On the Issue of an Official Flag for Karnataka

The last few days have witnessed a sudden resurgence of an old issue – the recognition of the gold-and-red flag of the Karnataka movement as the official flag of the State of Karnataka.

Whether the Karnataka flag gets official recognition or not is irrelevant to me. As far as I am concerned, it has always been an important cultural symbol and a regular feature on the linguistic and cultural landscape of the state. Whether the Government of India recognises this or not doesn’t really matter . As a symbol, it will continue to exist and even thrive in Karnataka, no matter what the Central Government thinks.

On a slightly different note,  we can expect issues like these to become louder as we approach elections. The demand for official recognition has always been around and it can become a convenient issue for politicians to appropriate around election time. This is especially so this year, given existing anger at the Central Government’s Hindi push, making flag recognition a particularly emotive issue.

There are accusations that this issue is being pushed by the state’s ruling party. Personally, I believe all parties in the state have incentives to push an issue like this into the limelight during an election year. It’s an issue on which, all politicians can declare strong stands, or accuse each other of misappropriation. In the meantime, more crucial issues where it’s harder to take ideological stands – such as the ongoing drought – can be pushed to the sidelines.

Ideologically, I don’t see anything wrong with having a state flag. That being said, I’d be happier if we in Karnataka concentrated on mitigating the drought, increasing access to jobs, healthcare, and education, and taking greater measures to protect our environment and natural resources. These are important issues to take up with the Central Government and far more critical points to debate and judge electoral candidates with.

On the Campaign in Bengaluru to Have Hindi Removed from Namma Metro

Since the new metro-rail (Namma Metro) routes opened up in Bengaluru a  few weeks ago, there has been a controversy over the usage of Hindi on the Metro’s signboards.  For more details about this issue, please see the links at the bottom of this post.

This controversy would have never taken place if the Central Government did not have an explicit programme and agenda to promote one Indian language, Hindi, at the expense of others. From what I can see, much of the argument against the use of Hindi on street signs and notices stems from this issue.

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The Hindi promotion schemes are also poorly implemented. This milestone, on National Highway 275, mentions the town “Chanpatan”. The  town is actually pronounced “Channapatna”. One can only imagine the plight of a Hindi-speaking visitor, trying to figure out if this “Chanpatan” is the same town as the one famous for its toys. The Kannada-speaking locals are not likely to use the Hindi milestone. [Source: Click here]

There is no logical reason why the Union Government (which is supposed to represent all states and union territories) should take it upon itself to promote Hindi over every other Indian language. This is especially so in states where Hindi is not widely spoken. Hindi is not the national language, and even if there were such a thing as a national language, there’s no reason why Hindi should be chosen over 21 other official languages (not to mention several unrecognised ones) in the Union.

If Hindi is to be used as a third language after Kannada and English, I would like to see a good rationale behind its use. From what I can gather, the most widely spoken languages in Bengaluru after Kannada are Tamil and Telugu. Is there a reason to prefer Hindi over these other languages in the city?

In short, the Central Government needs to either design a language promotion policy that takes all official languages into account (a tough task), or it needs to abandon promoting languages, leaving the responsibility to the state and sub-state governments. This current strand of promoting Hindi will only damage the Central Government’s credibility.

There are two more points I’d like to make. First, I personally find Hindi a useful third language and I would encourage people to learn it if they get the opportunity. There are huge parts of this country which open up with Hindi. However, this should be a personal choice and not mandated by government diktats. Given that I can’t speak Tamil or Telugu and can understand bits of Marathi, I’m all too aware of how equally useful other languages are as well.

Second, I’ve noticed some amount of ugliness starting to creep into this debate. Pro-Kannada movements have often had both progressive and regressive elements. While most people involved have been inclusive and encouraging, some of the more regressive voices are deeply disgusting. There are comments about bloodlines and ancestry, arguments that Hindi is “inferior” because of its links to Urdu and Persian, and of course, the old argument made by people all over the world – that we are somehow universally superior than others because of our identity.

There’s a lot to appreciate about the Kannada language, its history, and the Kannadiga identity. I encourage both Kannadigas and others in Karnataka to engage more with different facets of the language, the state, and its people. But I will refuse to consider myself superior to anybody because of it, and I encourage other Kannadigas to make the same refusal.

Links:
(2) “Hindi Signboards on Namma Metro: Opinion is Divided” – Economic Times, June 28, 2017
(3) “KDA Issues Notice To Namma Metro Over Hindi On Sign Boards” – Bangalore Mirror, June 23, 2017

A Reaction to the Incidents of Molestation at Brigade Road on New Year’s Day

Note: This post has content that some audiences may find disturbing. The post deals with topics such as rape and sexual violence. Please read and share at your own discretion.

