Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Artist Who Dares the Bourgeoisie

Ai Weiwei
On April 3 while on his way to Hong Kong Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese police at the Beijing airport. His arrest was acknowledged by the authorities three days later and it was reported in the Global Times, the Communist Party-run newspaper. It was stated that Ai was held for ‘economic crimes’ and the authorities were investigating into it. His studio was raided, his wife was questioned and many of his assistants were also detained.
This information in itself should not be alarming, unfortunately, as this has become routine in the People’s Republic of China where the Communist Party-government has been on a protest/dissent crackdown overdrive from December 19, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze after police highhandedness in Tunisia and tension gripped the Middle East and North Africa.

The Muffled Voices
The list of people who have been detained, arrested or ‘missing’ is endless: Liu Zhenggang, a designer who suffered a cardiac arrest while in detention; Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer charged with tax evasion; Wu Liliong, an environmentalist who was exposing industrial pollution at Lake Tai in eastern China; Guo Feixiong, a legal rights activist; Liu Xianbin, for inciting subversion; Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Ding Mao, all three for inciting subversion; Yang Hengjun, a novelist; and many others like Jiang Tianyong, Li Tiantian, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Tang Jitain, Teng Biao…Of course how can one forget Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Liu is a political prisoner who is serving an 11-year sentence for pro-democracy appeals, especially through his Charter 08. The list goes on… Some of these people have been released while some continue to be under detention.
The vagueness in the details regarding the arrests is partially also because of the secretive nature in which the police work. Also most of the people who are released are warned not to go public about the time they spent under arrest. All this should not be surprising for a country that is run by a government that deems it fit to lock up its only Nobel Laureate.
If one were to profile all the people who are arrested or just ‘disappear’ there are a few common traits — they are either artists, or social activists or human right lawyers; all of them are either vocal about the injustices prevalent within the system or are seen as a threat by Beijing.

Protester Artist
Ai’s case is different mainly because of the political influence he has, or rather had at one point, and the international status he enjoys. Ai’s father Ai Qing was a revolutionary poet who was with Mao Zedong during the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949. But within a decade he was accused of advocating free-speech and revolution and was sentenced to 16 years community service. Ai Weiwei grew up seeing this dichotomy and in 1981 Ai Weiwei left for the US. As an artist Ai had a different approach and perspective to what many saw as everyday mundane things. In 1988 he got his first solo exhibition.
One of the architects of the famous Bird’s Nest (stadium) which was the cynosure of all eyes during the Beijing Olympics, Ai Weiwei has always been vocal of his discomfort the way the Communist Party was taking the Chinese people. Ai was rattled by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 80,000 and left close to 40 lakh homeless. More than 5,000 schoolchildren were buried alive as school buildings collapsed. Through his blogs he attacked the corrupt local administration that built the “tofu buildings”. He campaigned for the family of Chen Xiaofeng who was run over by the son of an influential official in Baoding. The campaign came to be as ‘My father is Li Gang’ — these were the words of the son as he drove away. Ai was also vocal in his support for Liu Xiaobo.

‘Fat Guy’ Difference
Ai Weiwei was released after 81 days on June 22 under the quobao houshen. The quobao houshen, which has been loosely but incorrectly compared to a bail, is an agreement in which the accused is released but investigations continue for up to a year. The accused will have the freedom to move within a restricted area (town, city) but access to the media is restricted. Ai, after lying low for a month or two, sprung back in August in a highly critical article of the government’s proposed law to detain a person for up to six months without informing the family. Later he was slapped with a $2 million fine for the tax evasion done by the company that promotes his art. Ai, known in twitter and sina weibo as Uncle Ai or ‘fat guy’, made an appeal to netizens who collected close to $1.3 mn (Ai said this was the ‘beginning of civil society in China’). The latest charge against Ai is that he is spreading pornography. Nude art is common among Chinese artists and with the emergence of a photograph titled ‘One Tiger and Eight Breasts’ the authorities are hounding Ai and the people behind the shoot. Expressing support to Ai, his fans are posting their nude pictures on the Internet.
The Chinese government arrested Ai for ‘economic crimes’ thereby making the issue an internal matter. This prevents any foreign country from interfering in their ‘internal affairs’. That this is a ‘Trojan’ used by Beijing is a well-known fact. However, his background, international support and pressure from the artistic community made it hard for the government to detain him further.
The predicament or opportunity Ai Weiwei is in — depending on which side you stand — has been very succinctly put by journalist Kelly Crow: “What happens when you become the modern-day, artistic equivalent of that young man who once stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square?”

Ai Weiwei with his Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern, London

Heart-Patient Sprinter
Ai Weiwei in one of his blogs describes China has a sprinter with a heart condition. China is zooming ahead with a resurgent zeal of be ‘the’ world superpower. This is aided with its economy doing well and Beijing is expanding its defence forces and forging ties with countries around the world. However, while these positives are there, it is a nation that is crumbling from within. Corruption is increasing and inequality is widening. There are no forums to address ones grievances and the government, especially the provincial ones, do not entertain complains against corruption. Add to this the fact that freedom for a Chinese citizen is the ration what the state doles out.
The uprising in the Middle East and North Africa has got Beijing worked up. While initially the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt was censored, the authorities soon understood that it could not keep its people away from the Arab Spring that was spreading like wildfire. So it got cracking on the people who were voicing their dissent or people likely to gather support for the causes they were voicing.

Different Chinas
China has changed a lot from the ideals of what it claims to be ever since it started economic reforms in 1978. Though it claims to be a socialist in outlook, a socialistic approach is today more or less on paper. The way the government has gone about with its policies of development has resulted in disparities of two kinds — income and regional. China has some of the world’s most rich people and a large pool of poor people. In the cities migrant labourers, along with their families, form this pool and are treated as second-class citizens with almost no rights. Region-wise the development can be seen as a trickle-down model. While coastal areas and cities have got the lion’s share of development, central provinces come next and the western provinces and interior regions come the last, usually getting the leftovers from the central provinces. This has led to massive migration to cities in search of labour/food. Developmental migration, due to power projects or urbanisation, should also been seen as a reason for spurring poverty and inequality.
China, today, is one of the world’s most capitalistic country in which the Communist Party is the biggest bourgeoisie. And anyone who questions the ways of this bourgeoisie is silenced.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on November 28)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

As Uncle Sam Beats the Retreat from Iraq

In the euphoria of Libyan dictator-president Muammar Gaddafi being captured and killed by Libyan rebel forces on October 20, media houses around the world overlooked or underplayed a development in the Middle East. At a relatively toned down press briefing from the White House, the following day, US President Barack Obama announced that by December 31 all US troops would leave Iraq. Thus, by bringing to an end the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was strongly opposed by many of US’ allies including France and Germany, Obama has kept one of his poll promises. This is a decision that future analyst will observe as an important move that changed the way the world does politics because a pullout by US from Iraq has more than one implication and impact. So why did such a monumental announcement by Obama go under the radar of sorts? While the move was discussed widely in the United States, internationally the response it received was lukewarm. Perhaps it was intended to be so.

