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Why a bronze medal winner often looks happier than a silver medallist at the Olympics

In a 1995 research paper, psychologists studying ‘counterfactual thinking’ analysed video footage of the 1992 Barcelona Games to deduce that the knowledge of ‘almost winning a Gold medal’ ruined the moment for a silver medallist, while the bronze winner was contented by the thought: ‘I at least won a medal’.

Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, centre, who won the gold medal, fist pumps bronze medal winner Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, as silver medal winner Wout van Aert of Belgium watches, after the men’s cycling road race at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Oyama, Japan. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)


During a newspaper interview he gave almost 70 years after he clinched a silver medal at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, mid-distance American runner Abel Kiviat described the race as a “nightmare”.

His silver medal had come after a photo-finish — a first in Olympic history — in which he had just got past fellow American Norman Taber in the 1500m race.

“That race was the biggest disappointment of my life. I never saw Jackson,” he said while referring to Great Britain’s Arnold Jackson who had secured by the slimmest margin of 0.1 seconds. “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?” Kiviat said.

The final moment of 1500 m race in 1912 Games in which Great Britain’s Arnold Jackson beat USA’s Abel Kiviat (third from left) by 0.1 seconds.

Kiviat, who died in 1991, showed that the disappointment of losing out narrowly lingers, but he was no exception in this regard. Most silver medallists end up tormenting themselves by imagining the alternative possibility if they had pushed a little harder.

Ravi Kumar Dahiya, the Indian wrestler who secured a silver medal for India in 57 kg freestyle on Thursday in the ongoing Tokyo Olympics, voiced a similar disappointment.

“What’s the point of this?… I had come here with only one target, a gold medal. This (silver medal) is okay, but it’s not gold,” he told reporters.

A 1995 research paper published by psychologists Victoria Medvec, Thomas Gilovich (both from Cornell), and Scott F Madey (University of Toledo) has an answer to why silver medallists may be feeling the way they are.

They studied this phenomenon to conclude that on a happiness scale, silver medallists fair poorly owing to the human tendency to indulge in ‘counterfactual thinking’ — the propensity to think of alternative circumstances to real-life events, especially those with far-ranging consequences.

The study, “When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medallists”, deduced that bronze medallists score much better on the happiness scale when compared to silver medallists who had outperformed them in the game.

Mean Happiness Ratings: Bronze medalists fared better on the happiness scale immediately after the event as well as at the medal stand compared to the silver medalists (Medevec et al, 1995)

Medvec and colleagues analysed visible expressions of the bronze and silver medal-winning athletes at the 1992 Summer Olympics immediately after the finish of the event when the winners stood at the medal stand.

The study aimed to determine how counterfactual thinking and the psychology of “coming close” affects the feeling of satisfaction and the degree of well-being. Medvec et al chose the domain of athletic competition outcomes to study the subject because it throws up results with an unusual precision with competitors finishing first, second, or third with a fractional difference and earning distinctly different rewards of gold, silver, and bronze medals.

“We were interested in whether the effects of different counterfactual comparisons are sufficiently strong to cause people who are objectively worse off to sometimes feel better than those in a superior state. Moreover, we were interested not just in documenting isolated episodes in which this might happen, but in identifying a specific situation in which it occurs with regularity and predictability. The domain we chose to investigate was athletic competition,” said Medvec and his colleagues in the paper published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Also Read |Tokyo 2020: When pocketing the silver medal was not the right thing to do

As part of the study, the researchers collated the video footage from the Barcelona Olympic Games held three years ago and edited them in three different master tapes. One showed the medallists’ reaction immediately after the results were announced, another showed them receiving the medals at the stand, and a third one comprised of the interviews they gave to media persons about their performance.

In the first study, the university students, who were blind to the results, were asked to judge the immediate reaction of 41 athletes on a 10-point ‘agony to ecstasy’ scale. After assessing athletes’ reactions, silver medallists received a mean rating of 4.8 while bronze medallists received a mean rating of 7.1 on the happiness scale. When examining the athletes’ reaction on the medal stand, participants assigned the bronze medallists a mean rating of 5.7 and a 4.3 for silver medallists.

In the second part of the same study, the participants reviewed television interviews of 22 silver and bronze medallists to see what was the predominant feeling expressed by each athlete: Was he/she happy with what was achieved, or was he/she preoccupied with a feeling of regret. The participants judged the expressed feelings on a 10-point scale which had “At least I…” on one end and “I almost…” on the other.

It was found that the silver medallists focused more on “I almost” than bronze medallists who expressed a feeling of achievement and satisfaction for getting a medal. Participants assigned silver medallists’ thoughts an average rating of 5.7 and bronze medallists’ an average rating of only 4.4 on the 10-point “At least I… ” to “I almost…” scale.

Explaining the findings, the researchers wrote, “To the silver medallist, the most vivid counterfactual thoughts are often focused on nearly winning the gold. Second place is only one step away from the cherished gold medal and all of its attendant social and financial rewards. Thus, whatever joy the silver medallist may feel is often tempered by tortuous thoughts of what might have been had she only lengthened her stride, adjusted her breathing, pointed her toes, and so on. For the bronze medallist, in contrast, the most compelling counterfactual alternative is often coming in fourth place and being in the showers instead of on the medal stand.”

Social psychologists have long held that an individual’s wellbeing in any given circumstance depends on how these circumstances compare with those with whom he tends to compare them.

Such counterfactual thinking also has a functional value as those who ruin their happiness by thinking about the missed opportunity often strive to improve their future performances.

“Downward comparisons (i.e., thinking about a worse outcome) are thought to provide comfort, whereas upward comparisons (i.e., thinking about a better outcome) are thought to improve future performance. Indeed, it has been shown that people who expect to perform again in the future are more likely to generate upward counterfactuals than those who expect to move on,” said the study.

(This article appeared on the as Why a bronze medal winner often looks happier than a silver medallist at the Olympics on August 13, 2021)

Dilip kumar’s jugnu & the moral panic in newly independent india.

While the masses loved it, the elite were riled up by Jugnu’s provocative framing of sexuality and depiction of college as a space for free intermingling of sexes. Several provincial governments banned the film, forcing the distributors to chop it drastically to rid it of ‘vulgarity’.

The singing star Noor Jehan’s depature for Pakistan with her husband Shaukat Hussein Rizvi, who was the producer-director of Jugnu, may have contributed to lack of sympathy for the film among decision makers in India.


Jugnu (Firefly, 1947) was an important film in many respects. It was the first box office success for Dilip Kumar, then a newbie in the industry, and the last film of singing star Noor Jehan before she permanently left Bombay for Karachi. Jugnu was peculiar in another regard. It was among a few films that were conceptualised and made in pre-independence India but were released in theatres after the dawn of Independence and the pain of Partition.

The response to Jugnu – the love it received from the masses, the ‘moral panic’ it evoked among the elite, and the punitive action it invited from the young government – was an outcome of the time of transition that the country was going through. It also set the tone for the censorship project that Independent India would embark on –aiming to protect the ‘fragile morality’ of the ‘gullible masses’ – and continues to obsess itself with even today.

The present-day audience would likely judge Jugnu as a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy (which like many latter films of Dilip Kumar ends in a tragedy) that ticks some boxes and misses a few. The film produced and directed by Shaukat Husain Rizvi, then-husband of Noor Jehan, has a simple story. Dilip Kumar’s Suraj and Noor Jehan’s Jugnu study in separate colleges located on the same campus and fall in love. Jugnu is an orphan and Suraj is the only son of an ostensibly rich raisaheb who has accumulated debt. The family has planned to marry Suraj to a girl from a wealthy family hoping to receive dowry that will end their financial troubles. The circumstances mean that the lovers can’t marry each other and must feign unfaithfulness. The mutual heartbreak, ultimately, leads the couple to their tragic ends.

Those against the film objected to, among other sequences, this scene in which Jugnu and Suraj indulge in a flirtatious chit chat hiding behind a sofa in the latter’s home.

Although a mixed bag in terms of performances, the film is salvaged by the comedic episodes in the first half and a couple of good songs in the latter.

While the newspaper advertisements from the time tell us that the film, branded as ‘The Song of the Youth’, was celebrating ‘Silver Jubilees’ in multiple cities, it was also evoking an adverse response from the elite for depicting ‘college’ as a place of the intermingling of the sexes, and its provocative framing of youthful sexuality. It portrayed Indian youngsters as carefree romantics for whom the only thing that mattered was the success and failure in love.

Another topic of contention, repeatedly raised by its critics, was its depiction of a romance between the ladies’ hostel matron, played by Ruby Myers, and a professor from the boys’ college. There were still others who blamed it for slandering India’s higher education institutions by not focussing at all on learning activities that, ideally, should go on in a college.

The song ‘Loot Jawani Phir Nahin Aani’ performed by Latika in the film as part of the college drama was a major point of criticism. Many objected to the lyrics as well as “vulgar”, “nude”, “courtesan-like” performance by Latika.

A peek into the archive tells us that popular periodicals like Filmindia were routinely receiving letters from its English speaking readers complaining about Jugnu. While some wondered how such a ‘vulgar film’ was cleared by the Censor Board. Others demanded that it should be re-examined. Readers would reproduce the lyrics of an entire song (Loot Jawani…) to prove their point of Jugnu’s indecency and its portrayal of college girls as ‘courtesans’. Even Indians residing in Singapore and Colombo wrote with angst that the film was spreading the “wrong impression about college life in India”.

“Believe me, Mr Patel. The whole audience was exasperated – barring a few perhaps – when they saw a college girl dancing with the full garb of vulgarity in a drama staged in the college… Patrons of Indian films here like good stories with melodious songs and not historical distortions and semi-nude dances,” wrote M T Piyaseela from Colombo, in a letter published in the October 1948 issue.

Shiv Das Singh, a student from Jodhpur, feared that Jugnu might affect his educational prospects. “What would be the effect on our parents’ minds seeing the film…Will our parents then be ready to allow us to continue our studies further?” he wondered.

After a successful north India run, Jugnu was released at Bombay’s Capitol Cinema on October 1, 1948 but was pulled off the theatre within four weeks “in the midst of its triumphant run” after Filmindia editor Baburao Patel wrote a scathing review headlined ‘Jugnu: A dirty, disgusting, vulgar picture!’.

