WTFJH: Random links and an open thread

Today’s post is not thematic, but more in the nature of a scratch-pad, a compilation of stories that caught my eye over the past 24 hours.

#1. Muslims in Hyderabad set a temple on fire; dead cows were later found on the floor. The whole was captured on video, which was spread widely through social media channels. Only, none of this happened — the video, says Hyderabad police, is a fake. Ask yourself why this keeps happening. In this connection, here is a story out of West Bengal that talks of systematic plans to spread terror during the Navratri season. I haven’t seen this on other media platforms yet, and I can’t vouch for its accuracy — I saved it to my files only because the broad outlines seem familiar, part of a well-thumbed playbook.

#2. Bofors, that periodic preoccupation of the media, is back in the headlines at least in certain quarters. The latest on this is that the PAC has asked the Defense Ministry to trace and share all missing files related to the case. I just set a reminder on my calendar to check back on this in a month, the reminder to recur monthly, because for a long time now Bofors has felt to me more like a red herring to be kept on ice and periodically dragged across the media space whenever the narrative needs to be changed, whenever a distraction feels necessary. Like most people who have followed this story since 1990, I think it is time for some kind of closure. And what better time than now — the government, after all, has no stake in a cover-up; in fact, the reverse is true. So the case should move forward to a conclusion fairly soon. No?

And while on that, big news: the ED says it will summon Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ajay Devgan and others on some unspecified date to probe their involvement in what is known as the Panama Papers scandal (A Guardian backgrounder, for those who came in late). It is good to see the ED move lightning fast on a major scam — after all, the story only broke in April 2016, and if some backward nations (Pakistan, to name one) have completed their probe and even sacked some of their highest office-bearers/politicians, what of that?

#3. Speaking of distractions, what’s with the BJP and Rahul Gandhi? I mean, by any yardstick he is not a threat to Modi’s dominance of the mind-space. And yet each time he opens his mouth, there is a mass reaction from the BJP side with ministers, spokespersons, fellow travelers in the media amplifiers on social media, and more lately even the vice president, tripping over each other to criticise him. On the recent US trip it was, initially, “Rahul called Mahatma Gandhi an NRI hahaha”. And then it turned out that Modi had earlier said the exact same thing, so the narrative fell back on his supposed defense of “dynasty politics” which, Venkaiah Naidu said, is “nasty”.

It took a while for the media to respond, and when they did — to point out that the BJP is no slouch when it comes to institutionalizing political dynasties, the propaganda machine came up with one of the most specious arguments yet: Ours, the party said, are “political families”, not “political dynasties”.

Well, duh! The BJP was founded in 1980 — there’s only been time for fathers to hand over the political batons to sons; not enough time yet for a third generation to emerge (even here, exceptions exist, as for instance in the Shiv Sena which has had a longer shelf life and so has managed to pass on the torch from grandfather Bal Thackeray to son Uddhav Thackeray with grandson Aditya becoming increasingly prominent in his turn).

Related: The BJP, as part of a damage control exercise in the wake of Jaswant Sinha’s the BJP’s damage control exercise arising from Yaswant Sinha’s criticism of the economy, has an oped in the Times — by Yashwant’s son Jayant Sinha. (Read the minister’s oped, by the way. To my untrained eye, it seems more of a compendium of ‘jam tomorrow‘ promises and pious hopes rather than a refutation of his father’s points, but what do I know?)

Elsewhere, Raj Thackeray adds his two bits, and a bit extra, to the mounting criticism, and he makes some decent points.

Tangentially related: The storm of criticism about the government’s handling of the economy has resulted in some developments. The PM and FM were to meet — the fact that they would meet was much ballyhooed in sections of the media, the subtext being dramatic developments would ensue; as it turned out, the meeting was called off, likely because neither participant had anything much by way of original ideas. Then a council of economic advisors was constituted, by a PM who not so long ago had pooh-poohed the idea of such a council and arbitrarily disbanded the existing one.

Niti Ayog, meanwhile, went into overdrive with a series of announcements. One such was the constitution of a panel of experts who would come up with plans to reform the agricultural sector by 2020. Ashok Gulati, one of the premier agricultural economists in the country, was invited to be on the panel. No thanks, was Gulati’s response. His reason why is telling: (mildly edited, emphasis mine):

“I am not sure what value this group can add after four major reports of various committees by the new govt on agri-food space have already been submitted,” Gulati wrote in reply to an emailed invitation sent by B Ganeshram, research officer, NITI Aayog for a meeting of the “expert group for agriculture and allied activities for preparation of development agenda for India@75”.

