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Amateurs We Are

A highly opinionated piece on the Student Hunger Strike Movement for Tamil Eelam. Why the movement doesn’t gain or will never gain importance due to the amateurish execution.

This post is a highly opinionated piece on the Student Hunger Strike Movement for Tamil Eelam. The views are my own and doesn’t reflect anyone else’s.

I have been getting emotional and all that due to the meager response we received for the student strike across Tamil Nadu pressing the Central Government to bring out a referendum condemning Sri Lankan Government for its genocidal activities against Tamils and a demand for a separate state(country) of Tamil Eelam. Some said our strike was already a success since the DMK party has walked out of its alliance from the UPA Government. Some said it to be the greatest student movement since 1965. Was it really a great movement? And if so, why are we still counting on Facebook likes and social media for news delivery? Why hasn’t any 24×7 new channel called any of us for prime time? Why do strangers still question us about impact of the movement? Sure, it has been on for 15-20 days, depending on how you count, and has mobilized students all across the state (Tamil Nadu) including entire colleges in many cases. It has students from all sorts of background, arts, science, law, engineering, medicine, charted accounts. If the educational diversity isn’t enough, the geographic is more amazing, we have got support from Pittsburgh, London, Paris, Melbourne, Malaysia, Canada, Gulf and the list flows. Despite all this diversity, variety, size and enthusiasm, we were still a inner page news. Impact? Big psychologically – among the people who followed us, encouraged us and supported us, but politically – measurable if you count that DMK walkout. If you want to measure the political impact based on our set goals, well, I would say NIL. Everything that happened in the last week would have happened just as it happened, despite the movement. Why? Why didn’t it move anything tangibly?

Update: A student representative talked in the 9’o clock prime time in Puthiya Thalaimurai as I wrote this. At last a tinge of impact.

The Answers

The answer is simple, we are still students, inexperienced amateurs. That is it? Nothing more? Judging by the Press Meet that happened on 22nd March 2013 in the Chennai Press Club, I personally think, Yes, that is it. Nothing more.

Peeking a little bit, trying to know the anatomy of this movement and its growth, I am trying to see what really ran this movement (yes, it is past tense already, at least for me). The movements roots are seen in the Hunger Strike by Loyola students, they fasted at least for a week before getting arrested and thrown into the hospitals. Early reports chided their demands. Other college students were heard joining the movement in support of the protest. When IIT joined on 17th and a public call was put forth for all Tamil Nadu student strike on the 18th, there was no stopping. To me 18th was the day of rising, but who gave the strength? No one. As I re-positioned myself on that day looking for the core of the movement, it struck me, there was “No one”. Everyone had been doing and everybody else was also doing, no central authority, no agenda, no multistage plan, no organization, nothing. Just an ad-hoc network that kept itself flowing. There is no structure in the anatomy.

We wouldn’t let any political party to guide us, we wouldn’t allow anyone dictate our agenda. We just wanted to go on and on and on. People who were there on the Marina that day (20th March) know that feeling. Some said it was fight until death, but the well-known untold truth was, the movement was bound to die on the day of Geneva UNHRC voting. 21st March is the day the movement will finally loose shape is what I suspected. After some field action on 21st,when I saw the update “There will be a press meet by 11 AM at the Chennai Press Club tomorrow“. I thought “this meet is the one that is going to make or break the movement” The movement was in its perfect infancy. I had tweeted earlier,

. Not just the students, the movement itself was perfect clay for mould.

The Press Meet

I would say the the Press Meet broke the movement, put it bluntly, it just said “We were just kidding guys, you just fell for a prank”. Don’t take it wrongly that I am insulting the movement or the people who gave the press release. It is just that we guys are amateurs. When I entered the Press Club someone (4 of them) was already getting ready to sit on the dais. They called themselves representatives from some student federation. They said that Center hasn’t yet reacted to the protests of students and in order to make it turn to their side they would give a deadline until March 31st. If they haven’t reacted by then, they would get students to protest in front of President’s residence. In the meantime they had planned to arrange seminars across all districts of Tamil Nadu to bring more awareness about the Eelam issue. That was it. Press meet over in a matter of 5mins. I really thought, wow, so short and simple, clear and crisp, this is going to be great. A week to plan, co-ordinate, maybe create alternate approaches and execute. Although I was a bit disappointed for travelling 40mins for a 5min press meet, the message was more than compensating. In fact, bright and acceptable to all standards.

