A Fasting Muslim and the Shiv Sena

Who would have imagined that the humble chapati would take centre stage in politics? It is on national television in the form of grainy images of a beefy-looking man forcing another man to eat it. They are no ordinary men. One is a Shiv Sena leader, the other is a fasting Muslim. Being Muslim is tough enough; a fasting Muslim seems to be even more of a dangling identity.

However, I'd like to ask whether it is only the Shiv Sena that is using/abusing or capitalising on this identity. To get to the story first:

A group of around 11 Shiv Sena MPs, apparently angry over not being served Maharashtrian food, allegedly forced a Muslim catering superviser who was fasting for Ramzan to eat a chapati at the new Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi last week. Within hours, IRCTC, the Indian Railways subsidiary that was catering for the Sadan, stopped all operations in protest, and complained in writing to the Maharashtra Resident Commissioner, saying the employee, Arshad Zubair S, had been “deeply pained and hurt… as religious sentiments are attached”.

Would this have become news had it not been a Muslim at the receiving end? Unlikely. And the tone would have been vastly different. What we see now is bluster from all sides, and Mr. Arshad who might have certainly felt violated in some way will have to go along with the "hurt sentiment" politics because he is only a pawn. In his complaint, he said:

“All the guests along with media reporters and staffs of Maharashtra Sadan got into kitchen where I was getting the orders prepared. They caught me and put the chapati into my mouth. I was wearing a formal uniform set as prescribed by IRCTC and everybody in the panel also knew my name as ‘Arshad’ as I was wearing the name tag. Even then they inserted chapati in my mouth which caused my fast to break on the eve of Ramzan. I was hurt with the thing they have done as religious sentiments are concerned.”

The hurt should be over such physical abuse, of forcing anybody to eat anything. The Shiv Sena is communal. It is obvious that those MPs deliberately made him eat, although they knew he was fasting. They had problems with other facilities like electricity, so would they give shocks to the person in charge? Why did the media keep quiet if they were present then? This is being projected as protest against catering vs. religion now.

The incident occurred a week before it was reported. Did it take the authorities seven days to figure out what happened and what hurt was involved? Worse, we are ignoring the issue of damaging of property, parochialism and arrogance of power that the episode is also about, even if there is no story in these.

The MPs were throwing dish covers and threatening the staff. What kind of behaviour is this? Why was there no police complaint immediately, which gave leeway to the officials to cling on to the moral dimension of a fasting man?

The MPs want a Maharashtrian caterer, citing other state bhavans as an example. Arvind Sawant said:

“The food at the Sadan is terrible...They even gave stale water. We wanted to sort these issues out amicably, and did not come with the intention of committing violence. But even on that day, the Resident Commissioner refused to meet us, and after a lot of delay, said that he had gone to receive the Chief Secretary at the airport. Is that not an insult? No tod phod happened at all, but we have been provoked in a sustained manner. Nobody was manhandled, but if you keep abusing, will someone not slap?"

I am quite flummoxed about "stale water". But it is important to note that while denying that any unruliness took place, he is justifying it. The mob wrote "Jai Maharashtra" on the walls of the Regional Commissioner's office besides the behaviour mentioned earlier.

The Shiv Sena often talks with its hands. However, this incident could also be about its political equation with the BJP for the coming assembly elections. Using one chapati, they have raised their 'concerns' before the ruling party:

• The North vs. Marathi maanus
• Violence as legitimate means
• Role of regionalism
• Muslims as religion flashers

All these happen to be the BJP's favourite subjects, too. Therefore, who will benefit the most from emphasising the religious aspect? Or, should we ask, who is bailing out whom?

© Farzana Versey


Are your jeans distressed by lions?

If you are the sort to shell out over a thousand dollars for a pair of jeans “designed by tigers”, then you have until July 21. Animal conservationists are marketing this bizarre idea to you. Even if you won’t buy the jeans you might feel like you are contributing to the welfare of the poor beasts.

Japanese brand Zoo Jeans includes wild beasts in their design process to create the perfect pair of ripped denim. In order to do this, sheets of material are added to old tires and giant rubber balls and tossed into the animals’ cages at Kamine Zoo in Hitachi, Japan. The lions and tigers then have the chance to chew, gnaw, and scrape at the fabric, taking “distressed denim” to the extreme.