He wrote that a high-level committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2014 to reorganize food management system in the country had recommended broadly moving to direct benefit transfer or DBT in food and fertilizer subsidies that can save thousands of crores of rupees that can be invested in irrigation. Although the government undertook some pilot schemes on DBT, these are yet to be scaled up, he said. Gulati expressed surprise at his inclusion in the panel of experts. “I am surprised as no one from NITI asked me about it or sought my consent. I don’t know how NITI functions, but I do feel that the minimum courtesy is to check with a member before announcing anyone’s name in an official group being formed by the GoI… In any case, I would, therefore, most humbly request that I may be excused from this list of experts and this exercise of yet another committee,” he wrote.

When asked about his decision to decline NITI Aayog’s invitation, Gulati told ET that … he wanted to make his point clear that the government needs to act on suggestions given by multiple committees in the past rather than convening new expert groups.

In other words, whenever you want to convey the impression of activity, form a committee, announce it with appropriate grandeur, wait for the recommendations, shelve them somewhere out of sight, rinse, repeat. Something said about about leading horses to water comes to mind.

#4. On a more serious note, the government’s actions in re General Electric is baffling. Briefly, the GoI signed a $2.5 billion agreement with GE in 2015, per which the company will establish a factory in Bihar to produce 1000 diesel locomotives. And then, out of the blue, Piyush Goyal announced the other day that India is moving away from diesel and to electric locomotives, thus putting the contract at risk — without so much as a by-your-leave to GE.

On the one hand, you have Modi doing a Phileas Fogg, going around the world in 80 days hyping India’s ease of doing business and trying to get MNCs to invest in the country. And then you have his own government casually trashing a contract it had entered into — in the process, flushing both investment and the chance of creating employment down the drain. Makes you wonder — what signals are you sending to the investment community abroad?

In passing and while on railways, the ministry has decreed that here on, books on Indian culture should be displayed in all book-vending outlets across the railways network. So yay, that is one of the top-priority to-dos ticked off as far as our railway network is concerned. Trains may still be delayed by hours (the other day, Piyush Goyal and Gujarat Deputy CM Nitin Patel arrived in Vadodara to flag off a new train and left without completing the ceremony — because the inauguration was delayed!). And there are more accidents, leading to more loss of life and property, than at any time in recent memory. But hey, we will be one culturally-aware bunch as we hang around awaiting our fate.

#5. The Bombay High Court wants to know why public funds are being spent on repairing and refurbishing the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Do you?

#6. A PIL in the Supreme Court asks that a legislator convicted of any criminal offense should immediately be asked to vacate his seat. Perfectly valid, you would think — we all want to clean up our politics, no? It is actually one of the poll planks of the BJP from 2014. Baffles me, then, why the Central government told the SC it wasn’t in favor of the move because there is always room for appeal.

#7. A municipal official in Andhra Pradesh has been found with Rs 500 crore of unaccounted wealth. Repeat: a municipal official. Which reminds me: My sister, who is PA to the Accountant General, Chennai, and I recently went to a sub-registrar’s office in that city to register our family home in our own names, as part of the paperwork pending from when mom passed away. A colleague of my sis phoned from the AG’s office to let the officer know we were coming, and we were told to get there at 10 AM. The officer arrived at 11.45. We stood in line, submitted our documents. A lawyer was with us. Once everything was done — an intensely irritating, repetitive process of moving from one desk to another — we were getting ready to leave when the lawyer asked us what we were giving the officer. Really?, we asked, the officer wants a bribe — from the PA to the AG? The lawyer went back to the officer’s desk — it is not even a secluded cabin, just a desk on a dais in the main office — and they spoke.

The lawyer came back and told us (translated, literally, from Tamil): “He says, what to do, how can I ask money from you people, never mind, but please give my clerks something for their work.” Sis and I refused. Sis told him, I work for the government too, and I don’t take anything to do my work, damned if I am going to give a single penny.

We learnt later that my brother in law quietly slipped the lawyer Rs 10,000, which he distributed among the staff.

But while all this was going on, sis and I were sitting on a bench off to one side of the office. We saw a guy, next in line to us, go through the same motions of registering. And then he approached the registrar, took a wad of notes out of his pocket — no envelope, nothing — and passed it over. The officer opened chucked it into his desk, and went back to his work. All this right out in the open.

PS: The office is in a very narrow lane in the Velacheri region. The officer arrived in an Audi, which couldn’t park there because there was no space for it.

Everyone of us knows of similar incidents, we have similar tales to tell. And collectively, they speak to the greatest problem when it comes to dealing with corruption: it is institutionalized, and it is retail, and it permeates every area of government.proportionately greater at the lower levels of government. (More on this another day).

