Tuesday, November 10, 2015

May The Light Shine.

I have respected the need for 'Freedom of Speech' ever since I first understood what it meant, sometime during a Civics class in school. It is the necessity for a society to grow. Ideas and opinions need to flow from one side of the table to the other. As a proponent of free speech, this freedom is something I take very personally and seriously.

But, today, almost 18 months after one of the most hallmark decisions taken by the Indian electorate, I wonder if such a freedom exists anymore. It does exist in the Constitution, technically, but on the ground? I'm skeptical.

A democracy like ours is very complex for me to explain, but a few things that I believe are underlying to the very fabric of our country are the need for rules and laws that are common to everybody. That all people, all religions, all languages must be treated equally.

Yes, the Constitution of India doesn't recognize a national religion or national language. Hinduism isn't the national religion, and Hindi isn't the national language. And that, has been the reason for the harmony throughout the country despite the differences! Isn't that something we Indians have been taking pride over for decades?

A very significant difference I have observed is around me towards any critic of our respected PM Narendra Modi, his policies or the BJP. Be it renowned authors, journalists or the humble blogger. Each word of opposition uttered is disregarded and the person in question termed anti-national, quicker than the blink of an eye!

A debate over every decision, every choice, every law, is quintessential to a democracy. It ensures that each ground is covered and there's little chance for a mistake. A country that doesn't allow such a debate isn't much different from a dictatorship. And while many among us may wish that for India with NaMo at the helm, the Constitution in its current form doesn't allow for it.

A democracy allows me to not have the same opinion as the leader of my country, and yet peacefully co-exist without any fear. If this provision didn't exist, we wouldn't be able to fearlessly promote NaMo pre-2014 elections. Think about this for a second. 

If pro-NaMo is showered with praises, shouldn't someone anti-NaMo atleast be heard, too?

The most often cited reason for criticism of anyone with an anti-BJP opinion is that they are paid by the opposition party to do so. And, I don't deny that some may as well be! But, is that how blinded this country has become in 18 short months to ridicule every speck of criticism without even a fair thought? Doesn't that scare you?

Everyone who points out NaMo's mistakes shouldn't be going to Pakistan. Everyone who presents opinions that don't align with the Government's isn't endorsing other parties. Everyone who returns an award isn't looking for headlines and publicity. They may not have supported BJP before elections, but this BJP Government is their Government too, and they deserve to be heard without any reservations.

Something has gone wrong in the last few months, something very simple but, significant.

May the light shine.

P. S.: I do understand the responsibility that lies comes with the freedom that words shouldn't incite communal violence in any form. And, I am not contesting that for even the slightest second.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Cost of Freedom: Responsibility.

Exactly 5 years ago, almost around the same time, I wrote 'The Dream Called 'India'...', my understanding of the dream that those who fought for the freedom of our nation must've seen, 69 years ago.

Today, I am at the crossroads that has me turning cynical to the very same dreams that I believed were real and obvious. And that, not because I've lost the faith, not because I am any less determined to be a part of the change; but because I'm instigate and angry seeing otherwise happen all around me. All the time.

Over the past few weeks, I've been struggling with many things that I see around me, and trying to get to the literal 'root' of the problem, and maybe I'm seeing things, but it takes me to a common conclusion about the country we have become: We love our freedom, but we love skirting the responsibilities tagged along with it, even more. And, there, we forget that the freedom comes with responsibilities. The burden of responsibilities, is the sweetest cost and reward, both, of freedom.  

We love our freedom of speech, but we also love disrespecting someone else's, just as much. Just look at how unashamedly we abuse the media of this country, that is only but a reflection of the general populous. We resort to name-calling and abusing those who have an opinion that doesn't fit well in our psyche, without ever giving them a chance to tell their side of the story.

We love unabashedly abusing the government for providing inadequate, incompetent roads, while conveniently disobeying traffic rules flamboyantly. Right from not following signals, to driving under influence, to driving on the wrong side of the road, to avoiding the simple safety helmet or seat-belt, to handing a  ₹50/- note to escape a ₹500/- fine. 

