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The Caravan - May 2018

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Founder: Vishva Nath (1917-2002)
Editor-in-Chief, Publisher & Printer: Paresh Nath
MAY 2018
cover story / technology
The New Oil
Aadhaar’s mixing of public risk
and private profit
aria thaker
Aadhaar was originally pitched as a way to eliminate identity
fraud in the delivery of public benefits. Today, its application
far exceeds that purpose. Nandan Nilekani, the technology
billionaire who was the prime mover behind Aadhaar, has
said that “data has become the new oil,” and that “if we can
restructure data to benefit every individual and every business,
then we can lead to enormous amount of activity and economic
growth.” He has also said, “In the West, the identity business
was privatised. That’s a much more unsafe model than when a
government issues an ID.” But while Aadhaar is presented as
a way to mobilise Indians’ data for the public good, the lines
between those who run Aadhaar and those who profit from it
are blurry.
14 Rocking the Boat
The dilution of the SC/ST Act reignites Dalit
anger against the BJP and RSS
praveen donthi
20 Going South
The deepening fault lines between southern
states and the Indian union
nilakantan rs
24 Love and Labour
62 Death of a Star
What Qandeel Baloch left behind
October’s experiments with the Bollywood
romance genre
sanam maher
kamayani sharma
MAY 2018
the lede
8 Breaking the Code
Two women from Afghanistan hold courses
in computer programming
ketaki latkar
The conflict between humans
and tigers in India
senthil kumaran
70 Eye of the Tiger
10 Exit Talk
Brexit negotiations are raising uncomfortable
questions in Northern Ireland
ross adkin
84 Swami Shashi
The political Hinduism of
Shashi Tharoor
kancha ilaiah shepherd
the bookshelf
editor’s pick
14 Praveen Donthi is a staff writer at The Caravan.
20 Nilakantan RS lives in Chennai and works as a data scientist.
24 Kamayani Sharma is a teaching fellow with the philosophy programme at Ashoka University,
Sonepat. She writes on contemporary art for Artforum International, Art India and Take On
30 Aria Thaker is a copy editor at The Caravan.
62 Sanam Maher is a Karachi-based journalist. Her work has appeared in international
publications including Al Jazeera, Sight and Sound and the New York Times.
70 Senthil Kumaran is a visual storyteller from south India. His work focusses on social and
environmental issues. He was presented an award by the Royal Geographical Society in
London and received the Angkor Photo Festival’s Hope Françoise Demulder grant.
84 Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is the chairman of the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations
Design: Anjali Nair
Ketaki Latkar is a Pune-based journalist who writes about art, culture and community.
Ross Adkin is a freelance writer based in Delhi.
Photo: Andrew Brookes / Getty Images
editor Anant Nath
executive editor Vinod K Jose
political editor Hartosh Singh Bal
associate editor Roman Gautam
books editor Anjum Hasan
senior assistant editors
Martand Kaushik and Puja Sen
copy editors Aria Thaker
and Maya Palit
assistant editors (web)
Surabhi Kanga and Arshu John
contributing editors
Deborah Baker, Fatima Bhutto,
Chandrahas Choudhury,
Siddhartha Deb, Sadanand Dhume,
Siddharth Dube, Christophe
Jaffrelot, Mira Kamdar, Miranda
Kennedy, Amitava Kumar, Basharat
Peer, Samanth Subramanian and
Salil Tripathi
staff writers Praveen Donthi,
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web reporter Sagar
fact checker Nileena MS
photo editor Tanvi Mishra
photo coordinator
Shahid Tantray
graphic designers
Paramjeet Singh and
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Haripriya KM
luce scholar
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editorial interns
Ahan Penkar, Shibangi Sinha Roy,
Shruti Janardhan and Smriti Suri
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Breaking the Code
Two women from Afghanistan hold courses in
computer programming / Technology
/ ketaki latkar
On a humid April evening at the Symbiosis International University’s girls’ hostel in Pune, most of
the students stepped out for a stroll. Arifa Orfan,
a 23-year-old computer applications student from
Ghor in Afghanistan, picked up her laptop and
walked to a nearby cafe. Her classmate, Habiba
Hussaini, from Ghazni in Aghanistan, accompanied her. When I entered the café, the women
were already seated with their laptops and books
open next to them. They looked hassled. The internet at the cafe was acting up.
We had met so that they could show me their
project, “Hour of Computer,” which comprises
modules on programming and coding. Its website
hosts courses on networking, web development
and application development; it also teaches programming languages, such as Python, Java and C.
The course material is free and available in English, with subtitles in Dari, one of the most widely
spoken languages in Afghanistan. The two women, who have lived in Pune for the last three-anda-half years, are in India on an education grant
organised by Educational Consultants India—an
initiative by the ministry of human-resource
development—and the Afghanistan government.
They plan to return to Afghanistan after their
course and work in education, especially in rural
Orfan and Hussaini told me about the impetus
behind their project, for which they have compiled
course material over the last year-and-a-half. “We
hope to improve access to computer programming
for young women in Afghanistan,” Hussaini said.
“I always wanted to study something that had a
more practical and application-based approach
than mere theory. In Afghanistan, most of the
good colleges for computer studies were in Kabul.
But the courses they offered were usually in computer science and not computer application,” she
continued, adding that she and Orfan plan to identify schools and colleges in villages and conduct
weekend classes.
Last year, assisted by their mentor Shehrevar
Davierwala—a postgraduate in information technology and the officer for international initiatives
at Symbiosis—the women started working on a
different project, Coding Sisters. Orfan and four
other Afghan students from the Symbiosis Institute of Computer Studies and Research taught the
fundamentals of programming to girls in the seventh grade at Pune Police Public School.
Over two months, Orfan gained hands-on experience in classroom teaching. “We were teaching
the girls Html, CSS and JavaScript,” Orfan told
me. “Though we were absolutely thorough with
the course content, spoken language was a big
barrier. Simplifying the concepts and explaining
everything in English was not easy. We realised
During their time in Pune, two
women from Afghanistan set up
“Hour of Computer,” an online
education project with modules
on programming, coding and web
we need to work on our language skills, in addition
to revisiting the curriculum and making it very
simple and fundamental to understand. So, we
came up with e-notes that we added to the modules, with a view to make the learning easier and
more user-friendly.”
Later in the year, while Orfan was visiting Afghanistan, she conducted a week-long training
course for a class of 20 eleventh-and twelfthgrade students at Roshd-O-Taalee, a school in
Kabul. “I went thinking it will be fine, but for us,
things have never been smooth sailing,” Orfan
said. Among other things, they were constantly
interrupted by power cuts. The initial plan had
been to upload videos on their website for students to access during the classes. “But soon, we
realised that most of Kabul’s schools do not have
the lede
and complete their post-graduate studies in
computer application. When our conversation
moved to the subject of life in Pune, there was
an awkward silence. “It was definitely not easy,”
Hussaini said, finally. “I always felt that there
was no connection between me and the city,
and its locals. I think language was the greatest
barrier, as when I came to Pune, I could barely
speak any English. I couldn’t function without
my dictionary in the classroom,” she continued, adding that using local transportation was
difficult since she was not conversant in Hindi
or Marathi. At the moment, she is exploring
options for intensive English-language courses that she can pursue alongside her graduate
studies. s
below: Both Orfan
and Hussaini
hope to return to
Afghanistan after
their studies in Pune
and expand their
teaching on coding
and programming.
ketaki latkar
the technology and internet services to support
such an idea,” she said. “Every day I used to go to
the school, stand before a bunch of enthusiastic
faces, eager to learn, and pray that the electricity
supports the projector for the next two-and-ahalf hours. But that did not happen, and though
I managed to complete the course, the rhythm
of the class kept getting affected,” Orfan said.
But it was heartening for her to see a full class of
students and an equal number of girls and boys.
“It took me back to my childhood days in Ghor,
when the socio-political situation was worse, and
girls were seldom encouraged to attend school,”
she added.
At the moment, both women are considering
extending their student visas to stay in India
MAY 2018
the lede
Exit Talk
Brexit negotiations are raising uncomfortable questions
in Northern Ireland / Politics
/ ross adkin
It did not take long to start talking
about Brexit with the Friday lunchtime crowd at Café Retro in the small
town of Newry in Northern Ireland.
Alongside the enduring disbelief and
disappointment with the 2016 referendum’s result, in which contrary to
England and Wales, Northern Ireland,
along with Scotland, voted to remain in
the European Union, some had worries
of a more personal nature. Among
those gathered was a French woman
who had lived in Newry for over thirty
years and had four children with her
partner, who was from the town. She
was unimpressed with the UK govern10
ment’s handling of the Brexit negotiations so far and did not know what her
status would be after Brexit, since she
and her partner were not married. “The
British can be very stubborn,” she said
with a small laugh. “They like to be in
The Republic of Ireland border—
which everyone in the cafe said they
crossed regularly while visiting friends
or going shopping—lies just a few miles
to the south of Newry. As between
all EU member states, the border is
currently “frictionless”—goods and
people can move across freely. When I
crossed into the Republic of Ireland in
late January this year, the only visible
indicators of a crossing were signs by
the side of the road informing drivers
that the speed limit was now measured
in kilometres instead of miles per hour.
Free movement over the border is a
legacy of a peace agreement, reached
20 years ago, which ended a three-decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland
between nationalist groups fighting for
a united, republican Ireland and the
British Army and police, along with
loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland
charles mcquillan / getty images
the lede
to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Good
Friday Agreement of 1998 saw most armed groups
lay down their weapons, the demilitarisation of
the UK-Irish border and the release of former
militants from prisons. It was a compromise that
recognised the competing claims of the “Republican” and “Unionist” communities (broadly but not
exclusively, Catholic and Protestant respectively)
to the territory of Northern Ireland.
It is along the Northern Ireland-Republic border, where demarcations have violent and emotive
histories, that Britain’s departure from the EU
will be physically embodied. “I think they will
have to make an exception for here,” the French
woman said as she left the cafe. “They can’t put
a border back.” With less than a year to go before
the UK formally leaves the EU, and with local
politics deeply fractured and the national clamour
for Brexit rising, how to achieve this demarcation
has emerged as one of the thorniest issues in the
exit talks. Many are worried that a government
divided over negotiations (and which has not ruled
out walking away without a deal) does not possess
the dexterity and sensitivity required to ensure
the compromise reached in 1998 survives Britain’s
departure from the EU.
The island of Ireland was formally incorporated into the Union of Great Britain in 1801.
Since the seventeenth century, Protestants from
Scotland and the north of England settled in the
northern province of Ulster , partly to form an
outpost loyal to the Crown in a majority Catholic island, which remained largely hostile to the
idea of union with Britain. In 1919, Irish nationalists declared independence, and following
the subsequent conflict, the British government
partitioned the island in 1921 through an administrative exercise drawing on census and religious
data—a method they would use in imperial projects elsewhere in the world. The Catholic-majority south became the independent Irish Republic,
and most of Protestant-majority Ulster in the
north remained in the UK.
Republican and Unionist claims to Northern
Ireland escalated into armed conflict in the late
1960s, following widespread protests by Catholics
against perceived discrimination at the hands of
the majority Protestant community. “The Troubles,” as the conflict came to be known, lasted
for 30 years and killed more than 3,600 people.
Atrocities were committed by British forces and
both Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups.
A small booklet published in 1969, “Orange and
Green; a Quaker Study of Community Relations in
Northern Ireland,” described a province so divided and militarised along centuries-old sectarian
lines, displayed in such public and private ways,
that it would have baffled readers from elsewhere
in the UK. Schools were almost entirely segregated, even following separate sports curricula:
rugby, football and cricket for Protestants, and
Gaelic football and hurling for Catholics.
Today in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital,
the streets still show much of the confrontational
heraldry and displays of sectarian allegiances,
although they now also form part of guided
walking tours that recount the history of the
Troubles to foreign visitors. The dockyards, dominated by the giant yellow cranes of the Harland
and Wolff shipyard (where the ill-fated ocean
liner Titanic was built), are reminiscent of those
in other port cities such as Glasgow or Southampton, and they point to the city’s supporting
role in the expansion of British commerce and
empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The tightly-packed terraces of red-bricked
houses could be in Birmingham or Manchester.
A bridge in a Unionist neighbourhood has murals
that depict soldiers from Ulster climbing out of
trenches at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A
five minutes’ walk away, however, near the Falls
Road, a Republican area, the street signs are in
both English and Irish. A homemade, weather-stained poster reading “Brits Out” hangs from
a lamp post, and flyers calling on the public not
to cooperate with the police are gummed to the
poles of traffic lights.
“It was like a war zone,” Michael Colbert said of
the pre-1998 border at his office in West Belfast.
“For a quarter of a mile on the northern side there
were British Army towers, machine gun nests,
helicopters.” Colbert was a member of the IRA,
the Irish Republican Army, an armed nationalist
group that fought the British from 1969 but has
now disbanded. He served 16 years in prison for
his activities and remained a committed Republican, but like many others made the transition
from militancy to social work or politics. Sinn
Féin, the political vehicle of the nationalist project
now has MPs in the Northern Ireland government in Belfast as well as the UK government in
Westminster (although the party does not send its
MPs to Westminster since it does not recognise
London’s authority over Northern Ireland). The
IRA’s transition from militancy to diplomacy with
the British government has emerged as a model
for other insurgents—Colbert claimed that ex-IRA
members are regularly approached by groups from
around the world for advice on how to enter into
negotiations with governments they have been
fighting, including, he said, from among the Maoist movement in Nepal.
Colbert was released from prison in 1993. He
told me that when the “trickle of released political prisoners became a flood” following the 1998
peace agreement, he began working with Coiste,
MAY 2018
opposite page:
The Republic of
Ireland border lies
just a few miles to
the south of Newry.
As between all EU
member states, the
border is currently
goods and people
can move across
exit talk · the lede
a Belfast-based organisation advocating for the rights of former political
prisoners. Those convicted under the
anti-terror legislation drafted during
the conflict (whether for Republican
or Unionist-aligned paramilitary
activities) can still legally be denied
employment on the basis of their conviction, and they face a host of other
impediments to their reintegration.
Campaigning for the rehabilitation
of former political prisoners was one
of the few issues where ex-members
of Republican and Unionist paramilitary groups shared common ground,
Colbert said. Relations between the
two groups on this issue were “cordial”
although “difficult.” “People think that
it’s sorted,” he said, referring to the
conflict. “But not for those of us still
on the receiving end of discriminatory
legislation.” Regarding the work Coiste
does with ex-paramilitaries, Colbert
said “the EU is the group that enables
us to do it.” Centralised funding from
Brussels has “allowed the British
government not to be up front” about
paying for the rehabilitation of ex-paramilitary groups, particularly the IRA,
which was responsible for some of the
deadliest terror attacks on British soil.
The current impasse over the
border is over the crossing of goods,
not people (inhabitants of Northern
Ireland and the Republic will retain
the unrestricted travel rights granted
in the 1998 peace agreement). So far,
no definitive solution has been proposed that answers the demand for a
border “hard” enough to mark British
jurisdiction over customs and goods,
but “soft” enough to preserve the
open-ended compromise over Northern Ireland’s status. Talks between
London and Brussels have recently
reconvened on this issue (after making
very little headway in their first round)
and are expected to report in May. One
proposed solution that would allow
goods to be checked and registered
electronically at the source, rather than
en route, would in theory—according to
the government—ensure unrestricted
movement across the border.
How feasible such an arrangement
would be on the ground remains
uncertain, however. The Irish Central
Border Area Network, which works
to foster cooperation and exchange
between communities along the
Northern Ireland-Republic border,
is currently conducting a survey of
attitudes towards Brexit among border
communities, including opinions on
the feasibility of proposed technical
solutions such as vehicle licence-plate
recognition and the surveillance of
mobile data. In April, I spoke to Shane
Campbell, ICBAN’s Chief Executive
Officer, who told me he hoped the
findings would be available by June,
and that they would feed into discussions on solutions for the border. For
the moment, he said “there are more
questions than answers.”
A previous proposal for the border
was to make a new agreement that,
for customs purposes, would separate Northern Ireland from the UK,
and allow it to continue trading with
the EU as before. Although such an
It is along the Northern
Ireland-Republic border,
where demarcations
have violent and emotive
histories, that Britain’s
departure from the EU will
be physically embodied.
arrangement would bypass the need for
any new border demarcations, it could
fuel tensions concerning territorial
sovereignty. The idea was scuppered
by Northern Ireland’s most powerful
Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is currently in
an alliance with the governing Conservative party at Westminster. The DUP
and other unionist groups believe a
continued customs union with the EU,
and new regulatory barriers between
Belfast and the rest of Britain, would
trigger a drift away from the UK and
towards reunification with the Republic—a possibility enshrined in the 1998
agreement; working towards which is
the policy of Sinn Féin. For the nearly
one-million-strong Unionist community in Northern Ireland, with their
cherished links to the UK and long-held
fears of living as a minority in a united
Ireland, this would be untenable. In a
recently aired BBC documentary, DUP
leader Arlene Foster said she would
“probably have to move” if a referendum ever produced a united Ireland,
although she added that “it’s not going
to happen anytime soon.”
Complicating things further, Sinn
Féin and the DUP have not sat in the
devolved assembly in Belfast for over a
year. Allegations of discrepancies and
overspending in a DUP government
scheme promoting renewable energy
prompted a Sinn Féin-led walkout in
December 2016. Since, government
budgets have gone unallocated, local
government projects have stalled and
both parties have come in for scathing
criticism for their brinkmanship. Subsequent disputes over an Irish language
act have further tightened the deadlock, John Manley, political correspondent at the Irish News in Belfast, told
me. He believed there “were irreconcilable divisions at the moment” between
the two parties.
The London-Brussels negotiations
themselves have produced “nothing but
rhetoric so far, no solutions by where
the UK leaves the EU and maintains a
frictionless border,” added Manley. It is
still not clear how UK Prime Minister
Theresa May’s promise that there will
be no reintroduction of a hard border
can be accommodated with the DUP’s
fervent opposition to Northern Ireland
being treated any differently than the
rest of the UK. An influential cabal of
government ministers and a bellicose
right-wing press opposed to any continued customs union with the EU will
further constrain room for manouevre,
and as the UK cuts its EU moorings
and prepares to sail back into the sun,
the margin for error in how it demonstrates its newly-won sovereignty is
narrow. Colbert, the ex-IRA member,
believed that any new infrastructure
denoting the presence of the British
state at the Northern Ireland-Republic
border would antagonise the dissident
Republican groups who did not sign up
to the 1998 peace agreement. “As soon
as you have a physical manifestation of
the border, then you are announcing a
political difference,” he said. “They’ll
have to be protected because someone’s
going to be attacking them …This is an
inevitability.” s
Rocking the Boat
/ praveen donthi
opposite page:
Thousands of Dalits
across the country
took to streets on
2 April to protest
the dilution of
the Scheduled
Castes and Tribes
(Prevention of
Atrocities) Act by
a bench of the
Supreme Court.
On 2 April, thousands of Dalits across the country took to the streets to protest the dilution of
the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of
Atrocities) Act by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, and declared a nationwide bandh.
Through the day protestors faced aggression from
the police and Hindutva goons, resulting in the
deaths of ten Dalits. The next morning’s headlines, however, seemed to suggest that it was Dalits who had done the killing. “Nine killed as angry
Dalits take to the streets, Madhya Pradesh most
affected” declared the Indian Express. The Pioneer
titled a story, “Dalit rage singes India; 8 killed.”
Many were more concerned with the inconvenience caused by the bandh than the factors that
led to it. By and large, the protest saw no support
from outside the Dalit community. The media
struggled to understand or even find out who organised the protest.
On 20 March, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Uday Umesh Lalit laid
down “procedural safeguards” to prevent the misuse of the Act, which was legislated in 1989 to deal
with hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis. The
judgment stipulated that “the arrest of a public
servant can only be after approval of the appointing authority and of a non-public servant after
approval by the SSP,” and mandated that a preliminary inquiry be made by a deputy superintendent
of the police before an FIR is registered under the
Atrocities Act. The judgment stated, “working of
the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism.”
Such dispensing of law, blind to social-justice
concerns, immediately put under the spotlight the
lack of diversity in the higher judiciary, an issue
raised by KR Narayanan, the first Dalit president.
“Two upper cast judges of the Supreme Court of
India have turned the SC & ST Act from protecting SC/ST to protecting Brahmins,” the senior
advocate Indira Jaising tweeted, “no surprises,
the SC has no SC/ST judges at all.” (Justice Goel
has been the general secretary of the All-India
Adhiwakta Parishad, the lawyers’ wing of the
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Lalit’s father, UR
Lalit, has also held the post). Out of the 24 sitting
judges of the Supreme Court, eight are Brahmins.
No judge belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe
has been elevated to the Supreme Court in the last
seven years. And there has been only one Dalit
chief justice in history.
Mohan Gopal, an eminent jurist, pointed out
in a public address that the SC/ST Act was the
product of the Dalit movement and “is a literary
expression of the suffering of Dalits of this country.” He added, “Like the Criminal Tribes Act that
declares an entire tribe criminal, this judgment
does something unprecedented in the judicial history of the world. It takes away the right to credibility of 300 million Dalits ... and declared them
an untrustworthy community. This is an atrocity
in itself.” Gopal pointed out the absurdity of the
judgment’s provision that a complainant must first
face an inquiry.