But the day wouldn’t end that easy. When I came out, there was another group waiting, the people who have organised the Marina Beach event, the people behind the FB page and to a certain degree it was the core group who initiated the movement. Then who are those people who talked to press a moment ago? What? They are different? There are two groups? Forget groups, now we have two faces? Two identities? “A movement with two faces is history even before it is born” is my opinion. The second group was a loose congregation of individuals from various colleges, mostly one per college, rarely two. This explained the movement’s  structure-less anatomy and ad-hoc-ness.

The Amateurs in Action

I had the option to stand on the dais or to sit down as a audience. I chose to sit down, for I am not worthy to stand on the dais. I haven’t attended a press meet in life, but have seen a lot of project reviews. I presume both are almost same, there are people sitting opposite to you ready to strip your project naked, tease every part of it until they prove your work is shit or you prove them your work is gold. No body really bothers the actual outcome (at least in colleges), what matters is the work you have put in, things you have learnt, and what the future work is. So the students were on the stage presenting their project, this one was a real world one.

First an introduction and official statement was requested. Both proved we were kids. The introductions went haphazard with almost 10 people introducing themselves. It would have been better if spokespersons would have been decided and they introduced and started with the official statement. The statement was a lengthy one, thanking for the students who made this possible, condemning the nil response of the center, the important demands of the movement, and the future plan. The future plan is the one that poured ice water over the burning fire, it is to undertake a “Non Cooperation Movement” against Govt of India to pressure them to take notice of the issue. Non Cooperation Movement? Against British? No? Not the British India? Oops Sorry. I am still wondering, how did this people even conceive this idea?

Press had some unfinished business that day, they wanted first to know about the integrity of the movement before even talking about what the movement “plans” to do. With two parties issuing Press Release on the same day on the same dais, anyone would doubt the integrity. Luckily the clear and crisp guy who talked earlier was in the dais with the second group too, but gave a fuzzy reply. He said, “When you fight under a single banner, it might induce boredom. Since two bodies are there we can carry each other in times of slackness.”  What? Boredom? Slackness? After 1 week on field? Oh! Boy. Why me? Why did I feel good about this guy a few minutes before? The press pressed for more, students blurted out there exists some differences, but they are working hand in hand with each other and will support each other. I really wish they have resolved conflicts and issued a joined press release, hiding the differences under the dais carpet. If two groups are bad, different future plans are worse. Look at them, one wants to reach Delhi, one wants the Delhi to reach them. I personally felt, the press meet a disaster. The more they are going to talk the more damage would be inflicted.

Moving to the Non Cooperation movement, press wanted to know how students planned to implement it. The implementation would be by not paying toll fees, no taking tickets in trains, no paying taxes, not doing anything that earns a revenue for the government. So who would implement it? Will the students block the toll collectors, the ticket counters, lay siege to tax offices..etc.? “It is to be done by gaining the support of the public, and hence we are calling the public take up the non cooperation movement”. What? A call for the public? I thought it was a student movement. Public support is good thing to ask for, but telling public to take forward the movement? This is where I really really felt the “We were kidding……..” moment. Even if the directive was to telling students lay siege to toll gates and ticket counters I would have felt happy at the simple-thought proposal of “non cooperation movement”. But telling the public to take over indirectly was like “Hey play time is over go to bed now.” Actually this statement put the movement to bed. Someone was mentioning something about stopping the power from Neyveli Lignite Corporation at the last minute briefing when waiting outside, luckily they didn’t mention it inside, I would have stood up and walked home crying.

The official statement carried a phrase, “throwing the Congress Party out of Tamil Nadu by democratic process“.  I actually warned the guy before entering not to talk about political parties in general. It looked like Congress was already printed in the press note they brought. Fine, if hell breaks loose who cares about excesses? Then came the question:

Why congress?