I’ve been seeing a lot of reactions to the incidents that happened on Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve, particularly on social media. There is a lot of anger, anguish, frustration, and disgust. Not to mention that many of these messages have the usual lashes about the decline of the city, “people have no culture”, and so on.

I’ve some complex reactions to this, which are not easy to put into writing. Nevertheless, here’s a (long) approximation of my take:

(1) First, it’s important to remember that this is not new. The New Year celebrations on Brigade Road (as well as Bengaluru in general) has often been unsafe for women and horror stories have happened before. I remember similar reports about New Year celebrations in the 2000s, as well as a few years ago.

I’m not saying this to be dismissive, or imply what happened is okay because “it’s always been this way”. I’m calling out this tendency of ours to forget. In 2014, a woman being dropped off in Fraser Town was attacked and raped by six men. In 2015, a woman was raped by two security guards in Cubbon Park. In 2016, a woman returning home from work was picked up, taken to a construction site and molested. The same year, an African woman was stripped in public by a mob in retaliation for a traffic accident she wasn’t even involved with (simply because one of the drivers was another African).

As I said, this is not new. We hear about molestation, get righteously angry, have a few discussions on news channels and then forget. Then the next time something happens, we repeat this pattern.

Forgetting has its uses and I won’t completely dismiss the act of forgetting. However, the problem with forgetting is that we keep going back to the same old starting point. We continue to wonder “why we are like this” or indulge in knee-jerk reactions rather than notice patterns and ask deeper questions. We quickly fall back into old stereotypes such as “Bangalore is a safe city”, “It used to be so much better in the past”, “The city is becoming worse”. Each stereotype is as meaningless as the next, because safety in Bengaluru (as in most big Indian cities) has always been a function of who you are, what situation you’re in, and at what time.

(2) Secondly, I should also point out that when we do choose to remember, we often take away the wrong lessons. I can already predict what’s going to happen next year (if we do remember) – women will be advised to avoid Brigade Road, stay indoors, or celebrate in ‘safe spaces’, thus turning Brigade Road into an even more male-dominated space. When the 2012 Delhi rape case occurred, I remember how many women around me were advised to avoid public transport and take ‘safer’ options – until the Uber rape case happened, after which women were advised to avoid share-cabs as well.

While avoiding unsafe situations is good advice, it’s important to remember that it can’t become a permanent or universal solution. Women have a right to traverse public spaces, use public transport, work late, stay out late, commute alone as much as anybody else. Permanent avoidance only ends in giving up these spaces to men who don’t deserve them. These spaces need to be reclaimed.

However, the act of reclaiming these spaces shouldn’t be done by women alone. If any of the men speaking about this are concerned about this issue, they’ll be standing with women during regular campaigns to make this city safer.

(3) Thirdly, I should note that anger is sometimes good but never enough. I’m no longer interested in showing or demonstrating how angry I am about what happened. That’s a given. The questions I have to ask myself are – what now? What should we be doing and what’s my role in all this? Whatever anger we have needs to be channelled into something productive. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and energy.

(4) Fourthly – over the next few days and weeks, we’ll see news and hype cycles go into overdrive. Suddenly, shocking incidents that were never paid attention will be thrust into the limelight and it will seem like the world has changed for the worse, yet again. It’s time to move beyond these cycles. They have their uses in pushing important issues forward but will die down soon while the core issues don’t go away.

Law and order, as with most urban issues, cannot be subject to the demands of news cycles alone. In order to build safe cities, we need prolonged, continuous, engagement with difficult issues. This requires a more active and at the same time, a more introspective citizenry. This is not going to be easy, but it needs to be done.

(5) Lastly, as I’d mentioned in my reaction to the Cubbon Park rape case, let’s not forget that sexual violence is a daily phenomenon in our cities. To repeat what I’d said then: Everyday, there are people who face sexual violence in various places and circumstances. It just so happens they’re not given the same amount of coverage as others.

While we debate and discuss issues of safety, it’s important to ensure that we understand the circumstances of these other cases and that our interventions are designed to address these circumstances as well.

Book: ‘City of Fortune’ by Roger Crowley

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The story of Venice, as told in this book by Roger Crowley, is a fascinating tale of how trade and commerce (often organically) gets tied to the creation of empires.

Centuries before the Portuguese landed in Kerala or the East India Companies were chartered, early examples of European colonial empires were being set up through the merchant networks of Italian city-states – the most notable being those of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa.

