Sunday, February 14, 2021

The White Tiger: An Incisive Social Commentary on Religion, Caste, Class and Democracy in India

Few films about India offer the kind of incisive social commentary that the recently released "The White Tiger" does. Based on a novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, it tells  the story of a poor but ambitious young man from a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The film touches on religion, caste, class and democracy in India. It is directed by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani and now available on Netflix. 

The White Tiger: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao

The movie opens with a scene showing Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) looking back at his life. It follows up with a series of long flashbacks to tell his story. Along the way, Balram sarcastically compares India's democracy with China's sanitation system. “If I were in charge of India, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy.” Numerous scenes in the film illustrate poor sanitation in India by showing Balram and others squatting and defecating in the open

Raised in an Indian village, Balram is determined to rise above his "halwai" (confectioner) caste in India's rigidly defined caste system which makes any such escape extremely difficult. He persuades a corrupt landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) to give him a job as a back-up driver.  Ashok is married to Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), a chiropractor who grew up in the United States.   

Balram soon replaces the primary driver (Girish Pal) by revealing his Muslim identity which he was hiding to work for the Islamophobic Stork. Balram spends most of his time working for Ashok.  Ashok’s older brother, referred to as Mukesh Sir or the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), doesn't  particularly like Balram. Unlike Ashok who has studied abroad, the Mongoose character accepts India’s culture of corruption and participates in it willingly. The Mongoose visits Delhi regularly to help Ashok distribute bags full of cash to politicians and bureaucrats. He also helps Ashok deal with his sadness when Pinky suddenly leaves him to return to the United States.  

The White Tiger is a well-made film. I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the real life in India

Related Links:

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Peepli Live Debunks Myths About India

Slumdog Millionaire

Upward Mobility in India and Pakistan

Disintegration of India

Dalit Death Shines Light on India's Caste Apartheid

India's Hindu Nationalists Going Global

Rape: A Political Weapon in Modi's India

Trump's Dog Whistle Politics

Funding of Hate Groups, NGOs, Think Tanks: Is Money Free Speech?

Riaz Haq Youtube Channel

VPOS Youtube Channel


Amjad M. said...

Very well made movie.
Director did a good job addressing very depressing issues while keeping audience glued to their couches.

Kudos to Netflix.

Riaz Haq said...

Hate factory: Inside #BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s ‘Hindu Ecosystem’. Mishra is leading a network of over 20,000 people who are working in an organized fashion to create and spread hatred against #Muslims. #Hindu #Modi #Hindutva #Islamophobia #India

All the ecosystem members need to do is hit “Tweet” and, boom, Twitter spammed! If enough people spam it at the right time, the hashtag starts trending. Just scroll down this trend and you can spot the pattern easily.


If the ever-growing reality of Hindu Rashtra were one big Christmas, Kapil Mishra would be Santa Claus, and the members of his “Hindu Ecosystem” hardworking elves delivering the gift of religious hatred and bigotry, packaged in the seductive wrapping of Hindutva, to the masses, secretly but methodically.

On November 16 last year, Mishra, a former Aam Aadmi Party minister who is now with the BJP and has been accused of inciting the February 2020 Delhi carnage by the victims and activists, posted a tweet asking whoever was interested to fill in a form and join what he described as the “Hindu Ecosystem” team.

The form is straightforward – seeking such details as name, cellphone number, state and country of residence – but for one standout question. It asks the prospective footsoldier of the Hindu Ecosystem to state their “special area of interest” and, lest it wasn’t clear what that meant, gives a set of examples.

It also asks them to make a “declaration” about joining the group online and/or on the ground. Our curiosity was heightened and, of course, we had to join. We filled in the form and became members of the Telegram group. We were later added to other associated groups.

Thus we came to have a fly-on-the-wall view of how this ecosystem operates, how it creates propaganda material, how it comes up with toxic narratives, and how it manufactures trends across social media platforms to whip up communal hatred and bigotry, and, of course, support for Hindutva. Oh, they also share toolkits, like the one put out by the climate advocate Greta Thunberg to support the farmer protests over which the Delhi police have lodged an FIR, and arrested a young activist named Disha Ravi.

This is the sum of what we found: Kapil Mishra is leading a network of over 20,000 people who are working in an organised fashion to create and spread communal hatred.

Welcome to hate factory

On November 27, Misra posted a video for members of his network announcing that their first campaign would begin at 10 am that day, using the hashtag #JoinHinduEcosystem.

He said about 27,000 people had filled in the form and nearly 15,000 people had joined the Telegram group. Additionally, 5,000 people had signed up with the Hindu Ecosystem’s “Twitter team”. No points for guessing what social and gender groups the members came from: going by the usernames they were mostly upper caste Hindu men.

Shazad S. said...