Politics of pullout

Obama’s announcement was criticised by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney as a sign of weakness and an open invitation to Iraq’s neighbour Iran to fill in the vacuum. Romney while making these allegations is either exposing his political naivety for it was President Bush who signed the withdrawal in 2008, or it is political opportunism, a craft which needs a lot of honing.

For Obama it is a win-win deal in many ways. Firstly, as the 2012 presidential race heats up, the announcement is a brownie point for Obama. As of November 4, 49 per cent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job; that’s a two per cent rise from the previous month. The spree of assassinations -- Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Gaddafi --- has assuaged the US public that the billions they have been spending has seen some fruition.

Secondly, the war on terror, waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, has bled the US in many ways – financially, perception-wise and human casualty. Financially, the wars have cost the US close to $2.5 trillion and this sum is entirely --- yes entirely --- on money borrowed. With no tax reforms and the war spending increasing US’ debt has shot through the roof. Perception-wise the US has lost footing within and outside the country. The number of people in the US who think that the wars are of a “choice” and not a “necessity”, to use Obama’s phrase to describe the Iraq and Afghanistan operations respectively, are on the rise. Americans also feel that these operations in the Middle East and other countries have only earned them the hatred of others. A good example would be Pakistan, which is a war ally. Despite Washington pouring in billions into the country, US is detested by the people and government of Pakistan. Recent reports from Iraq indicate that even groups that initially welcomed the US forces are happy to see the pullout. The human casualty, in the form of wounded --- physically and mentally – war veterans, is an expenditure that is going to grow on the US economy as years pass by. Economists fear that this will have a telling effect on the economy in the years ahead.

Thirdly, the US, while in theory actually pulls out, actually does not. While on the surface there is a pullout the US has worked out mechanisms through which it will have a sizable presence in the Iraq. Through the various embassies in Iraq US will be employing close to 20,000 personnel. This soldier pullout paves the way for the comeback of the ‘notorious’ contractors. Ted Wright, president of Blackwater (responsible for the Nisour Square Massacre in 2007) has expressed interest to do business in Iraq again. The US has signed arms deal with Iraq worth more than $10 billion. In the lieu of training and maintenance US personnel will be stationed in Iraq soil. Given all this, it is clear that the US has made sure that it maintains its presence in the country. After all Iraq is a major oil producing country and the revenue trade with Iraq can generate through development work is too lucrative for any country to forgo.

Middle East equation

To understand the political fluctuations and future developments in the Middle East it is essential to first understand the two predominant sects in Islam --- Sunni and Shia. Sunnis form roughly 85 per cent of the Muslims world over. The Middle East is predominantly Sunni but Iraq and Iran have Shias as the majority with a presence in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Saddam Hussein was heading a Sunni minority government in a Shia majority Iraq. He suppressed Shia and Kurd movements and Tehran was his bete noire. Other countries in the region thought of him as a good counterweight to an Iran that was getting assertive and threatening after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The United States, by invading Iraq, ousting and hanging Saddam did in a year what Iran was trying to achieve for decades. Thus Washington was levelling Iraq as a playing field for Tehran.

‘Good’ neighbour

For all the tall talk done by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “Iran should not miscalculate about our (US) commitment to Iraqis” analyst agree that Iran’s influence over Iraq cannot be stopped, and definitely not by any of the tactics the US has used till date.

While invading Iraq former President George Bush had planned to reform the country and turn it into the first true democratic country in the region with the hope that it would serve as a beacon to other countries to move towards democracy. However, the steps taken by the US to usher in this change went wrong from the beginning. America’s hand-picked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government could get the required numbers last year only because it got the backing of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a Shia with active backing from Tehran. Thus the democracy that the Washington propped up in Baghdad was on the stilts lent by Tehran.

However, there is a silver-lining as Iraqis, who have longed for democracy and have witnessed the developments in the neighbouring countries, have protested against the stand Maliki has taken on the uprising in Syria. Maliki has not criticised the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Iran.

Pullout Panic

Of late there has been a call for attacking Iran for the threat it poses because of the nuclear weapons it has in its possession. A rattled Israel, which has not had good relations with Iran, is in the forefront with this call for attack. While it is a matter of concern that Tehran has a clandestine nuclear programme going on in the stealth, it is also a known fact, something akin to a public secret known to all. Russia has advised caution in approaching Iran.

It is understandable that Israel is worried that with US pulling out of Iraq, Iran will have a free run over there. Add to this the Arab Spring which is bringing traditional US favourites down and giving groups that are close to Tehran a chance to run these countries; not to mention the Gilad Shalit deal which has given the Hamas a boost. Thus a US pullout from Iraq can be said to be the trigger for this panic attack.
(This appeared as an Opinion in The New Indian Express on November 10)

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Lama, the Dragon and the Red Rainbow

On October 7 South African anti-apartheid crusader and Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu turned 80 years old. While the whole of South Africa rejoiced, one could not overlook the pall of gloom hanging heavy over the occasion. And Desmond Tutu himself made a reference to it, Fellow Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama, who was expected to attend the celebration and give talks in the country, was not present at the function because the South African government did not process his visa. Tutu might be an octogenarian and retired from active duty as archbishop, but his vigour and zeal to fight injustice is as strong as it was in the eighties when he fought the minority White apartheid regime in South Africa. Tutu was critical of the ruling African National Congress for bowing to diplomatic pressure from China (China is one of the biggest investors in the country). And all it took for Beijing to stop South Africa from issuing the Dalai Lama a visa was a pledge to invest $2.5 billion in South Africa. The South African government played it safe by not antagonising China and inviting the Middle Kingdom’s displeasure (see The Dalai Lama Effect). But the reaction of the people of South Africa, as of many around the world, was best summarised on a banner outside the cathedral: ‘Sold out for a few yuan’.

