Thursday, 26 February 2015

Free speech, yes. But NOT in my name.

Free speech sounds great but not when you can either be killed for it or it can translate into hate speech. I have no particular reflections on this quagmire, nor on the Charlie Hebdo episode because in the country I still call ‘home’, i.e. India, free speech is either severely curtailed by the powers that be in every sphere of life, or that it is a tool to defend the fanatics and the fundamentalists. Remember during the 1975-1977 period of national Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her sycophants made every effort to ensure that free speech did not raise its ugly head to point fingers at them, nor raise questions about the wilful murder of democracy in the country. Official censorship or banning of free speech especially critical of the government is a norm strictly observed by all governments of the day. But governments’ don’t always worry about their hurt feelings. They are also concerned with aam janta, you and I who can feel emotionally vulnerable and hurt because some morons believe in free speech! So in that sense our emotional well-being is looked after by watchful governments who use censorship in ‘our’ interest. We are infantilized as governments come to our emotional rescue. Remember again, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, even before the Iranian Ayatollah decided to issue the Fatwa!

Since then we have kept this official ‘free speech’ tradition alive: of banning this and that which can ‘offend’ communities, ‘hurt’ public sentiments. And by that logic, those who do not get offended, or hurt or would not approve of censorship are not considered part of those communities and the public who need to be rescued. But there’s that other side to it. Governments can have free speech, people cannot, or all people should not. Free speech does not exist for women and girls at home and in the public sphere. No brainer, right? The number of times one was reminded that ‘girls should be seen not heard’; ladki hoke zubaan mat chalao (do not use your tongue if you are a girl) etc. Not just women, certain kinds of people, must not speak certain kinds of truth. Governments can punish you, communities can banish you and unleash their terror anytime, those offended can vandalise with impunity and even hack you to death. Free speech can get you killed these days and your killers will be showered with rose petals. Such are the violent times we live in.

I must qualify that satirising or criticising religious traditions in any form is fine by me; religions are not meant to be beyond critique and satire and if people are killed for it, it is the death of humanity and our entire civilizational heritage in so many ways. Right to practise religion cannot be greater than the right to life. Imagine if Mahavira and Buddha had not been allowed to critique ritualistic and Brahmanical Hinduism, imagine if Guru Nanak was not permitted to question the caste system in Hinduism, and imagine if the many thousands of women and men social reformers had not raised questions against the orthodoxy of different Indian traditions! It is that spirit of critique and debate that makes India so unique. I like religions and the diversity of Indian traditions I am familiar with, have always encouraged debates, disagreements and scathing criticisms, without which there can be no spiritual advancements. No one has the monopoly of truth in the religious/spiritual sphere. And just too bad if a bit of criticism (however unfair) shakes your faith to such an extent that violence is the only answer. In that it is our duty to speak up where possible (and it may not be always) and ensure that those who react with violence, do not do so with our complicity.

And that complicity is what worries me the most in this debate. I have a specific issue with those whose free speech is an assault on human dignity and violates principles of decency and respect in public engagement. I am concerned about my complicity with those whose moronic ideas are more than a minor irritant only because they profess to speak for my ‘community’ and me.  How do we deal with their ignorance and bigotry without censoring them, or giving more power to the governments of the day to curtail free speech? How do we deal with free speech which is supposedly in our names, to protect our communities and our values; free speech that is on all our behalf and yet we remain silenced, our critiques and outrage unheard. For those in India who are suddenly realising that Mother Teresa was only interested in converting people to Christianity and suffered from the ‘white woman saving brown women’ syndrome (I cringe!); that India cannot have a mosque because Saudi Arabia cannot have a temple; Hindu women should have ten children to protect their faith; and that incidents of rape can be brought down by more yoga, please make sure you announce you are speaking for yourselves and NOT on behalf of the Hindu community.

Among the many identities I have, I love being a Hindu and discovering for myself the ancient wisdoms of this wonderful 'way of life' with multiple ways of imagining the moral, ethical and spiritual worlds. The many philosophical traditions and debates provide the space for critique and coexistence of a variety of worldviews, sometimes even contradictory. I do not agree with everything that Hinduism claims as its inherent tenet or practice, and always have spoken out against its outrageous discriminatory practices. And both Hinduism and I continue to thrive with and against each other, both nurturing each other. Please let me be; let Hinduism prosper for its diversity and goodness and not for your myopic and often bigoted sense of the world.

