Human Rights Lounge Uncategorized

Drawing a line – Why I lost my enthusiasm for Draw Mohammed Day

I didn’t quite know what to make of Draw Muhammed Day on May 20.

True to South Park canon, the source of the problem is a Canadian. Fox News had published her name as the originator of the idea that went viral, even though she has long backed off. The issue dates back to Viacom’s censorship of the 201st episode of South Park. The bi-centennial anniversary was a celebration of South Park’s major characters and plotlines. Yes, even the Super Best Friends who were resurrected to show Buddha snorting cocaine and Jesus using porn. Ironically, Viacom bleeped the show extensively and in particular, Kyle’s teaching point at the end. Allegedly, what Kyle had learnt that day concerned not cowing down to absurd terror. The Canadian was objecting to such censorship.

In the beginning, the banning of Facebook was just one more thing to roll your eyes at Pakistan for. Yet, trawling the pictures people had posted, I saw mainly pure Islamophobia on display. Many drawings depicted the Prophet as a pig. Others invest him with devilish aspects. A common theme was him abusing little girls as a paedophile. Soiling himself was almost a leitmotif. Then there were some that were so ridiculous in their attempt to be offensive that they had genuine artistic merit. Case in point- the I am Muhammed and I have a bread roll in my bum cartoon.

This is not to say that all of the cartoons were designed to be offensive. My favourite had to be the simple stick figure sniffing a flower. Someone had also drawn a rather good portrait of the boxer Cassius Clay. There was even a montage of the long tradition of aesthetic paintings of the Prophet in Shia culture.

When it comes to depicting the Prophet, the issue is more complex than a freedom of expressionversus religious sensitivity debate. This point is best expressed by Karseten Kjar’s documentary Bloody Cartoons. Made as part of a series for BBC entitled Why Democracy?, it peels back layers of the carefully planned protests against Denmark to find it is not much different from the Rushdie fatwa issue. The Satanic Verses controversy is seen by many as a classic wag-the-dog exercise by the Ayatollah. He needed to shore up political support for the war against Iraq, which wasn’t going well. The scene that seals the deal in the documentary is when the filmmaker buys the last poster of Muhammed (depicted in a Disneyish hero iconography) in an Iranian Islamic super-store. The Iranians were going to stop publishing the hero poster to show solidarity with their Sunni Arab brothers (whose guts they ordinarily hate and fought above-mentioned war with).

In many ways this represents how much freedom of expression has shrunk due to that old villain: globalisation. When Super Best Friends was aired in 2001, no one took any notice of it. The Danish cartoons controversy has changed all that. Viacom no longer airs the episode that ran unimpeded for nearly ten years.

The Facebook, er, face-off between offended Muslims and those who are blatantly enjoying the anonymity of the Internet to rile them is very different from traditional conflict. It is not one artist against some fundamentalists. It is thousands of common people versus each other.

I quickly lost any enthusiasm for what had initially seemed a genuine grass-roots reprisal against fear, through social networking. There is a line between challenging the oppression of blasphemy and expressing hate against a people.

Somewhere, cartoons had stopped being funny.

Shubhodeep Shome is a writer and lawyer.


Mumbai Rising – Proposed amendments to the CRZ Notification will improve housing in Mumbai

The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (“the Notification”) of 1991 imposes restrictions on construction activity along the coastline of India and is often cited as the reason housing in Mumbai has not kept pace with economic development and increased population. It divides the coastal stretch of India into four types of Coastal Regulation Zones, depending upon such factors as the distance of the area from the high and low tide lines and ecological sensitivity. Until 2009, the coastal stretch was classified into the four zones without any exception. Among other things, restrictions were placed on the Floor Space Index (“FSI”), also known as the Floor Area Ratio (“FAR”), the ratio of the total floor area of a building on a certain piece of land to the size of the land on which such building stands. It was frozen to the cap, as it existed in 1991, when the Notification first came into force. The proposed relaxation contemplated in the draft 2010 amendments to the Notification aim to treat Mumbai as a special case. The draft of the amended Notification is undergoing a process of public consultation. All amendments, if finally approved, will come into force after the public consultation period of 60 days.

Mumbai skyline from Nariman Point. Photograph by Jayaram Kowta.
Mumbai skyline from Nariman Point. Photograph by Jayaram Kowta.


