Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Is it time to say goodbye to Rs 2,000 note?

It's up to none other than Prime Minister Modi to decide.

It seems the government is fed up of the “pink note” exactly as Indians are warming up to its shocking pinkness. According to a report in The Statesman, “The central government is preparing to gradually phase out the new Rs 2,000 note. The government is also preparing to bring in laws to take penal action against hoarders of the new Rs 2,000 note, according to people in the know of the development.” 

The report further adds: “The idea behind introduction of the high denomination Rs 2,000 currency was to quickly remonetise the economy with the value in circulation. There is a strong push for a clean economy, towards less-cash economy and putting an end to the parallel black economy.”

Even in his latest Mann Ki Baat, aired on March 26, PM Modi batted for digital payments and the cashless push, in his bid to sway the people of India to fight corruption and black money. On December 25, 2016, PM Modi had asked his fellow Indians to be “at the forefront of using digital means to make payments and transactions”.

At the India Today conclave, RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy had told India Today TV’s managing editor Rahul Kanwal that eventually Rs 2,000 notes would be taken out of circulation because it was a stopgap measure to quickly remonetise India.

The November 8, 2016 decision by PM Modi had resulted in 86 per cent of liquid currency in cash being sucked out of the system, and soon, the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes were introduced.

With the Finance Bill, 2017 empowering income-tax officials to raid and seize any property, and cash holdings, if they have “reason to believe” and which they do not have to disclose to the person/s raided – the “assesse”, the focus is once again on the high denomination note that is Rs 2,000.

Concerns have been raised that Rs 2,000 could contribute to black market of illegal cash, as it’s easy to change hands, leading to increase in illegal dealings. As it is, fake Rs 2,000 notes have become a modern day menace, with outrageous words, such as “Bharatiya Manoranjan Bank” written on notes dispensed by proper ATMs in Delhi and other cities.

Even though the Finance Bill, 2017 has set an upper limit of Rs 2 lakh in cash transaction per person per event per day, Rs 2,000 could significantly hinder the objective thus proposed by the government. While the GST is supposed to bring in more transparency from July 1, 2017, what if the ultimate aim of clean money isn’t met because of the pink note in our midst?

What’s doing the rounds as rumours in the corridors of power – still hard to tell if it’s intentional leak meant to deflect from the game plan, or something like testing waters – no confirmation has yet come out from official channels.

As of now, the fate of the pink note is very much in PM Modi’s hands.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Snake buddies: This Hyderabad NGO is busting myths, rescuing the reptiles for over two decades

Friends of Snakes Society attends to around 200 calls every day to rescue snakes that wander into urban spaces.

It was in the late 1980s that Rajkumar Kanuri, a resident of Hyderabad, and a bunch of his friends, had a small idea.

Troubled by the way in which snakes were being chased or killed when they began entering ever-expanding urban spaces, the group decided to take steps to conserve the reptiles, at least in their own society. 

Almost 30 years later, what started off as a small experiment in Secunderabad's Sainikpuri area, has spread across the state of Telangana today, actively working for the conservation of snakes. 

Today, the Friends of Snakes Society (FOSS) is relatively well-established in Hyderabad, and attends close to 200-300 calls every day, to rescue snakes that wander into urban spaces.

Besides rescue and relocation of the reptiles, FOSS also holds several educational and awareness programs in schools, colleges and companies, besides also working with the Forest Department to curb anti-poaching activities.

Speaking to Hyderabad News, Avinash Visvanathan, Chief Functionary of the organisation says, "By around 1992-93, we started holding several awareness programs, busting myths that people generally have, where snakes are concerned. In 1995, we formally registered the organisation."

Avinash says that the initial days were tough, and their activities were restricted just to Secunderabad until around 2000. 

"Our initial movement grew only through word of mouth. If someone found a snake, someone would inform them that there was this group that rescued them, and they would pass the message to someone else and so on," he says.

"It was very restricted in the initial days. When we had grown to around 20-30 members, the media picked up on us, and this gave us a major boost," he adds.

In 2010, the organisation was dealt a personal blow when its founder, Rajkumar Kanuri, passed away due to cerebral malaria.

"We lost a great leader with an even better outlook. It did come as a shock to us, but the organisation has continued growing," says Avinash.

Today, the organisation has around 70 volunteers and a 24x7 helpline, which puts them just a call away.

Two people coordinate the helpline, and the organisation has spread its roots to five districts in Telangana, besides having a firm foothold in the entire area of Hyderabad.

In October last year when a snake brought things to a halt in Hyderabad's crowded KBR park junction, it was the FOSS that stepped in to diffuse the situation.