Free speech, yes. Not on behalf of communities, people and religions, please. Taking offense to free speech, yes. Not on behalf of communities, religions, gods, prophets and public sentiments, please.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Passions and the election 2014 verdict in India

The massive majority to the BJP in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls in India have indeed ‘Modi fied’ India. If anyone is the winner, it is Narendra Modi, who despite relentless criticism, personal abuse and intense media scrutiny, entire government and opposition machinery against him, pariah in many ways, has won a landslide victory making his party the single largest non-Congress party in the history of Independent India. He and his party now have a mandate with which they can make or break India. Having been a persistent user of social media I have exhausted my analysis of what this will mean for India and the political situation that has reduced the Congress Party to its worst electoral performance ever. Instead, I want to reflect on the passions that this verdict has evoked especially in the social media. It is important because the social media has been a significant participant in these elections, hardly a non-partisan observer.

These have been the most polarised elections; families have been torn apart, friendships have suffered and emotions have run high. People have found themselves caught in the ideology of ‘us vs. them’. If not with Modi, must be against him and people in general; if not against Modi, must not be ‘secular’ or ‘progressive’ enough. These have been the dominant narratives throughout the campaign period. There has been no graciousness in the aftermath of the results as well. People on all sides are abusive and angry. The politicians only reflect the ‘aam janta’. Lalu Prasad even refusing to congratulate the Narendra Modi team and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi not even addressing the PM elect. The lack of graciousness is not just between the opposition and government elect but also within the BJP itself. L. K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi have been sulking at Modi’s anointment. There are also unconfirmed reports about the rough edges being smoothed between the BJP and the RSS.

The liberal space is fast shrinking and tolerance eroded not only because of a resurgent right wing, but because the left critics (organised and informal) are equally arrogant and unreasonable. The dooms day predictions all around, the relentless lampooning of people (especially from the ‘cow belt’) who are supposed to have unleashed this ‘catastrophe’ on the country is not doing much good in terms of self-reflection. The lack of any understanding of voter aspirations and any sense of ‘privilege’ people embody when they make fun of ‘loony right wingers’ who were concerned about nothing but unadulterated Hindutva, is a matter of concern. It was depressing to watch an uncritical and unsophisticated Left/UPA/AAP campaign against Modi; their arrogance allowing them to dictate to the voters who and what they (voters) should be voting for to save what they themselves haven’t been able to in all these years: a sacred ‘secularism’ that imagines that the responsibility of keeping India secular lies only with its ‘minorities’.
I have engaged in conversations with all sides and have friends in all major political camps who hero worship their ‘own’ and ridicule the ‘other’. I have never understood how India’s educated see the Indian elections as two sided where traditional voters of any one party stick with them. Time and again, voters have punished those who failed to deliver and the BJP has been rejected several times. There is also a kind of naivety with which people are expected to be partisan: ‘with us or against us’. The space to be a liberal, an invested observer who is able to see the grey areas and is more interested in the complexity of narratives than a simplistic picture of winners and losers, is hard to find. Love and hatred for politicians is deeply embedded in the idiom of everyday life. Amartya Sen believes we are an argumentative lot; we are more the passionate lot. What we forget in our own passionate existence is that our outbursts can really silence people instead of opening up spaces for conversation and debate. Anger is a wonderful emotion especially during times of elections but we are wasting its potential.

I have had many conversations with Modi supporters whom I know personally, asking them to tone down their derogatory, violent and sexist slogans (and to learn from their own restrained leader) and also with friends on the left who have been extremely negative and violent with their words. The point is that one doesn’t really give up and shut down every avenue of engagement. I am aware that people have ‘unfriended’ each other (albeit only on facebook!) when their political views have differed. Gone are the days when communists and RSS followers shared cordial relations in social circles and were able to forge friendships beyond their ideological divide. It is easy to convince the like-minded, tough to argue with a detractor and that is where the challenge is.

