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Muslims should lead the communal harmony effort in India

I do welcome yesterday’s public condemnation against Al-Qaeda by Indian Muslim community leaders. I also call upon these leaders to do more – and to actively engage in promoting communal harmony in India.

Let me state that I am deeply democratic in my sensibilities and generally abhor ‘leaders’ of any kind having the ability to control the mind spaces of their followers. I find it quite dangerous when we have societies whose members can get on a mass hysteria simply based on a few words of their ‘leader’, without applying independent thinking and human values. I have no doubt that it is such a tendency of leader-worship that has created Hitlers, Stalins ans Osamas of the world.

Knowing that we, as Indians, have a long way to go to build a truly democratic society of my dream, I welcome situations where community leaders seem to be using their ‘power of influence’ in bringing about peace and other human values.

Muslims should lead the communal harmony effort in India

The public condemnation of Al-Qaeda by Indian Muslim community leaders is a good step – but a very small step. There is an urgent need for Indian Muslim leaders go further beyond this. If the community leaders could initiate wide-spread discussion first among Muslim youth – and then across the board – about global terrorism and ways to counter it, this could trigger a fundamental change in our society. If and when we can achieve communal harmony as the natural phenomenon, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, that would be our best defense against Al-Qaeda or the birth of similar terrorist groups in India.

Building a country with true communal harmony requires accepting certain realities first. We must acknowledge that there is wide-spread mistrust, fear and at times hatred of Muslims among a lot of Hindus in India and vice versa, albeit a general reluctance in accepting this openly. This sentiment manifests itself in the way a few persons or organisations are often branded as “terrorist”. Most of our citizens are not involving in active hatred, but choose to simply live their own life pretending that the problem doesn’t exist. They seek to live parallel lives – as far away from each other as possible – and confuse that with communal harmony.

While all Indians have the responsibility to build communal harmony, I believe Muslims should front-run this. Simply because all other groups – Hindus, other minorities or non-believers – have utterly failed. Other minorities and non-believers lack influence in this matter and have been unable to go beyond activism. Hindu religious leaders do not have the same level of influence on Hindus that Muslim religious leaders have on Muslims. At best, they may have some influence over their own castes, sects, ethnic or language groups.

Non-religious leaders among Hindus, who have tried to work on communal harmony, have faced some limitations which have not only made them ineffective, but also, unfortunately, have had the opposite effect of strengthening Hindu chauvinists. Majority Hindu masses tend to view any Hindu leader working towards communal harmony as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. Unfortunately, even Mahatma Gandhi could not escape this accusation. As unfair as this seems, the leaders face a practical dilemma: If they suggest the need for reforms in Muslim communities, Muslims immediately recoil. If they down-play the need for reforms in Muslim communities, and only try to influence Hindus to be open-minded towards Muslims, Hindus completely tune them out – or even boycott them. Still, there are examples of some determined Hindu leaders who even ended up sharing stage with some Muslim groups who encourage Muslim youth to take up arms when they perceive oppression. This has deepened the mistrust among Hindus who feel that they need their own groups encouraging their young men to take up arms when they perceive aggression by Muslims against Hindus. This is a viciously circular no-win situation for everyone.

A ghettoized society can never be completely in harmony

A true litmus for communal harmony is complete dismantling of Muslim ghettoization. This can not be done by Muslims alone, but by the whole society collaboratively. Individual Hindus can open up to rent out their homes to Muslims and vice versa. Al-Qaeda may try to recruit from ghettos, but they won’t dare to recruit from mixed areas. Currently, this is a chicken-or-egg-first problem. Most Hindus will not rent out homes to Muslims or wish to live in neighbourhoods with Muslim majority since there is lack of trust. Trust cannot be developed until we live close by. In this regard, perhaps the Govts can step in. While the Govt may not be able to force private citizens to rent out their homes to any particular communities, it may be possible to make it illegal for apartment builders to refuse to rent or sell based on caste or religion (yes, this still happens! If you live in apartments, you may notice that how a majority of the families belong to one particular caste!). Currently, I do not believe any main stream politician has the courage to take up any cause that can be controversial in the beginning even if aimed at communal harmony in the long run.

