Tag Archives: India

Perspectives on censorship: Canada

Continuation of my little survey, explained here. If you haven’t already, do read the previous one on Mexico.

My questions were:

– Whether your country has a history of censorship
– Whether censorship has increased in the past decade
– My particular concern is web 2.0: blogging and social media – how have governments reacted to this?
– If you have any direct experiences of or related to censorship that you can and would like to speak about, and would not mind me publishing on my blog, please share.

The response below, is from a Canadian friend and former colleague, Daniel Scuka.

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Canada

Read the Wikipedia article on Censorship in Canada for a good backgrounder. My personal opinion, overall, is that Canadians don’t tolerate undue government or societal interference in what they can read, watch, listen to, view or download. There is, however, wide and general support for criminal code prohibitions against, for example, child ponography, and certain other defined types of demonstrably harmful content. Most Canadians, by and large, are content to live and let live, apply the Golden Rule, and are appalled when ‘societal norms’ are exceeded. But criminalisation of certain kinds of content can go too far. In the past decade, the former liberal government tried to institute a gun registry. It was a huge failure and widely hated. Lesson No. 1 in Canada: don’t try to regulate what doesn’t need regulating – people just won’t comply.

Some areas where Canadians need to be vigilant:

Undue or overly broad application of human rights laws, which end up silencing genuine dissent

Growing pressure from religious or other groups to ban books or other forms of expression

The automatic reflex reaction from middle- and minor-level government officials to ban, interdict or otherwise decide upon what’s best for people based on creeping state nannyism.

Does your country have a history of censorship?

Yes! Many examples via Wikipedia and via Freedom to Read; yet this has become less of an issue in recent decades – except for certain groups (e.g. religious groups) who remain increasingly keen to reject or ban anything outside their fixed doctrines.

Has censorship increased in the past decade?

State censorship: no. Individual or group movements to censor certain books or other expressions: somewhat.

My particular concern is web 2.0: blogging and social media – how have governments reacted to this?

In Canada, you can often say pretty much say whatever you want so long as it’s remotely defensible. A recent scandal involved an anonymous Twitter account that revealed (accurate) details about a government minister’s private life. It was widely criticised not on the grounds of the content itself, but on the grounds that it was managed and updated via government-funded, government-networked computers (by someone in the opposition), violating appropriate use regulations.

If you have any direct experiences of or related to censorship that you can and would like to speak about, please share.

None.

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This is a post for Make Blog Not War: a freedom of expression training workshop for bloggers, organized by the Internet Democracy Project.

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Perspectives on censorship: Mexico

My little survey, as I explained in my previous post, was to test what I felt, about censorship becoming our newest fad.

My questions were:

– Whether your country has a history of censorship
– Whether censorship has increased in the past decade
– My particular concern is web 2.0: blogging and social media – how have governments reacted to this?
– If you have any direct experiences of or related to censorship that you can and would like to speak about, and would not mind me publishing on my blog, please share.

The one important thing this exercise is bringing, for me, is perspective. The information reaches our ears is always biased, whether we get it from mainstream media, social media, or any other channel. My friends have always been one source that I use for mind-expanding exercises of my own, so it was natural for me to reach out to them.

Reading the different responses has been enlightening, and I will be sharing here all that I have received, from friends in different corners of the world.

The response below, from a Mexican, is one of the more detailed ones. I am yet figure out whether I will combine this with other replies from elsewhere in the world, if at all. But this is too important and interesting to sit on any longer, so here it is.

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Mexico

Does your country have a history of censorship?

Yes. In addition to the colonial era during which Mexico was closed to foreigners, there are two very strong factors that propagate a “tradition” of censorship in Mexico.

The Catholic Church has always had a strong influence in most of the country. It has lost its grip in some areas, but only lately. As the faith is pretty conservative and closed, they rather not talk about the problem. An example of its influence is the assassination of two students in a small town by a mob after the priest claimed that they were communists. This happened 40 years ago, but in many places inside the countryside, the influence hasn’t diminished and population has not become more knowledgeable since. What the Church says is the law. Funnily enough, although many people are now protestants or of other faiths, there is a general attitude that the priest, preacher, wise man is right and there is no room for dissent or other voices.