The judgment contrasts starkly with the last
amendment to the SC/ST Act, made in 2015, which
was first introduced by the previous United Progressive Alliance government as an ordinance. It
had listed many offences deemed common against
Dalits: tonsuring of heads and moustaches; garlanding with footwear; denial of access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; coercion into disposing of or carrying human or animal carcasses,
using or permitting manual scavenging; obstruction of filing nominations to contest elections; and
removing a person’s garments, among others. It
used the term “willful negligence” to define the
behaviour of government employees at all levels
who showed reluctance to act in caste-discrimination cases, starting with the registration of complaints. It also defined aspects of “dereliction of
duty.” The latest amendment gives the power back
subhankar chakraborty / hindustan times / getty images
The dilution of the SC/ST Act reignites Dalit anger
against the BJP and RSS / Politics
MAY 2018
rocking the boat · perspectives
to the same government officials to discriminate freely, reversing the progress
made by the last amendment.
Even before the SC/ST Act was diluted, its implementation had been vexed.
This was evident during the first big
crisis the Modi government faced after
coming to power: the suicide, in January 2016, of the Dalit scholar Rohith
Vemula at Hyderabad Central University and the national outrage that followed. A case for abetment of Vemula’s
suicide was filed under the SC/ST Act
against the central ministers Bandaru
Dattatreya and Smriti Irani. To help
them escape, the government used all
its might in an attempt to prove that Vemula was not a Dalit. The government
scrapped the first report by a deputy
collector that had certified him a Dalit,
and procured a second report showing
him as a member of an Other Backward
Class caste, which his long-estranged
father belonged to. The fact that his
mother was unquestionably Dalit was
Crimes against Dalits, which were
supposed to be curtailed by the Act,
have also been steadily on the rise.
According to the website IndiaSpend,
the crime rate against Dalits rose by
25 percent between 2006 and 2016.
During this period, 422,799 crimes
against Dalits and 81,332 crimes against
Adivasis were reported. The number of
cases pending police investigation has
almost doubled simultaneously. These
numbers, based on National Crime
Research Bureau data, do not include
Dalits who cannot muster enough courage to file cases for fear of retaliation.
Despite all the data and various surveys
that provide evidence of the enduring
presence of untouchability, the majority
of Indians remain apathetic to the Dalit
fight for equality.
Though the BJP-led government,
under immense pressure due to the
protests, filed a review petition asking
the Supreme Court to recall the amendment, the community is not willing
to trust the government’s posturing.
“The government tried to show it as the
decision of Supreme Court. But Justice Jasti Chelameswar’s letter to the
Chief Justice makes it clear that there
has been Centre’s interference in the
functioning of the court,” Manoj Ra16
jeshwar, a 24-year-old member of the
Bhim Army, a Dalit-rights organisation,
told me, referring to the 21 March letter
by the second most senior judge of the
court. The Dalit community and its
intellectuals believe that the additional
solicitor general did not provide all the
necessary facts in the case during the
The bandh and the intensity of anger
caught the government and media by
surprise. The origins of the call for the
bandh are still unknown. “There is a
new class of educated Dalits. But there
are no jobs for them,” Dharmendra Kumar Jatav, an activist based in Jaipur,
told me. “The media owned and run by
upper-caste people never supported us.
But now the youth have been coming
together on social media platforms over
Dalit issues from across the country
such as the suicide of Rohit Vemula,
the flogging in Una, the arrest of Bhim
“This judgment does
something unprecedented
in the judicial history of
the world. It takes away
the right to credibility
of 300 million Dalits
... and declared them
an untrustworthy
Army’s Chandrasekhar and Bhima
Koregaon clashes. It was building up.
A consensus is forming among Dalits
of various states. And legislation is the
work of Parliament not the Supreme
Court. The cup of woes was overflowing, and the dilution of the Atrocities
Act brought Dalits on to the streets.”
Madhya Pradesh, where seven protestors died, surpassed Uttar Pradesh—
which has a long history of Dalit
politics—in the intensity of its protest.
Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Bihar,
Maharashtra also saw a lot of action.
“Many unfortunate incidents had happened for the past four years but the
protests largely remained localised,”
Sushil Gautam, the president of the
Democratic Students Front, in Meerut
told me. “It was a tough hand-to-mouth
existence but still we didn’t rise in
protest. With the dilution of the SC/ST
Act, it felt like everything was going to
be finished for us. This was a trial, the
BJP wanted to test the waters and next
step was to end reservations. Dalits felt
the earth move under them. Our future
generations shouldn’t become slaves
again, they shouldn’t say that we didn’t
do anything to stop this.”
Gautam went on the run after the
bandh because the police was arresting activists under various kinds of
cases. “We have been slapped with a
hundred cases,” he told me. “We have
not murdered anyone. Our fight is with
the government. Our fight is to stop the
establishing of varna vyavastha”—caste
hierarchy—“by the government.”
The violence during the bandh was
blamed on the protestors despite ample
evidence proving otherwise. In Muzaffarnagar, the police said that “anti-social elements” got mixed up with
the crowd and indulged in violence.
“For the first time, Dalits faced resistance and bullets on that day,” the Dalit
BJP MP Udit Raj said in an interview
to the National Herald. “Dalits do not
oppose when others hit the street. But
this time when Dalits hit the street, the
upper castes opened fire and put up a
resistance. The most brazen attacks
were carried out in Gwalior in Madhya
Pradesh. It has now been established
that Dalits there were killed by bullets
fired by dominant-caste men, not the
police. Dalits are still being tortured
and harassed there. I do not support violence of any kind. But Dalits are being
implicated in false cases everywhere.”
Other Dalit MPs of the BJP also voiced
concerns about the party’s approach to
caste issues, notwithstanding its shrill
pro-Ambedkar rhetoric.
The BJP has 40 Dalit MPs. It won
more than 50 percent of the seats reserved for Dalits in the 2014 Lok Sabha
elections, the highest total of any party.
But as Udit Raj explained in the interview, it is “a myth that just because a
political party has more Dalit MPs, the
party necessarily enjoys the support of
Dalits.” He said that in no constituency
do Dalit votes exceed 20 or 25 percent
of the voters. “Nobody gets elected
even from reserved seats with votes
from Dalits alone. Indeed the victory
rocking the boat · perspectives
from reserved seats is engineered by
other forces ... Dalits actually win with
votes from supporters of essentially
anti-Dalit parties.” The BJP, aware of
this reality, has found its relationship
with Dalits to be a tightrope walk. The
party has tried to keep the community
happy with symbolic moves such as
making Ramnath Kovind the president. Any gains it might have made can
be washed away by the next blunder,
which is never far away.
The party’s parent organisation,
the RSS, has also been facing Dalit
ire recently. In late February, the RSS
organised a meet called Rashtroday
Samagam, or National Awakening. The
sarsanghchalak, or head, of the RSS
Mohan Bhagwat was the chief guest.
It was going to be the largest gathering
of the RSS. Just before the event, big
hoardings came up all over Meerut.
“Just as Vashishtha, a Brahmin; Krishna, a Kshatriya; Harsh, a Vaishya
and Tukaram, a Shudra have increased
the prestige and status of Hinduism,
untouchables like Valmiki, Chokhamela
and Ravidas have also done the same,”
read a line on a hoarding that infuriated Dalits, including the traditional
voters of the BJP, the Valmikis. They
tore down the hoardings and the RSS
rushed to explain that the line was
spoken by Ambedkar himself. But the
quote was not only a loose translation
from a biography of Ambedkar, it had
been taken out of context. “The Sangh
does not have any plans for the development of Dalits,” The Telegraph quoted
Kailash Chandol, a Dalit leader, saying
after the incident. “They don’t think
about our development or the eradication of untouchability. That is why they
keep reminding us about the caste of
our saints. They have contempt for us.”
Many believe that the BJP would not
be able to hold on to the votes of the oppressed castes for long. “The BJP and
RSS always want samrasta”—harmony—“in the society, but not samaanta”—
equality, Gautam told me. “Samrasta
represents varna vyavastha, which
means they want status quo.” The OBCs
of the cow belt, who have been leaning
towards the BJP since the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the 1990s, are also
concerned that this government might
scrap reservations. Bhagwat’s demand
for a review of reservations just before
the Bihar election in 2015 gave the opposition an advantage. “The BSP-SP alliance in UP is not an alliance between
parties but an alliance between Dalits,
OBCs and minorities,” Gautam told me.
He also points towards a nascent alliance between the Muslims and Dalits.
“We have a Dalit mayor in Meerut and a
Muslim mayor from the BSP in Aligarh
and lost the Saharanpur seat by 200
votes,” Gautam said, referring to UP’s
constituencies that have sizable Muslim
The dominant castes, emboldened by
the BJP regime, have been attacking
Dalits during and after protests and
marches everywhere. The administration rarely takes action against them.
In Maharashtra, even after an FIR was
lodged against Sambhaji Bhide and
Milind Ekbote—both of whom have intimate links to the RSS—for the clashes
during the Bhima Koregaon march,
they were not arrested. Modi visited
Bhide’s house and touched his feet in
2014. After the April bandh, Dalit bastis
were attacked and Dalits in Rajasthan’s
Hindaun city have threatened to embrace Islam. Rohith Vemula’s family
has already embraced Buddhism, as
did the victims of Una and 180 Dalit
families from three villages in Uttar
Pradesh where Thakurs attacked Dalits.
The RSS dream of Hindu consolidation always runs into trouble with Dalits. In 1981, when more than a thousand
Dalits converted to Islam in protest
in Meenakshipuram, a small village
in Tamil Nadu, the RSS panicked and
activated the dormant Vishwa Hindu
Parishad to stop conversions, especially of Dalits. The VHP also led the
campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya
later. On 9 November 1989, the VHP
chose Kameshwar Chaupal, a 25-yearold Dalit man from Bihar, to lay the
foundation stone of the Ram temple.
However, the rise of the Bahujan Samaj
Party in Uttar Pradesh neutralised the
gains from the VHP’s efforts.
Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras, the
third sarsanghchalak of the RSS, actively tried to cultivate the OBCs and
Dalits in the early 1970s, and started
the Samajik Samrasta Manch in 1983
to “harmonise the Phule-Ambedkar
thought with the Hindutva philosophy.” The birth centenary year of MS
Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak
and possibly the most revered RSS ideologue and champion of Manusmriti—
the ancient text that institutionalised
the caste system—was ironically celebrated as Samrasta Varsh by the RSS in
2006. Mulchand Rana, a 64-year-old
Dalit, became vice president of the Gujarat wing of the Manch that year. After
joining at the age of 17 and working for
48 years with the RSS, he resigned in
February this year, disillusioned by the
organisation’s attitude towards caste.
“The BJP government has been
invoking Hinduism and stoking Hindutva feelings,” Rana told me. “The
upper-caste Hindus started thinking
like, ‘I am Thakur, I am Patel and the
SCs are inferior to us.’ The feeling of
being a Gujarati first has disappeared.
Till 2000, nothing adversarial had
happened, but the gap widened afterwards because of the government
invocation of Hindutva. After 2010, it
has risen to alarming levels.” When
I asked him if Modi, as an OBC, had
not taken adequate measures, he said,
“In 2008, I spoke to Modi, one to one,
when he was the CM of Gujarat. I told
him that the situation is bad and the
picture is different from what he is
being given. He said, ‘I can’t think of
only SC/STs but everybody.’ He is by
caste an OBC, but has never lived the
life of an OBC, but as an upper caste.
The SC/STs of the state never looked
at him as an OBC.” Rana said the gap
between Dalits and other Hindus has
been increasing and the RSS is turning
a blind eye to it. “I cautioned the RSS
and the BJP a lot for over the past two
years,” he told me. “For three years, I
had witnessed atrocities in 26 villages.
I have taken the responsible RSS officers along with me on these visits to
the villages to show them. There was
no response or improvement in the
The gains made by the BJP among
Dalit votwe were crucial in securing its
massive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha
elections. As the fundamental incompatibility of the party’s ideology with
Dalit interests comes to light, it seems
the two will not be travelling in the
same boat for long. s
Going South
c ratheesh kumar / the hindu
The deepening fault lines between southern states
and the Indian union / Politics
/ nilakantan rs
A child born in Uttar Pradesh is ten times more
likely to die in her first year than a child born in
Kerala. As far as the infant mortality rate is concerned, the two states are as far apart as the United States and South Sudan. The life expectancy in
Uttar Pradesh is also a good ten years lower than
that in Kerala.
Yet, in October last year, the chief minister of
Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, went to Kerala and
said that the state must take lessons from Uttar
Pradesh on providing healthcare and running
hospitals. The statement was particularly baffling considering that just a few months earlier
30 children had died in a government hospital
in Gorakhpur due to the administration’s failure
maintain a supply of oxygen.
As absurd as Adityanath’s brazenness seems,
it has a clear political context. While India’s
northern states are lagging far behind in terms of
development parameters, they enjoy much more
political power, not only because of their access
to Hindi, but also because of their larger populations. For long, the Indian north and south have
been on divergent paths. The south is developing
at a faster rate, and the north is seeing much faster population growth. These trends, if they continue, are likely to worsen the political imbalance
between the two regions. An example of this is
the recent controversy over the fifteenth Finance
Commission’s recommendations. By carrying out
population control, southern states have accrued
an advantage in terms of per capita allocation
of central funds, which these recommendations
threaten to take away. With their prominent
history of subnationalism, the southern states’
anxiety over their presence in the Indian union is
likely to grow worse.
The shift in India’s demographics over the
past few decades has been rapid. In 1961, Tamil
Nadu had a population of 33 million while present-day Madhya Pradesh had a population of 23
million. By 2011, Madhya Pradesh had overtaken
Tamil Nadu in terms of population. Similarly,
Rajasthan had a population of 20 million in 1961
while Kerala had a population of 16.9 million. In
2011, Rajasthan had a population of 68 million
compared to Kerala’s 33 million. That is, while
Kerala has not even doubled its population, Ra-
While India’s northern states are lagging far behind in terms of
development parameters, they enjoy much more political power, not
only because of their access to Hindi, but also because of their larger
populations. For long, the Indian north and south have been on divergent
paths. The south is developing at a faster rate, and the north is seeing
much faster population growth.
jasthan has more than tripled its population in
the same period.
Population growth is often exponential, especially when two societies have had a significant
difference in fertility rates for a generation. When
the fertility rate falls, the ratio of young people
falls too. There are fewer children born who in
turn have even fewer children of their own. The
opposite is true for societies with the higher fertility rates. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the
ratio of population that is under 15 years of age is
33 percent, while in Kerala’s case, it is 20 percent.
Not only will each woman in Uttar Pradesh, statistically speaking, produce more children than
her Kerala counterpart, there are more young
people as a percentage of population in Uttar
Pradesh. There are 65 million children in Uttar
Pradesh today who are under the age of 15. They
are likely to have 82 million children of their own
over the next two decades. In this time, Kerala
children of today will likely have a mere 5.5 million children of their own.
Even as the population of the northern states
shoots up, development in the region has been
relatively slow. In 1961, Tamil Nadu had a per capita income that was 25 percent higher than that
of Madhya Pradesh. By 2016, the average Tamil
Nadu citizen was more than twice as rich than an
average citizen of Madhya Pradesh. In the past 50
years, states such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka have had faster economic
growth and slower population growth, and have
experienced greater improvements in development indicators, compared to most of their northern counterparts. Improvement in one indicator
in particular, that of female literacy, correlates
with a fall in the fertility rate.
This divergence between the two regions is
unique in a federal structure. In almost all other federal structures, the place that is growing
richer will be the one to experience a higher
population growth because of economic migration—the states of Texas and California in the
United States are examples. In India, however,
high population growth is driven by high birth
rates in poorer regions, often attributed to poor
female literacy.
The phenomenon is raising several problems,
the most serious of these being the erosion of the
impact of each voter in states such as Madhya
Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The
number of parliamentary seats each state has is
frozen till 2026. Mathematically speaking, the
higher the number of people per constituency the
lower the impact each voter has. Owing to the
divergence in population growth, a voter in Tamil
Nadu currently has a 20-percent greater impact
on a Lok Sabha constituency election than his or
her counterpart in Madhya Pradesh.
Voters in northern states are going to demand
that their votes have the same power as those
of their southern counterparts. However, voters
from states or constituencies where the opposite
is true are likely to argue that the increasing
impact of their vote is a natural reward for their
governments’ successful policy implementation.
When the Delimitation Commission—a body
tasked with redrawing the boundaries of various
Lok Sabha and state assembly constituencies—
revisits the issue in 2026, a conflict between the
north and the south is inevitable.
We are already witnessing a version of the same
problem with the recent recommendations of the
fifteenth Finance Commission—a body formed to
define the financial relations between the central
and state governments. Until the thirteenth Finance Commission, the baseline for the allocation
of central funds was the 1971 census. Theoretically, therefore, those that have managed to control
their populations since 1971 would enjoy a slightMAY 2018
opposite page:
In April, the Kerala
government hosted
a meeting of the
finance ministers
of southern states
to deliberate on the
of the fifteenth
Finance Commission
that were perceived
as “unjust.”
going south · perspectives
For states as large as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the idea of a unit of
society that is bigger than they are, such as India, needs a compelling
narrative to support it. Increasingly, India, instead of selling such a
narrative to these societies that are culturally distinct and economically
prosperous, seems to be doing the opposite.
ly higher allocation on a per-capita basis. The
fourteenth Finance Commission introduced the
partial use of Census 2011 data in the allocation
formula. The fifteenth Finance Commission seeks
to use Census 2011 fully as the basis for allocation. Much like the unfreezing of the delimitation
exercise, this will erode the carefully accrued
advantage for each citizen. For the voters and citizens of southern India, this feels like punishment
for success. Northern states may think this is a
routine bureaucratic process that is both normal
and required given they have a greater number of
people to take care of.
Another aspect of the devolution of central
taxes is centrally sponsored schemes. Typically
these schemes involve building roads to villages
that lack connectivity or building houses for people who do not have houses. Most southern states,
particularly Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which happen to be two of the most urbanised large states,
already completed such public works in the 1970s
and 1980s. Thus, the money allocated to these
schemes bypasses them. There are few central
schemes that cater to urban planning, as most of
them target rural areas. If one looks at the budget
documents of various states, Karnataka, Tamil
Nadu and Kerala are three of the top five states in
terms of raising their own revenue to meet their
budget expenditure. Karnataka’s own revenues
form 49 percent of its overall expenditure while
Bihar’s own revenues account for a mere 22 percent of its spending. Thus, Kannadigas pay local
taxes to run their state over and above paying
central taxes that are possibly re-routed elsewhere.
There are several other inconveniences of being
in the Indian union. The National Food Security
Act, for instance, passed in 2013, forces states
such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala to adopt a less
generous version of their existing Public Distribution System, or PDS. Choosing against the national PDS means risking a loss of grants. The imposition of Hindi has been an issue for decades.
The size of India’s larger states and their disparate cultures complicates their presence in the
Indian union. Tamil Nadu is as large as Germany in terms of population. Karnataka is larger
than Italy. Unsurpisingly, their residents see
themselves as in-group and north Indians as outgroup. The centuries-old history of sub-nationalist movements in many of these states—the Aikya
Kerala movement or the Dravidian Movement, for
instance—bear this out. These movements may
have started out in opposition to oppression by
the dominant castes in their own states, but they
soon swapped the Brahmins out for the rulers in
For these states, the idea of a unit of society
that is bigger than they are, such as India, needs
a compelling narrative to support it. Increasingly,
India, instead of selling such a narrative to these
societies that are culturally distinct and economically prosperous, seems to be doing the opposite.
The inconvenience of this alliance makes it
imperative that India revisit several fundamental questions about its federal structure. What is
the nature of its federal union? Is it a hard union,
such as, say, the United States? Or is it a useful
coming together of disparate states with their
own complex and large societies, such as the
European Union? Or is it something in-between
or beyond these two? Do the terms of this union
need to be renegotiated? Or is the union not
worth preserving at all?
Since its inception, India has never asked
people for their consent to be governed. Even in
places where an explicit referendum on the matter was either promised or seemed warranted,
such as in Kashmir and Hyderabad, the country
never conducted one. How long can that continue? It is unnatural, if human history is any guide,
for a country of 1.3 billion to be centralised to
the level that India is aiming for and still remain
a liberal democracy, especially when there are
multiple cleavages that appear impossible to paper over. s
Love and Labour
October’s experiments with the Bollywood
romance genre / Film
/ kamayani sharma
In a scene mid-way through the movie
October, the lead character, Dan, played
by Varun Dhawan, is chided by his
friends for wasting his time looking
after a dying girl he barely knows.
What’s the point, they argue.
“Do you guys only do something if
there’s a point?” he asks.
The point, historically, of the
love-story plot in Hindi cinema has
been about the hero initiating romance,
often in regressive ways, with a goal
towards establishing a heterosexual
upper-caste couple that either lives
happily ever after or sometimes dies
together when unable to do so. Bollywood movies abound with declarations
of love, but the emotional labour and
financial stresses that may burden a
couple are usually invisible. In October,
a film about a hotel-management student who falls in love with a woman in
a coma, some of this is made visible. It
is the long, laborious act of undertaking
care that brings about romantic love,
one that remains unrequited but the
development of which is an end unto
itself. The female lead, named Shiuli,
suffers such severe brain damage that
there is little possibility of marriage or
sex, the end goals of most Bollywood
love stories.
October foregrounds a kind of masculinity, glimpsed occasionally in the
cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, that
has not been prominent in mainstream
Hindi cinema. There are only a handful of contemporary films where the
male protagonist looks after an ailing
romantic partner, such as the elderly
husbands of Waiting (2015) and OK
Jaanu (2017) or the younger ones in
Khwaahish (2003), Woh Lamhe (2006)
and U Me Aur Hum (2008). This is always justified by a pre-existing bond.
