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It is no secret that Indian laws on Free Speech are not exactly geared for creative freedom. Where "offensive" can legally be prosecuted, not much remains to be said. This is hardly a secret and it is impossible that anyone in the business of creating content for the masses - whether publishing or video can be unaware of it given the regular outrages it throws up.

When All India Bakchod produced its event as a "roast" - a format of insult based humor - it is impossible that none of the wise people on the team or those helping them produce it thought that there would be angry people. Them going ahead and producing it did indeed seem like pushing the envelope, as they claimed it to be.

In the process, name and fame and money (for charity) came their way. Many of those who saw the roast were vaguely revolted by the idea of crudery for the sake of crudery - including humor that bordered on insults of identities - for color of skin, sexual orientation or whatever. There still was a willingness to accept it all for the simple reason that the show did one thing. It blew open the question of what is allowed speech.

Support mobilized from everywhere. People spoke up in solidarity and support. Many people published videos using profanity as solidarity.

Predictably there was outrage. You cannot produce content with explicit phallic profanity and pretty much only that without angering those who would like to pretend that pre-teen kids playing cricket don't yell "teri maa ka ******" on streets (true story, right under my window). This was predictable and happened as predicted.

It appears everyone except All India Bakchod anticipated this for some reason. As the outrage came in with police complaints filed and intimidation from fringe political outfits, they suddenly lost their hard on, so to say. They took down their video (not before it got millions of hits), wrote a half assed statement about how them being okay with facing consequences but not others, etc. and have been busy apologizing ever since, it seems.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena said that they wouldn't allow any films featuring the participants of the roast to be released unless Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh apologized. They not just apologized, they took down their video. From there on it seems to be an orgy of apologies. Ranveer Singh apologizes to ex-girlfriend, someone apologized to gays - not sure who. AIB issued yet another apology specifically to Christians and god knows who else.

The one apology they have not made is to those who stood by them and are now looking like fools for believing in their right to create content that pushed envelopes. In the face of illegal intimidation, FIRs and the standard issue outrage were entities like the Film Writers Association of India and Amul, which immortalized their show with an Amul cartoon in solidarity.

Amul butter cartoon supporting AIB
Amul butter cartoon supporting AIB

There are people who have gone out of their normal use of language to produce content with profanity in support of All India Bakchod. In solidarity.

Instead of the rattling of a bad status quo on free speech, what All India Bakchod did was to endorse it with high profile apologies. Over and over.

Instead of reaching out to the wider community endorsing their right to speech and willing to challenge laws if need be, by their side, they abdicated their own speech and screwed the fight for Freedom of Expression in India by bowing down to the dysfunctional status quo.

Many have said that All India Bakchod cannot be blamed for what our intolerance forced them to do. Well, I do blame them. The intolerance is not a new thing or something they were not aware of while creating a full fledged profanity and abuse filled show. What did they expect when they created it? Sardar shabashi dega?

That just because they created profanity, people would be all applause? No one is that stupid. They created something illegal as a hit and run name and fame (and fund raising) measure is the only conclusion that I can draw from this.

Do they care that in the process they harm a rights movement that has far more serious stakes than their whim to be juvenile? They apologized to the Christians who have magnanimously accepted it. In the meanwhile, Sanal Edamaruku continues to live outside India, hounded by FIRs for exposing a "miracle" that turned out to be embarrassing for the church.

It is the same anger I felt during the Tarun Tejpal case and the same anger I felt when the BJP suddenly woke up to free speech when their own supporters got accounts blocked. It is those with abundant voice using entire rights movements at convenience without regard for the potential setback to the rights of those who face far more danger than they do. It is us elites who know the arguments and jargon of the "right side" of debates and can use it to claim our rights with great ease and scant regard for the backlash on the credibility of the cause itself that we are exploiting and far more vulnerable people counting on overcoming resistance to their rights for their very safety.

There are battered women walking into police stations being turned away without FIRs, but we make a spectacle of how women can completely demolish a man without filing an FIR and the media will cheer. There are people whose writing gets taken down, who are forced to flee the place they live in, but we can whimsically use black profile pictures over temporarily blocked social media accounts and go back to filing FIRs to silence those we don't like. There are people forced to flee the country for making the church angry, but we will go out of our way to make them angry and resolve it easily with an "oops. sorry". Who cares what this trivialization does to the family of the raped girl whose father carried her for hours only to be refused an FIR or the Perumal Murugans or the Sanal Edamarukus?

This is the worst exploitation of profound struggles for human rights in my eyes.

