Some years ago, the singer Abhijit Bhattacharya, on his way back from dinner at a South Bombay hotel, apparently saved a young girl at Churchgate from being molested by a bunch of goons at a traffic signal. He wanted his good deed noted and appreciated. So his publicity agent harangued me for days to take note of the noble act but I was stuck because Hindustan Times then did not have an edition in Bombay. I then called a reporter I knew at a city newspaper and asked him to help the singer out. Bhattacharya was pretty pleased but kept thanking me instead of the editor of the city newspaper who had accommodated the story – he was highly confused between HT and the other newspaper, both of which were vastly different from each other, including in form, size and content.

I could see the same confusion when he tweeted that Madras techie Swathi’s murder was a case of love jihad – how could he know from Bombay what was happening miles across in Tamil Nadu, I wondered. Later when police caught the engineer Ramkumar for the murder and senior journalist Swati Chaturvedi called him out for spreading lies, I was shocked by his subsequent abusive tweets to her that went beyond even indecent and obscene. He seemed to see no need for an apology for getting it wrong and no need to be polite or circumspect.

I am glad that the Mumbai Police has reacted with alacrity and registered Chaturvedi’s complaint, even called her up assuring action. I am hoping Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who has been closely monitoring the Mumbai Police actions to prevent conflagrations also makes sure that no frustrated out of work Bollywood has-been vents his spleen on the people in such fashion that it might cause a lot of communal disharmony. This one is a mediocre singer at best, has been driven out of business by better Pakistani singers and so hates them from the core of his heart, though better Indian singers like Sonu Nigam and Kumar Sanu arrived on the scene after him and he never stood a chance anyway. Now that resentment against Pakistani singers translates into anti-Muslim rants and thus a love jihad where none exists.

I am glad, though, that Maharashtra and Bombay didn’t react to Bhattacharya’s provocations as he perhaps expected them to – I know as a matter of fact that he has been trying to bamboozle the Shiv Sena and other likeminded parties to throw Pakistani singers currently working in Bollywood out of India. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena did do that once in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks but they have now returned. In the meantime, though, their absence did not make any remarkable difference to this singer’s career. I am also glad that Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has shown some restraint while dealing with the singer’s constant urgings, though the Sena is not one to let go of an opportunity to throw Pakistani authors, writers, singers or other stars out of Bombay or preventing them from performing anywhere in the city.

But what amazes me now is that someone, even if currently on the downside, with such a public profile as this singer would lose all control over his words and actions as to make comments bordering on the sexual and actually threaten attack so openly as he did with Chaturvedi. He was completely unapologetic even in subsequent tweets, even not realising that what he had said was utterly despicable and condemnable to begin with – he thought he had been very patriotic and nationalist in calling women journalists names and accusing them of sleeping with the enemy.

Chaturvedi’s complaint to the Mumbai Police escalated the war and I am glad the cops are acting promptly. This is not the first time though that Chaturvedi has lodged an FIR, though in the first case the Delhi police seem to be taking an enormously long time in investigating and acting against the culprit. The amount of times women journalists are targeted with abuse and sexual innuendoes is not a joke any longer and more of us should follow Chaturvedi’s example and call out such abusive trolls who cross the limits of all decency in the belief that we would be cowed down and rather ignore than escalate the fight.

Though right wing trolls have called my parents names, made comments on my personal life (including speculating that I am either a Christian or a Communist for, according to them, I cannot be a Hindu and still take on the right wing trolls), sometimes made remarks on my physical attributes, somehow I have been able to overcome them all by either muting or blocking the trolls. But now Abhijit expected Chaturvedi to do otherwise and warned her not to block him and await further action from him. Is that a threat? Isn’t that a crime?

I think it is both and I wonder how far this man has come from doing a good deed and wanting public acknowledgement for it to actually seeking it by threatening women with dire consequences. He was never mighty to begin with (or he would not have needed the publicity for his good and bad deeds) but he sure has fallen. It is sad that abuse should have replaced his lyrics.

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A couple of years ago, when there was a leadership struggle within the Shiv Sena, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi who wanted control of the party just as he had exercised his authority over its founder Bal Thackeray and manipulated the Sena tiger all his life, had taunted Uddhav Thackeray in the most demeaning terms. In the context of a memorial to Thackeray, he had said, “Had it been Balasaheb wanting a memorial for his father and the government had been playing fast and loose with him over grant of land for the purpose, he would have created a ruckus and flooded the streets with Shiv Sainiks. The government would have been unnerved into promptly granting him the land he wanted… That kind of courage is lacking in today’s leadership.’’

Uddhav had not reacted at all – unlike his father who would have roared and raged and threatened Joshi with dire consequences for virtually calling him a coward. But some months later he responded by denying Joshi a ticket to the Lok Sabha that he had wanted and completely marginalised him giving Joshi no role in the party functioning and virtually rendering him unwanted and undesired by anyone in the party.

But as the Shiv Sena completes fifty yes of its existence today (June 19), I cannot help but note that Bal Thackeray seems to have shrunk not just in spirit but also in size – on the posters that the party has put up on the occasion. While earlier he was always larger than life, now he occupies equal room as his son and political heir and Uddhav seems to have finally completely taken over the party and molded it in his own image.

