Walking the HIV+ talk

1. Will you readily accept the admission of some HIV+ children in your child’s school?
2. Will you knowingly and willingly interact with HIV+ persons?
3. Will you knowingly and willingly share a meal with HIV+ persons, using common plates and spoons?

Most of us have probably never faced these situations before. Most of us would probably have to apply a lot of thought before replying truthfully to these questions. Most of us would probably answer, “I’m not sure” to all 3 questions.

Early in July 2014, the parents of children studying in a school in Goa threatened to withdraw their children from the school if the management went ahead with the admission of 13 HIV+ children into the school. For further information, please read this Firstpost report. A few days later, another report stated that the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) of the school had also demanded the removal of 23 non-HIV students because they live in the same Church-run children’s home along with the 13 HIV+ve students, claiming their presence in school too could put the safety of their wards at risk.

On July 31, 2014, while speaking on this subject in the Goa State Assembly, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had “said Goans needed to work overtime to eradicate the stigma surrounding AIDS. He also promised he will eat a meal with HIV+ve students to make a broader point about AIDS and the myths surrounding it.”

Firstpost reports that “while many dismissed Parrikar’s promise as mere rhetoric, the chief minister … made good his word” on August 16, 2014 by “keeping his lunch-date with the inmates of the church-run Nitya Seva Niketan orphanage, several of whom suffer from HIV/AIDS.”

Some highlights from the Firstpost report (all statements by local MLA Subhash Phaldessai):
“All the children there were thrilled to see the chief minister. They were jumping all over him.
All of us used common plates and spoons… We tried to make our visit appear as casual and normal as possible, lest they feel that the Chief Minister was here to meet them because of their condition.”
We did not allow photographers because we did not want the identity of the HIV+ve children be disclosed.
“The Chief Minister assured them all the help possible from the Goa government as well as personally too. He will be sending across a television set as well as some video players and entertainment (games and play-kits).”

Reading or hearing about Mr. Parrikar’s visit to Nitya Seva Niketan would definitely have made many people think deeply about their own attitude to HIV+ people. Probably, some people’s attitudes would have changed to some extent. Unfortunately, the print and electronic media has not given Mr. Parrikar’s visit the kind of coverage that was earlier given to the statements by some of his party’s ministers and MLAs about bikinis, beaches, casinos and that “all Indians in Hindustan are Hindus”.

I wonder why. Is it because negative news brings many more readers/viewers than positive news? Don’t the media have a role to play in bringing about social change?

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When watchdogs become ostriches

In discussions on the ‘Tehelka scandal’, many people have criticized Shoma Chaudhury’s handling of the situation. Some senior persons in other organizations have declared that they would have reacted differently if whatever happened in Tehelka had happened in their organization.

From all available reports, it appears that Shoma Chaudhury has not handled the situation in the manner that she should have. However, the people criticizing her must remember that it’s easy to speak about a hypothetical situation, but extremely difficult to rise to the occasion in reality.

Whenever any highly-placed person gets involved in any controversy, that person’s family members and/or colleagues generally make non-committal statements, which are often accompanied by legal-sounding disclaimers.

In recent times, I can recall only two persons whose reaction could not be faulted.

In December 2012, Abhijeet Mukherjee, Congress MP and son of President Pranab Mukherjee, made his infamous “dented, painted women” remark. In an interview with CNN-IBN, his sister Sharmistha Mukherjee said, “…. my utter shock and anguish …… I really apologies on his behalf to every woman, every man, every sensitive person in this country …… this is not the family view …… I am definitely going to take up this issue with him …… I am acutely embarrassed …… I am shocked and shaken by this statement made by my brother …… any sensitive man shouldn’t have made this kind of statement …..” Ms. Mukherjee’s words sound genuine and certainly not like a prepared statement.

Earlier this month, there were media reports about a blog post by a woman lawyer, in which she stated that she had been sexually harassed by a retired Supreme Court judge in December 2012 when she was an intern with him. It was heartening to see that the Chief Justice of India did not beat around the bush or ‘wait for more information’, but immediately announced an inquiry by three Supreme Court judges into the allegation. His statement echoed the thoughts of most persons who had read the reports and/or the blog post: “We cannot take it lightly. As the head of the institution, I am also concerned about the allegation and anxious whether the statement is true or not.”

Not just public figures, many of us are extremely vocal watchdogs when speaking about perpetrators of major and minor crimes and misdemeanours, but choose to ignore reality, burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, when we or our loved ones are the perpetrators. I’m sure that, like I, many people have often heard affectionate parents make statements like “My son was a very good boy. He was spoilt by bad company,” conveniently passing on the responsibility to person(s) other than their own offspring! Most people indulge in finger-pointing, not in introspection.