Together, they fought for control of trade routes between Europe and Asia. Then, beginning with a simple contract to build ships for soldiers of the fourth Crusade, Venice went on to establish colonies, maritime districts, and puppet governments across the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Crowley does a great job in painting contrasts – between Venetian merchants focused on honouring contracts and crusaders anxious for glory; the rigid class-consciousness of Byzantine aristocracy and the aggressive competitiveness of Italian traders in Constantinople; the communal state-led enterprise of Venice and the privatised individualism of Genoese business.

At the same time, he regularly refers to the complex political and economic relations in the region at the time – such as when Venice demanded a right to trade with Muslim merchants in Egypt in return for supporting the crusades; or when the rival Venetians and Genoans forged a hasty alliance to fight Mongol raids against their Black Sea ports.

Overall, a fascinating read. One of the blurbs on the book cover (by Stella Tillyard of The Daily Telegraph) recommends that as a reader, you should “take it [the book] there with you this summer!”. Apart from the practical difficulties of travelling to Venice from India, I would like to provide potential readers with the following advice – if you’re the sort who sees Venice as this quiet, romantic getaway where you can enjoy love and life from a gondola, then this is not a book for you. If, on the other hand, your idea of romance can handle war, conflict, rivalry, colonialism and the deep complexities of power which are rooted into the buildings and streets of most cities, then this might be a good choice.

 

Link to the book on Goodreads.

Link to the book on Amazon.in

PS – I recommend pairing this book with Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. The Great Game, among other things, is also a story of empire-building on the backs of commercial interests, although it is set in a very different time and place. The similarities and differences between the two stories make for some interesting comparisons.

On Flipkart and Ola Asking for Government Protection Against Competitors

 
Apart from standard arguments against protectionism, consider this – neither Flipkart nor Ola function in relatively free markets.
 
The app-based taxi market is effectively a duopoly between Uber and Ola while the online retail space is dominated by three or four players – the most visible being Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal.
 
At the moment, Flipkart and Ola spend most of their resources competing with players who can take them on. Cut Amazon or Uber out of their markets and our big domestic* companies will have more of an open field to exploit and dominate with no real competitors to challenge them.
 
Under such circumstances, markets are more likely to turn into monopolies, instead of spaces which encourage domestic start-ups.
 
*There is also the question of whether these are ‘domestic’ companies at all. Flipkart’s registered in Singapore, not India. Under what circumstances can it claim to be more domestic than Amazon?
 
Additional Note:
There may have been a case for some limited protectionism about 10 years ago, when Flipkart and other internet-based start-ups were just taking off, facing threats of being gobbled up by behemoths like Amazon.
 
Thankfully, players like Amazon entered too late to suppress Flipkart’s and Snapdeal’s rise. However, I find it too convenient that Flipkart and Ola waited until they took over competitors like TaxiForSure and Myntra, and became major market players before asking for protection.
 
Protectionism only makes sense when what’s being protected is the market from exploitation, not individual companies from each other. If we want these markets to sustain, what we need are lower barriers of entry and exit with cheaper access for Indians to factors of production. Making these available will ensure there is healthy competition, not to mention innovation.
 
Given how so many of our new digital markets are now turning into duopolies and oligopolies, it’s important to challenge these structures by encouraging and supporting a large pool of varied players, engaging in various types of digital and non-digital innovation. This is a real challenge, but it’s one worth investing in.

Choice in a Time of Fences and Bubbles

When a divisive ideology becomes dominant, it forces everyone to build walls, not just its own supporters. For instance, I’m sure many in West Germany supported the Berlin Wall as a way of keeping “communism out” as much as those in the G.D.R. saw it as a check against the spread of capitalism.
 
When the walls start being built, when the fences start coming up, when more electricity is spent on floodlights than homes, those who refuse the bubbles and echo-chambers usually have one of two tough choices to make.
 
First, they can give up. They can retreat into the bubbles, deepen their own ideologies, strengthen their own convictions, and build inflexible alliances with people like themselves. The upside is that if enough numbers accumulate in their bubble, they can spark off a movement for change on their own terms. The fences won’t come down, but they can force the other side to retreat and defect until they have enough control for themselves.
 
The downside of you making that choice is that bubbles always unhinge you from reality, they keep you away from people who’re different and most importantly, they alienate you from people in other bubbles with whom you could have built bridges. You abandon them to their radicalisation, just as they abandon you to yours. Ultimately, your world becomes a playground for conflicts based on strength, numbers, and intimidation.
 
The second choice that people have is they can choose to stay on the fence, reaching out to both sides and trying to find common ground on which to mend broken relationships. The upside is that if enough people do this and if enough common ground can be found, that fence or wall can eventually come down and the divisive ideologies vanish.
 