#8. In response to a PIL, the CRPF told the J&K High Court that 1.3 million pellets, besides other forms of ammunition, were used over the course of 32 days in Kashmir.

The CRPF said it has used 14 types of “less lethal and non-lethal” munitions to control crowds, including oleoresin grenades, pepper balls, stun grenades and electric shells.

According to the CRPF Inspector General, 8,650 tear-smoke shells were used from July 8 to August 11. ”Around 2,671 plastic pellets have been used too,” he said.

That is some serious level of insurgency — in addition to the daily incidents along the border, where “incidents continue unabated” resulting in deaths of soldiers and citizens alike. It would, I suppose, be churlish to remind people that the erstwhile defence minister had once said no terrorist could cross the border “without my permission“, or of Amit Shah’s promise back in the day that if acts of terrorism occurred after Modi became PM, India would instantly retaliate and that retaliation would see Indian soldiers in Lahore, or of many other instances of similar bombast.

But is it fair to ask what the hell is actually being done about this? The ruling party at the Center shares power in Kashmir, but far from there being any improvement in the situation on the ground, the situation harks back to the days when insurgency — and Pakistani cross-border infiltration — was at its peak. Daily incidents, routinely captured in headlines tucked away in the inside pages of the newspapers and as rapidly forgotten if they were noticed at all, are the new normal, which used to be the old normal. Meanwhile, we loudly celebrate Sushma Swaraj putting Pakistan in its place in the UNGA. Elsewhere, yesterday BSF constable Rameez Parrey was the latest to fall, being gunned down by terrorists inside his own home.

Not a yip out of anyone — including the TV studio warriors who routinely fight this battle on prime time. And, more worryingly, not a yip out of the government either, at the state and Central levels.

#9. A news story from Jharkhand:

With just a week left to meet the October 2 open defecation free (ODF) deadline in urban areas, the RMC has resorted to naming and shaming. On Sunday, at least 10 people who were caught defecating in the open were made to hand over their lungis to the RMC “enforcement” teams. Their lungis were returned only after they pledged that they would not defecate in the open again. They were also made to pay a fine of Rs 100 each.

On Monday, those defecating in the open were picked up, dropped some distance away, and made to walk home after taking the pledge. Officials said at least eight people were punished and fined. The idea is to make them understand that defecating in the open could cause them embarrassment, said an official.

I have a question: Did these guys chose to take a dump in the open despite having toilets at home, or at least access to public toilets? In that case, the police action is justified. Or did they crap in public because they had no other option?

We have “schemes” and “yojanas” and deadlines and grand announcements. For instance, Devendra Fadnavis announced earlier this year that Mumbai was officially Open Defecation Free — a claim so laughable, all you have to do is take a train on the central line and look out the window to disprove it. And yet in July, the Quality Council of India, what the hell is that, and why do we have so damned many government agencies that drain the public treasury without contributing anything to our lives?, anyway, the QCI “revalidated” that Mumbai was ODF. And Fadnavis congratulated the BMC on its “achievement”.

There you go. Another scheme completed, another box ticked. Meanwhile, on the ground, people continue to take a crap on the open ground. The Hindu has data on the magnitude of the problem, here and here.

From whatever I can see, there is no way this or any government can, simply by wishing it and making speeches do away with ODF; most certainly not to the stipulated deadline of 2017 (which has since become 2018).

Unless the government can figure out a way of inducing mass constipation among the populace, that is.

#10. Tarun Tejpal has, finally, been formally charged with sexual assault and harassment, almost exactly four years since he assaulted a junior female colleague at a North Goa hotel. Significantly, after nearly four years of denial, (emphasis mine):

The founder and former editor of Tehelka pleaded not guilty to the rape charge, public prosecutor Francisco Taviera said. He pleaded guilty to charges under Sections 341 and 342 (wrongful restraint) and 354 (sexual harassment) of IPC, he said.

The trial will begin on November 21. I’m glad. Tejpal has used his friends in high places to slander the victim, to stall the proceedings, to delay; he has tried every trick in the legal book and some outside of it. He needs to stand up in court, be confronted by his accuser and if the evidence finds him guilty, he needs to pay the maximum price the law prescribes. Sexual harassment is way too prevalent in our workspaces, including newsrooms — it needs to be called out, and it needs to be stopped.

