The burkini ban, the uniform civil code

Democracy abhors dress-codes.

France’s ban on the burkini and India’s ongoing debate over whether to implement a uniform civil code seem to have a common thread.

For the uninitiated: this is a burkini. Wearing a burkini in public was made a punishable offence by the governments of several towns and cities in France; these laws got the support of France’s socialist Prime Minister, whose argument is effectively that the French feel icky around women in burkinis and shouldn’t be made to. The ban has now been struck down by a high court in France as being against basic human rights.

I haven’t seen many cogent arguments for why the government should be able to tell somebody else what to wear, and still be allowed to call itself democratic. Doing both sounds to me like rank hypocrisy; or at least like not enough thought has gone into it.

I read a particularly interesting take on the burkini ban at The Ex Muslim (TEM). I agree with most (see footnote 1) of what is said there, as I’ve said before (here, here). This, coming from a muslim woman who has personally suffered, is poignant:

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

In India, each religion has its own laws for marriage, divorce, inheritence, etc, and the adoption of a common set of laws governing all Indians is a constitutional directive which we haven’t yet found a way of instituting. It won’t be easy. Recent legal challenges to triple talaq have gone predictably, with “liberal” commentators behaving exactly the way TEM says they do.

The only moral argument against the implementation of a uniform civil code is something TEM points out about the burkini ban and how it is counterproductive:

Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?

I think this should be the central question we ask ourselves in the debate in India over the uniform civil code: would implementing the uniform civil code make the lives of muslim women more difficult? I don’t have an answer, one way or the other. The arguments I’ve encountered that a uniform civil code might make life worse for women have been unconvincing, but that may be because I have a privileged armchair to sit on and philosophise from.

Footnote 1: My one quibble about TEM’s post is her characterisation of the false-equivalence that she says “liberals” resort to (in the service of cultural relativism, let’s say). She claims that liberals argue that muslim women in burqas and women in the west in bikinis are the same. I don’t know if people claim this, but by TEM’s metric, this is a crappy analogy:

When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

However, consider what I think is a fairer (…and lovelier?) analogy: women in the west are made to wear make-up in public; “made to”  through cultural norms and relentless social badgering. People went after an olympic athlete because her hair was frizzy

It still isn’t an entirely fair comparison, I don’t think; I’ve never heard of a woman stoned to death for not wearing make-up (or even disenfranchised). But it’s closer to what a self-hating liberal might argue than the burqa-bikini equivalency.

Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. Vandana Shiva raises none of them.

G. Padmanaban, the former Director of IISc and a biotech administrator and activist if there ever was one, gave a talk at JNC about the promise of genetically modified crops–and necessary precautions to take in their use. Padmanaban pulled no punches, and laid out the pro-GM position as clearly as I’ve heard it. (Disclosure: I changed my position on GM crops about a year ago on the basis of the scientific consensus on their safety. I do not think GM crops are a cure-all; the ecological impact of every new GM crop should be assessed carefully before widespread use is authorised.) His talk cleared up several misconceptions I had about GM crops simply because of where I (mostly) got my information from.

Vandana Shiva is a high profile opponent of globalisation in general and Monsanto’s monopoly over Bt cotton (and Bt brinjal, if the time comes). She says that the government should “control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds”. This on the eve of an expected announcement from the central government on GM crop royalties. Her article is typical of articles written against GM crops, in that it’s vague, argues circularly, and would probably misinform the unwary reader.

OK, I’ll assume some explanation is necessary.

Monsanto added the gene from Bacillus thuringienesis(Bt) to the cotton plant’s genome, creating Bt cotton. Monsanto ‘owns’ Bt cotton, in that only Monsanto can decide who (else) gets to make or sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto charges such seed companies a royalty for using their technology. The companies presumably pass this on to farmers who buy seeds from them.

This is much like somebody making a song or a movie, and charging licensing fees for you to use them. (Several Indian) seed companies have licensed the Bt cotton ‘technology’ from Monsanto Mahyco, the subsidiary of Monsanto that owns Bt cotton rights in India.

The Indian government decided, in May this year, to cap prices for seeds. They also decided that royalties should be capped at 10% of the seed price for the first five years, and should decrease after that. The order also said that any company that wants to produce Bt seeds should be given a licence (much like the compulsory licensing for life-saving drugs that India enforces). The Indian government then withdrew the order, presumably under pressure from the industry, and said they’ll tell us what they’ve decided in three months, i.e. some time this week.

A wide range of positions on intellectual property is possible in a democracy, and the government will find some middle ground, as governments do. That the government used the essential commodities act instead of something else has been called into question, with people pointing out that seeds constitute about 5% of input costs for farmers and that setting royalty limits only serves the intermediaries between Monsanto and the farmers.

The misinformation about GM crops, on the other hand, is staggering. Vandana Shiva’s article, for instance, is an incoherent muddle. Her central point that the Indian government should control the price of seeds is clear enough. But her article doesn’t even mention seed companies, consistently making it seem as if farmers are directly indebted to Monsanto!

The article is rife with bad arguments and specious analogies. I made a list:


300,000 farmers have killed themselves because of seed royalties.

About 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. But no clear link exists between farmer suicide numbers and the adoption of Bt cotton. If it’s true that seeds are 5% of the total input cost, though, a link seems unlikely.


By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.

Monsanto claiming ownership of the seed because it had the tools to shoot a gene with a gene gun into the cell of the plant is the equivalent to a doctor who has facilitated in-vitro fertilisation claiming parenthood and ownership not only of the child thus born, but of all its descendants in the future. Society will surely reject such a claim.

