Democracy and the internet

The internet in India is like a nuclear warhead that’s missing the fissile Uranium.

Elections at IITM were interesting. Candidates weren’t allowed to spend their own money. Candidates weren’t allowed to use their own media. Institute-sponsored “soapbox”es were conducted and places for campaigning were designated. And we aren’t talking about puppet-positions here. Elected representatives were given, under some adult supervision, a reasonable amount of power to conduct business. These elections, such as they were, were publicly financed — the administration (you might call it the government) paid for the elections in entirety.

Pretty much everybody not bought and paid for by the Corporation agrees that elections should be publicly financed. Public financing ensures that candidates take elections seriously and that people with money don’t run away with everything. Public financing doesn’t necessarily have to look like the elections at IITM. Not every candidate has to get the same amount of money for example. What is important is that every voter and every vote gets the same amount of importance.

Is there a reason this shouldn’t work for the country as a whole? Ravikanth asked a few of us this question.

While we don’t really (free airtime on Doordarshan and All-India Radio is given to every political party, apparently… like anybody even watches DD anymore) have publicly financed elections in this country, we do have campaign-spending limits. But these are limits applied on the candidate, and not the party. The most recent iteration of the campaign finance laws in India also make it easy for people and corporations to donate legally to candidates and parties. The problem is, however, that even if contributions are legal, they’re still only capped at 5% of the profits of the company. Which is a huge amount of money and an incredible amount of influence to put into the hands of the people running mega corporations. And all this is without even considering how much ‘black’ money runs elections.

Can we fix this? If the state sponsored every election expense, parties would no longer need their own money to win elections. Which means they wouldn’t need to seek out donors. Which means they wouldn’t need to do backhanded favours for the donors after they come to power. At least in theory, state-financed elections would fix the mess we are in.

I started this post alluding to IITM’s elections being ‘state’-financed. However, IITM is not India. Insofar as attitudes towards sexuality or morality are concerned, perhaps. But otherwise not.

The average IITian is literate; the literacy rate in the country as a whole hangs at around 75%. The average IITian has access to the internet and everything that entails.* In fact, voting at IITM is done online. For the country as a whole, though, the numbers for internet usage are depressing.

This last detail is something that could truly have made a difference. Nobody doubts the power of the internet to rouse or mobilise people. We’ve seen real-life examples in the last year. And it might still happen in this country too. After all, India has seen a mobile telephony revolution. We have the cheapest telephone-calls in the world. And while China still beats us in the number of telephone users, the speed at which mobile access has grown in India is staggering. (If you’re counting, China has a billion telephone users. We have about 900 million.)

Here’s hoping.

[Edit: 19.01.2013: * Aashish Gupta points out that voting at IITM is done at a booth where you login to a computer connected to a central server, which isn’t all that different from the EVMs that are used in India’s elections. I agree. But it is true that at IITM you could read about a candidate for election — manifestos, propaganda, CVs — online.]

This is not sexual revolution

I am all for promiscuity. I want women to break free of the shackles of societally imposed “modesty”. I am also for easier access to pornography. But let’s please label it as such, hmm?

The most expensive painting* ever sold is one of a naked woman asleep on a couch. The painting was made in 1995 by Lucian Freud and is of not the best-looking 51 year old woman. The painting sold for £17 million.

Painting naked women isn’t new. The Old Masters of the Renaissance (which may not really be a thing) made art out of women sans clothing. When I was looking for paintings by the Old Masters, one painting that came advertised as being erotic is that of Danae by Titian:

Danae by Titian

The story goes that Danae, a princess, was imprisoned by her father the king because her son would kill her father. Danae lets Zeus, the god, seduce her, fully aware of the consequences. Zeus appears as gold dust in this painting.

Okay, I confess that I am no art critic; I only have as much of a clue about whether a picture of a naked woman is art or pornography as anybody else. But it seems to me that the test for whether a painting/picture is art or pornography is who the “subject” is. Danae, in the painting above, isn’t naked for your benefit or mine; she doesn’t know we’re watching. More importantly, she doesn’t care.

Pornography exists to titillate its audience. This, as much as the perfect bodies, the contortionist body positions and the incredible sex, is a defining characteristic of pornography. In a pornographic version of waiting for Zeus, Danae would be trying to make the viewer imagine himself in Zeus’ place.

