On legalising prostitution

Social respectability shouldn’t get in the way of legality

Madhu Kishwar takes an eminently sensible comment by the Supreme Court—that the government ought to consider legalising prostitution—and engages in a tangential polemic on the social respectability of the oldest profession. “While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and the extortionist grip of the police,” she writes “to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.”

The fundamental flaw in her argument is that the mere fact that an activity is legal doesn’t make that activity socially respectable. In fact, ‘social respectability’ is itself subjective—depending the time, place and people concerned. It is an unfortunate fact that in many places in twenty-first century India, working as a public sanitation professional is not considered socially respectable. Yet no one argues that sewage cleaning ought to be illegal. Governments might try, but they are largely powerless in trying to change the social mores.

Even while Ms Kishwar’s questions on legalising prostitution appear rhetorical, it is useful and educative to answer them—not least because they help conceptualise how the prostitution industry might be governed.

What does the term “legalise” actually imply?

It would imply that consensual trade in sexual services between adult citizens is permitted.

Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sexshop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighborhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours?

No. Zoning laws have existed in India for a long time and prostitution can be subject to it. Merely because leather tanning is legal doesn’t mean you can open a tannery anywhere you like. So too for brothels. Just because selling cigarettes and beer is legal doesn’t mean you can put up beer and cigarette advertisements anywhere you please. So too for brothels.

How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

It’s not as if our young children are growing in an atmosphere where they are oblivious to the realities of the world they live in. But should the need to retain the pretence of innocence of our children outweigh the benefits—from exploitation by the mafia and by the police—to the hundreds of thousands of people in the sex industry today? Is Ms Kishwar suggesting that it is okay to allow hundreds of thousands of women and men to be exploited by criminal gangs and corrupt policemen so that we can tell our children, in the relative comfort of our middle-class homes, that prostitution is morally wrong?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

One major advantage of legalising prostitution is that it will be less susceptible to be a mafia-run business, with all the criminal political economy that is associated with an underground business. But Ms Kishwar has a point—how does one balance the rights of the prostitutes against the rights of the community they live in. It is a political question—and ought to be decided by the same political processes that govern other decisions. Democratic politics is noisy, messy and imperfect. It is, however, a very good way to answer questions involving such trade-offs. (See an earlier post from Amsterdam)

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability? One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables. How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute?

Governments can’t force anyone to respect anyone else. But as discussed earlier, this is largely irrelevant to the issue of whether it makes sense to legalise the sex industry. Ms Kishwar appears to come out against legalising prostitution because she is against according it social respectability. She is entitled to her view on what ought to be socially respectable, but it would be sad if that subjective judgement should be allowed to get in the way of de-illegalising prostitution.

In fact, there is a great danger in a society where only the socially respectable is legal, for such a society has closed its doors to progress.

The BJP must elect its next leader

Only intra-party democracy will help the party bounce back

They are writing the BJP’s political obituary. And unless the BJP shows the vision, wisdom and determination that it has been lacking for the last several years, that obituary will be called for. Yet Indian politics will be adrift without a strong national counter-force to the Congress Party. A ‘New BJP’ and a ‘New NDA’, therefore, is necessary not only for its partisans, but for everyone else too.

Yesterday, a Friend of the BJP was wondering aloud which leader was capable of assuming the reins of the party leadership at this lowest of points and rebuild it into a viable national platform. While this is a fair concern, it presumes the business-as-usual method of selecting the leader—backroom parleys and discussions with the RSS leadership—will somehow suffice. Well, this might suffice for the BJP’s partisans, many of who were responsible for its ending up in the sorry state in the first place, but it is unlikely to guarantee a genuine national centre-right party with mass appeal.

For that the BJP’s card-carrying members must allowed to elect their own national leader in an intra-party election. The election will not only throw up a political leader with the necessary legitimacy to carry out the much needed rejuvenation, it might even attract mere friends of the BJP to become card-carrying members. In fact, this is an excellent opportunity to elect the party’s entire national executive though a nationwide election.

