31.7.10

If it’s Friday it must be Kashmir

The separatists in the Valley have their own calendar now marked with specific days of protest, we are told. Sunday is a working day.

Is this to be seen as an Islamic agenda, as reports have made it out to be? Kashmir University vice-chancellor Prof Riyaz Punjabi has a different take:

"Teachers need to gear up to complete the syllabus so that all examinations are held on time. So there shall be no holidays in the varsity henceforth, including Sundays, gazetted holidays, summer and winter vacations. It was also decided that the varsity shall operate from 9.30 am to 6 pm with immediate effect."

This is in response to the strikes that are being called almost every other day. Nowhere does it state that the Sunday holiday is being substituted. However, newspapers have conjectured:

Central agencies feel that the change may lead to Sunday being replaced by Friday as the weekly holiday, as has been the norm in Islamic countries.

Besides the ‘feeling’ of central agencies, there is the technical aspect of managing major infrastructural changes. Incidentally, Pakistan, of who Geelani is considered a stooge, does not enforce a Friday holiday. Instead of seeing the role of the universities to make up for lost time, we have the media indulging in such idle thinking. Even if it is true, it won’t alter the face of insurgency movement. The separatists have often used the Friday namaaz as the best means to address the congregation on political affairs.

If, indeed, this move is being Islamised, then what about the call for Ramzan ceasefire by the establishment in the past where it was assumed that a month of non-firing will cool off the militants, although it was promoted on respect for religion grounds? Why was the government playing to the gallery?

This time round, Omar Abdullah’s political advisor, Davinder Singh Rana, is trying to show muscle:

"We have already instructed the police to enforce law and order besides making people feel free to spend their life as per their choice.”

Yes, long time no see. So, if some people want to make Thursday evenings their chill-out time during curfew, it is like okey-dokey and those who prefer Saturday night fever in the heat of firing then that’s their choice.

Clearly, democracy means choosing the right day to stay at home.

29.7.10

Is Dr. Aafia Siddiqui insane?

Why are the defence lawyers in the Dr. Aafia Siddiqui case pleading that her sentence be reduced due to mental illness? Is it a strategy or is it a cop-out?

She was tried in the US District Court in Manhattan and convicted on two counts of attempted murder. As a US-trained scientist, her ‘victims’ were American agents and military officers.

It wasn’t even a plot. She was being interrogated at an Afghan police station when she snatched an unattended rifle and shot at them, yelling, "Death to Americans!"

They fired back and she was wounded. If she was such a huge threat why was she left loose and why was there an unattended rifle around? Why was she taken to the US to face trial? These questions have been posed at different times.

However, the case has always had an undercurrent of the criminal’s instability playing in the background. Now the lawyers have joined in:

"While the degree and extent of Dr. Siddiqui's mental illness has been the subject of much discussion in this case, one thing stands perfectly clear: the victim of Dr. Siddiqui's irrational behaviour is — first and foremost — none other than herself.”

I am not sure whether it will help matters other than to reduce her sentence. The larger issue of whether what she did was a criminal act, whether the FBI and the US agents were authorised to hound her and why, is she being made an example of will remain.

Dr Aafia’s boycott of the trial need not be an instance of mental illness but a genuine need to protest. I understand that her lawyers know how things work and are probably trying to protect her. There are clear divisions in her case and while there are supporters many within her own society, especially the expatriate community, would rather wash their hands off her. Not only has she attempted to kill the good Americans, but it was abuse of authority after the US gave her an education. This is the sort of apologetic stance we have been increasingly seeing.

It is back to the liberal Americans against those lumpens.

I had put forth another view regarding demonisation of violence, and that is not something one can probe but remains at the crux of how certain societies get the boot while others wear the boot straps.

28.7.10

Pissed off over a Wikileak

The most amazing aspect about the Wikileaks scandal is that it talks about an Afghan War. I am afraid, but where has it been documented as a war?

The information in short based on reports:

  • 92,000 documents dating back to 2004 were released by the whistle-blowers’ website Wikileaks.
  • They allege that Iran is providing money and arms to Taliban.
  • There are details about how widespread corruption is hampering a nine-year war.
  • New York Times becomes the keeper of morals and analyses “in mosaic detail why, after US spent almost $300 billion on the war, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001”.
  • The Guardian paints “a devastating portrait of the failing war”.

Formally, the US says it is concerned about the safety of its soldiers. If that were the case, it would not have sent them in the first place. How many strikes have been conducted by the Taliban against the US and how many against its own people? How many civilians have died in the drone attacks and how many militants in the American war on terror? If the reports are to be believed, then the money the US is spending is not going to the right place for the right cause. What sort of corruption is taking place? It has to be within the establishment.

Iran’s role has to be considered with some degree of scepticism. The US has been gunning for Iran for a while now and needs a strategic reason to attack it.

According to the Times, Pakistan agents and Taliban meet regularly “in secret strategy sessions to organise networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.”

The ISI works on its own most of the time, therefore what worries the White House is that its partnership with Pakistan’s democrats and Afghan democrats, both set up by Big Brother, have not been as successful as it had hoped. Clearly, American foreign policy makers do not understand that the Pathan belt and people are not Zardaris and Karzais.

Pakistan’s envoy to US, Husain Haqqani, said the leaks consisted of “unprocessed” field reports that “do not reflect onground realities”.

It just does not matter. There is bound to be a slip between the cup and the lip but they aren’t too far from each other. The fact is that despite elections and an elected government in Afghanistan, there are documents pertaining to an Afghan war. The question is: whose war is it and why?

27.7.10

Two hours with Mullah Radio

“Muslim?” he asked, looking in the rearview mirror.

I nodded. His sneer expressed disapproval of my demeanour, but he remained reticent with the knowledge that although he was in control of the vehicle, I would be paying him. Economics held back belief.

He started playing a CD, the voice seemed to resonate from a demagogue’s pulpit. We were driving from Al Ain to Dubai at the speed of wind. The driver did not utter a word. I took a swig from my bottle of fizz even as the voice admonished against western consumerism. The sound that emanated from what is considered sinful — electronic devices, among other things — was mesmerising. It ranted against America, the Pakistani army, democracy, liberals, dance-songs, kafirs. It did not criticise Hindus or Christians who were mazloom, the poor and bereft.