Of course, there is no flooding the streets with Shiv Sainiks as Joshi would have wished but that toning down is not necessarily a bad thing for the party – and mor particularly for the people. But the worrying issue for the party is that while it may now be a watered down version of what Balasaheb’s party was, it has few ideas beyond what its founder had had at the establishment of the party in 1966 and it is thrashing about for a raison d’etre in the 21st century.

In the absence of such ideas, however, the party continues to do what it does best – oppose the government. But now it is no longer the question of opposing an ideologically opposite party. It is strange that the Shiv Sena is getting away with calling Narendra Modi names and trashing every policy of the government both at the Centre and in the state. The party took particular delight in declaring that the Modi magic does not work any more when the BJP lost a series of elections every where except in Assam, it poked fun at the BJP’s self-congratulation at its Assam win, it trashed Modi’s Pakistan policy and, in the state, it is constantly needling Devendra Fadnavis at his inability to control the drought situation in Marathwada, bitterly opposing his alleged attempt to reduce the influence of Marathi speaking people by breaking up the state into several parts including Vidarbha (which would then become largely Hindi speaking) and Marathwada (which would then be Dakhani or Urdu speaking). It is strange to say the least because all the time the Shiv Sena is an equal partner in both governments and while one understands the dependence of the Fadnavis government on the party, one wonders why Modi stands for such nonsense – more fun is poked at his government by the Shiv Sena than by the Congress or other parties on the left.

However, I believe the turning point in both the alliance and the Shiv Sena’s existentialist crisis will come only after elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The Sena does not care about ruling at the Centre or in the state but control of the civic body is all important to the party which has not grown beyond four or five urban centres, the most important of them being Bombay which continues to be it core constituency.

But even if the Sena were to win the BMC — and it has a fair chance considering that its closest rival is the Congress which is so ridden with factions that it might be unable to put up a concerted fight despite the best efforts of its city president Sanjay Nirupam, there is nothing the Sena will be left with at the next elections to the parliament or the assembly if the BJP goes ahead with its determined effort to marginalise the party so that it ceases its dependence on the whims and fancies of the Thackerays and is able to pursue its own policies and agendas without the Sena becoming a stumbling block – like in the separation of Vidarbha from Maharashtra. But even though the party has now taken on the personality of its president Uddhav Thackeray and may have reduced Balasaheb in size and spirit, I notice in substance it continues to follow the outdated policies of it founder. The question the party must ask , however, is if in a half century, the Marathi manoos has not evolved at all and is still fighting for Class 3 and Class 4 jobs or has sunk even lower. For while Bal Thackeray was fighting for clerical jobs for his supporters, today’s Sena is in conflict with north Indian taxi drivers and peanut vendors – jobs that no self-respecting Maharashtrian wants as they take their place alongside the best across a globalised economy.

The fight of the Shiv Sena continues to be the fights of the 1960s and 1970s, shorn of violence and bloodshed and that has contributed to a sense of ennui and lack of conviction among the people that the Sena has their best interests at heart.

I believe, therefore, that despite its possible victory at the BMC elections, the Shiv Sena’s GenNext leaders will have to think fast on their feet and evolve into a party of governance if they do not wish to be left behind in the next half century. Meanwhile the ghost of Bal Thackeray will continue to haunt the Sena even if it wishes to reduce the tiger in both size and plasma.

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If one goes backward in history by just a century, one would discover that nineteenth century Maharashtra and the first two decades of the 20th century saw bitter battles between Brahmins and upper castes fighting for the emancipation of the deprived classes and the equalisation of society. Notable reformists like M G Ranade, Vishnu Shastri Pandit, Gopal Hari Deshmukh, Bal Krishna Gokhale and many others of their ilk fought throughout their lives for the abolition of the caste system, the end to child marriages, the introduction of widow remarriages, et al amid bitter opposition from other upper castes like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, N C Kelkar and others who were equally opposed to the social reforms and advocted political independence from the British ahead of reforms in Hindu society. Joining battle with them in later years were Shahu Maharaj, the Maratha king of Kolhapur, a descendant of Chhatarpati Shivaji Maharaj and then Dr B R Ambedkar who was influenced by both Shahu Maharaj and M G Ranade. Shahu Maharaj even set up a radical political party to oppose thr orthodoxy of Congress then led by people like Tilak and Motilal Nehru and introduced affirmative action in his administration, employing Dr Ambedkar among others – his example influenced Ambedkar in later years to write reservations into the Constitution because by then he had realised that Hinduism was not designed for liberty, fraternity and equality and hence he also wrote those values into the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

Not until the advent of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s did the Congress change its orthodox nature and become inclusive involving both lower castes and Muslims in large measure into the mainstream and it was this inclusiveness that promptdth RSS’s GuruGolwalkar to quit th Congress and set up the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Gandhi’s advent also spouted many other orthodox organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha which bitterly disagreed with Gandhi’s philosophies and wished for a return to the old order that was fast being upset by the enactment of laws by the British (like banning sati and another law to severely punish those who might ostracise people supporting widow remarriages or opposing child marriages for example) and the headlong rush towards Independence which they knew would not uphold the old order of yore. But these organisations we formed after the deaths of Tilak and Shahu Maharaj who, while bitterly opposed to each other used newspapers to bring their views to the people and engaged in fierce public debates to overturn opinion. Assassination of unarmed, defenceless old men for their views was not an option until after Independence.

