Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The furore over Devyani !

If one was following English mainstream media in India or twitter, the entire nation of India seems to have been outraged over the arrest of deputy consular office Ms. Devyani Khobragade in Newyork. The entire nation is outraged by the treatment meted out to her, notwithstanding her diplomatic immunity claims. The nation is particularly infuriated with the arrest in public space (when she was dropping her kids at school), strip searching, stay in the lock-up for 6 hours with drug addicts; and some reports even claiming cavity searches and DNA swabs done on her. The US department of state insists that consular immunity applies only for offences committed as a part of her job and not on domestic/private note. The interpretation of the diplomatic privileges enjoyed by personnel under the Vienna convention act has always been subjective among nations. This is not the first case of interpretation differences and is certainly not the last one. In this article, we shall stay strictly clear off this topic of immunity, because as a practice they appear to be “accorded” or “negotiated” between nations.

I find the outrage in India bizarre and misdirected for multiple reasons.

Firstly this is such a bigoted country that on one-hand wants to enact a law of minimum wages to domestic maids and on the other-hand appears to condone offences of the same nature, in places where such laws exist. It is surprising to see that, not a single word has been uttered in top-ranking ministers, officials or media anchors on the treatment meted out to the domestic maid of Ms. Khobragade, Ms. Sangeetha Richards. The case against Devyani is that she misrepresented facts in the A3 visa application and also under-paid her maid way below the minimum wages applicable in her district of work (Manhattan, New York). On a historic day when the Rajya Sabha has passed the Lokpal bill which demands highest standards of integrity and probity from public officials, it is bizarre that there is no outrage about the fact that a high-ranking diplomat has violated this wilfully?

Let us look at the details of the case against Devyani. (Read here for details of the charge against her as given by the US authorities). The minimum wage prevalent in district of New York is $9.75 per hour. Assuming a 40 hour work week, and 4.3 weeks per month, Sangeetha needs to be paid a monthly salary of $1677. That works to just over $20K per year which is reported to be in line with the average market salary of full time domestic maids employed in US(read here). However the A3 visa application of Sangeetha Richards quoted a monthly salary of $4500 that is consistent with the first employment contract signed between the two parties. However there exists a oral agreement and a second employment contract (which was hidden at the time of applying for visa) which promised wages of Rs.30,000 per month ($573 per month) with no cap on weekly working hours. Why did Devyani offer such a high salary for the domestic maid, far above the market value, far above prevailing minimum wages, and as some people say far above what she can afford from her salary? The only plausible explanation is that there was “no application of mind” done in drafting the contract, or filing the visa petition, because the intention was always to defraud the whole process. What surprises me is that no-one is outraged about this unjustified behavior of a high-ranked public official.

Secondly, the subsequent sequences of actions also seem to be suspicious. Sangeetha Richards worked for the period Nov 2012 to June 2013. Whatever the personal motivations are, she reported the issue to the concerned US officials and went absconding in the USA around June 2013. The US officials had seized upon this issue and had sent an advance warning to Indian officials as early as Sep 2013 on the case to be filed against Devyani. What stopped the Indian consulate from taking immediate action and deporting Devyani back to India? This would have saved all the trouble!. But instead, the moment trouble seems to appear in the horizon, Devyani files a petition of dishonouring of contract against her maid in a Delhi court. There are reports that the husband & child of Sangeetha Richards have been arrested in India, and have been asked to urge Sangeetha to surrender in the Indian court. These strong-arm tactics that were set in motion in India strongly indicate that the intention of the diplomat was to bully the complainant to withdraw the case & not come back to India. People familiar with Indian law are aware that, police actions on employment dishonouring cases are extremely rare; that too when the accused is absconding. There were numerous such cases filed by software companies in the Y2k days for breach of contract; and no police action was taken. Hence it is not easy to see, how well-connected the diplomat is, to be able to instigate such strong-arm actions in India. For people who naively believe that Ms. Khobragade is a rags-to-riches IFS officer, please read the link here on her stupendous growth of her personal wealth & her real estate purchase spree (including the much famous Adarsh apartment in Mumbai). Is this behaviour an archetype of integrity and probity of public officials that we are celebrating with the passage of Lokpal?

The actions involved in “intake” and “processing” (such pathetically euphemistic words they use in the US!) of people being arrested appear to standard operating procedures in the US (Check here). If there is a violation then Devyani and Indian consulate can always sue US officials and we can be assured that the guilty shall pay! However there appears to be little justification for such a suit because no one involved is even talking about it! Hence except for the fact that we are “pained” by the treatment meted out to a “babu”, we seem to have no other grievance in this issue. May be, we are so used to seeing handling by velvet gloves for well-connected babus in India, we are unable to accept such the non-existence of differential treatment in western countries.