For the BJP, intra-party democracy is not only a nice-to-have, it is one of the best ways of ensuring its own survival. It’s time India demanded this of an important national political institution.

Factional power struggle in Beijing

Cadres are competing to out-tough each other

“So much bungling in such a short period of time—from a regime that is seen as a deliberate, strategic player—rules out mere incompetence” this blog wrote in July this year. “While an outright leadership struggle is be unlikely, it could well be that a fratricidal war of succession is raging in Beijing.”

Well, the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut reports that’s what is going on. (via The Peking Duck & The Paper Tiger)

There are some well-connected political observers in Beijing who believe that the party’s recent across-the-board political and security tightening, including a ruthless attack on the legal profession, is linked to efforts by the vice-president, Xi Jinping, to secure the leadership of the country by 2012.

They say Xi is desperately wooing the hardliners, mainly allies of former president Jiang Zemin, who control the party’s core security apparatus: internal security, propaganda and the military. Xi’s immediate goal is to lock in a promotion to be vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission this month, in time for the National Day military extravaganza on October 1. President Hu Jintao received the same promotion at the same point in his transition to the leadership in 2002.

Beyond Xi, senior party figures are manoeuvring to get themselves or their allies into the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee by the time of the next party congress in 2012. Everywhere, cadres are competing to out-tough each other.

The internal competition is more unpredictable than usual because the party no longer has any god-like revolutionary heroes to defer to. [SMH]

Pearson, Gujarat and editorial independence

The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible.

Pearson, the company that owns the Economist, Financial Times and fDi Magazine—an offshoot of the latter—can no longer credibly claim that its publications enjoy editorial independence. It just showed that the proprietors of the company can overrule the decisions of one of its publications’ editorial management team, albeit in response to vociferous lobbying. Surely it is reasonable to assume that if Pearson’s management can yield to one group of well-connected lobbyists, it can also yield to others? Of course, if governments exert pressure on media companies it is coercion; if shrill members of ‘civil society’ do it, then it is not only acceptable, but accepted.

We are talking about the episode of fDi Magazine’s Personality of the Year 2009 Award, which now has been given to the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat became a personality after the Gujarati personality it was initially awarded to was suddenly found unworthy of the award—although the factors causing the unworthiness were not hidden to the people who initially gave the award. When it first recognised Narendra Modi—fairly in the Acorn’s opinion—for his achievements in attracting investments to Gujarat, fDi magazine certainly knew that his role in the post-Godhra riots of 2002 was under judicial scrutiny. Now, there have been arguments that Mr Modi’s achievements are overstated—just as there have been arguments that Manmohan Singh’s role in the post-1991 reforms, and indeed those reforms themselves have been overstated. It is inconceivable that a publication with the FT pedigree could have been unaware of these criticisms. (See V Anantha Nageswaran’s post). They still chose to give the award to Mr Modi.

But Mr Modi’s detractors couldn’t digest that. They targeted the management of Pearson in an email campaign, dropping names of people and organisations that Pearson’s CEO was affiliated to and demanded not only that the award be taken back, but also a “public statement of regret” from the publication.

In such circumstances, you would expect a media organisation of repute to stand behind the decision made by its editors. It would not have been difficult for Pearson’s management to respond to Mr Modi’s critics—that he is innocent until proven guilty by the Indian justice system, and that they would be prepared to rescind the award in the event that he is pronounced guilty.

But in this case Pearson caved in. In a laughable move, it gave the Personality of the Year award to a region, and to boot “decided to highlight the geographic regions of all the other winners.” But it is unclear whether Iraq’s al-Anbar province, Nigeria’s Lagos state, Denmark, Mexico’s Yucatan state and United States’ Louisiana are also recognised as ‘personalities’ now (psst if you are a critic of Bobby Jindal—you know what to do!). fDi magazine also airbrushed Mr Modi from its webpages. (The original pages live in Google cache, for now).