A century later, the battle for equalisation of society continues and there is a sense of déjà vu – those persistently making a case for equalisation of society continue to be upper castes, bitterly opposed in their ideals by the orthodox among their own fraternity. Reformists and rationalists like Narayan Dabholkar and Govind Pansare who were shot down in cold blood also belonged to the upper castes and it is now becoming increasingly obvious with the arrest of Dr Virendra Tawde of the Sanatan Sanstha by the CBI last week that their opponents too belong to the upper strata of society and are still troubled by the efforts to secure entry into temples to Dalits, to obliterate the differences between castes and relgions and to make Indian society more homogenous as a whole. But now the physical elimination of old men with progressive ideas has become the norm rather than the exception – no engagement in intelledua battles for this kind of pope this century.

The Sanatnis involved in these assassinations might lean towards the right wing but my experience as a journalist reporting on Maharashtrian society over the past three decades tells me that there are enough upper castes among the Congress and like minded partiee like the Nationalist Congress Party who still look down upon the lower castes and would want to keep them crushed and in their place to make sure they do not get above themselvee and threaten the hegemony of these upper castes. That is why in the land of Ambedkar, whose followers converted to Buddhism to escape the inequalities of Hindu society, we continue to see atrocities against these people – they are still denied entry into temples, social mixing is quite the minimum and in the villages there are still attempts to grab the Inaam lands (gifted to Dalits by the British) by Marathas and Brahmins under the guise of industrial development and enterprise. It goes without saying that this enterprise is denied to the Dalits – if anyone has the gumption to stand up to them or even dream of setting up his own enterprise there is a kind of covert social boycott – they may not get seeds to sow in case they opt for agriculture, in case they manage to procure seeds somehow, they may not find labour for their farms, they may not find buyers for their produce, etc. Similar hardships are faced in terms of loans, equipment et al in case they wish to set up an industry. The message is clear – previous slaves and bonded labour have no right to rise above themselves or indeed above their former masters, even if generations have moved on since then and the Constitution has guaranteed equal rights to a citizens.

I am glad that after months of investigation, the CBI has finally identified the killers – both the hands and the brains behind the assassinations. The sanatanis had only to look back in time to realise that the 19th and 20th century reformists were only following in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s footsteps – the Maratha warrior king was the first to work for equalisation of society under his rule. Even Shivaji at the time had enough opponents – local Brahmins would not agree to perform his abhishek, he had to bring in pandits from Benares to do the honours. But ultimately his progressive policies won the day and Maharashtra has always had a socialist ethos ever since. There is no way a few killers and assassin can overturn that basic philosophy of the state.

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On Rajiv Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary, I recall the devastation I felt when I was recalled for duty past my dinner time. I stayed closest to my place of work – a news agency – and there were no mobile phones at the time. All my colleagues were on trains on their way back home in the distant suburbs and by the time they got the message and started back, much time would have elapsed. So I was startled when some stones began to hit my third floor window and some one came tearing upstairs to inform me that two of my colleagues (peons) were at the gates, desperately asking for me. I rushed down in my night clothes and when they informed me about the emergency, my mind just went blank. I charged upstairs in tears and changed back into street clothes and got into the waiting cab to be driven back to office.

That night, I single-handedly operated the photo-fax machine and uploaded the pictures to all subscribers. Soon there were photographers from all newspapers in the city making a beeline to my office to look at pictures that I might not have sent across to them. We were the earliest to have got that technology in the city and the papers were eager for some ‘exclusive’ pictures that all would not publish the next morning. I was the first, perhaps, to see the devastating photo of Rajiv lying on the ground with clothes torn off his back and Tamil Nadu Congress leader GK Moopanar sorrowfully spreading a blanket across him – that was a picture never released and I do not know if any one ever published that in so many years. I kept up the transmissions till other colleagues arrived at four in the morning after a bath and change of clothes and then stretched out on a desk, in complete exhaustion.

Today as I see hash tags on social media avowing that Rajiv Gandhi was the one who first launched digital India and changed the way a nation came into the 21st century from the 19th century we were stuck in. I am also reminded about how my career graph shaped up parallel to India’s communication revolution. In 1984, I was assigned to cover the Lok Sabha elections in remote towns and districts – I remember strap hanging in the buses to reach the villages and then having to locate the nearest post office from where I could send either a telegram or a teleprinter message. It was a very painful exercise and there was no guarantee that the report would reach my head office the same day – some reports took three days between writing and publication.

The next election, in 1989, after covering Rajiv’s election rally in Solapur on April 14, after he flew to Mhau to commemorate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, I trotted off to the nearest post office, again looking for another teleprinter machine and operator. The post master of that village post office was surprised. “Why do you want to send your message through teleprinter?” he asked. “We have a fax machine, Madam. If there is a supporting machine on the other side, your report will be there in minutes.”

We did have one and all I needed to do was make a long distance call to the news editor to make sure my report had not arrived garbled at the other end. In 1991, fax machines were everywhere and made use of with ease but by 1996, I was using a laptop – though I had to go looking for a working telephone to connect. By 1998, though, I had the luxury of e-mails but they might still take hours to reach the recipients. The situation improved through the elections of 1999 but by 2004, there was no doubt that my reports would be on the desk of my editor within minutes. In 2009, I was still using a lapop but now with the ease of a data card and in 2014, I did not have to tug along heavy computer bags. A tablet sat snugly in my handbag and the policemen checking me for security as I entered meetings of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi knew exactly what it was. “Just switch on the tablet in front of us and switch on and off your mobile phone so that we are sure they are not wired for bombs,” they said. I obliged and they waved me through.