They perform care in ways that have
little to do with alleviating the suffering of the afflicted and more to do
with affirming their own masculinity—
measurable in terms of money that the
affluent male character can provide for
medical care or the aggression they can
direct at the hospital staff. This sort of
male romantic lead, so firmly rooted in
the sexist and melodramatic genre of
Bombay film, is becoming increasingly
The character of Dan is the latest in
a series of attempts in Hindi cinema to
present male protagonists coming to
terms with shifts in traditional gender
roles. As women characters onscreen
have diversified and gotten edgier, male
characters have undergone changes
too. Sadma (1983)’s Somprakash (Kamal
Hasan) is a character worth comparing
Dan with. Somprakash rescued Reshma
(Sridevi) from a brothel. In October,
Shiuli, who is Dan’s colleague, is better than him at the job and on her way
to becoming an independent career
woman. Hindi films are becoming rife
with male leads who must reconcile
with a liberal feminist discourse that is
more prevalent in the mainstream. This
takes two forms: the reversal of gender roles in middle-class lives, where
women’s careers are more lucrative or
prestigious than those of their male
partners—Bewakoofiyaan (2014), Hasee
Toh Phasee (2014), Ki and Ka (2016),
Tumhari Sulu (2017) or in the portrayal
of men who become mouthpieces for
feminist rhetoric (often in problematic
ways): Piku (2015), Pink (2016), PadMan and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017).
October is an addition to the former
category that forces Bollywood heroes
to reckon with the transformation of
intimacy and rethink heteronormative
ideas of love. That Varun Dhawan, a
commercially successful actor known
for playing the often comically macho
action hero in big budget films, was
cast in this role indicates a generational
So if not flexing their muscles or
whipping out their wallets, how do
men demonstrate love for women in
“postfeminist” Bollywood? The rich,
rakish brat of the past few decades
epitomised by Shah Rukh Khan in
Dilwale Duhaniya Le Jayenga or Aamir
Khan in Dil Chahta Hai—both of whose
characters live off family wealth—has
been replaced by the middle-class millennial who cannot afford to be swept
away by the idea of love, often because
he has chosen independence from
parental control. Dan possesses a innocent charm that used to be reserved
for female leads, a personality feature they have in the past years been
divested of because of Bollywood’s
brush with the changing conversation
around gender. Here is a guileless
hero, capable of emotional labour, his
character coded in the way heroines
have always been:, gentle, compassionate and self-sacrificing.
In the course of the film, Dan reveals
that he is happier being a caretaker
than doing paid work. Although he is
not her partner or footing any of the
medical bills, he is by her bedside all
the time, often bunking shifts, making
himself available to her family and taking note of the doctor’s updates. When
a nurse asks whether Dan is Shiuli’s
boyfriend, he is unable to define the
relationship (a staple ritual these days).
Yet some features of a romance are still
there—when he discovers that she had
asked where he was just before falling
off a building, he rushes across the city
to confirm this as she lies unconscious,
as if she were harbouring a high school
crush. In one scene, a doctor tries to
ascertain the extent of Shiuli’s memory loss by having her move her eyes
as an affirmative while responding to
her questions. As the doctor points to
each person asking if she can recognise
them, Shiuli does not identify Dan.
However, when the two are alone, she
does. Initially hurt, Dan rationalises
her earlier refusal by saying that it’s
best that she does not let on that she
knows him—imagining their relationship as an old-fashioned courtship,
where a public declaration would only
complicate matters that were best kept
But there are ways in which October
flouts the conventions of a Bollywood
love story. Movies about the middle
classes rarely show how their protagonists afford love. Romantic films pivot
around the protagonists becoming consumed with the act of being in love—
dating is often unimpeded by financial
concerns, and while money is rarely
mentioned, the couple can be seen participating in a consumerist lifestyle. In
October, these realities are emphasised
through scenes that are devoted to
capturing what tragedy looks like in its
ordinariness—how bills will be paid,
what the balance between caretaking
and life is and what sort of practical
decisions about death need to be made.
The character of Dan is the latest in a series of attempts
in Hindi cinema to present male protagonists coming
to terms with shifts in traditional gender roles. He is
portrayed in the way heroines have always been: gentle,
compassionate and self-sacrificing.
One sequence shows Dan trying to collect money to buy Shiuli’s medicines—
he withdraws cash from the ATM and
then borrows from friends vexed by
his general unavailability and lack of
contribution towards rent. At one point,
after his expulsion from the hotel-management programme necessitates that
his mother forfeit the security paid as
part of its fee, viewers have as much
cause to be worried about Dan’s downward spiral into an uncertain and insecure future as they do about Shiuli’s
The trope of long-drawn out sickness,
often terminal, has held great appeal in
the romance genre because of how it allows love to encounter death. It is often
a lazy, mawkish ploy to underscore the
fortitude and power of true love that
will persist till the very end—a doomed
romance is a nobler one. In October, too,
the possibility of impending death raises the stakes, but the woman becomes
the beloved because she demands care,
not in spite of it.
October defies the trend of faux-feminist “sex-positive” portrayals of Manic
Pixie Desi Girls in recent movies who
are wanted only for their ability to
provide sex without strings; October
argues for strings without sex. A friend
who berates Dan about his professional
negligence asks him why he is so affected by Shiuli’s condition. Dan retorts
by asking the friend why she is not as
affected as he is, why his emotional
intensity about the possible death of a
friend and colleague is regarded as an
aberration and not the norm. In a montage set in Himachal Pradesh, where
he gets a job after being fired from the
MAY 2018
Delhi hotel, we see shots of him agonising over Shiuli’s condition cross-cut
with her anguish, overlaid with a phone
conversation between him and her
mother. The montage ends with him
giving up the job and returning to the
hospital to continue devoting himself to
Shiuli’s recovery.
When Dan asks whether we should
love someone only if there is a point,
he is challenging the romantic regime
we live in today, one in which right
swipes can deliver risk-free returns.
Trite and sentimental though it can
be, October is a film responding to
its time, trying to get at the anxiety
plaguing a world of temporary hookups and low-stakes affairs. Virtual
dating, a millennial culture of easy sex
and insecure emotional connections
have all led to a casualisation of the
romantic-sexual economy. With the
guarantee of sex or union off the table,
the tale of a man who falls in love with
a woman he barely knows by nursing
her in sickness becomes appealing
in a context in which people conduct
affairs carelessly. The Cartesian conceit at the heart of today’s romantic
paradigm is that there is a mind-body
distinction: we can sleep with many
bodies without it affecting our minds
or hearts. This film presents an alternative to those representations. In a
world where the ostensibly liberated
but actually replaceable female body
is celebrated, October tries to capture
something deeper about the fantasies
of modern romance’s great deception—if all sexually available bodies
are the same, why fall in love with one
that is not even available? s
This year, The Caravan hosted the second annual edition of The Bridge: Conversations on Gender Empowerment, at the Shangri La hotel in Delhi. The event featured
women’s rights, everyday assumptions about gender and how to best promote equal-
ity. Speakers, including Swara Bhaskar, Gurmehar Kaur, Shehla Rashid, Naina Lal
Kidwai, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Brinda Karat, Mantasha Binti Rashid, Sumukhi
Suresh, Ananya Birla and Shailaja Chandra, talked about a variety of topics, such
as Bollywood’s representation problem, the dearth of women in politics and how
to make it easier to combat sexual harassment and report assault. Invariably, the
conversations were political. Swara Bhaskar criticised the ruling party for making it
women in politics face rampant abuse online. The event saw vibrant discussions on
women in rural spaces, with panels on women in panchayats and in the role of community leaders, as well as the history of women’s rights to property and inheritance.
Panelists also explored the intersection between gender and other identities, including the underrepresentation of dalit women in womens’ rights movements and the
importance of including transgender people in mainstream feminism. On the next
page is a glimpse of the animated and illuminating discussions the attendees had.
Next year, we hope you join in.
1. Paresh Nath, the editor-in-chief and publisher
of Delhi Press, delivers the opening address.
2. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights
activist, emphasised how trans women
first championed the cause of the LGTBTQ
community in India.
3. The lawyer Vrinda Grover discusses sexual
harassment at the workplace.
4. Bina Agarwal, an economist, delivers a talk on
property, inheritance and women’s rights.
5. Gurmeher Kaur, Shehla Rashid, Shilpi Tewari,
Amrita Bhinder and Swara Bhaskar on
reclaiming the idea space.
6. Women sarpanch leaders from Rajasthan
with Aruna Roy of the MKSS.
Renuka Chowdhury, Brinda Karat, Angellica Aribam,
Mahua Moitra, Sushmita Dev and Shubrastha
Moderated by Pragya Tiwari
The panel addressed both the underrepresentation
of women in politics and the gendered assumptions
women looking to enter politics must face. The
participants noted that women hold an abysmally low
in policymaking. Sanitary napkins, for example, were
deemed “luxury products” by policymakers.The panellists
said that the underrepresentation of women and its
legislativeconsequences mean a women’s reservation bill is
Swara Bhasker, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Juhi
Chaturvedi, Neeraj Ghaywan, Guneet Monga and
Alankrita Srivastava
Moderated by Deepanjana Pal
The panel thoughtfully examined Bollywood’s gender
imbalance, noting that the industry lacks both female
producers and nuanced female characters. Parvathy, a
renowned Malayali actor who made her Bollywood debut
in Qarib Qarib Singlle, discussed how obsession over
female protagonists’ virginity and purity has sinister,
controlling undertones. Parvathy also discussed how
cinema contributes to one of India’s most pressing
issues: rape culture. Neeraj Ghaywan, the director of
Masaan, explained why it is important to normalise
representations of working women in cinema. pointed out
Chowdhury and Shubrastha, for example, described how
women in politics face brutal Internet trolling. Brinda Karat
and The panel criticised attempts to censor women’s
discussed how underrepresentation of women was connected
stories, as was the case with Lipstick Under My Burkha.
to electoral reform and wealth. Given that men control most
of India’s companies and resources, Karat argued that the
a hopeful note: that women-centric narratives were
political susceptibility to corporate interests makes fair
nonetheless emerging.
Sumukhi Suresh, Aayushi Jagad and Vasu Primlani
Moderated by Sanjay Rajoura
The panellists discussed whether the “bro-culture” in the Indian comedy
community made it harder for them to thrive in it. They considered how
that audiences feel threatened by women doing comedy. Aayushi Jagad,
for example, discussed how she has received rape threats and been
harassed after releasing a YouTube video criticising the comedy group
All India Bakchod’s depiction of women. Through their discussions, the
have to endure for entering a male-dominated space.
Samreen Mashtaq, Shehla Rashid, Freny Manecksha,
Nayeema Ahmed Majoor, Mantasha Binti Rashid
During this panel, writers and activists examined how military
region such as Kashmir, and Shehla Rashid presented a fascinating account of what growing up in such an area was like.
Freny Manecksha discussed the “tourism narrative” of Kashmir, and how reporting in the region revealed to her that it was
nalised patriarchy in Kashmiri households. Taken together,
false. Mantasha Binti Rashid noted how Kashmiri women are
subjected to violence from both the Indian state and their own
communities, and Nayeema Ahmed Majoor explored inter-
rights as a whole.
Naina Lal Kidwai, Ritu Anand, Vrinda Grover,
and Shailja Chandra
Moderated by Aparna Jain
The panelists explored a
critical question: how can
organisations make work
spaces safe and conducive
for women? As Naina
Lal Kidwa noted, serious
roadblocks continue to
persist. Vrinda Grover,
who is defending one of
the women who has accused RK Pachauri of sexual harassment, talked
Swati Maliwal, Surabhi Kanga, Suruchi Suri
and Varnika Kundu
Moderated by Supriya Nair
about how institutions need to create systems that make it easier
for women to seek redress and hold men accountable. Ritu Anand
argued that attitudes about acceptable behaviour and what constitutes
harassment are changing and expressed hope that these shifting
When Raya Sarkar released a publically sourced list
of men in academia who had allegedly harassed
their students, she was opposed by a number of
are disconnected from ground realities and need to better understand
prominent feminists, initiating a nation-wide
how gender dynamics play out in the workplace.
debate on the role of “due process” in pursuit of
justice. The participants brought new insights to
this important conversation. The panellists noted
To continue the conversation, visit
that usually, institutional redress for assault
existent at worst. Swati Maliwal pointed out, for
instance, that systems designed to deal with child
sexual abuse do not function, and rampant sexual
harassment against minors goes unchecked.
Panelists noted that for minority groups such as
and that when it came to “due process,” they have
been forced to endure a persistent systemic failure.
it was a black-and-white photograph of a
crowded street, centred on a man glancing
backwards into the camera. His face sat in the
crosshairs of a computer-generated box populated
with a mobile number, a date of birth, an address
and other personal information. Superimposed
above this was a 12-digit number, with four digits
redacted: a representation of an Aadhaar number, the biometrics-backed digital identifier that
the government has looked to impose on every
resident of India. A few other faces in the crowd
were framed by boxes crowned with Aadhaar
numbers too. Above the image were a few lines
of text, one of them reading, “Welcome aboard @
On_grid team.”
The text and image were part of a tweet by India
Stack in February 2017, announcing that OnGrid
had joined a select group of its user entities. India
Stack is a set of Aadhaar-specific application programming interfaces, or APIs—code that allows
and governs communication between various programmes, as, for instance, when an app on your
phone interacts with an e-retailer’s database or
a payment gateway. In effect, India Stack’s APIs
Aadhaar’s mixing
of public risk and
private profit
dibyangshu sarkar / afp / getty images
are building blocks in the software architecture
required by many third-party entities, whether
public or private, to use Aadhaar. OnGrid, a private
company, provides background checks on employees for companies hiring blue-collar workers. It
verifies individuals’ identities using their Aadhaar
data, but also collates data from numerous other
sources to show their employment history, criminal background, and more.
India Stack had taken the tweeted image from
OnGrid’s homepage. Many were quick to call it
frightening and dystopic—an illustration of Aad-
haar’s potential use for mass surveillance. India
Stack took the image down from its Twitter feed
within hours, but OnGrid’s practices still came
in for scrutiny. “Does it mean that Aadhar, PAN,
passport etc docs for a given individual will be
linked and available on your server?” one person
tweeted. One of the company’s founders, Piyush
Peshwani, replied, “With consent, yes. The record
belongs to the Aadhaar-holder and only he/she decides what stays on it and what doesn’t.” Another
user responded, “You have removed the image and
repeated the same thing in words.”
MAY 2018
the new oil · reportage
Aadhaar was already deeply controversial at
the time the tweet appeared. The first attempt to
win legislative backing for the scheme, under the
previous, Congress-led government, failed spectacularly. In 2011, the parliament’s standing committee on finance—led by a member of the BJP,
which was then in the opposition—found Aadhaar
to be “riddled with serious lacunae and concern
areas,” and declared that it had “been conceptualized with no clarity of purpose … and is being
implemented in a directionless way with a lot of
confusion.” A retired judge who filed the first legal
challenge to Aadhaar, in 2012, told the Supreme
Court that the scheme “is a clear violation of citizens’ privacy,” and complained that the government was going ahead with the scheme despite its
rejection by the parliament. When Aadhaar finally
became part of law, with the Aadhaar Act passed
in March 2016, it was under a government headed
by the same BJP that had emphatically opposed it
earlier. The government chose the unusual route
of passing the legislation as a money bill—a route
typically reserved for bills that deal only with the
use of public funds, and which bypassed the Rajya Sabha, where the government does not have a
majority. Critics argued that the Aadhaar Act pertained to issues including civil liberties, national
security and social policy, and could not be defined
as a money bill. A Congress leader challenged the
move in the Supreme Court.
The concerns and controversies over Aadhaar
have only escalated ever since. A May 2017 report
by the Bengaluru-based think tank Centre for Internet and Society showed that the Aadhaar numbers of over 130 million people had been published
on government websites, along with their names,
bank account numbers and other personal details.
In January 2018, The Tribune published a story
of how one of the paper’s reporters gained access
to a portal with data from every Aadhaar holder
after paying a middle man just R500. Other major
leaks of Aadhaar-linked data have been surfacing
with alarming frequency. Meanwhile, there have
been multiple reports of poor people being denied
access to welfare benefits, including food aid, because of failures in authenticating their identities
using Aadhaar, whether due to network problems
or their fingerprints being worn down from old
age or manual labour. Some reports have connected such denial to starvation deaths.
A large and growing number of benefits and
services both public and private are being linked
to people’s Aadhaar numbers, and made contingent upon Aadhaar-based authentication—despite
the outcry and the pending legal challenges to
Aadhaar, as well as interim orders by the Supreme
Court against making Aadhaar mandatory for
many essential schemes and services. The gov32
ernment has made Aadhaar a requirement for
food aid, cooking-gas subsidies, mobile connections, NREGA wages, government examinations,
banking facilities, tax filings and much more.
The threat of exclusion from essential benefits
and services has spurred massive Aadhaar enrolment. The Unique Identification Authority
of India, the authority in charge of the scheme,
has enrolled over 1.2 billion of India’s 1.3 billion
people. The UIDAI has touted this as a sign of
runaway success, but critics say that India’s digital
infrastructure and security systems have failed
to keep pace, creating threats of data and identity
theft in addition to those of the denial of benefits
and services. The linking of Aadhaar to otherwise
disparate services and information systems is also
driving a massive consolidation of users’ data, and
with it the potential for mass surveillance and
profiling. Critics have pointed out how this can be
the new oil · reportage
exploited for such things as the malicious targeting of groups and individuals on ethnic or political
In all of this, OnGrid and other companies like
it stand as crucial and interested go-betweens. As
this story went to press, the Supreme Court was
hearing a case that argued Aadhaar is unconstitutional. The case clubs together dozens of legal
challenges to various aspects of the scheme that
have been filed in courts all over the country. This
January, OnGrid joined four other private parties
to intervene in the Aadhaar matter. Their petition
to the Supreme Court said that their businesses
“have developed entirely as a result of the introduction of the Aadhaar system,” and argued for
the system to continue unchanged.
These private companies are far from the only
ones that stand to benefit from, and are currently
batting for, Aadhaar. There is no fault in their profit motive and defence of their interests per se, but
there is cause for caution in instances where such
firms might have a great proximity to, and possibly influence over, the architects and operators of
the Aadhaar system, creating potential conflicts
of interest. With OnGrid, for instance, Peshwani,
the company’s co-founder, was earlier a manager
at the UIDAI. Khosla Labs, a business-incubation
and investment firm that is among the companies
that have approached the Supreme Court, has had
several executives with UIDAI histories.
Though the Supreme Court ruled in August
2017 that privacy is a fundamental right, India
has no privacy law yet. Critics of Aadhaar have
highlighted that those enrolled in the programme
currently have no recourse in cases where their
information is compromised. When data leaks
have been brought to the government’s attention,
the official response on many occasions has been
not to swiftly fix the problem, but to penalise those
who identified it, including journalists. The UIDAI
initiated criminal action against The Tribune after
the newspaper published its exposé. The Centre
for Internet and Society received several legal notices from the UIDAI following its revelations, and
reportedly also faced scrutiny of its funding by the
home ministry.
Aadhaar was originally pitched as a way to
eliminate identity fraud in the delivery of public
benefits. Today, its application far exceeds that
purpose. Nandan Nilekani, the technology billionaire and politician who was the first head of
the UIDAI and prime mover behind Aadhaar, has
said, “Data has become the new oil,” and that “if
we can restructure data to benefit every individual
and every business, then we can lead to enormous
amount of activity and economic growth.” He
has also said, “In the West, the identity business
was privatised. That’s a much more unsafe model
than when a government issues an ID.” Even as
Aadhaar is presented as a way to mobilise Indians’
data for the public good, the lines between those
who run Aadhaar and those who profit from it are
often blurry.
ongrid and khosla labs’s co-applicants in the
petition to the Supreme Court are the bicycle-sharing company Yulu, the authentication-services firm Transaction Analysts, and the Digital
Lenders Association of India, a group of financial
startups. But the list of companies working in
support of Aadhaar is much longer. The petition
states, “There are several persons and businesses
who depend on the Aadhaar system in the same
manner as the Applicants therein,” and “a society
comprising many such businesses who are dependent upon the Aadhaar system” is being formed,
hoping to show the court “the facts pertaining to
benefits and submissions on its constitutionality.”
Soon after the petition was filed, the Economic
Times reported that “a group of 50 companies
consisting of fintech firms, lending companies,
verification agencies” had formed a “Coalition for
Aadhaar.” Neither the petition nor the Economic
Times named members of the coalition beyond the
The petition states, “There are several
persons and businesses who depend on
the Aadhaar system in the same manner
as the Applicants therein,” and “a society
comprising many such businesses who are
dependent upon the Aadhaar system” is
being formed.
Saranya Gopinath, the general counsel at Khosla
Labs and the lawyer who filed the petition, told me
the purpose of the petition. “If you see the conversation right now, it is a lot of well-meaning petitioners filing the case” against the government, “talking
about Aadhaar and the implementation of it,” she
said. “As a bunch of private companies who are not
only deeply impacted by Aadhaar but who have
been seeing the effect that our work, empowered
through Aadhaar, has been able to create, we felt
that we really had a lot to add to the conversation.”
Gopinath did not disclose the membership of
the coalition. It was meant, she said, to “ensure
that we can support Aadhaar in whatever way is
required, in whatever way we think would be necessitated at that point of time.” When I asked her,
in February 2018, whether the companies in the
coalition were contributing money to the fight, she
was noncommittal. “We’re actually working that
MAY 2018
the new oil · reportage
out as we go along,” she said. “We’ll see
as and when it comes together.”
But an email sent in mid January by
Srikanth Nadhamuni, the current CEO
of Khosla Labs and a former head of
technology at the UIDAI, suggested
otherwise. Under the subject line “Aadhaar PIL update,” the email contained
a brief account of the filing of the petition, and then a paragraph about the
jonathan torgovnik / getty images
The creation of the Society has been
proceeding and more companies have
come forward to join the coalition.
