29.9.13

Sunday ka Funda

"''Home' is any four walls that enclose the right person."

- Helen Rowland

I like the tagline: "Har ghar kuchch kehta hai" (every house speaks). For a paint ad, this seems like an obvious choice. But how often do homes talk or convey anything?

This ad in some ways is all about stereotypes — the armyman's discipline and the woman leaving her maternal home. While the emotions are subtly conveyed, through his concern for decorating the bedroom like the one in her house, a mere replication does not take a relationship forward.

Nitpicking aside, the words and feelings stay with you.

"Tell me whom you love and I will tell you who you are."

- Arsene Houssaye

Rahul plays while Manmohan is away?



Dr. Manmohan Singh might never have imagined that the BJP would stand up for him, his self-respect, and his position as PM. Fact is that the saffron party has no choice. The reason is what almost every newspaper and television channel has described as a "bombshell" by Rahul Gandhi. He said:

"Now, I will tell you what is my opinion on the ordinance. It is complete nonsense, it should be torn up and thrown away. It is my personal opinion...If you want to fight corruption in the country whether it is Congress party or BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises. Because if we make these small compromises, then we compromise everywhere...I am interested in what the Congress party is doing and what our government is doing. That is why what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong."


Rahul Gandhi is saying what they are saying, but they do not like RG and the dynasty, so what do they do? Talk about power centre and other such stuff that they witnessed themselves when Narendra Modi and L.K. Advani did a bit of public sulking.



Apart from the difference in nomenclature — MMS is the PM — Rahul has done a Modi in more ways than one. Bluster, precociousness, and smart calculation. RG is cannier than we think, and good going.

If it is going to be about a poster boy, then the Congress better get their own. The 'cult' factor is not designed for statesmanship, but social media bravado. The Dalits and the poor RG was supping with will not get affected either by the Ordinance or his opposition to it. If we notice, the main theme of the Ordinance has pretty much been ignored. This personality politics is specifically to keep the media happy with one rally for another, one speech for another, one smart bomb for another.

The cabinet had passed the ordinance that would protect convicted MPs. RG is not in the cabinet; he is the vice president of the Congress. As a party member and a senior functionary his objection, albeit late, is permissible. It is not, however, incumbent on the PM or the cabinet to reverse the decision. That Dr. Singh is more than likely to do so is another matter.

Why did RG not send him a letter (he did so later) before walking into the communications in charge Ajay Maken's press conference where he was defending the Ordinance?

Simple. The PM will not be the final authority. President Pranab Mukherjee will have to pass it. Not too long ago, the president was the finance minister and he was eased out of his post. Is it possible that the real deal is this?

BJP's Meenakhshi Lekhi did imply so:

"It's a political stunt, the timing is questionable. The President was probably returning the ordinance, so someone had to take the credit, and it was him."


For a Modi groupie, she is certainly acquainted with political stunts. However, this is not a school report. And if what she says is the case, then why is the BJP concerned about the PM and not the president? Why is the BJP so insecure that it starts worrying about who gets the credit, when they have been shouting all this time that whatever the PM does is not on his own?

BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman got in the "what nonsense" mood when she reacted:

"What audacity! What the hell! What was Rahul Gandhi all this while? Is he trying to send the message that the Family can do no wrong and it all the prime minister's fault? What about the honour of the prime minister whose cabinet cleared the ordinance? Manmohan Singh is not the prime minister for the family. He is the prime minister of the country and he cannot be insulted, especially when he is not even in the country."


This is so jejune. His words are absolutely clear. Had he not said what he did, they would suggest that he is the architect of this Ordinance. Now it comes to the 'family can do no wrong' criticism. He is speaking as a Congressman, in his personal capacity. The decision was not the PM's alone. The BJP and other parties have their share of goons protected as MPs, so is their public objection not double-speak too?

Do not worry about Manmohan Singh. For all we know, he was already in the loop about the "bombshell". He has in fact been spared from taking an obsequious stand, and this gave space to RG to assert himself without attempting to be politically correct or waiting for an elder. He did not mention Sonia Gandhi, he did not mention his legacy.

Sure, RG is playing to the gallery. He is doing a public rolling up of sleeves. He may or may not be the Congress Party's prime ministerial candidate, but he is ready for battle. And that is bothering the Opposition. They now don't have to deal only with a silent PM with a very long and impressive CV, but someone who will speak their language if push comes to shove.

Rahul Gandhi has spoofed the BJP's grand standing about being a party that believes in democracy every time there is a difference of opinion.

© Farzana Versey

27.9.13

Why does Mumbai Police need Israel?




Imagine a situation where Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or Afghanistan agencies were to "provide cover to the institutions facing terror threat", the institutions in question being mosques or other religious types. Unthinkable? Right.

Therefore, let us also feel as appalled over the Mumbai police initiative to get Israeli agencies to protect Jewish establishments that are on the terror radar. The rest of us depend on our cops, and there is absolutely no reason why any community should be given protection from outsiders. Israel does not have sole rights over Jews, most of whom are old settlers and indigenous people of India.

Although it is unlikely to happen, and neither Muslims nor Christians have ever expected foreign intelligence to come to their rescue, the reaction had any country been assigned to look after their interests would have raised eyebrows, if not downright condemnation.

That the police are depending on the macho talk of two Indian Mujahideen men is itself a bit surprising. Yasin Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar mentioned surveying four synagogues and spoke of plans "to abduct some Jewish people and hold them hostage, demanding the release of top IM functionaries from Indian jails".

One can understand if the Israeli Consulate gets involved 'diplomatically' if Israeli citizens are concerned, but not all Jews.

The security of the city, and of the country, is not something we can outsource. A police officer said:

"Israeli agencies have come up with several important defence strategies to combat attack and hostage situation. We are also keenly studying their method of hostage negotiation. Though we have our own method, additional input always helps."


This makes us sound ill-prepared and helpless. What negotiations has Israel managed with the Palestinians? Stopped supplies?

More worrying is this:

In a bid to check the preparedness of the policemen posted at the earmarked establishments, the department sent some "suspicious-looking people on motorbikes near synagogues". "We are happy that the police personnel posted there identified those people, who lurked around the spot posing as dummy terror suspects," added a senior police officer.


It would be interesting to see what these dummy suspects look like. This is extremely disturbing, for one can have a fair idea of what the cops have in mind. This would result in further stereotyping by the police force itself. Besides, if the terror suspects are so easy to recognise, why are they not nabbed? What about the IM guy who walked out of court just like that, from right under the nose of the cops?

I do not want Saudi Arabia to meddle in India and I do not want Israel to. It is as simple as that. And here are a few examples that I had written about in an earlier piece:

Soon after the Mumbai attacks, six members of a group called Zaka (acronym for Zihuy Korbanot Ason - Disaster Victim Identification) arrived in the city to collect and arrange the body parts and blood of Jews so that they could be returned to family members and were afforded a dignified burial according to Jewish law. The police investigations were not completed.

• More recently, Israeli national Nurit Toker was booked by the Mumbai police under the Arms Act for carrying two live cartridges in her backpack while travelling from Mumbai to Kathmandu. In her petition she mentioned that she had completed her compulsory three-year training in the Israeli army and these were her personal ammunition, compatible with the M-16 assault rifle acquired during her military training. She had not carried the rifle, though. Sec. 3 clearly states “there is no requirement of use or intention to use the arm or ammunition” to pursue the case. Yet, the Israel Consulate intervened to say that the accused had accidentally left bullets in her bag.

In 2006, Noa Haviv had cleared customs at Mumbai airport as well as the security agencies of Israeli airline El Al at Tel Aviv and arrived with 16 bullets and a magazine in her check-in baggage. The Israeli consul general had stated then: “We have every reason to believe that it was an innocent mistake. She had borrowed this suitcase from her brother, who is a licensed weapons holder. She was not aware of the bullets inside when she packed her bags.” Amazingly, only the airline filed a case and not the Airports Authority of India or the security agencies of the government.