Hounding the Lama

This is not the first time China has had its way in sidelining the Dalai Lama on various stages around the world. From 1959, when he fled Tibet after an uprising against the Communist Party of China failed, China has been after the Dalai Lama, who currently lives in India. Though there was unrest prior to it, it was the Lhasa uprising in March 1959 that got wide global attention.
The present Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara.  Though a leader for the people of Tibet, he is seen as a separatist by Beijing. While he has been going around the world speaking about the cause and garnering support for the Tibetan movement, China has been stonewalling the efforts of the Lama.
In 1989 when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, China warned Norway of the cutting of trade relations. China took objection to Canada’s decision to award the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship in 2006 and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting him in September 2007. In December 2008 Belgium’s Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s meeting Dalai Lama irked China. Beijing once again raised objections to Mexican President Felipe Calderón meeting the Lama this month.
In 2009 the Dalai Lama was prevented from attending a Nobel laureate’s conference in South Africa. The same year in October, while the Dalai Lama was in Washington, United States President Barack Obama cancelled a meeting with the spiritual leader after what was recognised as pressure from China. In refusing to meet the Lama, Obama became the first US President to do so. The round went to China. This was the same Obama who, along with Hillary Clinton, in April 2008 urged then President George W Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics because of the bloody repression of the uprising in Tibet. However, the following February Obama met the Dalai Lama at the White House. Again in July 2011 they met at the White House. As expected China voiced its displeasure but with the two Nobel Peace Laureates meeting, that round went to the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Protests and India

Since 1959 Beijing has taken full control over Tibet. From 1959 to 1989 (Tiananmen Square) it went about its social and political reforms and after 1989 it has concentrated on suppressing the uprisings in Tibet, including the bloody suppression of the 2008 uprising which coincided with the Beijing Olympics. Currently there is a cycle of protests under way with the tenth monk setting himself ablaze in China. On October 25 a monk in the Sichuan province took the extreme step in a wave of anti-China protests hitting the country. China, as usual, dismissed the incidents as conspiracies by ‘splittist’ agitators, who China claims are influenced and instigated by the Dalai Lama.
Tibet has a very great bearing on Sino-India relations. The two countries at the best of times are suspicious of each other and at worst have fought a war – 1962 – in which India was badly scarred. Though over the years bilateral relations have looked up, there are whispers in the dark about unresolved issues like the border conflict. In Sino-India relations Arunachal Pradesh is a contentious issue because it is generally believed that if the next Dalai Lama has to come from outside Tibet, it is likely to be from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh where the Sixth Dalai Lama came from.

 The Dalai Lama Effect

In 2010, Andreas Fuchs and Neils Hendrik Klann from the University of Gottingen, Germany, undertook a study to find out whether China's trade with countries was affected if the leaders of that country met the Tibetan spiritual leader. The inference was that there was a decrease in exports from 8 to 16 per cent from a particular country to China if its political leader met the Dalai Lama. Fuchs and Klann called this the 'Dalai Lama Effect'.

Red Rainbow and Hope

It’s not just the ‘Rainbow Nation’ that is exhibiting more hues of red. Almost every country around the world that wants to be part of the benefits of the economic juggernaut that China is today is turning a blind eye to many of its transgressions. Apart from issuing standard statements of remorse and regret at China’s human rights abuse, no country including India and the United States is willing to back its words with actions. China’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council gives it more power to act according to its discretion.
The present generation Tibetans living outside the country have not been to their homeland and China is betting that as Tibetan youth get assimilated into the culture of the country they are in, the movement will lose its zest. The movement also faces a number of crucial questions: Who after the current Dalai Lama? Will there be another Lama? What about China’s efforts to project a Lama? What is the future of the Tibetan political movement under Kalon Tripa (prime minister) Lobsang Sangay?
For now the advantage seems to be on Beijing’s side but the power of a peaceful resistance can never be undermined. There is hope for Tibet and its people in exile and they, scattered around the world, seem to have taken this Chinese adage to heart: You must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

(This article appeared in The New Indian Express on November 3, 2011)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Is development dehumanising us?

On Friday October 21 two-year-old Wang Yue, from China’s industrial heartland Guangdong, died. This in itself is hardly any news and in a country like China, as in India, where infant mortality is a daily reality, a fact we have to swallow. Now as more details are added about Wang Yue’s death, check where it touches  a chord or if there is a lump in the throat — Wang Yue was run over by a van in a Foshan market on October 13; after the driver noticed that the front wheel had gone over her, he stopped, deliberated what to do next (in China compensation for death is limited while medical costs for the injured can be ongoing) and ran the rear types over her and sped away; 18 people (including women) passed by but avoided attending to her; in between another van ran over her. All this happened while the market was in full swing. If not for a 58-year-old street cleaner, Yueyue, as Wang Yue’s parents called her, would have been left unattended for who knows how long.
The question to ask is: Has China traded its soul to keep pace with development? The answer is not an easy one but that seems to be the consensus many are arriving at, or are afraid that will soon befall the Middle Kingdom. While Internet sites are filled with discussions about this “painful heartlessness”, as one Sina Weibo user put it, a significant move is the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party last week acknowledging that China needs to build a “powerful socialist culture” and has decided that the main theme for this year’s plenum will be “cultural development”.
There are many factors that lead to this insensitiveness and while it is one thing to pass judgment sitting in a different country or in the comfort of the armchair, it is an altogether different story when put in a real situation.
Many people in China attribute this callousness to what is called the ‘Nanjing Effect’. In 2006, a man from Nanjing helped an elderly woman to the hospital after she had broken her leg. He was sued and ended up paying 40 per cent of her medical bills — all for extending a helping hand to a stranger; and this is just one of the many cases where Good Samaritans have ended up being victimised. In some Western countries, like Canada, there is a Good Samaritan Law which protects people who are not from the medical fraternity from facing liability for helping victims. In France and Germany law has it that it is the duty of every citizen to help victims.
It might be a far call for such laws to be effective in populous countries, but experts agree that a vacuum has been created in China by the Communist Party’s ‘iron fist’ policies. “No one believes in Marxism any more, Confucianism is not being revived, and Western values are not being accepted,” Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert, told Globe and Mail.
Eighteenth Century England lamented the loss of the mild pace of life and the mechanisation of man with the advent of Industrial Revolution. After Luddites attacked factories, laws were passed to protect machines. While England was the industrial powerhouse then, today, without batting an eyelid one can say that China is the vortex of industrial growth. Now China is contemplating passing laws to protect people who show traces of tenderness and kindness towards fellow humans — it’s a vicious cycle we’ve completed.
That brings us to the headline: Is development dehumanising us? If China does not address this numbing plague, it will be too late before it realises that the rapid economic and technological development it is achieving is creating soulless terracotta warriors in the hope that they will one day rise and protect society.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26 in the Mindspace)

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Afghanistan Question

In a June 2011 prime-time broadcast United States President Barack Obama announced the much anticipated troop withdrawal plan from Afghanistan. But Obama was not being completely honest when he said, “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength…” because by then it was largely acknowledged the US Afghan policy was myopic and off target.