Wrt financial contributions as mentioned in the last meeting, the larger
entities (PayTM, OlaCabs, Flipkart,
PhonePe, etc) as discussed in the last
meeting will be contributing Rs20
lakhs each, all the AUA/KUAs [user
agencies licensed by the UIDAI]
pating companies to cover the costs of
representation in court.”
A representative of Ola Cabs’s corporate communications team told me that
the company “has never made any commitment towards ‘Coalition for Aadhaar.’” The other companies named had
not responded to requests for comment
at the time this story went to press.
To many, lobbying by private companies in favour of Aadhaar is cause for
concern. Rachita Taneja, a part of the
Mozilla Foundation, which has been
advocating for stronger data protection
and privacy rights in the face of Aadhaar, told me, “You have companies like
Amazon that will benefit from having
more information.” With Aadhaar-enabled collation of data, she said, “they
can have access to some of users’ most
intimate details to create profiles of
users in ways that they can’t see or even
(Khosla Labs, eMudhra, Transaction
Analyst etc) will be contributing
Rs10 lakhs each. Smaller companies
will be contributing Rs2 lakhs each.
Please send your check made out to
“Coalition for Aadhaar” and mail it
to: Saranya Gopinath.
When asked about this message, Gopinath responded, “The coalition had
sought contributions from the partici34
control. That’s not a feature, it’s a bug.
It’s something that users don’t have
active consent to. Users do not know
how their information is being used,
which company has access to their information.”
Companies working with Aadhaar
are generally aware of the issue of
consent. The frequently-asked-questions section of OnGrid’s website, for
instance, says, “As per Government regTHE CARAVAN
ulations, it is mandatory to take consent
of the individual while using OnGrid
web platform or mobile platform for
verifications, for background checks
and references, and for storing his/her
data on the OnGrid platform.” It adds
that if anyone objects to their data being on the OnGrid platform, they may
ask the company to take it down. In
practice, however, obtaining meaningful consent can be more difficult than
companies assume. Srinivasa Katuri,
the head of Transaction Analysts, told
me that his company has “done each
and every transaction with authentication—consent from the customer.”
But it is a different question, he said,
“whether the customer understood the
consent or not.” In some cases, “the
citizen is sitting on the other side, and
consent is shown on this side, and it
is tick marked and then an account is
opened,” Katuri said, but the customer
“doesn’t even know what consent is.”
One example of how hazy consent
can be on Aadhaar-enabled platforms
came in late 2017. Airtel reportedly
used an Aadhaar-linked “know your
customer” system, called the e-KYC, to
open accounts for thousands of its mobile customers on the telecom giant’s
own mobile payments bank, and routed
a reported R190 crore of LPG-subsidies
away from their older bank accounts
and into these new ones. Many customers complained that they had no idea
of where their subsidy payments were
going. Airtel promised to return the
transferred sums, and was fined R2.5
crore by the UIDAI.
In the case of background-check
services, “for a poor plumber, if that
becomes the only way of getting work,
then he will give his consent, he will
install that app,” Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at IIT Delhi and a
vocal critic of Aadhaar, told me. “And
they’ll say, ‘Ok, he’s installed it with
consent.’ But actually, you’re killing all
his other options.”
Khera’s larger concern was that Aadhaar-enabled identity authentication
and background checks exemplify “the
dangerous 360-degree profiling that
we’ve been warning about.” The number of companies making a business out
of such checks, which rely on compiling
elaborate repositories of personal infor-
the new oil · reportage
“... as mentioned in the last
meeting, the larger entities
(PayTM, OlaCabs, Flipkart,
PhonePe, etc) as discussed
in the last meeting will be
contributing Rs20 lakhs
each, all the AUA/KUAs
[user agencies licensed by
the UIDAI] (Khosla Labs,
eMudhra, Transaction Analyst
etc) will be contributing Rs10
lakhs each.”
source photograph shahid tantray for the caravan
mation, is growing. Besides OnGrid, they include
firms such as TrustID, which claims to be able to
“scan through 100 million eCourt Records PAN
India, instantly,” “track & monitor social media
profiles of candidates & employees” and “instantly
assess income, salary & previous employment.”
Another such company, IDfy, claims to be “redefining the boundaries of fraud detection” by
using, in addition to Aadhaar authentication, data
extraction from government documents and other
“disparate public sources,” as well as “face match”
Khosla Labs also has an Aadhaar-enabled
authentication and verification product, called
Aadhaar Bridge. The company, like OnGrid, is
licensed by the UIDAI to access Aadhaar holders’
demographic data, with those holders’ consent. It
describes Aadhaar Bridge as “a developer friendly
API that allows organisations to easily integrate
Aadhaar into their existing applications without
the need of a separate Government license.”
Khosla Labs gets its name from Vinod Khosla,
a prominent technology investor and one of the
company’s founders. During a panel discussion in
2013 with Nadhamuni and Nilekani, who was then
the chairman of the UIDAI, Khosla said, “People
often ask me why we started Khosla Labs. And
frankly, one of the simple reasons was that there
was great talent available—I told you I love talent.
But they also knew the Aadhaar system. And I
said, ‘There’s got to be a bunch of opportunities
around Aadhaar.’ So I would highly encourage it.
And I do think it’s a really big opportunity.”
Regulatory filings for the 2016-2017 financial
year indicate that Khosla Labs gave a loan of R21
lakh to a non-governmental organisation called
the eGovernments Foundation. Gopinath told me
that it has been repaid. The foundation describes
itself as being committed to “using technology
to solve hard to crack governance challenges,”
and was established in 2003 by Nadhamuni and
Nilekani. Nadhamuni is its managing trustee.
Gopinath said that Nilekani is no longer a trustee
with the foundation, and that he “has nothing to
do with Khosla Labs.”
Besides Nadhamuni, the set of Khosla Labs employees with major UIDAI links includes Sanjay
Jain, the chief product manager for the UIDAI
from 2010 to 2012 and an entrepreneur in residence at Khosla Labs from 2012 through 2015.
Vivek Raghavan, a volunteer in biometrics at the
UIDAI between 2010 and 2013 and the organisation’s chief product manager and biometric architect from 2013 until today, was a director of Khosla
Labs until 2016 and an entrepreneur in residence
at the company for nine months starting in 2012.
Such connections between the private sector
and the UIDAI raise questions of what is sometimes called the “revolving door”—the phenomenon of individuals using experience, knowledge
and clout gained while in public service in pursuit
of profit for private companies. “There are cases
Some images modified for illustrative purposes
where you have people who have been involved
either in the construction of Aadhaar, the rollout
of Aadhaar, the design of Aadhaar, now working
in the private sector,” Nitin Pai, the director of
the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think
tank in Bengaluru, told me. Aadhaar “is the first
time where a big government project got in people
from the private sector to design this and roll this
out. … What that meant is when they went into the
government structure, the rules of hiring were unclear. … When they come out into the private secMAY 2018
five years,” the former official said. But
someone from the private sector might
have been “for the past nine years enjoying” power both inside and outside
the organisation. Sometimes, the former official said, security regulations
might be relaxed to accommodate an
insider with a conflict of interest. “See,
if you say you have a rule, apply that
rule for all or don’t apply it. You say,
‘I’m applying rules,’ and then you apply
for a few and don’t apply for a few. So
there comes the compromise. There
come the lapses.”
“In what raises questions of propriety
and conflict of interest, executives who
have worked or are working with the
Unique Identification Authority of India
(UIDAI)—the parent agency for Aadhaar—are launching companies or funding start-ups that offer Aadhaar-based
services and products for a fee,” the
Indian Express wrote in a 2017 report on
the relationship between Khosla Labs
executives and the UIDAI. The report
described how Khosla Labs’s articles of
association show that “Raghavan, Jain
and Nadhamuni were the three promoters of the company which is 99.9 per
cent owned by another Mauritius-based
company also called Khosla Labs.”
In a report on the technology-news
website The Ken, also from 2017, an
anonymous founder of a prominent
digital-payments company was quoted
saying, “Khosla Labs were the first guys
to get access to (Aadhaar) APIs. Others
would’ve jumped at that opportunity.”
Gopinath told me that approximately a hundred authentication user
agencies had already received licences
from the UIDAI before Khosla Labs.
source photographs jonathan torgovnik / getty images
tor, what are the rules governing what
they can do or cannot do in the private
sector? I think those were also not very
clear.” Pai described this as “a systemic
problem, where the Indian governmental system is not prepared and does not
have the capacity to absorb large numbers of private-sector people coming
in and working and leaving on a shortterm basis.”
A former senior official with the
UIDAI expressed strong concern about
the possibility of people without formal positions in the UIDAI exercising
influence within the organisation. The
former official was a government servant, and was deputed to work at the
UIDAI for a specific period of time. “If
I am interested to continue I cannot,
because my government role says that
my deputation cannot extend beyond
She added that the company started
its authentication service about two
and a half years after Nadhamuni, Jain
and Raghavan quit the UIDAI. “I don’t
particularly understand the conflict,”
Gopinath told me. Khosla Labs had gotten the same licence as any other user
agency, she said, and through the same
Nadhamuni and Nilekani did not
reply to emails requesting interviews.
Jain replied that he was not available to
speak before this story went to press.
In April 2018, a number of financial-technology companies were
reportedly denied access to Aadhaar-based verification services,
despite there not being any written
directive from the UIDAI to this effect.
Tanuj Bhojwani, a volunteer with the
organisation iSPIRT, which is behind
India Stack, told me he thought the
UIDAI was “just being respectful of
what is happening in the courts right
now,” in response to concerns that
there may be no legal grounds for
certain private entities to use Aadhaar-based verification services. “The
UIDAI is just waiting to understand
what it can and cannot do, and what it
should and should not do.”
In response, an appeal to the UIDAI
was circulated online, though not published. Its signatories included a representative of Khosla Labs, and Peshwani
of OnGrid. It read, “We understand that
the UIDAI, and the Aadhaar program
have come under criticism by a small
group of vocal activists. We call upon
the UIDAI to take from the criticism
that which can be used to improve their
services, ensure better consumer data
MAY 2018
protection while ignoring the noise.
… We call upon you to ensure that the
UIDAI’s services continue to be reliably
available, through a simplified process
to all.”
india stack has enormous importance
in the Aadhaar ecosystem. Its APIs
provide the primary route to using
Aadhaar for many practical applications. In effect, India Stack is the gate
to Aadhaar, and almost every third
party that wants to use Aadhaar must
go through it.
The gate to India Stack is iSPIRT—
the Indian Software Products Industry
Round Table, formed in 2013 by former
employees of NASSCOM, an industry
group for information technology and
business-process-outsourcing companies. Although iSPIRT, a non-profit
the new oil · reportage
system-architect and technology advisor at the UIDAI since its inception;
Sanjay Swamy, an early volunteer with
the UIDAI who worked on authentication and digital-payments systems for a
year; Shankar Maruwada, the UIDAI’s
head of demand-generation and marketing for two years; Sanjay Jain, the
UIDAI’s chief product manager for two
years; and Vivek Raghavan, the UIDAI’s current chief product manager and
biometric architect.
One of iSPIRT’s founders, and today
its functional head, is Sharad Sharma, a
prominent technology investor. In How
to Fix the Future, a book by the internet
entrepreneur and writer Andrew Keen,
Sharma is quoted saying that the volunteer-based, donor-funded model allows
iSPIRT to “build public digital goods
without public money.” But the model
also allows iSPIRT to escape public
scrutiny. The international watchdog
Privacy International, in a November
2017 report on financial technology in
India, wrote:
Who is building India Stack, this set
of APIs? It is being produced, ostensibly, by “volunteers”, operated by
iSPIRT (the India Software Product
Industry Round Table)—a high-powered think tank. Having India Stack
as a product produced by a group of
‘volunteers’—rather than, say, within
the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India)—has certain advantages from their point of view: they
do not have to operate transparently,
there is no requirement for them to
be subject to right to information legislation or procurement rules. Thus,
this important initiative—potentially
as important as anything coming
from government ministries—is not
subject to that degree of oversight.
jagadeesh ah / reuters
entity, describes itself as a think tank, it
also functions as an industry group for
businesses that rely on Aadhaar. Today,
iSPIRT is almost entirely devoted to
developing and promoting India Stack’s
APIs, and supporting companies who
put them to use.
While iSPIRT is not a private company, the concerns of the revolving door
apply just as much to it as to any private
firm—perhaps even more so, given
iSPIRT’s role as a crucial intermediary
for private players looking to work with
Aadhaar. On its website, iSPIRT calls
those who work for it “volunteers,” and
says they are paid “a modest Living
Wage that is capped at their previous
salary or R36L”—R36 lakh, or around
$55,000—“whichever is lower.” These
volunteers have included numerous individuals who have held prominent positions, both formal and voluntary, with
the UIDAI: Pramod Varma, the chief
the new oil · reportage
The Ken, in its 2017 report, detailed how the mobile-payment company PhonePe received “red carpet treatment from iSPIRT” in 2016 when building
an app linked to the Unified Payments Interface,
or UPI, an India Stack API that was then just being
launched. The report also described how iSPIRT
seems to have positioned itself as a “consultant to
the banks.” The organisation’s website lists Axis
Bank, Bank of Baroda, IDFC Bank and the State
Bank of India as donors. The Ken report quoted
the founder of a digital-payment startup as saying,
“You have to pitch to iSpirt so they will put you in
front of banks. They’ve done sessions on alternate
lending, UPI, payments etc., but all closed-door
events. You need to be in their good books to move
forward. As an entrepreneur, I’d prefer not to lick
them, but I have no choice but to.”
In 2016, as the Aadhaar Act was about to be enacted by parliament, Sharma was asked on a Slack
channel about what recourse there would be for
critics of Aadhaar if it could not be halted through
the legislative process. He replied, “As I said, as
architects of India Stack, we will use our influence
to get changes through. It’s still not late for that.”
The iSPIRT website states, “Since we have different types of volunteers with differing roles,
they each have different codes of conduct.” Depending on a person’s position, this can entail
disclosure of interests, and a bar on holding equity
or investing in startups they work with through
iSPIRT or that stand to benefit from their policy
advocacy. There is no detail on how these standards are enforced. I contacted Sharma to ask to
speak with him, but he did not reply.
In May 2017, Kiran Jonnalagadda, an entrepreneur and a prominent critic of Aadhaar, used
slides from an internal presentation prepared by
iSPIRT to reveal that the organisation had sanctioned a programme of trolling critics of Aadhaar
on social media using anonymous accounts. One
slide called on iSPIRT volunteers, described as
“swordsmen,” to coordinate attacks to ensure
“strength in numbers.” Jonnalagadda also outed
Sharma as the person behind an abusive troll account on Twitter. Sharma initially denied the link,
but eventually apologised. “Anonymity seemed
easier than propriety,” he tweeted, “and tired as
I was by personal events and attacks on iSPIRT’s
reputation, I slipped.”
After Sharma posted his apology, Nilekani
wrote on Twitter, “Bravo, Sharad! I am sure that
the indefatigable @sharads will take iSPIRT to
greater heights.”
nilekani, though he is no longer the chairman
of the UIDAI, still wields immense power in the
Aadhaar ecosystem, in both private and public realms. Aadhaar was his brainchild, and his
appointment to lead the project, in 2009, was fully
backed by the Congress-led government of the
day. He was listed as a mentor to iSPIRT on the
group’s website as late as in May 2017, though his
name has been removed from it since. His influence and connections as a technology investor run
deep, especially in Bengaluru, and only stand to
get deeper—last year, he backed a new $100-million venture capital fund called Fundamentum.
As a politician—Nilekani left the UIDAI in 2014 to
join the Congress, and ran a failed campaign for a
Lok Sabha seat from Bengaluru—his reach extends
all the way to the highest circles of power at the
national level.
The 2014 general election was a time of great
uncertainty for Aadhaar. The BJP’s record of opposition to Aadhaar suggested the party would
move against the programme now that it was in
power. Narendra Modi himself, just weeks before
he became prime minister, had tweeted, “On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could
answer my Qs on security threat it can pose. There
is no vision, only political gimmick.”
Nilekani’s influence and connections
as a technology investor run deep. As a
politician, his reach extends all the way to
the highest circles of power at the national
But Modi was quickly won over. The journalist
Shankkar Aiyar, in his 2017 book Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution, wrote
that the new prime minister met RS Sharma, an
officer of the Indian Administrative Service and
the UIDAI’s first director-general, soon after his
swearing in. According to Aiyar, Modi immediately asked Sharma if it was feasible to have Aadhaar-linked biometric systems to track attendance
at all central government offices. Sharma said
it was, and Modi replied, “This must be done.”
Shortly after this, Nilekani also met with Modi.
In a television interview in 2015, Nilekani said, “I
did have one meeting with him after the election,
where I told him about the value” of Aadhaar.
In February 2018, the news website The Wire
reported that Nilekani had had a strong hand in
the appointment of a new head of the National Payments Corporation of India, or NPCI, a
non-profit company created by the Reserve Bank
of India and the Indian Banks’ Association to
create and oversee infrastructure for electronic
payments across the country. The NPCI board
had voted for Uttam Nayak, a former India chief
for the credit-card company Visa, to become the
MAY 2018
the new oil · reportage
According to a government press release, the
income-tax department has contracted Larsen &
Toubro Infotech to “strengthen the non-intrusive
information driven approach for improving tax
compliance.” The company has described Project
Insight as a “comprehensive big data, analytics and
surveillance solution across India.”
group CEO, but after intervention from
the RBI it appointed Dilip Asbe—an
associate of Nilekani’s, who was then
the NPCI’s chief operating officer. According to The Wire, “Nilekani, who
serves as an ‘advisor’ to NPCI but does
not sit on the board, batted heavily in
favour of Asbe.” Someone with knowledge of the proceedings told me that
Nilekani “shadow-runs that company,”
and that the NPCI board was sick of his
India Stack’s Unified Payments Interface was rolled out, in 2016, by the
NPCI. At a conference shortly before
this, Nilekani said, “UPI’s going live
in the next four, five days. … Every day
I call up Dilip Asbe and say, ‘What’s
going on?’ And he says, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow—kal ho jayega, kal ho jayega.’”
In 2013, the RBI formed a working
group to consider the use of Aadhaar to
authenticate bank-card payments. The
group prepared a report that stated,
“Since this is a new technology that has
not been adopted globally, the concerns
related to data compromise are still
unknown. Further, the remedial action
in case of such a compromise needs to
take into account the fact that if Aadhaar of a cardholder is compromised
then the cardholder’s identity gets
compromised for life unlike in the scenario where Banks replace the compromised Card+PIN with a new Card+PIN.
Embedding Aadhaar in the payments
ecosystem will need more stringent
controls to avoid data breach at environments other than payments where
Aadhaar is used.” A senior banking
official told me that the RBI constituted
the working group because Nilekani,
then the UIDAI chief, was pushing
hard to have Aadhaar incorporated into
card transactions. When the group’s
conclusions proved to be critical of
Aadhaar, the official added, Nilekani
“managed to get the RBI to suppress
that report.” The document is not available in the RBI’s online archives.
Before the working group’s rebuff,
Nilekani had even higher hopes for
Aadhaar in banking. “He tried to get
card numbers to be replaced by putting
Aadhaar on the magstripe of every
card,” the banking official said, “with
the intention that somewhere down the
line he’ll get RBI or somebody to mandate the Aadhaar, and drop the card
number.” The official added that Dilip
Asbe was among several of Nilekani’s
associates to enthusiastically back the
idea. But Nilekani ran into tremendous
resistance from credit-card companies
and banks, which said they were “not
going to compromise any of the global
Some months after the report was
finished, the RBI informed banks that
all new bank-card infrastructure has
“to be enabled for both EMV chip and
PIN and Aadhaar (biometric validation) acceptance.” In September 2016,
it directed banks to ensure that “new
card acceptance infrastructure deployed with effect from January 1, 2017
are enabled for processing payment
transactions using Aadhaar-based
biometric authentication also.” That
December, it extended “the time for deployment of Aadhaar-enabled devices
till June 30, 2017.” There have been no
further instructions on this so far.
The person with knowledge of NPCI
proceedings said that when Nilekani,
as the head of the UIDAI, was working
as a public servant under the previous
government, “there were checks and
balances for him, because it was quite a
fragmented government. In the current
government, he’s just got a free run. So
somebody in the government believes
that this idea is so great, and they’ve
just virtually given him the reins to run
and hire and fire and do what he wants
at the moment. Everybody knows it,
but nobody wants to have the courage
to speak up, because the government is
seen as backing him.”
Philanthropic contributions by
Nilekani’s wife, Rohini, also raise concerns of potential clashes of interest.
(Incidentally, several years before the
Aadhaar project began, the Nilekanis
established an initiative in Bengaluru
called the Adhar Trust.) Rohini has
donated to the Vidhi Centre for Legal
Policy, a Delhi-based think tank that
drafted the Aadhaar Act. The centre’s
director, Arghya Sengupta, appeared
on behalf of the government in the
Supreme Court in 2017 to defend its
ultimately failed proposition that the
constitution does not grant citizens a
fundamental right to privacy. Sengupta
now sits on the Srikrishna Committee,
formed by the ministry of information
technology in the wake of the Supreme
Court’s affirmation of a fundamental
right to privacy, that had been tasked
with framing a data-privacy law. The
UIDAI’s current CEO, the civil servant
Ajay Bhushan Pandey, is also on the
In November 2017, a group of citizens
that included a retired chief justice of
the Delhi High Court, a former state
governor, senior advocates and former
university vice-chancellors, wrote a
letter of concern to BN Srikrishna, a
retired Supreme Court justice and the
head of the committee. “Most members
on the current committee have in the
past voiced or echoed views that seem
to support Aadhaar, the brand created
by the UIDAI,” they noted. “Some have
even taken stands in the Supreme Court
to challenge the fundamental right to
privacy. A committee created to look at
a fundamental issue which will impact
this country needs to be balanced and
cannot be biased towards one position,
particularly when there might be conflicts of interest.”
