Friday, October 27, 2017

The question more Indians ask: 'Is my phone tapped?'

By Mira Kamdar, Editorial Observer, 
The New York Times, 
26 October 2017.


A businessman told me he had stopped going on-line to buy books that the government might frown upon because he was afraid officials would track his purchases.

There’s good reason for such fears, another businessman said: “You go to a party where there are a dozen people you’ve known for years. Someone says something mildly critical of the government, and then you learn that person’s office was paid a visit the next day by the income-tax authorities.”

These were not reflections on life in some police state. These were conversations I had this month (October 2017) during a visit to India, a country I’ve been visiting for nearly 60 years.

It’s no secret that attacks on freedom of expression have accelerated since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014. Yet, nothing prepared me for the pervasive anxieties I encountered on this trip. While freedom of speech has never been an absolute right in India, I always thought that this raucous democracy would ultimately overcome any blanket effort to quash dissent, as it did when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and clamped down on the news media in 1975.

But I was stunned when a well-known writer in New Delhi confided that she and others used encrypted communications. “We’re all on ProtonMail and Signal at this point,” she said. Others said they only communicated on WhatsApp.

“All of our phones are tapped,” declared a news editor in Mumbai.

As the comments from businessmen indicate, the fears I heard weren’t limited to journalists and writers disinclined to support Mr. Modi. People who had appreciated the pro-business elements of his candidacy and who still have hope for his economic policies, expressed similar concern.

Journalists, though, have particular reason for fear.

In June, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided residences and offices connected to the founders of N.D.T.V., an influential cable TV station and online news outlet that has had run-ins with Mr. Modi’s government. The Editors Guild of India and leading media figures condemned the raid But a magazine editor confided, “Of course we are afraid; they could go
after anyone in our family, at any time.”

Even more disturbing have been a series of unsolved murders of journalists, and punitive legal actions against the news media.

The online news outlet The Wire was slapped with a criminal defamation suit after it published a story this month alleging that Jay Shah, son of Amit Shah, the powerful head of Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, has profited handsomely under Mr. Modi’s government. Then, last week, a court in Gujarat — where Mr. Modi was formerly chief minister — barred the news outlet from publishing any stories “directly or indirectly” about Jay Shah until the suit was resolved. Defiant, The Wire posted a photo of the order, vowing, “It goes without saying that this attempt to gag The Wire will not go unchallenged.”

On Monday, 23 October, the B.J.P.-led government in Rajasthan State introduced an ordinance in the state’s Legislative Assembly that would essentially bar reporting of government malfeasance by requiring government permission to investigate “both serving and former judges, magistrates and public servants for on-duty actions.” It would also make it illegal to “print or publish or publicize in any manner the name, address, photograph,
family details or any other particulars which may lead to disclosure of identity of a judge or magistrate or a public servant against whom” an investigation is pending.

Not all the Indians I spoke with were so uneasy. Many citizens remain outspoken.

Courageous journalists continue to fight to do their job. But the growing fear of Indians to speak, to write and even to read freely poses a grave threat to one of the world’s great democracies.

© 2017 The New York Times Company


“Those who have put out the people’s eyes,

reproach them of their blindness.”

John Milton (1608-74)

My dear friends, colleagues and students,

I have posted this piece by Mira Kamdar of The New York Times, because it captures accurately the fear that permeates newspaper offices and invades the homes of ordinary Indian citizens.
Let me tell U a story of when I was 24.

My companions and I had boarded the night train from Mumbai to Pune. Then we were to catch an ST bus to Pathardi, a taluka headquarter in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Here, we were doing drought relief work in some villages, since August 1973.

When we reached Pune early in the morning, we were struck by the blank white boxes, instead of the usual news-items, on the front-pages of some newspapers. There were hardly any people on the roads, as if a curfew had been imposed. The Congress government, led by Indira Gandhi, had declared a state of emergency. The empty spaces in the papers meant pre-censorship by the government.

The date: 26 June 1975.  

The next few months would be critical. Though we were strictly doing drought relief work, the local leaders felt threatened. Soon, we had to leave our villages; abandon our social work and move back to Mumbai. 

Here we became part of the nation-wide movement against the Emergency. During those days, we met young activists who were protesting on the streets. Most belonged to opposition parties. But a tiny fraction belonged to the RSS. 