Nice review. I had watched it previously.

The same is true for Pakistan as well. Its extremely hard to escape your circumstances.

Riaz Haq said...

Shazad: "The same is true for Pakistan as well. Its extremely hard to escape your circumstances"

In spite of all its problems Pakistan still offers better upward mobility than India, according to data from multiple independent sources.

Please read this:

Riaz Haq said...

Rooster kills owner at cockfight in #India. The bird had a knife attached to its leg ready to take on an opponent when it inflicted serious injuries to the man’s groin as it tried to escape. Cockfights are common around the #Hindu festival of Sankranti.

A rooster fitted with a knife for an illegal cockfight in southern India has killed its owner, sparking a manhunt for the organisers of the event, police said.

The bird had a knife attached to its leg ready to take on an opponent when it inflicted serious injuries to the man’s groin as it tried to escape, officers said. The man died from loss of blood before he could reach a hospital in the Karimnagar district of Telangana state earlier this week, local police officer B Jeevan told AFP.

The man was among 16 people organising the cockfight in the village of Lothunur when the freak accident took place, Jeevan said. The rooster was briefly held at the local police station before it was sent to a poultry farm.

“We are searching for the other 15 people involved in organising the illegal fight,” Jeevan said. They could face charges of manslaughter, illegal betting and hosting a cockfight.

Cockfights are banned but still common in rural areas of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha states – particularly around the Hindu festival of Sankranti. Specially bred roosters have 7.5cm (3in) knives or blades tethered to their legs and punters bet on who will win the gruesome fight. Thousands of roosters die each year in the battles which, despite the efforts of animal rights groups, attract large crowds.

Riaz Haq said...

According to the 2015 report of the Electoral Integrity Project, UK scored worst in Western Europe and most of its former colonies too were found at the bottom of the index. Interestingly like the oldest democracy, the largest ‘democracy’ of the world (India) too scored fewer points than the electoral systems of Bhutan, Brazil, Estonia, Mongolia and Chile. Pakistan’s scores were also shamelessly low. Overall, the EIP report concludes that in global comparison the Proportional Representative (PR) system generally performs better than the English (Westminster) system. In short, the largest and oldest ‘democracies’ appear to be losing relevance of their electoral system.

The comparisons highlight that Scandinavia and Western Europe are rated most highly in overall levels of electoral integrity, not surprisingly given the long history of democracy in the region. The rankings in PEI worldwide are led by Scandinavian states -- Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden –which also do well in most standard indices of the quality of democratic governance. At the same time, however, contrasts are observed in PEI-4.0 scores even among similar European Union member states and post-industrial societies; Mediterranean Europe usually performs less well than Northern Europe. The UK also scores exceptionally poorly compared with other European societies, with a PEI Index around 20 points less than the top ranking Scandinavian states.

In the Americas, even wider disparities can be seen, contrasting the cases of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Canada, all well rated by experts, compared with the low ratings for Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras and particularly Haiti. Overall the United States ranks 47 worldwide out of all 139 nations under comparison, based on the 2012 presidential and 2014 Congressional elections, even before the bitterly divided 2016 campaign, the lowest score for any long-established democracy.

In post-Communist Europe, the power-sharing democracies, smaller welfare states, and mid-level income economies in the Baltics and Central Europe often do well in the quality of their elections today, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovenia, all scoring higher in the PEI Index than long-established majoritarian democracies such as India, the US, and UK. At the same time, Central Eurasia remains the home of several unreconstructed authoritarian states, which hold multi-party elections to legitimate ruling parties but with limited human rights, exemplified by the poor PEI scores observed in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Belarus.

Asia-Pacific sees similar wide disparities, with the affluent post-industrial societies of Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan heading the ratings, as well as Mongolia, which has made rapid progress in abandoning its Soviet past. Yet other countries in the region perform far worse in the PEI Index, notably Cambodia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Riaz Haq said...

It should also be obvious that civilian supremacy in and of itself does not mean such a state will also be a ‘democracy’. One can take a look at the Russian Federation and President Vladimir Putin to realise that; or one could take a flight to Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines or if one isn’t much for long-haul flights, perhaps land in New Delhi to realise that civilian supremacy does not automatically result in inclusive democracy. There are other examples, including in Europe, but I think the point should be obvious.

by Ejaz Haider

Years ago, I had coopted Dr Ilhan Niaz for a report on civil-military relations. After we had finalised the report, he sent me an email with some very interesting points. Here’s a gist: There are three types of states. The first are civilian states. The military is either no longer or never was integral to the political order of the state in the domestic sphere. Ilhan’s point was that many of the theorists I had cited in the report belonged to such states and regarded “their exceptional circumstances as normal and desirable.” His second type was civilian-led states. In such states “the military remains an integral component of the political order of the state, a major aspect of the ability of such states to maintain their coherence, and a guarantor of the ultimate state writ and sovereignty.” He cited the example of the French Fifth Republic, Russia, constitutional-democratic India, and market-socialist China as politically-diverse examples of this second type. One can say that many of the Latin American and South East Asian states would also fall into this category.