“Jugnu…tells us that college life in India is nothing more than a long sex hunt in which boys chase girls, explore their hand bags, rob their tiffin boxes and sing suggestive love ditties while making vulgar gestures; while girls sigh about heavily, seduce boys to tea, pimp for their friends, puncture their cycle tyres and sing songs of frustrated love,” Patel wrote in the review, adding, “no decent exhibitor with any pride for his profession or any self-respect should exhibit it in his theatre.”

Interestingly, Patel was Noor Jehan’s neighbour in Oomer Park, Warden Road, Bombay.

In fact, Patel informs us in the review, that he had sent an ‘advanced copy’ of the write up to the then Bombay Home Minister Morarji Desai who watched the film on October 26 and issued a ban three days later under Section 21 of General Clauses Act of 1897. This led to a lot of protests from the film producers and distributors for the ‘arbitrary action’ by the Home Minister on a film already cleared by a ‘full board’ of the censors, but to no avail.

The romance between hostel matron played by Ruby Myers and a professor from boy’s college was a major cause of the films popularity among the youth. It, on the other hand, also added to Jugnu‘s trouble with the government.

After Bombay, several other provincial governments banned the film. The distributor – Bharat Pictures, Akola – was forced to re-submit the film for certification where it was chopped off significantly. Records show that when the film obtained its first Censor certificate from the Bombay Board of Film Certification on July 7, 1947, its total length was 14,093 feet. After revisions made following the ban, it was reduced to 11,559 feet. In terms of the run time, the film lost 28 minutes of its original duration of 156 minutes. The film returned to the screens after a few months in truncated form.

In many ways, the extent of criticism that Jugnu received seems disproportionate to the provocation contained in the film. This response can be understood in two contexts. Firstly, the elite discourse in the newly-Independent India was focused on ‘nation building’, a project that would require the energies and services of the youth. Jugnu’s celebration of youngsters as carefree lads inclined to shrug off responsibility in favour of romantic pursuits did not go well with the government and others with a say.

Secondly, the decision by the film’s female lead Noor Jehan and producer-director Rizvi to choose Pakistan over India left little sympathy for them and their product among the Indian elite. For example, in its review of Jugnu, Patel made a misplaced and far-fetched connection between director Shaukat Rizvi and Qasim Rizvi, the head of extremist, separatist Razakar movement in Hyderabad.

In the pages of Filmindia, which was the most powerful film magazine at the time, Muslim filmmakers who were travelling between India and Pakistan in the fog of the Partition (some of which decided to stay back in India) are repeatedly referred to as ‘fifth columnists’ who need to be watched to ensure that “they do not use the powerful medium of the films” for nefarious purposes.

“The censors must watch carefully such anti-social and anti-religious activities of these fanatic producers who live with us to stab us from day to day,” warns an editorial in the November 1948 issue of Filmindia.

Notwithstanding the legal and circumstantial impediments, Jugnu went on to become one of the biggest films of the time and launched Dilip Kumar’s career in the true sense. In fact, it was a large poster of Jugnu put up in Bandra that broke the news to Ghulam Sarwar ‘Agha’, the fruit seller from Peshawar, that his son Yusuf had entered the film business and had become a star.

(This story appeared on as ‘How Dilip Kumar’s Jugnu lost 28 minutes to confused morality of a young India’ on July 17 2021)

Maharashtra: Death registration system in shambles, data reporting for 2020 still incomplete

Slight rise in mortality in state in 2020; marked uptick in Pune, Mumbai hints at uncounted Covid deaths


As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, the extent of loss of life caused by the virus remains contested. There have been claims – by politicians and infectious diseases experts – that the number of deaths caused by the pandemic could be many times higher than the officially reported numbers.

One important way to arrive at a more realistic death toll, as per the experts, is to gauge the ‘excess deaths’ recorded in pandemic year after comparing them to pre-pandemic years and factoring in the natural growth trend. For this, deaths registered by the Civil Registration System (CRS) of the state governments act as a reliable data source.

While some states have created dedicated portals for the distribution of certificates and real-time data collection, in Maharashtra the process remains cumbersome. Most agencies responsible for recording births and deaths– municipal bodies or panchayats –send the death registration data to the state authorities manually. This means that the state-level agency, State Bureau of Health Intelligence Vital Statistics, responsible for collecting the data and reporting to the Registrar General of India, completes data collection three months after a calendar year came to an end. It reports the same to the Registrar by end of July, every year.

The Indian Express spoke to officials at the Bureau to find out that, so far, agencies in only 25 districts have submitted the record about the birth and date that happened in the year 2020 in the respective jurisdiction. Data is awaited from 10 other distsricts.

Govardhan Gaikwad, Deputy Director, Health Services, and Deputy Chief Registrar of Birth and Death in the state, says that every year the birth and death reports are sent for publication by end of July. This year, since the receipt of data has slowed down from the agencies issuing the certificates, it may take a bit longer. This means that data pertaining to all-causes deaths registered in the state for 2020 may be available only after a few months, and that pertaining to mortality in the second wave during February-May 2021, can only be available halfway through the next year.

“Government offices of three different types are involved in recording the births and deaths happening in the respective jurisdiction. While some submit the data using online means, most still depend on the manual method. This delays the receipt of the data by us, and we have to process and send it further,” explained Gaikwad.

Although Maharashtra does not have a portal of its own -like Rajasthan’s Pehchan for this purpose – it could use the national portal

“Many agencies don’t use the online medium for real-time reporting of the data because it’s not mandatory as per the extant law. Also, some offices may be discouraged by the connectivity issues,” added Gaikwad.

Out of 35 districts in the state, birth and death registration data for only 25 has been recieved by the state Bureau so far. (Picture: Arul Horizon for The Indian Express)

Slight rise in mortality in state in 2020; marked uptick in Pune, Mumbai hinting at uncounted Covid deaths

The data that has been so far compiled by the state CRS shows a slight uptick in the number of deaths in 2020, the year in which the first Covid-19 wave hit the country, when compared with the previous year. The CRS data is not yet available for the more devastating second wave which hit the state between February and May 2021.

However, significantly, cities like Mumbai and Pune, which were the worst affected by the pandemic, show significant ‘excess deaths’ in 2020 when compared with registered deaths in 2019 and 2018.

Data submitted by 25 out of 35 districts to the state CRS shows that 5,78,912 deaths were registered in these districts in 2020. In the previous year, ie 2019 (the pre-pandemic year), these 25 districts had registered 5,16,138 deaths from various causes. (Cumulative deaths in all 35 districts for this year were 6,93,800.)

In 2018, another pre-pandemic year, these 25 districts had recorded 4,88,599 deaths. (Cumulative deaths for all 35 districts for this year were 6,67,900.)

Thus, considering only 25 states for want of data for the entire state, the year 2020 saw 62,774 additional deaths compared to 2019 which, in turn, had seen 27,539 more registered deaths than in 2018.

As per the state health department, a total of 49,521 Covid deaths occurred in the state in 2020. Of these, 35,450 were reported from the 25 districts that we are considering.

Cities like Mumbai and Pune showed a marked increase in the registered deaths during 2020, hinting at the possibility of uncounted Covid-19 deaths.

Mumbai had recorded 88,852 and 91,223 deaths in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The number rose to 1,11,942 in 2020, thus recording a jump of 20,719 deaths over the previous year. As per the Health Department records, Mumbai saw 11,125 Covid deaths in 2020.

In Pune, which had recorded 61,824 and 63,630 deaths in 2018 and 2019 respectively, the CRS recorded 79,683 deaths in 2019. While the rise in recorded deaths was 16,053, the Health Department counted only 7767 Covid deaths in Pune in 2020.

What are democracy & Autocracy waves ? What’s behind the surge of autocratisation across the world?

It was American political scientist Samuel P Huntington who proposed the concept of ‘Waves of Democracy’ and ‘Reverse waves (of autocratisation)’ to map the periods of surges and declines of democracy across the world.

Political scientists say the world is in the grasp of a third wave of autocratisation which is deceptively invisible. The new autocrats have given up on the old tactics of dramatic and violent coups, rather they rely on slow erosion of democratic processes and weakening of institutions that keep a check on their power.


Last month, V-Dem Project (Varieties of Democracy), a Sweden based independent research institute, released its annual democracy report making a key observation that India, the world’s largest democracy, has turned into an ‘electoral autocracy’.

Apart from this humiliating demotion of India, which has invited the ire of the Narendra Modi government, the report points to an accelerated autocratisation in several countries including United States, Brazil and Turkey that indidcate a trend that decline of democracy has hastened globally.

As per the report, 87 countries are now electoral autocracies that are home to 68 per cent of the global population. Liberal democracies, the group says have diminished and are home to only 14 per cent of the people.

The report says that with the backsliding of democracy in Asia-Pacific region, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found around 1990.

This decline in democracy is, the report says, is part of the “third wave of autocratization” accelerates – 25 countries, home to 34% of the world’s population (2.6 billion people), are in democratic decline by 2020. At the same time, the number of democratizing countries drop by almost half down to 16 that are home to a mere 4 per cent of the global population.

What are the waves of democratisation?

The concept ‘Democracy Wave’ was first introduced by the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington in his book ‘The Third Wave’ published in 1991. In the book, he argues that since the early nineteenth century, there has been three major surges of democracy as a political systems and two brief periods of decline. He calls the surges as ‘waves of democracy’ and the ebbs as the ‘reverse waves.’

Huntington defines a ‘wave of democracy’ as the “transition of a group of nations from non-democratic to democratic regimes during a specified period of time in which such transition to democratic regimes are significantly outnumbered by transitions in the opposite directions”.

As per Huntington, the first ‘long’ wave of democratization began in the 1820s, with the widening of the suffrage to a large proportion of the male population in the United States, and continued for almost a century until 1926, bringing into being 29 democracies including France, Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy and Argentina.

He argues that this ‘long and slow wave’ was followed by a ‘reverse wave’ leading to weakening of democratisation process. Between Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922 and 1942, the number of democratic states in the world to was brought down to a mere 12.

The triumph of the Allied Fources in World War II initiated a second wave of democratization taking the number of democratic countries to 36 by 1962. This was, says Huntington in the book, was followed by a second reverse wave (1960-1975) that brought the number of democracies back down to 30.