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy did
not respond to an emailed questionnaire.
in the television interview where he
spoke about his meeting with Modi
the new oil · reportage
soon after the 2014 general election, Nilekani
suggested that he did not have to do much to convince the prime minister to back Aadhaar. Modi,
Nilekani said, “had already understood the value
as the chief minister of Gujarat.”
In 2011, as his government was overseeing the
early implementation of Aadhaar in Gujarat, Modi
convened a council to design a State Resident Data
Hub, or SRDH—a repository of personal data on
all state residents. The database included data required for Aadhaar—held in the UIDAI’s Central
Identities Data Repository, or CIDR—but also,
according to Shankar Aiyar’s Aadhaar, additional
information such as voter-card numbers, ration-card numbers, disability records and unique
household numbers. This data was gathered under
KYR Plus—Know Your Resident Plus—a system by
which the UIDAI allowed states to ask for more
information than is mandated for the creation of
an Aadhaar number in the course of the enrolment
Aiyar’s book describes the UIDAI’s working
philosophy. “The core team concurred that the
concepts, design and executing structure would
be thought through in-house,” he writes, but “execution, as far as possible, would be outsourced,
to leverage competitive market dynamics which
could be incentivised. In short, the design template was ‘in-house brains, outside limbs.’” This
model, when applied to the enrolment process,
meant that the UIDAI delegated enrolment work
to registrars—mostly state governments, but also
public-sector banks and some other private firms—
which further delegated it to tens of thousands of
private contractors.
SRDHs now exist in multiple states. In response
to legal challenges, the government has told the
Supreme Court, “A user department of the government, or agency will have information pertaining
only to its own domain and will never have or will
not be able to build a 360 degree view of any of its
customers or beneficiaries.” But in a piece on
SRDHs, Anand Venkatanarayanan, a technology professional, writer and prominent critic of
Aadhaar, has shown that the language used by
state governments to describe SRDHs casts doubt
on this claim. For instance, according to an official presentation, Andhra Pradesh’s SRDH aims
at “Getting a 360-degree view of Citizens” by
linking data on health, education, employment,
public safety and more from almost every government-run scheme, and can also geolocate Aadhaar-holding residents. An official presentation on
Haryana’s SRDH described it as a “unified, central
system” where “all data” is “inter-linked,” and said
the database could be integrated with mapping
technology to provide “updates in the citizen’s
In an interview in 2009, in Aadhaar’s early
days, the former Intelligence Bureau director Ajit
Doval, who is now the National Security Advisor,
said that the identification project “was intended
to wash out the aliens and unauthorised people. …
With this system, people can be located anywhere
because all databases will be connected.” But,
he added, “it is being projected as more development-oriented, lest it ruffle any feathers. People
would be unwilling to give up their right to privacy.”
The government has been secretive about
SRDHs. Venkatanarayanan told me that numerous
documents on them that were earlier accessible on
the UIDAI website, including a 2012 strategy document, have been taken down. Rakesh Dwivedi, a
senior advocate representing the state of Gujarat
in Aadhaar hearings, told the Supreme Court in
February 2018 that the SRDHs were projects from
the time of the previous national government,
and that all biometric data in Gujarat’s SRDH
was destroyed shortly after the Aadhaar Act was
passed in 2016. A report on SRDHs in the Hindustan Times noted that the UIDAI “has consistently
maintained that it is the sole custodian of citizen
data collected during the Aadhaar enrolment process. Dwivedi’s statement in court reveals this was
not always the case.”
The report also revealed that across the country,
“Administrators and police departments are using
individual Aadhaar numbers to consolidate citizen data scattered across disparate government
departments, allowing for the creation of detailed
personal databases.” It described the TSCOP—an
application that allows police constables in Telangana to see detailed personal information about
the state’s residents. Six “state-level IT administrators and programmers” told the Hindustan
Times that the TSCOP and Gujarat’s SRDH are
“based on the same principle—of using Aadhaar
as a common identifier to integrate previously discrete data silos.”
In April 2018, a security researcher pointed to
a new data leak on a government website, which
exposed an Aadhaar-based database that listed
individuals’ religion and caste alongside other personal data.
The government has involved private firms in
efforts to consolidate data using Aadhaar. The
income-tax department has been running Project
Insight, an effort to gather and analyse data, including from individuals’ social-media profiles, in
order to identify tax evaders—for instance, by flagging discrepancies between a person’s declared
income and the level of wealth implied by her lifestyle. According to a government press release, the
department has contracted the information-technology company Larsen & Toubro Infotech to
MAY 2018
“strengthen the non-intrusive information driven
approach for improving tax compliance.” The
company has described Project Insight as a “comprehensive big data, analytics and surveillance
solution across India.”
(The government has brought in private parties
for other Aadhaar-related work as well. One of the
three contractors the UIDAI signed on to guard
against duplicate biometrics and identities in the
Aadhaar system was L1 Identity Solutions, a company that has since been absorbed by the defence
multinational Safran. The agreement between the
UIDAI and L1 Identity Solutions allows the contractor to “collect, use, transfer, store or otherwise
process … information that pertains to specific
individuals and can be linked to them.” Critics
have pointed out that such sharing of data violates
provisions in the Aadhaar Act.)
The multinational accounting firm Ernst &
Young has been brought in as a consultant on Project Insight. The cover feature in the December
2017 issue of Tax Insights, a magazine published
by Ernst & Young, was an interview with Arbind
The contract indicates that the UIDAI
should “minimize or avoid free services to
the extent possible.” It suggests services
for which “CIDR based identity verification
could be valuable.”
Modi, a special secretary of the Central Board
of Direct Taxes, the statutory body overseeing
Project Insight. He told the magazine that Project
Insight’s objective “is to amalgamate the various
information that comes into a single database,”
and to “create a 360-degree profile of the taxpayer.” He also credited Aadhaar for much of what
Project Insight is able to do.
A former employee of Project Insight spoke
to me about its inner workings. “They told me,
quite casually, that, ‘Ok, you’re going to be going
through everyone’s social-media platforms, integrating various online identities that you might
have, your digital footprints,’” he recalled. “So I
did ask them, ‘Isn’t that a bit of an invasion of privacy?’ They said, ‘No, if you’re an honest person
you have nothing to worry about.’”
Apar Gupta, one of the lawyers for the petitioners taking issue with Aadhaar in the Supreme
Court, told me that “dredging a social media account is a clear violation of privacy” as defined by
the apex court.
Project Insight’s cavalier attitude extended to
security as well. “Generally when you’re working
on these projects, you have a secure network,” the
former employee said. “We weren’t provided that.”
Instead, workers got online via USB devices and
mobile data packs, regular wireless hotspots, or
any other way they could.
“I’m pretty sure there was some corruption
involved in the project,” the former employee
added, because “we had ghost employees”—people
registered and paid as employees, but who rarely,
or never, showed up. “So, the way these companies work is you tell them, ‘Ok, you will have five
of my dedicated employees—these are the people
who will be working on the project.’ Now, you’re
charging the client for each of them. But that
doesn’t mean that they keep all the people there.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Piyush Peshwani, the OnGrid co-founder, worked at Ernst
& Young between January 2013 and August 2015,
first as a manager and then as a senior manager.
From August 2010 until he joined Ernst & Young,
Peshwani was a manager at the UIDAI, where
he helped oversee the creation of SRDHs. He has
posted repeatedly on an open Google group about
SRDHs, providing advice on how to use them and
sometimes sharing key documents. The minutes
of a meeting at the department of electronics and
information technology in August 2012, released
after an RTI application, show that Peshwani delivered a presentation that touched on “seeding of
Aadhaar in databases” and “State Resident Data
Hub (SRDH) and its use in Seeding and Service
Delivery.” Despite messages asking for interviews,
neither Peshwani nor Vineet Bansal, his partner in
founding OnGrid, responded to me.
Venkatanarayanan drew a connection between
Peshwani’s work for the UIDAI and the work he
is now doing with OnGrid. “OnGrid is probably a
much-evolved version of SRDH, in terms of architecture,” he told me. “You have a master database,
and you have a lot of ancillary databases which
were not originally Aadhaar-seeded, and you can
just keep seeding them and you can keep building
ernst & young’s involvement with Aadhaar-related projects goes back to 2010, when the UIDAI
signed it on as a consultant to help devise “strategy, business models, business cases, and potential revenue streams for CIDR.” The consulting
contract, made public after a Right to Information
application, states, “The revenue model should
strike a balance between the objectives of social
inclusion/welfare versus commercial sustainability of the CIDR. … To catalyze uptake, target those
customer segments which are at a high level of
maturity to use CIDR services.”
The contract also indicates that the UIDAI
should “minimize or avoid free services to the
extent possible.” It suggests services for which
“CIDR based identity verification could be valu-
source photographs by mansi thapliyal / reuters; shahid tantray for the caravan
the new oil · reportage
able”: “attendance of entrance exams,”
“application for gas connection,” “issuance of digital signatures,” “purchase/
transfer of property,” “opening of bank
account,” “ATM Cash withdrawal,” “issue of credit card,” “obtaining mobile
phone connection,” “airline check-in”
and “check-in to hotels.”
The contract suggests that, even in its
early days, the UIDAI envisioned a role
for Aadhaar that extended into profitability, and was willing to promote an
extensive flow of data between the public and private sectors. This part of the
UIDAI’s vision was not acknowledged
in any official public communication.
Instead, the UIDAI and the government pitched Aadhaar as an initiative
for improving public welfare—initially
as a way to reduce fraud and losses in
the public distribution system for food
rations, and then as a way of facilitating
financial inclusion and access to welfare schemes.
The UIDAI’s strategy overview, published in 2010, opens with, “In India, an
inability to prove identity is one of the
biggest barriers preventing the poor
from accessing benefits and subsidies.”
The five companies’ submission to the
Supreme Court uses vocabulary typical of the UIDAI’s public pitch. “By
providing a reliable proof of identity to
sections of society that did not have the
ability to get formal identification,” it
reads, “the Aadhaar system has paved
the way for these persons and their
businesses to have access to cost effective and non-predatory lending channels even in remote locations and for
small loan requirements.”
The computer scientist and entrepreneur Viral Shah was a manager of financial inclusion at the UIDAI between
2010 and 2012. He designed the e-KYC
system, which shares individuals’ demographic details during the process
of Aadhaar-based identity verification.
Now packaged as an India Stack API,
e-KYC has become a mainstay of the
work of companies such as OnGrid
and Khosla Labs. The e-KYC process
MAY 2018
“made it possible for people who were
unbanked to get a bank account, people
who could not get a SIM card to get a
SIM card,” Shah said. “At some level it
was allowing people to be seen by the
government who perhaps otherwise
missed out before.”
One of Aadhaar’s core functions is
basic authentication, which responds
to verification requests with a simple
“yes” or “no” about whether an individual’s biometrics or phone numbers
match those tied to their Aadhaar
number. The e-KYC feature was an
extension of this basic function, and
was not always part of the UIDAI’s
plans. Shah told me that even Nilekani
was at first sceptical about creating
it. Even after he was convinced of its
utility, others at the UIDAI were not.
The former senior UIDAI official told
me that before e-KYC was introduced,
“citizens felt protected” from their data
being compromised, because they knew
that “information doesn’t go out—I am
proven only by ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” The e-KYC
the new oil · reportage
system, the former official said, “goes against our
principle of the concept”—of minimum information flowing out from the Aadhaar database.
There are many who question Aadhaar’s actual
impact on financial inclusion. Parul Agarwal, who
studies the topic for a non-profit research organisation, told me there has been an upsurge in financial inclusion in India in recent years, “but I don’t
think Aadhaar is the reason.” Instead, she linked
the phenomenon “to various kinds of interventions
that the government and RBI have introduced”—
such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana,
which has relaxed the minimum deposit limits
and documentary requirements for opening bank
accounts. As for fintech companies of the kind
included in the Supreme Court petition, “None of
them are at scale, and the consumer and financial
behaviour of low-income households, particularly
rural households, is very difficult to understand,”
she said. “Fintechs do not really have the expertise
to approach it.”
Kshitija Joshi, a professor at the Indian Institute
of Sciences in Bengaluru who has studied financial inclusion in rural Karnataka, told me that
Aadhaar-enabled financial inclusion “is clearly
not happening.” Poor people are being turned
away from formal credit not because of the costs
of verifying their identities and personal details,
Joshi explained, but because banks do not offer
the kinds of products they need—such as personal
loans “to tide over their temporary difficulties.”
She emphasised the importance of looking at the
“demand side” of the problem—the perspectives of
rural Indians, and their habits in using financial
products—rather than the “supply side”—the perspectives of the companies and entities involved in
providing those products.
But, Joshi added, she had no issue with Aadhaar’s application regarding financial inclusion.
“I have an issue with it being used for things like
PDS”—the public distribution system—“where
people are dying because their fingerprints don’t
Even before Aadhaar enrolments began, in September 2010, the UIDAI had reason to expect that
fingerprint authentication would be difficult in the
Indian context. In a white paper published around
a year before that milestone, a company that provided the UIDAI with biometric scanners detailed
how fingerprints “are susceptible to noisy or bad
data, such as inability of a scanner to read dirty
fingerprints clearly. People above 60 years and
young children below 12 years may have difficulty
enrolling in a fingerprinting system, due to their
faded prints or underdeveloped fingerprint ridges.” The paper estimated that while approximately
five percent of any given population in the world
has “unreadable fingerprints,” in India, “experi44
ence has shown that the failure to enroll is as high
as 15% due to the prevalence of a huge population
dependent on manual labor.”
Sanjay Swamy, the former UIDAI volunteer who
is now with iSPIRT, said about authentication
failures, “I don’t think it was expected to be as bad
as it has ended up being, otherwise we would have
probably done something about it.” Iris authentication is much more foolproof, he told me, but the
“iris camera, it has really not taken off” because
“people actually don’t like the iris experience.”
Still, Swamy said, Aadhaar meant a massive improvement on the previous status quo in the PDS
system, where massive quantities of subsidised
food were siphoned off due to fraud and a lack of
public accountability.
This claim, too, has its sceptics. Reetika Khera,
who has written extensively on Aadhaar’s effects
in rural India, wrote in a 2017 paper that welfare
fraud can be categorised into three broad groups:
eligibility fraud, quantity fraud and identity fraud.
Eligibility fraud, she wrote, involves “persons
who do not meet the eligibility criteria managing
to get themselves included” in welfare schemes.
Quantity fraud “takes the form of eligible persons
receiving less than their entitlements, e.g. under-selling in the PDS (people are forced to sign
off on more than what they actually get).” And
identity fraud involves “cases where one person’s
benefits are claimed fraudulently by another.”
Aadhaar—and, more broadly, biometric authentication—”can help eliminate identity fraud,” Khera
wrote, “but has a very limited role, if any, in reducing quantity fraud or eligibility fraud. There is
limited evidence on the magnitude of each type of
fraud, but whatever evidence is available suggests
that quantity fraud is the bigger problem. Therefore, contrary to the government’s understanding,
the new oil · reportage
Aadhaar can only play a marginal role in reducing
“We’ve been saying from the beginning that we
have no reliable estimates of identity fraud, we
have estimates of quantity fraud,” Khera told me.
“So, if you believe that identity fraud is a big problem, then you give us the evidence. That, they’ve
never done.”
“There is very little corruption that exists between the ration shop and the consumer, which
is the last mile,” R Ramakumar, an economics
professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social
Sciences who has written extensively on Aadhaar,
told me. “The corruption is, the grain never reaches the ration shop, it is diverted somewhere in
between.” Reshma, an organiser for the national
shahid tantray for the caravan
people who had already received Aadhaars only
219,000—a tiny 0.03 percent—had done so through
the introducer system.
“I remember us discussing the introducer system in detail because we thought there would be
lots of people,” Viral Shah said. “There were cases
with us like homeless people, beggars, people who
are in orphanages. We just thought that we would
need a sophisticated introducer system to make it
happen, but I guess it wasn’t really needed.”
Shah continued, “There are people who claim
that Aadhaar’s brought about new forms of exclusion. Probably it’s true.” With a population of over
a billion people, “the effect of a small percentage
error is magnified, so I think the concerns are real
and the authority”—the UIDAI—“should be made
accountable to it through the law.”
Right to Food movement, told me that relying on
Aadhaar to curb fraud was further burdening the
poor when those siphoning away public goods are
more often the wealthy. “It’s not the poor people.
… It is the officials who are doing it,” she said.
“They are the culprit—you please handle them,
and don’t deny people to get rations.” The Aadhaar
Act, she continued, “states that for the elderly people, for the women, for migrant workers, for unorganised workers, children, they will take special
measures,” yet “no special measures have been
taken. Rather, their rights have been taken away.”
Even Aadhaar’s purpose of providing a reliable
form of identification to people who could not
otherwise get it seems to not have been borne out.
The UIDAI devised two paths to Aadhaar enrolment. People with existing identification documents had to submit copies of two accepted forms
of identification. Those without them could use
the “introducer system,” where a person with an
established identity could vouch for theirs. An RTI
application in 2015 revealed that of the 835 million
an aadhaar number “is not sensitive data,”
Sanjay Swamy told me when I brought up the
possibilities of Aadhaar-related fraud. “I’ll tell
you my Aadhaar number—you can print it in the
magazine. … It’s like people knowing your phone
number. A few people can spam you with a few
things.” He insisted that “the system does not
make you vulnerable in any way. Do not worry, get
over it.”
Srinivas Kodali, one of the authors of the Centre
for Internet and Society report on the massive leak
of Aadhaar numbers and linked data, disagreed.
“You have the Aadhaar number, you have the
bank account number, and there are also phone
numbers,” he told me. “All somebody needs to do is
initiate a transaction, give a call to the guy saying,
‘Look, I’m calling from the bank … can you just
give us the OTP we sent you?’”
Samir Kelekar, a security professional who has
submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court on
the Aadhaar matter, told me that even the premise
of using “biometric, as a password, is a disaster,
because you cannot change it. If I got your password today you can just call and change your password. … The moment biometric is compromised,
you cannot use it.”
“In security, you don’t try to make it impossible
to compromise the system, you just try to make it
expensive to compromise the system,” a noted security researcher told me. “To make a fake smartcard, you need a skimmer, you need a machine to
break the cryptography—you need a powerful machine to break the cryptography—you need another machine to print the smart-card.” But “with a
fingerprint, you just need a dollar—glue and wax—
and you can make a gummy finger. Even though it
is more sophisticated technology, the cost of the
attack is very cheap.”
“The fact is that there is no bug-reporting
mechanism to report any security loopholes to
MAY 2018
the new oil · reportage
the UIDAI,” Kodali said. “And we have
been asking UIDAI to get one for a really long time.” He added that he had
informed the UIDAI months in advance
about the leaks described in the Centre
for Internet and Society report, but he
never heard back and the leaks were
not addressed until after the report was
Anand Venkatanarayanan, the technology professional and Aadhaar critic,
told me that when he and some others
started reporting security issues to the
UIDAI in 2017, the authority began
taking down certain documents from
its website. So he and his associates
decided to save copies of the UIDAI
website each day and monitor it for
changes. At one point, the site shrank
drastically, from 140 gigabytes to 120
gigabytes in size. When they compared
it to older versions to see which documents were removed, they found that
the UIDAI “gave us a priority list.” The
group began relaying details of Aadhaar’s security flaws to petitioners with
cases before the Supreme Court, “just
coming from all those 20 GB deleted
In August 2017, in response to a
string of tweets on security vulnerabilities in Aadhaar-related apps, Ajay
Bhushan Pandey, the CEO of the UIDAI, responded, “UIDAI is working on a
policy to enable security experts to report issues in a legal and safe manner.”
No such policy has materialised yet.
Pandey did not respond to an interview
There have been numerous reports of
Aadhaar-linked scams already—including one that involves an app reliant on
India Stack’s Unified Payments Interface, which has stumped law enforcement agencies. Police in Uttar Pradesh
have uncovered an underground ring
that was creating fake Aadhaar cards
based on bogus identities, reportedly by
using artificial fingerprints and bypassing requirements for iris scans.
The government has informed the
parliament that around 50,000 enrolment agencies have been blacklisted for
dishonest behaviour since the Aadhaar
project started. In February 2018, the
UIDAI refused to re-authorise CSC
e-Governance Services India Limited,
an entity of the ministry of information
In August 2017, the CEO of the UIDAI tweeted,
“UIDAI is working on a policy to enable security
experts to report issues in a legal and safe
manner.” No such policy has materialised yet.
technology that was earlier running enrolment centres, after what it described
as an “enormous number of complaints
of corruption and enrolment process
violations against Aadhaar enrolment/
Update centres.” A newsletter issued by
CSC that month said the company was
responsible for almost 270 million enrolments—about a fifth of all Aadhaar
enrolments to date.
Rakesh Goyal, who led security
audits of 25 authentication agencies
licensed by the UIDAI, has submitted
an affidavit to the Supreme Court that
states, “I observed that in some cases
the entities being audited were storing
biometric data,” which “can potentially
be used by these entities or hacked/
leaked from these entities without
any knowledge of UIDAI.” In a paper
appended to the affidavit, he wrote, “I
have no idea about the security posture
of Aadhaar CIDR. Hypothesis cannot
be ruled out that if such basic vulnerabilities exist in authentication ecosystem, there may be some vulnerabilities
in data storage system, as it’s security is
managed using the same set of knowledge base.”
“A great amount of care was taken
in the design of the internal systems at
UIDAI, so all the data is encrypted and
stored, to my knowledge at least,” Shah
said. But “some of the things—like the
website, or app-related things—might
have been done later, because those
portals did not exist while I was at
UIDAI. I know that they’ve come in
much later, and they were probably
devised with a lesser amount of care,
perhaps. But I don’t think that should
be taken as a sign that everything under
the hood is rotten.” He argued that the
government should “appoint an independent auditor, to look at security.”