I represented another world. Yet, I could understand the hold of an airwave mullah. It was frightening and enticing, a dangerous combination. Dropping me off, the driver said, “Sorry agar aap ko disturb hua, lekin kabhi yeh bhi karna padta hai.” This man really believed that by initiating me into the droning he was serving a higher cause. I was angry and amused at the audacity. I paid him. He returned half the tip amount saying it was too much. The note fell from his hand. I told him, “Rakh lo, Allah ki marzi hai!” and walked away clicking my vice-laden wedges.

Next day I met a sub-inspector from Swat, one among the two million who had left following the strife. Wasn’t the army in charge?

“The ground level work comes to the police. We have no powers but have to look after the situation.”

His family prevailed upon him to leave. “It wasn’t easy to do so but the choices are the army, the Taliban or us.” CDs of Mullah Fazlullah are available. The underground FM station sermons are not an unusual phenomenon. Ham radio broadcasts have been used during freedom struggles and insurgency movements. It is a smart strategy because it reaches people without the need for physical contact.

A recent video shows him addressing suicide bombers and firing a shot with a Kalashnikov. He referred to the cultural festival in Swat as a vulgar and obscene show.

The sub-inspector said Swat was beautiful and did not need such embellishments, anyway.

It is clear that this place was the army’s experiment to send out a message, not to the Taliban but to the western forces, that it has succeeded in controlling terrorism. In that, Fazlullah is right. The idea is to concentrate ostensibly on one zone as a showpiece. The problem is the hardliners are not greenhorns; they begin their strikes elsewhere. Today, the main cities are blaming the Taliban quite forgetting that Karachi has been a sectarian hotbed for years. It is now convenient to pit urban against tribal.

A man with a microphone does not pose a threat to the hallowed havelis but affects the constituency that has never had respite. Isn’t that Mullah Radio’s audience as I discovered in those two hours?

“Yes,” said the sub-inspector. “It is easy to sway those who are neglected. Unfortunately, there is no revolution. After a while people want to know where they will get food if they stop listening to music.”

He is not fundamentally against the Taliban but wonders about the lack of proactive change. Did he expect it? Having seen the violence up close, wasn’t he aware that virtue does not ride on the barrel of a gun? In the distance I heard the azaan as it rose to meet a brilliant sunset. It was a pristine moment.

© Farzana Versey

26.7.10

Kayani's staying power?

I don’t get it. Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani gets a three-year extension and it becomes a major talking point. Why?

I also don’t get it when the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani calls it "an administrative affair to which the government did not feel necessary to hold consultations with political parties".

Is Pakistan so democratic that it is not just the ruling party but the opposition that has to be consulted? In India many people don’t even know who the army chief is and political parties do not sit and confabulate over such appointments.

Pakistani newspapers are going all ballistic about how good it will be and how bad. We must remember that currently there is no army rule, so this undue attention to an extended tenure undermines the democratic process itself. And let us not go by reports that state this is the second time a civilian government has extended the services of the Chief of Army Staff; the others just gave themselves more time.

If Nawaz Sharif was in London and could not be taken into confidence, it only reveals that the political parties have their own favourites and it is jugglery at the political level. In Pakistan the army is covertly a wing of the civilian government.

The Hindustan Times starts its report by stating that “Many quarters have breathed a sigh of relief” over the announcement:

Military analyst Aisha Siddiqa, author of the book Military Inc, says that the decision to extend the term depended upon three factors — an agreement within the General Headquarters, a nod from the US and support of the political government.

I mean, is this like something unexpected? Has it not always been like this, except when there is a military coup?

Analysts say that while Kayani may be the best option, he may still not be the apolitical army chief that the political leadership hopes for.

There is nothing like apolitical army chief in Pakistan.

The Telegraph, UK, also decided to give some importance to “Gen Kayani, a chain-smoking golfer, (who) has won plaudits for staying out of the political arena.”

Obviously the West sees it differently. Or it knows the truth (his popularity with the US and NATO troops) and wants to look with wide-eyed wonder and concentrate on his chain-smoking and golfing. However, it did make the rather strange assertion:

His position, in charge of the country's military establishment, means he is often regarded as the most powerful man in the country and he has been at the helm of developing policy on India and Afghanistan.

Is one to assume that policy is only about warfare? I think this is obfuscation because if the West pulls the strings, especially in Pakistan’s war against terror, then he is not the most powerful man in Pakistan but the most amenable puppet.

After all this, I still don’t get it. If instead of retiring in November, he stays on till 2013, how will anything change? Pakistan would have an army chief, anyway. That man would do similar things because there is no choice. So, why is everyone talking so much about it? It’s not like he plays baseball.

20.7.10

Laden vs Dostoevsky

It is hypocritical to say that any depiction of Osama bin Laden will lead to a spate of suicide attacks and not use a similar standard to judge the censorship of murals delineating the works of Russian artist-novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Moscow metro station that was to be named after him got into trouble because there was fear that the illustrations with scenes from his books would become a “mecca for suicides”. Pravda, Russia’s mouthpiece, wondered whether such images should be displayed after the March terrorist bombings though they took place before the proposed inauguration. People die, people commit suicide, people are killed. Dostoevsky did not write purple prose, his words were seeped in blood and thoughts reaped grimness. People have read him for decades and although they might have been deeply affected, they did not go and end their lives.

The problem is that those who might have committed suicide anyway, in the days before the media became the messenger now want their little deaths to be put on a pedestal. Can you imagine someone goes and hangs himself because he sees a visual of a man with a gun pointing at his temple while he waits for the train and so decides this is a good enough time to meet his maker via literary literacy?

A bunch of bloggers after seeing pictures of the metro station decided they were “depressing” and it became a movement. Has no one objected only because freedom of the state to honour a creative person is being curtailed here? Is this not censorship by the public?