Since May 2014, "they have managed to place" some of its members into leading positions of state power: as the prime minister, some chief ministers, many union and state ministers, the vice-president and the president.

These leading members of the RSS have learned well their lessons of the Indira Emergency. Now in power, they dare not impose a state of emergency like the one they fought against, but eventually have benefitted from.

It is clear "they" are being creative and innovative. The Modi Emergency is similar to but also different from the Indira Emergency in many ways. On this blog, we shall report some of "their" ways.

One of them is tapping phones and monitoring blog-posts, like this one.

Peace and love,
Joe Pinto, Pune, India.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Write in "times of dread", says Toni Morrison

My dear family, friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers,

One year into the reign of the "Modi Sarkar", I am reminded of a piece "No Place for Self-Pity, No Place for Fear" that Toni Morrison wrote for the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation. She recounts:

"Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush. I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless.

"Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine—and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed."


Here she notes:

"Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.

"This is the first step of a despot whose instinctive acts of malevolence are not simply mindless or evil; they are also perceptive. Such despots know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.

"Their plan is simple:

1. Select a useful enemy—an “Other”—to convert rage into conflict, even war.

2. Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists.

3. Distract with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion or defiant national pride that enshrine past hurts and humiliations."


During these "times of dread", what I have called "the dark days ahead", we can each make our own list of how each of these steps were executed by the "Modi Sarkar" during their first year in power.

And "This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

Your support is my strength.

Peace and love - Joe.
Pune, India; 14 June 2015.

Friday, June 5, 2015

"Who am I?" By Gia Claudette Fernandes

My dear family, friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers,

One year has passed since 16 May 2014, when I wrote three stark words -- "dark days ahead" -- to describe the darkness that had descended in to our lives with the election of the Modi Sarkar.

After the news-paper article "I feel I am on a hit list" by Julio Ribeiro (Indian Express, 17 March 2015),  I came across another free, frank, fearless -- and fair -- blog-post, "Who am I?" (The Cloudcutter Chroncicles, 15 April 2015) by one of my favourite bloggers Cloudcutter (Gia Claudette Fernandes).

Here she describes the beef ban in Maharashtra as "another nail in the coffin of our culture and freedom. This is cultural genocide". She adds, "And it has been slowly gaining momentum as far back as I can remember."

Here is her say in full:


Who Am I?

By Gia Claudette Fernandes (Cloudcutter)
Why don’t we realize what this beef ban really means? It’s not just about banning the killing of and eating the flesh of cows, the cows that are considered sacred by the majority and food by the minority.

This is just another nail in the coffin of our culture and freedom. This is cultural genocide and it has been slowly gaining momentum as far back as I can remember.

I belong to a Catholic family. I was baptized a month after I was born, I received my First Holy Communion at age 8 and my Confirmation when I was 13. When I got married at 27, it was in a church in accordance to Catholic laws. I was even educated at Catholic institutions – beginning with Auxilium Convent in Bombay, then St. Joseph’s Convent boarding school in Panchgani, and later St. Xavier’s College in Bombay. But throughout these phases and even now, I have known of and understood other religions and cultures in India. I have been wished “Happy Good Friday” and asked why non-Catholics are not offered “prasad” in our churches (this is in reference to the Holy Communion host handed out during mass. While majority of my friends and acquaintances are Hindu and extremely lovely people, I have always felt marginalized by society in general.

Why do I feel marginalized? Hindus go abroad and settle in Western countries and take their culture with them. They build huge temples and organize festivals and enjoy complete religious freedom. I am 100% Indian and so were my ancestors. I was born here, I have always lived here, and will die here. I have never travelled abroad, except to Bangkok some years ago and that was for a week maybe or even less.

But every time I do something ‘Catholic’ I am made to feel guilty. If I want to attend midnight mass, I have to go to church at 9:30 pm. If I want to attend a Catholic wedding reception, I have to stop dancing at 10:30 pm. If I want to pray, I have to do it within the confines of my home or church. All this while Muslims in Dharavi block one half of the road during Friday namaaz, and Hindus celebrate each and every festival with loudspeakers day and night. They block roads and traffic, throw colour and water on me if I venture out on Holi, and when they organize apartment building get-togethers, apartments inhabited by people of different religions, they do it by conducting Satyanarayan pooja and serving vegetarian food, cooked in my parking space without my permission, and force me to attend.