The prompt for these thoughts is the news I read a few days ago about Quaid-i-Azam University’s land issue. I first became aware of it in 2013. But after the Supreme Court of Pakistan took sou motu notice of the situation in 2017, I lost track of the issue thinking, it now seems naively, that after the SC intervention the issue must have been resolved. Until now, that is.

Back in 2017, the SC became seized of the matter after the QAU Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Ashraf sent a letter to the SC Registrar. In the letter the QAU VC alleged that the university’s land was “facing liquidation at the hands of land-grabbers, some of whom are so politically influential that the ICT administration and the Capital Development Authority (CDA) are unable to move effectively to even demarcate the university’s boundaries”

As one QAU source said to me, a slow process of re-demarcation did unfold after the SC took notice of it. Regrettably, by the time the process was completed CJP Saqib Nisar had retired and VC Javed Ashraf’s tenure had ended. Result: after a desultory anti-encroachment campaign in January 2019, the matter went into deep freeze.

But this is not all. The issue has been agitated by the university at all fora, including taking the matter to the offices of the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan. Nothing has moved. The only person whom the QAU has not appealed to is the Chief of Army Staff which, as the democracy argument goes, has no business arbitrating a civilian matter. It would be perfect if the government(s) could actually govern.

Riaz Haq said...

Coming out as #Dalit: how #Indian author Yashica Dutt hid her #caste to escape #discrimination in #India but finally embraced her identity after coming to #America | Global development. #Hindu #apartheid | The Guardian

Pretending not to be a Dalit took a heavy toll on the young Yashica Dutt.

Her mother, Shashi, was so determined to protect her three children from the discrimination of the Hindu caste system that relegates Dalits to the periphery of society that she pretended the family were Brahmin.

Shashi worked hard to find the money throw birthday parties, have curtains on the windows, and to follow traditional rituals correctly. But for the children it meant that one wrong word or gesture while playing with friends or buying sweets from a shopkeeper could expose the lie.

It was only after she had grown up, that Dutt, a writer and journalist, began to understand the trauma of her childhood. When she began therapy in Delhi six years ago, she simply asked her analyst: “Help me to live.”

“I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I had said the right thing, asking myself ‘would upper caste people with happier childhoods have said it better or done it differently?’ I had so much doubt from feeling like an imposter,” she says.

Dutt recounts the story in her book, Coming Out as Dalit. It tells of her mother’s ambition to overcome poverty and give her children an education, without support and with an alcoholic husband. Dutt went to boarding school and then studied at St Stephen’s, perhaps the most prestigious university in India. She worked as a journalist in Delhi and pursued a master’s at Columbia University in New York, where she now lives and works for an advertising agency.

In the US Dutt, 34, discovered a parallel with her own experience. She heard some lighter-skinned African Americans talk of how they used to “pass” as white, assuming certain habits, tastes, language and mannerisms, just as her mother had mimicked those of upper caste Hindus.

As part of her book tour, Dutt was back in India appearing at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month; when the Guardian met her in a Delhi cafe, she cut a striking figure with her wav

Riaz Haq said...

Silk #slaves: #India's bonded laborers are forced to work to pay off debts. A 2018 report estimated around 8 million people in India were unpaid workers or held in #debt bondage. Some campaigners believe the true figure is much higher. #Modi #Hindutva

The state of Karnataka, located in southwest India, is known for its silk. Mulberry trees grow in abundance, feeding silkworms and a centuries-old textile industry. But while silkworms prosper here, many people in the industry do not.

In India, the average silk worker is paid less than $3 a day -- small compensation for an industry estimated to be valued at over $14 billion globally. Part of the workforce is trapped in bonded labor, a form of modern-day slavery in which people work in often terrible conditions to pay off debt.
Bonded labor was made illegal in India in 1976, but it never went away. A 2018 report estimated around 8 million people in India were unpaid workers or held in debt bondage, though some campaigners believe the true figure is much higher. Exactly how many are involved in the silk industry is unknown.
In January 2020, the CNN Freedom Project visited Sidlaghatta, a silk hub some 65 kilometers northeast of Bangalore, Karnataka, and met Hadia and Naseeba. This mother and daughter were forced by their "master" to work 11 hours a day, for which they earned just 200 rupees (about $2.75) to repay a 100,000-rupee (about $1,370) loan that had since doubled in size.

Naseeba had been working for three years in a silk factory, her mother nine years, boiling silkworm cocoons and removing the threads from which silk is made. The steam was foul and their hands bled, she said.