The case of the Laden film is seen as suppression of the freedom of expression. I am intrigued as to why anyone would want to spoof a spoof. Why does the state assume there will be suicide attacks? Is it because his followers will be offended? Or is it because there is a media build-up? The Taliban do not watch movies, they just make them. Let us for a moment imagine that Laden has that kind of effect and people go on a rampage — how would then one gauge the stalling of the Indian film on Hitler that was to portray him as a shade of grey? Was there trepidation that he would be hero-worshipped?

These are almost self-fulfilling prophecies where we have to consolidate certain images. Suicide attacks fuel the imagination of societies that are brainwashed into believing that something might happen. This particular instance has little to do with the Pakistani’s right to view an Indian film that parodies Osama and more to do with the barren landscape of archetypes.

That is the reason I am transposing it with the Dostoevsky example, which is an even more stringent form of censorship for it elevates the cult of knee-jerk melancholia among people who might want to share their down moments with their internet friends. There are already a slew of websites on how to commit suicide. There is Doctor Death who assists patients with fatal illnesses. There are drug overdoses and deliberate car crashes. And if we must discuss cinema and art, then what about all those Bollywood treacle romances like Ek Duuje Ke Liye that resulted in lovers leaping off cliffs? What about the hundreds who end their lives because a political leader dies, sometimes in a helicopter accident?

The mass suicide idea is essentially a herd instinct. It is a personal choice that is gratuitous in its political dimension. We are internally violent people. Anger is violent and so is passion. It could be towards a person or an ideology or against a system. Depression, too, is violence against one’s state of being.

- - -
Published in Express Tribune, July 20

19.7.10

Christina of a 1000 men

I am not too sure whether chalking up a figure of sleeping with 1000 men can make a woman confident. That seems to have been the goal of a British woman, Christina Saunders, who was inspired by the character of Samantha in Sex and the City.

"Sam went from one man to the next and was proud of it. I wanted to be confident like her. I got hooked on the buzz of one-night-stands."

We are talking about three aspects here – pride, confidence and dependency. Being hooked is being dependent; her pride probably was momentary for there must have been the challenge of getting on to the next man. I don’t see any real confidence here. If anything, the men might have felt confident enough to bed a woman who was making her availability her USP.

Mind you, this is no moralistic judgment. The idea struck her when she suffered from a bout of flu while she was at Bristol University:

"The thought of four women gloating about sleeping their way around New York hadn't appealed to me but I had nothing better to do so I watched it.”

I disagree with her confidence theory for another reason. She says Sam “had a male attitude of sleeping around and it fascinated me".

Reports state that she slept with at least one stranger a week, travelled the world hunting for men to bed, and took part in threesomes. In ten years she has finally met her target of 1000.

What happens now? Head held high with the thought of conquest or of meeting a deadline? Turns out it is quite different. She has regrets:

"Good friends stuck by me but others accused me of being a slut. I took things too far. Now all I want to do is settle down. I just hope I haven't put men off."

Was she playing Samantha or was she mimicking men or was she just bringing out repressed insecurities? While men do act like predators and hunt for prey, it is not the norm in as callous a fashion as it is made out to be. The hunting is a process of selection and has an evolutionary basis. However, in contemporary times a woman has choices before her. I would assume confidence would arise from making a right choice, or at least a choice that seems right at a given time. In this case, sleeping around was not a choice of this nature. It was a point to prove.

I also find it objectionable that she uses the term slut as a derogatory one when she did pretty much similar things, except that sluts do not have to really hunt if they are recognised as such, they make a living out of sex and there is no challenge.

Had Saunders stopped at the challenge bit, she might have appeared more honest in her come-uppance rather than the copout she now seems to be.

PS: Ladies, don’t blame the flu next time you strike!

17.7.10

Let's Talk

Should they? Should they not? That is not the point. The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met, had “high-level talks” and the real interesting stuff happened outside. Nothing will come of it, they said…Pakistan should first hand over Asif Ali Zardari…oh, well, Hafeez Saeed…we first need to talk about Kashmir…no, we need to talk about terrorism, Obama says so….Osama says so…we should talk about sharing of waters…do we have a minister of water welfare? We should not resume talks until the Mumbai attacks issue is solved…the hotels have reopened or what? Oh, nah, not been there yet, saw pix; Oberoi has a red piano in the lobby. So, we should talk, we should do trade, we should send artistes, we should make joint films, we should have food festivals, we should sit and learn something…Pakistan tops the list of internet search for ‘sex’…we have a larger population. Tells us something. But, we are talking about S.M.Krishna and S.M.Qureshi…why can’t he spell his name as Kureshi then they will have identical initials, but that is such facile thinking. We must get serious. We must talk. Have talk shows.

Qureshi slams India’s foreign secretary who slammed Pakistan for slamming into Indian territory. Lots of slam, bam, thank you plan.

The Opposition BJP wants to call off talks after the talks. The funniest is former foreign minister and Jinnah bookwallah Jaswant Singh, the returned prodigal, who said, “I would like to ask what is the meaning of a dialogue when India gets nothing. If we are not finding any purpose then we should call off the talks.”

He did not think of this when he went on those book signing picnics singing praises of Jinnah? And for a supposed intellectual, he should know that the meaning of a dialogue is just that – two people talking about something. It is not about one party getting something.

Had the BJP not taken him back he would have continued with his we must talk blah.

So, yes, it was a nice chat. We must find out the real good sites Pakistani youth are visiting.

16.7.10

Fighting feet

If my leg was the Roman Empire then it had a fall. I ought to have used a more commonplace metaphor, especially considering I do tend to fall off beds. This time I did not. I was walking with what might be an autumn in my stride, the feet felt like they were crushing crisp brown leaves; they ambled from the balcony towards the bedroom and near the bottom corner of the bed a protrusion, a hook that had come off and hung loose with vicious intent, stalled movement. As it grazed my left ankle, the floor, smooth as a lover’s skin, dragged me down. I was on my left knee, in half a prayer pose, my hands akimbo – a bit like an opera singer and a bit like a bat in flight. The right leg had by then turned and my foot had twisted.