We take pride in Indians who have achieved great heights elsewhere, while continually overlooking the greater problems of why they didn't achieve the same in this country. We take credit for the progress of companies and countries elsewhere, while our country and companies stay stuck in the 'developing' phase.

We talk a big game about equality among the sexes, and soon after, discriminate explicitly between the things the daughter can't do, while the son can, or vice versa. At the end of the day, we still see our women in the kitchen and completing household chores, while the 'man of the house' goes out and earns.

I could rant all day, and I'd still not tire. I could point out each and everything that I observe, day in and day out, and the list would still be incomplete. But this is about the real, core issue about do we deserve the freedom bestowed upon us by the Hon. Constitution of India? Are we worthy of that freedom, if we abstain from fulfilling our responsibilities?

I recently came across this incredible video of Dr. Shashi Tharoor at the Oxford Union Society, where he debates why Britain does owe reparations to the colonies. Since, I've only been wondering, did we win our Independence, and thereafter our freedoms, at a rate faster than what we could understand it, digest it, cherish it? Right about now, it sure seems that way.

Let's be clear, I'm not taking the side of the Government and saying they're as pure as the Ganga. Hell, I loathe our elected representatives to the Lok Sabha. Even more so right now because they have just wasted most of one month of the monsoon session of the Parliament, for no concrete reason, but just to prove that they can do it and nobody can stop them! Various real issues of the citizens pending before the Parliament will just have to wait a few more months before any decision can be arrived at.

But, before we lift a finger at someone else, and demand our freedom, let's look into ourselves, and think, do we actually deserve that freedom? And, that leads me to ask, are we as a country really responsible enough to deserve the freedom we have?

Yes, I am ranting. Yes, I am complaining. Yes, I am picking and seeing the flaws, over the victories. But, that is because I love this country, and I can't see it be disrespected this way by people who demean the nation with sheer, unashamed, blatant, dirty hurls of abuses. And, there isn't anything new here that I haven't said in numerous other posts before today.

Responsibilities aren't an outcome of freedom, they are the requirements to deserve freedom.

Let's listen to what the next person has to say, before judging him on the basis of who he is. Let's wait for those 5 seconds at the next signal and actually wait for the signal to turn green, instead of believing it must have. Let's fix our education system and create worthy professionals, who'll make more a difference to this country. Let's just hit the brakes on the discrimination and treat every individual with the same dignity and respect that we want for ourselves. Let's not forget that we are the system and the change begins with us, not elsewhere.

Let's be better citizens of this country, this Independence Day, before we demand some more freedom.

Jai Hind!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Internet Needs You.

I remember one afternoon during my vacations just after my 4th grade rather distinctly. I sat in front of a computer in my parents' room, and after following a Google search result, landed on a website that played the opening song to a then popular Hindi television show. I patiently waited while the Dial-Up connection from MTNL streamed the song, and I kept playing it, on repeat. I kept listening to the song, and smiling, and laughing, and dancing, while my mom looked at me in amusement. This was when I found the internet and realized how amazing it was.

I am sure I started using the internet before that. Hell, I had my first e-mail ID before that! And yet, this was my moment of glory. This, was when I had found the internet, and I was smitten. Little did I know, then, that this was the start of one of the most amazing, informative, intriguing and personal relationships of my life. My relationship with the internet.

I'm sure each one of us that uses the internet has one such old, fond memory of using the internet and how it came to be a part of you that it is today.

Fast forward to today, and I spend all of my wake hours in doing something or the other on the internet. I refer to and take help of the internet, for the smallest to the biggest things. I have a bunch of social media accounts. I manage my own, and a few other websites. And, most importantly, I classify my internet expenses as utilities.

Over the course of the last 40 years, internet has gone from being a lab experiment to a luxury to a necessity. The internet, through all these years, on a daily basis, has helped us communicate, connect, share, read, write, see, dream, refer, learn, explore, interpret, and grow. But now, today, the internet needs you.

