Editorial/Modern minstrels
Parivar monopoly
Letters to the Editor

The medieval music industry consisted of wandering minstrels who passed their cap around after strumming a few ballads. The consumer dominated the proceedings. He did not pay if he did not like the product. He did not even have to pay if he enjoyed the music. It was as much a social transaction as it was an economic one. The minstrel and his hat may be returning via the internet.

This has been brought home by a legal battle between the Recording Industry Association of America and the dotcom Napster. Napster, the creation of a 19 year old, allows individuals to exchange and copy high quality digital music at no cost. This has the music industry on its knees. At any given time, one million people are exchanging music on Napster’s online community. One heavy metal rock group, Metallica, has claimed over 300,000 people used Napster to copy its music.

This strikes at the music industry’s bottomline. Such firms exist by selecting artists, producing tapes and discs, and then distributing and marketing them. The internet is eradicating production and distribution. It is diluting marketing as well as it is allowing the market to be flooded with local, garage based musicians. Some artists are skipping the big firms altogether and going direct to the net. David Bowie was the biggest name to launch an album on the net. Budding talents now prefer dotcoms like Atomic Pop. Others simply put music on the net and hope listeners will like it. What differentiates the medieval minstrel and the modern rocker is the corporation. That difference is disintegrating.

The industry is fighting back. It is merging rapidly, the big six firms are down to four. It is taking music copying software firms like mp3.com and Napster to court. Most lawyers give the companies little chance. They point to the film industry’s abortive attempts to stop videocassette recorders. Or the music industry’s failed attempts to introduce anti-piracy systems in hardware. In copyright friendly United States, the judges are sympathetic. In Europe’s lax intellectual property regime, the recording industry has no hope.

The lawsuits are rearguard action. Technology is inexorably making proprietorial control of music impossible. Napster clones are all over the internet. Freenet 0.2 is an autonomous programme which allows music recording but is controlled by no human or computer. No court ruling can touch it in its cyberspace haven — and it can be copied endlessly.

Music firms face a bleak future. Music may soon become a free commodity. That is just the start. The internet will make it impossible to maintain commercial control on any information that can be converted into digital data. The film industry will be next in line as broadband allows moving pictures to be downloaded and copied as easily as music is today. The death knell has been sounded with the arrival of Wrapster, a programme that allows any form of digital information to be copied and exchanged. This includes software, films, music, newspapers and books.

Music firms are being pummelled. The problem will be that free music also ruins the livelihood of musicians. The solution is to study the ways of the minstrel. A minstrel thrived because of an unspoken social contract with his listeners. He could not coerce them to pay. They understood the music would die if they did not cough up. The internet has revived this understanding through freeware — software gifted away on the internet and whose makers ask users to voluntarily send money. The music industry and artists are already trying to cultivate a similar understanding with music listeners, telling them that if they abuse mp3 or Napster, the net result will be no music.

Interestingly, the response has been positive. It is not unheard of someone listening to music on Napster and then buying a disc to reward the music maker. Medievalism, social and economic, returns in a binary form.    

What is the best way of making secularism work in India? How should citizens, political parties and democrats deal with the creeping majoritarianism that has begun to redefine the common sense of Indian politics?

One answer has been a political coalition of the relatively oppressed. This is the political strategy favoured by Yadav & Yadav, which builds upon the Mandal platform. In this plan, a political coalition unites religious minorities, plebeian clean castes and Dalits and denies electoral majorities to coalitions dominated by upper-caste or savarna parties. The strategy has seen some success in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at the expense of the Congress model, which yoked together Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits. It has also seen much failure because the residual category of the savarna that it creates is not just economically, but also numerically powerful and able to coopt plebeian groups: tribals, Kurmis, other members of the so called backward classes. For example, Arun Katiyar of the Bajrang Dal is a Kurmi. Kalyan Singh, till recently the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, is a backward class politician.

The southern or Tamil example of a lower caste coalition is similar, but also fundamentally different. Historically, the Dravida movement’s enemy was not a coalition of upper castes; south Indian society generally doesn’t conform to varna typology. The enemy was one narrowly defined group — Brahmins. Southern Brahmins were numerically weaker and much more isolated as compared to the north Indian triumvirate of Brahmin, Thakur and Bania, and therefore, given the rules of democratic politics, easier to overcome. Besides, a secular politics wasn’t the object of Dravidian anti-Brahminism, it was a by-product. Dravida Kazhagam politics was anti-Hindu rather than secular, though this might seem a patronizing way of describing the deeply felt atheism and rationalism of the Dravidian project.

At the national level, the Dravidian model is not a good blue-print for a secular combination because the social context that nourished it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Also, times change and anti-Brahminism isn’t the cause it was once. In Tamil Nadu itself, the success of the Dravidian project has led to the subversion of the ideology that powered it. With the Brahmins cut down to size, it is possible for a non-Brahmin Tamil to be Hindu without discomfort. Today, DMK cadres, ministers even, participate in Hindu ritual with impunity; this would have been unthinkable five or ten years ago.

An anti-savarna coalition of the Yadav sort is a likelier political strategy in the Hindi heartland, but it faces large obstacles on the road to power. It creates — by the nature of its politics — a large, powerful enemy. Also rainbow coalitions are hard to manage because their constituents often represent rival interests in rural society. There is no natural conjunction of interests between, say, Yadavs and Chamars; more often, there is a durable history of hostility. Besides, as Eugene Genovese, the historian of American slavery has pointed out, rainbow coalitions force the most oppressed (blacks in the United States, Dalits here) to devalue a uniquely disabling experience of subordination, to make common cause with other plebeians.