I screamed, as though the scream would untwist the foot, get me up from my knee. I was only slipping further, the foot twisting even more. I had nothing to hold on to except the bed. I tugged at the blanket like an urchin tugging at someone’s sleeve. I finally managed to sit on the floor, legs stretched out. With a great deal of effort I got to the edge of the bed and slowly slid up and wept into the pillow.

It felt strange. Just minutes ago I had opened my shopping bag and was admiring my new pair of shoes. When I had tried them they fit like a dream and I walked on air. Is this irony? Co-incidence? Or just another fall?

I know people fall. And this is hardly the stuff of Greek tragedies, pardon the mixing up of nations and metaphors. I had been on a high the past few days. I was treadmilling, bicycling, walking, sweating the hell out of myself, and I deserved those new shoes. An Iranian lady had helped me select them with facial expressions and delicate movement of hands. Our unspoken language made me feel good as she pointed me out to her whole family and they all smiled as though I looked like a bottle of Shiraz.

Minutes later, I was fragile glass. I had to manage the night with Deep Heat, which comes in spray form. Its sensual warmth penetrated my feet that ached uncharacteristically for the cold comfort of numbness.

Next morning brought a new pain, the pain of realisation of pain. Feeling pain is one thing. Realising that pain exists outside of feeling is quite another. Pain becomes an entity. It has its own dynamics, its own reason, and it chooses its victims carefully.

X-rays showed two broken bones. “Femur?” I asked the doctor, trying to sound knowledgeable about my body. “No, this is another bone.” He did not name it. There were two – they could be twins or they might be different. He did not think my bones needed names. The nameless bones were cracked. I imagined some fine piece of crystal on a mantelpiece with two cracks. Fractured feet. I needed a cast.

Before we could get to it, I asked the ortho if it would hurt. “Just a little,” he said. I either like a lot or nothing. I said, “Why must it hurt?” He smiled quizzically. I told him to give me local anaethesia for putting on a plaster. He was not amused. The new-fangled things are neat. He just kept winding what looked like an ordinary bandage, the soles touching his chest; for a while my soles could hear his heartbeats – I think on my feet! He was touching the wound gauze with water, pat-pat-pat, and the wetness set the plaster. I was amazed at how a simple bandage got so fixed to my feet. Now I can knock on it and it won't open any door. It is shut so tightly that no air can enter. It’s upto my calf because the pain travels. It must have chalked up quite a few qualifier miles.

I was out in a wheelchair and it felt like a stretch limo. If only I had a gown with a fur stole and a hat with ostrich feathers, I might have been in quite another age. The momentary charade of the imagination has now been replaced with a walker as I limp my way within the four walls. I see images on the walls, picture windows, the river, a beautiful table set for fine dining and the scent of jasmines as white as the cast on my leg. I think of sheesha, cinnamon flavoured, the smoke rings creating a haze, and I think how walls have doors and windows and yet we can see pictures on them without looking out. And I thank such moments for thoughts, for people, for strangers who make all this possible.

I don’t need glass slippers; my feet are glass.

15.7.10

Dilemma of the coconuts (Part 2)

“Do you do Bugger King?” That’s Sam, short for Soumitra, Shamshad, Sameera or Sanam on the flight home with excess baggage and it is not what they have stuffed in their suitcases.

The expat woman is often taken by Mr Worldly-wise but obedient son. Her demure lass act has to do with an image rather than reality. She balances the roles of comely wife and westernised sophisticate on the make. While she is fixing her coffee and munching a cucumber sandwich, she ensures that the hubby gets back to microwaved chapattis.

In the beginning it is easier, for she is curious, enthusiastic and adamant about her new calling. She had probably dreamed about one day being a ‘mem’. Soon, cultural schizophrenia takes its toll. She has to cope with an Asian identity not rooted in her ethos as that would be termed parochial. So, she bravely brushes off traces of obvious ethnicity and makes the great leap forward by hiding her face behind the newspaper in the tube where she can see no outside dirt except the cobwebs gathered in people’s minds. She is not quite there but she knows where to get in and get off.

Meshing into her new role, she is invited to become a cultural ambassador — it could be anything, from helping a politician’s wife with crystal therapy to organising ‘nites’ showcasing ritualistic culture to mundane mundan and milad ceremonies. Her kids learn classical music and dance while she makes sure they land up in the Spelling Bee and the American Idol finals as well, and play baseball, too. There is no escape. However, stories of having to deal with hidden foreign wives/mistresses and physical abuse of the ‘backward’ wife are fairly common. Many feminist outfits are run by South Asian women, making it a ghetto within a ghetto.

The men try to avoid such ghettoisation. They do meet for alumni functions, don pugrees, host dinners, but there will always be a fair sprinkling of friends from the adopted homes. This is to convey that they have made it. They often display fairly aggressive social skills because they have had to fight many more noticeable racial biases and yet sound like citizens of the world. It is this insecurity of being acceptable but not quite accepted that makes them turn to local women in their version of blonde ambition.

Many foreign women give the expat confidence simply by making him aware that he has money, a strong sense of family and will probably be more loyal than the western male. This last point need not be valid, for the migrant is licensed to sow wild oats together with reaping a degree or a job. But he does appear home-loving. Just when he has begun to feel a sense of belonging, he is summoned back to find a wife. He gives in, partly due to pressure, partly because he knows it is more important to be comfortable rather than a passing curiosity. With time, he becomes a curious case.

What is bothersome is not that the expats do not know what they want, but seem to know it all. If they return home for good, it is rarely mentioned as a personal or professional move. They believe their country of origin needs them. They are the revolution waiting to happen.


(Published in Express Tribune, July 15)

13.7.10

Dilemma of the coconuts (Part 1)

A woman sitting in Washington has the gall to announce to the world that India’s 160 million Muslims are not terrorists. Two weeks ago I talked about the expatriate’s angst; now it’s time to deconstruct the cannibalism of the emigrant arriviste.

Farah Pandith is only the tip of the kulfi of neo-totemism. As the US special representative to the Muslim community, her role is to parrot what ‘we Americans’ really think: “It’s not America versus Islam. The president has talked very clearly about the fact that Islam is part of America.”

