Friday, March 3, 2017

The art of misdirection - the Gurmehar Kaur debacle


With so much literature all over the place on Gurmehar Kaur, #SaveDU and the #ProfileforPeace campaign she was part of; most of it polarized one way or the other; it’s hard to ignore what is happening. Even though I’m not very much up to date on current affairs, my Facebook news feed is filled with so many posts either slamming Gurmehar or exalting her, I just had to try and understand what the fuss is all about. And frankly, despite spending some time researching the subject, I am none the wiser.

Don’t get me wrong – this particular issue does pose many pertinent questions, which we will try and dive into momentarily. But what really gets me confused is how no one is acknowledging the fact that this is less about issues like free speech and patriotism/anti-nationalism, but more about political opportunism from virtually every player involved. And that is not something I care too much for.
Let’s recap what has been going on. Actually, let us start with a prologue dating April 2016. Gurmehar Kaur was part of a video entitled “Gurmehar Kaur Soldier of Peace” posted in the ‘Voice of Ram’ Youtube channel (Link to the video). The video is 4 minutes 23 seconds long, and shows Gurmehar holding a series of placards telling her story as the daughter of an army man who passed away when she was two years old, and how her mindset changed from hating all Pakistanis and Muslims, to someone who has given up hatred and wants the Governments of both countries to find a resolution to put an end to the bloodshed. We will dwell into specifics a little later, but this is the gist of the video.

Fast forward into February 2017. Ramjas College, as part of a two day seminar on “Culture of Protest”, invited two speakers – Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Members of Delhi University Students Union and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) gathered outside the college and shouted slogans demanding the invite to the “anti-nationals” be cancelled (Umar Khalid was arrested on sedition charges by the Delhi police in February 2016 and subsequently released on bail, while Shehla Rashid led the agitation for the release of him and others arrested). There were also allegations of stone pelting, locking of the seminar room and cutting off of electricity by the ABVP members, but police claimed there was no violence. So to protest the alleged violence and the restriction on the speakers, the #SaveDU campaign was launched – of which Gurmehar Kaur became the face. Her protest placard read “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP”. And this caused a shitstorm of tweets, Facebook posts, open letters, protest marches, political statements, news items, editorials, and even Facebook emoji opinion polls.

The Ramjas College issue itself isn’t especially unique – it is pretty similar to the Milo Yiannopoulos – UC Berkley riots, where hundreds of protesters rioted against the event involving the controversial speaker, leading to the event being cancelled (not to mention the huge property loss). (Link to the news article). It seems to be more of a law and order issue – people do have the right to protest peacefully and if there is violence involved the police need to intervene. I don’t know how the permissions and stuff work, but I guess this is the basic deal. Just as this applies to ABVP and their allies, it also applies to their opposition – in this case National Students Union of India (NSUI), the #SaveDU campaign and others.

This would ideally not be something that causes a national outrage, right? It’s pretty regular student politics. Things took a weird turn when the video from April 2016 gets mixed with Gurmehar’s protest in February 2017. I wasn’t able to figure out how it started, but one frame of the video, where she holds up a placard saying “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him”, started doing the rounds and that’s how public interest got drummed up. You have to admire the genius behind it, really –a single frame of a video which isn’t even related to the issue at hand is taken and portrayed as the real issue, thus letting ABVP and politicians (both for and against) piggy back on it to generate nationalist and uber-patriotic wave among anyone who takes a look. I mean, honestly, how many people really research what they see anyway (besides jobless idiots like me)? And it’s really easy to paint any disagreeing voice with the anti-national and un-patriotic brush when such a statement is in question.
When only one frame in an almost five minute video is taken under scrutiny, it shouldn’t take a genius to realise that there is more to it than meets the eye. But this one frame has got so much hate and misguided support – I happened to read one of the open letters written, as well as some of the tweets against her. It’s pretty evident that none of them have seen the whole video. I don’t expect many others have seen the full video either – even though it is not a correct barometer to judge given the multiple avenues available, the original Youtube video has only 198,154 views as of writing this post.

I saw the video in 2016 when someone forwarded it to me, well before the controversy. So I do have an objective standpoint to view it from – how I perceived it when I saw it then. It seemed unambiguous enough at the time – it was a plea to both Indian and Pakistani governments to stop pretending and take some serious actions towards resolving their differences and ushering in an era of peace. I believe the placard that sums up her video more accurately is not the one that is being flashed all over the place, but the one that says “Majority of regular Indians and Pakistanis want peace, not war”. Call me na├»ve, but I believe that statement to be true (and if it weren’t, I sincerely feel there would be no hope for humanity). Even ‘gormint aunty’ is more concerned about the state of politics in her country, and probably doesn’t harbour any negative feelings for India (if you don’t know who gormint aunty is, please find out – and thank me later). There is nothing anti-national in her video, neither anything that undermines the sacrifices made by the Indian army. She asks for a stop in state-sponsored terrorism as well, among other things. What is so anti-national and offensive about that? In all honesty, it is just a version of “Aman ki Aasha”. I didn’t see anything that indicated someone whose mind was polluted. But maybe I’m too slow. Could she have worded her comment on war killing her father better? Maybe – but then again, she was 19 years old. How smart were you when you were 19? Her point was simple – it wasn’t all of Pakistan but the Government and politicians who started the war who killed her father. If it was such a problematic thought to have, why didn’t it receive any backlash immediately?



One of the tweets that garnered a lot of attention is the tweet from Virender Sehwag. Sehwag held a placard saying “I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did”. Whether that is funny or not is a matter of personal taste, but a more accurate analogy would have been “I didn’t score a triple century against Pakistan, I scored it against the Pakistan Cricket team” (kinda takes the zing out of it though). But that is an important distinction. All the other joke tweets, memes etc. try to put across that people can absolve responsibility for their actions by blaming their tools. On the contrary, Gurmehar, in my opinion, was concentrating the responsibility on those really responsible – not the soldiers, but the Governments.  Sehwag, like many others, completely missed Gurmehar’s point.

But, and I may be alone in this, I don’t think Sehwag meant to troll Gurmehar – Sehwag has been known to take jibes at everyone on Twitter, so it was nothing more. What he did on Saqlain Mushtaq’s birthday could be considered far worse. I think Gurmehar should be thick-skinned enough to take the joke. And also, freedom of expression, right? The same rights that Gurmehar has also apply to Sehwag. The one I really feel sorry for is Randeep Hooda – all he did was appreciate Sehwag’s joke. And now he is also being accused of trolling Gurmehar. If even a hint of criticism against Gurmehar is taken as a vicious attack on her, how are the liberal flag bearers any different that the ABVP? I think among the many, the one I want to really address is Javed Akhtar – it was a cheap shot to take by targeting their education, sir. They have done our country proud in their respective fields, and even now are doing no more than expressing themselves. You may be passionate on the subject, but you are behaving no better than a troll – and a hypocrite as well, undermining the very thing you are supposedly fighting for.

The real trolls in this situation are the politicians, who have made Gurmehar an unwitting pawn in their game. It is them and their minions who have forced Gurmehar to back off, not Virender Sehwag and Randeep Hooda. Both the people who exalted her to promote their own political agenda, as well as those who mocked and berated her for the same reason – they are the real villains in this story. And honestly, no one in this is patriotic. I believe it is more an anti-national act to threaten rape and murder of someone just because they have a different opinion (even though it is alleged, I don’t doubt that it is true).

This really shouldn’t be rocket science – this is an issue of student politics which has taken on national scope, thanks to the media and our politicians. At the heart of it, it is all about law and order. Everyone has a right to express their opinion, within the confines of the law. There should be a clear definition of what sedition means. Also, if the allegations of the threats of rape and murder against Gurmehar are true, the culprits should be punished.

At the end of it all, all this is just a magic trick – the art of misdirection perfected. I just end up hating our politicians all the more. Seems to me that Gurmehar became an unwitting pawn in all of this; just because she was the face of the protest. I also hate the general public (celebrities included), who swallow anything fed to them without attempting to find out the whole story, and jump onto the bandwagon to showcase their hypocrisy by taking one side without listening to the other – so much for the argumentative, rational Indian. And once again, I hate the media for their cheap sensationalism in covering the whole thing.

