Sunday, October 29, 2006

Another Trick by the Cola Bandits

The advertisement industry can think in the most absurd manner at times. An instance of this is now seen in our media with stars and starlets endorsing coke. We are shown clips of these stars and starlets visiting the cola plant, dressed up in white overcoats (I wonder why?) and discovering the way this sugared-coloured-concoction is bottled and then declaring that cola is absolutely safe to drink.

What they do not say anywhere is that they have all managed to become richer after their visit to the cola plant. It will be worth the effort to find out the money that the cola giant had spent in getting them to act according to the script. Well. Some of them had endorsed the colas earlier too but the advertisement campaign now is bizarre to say the least.

It is bizarre for the following reasons. When Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Education (CSE) told the nation that samples of all the brands manufactured by coke and pepsi contained heavy doses of pesticide residues, she did that after getting them tested in laboratories. The laboratory where the samples were tested is known to all and the results, in terms of the pesticide residue, are now public knowledge. The point is that Sunita Narain did not resort to such gimmicks to tell us that the cola manufacturers were selling stuff which contained toxic elements. It was also revealed that some of the toxins in this could cause cancer!

The question that arises out of this is the credibility of the people who have gathered around coke to endorse its safety. Radhika may have done such roles as a doctor, a responsible mother and a caring wife in films. Her performance in Kizhakke Pogum Rail, for instance was commendable. She seemed to reinvent herself years later in the small screen and her Chitti would ensure most men and women across Tamil Nadu watch TV evening after evening.

As it happened with her films, Chitti too was a money spinner. And while the average middle class TV viewer fantasised herself as the successful, responsible, enterprising character, Radhika made lots of money in the process. This, however, is part of the game. If the viewer allowed himself to get deluded and imagined herself to be another chitti in the same way many young men thought they could convey their feelings to their heart-throb by writing about that in a moving train (kizhakke pogum rail), it is not Radhika’s crime. She simply acted and cinema to become successful will have to cause this delusion!

I do realise that Radhika is not the only starlet who is doing this. I am told that Sahrukh Khan, Smriti Irani and even Amir Khan (despite his empathy with the people in the Narmada valley) are doing this. But then, I do not watch TV and had just happened to see this Radhika promo quite incidentally!

Well, the issue here is not about the cola endorsement, as it is being done by stars and starlets and even sportsmen. This advertisement we are talking about is making a statement about the coloured water even after it has been shown that they contain toxins. The issue involved here is the health and well being of a large number of people and Radhika is only cheating the people by saying that she knows what is good for them and that Coke is good for them. She is, in no way, qualified to certify that Coke does not contain pesticide residues because, as far as we know, she does not even know how a pipette is different from a burette! Radhika will draw a blank if she is pushed into a science quiz meant for primary school children and asked to name of the acid contained in lemon!

And when she appears on TV, dressed up like a lab-scientist or a pathologist and tells us that she had checked up everything and that coke is a safe drink, it is nothing but plain cheating. She is free to buy coke, serve it to her child and even use it as a cooking medium. Well, she is free to use coke to clean her toilets. But she must not and cannot be allowed to cheat any one of us and tell us how to enjoy life.

It makes sense for us to ask her, in a collective voice, as to how much did coke pay her for doing this advertisement. We all know that these stars, starlets and our sportsmen and sportswomen earn lots of money by endorsing products. Some endorse a particular jeweller, some do it with chocolates. We have the right to be informed about the money they earned for doing this. In case of coke, this is all the more important because they are also cheating us by asking us to drink a certain product that was found to contain toxins when samples were tested in a laboratory.

There are other issues too. The colas, for instance, are also guilty of destroying villages and the people there by drawing large quantities of water and rendering the ground water in those villages brackish and unfit for human consumption. They are also guilty of paying a pittance for the water and earning a fortune by selling it to us. Remember that coke pays only a few naya paise for a litre of water it draws from our land, fills it in a bottle, sticks the label and takes Rs. 10 from us.

They earn so much profit by selling water that they don’t mind spending some of it on stars and starlets who are prepared to take this money and cheat the people of this country. Beware of this bunch.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It was my Privilege.....

In these cynical times when Mahatma Gandhi is remembered more because the political establishment thinks that it cannot afford to forget him and hence the leaders make a bee-line to the Bapu’s Samadhi in New Delhi or to one of his statues in the State capitals on October 2, the Mahatma’s memory was brought back in Delhi on October 4 this year.

Irom Sharmila Chanu was there along with a dozen students beside the Jantar Mantar and hardly a kilometer away from the Parliament House. And unlike the usual, there was no microphone there and Sharmila did not deliver a long speech from there. Well I happened to be in Delhi for some odd reason and staying near the Jantar Mantar. A stroll down the road, after a sumptuous dinner, was something that I would not want to miss.

