Tuesday, 27 January 2015

ISIS can be defeated but what about Iraq's future?

A public execution in the town of Keferghan, Syria

Last week, President Barack Obama commended the United States’ role in “stopping ISIL’s advance” in his State of the Union address. Obama’s remarks were praised for taking a tough stand on terror — but the ground situation is not reassuring. Only a week earlier 13 teenage boys were executed by a firing squad of ISIS or Islamic State. Their crime — they watched an Asia Cup football match between Iraq and Jordan.
Since it captured Mosul in June the terror group has been rolling out its ‘caliphate’ in parts of Iraq and Syria and in the process is recreating macabre medieval punishments that include beheadings, mutilations, throwing people off rooftops, lashing, stoning to death, etc. A coalition of nations, under the US, is engaged in a limited offensive against ISIS, but the Sunni terror group is advancing — and more and more minorities, like the Shias and Yazidis, are fleeing or being persecuted.
ISIS is meanwhile attracting people from Indonesia to Australia and from Malaysia to Europe. Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, recently warned the EU that there were more than 5,000 Europeans fighting in Syria and the threat of them returning was growing. ISIS operatives have been caught even in India.
The question Obama and his coalition against ISIS need to answer is: How long will it take to check ISIS? British foreign secretary Philip Hammond feels that it’ll take at least two years to prepare and equip the Iraqi forces to fight back against ISIS. Two years is a lot of time, especially considering the brutality the group has unleashed in the past six months. The longer it takes to “degrade and ultimately destroy” (in Obama’s words) ISIS, the more horror we will witness. The delay will also force more countries to be pulled into the war against ISIS — the latest being Japan.
An equally, if not more, important question is: What’s the plan once ISIS is defeated? The US went into Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein in the hope of ‘democratising’ Iraq. That was hardly a real plan and in many ways it led to the present crisis in Iraq.
The post-ISIS challenge will be to keep Iraq united. The Nouri al-Maliki government came to power after Hussein did little to address the concerns of the minority Kurds and Sunni tribes. The current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has promised to be inclusive, but the minorities have not taken his word for it. The West must not lose sight of the Iraqi integration agenda while it combats ISIS militarily.
Turkey plays a key role in all of this. The US has to convince Ankara that arming the Kurds will not be detrimental to its interests; reassure the Sunnis that a government headed by a Shia will not be Tehran’s puppet; and bring back the other minorities who have fled the country.
The coalition of nations under Obama, which met on Thursday in London, will have to prepare for the long haul — this is essential for Iraq’s long-term stability.
(This appeared in Hindustan Times on January 26)

Monday, 19 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Europe's unease with Muslims

A Muslim woman walks past a poster of the Charlie Hebdo
edition after the Paris shooting