Pearson comes out of this one with its reputation dented. The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible. That’s a pity, because without the presumption of independence, it would only be fair to question the motives of the highly opinionated views coming from the Economist and the Financial Times. You know, someone might just have dropped the name of the president of the club that the editor is a member of…

Tailpiece: This episode shows that Mr Modi’s critics are the mirror image of his supporters. The former see him exclusively in the dubious context of the post-Godhra riots (where he has much to answer for) while the latter see nothing but the post-Godhra economic take-off that took place under his watch. And by ignoring reasonable arguments from the other side, they damage their own.

Territory is not a big deal

People are.

From a liberal nationalist perspective, it is impossible to agree with Jaswant Singh’s judgement that territorial integrity of pre-Partition India was worth preserving at the cost of having “Pakistans within India”. His praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his criticism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is based on this notion. Yet a constitutional arrangement where citizens come in different types based on their religion and where different types of citizens have different rights and entitlements might not even preserve the territorial unity it set out to preserve. It would be impossible for such a state to achieve stability in its domestic politics and consequently, it would be impossible for such a state to operate with the unity of purpose necessary to protect its geopolitical interests. Indeed, it would be difficult to pin down a definition of its interests in the first place.

Territorial unity is meaningless unless it defines a state that realises individual rights and freedoms—the foremost among them being equality. Nehru might have had his faults—but his uncompromising stand on a liberal democratic constitutional structure was not one of them. If anything, his fault was that his liberalism didn’t go far enough to respect fundamental rights when they got in the way of his social reform project. [For a more detailed response to Mr Singh’s contentions, see GreatBong’s post]

Should this warrant Mr Singh’s summary expulsion from the BJP? Well, that’s the BJP’s call. It is entirely within its rights to take action against a member who it sees has having strayed from its values. Of course, you would expect the biggest opposition party in the world’s biggest democracy to do this with due process, decorum and dignity. That it didn’t speaks of the type of office-bearers it has. It also begs the question of the kind of values the BJP has when you consider that it stood behind a thug who spewed communal venom but thought it fit to expel an urbane statesman who expressed a heterodox intellectual opinion. If the BJP’s leaders wish to face the electorate with such a prospectus, then it is entirely their call. [See Rohit Pradhan & B Raman on this]

But nothing justifies the Gujarat state government’s decision to ban the book. That it is silly and impractical should not subtract from the fact that it is an assault on the freedom of expression. Under Narendra Modi, Gujarat has been among India’s better governed states. Even so, it is presumptuous for Mr Modi to impose his likes, dislikes and political compulsions on the the aesthetic and intellectual life of Gujarat’s residents.

Unlike Mr Singh’s expulsion, the Gujarat government’s ban is not an internal matter of the BJP. It must be challenged in court. If the ban is symbolic, its revocation will be more than that. It will set a precedent.

Finally, let’s be clear—as The Acorn wrote in 2005, Jinnah doesn’t matter (and there’s some empirical evidence too). The debate over Jinnah’s legacy is taking place on the wrong side of the border he created. For India, the question of whether or not he was a secularist is pointless—Pakistan is an Islamic republic. Besides, Jinnah’s fear of majoritarian rule was hardly based on principle—if it were, his Pakistan wouldn’t deny its own minorities the protection against majoritarianism that he sought in pre-Partition India.

Unsurprisingly, it is in India that fundamental rights—equality of all citizens the first among them—provide a bulwark against majoritarianism. This hardly means that the situation is perfect. Rather, it tells you how important it is to be intolerant to any attempt to erode, abridge or subvert those rights for reasons of low politics or high policy.

That’s why those who disagree with the argument in Mr Singh’s book must oppose any attempt to ban it.

