Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lose control

A few years ago, there was a Bollywood film song that became a rage in India. “Lose control”—that’s what it urged the country’s youth to do. The song purported to be the guiding philosophy of a bunch of never-do-well college kids.

Well, it is a bit unfair to pluck the song off its main narrative context but its refrain, “lose control”, pretty much signifies the zeitgeist of our times.

In the interesting times that we find ourselves in, we seem to be asked to lose control over everything that we have. The paradox of this development, if you will, is that what we have is private and at the same time, it is public too. The only thing is that either we don’t know about it or we don’t realise it. And it all happens in the name of privacy or security or the best of all the ruses, for the greater common good.

Why invasion of privacy?

But why do we buy into it? Because we are made to feel afraid of the unknown. Fear is the key.

This attack on the individual private rights is possible because we are always being kept in a state of fear—induced by catch phrases such as terrorism (real or cyber terrorism, the equivalent of yesterday’s cold war and the red threat) or climate change.

Follow the money—that’s what matters. If you care to look at it, the business side of this development is that a lot of people are making lots of money off this invasion of privacy.

If you see what terrorism is doing to the countries, look at their budgets. In most terrorism-infested countries, defence budgets are going up every year. India’s defence budget this year is about to get bumped up by 10-15 per cent, according to one report. Now look at the countries that are the largest defence suppliers to India. You will know then who is benefitting from terrorism’s perpetuation.

I will keep this discussion strictly to technology issues, even though I have a lot of points to make in this regard that touch other spheres of life—anything that is or was deemed to be private is now negotiable, more so your personal rights as an individual.

How private is your e-mail?

Take your e-mail or your social networking accounts, for instance. You think your e-mail is private? But if the government wants, it can pry into any of your e-mail accounts, without your permission or knowledge. That at least is true for India and the US.

In the past, a democratic government needed to impose emergency laws to open a citizen’s private letter. Not any more. Now opening of private letters, that is your e-mail, happens every day in the name of national security. And e-mail companies, that otherwise may not have much smarts to turn profits year after year, can actually mint money on the back of this scandalous scheme.

According to some reports, e-mail companies can charge as much as US$2,500 per user account to run surveillance on the e-mail account holder. Since all such operations are run clandestinely and the government agencies are not supposed to let their activities revealed or acknowledged, e-mail companies can rake up millions of dollars in collusion with the state agencies. With the overall bugbear of security, there is not much accountability any more.

But where is the guarantee that the state machinery will not abuse this power—power tends to corrupt anyway. The state surveillance sometimes leads to ridiculous situations. Take the recent example of the arrest of Shahzad, the alleged plotter of an Indian 9/11. The plotter, from a small town in north India, was supposed to have taken flight trainings in Bangalore. According to a report in Tehelka, an Indian weekly known for its investigative journalism, the alleged terrorist was caught after being monitored on the social networking site, Orkut.

I quote from the report: “It was claimed that Shahzad was using the social networking site Orkut to communicate with one Mirza Shadab Beg, who has been accused by security agencies of masterminding virtually every blast in the country since 2005. Allegedly, Shahzad would send regular messages to Beg on Orkut about the progress of his flying course. The alleged IB sources told the media that Beg had even left his mobile number (9990858218), asking Shahzad to call him.”

The newspaper report shows holes in all allegations against this accused: he never received any pilot training, and for an alleged terrorist who had a reward of half a million rupees on his head, it is unimaginable that he would communicate on Orkut. The report says: “When TEHELKA detailed this alleged plot to a senior UP ATS official, he burst out laughing at the idea that an absconder with a reward on his head would use a heavily monitored social networking site to communicate with one of the most wanted men in India, and that too without using coded language.

Drawing from their own experience, police said such open communication by members of terrorist organisations on social networking websites is simply unheard of. The chances of someone like Mirza Shadab Beg giving his number out on Orkut, they said, were next to nil.”

Some people are so miffed at the privacy settings of Facebook, for example, that they have filed a class action suit against the social networking site: “A class action lawsuit has been filed against Facebook over changes that the social networking site made to its privacy settings last November and December.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that the modifications have in reality reduced privacy protections for Facebook users rather than increasing it, as the company had claimed it would. ‘Changes to the privacy settings that Facebook implemented and represented to increase User privacy had the outright opposite effect of resulting in the public dissemination of personal information that was originally private,’ the lawsuit claimed.”

Read more

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Name is Khan: Everybody loves a good controversy

The ongoing protests by Mumbai’s Shiva Sena against the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan and his film “My Name is Khan” once again underlines the uneasy presence of lumpen elements in Indian politics and their tendency to use “icons” or national figures to project their politics of hatred and violence.