The city of Greater Mumbai had a major portion of the island falling within Coastal Regulation Zones I and II. In 1991, the Government of Maharashtra, exercising its powers under the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, notified the Development and Control Regulations for Greater Bombay. These regulations prescribe FSI for the ‘Island City’ as 1.33 subject to certain exceptions. The CRZ regulations reduced the supply of land and floor space, which can be built and, together with the low FSI, were responsible for the low floor space consumption of the middle class and the poor living in Mumbai. While the population of Mumbai grew continuously with the economy, the height of the buildings remained constant. Perhaps as a result, slums in Mumbai spread at a very high rate.

There are also dilapidated buildings with FSI greater than 1.33, which were constructed before 1991. These buildings cannot be reconstructed as any new construction will have to adhere to the FSI of 1.33 and this would be economically unfeasible. As a result of this a large part of Mumbai’s population is being forced to live in buildings that are unsafe.

An increase in FSI is often associated with an increase in density of population. It is true that an increase in FSI, if applicable only to a few individual plots, would result in a higher density on the affected plots. On the other hand, it can be argued that a blanket unfreezing of FSI through the removal of CRZ norms for Mumbai would mean a large increase in the floor space available and hence, spreading out of population, leading to lower density and lower real estate prices.

The potential for further ecological damage to Mumbai, which has already developed up to the shoreline, is very little. While CRZ regulations make great ecological sense in rural areas, it will only be an impediment to cater to the basic human need for housing in a city like Mumbai. Further, the public interest involved in developing affordable housing is far greater than the public interest involved in the case of development of Navi Mumbai Airport or the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, for which regulations had been relaxed.

The Swaminathan Committee had been set up to review the Draft Coastal Management Zone Notification, 2008 and the comments received on the notification. The Notification of 2010 is a consequence of the report of this committee, which also provided the background for why Mumbai is being considered as a special case. The Committee had also suggested that the government should try and resolve issues regarding the development and redevelopment of Mumbai through location-specific amendments. Even though the Committee suggested that a higher FSI may be permitted for buildings, it also advised public funding for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects.

Taking the lead from the report, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has put up a draft of the amended version of the Notification on its website on September 13, 2010. The draft notes that in the Greater Mumbai area, lakhs of families reside in large slum clusters and in deplorable living conditions. Civic agencies are not able to provide basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, roads and drainage because slums come up in an unplanned and congested manner. It also notes that these areas are at great risk in the event of cyclones, storm surges, or tsunamis because of the difficulties in providing rescue, relief, and evacuation services.

To remedy this problem, the draft Notification prescribes the initiation of slum redevelopment schemes by the relevant state authorities. It further provides that the FSI for such redevelopment schemes should be in accordance with the Town and Country Planning Regulations prevailing on the date on which the project is granted approval by the competent authority.

The draft Notification also acknowledges the large number of old, dilapidated, and unsafe buildings in the CRZ areas of Greater Mumbai, which, because of their age, are extremely vulnerable and disaster prone, and notes that there is an urgent need for the redevelopment or reconstruction of these buildings. It provides for redevelopment and reconstruction projects to be taken up by private developers or through the involvement of the owners of these buildings. The applicable FSI / FAR has been de-frozen from the 1991 levels and has been kept in consonance with the relevant town and country planning regulations prevailing as on the date on which the project is granted approval by the competent authority.

Shantanu Jindel and Shivani Chugh are lawyers with RDA Legal

Lounge Uncategorized

Kheema Matar and lassi at Triveni

The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.
The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.

If an arduous morning in the Supreme Court calls for a more satisfying lunch than the one dished out in the canteen, you have to head to the Tea Terrace at Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg. For years, the “Triveni canteen” is the Supreme Court lawyers’ first choice for a quick, tasty and nutritious meal.

Triveni Kala Sangamam is a venerable fixture in the Delhi Cultural Scene. The tasteful campus houses exhibition spaces and training centres reverberate with traditional and classical music from its classrooms and stages. The canteen itself has been operational for some 30 years now.  It used to be a magnet for the Delhi’s cultural crowd though now you are more likely to run into a lawyer or corporate executives than a jhola-wallah though prices still remain reasonable.

The ambience is pleasing and quiet. The snug indoor area has low tables and cushioned stools and seats around 25. What takes the cake, though, is the open-air dining area surrounded by tendrils and overlooking the amphitheatre.

Hot favourite for lunch here is the kheema matar (minced goat with peas). It thankfully lacks the oil bonanza that is a ubiquitous trait of such dishes in Delhi. Rotis come hot and fluffy from the griddle and the shammi kebabs succulent and textured. The judicious use of oil in the freshly cooked dishes lends them that home-cooked feel.

