Friday, July 25, 2014

Dear India, Your Windows Are Broken

New York City in the early 90s was rife with crime.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, his police commissioner, famously used the "Broken Window" theory of criminology to make the city safe. Today, New York is the safest large city in America.

There is much to learn for India from the Broken Window idea.


The idea is simple. Small crimes beget big crimes.

Broken windows in a neighborhood show a couple things. There is likely vandalism going on and that neither the residents nor the police care very much.

These windows are an invitation to other criminals. More homes are vandalized and more windows are broken. Drug dealers and gangs move in. Abandoned buildings become their den.

Violence follows. People walk around fearful. Boys are bullied in the street and girls assaulted in hallways. Stores are routinely robbed and visitors viciously mugged.

Murders happen.

The neighborhood becomes disreputable. No one wants to buy homes here or set up businesses. Restaurants flee, grocers arm themselves, taxis no longer want to take anyone here.

This is how neighborhoods die. Blight and chaos is what a solitary broken window leads to.


You want to keep neighborhoods safe? You must fix every broken window.

This was the small idea with big consequences.

Crime was tracked and statistically analyzed, neighborhood by neighborhood. No crime was too small to be tracked. Every broken window was taken seriously.

Community policing began. Forgive the mixed metaphor but police officers from the community knew exactly how to nip the broken window in the bud. They were no longer chasing headline crimes - they were rewarded for cleaning out the smallest crime in their neighborhood.

Safe and clean neighborhoods became attractive to young families and small businesses. The flight to the suburbs reversed. The local economy strengthened from small business investments.

Criminals were no longer welcome. They had no place to hide.

Murders fell. Sexual assaults fell. Robberies fell. Muggings fell.

The city became safe and remains so to this day.


Why am I saying all this?

There is a lot to learn from this experience for Indian Police. But that's a discussion for another day.

I want to draw a parallel to bigotry.

When a society condones small acts of racism or communal hate or gender bias, it sows the seeds for lynchings and riots and rapes.

When a minister mistreats an immigrant, or an MP questions patriotism of an athlete, or when a girl is snubbed in small ways within her family, the broken window cycle begins.

Too many of us dismiss these incidents as small embarrassments not worthy of our attention.

If experience is any guide, this is precisely the wrong response.

When a bigot can get away with small hatred, he is not content with it. Next time he will try to see what more he can get away with. Others of like-minded perspective are encouraged by the non-response to the first instance of brazen bigotry. Before you know it, you have more and more bigots pushing their luck farther and farther. Words become sharper, more hurtful, then - eventually - they stop being just words. Blood ends up getting spilled.

The only way to keep a society from becoming a chauvinistic, identity-riven, churn of hatred is to call out the small transgressions and make examples of them all. This not only discourages the original perp, it deters others from trying the same or worse, and - crucially - it creates a societal norm of not tolerating bigotry.

This is the lesson of the broken window theory.

In a time where bigoted incidents are fast becoming an epidemic, nothing can be more important.


Rudy Giuliani went on to lead his great city through the horror of 9/11.

It is a matter of singular pride that the city did not erupt into frenzied violence targeting Arabs, Muslims, brown-skinned people, immigrants, anyone. The mayor told his city to stand together and support each other. And the city did exactly that.

This was probably because we liked what our city had become and did not want to lose it. We also had a leader who did not want either criminal violence or bigotry tormenting his people.

That's civic pride and applies to neighborhood safety as much as to comfort with diversity. And that's leadership.

Something  I think India - whose windows are sadly very broken - has a lot to learn from.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014



Of screaming babies in the parliament, Of perspiration
In air cooled auto rickshaws glued to unmoving highways,
Of pleading eyes of the man about to be lynched, Of tea
That still smells of the garden of mostly evil, Of Patribal
And Kalahandi and places like Kokrajhar that only exist
In newspapers between stories of starlets and paid blah blah,
Of caterwauling 99 percentiles in boards who still missed the cutoff,
Of grand narratives and great games when the future stands
On the crossroads panhandling at tinted windows and your
Proud heartbeat doesn't skip even once, Of art trapped in sterile
Airports where entry requires a passport obtained through high crimes,
Of being a refugee wrapped in a flag that has long since stopped caring,
Of being only our surnames and the flatness of our noses
And which superstition we will call out to when dying.