Even during the heavy rains that lashed Hyderabad last year, when several people found large snakes entering their houses along with the flood water, it was the FOSS that stepped in and worked tirelessly to rehabilitate several of these reptiles.

The FOSS wants to change the apathy that people have towards snakes. Most snakes in India are non-venomous, and often pay the cost for human ignorance, the organisation says.

"Regular awareness sessions have certainly helped a lot since we first set up. At least now, people call us, instead of looking for a stone or stick to kill the snake," Avinash says.

When asked about FOSS' future plans, he adds, "We are in no hurry to expand, but we do want to cover the entire state of Telangana, before branching out to other places."

The FOSS helpline can be contacted at +918374233366.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Earthy, caustic, funny and declining: Dakhani finally gets its due in documentary ‘A Tongue Untied’

The language of the Deccan, famous for its humour and literature, has been relegated to dialect status, as filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju finds out.

Subah ki dhoop mein agar saaya lamba nazar aya, tum apney kad ke baarey mein ghalatfehmi mey mat rehna (If in the morning sun you see that your shadow is long, don’t get deluded about your height): Ghouse ‘Khamakha’ or ‘Khamakha’ Hyderabadi.

When people hear of Dakhani, they tend to associate it with the unique dialect spoken in Hyderabad, often understood by outsiders and locals as a form of hybridised Urdu. There are other associations with Dakhani too – ribald humour and wry social commentary; an idiom so earthy and direct that it might border on insult to more sensitive ears; philosophical reflections on human nature, as in the verse above.

Gautam Pemmaraju’s ambitious documentary A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani explores the cultural history of the language. The production began as a grant from the Indian Foundation for the Arts in 2012 to document the tradition of humour and modern satire in performance poetry. The filmmaker soon found that mere documentation would be inadequate.

“This began as a very conventional art history project, but it has expanded slightly,” Pemmaraju said. “Very soon, the mandate expanded into not just looking at humour and satire through poetry, but at the elephant in the room, which was, ‘What is Dakhani?’ That became something I needed to tackle in order to explain everything else.”

Dakhani is far more than a dialect, he said. It is a language that developed in northern India alongside Urdu. When it moved to the Deccan plateau, it gradually developed a literary culture that lasted 350 years, from the 14th century when the language first seems to have appeared, to the early 18th, when Aurangzeb finally gained control of the Deccan.

People across the Deccan speak forms of Dakhani with regional infusions even today, from its northern reaches in Aurangabad, to Marathwada and Telangana, down southwards to the northern parts of Karnataka. There are a few Dakhani speakers in Tamil Nadu and north Kerala and in Hyderabad, there is even an entire news channel in Dakhani.

Pemmaraju is now looking to raise funds to complete the editing of A Tongue Untied.

The film will be a culmination of conversations that began nearly seven years ago. Pemmaraju began his research by meeting poets and organisers of mushairas, or forums where poets congregate to perform their art.

Everyone Pemmaraju met had different ideas of and associations with the language, many of which were stereotypes. Pemmaraju decided to bring some academic rigour to his study. He also met scholars and experts such as historians and philologists who worked with language and history to pin down what Dakhani really was and what were its origins.

“The film in that sense is an aggregation of poets and artistry on one side, and an aggregation of scholarly opinions on the other side,” he said. “What I have been attempting to do is to put these into a narrative that makes sense and gives viewers a broad picture of the language and the colour of the language.”

With 60 interviews, 70 hours of filmed footage and 40 hours of archival footage, Pemmaraju has had a difficult task cutting the film down to a viewer-friendly length. The final film will be driven by around five experts in the language as well as by poets and artists. Parts of the film are devoted simply to hearing how people in different regions speak the language today.

“What is striking immediately is the diversity of Dakhani,” Pemmaraju said. “It’s a large region, and there are many forms of the language.” There were also many interlocutors, who had a lot to say because of their deep sense of ownership and pride in the language, he added.

While Dakhani is broadly thought of as a language of Muslims, its presence across the plateau also means that there is a rich body of material available in the Devanagari script, for instance, which has not been studied well. Dakhani is also heavily influenced by Marathi, and many Persian words that appear in Dakhani seem to have travelled there via Marathi.

One of Maharashtra’s famous poet saints, Amrutray of Paithan, even wrote a Sudamacharitra, or the story of Sudama, friend of Hindu god Krishna, in Dakhani at some point during the 18th century.

Mushairas have been a crucial part of the culture of Hyderabad and areas around it for decades now. From the 1970s and ’80s, the Hyderabadi diaspora began to organise mushairas where they stayed as well, leading to such gatherings in places as disparate as Chicago and countries in the Middle East.

Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad, an organisation formed in the mid-1960s to promote literary activities, particularly those pertaining to humour and satire, organised the first modern mushaira at that time. The organisation’s last mushaira was in 2010, but there are other groups who still conduct them.

Senior poets and scholars all agree that the quality of poetry is declining, Pemmaraju said. The texture of poetry has also changed greatly in recent times, he added. Early poetry tended to have pithy statements about poverty and the immediate circumstances of people. There was also a fair amount of sharp satire directed at religious figures, political leaders and even at poets themselves. Now, poetry is far more political.

Take one, by Sardar Asar, a couplet in a ghazal that says:

Bam key nazdeek jaako dekha mai,
Zafrani hai, hara thodeech hai
I went near a bomb to look at it
It was hardly green – it was saffron.

“Of course there is a milieu of social conservatism [in Islam] which informs all this, but you can very clearly see the poetry has shifted from pithy folk wisdom to this direct commentary on politics,” Pemmaraju pointed out.

That said, Dakhani is ultimately a cultural history of southern India, particularly of the “Islamic encounter” south of the Narmada that is pre-Mughal. “I don’t think it’s a counterpoint between the north and the south,” the filmmaker said. “It’s not a battle. It’s looking at a vernacular region’s oral traditions which reveal to us a richer history.”

Saturday, March 25, 2017

‘Phillauri’ film review: A mournful ghost gives love lessons to a hysterical groom

Anshai Lal’s debut is an enjoyable but overstretched yarn about the inadvertent wedding between a young man and a ghost from many years ago.

Kanan has the pre-wedding jitters, and all the marijuana in the world cannot cure him of his belief that he is getting married too early.

When Kanan (Suraj Sharma) lands from Canada in Amritsar for his big fat Punjabi wedding (there is no other kind, it seems), he is informed that he is “manglik”: if he weds, great misfortune will befall him. Since superstition always comes with an exit clause, Kanan’s otherwise posh family (his grandmother’s diet consists of many glasses of whisky) makes him marry a tree before his actual wedding. On this tree lives the ghost of Shashi (Anushka Sharma), the latest in a long line of unhappy female spirits who have been unable to transit to the other world because they have unfinished business in this one.

Kanan is understandably spooked by Shashi, beautifully conceptualised by the visual effects team as a shimmering vision in white and gold who leaves a trail of glitter. Rather than warding off trouble, Kanan’s cheat wedding only compounds his misfortune. Does he actually want to marry Anu (Mehreen Pirzada), and has Shashi’s appearance reminded him of the folly of it all?

Anushka Sharma is her customary efficient self, and works better in the comic moments, but the movie’s best scenes belong to Suraj Sharma’s Kanan, whose hysterical voice and stricken visage mark him out as the perfect victim of a haunting.

Anshai Lal’s directorial debut plonks the idea of an inadvertent wedding between a human and a ghost (borrowed from the 2005 animated movie Corpse Bride) between the present and Shashi’s past in the early 1900s in Punjab. Shashi is too obedient to flout her stern brother’s diktats that well-behaved women do not waste their time on poetry and music. She nevertheless falls for folk singer Roop Lal (Diljit Dosanjh), but accepts him only after he starts behaving more like a gentleman than the proto rock star that he is. A similar kind of behaviour change is being attempted in the present, as Anu tries to remind Kanan of his vows.

In another more subtle parallel, Shashi learns that the world still has use for “frying pans” – as the first music records are referred to – when she sees a DJ spins tunes at Kanan’s nuptials.

The present is an altogether more fun place than the past. Shashi and Roop Lal are barely convincing as star-crossed lovers despite being luminously shot by Vishal Sinha in golden yellows and earthy browns. For all their squabbling, Kanan and Anu actually seem like a couple in love (but with caveats).

The idea of a ghost who has been floating around for decades results in a time warp that affects the narrative pacing. This is one wedding that seems to be in no hurry to be conducted, and Kanan and Anu seem to have all the time in world to sort out his haunting. Day turns into night and night into day as the film shifts between now and then. The sense of being trapped in between the hands of the clock leaches into the running time. At 127 minutes, Phillauri doesn’t simply have enough to go on. Lal, working on a screenplay by Anvita Dutt, lets several scenes roll on several indulgent minutes in order to reserve his punch for the twist-laden climax.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is a bit weak. Had the narrative threads been braided together even more tightly, Phillauri could have been an even more enjoyable comedy about the need to make peace with the past. Potentially neurosis-inducing problems (the curbing of ambition and dreams, the belief that elders know best, damaging superstitions) get the kid glove and soft-focus treatment. The fate of Shashi and Roop Lal isn’t as engaging as Kanan’s disenchantment with his fate. The real ghost in Kanan’s bedroom isn’t the vision in white-and-gold from many years ago – it’s his present, and possibly dull future.

