The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology

The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology
Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP
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Sunday, bloody Sunday: things began to go wrong for The Independent when the decision was made in 1990 to publish a Sunday edition. From the outset, it haemorrhaged money. And Murdoch dealt a second debilitating blow when he cut the price of competitor The Times. Revenue evaporated, and the Indy titles never truly recovered.

Perhaps the British media’s most regular topic of idle speculation in recent years, the question of how long the Independent newspapers could soldier on for has been answered emphatically by the news that the papers are to cease printing in March and become an online-only operation, with the loss of many jobs.

I was one of the journalists that launched the Independent in 1986 and worked there until 1995. As the dust settles, the autopsy will identify a sequence of events that turned the greatest Fleet Street success story of modern times into a protracted tragedy.

The Independent was perverse, smart, irreverent, sceptical – and very well written. It began without much idea of where it was going. Early news content had rather too many stories about what was “set to” happen, too much about what people said and too little about what they did. But the editors, sub editors and reporters hit their stride. They were encouraged to find stories and project vividly what was unearthed; if the Press Association news agency was covering it, then let’s take their coverage and have Indy reporters out finding unique content.

And they did. Tony Bevins in politics, for example. Heather Mills in home affairs. Paddy Barclay in football. John Carlin in South Africa. John Price’s news editing. Photographers were encouraged to eschew conventional picture composition. And their striking images were used imaginatively.

But the paper’s greatest virtue from was perhaps its copy tasting, the process of decision-making about what should be published, what prominence it should be given, and what should be discarded.

One typically compelling splash revealed the high number of babies born in New York to mothers who were HIV-positive. It was a story that had been buried in copy filed by a news agency. But the Independent’s curiosity was aroused, the story developed and competitors were left baffled by what they had missed – just one example of the paper’s independent streak.

Some of the distinctive journalism that characterised the papers was lost as ownership shifted. By the mid-1990s the Mirror Group had a stake. In the early 2000s it moved to a compact (tabloid) formatm and more recently it launched a successful cut-price spin-off, the i, which is being sold on to to Johnston Press.

The i was born under the Lebedevs who bought the titles from Independent News & Mediain 2010. In recent decades there have still been traces of the paper’s original voice, but only a shadow of that early élan.

Saved by Thatcher

Readers responded, but slowly. One month, not long after launch, the company only narrowly found the cash to pay wages. Its saviour was probably Mrs Thatcher. Her governments polarised opinion, in Fleet Street as well as among the electorate. So theIndependent’s boast of neutrality – “It is, are you?” – was suited perfectly to attract readers to its coverage of the 1987 general election.

Other ingredients merit mention. It was Murdoch, paradoxically, who made theIndependent possible: excellent reporters and editors on The Times and The Sunday Timesopted not to cross picket lines at the paper’s union-busting printers at Wapping, and were promptly recruited by the Indy’s founders, especially editor Andreas Whittam Smith.

Whittam Smith, the son of an Anglican clergyman and known by his staff as “the saintly one”, was a thoughtful, slightly detached figure. For humble reporters, it was hard to discern the essence of his ability. But he created in the City Road offices an atmosphere in which staff felt they had a proprietorial and emotional stake in their paper, a compelling incentive to do what they loved to do: good, serious and (also importantly) occasionally frivolous journalism. As circulation climbed, narrowing the gap with the Guardian, theDaily Telegraph and The Times, there were more reasons to be cheerful. This was the place to work on Fleet Street.

It was also Whittam Smith’s decision to launch the Independent on Sunday, something that puzzled those members of staff who recalled him not that long before denying any intention to enter the Sunday market. Perhaps it was an attempt to stymie the Sunday Correspondent, which had just launched.

From 1990, after Murdoch fired the first shots in the price war, energy levels dipped. The papers were never without flair, without imagination. But there were increasingly without money. But for those four or five years, it hardly seemed to matter. We were masters of the newspaper universe.

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How ABVP is bringing caste violence into universities by imposing its idea of the sacred on everyone

How ABVP is bringing caste violence into universities by imposing its idea of the sacred on everyone
Photo Credit: IANS
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The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has a long list of taboo subjects that it considers outside the purview of discussion and contestation. To engage with these subjects or ideas is to violate the ABVP’s idea of the sacred. What has precipitated the crisis in universities is that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing also wants to impose its notion of the sacred on all students and teachers.