In a country that arrests whole families on mere “tip offs”, this leniency is alarming. Worse, all 171 passengers on the El Al flight had walked out of the green channel and cleared customs in 15 minutes. Why this express service? Even Indians returning from a holiday take longer. The customs official at the time had said, “…this was a flight coming from Israel, where security measures are stringent.”


So is Sri Lanka's. And America's. Is that why a certain David Headley could visit India at his time and convenience? Think about it.

© Farzana

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Image: Magen David synagogue in Mumbai

26.9.13

Human Rites and Prison Celebrities

The views expressed by a senior researcher with the Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan, reveals how history is distorted to suit superpowers.

Heather Barr, in an interview to The Times of India, said in response to a question about women and the withdrawal of troops:

"There'll be a serious negative impact on women's rights in Afghanistan. The issue is not the actual withdrawal of troops but the loss of interest in Afghanistan by the international community that'll come with the troop withdrawal — that is likely to have a devastating impact.

Progress on women's rights will only be sustainable if there's political pressure and aid from the international community. Without this, we'll see regression in the coming years — a regression which has already begun."


'International community' is a huge term. It also means countries that are neighbours and allies. It includes small nations that are grappling with similar problems, and not all are at the mercy of drone politics and magnanimity. The west has fed on the regression, if not partly helped to create it.



Where were the troops when Afghanistan was a modern state, and women held positions in the army, in politics and in several other professions?

If by international community Barr means those that toe the US line, then it just shows how little they care about progress and how much more for political expediency. If their interest had to do with troops, then it is clearly not geared towards rights. Outside troops cannot dictate, much less gaurantee, rights. They are often the ones to abuse those rights.

The dire note about "regression" seems to promote the colonising of indigenous ideas. It is convenient for the US to use Hamid Karzai when it needs to and now that it is time to go he becomes an effete man who will not stand up for women.

Has the US managed to stall the Taliban's regression? Did the troops alter the way of thinking, and bring women into the mainstream? How, then, can these troops of any consequence?

The hallmark of withdrawal symptoms is an overarching need to project a paranoid exterior while thinking about more regressive images to take back as souvenirs.

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In other news

If Sanjay Dutt should not have been treated like a celebrity when the trial was on, why are the jail authorities using his fame now that he is in prison under the Arms Act for the 1993 Mumbai blasts case?




On September 26, that is today, Yerwada Jail's inmates are to put up a play - Teemiratun...Tejakade (From darkness to light) - at the Bal Gandharva Auditorium in Pune. Dutt will not only act in a skit, but also perform two dance numbers.

They are promoting it as his show. They are capitalising on his name. While all 20 performers are prison inmates, it is clear that this time it will be special. So special that they managed to get Raju Hirani, who has directed Sanjay in the Munnabhai series, to fine-tune the act.

When was the last time a film director was asked and agreed to be a part of such a show?

Now if Sanjay Dutt is denied some facilities he asks for, we will need to question such a decision (unless of course those are illegal in any way). They cannot say he should not be treated like a celebrity because they are already doing so.

© Farzana Versey

23.9.13

That Church they bombed in Peshawar




Sunday mass. Two suicide bombers. 80 Christians killed. The Taliban strikes. Again.

My friend B is a devout Christian. She chose her mother's faith; her father is a Muslim, her husband was a Catholic. They travelled to many countries and she has several options, but after his death she was inexplicably drawn to her land of origin.

Her home is filled with iconography. Paintings of the Virgin Mother, Crosses, a stained glass propped against the window. And then there are rugs from the north, bedspreads from Sindh. She dresses mostly in western clothes, not unlike some Muslims in cities like Karachi or Lahore. Despite her secure life, she certainly feels the pressure of being the other, especially when she is out of her cocoon.

She and others like her are professionals. Life is easy for them at the level of survival. In contrast, many are cleaning staff, and besides poverty there is social discrimination against them. For a country that boasts about being Islamic, where such hierarchies are not permitted, Pakistan's feudal structure ensures that menial tasks are looked down upon. As a consequence, even those who have done well are referred to as 'chura', although as in any society some will have to perform what become traditional tasks.

The twin blasts at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, the north-west region in Pakistan, have been described as "the deadliest ever assault on one of the country’s long-persecuted minorities".

This is true, at least as far as killings on this scale are concerned. But, is it enough to say the Taliban did it and let the matter rest?

What has the Pakistani government done? It has the execrable Blasphemy Law for those who criticise the Prophet or Islam. It reveals so much insecurity. However, it has deeper reasoning. It helps the political establishment to target anyone. More Muslims have been arrested on blasphemy charges, so it is a clear indication that this is just an extreme form of censorship.

Any society that cannot respect and protect its minorities is inherently flawed. While it is commendable that the media in Pakistan often takes up such causes, openly going against the government, a small group of liberals tend to get their glory from criticising the Taliban, but not the ruling elite. The buck should stop at the elite doorstep.

How can anyone prevent deranged minds who do not value their own lives to talk reason? The Taliban's Jundullah wing claimed responsibility for the bombings: "All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country." They are using this as an excuse.

The Christians targeted on Sunday are Pakistani in thought, in language, in dress, and there is little to tell them apart from the rest (although one would be hard-pressed to have any uniformity among the rest too). They are not helping American drones, if that is even something to factor in. In fact, it is the rich Muslims who are more Americanised.

There is no logic in the Taliban argument, if one goes by the number of villagers they have killed belonging to their own tribe.

Politicians are already playing games over dead bodies. They are condemning with fervour — condemning one another rather than the lack of security, the discriminatory laws.

Unless this is done, the Taliban will be seen to be working as a wing of the government. The loss is that of the Pakistani people, the invisible majority from all faiths who get noticed only when their cries are heard and they protest as coffins stand mute witness.

© Farzana Versey

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Image of protests after the attacks - CNN

22.9.13

Blood in Nairobi




It takes extreme heartlessness to lob grenades, to shoot people in the head, and hold them hostage. People who have nothing to do with any cause, who are just going about their daily lives, enjoying an evening out with their families, or tourists taking a break from the sights.

What happened on Saturday in Nairobi is tragic and despicable. We have a tendency to compare, because we have become numb to killings largely because they appear on TV.

I would have liked to talk about my grandmother's early life in Kenya, the lullabies she sang to me in Swahili, the slaves her father released.

The crouched bodies and fear in the eyes of September 21 are a reminder of another kind of slavishness. We know who is behind the attacks. We even know why, to an extent. This does not mean anything. For, people are slaves to ideologies and politics, and nothing will stop them. The attempt to stop too is no free lunch.

Reports have mentioned the race of the victims, their nationalities, and it all becomes about who is mine, who is the other.

Al Shabaab, a terrorist organisation based in Somalia, has taken responsibility. The New York Times mentions that this attack was "one of the most chilling terrorist attacks in East Africa since Al Qaeda blew up two American embassies in 1998". Somalia and Kenya have been at war over three decades before that, and continue to be. It was territorial, to begin with.

Al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Mohamoud Rage, said following the attack: “Kenya will not get peace unless they pull their military out of Somalia.”

Reports mention how the group was gloating in the social media. This trend has to stop. It is bad enough that we get sensational images on television. Such theatre of violence is close to the real thing, and glorifies the killers.

There is also a tendency to create more fissures:

• "The mall, called Westgate, is a symbol of Kenya’s rising prosperity, an impressive five-story building where Kenyans can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi. On Saturdays, it is especially crowded, and American officials have long warned that Nairobi’s malls were ripe targets for terrorists, especially Westgate, because a cafe on the ground floor, right off the street, is owned by Israelis."