It isn't about blaming or not blaming AIB. It is about horrendous precedent set through completely thoughtless "pushing the envelope" - what they did was illegal and guaranteed to create outrage all through. Yet their resolve crumbled so thoroughly on facing threat that they did not even attempt to rally the overwhelming support offered to them to make their "rebellion" a success. Those supporting them to push Freedom of Speech further ended up with a sterling example of how to resolve outrage slapped into their faces. Apologize, over and over. Grovel. Go into hiding. That is how you can resolve outrage when someone doesn't like what you said.

And no, All India Bakchod hasn't apologized to us for deliberately raising and then sabotaging the question of Free Speech. The free speech they were flashing around as they raised funds on their event and youtube. All of us who spoke up for it because we know how important it is for blocks to be prevented - many of whom didn't even like the crudery. All of us who stood up for them.

I would say fuck you All India Bakchod, except there appears to be a queue to do exactly that.

2

Raj Thackeray is making news with the toll plazas again with 4 road toll booths vandalized. Earlier this month it was Shiv Sena that torched 3 road toll collection booths. The objective is to disrupt toll collection. They see toll booths as economic crimes by overcharging people, faking accounts to show less profits and continue collecting toll for a longer period. Their actions are violent. To put it bluntly, they are wrecking toll booths. People are getting Pavlovian frowns. Violent is bad, right?

I agree that violence is bad. But I disagree that in this case the only violence is by Thackeray & Co. In Maharashtra, the collusion of powerful people is such that large profits are being made by those in power and their affiliates. It is not a new story. These are known illegal practices by an established mafia that aren't even dented by repeated exposes. MNS have a point. If the cost of a road is 5 crores, why is 45 crores collected? If vehicle owners pay road tax, why should they also have to pay toll tax for making that road?

Livemint had this to point out earlier this month: Wanted: A transparent road policy in Maharashtra

Many are not against the tolls per se but they feel there is no transparency in the manner in which the contracts for tolled roads are given out and that the government is literally taking them for a ride for the benefit of a few contractors.

For example, the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI’s) norms say the distance between two toll plazas should be at least 80km but the Maharashtra government’s policy uses a vague terminology and fixes the distance between two toll plazas at 35-40km. It has never explained why the distance between two plazas should be brought down by half.

Besides, on toll roads, BOT contractors are supposed to provide facilities such as ambulances, toilets and eateries, but except for a few roads like the Mumbai-Pune expressway and the Mumbai-Nashik highway, hardly any other toll road has these facilities.

Contractors are also supposed to maintain the roads during the so-called concession period, when they enjoy the right to collect the toll; but, except in a few major highways, the contractors don’t seem to be interested in taking care of damages caused by usual wear and tear. Officials from the public works department are rarely seen being pro-active and compelling contractors to do their job.

Then there are questions on the manner in which the tendering process is carried out. No one knows who, how and when the traffic surveys are carried out, how the toll fee is fixed, how the period for which a contract is given is calculated, or what formula is used for increasing the fee every year.

Here is an excerpt Chauthiduniya's June 2012 coverage of the toll tax scam frustration

The illegal exaction of toll tax in Maharashtra has snowballed into a major controversy after the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) cadre resorted to vandalism... In many cases toll is still being charged even after the period of exaction has expired. It is for this reason that none of the political parties of the state condemned the actions of MNS. Instead, many a political heavyweight came out in open support of the protest. Even anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare was seen condoning the protests. The Public Works Minister Chagan Bhujbal was left in a spot of bother as even his cabinet colleagues raised their voice against the malpractice. As a matter of fact, as per a court order, an FIR has been lodged against many senior officials of Bhujbal’s department in connection with the Shiroor toll picket case. The protests against this malpractice later spread from Nasik to Mumbai, Nagpur, Wardha, Amraoti and Bhandara districts.

... The period of toll exaction had ended way back in 2011 but charging of toll has continued unabated even to this day. The 30 kilometer stretch has become the hub of illegal toll collection.Interestingly, even if the toll collection period had ended in 2011, the state government has extended the period by another year and the contract has been given to three contractors. People started a protest movement over this and vandalised the toll picket...

Another interesting facet of the story is that Nasik, from where the entire movement against illegal exaction of toll started, is the home district of Chhagan Bhujbal. He is, perhaps, the only person who has denied any illegality in the issue and is justifying the toll collection. Anna Hazare had earlier raised this issue, and this time state Agriculture Minister Radhakrishna Patil too has pointed fingers at the misplaced toll policy which he wants reviewed so as to prevent any untoward incident happening over the matter.

