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Inside Baseball: Why Nandy's mistake matters

An Indian sociologist's remarks on caste and corruption should shine a light on stereotypes
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Mad or what? Sociologist ignited a firestorm by suggesting that India's lower castes are responsible for most of the country's corruption. (AFP/Getty Images)

When the inside baseball of Indian politics makes it to the pages of the New York Times and the website of the New Yorker, it's time to weigh in. Leaving the background to the hyperlinks, here's my take:

Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy's remarks at Jaipur, and his later clarification, are not important simply because the attempt to prosecute him for insulting Indians from lower castes represents yet another attack on freedom of speech in the name of “sensitivity,” as Manu Joseph aptly lampoons in the New York Times and Basharat Peer ably explains for the New Yorker.

The main issue is the content of his statement, which sneakily confirms as “fact” a widely held public perception for which there is no hard evidence, and, in truth, seems patently false based on common sense.

The statement in question?

“It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive.”

Much has been made of the context for that statement, which you can read in full here. But in my reading of it nothing undercuts the essential assertion.

Nandy is sincere and sympathetic. He is saying that the corruption of India's lower castes is justified, even desirable. And Nandy admits that corruption of a kind is common among the elites. But it's interesting, to say the least, that he compares the assistance of an old boys' network in getting into Oxford or Harvard to the “millions of rupees” amassed by “the only unrecognized billionaire in India today” Madhu Koda – which were allegedly earned through illegal manipulation of the mining laws and perhaps selling his support, by turns, to the Bharatiya Janata Party and later the Congress. (So much for the context).

Nevertheless, whether Nandy means well or not is immaterial. So is whether or not he suffers from some unwitting prejudices, even as he thinks he is being radical. The most important thing here is that he claims something as “fact” for which he offers no evidence and that he cannot support. Namely, he says that most of the corruption in India can now be attributed to the lower castes, which comprise the mid-level Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the formerly untouchable Dalits or Scheduled Castes. (Yes, there's also the Scheduled Tribes, but only so much inside baseball for one blog post).

This is a widely held perception that I suggest is based solely on a handful of high-profile prosecutions: the notorious “fodder scam” case against Bihar's Lalu Prasad Yadav, the “Taj corridor scam” case against Uttar Pradesh's Kumari Mayawati and, more recently, the “2G telecom spectrum scam” case against former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja.

That's called “believing is seeing” – you only process the evidence that suits your preconceptions, if you bother with evidence at all.  Surely there were corruption cases against high-caste Indians as well.  And if they didn't generate as much heat, one might say with equal authority that Mayawati & co were targeted for serious criminal investigations, and the others ignored, precisely because of their respective castes.

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Food often surfaces in political debate in Ukraine. Here, security personnel protect with umbrellas Speaker of Ukraine's parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn during a fight at a parliament sitting in Kiev on April 27, 2010. Smoke bombs and eggs were thrown as Ukraine's parliament ratified a bitterly controversial deal with Russia extending the lease of a key naval base. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
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Nguyen Thi Ha, aunt of Ho Thanh Tung, one of six defendants sentenced to death, sits crying next to her grand-son outside Ho Chi Minh-City's Court where the judge announced the sentences of the country's biggest ever corruption scandal, June 5, 2003. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Like many of its Communist brethren, Vietnam enforces the death penalty. The European Union abhors it.

This is a dilemma for Hanoi, which wants to use lethal injection drugs on its 500-plus prisoners on death row. Germany is a major supplier of sodium thiopental, a standard execution drug that's also used to induce anesthesia. But modern European mores dictate that enabling capital punishment is unethical and that Vietnam is unfit to receive the drug.

So, as the BBC and many other outlets are reporting, Vietnam now intends to create "domestic poisons" that will end the lives of its death row inmates.

Vietnam doesn't profess to care much about its death row inmates' condition. There's a reason Vietnam is suddenly seeking lethal drugs: last year, the government opted to quit using firing squads because it worried about the psychological toll on the shooters, not the anguish of the executed.

Those bound for execution — many of them drug traffickers — are reviled as "the seeders of white death to society," according to this excellent series on Vietnam's firing squads by the outlet Tuoi Tre. As Tuoi Tre uncovered, the firing squad was typically treated to an "alcohol-fueled party so that they could air their grievances and relieve their minds before going home."