I agree the ease of communication today is entirely owing to Rajiv Gandhi – I still remember a visit to Russia in 1992 where foreign correspondents working for British and American newspapers told me India was an important transit point for their messages – the former Soviet Union had still not improved their communication facilities and only the lines to India worked. So they sent their reports to their New Delhi bureaus which faxed them onwards to their native countries. That was not just lack of development or backwardness – Soviet bosses believed in not giving too much freedom to communicate to their people lest information become a weapon in their hands against governments. Rajiv Gandhi, though, never thought of anything as bizarre as that. I remember attending one of his events where he earnestly and passionately told listeners, “The industrial revolution bypassed India. We cannot afford the information revolution to do the same.’’

There is much that I admired about Rajiv Gandhi but what I am very greatful to him for is this – I had to book fixed time calls to communicate with my parents when he first became Prime Minister. Gradually, I could get to a STD booth and wait in a long line to call my parents. Then one of these booth owners offered me the facility of the conference call so that I could sit at home and immediately connect with my parents. Then I got my first mobile phone in 1996 and suddenly I could talk with them whenever I wished.

Can anyone in the younger generation even imagine a life without that mobile phone? He/she has only Rajiv Gandhi to thank for that.

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At the tenth anniversary celebrations of his party, Raj Thackeray tried to gloss over his growing irrelevance in the nation’s polity by saying that everyone in the world – except perhaps Lata Mangeshkar – has been through bad patches and setbacks.

“Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, greater leaders than me also had downfalls and went through bad patches,” so he was no exception.

While he is right about bad patches coming into the lives of almost all individuals or leaders, his is an exceptional case in the sense that he has brought about his own setback.

When, just before the Lok Sabha elections, Thackeray had a meeting with Nitin Gadkari and very few people noticed that at the time, Gadkari had had no locus standi to ask Raj to refrain from contesting against the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.

That is an appeal that should have come from either Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or at best from Rajnath Singh, the then BJP party president.

Gadkari had not been authorised by either and, indeed, he had not been overstepping his brief. He was actually meeting Raj merely to appeal to him to withdraw his agitation against the toll nakas in the state, which had been causing damage to a lot of vested interests including the Indian Roads Bureau and Gadkari even then had interests in the IRB.

Raj did halt the agitation but went ahead to contest the Lok Sabha polls against both the BJP and the Sena for that is a promise he had not made to Gadkari or any one else.

But the public perception that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds caused him lasting damage and he was unable to recover from that duplicitous image even during the assembly elections six months later.

Raj’s politics has always been reactionary, he derives his strengths from opposing various governments than from implementing or formulating policies of his own and that is something now even his supporters are able to see quite clearly. In the intervening period, he found little to oppose the new government’s policies unless it was to point out the flaws in the policy regarding smart cities but that hardly made for a street agitation.

Then he found a burning issue in the government’s decision to give 70,000 permits to new auto-rickshaws in Mumbai and decided that these will be reduced to cinders. But like the toll agitation, this was not so much about concern for the common people or even the Marathi-speaking people of the state as an opportunity to make good again. For those auto-rickshaws were all coming from the Bajaj factory in Pune and now Raj had someone to target.

Rahul Bajaj, however, has his measure and when he said, “We know where he is coming from and where to send him back.”

I knew the agitation would not last long. But even I was surprised at the speed with which Raj Thackeray withdrew this particular agitation. He modified his statement within just two days to say that no new auto-rickshaws were being seen on the streets and if the government was issuing these permits to old ones, those vehicles should be spared from burning.

There was, indeed, a clamour to slap sedition charges on Raj Thackeray for inciting violence but I do not believe that is what frightened or persuaded him to retreat.

I believe Rahul Bajaj knew exactly how to turn the screws on the MNS chief and I must doff my cap to the government – for all that the Congress was clamouring for his arrest, I am glad the state did not fall into that trap and turn him into a martyr.

The Congress, when in power, had been unable to take much action against him except after things went terribly out of hand. But, perhaps, with some good advice from Bajaj, this government did not even have to wait that long to defang this crouching tiger.

As a result, Raj Thackeray seems to have made himself even more of a laughing stock than he was before and many of his workers and supporters are sorely disappointed with him for not just withdrawing the agitation with lightning speed but for having started something, in the first place, that could only have ended up endangering their lives and liberties.

Raj Thackeray ought not to lose sight of two facts — he is no Bal Thackeray who could ask his Shiv Sainiks to jump from the 17th floor of a building for no good reason and they would do it for him eyes shut, no questions asked.

Secondly, no political party is ever built on blackmail, bargaining or setting one group of people against another. Bal Thackeray built the Shiv Sena on the plank of Mumbai for Maharashtrians. At the time, most Maharashtrians were a deprived lot and poor in their own city whereas the rich were almost always non-Maharashtrian and exploitative of the locals.

That is no longer true and the Maharashtrian youth is as aspirational as the rest of India.