Kenya is rich in natural resources, and it has seen levels of prosperity until, like many other nations, it was colonised. The expatriates continue to thrive.

However, is the Israeli establishment not there to do business? Don't they do business in the U.S. which feels under constant threat? Why is it always about 'us'? (Has the Israeli establishment expressed reservations?) The Somali group has been described as 'Islamist". Does that explain their earlier war with Kenya? Does that even explain the Arab entering Kenya in the 16 century to trade and staying on?

Eyewitnesses say the terrorists asked Muslims to leave. Unless they were recognisable by mode of dress, they would not know. And they don't really care, even if some reports suggest they asked people on the run to identify the Prophet's mother. One does not see terrorists do this in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan where they target their co-religionists.

Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism for the Pentagon, said: “I think this is just the beginning. An attack like this gives them the capability to recruit, it shows off their abilities, and it demonstrates to Al Qaeda central that they are not dead.”

Now imagine if the reports had not played into just this narrative. The Al Qaeda does not need the media to let it know what its members and allies are doing. The organisation is well-oiled and has its antenna up. What we are witnessing — the 39 dead people and 150 injured will be forgotten — is one more version of monopoly.

Dan Stackhouse, a commenter from New York City, sort of revealed the subtext:"Kenya is an old ally of America, not to mention Britain and other major powers. It would be hypocrisy if we did not aid them in their fight against the shabab in Somalia. For now we can do nothing about al-Assad's terrorism in Syria, but we can and should do something about this."

This is not a quid pro quo. Helplessness over inability to 'do' something in Syria should not seek replacement. The old idea of allies too does not work anymore. Besides, the power equations are different. (Not to forget that Britain ruled over Kenya.)

At this time, we need to spare a thought for those who are killed everyday for some vague idea — of faith, of political expediency, of just muscle power. We need to spare a thought also for Somalia. There are Somalians who live an honest life. They are not terrorists.

One has to only be exposed to lands where terrorists live to understand how desperate the ordinary people are, and how victimised they too can be... if not by bullets, then by branding.

© Farzana Versey

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All quotes from The New York Times

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Update

The issue of highlighting race is again evident in new findings. As reported:

The Foreign Office is investigating suggestions that a female British terror suspect nicknamed the "White Widow" could have been linked to the plot. Witness accounts have suggested a woman was among the attackers, fuelling speculation that Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to 7/7 bomber Jermaine Lindsay, was involved.

She is wanted by Kenyan police over links to a suspected terrorist cell planning bomb attacks.In March 2012, it was reported that Lewthwaite, 29, originally from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, had fled across the border from Kenya to Somalia.

Sunday ka Funda

"Say goodbye to the oldies, but goodies, because the good old days weren't always good and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems,"

— Billy Joel

Good for optimism.

I am not leaving anything nor is anything that matters to me leaving. Not yet. But listening to this, I am choked...

Farewell: Apocalyptica

Hotline

"Hello, my Internet connection has not been working for hours," I tell the service provider hotline guy, after being warned by a computerised voice that this call is being recorded for quality and training purposes and I am to be part of the education.

"Ok...please provide me with security details....thanks...ok, may I call you by first name?..." he rattles off.

"Anything, just get this working."

"So what is the problem actually?"

"The internet..."

"You want to subscribe?"

"I told you it is not working and when it does work it is very slow."

"I understand. Am really sorry for the inconvenience. How many bars are showing?"

Hic.

"Four," I say, squinting my eyes to make sure I don't miss out on any bars and mislead the training and quality.

"That's good. Now try browsing."

"That's what I have been trying to do, and it is not working."

"Oh, so sorry to hear that. Did you try switching it off?"

"I have done all that is possible. Switched off, on, removed batteries, put them in, taken the phone/tab for a walk..." [last bit not said aloud]

"Maybe you don't know the settings..."

"I've been using this before you were born." [not said aloud]

"We'll try it manually...go to home page, then to settings..."

"I have been there for a couple of hours..." I had also cleared cache, history, geography to make it light as a feather.

"Now add this...then this...type google...G O O..."

"I know how to spell."

"Now click save..."

"There is no save...it auto saves."

"IPad is Apple?"

"No. It is orange." [said softly because call is recorded and training might not be fruity]

"I will have to transfer you to my technical department..."

"And who are you?"

"I am hotline help. Transferring now...[music] Sorry about the long wait..."

[It's been 30 seconds only]

"Okay, transferring the line to Shahrukh Khan [not his real name]. SRK will now help you..."

"Even if Idi Amin does I'll be happy."

[obviously, I did not say it aloud]

"I understand you have a problem. Have you tried switching on and switching off?" asked SRK.

"No. I have no clue how to do it. Because I am not a machine."

[I did not say this latter bit aloud]

The wonders of life. The line got cut off. I resigned myself to being unconnected. A few minutes later I got a text message. "Were you happy with the help?"

I switched off. So, yes, the help worked in unintended ways.

20.9.13

Have stings replaced news?



The anchor held up a piece of paper and shouted down a politician with the precious words: "I have this secret information." A rival channel did its own bit of smirking: "Our sting operation will give you the whole story."

It will not. This too is fed information. The reason there is a surfeit of 'stings' — how can a formal letter by a cop to his bosses be called a sting operation when he has written it and sent it? — is because newspapers and TV channels have saturated the regular routes and want to entertain. Many of the readers and viewers too wish to be entertained, and news stories, however controversial, become more interesting when they stink.

Sting operations get a whole lot of points by a gullible public that assumes those blurred video clips are done as an act of public good. No one bothers to check out the motives behind these moves. It is high time we made the mainstream media answerable, but the alternatives are not always as above-board as they appear simply because they too depend on the largesse of sponsors, advertising and benefactors.

A few noises are being made now about some of these exposés. I wish it had been done earlier, too. Then we would have been spared this rush and rash of scoops where dirt covers only more dirt.

I've said it in earlier pieces, and instead of repeating myself I shall reproduce two extracts, one from 2010, the other from 2007. [Unfortunately, opinions do not qualify as scoops and exposés!]:

Stings that stink, 2007, Asian Age Op-Ed:

Have sting operations changed anything? Have people stopped having their palms greased? Is there more awareness about wrongdoing? Are the culprits shunned by society?

You know the answers. They have, on the contrary, become even more important.

A reporter of a Delhi television channel tried to expose a teacher for forcing her students into prostitution. It turned out to be fake. It was done on the prodding of a businessman as a planned strategy to hit out at the teacher for owing him Rs 100,000. He called up a reporter who we are told harangued her to make a few quick bucks by getting into the flesh trade and supply women. It is said she fell for this bait. A colleague of the reporter was sent as a potential girl ready for the job.

The whole story sounds bizarre. Would a woman in a respectable profession be so gullible as to get into criminal activity? If there is any truth, then why has it been labelled fake? This is not a big channel. Had it been one of those fancy ones, do you imagine anyone would have made such a noise about its lack of authenticity? The reporter has been arrested. I would like to know what is being done to the channel owners. This isn’t just a sensational story. It is about an issue that concerns women and any sensible person. Sting operators cannot get away with it.

Is this about vigilantism at all? (In 2005), there was an exposé where 11 Members of Parliament were bribed to pose questions in the House. The website carried tape recorders and cameras to catch them red-handed and a TV channel aired what they thought was a complete travesty. These clippings were later shown in Parliament. Newspaper reports were dramatic: "Parliament was stunned into shamed silence."

Does Parliament feel no shame when elected members throw slippers and chairs at each other? Has no ministry ever been shamed for taking kickbacks by giving a contract to an undeserving company?