The second culprit is our political system. All of Latin America has had juntas and failed revolutions. In Mexico, we brought in a one-party system that controlled the unions, the indigenous groups, the students, the teachers… It was closer to communism than people would like to recognize.

So all of life became regulated by two systems that do not allow neither criticism nor dissent. Since the one-party system collapsed and the opposition gained access to power, we are able to publish more stuff, but it has been a bumpy road. Religious fanatics still exist in large numbers in addition to the war on drugs and corrupt politicians that behave like a mafia.

One final point – the government pays for lots of informative ads in most media. These are usually about social programs and opportunities. It makes the government one of the biggest ad clients of some magazines and newspapers so they they are kept on a leash: if you criticize too much, you lose your income :/

Has censorship increased in the past decade?

It has. There was a period during which we could joke about the president (a big no no 50 years ago) although you still couldn’t use religious images in non-religious contexts. For example, there was an artist that depicted the Virgin Mary as a working class Mexican mother. She was almost lynched and they tried to burn the piece.

The biggest problem is that we are in a state of emergency at the moment. It is so bad that in many regions, the government has lost complete control and precense. Whole towns have emigrated to other towns or even to the United States. This is because we were not ready for the war on drugs. Our police and judicial systems are obsolete, they work on the basis that they must capture and sentence anyone for a crime, but rarely solve anything; there is also lots of corruption. So these forces have enforced an enormous ‘clean-up’, and as you can imagine, it hasn’t gone well.

There was a lot of corruption in politics in the past, and the press started to flag them and their practices in the 90s. Now the press have to defend themselves with their lives from corrupt politicians and druglords. Sometimes they work together (politicians and narcos) but sometimes they don’t. Journalists have been targeted so many times in the last few years that they have begun to self-censor.

The press does not get protection by the Mexican government to practise its profession of informing the public, and is tired of loosing colleagues, leaving widows, widowers and orphans along the trail, so in some cities, it has decided to not write about the drug violence anymore. They have also decided to cut some reporting on the drug violence at the national level.

People have also become afraid and anyone criticizing anything is treated as some sort of traitor, making journalists or bloggers exposing abuses by the authorities seem particularly unpatriotic. We do not stop and think, ‘Hey, the navy killed an innocent young guy!’ but instead we think, ‘Well, they are doing his job and he must have been involved.’

There is also another type of censorship that is becoming more common. In some cities and regions where the narcos are the de facto bosses, people do not even talk about the last kidnapping or shooting in restaurants or at the beauty parlor. Everybody talks about superfluous things, because you never know who is sitting next to you;  there have been cases where people have been shot in broad daylight because he/she was commenting on the violence.

My particular concern is web 2.0: blogging and social media – how have governments reacted to this?

Not very well. In Mexico, many professional journalists fear for their lives; many have been killed and many have emigrated. One woman who exposed a governor who runs a pedophile network had to move from her city. Bloggers have less protection because they do not have an important body that supports them, not that it could help much in the current situation.

The more liberal, enlightened governors have learned to live with blogging and social media, the brutal ones are less nice. However, the worst violence directed at bloggers comes from the drug lords and governors that work with them. This may be a little confusing but there are several types of baddie governors: some are just corrupts m*therf*ckers whereas others are not only stakeholders in the drug trade, but active players.

The drug cartels are also pretty brutal and some are run by ex intelligence agents trained by the CIA, like the Zetas who used to be an elite unit. They are still elite, I can assure you that 😦

In the last year, several bloggers have been killed by the cartels, some in Cd Juárez, some in Monterrey or in Veracruz. There are lots of news about this in English language media, this one, for example.
As expected, Anonymous is also a player here and they have been also involved in the drug war by targeting those who help the drug cartels. And as you can imagine, some hackers have been targeted by the drug lords.

It is an awful struggle for power in which there is basically no rule of the law.

If you have any direct experiences of or related to censorship that you can and would like to speak about, please share.

No such experiences, but I do know people who have.

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This is a post for Make Blog Not War: a freedom of expression training workshop for bloggers, organized by the Internet Democracy Project.