Do they even realise how cruel this is? Lions and tigers are carnivores; they tear into pliable flesh. Bears are omnivores. Denim does not smell or feel like skin or plants, and rubber has a unique scent and feel. The animals probably assume they will be rewarded after they’ve got rid of the ‘excess baggage’.

The zoo and World Wildlife Fund are being horribly insensitive, and to think this is to benefit the animals. WWF and People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rant about ill-treatment; they file complaints against cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies for using animals as guinea pigs. They have a point, but they aren’t doing any better.

These organisations have a history of regressive ads that put human models behind cages, chain them, or make them wear edible clothes. At the same time they use loaded, even sexual, imagery. With Zoo Jeans too, ripped by animals has a certain ring. It defeats the purpose. They end up perpetuating an idea they claim to oppose – that of the ‘wild beast’ as fantasy.

© Farzana Versey

Statues and Historical Trickery: Set in Stone

Published in CounterPunch

Memorials work well as masks. Britain has commissioned a statue of Mahatma Gandhi that will stand in Parliament Square in London to commemorate the centenary of his return to India from South Africa to fight for the freedom struggle. The British were the colonial power then. Is this about retribution and, if so, does it not amount to self-chastisement?

It seems more like political pragmatism conjoined with an assertion of its own past, for the chancellor George Osborne emphasised that “it's time for Gandhi to take his place in front of the mother of parliaments” while playing along with the new government: “New Indian prime minister Modi invoked his memory in his inaugural speech to parliament.”

The Sikh Federation of UK has opposed it, calling Gandhi “a blatant racist, a sexual weirdo or worse a child abuser and someone discriminating on the basis of the Hindu caste system, which is now outlawed in the UK”.

That such criticism comes from a minority Indian community tells us something about dislocated memories. Immigrants tends to revel in nostalgic gestures and even play along with the brown sahib Chutney Mary fantasy or the imported from home pop culture. To take a stand against a canonised figure is reflective of their own mainstreaming. By going against protocol and calling out negative aspects even though they were not directly affected by it, they are consolidating their role as a political voice beyond turban issues.

Instead of causing discomfort to the hosts, it will only add to the humanisation that keeps the foible factory well oiled. It works as assertion of power, too.

Political reclamation

Are these creations in stone set in stone? More than history, they are a validation of contemporary political expediency.

The Indian Finance Minister has allocated Rs. 2 billion for a statue of Sardar Patel, independent India’s first Home Minister and a prominent leader during the freedom movement. Public anger is over the disparity in setting aside half the amount for 29 other schemes, including a national war memorial.

The problem is deeper than expecting political correctness. Governments always invest in symbolism. The ruling BJP is ostensibly attempting to correct earlier oversight where Mahatma Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family reigned over memorial space. But this is also vendetta, for while Patel was from the Indian National Congress and critiqued the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he was also perceived as divisive. The tribute’s emphasis on his unification of the country highlights the divisiveness of the Partition.

The ruling BJP has no history of ‘governance’ during the freedom struggle. A political party that suffers from amnesia about more recent events has decided to build the highest statue in the world; at 182 metres it will be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Contemporary public space is tantalising and democratic. Anthony Weiner, the sexting mayor, got temporarily immortalised on The New Yorker cover with the head of the Empire State Building sticking out of his crotch as he snaps it. One might wonder whether the public monument or the public politician was the target.

Defacement of statues is a fairly common practice. When a rally to protest against the killings in Assam and of Rohingyas in Myanmar at Azad Maidan turned into rioting, two young men were captured hitting out at the memorial of fighters of the first struggle for independence. A desolate monument became a matter of national shame, and inevitably ended up as a question mark on patriotism of the community the two individuals represented.

The right to dissent, group apathy – both of the police and the protestors – were forgotten to resurrect the desecrated. The group burned vehicles too, but living objects are not invested with a future because they do not appear to have a past.

Over-writing history

Apart from the glossing over of facts, there is often an exertion on their behalf. The thought behind the stenciling of 9000 bodies on Normandy beach appears to be a fitting tribute to the nameless: “The idea is to create a visual representation of what is otherwise unimaginable – the thousands of human lives lost during the hours of the tide during the WWII Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. The silhouettes of those individuals will be drawn on the beach at the rate at which they fell only to be totally erased by the incoming tide as their own lives were.”