"(The master) came and he said to my mother, if you will not repay the money then we'll have a rich man and you will have to go and sleep with that man," said Naseeba.
"I'm afraid of the owner, because he has given us (a) home to live in," she added. "Where should we go? We cannot go anywhere. We don't know what he will do with us after (sees) this video."

Hadia and Naseeba concealed their faces on camera and agreed to be identified by CNN only after they had received their release certificates.
In India, bonded laborers can approach authorities requesting a certificate of release. If an investigation finds their case to be genuine, they are issued the certificate, which proves their debt is cancelled and entitles them to government assistance. The process can be lengthy -- sometimes taking years -- and can require bonded laborers to come forward to authorities in the face of social pressures and intimidation.
"It is very difficult to convince the bonded laborers (to go to authorities), because they feel that they are beholden to the masters or to the landlords who have helped them in the hour of their need," said Kiran Kamal Prasad, founder of Jeevika, an organization working to eradicate bonded labor.
Authority figures often come from the same communities as the keepers of bonded laborers, or are the same dominant caste as the landlords, Prasad explained.
"Very often, authorities are not implementing the (Bonded Labor System) Act," he added. "It takes a tremendous effort from us to make the officials do what they are supposed to do."
Life after forced labor
Jeevika has allies in people like Shiva Kumar, a senior local government official in Sidlaghatta.
"I grew up as a son of a bonded laborer," he told CNN. "The (bonded laborers) in the village think that this is their (fate). If they come forward with any complaints, we will file a criminal case against the landlord."
For Prasad, freedom is only the first step for the victims. "We want to build up the agency of the bonded laborers to (help) them secure justice for themselves," he said.

Riaz Haq said...

When a bathroom towel restored an Indian bureaucrat's pride

Soutik Biswas
BBC India correspondent

Specially marked towels, height-adjustable chairs to rise above the rest, a tsunami of permissions and an unrelenting battle to improve punctuality.

These are some of the features about India's bureaucracy that a leading academic and former chief economic adviser to the government found during a three-year-long tenure.

Kaushik Basu, who later became World Bank chief economist, took leave from his position as a professor at Cornell University in the US to join the federal government in 2009, at the invitation of then-prime minister Manmohan Singh.

His newly published memoir, Policymaker's Journal (Simon & Schuster), brims with light-hearted and revealing anecdotes about how India's gargantuan bureaucracy operates.

Yes sir!
The use of the word, sir, is very common in Indian officialdom.

During a government meeting, Prof Basu recounts, he decided to keep a tab on how many times the word was said.

A senior official, he counted, was saying sir, "on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)".

Assuming it took her half a second to say the word, Prof Basu calculated that 13% of the official's speaking time was spent saying sir.

Do have 'prior permission'
Nobody can hurt me without my permission, Mahatma Gandhi had said.

But Prof Basu found one needed permission for the smallest of things in the government. (India's government accounts for 57% of formal employment in the country.)

"The requests for permissions generally get passed up the pyramidal structure of the government; and a surprising amount of trivia go all the way to the top, namely, to the minister."

So people seek permissions for literally everything - from wanting to take off for a day to visit an ailing relative to changing the brand of coffee served in the ministry, and needing another attendant to keep the restrooms clean.

"All such proposals move in a chain of hard cardboard folders, tied with strings, from one room to another acquiring notings from senior members of the bureaucracy," Prof Basu writes.

Don't knock on the door!
Professor Basu found it is "impolite to knock" in officialdom. "Either you have the right to enter a person's office or you don't."

So if you have the right, the "norm is go right in".

"It has taken me a while to adjust to this custom, it being such a strict norm in the West to knock before entering," he writes.

But he faced a small problem, adjusting to the new norm.

"What made the adjustment harder is that, given the high humidity in India, many doors are swollen and jammed, and so one needs to push against them for them to open," he writes.

"The upshot is that not only do you not knock when entering someone's office, but you often end up entering the room like a cannon ball, as the door suddenly gives way."

'Delay must be avoided'
In the finance ministry, Prof Basu found that each folder to keep papers and documents had two inside pages with 44 common phrases used by heads of departments and senior officers.

What was fascinating is how many of them were about avoiding delays and being punctual:

Expedite action
Delay cannot be waived
Delay must be avoided
Delay must be explained
Reply today/early/immediately without delay
Issue today
"If despite such urging India continues to be unpunctual; we deserve appreciation for tenacity," writes Prof Basu.

Having said that, he concedes India is a much more punctual country than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Do you have the right chair?
In official meetings, status matters. The height of a chair can give it a little boost, Prof Basu found.

"If you are on a relatively higher chair, peering down on others, it gives you an advantage in meetings."

To achieve this, Prof Basu found an easy technique.