As an Indian and as a human, irrespective of how I feel about her political views, I can’t help but feel for Gurmehar – I hope she stays safe, and can put this of all behind her.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What the gym and Game of Thrones taught me about fraternity

I recently started going to the gym in my office again. And I observed something common between people who go to the gym and people who watch Game of Thrones. Actually that’s misleading (though it’s a catchy idea) – what I noticed is something that is common to most fraternities, if not all. My recent visits to the gym have been met with a lot of enthusiasm from other friends from work who are regulars at the gym. They offer suggestions on correct postures, politely exaggerate my achievements, give pep talks and generally “have my back”.

I observed the same phenomenon when I started watching Game of Thrones, and it was even more evident when I started reading the books. The fans of the show/books in your friend circle are all excited when you start watching or reading, and they are always there if you want to get into discussions (which is inevitable). But the greatest proof of fans watching out for one of their own is the policing around plot spoilers. The number of forums dedicated to the show and books are insane, but despite so many avenues, the amounts of spoilers that come out are surprisingly low (especially given that there are so many things to spoil). And it isn’t that this just happens – almost all content on analysis of the books or show comes with more than adequate spoiler warnings.

There have been other instances earlier in my life as well. When I was an article assistant for an audit firm, I had to travel to Mumbai by train. Towards the end of my already long and quite uncomfortable journey, I had to take a local to reach the hotel. My colleague and I didn’t find a seat right away and we were standing as the train groaned into motion. But almost soon after, a person got up from his seat and offered it to me saying “I guess you are new to the city. Take a seat – be comfortable.” (I guess my bags and “somebody kill me” expression gave it away). A few others nodded sympathetically and started shuffling to make way for me to take off my backpack and sit. Taken aback and a bit unsure of how to receive this generosity, I first offered the seat to an older gentleman who was standing near to me. He waved me away, and my saviour told me “Don’t worry – he’ll get a seat. You sit down”; and proceeded to almost forcefully plonk me onto the seat.

When I was a college student in Chennai, I enrolled for CA classes at the prestigious Prime Academy. The institute, famous for its brilliant faculty and its status as temple of CA learning, is also notorious for its early morning classes. Without a vehicle, I had to wake up before dawn and walk two kilometres to catch a bus and get to class barely on time if I was lucky. And all that effort would earn me a miniscule portion of a bench in the last row, where I could precariously rest half a butt cheek. I gave up after two days. A few days later, a classmate at college who also attended classes at the academy came up to me and casually enquired on my absence. I told him my situation, and he instantly offered to pick me up. He waved away my protests with a simple “Your place is on my way to class – it’s no trouble.”

I know that the examples I have given aren’t formal fraternities (though they fit the bill), and that this behaviour is expected in a fraternity – in fact it should be its defining feature. But when I hear about the kind of horrors one has to go through to get into an actual college fraternity in many places, and the continued abuse they face to stay in, I’m not so sure. There are assholes in every group, but I have had mostly positive experiences and I am grateful for it. And I don’t want to get political, but the idea of fraternity is slowly getting a lot of hate around the world; which seems to be leaning towards cliques not so slowly but oh-so surely.

I guess I’m just trying to point out the lasting need for fraternity, and that a few seemingly small acts of kindness can leave a lasting impression. Or maybe I’m just trying to thank the nice guys who made me feel welcome in an uncertain time and place. Or maybe I wanted to brag about going to the gym (however briefly). Either way, thought I should put this out there.


P.S. Harish, if you are reading this, I am forever grateful for the bike rides to class. Without knowing it, you made a CA out of me. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Art of War - Is the call for a ban on Pakistani artistes justified?

In the wake of the recent tensions between India and Pakistan, there has been a lot of debate around the ban on Pakistani artistes in India. I wanted to share my two cents on the issue. Though this has been a largely emotional issue, I wanted to try and take an objective view of the issue (as much as possible).

I enjoyed Fawad Khan’s performance in ‘Kapoor and Sons’, I am an admirer of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s and Adnan Sami’s creations (not to mention the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), and ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ was a movie that really moved me. And these are just a few examples. Of course, Pakistani artistes have contributed a lot to Indian cinema and music. To argue that India hasn’t gained by the inflow of talent from Pakistan would be a lie, or at least an act of denial. And this is not just restricted to Pakistan – there are many Indian movies that boast of talent from abroad, both in front of and behind the camera. Art flourishes from the mixture of varying influences, cultures and experiences, and in an ideal world, any sort of restrictions would only hinder it.

That being said, a reality check may be in order here. We are not in an ideal world. The on-and-off relationship between India and Pakistan is now tense, thanks to the recent Uri attacks and the retaliatory surgical strikes by India. In such a situation, is it really wrong to ask that a ban on Pakistani actors be imposed?

There are certain aspects that I do not want to address. The almost adamant refusal by Pakistani actors to condemn or even comment on the terror attacks, in a country where they are earning their livelihood and for whose hospitality they have showered praises for on many occasions, is shocking. That being said, it is their personal decision (whether under the influence of political pressure or not, I do not know). Also, the various opinions of celebrities that have been doing the rounds of social media, and the varying responses in support of, or opposing those statements, are nothing more than personal opinions. So, in my opinion, trying to analyse the Twitter posts and interview responses of celebrities does not amount to anything.

Instead, it would be interesting to look at what is achieved by things like bans on actors, cancelling music concerts, stopping sporting events, etc. There is no doubt that this will not resolve the issues between the two countries. In fact, many Indian people would suffer losses on account of this on account of cancelled shows and matches, unfinished projects, inability to meet professional commitments, just to name a few. And of course, none of this changes the ground realities of the soldiers who put their lives at risk to defend our nation. So why do it?

For one, there is the obvious emotional element. The show of solidarity to the cause of the nation. I have no reason to believe that Pakistani actors and sportspersons are not good people, but this isn’t about that. Even the soldiers on both sides do not have any personal enmity against each other. Though this may be a misplaced idea, and targeting a few Pakistani celebrities wouldn’t have any direct impact, it definitely sends a message. As long as India ensures their safety and does not treat them unfairly or with disrespect, I think there is no real moral high ground lost. But again, this is not something that can be imposed as it would be coercive and more of a ‘forced volunteering’.

Another aspect to consider here is money. There is no doubt that both Bollywood and cricket are two of India’s biggest industries in terms of money. So any move to boycott Pakistani actors and cricket matches would hurt Pakistan financially. And such a boycott or ban would not be unlike the sanctions that are imposed on nations that threaten the sovereignty of other nations. This is one of the main reasons why over the years, there has been a lot of emphasis by Pakistan to keep sports and arts separate from bilateral talks.

Perhaps the most important aspect of all is the influence that India exercises in the world through Bollywood and cricket. In his TED talk on ‘Why nations should pursue “soft” power’, Shashi Tharoor talks about how the view of people around the world on India has changed over the years, in no small part due to the reach of Bollywood across geographies. The same can be said of cricket. Also, the influence of Bollywood on the world in terms of the perception of India cannot be denied. Pakistan no doubt understands this – why else ban the M.S. Dhoni movie? M.S. Dhoni has a lot of fans in Pakistan. Though I haven’t seen it, I’m sure the movie does not have a jingoistic agenda – there is no real reason for the movie to be banned in Pakistan, except to hurt Bollywood financially and more importantly to reduce its influence in the country. I think India can send a very strong message by banning Pakistani “imports” in arts and sports – arguably as strong a message as the surgical strikes. This is not meant to be disrespectful, but just a recognition of the power of the soft skills of India as a nation. While international terror attacks like the Paris attacks were talked about and condemned all over social media by posts, hashtags and slogans; the major dialogue on the Uri attacks has come through discussions and debates on the surgical strikes and the ban on Pakistani actors. The world political situation is such that terrorist attacks on India don’t seem to get the same reaction from the world audience as a Paris attack. So, India has to ensure that its voice is heard through different means. And Bollywood and sports are really potent weapons in India’s arsenal.