The third wave of democratisation, Huntington proposes, began with the Carnation revolution in Portugal in 1974 and continued with a number of democratic transition in Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries and, saliently, in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He points out that this democratic wave was so strong that in Latin America that out of 20 countries in the continent, only two countries (Cuba and Haiti) remained authoritarian by1995.

A graph from Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg ‘s article showing three democratisation waves and three autocratisation waves as defined by Huntington and by them.

In 1991, when he published the book, he observed that there were already sign of commencement of a third reverse wave were already there, with nascent democracies like Haiti, Sudan returning to authoritarianism.

What are waves of Autocratisation?

Following Huntington’s lead, a number of political scientists have used these concepts to explain the ebbs and flows in the march of democracy.

For example, in March 2019, Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg published a research article, ‘A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it?’ in which they mapped the strengthening and weakening of democracies across the globe in over a century and ‘identified’ a distinct third wave of autocratisation that commenced in 1994.

Luhrmann and Lindberg define an autocratization wave as “the time period during which the number of countries undergoing democratization declines while at the same time autocratization affects more and more countries.”

They used V-Dem’s data on 182 countries from1900 to the end of 2017, or 18,031 country-years to demonstrate the a third wave of autocratisation. They do this by identifying ‘autocritisation episodes’ which push a country away from democratic practices. A total of  the 217 autocratization episodes taking place in 109 countries from 1900 to 2017.

The dates for the first two reverse waves presented by them are very similar to Huntington’s despite the conceptual and measurement differences. As per them during the first reverse wave 1922–1942 a total of 32 autocratisation episodes took place; they identified 62 episode in the second reverse wave between 1960–1975; during the ongoing ‘third wave’ of autocratisation they located 75 episodes starting from 1942 (until 2019).

“By 2017, the third wave of autocratization dominated with the reversals outnumbering the countries making progress. This had not occurred since 1940,” they say in the paper.

“In sum, an important characteristic of the third wave of autocratization is unprecedented: It mainly affects democracies – and not electoral autocracies as the earlier period – and this occurs while the global level of democracy is close to an all-time high. Hence, for now at least, the trend is manifest, but less dramatic than some claim,” they say.

Auotocratisation has become less dramatic!

Political scientists like Micheal Coppedge note that a key contemporary pattern of autocratisation is the gradual concentration of power in the executive, apart from the more “classical” path of intensified repression.

The latest V-DEM report points to an accelerated autocratisation in several countries including United States, Brazil and Turkey that indidcate a trend that decline of democracyhas hastened globally.

Although various observers including V-Dem, Freedom House, point to substantial autocratization over the last decade in countries as diverse as United States, India, Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, the democratic breakdowns have become less conspicuous. This, political scientists say, is because the contemporary autocrats have “mastered the art of subverting electoral standards without breaking their democratic façade completely.”

“Democratic breakdowns used to be rather sudden events – for instance military coups – and relatively easy to identify empirically. Now, multi-party regimes slowly become less meaningful in practice making it increasingly difficult to pinpoint the end of democracy,” write Luhrmann and Lindberg.

“A gradual transition into electoral authoritarianism is more difficult to pinpoint than a clear violation of democratic standards, and provides fewer opportunities for domestic and international opposition. Electoral autocrats secure their competitive advantage through subtler tactics such as censoring and harassing the media, restricting civil society and political parties and the undermining the autonomy of election management bodies. Aspiring autocrats learn from each other and are seemingly borrowing tactics perceived to be less risky than abolishing multi-party elections altogether,” they argue.

As per Luhrmann and Lindberg, the ‘erosion model’ has emerged as the prominent tactic in the third wave of autocratisation. The first and second waves, on the other hand, were dominated by blatant methods such as military coup (39% of episodes) or foreign invasion (29%), and by autogolpes, where the chief executive comes to power by legal means but then suddenly abolishes key democratic institutions such as elections or parliaments (32%).

“Democratic erosion became the modal tactic during the third wave of autocratization. Here, incumbents legally access power and then gradually, but substantially, undermine democratic norms without abolishing key democratic institutions. Such processes account for 70% in the third reversal wave with prominent cases of such gradual deterioration in Hungary and Poland. Aspiring autocrats have clearly found a new set of tools to stay in power, and that news has spread,” write Luhrmann and Lindberg.

As per the latest V-DEM report, in 2020, the third wave of autocratisation has accelerated considerably. “…It now engulfs 25 countries and 34 per cent of the world population (2.6 billion). Over the last ten years the number of democratizing countries dropped by almost half to 16, hosting a mere 4 per cent of the global population,” says the report.

A short history of Delhi’s Muslim ghettos

The story starts with the demarcation of ‘Muslim Zones’ in the capital to protect Muslims from violence in 1947. During 1970s, these areas are seen as ‘unhygienic pockets’ requiring beautification and are subjected to demolition drives. In the post-9/11 world, they are pushed further to the margins as ‘terrorist hide-outs’ and are subjected to frequent police searches.

Muslim demography of Delhi. Map by Raphael Susewind


INDIA’S partition in 1947 and the resultant influx and efflux of communities caused a sea of change in the demography and character of the Delhi city.

Before partition, the city was home to a big and prosperous Muslim community which comprised of about one-third of the city’s population. However, the emigration of Muslims – some out of choice, others due to compulsion of violence – reduced the Muslim population of Delhi drastically. It is estimated that around 3.3 lakh Muslim residents of Delhi left for Pakistan and around 5 lakh Hindu and Sikh refugees from riot-torn West Punjab came to Delhi.

As per estimates, the Muslim population of Delhi came down from 33.33 per cent in 1941 to a mere 5.33 per cent in 1951.

Several localities which were predominantly Muslim, such as Chandani Chowk, Khari Baoli and Karol Bagh were emptied out to a great extent with the emigration of Muslims and were replaced with Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs.

Creation of ‘Muslim Zones’

In the aftermath of Partition, Delhi was thrown into grips of anti-Muslim violence, especially at the hands of Hindu, Sikh refugees coming from West Pakistan who had suffered the loss of life and property. Between August-October 1947, as many as 20,000 Muslims were killed within Delhi in communal riots and almost all the Muslim residents – especially from mixed localities – had shifted to temporary camps that had sprung up in Purana Qila, Nizamuddin and Humanyun’s Tomb.

Muslims from Delhi and nearby areas taking shelter in Purana Qila in September 1947.

When tempers calmed – with efforts by Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad – the Muslims in the camps who had not migrated to Pakistan started returning to their homes. It was felt by the government that ‘mixed areas’ – where Muslims and Hindus previously stayed together – were no longer safe for Muslims to return to. The government decided to rehabilitate displaced Muslims in predominantly Muslim localities such as Pul Bangash, Phatak Habash Khan, Sadar Bazar and Pahari Imli areas which in government communications were being referred to as ‘Muslim Zones’. It can’t be ascertained to what degree the government succeeded in implementing this plan fully, but it was put in motion by the agencies surely.

“Certain largely Muslim mohallas were cordoned off, and abandoned houses there were to be kept empty by police intervention so that either Muslims could return to them or other Muslims could be moved there and provided safety,” says Vazira Zamindar her book The Long Partition and The Making of Modern South Asia.

Zamindar quotes Sardar Diwan Singh, the editor of Risalat, on how this shifting from ‘mixed localities’ to ‘Muslim zones’ happened.

“Muslims from mixed areas were asked to move to the Muslim zones. The constable stood at the street corner and they had five minutes to gather their belongings and go. Many thought this was only a matter of a few days and that they would return when the public had calmed down…”.

But, as per Singh, the Muslims did not or could not return to the houses.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru supported this policy saying if Hindus and Sikhs were accommodated in empty houses left behind by Muslims who departed for Pakistan, it would “push out” Muslims residents.

“There was a tendency on the part of the Muslim residents of the other houses, next door, to leave their houses because they felt they were being pushed out,” he said later in a parliamentary debate.

The Muslim Zones thus created soon were attached with a stigma of being “communally sensitive areas” and “zones of trouble”.

“For Muslims staying in these ilaqe (areas) was not a matter of choice; nor was these enclaves celebrated zones of culture. Instead, living in these areas became a compulsion for Muslims for safety. In a span of a few years these pockets were marked as ‘communally sensitive area(s)’- a stigma that transformed these areas in later decades from protected sites into alleged zones of trouble,” writes Nazma Parveen in her study on ‘Muslim localities of Delhi’.

Resettlements of Shahjahanabad

About three decades later, another round of creation of Muslim ghettos happened. It was due to the ‘urban beautification-inspired demolition drives’ that were held in the midst of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. The drives, executed by Jagmohan Malhotra of Delhi Development Authority (DDA), were aimed at beautification of Jama Masjid, Turkman gate areas with a plan to revamp Shahjahanabad. Thousands of residents of these areas (mainly Muslims) were forcefully and violently evicted and ‘resettled’ in localities such as Seelampur and Welcome.

During the emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi several demolition drives took place in Old Delhi in 1976 with an aim to beautify the congested areas.

As per author Ghazala Jamil, these areas continued to expand during 1980s as more Muslims from the Old Delhi areas who shifted out from Old Delhi houses due to various reason started settling in and around Seelampur and Welcome. Hindus moving out of Old Delhi would, on the other hand, shift to Shahadara, Geeta Colony and Uttam Nagar. Also, in localities where Muslim-population was greater, Hindus sold off their properties and moved out and these localities became largely Muslim.

“By the late 1980s, segregation in Delhi on religious identity lines became almost final and complete,” Jamil writes in Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi.

Migration of UP, Bihar and elsewhere

From the 1990s, Muslim migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other areas of north India started coming and settling in the localities north of Seelampur and formed the belt of largely Muslim localities in ‘trans-Yamuna’ areas ranging between Seelampur and Loni Border including Gautampuri, Chandbagh, Jafferabad, Gokulpuri and other areas where the recent Delhi riots were largely concentrated.

During the same period, Jamia Nagar saw unprecedented expansion with migration of aspirational migrants from north India and many new colonies came up. Some scholars have linked the migration of 1990s and 2000s of Muslims from UP and Bihar to Delhi’s Muslim ghettos to communal polarisation that happened during Ram Janmabhoomi Movement and 2002 riots of Gujarat.

“A very small portion of this population (residing in newer ghettos) can trace their earlier generation residing in Delhi before 1947, a vast majority being migrants from UP and Bihar. The pockets of Muslim population got consolidated (some even expanded) after each communal riot in the country especially the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots in 1992 and Gujarat pogrom in 2002,” writes Jamil.