And I have to suffer through all of this in silence because I am a ‘minority’. I hate that word. Why should we be divided into minorities and majorities based on religion? Minority is just another excuse to marginalize. If I am an Indian, I should have full right to practice my faith and honour my cultural traditions just like everyone else.

If I eat beef and pork, I have to hide it from my Hindu and Muslim neighbours. I even have to hide it from Hindu and Muslim maids because they will refuse to work for me. Some years ago, when I lived in Madras, I worked in an office where the majority was Hindu. Once while having lunch in the cafeteria someone asked me what I was eating and why I wasn’t offering it to her. I said you can’t have it because it’s beef. “Beef!!!” “You’re eating beef!!!” she shrieked, and all the other Tam-Bram women in their leather shoes and clutching their leather bags looked at me with such contempt that I wished I would disappear into thin air.

Everything I do as a Catholic is offensive to others. If I voice my opinion, I am asked to go to the West because I follow a ‘Western’ religion. Christianity has been in India for hundreds of years but I’m still not Indian enough for you? Buddhism originated in India and then spread to Japan and other places. Do you hear practicing Buddhists in those countries being accused of not being ethnic enough? 
Again, I repeat, count the number of huge and not to mention, cash rich Hindu temples abroad. But we can’t build churches in our own home country. Existing churches are being attacked and burnt. Christians are being accused of conversions. But when Julia Roberts is in the news for embracing Hinduism and renaming her kids Mahalaxmi and Ganapati, it’s applauded. Please understand that I am completely against forced conversions of any kind. 
But my point is while Hindus take pride in spreading their culture all over the world, they feel threatened by me here at home.

How insecure does the majority feel that they have to constantly try to clamp us down? What lies ahead for us now? Personally for me, this is a huge blow because I love beef. It’s my favourite meat. Not only that, I need it as part of my diet. I cannot eat carbohydrates and need more protein and fat and beef is a more affordable and not to mention, delicious source for me. Last year, I found out that my vitamin B12 level was dangerously low – only 96 while the normal range should be within 400 to 800! So I started eating beef more regularly, along with eggs and chicken and fish. I also had to take shots and am still on a high-dose of B12 supplements. I know there are other dietary sources of B12 but I love it dammit! 

And before you point out that I’ve been eating buffalo meat anyway, please understand that I know my meat very well. I know how to buy it, cook it and eat it very well. And I can certainly tell the difference between cow and buffalo meat. I may have eaten buffalo meat at certain restaurants and places but I’ve eaten a lot of cow meat as well. It’s superior and it’s fabulous and if you tell me there’s no difference between cow and buffalo meat, then please go bury your taste buds. I will send flowers.

The other day while discussing the beef ban in Maharashtra my mother said, “This is why I’ve always been telling you to settle down abroad. Catholics will never be comfortable in India.” Is that my only choice now? Is that a solution? I can’t live and breathe freely because of the ridiculous and cruel diktats of others? And before you point out the religious extremism in places like Ireland and Saudi Arabia, let me tell you that I do not support that either.

Besides, I’m talking about my country, India. Last time I checked, this was a democracy, a secular country. A place where people of all faiths and cultures are treated as equal.

Finally, for those who don’t know me well personally. Here are some facts:
  1. I am not a practicing Catholic. I only attend church with my parents on occasions such as Christmas and Easter. I do not say the rosary or offer novenas at St. Michael’s Church in Mahim.
  2. I love the philosophy of Hinduism. I am fascinated by the beauty of age-old traditions and beliefs that have a base in science and practicality. One of my favourite things to do is visit ancient Hindu temples. I love the architecture and intricate details. I’ve travelled to Khajuraho, Kanchipuram, Tiruvanalamai and Mahabalipuram just to see the temples. I plan to visit as many temple towns as I can before I die. I love spending time in ancient temples, walking on the same surface that was once touched by people who lived thousands of years before me. Ganesha and Shiva are my favourite Hindu gods. I love collecting Ganeshas and shivlings in various materials – glass, marble, sandstone, granite etc.
  3. Every morning, I practice pranayama, say the Gayatri mantra, and chant Aum in sync with my breathing. This is how I begin my day. Bet you’re shocked now, aren’t you? I do this because it makes me feel good, de-stresses me and fills me with peace and calm. When I’m disciplined enough, I do the Surya Namaskar (sun salutations). One of my desires is to someday dress up as a Hindu bride and have my hands and feet covered in intricate designs of henna. 
So what am I then? Am I a Hindu or a Catholic? And why do I care so much about Catholics if I don’t even go to church regularly? The answer is that I am both and I am neither. I am an Indian and I should have the freedom to follow what I like. I am not religious at all, not even spiritual.