And who were the MPs who were paid Rs 15,000 to just over a lakh for asking questions? Were they important enough names? These nobodies suddenly got notorious fame as "the dirty eleven." I can lay a bet that even if they were not bribed and were told they would be given some media coverage, they would still have done what they did. The sting operation only helped make scapegoats of a few unknowns to let the real sharks march around like saints. A whitewash job has never been simpler.

The real scoop was this, and it had been reported in this newspaper: The television channel gave the sting operators about Rs 58 lakhs. Less than Rs 10 lakhs was spent on the entire operation. The bribe amount was less than Rs 3 lakhs. Other expenses were about Rs 5 lakhs. The equipment was available on loan. Was the balance money returned to the TV channel? Does anyone know?

There should be transparency regarding sting operations too. Jaya Jaitly, who ought to know, had made an interesting comment, that it would be honest if a person went to these sting operators and told them that someone was taking money for asking questions or getting things done; the snoops could then accompany the person and catch the culprit in the act.

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Would they do a sting operation on cultural organisations or famous "respectable" artistes who get special privileges? What about nominated MPs from the "world of arts" who use their position to further their personal causes? What about NGOs that misuse foreign funds? What about media houses that take money from socialites to promote them?



The media as middleman, 2010, CounterPunch

Journalists have often got prime posts in social organisations or are sent on junkets; many of the hugely respected senior names conduct all their ‘investigations’ over the telephone, which means they are fed information by interested groups. What about owners of channels who get elected and become MPs?

To push the envelope (no pun intended) further, what about freedom of speech? Does the industrial house not have the freedom to lobby? Does the lobbyist not have the freedom to push her case? Does the journalist not have the freedom to act as a go-between?

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Political stooges have always existed, only the level of subtlety has altered their persona. You just have to spend some time in any of the intellectual hubs in Delhi and you will see a journalist supping with a politician or a bureaucrat. There are TV channels that have given preference to young recruits merely due to their proximity to and sometimes family connections with such powerful people.

The (Radia tapes) revelations have become such a talking point, ironically, because they have been exposed with much flourish outside the mainstream media in India. Internationally, the Washington Post mentioned ‘paid news’ and reported that The Foundation for Media Professionals plans to host a conference on journalists as power brokers. The organisations’s spokesperson said, “We are actually happy that these practices have come out in the open. It forces us to address the problem. We as journalists sit in judgment of others all the time. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Journalists are fallible and their standards should be decreed by ethics and not morality and most certainly must not become a ruse for nobility. The self-examination should also raise questions about the media conducting kangaroo courts and making a spectacle of helpless common people.


"False history gets made all day, any day, the truth of the new is never on the news." (Adrienne Rich)

© Farzana Versey

17.9.13

Meat, Drink and Judging Vivekananda




Would the young give up the occasional tipple and their cuisine choices only because of a leader? Does a leader who comes with a moral baggage — and selective at that — truly appeal to the youth? On the other hand, if the leader were given to some of these indulgences would the young be influenced by it, or is it something they are anyway attracted to?

Today, as one 'youth icon' Modi turns 64 (what happens when the youth grow older — do they discard these icons and refer to them as "senile" as some middle-aged folk have been doing about another leader?) — my thoughts turn to how self-righteousness plays itself out for political gain.

Last week, Shashi Tharoor was at the inauguration of a statue of Swami Vivekananda. BJP Kerala state president V Muraleedharan who was present stated:

“The union minister said that Vivekananda’s legacy cannot be appropriated by a particular section or group and went on to add that the monk used to eat meat and drink occasionally.”


Swami Vivekananda is now one of those sages that the rightwing is trying to claim as its own. He did have what may broadly be called a 'Hindu view of life', but it was certainly not a narrow divisive vision.

Tharoor often speaks before thinking, but this time, even if it is political expediency, he was merely trying to throw a spanner in the Hindutva works. In a fashion followed by the saffron parties, he was humanising Vivekananda, and there is much of that in his persona.

It was enough to create a controversy. BJP leader O. Rajagopal made what The Hindu refers to as "a frontal attack on Shashi Tharoor" (what could be the other option?) and demanded an unconditional apology. As the report mentions how this tale was spun:

Being a Bengali belonging to the Kayastha caste, Vivekananda may have had fish and even meat, but there was no reference of him ever having taken liquor.

His remarks hurt national sentiments and showed that Dr. Tharoor was still rooted in American culture and lifestyle. His remark that Vivekananda took to drinks was especially objectionable when campaigns are being launched to wean away the youth from liquor.


I should assume that these keepers of our palate culture will have no problem if Bengalis and other communities continue to eat what they want, and they do not have to follow state diktats on such habits.

Regarding drinks, it is not only the youth that needs to be weaned away. Kerala consumes a whole lot of alcohol; in many places elsewhere too the poor drink cheap country liquor that often results in death. This ought to be of concern and not whether it is a western lifestyle that some youth emulate. These young people are more likely to follow contemporary heroes than Swami Vivekananda, especially in their lifestyle choices. If the legacy of the Swami has any currency it will survive an occasional hic.

But that is not what certain parties want. They have no foot to stand on, so they recall saintly figures from the past and prop them up as engineers of some purification process. This only means that contemporary leaders are devoid of any good qualities that the youth can look up to. Swami Vivekananda is the new flag-bearer of this flushing.

The leader quoted in another report even said that "Tharoor has depicted him as an alcoholic". There is a difference between somebody having a few drinks and being an alcoholic.

It is clear that some of those who are sober can't hold their 'drinks' and in the stupor they find a little bit of trendy morality.

"Above all, beware of compromises. I do not mean that you are to get into antagonism with anybody, but you have to hold on to your own principles in weal or woe and never adjust them to others “fads” thought the greed of getting supporters." - Vivekananda

© Farzana Versey

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Image: A young Swami Vivekananda

Mass molestation? Nymphomania?

While newspapers have been falling over each other to report sexual crimes against women, the least they can do is not use senseless terms. What does "mass molestation" mean — is it being compared to a prelude to gangrape? Or is it a non-consensual orgy? Or is it an abusive version of a mass stampede? Instead of highlighting the negative, such words sound reductionist.

As I've been repeating here, rape and molestation are being sexualised rather than criminalised.

This is what DNA had to offer:



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The latest in the Asaram Bapu case is that Ram Jethmalani, the defense lawyer, in his bail plea has presented a most curious argument to buffer the 'fabricated' theory:

Jethmalani mentioned that the girl was afflicted with a 'chronic disease' which draws a woman to a man and said this was subject to police investigation.


Asaram, like any accused, is entitled to legal recourse. However, is Mr. Jethmalani implying that the minor victim is a nymphomaniac? Although sex addiction is not a conventional malady, at 16 how can she suffer from such a 'chronic disease'? Are there other instances where she has been drawn to men in such a manner that it would result in her being abused? Let aside misogyny, this does not make technical sense.

Her parents have been devotees of the godman. Did she on any occasion express attraction, in word or deed? Why did Asaram Bapu not gauge all of this, if he is touted as an all-knowing guru?

I ask these questions not because I believe in this baloney — what works as legal charlatanism — but because it has been registered in the court files.

For a moment, let us go along with this fantasy. What happens to all the other arguments that were presented? Asaram Bapu is a canny man; there are cases against him. How far will his lawyers go to disprove them and put the reputation of others at stake?

What chronic disease does he suffer from?



© Farzana Versey

16.9.13

Miss America, Missed America



Why OD on racist comments against the latest beauty pageant winner when the majority of Americans don't care? If they can accept yoga, herbal cures and gurus, and even Spelling Bee and American Idol winners, why would they have a problem with Nina Davuluri, an American of Indian origin, getting the crown?