Patil questioned the wisdom behind the current toll policy and said that it was just filling the coffers of the contractors. MNS says that once the road tax is included at the time of the registration of the vehicles there is no merit in again collecting toll tax. If the cost of the road is just five crores, why does the government authorise a toll tax collection of 45 crores? Toll collection is entirely illegal if we look at some facts. The Nasik-Yewala road was built at a cost of 174 crores yet the government authorised the collection of 1550 crores as toll over a period of 28 years. Similarly, the Aurabgabad-Vadala road incurred an investment of 190 crores, but the government authorised the collection of 1330 crores over 25 years; Shiroor-Ahmadnagar highway was built at a cost 162 crores but collection of 713 crores was authorised for 19 years; Jalan-Watur highway was built at a cost 100 crores but collection of 915 crore was authorised for 30 years; Pune-Shiroor highway built at a cost 105 crores but collection of thrice the amount was authorised. The list is not exhaustive and many more examples can be cited.

Another example of how the poor are suffering at the hands of this draconian taxation is the Dewali village toll picket on the Wardha-Yavatmal highway. As per the law, there should be no toll picket within a kilometer of a village or a town but this one is just 200 metres from the village and for getting to the filling station, the villagers have to pay toll tax. Actually, there is no system for regulating the collection of toll. Though computer-generated slips are given at various places, there is no cross checking of whether the total receipts have broken even with the cost or not. Consequently, the officials take the amount reported by contractors at face value and turn a blind eye to the primary question.

...The leader of Opposition in Maharashtra, Eknath Khadse, has alledged that illegal toll collection is a scam worth at least 10,000 crore for which Chhagan Bhujbal is responsible.

- See more at: http://www.eng.chauthiduniya.com/toll-takes-a-heavy-toll-in-maharashtra/#sthash.tlibsLmd.dpuf

Two years ago, there was a virtual flurry of exposes related with the toll booths. Today, there is no change. This seems set to go the irrigation scam way, and there is little people can do about it.

We see the visible violence - that of a vandalized booth, but we fail to notice the constant violence of exploitation of state resources for the profit of a few powerful entities.

Is the Shiv Sena or MNS wrong in vandalizing the toll booths? Sure. But the fact remains that these cartels entrenched in the system are not going to go away with petitions and candles. I am not all that bothered as long as people are not hurt. Particularly when it comes to property that belongs to the target of the protest (as opposed to breaking random windows and burning cars) and can be easily replaced in a fraction of the ill gotten wealth that is being protested... if it shows results.

But the other fact also remains that vandalizing the toll booths for several years now also has not resulted in any change either. It remains a method of grabbing attention for the cause that lacks teeth to do anything beyond that. Today toll booths all over Maharashtra are being vandalized. It is pointless to tell them to stop, because it is deliberate, and political and long running enough to have a lot of fed up people backing it. If this merely achieves the lack of toll collection till they are repaired, then it does not mean much. If it forces transparency and accountability, perhaps the anarchy will have achieved something.

There is a need for clear and transparent process of tenders, accounts, toll collection, traffic measurement and more. There is no getting around that.

9

Let me open this post with saying something no one has the guts to voice. The government should be down on hands and knees in gratitude to Raj Thackeray that there was no violence during the MNS Morcha. There wasn't a thing the government could have done to prevent Raj Thackeray marching from Girgaum Chowpatty to Azad Maidan in spite of permissions being categorically denied. The police discontent was reaching near mutiny levels, the anger of the people was beyond reason, and the government didn't have a foot to stand on on the whole subject.

In my view, responsibility for enforcing laws, or - like the Emperor in the Little Prince - making laws that will get obeyed lies solidly with the government. We didn't give them permission, but they still did it - doesn't wash. Raj Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena broke the law, yes. But the ease with which law could be broken being demonstrated was equally important if anyone is taking notes at all.

They did the only thing they could have done. Denied permissions knowing full well they couldn't prevent. That denial gave them the fig leaf of plausible deniability if the protest had indeed turned violent. Raj Thackeray ruthlessly called the bluff, and this is where the whole country should be grateful to him, instead of criticizing, because this was the moment when the reality of the Mumbai police force was stark naked for anyone to see. Police marched along with the protest in spite of all earlier threats with not so much as a token request as to not break the law. The government couldn't afford to rattle this cage - for security reasons. An absolute hostage situation.

Raj Thackeray's protest did several things I think our lazy news media is too incompetent to see. Or unwilling. There was anger on the streets. Anger against the government. Anger against the Mumbai Police Commissioner. I admit to feeling very worried on the potential for Hindu-Muslim clashes. Online, at least, the Hindutva brigade were busy fanning the flames of outrage. They probably were honestly outraged, however, their contempt for Muslims didn't help the expectation for communal harmony. People from the northeast were fleeing several cities.

Many have pointed to this as a political move by the Congress to weaken the BJP and Shiv Sena. This is a myopic view. Organizing demands for sacking crucial people as strategy is desperate at best and unlikely. However, in my view, this was still a very, very smart political view. It capitalized on all the outrage the hardworking BJP media efforts had rustled up, and channeled it into a solution that achieved several important things.