Because they don’t support our agenda.

The BJP doesn’t support too. What do you say about that?

We do not support BJP either.

You want to make the center to act. If both parties are against your demands, whoever comes to power in center they won’t support you. How/When do you think you can achieve your goals?

We will create a third front.

This hit the floor square, everyone laughed, including me (pardon me,I didn’t mean to insult). Future movement organizers, I beg you, if you are creating a apolitical movement, make sure your entire process is apolitical. I personally would have preferred to talk about central govt in general not about a particular party. Or at least would have avoided the direct political questions by saying the movement is not yet fully grown to impact such big political changes. I am not thinking this over and writing, I was precisely thinking those “deflective” answers sitting in the audience, I just wonder why no one on stage thought the same.

With political immaturity clearly exhibited, it was time to take the Foreign Policy test. There was some phrase let loose somewhere about “boycotting US goods” in the students’ statements. When I heard that question, I actually thought myself sitting in pre-1947 era press conference.

“Why do you want to boycott US goods?”

“Since US has been supportive of the SL govt and has brought out a eye washing resolution in the UNHRC, we strongly condemn their actions and hence call for a total boycott of US goods in Tamil Nadu”

“Ok. What about China goods then? China too supports the SriLankan Govt.”

“We would call for a boycott of Chinese goods too.”

“Do you think this will actually work out?”

“That is what we want to convey in this press meet, we want the public to support us by boycotting these goods”

Personally I wanted to get up and reply, “The questions are beyond the preview of our planned agenda” and put an end to this leg pulling by the Press, but someone had put the US goods boycotting thing in it already. The water has gone above the head, would it matter if its a feet or a yard?

Then the purpose of these boycotts and non cooperation was raised. Drawing the attention of center govt, the US and others, making them to hear our pleas and getting them react was the response, at which a press member commented a bit bluntly “No one will come to talk you from the center. No one.” I think that guy really supported the students and wanted the movement to have a tangible outcome, but was completely put off by the amateurish way things turned out.

Someone asked, “Since you are against the center government completely, don’t you think this might affect the future prospect of Tamil Nadu students in getting passports, or central govt jobs etc.”. I don’t know whether this was a legit question. What I sensed was, it was a tricky question to bring out the secessionist ideals hidden under the movement, if any. I didn’t have answer, don’t yet have. The reply served the questions purpose though, “While two Kerala fisherman were killed by Italians, a lot importance was given to the issue, but more than 570 Tamil Nadu fishermen have been killed so far, but there is no concrete step taken by govt to stop this. We think we (tamilians) are already being treated as second class citizens, so being sidelined by center is nothing new”. There you go trickster, we have fallen for it. Satisfied? This response brought out the secessionist thoughts hidden underneath neatly.

Luckily my most feared question did not come up. If they have inquired about the presence of LTTE leader Prabakaran’s photos in the protests, we would have been goners. For many would have said Prabakaran as their leader and called themselves a LTTE cadre. I think since the majority was Tamil media, we were saved that moment.

There are a few more pain points to note as well,

  • at some particular point someone on the stage became emotional and started shouting
  • at the end of the press meet someone from dias called the press people and explained for some obscure question asked in the middle somewhere and was given no consideration
  • answered almost every question put forth, even for things that were beyond the purview of the movement
  • naive – couldn’t judge questions that would eventually bring out the bad hidden under

Last Words

I understand this was the first press movement most would have attended and there might be slips, but some I have put forth are blunders. At least I think them as political blunders. At the end, I am under the confusion, whether I am complete fool who thinks himself to be intellectual enough to write this piece or I am actually more mature than the amateurs.

I wonder when everything was shared over the facebook, Why wasn’t a call for opinions on how to take this movement was not called for? Why wasn’t the points to be spoken in the press meet discussed over with others? Did they assume themselves to be the leaders of the movement? It is more questions for me. If this press release is going to decide the future of the movement, then the epitaph has been written between the lines of the press release.

A Day of Activism in Anna University

A recollection of the events that happened on 18th March 2013 Anna University Strike in support of students striking all over TamilNadu to press for sanctions against SriLanka in response to killing of Tamilians.