Afghanistan became the cynosure of popular hatred after it was said that the 9/11 terror attacks on the US were masterminded by a person sitting deep inside the Tora Bora caves. Overnight Osama bin Laden’s name became synonymous with Satan and it was the ‘duty’ of the US to hunt him down. Under President George W Bush America entered Afghanistan a little over a decade after leaving the nation in shambles after defeating the Russians. The aim was to get “justice” and to get Osama “dead or alive”, to recall Bush’s September 17, 2001 statement. This was padded up with the altruistic motive of ‘liberating’ the Afghans from the evil Taliban. On May 2 the US achieved its first objective when Osama was gunned down in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan. The ‘liberation’ of Afghans is still a distant dream.

Groping in the Dark

Afghanistan today is a quagmire, thanks to the ‘interests’ and ‘invasions’ by the Russians in the Eighties and by Americans after 9/11. However, the coming months and years are very crucial for Afghanistan, the region and the whole world. While Obama promised to bring back US troops from Afghanistan, what he did not promise was that in withdrawing from Afghanistan America would leave it a better place than when it went into the country a decade ago. The US has not got its act together and is literally groping in the dark desperately trying to find the way out. Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s Afghan envoy from 2007 to 2010, in his recent book Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign says that while the coalition’s intentions were good and there was progress in the initial years, success was prematurely declared, while in reality the bad guys had just moved back into the safe havens in the Af-Pak border and into Pakistan. 

Inglorious Exit

By the time it was realised that the war was anything but over, in order to give an honourable façade to what seems to be an inglorious exit the CIA advisors in Langley came up with the ‘good’ Taliban-‘bad’ Taliban theory. The lack of sincerity with which Washington was selling this story was enough for the world to call America’s bluff. What the US forgot was that all cats are grey in the dark.

No sooner had Obama announced the pullout than the attacks on US and NATO troops began to rise. The United Nations, in its quarterly report on Afghanistan, has stated that as of August  2011 the monthly average of attacks is around 2,100, close to 40 per cent more than what it was last year during this period. September has been one of the bloodiest months for the coalition forces. The ground situation is beginning to resemble the 2001 mayhem when coalition forces entered the country. The quality of the lives of Afghans has not dramatically improved in accordance to the money the US has poured into the country. But believe it or not, the worst part is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Islamabad Games

Washington, while going into Afghanistan, joined hands with an old ‘friend’ from the region which had helped the US oust the Russians from Afghanistan. This friend of the US, which it has often in the past pitted against India for geo-strategic reasons, is India’s neighbour to the west — Pakistan. On the outside it looked like the usual American plan — the US has mastered the art of befriending nations in the vicinity of its enemy nation, to provide aid and set up military bases. What they chose to overlook was the ties the Taliban has maintained with Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Lakhdar Brahimi, former special representative of the United Nations to Afghanistan and Iraq, while characterising the influence of its neighbours on Afghanistan said, “A fly cannot go in unless it stops somewhere; therefore weapons, fuel, food, money will not go to Afghanistan unless the neighbours of Afghanistan are working, are cooperating, either being themselves the origin or the transit.”

Through supporting the Taliban the ISI is creating a conducive environment for it in Afghanistan once the coalition leaves the country. Islamabad has always used Kabul as its backyard for perpetrating terror. And now it will not want to lose this advantage to a ‘liberated’, ‘developing’ Afghanistan, especially one in which India is playing a crucial role.

Last Chance

“As for the United States’ future in Afghanistan, it will be fire and hell and total defeat, God willing, as it was for their predecessors — the Soviets and, before them, the British.”

— Mohammed Omar, Taliban leader in Afghanistan

The regional powers are meeting in Istanbul in November and there is a meeting in Germany in December coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. If international forces make some serious decisions, rather than nodding to the ‘reports of progress’ and ‘plan of action’ set forth by the United States; if the nations wake up to the reality that the time for rapping Pakistan on its knuckles for the double game it is playing is over and concrete action (in the form of sanctions, listing of its terror networks, etc) needs to be taken, then there is hope for a nation which has been at the receiving end of world powers who from the time of The Great Game have been trying to ‘help’ it.

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself and it is up to the international community, especially the United States of America, to see to it that the axiom often associated with Afghanistan — the graveyard of empires — is removed.

(This was published in The New Indian Express on October 13, 2011)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

India Heading South-East

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang is in India on a four-day visit to strengthen ties and Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein will be visiting India starting Wednesday. All these are signs that the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government has moved beyond its United States fixation and has started to recognise the important role it can play in the Asia region, especially East Asia.
The visit by Sang comes at a time when Hanoi-Beijing tensions over ownership rights in the East China Sea (or East Sea for Vietnam) are mounting and Sang’s statement that India is welcome to explore hydrocarbons in the region should be seen in this light. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that trade between the two countries is at $1.8 billion in the first half of 2011 and it is poised to increase.
India-Myanmar relations, though not the most conducive, have been picking up lately, especially after the November 2010 elections which saw a ‘civilian’ government in Yangon. With the release of 6,359 ‘prisoners of conscience’ sanctions imposed on Myanmar are likely to be lifted and India can benefit from this opening. Moreover from the point of view of energy and security good ties Myanmar will be beneficial.
It is not merely a coincidence that Vietnam and Myanmar are approaching India at a time when they are locking horns with China. No doubt, the two countries have to cosy up towards China, as their relations with India cannot be at the expense of China. But the latter’s aggressiveness has made many of its neighbours wary and it is natural that these nations, to safeguard their interests, turn to another big country. If India plays its cards rightly, it can gain in prominence as a powerhouse worthy of being looked up to by others in the region. New Delhi has long neglected East Asia and this may be the chance for it to go full throttle on its Look East policy.
(This was published in The New Indian Express as an edit on October 12, 2011)