Whether diplomatic immunity applies or not is another issue which I am staying clear from. Hence all the counter actions that Indian government have taken to rebuke US are justified from the point of view of reclaiming immunity. US has always employed double-standards in the topic of diplomatic immunity of their own international staff and has played hard ball with many countries. Hence I am not critical of these diplomatic actions taken by India. But what I am critical about is the continued silence of our top ranking officials/ministers/media (even as a token measure) on the violation of integrity & probity by a public official! Unless we do that in strict terms, we can't have any ethical right over the moral high ground in this topic!. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ahead of 2014 – Analysis of Forces Driving a Change in Tamilnadu


Tamilnadu is an atypical state in India where both Congress and BJP are politically irrelevant and dependent on the Dravidian parties viz. Karunanidhi led DMK and Jayalalitha led ADMK for winning elections. Since the death of MGR, these two parties have followed a perfect revolving door policy in governing Tamilnadu for the past 24 years. Ever since the heydays of the Dravidian movement in 1960s and the demise of Rajagopalachari, the land of temples has witnessed an increasingly shrinking space for right wing politics. Until a few years back, the only right wing political space that appeared to exist was on a linguistic basis, acerbated by the sufferings of Tamils in neighbouring Srilanka. So much is the dearth for right wing ideas (both economics and politics), virtually every media house in Tamilnadu is of a varying shades of Left. The only exception appears to be Cho Ramaswamy’s Tuglaq with limited circulation. The politically correct language in the dictionary of Tamil media is to espouse left-wing economic thoughts, secularism of the Dravidian variety, and Tamil linguistic identity.

Congress dominated the undivided Madras presidency since Independence. However the split between Rajagopalachari (swantara party) and Kamaraj irrevocably altered the political scene enabling the Dravidian movement to assume power in 1967. The split between MGR and Kalaignar Karunanidhi in the mid 70s further marginalized the role of congress. Since then Congress has been playing the role of “bridesmaid” with its 10 to 15% vote share piggy backing on the Dravidian parties. The last five years have seen these shares waning down further. The role of BJP has been fringe at best with whatever little support restricted to pockets in Kanyakumari and Kongu (Coimbatore) districts. Their vote share has loitered between 2% to 4%; the only exception is the 1998 and 1999 elections when BJP allied with the Dravidian parties and won a handful of MP seats. BJP has thus far been perceived as a political untouchable in Tamilnadu. 

But something appears to have changed suddenly in the ground!! The first part of this series performs an analysis of the forces that are driving this change.

Forces Driving the Change

The factors driving this change are complex and often counteracting. Some of these factors are short-term politics driven while others are longer term and socio-cultural/socio-economic in nature.

Short Term Political Factors
The first and easiest one to quote is the antipathy towards the Congress. Besides the corruption and governance issues of the UPA government in the centre, a popular belief has emerged that Congress is behind the sufferings of Tamils in Srilanka. The wave of antipathy was so severe in the 2011 assembly elections that congress & its ally DMK were decimated. In fact among the 5 congress MLAs in the TN assembly, only one comes from an interior district, all others are restricted to the border areas with Kerala and Karnataka. This has made UPA and Congress an untouchable party for many of the outfits. Not that the opportunist politicians of TN would mind joining UPA-3 if they were guaranteed of a win. In the current national climate of anticipation of UPA drubbing, allying with congress is a big nuisance that can invite the wrath of Tamil nationalist groups. Hence even the “love-hate” relationship between 10 year allies, DMK and Congress appears to have turned sour for good.  

Although the mainstream Tamil Media has been by and large dismissive of Modi and the Gujarat model of development, it has definitely caught the attention of middle classes and business classes. For a state severely affected by power blackouts, the 24-hour electricity of Gujarat is not something that can be easily dismissed. Three media houses Tuglaq, Kumudam group, and Trishakti padippagam have been giving positive views on the Gujarat model of development. The threat of Auto industries (from Sriperumpudur cluster) and Textile industries (Tiruppur cluster) relocating to Gujarat due to manpower and energy availability has not missed people’s attention. There is a huge curiosity quotient that Modi has raised & it is hard to miss! The success of the Sep 26th rally in Trichy has ruffled several political feathers. For a detailed account, read here.     

Longer term Socio-Cultural/Socio-Economic Factors

There is a subtle and genuine decline in the Dravidian ideologies and thoughts. Despite what the leaders of Dravidian parties say and their media houses write, the public at large appear to have seen through the smokescreen of Dravidian politics. Thanks to Director turned politician Seemaan, the year 2012 witnessed open criticism against Periyar’s (E.V. Ramasamy) ideologies and a consequent debate ensued. Although the debate was triggered from the ultra-right linguistic side, the panic among Dravidian theologians was visible. They suddenly realized that their foundations are not so impenetrable. Now the linguistic nationalists and the supporting media houses are split as Dravidian variety (who are more centrist) and Tamil variety (who are ultra-right). Not that such debates matter a lot to the public at large, but the split opens an opportunity for right wing politicians to be critical of Dravidian political agenda, without the risk of being dismissed.