That being said, as a nation, we should be careful about how we approach this situation. A diktat by the MNS without any backing by the government, forcing Pakistani actors to leave the country and making them feel they are not safe in India would not be the right way to go about it. It would be far better (though I’m not sure how practical it would be) if the government through an appropriate body arranges for Pakistani actors’ safe return to Pakistan. The tirade of hate from many fronts on this issue is not helping our cause, and we must show a dignity in our reaction to the entire situation.

These are times of war, and there should be no requirement by India to act against its interests in the name of acceptance. We must preserve our interests as a nation first. But, most importantly, we must do it in a manner that is true to our nature and maintains the high standards of conduct India has in world diplomacy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

News outlets and facts - A Divorced Couple

I was recently watching a video posted by Youtuber “Nerdwriter1” (someone whose content I highly recommend) on how fact checking can be used as a tool by news anchors and debate moderators while reporting/moderating the presidential race and the upcoming debates (click here to see). 

One crucial sentence in the video grabbed my attention - “But what are news organizations if not truth squads? Free people the world over still care about facts; and we look to our news media to sort through bullshit and lies to find them.”

Though the video wasn’t related to it, this made me question the validity of the statement in the context of news media as a reliable source of factual information. Do we really believe the news that is presented to us today? If so, is that a reasonable assumption to make? Or should we take everything with a pinch of salt, and recheck every story across sources? Unfortunately, from an Indian perspective, there have been numerous instances in the recent past that have given the lie to the statement that news media outlets (NMOs) can be relied on to provide accurate information; or even be expected to do basic fact checking before reporting on something. This is definitely the case for television and social media, where the ‘instant’ factor is the key USP.

Let us start with what is perhaps one of the most basic and shocking errors in news reporting – EVER! The below picture has been doing the rounds on social media.



ABP News stated that the Cauvery water dispute is between Bengaluru and Karnataka! For anyone with even a basic knowledge of Indian geography, or even current affairs, would spot the mistake right away – and we’re talking about a news organization here! Now, if they had taken even a few seconds to just proof read what was going to be printed on screen, a lot of public bashing on Facebook and WhatsApp could have been avoided.  Of course, it’s not like most of our NMOs are capable of feeling embarrassment, so I guess they wouldn’t care anyway.
Funnily enough, I was trying to find some kind of confirmation this story was true since I had only seen pictures which could have been easily doctored – unlike our NMOs, I felt the urge to fact check before putting something out there. And the beauty of it is; I found it on ABP News’s own YouTube channel – click here to see. 8:44 of the video has it for all to see. I wish I could say that I was surprised the video is still there, but I am not.

In the above example, there are no real victims (except for ABP News and common sense). We can just laugh it off as a display of utter stupidity. But let’s take another example where the stakes are a little bit higher. I was reading an article about how actor Randeep Hooda corrected NDTV journalist Sunetra Choudhury, who tweeted about alleged rapes in Haryana (click to read). She also made certain inciting statements on Kashmir, but let us ignores that. The fact that she didn’t actually accept her error (forget apologize for it), but instead tried to sidestep it by showering praise on the actor’s awareness is especially disturbing. Indian journalists have a very bad track record of accepting their mistakes. Even if we were to ignore that, it is a worrying sign for Indian journalism that a journalist, whose job it is to state facts, is corrected on factual information where there is no room for misinterpretation or judgement.

But there have been far more severe cases, where the lack of basic fact checking (forget investigative journalism) has damaged someone’s reputation. Out of the many examples, let me talk about two instances. I’ll start with the now (in)famous “Rohtak bravehearts” (Link to the Wikipedia page on the issue.) A video showing two sisters beating three young men with a belt who allegedly harassed them was prominently displayed across all NMOs (I unfortunately don’t remember who started it), and a lot of people saw it as an instance of the abused females standing up against their male abusers and a milestone in women’s liberation. Of course, everyone was too busy celebrating the bravery of the girls to hear the other side of the story. The events were questioned only when a second video of them thrashing another guy surfaced. Since then, there has been an investigation, multiple witnesses have come forward giving a completely contradictory story, and even lie-detector tests have been conducted. I haven’t been able to find anything on the current status of things (which is of course not surprising since follow up on news by our media is unheard of). As such I cannot comment either way on who was in the wrong here. If only our NMOs could also shows such restraint.

The other example I wanted to talk about is the Jasleen Kaur case. This is where Jasleen Kaur accused Sarabjit Singh of harassing her at a traffic signal in Delhi. She posted his picture and described the event on Facebook, after which it was picked up by the media and sensationalized, not surprisingly only looking at one side of the story. Sarabjit Singh was harassed in return, not only by the public playing judge, jury and executioner; but also by news channel Times Now. This story ends on a positive note though – Times Now has been told to issue an apology and pay a fine for its reportage in this case by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (Link to the news article). Though it may not be enough to compensate Sarabjit for the trauma he went through, we can atleast hope that this would deter NMOs from irresponsible journalism. Though the cynic in me knows this will not happen. If you’re wondering as to what Times Now did that caused a slap on the wrist, just watch the linked video, which shows Times Now reporter Pooja Shali bullying and harassing Sarabjit. (I had commented on this on Facebook linking the video on Times Now’s YouTube channel where they boasted on Pooja’s ‘brave’ journalism, but unlike ABP News, they had the sense of removing the video. However, we live in the world of the internet, and what is dead may never die.)

All of these are clear cases of irresponsible journalism. I have purposely focused only on reporting news without checking facts, and avoided topics like
  • ·         Journalists playing judge, jury and executioner and basically labelling suspects as criminals (Times Now labelled Sarabjit “the pervert”), influencing ‘the court of public opinion’
  • ·         Journalists who focus on a single agenda and cannot look beyond it, thereby losing the ability to on anything objectively and the right to preach ‘journalistic integrity’ (the main reason for the term ‘presstitutes’ being coined, used and abused in social media)
  • ·         The priorities of NMOs focusing on attention grabbing headlines and news items of little or no value over real news (the woefully late coverage of the recent Chennai floods is a case in point)
  • ·         The mad dash to report any and every development as an exclusive, and present facts without any substantive evidence (the coverage of the Indrani Mukerjea case)
  • ·         The propensity of NMOs to sensationalize topics and try to sway public opinion (Times Now’s coverage of India’s loss to Australiain the 2015 World Cup, which was met with widespread criticism)
  • ·         Journalists not apologizing for mistakes made, or burying it under other stuff so that no one notices
  • ·         Irresponsible coverage of events like the Mumbai terror attacks and Pathankot terror attacks, where the coverage was akin to army secrets being leaked to terrorists (the Supreme Court pulled up media for its reporting of the Mumbai attacks)
Despite not touching on far more serious topics, I think it’s clear to see the sorry state our NMOs are in. To be fair, this isn’t an epidemic exclusive to India. And you cannot paint all journalists with the same brush. But that doesn’t make it less disturbing. While many other problems can be attributed to a shift in the way the role of journalists is perceived and the important of allegiances in our cruel world, the examples I have mentioned are clear misses. Nothing to be debated there. Fact checking is probably the first (and most important) rule of journalism. And the fact that pretty much all NMOs - in their mad dash for ‘exclusives’ and TRPs - ignore it and don’t even care about being wrong, is indicative of the fact that the rot has set in.

Shashi Tharoor put it very eloquently, as only he can. “Television news in India, with far too many channels competing 24/7 for the same sets of eyeballs and ratings, has long since given up any pretence of providing a public service, with the "breaking news" story privileging sensation over substance. (Indian TV epitomises the old crack about why television is called a "medium": "Because it is neither rare nor well done.")”

The recently released movie ‘Rustom’ showed how the media had the power to influence a jury. The media does have great power to influence public opinion, and more importantly, to bring about change (I’ve gotten tired of hearing about the CNN IBN impact!!!). But, as Uncle Ben taught us, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The fact that our NMOs are ignoring their responsibility to report facts accurately, and at the same time boasting about their power and journalistic integrity, shows the deep rooted hypocrisy in what was once an esteemed profession.

I would like to conclude by appealing to our NMOs directly – if you’re reading, please get your act together. A lot of people rely on you to provide us a view of our city, our state, our nation and the world. I think we can wait a few minutes for you to check your facts before splashing it all over the place as an "exclusive".