Friday, 7 October 2011

Aakash Provides a Galaxy of Opportunity

The news media around the world had two major technology stories on Thursday. Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple, passed away at 56 after a prolonged battle with cancer. The other was the release of the cheapest tablet in the world -- Aakash. While the former cast a pall of gloom, the latter brings hope and promise. If the right moves are made, Aakash, developed by the government of India and manufactured by Datawind, a Canada-based company run by two NRIis, is set to bring about change in a big way much like the mobile phones did to communication a decade earlier.
However, Aakash has had its share of controversies. When Union minister Kapil Sibal made the announcement on July 22, 2010 that the government would be bring out an affordable tablet aiming students, the news spread like wild fire around the world. A prototype was displayed but soon it was ridiculed as a sham and rumours spread that India was pulling a fast one, that it was buying in bulk from China and passing it as its own. In July 2010 India did not have a manufacturer on board. But that was then and fourteen months later it’s a different tale.
Aakash is an Android 2.2 based 7-inch resistive touchscreen, 256MB RAM, 2GB internal storage and 366MHz processor tablet and with a price tag between `1,300 and `2,999 the industry is sitting up and taking note.
There is a lot of promise, especially in the academic sector, but the promoters of Aakash will do well not to target the entire tablet market. Every product that is well-thought and designed will have a particular audience. In this case, the HRD ministry has done the right thing in focusing at bringing technology to the common man and student community at an affordable price.
A uniqueness, and a very significant one, about the Aakash is that the government of India has collaborated in the realisation of this tablet. Rather than going in for a bulk order of a popular gadget from an overseas MNC, which is the easy way out, the Ministry of Human Resource Development put its thinking cap on and has dared to dream. Aakash is the realisation and fruit of that dream.
One thing that can be safely said at this initial stage is that the Aakash will not cause any sleepless nights for the manufacturers of high-end tablets like Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. With its technical features and low pricing the Aakash has turned the tables in the mid and lower ranges in the tablet market.
While the euphoria hangs in the air and everyone is gung ho about India’s ‘nano’ tablet, we should be cautious of not letting this venture slip into the abyssal knot of governmental bureaucracy and red-tapism because that is exactly what will kill the future of this promising product.
This is definitely a shot in the arm for the Information Technology revolution unfolding in the country. If channelled in the right direction Aakash can help in advancing educational facilities, healthcare services and administration services, among other fields, in rural areas.
Datawind and the government should prepare itself with the next equally important leg for the success of the product – customer care and support. Given the pricing and readily available demand for tablets --- not to mention the untapped sectors of the market --- a wide network of easily accessible and efficient customer care support is very crucial. A slip over here would be unfortunate not just for the promoters but also for the hopes of a billion people resting on Aakash.
Among world technological powers India has regrettably been an underdog and while this indigenously developed tablet is not a game changer, Aakash has done the most important thing --- bring technology to the masses at affordable prices.
On a lighter note, it will be interesting to see how neighbouring China will react to Aakash. With Tianhe-1A, the fastest computer in the world, in its kitty China is miles ahead of India on the research side. The same is the case with its ability to produce knock-offs of original products --- in some cases much before the original product hits the market, as has happened with Apple’s iPhone 5. So don’t be surprised if a grey market near you starts displaying China’s answer to India’s Aakash – the Tiānkōng.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Where hope is a cruel mirage

The queue stretches for miles. It consists of mainly women and children — all in different stages of death. The fortunate ones have not had food for day. The less fortunate ones can’t remember when they had their last meal. A mother holds her little one close enough to feel its heart beat. The child is severely malnourished. It has been reduced to an emancipated foetus with a swollen abdomen and glazed eyes. Probably the only way to ascertain a semblance of life is through the heartbeat. The mother hopes to make it to the head of the queue. Sometimes the child won’t make it or sometimes the mother. Maybe both won’t. If they are lucky both will make it alive. They are waiting under the blaze of the unforgiving sun to join the 3 lakh registered (and thousands of unregistered) refugees at the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya.

It is estimated that there are more than four million starving people in Somalia alone. Thousands (an exact count is impossible) have died and more than 7,50,000 are said to be ‘high-risk’ starvation groups, which means close to eight lakh people are at the risk of dying due to the non-availability of food and water. To put that figure in perspective — imagine the whole city of Kochi (which has an estimated population of around 6-7 lakh) starving without access for a square meal or reliable water to drink.

Over two decades of lawlessness and clan wars, a non-functional government coupled with the rise of Islamic terror — Somalia today is the stuff of what nightmares are made of.

But this was a tragedy that could have been avoided. The first red flags appeared 11 months ago when the October rains failed. When the rains gave a miss in April the UN and other agencies should have had a plan to tackle the situation. Instead, thanks to the uncompromising attitude of al-Shabaab (an Islamic terrorist outfit) and the grandstanding of the US, what the world literally did was to sit on its hands. Washington’s listing of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation in 2008 restricted more than 80 per cent of the aid that was flowing into Somalia because agencies aiding terrorist organisations in any form face penalisation. This meant that food that was until then reaching the starving thousands in southern Somalia stopped overnight.

The restrictions put on al-Shabaab crippled it to a certain extent. A great part of the aid was until then siphoned off by the militants and sold in the market. This stopped. They were being funded from the Middle East and other areas. This started to trickle and on August 6 they withdrew from Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. But in the process of restricting a few thousand al-Shabaab militants the United States choked millions of starving Somalis. Was that the only way?

Today Mogadishu is seeing people arrive in tens and thousands as al-Shabaab militants, who have ties with al-Qaeda, have retreated and left the city. This coming back of sorts is happening after almost five years in which the Islamic militants have been waging a war with the African Union troops who support a weak Transitional Federal Government, supported by Ethiopia who, in turn, are supported by the United States.

Terror in Somalia

The United Nations, African Union and other international watchers unanimously agree that the presence of terror groups has aggravated the humanitarian crisis. In other words the rise of extremism has a direct correlation with the famine. Al-Shabaab is the principle militant outfit in Somalia. In addition to spreading violence in Somalia and trying to establish its foothold in the neighbouring countries, al-Shabaab is causing numerous roadblocks in aid reaching the needy. Reports in July stated that al-Shabaab refused international aid in the regions under its control stating that there was no famine or crisis in those regions. It has stopped agencies from providing aid citing that aid is a means through which the West indoctrinates the people. Al-Shabaab leader Fuad Mohamed Qalaf in 2010 had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It should be noted that the almost negligible power of the Transitional Federal Government, in certain pockets in the country, has led to the thriving of extremist groups.

Neighbours React to Famine

Much before the media around the world picked up the crisis in the Horn of Africa, local media was pointing to the crisis that was unfolding. Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, all countries geographically close to Somalia, are feeling the heat of the famine. Kenya and Ethiopia seem to be the worst hit with Somali refugees pouring into the camps in these countries. Many of the people here believe that in addition to the failed harvest and drought, the lack of planning for such a scenario has led to the famine worsening. The Nairobi Star, a Kenyan daily, reported that “Kenyans are starving not because the land is infertile, but because there is total mix up of priorities.”

For many people around the world Somalia and the Horn of Africa might be a tragedy unfolding at a comfortable distance. But to ignore the crisis and move ahead will be wrong on two counts. First, it shows a lack of humaneness to walk past failing to sympathise with the innocent children suffering for no fault of theirs. Secondly, these conditions now unfolding in the region are fertile ground for extremism and lawlessness. It should be a surprise that sea piracy (which affects all major countries including India) is a thriving industry in Somalia.

Playwright and a pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd Eugene Ionesco said “Ideologies separate us, dreams and anguish bring us together.” It’s the dreams of the mothers and anguish in the eyes of the thousands queuing outside the various refugee camps that should bring the world together for a catastrophe that is of a magnitude not witnessed in the recent past.

