The Dilemma of a Chain Smoking Gay

A nationwide ban on smoking in public places came into effect on October 2. Violators will be fined Rs 200 each. I can already hear the curses aimed at Ambumani Ramadoss. The Health Minister has been personally involved in the campaign to ban smoking since he became, er…the Health Minister.

Conspiracy theorists believe that the move to ban smoking was initiated to curb Rajnikanth, since the party he belongs to has to contend with Rajni mania in Tamil Nadu. Now, as all of you are doubtless aware, nobody smokes better than Rajni. The Stylemannan (king of style) has a wide repertoire of cigarette tricks and twirls. I find it cynical to believe that Ramadoss would have done this just to put style king in his place, especially since he has had to battle the influential tobacco lobby.

But Ramadoss, for all the accusations hurled at him (fascist, regressive, anti-choice) has proved to be liberal in a crucial matter: he wants to abolish article 377. This relic of the Indian Penal Code from Raj days outlaws homosexuality by describing it as against the law of nature.

Now this is the dilemma of a chain-smoking gay (or lesbian). Should they be pissed or pleased with Ramadoss?

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal – Pre-marital Discord?

The nuclear deal refuses to go off the news. Just when India thought that two of the three key hurdles – defense of the deal in the Indian Parliament, a clean waiver from NSG, and ratification of the deal by the US congress – had been accomplished, came word about the White house letter to a Congressional committee in Jan 2008, and Bush’s covering letter referring the deal for ratification to the Congress. The Bush letter shows, irrespective of its content, the extent to which the US government has gone to get the deal approved, as did the Indian government on its end. Why such hardsell? because the nuclear deal isnt about nuclear fuel supply etc anyways. Given that nuclear non-proliferation has been the biggest irritant in Indo-US ties since the 1990s, this deal was about removing the roadblock to building a strategic partnership with US. The Indian communists were right in what they say the deal entailed. They were wrong in opposing it. Because it’s time india moved out of shadows of the Cold War and took an interests-based approach to foreign policy rather than an ideology-based one.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the Bush letter’s content altogether. After the letter was revealed, people wondered if India had been naive in expecting the US to honor the 123 agreement’s guarantee of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. Under the cover of “interpretation” of the agreement, was the Bush administration trying to have its cake and eating it too?

Actually, both India and the US have displayed some naivete in estimating the other side in this deal. India thought it could get a clean waiver with no strings attached. The US thought India could both be made an ally and a confirmant to non-proliferation laws through the deal. Neither side has achieved much in terms of these expectations.
Trust has always been a difficult element in Indo-US ties. American critics think India’s self-righteous posturing cannot be effaced by strategic benefits from the US and that therefore, India will remain a pain. Witness India’s duplicitous dealings with Iran despite American protests. American diplomats believe in reciprocity – willing to give as long as there is something being given. Indian skeptics on the other hand, say that reciprocity difficult when the odds are so heavily in the Americans’ favor. They also feel that the US will never shed its one-sided, self-centered way of dealing and will walk away from any deal it feels uncomfortable with. Witness the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty with Russia. In other words, Americans sees Indians as Machiavellis while Indians see Americans as Vito Corleones.These perception defects would have to change if the real aim of the 123 agreement viz. strategic relationship, is to be fulfilled. And that can only happen through relentless dialog at all levels between the India and the US. But whether the relationship triumphs is something that only time can tell.

As one of the architects of India’s strategic doctrine put it to me recently, “We’ll have to wait and watch if the relationship works. The US has never had partners, only allies. And India’s never had neither partners nor allies”. In some ways, this deal is like a marriage between a male chauvinist and a feminist. Let’s hope it lasts.

West Bengal Panchayat Elections

Elections in West Bengal are politically charged affairs. The recently concluded Panchayati Raj elections were probably more so than usual. The current round of polls, the 7th since the first local government elections in 1978, is significant because it comes after a string of incidents in West Bengal. In the last three years issues like land acquisition (including the violent agitations in Singur and Nandigram), the PDS scam, outbreak of Bird-flu, the bungled Rizwan-ur-Rehman case, and the bundling out of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen have rocked the state. Adding to the volatile mix is the state government’s controversial industrialization policy, of which Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is the most fervent cheerleader. This is the first time in the Left Front’s 31-year-rule that so much dissent has been publicly articulated in their bastion of rural Bengal. No wonder a nervous CPI (M), in the run up to the polls, was trying to protect its turf amid bickering with its own coalition partners and a reinvigorated opposition.   