The downside for you is that as long you remain searching, you’re on that damn fence. It’s a painful place to be, because few people will support you, alliances built today will vanish tomorrow, and friendships and relationships are broken easily. You’ll have to walk a narrow path, navigating the barbed wire while trying not to fall down on either side. If you do fall, it’ll be all that much harder to climb back up. Ultimately, your world is a playground of risks, where you gamble on the fence coming down even when the odds are against you.

I won’t advocate one of these choices over another because at the end of the day, it’s a personal choice, dependent on an individual’s circumstances. I will say this though – the second choice depends on a person’s capacity to handle risk. The capacity to handle risk is often a function of wealth, power, or privilege.

Thus, the longer the fences stay, the more likely it is that those on the fence become those with lots of these three things. Therefore, it’s just as important for the fence-sitters to keep a watch on their isolation and echo-chambers as it is for people inside the existing bubbles. It won’t do to say “we need to speak to each other”, when the fence-sitters aren’t really speaking to or for anyone at all.

The last few years have seen a whole number of new fences come up and bubbles being formed. Right now, people are being recruited to different sides, to take up different roles – either on the fence or inside the bubbles or both. It’s hard to say where we go from here, but it’s important that all of us remember a couple of things. First, that we should always ask ourselves “What are the consequences of my choices? How will it help or hurt others?”. Second, that it’s okay to change your choice if you want to. There will be a fallout from making that change, but sometimes it’s okay to take that hit.

 

On the NDTV India Ban

The one-day ban on NDTV India once again highlights the troubling relationship that exists between governments and media content in our country. Frankly, if a government ministry is given the power to unilaterally regulate media content and impose punishments on content creators, we’re setting ourselves up for situations like these.

Much before the current government came to power, there have been debates on the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry’s powers to regulate media, especially powers to ban (see the post-scripts for some examples). Experiences from The Emergency as well as more recent incidents ought to have told us this is a vulnerable institutional setup. Even with a well-meaning government, a power structure like this provides too much incentive to clamp down.

The media in this country is not the best. It can be biased, self-centred, and sometimes even unethical. But in a country where so many of our key issues revolve around government action, successes, and failures, asking a government ministry to regulate media is like asking companies to regulate their auditors. Such a structure is prone to collapse, and it’s time we came up with alternatives. Perhaps we need an independent regulator for television news. It doesn’t solve all problems of media control, but it’s a good start.

The NDTV India case however, has deeper concerns, most prominently that it is being punished on grounds of national security. This goes beyond regular offences that electronic media are normally pulled up for. An accusation of compromising national security is far more serious than say, broadcasting obscene content. The seriousness of the charge therefore requires greater rigour, scrutiny, and transparency than usual. Furthermore, NDTV India must be given a fair chance to defend itself from the charge, and most importantly, the I&B Ministry alone should not be deciding its fate.

If NDTV India did indeed compromise national security, a move to take the channel off air as punishment ought to be authorised by more than a government ministry or an independent regulator. One possible way could be to be back the move with a resolution passed by both houses of Parliament, open to review by a court of law. There may be other, better ways as well. Whatever be the process, the underlying principle should be that any decision to punish on grounds of national security should be quarantined from the incentives of those who usually handle national security, whether these incentives are potential or real. This principle works both ways – it also protects governments from bias or accusations of bias.

None of this is to say that media excesses shouldn’t be called out. There are a host of problems which affect the news media industry nowadays – breaching ethical norms, a bias towards covering big cities, a skewed focus on TRPs, paid news, ownership conflicts, an absence of neutrality, and so on. These need to be addressed. However, two things need to be kept in mind. First, processes matter as much as outcome – however a media agency is punished, it should be demonstrated that the process is fair and just. Second, accusations like compromising national security need to be treated with much more care than most other charges, simply because of their seriousness. A judgement on such a charge cannot come from the I&B Ministry, an independent regulator (if it existed) or indeed, even the whole executive. It must ideally be backed by the legislature and subject to review by the judiciary.

This is not the first time a channel has been banned in India, but it is probably the first time a news channel’s being banned for compromising national security. It becomes all the more important for us to think about what this means going forward and call out excesses when they happen. For now, this ban must be criticised.

Post Scripts:

(1) There are commentaries out right now which asks us to recognise that NDTV India only happens to the first big mainstream media channel to be subject to such a ban. Kashmir Reader, a newspaper based in Jammu & Kashmir, has apparently been banned on similar grounds. I’m not familiar with the Kashmir Reader issue (which is telling in itself) but if it’s anything like the NDTV India ban, most of the same arguments will probably apply there as well.

(2) For older examples of debates around media freedom and government regulation, please see here, here, here, here, and here.