(This article was published by The New Indian Express on Monday September 19, 2011. Link: http://expressbuzz.com/school/somalia-the-land-where-hope-is-a-cruel-mirage/315230.html

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Right-wing terror– An inconvenient truth

On Friday, July 22, 2011, Norway was shaken and with it the whole world. Two terrorist acts, carried out by the same person, became the worst attack on Norway since World War II. The first was a car bomb explosion at a government office which killed eight people and critically wounded many. The second was more drastic. A man, in the colours of a policeman, opened fire on innocent campers attending a youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utoya. He killed more than 70 and scarred many more for life. The toll has reached 93 and an equal number are undergoing treatment. Both attacks were brewed within the country by a well-educated, financially sound 32-year-old Norwegian, Anders Benring Breivik, from the majority community in Norway.

Fear Of The ‘Other’

To say that Anders Behring Breivik is a loner, i.e. his case can be seen as a rare exception, is to trivialise the issue and ignore the dangers it portends for society. For too long governments the world over have ignored, sidelined or rubbished reports of the growing presence of organisations that view immigration and assimilation of cultures, religions and race as a threat to the existing majority community in a country.

Though the initial suspicion in Oslo was that the attacks had links to a jihadist bombing plot last year or the prosecution of an Iraqi terrorist, it was soon realised that the terror had not come from foreign shores. This was the same mistake the US authorities made when they assumed that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of a group from outside the country. Only later did they realise a US Army veteran had blown up the truck in an act of revenge for the 1993 Waco Siege in which 76 people died, including David Koresh, leader of Branch Davidians, a Christian cult group.

This hatred towards the ‘other’ (as Edward W Said explains in his 1978 book ‘Orientalism’) cannot be seen in isolation and finds parallels in other places in Europe and the United States. A ‘right-wing Christian fundamentalist’, Breivik in an interview in which he asks and answers his own questions describes his ideology as “cultural conservatism, or a nationalist/conservative orientation known as the Vienna school of thought. As a political movement, I would describe it as a national resistance movement, an indigenous rights movement or even a right-revolutionary movement”.


People like Breivik are misled into believing that if things go on the way they are, with continuing immigration mainly from the Muslim-dominated parts of Africa and West Asia, it will lead to a clash of civilisations. They are indoctrinated to see it as is their job to ‘rescue’, ‘protect’ or even ‘cleanse’ their country. In his 1,500-page manifesto ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ Breivik mentions that his aim is to save “European Christendom” and help it prevail against the “Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom”.

Bourgeois, Redneck Politics

The economic slowdown and high levels of immigration have fuelled an anxiety among the majority population and given more room and acceptability to right wing forums and parties that have come to the front since the eighties. Even mainstream parties are going populist.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in October 2010 that “multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed” and this is the prod the Christian Social Union was waiting for to up the ante against immigration from West Asia. British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Merkel’s views in February. In France it seems that despite Front National leader Marine Le Pen lacing her comments with scorn for Muslims her public ratings are soaring, threatening to unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election. In the Netherlands the Party of Freedom won 15 percent of the vote share in 2010. Its leader Greet Wilder compares the Quran to ‘Mein Kampf’ and says, “I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam.” In Sweden and Denmark right-wingers are quick to attribute any and every problem the countries face to Muslims. In the US rabid-mouthed vitriol-spewing Republicans are getting shriller in their anti-Muslim rants and Christian pastors like Terry Jones, who proposed to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11, are bolder – and stupider – than ever before.

These politicians provide grist for the fundamentalists’ mill. A common thread in all these cases is the growing Islamophobia (which peaked after 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings). But what is unfortunate is that just as European leaders have not done their part, Muslim rulers and leaders around the world have not done substantially enough to denounce the violence perpetrated by jihadists.

Camouflaged Easy Targets

The Fat Men and Little Boys can be used as political deterrents and for sabre-rattling between hostile nations. The unfortunate fact is that more casualties are caused by small-scale high-impact attacks by ‘loners’, sleeper cells and little known fringe groups around the world, which thrive because of a lack of effective surveillance.

A trait of these individuals/groups is that they do not show on the radar (suspect list or surveillance category) of the authorities as they do not come under the government classification of ‘suspects’.

Another trait of many people used by extremist groups, either through direct recruitment or through indoctrination, is that most of them are young, educated, from reasonably well-to-do backgrounds. More often than not indoctrination happens through local influence groups (like religious institutions or community-based organisations) or through the Internet (websites, chat rooms and networking sites) as in the case of Breivik. The Internet provides fundamentalists the manna that changes the world view of gullible people like Breivik. A fact, which many fail to see, is that most of the arguments and conclusions are based on specious arguments and discussions.

Shiver Down The Spine

Timothy J McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber whose act of lunacy claimed the lives of 168 people, commented thus on his deed, “Isn’t it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell?” McVeigh’s reflection of his work should send a shiver down the spine of every law enforcement officer. Imagine the many McVeighs and Breiviks who can be or are misguided. If July 22 has a message it is that no longer can any country afford to be naïve. While focusing on the trouble from outside it cannot ignore the rumbles from within.

(This article was published in The New Indian Express

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A 'short trek' till Shangri-La

Seeing me huffing and puffing an elderly woman who was descending the steps said to her friend, “He’ll be disappointed when he realises the temple is closed. It’s 10 past one.” While this might have deterred others, I was too tired to care. I held on to the red-coloured railing that led to the temple precariously perched on a cliff — a monastery, which after a three-hour trek seemed more of a mirage. I suppose at 10,000 ft when you’re gasping for breath, the mind plays games and reflexes numb. I waved at another group that passed by. I’m not sure if they saw it but I couldn’t care less. The last three hours had been by all means life-changing.

“It’s going to be easy”
“It’s 10 in the morning, the skies are clear and it’s going to be a pleasant walk. It will take two hours to reach the top. Also, we could stop at the cafeteria and if anyone feels tired, they can use the pony,” Nado, our Bhutanese friend, said in his contagious jovial tone. He was doing a great job of egging us on. But he forgot that we were city-bred ‘morning walk’ lads — a walk for him was a hike for us and a hike for him was, well, an impossibly treacherous trek for us.
We started as a group of eight and soon split depending on our speed. In about 20 minutes, I realised it was no cakewalk — my muscles had to work overtime. Twenty minutes later, I convinced myself that there was no dishonour in availing the services of a pony. But it wasn’t a good idea. Ponies, they say, are surefooted and will not fall despite choosing to walk on the ridge of the path. While on one side is the dirt track, the other side is the gaping ravine. A sense of vertigo added to the fear. Better sense prevailed and I soon unburdened the pony off its load.