The tendency of one group to impose its idea of the sacred on others has its origins in the caste system, which, as we all know, is organised on the principle of purity and pollution. Any violation of the ABVP’s idea of the sacred now runs the risk of encountering violence, or invites punishment from the authorities, or both. This too is a feature of the caste system.

Taboo topics

The ABVP does not want students to discuss the hanging of Yakub Memon or Afzal Guru, or the inclusion of beef in the mess menu. It believes a seminar on human rights violations is akin to supporting Maoism, which is deemed anti-national. It opposes seminars on Hinduism unless these are unequivocally in its praise. The list is long and forever evolving.

Just how this form of imposition is linked to the caste system can be illustrated through an example. The higher your caste, the less polluting your occupation – but you would be defiled in case you were to shake hands with those whose very touch is polluting, or dine with him, or partake of beef, or remove the carcass of a dead animal.

You can choose to refrain from certain activities. That is your decision. You can, for instance, get another person to remove the carcass from your compound. You can, obviously, abstain from eating beef.

But you also have to depend on others to subscribe to caste rules for preserving your purity. What are you to do if the pariah insists on touching you? What if the outcaste draws water from the tap you too use, or demands to drink tea from the same tumbler as yours?

Either you will adjust to this reality or you will dissuade him from polluting you by striking the fear of retribution or punishment in him. This is often at the root of horrific caste violence in the country. Indeed, for caste rules to have salience, it is vital not only for you but also for others to adhere to them as well.

Caste ethos

It is this caste ethos, and arrogance, the ABVP brings to universities, more fiercely now because the BJP government rules at the Centre. Ideas designated as sacred can’t be violated and what the ABVP views as profane must be shunned. In case some choose not to, the ABVP would pressure the authorities to take punitive action against them. It is on the fear of punishment (or violence) that the caste system breeds

Discussions on ideas that the ABVP considers taboo cannot defile its members. Whom does it defile then? It is the Mother, the deity that is India, whom we must worship. Her spirit infuses all spaces, more so the campuses. Just as Dalits were (and are still) proscribed from entering temples, certain ideas have attributes that defile Mother India.

This was indeed the theme of the statement Union Minister Smriti Irani issued following the arrest of protesting students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ideas of purity and pollution and religiosity are fused in the politics of ABVP, as is true of the entire Sangh Parivar.

The ABVP’s list of taboo subjects can be arranged in a hierarchy. The most profane is the idea of self-determination. Try conducting a seminar on the issue on campus. It is bound to get disrupted by boys who will later be discovered to be belonging to the ABVP.

Ask for a just trial of terrorists – and every word spoken in favour of it will lead to the defilement of Mother India. Try to get Delhi University’s Law Faculty to organise a talk on the need to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It won’t, because that is a taboo subject, as is the issue of observing human rights in Chhattisgarh.

Proscribed from university campus are even those whom the AVBP considers Naxalite sympathisers. To check this hypothesis, Delhi University should invite writer Arundhati Roy to address the students. It was the reason the ABVP cited to deny journalist Siddharth Varadrajan from speaking at Allahabad University.

Historical personalities can be assigned to a higher or lower order of profanity depending on the location of a university. It is taboo to make a critical appraisal of Shivaji in Maharashtra or Rana Pratap in Rajasthan. It is taboo, as students of Hyderabad Central University have repeatedly discovered, to demand that the college serve them beef. Outside metros, you periodically hear of the ABVP demanding a dress code for girls.

Lost ironies

The ABVP’s obsession with its list of taboos creates hilarious situations at times. The ABVP vociferously protested against philosopher Ashok Vohra at Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur. The reason: he had addressed an audience of around 100 on The Religious Dialogue: The Need in the Contemporary Times. The ABVP claimed he had insulted Hinduism.

Vohra had done just the opposite – he had criticised western Indologists, such as Wendy Doniger. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vohra wrote,

“To evaluate theories supported by these scholars one has to use their vocabulary, their descriptions and their interpretations. I chose this because American writers speak very derogatorily of Hindu gods and goddesses… (But) if you want to rebut an argument, you must quote it.”