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Dhanvantri school: one true face of development

Those among us who do not have all their senses intact, exist in a parallel universe. A fortunate person like me can only imagine what this universe is like. No matter how deep our empathy, our cognitive abilities prevent us from experiencing their reality.

I come from a family that has been involved in education at different stages. My grandfather was a Head Teacher for a period of 26 years at two different schools in our native village of Sidhpur in North Gujarat. His pedagogical style reflected in his interactions with his grandchildren, the letters he wrote to us, his style of speaking and sharing, and manifested especially strongly when his grown-up students visited him in his old age.

I also have quite a lot of direct experience with hearing impaired students. My mother works as a special educator for such children, and I’ve grown up in a house that my friends termed a practical school. These experiences have moulded my persona and stayed with me no matter where I went.

In my late teens I travelled to Germany for a basic degree in Astrophysics. My postgraduate education took me to France, and I later travelled to Singapore and the Netherlands for work at private companies, as well as the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.

As a science communications expert specialised in Space and Astronomy topics, I deal daily with the issues of science education and public understanding of science. I have a special interest in science education, especially of girls, and am investigating ways that can help turn basic science education into scientific literacy, for mothers and children, and from them, to the community and wider public.

This is a grave challenge that extends well beyond the classroom. Science education begins with a tailored curriculum that includes information that is very obviously relevant to our daily lives, and also imparts information and methods that will take the students further and teach them the scientific method and mode of thinking. The latter is key to taking science education and helps turn it into scientific literacy.

I am especially unaware of the mechanisms at work in rural areas in a developing country such as India, so I visited Dhanvantri school hoping for a tiny little glimpse into this world. I wanted a peek into how Dr. Shantuben Patel and her teachers deal with parents, how they sensitise and train them to their childrens’ special needs. Science education does not directly relate to this, but I have an inkling feeling that scientific literacy may be of help in opening up families and communities that would otherwise isolate mentally and physically challenged children.

I have known Dr. Patel for over a year now. She has invited me to visit Dhanvantri school several times, but I hesitated, unsure whether I’d actually be able to contribute at all, afraid that I’d end up being a burden instead.

While Dhanvantri School does not focus on science education, I was hoping to get a glimpse of the methods they use to reach out beyond the classroom, into the childrens’ daily lives. For that is where information turns into education, and finally literacy.

I have also had my introduction to Vipassana meditation six years ago, and while I wouldn’t call myself a serious serial practitioner, it is very much a part of my life. The knowledge that these children were practicing basics of meditation also drew me to them. I was keen to witness in person the effect the practice had on them. Sitting with innocent faces in the room for just ten minutes in silence has done more for me than I would ever imagine.

As I observed a normal day unfold at the school, Dr. Patel’s deep insight in dealing with each individual child and their parent, and her understanding of how each case needs to be educated and then treated, came through clearly.

I got to the school without a plan, mostly because I was afraid of being associated with a world that is too far away and remote to be able to say anything relevant to these children whose concerns are far more immediate. Dr. Patel calmed my nerves when she asked me to begin by sharing my story and that of my family with the teachers. She has the foresight to see through my professional facade to a much deeper level. From her own experience, she knows that nothing is possible without a personal struggle. She wanted me to find the words and anecdotes to convey this to her staff, so that they find the strength to continue their own personal and professional exploration.

I entered the room where the teachers were seated for our 20-minute meeting, heavy with the knowledge that these women were doing far more important work for our country’s future than I can begin to imagine. I shared with them about my childhood, my parents, some of their struggles in making sure that their children received a good education, and my own travel and academic as well as professional exploration. Apart from sharing a few beautiful pictures of the Moon, Mars and Saturn, I shared with them my reasons for leaving my dream job and returning to India as a freelancer, and how I was very interested in what they did, as I was trying to study the ways in which they reached out beyond the classroom.

After my talk, which was met by curious and surprised faces, I thought that my work there was practically over, and I was keenly waiting for my friend Danish to arrive and conduct workshops with the students, but I was in for a surprise. I learnt a few hours later that after the teachers returned to the classrooms, the students demanded that I share with them what I had shared with their teachers.