Lethal injections are certainly easier on those tasked with carrying out state executions. But whether Vietnam's homegrown death cocktail will prove as painless to the executed as sodium thiopental — or offer a more painful death experience — remains to be seen. If it's the latter, the EU ban may inadvertently play a role in making the capital punishment system it disdains just a touch less humane.

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Why do mobile phone numbers outnumber humans in Cambodia?

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A Cambodian man talks on his mobile phone in Phnom Penh on June 24, 2011. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia is among Southeast Asia's most impoverished nations where, according to the United Nations, the majority of the population gets by on just $1 a day.

But that hasn't stopped them from buying mobile phones like mad. As the Phnom Penh Post reports, the country has somehow managed to reach 20 million sales in SIM cards, the little chips inserted into cell phones that are encoded with unique phone numbers.

That's a wild statistic considering that the population stands at 14 million.

How is this possible?

For starters, SIM cards in Cambodia sell for just $2. Basic cell phone models run for about $20 and users can simply pop their SIM into a new handset when they upgrade.

Those prices aren't just a reflection of Cambodia's meager incomes. They're the outcome of intense competition among Cambodia's service providers. The loosely regulated and oversaturated market had, at one point, a whopping nine providers jockeying for customers.

And, finally, Cambodia's mobile phone mania is also owed to its decrepit infrastructure. As the CEO of the Cambodian provider Hello recently told the Phnom Penh Post, the "fixed line infrastructure in Cambodia is quite poor. So, this country has sort of leap-frogged technologies and gone straight to mobile."

All of that amounts to a telecommunications landscape marked by $2 cell phone numbers, effortless handset upgrades and cheap rates. Now don't you despise your U.S. carrier just a little more after reading this?

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India: Is the justice system broken?

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A wag once remarked that a trip through the Indian court system is as near to experiencing eternity as a living soul can get. But it's not just slow. Despite well-written laws and legions of well-intentioned cops, lawyers, judges, and activists, the Indian justice system is abusive, arbitrary, and above all ineffective.

In short, it's badly broken. And the only answer that seems to gain any traction is to make it tougher, or more arbitrary.  

The current arguments run that the death penalty to be meted out to rapists, or that juveniles should be tried as adults, or, as a cop friend pointed out, that the police must be freed from petty concerns about human rights, to strike fear of law and order into the hearts of criminals.

But consider some stats put together this week by the Wall Street Journal's Real Time blog, as part of a seris on the justice system.

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India's rape protests reflect disenchantment with democracy

Indians feel betrayed by a democratic system that has entrenched extortion of its citizens, argues Prem Shankar Jha
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Anti-rape protests in New Delhi, following the vicious gang rape of a 23-year-old student, reflected a growing disenchantment with India's failing democracy, argues Prem Shankar Jha. (AFP/Getty Images)

They weren't really protesting against rape, Prem Shankar Jha argues in a persuasive and thought-provoking column in Tuesday's Hindu.  They were really protesting extortion.

Huh?

"Barring a few lapses, the Central and State governments acted promptly, and with commendable efficiency," Jha writes. "The Delhi police captured the alleged rapists within hours and the government spared no expense in its attempt to save her life."

So why were people so angry?

"The answer is that the rape acted as the trigger for an older, and deeper, anger in people — one that has been smouldering for years in their hearts. This stems from a profound sense of betrayal. Democracy was meant to empower them. Instead, in a way that few of them understand even today, it has done the exact opposite."

I'm not entirely convinced. But as I wrote in my article on the protests, it does seem clear that anger over violence against women dovetailed with disgust over corruption and the government's many failures in service delivery.

More importantly, Jha draws out some interesting observations in arguing his point.

(1) Indians aren't mad about bribery, they're mad about extortion

Every Indian worth his salt has paid a bribe to get preferential treatment. But extortion isn't voluntary.

"It requires no contract; no negotiation; and therefore no element of consent. It is a simple exercise of brute power by an employee or representative of the state over the citizen. Its commonest form is to deny the citizen the services to which he is entitled until he agrees to make a ‘private’ payment to the functionary in whom the power of the state is vested. Every act of extortion is a fresh reminder to the citizen of his or her impotence. This becomes complete if he or she is denied redress for the abuse of power."

(2) Democracy hasn't empowered the people

"One set of figures illustrates the impunity with which civil servants can break the law. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report Crime in India 2007, between 2003 and 2007 citizens filed 282, 384 complaints of human rights abuses against the police. Of these only 79,000 were investigated; only 1,070 policemen were brought to trial and only 264 — less than one in a thousand — were convicted."

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