The affluent class among Muslims who did not identify with the lot living in the ghettos formed gated enclaves either within these Muslim areas or on the borders in localities like Zakir Nagar Extension, Joga Bai Extension, Joharmi Farms or housing societies like the Taj Enclave.

“Still shunned from the affluent Hindu areas they resorted to using a new group membership as a source of positive self-esteem,” observes Jamil.

‘Terror Hide-Outs’ requiring combing operations

In one of his report (June 1 1948) about the plan of ‘Muslim Zones’, Delhi’s then Deputy Commissioner M S Randhawa refers to these zones as ‘Miniature Pakistans’ creation of which is being resented by Hindu and Sikh refugees of Delhi.

In over seven decades since, the Muslim ghettos of Delhi – as those elsewhere in India – have not been able to shake off the stigma, suspicion and derision associated with them.

The situation turned markedly volatie in 2008 when the controversial Batla House police encounter happened in which two university students alleged to be terrorists were killed by police. This was followed by a scores of arrests from the Muslim neighbourhoods often without police following proper legal procedure. The incident and what followed disgraced the neighbourhood in the public sphere as a ‘terrorist hideout’.

Prof Mohamad Sayeed writes in his essay about, how Batla House incident created an environment of fear among the local Muslim residents, a fear that was different that the fear of riot or violent attack life and property.

“First, it was not the fear of a known enemy—another group or community. It was fear of an unknowable source that could cause incomprehensible damage. Here, the police had emerged as the agency that could act without caring much about the mandatory procedures. Despite doubts about the veracity of the ‘encounter’, however, it was not just the police and wrongful arrest and detention that was feared, but also the possibility that there might be actual terrorists living among them. Thus, the likelihood that the encounter was not fake was as terrifying as its converse. The event had exposed the neighbourhood to its deepest vulnerability,” writes Sayeed in his essay ‘Fear, law and politics after the police encounter at Batla House, New Delhi’ published in the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology in January 2020.

January 2020 riots in Northeast Delhi left 53, most of them Muslims, dead. (Photo Courtsey: Praveen Khanna for The Indian Express)

Researcher Nazima Parveen summerises the journey of the Muslim Ghettos of Delhi, which are again in the news for prolonged sit-in protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 and as the areas which suffered maximum damage during the communal riots that followed, in the following manner:

“These localities were looked at differently over the period. In the 1940s they were seen as ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas that were to be administered for the sake of communal peace, in the 1950s, as ‘Muslim zones’ that needed to be ‘protected’, in the 1960s, as ‘isolated’ unhygienic cultural pockets that were to be cleaned and Indianized, and in the 1970s as location of ‘internal threat’ – the Mini-Pakistans – that were to be dismantled and integrated. In altered political scenarios of 1990s and 2000s these pockets were looked at as ‘terrorist hide-outs,” writes Parveen.

When india’s first film festival was suspected to be a ‘communist ploy’

Held in 1952, when cold war anxieties were on a high, the film festival prompted the American government to send a delegation headed by Hollywood director Frank Capra to “uncover” the conspiracy and hinder its success. 

Hollywood director Frank Capra with Hindi film star Dev Anand in Mumbai during first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in 1952.


AN international film festival was still a novelty when India decided to hold one in 1952. In fact, the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in January-February 1952 in four (now metro) cities was the first such event held anywhere in Asia. There were only eight international film festivals in the world at that time and all of them were in Europe, including the oldest in Venice.

So, when India, then a recently decolonised “third-world” country, announced its plans to host an international film festival, it led to varied reactions from within and outside the country. Among these, and most curious of them all, was the American response.

Apparently, the US authorities suspected the festival was a “communist shenanigan of some kind” and sent a delegation to “uncover” the conspiracy and hinder its success. Those were the initial years of the Cold War and both the USSR and the US were trying to influence the non-aligned countries in their favour to nullify any political or cultural influence exerted by their rival superpower. According to film historian Amrit Gangar, both the superpowers had an eye on newly independent India and IFFI 1952 provided a useful platform to somehow influence the India’s global-political stance. He says, “Only a few months prior to IFFI, an Indian film delegation was in the USSR where it had received a grand reception in the presence of the well-known Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin. Soon after IFFI ended, Indian film personalities like Nargis and Raj Kapoor were invited to the US where President (Harry S.) Truman met them at the White House.” Significantly, among the 12 visiting delegations, Russia’s was the largest, with 13 members, headed by then deputy minister of cinematography N Semenov.

The responsibility to head the American delegation fell upon celebrated Hollywood director Frank Capra, known for films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and It Happened One Night (1934). Capra biography The Name Above the Title (1971) gives us details of this “assignment” came to him and how he successfully completed it.

In December 1951, Capra writes, he received a call from an officer of the US state department informing him that the US ambassador in New Delhi needed Capra’s services and wanted him to travel to India for a few weeks.

“Frank, listen. Chester Bowles, our ambassador to India, is worried. He thinks he smells a rat in the International Film Festival of the motion pictures that Indians are holding in a week. Bowles thinks the festival is a communist shenanigan of some kind, but he doesn’t know what. Here’s where you come in,” Capra quotes the official as saying, adding that the ambassador had specifically asked for Capra as he wanted a “freewheeling guy” to take care of American interest on his own. “I want Capra. His name is big here (in India), and I have heard he is quick on his feet in an alley fight,” Bowles had apparently told the officer.

At this time, Capra was in the midst of a personal challenge as well. Only a few weeks ago, the US army had denied his security clearance to participate in a top-secret conference pertaining to warfare technologies, after finding some “derogatory information” on him. This essentially meant that the American establishment was questioning his loyalty to the country. This deeply hurt Capra, who got busy in trying to clear his name. When the proposal for the India tour came up, he proposed that he would only go to India if his name is cleared. His wish was met, and he embarked on the journey. He was to head the delegation, with Harry Stone of the Motion Picture Association of America and Floyd E Brooker, the audiovisual expert as members. All three were briefed by the US state department officials with instructions to Capra: “Just play it by ear, Frank, and report to Ambassador Bowles.”

Frank Capra (seated, first row, second from left) with Jawaharlal Nehru at the Delhi inauguration of IFFI 1952 at National Physical Laboratory

As Capra records, for several days after his arrival in Bombay, he groped in the dark about what he was expected to do and what “the communist conspiracy” was. Since Ambassador Bowles was on a trip to Nepal, Capra couldn’t discuss “the matter” with him to get clarity. When Capra approached other US officials based in India, he found that they were as clueless: “When you find out, tell us.”

On his fifth day in India, Capra met Baburao Patel, the boisterous and boastful editor of filmindia magazine, who said something about the festival which gave Capra a “hint of what was bugging Bowles”. Patel reportedly told him that IFFI was a plot by communists in the Indian film industry to open doors to Russian films which were being kept out of the country by censors as these films were “too political and inflammatory”. “So local film Reds hatched the festival idea to ensure showing of dozens of Russian and Chinese films” in four cities as an appeal to the people of India to “breach India’s film barrier using the festival as a Trojan horse”, Capra wrote in the diary, published in the autobiography.

What Capra did not know was that Patel himself was an anti-communist worried about an imminent “communist takeover” of India. “A blind man can see that our country is going to have a Red future unless the democratic forces and institutions in the country take active and aggressive steps,” Patel wrote in an editorial published in the April 1952 edition of filmindia. Patel was also mighty displeased with the idea of the festival. Throughout filmindia’s coverage of it, he called it “International Fools’ Festival”.

Having thus received a “confirmation” from Patel, Capra gave an ultimatum to the festival organisers that in case of any “pro-commie” speech at the festival, he will “leave, taking along all the American films and holding a press conference to explain (reasons) of my leaving”. Throughout his Bombay and Madras stay, he tried making speeches asking the filmmakers to guard themselves against “totalitarian system”.

He complained about the Russians to Indira Gandhi knowing fully well that “it would get to the Prime Minister”. Capra would meet Nehru when the latter inaugurated IFFI’s Delhi edition. “Charming, simple man. Could be the most important man alive today,” Capra noted in his diary.

Capra and other foreign delegates paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Raj Ghat during first IFFI’s Delhi leg. They are accompanied by Gandhi’s grandchildren including Gopalkrishna Gandhi (extreme right) who as then 7.

This anxiety about the communist ploy, sometimes, took hilarious turns.

On one instance, when the guests were to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat, the flower wreath that Capra and his colleagues had ordered turned out very thin. Capra was convinced that “the Reds had bought them all up”. According to his version, the American delegation then devised a plan to “outsmart” communists by taking along two of Gandhi’s grandchildren (through Capra’s recent acquaintance with Devdas Gandhi). The plan worked — the event got great publicity. That day he noted in his diary: “This should kill the Reds”.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, one of the “grandchildren” who visited Raj Ghat with Capra, was seven then. “It seems incredible that anyone could be as naive as to think, say and do what Mr Capra sets down. It all seems like something out of Alice In Wonderland,” Gandhi told The Indian Express.

Capra though, wrote in his autobiography, when Ambassador Bowles returned, he was “pleased with his report”.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘A Plot to Unravel’ on November 17 2019. I can be accessed here.


Why was British officer who controlled spread of plague in Poona killed by locals?

In 1897, 34-year-old Indian Civil Service officer Charles Walter Rand felt the need for strong segregation and containment measures to “stamp out plague from Poona” and deployed the military to search infected persons. Soon, reports and rumours of harassment of locals – especially of native women – at the hands of British soldiers started emerging from the city.

Image 2 Credit George Lambert
Dead bodies of Pune residents who died from plague being cremated at a city crematorium. Pic Credit: George Lambert’s India, The Horror Stricken Empire.

THE FIRST recorded case of bubonic plague in Pune – then Poona – was discovered on October 2 1896 when two passengers from Mumbai alighted at the railway station. By December that year, the city was showing signs of local transmission and the disease had started to spread rapidly – especially in the densely populated Peth areas. Earlier, soon after the reports of plague came in from Mumbai in September 1896, the municipal corporation had appointed a medical officer at Pune Railway Station to watch out for persons with Plague symptoms and send them to special sheds erected at Sassoon General Hospital.