They do not want to get stuck in jobs like auto-rickshaw drivers or peanut vendors. If he does not evolve a programme in keeping with the name of his party — navnirman – I am afraid, the temporary setback he talks about will become permanent and the downfall will be everlasting.

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I wrote the following article for ‘Femina’, a few years ago when hey wanted a debate on why one loves India – or not. I chose to `love’ India – another senior colleague had very valid reasons to make the contrary arguments for many of the things happening today that were happening even then on a smaller scale.

But many of my arguments would be seen as anti-national today. Eunuchs will be spat upon, anybody throwing even a barb at Narendra Modi would be slapped with sedition, sitting in dharna against the government to protest your rights would be a strict no-no. But do you know? I thought hard about it and decided I still love India, her warts and all, and will fight hard to keep her spirit and chaotic freedoms alive.

What is happening today is an aberration, civil society and fellow journalists are finally sanding up to the government and I have hope.

Here is the text in full:

Why I love India

I don’t have any big notions about why I love India – I just do. India is my one big love affair and I think that affair began several years ago on the edges of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the middle of a group of transvestites who had tripped me up, one frosty winter night, with a stocking tied between two trees.

They were mostly Latin American and they hated women – that’s all they saw me as, a threat to their business. Paris was then the world capital of transvestite prostitution and that morning on my way to work, I came across the police hauling up a magnificent sample of a sex change operation: High cheek bones so beautifully coloured, mascara running down his/her teary cheeks, such long endless legs, sheer stockings, all dressed in black. Her only colour — the red slash of a mouth.

Curiosity led me to look for a story in the woods of Paris where these transvestites hung out but they didn’t want me around. I thought it might be my skin or the fact that I was Asian but it was just that I was born a woman.

As I picked myself up resentfully and ran for my life amid their screeching threats, I could not help but recall how a few years earlier back home in India, on a train from Bombay to Howrah (enroute to Nagpur), I found myself in a `Ladies’ compartment full of eunuchs, dressed in saris and calling themselves “srimatis”.

The sight of them gave me the fright of my life (I was the only woman in that six-berth compartment) and then it was I who was screeching – at the ticket checker. When my hysteria subsided, I realised they were no threat. Far from wanting to molest or murder me, they had decided to ‘adopt’ me. They gave up a lower berth for my upper one to help me avoid trouble climbing up and down going to the toilet at night, one of them woke with me every time to hold the latchless toilet door for me against the men lolling in the aisles, did not allow me to get down even once to fetch water, shared their dinner with me – and all they wanted in return was that I read to them from their colourful film magazines (they were all unlettered) stories about their favourite heroes and heroines!

“That is my country,” I told myself even as I ran through the woods for the nearest metro station. “So what am I doing here?”

I had a five-year residence permit and I gave it all up in less than two years to return to India. As I told my African and other Asian colleagues who thought I was a fool to give up the joys of the West for the troubles of the East, “I think it is more worth my while writing about eunuchs of my own country than about the transvestites of Paris!”

They did not understand, nor did I expect them to. I just could not explain to them the innumerable freedoms of a democracy that India provides which other countries don’t.

I can squat anywhere in India with a placard to protest for my rights; in Japan, that’s just not possible. As part of Sunil Dutt’s team during his anti-nuclear walkathon in the 1980s from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, we were denied permission for even a maun vrat in the parks of Japanese cities en route. We can throw a stone at our Prime Minister and break her nose (remember Indira Gandhi’s bleeding nose in the eighties?) and the world will soon forget who did that (I don’t remember, does anyone?). But why is an Indian scientist who dared to voice criticism against then President George Bush still rotting in a US jail today?

We can walk through the streets of India in large groups, shouting slogans, singing, dancing. It would not be a crime. I and my Pakistani colleague were hauled up (thankfully, not arrested) by the Paris cops for singing Bollywood songs at the top of our voice on our way home one night because they could not understand the words and thought we were indulging in some unique kind of protest!

And, yes, no beggar in my country would tell me, “Me today, you tomorrow,” as one in London did, trying to bully me into parting with my money.

So with all the real and intractable problems that India may have, that’s why I love her, warts and all!

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If you are born a South Indian, you grow up with stories of Lord Ayyappa who, at one time, was not known to many North Indians as a God, the result of the consort between Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. It is from learning about Ayyappa that I discovered the story of the Samudra Manthan and Vishnu’s Mohini avatar that so fascinated Shiva that a child was born out of that attraction.

Ayyappa’s eternal dilemma, I was told, was a query he was never able to resolve – is Vishnu my father or my mother?

Elders used to say rather jokingly, “Perhaps that’s why women are not allowed in the Ayyappa temple – until he resolves this issue of who really is his mother!’’

But although I saw men around me throughout childhood head towards the Ayyappa temple in December-January after a month or more of austerities, I was never tempted to discover this God for myself.

Gods should not discriminate, so if you are a Keralite you might be more tempted to look out for Muthappan, said to be the living avatar of both Vishnu and Shiva and as powerful as Ayyappa – you never know when either God might enter a worshipper’s being but when they do, it is fascinating to observe that living avatar.

Muthappan is a less discriminating God and more democratic. Most of his priests belong to the non-Brahmin classes – it is into their bodies that the gods are said to enter once every month. And when that happens even high class Brahmins bend down to touch the feet of these lower castes and host them in their homes.