The former UIDAI official explained that, sometimes, “senior officers go and announce, ‘We are coming
up with an app to give the citizens the
ease of getting their Aadhaar.’” Then
“there is a pressure built on the deTHE CARAVAN
veloping team, that they have to bring
out the app.” So “they will take three
months to build the app,” but “will
give not even three hours” to test it for
security flaws.
Subhashis Banerjee, a professor of
computer science at Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology who has written
on Aadhaar and data security, suggested that Aadhaar’s access-control
systems need to be overhauled so that
personal data can be accessed, “programmatically, only in certain ways,
and you should have to provide an authorisation, a check by a third party”—
that is, Aadhaar should have an independent regulator. Any programme that
wants to access the database, he added,
“should be able to prove that I am looking at this data, with this authorisation.
And this chain of events should be recorded by the regulatory authority, in a
tamper-proof way.”
But many critics of Aadhaar insist
that, in light of all the risks, the only
safe way forward is to dismantle the
Aadhaar system completely. The UIDAI database “contains all manner of
things, all manner of information about
people,” Usha Ramanathan, a senior
advocate and a prominent Aadhaar
critic, told me. “It makes people very
vulnerable, not only to breaks into the
database per se, but also because of
various kinds of links that have been
established through seeding it in different databases.” The database, she said,
“plainly has to go.”
That is an option that Aadhaar’s originators refuse to countenance. In January, after the news of the major data
breach reported by The Tribune ignited
a scandal and prompted criminal action
from the UIDAI, Nilekani told a newspaper that there was an “orchestrated
campaign to see how Aadhaar can be
maligned.” He added, “If you are just
taking a negative view, and not a constructive view, then you also have other
reactions. I think everybody has to accept Aadhaar is here to stay.” s
iberal Arts programmes are
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“critical thinking,
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differentiate facts from
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she says that “in India,
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are uncomfortable, it
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to produce stable
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to move with the times.”
What Qandeel Baloch left behind
On 15 July 2016, Fouzia Azeem, better known as Qandeel
Baloch, was found murdered in her parents’ home in
Multan, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Her brother,
Waseem, confessed to drugging and then strangling her,
and said that she had sullied the family’s honour. Such
“honour killings” are prevalent in Pakistan, where they are
a brutal method to punish behaviour that is deemed socially
Born to an underprivileged family, Qandeel shot to fame
on social media after her audition for Pakistan Idol went viral on the internet. Her posts and appearances on television
celebrated a playful, risqué sexuality. This brought her love
and admiration as well as intense vitriol. Over time, she became a frequent commentator on the position of women in
Pakistani society. A few weeks before she was murdered, she
met the senior cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi in a hotel room. Her
selfies with him took the internet by storm and resulted in
Qavi’s suspension from one of Pakistan’s religious councils.
Qandeel started receiving death threats soon afterwards,
and although she asked for police protection, it never came.
akhtar soomro / reuters
MAY 2018
death of a star · excerpt
previous page:
The death of
Qandeel, loved and
reviled for the way
she asserted her
sexuality, sparked
protests and
outrage in Pakistan.
on 17 july, a day after Qandeel’s body was found,
her brother Waseem was arrested. According to
many reports, he made no effort to hide and was
spotted riding around on his motorbike in Shah
Sadar Din’s main market in Dera Ghazi Khan District the morning after he fled Multan. City Police
Officer Akram promptly held a press conference.
He wanted to let the public know that the police
had been searching for Qandeel’s brother Waseem.
The murder, he explained “was probably done on
the basis of honour.”
He announced, first in Urdu and then in English:
“And now I would like to tell you that we have arrested Waseem ... He has confessed to the crime.” He
asked someone to bring Waseem into the room. “I’ve
called for Waseem to come here now,” he told the
journalists. “So you can have an interview with him.”
A purple striped cloth had been thrown over
Waseem’s head and shoulders. As he walked in,
CPO Akram repeated, “This is an honour-based
murder.” He emphasised that Waseem had been
apprehended so quickly because the police had
used their “technical and operational teams and all
the resources possible” in Dera Ghazi Khan. The
forensic samples and autopsy report would also be
rushed through a laboratory in Lahore, he said. Qandeel’s body had been found on Saturday morning,
and CPO Akram promised to have forensic results
by Monday. For a third time, he said Waseem
had choked and strangled Qandeel because of
“ghairat”—honour. The only question that remained
in the investigation, he seemed to imply, was the
extent to which Waseem’s “friends” had been
involved in the murder. Even though Waseem had
yet to be fully interrogated, the police had no doubt
about his motive.
The journalists requested that the police remove
the hood covering Waseem’s face and CPO Akram
obliged. Every camera in the room zoomed in on
him. A dark, slender man, Waseem wore a pale blue
salwar kameez with the sleeves rolled up. He stared
nonchalantly at the room. His curly hair, long
enough to cover the tops of his ears, was slightly
tousled after the purple cloth covering his face was
removed. He was handcuffed.
“I would like to ask all of you, my friends, to ask
him questions in a line, so that everyone’s questions
can be answered,” CPO Akram requested.
A few reporters rushed forward to position the
microphones away from the CPO and as close to
Waseem as possible. The CPO handed Waseem one
of the microphones and he cradled it between his
bound hands.
“Yes, sir, what did you want to say?” Waseem
asked one the reporters, in a thin, reedy voice.
“What’s your name?” a reporter asked.
“Muhammad Waseem.”
“What is your mother’s name?”
“I don’t know my mother’s name.”
“Why did you do this to Qandeel?”
The confession was broadcast live by every channel that had a reporter in the room. “The reason
is the way she was coming on Facebook,” Waseem
replied. “Us Baloch people cannot tolerate this.”
The reporters pointed out that his sister had been
putting photographs and videos on Facebook for six
asim tanvee / ap
asim tanvee / ap
this spread:
brother, Waseem
Azeem, appeared
remorseless when
he confessed to
murdering his sister
in their family home
in Multan.
death of a star · excerpt
or seven years. Why had Waseem been
angered by them now?
“There were lots of other problems,
okay,” Waseem whined. “The problem
with the maulvi. The media came to our
house. That hadn’t happened before.
She made it a problem and so I did what
I did.”
CPO Akram helped him out. “So apparently what he is trying to say is that
ever since she came in the limelight
more and more, he felt pressure to do
Waseem said he acted alone. No one
in his family had known about his plan.
“How did you kill her?” a reporter called out. “Can you describe it?”
Waseem nodded towards CPO Akram.
“I did it the way sir described it.”
When asked to elaborate, he explained, “I gave her a tablet and then I
strangled her.”
“Are you ashamed?”
“No,” Waseem said, sticking out his
chin. “I have no shame. I am Baloch.”
It was a slap in the face to anyone
who said he and his sister were not
Baloch. Had he not shown the kind of
honour and self-respect that the Baloch
were proud of?
Attiya Jaffrey—an investigator from
the Multan police who was in charge
of Qandeel’s case—cannot forget how
cool and relaxed Waseem remained
throughout the investigation. During
his polygraph test, Waseem told police
officials he had given his parents and
his sister sleeping tablets in their milk
the night before the murder. On 19
July, the regional police officer Sultan
Azam Temouri told the media Waseem
had confessed that “the modern lifestyle adopted by Qandeel came under
discussion with other siblings many a
time and they were all against it.” His
brother Arif, who lived in Saudi Arabia,
MAY 2018
asked him to do something about their
shameful sister. Their cousin, Haq
Nawaz, a man who had been picked up
several times for petty criminal cases,
could help him out, Arif suggested. By
26 July, Haq Nawaz had turned himself
in to the police in Dera Ghazi Khan. But
Attiya says she could never find proof of
the conversation between Waseem and
Arif. When Arif would call his brother,
he would do so online. There were no
phone records, she says, and by the
time she finally found a phone number
for him, it had been turned off.
On 18 July, a news report in the
Express Tribune quoted Waseem as
saying, “I made up my mind to kill
(Qandeel) when her controversial video
with Mufti Abdul Qavi went viral on
social media … I had made up my mind
that day, and I was waiting for my sister
to come home to Dera Ghazi Khan or
nearby Multan.”
death of a star · excerpt
Attiya says she was eager to find
some link, some shred of evidence connecting Waseem’s actions with Mufti
Abdul Qavi and his humiliation after
the video of his meeting with Qandeel
went viral. “I don’t like Mufti Qavi,”
she says bluntly. “But I could never find
any connection between him and the
brothers. He came for interrogation
every single time we asked. He answered all our questions. He gave us his
phone willingly. There were no calls to
Waseem. Not a single one. I called any
number that had called his phone and
then Qandeel’s phone.” The numbers
belonged to reporters, who would call
Qandeel and then Mufti Qavi to get a
quote or an interview about their meeting in the hotel room in June 2016.
But there are some people in Multan who whisper that Attiya is not as
efficient as she seems. In the rambling
warren of lanes near the city’s district
and session court, lawyers huddle
together in a small courtyard to discuss
the case. A man who claims to have
been closely involved with the investigation and the court case says that
Attiya deliberately left information
out of her investigation report. “She
has done nothing,” he says with scorn.
“That bitch has done nothing. She has
only made things worse.” The police
are deliberately hiding links—including
phone calls between Mufti Qavi and
Qandeel’s brother Arif—because they
wish to remain in the cleric’s good
graces. “Attiya is being dishonest,” he
claims. “She’s clearly joined the Mufti.
She’s getting his money.”
Waseem did not falter during his interrogation—they could not do much to
him because they were scared that the
media would pounce on any whiff of
news about the use of torture on a suspect. They did not want a single bruise
on him and so, at most, the police kept
Waseem standing in a cell or forced
him to raise his arms without lowering
them for hours at a time. Waseem never
complained and did not seem to care
whether he was allowed to sleep or not.
Attiya tried other tactics. “If you scare
them and show them what you have
on them, they usually cave,” she says.
Waseem was not like that.
“She made our lives very difficult
and I had no other solution,” he would
say about Qandeel. “She just wouldn’t
listen. I told my parents so many times
to control her, to get her married. But
she just would not listen. I had no other
way to deal with this.”
He was never disrespectful or rude
with Attiya. After 14 days of court-mandated custody, Attiya had one question
left for him: Don’t you feel sorry for
what you’ve done? She tried to appeal
to his emotions. “You and your sister
spent your childhood together,” she
said. “You must have played together.
She was elder to you. How did you
decide to do this?”
A news report in the
Express Tribune quoted
Waseem as saying, “I
made up my mind to
kill (Qandeel) when her
controversial video with
Mufti Abdul Qavi went
viral on social media… I
had made up my mind
that day, and I was
waiting for my sister to
come home to Dera Ghazi
Khan or nearby Multan.”
Waseem thought about it briefly. “I
do feel sorry,” he replied. “But at the
time, this was all I could think about
As she prepares to leave Qandeel’s
case behind her, Attiya says she is still
not satisfied with the investigation.
She believes she has done all she could
within the limited amount of time
specified for the police to submit a
report of its findings—in this case, extra
time was also given due to the publicity
the case was getting—but she is bitter
about the lack of resources and help she
received. “There isn’t the satisfaction of
leaving every stone unturned,” she says.
“For instance, I’ve only just received
a reply from the Federal Investigation
Agency, three months after I requested
its help in finding information about
Qandeel’s social media accounts and
her WhatsApp chats. The Saudi embassy never got back to us regarding a
request to help locate Arif. The State
Bank never got back to us about any accounts Qandeel might have had and we
never heard back about any properties
she might have owned or rented.”
When Waseem went back to Shah
Sadar Din on the night of 15 July, after
the murder, he took Qandeel’s phone
with him. Waseem had owned a mobile
phone shop, paid for by his sister. He
knew how to repair phones—and also
how to render them useless. By the time
he was arrested, he had erased all data
on Qandeel’s phone and passed a surge
of power through it to destroy it. Any
photographs, videos or messages were
Safdar Shah and Qandeel’s parents
informed Attiya that they had found a
laptop and a few diaries in Qandeel’s
apartment in Karachi. But these items
proved equally useless in providing a
thread to follow for the investigation,
Attiya says. The diaries were filled with
quotes, some poetry and lyrics to songs.
There were notes scribbled down to remember what Qandeel would like to say
on her social-media pages. Attiya gave
them all back to Qandeel’s parents. As
far as the police was concerned, these
were just scraps of paper. The parents
say they have been unable to use the
password-protected laptop. Attiya says
she searched the laptop, but did not find
“anything of use.”
On 6 December 2016, a judge indicted
Waseem, Haq Nawaz and Abdul Basit—
accused of driving the getaway car on
the night of the murder. “We have all
the forensic evidence we need, DNA
reports, a polygraph test and the mobile
phone data of the accused,” Jam Salahuddin, the district prosecutor, told me,
before the hearings in the case commenced. “They murdered her. Ye bach
nahin saktay.”—They cannot be saved.
ss mirza / afp / getty images
death of a star · excerpt
But Attiya isn’t hopeful of the outcome of the
court case. “I don’t have faith in the justice system,” she says. “Some judges can be very cooperative, while others are not. The court follows its
own will. I’ve seen this with a lot of cases—despite
all the evidence, nothing happens.”
And then, as we wrap up our meeting, Attiya
says she wants to clarify something. “This case
is important to me,” she explains. “It’s important
because Qandeel was a human and this should not
have happened to her. But I don’t agree with what
she was doing.” She is confused by the people who
say Qandeel is someone to look up to, and especially by the women who praise her attitude and
behaviour. “Qandeel is no role model,” Attiya feels.
“To make her a role model for young girls is very
wrong. Look, Benazir Bhutto is a role model. She
integrated with her society. Did you ever see the
dupatta fall from her head? She knew how society
thinks of women. We need to consider our society,
our religion and a modern way of life equally. Of
course women have the right to employment, the
right to education, the right to good living standards. You can say you want to be totally unfettered, to have freedom, but is becoming Qandeel
Baloch ‘freedom’?”
Why did Qandeel have to break so many rules so
quickly? Attiya wonders.
When I say that I am surprised by her question,
especially when I consider all the rules she says
she has broken to reach this point in her career,
she gently explains, “Society cannot change so
quickly. You need to give it time. Maybe in time it
will become how you want it to be. No matter how
modern we become, as Muslims, we cannot expect
to have total freedom to do whatever we like. After
all, we won’t live in this world forever, will we?
We will return to Allah and then we will have to
answer for all that we have done in this world. So
you have to think about that.”
She cringes when she recalls how she had to
watch some of Qandeel’s videos with her colleagues. “The men couldn’t look at me and I
couldn’t look at them. It was so awkward.” So
when women talk about freedom to behave as they
please, Attiya wonders if they consider that one
day, we will leave this world and return to Allah.
We will have to answer for what we have done in
the name of freedom. “I don’t think as women we
are missing some kind of freedom,” she says. “Do
It is time for her to meet the next investigating officer, the man who will take over the case
from her. Some of her colleagues need to sit in on
the meeting, but the room does not have enough
chairs for all of them. Three of them go to a charMAY 2018
this spread:
The senior cleric
Mufti Abdul Qavi
and Qandeel Baloch
met in a hotel
room a few weeks
before she was
murdered. Later,
she accused him
of inappropriate
death of a star · excerpt
this spread:
Qandeel Baloch’s
first full-length
music video,
“Touch of a Lady”,
appeared online
in 2015. Her last
music video (right),
entitled “Ban,” was
marketed as her
most provocative
yet. She was
murdered a week
after its release.
pai that has been pushed into a corner and take a
seat. One puts his feet up, another leans against
the wall and dangles his legs off the side. It is the
same charpai that Attiya first saw Qandeel’s body
lying on.
“the day she was murdered, I got a phone call
from a friend,” the journalist Malik Azam told
me. “He said, ‘It’s you. You did this.’” The Daily
Pakistan story revealing Qandeel’s identity set in
motion a chain of events that would end in her
murder, Azam’s friend said.
“So when she was putting up all those photos
and making videos about Imran Khan, her brother
didn’t feel ghairat then?” Azam retorted. “When
she posed for the whole world, he didn’t feel
Whose honour was at stake
when Qandeel was murdered?
It depends on who you are
talking to.
of the accusation. “All we revealed was her real
name,” Iqbal says. “That’s it. The issues that arose
after that were her own family’s problems. We
didn’t create those.” He and Azam do not believe
they did anything wrong by printing pictures of
Qandeel’s passport. “A passport is nothing personal,” Iqbal says. “If you go to an embassy or apply
for a visa, don’t you give them your passport? So
He does not regret the Daily Pakistan story. “I
think we underestimated the story,” Iqbal says.
“Someone else would have run a bigger story,
made a bigger deal of it.” As for the journalists
who criticise Daily Pakistan, he just has one
question for them: if the story about her real name
was such a threat to her, then why did every news
outlet run the story as well? If the Daily Pakistan is
responsible for what happened to Qandeel, then so
is every other newspaper and television channel
ghairat then? But when I run a story he suddenly
feels ghairat?”
He hung up on his friend. They have not spoken
When I met Qandeel’s parents in November
2016, Anwar bibi made the same accusation. She
said that the media was responsible in part for her
daughter’s murder. If the media had not revealed
her real name or made such a big deal out of the
Qavi meeting, no one from Shah Sadar Din would
have cared about Fouzia Azeem.
People would not have jeered at her son, and he
would not have been driven to kill his sister.
It is an accusation that Malik Azam and his
bureau chief have heard many times since July
2016—not just from Qandeel’s supporters and parents, but from colleagues in the industry as well.
Azam’s bureau chief Shaukat Iqbal is scornful
that ran a story on Qandeel’s real name and where
she was from.
Iqbal believes that Anwar bibi is blaming the
media because she does not want to admit that
Qandeel’s whole family conspired to kill her. They
were greedy for her money, he explains. They
watched Qandeel’s interviews and saw the clothes
she was wearing, the lifestyle she boasted of, the
“side businesses” she claimed to have and the cars
she was driven around in. They believed that she
was withholding money from them. “This hen was
laying golden eggs for them, and they wanted all
the eggs at once,” Iqbal speculates. “They didn’t get
that and they slaughtered their hen.” After all, Iqbal
and Azam say, go look at the pictures of Qandeel’s
parents on the day that they called the police to
their home in Multan. Look at the clean white shalwar kameez and turban that the father is wearing
and the embroidered kameez the mother has on.
death of a star · excerpt
Did they change their clothes after they found their
daughter’s body and called the police? Or did they
sleep in such clean, ironed clothes? “The mother is
wearing a party dress!” Iqbal exclaims. “Who goes
to sleep in such nice clothes?” Their daughter, he
says, was nothing special. Of course he feels sad
that she was killed, but he does not understand
why she is still being talked about. “What was her
profession?” he asks. “Simply, she was a call girl. No
other word for it. I’m sorry to say this, may Allah
forgive me, but that’s what she was.”
On 18 July, police officials told the media that
while Qandeel’s father had stated in his FIR
that his daughter’s murder had been committed
“for money” as well as “in the name of honour,”
Waseem says he acted purely for honour. In fact,
he had tried to kill Qandeel two times before, but
had been unsuccessful.
But whose honour was at stake when Qandeel
was murdered? The answer to that question has
varied since the day she died. It depends on who
you are talking to. Was it Mufti Qavi’s, Qandeel’s
family’s or her brother’s honour that was sullied
by her actions? Or was it the honour of the place
she came from, the place she had never felt she
belonged to?
quickly spread. People in the village say his cousins, uncles and friends congratulated him. They
said he had done the right thing. It did not matter
if they had called him shameless. “Beghairat ko
ghairat kissi bhi waqt aa sakti hai”—a person with
no honour can discover his honour at any moment,
they assured each other.
It would be hard to find someone in Shah Sadar
Din today who does not know Qandeel’s name.
In a large graveyard in the village, I made my
way down uneven sandy trails, stepping past
empty chocolate wrappers and biscuit packets
and dried dog shit as I searched for her grave.
In October 2016, Qandeel’s father had told a
reporter, “Following my daughter’s wish, I have
installed Pakistan’s flag on her grave.” But I
The Sensational
Life and Death of
Qandeel Baloch
Sanam Maher
Aleph Book
272 pages, T599
cannot see a flag anywhere in the graveyard.
Two villagers standing near a grave ask me who
I am searching for. They point to a corner of
the graveyard to the far left. They have become
used to people—mostly the media—coming here
searching for Qandeel. Someone has planted a
sapling, a thin, reedy plant a few feet tall, next
to the grave, which is just another mound of dirt
indistinguishable from the many others around
“If her brothers had not killed her, and if the
people in her extended family had not killed her,
then it would have been any other man from Shah
Sadar Din,” says Javed Siddiqui, a reporter from
Dera Ghazi Khan. He believes Qandeel would
not have been allowed to live as long as people in
the village felt she was giving Shah Sadar Din a
bad name. They were content to watch her videos
and look at her photos online as long as no one
knew her real name and where she came from. “I
suppose you could say that this was not a murder
for honour. It was a murder by the people who
passed judgement on Qandeel and her family. Her
brothers knew what she was doing. Her parents
knew what she was doing. But once people started
talking about what she was doing, her days were
When Waseem returned to Shah Sadar Din after
Qandeel was murdered, news of what he had done
it. It is not covered in concrete or marble like
some of the others. There is no marker, no sign
of her name and no Pakistani flag. Without the
villagers, it would have been impossible to find
Qandeel in this graveyard. s
This excerpt is adapted from The Sensational Life
and Death of Qandeel Baloch, a forthcoming title
from the Aleph Book Company.