People have spoken through the ballot and it is unfortunate if some of us think they have chosen badly only because they didn’t choose who we may have wanted, but instead pressed the button on who they thought would meet their aspirations (assuming that’s what democracy is all about). Several people I know as perfectly secular, sane, generous and just citizens yearning for a better life have voted for the BJP this time. Let us stop telling them, they are idiots. When things go awry and time comes to resist, they won’t be drawing comfort from you or me pontificating ‘I told you so’. Instead, they will be rethinking strategies of resistance and developing new vocabularies of struggle on the ground. Not all intellectual elites (with secure jobs in universities/think tanks/media, invitations to foreign lands and privileged life styles) have always sided with the ‘people’ whom they seem to be speaking for.  

Most importantly, let us not assign communal, secular categories without giving any real thought to the complexity of everyday life in India. It isn’t about Bismillah Khan and A.P.J Abdul Kalam praying to Hindu deities, Mohammad Rafi crooning Hindu Bhajans with devotion and Pandit Jasraj invoking the meherban Allah that alone makes Indian secularism thrive. It is the belief among the common people that in recognising and acknowledging the diversity, one realises one’s true faith. A Muslim friend once remarked that growing up in a Hindu locality, bowing everytime he crossed the temple came naturally to him; most importantly he does not feel like the ‘victim’ he is made out to be by his secular saviours.

 An elderly family member who has witnessed all the elections since 1952 (often delighting us with second world war stories about Japaniya Rachhas [Japanese demons]!) and is a devout Hindu who reads the Ramcharitmanas everyday had a remarkably humbling insight. She was no admirer of Modi when we met last, but her views may have changed now. Upon hearing the Muslim azan (call for prayer) 5 times a day and on loudspeakers, I was curious what she, a devout Hindu thought of it (expecting perhaps a negative reaction). She said it was wonderful because the morning call, woke her up for her morning arti (invocation) and the evening azan reminded her that it was time for her diya bati (evening lamp lighting) for her gods. Religion is all about discipline she said, and it didn’t matter whether one was disciplined through the azan or the temple bells.

Time will tell if the public was completely loony but it is important to respect the verdict in a democratic system where elections were by and large free and fair and in which many of us participated. When you play by the rules, you don’t deride the outcome. Let the election results not be a conversation stopper but an opportunity to engage one another. We all have a stake in a better, just and equal India. Once we understand the essence of India beyond our ideological prejudices, perhaps we will be ready for a truly mature democracy where more will be at stake than a phoney political secularism that infantilises people instead of empowering them.

Shiv Vishwanathan sums it up rather well, “Secularism cannot be empty space. It has to create a pluralism of encounters and allow for levels of reality and interpretation.” For now, the best part of being an Indian is that no ‘god’ is sacrosanct and no ‘devil’ completely damned. Isn’t that what these elections have been all about?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

India Diary 2013

Travelling in India is an experience that enriches one’s life and learning in many ways. I can confirm that no academic text books, university lectures or international conferences can throw so much light on human behaviour, and help us understand and theorise international/social relations as much as travels in India and conversations with the people of this amazing country, especially those who live in small towns and rural areas. Here are some pertinent observations from my ongoing adventures.


Don’t believe those school history textbooks that tell us that feudalism was a thing of the past. It ended with the collapse of the ‘zamindari’ system and the empires that long ruled this country. Neither was ‘it’ something we inherited from our colonial masters. It is ingrained in our system; it is part of our DNA. Most people you meet expect basic work (which includes serving food and taking your plate to the sink!) to be done by some other person and that person could be your domestic help, children, parents, spouse, colleagues or friends. Domestic help particularly have it tough where they are expected to even carry footwear of the sahibs on demand. This is rampant among the upper classes and especially among the officer level bureaucrats. Having domestic ‘servants’ is not just a matter of requirement but also a matter of social status. Not that I was unaware of this but I was strongly reminded of it right at the Delhi international airport when I landed.  Two evidently Non Resident Indian (that tag is always on public display through specific gestures, clothing, accents, gadgets, mannerisms etc.) women celebrated their homecoming by ‘ordering’ the toilet cleaners stationed at the ladies toilet to put their seats down. They were perfectly abled incase you were wondering. It was too much of a walk for them to get paper towels and the toilet cleaners had to attend to their order (not request) again. I am sure these esteemed travellers would never dream of doing this in any other part of the world. I guess their rationale as: too many people need to be gainfully employed in India.  In an unrelated incident with a similar message I overheard a conversation that three senior and committed police officers were recently transferred to other less important departments in Jharkhand because they were having breakfast at an event where a minister in the state government had arrived. One of them even dared to stop and question the minister’s guards, which sealed their fate. Delegates at a national seminar at a minority girls’ college in Ranchi yelled at some of the girls that tea had not been provided on time and there was no water being served. The VC’s arrival was eagerly awaited by scores of girls lined up on a winter day. The VC’s car drove through that spectacular guard of honour without as much as acknowledging the students who had been waiting. As I was told, this is how it is!