Why do we insist on calling India a vegetarian country when two-thirds of us eat meat?

Nowhere but in India is eating meat considered a deviance.

In India it is routine to hear “Nice party. They served non-veg” and “Are you veg or non-veg?” We see that the expression “non-veg” does duty both as noun and as adjective. In the former role it can stand for flesh, fish or fowl – the sole essential being that whatever it may be, it is not “veg”. In the UK, incidentally, “veg” means not vegetarian but vegetable, as in the typical meal of “steak, potatoes and two veg”. In the late 1970s, it used to give my English girlfriend much pleasure to hear people in India call themselves vegetables: “She did look like an aubergine, you know.”

In the Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey of August 2006, Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar spoke of India's food habits. “The findings [of the survey] show that only 31% of Indians are vegetarians,” they wrote. “The figure is 21% for families (with all vegetarian members).” This is in the present. Historians have shown that the people of ancient India, beginning with Brahmins, ate many kinds of meat, including that of cattle.

Therefore, to call India a vegetarian country when over two-thirds of Indians eat meat is imbecility. Yet vegetarianism is assumed to be the norm, encouraged or imposed by the ideologies of religion and caste.

Reprehensible deviance
The prefix “non-” is used to indicate negation or absence. Thus there are words like “non-combatant” and “nonsense”. It may also be used to mark a negative quality or a deviation from a norm, as in “non-attractive”. In a land of Hindus, a “non-Hindu” is a deviant. In our country, because vegetarianism is wrongly assumed to be the norm, those who eat meat are called “non-vegetarians”. The expression often has a negative connotation: the eating of meat may be seen as a reprehensible act.

Vegetarianism is known all over the world, but it is considered a harmless eccentricity. Humans in nearly the entire world eat the flesh of mammals and birds and fishes. We are, as a species, omnivores, never mind all the ersatz Vedic humbug that flies around in Bharat.

It is only in our India that the expression “non-vegetarian” is found. Indians who go abroad get blank stares when they utter it. No one anywhere says “non-meat-eater” or “non-carnivore”, which would be a good deal more logical.

A meat-eating family living in Ahmedabad in a housing society owned by Jains recently got 40 letters threatening the rape of their daughter as punishment for their “criminal” food habits. Can you imagine a sattvik pujari living in Birmingham facing a death threat for his food choices: “You eat kaddu, Panditji – you die”?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Privacy, security and legality are not the only serious problems with Aadhaar...

But the Unique Identification Authority of India will not address them as solving them may reduce the usage and acceptance of Aadhaar.

Most debates around the Unique Identification Authority of India and Aadhaar focus on privacy concerns, security of the database and on the legality of making Aadhaar mandatory. But even if these three concerns are sorted out, there are four other concerns that need attention. In all four, you will see the following common themes

It is very likely that UIDAI knows the existence of the problem
Entities other than UIDAI are using Aadhaar incorrectly and sometimes dangerouslyUIDAI has framed policies protecting itself from implications of these wrong usagesUIDAI is unlikely to address these issues, because solving them may reduce the usage and acceptance of Aadhaar

1. Not an address proof

The first of these four concerns is that UIDAI knows that Aadhaar is not an address proof even though the industry uses it as an address proof, but will choose to remain silent about it.

Various entities allow Aadhaar to be used as both an identity proof as well as an address proof  –  banks, for example, use biometric eKYC to onboard new customers. But the reality is that UIDAI does not validate the address of every applicant. Though applicants are asked to provide an address proof for Aadhaar enrolment, it is optional  –  the enrolment process (and form) is designed to allow anyone to get an Aadhaar without any documents (mainly because Aadhaar is meant even for those sleep under the flyover)

Aadhaar enrolment form screenshot. If you don’t have (or choose not to give) an address proof, you can choose Introducer or Head of Family based verification and get any address updated in Aadhaar. (Attestation by the introducer is all it takes)

UIDAI is aware of this flaw, which explains why the Aadhaar Bill has multiple mentions of Aadhaar being a proof of identity, but has no mention of it being a proof of address.

Section II.4.3 of the Aadhaar bill says:

It would be appropriate of UIDAI to clarify to RBI and other authorities that Aadhaar is not a proof of address, but that would mean banks and telcos would no longer be interested in eKYC  –  imagine if banks are asked to collect a second document as address proof despite performing a biometric eKYC. Thus if UIDAI were to “fix” this issue, eKYC (Aadhaar’s core feature) will become useless and Aadhaar’s acceptance will be impacted.

