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Thursday, October 26

Weekend Diwali !

Happy Diwali to the readers of this blog ! I called this post Weekend Diwali because of an interesting rounding off phenomenon that is present in the Indian social circle here or may be I guess it is present everywhere where your festivals and celebrations are not officially recognized. What happens is that every festival is rounded off to the nearest available weekend. So when it is celebrated here, it is either still 3-4 days away back home or it already got over 2-3 days ago.

But this year, the Diwali fell on a weekend and so it was nice to give in to the festive mood right when the fun was on. Infact I had quite a lot of fun over the weekend, more than I expected. The weekend started with a surprise half an hour fireworks show at UPitt (No, they were not celebrating Diwali but had their homecoming weekend). Since even back home I never buy firecrackers and just like to watch them, it was a nice treat. Next day we had a pooja and dinner in the SV Temple which is the main stay of most of the religious activities in Pittsburgh and is some kind of pilgrimage from Indians living in this area of east coast. It is always nice to go back to the smells and sounds of temple and this time we had the add bonus of a big crowd around that really made it fun :-).

And Sunday was our own CMU IGSA celebrating the Diwali with a pooja, cultural show and Dinner (you can see the weekend effect creeping in but I am not complaining). The cultural show which was essentially music and dance was pretty good. To their credit, they sang Maa Rewa from Indian Ocean which I think was quiet a decent performance. There were some classical pieces and dance performances. The evening ended with a tasty dinner and a disc afterwards. It kind of reminded me of the Diwali functions that we used to have back in college.

One of my profs here while talking about Diwali remarked that it must suck to live in a country where nobody recognizes or celebrates yours festivals. I kind of agree and disagree. On one hand it surely sucks because the scale and mood never attain the same pitch as back home and because a lot of people with whom you would like to be are not around. But on the other hand they make you feel very special and make you realize all the culture, traditions that you carry with yourself and which enriches this diverse world in a unique way. Back home it was the same for everybody around, everybody did a pooja, everybody had sweets, everybody lighted their houses. Watching a lone lighted house in a whole row of dark houses (courtesy Eakta) gives a very different feeling. And when you realize this for yourself, it only takes a little effort to go ahead and realize this for everybody else. How the minorities, those who are different, those who come from different cultural background must feel in the society where I belonged to the majority. It is a strange mix of pride, anxiety and may be a sense of responsibility. Though I think their experiences would be more intense since I know I am here only for a finite period of time and not forever as is not the case with many of them.

Friday, October 20

I have a right to know !

Just returned from a talk by Arvind Kejriwal who is a well known social activist and works towards creating awareness for RTI act and using it to fight corruption. He gave a brief background about the RTI as to how it came about and then went on to recount several stories where they successfully used RTI to fight corruption.

Indeed the fact that an act like RTI can be passed gives me a strong reason to not loose faith. Although govt was already planning on amending the act which would have amounted to almost killing the act, a huge public uproar made it stop. Another interesting thing about RTI act is that this act was written by people themselves, those who were fighting for it and not by some bureaucrat and now government has conceded that whatever amendments will be done to it will be done by taking all the stakeholders in the loop.

Although RTI can be a big tool in the hands of those who are at the receiving end of corruption, I see its role to be much bigger than that. It is a tool that allows users to engage actively with the government and participate if by force, in the governance and its decision making processes when they have a stake in it. So now if you see a bridge being built near your house and you think that it is a bad idea, you have a tool to go ahead and find out if proper studies have been done about it. If you think the contractor who is building the road in front of your house is not doing a good job, you have a way to take account from the concerned govt department. There is now no excuse for just cribbing and going on with your life. In fact without the citizens who are willing to use it actively, RTI is as good as not.

In his talk, Arvind described many obstacles that RTI is facing and may face in future. One that he didn't mention but I think would be very crucial is the kind of image govt offices have in people's minds. In the lower strata of society, it tends towards awe and fear while in the more literate strata, it tends towards disgust. And this has the effect that they want to keep away from govt offices. Those who can, prefer to pay an agent so that they never have to set a foot inside and those who cannot pay, try to carry on as much as possible without interacting. But at the end of the day, it is almost impossible for a citizen to avoid government offices what with the electricity, water supply, PDS, education etc etc. The challenge would be to make people take the first step and engage with the officials instead of seeking the easy way out of agents or bribes. It is not about saving money only, it is about a trust that has deteriorated over so many years. Can RTI prove to be the soothing balm that will heal the wounds?