“You’re almost there”
The Prayer Wheel and cafeteria are located midway to the monastery. In addition to munching on mouth-watering Bhutanese delicacies, one can recline in bamboo chairs, enjoy a massage, sip Bhutanese butter tea, soak the sun and enjoy the view of Taktsang. When seen from there Taktsang (Takt- Tiger, sang- Nest) had a mystic air about it. It was like watching a documentary and having the privilege of the ‘first peek’ at a long-lost monastery. It was a like a castle in a Disney movie.
After a few crackers and some hot tea I thumped my calves and continued walking. The postcard image of Taktsang was playing in my mind. While it helped alleviate my fatigue, the most motivating factor was the encouragement by hikers who were descending. People I’ve never met, and may never will, were saying: “You’re almost there”, “The worst is over...”
To reach the ‘viewpoint’ I crossed one-foot wide ledges, lost my way twice, exhausted my water supply and slipped and fell more than once.

The view from the cliff
The viewpoint is a great example of how nature derives a wicked pleasure in taunting. From there, I could see Taktsang in detail. Yet, it was far, far away. From here one has to descend a flight of steps to the bottom of the mountain, cross over to the other mountain and climb to the height one just descended to reach Taktsang.
The thought of continuing the trek was an ordeal. But the very nature that taunts also encourages. One look at the lush green valley, the black mountain face, the blue skies peppered with white clouds and I knew I shouldn’t give up.
While the descent was challenging, the ascent was even more demanding.

Heaven on earth
Leaning on to the red-coloured railing was not a good idea. On the other side was a ravine that was picturesquely dangerous. I leaned on the rugged mountain instead and continued upwards. Soon on my left was a Damchi, a Tibetan Mastiff. He seemed disinterested in the pity sight of a man out of his breath and wits.
As I reached the temple door the priest was closing it. I cursed my luck and blamed the gods for it. And there were quite a few to blame for here was a Christian, born in West Asia, raised in India standing at a Buddhist monastery. The next 45 minutes were really testing as the winds picked up and the cold was biting my bones.
At two ‘o’clock a monk opened the door. After visiting the different deities in the temple, I walked to the edge from where I could see the entire valley. I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. It was precisely then that it dawned on me why the trek was worth it. There are some moments in life when words seem inappropriate and pictures seem inadequate. This was one of those moments. Maybe this was heaven. If someone asked me how heaven looked like, I would suggest the view from Taktsang. The cold wind was still blowing but I was feeling warm. The air was pristine and all my senses (that were near shutdown earlier) were appreciating nature at its immaculate best. I was looking at Shangri-La. I could have stayed there for ages but that moment alone was enough to keep me going for a long, long time.

A Slimy Nexus That Threatens Fourth Estate

For someone whose job is to talk about others, he is easily the most talked about man in town. Known for the power he wields and the fear he instils, people are in awe at his aura and clout — some respect him, some fear him and some oblige for want of an option. He has got his ‘team’ prowling the streets and threatening both the commoner and elite alike with brash authority. He’s got top politicians and policemen on his speed-dial and the who’s who makes it a point to attend his kitty parties. Politicians use him and he needs them — it’s a slimy symbiotic coexistence. He has decimated others in the business and ‘rules’ the town. His detractors are either threatened or their silence is bought. Then, one fine day, a greenhorn musters the courage to speak against the man and blows his cover. As always it just takes one small charge to start a domino effect. Soon the once feared, once praised ‘entrepreneur’ is an outcaste. Politicians, who until then were singing encomiums, make a beeline to attest the fact that such people are a bad influence on the society. The tables have turned and the man is neck deep in the goo he once threw at others.
While this might be the storyline of many potboilers we have sat through, this is the gist of the crisis that is rocking the Western media. The phone hacking scandal, which started with News of the World hacking into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler after she was reported missing, has grown into a monster that is rocking the House of Commons and has reverberations in the US and Australia. The means adopted by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation-owed newspaper for that extra edge over rival papers has put criminal syndicates to shame. From employing known criminals to gather information (to get information about Gordon Brown’s son’s cystic fibrosis) to being in cahoots with the police and political class, they have done everything that’s not in the book. The ongoing hearing by the Commons Media Committee, which Murdoch, son James and former editor of NOTW Rebekah Brooks will appear, should reveal more details on how the operations were conducted.
What should concern us in India are the repercussions a similar scandal would have on the media here. The media in India is out of its infancy and is growing at an alarming pace, especially considering the fact that globally media (especially newspapers) are in the red. And it would be unfortunate if this promising growth is threatened. The government, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has its task cut out to ensure that while the thin line between freedom of press and invasion of privacy is maintained, it is not crossed. The media houses, in their mission to increase visibility and TRPs, would do well to keep in mind this distinction. They will have to act in a responsible manner. The failure to do so will prompt the government to intervene — something that can lead to undesired results.
While the argument over ‘what is news?’ is an old debate that is done to death with no avail, it is the means adopted to achieve that ‘exclusive’ ‘breaking’ story that needs focus. Investigative journalism and sting operations have brought to light many incidence and the media is only richer, thanks to such bold endeavours. The moment the means is overlooked to justify the end, the foundation of the fourth estate is threatened.
Replace the man mentioned in the beginning with Rupert Murdoch and the picture becomes clear with the potential for a Hollywood blockbuster. But, unlike as in our movies, Sean Hoare, the person who brought to light the dubious deeds in NOTW, was found dead in his apartment on Monday. It is too early to arrive at conclusions, but one cannot be faulted for smelling a rat.

(This has appeared in The New Indian Express on Wednesday 20, July 2011. Link: http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/a-slimy-nexus-that-threatens-fourth-estate/295862.html)

Saturday, 30 April 2011

A Big Fat Royal Wedding

On Friday the royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton was solemnised. One hopes that it will bring to an end the on-your-face coverage of an affair-proposal-engagement-wedding that the media, and this time its not just the Indian television media, has covered to the extent of regurgitating revulsion. The silliest and minutest of detail has been analysed threadbare that calling it ‘Wedding Trivia’ would be trivialising it — Where the couple first met, what was the colour of the skirt Kate was wearing then, what are Kate’s fears (this includes a wardrobe malfunction when she is the cynosure of more than two billion eyes at Abbey)... the list is long.

That having been said there are a few positives we can take from this jamboree which was telecast live around the world. Things have not been looking up for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition from the time it came to office in May 2010. The economy is caught in a quicksand and rescuing it has pulled down every Briton’s spirit. So plagued is the country with cuts and reforms, add to that the wars it is fighting, that Blair-bashing and jokes on the Duke of Edinburgh have lost its edge. It is at this juncture that Prince William pops the question to which Kate blushes in response. And to adapt the infamous words of the ‘great princess’ in 18th Century France to today’s Britain, when it is hard to find bread, Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (Let them eat cake). And Britons are having that cake at a rumoured cost of around £50-80 million.