The Panchayat polls were held in three phases on May 11, 14 and 18 for the three tier system: Gram Panchayats  (GP) being the lowest representing a cluster of villages, Panchayat Samity (PS) covering a block and the apex Zilla Parishad (ZP) at the district level. The Left Front, specifically the CPI (M), suffered a jolt in its bastion of rural Bengal with the opposition winning 4 of the 17 ZPs in West Bengal. The Congress retained the Malda ZP but lost in Murshidabad, its stronghold which went to the Left Front (LF). But it made up for its loss by wresting North Dinajpur from the Left. Meanwhile the Left lost East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas to the Trinamool Congress and retained North 24 Parganas by a thin margin. The tally of the LF decreased from 15 district councils in 2003 to 13 in 2008. The LF performed strongest in a broad swathe across South and central West Bengal and the districts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in the North. The district that the Left lost, East Medinipur, witnessed a violent agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram. The TMC was the biggest gainer this time round as it won 2 ZPs where it had drawn a blank in 2003.

In panchayat samities the Left won 183 against a combined opposition tally of 137, down 30 per cent as compared to its 2003 tally where it won 285 samities. The TMC gained the most by winning 79 samities up from 12 in 2003. There are a total of 8,798 panchayat samities and 41,516 gram panchayat seats.   

The results indicate chinks in the Left’s armour, but it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that it is a rejection of the CPI (M)’s industrialization policy because it has posted big victories in other districts which have also witnessed land-acquisition: In West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Burdhaman the Left has improved its 2003 tally.                   

To understand why the Panchayat elections are so important it is necessary to understand how the system was introduced and how it functions. West Bengal was the first state to start the exercise of handing over implementation and maintenance of rural projects to elected bodies of local self-government in 1978. Since then elections to three-tier system have been held on a regular basis every five years. The ruling Left Front, a coalition of left parties of which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the major partner, has won an overall majority in every election.

The period when Panchayat raj was formally instituted corresponds to the beginning of LF rule in West Bengal. In 1977, when the LF assumed office the CPI (M) had almost no network or cadres in rural West Bengal. Its urban support base was restricted mainly to Kolkata. The party realized that if they had to stay in power they had to expand in the rural hinterlands. They did this by declaring that jotdars (middle and big peasants) were now welcome to join the party since their interests were not opposed to the Party’s. Hitherto the party had sided with the poor and landless peasants. This action resulted in the jotdars deserting the congress en masse and joining the CPI (M) thus changing its character from a party representing the landless and rural poor to one that represented the interests of the rural elite. At the same time it expanded the party’s base by allowing it to sink deep roots in rural West Bengal. In the 1978 and 1983 elections only 7 per cent and 8 per cent of elected representatives were landless peasants while 93 per cent were from landowning classes.

Third sex gets official status in Tamil Nadu

Continuing with the theme of alternative sexualities…today’s front page lead story in the Bombay edition of the Sunday Times of India is interesting, to say the least.

Transgendered people in Tamil Nadu can now mark their sex as T in official documents instead of M and F. This is a real step forward in recognising the fact that there are people who define themselves outside the sexual binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Follow this link for the story, though I am afraid the full story is in the print edition.
Now, how long will it take for the next barrier to be breached? I am talking about article 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. When will this relic from the raj era be struck down?

A Month in an ‘Alternative’ World

When I entered the living room, Krishnendu was in his usual place, sitting on the sofa with his face glued to his laptop and a cigarette clutched tight between his fingers. The circular turtle-backed ashtray on the coffee table in front of him was full of burnt out stubs. I mumbled a half-hearted hello. Krishnendu didn’t respond. He never did, at least not in the usual ways. He was glued to the screen, with a manic expression on his face. He was chatting online, one of his passions, and occasionally a hint of a smile would cross his face.

I had grown used to Khrishnendu’s moody ways over the course of the month that I stayed with them. Actually, he was my friend’s flat-mate. I was new to the city and was staying with them till I got my own accommodation. Krishnendu and Anand (my friend) worked in an NGO that worked among HIV affected groups. It was a community outreach NGO: by the community, of the community and for the community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people or LGBT. One of the stipulations of the NGO was that HIV positive people would constitute a certain percentage of its employees. Another was that it employed only gays.

The flat was a ten minute walk from their workplace and Anand had assured me that I could stay with them till I found my feet. It was a large, spacious house with two bedrooms, one for Krish and one for Anand. A young Nepali cook prepared the meals and flirted with the kirana girl downstairs when he went out on the pretext of grocery shopping every evening.