2. Not a proof of citizenship

The second problem with Aadhaar is that it is not a proof of citizenship, but can be used to either apply for a passport or obtain other identity documents that can then be used to apply for a passport.

The Aadhaar Bill Section III.9 states the following:

But this hasn’t stopped the passport office from listing Aadhaar as an acceptable document  –they go even further to state that “Furnishing of Aadhaar card will expedite processing of passport applications”.

The passport office, on its website, further states:

Furnishing of Aadhaar card will expedite processing of passport applications.Aadhaar letter/card or the e-Aadhaar (an electronically generated letter from the website of UIDAI), as the case may be, will be accepted as Proof of Address (POA) and Proof of Photo-Identity (POI) for availing passport related services. Acceptance of Aadhaar as PoA and PoI would be subject to successful validation with Aadhaar database. From the Passport Seva website.

Even if the passport office were to stop accepting Aadhaar as a valid document, a non-Indian can apply for a bank account or water connection or electricity connection using an Aadhaar number, and then apply for a passport using the bank statement or utility bill as an acceptable document.

The only way for UIDAI to address this is to declare that Aadhaar cannot be used for passport applications, public utilities, bank accounts and any other services which may then be used to apply for a passport. But of course, this would limit the usage and acceptance of Aadhaar, and therefore its relevance.

3. Aadhaar card alone is not an ID

The third problem is that possession of a physical Aadhaar card should not be considered as identification in airports, trains and other places.

UIDAI does not include holograms or physical signatures or any other security information in the Aadhaar cards that are sent to applicants  – it is just a colour printout of your Aadhaar information. You can also download and print your Aadhaar (even in black and white) as your Aadhaar card  – print multiple ones and each one will be considered “original”.

Clarification from UIDAI that black and white printouts of Aadhaar info are as valid as the Aadhaar card sent to you or the plastic cards that someone laminated for you

This is because UIDAI does not consider possession of an Aadhaar card as authentication that it belongs to you. UIDAI instead asks entities to authenticate the Aadhaar number based on OTP or biometrics by connecting to the UIDAI system, prior to usage.

See last sentence in Aadhaar Bill Clause 4: Aadhaar can be used as proof of identity “subject to authentication”.

But in reality, the ticket checker in trains, the security guard at the airport entrance and many other places consider a physical Aadhaar card as a valid identity document.

If UIDAI were to publicly clarify that the physical Aadhaar card is irrelevant and electronic authentication is required prior to being used, it would mean that the airport security guard or the train ticket inspector carries a biometric device with them for validation. This would slow down their entire process and they would instead insist that you provide an ID proof other than Aadhaar. So if UIDAI tried to fix this problem, it would mean reduced acceptance of Aadhaar in public life, again reducing its relevance.

4. Aadhaar numbers can (but shoulnd’t be) made public

The fourth problem Aadhaar numbers are probably meant to be secret to avoid misuse, but UIDAI does not stop organisations from putting Aadhaar information out in public.

Only a professional counterfeit artist can recreate passports or driving licenses  – this is because there are security features like holograms in an original document. But this does not apply to Aadhaar  –  there is no concept of an “original” Aadhaar card (See Issue #3 above). A printout of Aadhaar information is being treated by various entities as a valid document, so it is easy for a fraudster (even an amateur) to print out your Aadhaar card if he knows your basic information like Aadhaar number and name), and start submitting in different places where the Govt asks us to.

UIDAI is aware of this issue, and hence Section 29 of the Aadhaar Bill states that entities which use your Aadhaar number should ensure the following:

Aadhaar numbers shall not be posted publicly by organisations collecting them.

This basically puts the onus on thousands of different organisations to ensure that they do not make your Aadhaar number public. Do a Google search for “Aadhaar number name filetype:xls” and prepare to be stunned at what is out there. Among those multiple excel sheets in the results, you will even find a Ministry website which has uploaded many excel sheets of thousands of people’s information including name, date of birth, address, and Aadhaar number.

Websites have uploaded excel sheets of people’s information including Aadhaar numbers. One such excel sheet has all this information of 1360 people out there in public

Printing their Aadhaar cards will probably take a few minutes of effort for a fraudster with a computer and a black and white printer.

UIDAI can stop this by identifying such entities and stopping them from putting out Aadhaar numbers in public, but it is a mammoth monitoring effort. The other solution for UIDAI is same as the solution for Issue #3, which will again reduce Aadhaar’s relevance.