So is Rastafarianism. That is not the point and it is careless statements such as these that make the non-residents such an assault on our sensibilities. Ooh-aahing over Indian and Pakistani kumbaya trifles overseas is hardly an issue. It has to perforce be a symbiotic relationship of convenience. The diaspora of identity is a lot more complicated.

The migrant tends to shove ‘expert’ knowledge down our throats, we transform into village bumpkins with tribal laws. Those returning from annual trips give us their cumbersome take on why they left, how they made it despite all odds and then there is the account of the turbulence they encountered — mosquitoes, dirt, traffic, and the people trapped in these lands. Had they taken back some paintings, ornate knick-knacks and calligraphy to decorate their atheist walls it would have been fine. But, no. They have a political plan on how the home country should be run. Look at the west, they say, and flash their branded idealism, which may one day be showcased in a Simon & Schuster book or they might beget progeny who will return to find that the high-on-testosterone romanticism has turned to dust in the land of their ancestors.

Tariq Ali, the London-based Pakistani writer, had organised a sweeper’s strike despite his feudal and privileged upbringing. He was all of 16 then. Was it the hormonal orchestra that peaked into a moment of reckoning or was it sudden realisation of injustice? Or was he just another voice of protest amidst the thinking chandeliers?

Packed off to Oxford to avoid being relegated to a Pakistani lockup, he chose to become a Leftist instead of a brown sahib. When asked if he was a champagne Leftist, he rightly derided such nomenclature to the Victorian and Puritan streak among the British. In France and Italy communists do enjoy their food and drink. So, should Tariq Ali have been grateful for his claret or be deemed ungrateful to the adopted cause? Would he have been as successful had the sweepers not inspired his ideology?

V S Naipual had quite a different dilemma when he returned to his roots. He wrote in An Area of Darkness: “And for the first time in my life, I was one of the crowd. There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me…In Trinidad to be an Indian was to be distinctive. To be an Indian in England was to be distinctive, in Egypt it was more so…I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary for me. I felt the need to impose myself and didn’t know how.”

Here was a man who had the best of two worlds and yet wanted to make a mark in the third. He subsequently found a way when he started justifying the Hindutva ideology. He had finally succeeded in imposing himself. His could be the personal nirvana of an aging flower-power westerner, but he shrewdly used a sepia-toned ancient heritage as his frame of reference. Engaged in marketing ruins as history, he does not realise that you cannot pickle a living culture.


(Published in Express Tribune, July 13)

10.7.10

Kashmir's Inner Demons

The People’s War
Kashmir's Inner Demons
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, July 9-11

Talking in terms of when the situation normalises in Kashmir amounts to living in a fool’s paradise. That the person saying so happens to be the chief minister of the state reveals the paucity of any real incentive to find solutions. Situations do not normalise as a matter of course when people in a place have been fighting a battle within.

A nine-year-old’s death during this tense-filled month clearly shows that no one is in control. While the home minister, P. Chidambaram, has insinuated the role of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, it is akin to playing to the gallery. After a while, it stops being a popcorn moment of watching the skirmishes in celluloid fashion. The government intercepted a conversation between hardliner separatists discussing the possibility of causing causalities in a procession on the outskirts of Srinagar. One office-bearer said, “At least 15 people should be martyred today." This was a 20,000 crowd. Nothing happened because the cops dispersed the mob with a cane charge. So much for the hardline terrorist plan and the sleuthing by the intelligence agencies.

The real dramatis personae this time are within the state. There is the ruling party leader Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party and the separatist Hurriyat’s Mirwaiz Omar Farooq.

The Centre plays a guest appearance.

Abdullah states that the Kashmir crisis is not because of bad governance. It is most certainly not the only reason if he means during his tenure, but it has been bad governance all along. His silence for the most part has not helped and when he does speak it exposes his lack of political will and sensitivity. Commenting on the loss of civilian lives, he said, “Being a father, I can feel the pain of those parents who have lost their child, I appeal all of the parents to counsel their children to not go outside their homes during the violence or in curfew and don’t indulge themselves in anti-national activities.”

Is good governance all about imprisoning children inside their homes? Isn’t good governance about trying to put a stop to such violence that is at least within manageable limits? Are the young people who are coming out in the streets and pelting stones indulging in anti-national activities? Has he not seen that the police have begun carrying little bricks too? This is not the voice of terrorism but of frustration.

Worse, there have been attacks on media persons. The Press Guild of Kashmir issued a statement saying, “Not allowing media persons to move and cover the situation tantamount to banning the media and that is what the state government has done indirectly.”

Abdullah can therefore reach his own conclusions because he is indulging in suppression of information. He alludes to the youth being used by vested interests. Why does he not name them? Everyone is a vested interest in Kashmir because each life is in danger and each human being there is living on the razor’s edge for two decades.

It is naïve of him to suggest that vested interests and anti-national forces are working together. Most local separatist groups can be broadly referred to as anti-Centre, not anti-national. Several issues need to be resolved, and that they are not is the problem of the government of India and not the extremist factions. What kind of a society is it where the ruling party leader says that normalcy will return if people obey the curfew? The people of the state are not sheep that they can be herded together to obey such diktats. Besides, are curfews the answer to the problems in the Valley? Will they assuage the disaffection of the people, bring back economic prosperity, prevent the influx of outside forces, and end the demands of separatist groups?

In what appears to be a case of ‘he has lost it’, at a press conference Abdullah appealed to senior citizens and religious preachers to spread the message of peace and help to bring normalcy in the affected areas.

Senior citizens have lost their children in the years of insurgency in the state and the peace process is not about homilies. As for religious preachers, he is transforming a political issue into a seminary dialogue and buffering the image of it as a jihad, which is playing into the hands of certain elements that have been pushing this agenda to justify their own religious idea.

He then went on a completely different track by holding out for the actions of the young people by bringing in the heavy-handedness of security forces that beat up locals and this could as a consequence be seen as retaliation. Excesses by security personnel are not unknown and have been going on for quite some time. This is not reprisal against that. He is using a simplistic yardstick because this is what he is comfortable with.

Undertrial prisoners and civilian casualties have another dimension. This time the youth movement seems to have been activated at the ground level, in many ways outside the purview of separatist or establishment movements. They are in effect protesting against bad governance, whether or not he wishes to admit it.