If you've been reading recently, on the internet and off it, there's a major debate and campaign going on in India by the name of 'Save the internet' used liberally alongwith a term called 'Net neutrality'. For everything that the internet has enabled me to do, I consider it my responsibility to help people understand why this campaign, and by extension net neutrality matters. The following is, broadly, my answer to all the questions about these that I've frequently been asked, over the last few weeks.

Net neutrality is a concept that everything on the internet is equal, that everything you browse on the internet be subjected to the same rules, and delivered with the same speed, by those that provide you internet, your ISPs (MTNL, BSNL, Hathway, etc.) and mobile telecom providers (Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance, etc.). It is about choice. I can access Google or Yahoo or Microsoft's email services. I can refer to Wikipedia or perform computations on WolframAlpha. I can be amazed with Nat Geo's travel diaries or plan my own with TripAdvisor. I can connect with friends with Facebook or can learn about experiences on Quora. I can read micro-updates on Twitter or watch cat GIFs on Tumblr. I can watch baby videos on YouTube, or watch pornography. I can listen to songs on Rdio, or listen to podcasts. I can download free software from SourceForge or download pirated software. I can read and be updated on news and current affairs, or I can be excited about the next big thing in technology. Or I can not use any of these websites and use a whole bunch of others to do something entirely different. I can choose to do anything on the internet, and have it delivered to me, at the same cost, and the same speed. Choice is what the internet and net neutrality, both, essentially stand for.

Since its inception, internet was built on freedom. It is a medium that can  be used by anyone in the world no matter where they are from, who they are, or what their beliefs are. It was never meant to be discriminated or divided into factions. The same websites available to me in India, would be available to anyone in U.S.A. or a village in Africa. The same content, if you visit the same website, anywhere.

But, the telecom cartels over the world, with their ever growing greed to earn more and exploit customers a little more, are trying to infringe upon this very essence of internet by either or all of the following mechanisms:
a) Charging the content providers: The most common and popular method that entails charging content providers (generally, websites and apps like Netflix, YouTube, etc.) to provide their data at a faster rate than the data from other, including competitors' websites, to the customer.
b) Charging the customer: If the internet providers ask for an extra price for you and me to be able to access a certain part of the internet. For example, an extra cost if you want to use Google's Play Store and / or connect your Android phone to the internet, while iPhone's App Store and Windows Phone's Windows Store get a free / cheaper access.
c) Charging both, the customer and the content providers: Just club both (a) and (b)!

To aid the same exploitation, TRAI, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, plans to institute a rule by which the telecom operators and ISPs get the liberty to create a walled internet, by using both (a) and (b). The new rules proposed by TRAI are ambiguous enough and allow for both.

I'm sure you must have heard the phrase 'Airtel Zero' and ignored it as another marketing ploy. Well, it isn't. Airtel, India's biggest telecom provider recently announced a new plan called 'Airtel Zero' by which a content provider can pay for the data consumed by the customer while using that app / service. This reduces or makes zero the cost of using the app / service for the customer.

My dad often tells me, "There is no free lunch in this world." And in this case, it sure holds true. This free data, is at the cost of freedom to choose. If a messaging service like Hike subscribes to this plan and pays Airtel, Hike can essentially pay for the data you use while using the app, and because that leads you to a lower cost, you'd stop using WhatsApp. But, you'd also never use any other app / service, even if it were better, because you're getting to use this for free. Or, if Reliance Jio enters the market, and makes chatting over its app Jio Chat, free.

Today, while most Indians WhatsApp, most Chinese use WeChat, most Japanese use Line, most Koreans use KakaoChat. Would this liberty be possible in a world where companies like Google or Facebook, which compete in the same market, providing the same services, could make the data we use while using Hangouts or Messenger / WhatsApp, free? Would that not kill innovation and start-ups that have shallower pockets unlike these multi-billion dollar corporations?