As is now evident, UIDAI is faced with two choices in each of these issues. They can either fix the problem, running the risk of Aadhaar irrelevance in public life, or they can choose to stay silent, running the risk that something may go wrong at a large scale in the future.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Accidents - Law for Bystanders

I saw an accident take place. What should I do?

There is no legal duty to do anything, but as a good citizen you can do the following:

Rush the victim to the hospital or call an ambulance (108).

Inform the police about the accident. The police cannot demand a written statement from you without your consent, as per the newly enforced Good Samaritan guidelines.

Lodge an FIR at the nearest police station.

Won’t I get into a lot of legal hassle if I get involved?

The Supreme Court has approved guidelines issued by the Centre for protection of ‘Good Samaritans’ at the hands of police or any other authority.

Under these guidelines:

The Good Samaritan will be treated respectfully and without any discrimination on the grounds of gender, religion, nationality and caste.

Any individual, except an eyewitness, who calls the police to inform them of an accidental injury or death need not reveal his or her personal details such as full name, address or phone number.

The police will not compel the Good Samaritan to disclose his or her name, identity, address and other such details in the police record form or log register.

The police will not force any Good Samaritan in procuring information or anything else.

The police will allow the Good Samaritan to leave after having provided the information available to him or her, and no further questions will be asked of him or her if he or she does not desire to be a witness.

Now I have become a witness in a motor accident case. What rights do I have?

According to the same guidelines:

If a Good Samaritan chooses to be a witness, s/he will be examined with utmost care and respect.

The examination will be conducted at a time and place of the Good Samaritan’s convenience and the investigation officer will be dressed in plain clothes.

If the Good Samaritan is required by the investigation officer to visit the police station, the reasons for the requirement shall be recorded by the officer in writing.

In a police station, the Good Samaritan will be examined in a single examination in a reasonable and time-bound manner, without causing any undue delay.

If a Good Samaritan declares himself to be an eyewitness, s/he will be allowed to give evidence in the form of an affidavit. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Whatsapp arrest: Why does Maharashtra celebrate Shivaji's birthday twice every year?

This question led to a college professor in suburban Mumbai being arrested last week. The answer is trivial.

For Maharashtrians who revere Chhatrapati Shivaji, it is no secret that the 17th century Maratha king’s birth date has been a subject of some dispute. The state officially marks Shivaji Jayanti with an annual public holiday on February 19, as per the Gregorian calendar. A large section of Maharashtrians, meanwhile, prefer to celebrate the occasion on the third day of Phalgun in the Hindu calendar, which fell on March 15 this year.

Members of the Shiv Sena have frequently brought up this dispute between the two calendars – insisting that Shivaji’s birth anniversary must be marked according to Hindu tithi – only to be ignored by other political parties in successive governments.

However, last week, a professor in Raigad district’s Khopoli town was assaulted and arrested for asking the same question on a Whatsapp group of his college colleagues.

On the night of March 15, when many Maharashtrians were commemorating Shivaji Jayanti as per the Hindu calendar, commerce professor Sunil Waghmare posted a comment on Whatsapp questioning the celebration of Shivaji’s birthday twice a year. The comment raised a storm among his colleagues on the group and on the next day, Waghmare was attacked by both teachers and students at the KMC College where he teaches.

The police, which first arrived on the scene to protect Waghmare, ended up arresting him and charging him under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, for allegedly outraging religious beliefs. While he is now out on bail, Waghmare has been suspended from his job.

An absurd controversy
How and why did the birth anniversary of Maharashtra’s most venerated warrior king become a matter of such contention? For most historians and writers in the state, it is an controversy that has been needlessly politicised in the past few years.

Shivaji was born in the early 1600s to Shahaji Bhonsale, a Maratha subedaar or army general, and available historical records are themselves divided about the exact date and year of his birth. When social reformer Lokmanya Tilak first popularised Shivaji Jayanti in the 1890s, Shivaji’s birth date was widely considered to be in the Hindu month of Chaitra, corresponding to April 6, 1627. Other historical records, however, indicated that Shivaji was born in Phalgun on a date corresponding to February 19, 1630.

“Broadly, it is known that Shivaji was born in the spring, but no one can really say for certain in which month or year,” said Sujata Anandan, a veteran political journalist and author. “Since he was not born as a royal, there was no reason to record his exact birth date.”

In 2000, the Congress-led state government of the time set up a committee of historians to determine Shivaji’s birth date. Based on its research and recommendations, the state accepted February 19 – the equivalent of Phalgun vadya tritiya or the third day of Phalgun – as the official Shivaji Jayanti holiday.

