Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Month: March, 2016

All hail…..or else

You know how they say that a cultural change is only evident in hindsight? Sometimes, it would appear, one can witness it as it happens.

Yesterday, a local Indian airlines, Spicejet, on a flight from Hyderabad to Bengaluru, ended the flight welcoming everyone to Bengaluru, and thanking the passengers for having chosen Spicejet — quite like airlines around the world.

Today, the same airlines, on a flight from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, ended with welcoming everyone to the destination city, and expressing gratitude for having chosen said airlines — and added, at the end of both the English and Hindustani announcements, the phrase “Jai Hind!”. 

“Jai Hind!”, the phrase translates as “Victory to India!”, is used by the Indian military on a daily basis, as a salutation, and at parting. In a civilian setting, especially in peacetime, and during a commercial transaction with no pretense towards national security, the phrase is more than incongruous. A European equivalent might be an Air Berlin flight from Cologne to Munich ending with “Es lebe das deutsche Vaterland!” (Long live the German Fatherland!). The phrase is, in itself, entirely harmless, or even a wholesome thing, quite like “Jai Hind”, but we know from not just European history where the militarization of civil society typically leads — to the erosion of liberties.

Nationalist or parochial sentiment is often encouraged in primitive circles to distract from real problems. It is so much easier to blame the Other, and to exult in an intangible, former glory, than to deal with boring issues of unemployment, sanitation, public health, housing, access to education, roads, food security, et cetera.
Could the repeated “Jai Hind!” have been an aberration, a case of an over-enthusiastic cabin steward? Probably not, for yesterday, the Times of India, an Indian daily, reported that a legislator in Bombay was suspended from a legislative body because he refused to utter the phrase “Bharat mata ki jai!” (Victory to Mother India!) when asked to do so by a co-worker. It appears incredible, does it not? The refuser happened to belong to a minority religious group, and might have been inspired by a co-religionist, an elected member of the Indian Parliament, who recently said he would decline to utter the phrase even if he had a knife to his throat. Today, the same paper reported that the official mouthpiece of a major political party, one that is Right-wing and identifies itself with a dominant religious group, suggested that those who refused to vocalize that particular phrase be stripped of voting rights and citizenship. Refuse to utter this particular sentence and you shall be disenfranchised and banished. In 2016.

As if that was not enough, the editorial apparently suggested, “Why put a knife to their throat? Chop off their heads in a legal way.” In India, in 2016. Except that there are not a lot of legal ways to chop off people’s heads. Not yet, anyway — but as freedoms are snatched away, and it becomes mandatory to say certain things, and to not say certain other things, laws will get drafted, and willing judges found, and head chopping there will be aplenty.


The old lie


“You are so, so beautiful”, gushed he.”You lie”, she protested demurely.

“No — that was Horace”


“The Latin poet who declared that it is sweet and honorable to die for the Fatherland”

This is perhaps the only appropriate use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — to aid a delicious flirtation. Over the years, it has been used to encourage much carnage, and is accompanied by the glorification of the profession of arms, itself aided by shiny uniforms, schoolboy-pleasing songs, and stylized, rehearsed rituals.
Soldiering, as a profession, commands a high reputation, seen as a bastion against the barbarian, in spite of often being itself used as an instrument of gross injustice and murder. 

Are some professions indeed intrinsically better than others? Professions change with time, and some die out. There are alive today those who remember seeing the water-carrier on his rounds — he had a physically strenuous job, carrying potable water from its source to his customers multiple times a day, and, although it was little respected, it was an essential one, extinct now.

The borders between some other professions have become less clearly defined. Our already complex supply chains imply that people with varied skills are involved in almost every significant endeavor, and that not all may be aware of the consequences of the products and services they directly or indirectly support. She who develops algorithms to identify a gathering of humans even from grainy satellite images is perhaps as guilty of cold-blooded murder, or as innocent, as the drone operator who actually clicks the button which releases the thundering missiles onto a crowd of people whose only established crimes are to look dodgy and be foreign. On the other hand, even within a given armed forces, we might find various professions: the veterinarian, the communications expert, the sapper, and the nurse.

The term ‘battlefield’ has little meaning these days, for the battles are fought everywhere — through indoctrination, hacking attacks, bombs in urban areas, and trade sanctions. Similarly, the romantic notion of the guileless warrior defending his wife, hearth and hamlet against the evil stranger has become a piece of fiction. Modern warfare, the vocabulary of which is strewn with collateral damage, Snowden’s revelations of mass espionage, suicide vests, preemptive strikes, energy security, mass rape, and Guantanamo Bay, has little use for emotion — except when it comes to carefully-planned media campaigns, to aid the narrative of a just invasion.

Perhaps we can use money or wealth generation as a metric. However, that would imply that those who enrich themselves through arbitrage and speculation might be at the top, and this might be prima facie reprehensible, especially if we consider that the negative externalities of food insecurity through commodity trading, drug and weapons proliferation, and artificial price manipulation of vital supplies, are starvation, addiction, war, terrorism and death.

Is popularity an appropriate measure? Underwear models, actors, religious leaders, CEOs, professional sport players, commercial musicians, and politicians would be high up on such a list — and that these have feet of clay has been too often proven. What of mathematicians, philosophers and artists — those who work with intangible ideas, and whose orbit of work might exclude many? What of hygiene inspectors, prostitutes and tax accountants — how shall we compare the one to the other?
Perhaps all occupations are necessary, proven by the sheer fact of their existence. The garbage-disposal professional, the lady at the checkout counter, the traveling salesman, the soldier in the training camp — all are needed.

Tentative conclusion: a profession, in itself, does not confer any special status on its members, and it does not absolve them of responsibility for their individual actions.