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sleepless Night - Part 2

Link to part 1

After he had ridden for five minutes, Rajesh stopped the bike and took out both phones he had on him. He was relieved to see that there were no calls on either phone. He quickly turned off his phone and turned on the GPS to check how long it would take him to get to Doddaballapur railway station. He cursed when he saw that it would take him another one and a half hours to reach there. He tried to memorize the route he needed to take and, saying a silent prayer, put on the helmet and set off.

He had ridden for about twenty minutes, when the phone started ringing. He ignored it and continued riding, wondering how long it would be before they realized that he had stolen the phone and what they would do next. He couldn’t care either way. It wasn’t until another ten minutes that he was greeted with a sight that sent shivers down his spine.

The next roadblock in his path was just that – a roadblock. He looked in horror as he saw policemen stopping every vehicle and checking for cases of drunken driving. And there were already quite a few people whose vehicle keys had been taken, desperately trying to negotiate with the police. Rajesh knew that there was no way he would be allowed to pass given his condition. He thought about turning back and finding another way, but he was on the highway and couldn’t find any lanes to take a detour on. He contemplated turning around, but a cop noticed him and blew on his whistle, indicating with his hands to come for the inspection. Rajesh was sweating profusely under the helmet. His mind racing, he slowly moved forward towards the cop.

As he was heading towards the policemen, he realized he had no other option. He saw that the divider on the road was not in very good condition, with several areas cracked creating small gaps. He knew that people on bikes regularly used such cracks to get onto the other side of the road rather than traveling long distances looking for a U-turn. He also knew that right now, he had no other option. He turned the bike left and headed for the divider. He picked up speed, trying not to think what would happen if he was wrong.

The bike did a small jump as it hit a broken piece of the divider. As the bike landed on the other side of the road, it swerved and Rajesh nearly lost balance; but managed to steady it. He recovered quickly and started speeding away. The cop, who was momentarily in a state of shock, now started blowing his whistle. It took some time for the other policemen to react. Rajesh kept looking to his side and he saw the entire scene unfold, almost in slow-motion, as a lathi came hurling towards his front tyre. He swerved and managed to miss it, turning around to see the pandemonium behind. He heard the lathi clatter on the floor, and the cops hurling insults at him, as he turned back ahead and saw the green liquid on the road. “Oh shit!”

The next few minutes were a blur. The bike skidded out of control once the tyres touched the diesel. Rajesh desperately tried to control it, but the bike fell over to the left and dragged him along for a bit, sparks flying around.  Once it stopped, Rajesh pushed the bike up and wriggled out. Once free, he rolled away from the bike and lay on the road, too shocked and tired to get up. He had barely caught his breath when he was grabbed by the collar and hauled up.

“Get your helmet off!” yelled one of the cops. Rajesh struggled to get the helmet off, mainly because the cops were holding onto his hands to ensure that he wouldn’t get away. “Crazy idiot! Do you have any idea what would have happened if the sparks had caused the diesel to catch fire?? And what would have happened if your accident was more severe?” Rajesh’s Kannada speaking abilities were not the best, but he didn’t need a translator to let him know just how angry the cops were. The policemen supported him, as one of them checked him for injuries. “He’s badly hurt. He’s got serious bruising near his left rib and on his elbows and knees. Lots of bleeding. His clothes are torn in a number of places. But I don’t think we need to call an ambulance.” The policemen tried to get him to sit down at the edge of the road, but Rajesh shook his head vigorously. “Sir, please sir, emergency. I have to go”, he pleaded in broken Kannada. The cops looked furious. “Where you’re going is to jail. I’ve seen people do crazy things to avoid being caught driving drunk, but this is too much. And you were crazy enough to drive so drunk – the smell of booze is coming from your bones!”  They dragged him unceremoniously to their jeep, as the other drivers who had been caught and the two policemen who had stayed behind looked on, some of them shaking their heads in disbelief.

Rajesh kept pleading with the policemen. “Sir, please let me go. I have to leave sir. It’s a big emergency sir.” One of the policemen slapped him on the back of the head. “Shut up! Or else I’ll make sure you are the one who is sent to emergency. Gowda, put him in the jeep.” The other policemen moved on to the others standing next to their vehicles, waiting to try and negotiate their case. As Rajesh and the policeman walked towards the jeep, the policeman asked him “Is there someone we can inform? Somebody that you need to call?” Just as Rajesh shook his head, the phone in his pocked started ringing.

“Answer the phone. Or wait, give me the phone. I will talk to the person and ask them to pick you up.” Rajesh didn’t know what to do. If the cop answered the phone, all hell would break loose. “No sir, leave it.” “Hey, give me the phone man.” The cop tried to reach into Rajesh’s pocket and take out the phone. A scuffle ensued between the two. Before Rajesh could realize what was happening, he pushed the policeman onto the floor and started kicking him. Rajesh then got on top of him and started punching him in the face, breaking his nose. After a few punches, the policeman stopped resisting as he was knocked out.

Rajesh got up, panicking. He had just assaulted a policeman. But more importantly, he still had to get to Doddaballapur railway station. He turned around, to see that none of the others had noticed what was happening. He ran towards the last bike standing – the policemen still hadn’t gotten to the driver. He caught the driver unawares and hurled him onto the floor. As he got onto the bike, the other drivers tried to stop him. He struggled to push them aside, shoving and kicking as he started the bike and revved the engine. He sped off, weaving his way dodging those who tried to stop him, barely escaping the many people trying to stop him. He dodged the roadblocks set and sped off, away from the cacophony that he had created.

He had barely ridden for a few minutes when he heard the incessant honking. He turned around to see the police jeep gaining on him. For some reason, the cop driving had not turned on the siren. Rajesh was already going as fast as he could – it wouldn’t take too long for the jeep to catch up with him. He realized that his only option was to take the service road, and he could see a break coming up ahead. He turned into the service road and took the first lane into one of the streets, hoping he would be able to lose the jeep.

He rode around, trying to zig-zag through as many lanes as possible in an attempt to avoid being found. He turned off the lights of the bike, hoping that it would help to confuse the policeman further. He rode around a little more, until he found a narrow path, strewn with garbage – he could ride through that path to make sure the jeep would not be able to follow him.

Rajesh now had to try and find the best possible way to get to the railway station, without attracting the attention of the police. He was in no doubt that they would be out looking for the bike, but he couldn’t think of abandoning it. Once he got to the railway station, it wouldn’t matter anyway. He took out the phone and tried to figure out an alternate route. As he did, a white sedan came along slowly and stopped right next to him. The driver’s window rolled down and the man inside looked at him calmly and said “Get in.”

Rajesh hesitated for a moment. He had no idea who this man was, or how he had managed to find him. But it didn’t matter – this man could get him to the railway station, hopefully without any further incidents. Rajesh got into the back seat and sat back, heaving a sigh of exhaustion, as the driver started the car and drove off. He wanted to ask the driver who he was, and more importantly why he hadn’t come to pick him up at the party itself, or even at his home, but thought better of it. He tried to relax and not think about what would happen once he got to the railway station.

The driver made good time, and it was forty five minutes before he had stopped. Rajesh had spent the whole journey praying that Smriti was alright. The driver turned around and said “The railway station is about a kilometre from here. Just go down this road, take a right at the dead end and keep going straight.” Rajesh nodded and got out of the car. As he walked off, the driver turned the car around and drove away.

Rajesh ran to the railway station as fast as he could. He reached to find the station empty. He ran around frantically, looking for anybody. Two minutes later, he saw the man. Rajesh ran over to him and the man held out his palm, ordering him to stop. He walked over to Rajesh and began checking his pockets. He took out the two phones and pocketed them. “Come with me.” Rajesh followed him without protest. They reached a small Maruti 800 and the man got in, and beckoned Rajesh to get into the seat next to him. He got in, and they drove off.

The Maruti 800 entered into the compound of what appeared to be some kind of factory. Rajesh could see there were people standing guard near the entrance, as his escort stopped the car and got out. As Rajesh got out of the car, the fear that he had been trying to block out gripped him. What was going to happen now? He followed the man without a word, while his mind was a whirlwind of thoughts. They got into the building, where three men stood waiting for him.