“But it is not necessary that the dates of the Hindu calendar fall on the same English [Gregorian] calendar dates every year, and a lot of the public does not accept the government date for Shivaji Jayanti,” said Pandurang Balkawade, a historian from Pune. “So even though schools and colleges are officially closed on February 19, many people celebrate the occasion based on the Hindu tithi.”

Two calendars, two views
Even as political groups dismiss the controversy over Shivaji’s birthday as a non-issue, they have strong opinions on the choice of one calendar over another to mark their celebrations.

The Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha vigilante group affiliated to the Nationalist Congress Party, believes the Gregorian calendar is the only appropriate choice in a globalised world, so that Shivaji Jayanti can be observed by Indians across the world.

“Today we celebrate the birthdays of all important men by [Gregorian] date, not tithi,” said Vikas Pasalkar, the state president of the Sambhaji Brigade. “Even for [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, who is the champion of Hindutva, we don’t mark the birthday by tithi, because this is the 21st century.”

While Pasalkar contends that most Maharashtrians celebrating Shivaji Jayanti by tithi would not even be able to name all the months of the Hindu calendar, Balkawade believes people have a right to be annoyed by the government’s imposition of the “English” calendar date.

“In his time, Shivaji had rejected the Islamic calendar of the Mughals, so why should people accept an outsider’s calendar today?” said Balkawade.

On either side of the debate, there is one common source of validation. Kalnirnay – publishers of the widely popular Hindu calendars and almanacs – lists both February 19 and the third of Phalgun as birth anniversaries of Shivaji.

A question asked hundreds of times
For professor Sunil Waghmare in Khopoli, this debate over calendars ended in a criminal case even before a discussion could properly begin.

The Shiv Sena, which is at the forefront of those promoting tithi-based celebrations, distanced itself from the violent reactions of Waghmare’s colleagues. “Chhatrapati Shivaji is such a huge figure that even celebrating his birthday every day would not be enough,” said Harshal Pradhan, a Shiv Sena spokesperson in Mumbai. “We are in a democracy and we do not support violence against anyone.”

Pasalkar, meanwhile, was baffled that Waghmare faced any violence at all. “I don’t know why this question about Shivaji’s birthday should become so controversial all of a sudden,” he said. “This question has already been asked hundreds of times.”

The Ayodhya evasion: Why is the Supreme Court reluctant to pronounce verdict on a property dispute?

The top court has never shied away from instituting policies on everything from the organisation of cricket to the auctioning of coal. What gives here?

Wouldn’t the world be wonderful if we could all just get along? Unfortunately, people don’t always achieve that ideal, which is why we have laws and courts. Imagine now, that organisations which don’t get along at all have been fighting each other in court for decades, as sometimes happens in Indian trials. Nearly 70 years on, individuals among the original petitioners have all died of natural causes, hundreds of citizens unconnected with the case have died of unnatural causes as a result of the dispute, and the nation’s Supreme Court finally gets ready to pronounce a verdict. Having listened to all sides, and considered the complex issues carefully, the most senior judge in the country addresses the litigants. Why do you need courts at all, he asks, can’t you just sort this out by yourselves? Can’t you all just get along? He offers to play mediator, but is reluctant to play the role assigned to him, the role for which tax payers provide him a salary and perks, that of a judge.

That’s what Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar did on Tuesday in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi case. He might as well have entered the field of Kurukshetra and asked the Kaurava and Pandava armies to sort things out amicably. Barack Obama was fond of saying that every decision he made was complex and tough because anything simple would already have been done by somebody else.

Supreme Courts of every country are in the business of making difficult decisions. Ours, though, shies away from matters pertaining to law and basic rights while instituting policies on everything from the organisation of cricket to the auctioning of coal.

Babur to Babri
For those who came in late (which is a majority of Indians, since half of those alive today were yet to be born when the Babri Masjid was demolished, and about 15% more had not got to secondary school), here’s the gist of the back-story. The Central Asian king Babur defeated the army of Ibrahim Lodi in 1526 CE, founding what came to be called the Mughal dynasty. He spent four years consolidating his rule before losing the unequal battle against Indian bacteria. In 1528, his governor in Awadh province, a Shia general named Mir Baqi, constructed a large mosque in Ayodhya town, which came to be called the Babri Masjid.

From the middle of the 19th century, there were attempts by Hindu groups to take over the site under the pretext that it was Ram janmabhoomi, the birthspot of Lord Rama. A local akhara forcibly wrested a part of the complex for itself and commenced prayers in the open. Later, it sought legal sanction to build a shrine on the platform. Muslims protested and successive layers of the colonial administration ordered maintenance of status quo, with a section of the land held by the akhara, and the bulk of it controlled by the mosque’s caretakers.