  1. Expressing the outrage. Letting it find voice and victory in a way that did no damage to life and property. Just read news reports since then. One day before, one day after - forget longer. There is a marked difference in the perception of an unstable, precarious society. Not just in Mumbai.
  2. This is definitely a loss for BJP, whose supporters successfully raised outrage (at times recklessly and at the cost of social harmony), but the party failed to present itself as any kind of solution to the problem they pointed out, and Raj stepped into the opportunity to take the free hit - literally. In my view, he can't be blamed for this. If a politician will not take an opportunity, can he be called competent at all? Ironically, the few supporters of MNS I do know, were relatively calm, though everyone was criticizing. In fact at least two helped debunk disinformation spread about "Pakistan flag hoisted by Mumbai Muslims" rumors. Whether this was intended or unintentional is irrelevant. It didn't appear to me that the ShivSena was damaged as much, except for the clear distancing from the Hindutva ideology - point blank denial, stating Maharashtra as his religion, boardroom dressing instead of kurta, tikka, etc... the works. This change has been happening for a while, but was starkly visible to those not paying attention that day.
  3. It was a much needed public flogging over how the Mumbai riots were handled by the Maharashtra government. And I must say well deserved, considering the actions of Patnaik in that video, that have not been denied so far. Instead, Patnaik has been transferred. This wasn't looking on the cards at all before the protest. Though I have further issues with this, that is for another time. I wouldn't be surprised of R R Patil resigns too.
  4. It was a public calling out of the shambles the police force is in in terms of both morale and leadership. It also performed an important action of standing by the police force. The people themselves. Regardless of leadership and seniors.
  5. It was a show of brute strength and threat over attacks on police - this, in normal circumstances would not be such a glorious thing, but when the government abandons the police, I think the benefit of doing this outweighs the harms. Raj made an important point that if the police cannot protect themselves, if they get attacked, then how can they be expected to protect people in the future? This was the need of the moment, and regardless of Raj Thackeray's history, it needed said and done and he did it.
  6. There have been several arrests since the protest. It could be argued that they would have happened regardless, but the arrests seemed to be going nowhere at the time of the protest. Also, I remain skeptical about the intent to arrest anyone at all, given Patnaik's video.

In my view, what is very remarkable about the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's Morcha and Raj Thackeray is the impeccable reading of ground situation, brilliant strategy that solved many serious problems so smoothly most didn't notice and created very few in turn. Clear leadership and meticulous planning and superb efforts by volunteers leading to a trouble-free protest must not be underestimated. Given the size of the crowd, and the iffy circumstances, I know more than a few were very, very apprehensive of things going out of control. It was a gamble by their leader, and the volunteers must be applauded for making it work.

There are areas of concern and disagreement for me:

  1. Biggest one. Accusations about immigrants. Contrary to what non Marathi people imagined - that Raj was calling Mumbai Muslims outsiders, he was actually asserting that Mumbai Muslims could not do such a thing. However, he did make accusations about migrants, particularly illegal Bangladeshis settling first in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand and coming to Mumbai to create trouble. This is outrageous and unbelievable and quite detailed an accusation, and if a claim like this must be made, then there needs to be a more concrete proof than waving something that looks like a Bangladeshi passport and claiming it belonged to rioters. Without that, this is a mark against Raj Thackeray's credibility.
  2. Another biggest one: Every single person I know thought about the potential for violence on this protest in spite of assurances. This includes the official @MaNaSena account on Twitter tweeting reassurances. Critics and supporters alike heaved sighs of relief when no violence happened. This was completely unnecessary, and in my view a drawback for the party image. There is a need to be more clearly against violence - particularly taking law in own hands. Just as important as not hitting cops. It doesn't help for Raj Thackeray to stand on the stage and provide examples of him ordering his own MLA beaten up for attacking cops. While in the moment it may shine, it is a role model of breaking laws being set, which will be a continuing problem for the party. I am no Gandhian. Violence has its place in the world. But not in politics, because you can force a point, but only free debate and winning the debate will make it "right".
  3. Important, but relatively minor: Raj Thackeray speaking in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra is all very well and good, but it creates serious bad publicity for the party when negative reportage is able to invent their own meanings for what he said, and non-Marathi people will believe it, because there is no reason not to. A classic example is a speech categorically denying Hindutva affiliations being reported as a Hindutva stand - reporter probably didn't understand Marathi well enough. It will be in the interests of both the party as well as Raj Thackeray to provide English translations of his speeches on his website, or better still audio/video translations by the man himself - his English is certainly good enough and if the original speech is in Marathi, on location, I don't see how helping people understand the views is an insult to Maharashtra.

Yep. that is it. I have not got into the history of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Too long to get into here.

Disclaimer: I do not support any party or politician. If this changes, it will be declared. This post is my view of the dynamics around this specific event and should not be interpreted as a permanent support of MNS.