It was a good life and I slowly discovered the world of my flat mates. I used to be out on work all day and return late in the night exhausted, only to find my two mates along with office colleagues and assorted friends gathered around the mahogany coffee table in the living room. Anand would be in a ‘compromising’ position with ‘Indu’ (Indus actually) swigging cans of beer and making risque comments. “Arre, andar aati kya kothi,” he would hoot to cheers. “Abhi nahi re panthi, baad mein chalti hoon main,” they would reply (Kothi and panthi are terms used among MSMs to refer to the active and passive partners during sexual intercourse. The term kothi is an amalgamation of two words according to urban legend: kothi [Telugu for monkey] and kut [Persian for ass]. The first denotes friskiness or playfulness). Krish would be blowing out immaculate smoke rings clad in a white towel. The moment I entered all the men would wolf whistle and pass faux comments. Often Krish winked at me and indicated the bedroom. Sometimes they openly hinted that I should have sex with one of them. A deadpan expression or a lame joke was the only way out. But to be honest, I secretly enjoyed watching them interact, not least because their ‘world’ was a completely new experience for me, one that I hadn’t even imagined existed, let alone experienced.

It was uncomfortable being around Krish. He was not the most expressive person at the best of times. Silent, brooding, intense. Everyone walked on tiptoes around him. I knew that Krish valued his privacy and resented sharing his space with strangers. And though I shared a flat with him, I did not know anything about him apart from the bare bones: He was gay, he worked with MSMs (men who have sex with men) and he had AIDS.

Krish had contracted HIV seven years ago from one of his partners and it had developed into fullblown AIDS. The prevalence of AIDS is high among MSMs (almost three times the rate among lesbians). Though there is no known cure for AIDS yet, with proper care a patient can live for upto 10 years. Krish could have, if he took proper care of himself. He didn’t. He abused his body like there was no tomorrow. Apart from his chain smoking and binge drinking he never wore a shirt inside the flat, increasing his chances of contracting a chest infection. He never had his meals on time and when he did he nibbled at his food. He was oblivious to everyone’s pleadings that he look after himself.

Thoughts on the Gleevec Controversy

We have borne in mind the object which the Amending Act wanted to achieve, namely…to provide easy access to the citizens of this country to live saving drugs and to discharge their constitutional obligation of providing good health care to its citizens.

With these words a Division Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed the petitions filed by multinational drug company Novartis against a key provision of the Indian Patents Act, 1970. The provision in question, called section 3(d) seeks to promote public access to affordable drugs by restricting the granting of frivolous patents on medicines.

Before I dive into the fascinating story of the politics behind public health let me briefly give a backgrounder to the ‘Gleevec issue’.

Gleevec is a drug used to treat a form of cancer called chronic myeloid leukemia. The drug was invented by the Swiss multinational drug company Novartis which has a patent for it. However, the Indian Patents Act of 1970 has provisions that grant ‘process patents’ and not ‘product patents’ (I shall explain the legalese later in this text). What this basically means is that companies could only obtain a patent for the process of manufacture and not on the final product itself. This enabled Indian pharmaceutical companies to reverse engineer the final products and discover new processes to manufacture them, thus giving rise to the generic industry. What this meant in practical terms is that India – thanks to domestic pharma companies that made generic versions of many of the multinational companies’ drugs – went from a net importer of drugs to a net exporter. By the same token, drugs which were overall expensive post-independence became cheap by the 1980s. In fact, global NGO’s working in the field of public health procure affordable drugs from India to use them in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However, as a member of the WTO and a co-signatory of the TRIPS agreement India had to bring her domestic laws in compliance with international laws. It is in this context that the Gleevec controversy has to be examined.

It is an indictment of our media and society that important issues are given short shrift in favour of fluff and floss. The gleevec issue barely got a passing mention in the mainstream media.

And now we dive headlong into the chemical sludge…

In May 2006 Novartis AG and its Indian subsidiary, Novartis India (henceforth Novartis) filed a bunch of writ petitions before the Madras High Court claiming that section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act was contrary to the requirements of the TRIPS agreement and article 14 of the Indian constitution as it is vague and ambiguous. But what is section 3(d) about?

In a nutshell, 3(d) aims to prevent the practice called ‘evergreening’ by which drug companies seek to extend monopoly on their drugs by patenting minor variations of that chemical entity. Suppose a drug company has a patent on a chemical entity that is about to expire. What they will do is tweak the drug slightly and patent the new product(s). This guarantees that generics cannot be manufactured and that the patent is extended by another 20 years.

Section 3(d) was introduced into the 1970 Patents Act (the bedrock of Indian patents law and a progressive piece of legislation) via the Patents Amendment Act of 2005. This was done to meet India’s WTO obligations to grant product patents. Now, the 1970s Act granted only ‘process patents’ to agricultural and pharmaceutical products. Only the manufacturing process could be patented for 7 years and not the end product.