In the mean while, it would be a good idea and great help to start talking about it in your social circles and let as many people know as you can. Sending a mass mail is not enough neither is leaving orkut scraps. Bring it up when talking to people face to face, bring it up when you are talking in public, in trains for example. When you see some opportunity where RTI can be used for something good, for stopping corruption, for getting things done, step in and suggest it. Learn how to file a RTI application and teach as many people around you as possible, may be hold a small workshop in your office. Let this become deeply ingrained in our citizenship, let this become the beginning of a change !

Wednesday, October 18

It is only the second round !

Today morning started with the much awaited news of the conviction in Priyadarshani Matoo case. I feel happy but not relieved. This was only the high court. There is still supreme court to appeal to. And while the re-trial in High Court got on the fast track because of the public out cry, I do not know what will happen in SC. May be another 5-6 years followed by a public outcry will be the cycle there also with the only difference being that SC may consider the public outcry as a interference in court's working and pass a gag order barring discussion of the matter in the public.

No, I don't think that our justice system has gone to dogs completely but I do think that our SC takes itself a little too seriously. But anyway, today's conviction should bring some cheer to the Matoo family.

I was particularly interested in this case because of another reason. To give some background, CBI filed an appeal in high court way back in 2000. And although it is not a big deal for a case to stretch on for 5-6 years, the ground reason for these delays are often shocking. It turns out that in this case, it took 5-6 years to translate the case's paperbook which had around 300 pages of documents relating to case, from Hindi to English ! I work in Machine Translation and reading this disgusted me. I just wish I could go and deploy a MT system in the courts thus atleast removing one component of the whole delay process ! And though the story in this case has taken a happy turn, not everybody is as lucky and I really hope someday, I would be able to help some of them by removing at least one obstacle that this corrupt system places in their path.

Sunday, October 15


मृत्यु के झंझावतों के पार का व्यवहार साथी,
हाथ मैं जोडूं तो समझो कर रहा व्यापार साथी ।

मंदिरों मे घंटियां और महफ़िलों मे तालियां,
है अलग मुद्रा मगर दोनो जगह बाज़ार साथी ।

शाम सिंदूरी, हवा ठंडी, गिरे पत्ते, धुआं सा,
आज फ़िर तेरी कमी लगने के हैं आसार साथी ।

है नजर का पेंच ये, मिलती नही धरती गगन से
हमने कितनी बार झांका है क्षितिज के पार साथी।

मन की आशायें, नयन के स्वप्न, जीवन लक्ष्य तुमको
हैं समर्पित, तुच्छ सी ये भेंट हो स्वीकार साथी।

चंद किस्से, चंद नगमे भर के दामन मे अभागे,
चल पडे हैं बांध कर दिल से तुम्हारा प्यार साथी।

Monday, October 9

Gandhigiri and Genocide !

Having watched "Lage raho MunnaBhai" and "A Force more Powerful" recently, when I came across the Rawanda Genocide on wikipedia today, it was kind of a rude jolt to all the nice and cosy dreams of Gandhigiri.

Now everybody knows about "Lage raho MunnaBhai", a movie that has managed to bring Gandhian philosophy and methods back into everyday talk of everybody. Suddenly Gandhigiri is cool . Chain mails have already started describing the instances when somebody managed to fix a annoying person using the tool of Gandhigiri. Good for them !

Not everybody knows about "A force more Powerful", a documentry about various non violent struggles that happened across the globe during 20th century including सविनय अवज्ञा आन्दोलन led my Gandhi ji himself and many others. I watched only two stories, one about the civil disobedience movement in India and another one from Nashville, US that proved a major stepping stone in the civil rights movement. The stories, to say the least, fill you with hope because these are the tools that have given power to those who had none. People with no other recourse, no other option have turned to non violence and have defeated social evils, big evil regimes and what not.

However when one comes across incidents like Rwanda Genocide, the hope starts to look so blasphamous ! In Rwanda, between 6th of April and mid of july, 1994, alleged hutu militia killed an estimated 8,00,000 to 10,00,000 Rwandans, mostly tutsis but severel hutus also. What does one do in such a situation? Does non-violence even makes sense in such scenarios? Even Gandhi ji was faced with the same question during the second world war when holocast was going on. I am not sure what his stand was but he probably stuck to his stand saying instead of hiding, jews should come out in great numbers on roads and protest. Something to this accord. Of course, jews chose not to heed him.

But the question remains. What does one do in such conditions? The most basic assumption underlying the whole concept of satyagrah is the basic goodness of human nature, even if he is your enemy. Infact, one reason as to why satyagrah and nonviolence were so successful against british, may be attributed to the pride that they took in being very "fair" and "just" and that they wanted to at least pretend that they are good rulers. But what happens when that pretence of even basic humanity is dropped? When the other party is working with the single aim of eliminating you from the face of the earth and has no moral pangs about it?