Charlie Hebdo has done it again
with a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad and this time in its latest edition. The cartoon has a weeping Prophet in white holding a sign reading 'Je Suis Charlie', and above him are the words 'Tout Est Pardone' meaning All is forgiven. Muslim extremists last week attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 10 of its staff, including 5 cartoonists, for 'disrespecting the Prophet'.
At one level the cartoon is a befitting reply to the extremist forces that cannot have a laugh and muzzle secular voices. What other way than a cartoon of a weeping Prophet to condemn the attack! As Luz, the cartoonist, explained to Libération's Isabelle Hanne, "With this cover, we wanted to show that at any given moment, we have the right to do anything, to redo anything, and to use our characters the way we want to. Mohammed has become a character, in spite of himself, a character in the news, because there are people who speak on his behalf." Yet, at another level, the cartoon --when Islamophobia is on the rise--is also saying, 'It's my freedom, little sympathies for you'.
The shootings have initiated a whole lot of discussion on freedom of expression--and whether there is a limit to this freedom. The answer to it depends on which side of the debate you stand for. Do we refrain from hurting Muslim sentiments since many (wrongly) believe that it is a taboo to portray the Prophet? Or, we exercise our right and defy this rigid interpretation propagated by extremists? Interestingly, the Quran forbids idol worship but not pictorial representations. Illustrations of the Prophet can be dated back to the 14th century in Iran and Turkey. Christiane Gruber, in a recent Newsweek analysis, says, "...the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan."
Richard Malka, a Charlie Hebdo lawyer, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying, "We mock ourselves, politicians, religions, it's a state of mind you need to have. The Charlie state of mind is the right to blaspheme." This is in line with what Britain's deputy PM Nick Clegg said about the 'right to offend' on LBC Radio.
The argument is not so much whether one has the right to free speech--it is a non-negotiable freedom. It is whether that right can be used in a more amiable manner.
Do we have to offend a minority community, which has not yet integrated with the mainstream, for the sins of a few extremists? In the recent years, the integration of Muslims into the mainstream has become one of the thorniest issues in the immigration debate in Europe. The bans on burqas in France or minarets in Switzerland or the criticism against Muslim councils in Germany are pointers to this uneasy debate.
Added to this existing unease is a growing Islamophobia, which attacks like the one in Paris increase by several notches. It is not a coincidence that a Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, a political group that is against Muslim immigration) rally called in Dresden, Germany, on Monday saw a record turnout of 25,000 people, some of whom were carrying banners that read: "Asylum seekers go home!"
Thus, it is not the theological unease that prompts one to question the cartoon(s) but this societal reality of a group being seen as what Edward Said has called 'the Other'. The unease with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be seen from this vantage.
On a larger context, this schism reflects Europe's unease with the 'outsider'. If from the Renaissance till up to about the mid of the 20th century Europe pointed its finger at the Jew, today it is pointed at the Muslim. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent in Europe that the cunning moneylender Shylock, who demands his pound of flesh in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, or Voltaire's anti-Semitic statements were not aberrations.
By the 19th century, because of the growth of nationalism, anti-Semitism had taken a racial colour. The works of theorists like Arthur de Gobineau (An essay on the inequality of human races) greatly contributed to this approach. The Jews, when compared to 'superior' Europeans, were seen as 'inferior' beings. Today, a similar streak of indifference is seen towards immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe--many of whom are Muslims.
Instances like these underline the importance of secular and democratic institutions. European leaders cannot let their minorities 'survive' on the margins of society if they really want them to integrate and prosper. The rise of the Right in many countries in Europe, from Britain to Germany to France, does not inspire hope about a seamless integration. A majority, by nature, is not a threat to a minority, but it becomes one when a group within that majority starts to impose its narrow, bigoted views on the minority. And that's not a cartoon.
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on January 15)

Monday, 12 January 2015

Hinduism does not need the protection of numbers

Sakshi Maharaj

No matter how hard it tries, like a boat caught in a whirlpool, the Narendra Modi government is being pulled from one controversy to another. As if there wasn't enough on the government's plate, a recent statement by Sakshi Maharaj, the BJP MP from Unnao, that every Hindu woman must produce at least four children, has brought unwarranted attention on the BJP, and by extension on the government.
Sakshi Maharaj's statement has been justifiably panned for its anti-women views. It is also problematic on other counts. The first aspect is that it disregards issues relating to women's health. It's a no-brainer--family planning and women's health (and empowerment) are interconnected. India's public health centres, where they are functional, are testaments to the crippling public healthcare system in India. The sterilisation deaths in Chhattisgarh's Bilaspur district in November, where more than 12 women died, are a peek into the larger horror spectacle that public health in India is.
His call for more children per family comes at a time when India has failed to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. India's maternal mortality rate, according to at least two reports that were published last year, is among the highest in the world. At 178 deaths per 100,000 live births, it misses the fifth Millennium Development Goal by a mile (India had to reduce it to 109 per 100,000 by 2015). India has the highest number of neonatal deaths in the world--one in three of the babies who die on the first day is in India. Even if the health system was at its best, shouldn't the woman have the power to decide on when and how many children--and not a religious leader?
The second aspect is religious discourse. Of late there has been an increase in statements by leaders aimed at polarising society on the lines of religion. This has led to a sort of competitive communalism. From time-to-time, leaders, across the religious spectrum, urge believers to procreate and increase the fold. In Kerala, Christian priests are known to chastise believers for stopping at one or two children. In Tamil Nadu, during a NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) project in 2006, Muslim women spoke about how clerics asked them to show their love for the religion by having many children.
Thus, the swami's is not a lone voice. But being a part of the ruling party, he has the added responsibility to make intelligent statements. His clarification later that it was made at a religious, and not political, gathering doesn't fool anyone.
The third aspect is that such statements yet again shift the focus away from the BJP-led NDA government's development agenda. Sakshi Maharaj's comment comes at a time when there has been a torrential flow of mindless statements and inflammatory campaigns--from Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti's appalling statement in December to ghar wapsi to love jihad. Such statements and campaigns derail the efforts of any government that wants to work for the people. The BJP may disassociate itself from such statements but it is easier said than done.
And this perhaps is the greatest threat to the BJP faces today. At a time when the Congress is lost in a maze of electoral defeats, and other opposition parties are trying and testing new permutations and combinations, the BJP has an opportunity to prove that it is indeed the party with a difference.
These statements have forced many to ask if the government really wants to go ahead with its development agenda. Or rather, the question is: Will the Right allow Modi to go about with his development agenda?
The government's reiterating that it is focused on development and the nauseatingly frequent polarising statements by the Right is taking farcical dimensions. Even so, the relation between the government and the Right-wing has parallels with the Elizabethan theatre. To break the tension during a tragedy, Elizabethan playwrights were forced to include comic scenes--and the audience loved it. However, the frequent interludes by the Right hampering the smooth functioning of the Modi government are not applauded. The aam aadmi wants development and communal polarisation is not the best stimulus for growth. The likes of Sakshi Maharaj are not helping the government.
Hinduism is not under threat and it does not need the protection of numbers. The best way, perhaps, to serve Hinduism and to propagate it as a wonderful way of life is if the so-called protectors of Hinduism, for a change, try to understand it.
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on January9)