I point out all this in preface to a shocking documentary about the portrayal of women in Hindi movies called “No Country for Women”. Apparently, while I wasn’t looking, a de facto ban on actors so much as kissing on screen has gone away and been replaced by what I can only call free licence to show pornography.

So why is this access to pornography bad? We should measure a society’s progress by its acceptance of pornography, right?

Young men in this society apparently get their ideas about social interaction with the other sex not from, you know, social interaction but from the movies. This is amply demonstrated in the documentary (‘arey, woh Rakhi Sawant jaise skirt pehen ke ayegi to hum usey chedenge nahin to aur kya karenge?). Teaching men that women who dress well, or have certain body types, or go out at night are asking for attention is a recipe for disaster. And yet we see this in scene after scene.

I am all for promiscuity. I want women to break free of the shackles of societally imposed “modesty”. I am also for easier access to pornography. But let’s please label it as such, hmm?

*Correction: This is not the most expensive painting ever sold. This is the most expensive painting of a living artist ever sold. HT: Jayavel, who tells me even this may no longer be true.

The sane among us

Yes, the laws regarding rape need to be re-written. But no amount of policing and jurisprudence will end the tragedy of rape if change doesn’t begin at home and on the streets.

I wrote about reactions to the Delhi gang-rape (and now murder) that are not what you expect from a civilised people. Abhijit Mukherjee was not the only person making dumb-headed comments. There are people who blame the victim and people who blame “western culture”; there are people in parliament and people on the streets demanding castration and death as punishment for rape.

But for all this, I have also heard some sane voices. Rape is only the worst symptom of a continuum of attitudes and the misogyny that pervades society at every level. Rape begins at home. Every boy who has it drilled into him that he is worth more than his sister is a potential rapist. He may not actually rape anybody, but he will become a member of this society in which it is ever so easy to blame the victim. It doesn’t help that even our mythology — the epics, the bedrock of this society — is misogynistic.

But while we in India may be worse than other societies, we are by no means unique when it comes to victim-blaming or treating women like second-class citizens. In fact, the language that is used to shame women — “shame the sluts” — is the same no matter which society we talk about.

Society’s treatment of women is again only one tragedy in a hierarchy of sorrow. This hierarchy is institutionalised and perpetuated by the xenophobia inherent in this society as in any other. We treat the other with contempt and suspicion. While it may sound facile to suggest that teaching men and women to empathise with those less privileged than themselves will stop rape, I can’t think of another permanent solution. Yes, the laws regarding rape need to be re-written. But no amount of policing and jurisprudence will end the tragedy of rape if change doesn’t begin at home and on the streets.

And finally, I have come across two accounts — those of Charanya Kannan, and of Sohalia Abdulali — of personal trauma and courage in the face of a malevolent society and an uncaring legal system. The only thing in common between these two women is that they had the support of their friends and families. Which is more than can be said for many women in this country. Read just these accounts of personal travails and you will have an idea of what we can do to change society for the better, bottom-up.

[Edit: After I had written this post, I found this wonderful TED-ed talk by Isabel Allende who says, near the end of her talk:

What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power and the power to abuse. In our species, the alpha-males define reality and force the rest of the pack to accept that reality and follow the rules. The rules change all the time but they always benefit men. And in this case, the trickle-down effect that does not work in Economics works perfectly. Abuse trickles down from the top of the ladder to the bottom. Women and children, especially the poor, are at the bottom of the ladder. Even the most destitute of men has somebody to abuse — a woman or a child. I am fed up with the power that the few exert over the many through gender, income, race and class. I think that the time is right to make fundamental changes in our civilisation. But for real change, we need feminine energy in the management of the world. We need a critical number of women in positions of power and we need to nurture the feminine energy in men. I am talking about men with young minds, of course. Old guys are useless; we have to wait for them to die off.

-C, 7 Jan 2013]

[Further edit: Sohalia Abdulali, mentioned above for her essay about her gang-rape has written for the NY Times about living to tell the story about her rape, with all the wisdom that age brings with it. The essay is titled “After being raped, I was wounded; my “honour” wasn’t.” The most hopeful thing about the essay, for me, was this:

At 17, I was just a child. Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. With them on my side, so much came my way. I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.

Too many others will never experience that. They will not see that it gets better, that the day comes when one incident is no longer the central focus of your life. One day you find you are no longer looking behind you, expecting every group of men to attack. One day you wind a scarf around your throat without having a flashback to being choked. One day you are not frightened anymore.

-C, 9 Jan 2013]