#11. Hugh Hefner passed away earlier today. There is much that can be said of Hefner (a good book to see Hefner in context of the larger sexual revolution in once-Puritan America is Thy Neighbor’s Wife, by Gay Talese) — but I’ll leave you with this:

A young reporter once got a chance to interview Miles Davis. The jazz legend was remarkably generous with his time; the reporter ended up with a full notebook. His boss at Playboy magazine wasn’t too interested. A few days later, Hefner wandered by, saw the notebook, casually leafed through it, and summoned the reporter to his room to ask about the interview. The upshot was, Hefner sent the reporter back for more — and the mammoth interview was published in the September 1962 issue of Playboy.

The reporter’s name was Alex Haley. He went on to write the seminal book Roots; the story of Kunta Kinte, an African sold into slavery in the United States, is one of the landmark books on race in America.

Here is the interview, in full.

From that point, Hefner began the trend of the Playboy interview. This Flavorwire collection allows you to sample ten of those interviews — but the full interviews, with some of the most iconic figures of our times, are available on Amazon as singles, or as collections. I have most of them, and they are worth every penny I paid. Follow the link.

#12. Writing professor and author Amitava Kumar marks the anniversary of Mohammed Aqlaq’s lynching with a heartachingly beautiful prose-poem.

A sudden new pain like a million ants crawling up his leg. He thinks they are setting him on fire. No, they are only dragging him up the steps onto a lighted platform so that WhatsApp videos can be made of the dying man.

Please read.

(I am caught up in meetings and stuff over the next couple of days, so barring any major breaking story, the next update in the second half of Saturday. Meanwhile, treat this as an open thread, post any links or thoughts that you think merits attention, will get to those when I get back)

11 thoughts on “WTFJH: Random links and an open thread

  1. Prem, great post again. The bribery story reminded me of the time when I went to get my driver’s license in Coimbatore for 2-wheeler almost 20+ years ago. During the driving test in doing a “8”, I was the only one who did not come with a “broker” to get the license. I got the license without any issues. Others were so scared of failing (and wasting their time ?), they got their license paying money. I was left wondering: why ? Remember the Goundamani/Senthil RTO office scenes from Indian movie ?

    Question regarding using url service: Why ? Helps you track what links are clicked ? When I am clicking on a link, I am not sure which link I am clicking, as the urls can be hacked:

    • Yeah, we all have these stories – all going to show how pervasive the problem is. Ironically, demonetisation made it worse. A government official here in Bangalore said that to me, in as many words. “Done, no? Can’t do demonetisation again, no? So now everyone is happily taking bribes – and doubling the amount, saying, look, govt alert, big danger, big risk for me, can’t do it for the earlier price…” The man nailed it.

        • It’s a multi-part scam. A good lawyer, who is a friend. Walked us thru it before we went there.

          1. It has to be on stamp paper. Only one para per page. The idea is to make you buy stamp paper, on which the officer gets a cut.

          2. He looks for the tiniest errors. Even if he finds six, he only points to one, and makes you do over – then he points to another. Stamp paper consumption goes up, frustration mounts, you are ready to pay just to get through it.

          We got our friend to prepare the papers, vet the supporting documents all the way to the original land purchase. He took it to a retired officer who had held the same job, and got him to vet the papers. When we submitted them they were perfect. The officer looked it over twice, couldn’t find a comma out of place.

          So, yeah. Doesn’t make a difference, he still takes money. We went on a normal day. A Thursday. There were 20-25 people waiting. (Not sure if more came after we left). The local lawyer, not our friend, told us the minimum ask is 20k – if all is in order. Depending on value of land and state of paperwork that goes up. Never down. You do the math.

          Remember, *all* he has to do is check if the land is legally purchased, mom and dad’s death certificates are in order, sis and I are the certified legal heirs, and we have proper ID. That’s all.

            • Enforcement — from the bottom up. The rules exist, the machinery exists. What is lacking is the will to use the machinery to stamp out corruption, starting with the lowest levels of government on up. And similarly in the private/business sector.

    • Sorry, re bitly, no I don’t track links, what’s the point? It’s not like I earn any money off this. I use bitly because some links are so long and clunky, hard to cut-paste without error.

  2. Fascinating. But for a different reason than the content alone.
    A few queries, and I know/hope you won’t mind.

    How do you keeo track of these things? This could very well be a primer for budding journalists and bloggers. You said you save files, how do you do it? I know you are quite tech-savvy and that you must use different tools to collate, collaborate, sync, archive. But the main point misses us Luddites (hehe… check out the origin of that word)…

    #1 All I can say is, I told you so.. this will only increase in frequency as well as modulation (thereby betraying the science background that lies somewhere hidden behind me).