I found the comment by the host of Fox News and Commentary, Todd Starnes, rather curious:

"The liberal Miss America judges won't say this - but Miss Kansas lost because she actually represented American values."


What is a 'real' American? I didn't ask 'who' because it is only an idea, and could be represented by many perspectives. Miss Kansas is an Army Sergeant. It was the first time a contestant displayed tattoos. As these do not constitute values, one wonders whether her serving in the forces has anything to do with it. If that represents fealty by default, then does it mean that "liberal" judges do not understand American values? How are values to be displayed on a stage such as this?

What about the comment by Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones? When asked about minorities having low-incomes, high-unemployment and incarceration rates and what should the country do to address this, she said:

"My father is unemployed. It took a lot for me to be able to stand on this stage. ... We need to have more jobs in America."


She was cut off before she could continue.

How would American values be factored in here? Was she not addressing a real issue with a personal example?

The 2014 finals on September 16 represent a small segment of the United States. There are bound to be reactions by just such a small group. That they are ill-informed is another matter.

However, Indians who like celebrating every 'foreign' success are likely to forget their own biases. Davuluri was referred to (wrongly) as an Arab and "Miss Al Qaida". This, more than anything else, would bother the majority of Indians, because we too tend to box in all Arabs with terrorists.

Then there is the profession. She wants to be a doctor. Indians are so hierarchy and status conscious that they will look down upon anyone who does not have such acceptable professional aspirations. Indian doctors in the U.S. are as much a stereotype as are motel owners or, as one of the angry responses mentioned, "Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11."

Had she mentioned that she wanted to run a nail spa or be a flight stewardess, Indians would not quite like it. They would then not be as concerned about racism as they are now, which only reveals their prejudices as much as those who are ranting about it.

The question posed to Davuluri was rather ironical. Responding to Julie Chen's decision to have plastic surgery about making her eyes less Asian, she said:

"I don't agree with plastic surgery, however I can understand that from a standpoint. More importantly I've always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving... I wouldn't want to change someone's looks. Be confident in who you are."


How many contestants say they are the girl next door? I find the term quite patronising, whoever utters it. Besides, what is the standpoint of understanding an alteration in identity? Are looks the only criteria that ought to be judged where such change is sought?

She also said:

"I'm so happy this organization has celebrated diversity, and, on this stage tonight, there was so much diversity."


53 women from places with a different climate, accent and cultural nuances, are bound to be diverse.

By emphasising the origins, immigrants, that too second and third generation, in some ways disqualify themselves. When she stood with Crystal Lee, the first runner-up, even before the results were announced, Davuluri said:

"We are making history right here as Asian-Americans."


She is Miss New York. In that state you bump into all kinds of people. Choosing a platform that is meant to celebrate pulchritude — let us cut out the tripe of the talent and question rounds (Syria?!) — she was no different from any other contestant. The primary motive is to look good, and also play up the exotic if you've got that.

Rather cannily, the discourse has shifted from sexism to racism, when the body objectified is also a form of 'segregation'.

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End note:



In a just-concluded dance reality show —'Jhalak Dikhla Ja — on Indian television, an American lost out to a telly soap actress. Lauren Gottlieb is not an Indian citizen, but she has acted in a film and plans to work in India. She performed a few Indian-style dances, too, and was a delight to watch and by far the best dancer. She got the most number of perfect scores from the judges. So, it is obvious that she got fewer votes from the public — the Indian public that is obsessed with westerners did not want to see her win. And then we talk about racism.

© Farzana Versey

15.9.13

Sunday ka Funda

"Through the crowd, patchwork souls
Move closer
Closer

And when you fall
Down in between them all
Here you are whole
Not broken"


— Skye

14.9.13

Narendra Modi declared BJP's PM candidate is about as important as a Miss Gujarat clearing the swimsuit round merely to aspire to qualify for the next phase at a beauty pageant...








Image: Mumbai Mirror

Capitalising on punishment: Delhi gangrape




They were out in the streets celebrating after the court pronounced the death sentence of four of those who brutalised the Delhi gangrape victim.

Her father said:

"When I heard the judge pronouncing the sentence, I felt that I was breathing after nine months. Justice has been done. I am sure anyone even thinking of committing such a crime will now stop.”


Much as one feels for his personal loss and the family's trauma, capital punishment has never prevented crime. This judgement is political, just as the case had become. No ministers visit rape victims, or offer the family a house, or the brother a job.

As happens often, people take an example as a test case. Politicians and protestors are two sides of the same coin at such times. However, the court's explanation, besides describing the extreme nature of the assault (clearly, they do not know about other cases because they do not reach Raisina Hill), is disturbing:

Relying on a precedent set by Supreme Court, additional sessions judge Yogesh Khanna said, "the rarest-of-rare test largely depends on the perception of society as to if it approves the awarding of the death sentence for certain types of crimes. The court has to look into factors like society's abhorrence, extreme indignation and antipathy to certain types of cases, like the case in hand - of gang rape with brutal murder of a helpless girl by six men."


How has the judge reached the conclusion about perception of society based on a small group of protestors? Society has always abhorred such crimes because members of society are victims, and not some aliens. What does "certain cases" mean? The court ought to realise that all cases deserve apathy, all those who are violated, brutalised are victims.

The victim has been quoted as saying as she lay in hospital that the men deserve to be hanged. Quite natural for her to do so. She suffered. But, if the courts were to be pushed to pronounce judgments based on such dying declarations, and perceptions, then almost every case should get a similar verdict.

What about little children who do not even comprehend what has happened to them? What about inmates of remand homes and prisons who are sexually abused? What about villagers in remote corners?

This case has not made any difference at all, except that it fills up more pages, gives more airtime to rape. This has, in a perverse way, added to the 'sex quotient', and I say this with complete responsibility. The news of the death sentence has had a similar effect — it acted as a release.




And, why were kids brought out? Think about it. These children standing with placards with a noose in the frame are being inculcated into violence. Violence is not just about criminals, but also how the state behaves. To brainwash little minds is frightening.

There are very many aspects about the Delhi gangrape case where women's rights were objectified. I had written this in an early piece:

Jyoti Singh Pandey has been completely taken over by the public. Whether it was about giving her names or starting campaigns, it turned into a reality show. She effectively became a brand.

A month after the incident an organisation held a fashion show to create awareness about rape incidents. One of the victims was told by an actress in a benign tone “not to be ashamed, it is not your fault”.

It is not news that rape is about power, but it is also about abuse of a woman’s body. The logistics make it difficult for a woman to adequately fight back. Therefore, dwelling on her valour denigrates the discussion and makes it incumbent on the woman to be projected as a braveheart to commemorate.


[The complete article is here: Sexual Violence as a Brand]

Another fallout is that some among the elite are tired. Their precious snooze time had been interrupted. A socialite columnist who was on every major TV panel discussion holding forth on misogyny — and who has just expressed her views about the possibility of the RBI governor dropping his towel to feed lust — is now talking about how disgusting the jubilation over the verdict is. She was a part of the tamasha till it suited her. Now, seeing that the human rights people will raise their voices, and partially to reclaim her own lost reputation over the RBI guv piece, she decided to do her now patented turncoat act.

The verdict in this case is obviously not capital punishment but capitalising on punishment.

© Farzana Versey

12.9.13

The photo fatwa



This is the man who has issued a fatwa against photography. You can see that he has no qualms about striking a pose.

I am really tired of saying that a fatwa means zilch. Yet, every other day — often in reply to a question — there is an edict. It is not binding on anyone.

Only the media seems to take the Darul Uloom Deoband seriously, and always refers to it as "India's leading Islamic seminary".

Quite naturally, a bizarre fatwa grabs attention. Some Muslims consult the seminary for general information. An engineer wanted to know if he could pursue his passion for photography. I am assuming he did so because of Islam's stand regarding iconography. He was told that photography is a sin.