The campaign for devalaya nahin shauchalaya (no temples but toilets) captures the biggest tragedy of a country aspiring to be a global super power. Other slogans that are eye catching in rural areas, Beti wahin denge jahan ho shauchalaya (we will marry our daughters only where there are toilets), jahan soch wahan shauchalaya (open thinking leads to closed toilets). For a significant section of the population availability of toilets is an important issue that requires more attention than the ‘food security bill’. Women particularly have it worse as I have personally experienced in my long travels esp. outside big towns and cities. Although petrol stations must have closed toilets for travellers, in many cases in Bihar/Jharkhand the money allocated for toilets has not been utilised. Roadside bushes are the only hope and urinary infections in women are common. On long travels, I recall being advised by women in the family to drink as little water as possible. Nothing seems to have changed. In a national seminar on violence against dalit women organised by Oxfam India on world human rights day (10 Dec. 2013) it was pointed out that women have to go to open toilets away from their homes and that also leads to rape and molestation, along with the threat of being attacked by wild animals. Seems odd but the one thing that no one is really addressing when it comes to violence against women in India is that building toilets will help! While there are hardly any toilets for women, men continue to ‘imagine’ a toilet against every possible wall, street corner or roadside walkways. A common sight is to see idols of Hindu deities strategically positioned on boundary walls of homes, or religious figures painted on walls to prevent men from peeing. This ofcourse is apart from the various signs of yahan peshaab karna mana hai (you are not allowed to pee here) on which men have relieved themselves! Just incase you think that works, in my travels to the steel city of Bokaro in Jharkhand: a young man was relieving himself just outside the Ayyappan temple against the temple wall. Not sure what Lord Ayyappan thought of his worldly abode being used as an open toilet, but when I panted and puffed after the man to give him my piece of mind, he promptly hung his head in shame, said he was from Arrah  ‘jeela’ (district) in Bihar and “madam only firsht time”. No comments!


Now, with such a large share of the world’s population (apart from a very argumentative population as Prof. Amartya Sen claims) this country is bound to be noisy. The day begins with religious invocations and prayers (of all communities) on loudspeakers; honking is not just for the traffic on the road but also for your own family members to open and shut the door. It is more of a habit than need. Elevators, lifts are all musically loaded and loud music blares as they carry happily chatting people up and down; and then people need to cough loud, blow their nose louder, have the loudest roadside discussions on politics and international relations. I learnt recently that one couldn’t discount the possibility of delegates at an academic conference exchanging loud and angry words, which may escalate into a fist fight. Door bells/call bells are super fashionable and they play all kinds of devotional music; televisions are not worth it till the neighbour acknowledges their presence in your house. The most noise however comes from mobile/cellular phones that ring non-stop with all sorts of caller tunes. There are certainly more mobile phones than toilets in this country, perhaps more than even the number of people.  Most people have either two handsets or  dual sim phones (never heard of this before: two sim cards in one handset.  I tried to ask people but no satisfactory answer so far. They said they need two phones, one for public and one for private conversation (but then all private conversations are public in India, right?). I think Indians love the mobile phone in general. I have come across so many Indians at different international airports talking loudly on the phone. Amidst all this, even missed calls have become a way to communicate. With prior arrangement, dialling and receiving missed calls is a way to convey messages, to have a conversation; even TV ads expect you to respond by a 'missed call'. Numerous times I have overheard, missed call maar dena, samajh jayenge (give me a missed call, I will understand); an auto driver in Delhi suggested I do the same so he could pick me up from a regular spot!  At night, the stray dogs in the neighbourhood have important and loud conferences to discuss loud and noisy human behaviour. All my nights are spent trying to identify the different doggy speeches. Amidst all this noise, people can still meditate and prostrate before deities and read holy books and carry out their routine religious activities. Amazing, right?