The poor philosopher, quite clearly, missed the point. They protested against him for much the same reason as the higher castes disallow the Dalit groom to mount the mare in a wedding procession. It may not violate the principle of purity, but it certainly conveys Dalits assertion. It is possible they could feel emboldened to infringe caste rules in the future, just as a few in Vohra’s audience could become intellectually curious about Doniger and learn to question the Hindu religious tradition.

In the ABVP’s imagination, Mother India is dressed in the fabric of nationalism and Hinduism. To question either is to defile her. It is of little significance to the ABVP that its activists don’t contest these two ideas. This is because it believes Mother India would be defiled anyway because of those who are willing to debate the taboo subjects.

The ABVP has now taken upon itself to teach them a lesson for their audacity, in much the way, the dominant castes punish the transgressor of caste codes in villages. This is why our universities are now in tumult.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy

Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy30.3K
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There are two forms of political engagement. In one, the exchange of ideas, and even intractable disagreements, are part of the rough and tumble of democratic politics. In the other, the coercive power of the State is used to settle all arguments forever.

The battle lines between proponents of these two forms of political engagement were firmly drawn this week, when union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, responding to complaints of his party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP sent the Delhi Police on to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, with the intention to intimidate an entire University.

Plainclothes policemen entered the JNU campus. A police photographer took pictures of students and faculty gathered at the university’s administrative block to protest the police presence and the arrest of students’ union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, on February 11.

Kumar has been remanded in police custody as the police “want to investigate any links he may have with terror organisations related to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan”.

Central intervention

Rajnath Singh said the police were acting on his instructions. He pre-empted any formal investigation of a complaint and the verification of facts with his comments a day after Kumar’s arrest. “… about what has happened in JNU… I have given the police all instructions necessary in these situations,” he said. “…strict action will be taken against them… Under no circumstances will I forgive those who raise this type of anti-Indian slogan or who question the unity, integrity…. of India.”

With the might of the State against it, the faculty and students on the JNU campus feel like they are under siege. The University has a system of complaint redressal, and a committee was set up to inquire into the events of February 9. That day, students are said to have chanted “divisive” slogans at an event organised to discuss the execution of Parliament attack-accused Afzal Guru, and the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir.

While there was some dissatisfaction with the composition of the committee, everyone agreed it was within the norms set by the university. There was no disruption of work and classes. Life should have gone one as usual. Yet, the administration caved in under government pressure and allowed the police to enter the campus to do what it “deems fit” after receiving a letter saying there was “seditious activity” on the campus.

The everyday world of a university like JNU has room for all sorts of opinions and political affiliations. Even the students’ union is composed of three different political groupings, one of which is the BJP affiliate, the ABVP. That JNU students of the ABVP themselves summoned the coercive forces of the State has shaken the world of this campus, where hot words and angry arguments are usually the most extreme form of political engagement.

The Rohith connection?

A master’s student from the Hindi department, who was standing alone on the edge of the crowd of students gathered at the academic block, told me in a quiet voice that the police should not have been brought into disagreement between students. “This is a disagreement between students, even ABVP students are JNU students, why have they sent the police?” the student said. “I don’t agree with some of the slogans that were shouted [on Feburary 9]. But how can they arrest students for a slogan? I think because JNUSU supported Rohith Vemula and the government is looking bad because of Rohith Vemula, all these things – Siachen deaths, slogans etc., are being combined to attack JNU students.”

But, this is not the first time that the ABVP has acted in what might be a less-than-straightforward and collegial manner, and the BJP government has lent it active support. When wardens in JNU shut down a “havan” in a hostel room as a fire hazard, ABVP students filed a police complaint of sexual harassment and hurting religious sentiments against a Christian faculty member present. A university fact-finding committee has proven the claims false, yet a court case continues. At IIT Madras, a letter from the Human Resource Development ministry based on an “anonymous” complaint got the Ambedkar Study Circle banned. In Hyderabad, it was an ABVP student’s complaint to the same ministry via a BJP member of Parliament, and a court case his family filed, that escalated a campus students’ dispute into a battle between the BJP and non-ABVP students. This led the university administration to take disciplinary action against Rohith Vemula and his friends. In JNU this week, an ABVP complaint to the police and a BJP member of Parliament about a students’ dispute over slogans raised on campus unleashed the wrath of the union Home Minister against non-ABVP students.