The realism in this case simply denudes the deaths of dignity. If at all there is any catharsis, then it is for the war veterans who come with stenciled memories. The tides point to evanescence not only of lives lost, but of remembrance as well. This is not the case with the Berlin Wall where graffiti and souvenirs of broken pieces symbolise the ossified together with the metamorphosis.

Chronicling of history is often voyeuristic as evident from the 9/11 Museum and Memorial at Hangar 17 at JFK International Airport. A report said: “But it’s the smallest artifacts that are most poignant, each one a reminder of a life cut short. Identity cards, mangled keys, a woman’s bloodstained shoes, a fire fighter's crushed helmet, an executive's singed credit card, wristwatches and mobile phones have been painstakingly logged by curators. The owners will never come to claim them.”

This is dehumanising. Credit cards, shoes, watches do not have a stamp of identity. Mangled vehicles are not specific to ownership. Museums of calamitous events too are a thought projectile of a certain period that serve as a reminder of bestiality rather than loss.

There are mass killings taking place in many parts of the world. There are never any curators for large-scale calamities and natural disasters. Buried beneath the debris are relics epitomised as unmarked graves. They are history in motion.

At the other end of the spectrum are industries that qualify as memorials to the changing times. The promise of fumes to keep home fires burning on cold floors is the politician’s gateway to delusionary development. In this scheme, progress is predatory.

Authenticity vs. imagination

Most icons are sculpted in a pose. However representative it may be of their personality, the freezing not only imprisons them but also becomes a caricature. In places like India, it transforms into slapstick when politicians get atop cranes to garland these statues. The pedestal is slippery irrespective of what the stone monuments symbolise.

They are immortalised in the stasis of a pointing figure, a walking stick, or a sword. Instead of being the sum of their parts, they become those parts. Maratha hero Shivaji would be nowhere without his horse.

Mythic figures are freer to explore and display with temerity. This does not go unnoticed, as it is quite common to see cigarette stubs in vaginal orifices of temple statues. In a surprising move, Silvio Berlusconi decided that Venus needed to get an arm and Mars had to get a penis fixed. The 175 AD statues were sought to be made ‘real’ completely erasing the erasure.

During Queen Victoria’s visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Michelangelo’s David was given a decorous fig leaf. Madame Tussaud’s often faces the demand for the removal of what some perceive as a controversial waxwork not because it is inaccurate, but probably because it is. On a visit a few years ago, I found the area where Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro stood rather empty at a crowded time. Even at the altar of kitsch they were peremptory. The dissonance lay in the eyes of the observers who wanted them displaced when they could be melted.

The engagement with mute symbols would suggest that statues are people in perpetual rigor mortis.


© Farzana Versey


Gaza: An unequal battle

Four boys went to the beach to play. Sons of a fisherman. Israeli aerial strikes killed them. One of the boys was wearing a jersey with German footballer Mesut Ozil’s name. The player has donated his earnings for Gaza. Also, this:

Ozil caused controversy after he declined to shake hands with a FIFA official because of his support for Israel.

There is no pussyfooting here, which is as it should be.

The Israeli army is smart, so can it not recognise who or what it is targeting? The New York Times photographer who was there had this to say:

"A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants, the Israel Defense Forces’ intended targets. Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters, either."

I have deliberately chosen to quote from the NYT because it is big on pussyfooting, so this should make even more sense to those who want to see the genocide as a quid pro quo when it is an unequal battle. Two-thirds of the victims are women and children.

Another child asked preacher Dr. Mohammad al-Arefe:

"I am Mohammad from Gaza and I am 11 years old. I was hoping to ask you a question, Shaykh: does the dirt and rocks that enter my mouth as a result of the missiles break my fast?"

Meanwhile, some Israelis were posting ‘Bomb Shelter Selfies’.

Let the figures speak for themselves:


Is nationalism about not meeting Hafiz Saeed?

They are demanding his arrest and want his passport impounded. The very people who Ved Pratap Vaidik is accused of being close to or would be his natural allies are distancing themselves from him — the RSS, the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

When the noise dies down, perhaps we can try and examine the questions a meeting with a terrorist raises.

Vaidik is said to be a member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in turn always has a say in issues pertaining to the BJP and therefore in matters of the state.