The plague wave that had reached Pune was part of the ‘Third Plague Pandemic’ which had started in Yunnan, China in 1855 and entered India through the port city of Mumbai via Hong Kong. The epidemic would last for well over two decades and would kill about 10 million Indians by between 1896 and 1918, as it ravaged one city after the other.

However, none of the scores of cities that were afflicted by the pestilence would cause as much political uproar as the Poona Plague did.


By the end of February, Pune had recorded 308 cases of plague with 271 deaths. The dread of the disease which such a high mortality rate had caused the locals to flee the city. The municipal officials estimated that about 15,000 to 20,000 locals had left the city to escape the pandemic and had settled in villages in the outskirts. At this was happening, locals, as well as Englishmen, were asking for the appointment of a ‘strong officer’ who would improve the sanitary and health situation in the city, failing which, they feared, “the matters will never mend and go down form bad to worse.”

The strongman that the Bombay Presidency Governor William Mansfield Sandhurst decided to appoint was 34-year-old Walter Charles Rand, an Oxford-educated officer of the Indian Civil Service, who was then serving in Satara. Rand was appointed on February 10 1987 as an Assistant Collector for Pune and Chairman of the Poona Plague Committee.

“My first duty was to ascertain the extent to which the disease had already spread in Poona,” Rand wrote in the plague report that he drafted but was killed before he could submit it to the Governor. “After examining the current death register of Poona Municipal Corporation and mortality returns for previous years I discovered that … the morality in the city was growing at an alarming rate since the beginning of January…On the same day I also informed the Collector that Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre,” Rand wrote.


As per Rand, Surgeon Captain Beveridge arrived in Pune to assist in fighting the epidemic in the city with the idea of using military men in the plague operations. “Up to the time of Surgeon Captain Beveridge’s arrival, the use of anything but civil agency for dealing with the epidemic had not been considered. That officer, however, who had had considerable experience of the Plague in Hong Kong and methods adopted there for stamping it out, formed a decided opinion that the help of soldiers would be desirable in Poona, especially to search for sufferers from plague, their removal to suitable hospitals, and the disinfection of plague-infected houses,” Rand says in the report.

Image 1 Credit George Lambert

Following this, Poona Collector RA Lamb sent out a formal request to the government of Bombay Presidency for this purpose. “The aid of the soldiers is needed because the men are available, they are disciplined, they can be relied upon to be thorough and honest in their inspection, while no native agency is available, or could be relief on if it were,” he said.

At this time the population of Pune – including those residing in municipal limits, cantonments and suburbs – was 1.61 lakh. The plan prepared by Rand attached the greatest importance to house-to-house search for infected patients and suspects …. There was intense aversion among the townsfolk for taking out the plague-infected family members to the hospital. The families resorted to “incredible shifts” in order to prevent authorities from detecting a plague patient. Such patients were hidden in lofts, cupboards and gardens or “anywhere where their presence was least likely suspected”. This, the administration argued, would leave no option but to resort to “compulsory methods” to ensure isolation of the infected patients.

Five special plague hospitals were erected in various parts of the city, each for Hindu, Muslim, Parsi communities in addition to one general hospital and Sassoon Hospital where Europeans were treated. On the same line, four segregation camps were set up where family members and other contacts of the plague patients were kept under observation.

Plague 4

“There was, it is true, no Indian example of the suppression by strong measures of an epidemic of plague which had established itself in a large town, but the possibility of so suppressing the disease had been demonstrated at Hongkong in 1894. It was certain that if the plague was not to be allowed to run its course but was to be stamped out of Poona, stringent measures would have to be taken,” Rand observed in the report.

The containment policy adopted by Rand and his team was to actively search the localities in the city with the help of the soldiers accompanied by natives for plague-infected patients (or their dead bodies) and take them to the hospitalS (or cremate the bodies under medical supervision). The houses where patients were found were cleaned, fumigated, dug up (to destroy rats) and lime washed.

The work of search parties was carried out between March 13 and May 19 1987. About 20 search parties (later increased to 60) each consisting three British soldiers and one native gentleman were formed for his purpose. A division of 10 search parties had one medical officer and a lady searcher to inspect women in purdah.

“In order that plague patients might not be removed before the arrival of the troops, no intimation as to what area was to be searched was given to the public. The streets in which the search took place were patrolled by Cavalry. The only important complaint about the first day’s work was that doors forced open by the troops were not reclosed. This difficulty was got over on subsequent occasions by attaching to each search division a few Native troops with hammers and staples to fasten up doors after the searchers

As per Rand’s report, the attitude of the residents was “friendly” to the search parties except that of the Brahmin community which was unfriendly and tried to obstruct the searches. The medical officers were supplied with cash advances and had instructions to pay compensation for any articles belonging to plague patients that might be destroyed.

“It was found at the beginning of the operations that rather too many articles were at times destroyed as rubbish. Orders were accordingly issued on March 26th to Officers commanding limewashing divisions to visit, if possible, all houses to be limewashed and to decide what should be destroyed in each. It was also laid down that when a property of any value to the owners was destroyed by limewashing party, the Officer commanding the division should note the approximate cost of replacing what had been destroyed in order that compensation might afterwards be paid. In practice nothing was destroyed after the first fortnight of the operations except in the presence of an officer,” reads the report.

Image 3 Credit George Lambert

The searches, the Committee claimed, bore results. Between March 13 and May 19 1987, it searched 2,18,214 houses and found 338 plague cases and 64 corpses.

The Committee also claimed that it had given instructions to the limewashing parties to limewash all articles in the house, in case a plague patient or dead body was found, all rubbish found in the house should then be burnt, but no property of any value to the inmates should be destroyed, the whole interior of the house should then be limewashed. If the floor is of earth it should be dug up to a depth of 4 inches and disinfected with liquid chloride of lime.

All entry and exit points to the city were manned by British soldiers to ensure that no one from infected area enters Pune or plague suspects flee the city or smuggle out the dead bodies to escape testing by the authorities.

As per the British, there were very few complaints about the conduct of the soldiers – both British and Native – and whenever any complaint was made action was taken against the violators. In a letter written to Rand on May 20 1987, Major A Deb V Paget who was commanding the operations lists six cases which were found to be true involving stealing of money while conducting house searches, stealing goods and receiving money from the native residents.

Poona Mortality Curve
This curve shows mortality in Pune City plotted with deaths in each five-day interval on the Y-axis between December 20 to May 30. As per Surgeon Captain Beveridge who made the curve, it shows a steady rise until the first week of March and then a marked fall which could be accounted for by measures taken by the plague committee.

The committee also claimed that these “energetic measures” carried out by military officers with “praiseworthy zeal” led to the decline of the disease by the end of May 1897 after a peak in March.


Local experience of these search operations and forceful segregation of plague patients and suspect, however, was not as benign. The complaints sent to senior officials – including Rand – and news reports in the local publications suggests that residents looked at these operations as a reign of terror.

As per the petitions, as summarised by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar in his essay ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics in India: 1896-1914’ published in the book Epidemic and Ideas, there was wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the property during searches. The segregation and limewashing parties would dig up the floor, put gallons of disinfectant in the nook and crannies of the houses, at times broke open the doors and left them ajar, took away “perfectly healthy” persons and, in some cases, even neighbours and passers-by.

“…There were complaints that ‘all the females are compelled to come out of their houses and stand before the public gaze in the open street and be there subjected to inspection by soldiers. Soldiers were said to behave ‘disgracefully with native ladies’ and the tenor of the official response was that they had ‘merely joked with a Marathi woman’ suggest that sexual harassment probably did occur. Shripat Gopal Kulkarni, an octogenarian, complained that ten or twelve soldiers had burst into his house, forced him to undress, ‘felt…the whole of my body and then made me sit and rise and sitting around me went on clapping their hands and dancing,” writes Chandavarkar.

It was at this backdrop that Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote in Mahratta, his English newspaper, that the” Plague is more merciful to us than its human prototypes now reigning the city. The tyranny of Plague Committee and its chosen instruments is yet too brutal to allow respectable people to breathe at ease.”

No doubt that the regulations and measures as they were imposed in Pune were the most stringent among all the cities which were afflicted by the pandemic. In fact, Antony MacDonnel Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces had observed in July 1897 in a communique that “If the plague regulations had been enforced in any city of these provinces in the way in which …they were…enforced in Poona, there would have been bloodshed here.”


Blood was indeed shed. On June 22 1897, Chapekar brothers – Damodar (27), Balkrisha (24) and Vasudev (17 or 18) – shot Rand and Lieutenant Charles Ayerst while they were returning from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration at Government House in Ganeshkhind (now Pune University). While Ayerst died immediately, Rand succumbed to the injuries on July 3.

Damodar Chapekar, who is said to have planned and led the assassination, said in his confession (which was later retracted by him) that the search operations carried by British soldiers were behind his decision to kill Rand.

“In the search of houses a great zulum (atrocities) was practised by the soldiers and they entered the temples and brought out women from their houses, broke idols and burnt pothis (holy books). We determined to revenge these actions but it was no use to kill common people and it was necessary to kill the chief man. Therefore we determined to kill Mr Rand who was the chief,” Damodar was recorded to have said on October 8 1897 in front of a magistrate following his arrest.

This roadside sclupture in Pune depicts the assassination of Rand by Chapekar brothers – Damodar, Bal Krishna and Vasudev – in a rather erroneous manner.  As per police records, Damodar had shot Rand at “point blank range” from behind by climbing up the moving tonga and throwing up the curtain. (Picture: Atikh Rashid)

While none of the Chapekar brothers or their other accomplices hinted so, the British also surmised that the attack may have been inspired by the “peculiarly violent writing of the Poona newspapers regarding the plague administration” and “some of the recognised organs (of the Poona Brahmins) have, in articles that shortly preceded the murders, almost openly advocated the duty of the forcible resistance to the authority. The reference here was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s editorials in Kesari as well as writings and reporting in other newspapers such as Sudharak and Poona Vaibhav among others.

The government – startled, embarrassed by the murders – booked Tilak of sedition under Section 124 of Indian Penal code for exciting feelings of disaffection among the public through his writings in Kesari. It was also alleged that by glorifying and justifying Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan in the 17th century, he directly supported violence and resultantly caused murders of the two British officers barely a week after the publication of the articles. The court found Tilak guilty and sent him to 18 months of imprisonment.