This was far more challenging. I was used to an English-speaking, computer literate audience that had its senses intact. Questions flooded my mind. How do I work these students up to become excited about space? How do I share with them the beauty of a picture of the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the enormity of Jupiter, or the desolation of the Moon? How do I convey to them the thrill of the scientific process, the thrill of enquiry, observation and discovery? I didn’t even know the names of the planets in Gujarati!

I was a little less afraid about being able to reach out to the hearing impaired students, but was at a total loss otherwise.

I was given about 30 minutes to put together a quick pictorial presentation. The response blew me away.

The pictures were enough to hold the gaze of the younger students. As I shared how Jupiter is as massive as a thousand Earths and other such trivia, one of the teachers translated it into sign language for some of the students. The surprise in their eyes bowled me over. I showed them pictures of satellites and moons, and could see them delighted and shocked to hear that Saturn has over 60 moons, to see the red face of Mars, and the glowing beauty of the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

For a science communicator working with astronomy and space – believe it or not – keeping it interesting is a challenge. My audience usually consists of English speakers with a presumed interest in space and astronomy, who are used to hearing astronomical figures and seeing pictures that are out of this world. After a while, they become too jaded to still be surprised by reality, hardened to the wonders of our Universe, and can find the slow process of scientific enquiry to be a drag.

The students at Dhanvantri school were able to grasp big, heavy concepts that seasoned minds find difficult to grasp in their entirety. They intuitively sensed the power of the information and the enormity in the numbers and pictures that I was trying to convey. After describing the pictures on display, I did not need to explain further before they were able to sense what I was saying.

I am hoping to come back with more teaching aids related to space and astronomy so I can take the students a step further from being just a responsive audience.

The next day I also painted a little, but I am hoping to conduct a proper painting workshop the next time, to help them explore creative expression.

If I write that Dr Patel and her team are making a huge difference to the area that they work in, it would be a grave understatement that belies reality.

The truth is that the progress of our nation depends on people such as them. They are the ones who take literacy out of our classrooms and into households, communities, and villages. They educate the parents, give them the tools that they need to deal with the most precious little citizens: our children. They keep the most deprived and challenged of these children from exploitation and from what would otherwise be a substandard life. They are sowing the seeds of progress.

This is the true face of development.

And I can add one more thing safely: we need many more people like Dr. Patel in India’s villages.

I have to thank Dr. Patel and her team for blowing me away with their warmth, compassion, and their ability to work with me to bring out my best effort while I was visiting. And the children, for they only offer true love and warmth in response to your every action.

I will try my best to do what I can to support them, and I hope that you will too.

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Dhanvantri school is a special school for the mentally and physically challenged. The students include children that are hearing impaired, hyperactive and cerebral palsy, among other afflictions. The school is managed by Dr. Shantuben Patel, a paediatrician and a neo-natologist, and a team of special educators, who set it up in response to the large numbers of mentally and physically challenged children that turned up at her doorstep as patients while she was still a practising doctor.

Danish Husain’s heartfelt article on Kafila will tell you more about this phenomenal woman and her personal struggle as well as that of her dedicated team, before, through, and after the massive earthquake that hit Bhuj on 26 January 2001.

The school’s operating expenses amount to about 25 lac Indian Rupees, or approximately 60k USD, per year. It relies entirely on funds from generous donors to meet its expenses.

For donations, cheques and drafts can be made payable to “The Child Welfare Trust”. Please mail them to:

Dr. Shantuben Patel
Dhanvantri School
Near Pramukh Swami Char Rasta
Mundhra Relocation Site, Mirzapar Road
Bhuj, Kutch, Gujarat 370 001, India.

Dr. Patel is reachable at +91.2832.291366, or at thechildwelfaretrust@gmail.com or shantubenpatel@gmail.com

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The right to dissent

I was reluctant to post this.

You may have noticed, my specialty is one but I have many diverging interests. Too many, if there is such a thing. So, having drafted this, I was asking myself, why does a person like Amruta have to write about the Freedom of Speech? What does she have to do with sedition or exploitative laws. I thought I was bringing myself back down to the ground, keeping a check on my dreams.