“Ordinarily, they would not let a man like me cross their threshold any time of the day,’’ one such priest once told a friend of mine. “But if they believe I am Vishnu avatar or Shiva avatar, they are all fighting with each other to invite me home and feed me with their own hands that day.’’

Muthappan will even hold hands with women, without caring whether or not they are menstruating that day, and read their futures – believers swear every word comes true. So most women down south don’t bother about Ayyappa at all and I think,despite the antiquated views of the Sabarimala administrator, South India has to be rather more evolved in this matter of temple entry to all and sundry.

For I recall an aunt of mine taking me to a Shani Mandir in Hyderabad where I stepped in rather gingerly, aware of the fact that women were banned from worshipping that god in his sanctum sanctorum. But I was startled when I was allowed to come close and even pour a cup of oil onto the God’s crown in Abhishek as well as light a lamp before his idol.

No priest fussed or bothered though we were hurried from the sanctum sanctorum because there was a long line of worshippers behind us – mostly men but you could also spot a handful of women among them.

Ever since I have wondered if Lord Shani could accept a woman’s prayers in one temple why could he not at another?

The tradition of banning women from the sanctum sanctorum at the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra has been ages old but I do not believe it has any religious sanction. But it is ironical and a travesty of justice that men who would worship Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga as the epitomes of wealth, knowledge and power, should deny women the right to pray at the temple of a male god who never at any time said or even decreed in the scriptures that women should be banned from his worship.

I wonder why this happens but to a large extent I believe women are banned from praying to these gods like Shani and Ayyappa because they have no female consorts. But then neither do Hanuman or Ganesh and I never heard of anyone stopping women from entering temples to these Gods.

So I believe the rules are largely man-made coming out of medieval prejudices when women were confined indoors and were discouraged from public participation and social,activities. I appreciate activists of the Bhumata Ranragini Samiti for having made an attempt to storm the Shani Shingnaput temple but for me a prayer to or a conversation with god is a private affair. I would not like to enter any premises where I am not wanted – including a temple – on the basis of any prejudice, gender, religious or even caste based. I would also not pray at the temple at Ayodhya whenever it is buillt for I do not believe any God will be able to hear any prayers drowning in the din of the screams of the innocent souls who lost their lives to the political agitation to have the temple erected.

Moreover, to me as a devout Hindu, the site of a former mosque can never be the siite for a temple.

So I will return to Hyderabad if I want to seek a prayer from Lord Shani again and I must advise people of my gender to try Muthappan instead of Ayyappa. He is a more democratic god – prayed to in Kerala (there is now a temple in Bombay too, discovered by all its cosmopolitan communities to which they make a beeline every month) by people of all castes, creeds, religions and genders and, yes, economic status – some put thousand rupee notes in his palm, others only ten or five rupee coins but he treats them all with equal attention.

As one cousin who gave up Ayyappa, the family deity, for Muthappan told me, “Tirupati is a place for crorepatis. Guruvayoor for lakhpatis. Muthappan is the god of the common man.’’

Or, I must say after a visit to his temple, even woman.

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I never had the good fortune to work closely with Dr Aroon Tikekar. I first met him when he was working as the chief librarian at the Times of India archives and there was almost a daily interaction with the man who then seemed to me stern and rather impatient with the lack of knowledge or a sense of history among budding journalists.

He carried that impatience with the younger lot of journalists to the end of his days, lamenting to me frequently that there were just a couple of journalists left among the existing lot in the country who could be expected to understand the issues and contexts thoroughly. I never dared to ask him if he counted me among those with knowledge and understanding. But, I must say, when I came across him again at the Indian Express building, he was the editor-in-chief at the Loksatta and despite my earlier fright of him, my daily contacts with him resumed — this time of my own volition.

The Shiv Sena was on the ascendant at the time and Loksatta was the singular newspaper that had not caved in to the demands of the Sena tiger Bal Thackeray. At one of my numerous interviews with him, Thackeray had once threatened to crush editors like Tikekar (and of some other Marathi newspapers) like an insect under his thumb.

Bombay then had just come through the worst riots of the century (in 1992-93) following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya which had been incited in no small measure by his incendiary writings in the Saamna.

But Thackeray was sore at the fact that while his Shiv Sainiks continued to buy the Saamna dutifully, they were more interested in what the Loksatta had to say each morning, and took Tikekar rather more seriously than their own editor and party leader. And Loksatta never had many flattering things to say about the Sena tiger.

Thackeray then emerged as the original troll of all times. Every morning without fail, Saamna would carry some or the other libelous piece about Dr Aroon Tikekar. Thackeray did not stop at anything, even compounding the Goebbelsian principle that a lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth. So one day the Saamna carried an editorial about Tikekar, saying that every evening after he left work for home, he stopped by Kamathipura, which is Bombay’s notorious red light district.

We were outraged. So was the newspaper’chairperson Vivek Goenka. But Tikekar was only laughing through our rage and anger. He dissuaded Goenka from filing a defamation suit against Thackeray. “That is what he wants. The case will drag on in court for years. Besides that would be giving him the importance and legitimacy he craves. Unnecessarily we will be blowing it big. If we do not pay it any attention, we will deny him that legitimacy.”

That attitude taught me a thing two about dealing with my own Twitter trolls these days.