Anna University, a silent place where political issues rarely rise to the surface saw its own share of Student Activism for a political humanitarian issue on March 18th 2013. This is a recollection of what happened on the day as I know it.

Pre-Strike Activity

Loyola Student Hunger Strike started about a week ago in support of a referendum against the SriLankan Government for Genocide of Tamilians during the Last Eelam War with the LTTE and ended only to snowball the movement across all over Tamil Nadu. With the IITians joining the protest on 17th March, it was time Anna University students came out of their comfort cocoons and took to the streets.

I was sitting at a WiFi hut near the canteen talking about the extra-ordinary presence of a large group of police posted in the Saidapet Court. I have been reading that the student movement has come to a conclusion that sitting and protesting wouldn’t move things and has decided to take things to the real world by picketing the central government offices. Just then a student near me was talking over the phone about the presence of police in the campus. I let it slip through, since the Computer Science Department was hosting technical festival Abacus ’13, and police, usually, is the topic when people come in to university premises, since they were deployed about a week ago in response to the Loyola Strike.

Getting there

It was about 10.40AM when I was sitting in the Student Research Lab of Institute of Remote Sensing trying to learn time series analysis using the R Statistical Package for my Thesis. The friends who have tried to go out for refreshment came back and reported that students aren’t allowed outside the building. There has been a strike called on by the students by 10.30AM and all the buildings have been ordered to lock down to prevent other students from joining them. I began tweeting..

At about 11.00AM my friends went on a scouting party and found a open door unguarded and slipped out, when I received the tip and by the time I went there staff have figured it out and the door was closed shut right before me. Then I saw the watchman going to the loo and walked out of the front door just like that, collected my friends and joined other in front of the red building by 11.20AM.

The Sitting

The tar road in front of the Red building at 11.30 in a sunny day. There couldn’t be a bad choice for sitting all day in the shady green campus. But this is activism and it has to be done (it looked like that). So we sat there all day.

Amid all this, someone informed us that the university VC is on his way to the scene and a poster is on its way, we are supposed to hear him talk and sign on the poster and move away. This created a small outcry and I think plan was dropped. What actually happened was, the VC arrived, talked without a public address system and the staff members stood under the building watching over us. Which effectively meant nothing to a large section of us who didn’t hear a single word.

Co-ordination and Organization

Sitting there all day, almost every word I heard was about the number of holidays they would get, how the internals would be affected, whether they would be given attendance for the day and what the poor souls from the Computer Science Department will do as their technical events start today. Every now and then among the shouts about posing right for the media cameras I would hear about the Sri-Lankan issue. I shifted my place 3 to 4 times trying to locate myself into the core group, but to no success, for I couldn’t find the core group.

There wasn’t a visible set of students organizing, everything happened ad-hoc. Someone thought people needed water in the searing heat and brought a sack of water packets, someone figured out they needed money for refreshments and collected money on the spot among us and brought biscuit packets and more water. Someone, who I think the core group which started this went out and returned back with a poster stating “Anna University Students Support Eelam Student Strike”. When someone thought the final year Under-grads should lead, or whatever, they formed a human chain surrounding us sitting there, then dissipated away as they began to realize it was a bit useless at that place. It took a lot of roasting on the metaled road before someone brought a roof over our heads around 3.00 in the evening. People were holding the support ropes in hands and standing in place of the pegs. Finally someone (me) thought they could place a big stone and tie the rope. Someone wanted to tie the poster to two poles and hold it, then they realised they are better off letting it hang from the tent roof top.

So it was all that “someone” who did things, the people who just did it without wanting credits, I do not know who bought me the water and I do not for whom my money bought biscuits. Almost no one knows who brought that tent, and no one know how it stood. It was all left for “someone” to do.

The Girls Standoff

My last update in twitter was this ..