A classic example: On November 27, 2013, Firstpost carried an article ‘Amul’s Tehelka ad: Just utterly butterly tasteless’ criticizing the Amul advertisement’s take on the Tehelka scandal. The article states, “When Chetan Bhagat tweeted “The rupee is asking, is there no punishment for my rapists?” it was unfunny and insensitive. This is not about being politically correct. Rape jokes just are not funny.” It also quotes Firstpost’s Lakshmi Chaudhry: “Rape analogies and references are so routine so as to be invisible. We don’t even notice their inappropriateness most of the time, not even when we’re laughing at the latest rape gag making the rounds.” Firstpost seemed to be unaware that, just the previous day, Sagarika Ghose’s blog post on ibnlive.in.com was titled ‘Why the Aarushi Talwar case is a rape of justice’. Was this not insensitive? Was this not inappropriate? Or was the title acceptable because both Firstpost and ibnlive.in.com are part of Network 18?

Just before publishing this post, I heard Rajdeep Sardesai make the following statement on a talk show on CNN-IBN about, what else, Tehelka: “Do you think credibility is like virginity? Once lost, it cannot be regained.” None of the panelists appeared to object. Was this not insensitive? Was this not inappropriate?

If you have come across instances where people have been open-minded when reacting to the alleged misdemeanours of persons close to them, please do share those instances with us.

An efficient watchdog? Or a drowsy watchdog?

During an aggressive speech in Parliament on March 6, 2013, Dr. Manmohan Singh said of the opposition BJP, “Jo garajte hain, woh baraste nahin.” This was correctly translated into English in most sections of the media as “Thundering clouds do not produce rain.” However, a leading Indian website reported it as “Jo garajte hain, woh baraste nahin (Barking dogs seldom bite)”.

Provided that person carefully read the actual Hindi words, any person familiar with Hindi would know that Dr. Singh meant “Thundering clouds do not produce rain.” However, a person not knowing Hindi would have believed that Dr. Manmohan Singh had said, “Barking dogs seldom bite” in Hindi. This could have incited passions and might have even led to violent exchanges between overenthusiastic supporters of the BJP and the Congress. If you think I’m exaggerating, please read this report about how an opinion poll published in a newspaper led to a violent attack on the newspaper’s office, leading to the death of three employees.

The media has a duty to report correctly. Unfortunately, the intense desire to be the first to report, to capture as many eyeballs as possible, and to look smarter than the competition results in inaccurate reporting, sensationalism, grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes.

In one case, the word ‘illicit’ was used instead of ‘elicit’!

In another instance, the word ‘principle’ was used instead of ‘principal’.

A headline in a highly respected daily said, ‘Banks should only be allowed to take deposits’. From the contents of the report, it was clear the headline should have been ‘Only banks should be allowed to take deposits’.

These mistakes appear trivial when compared to what happened on Sunday, October 06, 2013. I was shocked to read “President Abdul Kalam Azad” printed in an article by a former senior bureaucrat in a leading national newspaper! I cannot believe that a senior bureaucrat could have referred to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as “President Abdul Kalam Azad”. I find it almost equally difficult, if not impossible to believe that whoever edited this article could have approved this. Who is responsible for such a blunder: the Editor of the newspaper or some junior employee?

To err is human, but isn’t there a system of editing/checking before publishing? Can’t these reputed media houses employ sufficient numbers of competent persons to carefully edit every news item that is published?

I have deliberately refrained from naming the publications in which these blunders appeared because most publications are guilty on this count.

After seeing such blunders, how can We The People believe that the media actually does Whatever It Takes to be an efficient watchdog? The Nation wants to know!

Hangover of the British Raj?

In a recent talk show conducted in English on an Indian TV channel, the anchor asked a martyred policeman’s widow, “Kya aapko Afzal Guru ke hanging, matlab phaansi se ek sense of closure milaa hai?” (The words may have been slightly different.)

Couldn’t the question have been asked in proper Hindi? Knowing before the show that questions would have to be asked to persons not knowing English, the anchor could have prepared translations in simple Hindi, or an interpreter could have been kept available. Did the anchor actually expect the non-English-speaking lady to know the meaning of ‘sense of closure’?

Would the anchor have done the same thing with a non-English-speaking foreign guest?

Why do we, consciously or unconsciously, take our non-English-speaking compatriots for granted? English-speaking Indians may think this is no big deal, but non-English-speaking Indians are discriminated against, in fact looked down upon, particularly if their attire is not fashionable enough for us Brown Sahibs.

One of my clients is a self-made man who now runs a business with an annual turnover of over Rs. 50 million. He always complained to me that he is given second-class treatment by his customers, bankers, etc. only because he lacks educational qualifications and does not know English. Initially, I thought he was being unduly touchy, but after I had accompanied him to a few meetings with his customers, I realised he was absolutely correct. I have seen how differently the same customers treat their other suppliers (also my clients) who are qualified persons familiar with English. Unfortunately, my client’s is not an isolated case.

Knowledge of English is definitely an advantage, but it is no indication of a person’s qualities or capabilities. Some of India’s greatest achievers (and many great achievers in non-English-speaking countries) have either not known English or have been obviously uncomfortable with the language. This is true, not only in high-visibility fields like sports, films, performing arts, fine arts, social work, politics, etc., but also among engineers, industrialists, businessmen, etc.. If lack of fluency in English did not prevent them from becoming achievers, why should it prevent us from giving them their due respect?