Rajesh now stood facing the three men. The man in the center was like a giant, and fixed him with an angry glare. “So, at last you’re here. So, do you know who I am?” asked the owner of the voice that had set off the whole chain of events. The giant’s face screwed up in anger. Without warning, he attacked Rajesh and pushed him to the floor. He started kicking him, venting out his frustration. “Tell me, why did you do it? Who asked you to do it?” he shouted as he kept kicking Rajesh in his ribs. Rajesh doubled up in pain as the man hit him where we had been hurt from the accident. “I don’t know what you are talking about!!” That was greeted with an even more aggressive assault on him.

Rajesh was unable to resist the onslaught, and almost passed out. Then, in an instant, everything changed. There was a loud bang, and his assailant fell on top of him, lifeless. All of a sudden there was the sound of gunfire everywhere. After a few moments, Rajesh, using all the strength he could muster, pushed the giant away. One of the men who had been with the giant ran over to him and dragged him away to a vantage point behind some machinery. Rajesh felt he was in a dream, and he was constantly going in and out of consciousness. After what seemed like an eternity, the gunfire stopped. His saviour came over to him and helped him up. Leaning on his shoulder, Rajesh limped out of his hiding spot.

As they got out of the factory, Rajesh saw Smriti sitting on one side with a policeman. Relieved, he said a silent prayer of thanks. When she saw him, Smriti ran over to him and gave him a hug. Ignoring the pain he was in, he hugged her back. As he did, Rajesh saw the man who had saved his life giving instructions to another policeman. The cop saluted him and rushed away. In the distance, Rajesh could see the white sedan that had dropped him off to the railway station.

Rajesh’s hero came over to him. “Hi, Mr. Rajesh. I am Inspector Rudra. Sorry you had to go through all this trouble. But you have just helped us take down one of the biggest players of the underworld. We tried not to get you involved in all of this, but unfortunately things didn’t really go as planned. Even tonight, it took us a while to come to your aid – by the way really smart of you to keep the GPS on. We were able to track you once the owner of the phone called and we were made aware of the entire incident. Add to that all the confusion with the traffic police. It’s not very easy to coordinate everyone at such short notice.” He gave an almost nervous laugh. “But I made sure your wife was never in any kind of danger. We would have wanted to avoid the whole thing altogether, but Murugappa was getting impatient. We just had to put you through all this till we could get the force coordinated to carry out this operation.”

“I really don’t understand what you are talking about. I’m not even sure what I did. And what did this Murugappa have against me?” Rajesh was completely confused, unable to understand what was going on. “Of course you didn’t do anything – not willingly atleast. But inadvertently you got caught up in our operation. Let’s just leave it at that. The less you know, the better it is for you and for us.” Rajesh shook his head vehemently as all the frustration he had came out now. “What do you mean? I want to know why my wife and I were put at risk and subject to this kind of torture! I need an explanation for what has just happened here!”

Inspector Rudra’s face turned grave. “Listen Mr. Rajesh. Murthy, the officer who got you here, will take you and your wife home. There will be police protection for you till the time you leave for the U.S. tomorrow, and even there we will have a word with the Consulate to keep an eye on you. Murugappa does not have too many connections abroad as far as we know, but just to be safe. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken to the station to debrief on whatever has happened – we cannot give you many details. If you ask me, let it go. There are some things that it’s better you don’t know about – for your own good.” His tone was one that would not accept refusal.

Rajesh nodded slowly. There was probably no use pursuing this further. He trusted the inspector on keeping them safe. “I assaulted a policeman”, he said quietly. Inspector Rudra smiled slightly. “Yes, the traffic constable. Gowda is his name I think. It’s ok – we’re taking care of it. Of course there will be no case against you. I suggest you buy your friend a new bike though. Anyway, go home and take rest. I wish we could have met in better circumstances, but I’m still glad to have met you.” With that, Inspector Rudra extended his hand. After a moment, Rajesh shook it.

Rajesh and Smriti walked over to the sedan. Smriti helped him into the backseat and then got in herself and rested her head against his chest. As the sedan drove away, the first rays of the sun pierced the night sky.

****

Author’s note: ‘Deus ex machina’, literally meaning “god from the machine”, is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object (The phrase was coined as this technique was used in a lot of Greek tragedies performed in theatres, where actors playing gods would be brought on stage using machines). Though it is often criticized for being too convenient and simplistic, I find the idea fascinating and wanted to try it. I tried to put the protagonist in a variety of seemingly unsolvable situations and used this technique only towards the end, trying to highlight the impact this technique has on the plot. And of course it was a lot easier. J

As for the ending, I wanted to try and make an ending that is not a ‘resolution’, despite all character arcs being complete and no future events being warranted. The easiest way to do that was to leave a past event unexplained, hence ‘unresolved’. Not giving a full closure is something that has been adopted a lot especially in films, and it’s fun to mess with the audience. And of course it was a lot easier. J

The idea of this story came from the French movie ‘Sleepless night’ (Original title ‘Nuit blanche’) and draws a lot of inspiration from it. I highly recommend the movie.


As always, let me know your feedback.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Sleepless Night

“Cheers! To the man who’s going to take over the Big Apple!” This was the millionth toast to him, Rajesh thought as he gulped down yet another shot. It was still only 10pm, and he was well and truly drunk. Obviously, his colleagues were not kidding when they told him that they would ensure that he needed to be carried home. He was dreading tomorrow morning, and how Smriti would chastise him for this ‘escapade’. Not to mention the long flight he had to take, and all the small things they needed to finish up before they left.

However, the excitement of relocating to New York, to a big promotion, soon took over. It had taken a lot of hours of hard work over the years and a lot of maneuvering, but he had got what he had always wanted. And he was glad that despite all the office politics (he wasn’t naive enough to think everyone at the party was happy at his achievement), everyone had come to celebrate his moment of triumph. And he was okay to get drunk for that.

He realized he wasn’t eating enough, as he was handed yet another mug of beer. His feeble attempts at refusal were pushed aside, as his manager Manoj literally poured the bitter brew down his throat. He nodded furiously as he accepted the mug, hoping Manoj would stop. Thankfully he did, and handed him the mug as he went away to flirt with the new joiner who had been attracting a lot of advances as the night progressed. Alone for a moment, Rajesh went over to the table where the starters were laid out and chomped down some spring rolls.

It didn’t help that the food wasn’t very good. He forced himself to have a kebab. His stomach rumbled. About two minutes later, a wave of nausea took over. He tried to make his way to the restroom, but was interrupted by Pavan, who marched over to him with a waiter carrying a tray of shot glasses. “Come on, no excuses. You gotta have this one. Be a man!” Like moths to a flame, a group of his colleagues came over and with a loud “Cheers”, they all gulped down shots of vodka. Rajesh gulped down his vodka grudgingly, and licked off the salt and chewed on the lemon, hoping he would be able to reach the restroom before any disaster.

He avoided the hand that reached out to hold him and hastily headed towards the restroom. It was thankfully empty, with the exception of Gaurav, who was throwing up into the wash basin. Rajesh quickly got into an empty cubicle and shut the door. Just being away from the loud music and the smell of alcohol made him feel a lot better. He didn’t feel the need to throw up. “Hmph. False alarm. Thank God.” He decided to bide some time here, till he felt good enough to head back to the party. He relieved himself, flushed the toilet, pulled down the seat and sat down. He put his head in his hands, wishing that the throbbing would stop.