I tried to update from mobile phone but a feature phone with a flaky GPRS connection wouldn’t suffice. So I rushed to my department where I have left my belongings, brought my laptop found a spot where I could get WiFi and posted those tweets. While I posted the last tweet I was really hoping there would be some sort of standoff by 5 and maybe we will leave by 8-9PM. To my surprise as I was posting my last tweet I could see people standing up and dissipating. When I rushed to the spot people were talking about dispersing as the time was over. I found that a group of 6 have obtained permission for the protest from the Dean and they have promised to wind up by 5PM and it has been given in written signed by the six. So that was what being explained to others, but the girls weren’t satisfied. They wanted the protest to continue, they said winding up at 4.30PM is kind of dumb and loked like as if we are office workers. They wanted to stay. While even the boys who wanted to stay were up on their feats and looking around hoping to get in touch with someone with the same idea, the girls didn’t even get get up, they just sat saying it was their right to express. They aren’t saying anything against the college or the government, they just wanted to show their support for the SriLankan Tamils. They wanted the government to understand. But the organizers clearly had their own plans, they informed people might be arrested or even worse lathi charged if they stay there beyond 5PM. Luckily there were a set of protest-aware girls who explained the difference between the arrest and detention and the police are here to give protection not beat them. Those who initiated the protest and their supporters clearly wanted their way out before anything could go amess, hence it was informed that, it was planned to be here until 5 and they will leave by 5 and anyone staying here beyond that is their own wish. With that girls chose to stay and some boys like me who thought protest should go beyond the office hours stayed.

The End

Those who wished to go were informed to shout a slogan and disperse. And so it happened. What was left behind were a group of Post-Grads with a handful Under-Grads. The police were consulted and they informed us we can do whatsoever silent protest as long as we are inside our house, that is our Anna University but the head of the house clearly wanted us out by 5PM. Then there was a lot of discussion and it was finally decided to create a group email, inform people, plan and organize a protest if necessary on the day the college reopens. For once we are out today, we cannot come in until it reopens, so there is no way Anna University is going to protest. What ever protest we want to do shall remain as a protest by the Citizen of India by coordinating with others organizing things outside. The protest of the day shall end there.

E-Books & DRM for the Simple Man

What are these E-Books?

E-Books, in short for Electronic Books, are digital forms of Books. These were created, so that we all could read books in our personal computers, cellphones, tablet computers, or even dedicated devices like Kindle.

What is this DRM?

DRM, in short for Digital Rights Management, is a technology used by companies producing digital content in the form of music, ebooks, games, software ..etc., to restrict the misuse of the content. For example, you buy a software for your personal computer, but you want to install the same software in your friend’s computer, DRM helps in preventing you from doing it. Because, it is you who has paid and your friend cannot have it for free.

So what is it with pricing and DRM?

In a game situation, it is a all gain or all lose stance for the publisher because, if the game is good, more people want to play it, if it is bad, no one wants to play. The pricing and the DRM has to be perfect for the content creator-cum-publisher to make money. If the game is great and has no DRM, then it can be distributed over the internet and still end up as loss for the publisher.

In a book situation, it is a complex thing. Making it simple, the writer gets a amount of money to cover his bread if he gets a publisher to publish his book. The publisher gets to pay his bills if the retailer could sell more number of books than a threshold level, and finally the retailer gets to feed his family by taking a profit selling all kinds of books. So where does DRM and Pricing come into picture? Pricing comes into picture with the publisher, he has to set the correct price, so that all the three could benefit.

And DRM …

As you can see that it is publisher’s head ache to tune the pricing to sell more number of copies, so one would assume it is his work to set right the DRM as well. But that doesn’t apply to ebooks. The people who actually do it in case of e-books are the retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Flipkart.

Why is that?

It is because a publisher is NOT needed anymore. A publisher was need in the 20th century to get the manual work done, like proofreading, typesetting, sourcing paper, printing and selling. Perhaps a century or two back, there wasn’t any publisher. There were writers and printers, that’s all. It was the writer’s headache to sell his books. Coming back to the 21st century, in the digital era, there is no typesetting, no papers, no printing. The author proofreads and the retailer sells. Now all we have left in digital book scenario is the content creator and the retailer. And retailer decides the pricing, hence the DRM.

To give a real life example, the cost of Hunger Games Part 2 was $6.78 the moment after I bought Part 1 in Amazon, but dropped to $3.75 when I bought a month later. Now Amazon is trying to sell me Part 3 for some $9.45. (sigh) This is how retailers manipulate prices for gains.