The alleged atrocities committed by British soldiers during plague control operations also caused an uproar in United Kingdom when Congress leader from Maharashtra Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was visiting England to appear before Welby Commission gave an interview to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) on July 2 1897 (published on July 3) in which he levelled serious accusations against the British soldiers. These “rumours” were the talk of the town in India but were raised outside the country with such prominence for the first time.

Apart from detailing how soldiers “ignorant of the language and contemptuous to customs” offended scores of ways, he also made allegations of “violation of two women, of whom is said to have committed suicide rather than to survive her shame” attributing the information to his contacts back home in Pune. This caused an uproar in the British parliament as well back home in India. The Bombay Presidency government called it a “malevolent invention” and challenged Gokhale to prove them or share with the government the names of the persons who had shared this information with him.

After his return to India, Gokhale tried his best to gather evidence from the persons who had written to him about the atrocities against the women – especially the two cases of rape – but nobody was willing to come forward, especially in the light of the severe crackdown in Pune post-Rand’s assassination including sedition case against Tilak. A detailed account of this episode has been given by Stanley Wolpert in his book Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and reform in the making of modern India.

Unable to substantiate these claims, Gokhale published an “unqualified apology” to British soldiers which was published the Manchester Guardian and The Times of India on August 4.

As per, Chandavarkar the rumours of these violations – which may or may not be confirmed – should be seen as the nightmarish experience of the local population of their private places being “invaded and violated” by uninformed foreign agents.

“Stories about the behaviour of the soldiers may have borne a considerable measure of truth but they also reflected the nightmarish invasion and violation of privacy – even god-rooms and kitchens – by the most frightening, powerful, uniformed foreign agent of public authority. Sexual harassment by the soldiers and their ‘disgraceful behaviour towards the native ladies’ almost certainly occurred – ad, indeed, physical examination, ‘the exploration of the native’s body’ in the street of at railway checkpoints may themselves be regarded precisely as that – but reports of them also served as a metaphor for the violent eruption of the state into the privacy of people’s lives,” Chandavarkar writes.

The plague, meanwhile, continued its killing spree in the city for several years. By May 1904, it infected 45,665 and killed 37,178.


Did India deal differently with Muslim refugees after Partition?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.


AS the imbroglio over Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) continues, claims and counter-claims made in support and opposition to the Act have caused a great amount of confusion and polarisation in Indian society. The episode has raised some fundamental questions about the nature of Indian state, its commitment to secularism and its relationship with religious identity.

Notwithstanding the extent of confusion caused by CAA debate, the crisis of the present moment cannot be greater than the one faced by the Indian government and people in the immediate aftermath of partition that cleaved a country into two on the basis of religion.

In that period of unprecedented chaos and communal ebb, the nascent government was faced with the responsibility of rehabilitating Hindus and Sikhs who came to India from Pakistan; and a large section of Muslims who decided to stay back in India but were pushed out of their houses due to violence.

Although India had decided to build a secular polity under the leadership of its founding fathers, could it observe that principle in practice as it was taking baby steps as an independent nation born amid the mayhem of partition? Could it look at its Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims with the same eye and address their issues with same urgency? Was the treatment of Muslim minority in India contingent on how Hindus and Sikhs were being treated in Pakistan?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.

Let’s start with a letter written by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to then Chief Minister of Assam Gopinath Bardoloi that Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited earlier this month (February 6) while justifying his government’s decision to enact the CAA. According to Modi, in this letter (written one year prior to Nehru-Liaquat Pact) Nehru clearly asked Bardoloi to differentiate between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘Muslim immigrant’ while dealing with them.

“This is for those who say we are doing Hindu-Muslim and dividing the country,” said Modi while ‘quoting’ the letter. “Remember what Nehru had said – aapko sharanarthiyon aur Muslim immigrants, inke beech farq karna hi hoga and desh ko in sharnarthiyon ki jimmedari leni hi padegi. (…You will have to make a distinction between refugees and Muslim immigrants and the country will have to take the responsibility of rehabilitating the refugees),” Modi said in his speech.

Modi speaking in Lok Sabha. (Source: LSTV)

What did Nehru’s letter say?

The letter was written by Nehru to Bardoloi on 4 June 1948 after the Assam government expressed its unwillingness to accommodate refugees pouring in from East Pakistan. Although Nehru did not use the exact phrasing used by Modi while quoting him, it appears from the following two paragraphs that the government adopted different approaches towards the two groups – Muslims who were trying to return to their homes in India and Hindus from East Pakistan coming to Assam.

“I’m surprised to learn that you feel yourself helpless in dealing with the influx of Muslims into Assam. As you know, we have a permit system as between Western Pakistan and India. I do not think there is a permit system in regard to Eastern Bengal and Western Bengal and possibly no such system exists in regard to Assam either. I think you should discuss this matter with Mr Gopalswami Ayyangar…”

“About the influx of Hindus from East Bengal, this is a different matter entirely. I am told that your government or some of your ministers have openly stated that they prefer Muslims of East Bengal to Hindus from East Bengal. While I, for one, always like any indication of a lack of communal feeling in dealing with public matters, I must confess that this strong objection to Hindu refugees coming from East Bengal is a little difficult for me to understand. I am afraid Assam is getting a bad name for its narrow-minded policy.”

This is not the only such communication that hints at or overtly displays a differential attitude towards these two groups of refugees. There are scores of letters shared between ministries which shows that while there was no official policy to favour rehabilitation of Hindu, Sikh refugees over ‘displaced’ Muslims, the contingencies created by large inflow of refugees from Pakistan and communal upheaval caused by partition manifested itself in a situation where taking active interest in rehabilitation of displaced Muslim families became unpalatable to many within and outside the government – especially after Mahatma Gandhi’s death barely five months after the independence.

Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India as refugees from Pakistan getting accommodation became contingent on Muslims vacating their houses and migrating to Pakistan. Similarly ‘stories of violence’ brought in by refugees and resulting ‘reaction’ against local Muslims made it impossible for them to continue to live peacefully in their houses or to return to their homes if they had shifted to camps. This, in-turn, pushed the government to unofficially adopt a policy to discourage Muslims who wished to return to their homes in India – especially if they had migrated to Pakistan during the violent months.

Learning lessons from the past Partition Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India.

‘The Housing Problem’

How the government’s inability to provide roofs over the heads of the refugees became a cause for violence against local Muslims can be elucidated with the example of the situation in Delhi.

As per numbers cited in various contemporary reports, within a week of the Independence an estimated 130,000 refugees had arrived in Delhi from West Pakistan. (The total Hindu, Sikh refugees which came to Delhi after partition has been estimated at 5 lakh).

In his fortnightly report (submitted in September 1947), the then Delhi Commissioner Sahibzada Khurshid pointed out that the rains of Hindus and Sikh refugees which came to Delhi brought with them “harrowing tales of loot, rape and arson”, “gained the sympathy of co-religionists in Delhi” and started “retaliatory” attacks against Delhi’s Muslims. The report has been quoted in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia by author Vazira Zamindar.

It was estimated that about 20,000 Muslims were killed in the violence in August-September 1947 in Delhi. This caused panic among the Muslims who shifted out of the houses and started gathering in places such as Purana Qila, Nizamuddin, Humayun’s Tomb and Jama Masjid to find safety among fellow Muslims. These camps, which by all accounts held refugees in abject conditions, were guarded by ‘special police’ squads made out of Muslim civilians. From here, a big chunk left to Pakistan – some with the intention to settle there and others hoping to return after the situation became calm enough to come back to their houses in Delhi.

Empty houses left behind by the departing Muslims – those who went to Pakistan as well as those who shifted to camps within the city – became a point of contention. The Hindu and Sikh refugees felt that the houses should be allotted to them as they had left behind all they owned in Pakistan and in many cases tried to occupy the homes with force. In some cases where security personnel provided protection to the houses, the communications sent by local authorities show, the mobs would come in hundreds and tried to encroach the houses. This continued for several months after the arrival of refugees had thinned down. Details of how these attacks would happen and how it was becoming difficult for security agencies to guard the vacant houses can be gauged from a report sent to Sardar Patel by Superintendent of Police, Delhi City about once such incident that happened on January 4, 1948 when a group of about ‘100 women supported by thousands of refugee men backing them” tried to occupy vacant houses near Phatak Habash Khan. The police had to use tear gas and lathi-charge to disperse the men and women.

“This lawlessness will never abate unless necessary arrangements are made for the allotment of the vacant houses. If this lawlessness prevails, there’s every possibility of a general flare-up in the city. Refugee men and women are very desperate and are bent upon occupying the vacant houses at any cost,” reads the report by Superintendent of Police, Delhi city.

To deal with this issue, the government extended the evacuee property legislation, which was originally formulated to deal with population exchange in Punjab. According to this legislation, the ‘property’ remained in ownership of ‘evacuee’ – say, Muslims who left the houses during violence – but a custodian was appointed to look after them who had powers to temporarily allot the houses to refugees to provide immediate housing. Later on, the government adopted a policy that no ‘non-Muslim’ occupier would be evicted from the temporary accommodation until an alternate house is provided to them.

“In effect, Muslims who had taken shelter in camps could not return to their house if they had been occupied, even after the riots and murders had stopped,” write Vazira Zamindar in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia.

In such a situation, the government functionaries thought that it was best to discourage Muslims who had travelled to Pakistan during the violence and wished to return to India, from making the journey for fear of inviting the ire of the refugees and general Hindu, Sikh population. This worry was clearly articulated by Sardar Patel in a letter that he wrote to PM Nehru on May 2, 1948 while discussing the recrudescence of activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“The return of these Muslims, while we are not yet able to rehabilitate Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and are unable to return any of them back to Pakistan, would create considerable discontent and dissatisfaction not only amongst the refugees, but also amongst the general public, and it would be this discontent which would again be the breeding ground of communal poison, on which activities of organisations like the RSS thrive,” wrote Patel in this letter. To regulate the movement of Muslims wanting to return to India, the Indian Government had started a stringent permit system in July 1948.

jawaharlal nehru Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo: Indian Express Archives)

‘Relief system not conditioned to look after Muslims’
The communication between PM Nehru and officials with the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry also points to the difference of opinion among national leaders on the issue of rehabilitation of Muslim refugees and if the matter deserved any special attention of the Indian government.