This is why I call upon Muslim leaders to work towards breaking the cycle of mistrust and undercurrent of hatred among Hindus and Muslims. This is not easy and will not happen within weeks. It will take an year or two provided we start somewhere. It will be unpopular among Muslims at first – but this is where real leadership among Muslims is required.

Muslim leaders should first gain the trust and commitment of their community and focus on internal reforms

Many communal groups thrive on gossips, in the demonstration of ‘one-up-man-ship’, in enticing young men challenging their ‘masculinity’ – and other similar tactics. They make young men feel ‘manly’ and of higher status by possessing weapons. A fundamental change needed is to change the definition of what is meant by ‘winning’ as understood by common people – and this is where the discussions and debates moderated by the leaders can help set the right agenda.

Having taken the Muslim community into confidence, it is important for the Muslim leaders to project and promote their efforts in public as soon as possible. I envisage that initial challenges will come in the form of distrust of other communities, but steps will have to be taken to gain trust – e.g. Muslim leaders across the country can vociferously condemn acts of terrorism by Muslims every time it happens. Then, deliberately de-emphasizing some delicate issues will be required – for example, ‘fight against cow-slaughter ban’. While it is very important to continue fighting all matters relating to human rights, de-prioritizing of issues that are ‘ego’ matters for rival groups will ‘disarm’ them – deny them fodder.

Also, Muslim leaders can throw a pleasant surprise by addressing an issue raised by Hindu communities without causing any violation of minority religious rights – for example, local Muslim groups in a residential areas can collectively decide to voluntarily reduce the volume of loud-speakers used by Mosques for broadcasting prayers to be within licensed or reasonable limits (such as 50 db) and ensure the public know that it is a conscious decision. In fact, this single action can dumbfound rival groups, warm many hearts and open up platforms for more collaborative efforts – not only towards communal harmony but also towards eradication of corruption, poverty, rowdyism etc.

The Muslim leaders working towards communal harmony should not be silent or dismissive when any other Muslim politicians or clerics make hate speeches. The act of condemnation should be unequivocal, public and immediate so that people know all Muslims are not condoning hate. This will go a very long way in gaining the trust of Hindus and others. When hate speeches are made by Hindu leaders, the Muslim leaders should choose the words wisely while condemning and point out that all Hindus are not in support of that hate speech. Basically, the focus should be on ‘extinguishing the fire of communal hatred’ first – and then plant the seed of harmony.

Non-communal Hindus should join hands

While I call for Muslim leaders to initiate efforts towards communal harmony, I think non-communal Hindus and non-believers should also actively participate in these efforts. If we are involved in activism for any social cause, at the minimum, we should be careful not to contribute to the communal divide by staying silent when Muslims are involved in misdeeds. As private citizens, we should not hesitate to speak up whenever we hear bigotry in common conversations among our friends and families. As parents, we should sensitize our children towards respecting diversity and treating all human beings with dignity by modeling such behaviour ourselves.

Last but not least, I do believe women can play a major role in shaping our society to be more accepting of diversity – and to be more tolerant of minorities. Deliberately including Muslim women’s groups in the discussion of promoting communal harmony can prove to be very effective. As women, we deeply understand how it feels to be mistrusted and marginalized. We know what it means to be treated as second-class citizens. We know how it feels to want to fly, but have the wings clipped. We understand how diminished we feel when we have to live under threat of violence, if we dare to go beyond what society feels as ‘woman’s place’. Although we are about 50% of the population, even if we happened to belong to so-called ‘upper castes’, we know what it means to be an outcast, to be a ‘minority’. So, the least we can offer to the communal harmony efforts is to refuse to ‘do unto others’ what is unfairly done to us.