ABVP vs the others

It is indicative of what the two sides in this battle represent that the ABVP massed non-student supporters from the neighbouring Munirka colony to protest against students inside JNU. It also held a demonstration at India Gate calling for the arrest of students in JNU.

The non-ABVP students have raised concerns about the police presence on their campus and against arbitrary arrests in the public spaces of the university. For the ABVP, this is clearly part of the Sangh Parivar’s battle to redefine the idea of India in which anyone who does not agree with them is a “desh drohi” or anti-national, but for the non-ABVP students, this is a battle for the rights of students at a university in India.

By bringing its clenched fist down on a university campus the government may be winning the battle of the airwaves, but it is not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of students in JNU.

“ABVP is always trying to say if you don’t agree with them you are anti-national, that is not a good argument,” said a woman, an undergraduate student from the School of Languages. She was one of a group of first-year undergraduates who have not joined the protests on campus because their parents told them not to. But they said they supported the protests in spirit because they felt Kumar’s arrest was wrong. “He is not the type to shout such slogans. Even if someone did, how can you put him in in jail?”

JNU legacy

The BJP and a segment of the media like to portray JNU as a hotbed of subversive political activity, or in the words of a BJP member, “a Maoist production factory”. This characterisation finds favour with those who watch aggressive television anchors shout their studio guests into submission or silence every night. But there is truth beyond television news.

A young woman from Assam, a first year MA student, tried to explain to me why she and her friends were going to join a student and faculty protest at the administrative block in JNU. “Look, you must understand, it was our dream to study in JNU,” she said. “Now we are finally here, and they are telling us that in JNU they teach us about terrorism, that we support terrorists! They have sent the police to arrest students! They are saying this university we worked hard to enter is a bad place and we are bad people. That is why we are going.”

Play

There is a video now online of Kanhaiya Kumar, the students union president, who is spending this weekend in police remand. The video is an eloquent young man’s impassioned affirmation of the idea of India that was created through the struggle for independence, of democratic principles, the value of the Constitution and a denunciation of the “constitution written in Nagpur” (the home of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

He clearly does not need lessons in nationalism from his political opponents. But his political opponents and our central government, however, could do with lessons in citizenship, how democracy functions, and on what universities are.

In a democracy a State does not intervene in the functioning of a university where life and limb are secure. Universities are not factories where people are beaten into identikit followers of state ideologies, but sanctuaries where young people can think, argue, debate and become the active questioning citizens that make democracies thrive.

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Three love poems by Ghalib for every day of the year

Three love poems by Ghalib for every day of the year
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In translation or in the original, these ghazals transcend the commercialisation of a day dedicated to conventional and commonplace romance:

Play

Let’s Live In That Place

Let’s live in that place where there’s no one, let’s go,
Where no one knows our tongue, there’s no one to speak to.
We’d build a house without doors and walls,
Have no neighbours, watchmen forego.
In sickness no one to nurse us, enquire,
If we died, no one to mourn us, no!

Rahiye ab aisi jagah

rahiye ab aisī jagah chal kar jahāñ koī na ho
ham-suķhan koī na ho aur ham-zabāñ koī na ho