By Zafar Anjum

Can you imagine a top-of-the-line Hollywood film's release being threatened in Los Angeles by a minor political party just because its star said something in support of a foreign sports team? Not only that, imagine the story becoming the top story on the national TV networks. Sounds bizarre? Not in India. Bizarre is normal in India.

The continuing protests by Mumbai's Shiv Sena against the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan once again underlines the uneasy presence of lumpen elements in Indian politics and their tendency to use "icons" or national figures to project their politics of hatred and violence. Shiv Sena has declared war on "My Name is Khan," which opened Friday in Mumbai, starring the eponymous Shah Rukh, aiming to hurt the economic interests of the top Hindi film actor and teach him a lesson. Posters of the film have been torn down and cinema halls have been vandalized by Sena goons. Given the Sena's history of violence, some exhibitors were so intimidated that they refused to open the advance booking for the film—despite heavy security arrangements and assurances by the state government that law and order in the city will be maintained at all costs.

Mind you, Shiv Sena has a history of violence and its supreme leader, Balasaheb Thackeray, has never been put behind bars despite speeches inciting communal violence time and again since the 1960s. The Thackerays consider Mumbai their personal fiefdom. Their far-right regional political party has waged many battles, first against the South Indians, then against the North Indians and the minority community—all in the name of an ideology that Maharashtra belongs only to the Marathi community.

Apparently, Shiva Sena is not against the film or the actor per se in the current controversy. They are against remarks Khan made a few weeks ago favoring Pakistan's cricket team. The movie star, who also owns a private cricket team that participates in Indian Premier League matches, expressed his displeasure against the boycotting of Pakistani players by all IPL teams in a recent auction. (The teams said they did so for security reasons). Many commentators spoke against the undignified way in which the Pakistani players were excluded. But Shiv Sena hung on to the words of the superstar. Bad luck that he had his highly-anticipated film hitting the theatres two weeks later.

The Sena, which was losing ground to its breakaway faction, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, decided to fully milk this opportunity—it had controversy written all over it: Cricket, Pakistan, a Hindi film starring a superstar involving a Hindu-Muslim love angle set in the backdrop of global terrorism. Shiv Sena was doing a Bombay—the Mani Ratnam film on Hindu-Muslim romance set in the backdrop of anti-Muslim riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid's demolition.

Everybody loves a controversy

The way the controversy has spiraled into a national issue raises many questions. And I have problems with all the major actors of the controversy.

First, Shah Rukh Khan. I am with him—he has every right to express his opinion in a country like India that prides herself on her democratic credentials. But my problem with Khan is that after expressing his opinion and after refusing to apologize for saying what he said, why develop feet of clay? There are alleged reports that he wants to meet Thackeray senior but the meeting has been spoiled by a ruling government minister. I hope it is not the case that the controversy was allowed to steamroll to generate unprecedented media coverage for the film and now that the publicity has peaked, it is time to call off the show. Khan should call Thackaray's bluff.

Second, Shiv Sena and its company. Mr. Thackeray, why only target Khan? Other celebrities and commentators have said similar things and have rightly got away with it. Is it because Khan is a Muslim that his remarks in favor of the Pakistani cricketers make his patriotism suspect? If latter is the case, then sorry, Thackeray, it is a cliché. The new and resurgent India rejects this kind of fallacious thinking—especially when organizations like the Times Group are trying to bring India and Pakistan culturally closer through their Aman ki Aasha (Hope for Peace) project. Will you then burn the copies of the Times of India too? No matter what you say, your brand of nationalism is so narrow that it should not be allowed to get out of the headquarters of your party. No wonder your party has been rejected by people but stooping to old tactics like attacking film and cricket stars would not win you new votes.

Third, the media. The media especially likes controversies and if it involves films and film stars, even better. The same old same old panel discussion is foisted on the tired viewers. The party spokespersons start blaming each other and all ghosts from the past are brought to life—1984 (anti-Sikh massacre), 1992 (anti-Muslim riots), 2002 (the Gujarat pogrom), 2008 (Mumbai terror attacks) and so on. TV hosts, anchors, please note. Ban the speakers from raking up the past—everyone has skeletons in their closet but two wrongs do not make a right. Talk about today, talk about now. Don't let politicians hide behind the wrongs of the past.

Last but not the least, the viewers. Don't get too much riled up by the controversy. This too shall pass. Support good cinema and free speech. And next time you go to vote, remember to teach those political parties a lesson that seek power through dividing people.

Published in The Asia Sentinel on Friday, 12 Feb, 2010.