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Continuing My Journey for Clean Politics – Now with AAP

As many of you have followed, my journey to help create a platform for clean politics in India started more than 3 years ago. I was a part of the Anna Hazare/India Against Corruption movement and then worked to build the awareness and momentum for clean politics in Karnataka using the Loksatta platform. I am grateful for the hard-work and commitment of hundreds of volunteers, contributions and encouragement of several donors and thousands of well-wishers from all over the world – especially during my Basavanagudi MLA election campaign last year. I didn’t win the seat – but we definitely won thousands of hearts and created a hope in Karnataka, particularly Bangalore, that clean politics is possible.

I and several of my colleagues at Loksatta were very thrilled when Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) succeeded in Delhi elections – and in breaking the misconception most common people held that good people cannot win elections. Most importantly, this was not just a group of traditional politicians coming together like 1977 Janata movement. This was a real people’s movement. Having awakened the common people into the possibilities that they never thought was possible, I believe this momentum will continue. Having shown it is possible in our capital city, known for its cynicism, I believe it would be possible to establish better politics all over India within next few years.

Over the last two months, I was confronted with a question repeatedly – by people who knew me from my previous election, by people who had heard about Loksatta, by the random people on the streets who heard about Loksatta and our fight against KPSC scam for the first time – Why was Loksatta not working with AAP while goal being the same?. While there were talks between Loksatta and AAP about working together, it is not a simple matter to merge the efforts of two parties with different working styles and, arguably, different policy perspectives. After long and painful deliberations, I felt that it is crucial for the cause of good politics to forgo individual brand affinities and work hard towards the shared goal itself. The huge efforts required to hit the tipping point to establish the brand-name could instead be applied towards increasing the momentum if we used a brand-name that is already well-known for a similar goal. With this thought process and to have an immediate role in shaping the movement in Karnataka, I have decided to continue my efforts with AAP.

I understand my decision could be upsetting for several people from Loksatta as well as others who may place high value on loyalty towards a person or an organisation. I assure everyone that my commitment towards clean politics is unwavering. I am – and will remain – a fan of Dr.JP and Loksatta – and I would love to see Dr.JP as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh this summer. I look forward to a day when all good forces will come together to establish clean politics as a minimum standard in each and every state of India.

We all have an opportunity and an obligation to maintain the current momentum for clean politics. We need to generate many more JPs and many more Aravind Kejriwals among us. I have seen the enthusiasm, courage and energy of thousands of volunteers working towards the cause of anti-corruption over the last 3 years whether at IAC movement, at Loksatta or at AAP. This gives me a renewed hope for clean politics in India.

Teachers’ Day – Musings and Reflections

Tomorrow, on Teacher’s Day, school children all over India greet their teachers. Some schools organise cultural activities and speeches by children in praise of their teachers. Those of us who are former students remember our favorite teachers and get nostalgic about school life. Yes, a teacher’s job is one of the toughest and must be appreciated. However, most of us, the former students, forget about teachers the very next day.

Our constitution has provided a special status for teaching profession. In all bicameral states, including Karnataka, 1/12th of the Legislative Council members (MLCs) are elected by teachers! We have 7 MLCs elected by teachers in Karnataka. Unfortunately, though, the vote-buying is rampant in teachers’ constituency elections. Most of the candidates from big parties make efforts to register government school teachers – and bribe them with expensive gifts, lavish dinner parties and a promise of favorable transfers! If vote-buying in an MLA election is frustrating enough, the fact that teachers sell themselves out is downright disgusting. I shudder to think what kind of values such teachers could be teaching our next generation. Most of the teachers from private schools are not registered to vote in these teachers’ constituencies. Considering that there are more private schools in cities now than government schools, perhaps parents and students should encourage their teachers to register and vote. If the voter base is large and more inclusive, the impact of vote-buying will be reduced to a great extent – and thus paving a way for honest candidates a chance to be elected in future.