This is apparent from the following letter that Nehru wrote to Mohanlal Saxena, who was the Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation at the time, on May 19, 1948 requesting him to appoint a special officer to look after rehabilitation of Muslim refugees.

“Who is responsible for the Muslim refugees in Delhi, Ajmer, Bhopal etc, that’s to say, the Muslims who went away temporarily and came back, often finding that their houses had been occupied by others or allotted to others?… Somebody should be responsible for all this as well as for actually helping such Muslim refugees as require help. We cannot confine our help to non-Muslims only. Obviously, it is the business of the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. I am told that there is no financial provision for this. I think there should be some provision, whatever it might be. I think also that a special officer of your Ministry should be in charge of this Muslim refugee problem,” wrote Nehru.

In another letter to Saxena on May 31, 1948, Nehru said that each case of a Muslim refugee “is kind of a test case for us about our bona fide” although, conceding that there may not be too much sympathy for these Muslims among government officials.

“The fact is that our whole organisation has been built up with the view to helping the vast mass of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. It’s not conditioned to look after Muslims whose cases stand on a somewhat different footing. It may even be that there is not too much sympathy for these Muslims among government departments or outside. We, as a government, however, have to pay some special attention to such cases because each one is a kind of a test case for us about our bona fide,” wrote Nehru.

These attempts by Nehru to give special attention to Muslim refugees were opposed by the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. Saxena responded by saying that this would amount to “short-circuiting” the judicious process which may expose the government to “severe criticism from the displaced persons”. Mehr Chand Khanna who was an advisor to the Ministry (and himself a refugee from Peshawar) also objected to the proposal saying India was dealing with Muslim refugees and their properties “too leniently” and that appointing a special officer for them would be “circumventing the law”.

‘The Tightrope’

Although India has avowedly decided to walk on a secular path, the contingencies created by partition and the resultant migration complicated the situation. Uditi Sen writes in Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition that the Indian leadership had to walk a tightrope between various contradictory notions of national belonging. According to her, underneath the ‘secular polity’ announced publicly, the primacy of Hindu belonging took roots aided by lack of clearly defined citizenship legislation in the initial years.

“When public policy is read in conjunction with private correspondence, it becomes clear that the refusal to clearly define the contours of the partition refugee allowed the government of India to rest or to various bureaucratic means to prevent Muslim migrants from entering ranks of the refugees. … This allowed a pragmatic validation of the primacy of Hindu belonging in India to flourish beneath public assertions of a secular polity that did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim citizens.”

A film festival is born: Story of IFFI’s origins 67 years ago!

The first IFFI was organised by the Films Division with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “blessings”, at a paltry budget of Rs 1 lakh.

Nehru at National Physical Laboratory after Inaugration of IFFI Delhi

India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Indian and foreign film personalities after inaugurating the Delhi leg of the first international film festival held in January-February 1952. (credit: National Film Archive of India)


THE International Film Festival of India was born in Bombay in January 1952 but it was conceived six months prior in the Kashmir valley. The idea of organising such a festival of motion pictures, which would be a first for the East, was proposed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by Films Division’s then Chief Producer Mohan Bhavnani when he was visiting Srinagar for a political event. Bhavnani, a filmmaker trained in Germany who had made several silent films after his return to India and was appointed to head the Films Division after it was established in 1948, had recently returned from a visit to Paris where he had attended a meeting of Film Experts Committee of UNESCO and was toying with the idea to hold India’s own film festival.

In an essay written in 1983, filmmaker K L Khandpur has described how the decision to organise the first film festival came about. As per his account, he was shooting a documentary for Films Division (Facing the Facts, 1951) in Srinagar with his crew when, on a Sunday afternoon, Bhavnani- who was staying in a houseboat at Dal Lake – summoned him. Bhavnani was to meet the then Information and Broadcasting Minister R R Diwakar and Prime Minister Nehru, who was visiting Srinagar to speak at a rally organised by National Conference ahead of the state’s plan to hold elections for the Constituent Assembly in August-September that year, later that day.

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Weekly Screen announcing the government plans to hold an international film festival in India in its September 21, 1951 edition. (Credit: Screen)

Although the initial plan was to hold a ‘competitive film festival’ and the event was publicised such, the idea was later dropped after the International Federation of Motion Pictures Associations (IFMPA) objected to the prospect saying “only Venice and Cannes had been granted permission to hold competitive festivals” in that year. The festival was then categorised as ‘non-competitive representative show’.

Curtains went up on January 24 at the New Empire Cinema. I&B Minister Diwakar chaired the opening ceremony as PM Nehru, who was supposed to attend the event missed it due to some reason. It was a star-studded event with who’s who of the Bombay film industry attending it.

A total of 12 foreign countries had sent in their delegations to participate in the event. The largest among those was from USSR which had sent 13 members headed by Deputy Minister of Cinematography N Semenov, while Chinese had sent one with six members. The American delegation was headed by film director Frank Capra. Notwithstanding the Indo-Pak tension over Kashmir, Pakistan had sent a delegation consisting of actor Swarna Lata, director Shaukat Hussain headed by Sardar A Rehman.

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Actor Suraiya with Hollywood director Frank Capra who headed the US delegation to first IFFI. (Photo Credit: Films Division)

The festival offered a bouquet of 40 international films and over 100 short films that were showcased, In Mumbai, the film shows were held at three open-air theatres that were erected at Azad Maidan apart from four other regular cinema houses namely the New Empire, Excelsior, Strand and Kum Kum. Among the films that proved popular among the audience were the Italian films Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948), Rome Open City (Rosselini, 1945) and Miracle in Milan (De Sica, 1951); Japanese film Yukiwarisoo (Minoru Mtasui, 1951); British short film Dancing Fleece ( Wilson-Reiniger, 1950,) Soviet war film Fall of Berlin (Mikheil Chiaureli, 1950) and Hollywood films The Greatest Show on Earth (DeMille, 1952) and An American in Paris (Minelli, 1951). Indian entries for the festival were Awara (Raj Kapoor, 1951), Babla (Agradoot, 1951), Patala Bhairavi (Ketiri Reddy, 1951), Amar Bhoopali (V Shantaram, 1951) among feature films and Adivasi (National Education and Information Films) and Lest I Forget Thee (Singh Brothers) among documentaries.

In Delhi and Madras huge road parades of Indian film stars and visiting delegates were held that received huge response from the crowd which, in Frank Kapra’s words, made Indian politicians realise for the first time “the power of Indian film stars”. In Madras, a friendly cricket match between film starts was held at Corporation Stadium of Madras where Raj Kapoor’s “deadly bowling” grounded the opposing team to much delight of over 15,000 audience members.

PM Nehru attended the inauguration of the Delhi leg of the festival and President Rajendra Prasad hosted the guests and Indian film fraternity at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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An open-air screen erected for first IFFI at Azad Maidan in Mumbai (then Bombay). Photo Credit: International Film Festival of India)

Virchandra Dharamsey was a lad of 17 at that time. Now 84 and a well-regarded film historian, he recalls his experience of visiting the festival in Bombay. “In my memories, the first IFFI was like a fair. My interest in cinema has just begun at that time but I knew nothing about international cinema. I can hazily recall watching De Sica’s Miracle in Milan in an open theatre at the Azad Maidan. I also caught glimpses of several other films such as Japanese film Yukiwariso, (Italian) Rome: Open City and Bengali film Babla from the side without having to buy the ticket,” said Dharamsey.

The Film Enquiry Committee Report

Among the factors that led to the organising of the first IFFI including PM Nehru’s own interest in art and culture, an important one was the report of the Film Inquiry Committee that was submitted to the government exactly three months before the Srinagar meeting between Bhavnani, Diwakar and Nehru. The inquiry committee was headed by S K Patil – former member of Constituent Assembly of India and who later become Mayor of Bombay – and was constituted in 1949 to, among other things, suggest “what measures should be adopted to enable films in India to development into an effective instrument for promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment”. Among the members of the committee were filmmakers V Shantaram and B N Sircar.

After exhaustive research, interviews with over 300 prominent personalities including filmmakers, educationists, public representatives and journalists and studying memorandums submitted by over 250 important individuals, the committee submitted a report which called for widespread changes to improve its financial management and aesthetic quality of the films. The committee took the view that although the Indian film industry made significant progress on the technical aspects, it was lacking in content and the “medium’s potential for the education of the masses and nation-building” was not being utilised. The committee observed that for the Indian film, “the story remains a secondary consideration”, the play-back system is over-exploited, the dance sequences are used indiscriminately, the comedies “degenerates into the burlesque” and “hilarity and buffoonery is expressed through meaningless grins and gestures”.

In fact, the motive of the government to ‘reform Indian cinema’ by exposing the Indian filmmakers to better cinema traditions elsewhere in the world was evident in the message Prime Minister Nehru sent for the inauguration of the festival. Effectively rebuking the Indian filmmakers, he said in the message: “India, I’m told, is the second biggest film producer in the world, coming only after the United States of America. This quantity production is impressing, but I would like to lay stress on quality. I hope that the Indian film industry, which has made such great progress in the past, will make every effort to improve the quality of films also.”

First IFFI’s influence

Interaction with filmmakers from abroad and exposure to international films coming from Japan, Italy, France and Russia at the first film festival did influence the discourse around cinema in the country and also nudged filmmakers to experiment with the medium. This was especially true with the aesthetic of ‘realism’ as espoused in the neo-realist films that came from Italy and were the most appreciated among the foreign lot.

Still from Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen.

Among those who were directly and admittedly influenced by Italian films they saw at IFFI 1952, was Bimal Roy who immediately embarked upon making Do Bigha Zamin (1953) promising himself that it would be “as start and austere and will be shot on location” like Bicycle Thieves. For the film, he largely chose his caste from IPTA actors as opposed to well-known film stars and shot a majority of the film in streets of Calcutta and a nearby village. There are many obvious thematic similarities between Do Bigha Zamin and Bicycle Thieves with streets of Calcutta replacing those of Rome and the land-plot standing in for the stolen bicycle in the Italian masterpiece.

It is well known De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was behind Satyajit Ray quitting his job in the advertisement industry and deciding to make his first film Pather Panchali (1952). (Although he had watched the film during his six-month stay in London in 1951, much before it was shown in Calcutta as part of IFFI).