Dr Tikekar’s public reponse to Thackeray was, “If I really visit the red light areas after work, then only one human being should be hurt by it — my wife. Since she is not bothered, why should you care?”
Thackeray was left gnashing his teeth but I do recall the attacks on Tikekar did not go away and, at one time, there was a security blanket at the building we worked out of to prevent Shiv Sainiks from entering and assaulting the Loksatta editor.

Dr Tikekar’s courage and success was apparent from the fact that the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra, then in an alliance with the BJP, and Thackeray’s writ ran all over the state at the time. The Maharashtra government had to provide security to a man against its own party leader because chief minister Manohar Joshi recognised the constitutional demands on his office and could not allow a state that he governed to become a law and order issue created by his own party leader.

That so-called betrayal annoyed Thackeray to no end and in many ways contributed to his growing disenchantment with the tallest leader in his party. It eventually led to Joshi’s marginalisation by Thackeray’s son, Uddhav Thackeray, in later years.

When I was writing my book on Bal Thackeray, there was no one better who I could have approached than Dr Aroon Tikekar. He was then heading the Asiatic Library and I still treasure the hours I spent there over many sessions, discussing the shape my book would eventually take. I have no hesitation in admitting that ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat – How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever’ was entirely guided in spirit and content by Dr Tikekar. I could not have written the book, which is now being billed as the best-ever written on the subject so far by many critics, without the rich resource material, published as well as unpublished, provided to me by Dr Tikekar.

In one of my Wednesday columns after one of these conversations with Dr Tikekar I had reproduced a very telling point he had made about the Shiv Sena –- that it had pushed the entire Maharashtrian community back by a generation.

“We received two setbacks in the past –- first when we lost the third war of Panipat to the Afghans and second when Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. In the 18th century, the Panipat loss restricted the growth of Maharashtrians by a generation and Godse’s act created a trust deficit between Maharashtrians and the rest of India. We were just beginning to overcome that set back when Thackeray arrived on the scene and with his extreme fundamentalism reinforced the impression that Maharashtrians were all violent and extremist. Even his own supporters suffered setbacks because he kept them from education and progress. It will take a long time for the Maharashtrian society to recover.”

“That comment should actually be part of a book,” Dr Tikekar then called to tell me. “Not just in a column whose currency might be over after the week.”

“I have already included it in my book.” I told him. And Tikekar laughed delightedly, though he might not have been very happy with the way my book eventually turned out — “Racy, like a thriller,” he said, rather disapprovingly. He would have wanted it to be more intellectual and academic but as I told him then, not all of us can bring intellectualism to bear upon our writings.

Dr Tikekar was the epitome of erudition and intellectualism. There was never a day when I did not learn something new from the man who was never my editor. I shall miss him sorely (Dr Tikekar passed away in Mumbai on January 19, 2015).

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One New Year’s eve, I was caught travelling by train with a very down to earth politician for company. As I made his acquaintance, he came out with such gems that I have since given up on New Year’s resolutions forever.

“Rules – and resolutions are for pphools!” he told me in his typically Hindi-fied English. “One should set no rules for oneself and resolutions are merrily made with the knowledge that they will be shamelessly broken before 365 days are out.”

A New Year’s resolution is something like an electoral promise, he told me – you promise the moon to your voters knowing you are going to be doing nothing of the sort in the five years for which they might elect you. Still people are fools enough to fall for those false promises –just as your mind tries to block out the fact that you have broken every New Year’s resolution that you have made ever since you were conscious adult.

So I would suggest you do not spoil your karma by misleading yourself with lies and promises not intended to be kept,’’ he told me in a matter of fact manner.

I was young enough to be impressed by what he said and as a political reporter then began to take every promise any politician made with fistfuls of salt,. In 2016 that same politician reminds me of someone else who has made many promises that he perhaps mean t keep but has been unable to execute in nearly two years – I now know what my train friend meant by saying it might prove very dangerous to let down people – and more so yourself.

There is a home truth there for everyone – leaders as well as private citizens. But while failing to keep one’s private resolutions might harm only an individual or at best his or her family, failing at promises made to the people at large could be highly ruinous for the country as a whole.

This politcian – among many others from different spectrums – told me the secret of a successful political career is to make promises from behind the ramparts of your own party or its manifest. “Nothing personal should get into your promise. If you fail to deliver, you will always have the party to blame.”

Like, he said, even when you intend to build a little something like a school or a well (there was no talk of toilets in those days) for your constituency, do not say, `I will build this’. Use the third person or better still say ,”My party has promised to build this if we are elected to power.”

There was a tickling pink rider – you are relieved of all responsibility even if you win but your party loses and vice versa,.. And if the reverse happens, well then, it is the responsibility of the government or the winning candidate, In that cse either will deliver and you can sit backwith a smg smie and sy,`I told you so!’,”he added.

The rule applies to personal life as well, he said. If you do not make a new year’s resolution you are under no stress or pressure to deliver the goods to yourself. But you should always be in search of the opportunity to accomplish the change when it comes around and then you can take advantage and claim to self and friends and relatives that you have done a good thing – there will be less taunts and more applause for you through the year, he added.

Over the years I have seen many politicians from all political parties including the Congress, the NCP, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, breach that rule and fall flat on their noses. Yet either they do not learn the lessons or they continue to take people for fools but the existence of social media now proves that not all people are fooled all the time.