A secular politics can’t be built by fudging a common experience of oppression. The chances of plebeian solidarity building secularism in this country aren’t compelling. As a general rule, secular coalitions should be as inclusive as possible. Secularism isn’t going to be built by nominating high-caste Hindus as the enemy. Making the savarna Hindu secularism’s hate figure alienates the most literate, powerful and networked section of the population.

Secularism is not a radical project. Nehru’s Fabianism and the commitment of Indian communist parties and Marxist academics to secularism has given the idea a pinkness, a vaguely socialist air. Nothing could be more misleading. Secularism in India has historically been the keystone of bourgeois politics. Secularism began life before independence as a way of assembling an inclusive nationalism which could credibly challenge British imperialism on a subcontinental scale. After independence, the secularist project became a bourgeois, liberal-democratic attempt to establish restraining norms that would allow the state, this leviathan, to work credibly for all its constituents.

Secularism is to the state and politics what the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Act is to companies and commerce. It is a set of fair play norms that prevents any one religious group, regardless of its size or competence or power, from monopolizing the culture and politics of a nation and its institutions. In an ideal world, deviation from secular practice by the government, public sector undertakings, industry and educational institutions would be monitored by a statutory watchdog body, in exactly the same way as the Environmental Protection Agency in the US monitors compliance with rules designed to protect the environment.

Think of a contemporary analogy. The department of justice is trying to restrain Microsoft from monopolizing computer operation. Windows users are to desktops what Hindus are to India. They dominate the computer environment, most software is directed at them. This in itself is not a bad or culpable thing; natural majorities can’t help themselves. Things become problematic only when Microsoft begins to parley this numerical strength into an oppressive dominance by using its control of the operating system to rig the market against other software companies, thus stifling competition and innovation and denying users choice.

The fact that Hindus are an overwhelming majority in India is not a problem. Nor is it their fault that advertisers, TV programming, magazines, greetings cards manufacturers, shopkeepers, movie makers tend to take their sensibilities into account more than those of Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. How many Hindi film heroes have you seen who wear turbans and beards? The market looks at volumes; that’s why Hindi movies are likely to stage a Hindu wedding more often than a Muslim nikah (though there was a movie by that name that did moderately well).

It needs to be said, though, that the business generated by a religious occasion isn’t always limited by the size of the community that celebrates it. Christmas drums up more business than Indian Christians alone could account for. But even if the market were always to tend towards the presumed tastes of the Hindu majority, secularists would have no cause for complaint, no beef.

But if a company like the Sangh Parivar Pvt. Ltd. was to use its hypothetical control of Hindus and its real control of the state to insist that no one distributed Bibles or sold beef, that would be rigging the market. It would be unfair, it would be unjust and some department of justice would be right to intervene.    


Mother of problems

Sir — So should we begin with the predictable line that Rupan Deol Bajaj has been slapped again? And that this time it is not by a drunken male colleague, but by her own son, so to say (“Gill-buster son on run”, May 19). Why should her winning of a sexual harassment case make her in any way unique from other high-flying, successful parents who face, or are now having to face, problems with their adolescent children? The crime rate among urban school children is increasing at a galloping rate. A number of factors is responsible for this and the social connections and political influence of parents is only one of them. Ranjit Bajaj is a part of this phenomenon and so is his mother.

Yours faithfully,
J. Sen, Calcutta

Ad wars

Sir — Recent Pepsi advertisements have been in extremely poor taste (“Cola war uncorks star fizz”, May 13). First it was Kajol mocking Coca Cola with a red can in her hand. Now it is Shah Rukh making fun of Hrithik Roshan. For Prahlad Kakkar and Khan it is a case of sour grapes . Obviously, Kakkar is angry that the latest heart throb opted for the Coke ad, rejecting the Pepsi offer. Khan, whose career on the big screen is fast going downhill, also seems to have nothing better to do than mock the newcomer. Viewers are no fools to be taken in by such cheap gimmicks. Coke has always entertained viewers with good ads (featuring Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai). So has Thums Up (whose ads feature Salman and Sunil Shetty). Kakkar should learn some ad manners from them.

Yours faithfully,
Sushma Jalan, Calcutta

Sir — The Pepsi ad reflected very badly on Shah Rukh Khan, who has much to be grateful to Rakesh Roshan for. Khan has only revealed his own insecurity. Prahlad Kakkar’s denials cannot undo the damage.

Hrithik Roshan is a newcomer — not a one-film wonder — and does not deserve such an image-beating, especially by a person of Khan’s stature. Losing one’s popularity is a difficult and painful experience. But one shouldn’t hit below the belt. Such gimmicks will not work. Khan should try harder and be fairer.

Yours faithfully,
Gaurang Jalan, via email

Sir — A lot of hype and oneupmanship games attend the Coca Cola and Pepsi advertisements. The recent ad featuring Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan are perhaps the worst pieces of imagination by ad agencies — all gloss and no substance. They promote the stars so much that the products get ignored. In contrast, Thums Up ads are better. They are imaginative and exciting. And most important, not hyped at all.

Yours faithfully,
R. Lakshmi, Calcutta

Sir — The manner in which Rakesh Roshan reacted to the Pepsi commercial featuring his son’s look alike, shows that Hrithik Roshan’s overnight phenomenal success has gone to his head. Because there was nothing malicious about the ad to justify his reaction. On the contrary, the commercial confirms two things. One, it is testimony to Hrithik’s tremendous success after just one film for him to be panned thus. Two, that it is not just his dancing skills or biceps, but his winsome smile that women of all ages find so attractive. Roshan senior should realize this and stop going on about the adverse publicity. He should also stop treating him like a milch cow. After all, everyone knows what greed did to the goose who laid golden eggs.

Yours faithfully,
Vasan Nair, Calcutta

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