This is ridiculous. How and why did it transform into a fatwa? The media tends to follow the Deoband's advise columns, and what it posts on the website. When push comes to shove, the organisation is more than ready to show muscle. A fatwa materialises as the last word. Newspapers and TV channels get excited.

The reporter is soon on the phone talking with the vice chancellor, Mufti Abdul Qasim Nomani, who says:

"Photography is un-Islamic. Muslims are not allowed to get their photos clicked unless it is for an identity card or for making a passport."


The reporter goes all Wahabi on him, mentioning how Saudi Arabia "that aspires to return to the earliest fundamental sources of Islam" (duh) permits it and even telecasts the Haj live. To which the Maulana replies:

"Let them do it. We do not allow it. Not everything they do is correct."


I like the last bit.

At any other time, the media would have used this to scream with joy about how Indian Muslims are under no threat of being Saudi-ised, and everybody can breathe free. But now is not the time. Now we have to prevent Indian Muslims from being denied their Nikons and Canons and dual camera phones. They need to be 'brought into the mainstream', and saved from such backward fatwas.

Really, take a chill pill. Most Muslims in India don't give a rat's ass about the Deoband and don't even know where it is, who runs the show, and what stuff they smoke.

Next on the reporter's itinerary is the All India Muslim Law Personal Board. One Mufti Abul Irfan Qadri Razzaqi agrees with the fatwa:

"Islam forbids photographing of humans and animals. Whoever does that will be answerable to God."


Reporter is on a mission. He "reminds" him about Saudi Arabia. To which the gentleman says:

"Just because they are richer than us doesn't mean they are also correct. If they are allowing photography they will be answerable on the Day of Judgement in the court of God."


See. You can do all you want, fatwas be damned, till you are alive. You may even perform the pilgrimage to Mecca in the horrid land that permits photography. You will finally be judged by a 'non-human' who, alas, cannot be photographed.

End note: I've used this picture before, but is it halal?



10.9.13

Blood-for-burning on 9/11



Pastor Terry Jones will burn 3000 copies of the Quran. A group of American Muslims will donate blood in response.

While this pacifist reaction is good, why do Muslims, who are professionals, who contribute to the economic and social life of the U.S., have to get defensive and try to "overturn the image of Muslims?

9/11 has indeed left a deep scar on the American psyche, but twelve years have passed. Iraq happened before that. The United States administration has subsequently used drones resulting in the death of civilians in places where it presumes the perpetrators of the act, or of further destruction, are hidden. The 'war on terror' has not managed to get a windfall of terrorists, but of villagers, body bags of its own soldiers, and the booty of a few leaders, from North Africa to the Middle East and the Af-Pak region. It was a Pakistani doctor who led them to Osama Bin Laden.

In none of the countries the U.S. government intervened in to bring about peace has there been peace. There is no promised democracy.

Terry Jones is a poor caricature of the real thing. He merely hits out at a religion. That his hate manages to resonate at all is a telling commentary.

Hillary Clinton had said during his first such outing:

"It's regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida with a church of no more than fifty people can make this outrageous and distressful, disgraceful plan and get, you know, the world's attention."


It should have been more than regrettable, except that freedom of expression is so huge that no one wants to mess with it, except perhaps the NSA.

The World Muslim Congress members who will donate blood are doing the right thing, but do they need to invoke Prophet Muhammad's message that to "resist evil by evil is evil"? This does sounds like a reaction to the pastor's evangelism. He stands exposed and ought not to be dignified at all. The blood drive can take place without being 'inspired' by his threat.



I understand that as citizens they would want to keep their slate clean. What they should realise is that it is clean. Americans who understand how violence works, how prejudices are formed, would not tar them. It is evident from the peace rallies and interfaith meetings. They are equal in the eyes of the law, so they have an equal stake in rights and duties. And their duties are most certainly not to be pushed into a corner by a preacher who cannot even practise his own faith with fealty, and needs a bonfire of other scriptures to assert himself.

He had declared September 11 as "International Judge Muhammed Day", and it reveals his mindset. Some Islamists get incited by his antics, proving they belong to the same family. Why are reasonable American Muslims playing into it, even if peacefully? They state:

"Muslims, who react violently to senseless provocation, should realize that, violence causes more violence, and besmirches the name of the religion that we hold so dear."


In any situation, the source is questioned. Why do they not have the courage as Americans to call the bluff of Terry Jones? Is he not violent, too, in intent? The point is not a book, or Book, or however the faithful would like to term it. It is the motive. It is the need to create a frenzy. In what way is he not besmirching the name of his religion? Do we hear about Christians attempting to clear the name of their faith because of him and others like him?

For those of us who do not practise any organised form of religion, this becomes a bit difficult. If we as much as speak up against what is clearly a phobia, we will be branded with the faith. It is disturbing to watch religion even in secular societies — covertly, hence more dangerous — take over the narrative of the state. And the state is most amenable to play along to enshrine such versions of good and evil as are morally sanctioned.

As I wrote once, the world is a museum of dissonance.

© Farzana Versey

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An earlier post on how predator-like a museum of objects can be: Re-exhibiting 9/11

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Cartoon: Huffington Post

Dressing up for Modi?



In what has been referred to as "Narendra Modi's rally" in Jaipur today, the “diktat" over the dress code is the major news. As happens often, the minutiae has taken over the discourse. According to a report:

BJP's minority cell has asked people from the Muslim community to come dressed in a specific attire. Men have been asked to wear sherwanis and topis and females have been asked to wear burqas. Whether this is Modi's attempt to reach out to the Muslim community is anyone's guess.


Are the men attending a wedding or a special function that they'd dress up in sherwanis? Why is it assumed that all women would be amenable to wearing a burqa? How different is such a dress code from extremists issuing edicts? Will those who do not fall into the stereotype qualify as Muslim enough?

Some other reports have mentioned the presence of clerics from the Ajmer Dargah. They are residents, and would wear what they usually do. We get to see saffron kurtas and bandanas quite regularly. Are those people told what to wear? Does anybody object or applaud them for it? [In the picture that accompanies this post, Modi looks like he is dressed up for a purpose. Or is it the usual entertainment quotient he provides for all BJP functions as “showstopper"?]

One viewpoint is that this appeal was sent by the BJP's minority cell. It would be impossible for the cell to take such a decision on its own. Modi and party must have been kept in the loop.

Besides, how does this qualify as an attempt to reach out to Muslims? If they do indeed wear "Islamic clothes", what else is there to do? This is in no way about wooing the community. In fact, it would help in easily identifying the members and keeping a check on them to see how they react, and then 'profiling' them.

Vote-bank politics is less about appeasement and more about creating ghettos to use and abuse.

© Farzana Versey

9.9.13

Cringe-worthy news

Three recent examples.

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said:

"I have always maintained that Rahul Gandhi would be an ideal choice for the PM post after 2014 elections (Lok Sabha). I will be very happy to work in the Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi."

As a sitting PM, it does not behove him to 'abdicate'. Whatever the behind-the-scenes happenings, he ought to give the perception of being in charge. He may praise Rahul Gandhi, but the country most certainly does not like its leader to announce that he will work "under" anybody. It was a weak-kneed obsequious comment.

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Watched a rather nice interview of Zubin Mehta on NDTV after his concert in Srinagar. However, two of his comments were rather off:

• “Let (us) have another way, a spiritual way and I think yesterday there was a beginning of some process of healing because Hindus and Muslims were sitting together in complete harmony."

The Kashmir issue is not a communal matter. If this harmony works, then the Kashmiri Pandits who feel shortchanged and have been applauding the concert should also accept the maestro's version of harmony. They will not. So, one cannot expect it from those who live under the threat of the bullet.

