#15: British Sexism, Indian Lathis & Russian Chess
Friday musings on the shit that's going down.
This post is not going to be a long essay, but three quick observations about events in the news. All of them, in a sense, relate to the subject of my last post: We’ve normalised things that we shouldn’t have.
Rishi Sunak’s wife is more than Rishi Sunak’s wife
There’s been controversy in England about how Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, has avoided paying taxes in the UK for her earnings out of India. For context, Sunak is the Chancellor of the Exchequer there, and Murty is Infosys founder Narayana Murthy’s daughter. She owns 0.9% of Infosys, and receives annual dividends to the tune of Rs 100 crore. And she’s allegedly figured out a way to not pay taxes in the UK.
Opposition politicians are angry. Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, called this “breathtaking hypocrisy” on Sunak’s part. Sunak defended himself by diving into the weeds of the allegations — which I believe he should not have. He should just have replied, “Ya, whatever. What’s that got to do with me?”
Here’s my point: How can Sunak be held responsible for something his wife did? She is not his property. She is an independent person, and has agency. Even if she decamped to Vladivostok and started trading cocaine from there with the help of slave labour, it would not be on Sunak.
To claim otherwise is sexism.
If Starmer alleges hypocrisy on Sunak’s part, he should back it up by showing how Sunak’s actions deviate from his words. To bring his wife into this is to imply that she is his vassal, and cannot live her own life as she chooses. It shows the regressive mindset of Starmer, and everyone else who’s joined in the criticism. (There is a global history to this embedded sexism, and it’s also our colonial legacy, as I wrote here.)
By all means pick on Sunak for things he does. Leave his wife out of this.
For what it’s worth, I have made the same conceptual error in the past. Many years ago, I read someone’s rant about how education ministers should be forced to send their kids to government schools, and I nodded in agreement. But that instinctive response was wrong. Those kids have agency of their own, and should not suffer for their father’s implied incompetence. Yes, papa is a useless leech, but beta’s still got a right to go to Harvard.
Unless, um, our taxes are paying for it. Or papa’s corruption.
The state is naked, and we don’t see it
Yesterday news broke that a group of journalists, among others, were stripped at a police station in a town in Madhya Pradesh, and the photo was then released to the public. A theatre artist named Neeraj Kunder was arrested for criticizing a BJP MLA. A bunch of people, including “journalists, YouTubers and theatre artists,” went to the police station to find out more. And then:
Tiwari, Free Press Journal reports, claimed that the police arrested them and kept them in lock-up for around 18 hours. They were severely beaten and were asked to remove their clothes. He claimed he and his camera person were arrested and charged with several sections, including trespassing and disturbance of public peace. "Why are you running stories against the MLA?" he was allegedly asked by the police.
The journalist who reported this, Kanishk Tiwari, then said that the station-in-charge “threatened to parade us naked in the city if we run the story. The police made the post viral. This is a violation of our human rights.”
The viral post is a picture of a bunch of men in their underwear.
The cops defended themselves thus:
But the superintendent of police Mukesh Kumar Shrivastava said that they were not journalists but miscreants.
This is not a defence. It is a confession. Shrivastava is implying that it is okay to strip ‘miscreants.’ Is it?
Police in our country are used to hitting people randomly, and always when they are in a position of power. Think of how we have normalised the term ‘lathi charge.’ It is never okay to run into a crowd beating up everyone in the way with lathis. It is never okay to slap someone around in a police station to extract a confession, or just because you can. It is never okay to brutalise street vendors, as the police does so often that I wonder sometimes if they have calendarized it.
This doesn’t happen because individual policemen are bad human beings. It happens because they are responding to bad incentives. Our founders designed a state that is designed to rule us and not serve us.
As Somnath Lahiri argued when our fundamental rights were being drafted by the constituent assembly, our constitution looked as if it had been designed from “the point of view of a police constable.”
But my point is not to hark back to these weighty matters of political philosophy and constitutional design. My point is that we have normalised these everyday oppressions, such as police stripping ‘miscreants’, conducting lathi charges on peaceful protesters and beating up sabziwallahs on our roads.
By condoning injustice, don’t we become part of it?
How do you solve a problem like Karjakin?
When Russia invaded Ukraine, I felt it was important to remember that the Russian state was different from the Russian people. This became evident when 44 Russian chess players published an open letter of protest to Valdimir Putin, at great risk to themselves. The wonderful Alexander Grischuk almost broke down, and made me tear up as well, during this heartfelt interview. (Watch from 4.20 onwards.)
But one chess player spoke up in support of Putin, and against Ukraine: Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin is a former World-Championship contender who also happens to be a fanboi of Putin. He wrote this letter in support of Russia’s invasion, and has been vociferous on Twitter in his hatred for Ukrainians. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.) He also keeps lashing out at other players he doesn’t like.
The governing body of chess, Fide, responded by banning him from all competitions for six months. This means that he will not be able to play in the Candidates Tournament in June, which will decide the challenger to Magnus Carlsen’s World Championship.
This has been welcomed for a bunch of understandable reasons. His repugnant views won’t get an airing at such an important event. The brilliant Ding Liren, a far superior player, is his likely replacement. Good riddance to bad rubbish and all that.
But the decision leaves me uncomfortable when I think of the principles involved and not the person.
Oh yes, Karjakin’s views are beyond the pale, and his behaviour has been unhinged recently. But this decision is not about him. It is about whether the governance of chess — or any sport — should take politics into account.
If FIDE allows for the precedent that politics can dictate what a sports body does, then players of the future could be barred from tournament just because their politics was unpopular at the time. Today, most reasonable people would condemn Karjakin, and let’s face it, he was unlikely to win the Candidates Tournament anyway. But tomorrow, a principled dissenter in a different cause could be banned from playing because her views don’t align with the politics of the day.
This is a dangerous precedent to set.
FIDE should have allowed Karjakin to play, with words to this effect: “While we condemn Russia’s attack of Ukraine, and disagree with Sergey Karjakin’s views on this matter, we will not stop anyone from playing chess. He qualified for this tournament fair and square, and he will play.”
Focus on the principles, not on the people.
In other contexts, I see people in India also commit this same mistake. When someone is arrested under 295 (a) or 124 (a), her fellow travellers will correctly criticize those laws, and argue that they should not exist. But they will later demand that those same laws be used to arrest their opponents for hate speech.
This makes no sense. It shows that most people are tribal, not principled.
On that note, I’m outta here. If you missed my recent posts, do check them out:
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