Friday, January 30, 2015

Jayanthi Natarajan and the Revolt against Rahul Gandhi- Some Observations!

                After the crushing defeat suffered by the Congress Party in the Loksabha elections two things were expected. First, the criticism of Rahul Gandhi. Second, the changing of sides by many of the ‘professional’ politicians. I have already written in a previous post that the main problem of Congress party is that it has more professionals and less politicians, among its leaders.  It is not realistic to expect those professional power grabbers to remain loyal to a party that, according to media and pundits, is not expected to be back in power for at least a decade!
                While there was no dearth of criticism of Rahul, the changing of sides was not as fast and rampant as I expected. One Krishna Tirath moving to BJP here, one erstwhile TMC reviving itself there- the changes were not impressive enough. May be, that is the reason why Jayanthi Natarajan’s decision to leave Congress received so much attention. Perhaps, it added to the news value that Jayanthi chose to criticize Rahul for her decision, making it two birds, with one stone for the detractors of the beleaguered Party.  The resignation is being now celebrated as the much awaited #RevoltAgainstRahul and being cited as only the beginning of an exodus.
                Jayanthi is well within her right to leave a Party that does not have much to offer her. It was nice of her, to thank the Party for giving her so much opportunity to serve the nation.  Her only complaint, and the reason to leave Congress, is the manner in which she was abruptly removed from the Ministry and then from the post of Congress spokesperson and the High Command’s refusal to talk to her.
She did not mention anything (and the media did not inquire) about the reported meeting with BJP President Amit Shah. She did not mention (and the media did not press) about the ongoing CBI inquiries against her, when she stressed the unblemished record of her career!
Be that as it may, the contents of her letter and accusations against Rahul Gandhi presented some interesting aspects, which I would like to share in this post. Firstly, Jayanthi ‘accused’ Rahul and Sonia Gandhi of writing to her to protect the environment! She says:
As Chairperson NAC, you (Sonia Gandhi) have written several letters to me regarding projects in the Environment Ministry, and protection of tribal rights, and I have always kept you briefed that due care was being taken by me to protect the environment. I received specific requests [which used to be directives for us] from Shri Rahul Gandhi and his office forwarding environmental concerns in some important areas and I took care to honour those “requests.” Shri Rahul Gandhi went in person to Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, and publicly declared to the Dongria Kondh tribals that he would be their “sipahi” and would not allow their interests to suffer at the hands of mining giant Vedanta. His views in the matter were conveyed to me by his office, and I took great care to ensure that the interests of the tribals were protected and rejected environmental clearance to Vendanta despite tremendous pressure from my colleagues in cabinet, and huge criticism from industry for what was described as “stalling” a Rs. 30,000 crore investment from Vedanta (emphasize mine).
The Party leadership forwarding people’s representations and writing letters to Ministers for protecting environment and rights of tribals and fishermen can be seen as a ‘crime’ by only those who believe in neo-liberal policies and crony-capitalism. If at all, these accusations only shatter the myth created by a biased media that Rahul does no work! At least, he works for the protection of country’s environment and the rights of poor people. One may disagree with the policy of allowing the lives and livelihood of thousands of people coming in the way of one man’s or one corporation’s greed to maximize profits, but one cannot accuse Rahul of not being active on matter of concern. After all, in a democracy, not every party or leaders are expected to subscribe to the same economic theories.  
                As Concerned Indian (@mallufied) tweeted: “Jayanthi has done in 1 day what the entire congress PR couldn't in 1 year- proved Rahul is a leader who cares.” Jayanthi’s letter surely helped in shattering the myth of a non-performing and non-caring Rahul Gandhi, created by the concerted efforts of main stream media! It is reassuring that the leader of Congress party is concerned and is willing to stand up for the protections of people and environment, even at the cost of some ‘development.’  After all, development which is not sustainable is surely not in the interest of the nation!
                Second aspect is about her so called unjust removal from the Ministry. She tried to link it to Rahul Gandhi’s address at the FICCI, wherein Rahul is said to have “assured the corporate world, that the party and government would henceforth ensure that there would be no delays, and bottlenecks for industry.” Perhaps, only Jayanthi Natarajan was surprised by that decision.  Her new friends and defenders from BJP were crying hoarse about the so called ‘Jayanthi Tax.’  There were complaints from the corporate world about the deliberate bottlenecks. These bottlenecks were not limited to the cases were interests of forests, tribals, or fishermen were involved. As per the reports (of Jan 2014), there were 350 files recovered from her home when she resigned from the office. The Indian Express report even spoke about the Ministry’s Office Memorandum dated January 2, 2014, which listed the files sent back from her home! As per the report, those 350 files included 2 or 3 filed which were submitted to her as back as in 2011. The opposition and media had accused that the reason for keeping files at home and causing such a delay in clearing the files was with the objective of collecting the so called ‘Jayanthi tax.’ If this is not reason enough to remove a Minister, then what it is?  It is not the case of Jayanthi that all those files were kept at her home on instructions or requests from Rahul Gandhi.
As for the Prime Minister praising her for a good work done, well, it can also be a nicety extended by a gentleman, to colleague who was leaving his Ministry!
Third aspect is about removing her from the post of party’s official spokesperson. Jayanthi herself contended that how reluctant was she in taking on Narendra Modi, who was accused on snooping on a young lady, by misusing the state machinery!  I still remember Congress workers complaining on social media that the Congress Party was too soft on Modi, when there were recorded conversations showing the involvement of his henchman (and now BJP President) Amit Shah.  If Jayanthi’s reluctance was any indication, now we know why Modi was allowed to go scot-free in such a serious issue of misuse of state machinery for a criminal activity.  Why should the Party persist with a spokesperson who is not willing to speak against the party’s principal opponent?  The decision to remove her from the post is only reasonable, under the circumstances!
Jayanthi Natarajan has tried hard, and timed it well to coincide with a convenient Delhi election, to cause maximum damage to the Party that gave her undue benefits of Rajyasabha nominations and minister posts, as long as it was in power. I do not think she will be the last leader, to leave the Congress Party.  There are many more (and more senior) leaders who will not have the patience of a Rahul Gandhi to rebuild the Party on its basics.  For many, the power and not any ideology will remain the driving force! Perhaps, such a cleansing is what is necessary for the Congress Party.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Freedom of Expression and the Redressal of Grievances