• "Geelani Sahab hum to aapka dost hoon (I am your friend). You don't believe it! I wish all of our opposition would have come and enjoyed the music."

The 'opposition' is made up of several streams of thought. Singling out Geelani just made it appear as though he drives Kashmiri aspirations alone.

Sidelight:

Later on 'We the People' regarding the same subject, someone described as a media person who spoke against elitism mentioned how her car was stopped several times, documents checked and added, "This is not an everyday thing in Srinagar." It was so superficial. In fact, there are barricades and checkpoints and the less privileged are stopped everyday. She ended up doing the varnish job while trying to complain about it.

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The Times of India carried a story discussing how spirituality and sex and not mutually-exclusive in Hinduism. It started and ended with Asaram Bapu, in effect conveying that he does not have to be a celibate.This was not in their "Sacred Space" or even an Op-Ed or a feature. It was a report.

This is disgusting, considering how the newspaper has been commercialising its concern for rape 'survivors'. Here is how it starts:

"Asaram is being pilloried by everybody, from parliamentarians to journalists, for alleged sexual assault on a teenager and is in jail now. Some of the horrified public responses at his alleged act can also be attributed to the general notion that dissociates sex from spirituality. This notion considers everybody on the spiritual path as 'wedded' to celibacy. But is this perception correct?...This possibly explains why many Hindi newspapers and TV channels are aghast at the preacher's 'fall from grace'."

Rather conveniently, the blame has been placed on Hindi channels, and Christian priests used as a counterpoint in the English media. This is asinine. It also reveals the mindset. Rape is not a sexual relationship. Such idiocy camouflages the intent to airbrush the image of this godman.

"...ancient Hindu rishis were known to have families and children. Even modern spiritualists like Swami Ramakrisnha Paramhansa... were all householders...If Asaram has broken the law with the alleged sexual assault on a minor then of course the book must be thrown at him."

This is for the courts to decide, and not some scripture. Asaram's celibacy or lack of it is not the issue. Had it been consensual with an adult, and had he — and his followers — not gone around promoting some form of sexual purity, it would not have at best been a salacious moment. Remember Nityananda and his video clips? (Aside: The same English media pilloried N.D. Tiwari for being caught with some women, although he is not a godman.)

The article mentions sex abuse by Christian priests, but not a word about many cases in ashrams in India. If Hinduism permits sadhus to have a sex life, then why do they talk about 'sanyas'? It is the pinnacle, and they obviously have not reached it.

All this apart, it is just appalling that when a man is in court for a crime like rape, an attempt is made by a big mainstream newspaper to discuss spiritualism and sexuality with his case as a backgrounder. Shameful, any which way we look at it.

© Farzana Versey

6.9.13

Zubin Mehta’s Unequal Music: Kashmir Fights Another Baton


(Published in CounterPunch, Sept. 7-9)

Had Zubin Mehta been a Baul singer from West Bengal, an undisputed part of India, set to perform in Kashmir, would the separatists and civil society have an issue with it? Unlikely, despite Jammu and Kashmir’s fear of India imposing itself on the state.  

1500 people will witness the ‘Feelings of Kashmir’, if the protest groups allow Mehta to perform at the Ehsaas-e-Kashmir concert with the Bavarian State Orchestra on Saturday, September 7. From the airport to the venue at the Shalimar Mughal Gardens, the fortification is complete.

The objections are stunning in the simulation of elitism. People will be discomfited by the cordons, is one such. Is this not the point being emphasised – that the state is indeed barricaded or, as Hurriyat Conference’s hardliner faction leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani likes to repeat in EU's words, just a “beautiful prison"?

In the battle between the sweet pill and the bitter pill, the multiple organ failures are forgotten. Nobody comes out unscathed.

Placebo

Something unconnected with the aspirations of the people often appears to give temporary relief. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is known to offer placebos by way of parks, ski resorts, motor racing. This too is a separatist cocoon quite removed from the issues the people are fighting for. After his initial silence, he came up with the magnificently redundant statement: “Everyone has political views but music is in our culture. To present music as outside the Kashmiri tradition is not right.”

Cultural intervention is a known device, and it is important to define it holistically. It is possible to assume that by not permitting a western classical performance there is ignorance about it. This needs to be factored in while considering why people are opposed to it.

Extreme attitudes obfuscate. The universality of music is not in question here, but while it may provide a balm to individual souls it is egregious to speak in terms of groups, whether for or against.

The major concern seems to be that the concert will reach 50 countries and get wide exposure to convey that the state is “normal”. This is disingenuous. Bollywood films are shot there. Artistes visit the state. There is tourism, even if limited. They do not live in bunkers or hideouts. Have not academics and activists used global platforms to draw attention to the conditions in the state? How, then, can a handful of people alter this perception?

Separate separatism

Geelani’s call for a bandh would have worked as dissent had he not supported the local cultural festival, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (Truth about Kashmir). If there is a strike, then who will attend this show? How would it be any less celebratory, even if the purpose is to highlight the suffering of the people?

This comes across as merely a reactionary idea. When Geelani said, “If the civil society organises any programme, it is in the interest of the freedom movement”, would he consider varied artistic expressions that are not about protest? How many music groups has Geelani supported? Local bands have been banned and a couple of years ago some Kashmir University students too protested, “Music is haraam and un-Islamic”. In Silencing Kashmir (CounterPunch, Feb 11), I had written: “Those who profess freedom of expression do not entertain even a devil’s advocate stance, which only reveals how close-minded and muzzling such ostensible independent thinking is. If we want to permit all kinds of thought, why do we seek to curb what in our opinion is regressive?”

Much of westernised forms of artistic expression may quite likely use the tragedy only as creative inspiration.

The dead cannot hear and beyond the YouTube subscribers and university halls few will understand, and fewer might want their lives replicated as elitist angst. There can never be a uniform standardised protest. 

Germany's ambassador, Michael Steiner, had said: 

“With the magic power of music, crossing geographical, political and cultural borders, we want to reach the hearts of Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement as situation is challenging and daily life is not easy. This concert is for the people of Kashmir. Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, played by a world acclaimed maestro and one of the best orchestras of the world in one of the most enchanting places in the world.”

In some ways, this too could work as protest, an acknowledgement of the need for hope. Is this an imperialist and patronising attitude? If it was, then why would Mirwaiz Farooq make a cringe-worthy statement? He said: 

“I appeal to Germany and its ambassador that they should spend the concert money, which seems to be many crores, on the JKs ailing health and education. We are not saying that Germany should give this money to Hurriyat. But if the amount they want to spend on the musical concert would be used on upgrading health and education infrastructure, we will feel obliged.”

How will this obligation not lead to interference? Philanthropy is an easy route to enter markets. He seems to be asking for loose change and not awareness. Should the German embassy wish to offer such assistance it will be routed through the Indian government. Some others have spoken about how Germany should put pressure on India, instead. Would these acts not affect the disputed nature of the “conflict zone”?

Suppose Zubin Mehta had announced his support for the Kashmiri cause, would he have been acceptable? Would the money spent and the limited VIP attendance then be justified? Incidentally, the civil society planned to send out invites to the US, UK, German, and other EU embassies. This apparently would not amount to intervention.

Conflicted Activism

The protest letter that went out to the German Embassy has, among other things, a problem with the concert being a “cultural tribute”. Taking issue with the press release, it states: 

“The concert, said to be a part of a ‘broader engagement’ is being organized by the German Embassy and supported by the ‘competent authorities both at Central as well as at Union State level’. The costs of the concert are covered by ‘benevolent sponsors mainly from the business world in India and Germany, as well as Incredible India and the German Foreign Office’. The people of Jammu and Kashmir take immense pride in our rich history of resisting oppression.”