Of small men and scared women.

Of the beautiful everything that stayed up all night, every night,
For a decade to earn a green card and run away.

Of sinning so much that the suffering began before we were in hell.

Of words.


(I am up very very early and I am already tired)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

India's Holiday From History

Just at the moment when American political debate had reached a nadir of frivolousness ... the nation's decade-long holiday from history came to a shattering end | George Will, September 12 2001

I love India but no longer like much of what I see, I lamented in October 2011.

The 80s and the 00s can't be any more different in Indian consciousness.

80s was when fate switched off the light. We were riven by identity, suffocated by air, vulnerable to theft. Bluestar, Bhopal, Bofors. And most of us were poor.

00s was when fate shone on us. The earth became flat, India became young, the world accepted our bomb. Davos, Demography, (nuclear) Deal. And some of us became prosperous.

On the surface, this is a great narrative. And, yet, something seems amiss.

80s, as I wrote, was when fate switched off the light. It was our decade of despair.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. India may have had to pawn her gold but fate had rolled in her favor. America's heady holiday from history swept over Indian shores as well. We thought, at least for a while when the money was easy, that we had overcome those Oh So Twentieth Century divisions on caste and faith and language and race and economic status. We were all getting rich so none of this mattered.
Yes, Babri Masjid, Mumbai, Kargil, Kandahar, Sabarmati Express, Gulbarg Society, Akshardham, Mumbai again, Kokrajhar, and Muzaffarnagar all happened. But the overarching story was more about BRICS, Bangalore, Chandrayan, Commonwealth Games, and GDP than the tales of murder that we wanted to move beyond. Everything became about the vibrant economy that would soon make us a superpower.
To understand the depth of our delusion, just look at the current political discourse. One party is defending its economic record, another is running this down while boasting about its own record, and a third is fretting that some (corrupt) people became too rich while everyone was becoming rich.
We get it. It's the economy, stupid.


But it's never so easy, is it?
Recall that I wrote my lament at a time Indian economy was still growing strongly. In every visit, I found a country bubbling with endless optimism and limitless energy. There were no takers for my growing unease with what I was seeing. I myself didn't fully understand it.
As India has slowed, the nascent unease has crystallized into full blown despair.
Just because we were busy chasing riches doesn't mean we had advanced into modernity.
Caste politics still dominates the Hindi heartland. Regional divisions are tearing apart Andhra Pradesh. Liberalism is in all out retreat. Religious bigotry passes for political debate. Racism - to our own people as well as towards foreign guests - is routine. Gay people may not practice love. Gated communities proliferate while children panhandle for change. Khaps are defended by all political parties and rape is blamed on victims by supposed advocates for women's rights. Even justice is accused of lust and the army is sought to be divided by faith. Soni Sori is tortured by an officer who India then decorates and Irom Sharmila still starves.

All this ugliness has been here all along. Dazzled by wealth and blinded by hubris, we willfully denied what was right in front of our eyes.

Well, India's holiday from history is over and the time has come to deal with the ghosts we thought we had left behind.
Some will say that all will be well if only we could return India to economic growth.
I am not so sure. Economic growth, as the past two decades showed, is too small a band-aid over a vicious oozing wound. It can't hold back the bleeding any longer.
For all the conversation about governance and growth and fight against corruption, the real political issue at hand is discovering who we are as a people. My wager is that we will spend the next decade sorting this out. Indian energies will be spent more on settling identity issues than creating the infrastructure of modernity.
Breakneck growth will likely have to wait.
This is not all bad. India has to settle these matters at some point. This is as good a time as any.
For India's teeming millennials, who have mostly seen good times, this back to the future sojourn into the our incomplete 80s will be jarring. Maybe, just maybe, this will teach them some humility.