MAY 2018
The conflict between humans and tigers in India
a tiger stares back into the lens of the camera, his eyes heavy with
fear and helplessness. This portrait of the caged animal, captured in
Valparai, Tamil Nadu, is a departure from the standard visualisation
of tigers as threatening. It evokes the battle—one that is raging in
India at the moment—between people and tigers.
A 39-year-old visual storyteller from south India, Senthil Kumaran began his work on tigers in 2012, visiting tiger reserves across
India, including Anamalai, Sundarbans, Madhumalai, Bandipur,
Tadoba, Kalakad and Periyar. In his childhood dreams, he said, he
saw tigers as majestic animals. This perception was quashed when
he witnessed hundreds of people viciously attacking a tiger that
had entered a village. The incident compelled him to work on the
hostile relationship between humans and wildlife—and its disturbing
fallout. After focussing on tigers for five years, Kumaran moved on to
documenting the human-elephant conflict in south India, a project
which is ongoing.
In his tiger project, Kumaran depicts the troubled existence of two
vulnerable groups attempting to cohabit in a swiftly shrinking landscape: the tiger population, which has increasingly been confined
to protected reserves and multiple-use forests, and the local human
communities that reside around forest areas. Although his series
explores the perspective of both groups, Kumaran considers “humans as the encroacher” in this dynamic. He argues that although
tiger reserves have a “core” area where activities such as grazing and
growing produce are not allowed, settlements, cultivation and development activities in wildlife corridors have increasingly infringed on
these areas.
previous spread: A caged tiger found at a human
settlement in the Anamalai tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu is
on the verge of being transferred to another location.
above: Villagers return with cattle.
opposite page: A male adult tiger crosses the road inside
Tadoba tiger reserve. Individual tigers typically have
territories of around 40 square kilometres. Sometimes,
villages fall within these boundaries. There are around
eight villages situated inside the Tadoba reserve.
India is losing large swathes of
forest—nearly 1.5 million hectares per
year—to urbanisation. Tigers have
consequently experienced a loss in
natural habitat and a rapid decline in
the availability of prey, forcing them to
barge into human-occupied territory
in search of food and water. According
to the environment ministry, 27 people
were killed in tiger attacks between mid
2014 and mid 2017. Kumaran claimed
that Tadoba in Maharashtra, where
tigers have killed over 50 people since
2006, was one of the most fraught areas
because the large tiger population—
there are 88 within the Tadoba Andhari
tiger reserve and another 58 in the
surrounding forest—share space with
locals living nearby.
Attacks on livestock and humans, as
well as the severe damage to cash crops
that tigers often cause, provoke locals to
hunt or poison the big cats in retaliation. This is despite the existence of the
Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which
prohibited the killing of tigers unless
they are injured or old and proven to
be man-eaters. “They put poison in the
carcasses,” Kumaran said, describing
an incident from 2016 when a tiger was
found killed by a pesticide. Two young
tigers in Paoni, near Nagpur, were
suspected to have died from poison
last November, and there was an eerily
similar case in Bandipur, Karnataka,
this January.
Despite the grim situation, tiger
conservation in India is often heralded as a success story. India launched
Project Tiger in 1973. It consisted of a
special task force aimed at conserving
tigers and fostering their coexistence
with humans. In its formative years,
the project covered nine tiger reserves,
but it has now expanded to 47 reserves
across 18 states. The last census figures
suggested that the number of tigers
in India had increased from 1,706 in
2010 to 2,226 in 2014. However, human
settlements in forests pose a pressing
dilemma for such conservationists. In
March 2017, the National Tiger Conser-
vation Authority ordered tiger reserves
to refrain from recognising the rights of
forest dwellers in critical tiger habitats. The measure provoked backlash
since thousands of Adivasis live in tiger
Other relocation and compensation
schemes exist: for instance, the forest
department is meant to provide R10 lakh
for each family that is forced to relocate
outside a reserve. But there are challenges with executing these. Kumaran
explained that tigers often inhabit the
area of relocation, or the indigenous
population finds it difficult to adjust to
urban settings. Sometimes, locals are
resistant to moving from their place of
origin. Kumaran added that in some
instances, the narrative of the indigenous people in tiger reserves gets overlooked. “Due to increased emphasis on
biodiversity, Indian policy frameworks
favour the interests of animals while
the stories of tribes who are suffering
due to the conflict are not brought to
the limelight,” he said.
opposite page: Cattle herders and night watchmen near the Tadoba
tiger reserve.
above: A man on the lookout at his cotton farm in Ghosri, a village
near the Tadoba tiger reserve. Often, tigers and leopards are found
roaming around farms in search of prey.
opposite page left: The Sundarbans has the most serious conflict between tigers
and humans in India: newspapers have reported that one out of every ten tigers is
a man-eater. Every year, tigers attack between 25 and 30 people. Manoranjan Biwas
sustained a serious injury after a tiger attacked him while he was collecting crabs in
the forest. His family is expecting C25,000 as compensation from the government.
opposite page top: Gopal Chandra Mondal, a farmer from the Sundarbans tiger
reserve, was attacked by a tiger while he was in his paddy field one afternoon. He
lost his left eye.
opposite page middle: Binoy Mondal was attacked by a tiger inside the forest while
collecting crabs. He fought with the tiger and had a narrow escape.
opposite page bottom: Bhudari, a villager from the Sundarbans tiger reserve,
explains how he was attacked by a tiger.
below: Fresh tiger pawmarks found inside private farmland near the Tadoba tiger
above: Neighbours mourn the death of a 38-year-old woman who was killed by a tiger while
working on a tea estate in Pattavayal, a village near the Mudhumalai tiger reserve.
opposite page top: A dead tiger near the Anamalai tiger reserve.
opposite page bottom: A dead cow in Navegoan village in Maharashtra. Local people often poison
their livestock to kill tigers.
top: Agitated locals search for a man-eater that killed three people in January 2014.
Forest officials eventually shot the tiger dead.
above: Forest department officials lay a camera to monitor a man-eating tiger. A day
earlier, the tiger killed a 38-year-old woman in the area.
opposite page top: A group of forest officials and veterinarians perform a postmortem
on a tiger to test whether it was poisoned.
opposite page bottom: A trap laid to capture a man-eating tiger a week after it had killed
three villagers near the Mudhumalai tiger reserve.
above: A signboard at a tiger-crossing zone in Chandrapur, a municipality in Maharashtra. According
to a report by the Wildlife Conservation Trust, there are 48 tigers living outside the tiger reserve in
Chandrapur district.
opposite page: A rescue team from the Anamalai tiger reserve shifts a ten-year-old tranquilised male
tiger to a cage in the village of Periyar Nagar. A cow attacked the tiger after it was violent with a calf. The
tiger was eventually taken to the Manamboly Forest Camp inside the Anamalai tiger reserve.
Swami Shashi
The political Hinduism of Shashi Tharoor
Why I Am a Hindu
Shashi Tharoor
Aleph Book
320 pages, T699
at the outset of Why I Am a Hindu, the politician
and writer Shashi Tharoor—a member of the Nair
castes, and so a Shudra—writes that the book is in
large part a response to the “intolerant and often
violent forms of Hindutva that began to impose
themselves on the public consciousness of Indians
in the 1980s.” I am also a Shudra, part of what are
now officially called the Other Backward Classes,
and I wrote my book Why I Am Not a Hindu in
response to the rise of Hindutva as well.
My book was published in 1996, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and
the struggle over the Mandal reservations. It was
widely opposed by Brahminical forces, including
Hindutva groups, and earned me many threats. No
mainstream publisher agreed to carry it, and the
book was finally published by Samya, a Kolkatabased imprint of the publishers Bhatkal and Sen.
Kolkata was a safe place for such a book in those
days, with West Bengal ruled by the Left Front.
Bhatkal and Sen also had an imprint in Mumbai,
but if the book had been published there, with
Maharashtra ruled by an alliance of the Bharatiya
Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, it would have
faced the book-burning squads notorious in the
state at the time. Why I Am Not a Hindu was not
widely promoted, but as word of it spread the book
became a bestseller.
Why I Am a Hindu is on its way to becoming a
bestseller too, but under very different circumstances. It has been put out by a prestigious publisher that which has not been shy with publicity.
Tharoor’s argument is that Hindutva goes against
what he sees as “the spirit of Hinduism,” but no
Hindutva forces have raised any protest against
the book, even as they are ascendant across much
of the country.
Tharoor’s book is the very opposite of mine,
and not just in its title. I said I am not a Hindu
because of the inequality by birth of different
communities within Hinduism, as enshrined in
the caste system that pervades Hindu scripture,
morality, ritual, social organisation—really the
entire Hindu worldview. The very theory of caste
goes against the fundamental principle that all
humans are created equal. I also criticised Hinduism’s negation of the values and labour that go
into productive work, which it stigmatises and
reserves for oppressed castes, and the resulting maltreatment of productive communities,
including Shudras and Dalits (my book referred to
both under the collective term “Dalitbahujans”).
Tharoor, by contrast, talks of restoring Hinduism “to its truest essence, which in many ways is
that of an almost ideal faith for the twenty-firstcentury world.” He celebrates it as “a religion
that is personal and individualistic, privileges
the individual and does not subordinate one to a
collectivity; a religion that grants and respects
complete freedom to the believer to find his or her
own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious
practice, even in regard to the nature and form
of the formless God; a religion that places great
emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity
for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and self-study;
MAY 2018
swami shashi · books
opposite page:
Nairs, considered
Shudras under
the caste system,
have had to
struggle to end
their exploitation
at the hands of
Brahmins. Tharoor is
a Nair himself, but
he evades a frank
discussion of Nair
history or his own
caste background.
a religion that distances itself from dogma and
holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet
offers an abundance of options, spiritual and
philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from.”
Tharoor does not seem to have read my book,
despite choosing a title that echoes mine. He does
not engage with my arguments anywhere. He
also ignores some far more important thinkers
on Hinduism. Among Shudra writers alone, the
tradition of critiquing the religion goes back at
least to Jyotirao Phule, the Maharashtrian social
reformer whose 1873 book Gulamgiri, or “Slavery,”
was a stinging critique of Hinduism and the caste
system. In 1941, Dharma Theertha published The
History of Hindu Imperialism, another serious assessment of Hinduism, and came to conclude that
it oppresses all Shudras. Although Dharma Theertha was a Nair like Tharoor, he refused to describe
himself as a Hindu.
How does Tharoor come to a different view of
Hinduism than any Shudra writer of great prominence before him? Simply put, it is by not applying
any critical or analytical thinking. His main strategy of persuasion is not argument, but repetition
with rhetorical flourishes of a two-in-one premise
and conclusion, stated already in the very first
paragraph of the book where he describes Hinduism as “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and
expansive of faiths.”
The book’s first section, largely autobiographical
and titled “My Hinduism,” is strangely silent on
aspects of Tharoor’s own background, including
his caste. It is also very selective in its citation of
holy texts, while whitewashing Hindu history and
sidestepping many of Hinduism’s sharpest critics.
The second section, “Political Hinduism,” blames
only Hindutva groups for mixing Hinduism with
politics, pretending that Tharoor’s own Congress
party has never had anything to do with that
kind of politicisation. The third section, “Taking
Back Hinduism,” disguises a proposed return to
Tharoor’s “essence” of Hinduism as a step forward
rather than back.
Tharoor admits that he does not write as a
scholar of Hinduism, but it is obvious that he does
not even write as a sincere autobiographer. That
leaves him writing as a politician—a politician
who wants to keep one foot each in two camps, the
Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“why am i a hindu?” Tharoor asks. Because, he
answers, “I was born one.” This raises the question: with what status was he born into Hinduism?
Tharoor’s account of how he came to his Hinduism includes autobiographical anecdotes—his
father’s poojas, his mother’s stories—but excludes,
except in a few very brief instances, any mention of his Nair roots. He never acknowledges
that Nairs, originally from Kerala, are considered
Shudras within the Hindu caste order. This lays
the ground for Tharoor to completely omit the history of the Nairs, and of their struggle against the
casteist discrimination long imposed upon them.
Traditionally, the basic work of Nairs, as of
many Shudra castes, was agriculture, but the caste
system that allotted them this work also denied
them land rights. Over the centuries, Nairs moved
away from their typically Shudra occupation, and
under the influence of Brahminism entered into a
unique relationship with the dominant Nambudiri
Brahmins. Well into the nineteenth century, Nair
women lived in sambhandham with the Nambudiri
Brahmins’ younger sons. This was a form of sexual
slavery, with the women denied marital rights
and the men freed from obligation towards any
children of the union, and it had full spiritual and
religious sanction under the caste order.
Like other oppressed castes, under Brahminical hegemony Nairs were also denied the right to
education. That restriction was loosened with the
arrival of British power, but with that control over
education in Kerala fell largely into the hands of
Syrian Christians. In 1914, the Nair leader Mannatthu Padmanabha Pillai established the Nair
Service Society, with a view to gaining educational
autonomy. The organisation runs a number of
institutions of learning to this day, and has been
crucial to making Nairs the most educated Shudra
community in India.
Pillai was a reformer of the Nairs, but not a reformer of society as a whole. In response to Nairs’
historical oppression and humiliation, the Nair
Service Society chose not to reject Brahminical
social organisation but to further Brahminise the
Nair community. The organisation asserted that
He writes that “many modern Hindus have grown up rejecting the
discriminatory aspects of the caste system, while still observing
caste preferences when it comes to arranging the marriages of their
children.” Tharoor sees no contradiction between the two parts of
the sentence.
basel mission archives qc-30.012.0092
swami shashi · books
it was a Hindu group, and aggressively
propagated the religion. Tragically,
the Nair Service Society never helped
in the upliftment of other oppressed
castes. Instead, Nairs have participated
in those castes’ continued persecution,
and have played only a marginal role
in anti-caste movements. Tharoor is a
carrier of this legacy.
“I am the product of a nationalist
generation that was consciously raised
to be oblivious of caste,” Tharoor
writes, recounting that his father
dropped “Nair” from his name, “moved
to London and brought his children up
in Westernised Bombay.” He congratulates himself for how even after
he entered the “caste-ridden world of
Indian politics … I did not deliberately
seek to find out the caste of anyone
I met or worked with; I hired a cook
without asking his caste (the same with
my remaining domestic staff) and have
entertained all manner of people in
my home without the thought of caste
affinity even crossing my mind.” He
recalls his “own discovery of caste.”
While he was at school, an older boy
cornered him near the toilet to ask
“what caste are you?” Tharoor replied,
“I—I don’t know.” The other boy continued, “You mean you’re not a Brahmin or
something?” Tharoor writes, “I could
not even avow I was a something.”
Tharoor acknowledges that he holds
a privileged position: in today’s India,
only great wealth and social advantage,
combined to permit a private Englishlanguage schooling, can allow anyone
the pretence of being innocent of caste.
In Tharoor’s case, it exposes his social
ignorance, while his roundabout treatment of caste suggests an unease. If he
had been a Brahmin, it is likely Tharoor
would have owned up to it matter-offactly. By disregarding his Nair heritage
MAY 2018
and his caste’s struggle against subordination in the Hindu order, he obscures
how he came to be in his privileged
position. As a result, he makes it seems
as if caste can be shrugged off, where
for the vast majority of Indians the attempt to break free of it has been, and
is, a bloody struggle. To write in this
way about the religion that created the
caste system is unethical.
“It is difficult to pretend that Hinduism can be exempted from the problems
of casteism,” Tharoor states at the start
of a passage examining caste in general,
yet taken as a whole that is exactly what
the passage does. He writes that “many
modern Hindus have grown up rejecting the discriminatory aspects of the
caste system, while still observing caste
preferences when it comes to arranging the marriages of their children.”
Tharoor sees no contradiction between
the two parts of the sentence. He says
swami shashi · books
Tharoor points out that “Manu declared ‘where women are
honoured, there the gods rejoice, but where they are not honoured,
there all rituals are useless.’” If he had any knowledge of feminist
discourse, he would have known that the problem lies exactly in
Manu’s regressive concept of female honour.
page: Tharoor
repeatedly turns
to Vivekananda
(centre) when
defining and
defending his
Hinduism. The
major sources for
his account of the
religion are also
major sources for
that “the rigidities of the caste system as we understand it today were introduced by the British in
their desire to understand, categorise, and classify
the people they were ruling, in order to control
them all the better” yet also that historically
“social mobility was relatively rare in Hinduism.”
According to Tharoor, “the Upanishadic insistence
on the unity of being, a divinity available to everyone … implies the equality of all souls and argues
against caste discrimination,” but that “there is
little doubt that many Hindus believed that the
caste system had religious sanction.” He cites the
Rig Veda’s theory of the creation of human life,
where Brahmins are created from the mouth of
Purusha, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from
the thighs and Shudras from the feet—the source
of the caste hierarchy, with those falling outside
these four varnas, Dalits and Adivasis, given the
lowest standing of all. Yet, even as he profusely
references this highly revered Hindu text by Brahmins, Tharoor maintains that “Hindu society may
have maintained a distasteful practice”—that is,
the caste system—“but no one can credibly argue
that it is intrinsic to the religion.”
In fact, many have credibly argued that. The
most prominent of them is perhaps BR Ambedkar, whose fundamental thesis, in works such as
Riddles in Hinduism and The Annihilation of Caste,
is that caste and Hinduism are one and the same,
and if one dies the other cannot survive. Tharoor
mentions Ambedkar just a handful of times in the
almost 300 pages of his book, each time only in
passing. Much of the analysis Ambedkar used to
arrive at his conclusions relied on close readings
of Hinduism’s holy texts, yet Tharoor does not
address or challenge Ambedkar’s analysis even
while extensively citing the Upanishads, Puranas
and Vedas to defend his proposition that Hinduism is an “almost ideal” faith. The fact is that these
texts never gave any rights to Shudras, let alone
Dalits—who together form the majority of India’s
One of the most difficult texts for Tharoor to
deal with is the Manusmriti, which promotes
undisguised casteism. His approach is to try and
play it down. “The Smritis are purely man-made
and mutable,” he writes, and “no Hindu seriously
argues that they must be observed to the letter
today. (Indeed, it is debatable whether they were
strictly followed even in the times in which they
were propounded.)” If all Hindus are so dismissive
of the Smritis and they were never really followed,
and if the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads all uphold the equality of man as Tharoor claims, then
how do we explain the fact that the caste system
has existed for millennia, and continues to exist
The Manusmriti also sanctions discrimination
against women, as other Hindu texts do as well,
and Tharoor deals with this uncomfortable fact
in a similar way. He cites a stray line from the Rig
Veda to try and prove otherwise—“The wife and
the husband, being equal halves of one substance,
are equal in every respect”—and points out that
“Manu declared ‘where women are honoured,
there the gods rejoice, but where they are not
honoured, there all rituals are useless.’” If he
had any knowledge of feminist discourse, he
would have known that the problem lies exactly
in Manu’s regressive concept of female honour.
Tharoor goes on, “The strong position held by the
polyandrous, property-owning Nair women in
Kerala’s matrilineal society, the honoured position
of Rajput women, who killed themselves en masse
after their husbands fell on the battlefield, and the
reverence accorded to women mystics like Mirabai
and social reformers like Savitribai Phule, show
Hinduism as accepting of women as figures of authority and respect. The fact that the Manusmriti
says something does not preclude the possibility
that throughout the ages, it was honoured in the
Tharoor’s use of Savitribai Phule in this way is a
disservice to her. She dedicated her life to fighting
the gender discrimination of Hindu society, and
also its caste discrimination. But her views on
caste, and those of her husband Jyotirao Phule,
find no place in the book. Just as he does with
Ambedkar and other serious critics of Hinduism, Tharoor finds a way around them. He also
apparently knows little of the intellectual legacy
of Dravidian thought in south India, with its insistence on the equality of all human beings and the
dignity of labour and labouring communities. The
struggles of the Dravidian anti-caste icon Periyar
Ramasamy do not figure in Tharoor’s story of his
swami shashi · books
of Hinduism could not win him equality in caste society with the Brahmins
who dominated the religion. Born a
Kayastha in Bengal, and treated as a
Shudra by Bengali Brahmins, Vivekananda never had the right to become
a temple priest as a Brahmin could,
just as Shudras are barred from this
occupation today.
Tharoor describes how “nationalism—not just in the sense of overthrowing the foreign ruler, but in the sense
of national reawakening—became a
prominent theme in Vivekananda’s
thought. He believed that a country’s
future depended on its people, and
his teachings focused on what today
we might call human development.”
Vivekananda proposed some reforms,
but fundamentally the “national reawakening” he called for was a Hindu
reawakening. It is no coincidence
that today Vivekananda is embraced
wholeheartedly by the same Hindu
nationalists that Tharoor says he is
writing against. Tharoor himself tells
us, while listing historical figures he
sees as key reformers and revivalists of
Hinduism, that “many Hindus, notably
Swami Vivekananda himself,” see Guru
Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, “as a
Hindu reformer.” He forgets to add that
this is not a popular view among Sikhs,
but it is among Hindu nationalists, who
see all of India’s religious minorities as
straying Hindus.
In addition to Vivekananda, Tharoor
lists Ramanuja, Adi Shankara, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and MK Gandhi as
major figures of inspiration in a chapter
titled “Great Souls of Hinduism.” With
the exception of Gandhi, all of these
men were Brahmins, and their efforts
for caste reform never went beyond
such things as allowing Shudras to
enter temples and relaxing the ban on
Brahmins crossing the seas. Unsurprisingly, these reforms only expanded
Brahmin privilege, and brought Shudras further under their power. Gandhi
was a Bania, and unlike Tharoor he
was never shy about his caste. (The first
sentence of the first chapter of his autobiography is, “The Gandhis belong to
the Bania caste and seem to have been
originally grocers.”) He spoke against
untouchability, but never against the
caste system as a whole.