About thirty seconds later, his phone rang. He fumbled in his coat pocket and took it out. It took a moment for his head to stop spinning, and another for his eyes to adjust as he read “Private Number” on his phone screen. He frowned, wondering who it could be. He answered the phone.
“Hello, Mr. Rajesh Padmanabhan. How are you tonight? Planning to go to America and didn’t even let me know? Tsk tsk.” The caller spoke in Tamil, and Rajesh had no idea who he was. His gruff voice and menacing tone sent a shiver down Rajesh’s spine. “Sorry sir. I am not sure I remember you. Who is this?” The caller laughed. “Sure you do. Asshole, don’t play dumb. Anyway, I know you are a busy man, so I’ll get straight to the point.” There was a brief pause before a different voice came on. “Rajesh, help me! These people have kidnapped me!” Rajesh was stunned, scarcely unable to comprehend what was happening. The caller came back on line. “I have kidnapped your wife. As long as you do as you are told, nothing will happen to her.” Rajesh’s head was reeling. “But, but, who are you? What is the meaning of all of this?” “Enough! Don’t talk, just listen. I am waiting for you, with your beautiful wife, near Doddaballapur railway station. I want you to come here – alone. We have your phone tapped, so don’t think about making any phone calls or anything. And don’t take any of those taxis to come here. We don’t want your movements to be tracked now, do we? Come on your own, don’t do anything silly, and your wife will get out of this in one piece. If you try to do something stupid, she will end up in pieces. Got it?” Rajesh though he was going mad. This felt surreal. “But I cannot drive in my current condition. I don’t even know how to get to Doddaballapur.” “Shut up! You think I am playing the fool here? This is not some joke. Get here or else.” With that, the call was disconnected.

Rajesh held his head, trying to stop the spinning. He tried to make sense of what was happening. Was this some kind of joke? He tried calling Smriti’s phone. It was switched off. He shook his head, and tried three more times, to no avail. Seconds later, the phone rang again. It was a private number. Rajesh swallowed and answered the phone. “Dey son of a whore, I wasn’t joking. No matter how much you try, the phone won’t ring. Stop fucking around and make your move.” Before he could say anything, the phone went dead.

He sat in a state of shock. He found it hard to believe, but there was no denying the phone calls that had come. Or the fact that he had heard Smriti’s voice, and the panic in it. He tried to think through what he had to do, but his thoughts were all muddled up. He came to the realization that there was nothing more he could do than to follow the instructions he was given.

With some effort, he got up from the seat and headed out of the cubicle. The restroom was surprisingly empty. His steps as he walked to the wash basin were shaky. He held onto the sink to steady himself, and washed his face repeatedly to shake the grogginess. He was now fully alert, but was still feeling disoriented. He tried not to think about how ludicrous the situation was. He looked at the mirror, trying to figure out what to do next. As he opened the door of the restroom, he was still none the wiser on how he was going to proceed.

He stepped out back to the loud music, the smoke and the stifling heat. He weaved his way through the crowd in varying degrees of inebriation, avoiding those who were trying to grab onto him. He tried to remain discreet as he scanned the crowd looking for Manoj. He saw him on the dance floor, trying to keep up with the youngsters shaking a leg.

Rajesh went up to Manoj and, grabbing him by the elbow, shouted into his ear to be heard over the loud Punjabi track playing “I need to talk to you – alone!” Manoj turned around to face him and, giving an animated look of finding a long lost relative, grabbed Rajesh and started forcing him to join in the dancing. Rajesh shook Manoj’s hands off his shoulders, grabbed his hands and again pulled him close and shouted into his ear, almost growling “NOW!”

It must have been the urgency in his voice, but the jovial expression on Manoj’s face quickly became one of concern. He nodded, and the two started walking away from the dance floor, brushing aside eager hands that were reaching out to force them to stay. It took them some time to get to the exit.
The loud music and smoke filled air was replaced by the distant din of the reducing traffic and the cool night breeze coming in from an open window outside. Rajesh took a deep breath to try and clear his head. It didn’t help. Manoj asked “Is everything alright? What’s the problem?” “I need to go home.” Manoj looked at him incredulously. “You can’t be serious. We’ve bloody thrown this grand party for you, and you want to leave? And it’s not even 11. You know the trouble these guys went through to make sure this place would stay open well after 1? You can’t just up and leave now!” “Look, I’m really grateful for all this. But I’m really not feeling well. I just want to go home. And Smriti will also be worried.” “Don’t worry about Smriti – we’ve got permission from her to get you home whenever in whatever shape; as long as you’re in one piece. And why don’t you just sit out here and relax for a bit? The fresh air will help you feel a bit better, and then we can go back in and rock the party“. Rajesh tried to hide his exasperation with little success. “Look, I really appreciate it, but I just want to go home right now. Please, I really don’t want to argue on this further.” Manoj looked unconvinced, but eventually gave a grudging nod. “Ok – I really don’t understand this, but if that’s what you want, I won’t keep debating with you. But just so you know, I’m not happy about this. And I doubt anyone else will be.” “Yeah, I know. But I really need to leave. And I really appreciate everything.”

They walked back into the madness. Though now, Rajesh was hard pressed to decide which the greater madness was – the party inside or the turmoil his life had taken suddenly. He hoped to leave silently and figure out a way to reach the railway station. It took him a moment to realize that Manoj was now heading towards the DJ booth. Before he could wonder what was going on, Manoj had a mic in his hand and the music was stopped. “Hey everyone! I hope you’re all having a good time?” Shouts of ‘yes!’ emanated from the dance floor. “It pains me to say this, but our guest of honour does not share your enthusiasm. Rajesh has turned into a wuss and wants to go home and curl up in bed.” Exaggerated shouts of ‘oh no!’ filled the room, and all the eyes in the room started searching for the person in question. Rajesh felt a sense of dread rising inside him, as all eyes were trained on him. “I say we make sure that we get him piss drunk and give him a night to remember, and he will thank us for stopping him from making such a stupid decision!!” The rousing speech was met with loud cheers and applause. The entire crowd turned and started inching towards him, many of them with glasses in their hands.

Rajesh didn’t know what to do. He had half a mind to make a dash for the exit, but quickly abandoned the idea as he knew there was no way he would make it out. He tried unsuccessfully to ward off the advancing crowd, but it was no use. In a matter of minutes, a few drinks were forced down his throat and he was hoisted on the shoulders of his colleagues as they advanced towards the dance floor. The DJ started playing ‘We will rock you’, which was greeted with cheers from the crowd followed by everyone singing along.

As they put him down to the ground, Manoj came over and embraced him. “We’re not letting you leave tonight” he shouted, though his voice was barely audible over the loud music and the cheering from everyone, who had also started stomping their feet to the beats of the song. Pavan appeared from nowhere, carrying a tray of shots and shouting loudly “Time for some shots!!” Rajesh was in a daze as he came to the realization that he had no choice but to do the unthinkable.

Not everyone realized what happened. The punch Rajesh landed on Pavan’s jaw sent him careening backwards, and the tray filled with shot glasses up in the air. Both Pavan and the tray with the glasses landed on the floor with a crash. The glasses shattered on the floor, and people who were not already seeing the scene unfold now came rushing to look, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Even though Pavan sprawled on the floor and didn’t look like he would get up anytime soon, Rajesh knelt over him and landed another punch that caught him square beneath the jaw. By this time, a few people had recovered from the initial shock and pulled Rajesh away from Pavan, who was now out cold.

Rajesh was pushed roughly towards the bar, and Rajesh ended up scattering several glasses as his hands fell onto the counter. He held one of the few phones that had been left lying on the counter and slipped it into his jacket pocket, hoping that no one had noticed. He then turned around to face a visibly upset Manoj, who grabbed him by his shoulders and violently shook him. Rajesh felt he was going to throw up, even wished that he would. But nothing. “What the hell do you think you are doing?! You may be drunk, but what is the meaning of these crazy shenanigans?” Manoj screamed. There was pin drop silence, as everyone had their eyes fixed on the exchange. Rajesh hadn’t realized when the music had stopped. “I told you I want to go home. Now just let me go and get back to your party.” Manoj was speechless for a moment, unable to comprehend what was happening. He slowly shook his head and said “Vinod, come on. Get you bike and take this fellow home.”

Rajesh shook his head. “No, just let me go and I’ll be okay.” “Oh no you don’t. After the scene you have created, I’m not sure you’re completely capable of going home on your own. Either way, we never intended to have you going home without someone. Vinod is the designated driver for tonight, and he’ll take you home. I hope you are in a position to sit behind a bike.” Rajesh thought about protesting, but then realized that he would not have much chance of winning an argument after what he had just done. He nodded his assent.