The vegetarian dishes change daily through the week – you can try the vegetable of the day – and includes old favourites like alu jeera and paneer bhurjis. The snacks menu is full of usual suspects like toasts, omelettes and pakoras. You can wash it all down with a glass of lassi or have a cup of espresso afterwards. You can indulge your sweet tooth with gulab jamuns or a slice of carrot walnut cake, again with a discernible home-cooked quality.

The Tea Terrace is open from 10:30 am to 6:00 pm and serves lunch from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.  With vegetarian dishes priced in the Rs. 30-35 range and meat preparations at Rs. 65, a lunch here would cost you under Rs. 100. Before heading back to the court, you can also check out some contemporary art at their galleries!

Justin Thomas Panachackel works at Rainmaker.

Litigation Uncategorized

Don’t sweat it, Dwarka!

Justin Thomas visited the Dwarka District Court Complex and explored the possible future of district courts in India.
Justin Thomas visited the Dwarka District Court Complex and explored the possible future of district courts in India.

A district court in India, usually housed in a majestic colonial-era building, is easy to describe. There are the rows of advocates and notaries under every semblance of a shade. Liver-red pan stains, that marker of Indian civil space, is ubiquitous. The milling crowd haplessly try making sense of the time-place set. It is crowded, chaotic, confusing and altogether brutish.

Since the September of 2008, the Dwarka District Court Complex (“the DDCC”) has strived to be not just an exception to the rule, but also a prototype for the future rule. Situated right next to the Sector-10 Metro station in the Delhi suburb of Dwarka, the complex is a sensible blend of practicality and the futuristic.

That the DDCC is different from other courts is apparent as soon as you enter it. As you go past the gates manned by private security guards and into the complex, two things stand out – it is rather unexpectedly spic and span, and even at the peak of a Delhi summer, it is pleasantly cool. The DDCC is India’s first district court with centralised air-conditioning and 24-hours power backup.

The 79 courtrooms of the DDCA are housed in four wings in two seven-storey buildings built around a tasteful, circular courtyard. Courtrooms are at every alternate floor, surrounding expansive lobbies, with the judges’ chambers distributed in the other floors. Separate buildings house the lawyers’ chambers and the administrative block. The entire facility is disabled-friendly and provides barrier-free access.

dwarka-tjThe complex also has a canteen, a post office, a facilitation centre, and separate libraries for judges and lawyers apart from the police station and judicial lock-up. Could not find a white shirt in the morning? There is a TJ’s outlet, a Tihar Jail initiative, where white shirts sell as briskly as their famed namkeens.

The facilitation centre provides all the information the litigant or the lawyer might need about matters taken up during the day and the courtrooms where they will be heard. Coupled with the digital display boards outside every courtroom, it goes a long way in making life simpler for those with business before the court.

Mr. I. S. Mehta, the honourable district judge, who has been at the helm of affairs here since the inception of the complex, has a very hands-on approach in running it.  “When we took possession of the complex, none of these amenities were around,” he points out, “Since then we have kept adding user-friendly features to it.”

The court is also in the forefront in the use of technology. Video-conferencing enabled courtrooms are extensively used in deposing in such sensitive matters as rape cases. A new biometric attendance system will be in place from next month for employees.

The lawyers’ chambers go a long way in adding to the dignity of the complex. It provides consultation rooms to lawyers at a nominal amount. “Chambers are essential for the efficient functioning of lawyers. The facilities provided in other (Delhi) courts are hardly conducive for business,” said Mr. P. S. Singh, Secretary of Dwarka District Court Bar Association, as he was overseeing the final work on the chambers on the sixth floor.

The facilities available at the DDCC have prompted demands for the shifting of more business here. Though the court’s jurisdiction is limited to the South-West district, it has special jurisdiction over all S.138, Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (cheque bounce) cases involving financial institutions in Delhi. The lion’s share of pendency emanates from the S.138 cases, and eight evening courts function exclusively to dispose of them. The Family Court, too, functions in the premise. The complex also has state-of-the-art alternate dispute resolution facilities.

dwarka1With just thirty-odd functioning courtrooms, the complex is heavily under-utilised. The authorities here deem this issue a policy matter for the Delhi High Court to decide on. “There is a lot of opposition from bar associations of other courts to shifting more matters here. ” a lawyer, who did not want to be identified, informed this correspondent. There is an excellent case to be made for the shifting of more tribunals to the complex. The real test for the complex would be when it approaches capacity functioning. Also, for a court complex that has automatic taps in the washrooms where you would be loath to touch the plumbing with your bare hands in most other courts, it is extraordinary not to have a website.
It is easy to pine for the architectural refinement of Patiala House. But once you visit the cool environs of the DDCC, it is hard to keep complaining.