Tharoor writes, “my admiration for
and pride in Hinduism outweighs my
critical concerns, and I make no apology for this.” There is no questioning
of Brahminical hegemony anywhere in
the book, though at one point Tharoor
notes, “Some Hindus reject the term
‘Hindu’ altogether as a description
of their faith, preferring to speak of
‘Brahminism’, though this is used by
some Dalits and others as a term of
abuse against the Brahmins who have
dominated the faith.” Just like that,
he dismisses the whole tradition of
thought that stems from the Phules and
Ambedkar as nothing but slander.
wikimedia commons
formative years. He does, later, at least
touch upon Ayyankali and Narayana
Guru, Malayali reformers who fought
against the discrimination of the oppressed castes.
The figure Tharoor returns to most
in defining and defending his Hinduism is Vivekananda, whom he reveres
as “the magnetic-eyed saint with the
majestic mien and marvellous oratorical skills, who did more than anyone
else to place Hinduism on the world
map in the late nineteenth century.”
In one instance, he describes Vivekananda’s appearance at the Parliament
of the World’s Religions in the United
States in 1893, where “he articulated
the liberal humanism that lies at the
heart of his (and my) creed: ‘I am proud
to belong to a religion which has taught
the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in
universal toleration, but we accept all
religions as true.’”
These were false claims of tolerance.
Vivekananda did occasionally speak
against caste discrimination, but for
him to then also speak with conviction
of Hinduism’s “tolerance and universal
acceptance” he had to be just as blind
to caste’s role in the Hindu order as
Tharoor is. Even Vivekananda’s praise
MAY 2018
tharoor writes that his hinduism
“sits comfortably with the Nehruvian
notion of Indianness.” And he insists,
“I am a Hindu, and I am a nationalist,
but I am not a Hindu nationalist. My
nationalism is unquestioningly, allembracingly, Indian. The Sangh does
not speak for Hindus like me.” Tharoor
uses this comparison throughout the
book. On one side is the Hindutva of the
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its
offspring, the BJP, and on the other is
Nehruvian secularism. Even as Thar89
swami shashi · books
Nehru’s secularism could not change
the structure of Hinduism or Indian
society. Brahmins and Banias of his
time, in the context of socialist revolutions sweeping across the world, saw
that positioning themselves in favour of
secularism was necessary to keep power in their hands. Brahminical forces
continued to control even Nehru’s own
Congress. Ambedkar pointed this out
to Dalits and repeatedly clashed over
the issue with the Congress and Gandhi, but Tharoor completely ignores
this part of Gandhi’s and the Congress’s
politics. Some of the more privileged
Shudras did comparatively better—for
instance, Vallabhbhai Patel rose high in
the Congress, and became the deputy
prime minister—and saw economic
ht photo
oor sets these up as opposing positions,
what he actually does is find common
ground between them.
Jawaharlal Nehru was ambivalent
about his own Brahmin background,
and pushed to enshrine secularism in
the country’s constitution and institutions of government. For Tharoor, this
implicitly stands in for the Congress’s
position on Hinduism, and shields the
party from any association with Hindu
nationalism. “In India this claim to
authenticity and rootedness has taken
on a majoritarian Hindu colouring
under the BJP,” he writes. But the full
story is not so black and white, and the
Congress’s history with Hindu nationalism and Hinduism—that is to say,
Brahminism—is much more complex.
improvement in the long stretch of
Congress government after Independence, but this upset many Brahmins
and Banias. Shudras were slow to
understand that the problem was in the
continuation of the Hindu philosophical positioning of their status.
Patel, despite his high position, was
not equal to the task of constructing a
philosophical bridge between Shudras
and the structures of power in the way
that Gandhi did for the Banias. He was
largely a muscle man, who mobilised
Shudra force in the service of the Congress. It should be remembered that in
1949, after the ban on the RSS following
Gandhi’s assassination had been lifted,
the Congress passed a resolution allowing RSS members to join the party.
swami shashi · books
Patel is not the only historical Congress leader who sympathised
with Hindu nationalist views. Bal Gangadhar Tilak advocated for
the protection of cows, and for the conversion of Indian Muslims
to Hinduism. Madan Mohan Malviya also made cow protection
a political issue, and was a member of the nationalist Hindu
Mahasabha, alongside Lala Lajpat Rai and others.
This happened while Nehru was abroad, and had
the backing of Patel and his supporters, but was
reversed after Nehru returned. Today, Shudras do
not see Patel as an icon, but the RSS does, despite
his association with the Congress.
Patel is not the only historical Congress leader
who sympathised with Hindu nationalist views.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak advocated for the protection
of cows, and for the conversion of Indian Muslims
to Hinduism. Madan Mohan Malviya also made
cow protection a political issue, and was a member
of the nationalist Hindu Mahasabha, alongside
Lala Lajpat Rai and others.
After Nehru died, the Congress’s secularism
was compromised under Indira Gandhi, and then
under Rajiv Gandhi, who did little to interrupt the
rise of the RSS. Rajiv’s government allowed Hindutva groups to lay the foundation stone of a temple
at the site of the Babri Masjid in 1989, in the run-up
to an election. PV Narasimha Rao’s government
watched as the mosque was demolished in 1992.
Now, Rahul Gandhi is calling himself a Brahmin
and visiting temples to try and gain voters. Tharoor is making a similar gamble, and it will only
further weaken the Congress’ secular stance.
Even if we overlook Tharoor’s uncomfortable
silences on Congress history, his embrace of Nehruvian secularism side by side with his Hinduism
is not convincing. The major sources of Tharoor’s
Hinduism—the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and
Smritis, the views of Adi Shankara, Ramanuja,
Vivekananda and even Gandhi—are also major
sources for Hindutva. And the overlaps do not end
In the second section of the book, Tharoor
introduces Hindutva by summarising the views
of some of its leading lights—VD Savarkar, MS
Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya. When
discussing Upadhyaya, Tharoor describes his
concept of “integral humanism,” and shows how
it is a subterfuge. He writes, “While demanding of
Muslims and other minorities this subordination
to, and total identification with, a Hindu Rashtra,
Upadhyaya—while his reasons differed in both
premise and approach—arrived at the same place
as Savarkar and Golwalkar.” Later, Tharoor says
that while “there is much that is troubling” in
Hindutva, “not everything in the philosophy that
I have sought to summarise is objectionable—and
there is much to admire, for instance, in Upadhyaya’s humanistic thinking.”
While discussing Golwalkar, Tharoor criticises
Hindutva historiography. He writes that, according to Golwalkar, “India was a pristine Hindu
country in ancient times, a place of unparalleled
glory destroyed in successive assaults by foreign
invaders.” But when Tharoor describes his understanding of Hindu history earlier in the book—
having already blamed British colonialism for
the evils of caste, just as many RSS theoreticians
do—he agrees with the worst of Golwalkar’s view.
Tharoor writes:
As we have seen, Islam was initially a threat,
and the attacks of Muslim invaders on temples
and Hindu treasures, as well as the rape and
abduction of Hindu women, in a number of
episodes in the five centuries from 1000 CE
onwards, led to a defensive closing of the ranks
and the adoption of protective practices that
entrenched restriction and prohibitions previously unknown in Hindu society. The protection
of life, religion and chastity introduced rigidities
into the Hindu practice: restrictions on entry
into temples (to safeguard their treasures from
prying eyes), child marriages (to win protection
for girls before they were old enough to be abducted by lustful invaders) and even the practice
of sati (the burning of a widow on her husband’s
funeral pyre) were all measures of self-defence
during this turbulent period of Indian history,
that developed into pernicious social practices
wrongly seen as intrinsic to Hinduism rather
than as reactions to assaults upon it.
Tharoor’s challenge to Hindutva involves no
suggestion of any fundamental reform of Hinduism, and so is not a challenge to Hindutva at all.
The RSS and BJP have shown themselves to be
truly afraid only of Ambedkar’s path of change,
which leads away from Hinduism, and not of the
Congress’s take on the religion.
MAY 2018
opposite page:
It was a Congressled government,
under Rajiv Gandhi,
that permitted
the laying of a
foundation stone
for a temple in
Ayodhya during
campaigning for
the 1989 general
election. Tharoor
ignores his own
party’s long and
conflicted history
with Hindu
swami shashi · books
opposite page:
Under the caste
system, the
opressed castes
do the essential
productive work
of manufacturing
and agriculture, but
find themselves,
their cultures and
their philosophies
denigrated for it.
We should ask why a Congress politician like
Tharoor would write a book like this. His vision
of Hinduism avoids posing any challenge to his
electoral base, and caters to groups such as Nairs
that are moving closer to the BJP. Nairs are some
of the better-off Shudra castes, along with Reddys,
Kammas, Marathas, Patels, Jats and so on. The
BJP and RSS are successfully wooing these groups
by aggressively insisting that they belong in Hinduism. This trick can only work by pretending the
caste system does not exist, just as Tharoor does.
His book is a tool for the Congress as it pursues a
similar strategy.
The tragedy of these numerically vast and
economically strong groups is that under this
approach they are still denied control of theology,
philosophy, learning and social relations, which
remain under Brahmin hegemony. No Shudra
is admitted into Hindu priesthood, or into the
Sanskritic schools that teach religious discourse.
Their status is still subordinate. But Tharoor’s
caste-blind scholarship does the most damage to
the worse-off, largely non-agrarian Shudra castes
classed as OBCs, and Dalits. Their condition can
only improve from challenging Hinduism’s core
values of inequality. The movement for reservations only gained ground because of their challenge from below, and their assertion of autonomy
from Hinduism. Shudras like Tharoor, instead
of using their position to empower the disadvantaged, are only further empowering the dominant
castes that already hold spiritual, political and
economic power.
tharoor’s poverty of philosophy and theology
comes out very well in Why I am a Hindu. All
dreams of a national revival (politicians today
prefer the term “national development”) through
politics that does not challenge Hinduism’s central
place in Indian society are empty. What Tharoor
proposes as a return to “true” Hinduism does not
help the nation, but harms it.
Hinduism is constructed around a notion of the
divine and virtuous as being completely separate
from the material processes and resources needed
for human advancement. In all the texts that Tharoor refers to, the gods do not engage in or respect
human labour or production processes. The texts
deal mainly with war and Brahmin morality,
which negate the idea of the sanctity and equality
of all human beings.
The Hindu religion centres itself on sanyasi
values, and promotes activities that guarantee
moksha rather than material wellbeing. Hindu
economics involves, apart from bare sustenance,
building temples, mobilising devotees, purifying
so-called sacred rivers, and so on. Sanyasis—including many Hindutva rulers, such as Adityanath
in Uttar Pradesh—do not understand and have no
real agenda for family development, child education and productive employment in such things as
agriculture and industry. The Hindu ideal of life
involves vegetarianism and yoga, but never the
labour of tilling the land, raising cattle or manufacturing goods and commodities.
Indian capitalism exists today because of
Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi labour. Brahmins and
Banias contribute hardly any physical work to
it—mostly they are at the consuming end. Tharoor has no understanding of the lives of Shudras,
Dalits and Adivasis, or of the relationship between
production and morality. This is why he fails to
see the serious contradiction between Hindu economics on one side and Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi
economies on the other.
Shudras possess a productive philosophy—so far
never worked into a theology—that is the opposite
of the Hindu philosophy, and that operates among
them every day. This philosophy evolved in Shudra
societies in the process of doing productive work.
History as Shudras remember it is full of the production and distribution of life-sustaining goods
and commodities, and not of war and violence.
This history and philosophy has allowed Shudras
to sustain their lives and economy, and to continue
to produce the things they do against all odds.
Brahmins have codified their philosophy and
written it into books, but Shudras have not yet
fully done this with theirs. The caste system
traditionally reserved book-writing for Brahmins,
and denied literacy to oppressed castes. Still
today, there is an inferiority complex among the
oppressed castes and a belief that they cannot
write philosophical texts. Shudras of Tharoor’s
kind have studied India only through Brahminical books, which have nothing to do with land and
labour, but never through the culture and experience of the Shudra masses. His argument flows
To think that it is ideal for a cow to die naturally is a sanyasi
position. Those who depend economically on cattle accept that
they have to sell aged and unproductive animals for slaughter to
earn the money to buy and raise young animals.
margaret bourke-white / the life picture collection / getty images
swami shashi · books
from the lives of Brahminic sanyasis
and saints, but not from the real lives of
productive Indians.
This is especially clear when Tharoor comes to the issue of gau raksha,
or cow protection. He writes that the
current government’s clampdown on
the cattle economy “is not just about
beef or the welfare of the cow, but
about freedom. … Like many Hindus, I
have never considered it my business
what others eat.” That is good, but
when Tharoor turns to the Brahminical structure of the cattle economy,
he betrays his narrow-mindedness.
He writes, “Upper caste hindus may
worship the cow, but cows, alas, are not
immortal, and when they die (ideally of
natural causes), their carcasses need to
be disposed of.” To think that it is ideal
for a cow to die naturally is a sanyasi
position. Those who depend economically on cattle accept that they have
to sell aged and unproductive animals
for slaughter to earn the money to
buy and raise young animals. Tharoor
recognises that the task of dealing with
dead cows “has traditionally been left
to Dalits, who for centuries and more
have skinned the animal to sell its hide
to tanners and leather-makers, disposed of its meat to Muslim butchers
in the few states where it is legal, and
buried or cremated the rest.” He says
this “is a distasteful task to many caste
Hindus, who are happy to let willing
Dalits do it.” It is not surprising that
caste Hindus are happy to let Dalits
do what Hinduism considers impure
work, but Tharoor must know that
Dalits are still doing it not because they
are “willing,” but because Brahminical society leaves them no alternative.
Tharoor’s criticism of gau raksha offers
the oppressed castes nothing more
than a return to the old status quo.
MAY 2018
Shudra philosophy is very clear that
pure vegetarianism is unnatural, and
that the people involved in the cattle
economy have dignity, as do all productive workers. Brahminism, whether it is
of the BJP or the Congress kind, is not
going to make India great, but a productive philosophy can push the country
to develop. The RSS and BJP’s ideology of gau raksha, and the entirety of
sanyasi economics, can only be defeated
through the philosophy of the country’s
productive workers—not through standing by Brahminism like Tharoor does,
feeling proud that he was born a Hindu
from the feet of the Brahmin god. He
has surrendered to Brahminism for the
sake of political power. This surrender
may keep him in the Congress now, but
could also take him into the BJP camp
as things unfold. His Hinduism suits
him personally and politically, but it has
no promise for the future of India. s
Suryakant Tripathi
Translated from the
Hindi by Satti Khanna
Ravish Kumar
Translated from
the Hindi by Chitra
Padmanabhan, Anurag
Basnet and Ravi Singh
The journalist Ravish
Kumar’s new book is an examination of the shrinking
spaces—in mainstream and social media—for people to speak
out. He investigates threats to free expression, including
censorship and the fear of institutional, physical and psychological violence. The book contemplates how these threats
are deployed to replace debate, dialogue and social harmony
with an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred.
In this memoir originally
published in 1939, Nirala,
India’s first modern Hindi
poet, recounts the story of
being married off at 16 years and sent to his in-laws’ in the
town of Dalmau. There he meets a man called Kulli Bhaat,
who claims to have come from a family of bards, and to whom
he finds himself drawn. Set in pre-Independence India, A
Life Misspent is a coming-of-age story and an account of an
unlikely friendship.
speaking tiger, 176 pages, S499
harper perennial, 128 pages, S199
Rahul Mehta
Aruna Roy and Mazdoor
Kisan Shakti Sangathan
In this debut novel by an
award-winning short-story
writer, 12-year-old Kiran
Shah, the American-born
son of Indian immigrants,
longingly observes his
quintessentially American
neighbours, the Bells, in a
rural community in western New York. Meanwhile, Kiran’s
parents attempt to adjust to a bewildering new country: his
father is haunted by thoughts of the brother he left behind
and his mother struggles to accept a life with a man she did
not choose. As he grows older, Kiran finds himself perpetually
on the outside, both as an Indian-American torn between two
cultures and as a homosexual man in a homophobic society.
harper collins, 304 pages, S499
Aruna Roy, who co-founded
the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti
Sangathan in 1990, has been
working with peasants and
workers in rural Rajasthan
since the mid 1970s. The
efforts of the MKSS for better wages and other rights brought about the now-celebrated
Right to Information movement. This book is an account of
the evolution of this movement, chronicling the struggle, the
theatres of protest, and the long spells on the street that went
into drafting a peoples’ law.
roli books, 495 pages, S400
FOR 500,000 YEARS
Romila Thapar
Sonia Shah
In this book, the acclaimed
historian Romila Thapar explores how the definition of
Indian culture has changed
over the last three centuries. She argues that the contexts
through which we view ideas and objects constantly require
revaluation, and challenges the view of culture as a singular
entity that represents whole communities. Thapar analyses
objects that identify cultures and explores various ideas that
shape culture, such as social discrimination, the role of women and attitudes to science and knowledge.
We have known how to
prevent malaria for over a
century, but it still infects
300 million people and kills
nearly one million every
year. In this book, the journalist Sonia Shah captures the
history of this parasitic disease. She attempts to dismantle
misconceptions around mosquito-borne diseases and argues
that throughout the centuries we have invested our hopes in a
panoply of drugs and technologies that make for only temporary fixes.
aleph books, 262 pages, S599
penguin india, 309 pages, S499
Written by Devapriya
Roy and illustrated by
Priya Kuriyan
Translated from the
Telugu by Velcheru
Narayana Rao
This biography tells two
parallel stories. The first is
that of a young Indira Thapa,
a student in a Delhi government school who is assigned
an essay around her namesake, and in the process befriends an artist trying to reimagine Indira Gandhi. The other is the life and times of Indira
Gandhi, from the circumstances of her birth and her coming
of age to her long political career and tragic end. The book
uses a combination of fiction, fact and image to draw a portrait
of India in the twentieth century.
In the novella Ha Ha Hu
Hu: A Horse-headed God in
Trafalgar Square, a creature
with the head of a horse and
the body of a human mysteriously appears in London one
morning, causing considerable excitement and consternation
among the city’s denizens. The second novella in this book
is a satirical work titled Vishnu Sharma Learns English, in
which a Telugu lecturer is visited in a dream by the medieval
poet Tikanna and the ancient scholar Vishnu Sharma with an
unusual request: they want him to teach them English. Rao’s
translation is accompanied by an introduction and afterword
that illuminate the author’s life and works.
context publishing, 166 pages, S599
penguin india, 250 pages, S399
MAY 2018
Glimpses of India
perspective on Indian subjects
and themes from the viewpoint
of an outside observer, while also
offering an understanding of the
fascination that India exerts on
the Western imagination.
For more information, write to
all images courtesy michel testard
17 TO 27 MAY
This exhibition by the French
artist Michel Testard displays
paintings of forts, havelis and
ruins, as well as urban India’s
people, its bustling streets and
crumbling buildings. To these,
Testard adds travel sketches on
the landscapes of rural India.
The exhibition offers a unique
10 TO 13 MAY
courtesy vinayak mishra
Directed by Akarsh Khurana, Dhumrapaan is a
comedy about coping with the proverbial rat race
and the toll it takes on health, particularly the
throat and lungs. It is set in the smoking area of a
corporate building and follows the lives of a few
employees as they agonise over appraisals, politics
and relationships. The play features the actors
Kumud Mishra and Shubhrajyoti Barat with
Abhishek Saha, Ghanshyam Lalsa, Sarthak Kakar
and Siddharth Kumar.
For more information write to:
Piano-Cello Recital
A Hungarian duo, comprising the pianist Virág Kiss and cellist
Sándor DezsĘ will perform a classical music concert. The artists will present compositions by Western classical composers
including BélaBartók, Frédéric Chopin and Zoltán Kodály.
all images courtesy hungarian information and cultural centre
For more information, contact:
Ti Ani Itar
Directed by the prominent filmmaker Govind
Nihalini, this film is about a contemporary middle-class Maharashtrian couple. Anirudh Godbole and Naina live with their two daughters in a
comfortable flat in suburban Mumbai. An evening
with their close friends begins on a pleasant and
relaxed note but soon takes a dark turn after they
witness a crime being committed in the neighbouring building.
For more information, write to
courtesy ncpa
30 MAY
MAY 2018
on 28 may 1981, Peter Benenson,
the British founder of the human-rights organisation Amnesty International, celebrated the
group’s twentieth anniversary by
lighting a candle. It was the same
candle he first lit at the birth of
the organisation two decades
earlier on the steps of St Martinin-the-Fields, in London.
In Portugal in 1961, under the
authoritarian regime of Antonio
de Oliveira Salazar, two students
were arrested and imprisoned
for seven years for making a toast
to liberty in a public restaurant.
Benenson was so angered by the
arrests he decided to do something about it. His solution was
to urge people to inundate the
Portuguese government with
letters of protest.
Rather than limit this action to
just one particular case, Benenson wanted to draw attention to political prisoners the
world over. In an article for The
Observer titled, “The Forgotten
Prisoners,” Benenson articulated
the need for protecting those
who spoke up against atrocities
committed by their governments.
He coined the term “prisoner of
conscience,” which gained wide
traction. Amnesty International’s logo, representing a candle
surrounded by barbed wire, has
come to be seen as a symbol of
hope. Amnesty now has over two
million members and has dealt
with many thousand of cases of
human-rights violations across
the globe. In 1977, the organisation was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize.
Peter Benenson died of pneumonia in Oxford in 2005, at the
age of 84. Irene Khan, then the
secretary general of Amnesty
International, recalled him as a
man “whose conscience shone in
a cruel and terrifying world, who
believed in the power of ordinary
people to bring about extraordinary change.” By creating Amnesty International, she said, “he
gave each of us the opportunity
to make a difference.”
simon dack / keystone / getty images
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