And as I walked down the Jantar Mantar marg, which has now become the corner for all democratic protests (the Boat Club ceased to be the venue for protests many years ago when Rajest Pilot, an up-start in the Congress party displayed his managerial skills and prevented a BJP rally at the Boat Club in January 1993), realizing that the culture of protest was still alive and there were so many people from so many places registering their protest against so many things, I spotted my old friend Babloo Loitongbam from Manipur there. And I recalled the news item I happened to read in the morning’s papers. That Sharmila was there in Delhi to continue her fast against the AFSPA. And that Babloo had accompanied her from Imphal.

Well, I would not have noticed Sharmila and her struggle if I had not taken that after-dinner-stroll that day; I would not have noticed this struggle if I were staying in some other place in Delhi because I would have taken the stroll on some other road and not down the Jantar Mantar road! In any case, it so happened that I was there and after that, I decided to spend as much time with that frail young woman and the dozen odd young boys and girls from Manipur and studying in the various colleges in Delhi.

It is not as if I am unaware of the AFSPA. I have written against it in my columns and earned money out of that! And have known about Sharmila too. But have never participated in any agitation against that dreaded law.

Sharmila did not have the energy to deliver a speech. But then, she seemed to have something else in her that most of us do not have. Hmmm.. let me not speak for others. I don’t seem to have such courage and determination. For want of another word, let me call it determination. Sharmila looked frail and pale. That was obvious. She had not eaten anything since November 2000. She is on a fast.

And unlike the many others who announce a fast-until-death, Sharmila is determined to fast until the AFSPA, a notorious law that has been in force since 1958, is scrapped. She has been living without food and water for the last six years. All this while she has been under police custody and was being force-fed through a nasal tube in Imphal. The Manipur Police had first arrested her in November 2000 on charges of attempting suicide.
The maximum sentence for the ``crime’’ is one year’s imprisonment. Sharmila served that and persisted with her fast on release after a year, only to be arrested again, kept in hospital and fed through her nose. On October 3, 2006, Sharmila changed her strategy. After her release that day from an Imphal hospital, Sharmila hopped into a flight to Delhi and went to the Rajghat. After offering floral tributes to the Mahatma, she came to the Jantar Mantar Road to continue with her fast.

When she was arrested in Delhi late in the night on October 6, her pulse was 47, below the normal range of 60-80. She was also running temperature.

The incident that prompted Sharmila’s decision to go on this fast occurred on November 2, 2000. A convoy of the 8th Assam Rifles had resorted to indiscriminate firing at a market place killing 10 people. The dead included a 62 year old woman, and at least 42 people were injured by this cold-blooded action by the Assam Rifles forces. This happened in Malom Makha Leikai Boroi Makhong.

It may also be recalled that two years ago, Thangjam Manorama was abducted and her dead body was found dumped near the Assam Rifles camp. This incident had set the whole of Manipur on fire and brought the issue of the obnoxious AFSPA into national attention.

The protests prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appoint a panel headed by Justice B.P.Jeevan Reddy with the mandate to review the provisions of AFSPA and advise the Government of India whether (a) to amend the provisions of the Act to bring them in consonance with the obligations of the Government towards protection of human rights; or (b) to replace the Act by a more humane Act.”

The committee clearly does not find any justification for the Act to remain in force. It says that “the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, and object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”

And this, after all is Sharmila’s case too. While being arrested by the Delhi Police late in the night on October 6, 2006, she said, in a feeble voice but in emphatic terms: “My position is clear. I will not back out. Truth will triumph, no matter whether the struggle is long or short. The AFSPA should be scrapped.”

In this age when agitations do not go beyond symbolic acts and the language of protest is increasingly becoming stage-managed, Sharmila seemed to infuse a lot of fresh air and hopes. A sad part of this was that none from the political establishment cared to join Sharmila even in a symbolic manner. There was hardly anyone from the political parties to sit by her side. This was left to individuals from the civil society organizations and the young boys and the girls from Manipur studying in the various colleges in Delhi.

Well, Sharmila is not perturbed by any of these. She is determined to fight against the obnoxious law. Sharmila is indeed convinced that a day will come when the AFSPA will belong to the same league as the Rowlatt Act that the British brought in and were forced to scrap. I don’t think Sharmila is a lone dreamer. I realize that there are many others who share this dream. But then, Sharmila alone has had the courage to take up the cause and fight against the obnoxious Act with such patience and perseverance.

After landing in Delhi, Sharmila went to the Rajghat and offered floral tributes to the Mahatma. That was on October 4. Hmmm…I wondered if this legitimate legatee of the Bapu’s legacy had landed in Delhi just a couple of days earlier, the Delhi Police would not have let her in to the Rajghat. They would have prevented her from getting in there to ensure that the imposters from the establishment could walk in there and complete the ritual that is demanded out of them on October 2 every year!!!