Lane driving doesn’t exist in this country even in big cities. In small towns, traffic is multidimensional, comes from all directions. You could be sitting in an Audi or Mercedes and a mobike, cycle or rickshaw will manoeuvre past you. And just as you breathe a sigh of relief when you see the road to yourself, a human form will appear almost suddenly forcing you to brake. The human form will shower you with verbal blessings for endangering lives, advise you to NOT drive if you are not qualified and continue walking. By the way, most human forms in India have a tremendously developed traffic sense. No one gets run over in the busiest of traffic; people just know when to walk through traffic coming from both directions to cross a street. It is a skill one is born with and although I feel a bit rusted, it comes back to me everytime I am back in India. By the way, human forms are not the only issue here. Lazy cattle and stray dogs are immune to your honking and your traffic sense. The way out is to roll the windows down, extend one arm out while balancing the steering wheel with the other, pat the animal and say a few words of endearment. I have seen it work more often than not! Traffic in India is like a spiritual guru who teaches you patience, compassion and love for all things moving and alive. Oh and don’t forget to roll up the window, not just to avoid dust and noise, but because a saffron clad baba (mendicant) travelling with a jhola  (loose bag) will suddenly force a python in through the window asking for alms in the name of one god or another. Ye Hindustan hai doston (this is India my friends) and didn’t I say all life forms are sacred?


Everyone knows India is the founding home of four major world religions: Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Add to this list numerous sects, sub sects and guru following communities. I am sure you heard recently that one babaji (revered spiritual figure in this case), Shobhan Sarkar had a dream that a certain fort in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh had tons of gold buried underground. The Archaeological Survey of India immediately began digging at the site identified by the baba, citing their own research as the source of their actions. People would religiously gather at the site, singing devotional songs and waiting for the dream to turn into reality. Now do not ask me if the gold was discovered; the baba’s dream and his words were bigger wealth and blessings, surely you would know? In this country we take religion and religious gurus very seriously. People can spend hours listening to talks/advise from noted spiritual leaders, which vary from putting money into their (Gurus) bank accounts to eating sweets to resolve all their problems. One such spiritual guru, Asaram Bapu and his son, Narayan Sai are currently being investigated for sexual assault on teenage girls and women. You would imagine a strong condemnation of these people given the evidence against them, but I have met many who suggest that the charges against them are ‘politically motivated’. There are many TV talk shows of spiritual gurus and the sheer presence of people (men and women) listening to their live talks makes one think that spirituality is the one thing people take very seriously. And yet corruption, violence against women and minorities, and every possible dehumanisation continue unhindered. Let us however, not lose sight of the fact that everything is about religion:  loud prayers, door bells, phone caller tunes and devotional songs playing in public places. Everything one does starts with a religious ceremony, including purchasing vehicle and property; religious figures are present in all shops and public vehicles, an altar for deities is present in every home. As I have already suggested, there are more places of worship than toilets. Everyday secularism is very religious in this country, and religion is secular. At the regional passport office in Ranchi, random conversations with random people revealed the enormous contradictions we live by. On the one hand people had travelled from really rural areas to get a passport to travel to Dubai (where there was more money for the work they did, they explained) and on the other people talked about the moral decline that had come out of rising material desires, the loss of family ‘values’.  One more observation relates to the amount of sweets that are offered to deities. Given that this is the diabetes capital of the world, sweet shops proliferate by dozens every day. I needn’t tell you that Indian sweets are yummy and most are dipped in sugar syrup! Sweet blessings? J

Home service

Home service is very popular here. The good thing is vegetable growers and vendors knock at your door and bully you to buy something; pathological tests can be conducted from the comfort of your bed and blood samples collected from home; medical reports are delivered home; domestic help equals bonded labour in many cases when it comes to home service; cleaning your own toilets even in urban areas is not an option, there’s always someone to do it. Home service is very important. Cooking gas cylinders are delivered home, milk and groceries are delivered home, washed and ironed clothes are delivered home, garbage is collected from home, mobile beauty salon people can come to your home, doctors can also visit your home if you pay them or know them, medicines can be delivered home, newspapers are ofcourse delivered home. We are a very ‘homely’ country. It feels weird without this home service abroad.