Private Treaties for Public Consumption

The Times of India is the largest selling English broadsheet in the world with a circulation of 2.4 million. This makes the holding company, Bennet Coleman & Co. Ltd. the richest media empire in India. However, this is not just due of the reputation of its media assets.

The Times of India has had the distinction of being considered the newspaper of record in India since it was founded in 1838. Many distinguished journalists in India served in the editorial ranks of ToI. In fact, as the saying goes, ‘if you haven’t done time with the old lady of Boribunder you haven’t done anything’. That was till the 1980’s, the last of the glory days of Indian journalism. Since then ToI has morphed transformer-like from an autobot into the journalistic version of a decepticon.

ToI’s entire approach to journalism started changing from the late 80’s onwards. It is a cardinal principle in journalism that news and advertising should be kept apart. Publications like NYT and WSJ in fact go a step further and separate fact and opinion. It is well known that the WSJ has separate management structures for its edit and city reporting pages, who cannot stand each other. Indian newspapers followed the principle of keeping news and advertising separate till B, C&C ltd changed the media scape in India.

This they did by blurring the distinction between editorial content and advertising, giving short shrift to serious stories, focusing more on celebrities and page 3 and tremendous brand building exercises. Now, the latest step in that direction is through ‘Private Treaties’.

Simply put, Private Treaties are agreements between B,C&C and corporates where the former picks up equity in a company in return for advertising rates at concessional rates to free and positive coverage in B, C&C’s many media outlets. Although Private Treaties has been in existence since 2004 it attracted some media coverage only recently.

Its not as if newspapers and magazines have not carried advertorials before. But these are clearly marked as paid for with a disclaimer that the newspaper does not endorse the views therein. However, that distinction doesn’t exist in private treaties. As the website puts it, “As a treaty partner, your company can also avail of a bouquet of professional expertise within the Private Treaties Department. Our three pronged solution encompasses: Advertising Support, Branding Support, Corporate image development.”

Advertising, branding, corporate image development: the life-blood of any mid-size company dreaming of joining the big league. And what better way of doing it than positive coverage in the world’s largest selling English broadsheet and India’s largest selling economic daily (Economic Times). But what about larger questions of journalistic ethics? Suppose a reporter pursues a negative story about a comapany with is B,C&C’s partner, would s/he feel obliged to go soft, assuming the editor does not kill the story. Or, suppose a reporter goes on a junket paid for by a company, will s/he be obliged to write positively about the company or its products.

Free Binayak Sen…NOW!!!

For all those concerned with the continued incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen, who continues to languish in a jail in Chhattisgarh on charges of being a “naxal”, please sign this online petition.

Dr Binayak Sen is a paediatrician, public health specialist and national vice president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties who decided to make his home in Chhattisgarh bringing medical facilities to the tribals and dispossessed. For the last two years a near civil war situation has been prevailing in Chhattisgarh as a ‘spontaneous’ militia called the Salwa Judum has been waging a war of attrition with the extreme left wing Maoists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

It is widely believed that Salwa Judum is a front for government and acts on behest of the police-contractor-business nexus in terrorrising villagers and forcing them to leave their villages in order to depopulate whole areas to deprieve the Maoists of local support. This makes it easier for the police and the militia to hunt them down. There are reliable reports that whole villages have been forced into gated camps, though you won’t get to read these in the mainstream media.

Dr Sen criticised the role of the Salwa Judum and the human rights excesses of the police in Chattisgarh. For his efforts he was charged with ‘aiding and abetting naxal activity in the state’ under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004.

The ‘red scare’ has reached ridiculous proportions. People today can be branded ‘Maoist sympathisers’ simply by the act of possessing ‘appropriate literature’. This means that if I possess a copy of the Das Kapital or the writings of Lenin or Mao I could be arrested. I don’t subscribe to Maoist ideology. In fact I have many disagreements with them, but I don’t believe that anyone who reads Maoist literature or even supports them should be arrested on a whim and thrown in jail.

Many civil society organisations are involved in campaigning on behalf of Binayak Sen. I will post updates as and when they happen.

Cricket goes global(isation)

After the mayhem of the player auctions for the BCCI’s newly formed Indian Premier League its time to take stock.