Friday, October 06, 2006

A new role for the notorious STF???

The Tamil Nadu Government, according to reports, is thinking of deploying the personnel of the Special Task Force (STF) across the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border districts to check the Maoists from entering into Tamil Nadu. Set up almost a decade ago with a specific brief to nab Veerappan, the STF, drawn from among the personnel of the Tamil Nadu police now consists of about 750 men trained in combing operation as well as to handle sophisticated weapons.

It is of specific concern here that the STF personnel are not empower by the law to detain anyone on their own. Section 41(1) of the CrPC, for instance, restricts the power of arrest only within the declared jurisdiction of a police officer. The STF, thus, can merely function as an armed force and does not have a formally notified jurisdiction for exercise of the normal police powers of arrest or search. The only way to over come this would be to formally notify the headquarters of the STF as a Police station (under section 2(a) of the CrPC) and this area should then be specified to cover all the border districts.

Now, it is a different matter that the STF men had gone about holding at least a couple of hundred men, women and children in their detention camps for long periods of time and the Justice Sadashiva Panel (set up by the National Human Rights Commission in June 1999) after several hearings in the Satyamangalam-Mettur region, concluded that such illegal arrests were carried out by the STF personnel in a rampant manner. The panel also found several instances of gross rights violations including murder and rape by the STF men in its report presented to the NHRC in December 2003. The NHRC, for some reason, has refused to initiate action to identify criminal culpability in this regard.

While the NHRC cannot pronounce the judgment in this regard, the Commission could have taken up the task of registering complaints in the respective police stations as a first step to fix criminal culpability. This has not happened and is unlikely to happen. The NHRC, even in case of the disappearance of a large number of people in Punjab (during the K.P.S.Gill era) and the discovery of dead bodies later has only recommended cash compensation to the kin of those killed rather than working of fixing criminal culpability.
This inaction from the NHRC will indeed be seen by the STF personnel as sanction for its lawless ways and it is now likely that they may end up doing similar things in the border districts as and when the force is deployed there, this time to deal with the Maoists.
Be that as it may, it is doubtful as to whether such deployment is called for at all. For the political scene in Tamil Nadu is not the same as in the Telengana and the Coastal Andhra region and in that sense, there is very little scope for the Maoists setting up any base of significance in this part. It is not as if the Tamil speaking districts are free from discrimination; there is evidence of abject poverty and it is also a fact that this is due to discrimination based on social conditions.

But then, the political scene in Tamil Nadu, particularly in these districts bordering Andhra Pradesh, are home to the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), headed by Thirumavalavan, who had been closer to the Maoist idea at some point in the past and now transformed into a political outfit that is similar in its approach and attitude to the BSP in Uttar Pradesh. After having pushed a radical line of poll boycott and local resistance against caste based oppression, Thirumavalavan’s DPI is now a party that steers clear of all ideological trappings! And the Dalit ranks too are not angry with this shift.

This being the ground reality, it is unlikely that the Maoists will find any basis to emerge into a force in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, after having drawn a section of the Maoist leaning vanniar youth into its ranks is now entrenched in the power structure. The last time when its local leaders were seen with the pro-Maoist youth was when the Tamil National Liberation Army, along with Veerappan had taken Kannada idol Rajkumar as hostage. It is clear that the TNLA is only an appendage of these politicos and has very little to do with Maoist ideas.

These are factors that should lead anyone to agree that the Maoists are not and cannot build themselves into a force in Tamil Nadu. The simple point is that the Maoists can and will emerge into a force only where the façade of democracy has given way to naked and unqualified oppression based on feudal or semi-feudal structures. This is not the case in Tamil Nadu. With a long history of the reservation policy and the upward mobility of the Other Backward Castes, the social set-up is indeed different in Tamil Nadu from that of Andhra Pradesh.

There is, however, another argument against the idea of deploying the STF personnel to deal with the possible Maoist influence in Tamil Nadu. And this arises from the record of this force. Forensic and ballistic experts have held that at least a dozen persons including a few women were shot dead by the STF from a distance of less than three metres and then described as encounter deaths.

As many as 128 persons who were picked up by the STF had to languish in the Mysore jail as TADA detenues for several years before they were set free because the charges against them were unfounded by the Special Court set up in Mysore.

And it is a fact that the DMK-led Government of Tamil Nadu had recently ordered compensation to the tune of Rs. Two lakhs to the next of kin of some such people who were killed in those fake encounters. The Tamil Nadu Government had acted on the basis of the Justice Sadashiva panel’s report.

It is strange and sad that the STF will be given a fresh lease of life by the same political leader, M.Karunanidhi, who ordered cash compensation to the kin of those who were murdered by the STF personnel only the other day.

Well, like Dylon sang; Yes, 'n how many times can a man turn his head, Pretending he just doesnt see? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, The answer is blowing in the wind