Redtapism in India is (in)famous and as many analysts would argue worse than the other Asian super power, China. I needed to get my passport reissued and the regional passport office wanted me to produce evidence of my educational qualifications. I was thankfully carrying my PhD certificate but apparently that was not enough, I needed to demonstrate that I was matric (10th grade) pass. Don’t ask me how I managed to convince them that you don’t get a PhD without being school pass. I didn’t succeed. It so happened that they had in their records my 10th standard school-leaving certificate.  Corruption is unabated. If you want a driving license form, you won’t get it from the RTO (Regional Transport Office)where it should be made available for free. You will be sent to a local photocopying shop where the forms are available for a price. And the money is shared between the RTO officials and the photocopying agents. Police will not lodge a complaint till you either know someone or warm their pockets. The sau-pachaas (paying a few rupees) culture continues to flourish. In rural areas agents take money to open a bank account for you and bank charges money if you receive transfers from outside (all illegal because when one person pointed this out, bank returned the charges). Poor people from rural areas coming for medical treatment at the local hospital in Ranchi were cheated by agents who promised them blood from the blood bank; organ harvesting flourishes; government hospitals supply inedible food (or food not worth even stray animal consumption) to poor patients. Pension holders have been fighting court battles for several years to secure their pensions (don’t ask me how their families survive); Black money continues to increase manifold and is siphoned outside the country. Buying government jobs and ‘paid seats’ in educational institutions is a common practice. School admission seats are auctioned and sometimes there is even a lottery! Without bribe nothing gets done and people are not ashamed about receiving and giving bribes. Doctors with fake degrees continue to flourish and prescribe medicines. That’s how the system works, we are told. The middle classes are complicit in this corruption and ironically the middle classes are also the largest participant constituency in the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement!


We are just a day away from the first annual remembrance of the horrific gang rape of Amanat in India’s capital on 16 Dec. 2012 and I can confirm that NOTHING seems to have changed in small towns and rural India. Patriarchy, under the guise of cultural norms continues to disempower women and inflict violence on them. The preference for the male child is openly declared; educated and highly qualified women are assessed only by their physical appearance in the marriage market; harassment of women in public places continues and domestic and sexual violence in the family is so rampant that many women have internalised it as the natural state of affairs. Many have chosen other fights, other struggles especially to educate their children and to acquire financial independence. I have many stories to share and for that please keep visiting my blog on women and feminism <>

In the college that I attended for my undergraduate studies in Delhi, a popular T Shirt slogan would read:  WE DO NOT BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, WE DEPEND ON THEM. That pretty much sums up my feelings about this incredible idea we call India. It never fails to delight, surprise, enchant and most importantly depress.  My ‘Indianness’ is always restored when I travel here. This is ‘home’.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The ‘Karmayogi’ for whom time was always short: My Tribute to B. Raman

On 30th May, 2013, B Raman tweeted, “Hanumanji willing, shd be back home coming Saturday.” Instead, he left for his heavenly abode, yesterday 16th June, 2013 in the evening. He had shared every detail of his illness on his blog and also on twitter, including the fact that it was terminal cancer he was dealing with and he didn’t have much time. Although quite active on facebook, I am not on twitter and missed his updates. The grief is profound: had I known, I would have spoken to him, even gone to India to see him. I was unaware of his hospital stay, of the end that was near and I am left now with deep regrets and a profound sense of personal loss. I couldn’t read the ominous signs of things to come. Since 11th May, there was no ‘article alert’ in my gmail; South Asia Analysis Group, which carried his articles, have none of his pieces on their first three pages; since 14th May there were no posts on his blog (Raman’s strategic analysis); his cancer update posted on 11th May  suggested of a serious relapse.  I am now only left with memories, of the most extraordinary person with whom I worked so closely and who in so many ways was the perfect ‘guru’, the best teacher.

Bahukutumbi Raman (1936-2013) was an IPS officer of 1961 Madhya Pradesh cadre who later joined the Research and Analysis Wing, of the Intelligence Bureau. He served in the R&AW for 26 years, heading the counter-terrorism unit from 1988 until his retirement in 1994 as Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. He spent his post retirement years as a prolific commentator and analyst on terrorism and strategic issues and was a regular media presence. He churned articles on a daily basis! He also had brief stints with various research organisations and think tanks. With his death, an era of strategic thinking in India has ended; he was a walking-talking data base of terrorism and counter terrorism; a recognised expert all over the world. 