Justin Thomas Panachackel works at Rainmaker.


Beef fry advocacy



I decided to give Shubho, a friend from Calcutta, a glimpse of Kerala outside the tourism brochures. We were about 20 km from Alleppy town, and on our way to Kumarakom.  The plan to do the trip on a Bullet 500 was waylaid by two Kerala inevitabilities – rain and hartal. After taking a detour and riding an extra 15 km to avoid the local hartal, rain caught up with us. Realizing the eternal wisdom of “if you can’t escape it, enjoy it”, we stopped at a lonely roadside shack, a ‘thattukada’.

We had got prime seats for a surreal view of the monsoon when a bearded man in his mid thirties appeared and let loose at the pace of mutual funds being subject to market risks. I could make out a few words like beef, chicken, prawn, fry and “kappa” (meaning tapioca). I ordered everything dead, fried and roasted.

Shubho had been sore and angry about work as a litigator, and I had been trying to persuade him about the thrills of litigation. “I didn’t study five years of law to argue on notice period for a demand of payment”, he thundered.

Suddenly, the voice from inside the shack said, “within fifteen days of receiving information from the bank”. “See, even he knows that,” said Shubho, but I was taken aback. In Cochin, I had even seen an auto-driver reading Das Kapital, but this was unbelievable. Not only did this guy seem to know the law on the subject, he was speaking decent English too.

As soon as I had glibly finished explaining to Shubho how even small traders in Kerala were very literate about commercial laws, came the next bomb. “I am an advocate also”. My confusion at that point would have been similar to the feelings of friend after he had been “tranny tricked” in Pattaya. Shubho was so surprised that the beef fry remained untouched for 15 seconds.

Spurred on by our stunned looks, the man told us his story. Justin (name changed, the real name is ironically derived from the patron saint for advertisers) told us that he was a graduate from Ernakulam Law College, an education that continued for almost a decade. He had repeatedly flunked jurisprudence and constitutional law. The same teacher had taught both courses, and he suspected some personal bias probably because he used to be seen with a group that once almost buried the teacher’s car under sand for refusing to cancel class to commemorate Vietnam Day.

He waited till the teacher retired from service and then another two years for re-exams to be conducted, and almost a year for the results to be declared and moderated. Finally, on a rainy day in 2004, he enrolled as an advocate.

I wanted to ask him many questions, but realized that he had just started with his story. He proudly told me that when he finally passed his jurisprudence and constitutional law exam, he got full marks for his viva on the “Hard-devil debate”.

“I was always good with people. While studying in the college, I used to do a lot of odd jobs; I worked as an LIC sub-agent for almost a year. I used to earn enough money to survive”, he said to Shubho with a smile.  “After enrollment, I started working under an advocate in Alleppy. For the first 3 months, I did not make any money. It was a hard life. You had to be in court all day and in the evenings be in the senior’s office when the clients came. The job was basically scavenging whatever files the senior needed. After 3 months, I started appearing in court for adjournments. It was around that time that I was appointed as the fact-finding commission in a property dispute. It was like a miracle, so many juniors were sitting in the court and the judge had to choose me. I got 2000 rupees for the job. It was a lot of money for me then.

“Around that time, I realized that being just an advocate was not going to be enough, and my friends and I decided that it was time that we started some business. It was Christmas season and we had the idea to sell firecrackers. We got the money together and bought the crackers wholesale from Sivakasi. We made around 50% profit. But then, you can sell crackers only during season.

“Then, my uncle who had been running this shack fell ill. Anyway the business is only in the afternoon and I can go to court in the mornings

The rain was over and we had finished our food. It didn’t seem odd that Justin was not interested in knowing more about us, even after figuring out that we are also lawyers. He was just happy he found someone to talk to. We paid for the food and lit a cigarette. Shubho, who was finding it hard to divide his attention between the delicious food and Justin’s story, thought that he should take over the running of Calcutta High Court canteen.

We walked back to our bike, which was left in the rain. Confirming fears, it refused to start. My brother had warned me about the faulty wiring when he gave me the bike. After a few semi hearted kicks, I turned back and asked Justin expectantly, “Eh…do you by any chance know something about bikes too?”

Ajith James works at Rainmaker.