But I do certain things because I like them and they make me feel good. As much as I love Hindu temples, I also love churches and chapels. I can sit inside them for hours lost in a trance of peace and calm. I’m always drifting off during mass, mostly because I’ve forgotten my prayers, but sometimes, I find my eyes welling up and feel the urge to cry. Sitting there, surrounded by the devout and faithful, all my hurt and pain and unfulfilled dreams come to the fore. And I feel like crying. And I feel good because it puts me in touch with my inner self.

I feel the same when I chant Aum or say the Gayatri mantra. But I love beef and pork and fish and chicken and mutton and eggs and alcohol and sex.

What does that make me? You decide.


Like Gia, I was born a Roman Catholic, but left the religion when I in the mid-1970s.

However, I have been passionate in my defence of what I call "minority" identities -- whether religious, sex/gender (LGBT), language (like my own mother-tongue Konkani) or tribal and indigneous peoples (like the tribes "jailed" in reservations in USA; or the aboriginals of Australia and New Zealand).

Thank U, my dear Gia, for so freely, frankly, fearlessly -- and fairly -- putting it down.

Your support is my strength.

Peace and love - Joe Pinto, Pune, India, 5 June 2015.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Dark days ahead - be prepared to resist!

This blog is a record of all my posts and emails as well as references, in connection with the overall theme "Dark Days Ahead", following the Lok Sabha Elections of 2014. The first post is dated 16 May 2014.

They constitute a journal of my thoughts and feelings, as a part of the public record of this "dark" period in the history of India, akin to the dark days of the Indira Emergency of 1975-77 and other major dark periods like the Partition (of Bengal in 1905 and India in 1947); the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre of 1919; the anti-Sikh riots of 1984; the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by the forces of darkness and events following; the LPG of the economy since 1992; and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat of 2002.

This is the first post dated 16 May 2014, taken from my blog "Against the Tide":

My dear family, friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers, 

Democrats and freedom-fighters in India are prepared for the dark days, now ahead of us.
Life goes on ... Such dark days have ended; they have prepared us for today:
  • The Emergency of 1975-77, imposed by Indira of the Indian National Congress (INC).
  • The anti-Sikh riots of 1984, following the assassination of Indira, when the INC was in power.
  • The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) / Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
  • The riots, following the terrorist attack in Mumbai, in 1992.
  • The privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation (LPG) of the Indian economy since 1992, begun by Manmohan Singh of the INC and continued by the BJP/NDA.
  • The anti-Muslim riots of March 2002, when Modi of the RSS/BJP was CM in Gujarat.
The sad fact, which democrats have to understand and accept, is that the forces of darkness can be elected by a majority.
Such forces of darkness have been elected in earlier times:
  • Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy.
  • Reagan in USA and Thatcher in Britain.
So, India in 2014 is not the first time.
How do ordinary people resist the forces of darkness?
From personal experience and lessons learned from resistance movements, I suggest:
  • Listen to your inner voice, ie, conscience. Be sincere & honest. No indoctrination or intimidation can silence the inner voice.
  • Trust working people 100%: work patiently and learn from them.
  • Do not submit to the dictates of authority. Resist the personality cult; do not glorify the rights of the individual, especially the rich.
  • Resist temptation.
  • Question constantly till U are satisfied.
  • Our earth belongs to the citizens of the world. 
  • Democracy and freedom are for ALL: the poor need them the most.

Your support is my strength. 
Peace and love,
- Joe.

Pune, India; Friday, 16 May 2014.