Just over a month ago, Meerkat, a real-time video broadcasting app launched on the App Store and created major ripples over Twitter and became a breakaway successs. After 3 weeks, Periscope launched, and it did the same very thing, only in much more efficient way, and at a faster speed. Within days, most of those who used Meerkat, switched to Periscope as it offered a better product. This example exemplifies just how important choice is in this ever-changing world of technology that we live in. The internet doesn't respect habit, it respects choice and judges quality. That is the beauty of the internet.

There is another controversy surrounding Facebook's internet.org initiative. Internet.org is albeit a noble initiative by Facebook to provide essential communication, healthcare and news, (in India's case, Facebook, TOI, an HIV-related information website, Flipkart, among others) for free, in poor countries. On a personal note, I have been struggling to form a definite opinion on this. While I certainly admire the concept, it clearly violates net neutrality. I would, still, want this to exist, for those people that don't use and can't afford internet services, but without commercial services like Flipkart and ClearTrip. And, such plans should inherently be revoked for those that subscribe to internet packs, in lieu of its obvious contradiction to net neutrality.

The story so far? Internet is awesome. Net neutrality is a necessity. Telecom operators and ISPs are greedy. Airtel Zero is a no-no. What next? How do I help to protect the internet? 
1) Go to savetheinternet.in and follow the instructions and shoot an email to TRAI, and tell them why we, citizens of India, want net neutrality before 24th April. Make sure you send them an email from all of your email IDs.
2) Share it on Facebook and tweet about it to @narendramodi, @PMOIndia and @rsprasad and your whole timeline.
3) Call your MLA, MP and ask him to convey your wishes to those at TRAI and Ravi Shankar Prasad, our Hon. Telecom Minister.

If you want to read further, go ahead and read / watch these amazing explanations from other people on the internet. After all, internet is all about choice, isn't it?
1) Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web Net writes a guest post titled 'Neutrality is critical for Europe's Future', and it applies equally to any and every country in the world: http://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/ansip/blog/guest-blog-sir-tim-berners-lee-founding-director-world-wide-web-foundation_en.
2) Mahesh Murthy's blogpost on LinkedIn. My personal favorite from everything I've read / heard / seen about net neutrality so far, 'How Airtel, Voda and TRAI are trying to screw Indian internet users': https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-airtel-voda-trai-trying-screw-indian-internet-users-mahesh-murthy.
3) The Verge's Vlad Savov writes about why 'Facebook's march to global domination is trampling over net neutrality': http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/13/8024993/facebook-internet-org-net-neutrality.
4) A segment on 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver' about net neutrality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU.
5) AIB's satirical, honest, about 'Save The Internet': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfY1NKrzqi0.

Peace, and love.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Let's Talk.

Author's note: While you read this, if you find anything offensive to you, or something that would touch a nerve to a political outfit, a religious entity, a spiritual guru, or anyone who is only looking to take offense in something, please pass me the email addresses of the people who I should forward this to, to get this censored, and I will remove the objectionable content. LOL, just kidding. I'm not taking back my words.

Just over 2 months back, on 24th November, 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment (popular for producing franchises like Spiderman, Men In Black and the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, among others), an American subsidiary of the Japanese media conglomerate Sony, was hacked. For those who don't know, hacking is a process by which a malicious person/group take down an account and/or website for reasons only they find logical. In short, they are internet bullies. Subsequently, it was found out that the hack was performed by hackers from North Korea. What followed was a siege and frequent release of confidential documents and rips of movies, stored on Sony's servers, which the hackers had gained access to during the hack. The hackers held Sony hostage until it gave in to their demand. The demand being to stop the release of a comedy movie by the name of 'The Interview'.

'The Interview' is the story of a US TV talk show host traveling to North Korea, to interview the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, and killing him. While it is funny and stupid, it also shows the 'supreme leader' in an entertaining fashion. What followed was Sony giving in to the hackers' demand, and pulling out the movie, just before the weekend it was supposed to released. Then, Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America, took stage and expressed his anger towards Sony giving in to the hackers' demands, because this, restricted freedom of speech. Soon thereafter, Sony decided to release the movie on 25th December, 2014, and it gathered huge crowds.

