Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Open Letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: We will not go quietly into the night.

Image credit:

Dear Mr. Modi,

I write not to celebrate your government’s demise but to say that I am gravely disappointed in you. There are many who were actively rooting for your failure, based on your RSS and Hindutva roots; to be clear these people are not rooting for India’s failure but for you to show your true saffron colours, so to speak, as you have now done.

Against my better judgement, I decided to give you a chance; not by giving you my trust but by vowing to keep an open mind. I understood that you would need to walk a tight rope, balancing your RSS constituency’s Hindutva demands and striving for double digital growth. But I gave you the benefit of doubt because I hoped you had grown wiser and understood that there can only be economic development in a democracy unhampered by religious and fanatical ideology. That there can be no innovation without inclusion. There can be no invention without free thought.  And there can be no democracy without freedom of speech, unimpeded by limitations imposed by an elected government.

India has never feigned democracy like a China or a Russia. We have always strived to be a genuine beacon of discovery, debate, discussion and dissension. Messy, corrupt, polluted and imperfect as we might be, I have always been proud to be an Indian. But I am also critical, when and where I need to be, of corruption, vote bank politics, the caste system and the fact that we remain a male dominated society even in the twenty-first century.

I once asked my father why he was always hard on me, and seemingly critical of everything I did, even though he would see my friends do much worse, and say nothing to them. He said; “Son, I care deeply about you, and how you turn out. If I am hard on you, it is only because I love you.”

Therein lies the definition of patriotism for me.

It is a relationship of a loving parent and child: always proud but also so deeply caring that it can be overly and passionately critical of all that is wrong. Do not mistake this honesty, sometimes demonstrated through anger and frustration, and even misguided sentiments, for anything more than a bid to shake up the status quo. It is the depth of this patriotic love that pushes many of us to find ways to make India better by first acknowledging our faults and shining a bright light on our government's flaws. 

You would do well to remember that patriotism is NOT blind love and devotion for one’s country or government. That is the definition of dictatorship and has all the trappings of an oppressed society where citizens are too fearful to express themselves.

And no Indian requires a certificate of patriotism from your government or any other. If I choose not to stand during the national anthem in protest, that is my right. If I choose to compare my Prime Minister to Hitler, in a social media cartoon, that is also my right. There are laws and there is freedom of expression; do not muddy the two.

So far I have held my tongue, but your government's actions on the JNU campus are a disgrace to India and to the democratic principles my forebears spilled their blood to earn. The BJP’s use of archaic laws, those once used by our oppressors, to arrest faculty and students is a step too far.

Our nation must recognize this growing abuse of power, this attempt to erode basic freedoms. To that end, I have adapted below words Churchill used when he and Britain also faced great adversity and the greatest threat to their way of life. 

Even though large tracts of India and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the BJP and all the odious apparatus of RSS rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end; we shall fight in Gujarat,
We shall fight from the Himalayas down to Kanyakumari,
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in social media, we shall defend our freedom of speech, of thought and our Mathrubhumi whatever the cost may be,
We shall fight on college campuses,
We shall fight on the farm lands,
We shall fight in the judiciary and with the ballot box,
We shall fight in the halls of parliament and use the power of the press;
We shall never surrender to Hindutva…Jai Hind!*

A patriotic and ‘anti-national’ Indian

*Credit: Indianised version of Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech delivered to the House of Commons, 4 June 1940

Monday, February 1, 2016

2016 Presidential Candidates as Movie Characters

Whether you identify as a conservative, a liberal, a socialist, a libertarian or an independent there is one thing we will all be able to agree on this election season; the fact that we have never before witnessed such a colorful and stodgy, unhinged and funny, frightening and unconventional, inane and insane set of candidates before in US history.

What better way to celebrate this motley crew of candidates than by thinking of which movie character they most remind me of…

Enjoy and happy voting!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Naivety and the Devil: Sean Penn and the El Chapo Story


“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” 
Mark Twain 

I was really mad when I read that Rolling Stone had agreed to publish an article of Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán or El Chapo, the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader, one day after his recapture by Mexican marines.

At this point, I had not read the article but was incensed by the simple fact that Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone thought it was perfectly okay to give a mass murderer, a man directly responsible for at least 100,000 murders (not including those related to the consumption of drugs), a global platform where he could freely express himself and likely further his own celebrity.

I was angry before I found out that not only did Rolling Stone provide a global platform to this murderous psychopath, but they also gave him editorial control. The magazine agreed to let El Chapo, a convicted drug dealer and murder, edit or make changes to the story before they published it.

