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Analysis

When books acted as voice of dissent in ‘Illiberal India’ – 2018 in Retrospect

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Freedom Forge Press

In a year of unabated vitriol against liberal writers, historians and public intellectuals, books emerged as the avenue of expressing dissent and chronicling the trials and tribulations of the time — threats to free speech, religious polarisation and rewriting of history.

As subjugation of fundamental rights became increasingly evident, key personalities and intellectuals debunked the failure of the ruling regime’s much-touted agendas in several “book bombshells” that were released during the year.

The attacks on the creative community amidst a climate of intolerance, that had led to the “awardwapsi” campaign in 2015, continued this year even as those behind the gruesome murder of firebrand journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in September 2017 were yet to be brought to justice.

Her former husband Chidanand Rajghatta penned a book in her memory: “Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason”, highlighting the life of the veteran journalist. The running theme throughout its pages, however, remained about the void that had been created since she was slain.

Malayalam novelist S. Hareesh and Goa’s award-winning writer, Damodar Mauzo were among those who faced the brunt of hindutva elements. Both of them were hounded and received multiple death threats in August, leading to a massive hue and cry by the writing fraternity.

Such threats were coupled with social media trolling, and discrediting of noted writers such as Romila Thapar, Keki Daruwalla, Ramachandra Guha, and Arundhati Roy, among several others. Criticising the ruling dispensation came with a cost — branding of career writers and historians as anti-nationals and urban Naxals.

However, even in the face of severe vitriol that came their way, leading writers lived up to their ideals and practised what they preached by penning down valuable books that will be recorded in the pages of history as the chronicles of these times. They talked about the shrinking space for public debate, the undermining of vital institutions, the fall of moderates and the rise of radicals.

Also came books on socio-political scenario in contemporary India and the agrarian crisis that grips the hinterlands.

Young Gurmehar Kaur made a stunning debut with the appropriately titled “Small Acts of Freedom” in January. The 20-year-old daughter of a Kargil war martyr was never brought up to be silenced and her courageous, yet subtle, book marked the onset of a literary movement to speak out in the face of coercion.

At a time when demonisation of Mughal emperors has become fashionable with the renaming of roads, cities and railway stations, came several books that showed how much of the venom being spewed today relied on little historical evidence. Similarly, while the ruling dispensation relishes in criticising Jawaharlal Nehru, the writing community presented evidence and historical records to suggest otherwise.

While these soft titles aimed at enlightening readers, there was equal music from books that targeted the ruling dispensation, and in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose silence on rampant attacks on the creative community has irked its practitioners.

“Devil’s Advocate” by veteran journalist Karan Thapar, “The Sarkari Mussalman” by Lt. Gen Zameeruddin Shah (retd) and “Memory in the age of Amnesia” by filmmaker Saeed Mirza travelled down memory lane to underline episodes that tarnish Modi’s reputation. Some other such books reflected on his psyche, his functioning and authoritative nature.

Gyan Prakash’s “Emergency Chronicles” highlighted that in Modi’s India, citizens were witness to an unprecedented combination of state power and populist mobilisation in the name of development and the nation.

At the same time, the Opposition too built up a literary edifice of sorts as several of its prominent leaders such as Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor and Salman Khurshid penned books highly critical of the Modi government, while former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was criticised for his silence during his two tenures, attended a record number of book launches, attacking Modi — saying he may have been accused of keeping quiet, but he never shied away from talking to reporters, as Modi did since coming to power in 2014.

The Opposition leaders scrutinised Modi’s actions and governance during the past four-and-a-half years, pointing out that the “Paradoxical Prime Minister” says something and but acts contrary to it. Numerous references were drawn from Modi’s speeches to contend that there was a huge gap between the promise and the performance as well as the rhetoric and the reality.

And then came “Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy” in which former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian called the demonetisation a “massive draconian, monetary shock”, removing all doubts of the failure on the much touted decision that had brought the nation to its knees two years ago.

Former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha’s soon-to-be-released “India Unmade: How Modi Government Broke The Economy”, is a devastating essay on Modi and his government and is dedicated to “all those who are not afraid to pursue the truth”.

Apart from political coercion by the regime, a new, insidious method of legal recourse was found, to go against authors and publishers. A slew of books were taken to courts this year for the silliest of reasons but the Supreme Court sent a ray of hope to the writing fraternity in August.

While hearing a plea seeking to omit certain parts of Malayalam novel “Meesha” by S. Hareesh, the top-court said that the culture of banning books impacts the free flow of ideas and should not be taken recourse to unless they are hit by Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits obscenity.

In another positive sign, the Sahitya Akademi seemed on the cusp of revival under the able leadership of its President Chandrashekhar Kambar, who, unlike his predecessor, was not only forthcoming in his support to writers but was also vociferous in his condemnation of coercion.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])

Analysis

YouTube testing new video recommendation format: Report

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San Francisco, Jan 16 : Google-owned video sharing platform YouTube is testing a new video recommendation format that displays blue bubbles on the screen with relevant keywords and related topic suggestions, facilitating easier browsing, media reported.

“The screenshots obtained show these blue bubbles just underneath the video player showing more specific video recommendations,” The Verge reported on Tuesday.

The video-sharing platform is currently testing the feature with some users on its main desktop page as well as on the mobile app.

For sometime now users have been complaining that the videos recommended on the side on YouTube’s interface often have little to do with the current video, making recommendations a point of contention for the platform.

“It’s unclear if the videos that populate from the new recommendation bubbles will face similar algorithmic issues that YouTube’s recommendation feed currently suffers,” the report added.