The twenty years of super-fast economic growth, rise in income levels of population, burgeoning middle class bracket, and rapid urbanization has had its effects. For one the value of left-wing economic thinking that has dominated the political discourse for several years has come into question. Although mainstream media houses such as Vikatan continue to spew venom against right wing thoughts, most of the middle classes have become apathetic to such views, at the least. Urbanization and emergence of nuclear families have resulted in a longing for spiritualism within families. The moderation of the Brahmin hegemony in temples, arrival of OBC led spiritualism of the forms of Melmaruvathur Adhi Parasakthi movement have created a supporting environment. Today even the local DMK members publicly visit Hindu temples and conduct yagnas and havans without fear of rebuke from their state leaders. The perceptible change in all this is that, the anti-Hindu core paradigm of Dravidian movement is no longer able to dictate/influence individual actions.

The last two years has also witnessed hardening of positions between OBCs and SCs. The Dravidian movement united them on the same plank under the umbrella of anti Brahminism. The success of this movement is now being questioned by Dalit leaders and Scholars such as Ravikumar of VCK and Sivakami (Former IAS). Their complaint is that Dravidian movement has replaced the Brahmin hegemony with OBC hegemony & nothing in the ground has changed for the Dalits. However the urbanization, real estate boom, decline in farming have freed the Dalit farm labours from the clutches of land owning community. Today they prefer to educate their children in private schools and take-up urban-centric jobs rather than toil in the farm for a pittance. This has resulted in the weakening of social power enjoyed by the land owning communities, further accentuated by the shortage of farm labour affecting their agricultural profits. The recent communal clashes in Nayakkankottai (Dharmapuri district) is perceived by many social analysts as a violent expression of the OBC community against the wealth accumulated by the Dalits from their urban jobs. This growing vertical fissure shakes the foundation of Dravidian politics.  

Finally certain events in the last year have led to a subtle under-current of thinking that favours the politics that BJP espouses. Notable among them are the violent protests witnessed over the screening of thuppakki and vishwaroopam. It not only dismayed most of the “secular” middle classes, but has made them alert to the threat of emergence of a right wing politics of different kind. Even the centrist Muslim parties like IUML are now concerned about the emergence of Wahabi school of thought funded by Saudi petro dinars. (Read here for details). These radical groups are resisting age-old practices of Dargah worship & Urs festivals and urging people to follow puritan practices such as shunning idol worship, mandatory cladding of burqah & sporting of beards. This change has raised concerns among the Hindu community on the endurance of the secular social fabric that Tamilnadu has been famous for. The serial killing of BJP and Hindu outfit leaders in the past two years & the subsequent bursting of an alleged terror network have also added fuel to this thought process. Many people are now beginning to see the pitfalls of minority appeasement politics at the cost of national security and personal religious freedom.


To conclude the situation in the ground before the 2014 elections is radically different from what it was in the previous decade. On a short-term basis the prevalent Anti Congress mood opens avenues for discussing alternatives; and even Modi is not an untouchable as observed in the writings of Tamil nationalist writer & activist Thamizharuvi Manian. The long term socio-cultural changes have weakened the grip of Dravidian theology on the 70% population that lives in urban dwellings. Issues such as growth, infrastructure, national security and equality in treatment are beginning to gain traction. Thus the dynamics in the ground have changed and opened up space for alternate right wing politics.  

Note* This blog post was subsequently published in CRI website. Click here for that link. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is the anger towards Section 377 verdict in SC justified?

Tired of all the barking against Section 377 and the SC verdict, especially on the MSM channels on prime time and even amongst the more intelligent twitter chatteratti from across the political spectrum . So I thought I will blog my views. 

First and foremost, I am not homophobic and DO BELIEVE that LGBT should not be criminalized for consensus acts in private space. They should enjoy as much sexual freedom that hetero sexuals like us enjoy. In fact the shikhandis and Khajurohs tell the tolerance that was prevalent in the ancient Indian society - that got affected only in the last 500 years. 

But what the current crop of people criticizing the SC verdict do not understand are the following facts :-
  1. Section 377 is in IPC and not in constitution. Hence what we are talking about is decriminalizing acts of same sex, and not about legitimizing same-sex marriages. Hence some of the anger among religious & family-oriented people is unjustified.
  2. Section 377 is NOT only about acts of same sex, but includes other unnatural offences like pedophilia, incest, necrophilia, animal abuse and child abuse. If the SC had invalidated entire Sec 377, then suddenly these criminal acts would have also become LEGAL! Is this what we want as a society?
  3. The SC has only limited jurisdiction in examining whether the Section 377 of IPC goes against fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution. It rightly found no fault with the same, and there the matter ends. Those who want LGBT acts to be decriminalized, SHOULD PUSH POLITICAL parties to legislate (ie amend ) IPC 377 to remove "same-sex act between consenting adults in private space" as excluded from the purview of the act. Is this not a better alternative than invalidating 377 altogether ?

In fact politicians across the entire spectrum yesterday on twitter commented against the SC verdict. What stops them from legislating, if there is so much consensus ?. So I think the right thing for all those people shrieking in high decibel about the SC verdict and criticizing it, is to instead go behind MPs and ask them to legislate and remove the LGBT community from the clutches of Section 377.

Their anger is justified, but the target is misdirected !. There I rest my case !