Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: 10 Judgements that changed India

In order to test the general knowledge of children, adults often ask - "Who is the president of India?" or "Who was India's first vice president?". But rarely they ask "Who is the Chief Justice of India?" Judiciary, the third pillar of democracy, has always been an under rated player in Indian context. As kids we grew up on the names of Gandhis, Nehrus and to some degree Patels and Vajpayee. But names like A N Bhagwati, Fali Nariman are lost on us.  But if the roles of legislative and judiciary of post independent India are kept on a beam balance, it will not tilt towards legislative.

If we consider the set of books that talk about India post independence and then look for books that talk about Indian judiciary, the percentage would be abysmal. Zia Mody's book - 10 Judgements that changed India  improves this statistic. There have been many other cases that have had ever lasting impact on India but yours truly agrees with her selection of this being the ten most influential ones.

The cases discussed reflect the ingenuity of our courts. Mody opens her book with the Kesavananda Bharti vs State of Kerala case which is unarguably the most impactful case in our relatively short history. In 1970, mere two decades of Independence, the parliament is making laws that are in conflict with the idea of India. But whatever it may be, it is a law passed by democratically elected representatives of India, representatives that have sworn the oath to serve the interests of its citizens. Unlike today, it is also not a case where parliamentarians are working in their self interests or trying to legislate something that will benefit a few. This was a case of land reforms passed by Govt. of Kerala that imposed restrictions on management of property. The law imposed government interference on religious property owned by Swami Kesavananda Bharti. The case was a classic example of existentialism - what is the primary purpose of courts? Democracy was started on the tenet of "nobody is above the rule of law" and hence came judiciary. But in this case, there is a law passed by a majority, so why there is even an objection?  What are courts supposed to do in such a case?

 India with its vast history, was still very new to the ideas of constitution, democracy and rule of law. That too, at the scale of Indian population, democracy has not been tested much. The system of checks and balances at a very high level makes complete sense but when nuances have to be etched out, there is confusion and scope of ambiguity. The constitution and this law were both in conflict with each other but both were still laws. What is to be done if there are two laws which stand against each other? Which law gets priority? What is the right course of action? What is the "just" course of action?  It is known that  we deliver our best when facing our strongest opponent. Such was this case for Supreme court of India. The court came out with a 7:6 judgement ruling in favor of Bharti by inventing a Basic Structure doctrine which says that the legislative can not pas laws that goes against the basic structure of Indian Constitution. It was a matter of big debate of what is this basic structure? Each of the judge had a different opinion about the basic structure but there were a few similarities and they were deemed good enough to apply in this context. The Basic Structure Doctrine is India's contribution to world legal fraternity. It is not the only contribution.

Each of the case in Mody's book has an interesting history behind it. But what makes these cases special are the challenge that they pose. Consider the case of Olga Tellis which is a case of people living on footpaths. If they are forcefully evicted then their livelihood is taken away which is a direct threat to their right to life. On the other hand, for people living near those footpaths, it is a question of safety, hyegine  and access to public spaces.  The human rights factor adds another angle to this whole puzzle because both sides are victims here. What is the right thing to do?

Whenever there is a question of "the right thing", we look up to our courts. The courts have truly earned this. Supreme court have not ducked away from difficult questions. Instead, time and again, they have came out with answers that have been respected by everyone.  The cases in Mody's book highlight how the court have addressed few of such questions.  In each of the case Mody shares the case history and sets up the context. It will be difficult to understand courts' actions in 80s without understanding what happened in the period of Emergency.

The book covers the pre-case (context), during and post-case (after effects) of each case. However, it fails on multiple levels. It fails to convey the gravity of each case. Perhaps, in its attempt to keep the length small, the context part is covered like a cheat-sheet. Each case poses a dilemma question, a quandary for which there is a no right, no wrong answer. Behind each case lies the fundamental question - "What is justice?" What are the philosophical basis of justice, what are its aims and what are its means. The book does a poor job in bringing this to the forefront. The chapter on Bhopal Gas Tragedy glosses over the multiple nuances of legality which even makes this straightforward case such a blot on Indian Judiciary. At the very best, this is an introduction level book for someone who is interested in Indian Judiciary but it betrays its readers by not evoking the spirit of  curiosity to probe further. The book also falls short of acknowledging  its actors - the lawyers and judges, who were instrumental in delivering such judgements. I had to check  wikipedia in several places to understand who fought that case and who was the judge which provided the majority opinion. For students of Constitutional law, or for people who are familiar with the writings of Seervai, this book comes off as a big disappointment.