The dark night
In December 1949, a group of Hindu activists entered the mosque at night and placed idols of Rama and Sita inside. The following day, the Akhil Bharatiya Ramayana Mahasabha declared the idols had appeared miraculously. As credulous devotees flooded the venue, the state administration locked the gates, disallowing both Muslims and Hindus from praying there. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel tried to reverse what the trespassers had accomplished by ordering the state to remove the idols, but the district administration refused to do it, fearing riots. Within a year, the issue ended up in court, and there it has stayed ever since.

In the 1980s, right-wing Hindu organisations launched a political movement to construct a temple where the mosque stood. They claimed Mir Baqi had demolished a Rama temple and built the Babri Masjid over its ruins. On December 6, 1992, a Hindu mob broke through the paltry police cordon placed at the site by Uttar Pradesh’s Bharatiya Janata Party government, and reduced the Babri Masjid to rubble. A criminal case related to the demolition against BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad Hindu leaders has been stalled for years.

In 2010, an Allahabad High Court judgement divided up the land where the mosque had stood, giving a third to the Sunni Waqf board, a third to the Nirmohi akhara, and a third to the human representatives of the infant Lord Rama. The court based its judgement substantially on a 2003 report by the Archaeological Survey of India which claimed to have found ruins of a temple under the erstwhile Babri Masjid.

The great red herring
The demolished temple has been the great red herring in the Babri Masjid saga. Secularist commentators played into Hindutvavadi hands in the 1980s by allowing it to become the centrepiece of the debate. The secular position should have been something to this effect: Islam’s iconoclastic streak is one of the repugnant aspects of the faith from a liberal perspective. A number of Hindu temples were, indeed, demolished by Muslim rulers in centuries past. There is no evidence that the Babri Masjid was built on one such demolished temple, but it shouldn’t matter anyway. A modern state cannot turn back the clock of history, and should restrict itself to addressing contemporary injustices.

Since the Allahabad court, like most left-wing commentators and all right-wing ones, accepted the notion that the mosque’s history counts, here’s a summary of the facts. Babur is renowned for his remarkable memoir, Baburnama, in which he put down details about everything from his drug use to his wars. Unfortunately, not long after the Babri Masjid’s construction, a sudden storm brought down Babur’s tent in the midst of a campaign, drenching his books and manuscripts. He saved what he could, but most of his 1528 and 1529 entries were probably lost at this time, and he died the following year before he could rewrite them.

In the parts of the memoir that have survived, Babur expressed no fondness for demolishing Hindu shrines. We know he left temples intact in forts he took over from Hindu rajas. At the same time, he wasn’t above the odd act of vandalism against places of worship that offended his sensibilities, even Muslim ones, and may not have objected to a general’s proposal to bring down a temple and build a mosque in its place. The contemporary record, in other words, is of no help whatsoever in resolving the Babri Masjid question.

The Archeological Survey of India’s report to the Allahabad court isn’t much better. The ASI asked a private company to map the area using ground penetrating radar, and drew conclusions on the basis of that data. The radar detected a few anomalies, which the ASI concluded were remnants of a temple’s pillars. If it was a temple, it was a pretty small one, far from the grand monument to Lord Rama’s birthplace we were led to expect. The report provided hints that the Babri mosque was built on the ruins of another mosque, which in turn might have been built on the ruins of a temple or after demolishing a temple.

Irrelevant history
Whether it was mosque on demolished temple, or mosque on ruined temple, or mosque on ruined home, or mosque on ruined mosque on ruined temple, or mosque on ruined mosque on demolished temple, cannot be ascertained on the basis of a radar scan.

Which is fine, because, as I’ve said, the history is irrelevant to the case. The Supreme Court ought to set aside myths of the birth of an avatar, and dubious archaeological reports, and treat the matter as a dispute over property rights. In such a dispute, it is difficult to envision the infant Rama as a beneficiary. The property ought to be divided unequally between the Waqf board and the akhara (since squatters gain some rights if they occupy land for long enough). This would return the site to the status quo of the 19th century with one difference: no mosque stands on the spot any longer.

At that point, a BJP government could use eminent domain to take over the land and construct the temple it’s been promising for decades. Or a secular government could build a hospital there, on the basis that Ayodhya’s Hindus and Muslims have plenty of places to pray, but inadequate health care. But neither secular parties nor religious will make such a move. The secular parties are weak and scared, while the BJP prefers to keep the pot of the public’s emotions simmering.

Who can blame them for indecisiveness when the nation’s highest court is reluctant to pronounce verdict on a property dispute?