Another group that are benefiting are the bookies. Bets were placed right from the colour of the queen’s hat to the amount of time Kate would keep William waiting at the altar.

The economic slowdown caused by the sub-prime crisis has affected most countries in the world and if a wedding can lift the spirits of an emotionally and economically beaten Britain, it sure can be tested in other parts of the world. The royal families of other European countries are not as prominent as the British royalty and this space is taken by their illustrious politicians. In France, the latest news that has the nation excited is about whether First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is pregnant or not. The news has been overshadowed by the royal wedding but it is expected to soon gain prominence. To lift the spirits of Italians perhaps Silvio Berlusconi could marry. His current wife Veronica Lario has filed for divorce and once that’s through, the Italian prime minister can walk down the aisle for the third time. The only thing he would have to be weary of is that unlike his bunga-bunga exploits he should ensure that his bride is of marriageable age.

India can also do well with a wedding booster dose. And it is not sure if this will lift the morale of the aam aadmi plagued by a lack of governance, but the most eligible candidate for the wedding tamasha is the crown prince of the grand old party. The eligibility criteria here are the promptness at which the television media, especially the English media, is willing to pick up anything and everything done by the 40-year-old “amul baby”, to use the epitaph given by a veteran communist leader recently. I’m not sure about the intricacies of finding a bahu for him, but I’m placing my bet on the fact that the couple will go to a nondescript village in UP for their honeymoon.

Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as William and Kate will be known from now, can sigh in relief as the madness has just about begun.

Monday, 4 April 2011

I also did it. Finally! - Part Two

(From 'I also did it. Finally!')

After everything was over, I did not know what to do – ‘Should I say ‘thank you’? Do I shake hands?’ I thought. I had not rehearsed this part in my mind. I just walked away without giving or waiting for any pleasantries. I don’t think I turned back either.

I am not sure how many would have had such an experience, even remember when they did it first and how many would be open about mentioning it.

(To be continued…)

It happened on Saturday (March 26, 2011). It was about five-thirty in the evening. The Sun had lost its way in the midst of the many high-rise buildings in the city. Twilight was setting in. I was returning after an interview with two film chief technicians. The interview was at their office in Kodambakkam (yeah the place is notorious for certain nefarious activities and has a locally synonymous connotation) and I must confess that though I’ve been in Chennai for a long time my knowledge about the area is poor. The roads are not familiar and so the traffic arrangement appeared funny.

It happened at a one-way which was bifurcating to the left and right. I had to go to the right but was in the lane turning to the left. Thinking it was fine to turn to the right, I took a turn and there in front of me was a traffic constable. He was in a hurry and reached for my ignition keys. I gestured assuring him that I surrendered and pulled over to the side. (There was a sense of satisfaction on the face of the constable and his companions. It was as though they were a pack of wolves who were salivating at the sight of a trapped sheep).

I got off the vehicle and went to the constable who was resting his arm on the bonnet of his Bolero. “You know it was a mistake.” I was in no mood to argue – there were no traffic signs in the vicinity. “You know, you could have met with an accident.” I did not know how to feel. Should I be happy that the Tamil Nadu Police are so concerned about the safety of motorists? “The fine is Rs 1,350.”

‘No way, this guy should be kidding’, I thought. Here I was like a dog caught in the blaze of a headlight on the highway. I smiled at him. It was more like a please-don’t-screw-me smile. He repeated the ‘Rs 1,350’ part a few more times till he was sure it sank in. After a bit of haggling, in which I told him that the amount he had quoted was too harsh, he asked “You tell me how much should I write? You choose.” It was the month-end and I presume each police station had a certain number of traffic violation cases they had to book, and thereby fill the government coffers.

Maybe he felt sad for me. He would have realised that my purse was not fat enough for the time he was investing. From the initial quote he offered a 50 per cent cut. It was end-of-season-SALE for the police as well. ‘Up to 50 % OFF’.

He enquired about my employer. ‘This was my chance to be the topdog’. I told him that I was from the ‘Press’. On hearing this he was a bit surprised. The senior officer, who until then was busy on some paperwork, turned and looked at me.

There was a pause that didn’t last very long. The constable offered a revised quote. From 50 per cent he offered a discount of 80 per cent. Now that was not bad! The ‘Press’ worked.

Finally we settled for an amount. He took the money in the infamous underhand swift action. I’m not sure if he slipped it into his trouser pocket or into a compartment in his service cap. I asked him if there was a receipt or chellan for the transaction (I would have framed it). It was his turn to smile. It was a you-should-be-kidding-me smile.

I started my vehicle and zoomed away. I was feeling bad that I had settled to give a bribe. I did some thinking on the way (there was a lot of time for that as the traffic jams were real long). The more I thought about it, the more I like it. It was my first time and it was funny. Looking back, I’m telling myself that had I been a bit more prepared, I could have walked away paying nothing. And that’s the story of my first bribe to a police official.

(The End)

Monday, 28 March 2011

I also did it. Finally!

Finally, for the first time in my life, I did it! I knew that I would have to do it someday and always thought that it would be easy. When I realised that I was going to do it, I smiled to myself and thought to myself: ‘This is going to be easy’. After all, I’ve seen it ‘live’ -- this intimate, secretive ‘dance’ between two people, and have seen it any number of times on television and in movies (though it has inadvertently been dramatic in most of them!)

As a kid one is warned against it (mostly by elder siblings or by parents who are open to talk about such issues) and in catechism classes one is taught that it is a sin. Socially it is a taboo but nevertheless a majority of the people have done it and continue to do it – at street corners, behind cars… almost every conceivable place on earth.

But soon I was a bit apprehensive – ‘Should I? Am I erring?’ My hands were shaking and I started to sweat. No matter how many times one rehearses the whole act in the mind, it’s different when it happens.

However the other person was Dr Cool and that helped me a lot in the process.

Though I was feeling a bit ashamed and guilty right after it happened, now, in retrospect, I feel good and elated that it finally happened. The first time, they say, is the best. I am not sure about that but one thing is sure, it’s not going to be the last. After all living in 21st century India, how can one avoid getting into it at least once?

After everything was over, I did not know what to do – ‘Should I say ‘thank you’? Do I shake hands?’ I thought. I had not rehearsed this part in my mind. I just walked away without giving or waiting for any pleasantries. I don’t think I turned back either.

I am not sure how many would have had such an experience, even remember when they did it first and how many would be open about mentioning it.

(To be continued…)