be-dar-o-dīvār sā ik ghar banāyā chāhiye
koī ham-sāya na ho aur pāsbāñ koī na ho

padiye gar bīmār to koī na ho tīmārdār
aur agar mar jāiye to nauha-ķhvāñ koī na ho

~~~

Play

At Every Little Thing

At every little thing you say, “Who art thou?”
Is this the way you talk to one, anyhow?

In flame not this miracle, in lightning not this art,
Tell me what’s behind her bold, impulsive glow?

This jealousy is there that he confers with you
Else, what fear of the enemy’s influence now?

With blood, my shirt sticks to the body,
What need of any darning does it allow?

Where the body’s burnt, the heart would’ve too.
Raking the ashes, what do you seek now?

We are not convinced of simply running in the veins,
What blood that which from the eyes did not flow?

That thing for which we esteem Eden so high,
What is it but wine of the flower, musk of blossoms, mellow?

When it comes to drinks I see through a few barrels,
Why then in glass, goblet, or pitchers wallow?

Gone’s the power of speech, and even if it
Stayed, on what hope would I, my hopes, show?

Become the king’s protégé, he struts about,
Else, what shall be Ghalib’s fame in this town?

Har ik baat pe…

har ek bāt pah kahte ho tum kih tū kyā hai
tumhīñ kaho kih yih andāz-e-guftagū kyā hai

nah shole meñ yih karishma nah barq meñ ye adā
koʾī batāʾo ke vo shoḳh-e-tund-ḳhū kyā hai

ye rashk hai ke vo hotā hai ham-suḳhan tum se
vagarnah ḳhauf-e-bad-āmozī-e-adū kyā hai

chipak rahā hai badan par lahū se pairāhan
hamāre jeb ko ab ḥājat-e-rafū kyā hai

jalā hai jism jahāñ dil bhī jal gayā hogā
kuredte ho jo ab rākh justajū kyā hai

ragoñ meñ dauṛte phirne ke ham nahīñ qā’il
jab āñkh se hī na ṭapkā to phir lahū kyā hai

vo chīz jis ke liye ham ko ho bihisht ʿazīz
sivā-e-bādah-e-gul-fām-e-mushk-bū kyā hai

piyūñ sharāb agar ḳhum bhī dekh lūñ do char
ye shīshah-o-qadaḥ-o-kūzah-o-sabū kyā hai

rahī na t̤āqat-e-guftār aur agar ho bhī
to kis umīd pah kahye ke ārzū kyā hai

huā hai shah kā muṣāḥib phire hai itrātā
vagarnah shahr meñ ġhālib kī ābrū kyā hai

~~~

Thousands of Desires Such

Thousands of desires, such, that for every wish I’d die,
My many hopes came true, but many more did defy.

Should my killer be scared? Will it hang upon his neck?
– that blood which dropped lifelong from my ever-brimming eye.

We’d always heard of Adam’s exile from Eden, but,
When we left, we left your street so disgraced, all awry.

The myth would come undone, O tyrant, of your growth in
stature, were the coils of your turban uncoiled, let fly.

If a letter to her be commissioned, we’ll write that,
Come every morning, a quill on our ear we supply.

In that age was established, my habit for wine,
Once again the days for the jar of Jum to ply.

Those who we hoped would harken to our woes,
Were more woebegone under the cruel sword’s sway.

In love there is no difference in living and dying,
We live looking at our idol that takes our breath away.

For God’s sake do not remove the veil from the Kaaba,
O Tyrant! What if here too is my beloved idol’s stay?

Whither the way to the bar, Ghālib, and where the preacher,
Yet, we know that yesterday, thither he went, as we’d stray.

Play

Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi

hazāroñ ķhvāhisheñ aisī ki har ķhvāhish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mire armān lekin phir bhī kam nikle

Dare kyūñ merā qātil kyā rahegā us kī gardan par
vo ķhūñ jo chashm-e-tar se umr bhar yūñ dam-ba-dam nikle

nikalnā ķhuld se ādam kā sunte āe haiñ lekin
bahut be-ābrū ho kar tire kūche se ham nikle

bharam khul jāe zālim tere qāmat kī darāzī kā
agar us turra-e-pur-pech-o-ķham kā pech-o-ķham nikle

magar likhvāe koī us ko ķhat to ham se likhvāe
huī subh aur ghar se kān par rakh kar qalam nikle

huī is daur meñ mansūb mujh se bāda-ashāmī
phir āya vo zamāna jo jahāñ meñ jaam-e-jam nikle

huī jin se tavaqqo ķhastagī kī dād pāne kī
vo ham se bhī ziyāda ķhasta-e-teġh-e-sitam nikle

mohabbat meñ nahīñ hai farq jīne aur marne kā
usī ko dekh kar jīte haiñ jis kāfir pe dam nikle

ķhudā ke vāste parda na kābe se uțhā vāiz
kahīñ aisā na ho yāñ bhi vahī kāfir sanam nikle

kahāñ maiķhāne kā darvāza ġhālib aur kahāñ vāiz
par itnā jānte haiñ kal vo jātā thā ki ham nikle

Translated from the Urdu by Maaz Bin Bilal

Maaz Bin Bilal recently earned his PhD in English from Queen’s University Belfast for his thesis on the Politics of Friendship in EM Forster’s work. He teaches at Ashoka University. He is an avid translator and a poet.

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