Rolling Stone claims that El Chapo never made any changes but there is a fundamental problem with agreeing to this stipulation in the first place, and good reasons why no respectable media outlet ever agrees to it. This practice creates an unconscious but inherent bias in the mind of the interviewer/storyteller because they are concerned that if the subject feels like they are portrayed in a negative light or in an unflattering way, they will reject the piece.

Reading the article, it feels like Sean Penn actually harbours some admiration for this monster; and Mr. Penn seems naive enough to believe that El Chapo is a victim of circumstance and poverty. I encourage you to read it for yourself but below are some of the things Penn says about El Chapo:

It's paradoxical because today's Mexico has, in effect, two presidents.” “It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us.”

“…El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”

“This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore.”

“…conjuring the vision of a wide-eyed schoolboy unsure of his teacher's summons.”

Later in the article Mr. Penn poses a series of questions that sound like they come from a 10 year old child conducting a homework assignment, to find out more about his father. Here are some excerpts (questions in bold followed by El Chapo’s response): 

Do you consider yourself a violent person? No, sir. 
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort? Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never. 
What is your opinion about who is to blame here, those who sell drugs, or the people who use drugs and create a demand for them? What is the relationship between production, sale and consumption? If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells. 
The two times you escaped, it is worth mentioning, there was no violence. With me, it did not come to that. In other situations, what's been seen, things occur differently, but here, we did not use any violence.

I have no issue with interviewing men or women whom we deem evil, as long as there is some purpose or value to society in doing it. But it must never be done to allow them to aggrandise or as a pedestal to gain sympathy and further their lore. Frankly, I did not have any problem with Mr. Penn talking with Hugo Chavez or the Castro brothers; whether you like them or not, they are the elected leaders of their respective countries. While we might disagree with their worldview and governing styles, I do not see them as evil, even if our government chooses to vilify them. This is the justification Mr. Penn seems to give us for this interview. But in this case I simply do not agree because it is not the same thing.

Also, there is nothing wrong in telling the story of a drug lord, like Narcos (the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar), but it must be done through our eyes, not through the voice and eyes of the criminal. The Narcos creators have gone to great lengths to be factual but also to never glorify Pablo or the blood soaked world he created. They have been careful not to demean the bravery of the people who stood up to him or insult the memories of all the people whose lives he destroyed. It is very clear to anyone watching that Pablo Escobar is not the hero or the victim but the monster that he was.

El Chapo’s motives are personal financial gain and absolute power through fear and unchecked bloodlust. El Chapo does not simply kill rival cartel members or people involved the drug trade; he has mercilessly wiped out the families of politicians, policemen, journalists and all those who dared to oppose him.

Unlike prison guards in America who got greedy and took a bribe to help some prisoner escape, the choice for the Mexican prison guard is either to take El Chapo’s money, or to watch your entire family being murdered in front of your eyes. Not much of a choice.

In the article El Chapo tries to paint himself as a simple and poor farm boy, one who was driven into the drug trade because the Mexican economy offered him no other life choices. By the same yardstick, if Mr. Penn had interviewed Adolf Hitler, right before the fall of Berlin, he too might have talked about his troubled and poor childhood. How the death of four of his five siblings at a very young age deeply affected him. Hitler might have discussed wanting to join the priesthood or say how his father tried to force him to join the customs bureau, when all he wanted was to be was an artist. He too might have convinced Mr. Penn that it was the world and circumstances that conspired to push him down a path that was not of his own choosing and making.

We humans have the ability to paint a sympathetic picture of even the devil (and that is a good thing), but this is precisely why we must not with people like Hitler and El Chapo. Most times I believe it is worth reserving judgement about a person, or at the very least hearing their side of their story and justifications for their actions, but there are a few times when the matter is black and white. There is no moral ambivalence with Hitler, nor is there any justification for his actions. People like El Chapo must never be given the opportunity to gain our sympathy to try and somehow justify their madness and cold blooded murder

Sometimes men are simply monsters and there is no benefit to society in trying to understand them or their motivations. In fact, it is better not to try. In these instances, as a society, we have to draw a line. Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone magazine just crossed that line.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Political Correctness and the Rise of Donald Trump

“I got a feeling about political correctness. I hate it. It causes us to lie silently instead of saying what we think.” 
Hal Holbrook

There has been widespread condemnation, from across the political spectrum, of Donald Trump’s latest outlandish suggestion of barring all Muslims who are not US citizens from entering the United States. This is not the first time he has tread heavily into the territory of race, religion and ethnicity. Mr. Trump launched his campaign pronouncing that all Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers and should be shipped back to Mexico. Since then he also has offended women, blacks, news anchors, the wider Hispanic diaspora, and the list goes on.