Vaidik was in Pakistan and met the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed, who is also named as the mastermind in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The United States of America had declared a bounty of $10 million on him. He is among the most wanted men. India has been sending dossiers on the 26/11 attacks to Pakistan and Pakistan has been sending its own files.

Was Vaidik working for the Indian government or, as Rahul Gandhi said, "The question is whether the Indian embassy in Pakistan facilitated this event...whether they helped...in anyway."

The equally important question is: Why did the Pakistani establishment that is so guarded about Saeed's access to the Indian authorities permit such a meeting? Indo-Pak relations are so fragile and rife with suspicion that those traveling across borders are inevitably tracked.

Is the BJP, desperate to create a good impression without compromising on its public pugnacity, using Vaidik? The Congress Party's Shashi Tharoor wants to know, "Was he an envoy of the government? Was he doing some back channel diplomacy?"

The man himself says he is nobody's envoy, yet he told Saeed, "Modi should not be feared, he is a good man..." There were other peacenik gestures, peppered with his political philosophy: "I have met enemies of the country in the past...my experience says resolution of conflict is possible not through the gun but talks."

Would a journalist do this? The simple answer is, yes. If you get to meet a wanted man who is often quoted as a reason for the problems with detente — assuming that November 2008 is our cut-off date — then an interviewer might use a soft option to set the tone, to create the right atmosphere. It is surprising that senior media persons are talking about why he did not ask Saeed for his voice sample and details about his role in the attacks.

India has decided that, like Kashmir, it will make 26/11 into its victimhood USP and use the bluster to bolster aggressive patriotism. We seem to have forgotten about how many people have been killed in the country during riots.

All the terrorists on the ground that day were killed by the commandos, except Ajmal Kasab who remained in prison and was later executed. Pakistan did not claim his body. This is essential to understand the basis of India's demand for Saeed and Pakistan's reluctance to adhere to it. The idea of a mastermind is to stay away from the heat. How many generals are killed in wars? How many politicians accept their sins of omission, if not commission? Even Osama bin Laden was not directly responsible for any of the blasts. In fact, he was probably not an active participant in strategising. His role, as evident from the videos, was to keep the war alive against those he perceived as enemies.

Hafiz Saeed has a cloak of a pseudo social organisation and continues to make public appearances in Pakistan and, like some of our own stalwarts who do not actively belong to any political party, seems to have a say in the country's affairs. Yet, India has been demanding his voice sample, when his voice is available at the click of a button.

Vaidik has claimed he went as a journalist. Forget the denials; that would be part of the plan. He has made it into a casual impromptu assignment where a Pakistani counterpart asked if he'd like to meet Hafiz Saeed, and he agreed. Any journalist would. But given the cases against him, did Vaidik not pause to wonder about the implications? The Indian media has concentrated on the predictable nationalism line, which is completely off-track and disturbing. The job of a journalist is not to toe establishment thinking, but to probe for facts.

For a moment let us set aside the Vaidik drama and ponder over how the line of questioning could go against other investigative reporting. Should criminals not be interviewed? Have journalists who spoke with Dawood Ibrahim, another wanted man, been arrested or questioned? Journalists in war zones meet rebel leaders, they even disguise themselves to get a scoop. The western media has many stories filed where Osama and other members of Al Qaeda were interviewed. In India, there was the famous case of R.Gopal, editor of Nakeeran, and his exclusive access to sandalwood smuggler and dreaded dacoit Veerappan. For years, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments could not locate him, but Gopal did through an emissary. He even tried to get the criminal to surrender and negotiate with the government.

Vaidik has been part of a Track II initiative, the Regional Peace Institute, that includes Congress leaders Salman Khursheed and Mani Shankar Aiyer, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Mehmood Kasuri.

If chest-thumping nationalism means seeing Pakistan as the opponent, then why do we indulge in diplomatic manoeuvres at all? The 'peace-keeping forces' return with nothing but tales of goodwill. Assuming Vaidik is indulging in such manipulated intercession, we learn that Saeed wants to visit Delhi and Mumbai, and are assured there would be no protests were Modi to visit Pakistan.

These bon mots might sound obsequious, but that is the takeaway from all diplomatic endeavours. What we now have are black and white arguments. Hafiz Saeed latched on to the controversy and tweeted, "Row in Indian parliament over a journalists meeting with us shows the extremism, narrow mindedness of their politicians. Utterly Shameful."