Between September 2003 and November 2005, I worked with him at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think tank in Delhi. He was Head of the International Terrorism Watch Programme which he had set up at ORF and also served as Director of ORF’s Chennai Chapter. I had completed my Masters degree in International Relations at JNU and was hired to coordinate the Terrorism Programme at the ORF. When I first met Raman Sir at ORF’s Delhi office, he asked me a few questions about why I wanted to work on terrorism, what I thought were the terrorism issues, what my plans were etc. and then after his return to Chennai sent me a long list of things to do. That was his style. Everything was well compartmentalised and every detail was mapped and that helped enormously in implementation. He sent regular instructions on emails and I reported to him on a daily basis. It was a wonderful working relationship and I don’t recall having worked harder in my life before or after that period.

The good thing about Raman Sir, contrary to popular view, is that he never actually imposed his views. With his junior colleagues and beginners like me, he had all the patience and always ensured that we expressed ourselves even if we disagreed with him. This was special, because in India, kowtowing to the bosses is common and contrary opinion is never tolerated by those in authority. He did have issues with his contemporaries and former intelligence colleagues (although he always extended professional courtesy to everyone, including those whom he disliked) but he was kind and extremely generous towards those whom he mentored. I don’t recall one harsh word that he ever spoke to me, going out of the way to write references and supporting my career aspirations in so many ways. He knew I wanted to train in academia and pursue a PhD in gender and terrorism studies. I was not going to be a regular mainstream terrorism analyst and he always supported my decisions. From the moment I met him, I only had respect, admiration and affection for the man who has had a very big role in my career. Although I am now quite well published and in some internationally acclaimed journals, my proudest moment was when South Asia Analysis website carried my article next to his!

The first conference we organised at ORF brought in experts from South and South East Asia together to talk about the regional impact of terrorism. I had just started working and was not even proficient in handling computers those days! After the conference programme was drawn up, I noted that one of the panels had no chair and another had a missing paper presenter. I pointed it out to him and to my utter shock, he calmly said that I was going to be chairing that session and would also present a paper! I had only 24 hours to think and my affirmative decision then put me on a career path that has never let me look back. After the conference, it was my turn to invite one of our organisers to offer the vote of thanks.  Raman Sir asked me to wait as he had something to say. He was most generous in his appreciation of my efforts and lavished so much praise that only left me humbled and tearful. It was as if our mutual faith had been vindicated. I still have the transcript of that speech he made and in moments of self doubt, it gives me inspiration and motivation. It was his confidence that he allowed me to co-edit the proceedings of that conference with another colleague and it was finally published as a book. He organised a massive book release function at IIC and made sure I was given credit for every bit of hard work I had put in. He ensured that there were ample opportunities for everyone who worked with him to realize their potential. His faith in the young and the untrained was remarkable.

While at ORF, I had started looking for PhD opportunities and I was uneasy telling him I wanted to leave. The intelligence man that he was, he was good at keeping some secrets. He resigned from ORF without discussing or deliberating with anyone; we had no clue this was coming. One morning he sent an email saying he had dissociated himself from ORF and after returning the few things at their Chennai office, “‘c ést fini between me and the ORF once and for all”, he wrote. He appeared whimsical at times like these and those of us who worked with him were very upset. Within moments of his resignation, I found another long email from him explaining (in bullet points which was always his style) why he had dissociated from ORF. He ensured that he played by the rules of the democratic and transparent work culture which he had created for all of us at ORF. He didn’t care about seniority or hierarchy and worked very hard to build a team in which the junior most members were also respected and valued. As someone who was such a big mentor and teacher to all of us, it was amusing when we met his elder brother Mr. B. Raghavan at a conference in Chennai. Raman Sir was visibly embarrassed as his older brother addressed him as ‘Ramu’ and chided him in front of all his staff. We giggled as we witnessed the great and proper Raman Sir, endearingly addressed as Ramu by his elder brother.