Mehbooba Mufti has blamed both the central and state governments. "Law and order is directly controlled by New Delhi. Now the governor has passed an order asking all departments to submit a monthly progress report on development activities to him directly. So, what does Abdullah do?” It is a relevant query. The elected representative has little power and therefore cannot hold forth on governance. However, surprisingly, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq believes, “She is a politician, so she blames the state government. But the current movement has nothing to do with governance issues. It is totally related to the cause of the Kashmiris and the political solution of the larger Kashmir issue."

This is word-play. The Hurriyat leaders are politicians too, although not elected by the people. The larger Kashmir issue and the cause of the Kashmiris cannot exist in a vacuum and are related to governance. If they were not, why would the leaders rant against the Centre’s apathy or the State’s lack of initiative? Security is a matter of governance. Autonomy and other demands may be the macro issues, but their demand has sprung forth from the attitude of the Centre, the infiltration from across the border and infighting amongst the various militant outfits.

If a basic aspect like governance is resulting in such convergent views then there is little hope of there being any whiff of the real thing. If Mirwaiz says, "The situation is quite violent. The administration and New Delhi is trying to showcase it as a few cases of sporadic violence. But that's certainly not the case. New Delhi has always tried to manage the Kashmir issue; never tried to find a solution", then he must not speak with a forked tongue and absolve the Centre and the state only to take to task other political parties. He must not forget that during every elections heads roll and almost never of the political leaders who find different portfolios in different parties. It is the person going out to vote who has his head on the chopping block.

It does not need to be reiterated that the Kashmir issue is a complex one, but when the armed forces fight civilians, it is also not a matter of separatist aspirations. It is about a badly-administered state that is not providing basic infrastructure and opportunities to the citizens.

The youth pelting stones represent themselves. It is precious irony that in a state that wants to fight for freedom, the freedom of individuals to express their own anger is being manipulated by various power centres – of the government and the separatists.

The larger Kashmir issue is this – peace for the people by the people and of the people.

8.7.10

CNN does not allow mourning a cleric's death

There would not have been any tribute to Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah here since I know barely anything about him. The news of his death was made important for those not his followers because CNN’s senior editor of Middle East affairs, Octavia Nasr, had to quit due to a tweet she sent out. It said:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."

The reprisal was quick. She expressed deep regret in her CNN blog:

"It was an error of judgement for me to write such a simplistic comment and I'm sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah's life's work. That's not the case at all."

She said she was referring to Fadlallah's "contrarian and pioneering stand among Shiite clerics on woman's rights."

Why is it simplistic for a person to feel sad about someone she respects? Only because he is alleged to be the spiritual guide of the Hezbollah and is on the US terrorist list?

An internal memo at the CNN headquarters stated:

"However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward."

It only means that the channel is one big establishment mouthpiece and has no place for a minor personal contrarian comment; in this respect Fadlallah seems way superior. While he may have been conservative in many respects – he was a cleric and not a politician, and see how many of them are conservative in their sharp suits – I did some looking around and Wikipedia mentions that he did talk about gender equality and was against female circumcision and honour killings.

He also issued a fatwa on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women that supports the right of a woman to defend herself against any act of violence whether social or physical.

The point is that he was using his platform to say things that might have at least resulted in some enlightenment among a few. How many political leaders do so? Most of them are not interested and some who are will be concerned about the repercussions of hurting religious sentiments.

I perfectly understand what Nasr means when she says she does not support all his work but specifies something that mattered to her. I constantly mention the areas of concern that may or may not belong to one particular stripe; as human beings we are prone to not respond in a standard manner. From what I got to know, she has taken an American stand in her reportage of most issues.

There have been obituaries in international newspapers, and while they did not express sadness they were reporting. She was not. Besides, CNN is a media group and not the government, so what exactly does compromise of position mean? Is the media supposed to have one stand? Are reporters told to follow that standard ideology? Can editors not have personal opinions that are voiced outside of the sainted CNN airtime?

Octavia Nasr’s apology is one more in the line of not toeing the official line even in the personal arena. I think what is dying is the sturdiness of media houses. They now have such flimsy positions that anything can shake them up and they can get compromised. And we, the audience, are supposed to believe what they say. Precious.

These same media houses will praise world leaders with dubious records and who have far greater reach and  power.

7.7.10

Possessed!

I am a possessive person. Not just about people, not just about things, not just about ideas…if I like something created by someone else, I become possessive about what is another’s in effect. It does, through a process of osmosis, become mine. As audience, reader, viewer, I have control over not merely its portrayal but also its gestation. How was it created? Why? Did the colours have a special meaning, were the characters fleshed out with some specific purpose?

It is like going into flashback mode as quasi creator. Obviously, it does not happen if I am indifferent to it. If I dislike the piece of work, then I want to extricate myself from it as I would from a knotty situation. With a history of not being good at it, the knots form their own webs and spider-like I get a corner-side view of the rather disastrous happening. But, if I like what I am seeing or reading, then my input is huge. I almost always become a character, sometime several characters and the tension is palpable as I create a whole out of these to encompass within me rather than it being the other way round.

So, not only am I what Dali paints or Godard films or Mailer writes, I am them for the duration when their work stays with me, and that could be often, maybe ever since I came across them and forever thence. Is the creator, then, incidental to the creation? In many ways the creator is my creation; my imagination sees the creator as creating the thing I am witness to. S/he have become my characters.

In a strange sort of way, therefore, none of us remain real creators. It is simulation and assimilation.

The reason I got started on this is because I read somewhere that Chashme Buddoor is being remade. The delightful ‘comedy’ – it is more than that – by Sai Paranjpye is to be adapted by David Dhawan. Now this man has given us some slapstick stuff, and I do not intend to be preachy about his cinema. But Sai Paranjpye manages to bring alive the simplest of situations with the lightest of touches. Her cinema is of the ethos.

Anyone who has watched her films will not go away without the characters. I am possessive about this movie and cannot imagine anyone remaking it, not even Sai. It is frozen in memory. Almost every scene. It is not message cinema; it does not have grandiose sets or smart editing. It is just a meandering look at life’s idiosyncrasies that affect any person.