I wouldn’t blame you if you came away from Vandana Shiva’s article thinking that farmers owe royalties to Monsanto, crop after crop, season after season. This is, as far as I can tell (and I’d happily stand corrected; down with the evil corporation and all that), absolutely untrue. Farmers do have the right to save their seeds and replant them. That the next generation of hybrid Bt cotton won’t be quite as resistant to bollworm as the first generation is called the loss of hybrid vigour, and is a feature of all hybrids, not just GM hybrids.


By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, such corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds which have now become their property.

Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing. They multiply and reproduce.

If the assertion is that patents related to living organisms should be regulated differently from patents for other things, I think that’s all right. But it is a line-drawing exercise. Experiments on animals are allowed for example; certain kinds of experiments on human beings aren’t. We can debate where the line should be drawn for patenting.

On the other hand, “plants can evolve on their own” is only a valid argument against patenting Bt cotton if cotton plants could somehow evolve a/the gene that provides bollworm resistance.


In Argentina, a judge rejected Monsanto soya bean patent, saying: “The writer of a book cannot claim to be the inventor of a language.”Monsanto is not writing the book of life. It is just scrambling the letters in total ignorance of what its “genetic modification” means at the level of the organism, the seed or the eco system. Claiming patents on seed and patents on life is therefore equivalent to claiming destruction as creation, ignorance as innovation.

The writer of a book has rights to what he’s written. That’s intellectual property. We can decide democratically whether, and how strictly, we want to enforce IP rights. But saying “the writer didn’t invent those words” in defence of plagiarism, say, is laughable. There’s a clear legal distinction between what’s patentable–the technology to add the Bt gene into cotton–and what isn’t–cotton itself.

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. If GM crops turn out to be invasive, what ecological impact would that have? Sans proper farmer training/education, are we risking pesticide resistant super-pests? Vandana Shiva raises none of them in her article.

Abdul Kalam

Snark is easy.

Among the most visited posts on the blog is a flippant piece on a speech our late President APJ Abdul Kalam made. In the post, I make fun of Kalam’s flubbing some grammar; I make fun of the circular nature of his prescription for world peace. I make fun of his earnestness.

I made fun; it’s easy to make fun.

Most of the pushback has been equally childish. “Go kill yourself” is not an argument, to say nothing of being ironic coming right after ‘how could you say such mean things’?

The true test of a man is in how he treats those he has power over, goes the saying. I work for somebody who saw first-hand how Kalam treated subordinates. Kalam saw right through people, RN says. He saw who could or couldn’t do what, and didn’t put hierarchy before knowledge. He made you feel special for being part of his team. RN’s words, as best I can remember them, were “if you could do what was necessary to get the project to work, he’d treat you like the most important person”. As a recruit into DRDO and then ISRO without a PhD, it took other great men–Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai (and Raja Ramanna, I think)–to see Kalam’s potential. Kalam’s contributions to the Indian missile defence programme dwarf those of anybody else any of us can name, PhD or not.

All of which is to say I’m thinking of writing again. The first post on my return has gone well. But one does not simply walk into mordor pick up where one left off with no indication of having introspected, of having seen time pass by.

I’ve made apologies for doing dumb things before. I daresay I’ll make them again. Let’s not call this an apology; perhaps that’s too strong a word. Let me say only that the point some commenters made on the original Abdul Kalam post that snark doesn’t always show wit or cleverness is well taken, and will be remembered as I try and get better at whatever it is I’m doing here.

No, “Many Indians” aren’t interested in PV Sindhu’s caste

NewsMinute’s numbers are off. Way, way off.

After the Brexit vote results came out, several news agencies (as well as the “fake” newspeople Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee) focussed on the fact that people were asking google “What is the EU?” the day after voting ended. It turns out that the number of people searching “what is the EU?” was about 1000–i.e. essentially zero compared to the 35 million people who voted one way or another in the Brexit referendum.

I think something similar is happening with a recent story in India on PV Sindhu, India’s silver medallist in Badminton in the Rio Olympics. NewsMinute is running a story that google searches for PV Sindhu’s caste have spiked after she won her silver medal. This is true, and can be checked quite simply by using Google Trends. But, as in the Brexit case above, a spike means very little unless accompanied by absolute numbers.

Newsminute provides one graph on absolute numbers, showing that 150,000 people searched for PV Sindhu’s caste in June 2016. They claim that, based on the recent spike, millions of people are searching for PV Sindhu’s caste. If that number seems suspect to you–as it did me–that’s because it appears it is.


Here are my results from Google AdWords. First, the number of people who searched for “pv sindhu”, and “pv sindhu caste”:











There were about 15,000 searches a month for PV Sindhu, and 170 searches a month for her caste over the last six months. Where newsminute got their 150,000 searches from I do not know, but that number is clearly rubbish. About 1% of all searches for PV Sindhu asked for her caste. This ratio holds even with the recent–and bloody well earned–spike in interest in her, as you can see below. If we accepted the NewsMinute number of 150,000 searches for “pv sindhu caste”, it would mean, with a factor of 100 for the spike, and a factor of 100 between the two search terms, that there were 1.5 billion searches for “pv sindhu”. Bullshit. [Edit (11PM): I realised after I posted this that the 150,000 is per month, whereas the hundredfold spike may have been per day. That means that my figure of 1.5 billion may be wrong. If so, it would mean, however, that on the day of her silver-medal win, there were (150,000/30) * (100 * 100)  = 5 crore searches for PV Sindhu. Which brings me back to: ‘Bullshit’.]


Now, 1% in India is a lot of people, and NewsMinute could be forgiven for saying “many Indians” given that about 20,000 people have searched for her caste. But they have to explain why their numbers are so far off.