Most people say, he showed no emotions or sentimentality. I disagree, for, I saw Raman Sir extremely angry at times, also disappointed, tired, happy and always curious. I remember his laughter was uncontrollable and long after those around him stopped laughing and sat sombrely (waiting for the next instructions) he would keep chuckling at a joke only he understood. He deeply mourned the death of his friends K. Subrahmanyam, H. S. Chittaranjan and R Swaminathan (as I remember) and he was devastated by the untimely demise of his young and dynamic friend, Shakti Bhatt. We talked for a long time on the phone that day. He never seemed like a loner to me and knew how to communicate with himself. His single status and not having a family used to be a joke at work and most people found him socially awkward. I recall the two large pegs of whisky he relished at all social events and since his cancer diagnosis he really missed drinking, he told me. After his set quota of two drinks, he would leave immediately afterwards, often unnoticed and quietly without a fuss. I often wondered (if I hadn’t asked him earlier) if he had had dinner. It was impossible to not feel affection for him and care about his well-being. I remember at one such post conference event, he turned up in a bright yellow printed Hawaiian kind of shirt! For someone who always wore dull safari suits, this was bound to attract gossip and attention. I finally dared and complimented him as he shyly replied, it was a gift from a Malaysian friend!

He always travelled and walked into the office with his old briefcase. When in Delhi he would reach office before any of the regulars would. He would always thank me profusely for that hot coffee I would make him in a proper cup, whenever I found that he was there. I remember a colleague once admonished that I was being servile to my ‘boss’. He was more than a ‘boss’ to me; a father figure, a mentor, an inspiration, always a good listener, a very humble man with impeccable manners and work ethics. I last met him in 2008 at Chennai where he invited Ravi (my husband) and I to a five star restaurant for dinner. He ate only curd rice and laughed heartily over his own jokes. I kept in touch over phone and email and he was always keen to know about my career, new projects and publications. If he was disappointed that I didn’t become a mainstream terrorism analyst, or if he thought my work on gender and political violence was not important, he never showed it. He was always so curious, so pragmatic and yet positive. I see that he endorsed Narendra Modi as Prime Minister a few weeks ago on twitter. I am convinced that it must be a frustrating moment for him because he had all along disliked the Sangh Parivar’s brand of Hindutva politics. He had no patience for right wingers who harassed him continuously in the cyber space.

For a man who had dutifully served in India’s spy agency, he lived a remarkably public and transparent life. Every detail of his cancer was there on his blog and other web spaces (to the annoyance of some and curiosity of others). Although he was not active on facebook, I noted today that on twitter he expressed himself all the time, sharing his feelings. He posted a picture of himself after he was diagnosed with terminal liver secondary cancer; he also posted pictures of his parents and the music he liked. He wrote a remarkable number of posts about personal aspects of his life. He also expressed concern at how the poor would afford cancer care in India. To possibly family members, he admonished on twitter, “I can eat only what my tummy can tolerate. I can't eat what others want me to eat. Affection for terminal cancer patients shd be simple and normal, not instructive.” He called cancer, the ‘terrorist’ he would not be defeated by and always wished to avoid radiation therapy. The ironies were plenty, as he reminded his readers after his 11th May cancer update on his blog that he would be 77 in August this year. For the last 8 years, I have never forgotten to wish him on his birthday which falls on 14th of August (Pakistan’s Independence Day!).

I am absolutely gutted that I couldn’t get to speak to him one last time. But there is a comforting thought, that he lived and died like true ‘karmayogis’ do. In our country when corruption is the norm these days and public servants amass wealth, the spartan and inspirational life of Raman Sir will keep reminding us that there once was an India, where government officials cared for their jobs, their country and their people. After he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and told me he had 5 years or so in this biggest fight against ‘terrorism’, I always dreaded writing this obituary. His presence was comforting and although we lived continents apart, I always know his blessings have stood me in good stead. His phone ring tone was A. R Rehman’s Jai Ho (from Slumdog Millionaire), and in many ways captures what Raman Sir lived by and believed in. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in having had the best mentors in my life and B. Raman was the most special of them. I dedicated my PhD thesis to him and it will be my eternal sorrow that I will not be able to hand over a copy of my book personally to him, when it is out. Rest in Peace, Sir. There will never ever be another like you and may Hanumanji take care of you in the heavens above.