Our society often has a cult-like reverence for teachers – ‘aacharya devobhava‘ (teacher is god) – we often quote our scriptures. At the same time, our society doesn’t show respect to teachers in terms of salaries paid to them! Perhaps we believe gods don’t need much money to survive! Govt school teachers today pay bribes of several lakhs to get the job or transfers. Most teachers from private schools aren’t paid well even if their school may be minting money from mandatory ‘donations‘ by parents. We have reached a situation where our best and the brightest are discouraged from choosing teaching as their profession (just like our politics). As a result, our country will face long-term impacts of the gradual degradation in quality of our education system.

On one hand, we have blind reverence and speak eloquently about teachers being gods. On the other hand, we often fail to protect our children from some teachers who could fit into ‘aacharya devvobhava‘ (teacher is demon). I had a male teacher in middle-school who used to inappropriately touch girls, who were looking older than their age, on a daily basis. I am ashamed to say that none of the children- boys or girls – including myself – did stand up to that teacher. Even if we had complained to our parents, they may not have believed us. I also had several female teachers in school who routinely insulted children from so-called ‘lower castes’ by making reference to their castes. And I had teachers in my engineering college who rarely came to college, but instead routinely threatened some students to fail them in internal tests and lab courses, unless they agreed to pay for ‘private tuition’ from them!

The annual Saraswati Pooja in my school was always was performed by a Brahmin boy student, who was appointed by teachers. I hope that teachers of today ensure that Saraswati Pooja is performed by a random student. If it is truly random, there would at least be some instances where a Dalit girl would be performing the Pooja. Let us set aside the deeper question of whether religion should have a role in schools. I am not sure if we, as a society, are ready to have a meaningful discussion about it yet. At the juncture, I am just hoping that if a school chooses to observe ‘Saraswati Pooja’, the teachers take it upon themselves to raise awareness about treating all castes and both genders equally and leading by example.

Of course, we certainly have several great and inspiring teachers despite the limitations of our systems. I just don’t think we need cult-like reverences that expect us to treat teachers like gods. It would great service to teachers if we treat them like human beings! Teachers, like people in any other profession, are human beings capable of greatness as well as susceptible to failings. Let us not fall back on the stale arguments to defend our ‘culture and heritage’ by proclaiming that ‘in our glorious ancient days, teachers were great‘ and placing all the blame on ‘western system of education that has ruined our values’. Let us shift our focus away from the ‘glorious past‘ and let us strive hard to create a better present and future. Personally, I am glad to have the current education system which has allowed me to go to school – unlike ancient ‘boarding schools(Gurukulas) which catered only to the boys! Inclusiveness is a start – but it is not enough. Great education is not optional or a luxury in this global economy – it is absolutely necessary for survival. The parents, teachers, government and the civil society at large – all have to work together to build world-class education system such that even poor and village children get a decent level of education. Only when we build a great education system can we hope to build a great nation.

Banality of Corruption

Today’s Prajavani (a major Kannada daily) writes about a businessman who contested recent MLA election in Karnataka as an independent candidate. Mr. G.A.Ramegowda, according to the news report, had been engaged in a lot of social service activities in his constituency for several years. Now that his electors did not vote for him and, according to him, ‘have sold their votes to other candidates who have given them cash for votes’, he is upset and has decided that he will stop all social service activities he had been doing such as providing free books to poor students, vocation training for ladies, free health insurance for families.

Prajavani writes this news as if it is funny. But this news really reflects the tragedy of our political system today. What the businessman was doing so far was NOT really social service. He was trying to bribe people for votes well before election. All that happened was that his opponents out-paid him! The tragedy is that neither himself nor the majority of voters really understood his work had always been a form of a bribery (for vote-buying).