There has not been any word from YouTube as of now on the working of these blue bubbles and whether or not they will roll out the test feature to a bigger group in the coming months.

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Analysis

2002 Gujarat riots: Judge P.B. Desai ignored evidence, says activist Harsh Mander

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Harsh Mander

New Delhi, Jan 9 : Special SIT court judge P.B. Desai “ignored evidence” that former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in a mob attack in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Housing Society during the 2002 riots, did all that was possible within his power to protect Muslims from the “rage of the mob” and instead echoed the position of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi that his killing was only a “reaction” to his “action” of shooting at the mob, says human rights activist Harsh Mander.

He says that “the learned judge”, who retired in December 2017, overlooked statements by surviving witnesses that Jafri made repeated desperate calls to senior police officers and other persons in authority, “including allegedly Chief Minister Modi”, pleading that security forces be sent to “disperse the crowd” and rescue those “against whom the mob had laid a powerful siege”.

Mander, who quit the IAS in Gujarat in the wake of the riots, makes these observations in his just released book, “Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India”, published by Penguin.

The 66-year-old activist, who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger as well as homeless persons and street children, goes on to quote the late journalist Kuldip Nayar to establish that Jafri had desperately telephoned him, “begging him to contact someone in authority to send in the police or the Army to rescue them”.

Mander says Nayar rang up the Union Home Ministry to convey to it the seriousness of the situation. The Home Ministry said it was in touch with the state government and was “watching” the situation. Jafri called again, pleading with Nayar to do something as the mob was threatening to lynch him.

In the chapter titled “Whatever happened in Gulberg Society?”, Mander contends that Jafri did everything within his power to protect “those who believed that his influence would shield them from the rage of the mob”. Mander says Jafri begged the mob to “take his life instead” and in a show of valour went out “to plead and negotiate” with the angry crowd.

“When he realised that no one in authority would come in for their protection, he also did pick up his licensed firearm and shoot at the crowd…,” Mander notes, describing it as the “final vain bid” on behalf of Jafri to protect the Muslims in the line of fire.

The author notes that in describing Jafri’s final resort to firing as an illegitimate action, the judge only echoed the position taken repeatedly by Modi, who had given an interview to a newspaper in which he had said that it was Jafri who had first fired at the mob.

“He forgot to say what a citizen is expected to do when a menacing mob, which has already slaughtered many, approaches him and the police has deliberately not responded to his pleas,” says Mander.

He says that it was as if even when under attack and surrounded by an armed mob warning to slaughter them, “and with acid bombs and burning rags flung at them”, a good Muslim victim should do nothing except plead, and this would ensure their safety.

Ehsan Jafri’s wife Zakia Jafri, according to Mander, was firmly convinced that her husband was killed because of a conspiracy that went right to the top of the state administration, beginning with Modi. The author notes that the court, in its judgement running into more than 1,300 pages, disagreed.

“It did indict 11 people for the murder but they were just foot soldiers,” observed Mander.

He further says that the story the survivors told the judge over prolonged hearings was consistent but Judge Desai was convinced that there was “no conspiracy behind the slaughter” and that the administration did all it could to control it.

“Jafri, by the judge’s reckoning, and that of Modi, was responsible for his own slaughter,” he laments.

Mander also argues in the book that recurring episodes of communal violence in Ahmedabad had altered the city’s demography, dividing it into Hindu and Muslim areas and Gulberg was among the last remaining “Muslim” settlements in the “Hindu” section of the city.

He says that Desai also disregarded the evidence in the conversations secretly taped by Tehelka reporters, mentioning that superior courts, according to Desai himself, have ruled that while a person cannot be convicted exclusively based on the evidence collected in such “sting operations”, such evidence is certainly “admissible as corroborative proof”.

“But he chose to disregard this evidence, not because there was proof that these video recordings were in any way doctored or false but simply because the Special Investigative Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India chose to ignore this evidence,” says Mander.

According to Mander, the Tehelka recordings “certainly supported the theory that there was indeed a plan to collect, incite and arm the mob to undertake the gruesome slaughter”.

The SIT was headed by R.K. Raghavan, today Ambassador to Cyprus. Mander contends in the book that just because the investigators did not pursue Tehelka recordings in greater depth, Desai concluded that the “recordings cannot be relied upon as trustworthy of substantial evidence and establish any conspiracy herein”.

In the book, Mander takes stock of whether India has upheld the values it had set out to achieve and offers painful, unsparing insight into the contours of violence. The book is now available both online and in bookstores.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Number of suicides highest in Army amongst three services

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

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Ajit Doval

New Delhi, Jan 7 : The number of defence personnel committing suicide was highest in the Army amongst the three services in the last three years, data shows.

In 2018 alone, as many as 80 Army personnel are believed to have committed suicide. This number is 16 for Air Force and 08 for the Navy, Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Subhash Bhamre told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply on Monday.

In 2017, the number of Army men who are suspected to have committed suicide was 75, while in 2016 this number was 104.

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

In his reply, the Minister said that various steps have been taken by the armed forces to create healthy environment for their officers and other ranks.

“Some of the steps include provision of better facilities such as clothing, food, married accommodation, travel facilities, schooling, recreation etc and periodic welfare meetings, promoting yoga and meditation as a tool for stress management, and training and deployment of psychological counsellors,” the reply read.

It said mental health awareness is provided during pre-induction training.

Besides, institutionalisation of projects “MILAP” and “SAHYOG” by the Army in Northern and Eastern Commands to reduce stress among troops has been done.

A helpline has also been established by the Army and the Air Force to provide professional counselling.

IANS

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