This particular song has a special place, besides being a beautiful number. I do exactly what Deepti Naval does when she walks to the bus stop, completely immersed in her music, unaware of anything outside. Sometimes, worlds exist within us:


Because he is worth it?


Talk of getting a make-over. The French are known for their personal vanity, and I mean that in a nice sense, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has just taken it a bit further. There are allegations that L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt gave a substantial 150,000 euros in cash for his presidential campaign.

Donations to political candidates are a norm all over the world. It is a bit ridiculous that if the accusations stick, then it would be deemed illegal since it crosses the permitted amount of 7,500 euros for political parties.

In India industrial houses give huge sums to see that the favourite, and favourable to them, candidate and party wins. It is quite the done thing in the US and the UK too, and the kind of leverage business groups as well as communities manage to get has a lot to do with how much they can shell out.

L’Oreal is an established brand internationally and whatever murky deals the owners are in, there ought to be questions raised regarding the way the political system works. Did Sarkozy win the elections because of this money and not any other? Since he is the guy ruling the country, it means people elected him. Was it because of the public image, the beautified face, the superficial things? Then, who is to blame for such a victory if people fall for the façade?

Why has it taken three years for the ‘scandal’ to be outed? I think it is all cosmetic. Rivals. L’Oreal’s own brand imaging – notoriety in a fairly liberal society is seen as quite charming. And who knows – possibly Sarko’s own mean PR machinery ready to make him feel like a million bucks. In a down-in-the-dumps economy, this is rich and reassuring.

I suspect in the next elections, the new guy will not have to bring something better, but something snazzier and beat the figures.

6.7.10

Mukhtaran and Meena

How did a rape victim become an icon and why? Is Jamshed Dasti a stand-alone, callous bloke trying to use pressure and clout to stifle justice or is he representative of the pugnacious social structure? Mukhtaran Mai’s bravery is a personal one, I am afraid. There has not been a spurt of such court cases; it has not sensitised people at the ground level; it has not resulted in understanding of what rape, especially gang rape, conveys.

Meet Meena. She heard the screams. Her husband lay in a pool of blood. Before she could do anything, the men had pounced on her. After some time she managed to drag herself and get help. She then went to file a complaint. The cops tittered, looked at her breasts above her pregnant belly and said: “Doodh pila de”. She yelled out helplessly. Months later, life was still miserable, now with an incapacitated husband and fear. “They barricaded most of the area. If I left the hut for long they’d break it again. It was so bad that we had to defecate inside on sheets of paper and I’d carry the excreta and throw it on the other side, which was a swamp,” she said.

I was sitting with her far from the cold floor, but her story was chilling. She was indirectly caught in a fight between two builders. Her husband worked for one. The rival hired a goonda gang. This was cosmopolitan Mumbai and they were only earning a living. Until that day, a day that she had to leave behind even as she went looking for work and visiting the police station. Justice was being scraped out painfully; it could not be brandished in bold letters.

Does it all end after the devastation of riots, militant attacks, wars? No. Brutalisation is only the outer manifestation. Women become double victims — first of the actual battle and then of the ideology. In the days when sati was a sanctified institution, the motive was to save women from marauding enemy armies. But, what was being protected —their lives or their sexuality? We have heard about victims marrying their rapists. These are literal demonstrations of masculinisation of power.

Jamshed Dasti’s ‘compromise’ formula is based as much on the tribal laws that forced Mukhtaran’s rape. She was the price they had to extract for another’s ‘sin’. The urban politician is using a similar yardstick and, much as his views are reprehensible, there are often coteries that take over a symbol to showcase their concern for the co-existence of feminism and tradition. Mukhtaran has been hawked like fusion cuisine.

She has become a cliché for injustice and, ironically, even more exploited. The value system and marketing machinery are patriarchal. The victim woman who fights, becomes a canonised caricature, so beloved of the Wsest and the westernised, leaving little room for the voiceless. It is appalling that we cheer when a case gets international exposure. Our media gives them the exotic version when in those countries date rapes, incest and teen pregnancies are a common occurrence. How many of their victims are seen as icons?

Had Jamshed Dasti been worried about the international repercussions he would have shut-up. He is concerned about the local constituency. For all those disparaging him, yes, he is for real. If we look deeper, then he is what many surrounding us are about, including women who accept the status of trophy wives and state, “It’s okay if my husband goes here and there as long as he comes home to me at the end.”

If we have said or heard this and not given it a second thought, then Dasti’s crime is not very different from ours.

- - -

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2010.

5.7.10

When the Indian Army Fakes It

What works in Bollywood works for the Indian army. After seven years a colonel of the armed forces has been fighting to prove that the ketchup on the bodies of his 'victims' was not his idea. There is a tragic-comic dimension to this story.

The report in short:

Col. Harvinder Singh Kohli is ordered by his superiors to bump off the five militants his men had taken into custody in an encounter. He chose to hand them (of the Assam Commando Group) over to the civil authorities. This was not on:

Kohli's bosses would not relent: his immediate superior, a brigadier, told him that "kills" in encounters were important and this is what mattered. If he could not kill anyone, then at least a "fake" encounter should be staged. An NDA cadet and brought up under the culture of obedience, Kohli made, what it seems now, the mistake of his life.

He dressed up five men and made them lie down on the ground. They were sprayed with ketchup and pictures were taken of them. The bosses were happy, so was Kohli. He did not have to kill anybody and his superiors were contented with pictures of the purported kill. Now the bosses, in order to keep the name of the regiment high, cajoled Kohli to recommend gallantry awards for his men (not for himself).

Before we go any further in this bizarre tale, we must understand the dynamics here. Kohli was being obedient. It just shows how these hierarchies work. More importantly, if militants are usually released to the civil authorities, then he was doing his duty. I fail to see the sympathy evinced about his innocence. Is he innocent of handing over the militants, which is what the government expects? Is he innocent of not being the person who wanted to carry out the fake encounter? If it was fake and no one was killed, then he is innocent.