Vinod came over with an outstretched arm to steady Rajesh – an offer he rejected with a show of his palm. The entire crowd didn’t take their eyes off the two as they silently made their way to the door. They were escorted by three others till the elevator – clearly they didn’t want to take any chances. The elevator opened and all five of them got in. The crowd still remained in stunned silence as the elevator doors closed.

Rajesh waited near the entrance while Vinod went to get his bike. “Poor guy”, he thought, “and to think this is his first office party.” Rajesh pulled out the phone and quickly tried to unlock it. Thankfully there was no pass-code and he was able to unlock it. He was not sure what he was going to do with it yet, but it may come in handy. After a few more taps, he locked the phone and kept it back in his pocket. As he waited, the manager of the restaurant came up to him and said “I hope you enjoyed the party sir. Please do remember us for your other events.” Rajesh looked at him incredulously – obviously he hadn’t yet been made aware of what all had happened upstairs. He would have laughed if the situation had been different. “Yes, sure. Thank you.”

Once Vinod came on his bike, Rajesh hopped on and they were off. Vinod had already been told where Rajesh was staying so they went along silently. Rajesh tried to figure out how we would get from his house to his railway station. He had already sold his car and bike. He doubted he could ask his neighbours at this hour, and in his current state.

It had taken them almost an hour to get to Rajesh’s place at HSR Layout. It had taken every of ounce of patience Rajesh could muster not to shout at Vinod to go faster. As they reached the parking under his apartment block, Rajesh got off and turned to Vinod. “Thanks so much for getting me home. And sorry you had to miss the party. Now go back and enjoy yourself. And if you can, tell Pavan I’m sorry.” Vinod parked the bike. “Sure sir. Let me first take you home.” “You’ve done enough. I can manage from here. Don’t trouble yourself.” “No trouble sir. Let me just drop you to your door and I’ll be off.” Realizing it was futile to protest, Rajesh let out a sigh and nodded. Just as Vinod was about to get off the bike, without warning, Rajesh staggered as his legs gave way. He plonked onto the floor.

“Are you alright sir?” Vinod knelt down next to him, unsure of what to do. He was getting increasingly worried about the precarious situation he was in, and feared the worst. Rajesh’s breathing was laboured as he said “It’s my blood sugar. I need you to do something. There is a syringe pack and an insulin bottle on the table in the hall in my house. I need you to go and get it.” He tossed his keys at Vinod. “Sir, let’s call your wife sir. She can come with the medicine.” “No, she isn’t at home. She’s staying at her friend’s place.” Vinod wanted to suggest calling a doctor instead, but saw how uncomfortable Rajesh looked – he turned around and ran towards the elevator. It seemed like an age before the elevator door finally opened.

As soon as he was sure that the elevator had started moving up, Rajesh got up and looked to see if Vinod had left his keys on the bike. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw the keys in the ignition. He had timed his ‘attack’ to ensure that Vinod hadn’t gotten off the bike yet. He hoped Vinod would waste some time looking for the non-existent insulin bottle before coming down. He felt bad about doing this, but he did not have any choice. He got onto the bike and, after a quick look around, started the bike and sped away.

****

Author's note: This is turning out to be very long, so thought I'd split it into two parts. Stay tuned for part 2, to be posted (hopefully) very soon. :) Would love your feedback as always.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sec 377: Questions from a layman

Disclaimers:
  • ·         I am not a lawyer. If there are some legal nuances I have misunderstood or missed out, please let me know by commenting.
  • ·         I believe that members of the LGBT community should have the same rights as anyone else. That being said, I do not have an agenda here. In any case, Sec 377 not only criminalizes homosexual acts, but also a lot of heterosexual ones. All I want to do is put questions I had on Sec 377 out there, and try to get answers through dialogue.
**

I should let it be known that I am not very bright. I don’t understand why a lot of things are done, and in many cases I fail to see the bigger picture. One such case is the existence of Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). But I want to try and understand some things about Sec 377. I hope you can help me.

The law in question: The Section 377 of the IPC covers ‘Unnatural offences’, and reads “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Question 1: The question of what: What is ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’? Is there an exhaustive or even indicative list of what constitutes this? The explanation given is “Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.” I don’t think that cleared up anything. Is procreation the deciding factor here – I know certain Catholics consider use of contraceptives against the order of nature. So, is sex using contraceptives illegal? Is it illegal to use sex toys, lubricants, or anything else, since it isn’t strictly ‘natural’? In case of lesbians, how does the law work? I know that oral and anal sex are illegal. That sucks! (Pardon the pun)

Question 2: The question of why: I don’t know what purpose the law serves. However, the very basis for the arguments supporting and opposing the law hinges on this. From the reading of this law, it looks like the person who enacted this law wanted to make any form of sexual experimentation illegal, doesn’t it? The activists who want the act repealed point out that this law is archaic and was set up during the British rule on 6th October, 1860. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the law wrong. If the law still serves a purpose and is in the best interests of the people, why repeal the law? However, in this case, whose interests does it serve, and how?

From what I understand, contrary to popular belief, the law isn’t against homosexuals – I am currently setting aside the fact that they are the ones who are most targeted as a result of this law, since you can’t really blame the law for how people choose to read it. The law can be used even against someone who does anything a little kinky. Is that any reason for punishing someone with life imprisonment in the worst cases?

There have been arguments that Sec 377 is required to prevent sexual offences against children. To counter, there is no mention of age in the law – so the law is vague here. Further, that argument has lost relevance with the ‘Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Bill, 2011’. The need for Sec 377 for prosecution of perpetrators of rape is also not a valid reason, as there is no mention of consent in the law either. And the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 specifically addresses rape and sexual harassment. As for animal cruelty, a specific provision in ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960’ makes more sense that this unspecific law.

The most common argument for Sec 377, however, is that homosexuality is against the Indian culture and religious beliefs and Sec 377 is used for protection of our morals. To counter, though I have seen some Bible verses which indicate that homosexuality is an abomination; I have also seen depictions of various sexual acts in temple walls which are propagated as against Indian culture. Should we break them down too? But let’s ignore this for now. Even if Sec 377 was meant purely as a means of making homosexuality illegal and nothing else, it is an extremely inadequate law in my humble view, because homosexuality is not highlighted specifically here. But really, is it the purpose of the law to act in favour of culture if it violates our fundamental rights? Especially in a country with so many religions and cultural beliefs as India?  If that is the case, am I wrong to believe that this sets a dangerous precedent?

I was trying to compare unnatural sexual acts (whatever they are) with smoking, which is not illegal in India. It is a scientifically proven fact that smoking can lead to life threatening illnesses, both for active and passive smokers. And we have gone only so far as to have specific designated areas for smokers, and haven’t banned it outright. Here you have an act that is known to be lethal, which is not illegal, but cannot be done in public. On the other hand, you have an act that is not a risk to anyone’s life, done in total privacy, which is illegal for some reason I am unaware of. If two or more consenting adults decide to engage in sexual relations in a manner in which all parties involved are ok with, what is the problem? Let’s make no mistake, society is not a party involved here. It’s a private matter, and it’s done in a private space, harming no one.
As you can see, I am really confused as to why this law exists. I just don’t see the point.

Here’s what went down: Ever since the PIL filed by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan in 1991, and the subsequent PIL by the Naz Foundation in 2001, the arguments on all things Sec 377 have been linked to gay rights in India. And probably for that reason, this battle has become so controversial. To quickly recap, one of the starting points was when Kiran Bedi refused distribution of condoms to inmates in Tihar jail, since that would be abetting a crime under Sec 377. After a bit of back and forth – where the High Court refused to consider the petition since Naz Foundation had no standing to challenge the legality of the law and no one had been prosecuted by the law in the recent past; but then the petition was sent back by the Supreme Court to be reconsidered on merit. Of course, there was a lot of political hullaballoo around it.

But, on July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled – “We declare that section 377 IPC, insofar it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Article 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution” (protection of life and personal liberty, equality before the law and prohibition of discrimination). “The provisions of Section 377 IPC will continue to govern non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors. Secondly, we clarify that our judgment will not result in the re-opening of criminal cases involving Section 377 IPC that have already attained finality”. So that cleared up quite a bit of the confusion. Without a doubt, consensual homosexual and kinky heterosexual intercourse had become legal, but non-consensual acts and acts involving minors were still illegal.