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Interview: India can learn from Obama

A still from the movie The Interview
It might not have hit a theatre near you but the Christmas release of Sony pictures’ The Interview is good news for everyone who upholds democratic values and wishes to stand up against cyber bullies.
After hackers (believed to be from North Korea) attacked Sony’s servers in November, leaked sensitive documents and threatened movie theatres that screened The Interview — a satire about an assassination attempt on North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco — Sony cancelled its release.
United States President Barack Obama criticised the production company’s decision as a “mistake”, following which Sony decided to have a limited release of the movie. Sony, by releasing the movie, and Mr Obama, by voicing his support, have showed that no matter how big the threat is, bullies must not be entertained.
Shelving The Interview would have set a wrong precedent. As rightly put by Mr Obama, “imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone whose sensibilities probably need to be offended”. Unfortunately, we, in India, are not alien to such self-censorships.
Be it the release of a book by Wendy Doniger (The Hindus: An Alternative History), or the screening of a war documentary by Callum Macrae (No Fire Zone) or a joint art exhibition by Indian and Pakistani artists in Ahmedabad, the organisers and government have caved in at the slightest hint of protest from fringe groups. Rather than protecting the enshrined right to freedom of expression, the government has often taken the easy — and lazy — option of banning works of art, academia or literature.
There is a lesson New Delhi can learn from the ‘Interview’ saga — when the rights of an organisation or a person are  threatened, it is the duty of the State to step in and ensure that they are protected. It is not enough if Mr Obama is invited as the chief guest for the Republic Day or more H1B visas are granted to Indian techies in the US.
Along with pushing for greater economic ties, New Delhi should also imbibe Washington’s zeal, as seen in this case, to protect free speech. Often India and the US are compared as great democracies, but it is the State’s approach towards these principles that defines the character and depth of a democracy.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Sundarbans oil spill: A wake up call for India

Mangroves are classified as the most sensitive to oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s environmental sensitivity index. The fragile ecosystem, with its rare flora and fauna, is sensitive to even small accidents that can irrevocably tip the ecological balance in the area. Given this, a December 9 accident between a cargo vessel and a tanker carrying furnace oil is posing a grave threat to the Sundarbans, a Unesco-declared World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, what turned the tragedy into a catastrophe, whose impact is yet to be assessed, is that Dhaka was woefully underprepared to deal with the situation, the main being how to contain the spill. There was also a delay in the government’s reaction to the accident because of a confusion over the jurisdiction between the forest and shipping departments. It was also ill-equipped to contain and clean up the mess.  In an utter disregard for the safety of the people, the local villagers were asked to mop up the oil using sponges and pans — oil thus collected could be sold back to the company that owns the sunken oil tanker. All of these are irresponsible steps in the extreme. However, the delayed response has resulted in the slick spreading from River Shela, where the accident occurred, to River Passur and other canals clogging over 350 sq kms of the mangrove forest.
Though a bit late in the day the United Nations has sent in its team to assess the disaster and help with recovery, and has asked Dhaka to impose a ‘complete ban’ on commercial vessels in the mangroves. This might not be possible given that these channels are the major lifeline for oil supplies reaching many cities and towns in Bangladesh. But governments need to maintain a delicate — but necessary — balance between economic viability and environmental safety. The oil spill is a wake up call — not just for Bangladesh, but also for India, which shares the Sundarbans with it. Indian officials are on high alert and though the spill has not reached the Indian side of the Sundarbans, India can lend its expertise and help to Bangladesh in its time of need.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