This under the carpet treatment of judiciary can be mostly attributed to the way judges are selected - by appointment rather than election.  We need to change this. No, not the selection process but the treatment. We need more books on our legal system, on our courts and its actors. With all its negatives, Zia Mody still deserves all the credit for writing such a book. For non-readers of non-fiction, this book serves to be a first step.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Auroville trip

Running a half marathon was only an excuse to visit Pondicherry and Auroville. In the broad class of excuses, it has a very high degree of efficacy as well. 

Our trip begins with a road trip from Bangalore. Trip members were Deeksha, Viji, Suchi and me in one car. Nikesh and his wife Sujata in a second car. The road from Bangalore to Auroville is great. We went via Vellore sticking to national and state highways. We took a detour to visit Sripuram Golden Temple at Sripuram. Next to Sripuram entrance is a cafe called Divine cafe and indeed its food was divine.  The dish names were quite tricky to be remembered but their taste will last for quite some time. Unfortunately, I could not enter the temple as I was wearing shorts. A man tried to sell a Lungi but i preferred to sit outside and enjoy the activities outside. The temple seemed calm, lacking any chauvinism and a place where one can get serenity. 

 Outside, as I was waiting for my friends, an old man started chatting with me about life at Sripuram. In between his anecdotes, he would drop in comments about his poor financial status. Outside the temple gate, i saw a bunch of children in their school uniform playing and having a great time. The old man told me that this was a routine picnic as there was nothing else for the children to do. After about 30 mins of chit chat, the old man asked me explicitly about the money. My happiness to chit chat with a random stranger went south. Is there a price to be paid for having a nice conversation in India? I moved on.

We stayed at Purple Resorts at Auroville. Purple resorts may be the tallest building in Auroville with its four floors. Purple resorts, shall i add once again, highlights the problem with India where the service is outsourced as a commodity bearing in no relation to what it stands for. Even though the amenities here was good, the service was bad and the staff had no intention of taking care of its customers. The breakfast was late, bad and forgettable.

Before the breakfast, I went for a leisurely stroll and within 10 minutes, I knew i would love this place. There was a cafe shop right outside called Marc's cafe. Within a min of walking there was a Greek cafe and Book fair next to it. After another min, I found a shopp called "Happy Foods" which was a local farmer's market. It was all jungle around me. There were more bicycles than cars, more local shops and cafes. Auroville is a town that will see tremendous growth, mostly at an expense of its jungles but as a tourist place in India, it is going to be a good one.

After the breakfast, we went to Pondicherry where we had planned for a heritage walk with Mr. Ashok from INTACH. In an hr or so, he showed several buildings made in French architecture, how they were involved in restoring them, making sure they were built keeping the aesthetics of the town intact. With some history, some rant against government, governance and some bias towards French people, we strolled on the streets visiting one building to another. Walking is the only way to know a city and walking with someone who can share history is even better. It was a pleasant morning and our walk ended by a tour of the French church where mass still happens in French.

It was quite sunny when we finished our walk. We decided to follow it up with food at Le Cafe at the Promenade. Some dishes were delicious while others were over rated. Stuffed, we decided to head over to the Aurobindo Ashram and see the paper factory. It should be mentioned here that we had made no Things to do list for Pondichery. The heritage walk was decided when we were driving up from Bangalore and it happened by chance. The no expectations and no planning trip always offer more joys and we were following exactly that. Paper factory tour was a brilliant one. In a 15 min tour of how paper is made, it was informative and an introduction to a process that is so creative and genuine. I was totally fascinated. In the process of marbling, out of chaos came patterns; a design that was always there in the making but it comes off at the last moment. Brilliant stuff. 

After a quick stop at the Aurobindo's samadhi, we went back to Auroville for our bib collection and then to Marc's cafe for a nice cup of coffee. An early dinner at Madame Shanthe's  consited of carbo-load for the run tomorrow. We were quite tired with all the walking in the morning and the weather was  on the hotter side for us who are spoiled by Bangalore. Yet our day had not ended as we had bought tickets for Leela Samson's Bharatnaytam performance. It had been quite some time since i had seen a dance performance and that too of this quality. It was a brilliant performance and thankfully everyone in our group liked it. There is always an element of doubt in group dynamics when it is not clear whether the act is going to be liked by everyone. The INTACH walk in the morning was considered so-so by others in the group but thankfully this dance performance, which was indeed top notch, was enjoyed by everyone. Being a french town, the intro talk was given in French and the audience was also mostly locales who had some French connection. It was hard to believe that this is a part of India. 

Next morning, we ran the Auroville Half marathon. With no timing chips and a motto - Run for the joy of running, Auroville HM is truly a pure joy event. Post the run, we went back to our food agenda with having first course at the Greek cafe and second course at Tanto.  The return was quite as we came back with great memories and promises to visit Auroville next year. 