Manmohan Singh’s costly lollipop giveway

Reinforcing the Denial in Pakistani society is setback for India

Mirror-imaging is not uncommon in popular conceptions that Indians and Pakistanis have of each other. You hear it from Indian lofty-softies when they declare that Pakistanis are “people like us”. But while Indian mirror-imaging generally stops with an innocent notion of the nature of Pakistani society, Pakistani mirror-imaging extends to the nature of the state and its organs.

Nowhere is this most manifested than in the belief that India’s intelligence agencies play the same role their Pakistani counterparts. Accusing India’s RAW of involvement in any number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan—however illogical it might be—need not concern the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s propaganda/psychological operations units anymore: for it is part of the Pakistani nation’s denial mechanism. It is far easier to believe that those devious Hindu-Bania-Indians did it rather than to go through the emotionally draining process of uncovering just why are jihadis killing their compatriots and co-religionists.

Even so reading the editorial in today’s Dawn should bring the coffee onto your clothes. On the matter of the dossier on RAW’s covert operations in Pakistan that Yusuf Raza Gilani supposedly handed over to Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh, it notes that “if they are rogue elements within RAW who are acting independently, they must be taken to task forthwith.” The good people on the editorial board of Dawn are generously—possibly sincerely—providing the Indian prime minister with the same escape route that US officials often provide the Pakistani government.

During a week when it was Pakistan which submitted a dossier of Indian misdeeds, and the Indian foreign ministry used the word “baseless”, Dawn’s editorial just completes the picture. As Coomi Kapoor puts it, India went to the “NAM summit as the (victim) of terror and came back with a document which seems to suggest that both countries are on a level playing field when it comes to sponsoring terror in the other’s backyard.”

Allowing Pakistan to insert the words that it “has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in a joint statement has reinforced popular Pakistani perceptions that Indian intelligence agencies are responsible for high-profile acts of terrorism like that attack on the police academy and the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. To the extent that these attacks had galvanised people against the Taliban, the “badly drafted” joint statement damaged the developing resolve against jihadi culture in Pakistani civil society.

The real implication of agreeing to the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is its impact on Pakistani politics and society, and in turn, the effect this will have on India’s security. (And not so much the handle it gives Islamabad in bilateral negotiations, or indeed, casting itself as a victim of Indian covert operations. More on this in another post, here).

One man—and only one man—is responsible for this setback: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blaming the foreign secretary and other underlings for the “bad drafting” is pointless. No one but the prime minister himself could have agreed to that reference. He should be held personally accountable for this decision.

Handing Mr Gilani (not even Asif Ali Zardari, and there’s a difference) this lollipop has already had perverse effects: in addition to damaging the prospects of Pakistani society turning against its Talibanisation, it has increased Mr Gilani’s stature vis-à-vis President Zardari. If at all a lollipop had to be given, it should have been to Mr Zardari who had been sounding conciliatory, and not to Mr Gilani who is trying to mask his insignificance as a popular leader by taking hardline positions against India. The decision to reward Mr Gilani and punish Mr Zardari is astonishing: it is either an act of strategic wisdom that ordinary mortals cannot fathom or a clearly discernible act of folly.

The acid test is the next Pakistan-originated terrorist attack: if there is one, Dr Singh must resign. If there isn’t one, or a major attack is averted with the assistance of the Pakistani government, then he deserves our praise.

Update: In his op-ed on July 31st, Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoes these arguments (in greater detail and style)

Goodbye Offstumped

An announcement

Many of you must be wondering about recent changes at Offstumped and INI.

With this note we want to communicate together on the road ahead.

While INI continues to be focused on being a non-partisan community of individuals committed to economic freedom, realism in international relations, an open society, a culture of tolerance and good governance, Offstumped has been unique in its effort to pursue this objective with a clear political focus and engagement in the political realm. These are two different paths, and both are essential to bring about the changes that we want to see.

Offstumped as a vehicle will continue to pursue its political focus as an independent vehicle while the INI platform will continue to retain its non-partisan character with a strong emphasis on increasing public awareness and education on strategic affairs and public policy.