It's time the BJP asked Vaiko to leave the NDA

Back then: Vaiko (centre) with Pottu Amman and Prabhakaran
The timing could not have been more off the mark. When the nation was observing the sixth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, some political leaders in Tamil Nadu were celebrating the 60th birth anniversary of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
For those who cannot recall the name, Prabhakaran was the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was responsible for the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. It was also behind the deaths of many more government officials and ordinary people caught in the crossfire of its war with the Sri Lankan government. Since 1992, the LTTE has been designated a terror organisation by India and this makes MDMK leader Vaiko’s support to the group and its leader almost treasonous.
Vaiko has often boasted about the rapport he shared with a terrorist like Prabhakaran. It is also not the first time he has openly expressed support to the LTTE and a separate Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. This chest-thumping, by the likes of Vaiko and other fringe leaders, can be dismissed as nothing else but an attempt to remain relevant in Tamil Nadu politics.
But his party is an ally of the ruling coalition at the Centre. To celebrate the birthday of a terrorist who assassinated a former prime minister is beyond the pale and should be condemned by all political parties. In fact, the BJP should review its ties with the MDMK. It may be in Vaiko’s interest to keep the Tamil Eelam issue on the boil, but the major political parties in the state have, by their silence, shown themselves to be somewhat spineless and prisoners of votebank politics.
Vaiko’s antics are anti-national and political parties should have called a spade a spade. Vaiko has every right to celebrate whatever he wants in his private space. But to make common cause with a terror organisation is unacceptable and the sooner he is told that the better. And in fact, the government of the day should act against this anti-national activity on his part.

TV ban: Dear Govt, Don’t decide for the viewer

For those of us used to our daily fix of sitcoms, the government’s watchful eye could well be trained on you. Recently, English comedy channel Comedy Central was pulled off the air on the grounds that the government found its content unsuitable for young people in the sense that it was obscene and vulgar.
On November 25, the Delhi high court upheld the Centre’s 10-day ban issued in May 2013 on Comedy Central. The channel went off air for four days last year and resumed after an appeal against the ban was filed in court. The high court had ordered the channel to remain off air for the remaining six days. However, the Supreme Court has now stayed the high court’s ban.
The court rulings apart, the government’s argument is flawed on two counts: One, it is shortchanging India’s youth and taking decisions on their behalf. Second, if the government is so concerned about the potential that certain shows “deprave, corrupt and injure the public morality and morals” it should turn its focus to our desi soaps which obviously have a greater reach and connect than the English TV programmes. Many Indian-made soaps, across the vernacular spectrum, show women being victimised and in perpetual suffering, and should catch the attention of the gatekeepers of our ‘culture’.
Soaps, which show women as inferior to men and which reinforce patriarchal norms where the woman is always the underdog do not seem to generate as much opprobrium as they should.  And how can a discussion on showing women as a “commodity of sex” be complete without mentioning the damage cinema, especially Bollywood, does to the Indian woman and ‘culture’. A UN-sponsored global study of female characters in popular films across the world showed that more than 35% women are objectified on screen. Last heard the government has done little to address this anomaly.
While the present government may not have moved for the ban, there is every reason for the present I&B ministry to look into the case and make sure that in future such blackouts and bans come into place only when there is a transgression that warrants severe action. It is also important that such provisions are not misused by those who claim to be the custodians of our collective ‘culture’.
Above all, it is not the government’s business to police the television-watching habits of the people. This is not to argue that all’s well with our entertainment media. There’s plenty of room for improvement and the I&B ministry can play a pivotal role here. What the people want are better and informative content — and not the state policing what they should and shouldn’t watch. Give the people quality content and let them be the masters of their decision. It is simple, if you don’t like something, switch off your TV.