Of course, after the Delhi High Court verdict, Suresh Kumar Koushal filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the verdict. Who is this guy, you ask? “Petitioners are citizens of India who believe they have the moral responsibility and duty in protecting cultural values of Indian Society”! And of course, in their eyes, sexual freedom of any kind is against our culture. Anyway, it’s clear that the only reason this petition was filed was that they weren’t happy with gay sex being legal – the actual question of constitutional validity and equal rights had nothing to do with this.

Anyway, on 11 December 2013, the Supreme Court ruled “we hold that Section 377 IPC does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality and the declaration made by the Division Bench of the High Court is legally unsustainable.” Of course, a lot of protests and political noise ensued, and still continues.

Question 3: What did the Supreme Court actually say, and what does it mean?: Obviously, the Supreme Court didn’t just say this much. The judgement runs 98 pages. Needless to say, I have so many questions on it. So what exactly did the Supreme Court say? Below are some things the Supreme Court said (not quoting):

Every legislation enacted by Parliament or State Legislature is presumed to be Constitutional, since the legislature is a body representing the people and takes their best interests into account and represents the will of the people. As the law has not been amended yet, it can be concluded that the Parliament has decided to leave the law in. So, the Court cannot strike down the law simply because it is misused or times have changed. So, Parliament needs to take the decision that Sec 377 should be removed. That could be a lot more difficult to achieve, don’t you think?

Though the law does not specify age or consent, the bench is apprehensive of whether the Court would rule against someone in case of proved consensual intercourse between adults. So, it is difficult to prepare a list of acts that would be covered by this section. Sec 377 does not criminalize a particular people or identity or orientation, but merely certain acts. Oh, that’s a big relief. No one is discriminating against the LGBT community here! Being gay is not illegal, as long as you don’t engage in gay sex. Huh?? So, just to be clear, is the message “Be as gay as you want, but don’t have sex.”? Err.. ok. Are all homosexuals supposed to be celibate? Doing it behind closed doors still makes it illegal – just that you don’t get caught. Isn’t this tantamount to denying homosexuals the right to a full life? Actually, why even deny heterosexuals their choice of sex? And why have ambiguities in the law to make the Court apprehensive about the outcome of a case – why not make the law specific to clarify what it intends to achieve? I still don’t understand why a private matter that harms no one is illegal.

The writ petition filed by Naz Foundation failed to give particulars of incidents of discriminatory attitude by State agencies towards sexual minorities, and so, denial of basic human rights to them. Also, Naz Foundation did not furnish particulars of cases involving harassment and assault from public and public authorities to sexual minorities. So, the details were insufficient to find that homosexuals are being subject to discriminatory treatment. I have no idea what was the evidence provided by Naz Foundation, but aren’t there enough cases to indicate that there is discrimination against homosexuals? Distribution of condoms to homosexuals is abetting a crime, since Sec 377 criminalized homosexual intercourse. Also, isn’t the petition filed by Mr Koushal enough evidence that society treats homosexuals as criminals? But, from a legal perspective, can sufficient evidence be collected to prove this? And what would count as evidence?

Those who indulge in ordinary intercourse and in intercourse against the order of nature are different classes of people and the second class cannot claim that Sec 377 suffers from the vice of arbitrariness and irrational classification. Sec 377 only defines the offence and prescribes punishment for it. People should be tried and found guilty before being punished. So, the High Court was incorrect to rule Sec 377 as being against Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. What does this even mean? How is this not irrational classification? In fact, it’s insane classification. Also, is the fact that the offence is described and punishment prescribed and trial is required supposed to make things any better?

The High Court overlooked the fact that a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitutes the LGBT community, and in over 150 years of the law being in place, there have been less than 200 prosecutions. As such the section is not against the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21. So what? Even if I ignore the persecution versus prosecution aspect – the fact that this law is being used as an extortion device against homosexuals, this makes absolutely no sense. Isn’t the violation of even one person’s rights a failure of the law? Should the number of prosecutions matter when making a decision if a law is fundamentally right or wrong? If the prosecutions were 2,000 or 200,000, would the judgement be any different? And who decides the number that will make this a relevant case? Moreover, if the LGBT community constitutes such a small part of our population, shouldn’t the efforts to make sure that their rights are protected be more? Isn’t it the purpose of the law to treat everyone equally, and to protect those who are marginalized? How can we preach equality for all if the supreme legal body of the country used the rule of “majority wins”?

Naz Foundation attacked Sec 377 on the ground that it is misused to harass, blackmail and torture people, especially from the LGBT community. This doesn’t necessary make the law itself bad, as the section does not mandate, suggest or condone such behaviour. No argument there. The law cannot be held as bad just because the keepers of the law are abusing it. But can’t this be grounds for revisiting the law? Surely, if a law is more misused than used (less than 200 prosecutions versus innumerable cases of blackmail and harassment using the law), there must be something wrong with it.

In its ‘anxiety’ to protect the ‘so-called rights’ of LGBT persons and to declare that Sec 377 violates the right to privacy, autonomy and dignity, the High Court had relied extensively upon the judgements of other jurisdictions; and though these were informative about the plight of sexual minorities, they cannot be applied ‘blindfolded’ for the constitutionality of the law enacted by the Indian legislature. Makes sense, I guess. The culture, lifestyle, etc. of other countries are different from ours, and due thought should be given before using these foreign cases in our context. So give it thought. Make an informed decision based on the cases from both home and abroad. Don’t rubbish a decision just because other countries’ judgements have been referred to. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution has been adopted from the Irish Constitution. The very law in question was written by the British, for crying out loud!

On a parting note, “While parting with the case, we would like to make it clear that this Court has merely pronounced on the correctness of the view taken by the Delhi High Court on the constitutionality of Section 377 IPC and found that the said section does not suffer from any constitutional infirmity. Notwithstanding this verdict, the competent legislature shall be free to consider the desirability and propriety of deleting Section 377 IPC from the statute book or amend the same as per the suggestion made by the Attorney General.” Basically, the bench has said that Sec 377 is not unconstitutional, so it is not the Supreme Court’s job to do anything to the law. That doesn’t stop the Parliament from doing something about it. They have passed the buck to the politicians. God help us.

I have to say, I think the Supreme Court is being harshly criticized and being made the target for all hate on the verdict. Though some of their pronouncements baffle and shock my simple brain, and I believe that Sec 377 is unconstitutional and so can be dealt with by the Court, they are right in a lot of ways. The legislature should man up and remove/revise Sec 377. After all, they represent the will of the people. The ruling party is quick to say that they are disappointed by the verdict. So do something about it. But we all know the reality of the situation – if this comes to a vote in Parliament, the law will not change. It’s sad that our country is so helpless in almost all important issues because of petty politics.

What next: The first option available is a review petition, asking the judges to relook at the case. This has already been rejected by the Supreme Court on Jan 29, 2014. A curative petition was filed, which the Supreme Court agreed to consider on April 3, 2014. So now, we wait in hope. Given that the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement recognizing transgenders as a “third gender” (India is the first country to do so), we can still be hopeful. If even this doesn’t work, the only hope we have is that there would be a legislative amendment or an ordinance passed. But honestly, I don’t think our politicians have the balls for it.

It’s a simple question, really: For a moment, forget the nuances and due process and legal mechanisms bullshit. I think the purpose of the law is to separate right from wrong. Are the actions suggested in Sec 377, if done between consenting adults, wrong? Doesn’t the law violate the rights of any person, LGBT or not, to express their sexuality? Gay, transgender or straight, don’t we have a right to choose with whom and how we enjoy sexual relations? Isn’t this a human rights issue, rather than a political, cultural or religious one? I have so many questions on this law, but I think it all boils down to a simple question: “Is this law right?”

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P.S.: I have used words like homosexual, gay (including lesbians), and LGBT interchangeably. I don’t mean to be insensitive in my usage of words, but I haven’t made attempts to be politically correct. I hope there is no doubt that my heart is in the right place.