Offstumped and INI share a common commitment towards India’s future, but will function as independent vehicles to be most effective in achieving our goals.

More details on Offstumped’s future plans can be found here.

No excuses left, Dr Singh

Can Manmohan Singh redeem himself?

Dr Manmohan Singh has an altogether more difficult job this time. When he become prime minister in 2004, it was after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government had begun the strategic tango with the United States, galvanised the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan and arrived at a positive bilateral relationship with China. The neighbourhood was also relatively stable. The external environment that Dr Manmohan Singh inherits from Dr Manmohan Singh is significantly worse in some places, and in crisis mode in many others.

The Obama administration is determined to be in the “not-Bush” mode as much out of ideological conviction as out of antipathy for George W Bush and his policies. The ‘peace process’ with Pakistan has proven to be a disaster and after 26/11, the UPA government has put its Pakistan strategy on auto-pilot mode. China is off the great power launchpad and is flexing its muscles. The neighbourhood is in crisis. Dr Manmohan Singh could not have left a worse legacy for Dr Manmohan Singh. (And we’re not even talking about the economy)

The good news is that the old millstones are gone: the new UPA government won’t have to depend on Prakash Karat and his comrades and might even be free of the Congress Party’s own albatrosses like Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar. So Dr Manmohan Singh will have greater freedom to—and fewer excuses not to—push the kind of foreign policy that India needs. The presence of the DMK in the UPA might complicate Sri Lanka policy, but otherwise, there’s little to constrain Dr Singh.

The Acorn does not subscribe to the Manmohan Singh fan club (okay, that’s an understatement) but it has strongly supported the UPA government on the India-US nuclear deal. We now challenge him to use the current crises and set right the course of Indian foreign policy right.

Pragati May 2009: Changing China

The controversy over a new book by Chinese intellectuals arguing for China to adopt a strong nationalist-realist posture in its foreign policy has gone largely unnoticed in India. Yet the issue is important: not merely for what the authors argue but also for the response the book has received from other thinkers and opinion makers in China. The cover story of the May 2009 issue of Pragati hopes to bring this debate to your attention. We also take a look at recent trends in party-army relations in China.

In our special issue on Pakistan (No 23 | February 2009) we had argued that only a MacArthur-like international intervention can stem the tide of Talibanisation in Pakistan. In this issue we present arguments by Pakistani analysts who argue how the necessary change might come from within Pakistan.

Also in this issue: discussions on black money; on human rights activists who discredit their cause; and on understanding why states fight over natural resources. And more…

Download (PDF) and visit the website.

Tamil Nadu alert

Tamil chauvinism must be prevented from taking an anti-India form

It is repugnant, but legitimate, for political groups in India to support the LTTE. It is repugnant, but legitimate for them to engage in lawful political activism to promote their cause. But it is wholly illegitimate and totally unacceptable for them to attack an Indian army convoy for any reason. So the ‘activists’ from of Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (PDK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) who attacked an Indian army convoy near Coimbatore must be dealt with utmost seriousness.

The attack itself is unusual and was quite likely to have been conducted after agents provocateurs spread rumours about the convoy carrying an arms shipment for the Sri Lankan army. Like the riot that occurred at the Madras High Court campus a few months ago, this attack suggests that an unholy nexus between Tamil chauvinist politicians and the LTTE’s supporters has not only been allowed to exist, but been given the license to carry out acts of violence against symbols of the Indian state. M Karunanidhi’s DMK government—which never made a secret of its sympathies—and the pusillanimous UPA government in New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for preventing the nexus from developing in an anti-India direction.

The Coimbatore incidents must not be repeated. The prosecution of those arrested for attacking the army trucks must carry on without ‘politicising’ it. This is possible if both the DMK and Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK agree that some lines ought not to be crossed. The chances of this happening appear slim—but without leadership and deft political management the Sri Lankan issue could destabilise Tamil Nadu for the next few years.