There is no denying this is a commercial venture, but to suggest that the list of invitees would be all co-opted by the “occupying state” would necessitate examining of the credentials of these activists, too. Who do they speak for? Are they not ‘invitees only’ in the revolt? Do they represent all voices of protest? There are Kashmiris who want freedom, but have no problem with such a concert. If the concern is with tagging of the “Incredible India” campaign, then one will have to start questioning how even separatist leaders use the Indian passport. Separatist aspirations of the region have been sanctified in Article 370 that does not even permit Indians from other states to invest there. However, this is within the Indian Constitution, by virtue of which the state is at the mercy of it. Therefore, the leaders are pragmatic enough to realise that resistance from within has greater validity.

The letter further states, “The Nuremberg principles clearly established that to be complicit in crime is to commit crime under international law. There is no place for silence.” Had Zubin Mehta refused at the very start by saying that Kashmir was dangerous territory, would it not have demonised the state?

There is a fear that such a show will signal that all is well. When the soldier-civilian ratio is 1:5, it is hardly a peaceful place. However, three militant organisations have issued a threat if the performance is held: 
“Our mujahideen in the valley will target the western tourists and its responsibility will be on the German ambassador.” This conveys the impression that Kashmir has bartered its ‘moral right’. The fight for azaadi (independence) has emphasised the excesses of the security forces, especially towards civilians. Extremists threatening tourists takes the mickey out of this real issue. It was bound to happen when the state’s rebels grant licence for a siege by outside 'caretakers'.

While it is important to expose human rights failures, workers on the ground in Kashmir have been working towards this goal; separatist leaders are also routinely put under house arrest. They do not have identical goals. It is the more visible activists, wearing the ornamental badge of “pro-separatist”, who take over.

Kabir Suman strums the guitar and sings: 

“Dear Zubin Mehta. Will your music weep for the martyrs, seventy thousand Kashmiris killed. Will your music bring back the thousands-disappeared in the shadows of the hills?...Be careful great conductor. Your baton may prompt a wail. When human souls are chained, both peace and music fail.”

Why is he then using music? Ironically, he is a politician from the Trinamool Congress Party in West Bengal that does not have a very egalitarian record. Yet, today he is seen as the sound of sanity in Kashmir. The activists and urban youth do not realise that the intrusion they are wary of can come in different garbs.

Some of the voices that support autonomy – and I might add that I do – also get noticed by the corporate media. Words that creatively spout protest, clawing at the entrails of the wronged, have tasted blood. Zubin Mehta will go away, limousines in his trail. What will the Kashmiris do about those who feed on every carcass to sanctify their concern? The halo cannot hide the masks of the publicity-seeking mavens. Their twisted tongues shouting azaadi conveniently decide on what version of freedom suits them.

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use” - Kierkegaard

© Farzana Versey

Why did the Taliban kill an Indian writer?


It is a tragic end to what was more than a love story. The Taliban are not friends of love. Sushmita Banerjee returned to Afghanistan after a dramatic escape from that country. Why did she go back, only to be killed?

After tying up her husband and other family members, they kidnapped her from the family home in Paktika province on Wednesday, September 4. The next day, police found her body with 20 bullet wounds, her hairs pulled out. This is the gruesome fate that awaits some women in that land of desperation. Sushmita’s case is complicated by the fact that she is an Indian and she wrote a book about life in Afghanistan. A Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife was made into a film Escape from Taliban.

Banerjee met Jaanbaz Khan, a small-time Afghan businessman, in Kolkata. India has been home to Afghans for long. 

She returned with him to a country that was limping back to life after the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War. It was in 1987, when the military skirmishes were on, that Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of RAWA was killed. It was a state of civil strife. This was not the Taliban as we know it today; these were the neophytes who had fought in the war and been scarred and bitter. A country that had been modern, where half the workforce was made up of women, was now in the clutches of fanatics who abused religion.


Afghan women in the military in 1989


There are local women and human rights organisations that continue to fight even today. They have to fight for what are and ought to be necessities and choices. 

No one has taken responsibility for Banerjee’s execution, therefore the reasons are not clear as yet. But, it could be anything – her gender, her social work, her faith, her nationality. Her memoirs? Unlikely. If anything, the Taliban like to be portrayed as macho, even cruel. While the book is said to have been a bestseller in India, the movie tanked at the box-office. (I have not read the book nor watched the film.)



I am a bit confused as to why she stayed behind in Afghanistan after her marriage even though her husband had to leave for work and did not return. She was also his second wife, a fact she discovered later. However, she did not seem to have any issues with the other lady. In fact, until 1993 she found life there “tolerable”. That year became the defining one. As she wrote in an article in Outlook magazine:

“I remember it was early that year that members of the Taliban came to our house. They had heard of the dispensary I was running from my house. I am not a qualified doctor. But I knew a little about common ailments and since there was no medical help in the vicinity, I thought I could support myself and keep myself busy by dispensing medicines. The members of the Taliban who called on us were aghast that I, a woman, could be running a business establishment. They ordered me to close down the dispensary and branded me a woman of poor morals.”

A bit of history would tell us that the Taliban had not yet taken over. These were the dregs that were trying to assert their authority. She mentions how every house had AK-47s. In the early years after the war, most mujahids were using the leftover Kalashnikovs. In fact, during my trips to Peshawar and the nearby villages in Pakistan’s north, close to the Afghan border, as late as 2005 these Russian rifles were still talked about. Indeed, every house had weapons for self-defence.

She made three attempts to run away. In the first, she managed to reach the Indian High commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, but they “could not help me since I had no passport or visa”. This is most unfortunate, for there are other diplomatic means they could have used to at least ensure she was protected. She was back where she started:

“…my brothers-in-law tracked me down and took me back to Afghanistan. They promised to send me back to India. But they did not keep their promise. Instead, they kept me under house arrest and branded me an immoral woman.”

These were family, and yet she was at their mercy. Her own family back home did not seem to make any move to find out about her safety. Her next attempt included tunnelling her way out only to be captured and questioned by the Taliban. Her day of execution was finalised, but rather surprisingly “I was able to convince them that since I was an Indian I had every right to go back to my country”. She writes that she was handed over to the Indian embassy. Did the Taliban do so?

In an interview to the news portal Rediff, she mentions the final attempt thus:

“I have always been a fighter. Dranai chacha, the village headman, helped me with my third attempt. His son had been killed by the Taliban so he turned against them. On the day I was to escape, I grabbed an AK-47 (which decorates most houses in Afghanistan) and shot three Taliban.”

Upon reaching Kolkata and being united with her husband, she wrote then: “I don't think he will ever be able to go back to his family.” He did. She did. Now they’ve killed her.

According to the BBC, the Taliban has said they did not. In the villages and tribal areas where rule of law is replaced by rule of honour, defined as per convenience, it is possible that there were other feuds – family, business rivalry, or change in personal equation. It just becomes easier when the Taliban is in the backdrop.

Did not Sushmita Banerjee know from experience what living under such circumstances would entail? Little information is available about what she did, except for her continuing to work with women and filming them. This could have angered some fundamentalists. But, since she was aware of their attitude, would she not have used more tact? Was she let down?

I would like to see what the Indian embassy in Afghanistan does. Will they ask for an enquiry into her killing?

The manner in which she was shot dead was not simple. There was fury. I still cannot believe she returned there. Not much was heard about her. Not much written about her. 

She had a fatwa against her in 1995. That would have qualified her for media attention. In some ways, I respect her for not falling for these ruses that have become quite the norm, even for those who do not have such direct conflict with the insecure power-brokers with a backward mindset. She could have sought asylum and easily got it anywhere. She could have stayed home in India. But, then, perhaps she thought home was a larger place beyond boundaries.

© Farzana Versey