“Thus within days of the festival, Italian neorealism provided a specific and concrete rallying point around what had been since the early 1930s an endemic Indian disavowal of popular cinema,” says film scholar Neepa Majumdar further arguing that the brush with neo-realism during first IFFI affected both the “parallel cinema movement” which developed in the with Ray, Ghatak and others but affected the thematic and aesthetic concerns of mainstream commercial products such as Booth Polish (Prakash Arora, 1954) and Footpath (Zia Sarhadi, 1953).

The festival also gave a fillip to the film society movement in India – by creating interest for world cinema among the locals and making the job of those who ran the societies easier. “Above all, the first IFFI which sourced films from various diplomatic missions in India, opened up a new avenue of sourcing films, almost free for the fledging film societies,” wrote VK Cherian in his book India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and Its Impact.

The festival was wound up in Calcutta on March 5 1952. As per a gossip column published in ‘filmindia’ magazine’s April edition, the Films Division had actually earned a profit of Rs 7 lakh from the festival.

As per Dharamsey, the interest in world cinema that festival kindled among local Bombay cine-goers caused regular film theatres to play international hits (outside Hollywood) soon after the first IFFI. “I distinctly remember that months after the festival, Liberty Cinema ran Kurosawa’s Roshomon, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear as regular shows,” he recalled.

Despite the success of the first festival, Indians would wait for nine years for the IFFI to return with its second edition in 1961.

(This essay was originally published in The Indian Express on November 23, 2019)

What happens when ‘eyes and ears’ of the government become its mouths?

Is the right-wing echo chamber – comprising of ideologically aligned corporate media and BJP’s overbearing presence on social networks – affecting Modi government’s ability to see the truth?

Vintage Logotype Etsy Banner (2)

Narendra Modi-led BJP Government is known for meticulous strategizing and ruthless execution. This was at display in August last year when it made the big move in Kashmir by stripping the state of the special status granted by Indian Constitution. It pre-empted any possible fallout in the volatile region by suspending the internet and telephone lines, arresting thousands of leaders – including BJP’s own former allies – and moved over 35,000 troops in addition to about 3 lakh already placed there. A curfew was imposed in the entire region. While all these ‘measures’ came under fire from a section of Indian civil society and international media, they did help the government in containing protests and clashes leading to loss of lives to a great degree, something that was subsequently paraded as an ‘achievement’ and ‘sign of normalcy’ by the government.

Considering this, it is intriguing to note the way the government was caught completely off-guard in the aftermath of the passing of Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in the Indian parliament last month. The government failed to foresee the biggest resistance on the streets that it has faced since 2014 and was clearly taken aback with the scale and the spread of the protests. It took a few days before it could come up with a coherent response and devise a scheme to tackle this uprising.

What could have led to the government to miscalculate the impact of its CAA move on ground? By Home Minister Amit Shah’s own admission, the government ‘erroneously’ believed that the move, which for the first time sets a ‘religion test’ for Indian citizenship, wouldn’t have any consequences on the streets outside the northeast of India.

Was it the complacency that had set in considering mild, confused response its previous ‘big ideological moves’ evoked from political oppositions and liberal elite since it returned to power with an empowered mandate in May 2019? Or was it the belief that this mandate was an endorsement by majority of Indians for its ‘Hindutva agenda’? Since the protests broke out on December 15, it has increasingly become clear that a large section of Indians – especially its young – are fiercely against India stepping away from its secular path. What could have blinded the government to this disillusionment among the aspirational youth which was a large factor behind Modi’s rise in 2014 over Modi choosing ideology over the economy?

The other end of the echo chamber

Much has been written about how a media echo chamber created by ideologically partisan journalism outlets and algorithm-driven social media platforms affects citizens’ ability to make an informed opinion about what’s happening around them by increasingly filters the information, sending the citizen-audience only the information that they consume favourably and thus stratifies their opinion which may be in variance with the truth. Thus, it creates communities which are increasingly insulated from differing narratives being consumed by other communities similarly caught in their own echo chambers.

This phenomenon and its impact on democratic processes have been thoroughly discussed by media scholars. However, the focus mostly remains on how the echo chambers affect the citizens and their ability to make informed choices. The seemingly ‘irrational’ or ‘unexpected’ choice made by people in United Kingdom when they voted for Brexit have been cited as an example.

But what happens when the other end of the democracy, the government, is ensnared in an echo chamber? The current government in New Delhi provides an excellent case study of such a scenario. Over last six years, the government has created an echo chamber around it which comprises of a pliant broadcast media, a virulent social media army that has the ability to hijack every online narrative and a coterie of yes-men’ that surround the decision-makers. This system, which was actively spawned, nurtured and exploited by the government for a while now, makes it believe that everything is right with the government and agents of the wrongs have to be looked for and found elsewhere -in the opposition, among the ‘Muslims’ or, most conveniently, in Pakistan. Inside this echo chamber, every decision by the government enjoys tremendous support when, in reality, it may not be the case. The fact that it has an extremely centralised set-up, with only two persons namely PM Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, holding all the powers makes the government more susceptible to fall into such a trap.

A protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) outside Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. Photo by Arul Horizon

The state of India’s broadcast news media – especially Hindi news channels which have the largest reach – is well-known. Barring a few exceptions, the news channels have willingly turned themselves into the propaganda arms of the government. This control over broadcast media has paid the government dividends – the ability to set the narrative, the opportunity to discredit the critics, to divert attention from its failures and, most of all, as an instrument to build a larger than life image of Narendra Modi. In the imagination of Indian broadcast media, Modi is an omnipotent, incorruptible, self-less crusader against all things evil. He’s no less than superman and hence every move he makes is no less is worthy of being hailed as ‘masterstroke’. This dominance of pro-establishment discourse on corporate broadcast media has pushed the critical voices to the margins.

On the virtual front, the social media sphere remained BJP’s stronghold for several years starting from the build-up to the 2014 general elections. It caught on to the social media phenomenon much earlier than the rival political parties and built formidable machinery. Although others have since closed in, BJP continues to dominate the narrative to a great extent and uses it as a handy tool to spread its messages through a cobweb of ‘troll’ accounts and social media influencers. Its machinery is so well oiled that it controls the Twitter trends – indicating most discussed topics of the time – at will. A recent example, and embarrassing for BJP’s social media team, of this was when it trended a phrase with a spelling mistake #WeSupportCCA instead of CAA, the acronym of the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, with over 13,000 tweets mentioning the erroneous hashtag. These trends are intended to make the citizens believe what’s the mood of the nation. In the process, the government also seems to have taken them for the truth, forgetting that these are manufactured by its own internet army. This unquestioning, fervent support from media anchors, solidarity from prominent personalities from sports and cinema and validations with millions of posts and hashtags on social media platforms provides a confirmation – although fallacious – for the Modi-Shah duo that the path on which they are taking India enjoys overwhelming support.

Evidence? Look at the language.

The way the government and the BJP reacted to the CAA protests also provides us with some evidence of how its judgement of the situation is coloured by the echo-chamber. It also shows how Modi-Shah and their confidantes use the arguments and vocabulary from the right-wing echo-chamber. The strategy that the government came out with to tackle the protests -after initial days of bafflement- was to portray the protests as ‘violent riots’ (when, in reality, violence happened only in a fraction of them) and terming the protesters as stooges of the opposition parties or people who were misled by them. These ‘arguments’ were not fresh when they came from the government officially. The pliant media channels were running these for days before Modi made them but hadn’t worked as protests grew in their spread and size as anti-CAA, anti-NRC chorus swelled.

Across India university students have staged numerous protests against CAA as well as Modi Government’s handling of the agitation with an iron fist. (Photo: The Indian Express)

The mistaken belief that these counters will work seemingly came from television studios and social media ecosystem, where they could be seen as working. In fact, in his December 22 speech at Ramlila Maidan, his first address to the nation since the protests broke out, PM Modi pushed the same two arguments to discredit the protest. The vocabulary he used was also the same being peddled by the media to discredit the protests. He urged the people to not listen to ‘Urban Naxals’ – a term governments friends in the corporate media and its faithful warriors on social networks use to describe the liberals and left-leaning intellectuals of the country – and that they should no listen to “Congress and its friends” or ‘Mamata didi’, whom the prime time anchors had been attacking for “misleading the Muslims”.

Only a few days later, Home Minister Amit Shah told the party supporters at a Delhi rally that it was time that the ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ of Delhi – a term used by pro-establishment media students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and those who sympathise with them – is taught a lesson. In fact, after the violence in JNU, the defence that the government put also was straight from the social media where BJP followers tried to argue that the violence was a ‘left-conspiracy’ to assaults own boys and girls to blame ABVP. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister questioned how activist and psephologist Yogendra Yadav reached JNU main gate “within 10 minutes of the violence breaking out” and hinted that the violence was staged. This claim, blatantly inaccurate as Yadav later showed, was clearly picked up by Javadekar from the right-wing cyberspace. Being a minister, he could have used the government machinery to confirm the timeline but he chose to rely on the social media for information.

Of eyes and mouths

In a democracy, the media is often referred to as ‘eyes and ears’ of the government. It would serve the government’s purpose better if the ‘eyes and ears’ provide it with the genuine picture of the situation in the country rather than telling the government what it wants to believe.

The usage ‘eyes and ears’ derives from a Persian intelligence service called ‘eyes and ears of the king’ established by Archemedian figure Astyages. The members were supposed to closely observe the society, prevent insurrections from the oppressed subjects and investigate evils in the society and report to the government. This information would help the ruler to rule.

In a democracy, there are no kings but, as Benito Mussolini once described it, is ‘a kingless regime infested with many kings’. These ‘many kings’ of democracy needs a functioning media to sense the mood of the voter-citizens, perhaps, much more than the kings of the olden times, as it’s the citizen-voters who make ‘the kings’. However, the pliant, pro-establishment media, of the kind that dominates Indian broadcast scene today, forgoes the role of being ‘the eyes and ears’ of the government but has morphed into its mouths, those which talk only the language approved by its masters. The social media is either looked at as a statistical tool to prove that the mood of the nation overwhelmingly favours all its decisions or is used to silence the critics.

This failing of the ‘eyes and ears’ to do its function will invariably lead to a disconnect between the government and the lived reality of the citizen; the drive of the former and the needs of the latter. In a functioning democracy, this is bound to end badly for ‘the kings’ of the time.