During my election campaign, there were several voters who had come and asked me for goodies ‘neevu namage help madidare, naavu nimage help maduttivi’ (you help us, we will vote for you!) Mind you, not just slum-dwellers or very poor people who expected direct cash. I am talking about several people in Girinagar and other well-fed areas – whose children are earning handsome salaries or settled abroad. Many people wanted me to sponsor a building – or at least a ceiling fan – so that they can conduct their association meetings twice a month or so! Many middle-aged women belonging to ladies associations were also asking for such favours. Many others were hinting that, like Ravisubramanya (current MLA), I must donate large sums of money to their temples, mutts and their caste-based Sammelanas! Some of those people had told me that they had taken such favours over last 5 years from our current MLA – and thus felt obligated to show support for him. Several others were angry with him because he had promised to provide a favour and failed to deliver! Voting for a candidate for providing or rejecting to vote for not providing an indirect bribe are the two sides of the same corrupt coin.

This is the type of indirect bribe for votes that our politicians like Ravisubramanya – who are considered ‘relatively clean’ for BJP standards – will never be caught by our election vigilance officers. Ravisubramanya himself feels victimised – he once mentioned to me that the people who ask for these kind of favours from the politicians are the ones who are corrupting our politicians! While I have sympathies for his feeling, I have no sympathies for the fact that he let himself to be compromised like most other politicians today. This happening in a mostly-educated constituency like Basavanagudi shows the enormity of the challenge people like us, party like Loksatta, face in creating a new kind of politics in India.

As Dr.JP, Loksatta’s founder, often says, our politicians have an enormous burden in our society with the current way of doing politics. We must find a way to make ethical politics sustainable. Most of today’s politicians, JP says, when they realised they were incapable of making ‘ethical politics’ sustainable, have chosen to leave ‘ethics’ rather than leaving ‘politics’! We probably would do other way around.

We, all concerned citizens, have a responsibility to educate ourselves and our families about how our society reflects the concept of ‘banality of corruption’ (I use this phrase based on Hannah Arendt’s thesis of ‘Banality of Evil’). We, the younger and educated population, have higher share of this responsibility. We have an obligation to learn to re-build the moral fabric of our society and politics.

Women as ‘Agents of Change’

Today is International Day of the Girl Child. It is disturbing to think that, even in the 21st century, many families have a clear inclination to have sons rather than daughters. In the rural and poorer sections of the society, the expressions of disappointment at the birth of a daughter are more visible, and in the more ‘educated’ and more urban families the reactions are more subtle. Nevertheless, the boy-preference is unmistakable.

The situation of girls in the middle-class families in the cities (such as Bangalore) has certainly improved a great deal over the last three decades. Today, we see many parents content with a single girl-child or two girls, and raising them with as much opportunities as they would have done for the boys. Today’s women, who were girls in the 60s and 70s, are now taking the responsibility of caring for old-age parents as much as their brothers do, if not more. And the girls of the 80s and 90s are growing up to be very confident young women.

All these improvements are in the right track – but not sufficient. It is not sufficient for the girls and women to be “well taken care of”. Women need to be the builders, architects and visionaries of the society. I urge the young women of today to not to be content – and to continue to grow in multiple dimensions – economically, emotionally, intellectually, professionally, socially – and politically.

Yes, politically too! Loksatta Party provides a platform for any public-spirited citizen – including youth, men or women – to grow as political leader. At Loksatta, you do not have to be a daughter or a daughter-in-law of a dynasty, to grow as a leader.

I urge women to join Loksatta. We can not sit by and watch our country go to dogs. We must take the matter in our own hands – we must get involved and make things happen for better. We must build a society where our daughters and grand-daughters can live safely and proudly – and look up to us for inspiration. If we set our minds and efforts, we can do this.

Kaveri: Whose Water is it Anyway?

Several people are asking what is my/Loksatta’s position on the Kaveri water-sharing dispute between our state and Tamil Nadu. This dispute predates independence – and it is a shame that our policymakers have been unable to resolve this issue to this day.

At Loksatta, we have been discussing about what should the sustainable and peaceful long-term solution – while keeping in mind that we need to resolve the short-term needs of this particular season/year immediately. We want to propose real workable solutions – rather than merely doing what most politicians are doing – i.e. simply declare a ‘political stand’ eyeing on upcoming elections/to maintain current seats and such.