So this New Year’s I wonder what resolutions the politicians are making – for themselves an for the country and if they intend to keep them.

As for me, the only promise I am making myself today is that I am makingmyself no promises. In all these years, I have realised the folly of tall promises that do not come to fruition and make you so miserable on New Year’s eve that you have lost 365 days that you do not want to ring it out with hope and joy aad sit around home mournfully with a lot of regrets. I have begun to treat every New Year’s eve as just anther day – and the dawn of the next morning as just another sunrise. But, yes, I do hope to accomplish more every year than the previous one and I am hoping this new year, before it gets too old, will be kinder to me than the past one!

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When I retweeted my colleague Yogesh Joshi’s tweet on Sharad Pawar coming out in favour of Arun Jaitley on Kirti Azad’s allegations regarding a scam in the Delhi and District Cricket Association, I was startled by tens of responses asking me why they should believe Pawar.

I should not have been surprised. For when I first saw that message similar thoughts had run though my head. The Board for Cricket Control in India (BCCI) was never a bigger scam than wen Pawar entered the fray. Before then, at least, Jagmohan Dalmia and others, whatever their shortcomings, had kept the game up and running. Despite the match fixing scandal, Indian cricket had thrown up some greats like Saurabh Ganguly and Rahul Dravid – at the height of the scam, a senior Bombay police officer involved in investigating the match fixing had told me these were the only two cricketers in the Indian team who could not be corrupte. “They send the bookies packing by threatening them with legal action. The only other team as a whole which cannot be fixed is the English team. They play for the country and not for self, just like Ganguly and Dravid. Everywhere else we have come across evidence of match fixing in some form or the other.”

This cop had a diary full of transcripts of conversations between bookies and cricketers an when I asked why they had been tapping phones of cricketers, he said, “We were not. We were listening in to the bookies. The cricketers got caught in the trap.”

That is when he told me that as journalists we were barkng up the wrong tree in holding only cricketers responsible for everything going wrong with the game. “You must look at the administrators first. They are the ones who fix the matches. When players realise what is happening, they begin to argue that if the administrators are in for some extra money, why should they be left behind and then go ahead and strijke their own deals.”

The sleaze was just beginning to come in then but he shared the names of the people who could be involved in huge financial irreguarities in cricket administration ad ti was like a Who’s Who of India. No one could touch them with even a twenty feet barge pole – they were the country’s top reigning celebrities, politicians, businessmen et al. “And they all take care of each other – like `you watch my back and I will watch yours’ So does not matter whether you are down or out or reigning at the top, you have some one or the other who will cover you for sure,” he said.

That conversation came back to me when I heard Pawar come down in support of Jaitley. It is very difficult from the series of exposes by Azad and Wikileaks-India to believe that such activities at the DDCA were happening at with complete lack of knowledge of the powers that be – but in this regard, I would like to take Pawar at this word and believe that Jaitley was not involved in the corrupt activities at the DDCA on his watch. But that brings about a sense of déjà vu . It is almost like supporters of the Congress rooting for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the argument that in a highly corrupt cabinet he was the most honest of them all. I believe that too but then I wonder if there is a definition for a man who sees corruption all around him and allows it to happen unchecked, doing little to stem the rot in his administration. The closest I can get to such a description is from our epicc – such a person surely is a modern day Dhritrashta and somehow both Dr Manmohan Singh and Arun Jaitley seem to fit that bill.

As for Pawar, many havr wondrred why he has not come clean on his interests in cricket administration in his newly released memoirs, `On my terms’. Though he has promised a sequel to his autobiography to reveal the details, I I have been trying hard to understand why. I once made bold to ask him to explain to me his interest in cricket when he had never before exhibited any affiiation for the game. He snubbed me roundly saying I knew little about him or cricket and should stick to reporting on politics. “Then shouldn’t you limit yourself to politics?” I was brazen enogh to ask, whereupon he lost his temper and called off. But then asking around, as far as I can make out, his interest in cricket is definitely linked to his politics – as was his interest in kho-kho. kabbadi and other more home grown games. Hundreds of youth clubs for sportspersons proliferate at least in Maharashtra and Pawar who had also previously headed the kho kho and kabbadi federations meant to catch them young, But the overt interest in cricket definitely drew from the enormous amounts of money the game began to earn India – and the power hat brought to Indians over the rest of the cricketing world.

Pawar’s association with the Congress after splitting from the party in 1999 was not just a political need for governance in Maharashtra. The Congress also controlled many cricketing clubs and the party’s vote to him was crucial to enable him to get to the head of the BCCI and then the ICC. Of course, the non-politicians in the cricketing world like Dalmia and N Srinivasan outwitted Pawzr politically on many an occasion and he was not able to come to terms with his frequent sidelining by these stalwarts over the years.

But now with Dalmia gone and Srinivasan handicapped by a court ruling, I belive Pawar needs all the friends he can get. And what better way to attrsct Jaitlry, anothrt powerful cricket administrator, when he seems tob e down and out an and in need of being thrown a line to prevent him from drowning?

I do no claim to understand all the nuances of Pawar’s support to Jaitley. But I can be sure there is more seff interest and less altruism behnd that support anc perhaps it is as the top Bombay cop had told me – they are all watching out for each other. For cricket is surely the most secular game, every which way in India!

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