But we know what has happened since then. The gruesome murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad shook me up last night. This should matter not only to Pakistanis, but to people in the subcontinent. Without trying to sound alarming, the events in Pakistan should be a reminder to Indians to work towards repealing laws that threaten our basic freedoms.

Be it laws on alleged sedition, homosexuality (it is still to be challenged in the Supreme Court), blasphemy, or the proposed new IT rules, things are getting out of hand. Our sovereignty – not of the State, but of citizens – is under threat.

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Before I say any more, I should note that I didn’t follow Dr. Binayak Sen‘s case closely until about six months ago. I am not sure why, but I didn’t see much about him in the international media that I am usually exposed to, nor the major Indian publications I was familiar with.

This ignorance will reflect in what I am about to tell you. In order to keep things as clear as possible, I will do my best to avoid interpretations of what was said on Monday evening, minimise my take, and only share my notes on what I heard yesterday. The full talk and performance will be available to watch on video that a friend is to upload soon.

On the 30th of May, I first attended an art show, convened by Tushar Joag, and then a discussion that included a distinguished (this word is appropriate at this time, believe me) panel and a mind-blowing Dastangoi performance that concluded the evening.

From what I understand, the artists were brought together by Tushar Joag in support of the case of Dr. Binayak Sen and our right to dissent. Joag’s piece was one where he confined himself to a 5’x3′ space, allowing only access to a washroom. He spent his time writing the following line in as many books as possible: “I will not lose faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy.” Visitors were encouraged to help by penning the line on as many pages as possible in the books that were available just outside the installation. I contributed seven pages.

The works on display included video installations on Kashmir and Assam, the Preamble of the Constitution of India projected in Braille on a large prayerbook, and several others.

I have to say that writing those lines in that book was liberating, in a quiet little way. It was real and it meant something, meditative and profound.

The panel included Advocate Mihir Desai, journalist Jyoti Punwani, Lawyer Flavia Agnes, Dr. Ilina Sen, Dean at Wardha University also the wife of Dr. Binayak Sen, and Dr. Binayak Sen himself. Justice P. B. Sawant who was supposed to be present was unable to make it for health reasons.

It is rare for speakers to hold your attention and present a topic in several different perspectives, each as enlightening as the other if not more. Each and every one of these speakers did this and more – there was substance in every word.

The one observation I will make is this: I was at Kashish (the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival), over the weekend. I had the chance to watch ‘I Am’ by Onir. The Director, Onir, was present for a Q&A session along with the actor Sanjay Suri after the screening. The one point the Director made was this: we wanted to show how the law can be misused to terrorise citizens. I don’t need to say more to point out the parallels between sedition, AFSPA, Section 377.

The repeal of Section 377 is still to be challenged in the Supreme Court and we hope that good sense will prevail. Also, the new Internet Control Rules proposed by the government will surely matter to all Indian Internet users and will affect the Freedom of Expression deeply.

I was mostly too engrossed to take notes. I suggest you come back in a few days, Satyen Bordoloi is expected to put up the recordings of the entire evening, discussion and performance, on his YouTube channel. I will embed the videos once they are uploaded.

This was also the first meeting in India where I have seen real respect (you have to excuse me for being away for so long), not the fake fawning kind that attaches ten ‘Shri’s before every name hoping their grovelling behaviour will be noticed. The panelists referred to Binayakji as ‘Binayak’, and the audience referred to him as ‘Sir’. There were no special invitees who were mentioned before the speakers began the meeting. A refreshing change.

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Update on 5 June, circa 3 pm

Satyen has posted the videos on his YouTube channel. Here they are, in the order of events on 30 May:

Dr. Binayak Sen’s press conference (I was not present for this first one):

Advocate Mihir Desai: A brief history of sedition

Lawyer Flavia Agnes

Ilina Sen on Binayakji’s arrest and trauma

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Dastangoi performance: Dastan-E-Sedition (in Urdu and Hindi)

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Heaven and Hell

“Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth.“ My  father repeats this over and over again, but it takes drastic, hard-hitting doses of reality for me to grasp and absorb his wisdom.