This is what misguided hype does. It boomerangs. Besides the queries regarding journalistic independence as well as the hypocritical stance of political parties, beating on 'envoys' who meet terrorists is like using a straw sword. Hating Hafiz is a non sequiter; he is probably Pakistan's human shield.

© Farzana Versey

Through Time and Distance: Nadine Gordimer

One cannot talk about Nadine Gordimer and omit to mention her role against apartheid. A glance at the obits paying to tribute to the South African Nobel laureate writer who died at 90 on Monday will reveal that political engagement was an intrinsic part of her writings, and certainly the perception of her as a writer.

In an interview that has been reproduced in The Telegraph, she is quoted:

“You accept or reject the influences around you, you are formed by your social enclosure and you are always growing. To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life.”

A few years ago I had wondered whether writers need to get co-opted by ideologies. This applies to dissent as well.

Gordimer is known for her activist role. Some of her books had been banned during the time. She remains an outspoken critic of various leaders. I was, therefore, a bit distressed to hear her say, “Looking back, it would have been an insult if they hadn’t been banned. It was an honour.”

What was she trying to convey? That the protest would have been in vain had her works been accessible through legitimate channels in her country? Or was she aiming to reach only the outside world? Isn’t the role of the writer as activist to well and truly portray such angst and make it known to those who are suffering from it?

What about the millions who go through privations without either the benefit of a voice, literary or otherwise, and swallow the indignities heaped upon them? They are not banned or sent off – they become slaves of society and give writers and artistes the raw material required to portray the trauma.

This is not to suggest that writers are exploiters – although, in some ways it is true because all of us who choose the medium of expression are using people and places imbued with our understanding and biases. Can we make a blanket call for freedom of speech without fathoming its deeper undercurrents and repercussions?


T. S. Eliot dismissed the “mystical belief in herd-feeling” that he felt was apparent in extreme nationalism and communism, but he made a spirited defence of Christianity, when faith is also about a herd feeling. If he was truly a proponent of individualism why did he reject George Orwell’s 'Animal Farm', dismissing it with, “I take it to be generally Trotskyite. We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time”?

This was during World War II, and silence would not have been an option for the sensitive thinker. Isn’t literature supposed to voice those very thoughts that rebel against prevalent beliefs? The Orwellian dystopia is even more apt today; he used his characters in a minimalist fashion to show us how debates can be dumbed down.


Nadine Gordimer, too, figured out that the ANC she supported was not the same in later years. Nothing is static. To quote her again:

"The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read and comes to realize that he is answerable."

© Farzana Versey


Also: When Gordimer visited India


The headline is the title of one of her short stories.

Image: TIME


Football's Holy War?

I have not watched a single World Cup football match this year. Among the slew of trivia surrounding the players that often overtook the games, the best one has been left for the finale.

Will the Pope root for his home country Argentina and would this be in conflict with his predecessor, a German? After all the society type gossip about hairstyles, shoes, girlfriends, and lookalikes, and that goth moment of the Suarez Bite, the finals between the two countries have found a new niche.

Pope Francis has shown that he is quite worldly-wise and not confined to the Vatican. The media is discussing whether he will be pitted against Pope Benedict XVI who is living in retirement now. Both are said to be football fans. According to Christian Today:

Some are cheekily suggesting that it will be a testament to who is the greatest pray-er, and perhaps even who enjoys the highest favour with God.

Sports do have the same appeal, and demand obeisance, as religions. The sounds from the stadium have an effect similar to mass elation or grieving during defining holy festivals or moments. The players have a cult following, and their posture during a winning or losing strike is quite like one of prayer. In fact, it often is a prayer.

The website calls it "the holiest World Cup final yet". One assumes other World Cup finals had their holy moments, or perhaps all such games have divine provenance. Where did Diego Maradona's "hand of god" come from?

Now we have the more urgent: "The question is: who will pray the hardest?" One might have questioned the almost direct intrusion of religion in sport, but the pope vs. pope imagined skirmish sounds like harmless amusement. And it is unlikely that those rooting for either team will do so for their papal affiliations. It's not like we are talking about Mick Jagger!

© Farzana Versey


The image is obviously a meme.