                I have shared my views on absolute freedom of expression and artistic right to offend others, many times in the past.  Like most other social issues, the confusion about the scope and extent of freedom of expression is not likely to end anytime soon. Therefore, I decided to revisit the subject, once again.
                This post is prompted by two unfortunate incidences- first being the murderous terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo and the second being the reported decision to give up writing, by the Tamil writer Perumal Arumugan. First attack sought to silence the cartoonists who ‘offended’ certain elements of Islam, through physical elimination. Second is the result of attempts through intimidation and hounding, to silence the writer who ‘offended’ certain Hindu elements. First received near universal condemnation, across the world including India. The second incident did not receive much attention, even in India.
                There are several issues that get highlighted by these two seemingly separate incidents. First is the selective outrage against attacks on freedom of expression. The same set of people who are eloquent on one incident goes into a deep silence on the other, and vice versa! That leaves any unbiased observer convinced that most people’s loyalties are towards their narrow identities, and not to the cause of genuine freedom of expression.  If the loyalty is towards the freedom of expression, how can anyone condemn one attack and remain silent on another attack of the freedom?
                Second issue is about how far the freedom of expression can include the freedom to offend.  Being offended is a state of mind.  No one can put an objective measure, to the state of being offended. Sometimes people are genuinely offended, other times they manufacture the sentiments for extraneous reasons like political mileage.  That being the case, every exercise of the freedom of expression carries the risk of offending one or other group’s sentiments. Should we give up the freedom of expression, completely, to ensure that no one is offended? Should we uphold absolute freedom of expression and right to offend others?
                Before I take the second issue further, let me state the third issue. When a person or group offends another person or a group, what should be the reaction?  There is no doubt, freedom of expression is not limited to any one group or any one mode alone. Those who are offended also have the freedom of expression. Many a group chooses to express their freedom of expression through not so artistic means, but through resorting to different degrees of violence. The Islamic jihadi terrorists in Paris and the Hindu extremist elements in Tamil Nadu were also expressing their freedom, in their own preferred modes of expression! After all, not everyone can write a novel or draw a cartoon to express his or her feelings. It is much easier to threaten or indulge in violence and achieve the required results!
                We cannot sacrifice the freedom of expression for the sake of satisfying those who are easily offended by such expressions. At the same time, we cannot leave people’s sentiments to the mercy of those who use the right to offend as a tool for various purposes, including commercial, political, and religious purposes. Similarly, no law abiding society can allow individuals or groups resorting to violence, no matter how much they are offended.
In a civilized society, no right can be absolute. When the right to life and right to freedom can be curtailed through judicial processes (capital punishment and imprisonment), how can we talk about any absolute and unfettered right to freedom of expression? Similarly, no matter how much one is offended by another, the former cannot take the law into his hands and do whatever he likes. In any society, the worst form of punishment that can be perceived, possibly, is an eye for an eye or life for a life. Taking or threatening to take a life for an artistic (offending) work or expression of an idea is beyond even the worst possible perspectives of law.
Freedom of expression is limited to the expression, alone. It cannot be extended to an absolute immunity from its legal consequences. If someone is offended by what has been said, he should have the right to seek a remedy under the laws. I cannot say my right to freedom of expression is affected when a court proceeds against me.  I should be willing to be responsible and face the legal consequences of what I say or write. As members of a society, everyone is required to modulate one’s rights, freedoms, and feelings according to what is prescribed by the laws.
I believe, Constitution and the Penal Laws of India have sought to achieve a fine balance between the rights of those who are expressing their views and those who are likely to be offended by what is being expressed. One should have the freedom to express, subject to reasonable restrictions. One should also have the freedom to redress one’s grievances, when one is offended by another’s expression, but again subject to reasonable restrictions. The law should have the exclusive authority to arbitrate whether the grounds for being offended are genuine, and what punishment is adequate to redress the grievance. No matter how grave the offence, no one can be allowed to resort, to intimidation and violence. If one is offended by a work, he must have the right, only to approach a court and seek remedial actions under the existing laws. When a court pronounces a final order on the dispute, it should be binding on all parties, irrespective of the rights of freedoms involved.