I have read many social media posts and news articles dismissing Trump as “un-American” and as someone who does not reflect American values. Yet, Mr. Trump’s poll numbers and popularity have remained largely unaffected and his support continues to grow. A recent poll indicated that 68% of his Republican base would support him if he ran as an independent (Source: USA Today) and he has 37% support nationally.

It is easy but would be dangerous to dismiss Mr. Trump and his passionate band of followers as crazy right-wing republicans and white supremacist bigots. Or to consider them a passing anomaly that has nothing to do with the growing fears and frustration of a large percentage of the American’s. I have heard journalists like Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity try to argue the merits of some of Mr. Trump’s assertions, and I suspect that fears about Islam, terrorism and immigration are main stream, even if the hate rests in the fringes. It is just that the majority of people are too scared to express even reasonable views freely for fear of offending someone and being branded a racist.

I am not suggesting that we seriously consider any of Mr. Trumps’ proposals, but to simply dismiss them and the fears of a growing number of Americans would be far more dangerous. If we do, these frustrations will only continue to fester, turn to deeper anger, and come out in even uglier ways. The question we need to ask ourselves is why does Donald Trump exist as a political force?

Trump is part reality TV star, part American dream, part frustration with politicians and lack of leadership, and part a product of political correctness gone awry. Trump is a cancer built from all the problems we have swept under our carpets for far too long in an attempt to create something resembling a society where nobody is ever offended.

Think about the fact that his greatest appeal is that he says, does, and sounds like most normal people do; like your politically incorrect grandfather, father and uncle. He routinely makes gaffs, says dumb things, lashes out in anger, but never does he come across as scripted or disingenuous politician trying to sound politically correct and thus totally unnatural. 
I am sure that political correctness, when it started on college campuses a few decades ago, was well-intentioned and genuinely meant to educate us, make us more aware and sensitive to other people. It was meant to help us become accepting of other beliefs, faiths and cultures. But today it seems to have become about trying to mould everyone into thinking, sounding and saying the same things. It has become the default weapon to shut down all alternate world views and is being used to prevent people from speaking their minds.

The point is that we all do and say stupid things and we all have prejudices and biases. We always have and we always will; that is part of being human. Today, it feels like political correctness (PC) in America has metastasised into a way to chastise anyone and everyone who does not fit some random litmus test. But all we are succeeding in doing is shutting down alternate viewpoints and muzzling people who do not think the same way, or agree with our views. It is this avatar of PC that is in large part responsible for creating and unleashing the monster we now call Donald Trump.

This is a very dangerous thing in a democracy that claims to value freedom of thought and speech above all else. Because freedom of speech also means allowing people who view the world differently to air their views, no matter how offensive, hurtful or heinous we might find them to be.

Not everybody thinks the same way about homosexuality, global warming or taxation. However, there is a stark difference between someone who spreads hate and someone who simply disagrees; and not all disagreement is rooted in hatred. We need to start making those distinctions and respectfully disagree with people, but not try to muzzle or force them to change their views by shaming them. Instead, we need to show people a better way through our actions; that is the only way you to change someone’s mind and long-held beliefs.

We need to make sure that the mainstream voice is more powerful and thus drowns out the hate. Think about the fact that there are still many Nazi sympathisers and active members of KKK, but the power of the mainstream has driven them into the wilderness, and made sure they stay ostracised and in the fringes of society.

We need to accept that everyone lies, fibs and says things that are sexist, racist, and homophobic. This does not make you a liar, racist, misogynist or a homophobe. We are human and will never be perfectly polite or politically correct because part of being human is doing and saying dumb and hurtful things – sometimes in anger, sometimes out of frustration or pain and very often in a misguided attempt to be funny.

I do not want to live in a world that is so superficial and forcibly sanitised, that we have to worry about everything we do and say. If we continue down this obsessively political correct path, all we will achieve is to alienate friends and family, and fuel the hatemongers even more. One day we will wake up to find that we have stopped independent thought, free speech, social experimentation and personal growth.

Our greatest ability, as humans, is not to be perfect in everything we say, do, feel and think, but to learn and change, after we have been shown a better way by others.