own differentiation "Secular".

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bring the government closer to home

Nilekani in his latest blog post "Where was the mayor?" and Basab Pradhan in his "Singapore and Indian Cities" proposes the need for India to have more local government especially in cities. Our cities have specific problems which they need solved and a "closer" government may be able to help us further on this front.

Are we sure that the solution is more local government power? What makes us think that an additional set of 'responsible' local government functionaries would be able to fix the problems of our cities as compared to the state government? For example, in Mumbai's case, the state government sits in Mumbai, so I doubt that they aren't aware of the issues with Mumbai. Shouldn't the state government just have a sort of departmental system where urban centres in the state are managed separately and solutions are created for their specific problems. I agree that the west and some cities have prospered very well with stronger local govt. within cities and districts. However I'm unable to agree with the proposition that our unique problems may be solved with their solutions. This is central to my thinking on all governmental and policy related topics so I'll quote it.

"We have our own unique problems. We need to create our own unique solutions to these problems. Just like Newton's laws of motion does not apply to subatomic particles we can't use someone else's solutions to our problems."

I am against increasing the complexity in the governmental system by adding another layer that I as a taxpayer pay for. Although my resultant tax burden may remain the same, however the total cost to the govt. would increase to handle the logistics of this extra layer, leaving aside lesser money for more important uses. Obviously my argument being, if the state government couldn't get it right what makes me feel that a special local government could.

Education Control

Should education be in the hands of the government as part of a ministry? Does the fact that the government was democratically elected change your viewpoint? It seems that education we've taken as a given is run by the education ministry. Have we even questioned whether that was the appropriate way to go about it? Maybe not. We've accepted the status quo since that's the way it's always been done.

A bit of context here, my interest in the education system or the reform thereof has been one that I've held for quite some time now. If I were prime minister for a day, I'd dedicate that day completely to revamping our education system. This idea however came to me from a recent obsession of mine. I've just got my hands on all 47 episodes of "Chanakya" and was working my way through episodes. The education system portrayed there seemed to spark this question.

I'm not sure how much the serial had basis in historical fact, but the education system in medieval India was basically a set of schools/gurukuls. The heads of the gurukuls (who were essentially the most experienced/the greatest genius or the most renowned in that gurukul) in a city formed a sort of ad hoc committee which essentially held discussions. However the gurukuls were still able to dispose of the education that they thought most relevant. That cognizance came from the years the acharya's spent tutoring pupils and their actions in public life. I began thinking a lot of rhetoric has been written of the guru-shishya relation and how that has grown dilapidated with the commercialization of education. However, very little has been written of the system of education prevalent at that time and age.

The thing that appealed to me most was the fact that the people who decided on what should be taught were not insipid politicians but were the true intelligentsia of the age. They say in Utopia the intelligentsia rules the country. Atleast ruling the education system would be a start. The administration was responsible for the present of the state and the gurukuls the future. The gurukuls guarded their education system from involvement by the state and were essentially responsible in keeping the administration in check. The best students went into service with the king as ministers and moulded the opnions and practices of kings. In short, the gurukuls debated and decided the future of the state.

Considering we had such a glorious system 2300 years ago, I'm afraid the current state is deplorable in comparison. Reservations, political horsetrading, ugly commercialization and lack of a credible education authority has our education system crumbling. I believe we're in a downward spiral rather than in a state where we're improving our education year on year. That too at a point when knowledge creation is at its fastest. Our education system is not ready to determine its own future let alone influence and improve the future of the state.

But this is the scary part. How do we change the status quo? I have absolutely no idea!