The real issue is not of innocence but of culpability and connivance with the authorities under the garb of obedience and this army discipline we keep hearing about. Someone squealed about the ketchup. It was probably taken from the army rations and there wasn’t enough left for the burgers. Kohli was court-martialled and then dismissed.

The obedient Kohli did not reveal the name of the brigadier. There was more drama. A lieutenant colonel who assisted him told him if he pleaded guilty he would be let off with loss of two-year seniority. He confessed, but the other side did not keep their end of the bargain and he was dismissed.

Actually Kohli was fooled: he was given to understand that there was plea-bargaining, but on the records of the court-martial proceedings there was no mention of this.

There would not be. A Force that wants ‘kills’, that watches as a colonel sprays ketchup and pictures of live corpses are taken is unlikely to put all this on record.

Feeling cheated, he finally named names. The Brigadier S S Rao had ordered the fake encounter with the knowledge of his boss Major General Ravinder Singh, general officer commanding, 57 Mountain Division. Colonel Kohli presented taped conversations he had with the brigadier as evidence.

I am flummoxed. If kills are so important then why did the brigadier not get a junior officer to just shoot some guys? It is not unusual and has happened several times. Are we talking about the sensitive face of the Indian Army? The nice guys who are happy with the colour red but not a bloody mess? Who will twirl moustaches and present the image of braggadocio?

Did the incident create such a deep bond between Kohli and his senior that he could tape conversations? Was the brigadier so naïve that he would repeat his dramatic little outing and put his reputation at risk before a junior? Why was Kohli taping the conversations? Was it before his court-martial or after? If it was before, he was canny enough to anticipate trouble. If it was after, then the brigadier must be tried for foolhardiness rather than anything else.

Of course, after the investigations he had to forfeit five years of seniority and a reprimand. The major suffered a similar fate. Kohli was not reinstated. The matter reached the Army headquarters and the Defence Ministry after years, which is surprising. It has been proved that he acted on orders of his superiors and has “no personal interest in the matter”.

An army colonel ought to have a great deal of personal interest, in that it is his professional duty to arrest militants, not stage fake encounters and, if forced to do so, report to the authorities.

Unfortunately, the army is a ghettoised institution with regiments working in isolation and the pecking order deciding what came first and who comes last. The fact that there is plea bargaining in an institution that is the defence front of the state exposes it to all manner of falsification and skulduggery.

Bandh baaja

Opposition parties are supposed to oppose and question government policies. However, when they give a call for a bandh it affects the common man they are supposedly fighting for more than anyone else. Are ruling party politicians inconvenienced in any manner?

They are protesting against the rise in fuel prices, and news reports trickling in mention violent incidents where buses and trains were targeted and flights disrupted.

The Communist parties joined the NDA in this honourable voice of the common man. The Left leaders courted arrest. This is not the sort of arrest that the common man has to endure when s/he is picked up for suspected crimes or, even when it is for crimes, they rarely have any recourse to justice. The politicians will sit it out, chat, get cups of chai and be released to loud cheers from the party cadre.

I support dissent in principle, of principles. This is hypocrisy because no government in any part of the country, ruled by any political party has been able to control price rise. Price rise depends on several factors. There is a chain of politician-bureaucracy-industry at work. This percolates to the middle sector of retail – in this instance, pliers of public transport. The end result is the citizen having to shell out more. What is never kept in check is how citizens are fleeced even when there is no price rise. Cabbies and autorickshaws do that on a fairly regular basis. Consumer courts work with the enthusiasm of red-tapists.

The bandh has been declared an “unprecedented success”. Arun Jaitley said:

"This protest has been widely supported by the average common man because he is really the target of the government's policies.”

Widely-supported? Who is burning the buses and creating mayhem? Who forces shops to down shutters? Who asks vehicles to stay off the roads? Who creates a fear psychosis among people?

Jaitley’s average common man is indeed concerned about rise in fuel and other prices, but does not protest against it in this manner and not against it as ‘government policy’, but as unfair price rise which will affect them.

Tomorrow they will be back at work, paying the price they are expected to for using transport to get to work that brings them their salaries and gives them a livelihood. They will not be pontificating about government policies and neither will these opposition politicians who will be zipping past the roads of the capital in their fancy wheels.

4.7.10

Sunday ka Funda

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Liberty is the possibility of doubting, the possibility of making a mistake, the possibility of searching and experimenting, the possibility of saying No to any authority--literary, artistic, philosophic, religious, social and even political.”

- Ignazio Silone

1.7.10

Imran Khan’s drones

He has filed a petition under article 184(3) of the Pakistani constitution in the Supreme Court asking it to declare US drone attacks inside the country as illegal and unconstitutional.

It is an interesting case, for it pleads to the nation’s highest judicial authority to take action against another nation based on “a violation of the United Nations charter, the universal declaration on human rights, international laws and international humanitarian laws”.

Would these organisations not expect the ‘host’ country to disallow the presence of troops and, if they are there, then would they not be expected to provide an explanation?

The government and several top officials, including the Defence Secretary, the Secretary of the cabinet division, Interior Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretaries of all provinces, were made respondents in the case.

Since it is the fundamental right of citizens to life, property and dignity, the buck will be passed on to the insurgency movement within Pakistan. The US always has a ready alibi and is often in cahoots with at least one power centre inside. There is also the question about which citizens Imran Khan is talking about. There are thin lines that divide the citizens and it is difficult to fathom whose rights are being talked about.

There have been several occasions when the Pakistani authorities have suppressed their own population of various stripes; there is a legal system that can be played around with; there is tribal rule in certain parts where regular Pakistani jurisprudence has absolutely no control.

Imran Khan’s petition works only at a symbolic level. Even as that, it will in fact work counter-productively. After all, the respondents can plead helplessness for in some ways not only are the sensitive areas outside their scope, but the American operations too will be seen as forced ‘occupation’ and make those Pakistani politicians and armymen who are well in the know of things appear to be victims rather than active participants in the suppression of the insurgency.

Therefore, the buck will stop at the door of the insurgents and both the villainous parties – the US and the Pakistani authorities – shall get away. As always, it appears to be their fundamental right to do so.