Developing an implementable solution focusing on our state’s needs, while ensuring we are also fair to Tamil Nadu, cannot be done overnight, but we must do it pretty quickly. I will share some of the thoughts here.

Ideally, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu should come up with cooperative approach and decide how to share Kaveri water during good years as well as drought years. However, there is complete lack of trust among us in any data provided by Tamil Nadu – and Tamil Nadu people do not trust any data provided our state government. (I think we may have lost a window of opportunity to develop the interstate water policy during these ‘peace’ times. Without high emotions raging on both sides of the dispute, we could probably have had an equitable and agreeable solution mostly based on scientific facts and long-term view.)

To me, it is very illuminating that when rains were satisfactory over last few years, the Kaveri issue didn’t take the center stage in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu politics. This means that the real root cause of the issue is the scarcity of water. And the scarcity of freshwater will only continue – with continuous depletion of ground water, increased urbanisation, increased population, environmental pollution, need for hydro-power generation etc – unless we begin to do things differently. Our problem is not unique to us. Every state – and indeed every country – is facing an issue of disappearing water supply – and desperately trying to figure out how long we can get by before serious drought hits us. Some even say that the next world war is going to be about water!

Just like any sophisticated camera, most of us see things very differently when we change our ‘lens’. Looking at the water problem merely as ‘sharing the current small pie’ will not take us too for. We must conserve/increase our overall water supply. About 65% of Kaveri water is used for irrigation. We need to see how we can make our agriculture less dependent on water. Also, Bangalore’s population has doubled in just about one decade – and Kaveri water can only be stretched so long. We should take multiple measures to increase Bangalore’s water supply. We should seek funds from the center to overhaul Bangalore’s water infrastructure – to make it more efficient, plug any leaks, multiple uses of same water – as well supplement city’s water supply from local sources such as well-maintained lakes, proper recycling of water.

Our lawmakers have learnt merely to do protests and walk-outs whenever they face an issue rather than developing well-thought out, well-researched, well-advocated win-win solutions. We owe to ourselves and our future generations to resolve Kaveri issue quickly – as well as develop a national policy that should guide the way we share our common resources.

Joining Loksatta Party and Contesting MLA Election

It has been more than an year since I last wrote on this blog. Several major things have happened during this time. I will try to summarise the major events to provide the link between the previous posts and next several posts which I will write from my ‘election campaign trail’.

Anna Hazare’s movement that I was involved since more than an year has taken a different shape in the last 3 months. Arvind Kejriwal has been working towards building a political party – and Anna has parted ways to continue with the movement Indian Against Corruption which saw its peak success last year.

I had always been convinced that the most effective way to bring changes to our political system is by entering politics. I had come to know about Dr.JP and Loksatta Party months before I took the plunge into politics. Working with several activists of India Against Corruption movement in Bangalore, who were also the members of Loksatta, I was convinced that Loksatta is the right platform for anyone who has the ambition of establishing ethical politics in India.

I formally joined Loksatta Party during September of 2011. For nearly nine months Oct 2011-Jun 2012, I worked on Dr.Ashwin Mahesh’s campaign taking on several aspects of campaign management. Dr. Ashwin, a former NASA-scientist and a current researcher at IIM, Bangalore contested Bangalore Graduate Constituency election (to be a member of Legislative Council (MLC)) inspired hundreds of people in Bangalore. I may write about the experiences of working on his campaign when I get time.

Now, I am contesting for Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) election from Basavangudi, Bangalore, on Loksatta Party’s ticket. I have launched the campaign on the auspicious day of Aug 15th. Election to the next Karnataka State Legislative Assembly are due in late April or early May, if the current government completes its 5-year term.

I need help and support of hundreds of people from outside Basavanagudi – and the support and vote of nearly 50,000 voters from Basavanagudi! Please join and meet me on my campaign trail. Please visit my website http://www.shanthaladamle.com/ and ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ShanthalaForMLA