Freedom of expression, at some level, symbolizes life itself. When we regulate and control, free speech is no longer free. Instead, it becomes tempered by fear of authority and ceases to be a right. This is how it is in India today. The topic of free speech raises a lot of questions, some more pertinent than others given that India is a multicultural, religious society.

  1. How much free speech should be allowed by law?
  2. Should there be legal bounds on free speech?
  3. Should hate speech be made unlawful?
  4. What constitutes offensive or hate speech? Who decides what is offensive or hurtful?
  5. Who should have free speech? Individuals? Corporations? Religious leaders? Media?
  6. What constitutes fair penalties for violations?
  7. Is it possible to define laws tightly that they will not be abused?

None of these questions can be easily answered. Which is why free speech is such a hard thing to regulate.

Here’s my take. In the conflict between free speech and morality, the former always should prevail. And exceptions should be made only when a person’s freedom of expression is violated in a manner that can be proven beyond reasonable doubt. In my book, anything goes. Well, nearly everything with the following exceptions:

  1. Sedition. This goes against the grain of  an organized society.
  2. Copying intellectual property is laziness. It’s not free speech. It violates the original author’s free speech rights.
  3. A call to violence (which is proven to incite murder) is not free speech. It’s intent to commit homicide.
  4. Making false claims is not free speech. You cannot lie to sell products.

Everything else is free speech. Like the following examples -

  1. Hate speech is distasteful, but cannot be outlawed. If you don’t like what you hear, feel free to tune out.
  2. Religious conversion and evangelism should be allowed under free speech laws. If you don’t like people being converted, that’s too bad. You’ll just have to learn to live with it.
  3. Media should receive special protection under free speech laws. The bar should be set high on slander and libel cases.
  4. Pornography is free speech too. Child pornography should be illegal as it violates the free speech rights of minors.
  5. Rap songs which have explicit or misogynist lyrics are made by jackasses. So, don’t buy them. Don’t outlaw them.

And so it goes. Each new social phenomenon will make us wonder about how much freedom an individual deserves. The answer as always should be, “all of it.”

Where do you stand on free speech? Take the poll!

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Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

In recent times, there has been a spate of arguments from Congress and allies, which essentially boil down to “In 2012, the 2G license auction fetched only Rs. 9,600 Crores, with some sectors going unbid. Hence the CAG’s estimate of a loss of Rs. 1.76 Lakh Crores is inflated.” The detractors of CAG have even gone to the extent of alleging that the CAG is somehow colluding with the Opposition party, BJP, to discredit and smear the government. It is possible that Congress and allies are attempting to create an impression that no wrongdoing occurred at all in the allocation of 2G licenses.

Here’s a little note that might help you understand what this is about. If you’re not familiar with what the 2G scam is about, read this first.

What is the government being accused of?

It’s important to understand that the UPA government is under pressure on two counts: Corruption and incompetence.

Charges of corruption: Corruption is about doing things in an illegal and wrongful manner, which violates the laws of the land. Detractors allege that there was impropriety when the licenses were originally allocated in 2008. The government, in its wisdom, followed a First-Come-First-Served (FCFS) policy in allocating licenses at that time. It is alleged that the government manipulated the FCFS process to favor certain bidders. It is also alleged that these favored bidders may have provided kickbacks. Mr. A. Raja, then Telecom Minister, is under investigation. None of the allegations have been proven in court as yet.

Charges of incompetence: Incompetence is not about illegality or wrongdoing, but about inefficiency. By following FCFS policy, it is alleged that the government may have cost the exchequer a big pile of money.  If the licenses had been auctioned instead of FCFS, they would have fetched higher prices, goes the argument. There is no easy way to estimate such losses. However, the CAG has gone on record estimating the losses at 1.76 Lakh Crores. An auditor, RP Singh, who was part of the CAG’s office, has recently claimed that his estimate of Rs 2,645 Crores was not accepted and that he was coerced by the CAG into going with the higher estimate. Whatever be the case, it appears that the losses are somewhere between Rs. 2645 Cr and Rs. 1.76 Lakh Crores according to these gentlemen.