Who benefits from this DRM?

Obviously the Writer and the Retailer.

Who is affected by DRM?

You and me. The people who read books.

How?

In order to understand how, first we need to see what a idle digital book could offer us.

To put simply, it offers seamless usage in all things digital. An idle ebook, could be read in any device you choose, can be annotated anywhere you want, can have any number of bookmarks, highlights, notes attached to any place in the book. You could buy a book and your whole family could read it at the same time, instead of waiting for turns. Instead of photocopying pages of your interest, you could take clean printouts with custom typeset and paste in your bedroom walls. You can read one page at home computer, next in phone as you commute and the next perhaps in your school/office tablet. And the possibilities are endless. Content sharing would be intertwined with our lives so much that we wouldn’t really be talking about books as objects as we see it today. Think about it, the entire collection of books in the state library accessible from anywhere by anyone and still be able to use it as his personal book. It is a book lover’s paradise. But mind it, all for a price and not free.

But DRM, in its present state, takes away your liberty to use the book the way you want completely and makes you use it how the retailer tells you to do it. All the fantastic things in the above paragraph will remain a fantasy with DRM. Moving a step down, the DRM that now exists removes whatever liberty that even printed books provided.

Here are the pain points:

  • Sharing: Physical books could easily be shared between family members, friends, co-workers, teachers and students. No longer. Either you will have swap the device itself that contains the book or buy buy separate copies. What we see as a convenience, the writers and publishers seem to see it as a nuisance. They have found a way to stop this sharing and increasing their sales through DRM. What we see as savings, they see it as potential losses. Which means, what the freedom that digital era brought, was usurped by the same digital tech called DRM. Now people cannot share the books they buy even with their kids.
  • Walled gardens: Multiple device sharing being a very important advantage of digital content, retailers are rolling out applications for all major platforms, so that the same book could be shared between multiple devices seamlessly. But the catch is, they will dictate how wee do it. For example, you cannot buy a book to be read from Amazon and read on a device other than one supported by Amazon. Which means, Amazon dictates how I use my book where. If you are going to buy books from multiple retailers, you are going to end up in multiple islands with a character and climate of their own; unlike a physical book which remains the same irrespective of the retailer.
  • Content: Using the content the way we want is one best thing digital technology gives us. You could use the same text in umpteen different ways in umpteen different contexts with very little physical effort. You could quote complete paragraphs effortlessly, print your favourite versus or even make posters of famous quotations typesetting as per your like. But it is all a no go with DRM. No copying content anywhere. One could of course make posters and small passage print outs with a bit of workarounds. But they again are based on the whims and fancies of the retailers. For example Flipkart doesn’t allow you to share more than 140 characters.
  • File Formats: Almost all the weapons of DRM are wielded by the hand called file format. The same book is sold in different formats by each retailer that can only be read by his software or device, which means, you cannot open a Flipkart book in Amazon device. Even in your phone you need to install two different software for books from different retailers and save any notes you make in two different software. All of which makes one wonder, whether technology is making our lives simpler or more complex. The worst of this multiple format nightmare is they cannot be converted from one to another easily bring more pain than ease.

With the above restrictions imposed by the retailers, the e-books actually look like a step back in the technology that a step forward in the life of books. It is not technology that is at fault here, open formats like EPUB exist solely for e-books, which could be used by any retailer. But retailers choose DRM over open standards, and that creates the mess for common people like us.

What does the future hold?

I am unsure how the future will unfold. There has to be a perspective change in the publishing industry for openness to occur and all the benefits of digital books to be harnessed. The view of seeing ebooks just like conventional books and fixing costs per unit sales and restricting their usage has to change. Just like software, books with better features could be sold for different prices, say a open format book would cost a dollar more than a retailer specific format. Provide additional formats, content copying abilities, multiple device support, etc., could be added at an additional cost. And that could create a new dynamics in book pricing. Or may be someone creates a open store where an author could publish his book and is free from all the retailer and DRM mess.

And I am hoping for such a day.