    #2 For me, the Bofors story was a wake-up call. I was really young and I followed it with unholy interest. However, in later years I fell into the same cynicism trap that most of the rest did. No Chitra, no Frontline.. it all seemed futile. However, one thing has always intrigued me and I am tremble even today to think the impossible – Did Olaf Palme die as a result of all this? Was there a connection? Did these scoundrels have that much of a reach? Was it even possible to conceive let alone execute (Ouch!!) or was there so much else in the background that we still don’t know about, that had greater clout and reach to achieve this dastardly act?
    If you are a fan of Nordic Noir as I am, you will know that the police out there is mostly like our own plodding Indian Havladar sort of caricature. Even with more money and resources than us. So one of the unsolved mysteries would be that.
    As far as Bofors is concerned, it does not seem to matter much to the public because it sounds like peanuts now in the face of all the Lakh-Crore scams that abound. However, it was the death of innocence in those days. Just like the assassination of JFK was a pivotal point for many of the living Americans today (old fogeys like us).
    Panama Papers, nice irony :))))

    #3 Niti Ayyoooooo

    #4 Any other contracts coming up soon? Sabre rattling and maneuvering? Sounds like something is happening.

    #5 Indeed! And the report that i read is very nice “the NMC sanctioned such a huge amount to a private organisation, which is not even registered with the charity commissioner.”.

    #6 No comments. Don’t want to be prosecuted for ‘Contempt of court’, especially of Chief Just Stooges instead of others.

    #7 What can I say? It is my everlasting grief. The same sort of thing happened to me and I gave my lawyer 48k that he said he needed and it was handed over to the sub-registrar right before my eyes and I could only weep. I stopped speaking to all my friends claiming that I had no right to be pious about corruption and all that. Even my friend Ram Reddy, TR Raghunandan (the fearless crusader against corruption in Bangalore) and others who probably believed that I was all “doodh ka dhula”. I cannot get over it and I can only shut my mouth now because all my erstwhile haranguing about corruption and how we must stand up to it now stands false… this was six years ago, but I can never get over it. Tainted me. Wretched me. And Shameless me, too, to reveal it here as well.

    #8 Who is loudly celebrating Sushma? The only thing is, in comparison to the other goons she seems like a liberal now in this day and age.. whataboutery coming up – who wanted to shave her head off and eat Moongphali if the “Phorener” became PM? Who wasted so much breath and vitriol and bile as IB minister against a Hamam Ad – Yeh sacchaai hai?
    The same way that doddering Advani seems so “reasonable” today. Ha!

    #9 C’mon Panicker saarey… it probably reveals that you come from interior Kerala, at least nowhere near the coast 🙂 It is disgusting, disgraceful, unhygienic, quite a spectacle etc… but old-timers from here do have toilets built by their affluent sons and daughters and still prefer the, ah, open air pleasure on the beach where the waves gently do all that fancy sounding Italian sanitaryware only promise to do.. Trust me, the other day looking for a health faucet on Amazon I was wondering wtf do they mean that it has rubber massage nozzles.. huh? And after you take a crap, you wrap this faucet up and take it with you? Clearly it was meant for the Vajpayees of the world, certainly not for HUF people.

    #10 True. But I still shed a tear for a fellow I never liked in the first place. What gave him the courage to even try it if not for the permissive culture that already existed? And let me tell you, it still continues. I would prefer not to say things aloud right now, but till last week it was something that I ranted about and finally things are changing, superficially at least. Let us not assume that the new world is any better and that the whole thing is history. Nope.

    #11 Why don’t our own magazines have a culture like that of the New Yorker or even like the Playboy even? Is the long form truly dead in India? Sad, if true.. Bewildering, if people claim that it is not true… Apart from Caravan, no one else seems to have space, time or patience to even try the format… Really sad.. Some day, I hope you start a magazine like the New Yorker (only if you promise to publish my story first hahaha.. like the first one they published… and with probably similar results as well hehe

    • I’ll respond to just the first question for now, rest tomorrow. Every story I read I save to Evernote. With every possible tag. As patterns form, I scribble notes in Scrivener. When things clarify and I am ready to write, I use the tagging in Evernote to find information, write in Scrivener, and cut-paste into blog. You don’t need a lot of tools – one to save, one to draft/write in is all it takes. ☺️ Good night.

      • Yup, no problem 😀 😛 I suppose the cricket has started again after the drizzle 😛
        Enjoy. Good night. (Yeah, I follow the same pattern of logging stuff and the same tools, but unfortunately old, old laptop and this cretin Firefox browser crashes almost all the while, especially with Evernote as an extension and a few others, to be fair).

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