Astronomical sums were thrown about for acquiring players for the 8 franchises of the IPL. The highest bid was for Mahendra Dhoni who was acquired by Chennai for Rs 6 crores. The next highest was Andrew Symmonds (gasp!) who went for a cool 5.4 crore. After the racism row involving Symmonds and Harbhajan and the nationalistic outrage it aroused in India (“How silly, of course we are not racist”) one would have thought Symonds would be persona-non-grata in India. Nothing like a free market balm for soothing hurt feelings, eh. Symonds’ more experienced team mates were upset that they went so cheap. Ponting got only a few hundred thousand dollars above his reserve price and McGrath failed to even get his reserve price.

Something like Rs 128 crore was spent on 78 cricketers at the auction. In financial terms the IPL has been a tremendous success generating a cool billion dollars all told in player and franchise auctions, television rights and marketing jamboree. But as a purely sporting experience I am not so sure how much it is worth.

Let me explain. The IPL is a bid to create an American or European type of sports league where franchises can afford to buy and sell players from other franchises or import them from outside the league paying tremendous amounts of cash to pay for the upkeep of the teams generated from television rights, sponsorship deals and ticket revenues.

For a template look no further than the English Premier League. The EPL was formed to reap the benefits of television rights deals. 20 of the top clubs in English football constitute the league in a system of promotion and relegation. EPL is the most watched sporting league in the world generating revenues in excess of a billion pounds per annum as of 2007-08. If the IPL hopes to emulate EPL they have got their marketing instincts right, but their sporting fundas all mixed up. For one thing about the EPL is that all the teams in the EPL were formed over a century ago as sporting expressions within close knit communities throughout England. This is important to remember. Football teams in Europe are of old vintage and grew organically in close knit communities, nurtured by close bonds of working class kinship and affiliation. This was also before the age of multi-billion dollar television deals, 24/7 news, media hype and marketing blitz. Therefore, the relation between the fan and the club in European football is of an entirely different order. To be a fan is to follow your team through thick and thin, through lean and strong, up and down, failure and success and never lose hope.

This is the difference between the IPL and the EPL it hopes to emulate. IPL may become an commercial success, but to launch a marketing blitz mixed with a strong dose of corporate and bollywood glamour and then hope that fans will connect and show allegiance to city based teams is unrealistic. Especially in a game like cricket where the associations are more with the national team than at the city-level or club-level.

As a purely sporting experience I have my reservations.

Mumbai Vs Bombay

Prejudices can be hidden for political considerations, but they never entirely disappear. The last week has seen a violent resurrection of the old ‘Marathi Vs outsiders’ theme that has plagued Bombay for the last four decades. This time it’s a splinter of the original champion of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi man) that has raised some pertinent questions in an imbecilic fashion.

Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) assaulted several North Indians over the last one week. The primary targets of the MNS’s ire were cab drivers, milk vendors and panwallahs. In other words poor folk who have come to Mumbai to earn a living and support families back home in UP and Bihar. The provocation is the oft- repeated complaint in a rehashed form: the outsiders are flooding Mumbai and taking ‘our’ jobs; jobs that ‘belong’ to the Maharashtrians; ‘they’ don’t want to integrate with ‘our’ culture; ‘they’ live here and still dream of ‘their’ native lands and so on. The target this time are the ‘bhaiyyas’, a pejorative term for North Indians, particularly from UP and Bihar.

The Shiv Sena was the party that originally patented a politics of nativism in the ‘60s. The SS (note the similarity in name to Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, which means ‘Defence Squadron’. Coincidence?) claimed that the first call on Mumbai should rest with the Maharashtrians. The fact that the ‘sons of the soil’ did not control the city’s economy in any significant way added to the resentment. Over the years the SS targeted South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims and now North Indians, violently in some cases.

Now the MNS has picked up the relay. Raj Thackrey says he will not allow commemoration of any other states’ other than Maharashtra, a reference to the fact that UPites were celebrating UP diwas in Mumbai. He says that if the bhaiyyas indulge in dadagiri they will be taught a lesson.

The latest round of bhaiyya bashing has raised bewildering questions about belonging, intra and transnational identity, allegiance, the nature and ownership of urban spaces and contestation of those spaces in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.

Ever since the demise of the textile mills in the ‘60s, a period that coincided with the rise of the SS, Mumbai has become more oriented towards a services economy, particularly financial services. The ‘Mumbai makeover’ over the last decade has resulted in the traditional chawls being replaced with highrise apartments. The chawls were living spaces conducive for community bonding by the very nature of their architecture: a slew of houses opened out to a common verandah where the residents had an opportunity to interact with each other on a personal basis, participate in each others festivals, bond over chai and drying laundry and where their kids played hide and seek and ‘verandah cricket’. Compare this to the more impersonal highrise towers, where you might live for 20 years and never get to know your neighbour.