Here’s how to look at this situation

  1. Any losses, in this case, are notional. Which is to say that the government did not lose money out of pocket. However, notional losses are still losses for the reason that this money, if it had been realized, could have come into government coffers and could have been deployed to other national projects. Loss of revenue is, at the end of the day, a loss suffered by the government. Consider this: If you or I avoided paying income taxes to the government, the government would suffer a loss in tax revenue. If hauled to court, it is unlikely that we would get away by arguing that the government’s loss was notional. So, all losses have real impact, whether you call them notional or otherwise.
  2. It is simply not possible to estimate these losses accurately since there is guesswork and a judgmental aspect to the exercise. There are many ways to evaluate this, and they will yield wildly different results. Hence, it is surprising that the CAG wasted valuable tax payer money on this wild goose chase. If anything, they should have provided a range for their estimates in the interest of maintaining fairness and demonstrating lack of prejudice. It is equally ridiculous for Mr. Kapil Sibal to insist that there were *zero* losses. The fact is we simply don’t and won’t ever know.
  3. Even if it is somehow proved that the government suffered losses, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have done the wrong thing. One could argue that by deliberately lowering prices of 2G licenses (and thus accepting losses), the government actually ensured that these services were sold at affordable rates to the common man and ensured mass adoption. These are philosophical differences in policy making, and do not imply incompetence or wrongdoing.
  4. On the charges of incompetence: We must give the benefit of doubt to the government. It is, at worst, not clear if the government’s policy of FCFS in 2008 has cost the country dearly. At best, it has worked very well given that 2G adoption in India has been spectacular over the last five years. One could argue that if we had followed the auction route in 2008, we might have obtained the same results. We will never know. Since we got a good result, perhaps we should not quibble with the past and let it go. However, the government’s decision to auction 2G licenses a month back can be questioned. One almost gets the feeling that the Telecom Minister, Mr. Sibal, went out of his way to ensure low prices to prove his earlier “zero loss” theory and may have caused losses to the government in the process. 2G as a technology is now obsolete. In 2012, it may have been the right decision to go with the FCFS method of procurement, instead of going the auction route, which surprised many industry observers.
  5.  On the charges of corruption: The Supreme Court has ruled that there seems to be preliminary evidence of wrongdoing. A Cabinet minister was remanded to custody for over a year. The ball is in the government’s court to prove that there was no corruption of the process followed to hand out licenses under the tenure of Mr. A. Raja. The lack of urgency on the government’s part to settle this matter only serves to fuel suspicion and misgiving.

Report Card

Congress: Fail. For failing to investigate allegations with seriousness and urgency, and for attempting to confuse the public by openly targeting a constitutional authority CAG on a largely irrelevant topic.

BJP – Fail. For failing to argue the case against the government and thus adding to confusion and incoherence in debate.

The argument against capital punishment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Hanging a murderer is to seek retribution and to not attempt his reformation. Death penalty is not ethical since none of us have the right to demand or take another’s life. Death penalty is not an intelligent option as it simply erases the offender and leaves the root cause of the offence untouched. No matter how heinous the crime, it is the society who created the criminal. Hanging the convicted is to cop out of society’s responsibility to rehabilitate the criminal. It is to play an unforgiving God and exercising only the powers of destruction and protection and not the ones of creation. It is a step back in our evolutionary process by perpetuating a destructive ‘tit for tat’ cycle.

The argument for it: “To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable.” 

Premeditated murder is unpardonable. It reflects an incorrigible condition which neither time nor hardship can cure. When a human plans in cold blood to seek the extermination of fellow humans, he loses the right to society’s compassion. Not erasing the convicted offender would be to run the risk of repeat offences. Rehabilitating the offender costs money and effort which are better spent on higher priorities with better return on investment. To punish is to deter. To deter is to prevent. To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable and violates the trust of citizens. It is to create an environment where everything is viewed through the prism of self-flagellating tolerance.

Adding a new breed of criminal to the mix: The terrorist

The capital punishment debate is complicated as it is. Now add a new breed of criminal to the mix. The terrorist.

The terrorist is an individual who, for various reasons, has chosen to commit premeditated murder. What the terrorist does is definitely not an impersonal war. It is very personal. The terrorist provides no advance warning of the targets, location or time of attack. Several months of planning often go into an attack. It is hardly credible to view terrorists as passionate individuals who lost their heads over some petty provocation and indulged in an impulsive act, and thus ones to regret their actions later and reform. Terrorists represent the fringes of society where the possibility of rehabilitation is the faintest. They are the closest to a lost cause as we can find. Stopping the growth of terrorism is not a lost cause. Reforming terrorists might be. They combine the passion of a temporarily deranged murderer with the cold blooded-ness of a serial killer and the intelligence of an army. If not destroyed, they will destroy. It is us or them. As dramatic as it sounds, that’s the way it looks from the view point of an ordinary citizen.

The Dilemma: Dharmic Retribution or Gandhigiri?

The Supreme Court today upheld death sentence to Ajmal Kasab, who participated in the murder of innocent people during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Should we hang Kasab in our lust for revenge? Or should the President pardon him? Will pardoning terrorists encourage more terrorism or will it stem the flow by winning their hearts and minds?

To pardon a terrorist is to break the inviolable social contract that we the citizens have made with our governments to serve the society and to be protected in return. To extinguish the life of a terrorist is to uphold Dharma on which depends the survival of our society as we know it. A Gandhian style of “blank check” tolerance, as history tells us, can make martyrs out of the tolerant. On the flip side, to forgive Kasab is to take the high road and demonstrate the divinity in us.

If you had the choice: would you choose the power to destroy an enemy? Or, would you choose the power to change his mind? Dharmic retribution or Gandhigiri? This is a tough call in a country which has taught us both.