Let's turn to our country, now. On 28th January, 2015, a stand-up comedy group AIB uploaded a video titled 'AIB Knockout' to YouTube. It was a 'roast' of Indian movie stars Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. A roast is a comedy show where an individual (or in this case, a set of individuals) are the subject of one-liners and jokes, to amuse a bigger audience. It is good-natured insults (yes, there's irony there, I know). It is satire, in the modern forms. This video from AIB consisted of various stars, big and small, hurling abuses, expletives and sexual innuendos, to each other, all, in front of a crowd of consenting adults, by consenting adults, towards (guess what) consenting adults.

In the hours following the release, it became a spectacle and everyone was talking about it. It wasn't unexpected because in a country like ours, it doesn't take much to stir up a controversy, and that, this video had all the ingredients for, ever since the beginning. Since, the video has been taken down, and much has been said and done about the same, from political groups to religious leaders taking swings towards the comic group.

While, the leader of the free world backs a company for producing a vulgar comedy movie about another leader, a comic show, put up for and by consenting adults, is subject to anger and hatred, while all arms of the Government stay quiet.

I started blogging in the second half of 2009. Soon after that I joined Twitter, where I express my opinions which aren't worthy of, or have enough content for a blogpost. Since then, it's been a constant struggle fighting against the hooligans. I have been a subject to name-calling, been accused of representing a particular political outfit, abused, ridiculed, called a Pakistani, a paid agent, among other things. While none of it was surprising (considering the amount of hatred existing in this noble society of ours), it was hurtful.

For a country whose countrymen pride themselves for being secular, being told that I can't debate about the beliefs of a religion, or challenge the preachings of a spiritual guru, or question the policies of a political leader, feels wrong. For a country which puts 'Right to speech' as a fundamental right, how maniacal is it, that the moment you express your opinion that doesn't please a particular sector of the society, you're bombarded with death threats? If there's 'Freedom of choice' for people to issue such threats, why isn't there freedom for me, as a content creator, to express my opinions freely, without the purview of a regulatory body?

I understand that there is a responsibility among the people who create such content to be fair to themselves about their opinion, and not instigate any sort of an altercation. But, when what we (I, and other creators) do is to initiate a conversation, and be the mediums of change, why should we be kept quiet because a certain community doesn't approve of their beliefs being put under the microscope and maybe even, shoved aside by proof and scientific backing? To appease a few, should the progress of the society, on the whole, be held back?

I hope not, because if yes, we aren't going anywhere different than what the state of North Korea today is, or Germany's was, under Adolf Hitler. Even China today, for that matter.

China's internet has few websites that can be accessed. You cannot use Google Search or other Google services in China (and thus they can't read this blog, either). You can't use Twitter or Facebook. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, North Korea doesn't have internet access for the public. Compare with that, USA, a country where free speech is not only encouraged, but also appreciated.

While neither of these models may be appropriate for a diverse country like ours, surely, the fascist policies that threaten the talents of this country, the ideologies of the people and outfits that try to contain it to protect their own interests, need to be uprooted and thrown away.

It is painful to see India only become more and more restrictive, on a daily basis, and see the number of things you can't say or do, increase, instead of decrease. It is sad that any human dialogue can't end without linkages to, or being accused of being opposed to, political or religious entities. It is disappointing that for a country with most of its population being in the age group of 20-35, the very same, are subject to restrictive and in some cases, orthodox philosophies, instead of letting them choose their own path to grow based on educated choices.

And, this, I'm certain, is only the beginning. The puck goes only one way from here. This is the start of something new, and big. It either goes in the direction of those ruckus-mongers who make us succumb to the fear they create in our minds; or it goes in the direction of a more open, viable, and accepting society.

In hope.

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