My friend Ajay, a journalist based out of Mumbai, just sent me this: Hell in Mumbai.  

I read it and intended to relax around for the evening but a volley of thoughts has flooded my mind, and they must be put down in writing.

Ajay rightly says that the Indian Government has failed its own people. But they’re not the only ones – so have the police and civic services, and above all, we the people.

We have failed those whom we depend on time and again.

At the risk of inviting the wrath of others, I think that a large part of this inertia that stops us from doing anything despite being faced with abject poverty day after day, is that we explain it away. And the more intelligent we are, the worse, because our intellect can help us come up with increasingly creative explanations. (Sidenote: I have a growing list of intelligent phenomena that are negative and hurtful, and that list is expanding and exploding out of control).

A large part of this is due to the perversion of the idea of “Karma” and its use and abuse by the average Indian. In a Hindu majority country, where religion is tightly intertwined into our lives, we use Karma to explain to ourselves why those born at the bottom of the social ladder deserve it.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in Karma, nor does it matter whether or not you’re religious. I’m not religion bashing, nor am I blaming the concept of Karma – that is too easy. It is just another way to blame something or someone else for existing misery. Whatever you chose to blame: the person in misery, karma, religion, your conditioning, or theirs – this is just shifting blame, it is just an excuse to not act. Blaming Danny Boyle for romanticising poverty and exposing the underbelly of our cities, saying that this is not the face of real India, is also just shifting the blame.

We have such deep economic disparities that the numbers that would stun anyone. Just because they don’t make the headlines every day doesn’t mean that these are not real problems, it doesn’t mean that they are not ticking time bombs. The fact that this misery and poverty is normalised does not make it normal.

My mother teaches deaf and mute children to talk without using sign language. Spend an afternoon with them, help them articulate how they spent their day at school, and you will wonder like I do. You will wonder why we who have two hands and legs that are still working, all our senses intact, and a functioning brain, still manage to shift the blame and not act.

When we understand that Heaven and Hell are indeed right here on Earth, and that they are products of our own making, then perhaps we will get up and act. Then, maybe, we will stop waiting for a God or a saviour to come around and help us.

Before you accuse me of blogging in my comfortable bed in a pretty apartment in Western Europe: I will have to ask you to wait a few months and try and say that to me again. Then things will be clearer.

Ajay also said to me that “the women get the worst.” I do not want to begin to imagine what little girls go through in these parts of my city every day.

Just yesterday I was walking around in Amsterdam with a female friend, the weather was quite pleasant, which gave some tourists additional reason to get drunk/stoned out of their minds. There was a group of boys, one of whom tried to forcibly feed my friend some chips from a bag that he was eating from. That was bizzare, and we ignored it, walked along and then turned back to go elsewhere when we encountered them again. We walked past them without looking and a minute later one of the guys was standing in front when I realised that another one of them had forced himself between my friend and I and put his arms around us while the guy in front took a picture. Lecherous screaming from a third guy followed, which is when I lost it and screamed at them to “Get away.” We kept walking but a volley of abuse continued, which included “You talking to me bitch? I will break your head off.”

This was a minor incident, but there were about 15 people seated at a cafe that we passed. They were watching this whole scene as if it was completely normal. What really stayed with me was the violence in the guy’s words. They were drunk/stoned I know, but the words were sharp and acrimonious anyway.

I turned to my friend once we were a safe distance away and said “I don’t understand why these people think they can get away with anything. I don’t want to know what the women who work in the red-light district here have to go through. If they can talk to respectably dressed girls on the street like this, imagine what they think they can get away with when they are paying for a service.”

This is not totally unrelated to the rant about Dharavi above. Combine deep poverty and misogyny and the worst possible humanitarian crisis unfolds before your eyes.

Many will tell you that the women who work as prostitutes are opting to go through the kind of abuse that sex workers face every day. Saying that they’re earning it is the same thing again: shifting the blame.

Wheter you practice Metta like me, pray, send good thoughts, or whatever else you do – don’t forget the slumdogs of our world. Especially not the girls.

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