All the trip photos from my camera are uploaded here -

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Auroville Race report

"Run for the joy of running" is the motto of Auroville marathon. It needs a special kind of effort to execute such a lofty motto. Several things have to be in place to ensure that runners can think beyond  quotidian and enjoy the race.  Auroville marathon delivered on this promise.

With no timing chip, and hence no timing certificate, it clearly sends a strong signal. Indeed, time does take some joy out of running. Although, they did had a clock timer at the finish line. Auroville trail was beautiful. Auro organizers were able to carve out a full 21K loop. Running 21K fully in an unknown stretch is a rare occurrence in Indian circuits. The aid stations had refill points where people running with bottles can fill-up directly from a can instead of wasting small cups. They were appropriately placed after a good gap of around 10 feet from regular tables to avoid any jams.  Aid stations itself were well organized with bananas, oranges, and Chikki. The trail was shaded most of the time. In a couple of  stretches, we were running on red sand. Otherwise it was nice trail ground or paved road. Weather in the start was great, mist covered us everywhere. It did became hot after 8 am. The trail provided enough variations to not get bored of the run at all.

The cheering support at Auro was much better than what i had seen in Delhi and KTM. There were a lot of volunteers helping with the trail. Cyclists were patrolling everywhere and asking us to run on the left whenever a full marathoner was passing us. In the last 2-3K there were some folks standing with Spray cans, spraying water on your face to finish off the race soon. At around 2K mark, I remember seeing an old lady with white hair standing in front of her house, which was in middle of this jungle, tightly holding a crutch in her right hand standing and cheering. Locals came out and cheered with big smiles. It was inspiring. The 7+ member band at 1K mark was a delight.

My run was good. It took me about 2 hrs 24 mins to finish the race. I slowed little bit in the end as i was exhausted, otherwise it was a good run. From 6K to 16K i had the pleasure of running with Prasad who had sharing nice stories about INTACH, their Amritsar chapter, partition, Pondicherry and French colonization. He is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.  I am glad that he was able to talk and run at his pace. Thanks to him, the run went quite fast for me.  The food later - pongal, vada and sambhar was delicious.

Auroville the town had won me over the day before. With such nice coffee shops and food options, i am already a fan. Auroville is a race that i am definitely going to run next year.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life in Dec 18 - Feb 2

One has to change with the times and the change has to be evident when the year flips. This year started with a lethargy but it was fought on with equal fervor soon. Now, i am again in the grips of too many things. But this is a good state. So lets cover the highlights - 

~ Aarti, mummy and Papa visited. Saw Dhoom 3 in Gold class. Other than that a lot of time was spent in apartment hunting and making cakes. 

~ Made chocolate cake and Banana walnut cake. Woohoo! 

~A day trip to Nandi hills with them. 

~January was the first month in many months when i was in Bangalore for the entire month. Yes, it was deliberate. Much needed.

~Had to bail out of BWW as too many things were going with me. 

~ The Wire: Saw season 1 and season 2 of Wire. Brilliant!! What is really real? It is a modern philosophy in TV series form. Very well done!

~ Saw To The Wonder - another one by Terrence Mallick. While this is not as good as Tree of Life but his directional style is brilliant. Also Olga Kuryenko is beautiful!

~ Swimming : Finished beginner batch of swimming with Nisha Miller academy. Now, i can do free style for one lap nonstop. This is the best thing that i could have done to begin my new year. It almost checks off one of the items from list of Things to do before 30.

~ Running: Ran 21K at Cubbon Park. Took a week break as i was learning to Swim. Did Winter 10K at Ananda Yana today. What an amazing event. Watching this 8-9 year olds run with such energy …. reminds you what life is all about and how it should be lived. 

~ Books: 
How much should a person consume by Ramachandra Guha
Partially read Energy security.
Swaraj by Arvind Kejriwal

~ Movies:
The Wolf of Wall Street: 3/5 I have never really enjoyed Decaprio-Sorcesse films. They have always been average. This one also, even though has its moments, but overall not the one that i will see again.
Dhoom 3: 1/5. Pathetic in so many levels.

~ AAP internship: Attended great sessions on different aspects of campaigning, Anti-corruption and decentralization. Very good sessions indeed.

~ Working 2 hrs a day for AAP koramangala chapter. Going decently so far.

~ Office work picked up steam as the year changed. Lots of interesting things there.

~ Apartment hunting: Spent two weeks to see various apartments. Finally zeroed in on one in HSR layout.

~Sherlock Season 3: Brilliant. Style, panache. That is the way to do it!!

Pete Seeger was the discovery of the month. Sad that i got to know about him only after his death.
Michael Nyman dominated by car stereo. His compositions are hauntingly good.

Book Review : In Custody by Anita Desai

As part of my goal to read 20 Indian books this year, I was exploring good listicles on Indian books. Most of them had similar items but th...