Thursday, 28 February 2013

Obama’s New Team Set to Give India the Jitters

Statements by Charles Timothy ‘Chuck’ Hagel, the new United States Defence Secretary, that “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border” and “used Afghanistan as a second front” are bizarre to say the least. Hagel’s speech, made at Oklahoma’s Cameron University in 2011, which was uploaded by Washington Free Beacon recently, also gave Pakistan a clean chit. It goes without saying that Hagel’s statements are the much-required fuel to run the anti-India mills in our neighbourhood.

Hagel’s comments are contrary to the US stand on India’s commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. India’s role was appreciated in a statement released by the US embassy in New Delhi, which distanced itself from Hagel’s views. Whether Hagel is fit for the demanding job or not is a different question but what should be concerning the mandarins in New Delhi is that such a comment is coming from a top authority in the Obama administration at a time when the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government is turning to the United States to protect Indian interests in Afghanistan. These comments by Hagel, when seen with Secretary of State John Kerry’s January statement that “I don’t think the Pakistanis have frankly gotten credit, sufficiently, for the fact that they were helpful” in catching Osama bin Laden, poses serious questions on what course Indo-US ties will take at this crucial juncture.
New Delhi will have to work overtime to ensure that the new ring of leaders in the Obama administration are on the same page as its immediate predecessors and that they talk in one voice about India’s support to US goals in Afghanistan. It should impress upon Washington to see through Islamabad’s double game of hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. It will, however, be prudent to not rely heavily on a United States that is waiting to board the last plane out of Afghanistan.
(This appeared as an edit in The New Indian Express on February 28)

Monday, 18 February 2013

Hopes and Challenges Await the Next Pope

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic world on February 11 when he announced that he would be ‘resigning’ from his post on February 28. For observers of the Vatican this was no surprise. In 2009, while visiting earthquake-stricken L’Aquila, the pope prayed at the tomb of Celestine V, a pope who resigned five months after being elected in 1294. In the recent issue of Focus, German journalist Peter Seewald recalled Benedict telling him last August, “…I am an old man and my strength is running out. And I think what I have done is enough.”
There were reports that St Peter’s Basilica was struck by lightning shortly after the pope announced his decision. The Economist succinctly called the resignation an ‘ecclesiastical earthquake’. Lightning or earthquake, Benedict leaves Vatican at a time when the Catholic Church is facing challenges from inside and out. One of these is the dwindling number of believers in the See in the Western world. The Pandora’s Box of sexual abuse by clergymen and the ‘Vatileaks’ showed the Church in bad light.

The demographic change among believers, with a considerable rise in the percentage of believers in Latin America and Africa, as compared to Europe, has given hope that the next pope, who will be elected sometime in mid-March by 117 cardinals, may be non-European or the Catholic Church might even get its first ‘black’ pope. Contenders for the post are, among others, Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Canada, Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri from Argentina. Bookmakers favour Ouellet, who is the head of the Congregation of Bishops. The argument that these are, at best, just speculations gains ground given that the College of Cardinals is predominantly European. This is an opportunity for the Church to address many pressing issues. Whether it will or not, one has to wait and watch.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on February 18, 2012)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Kumbh Mela: Solace in the Middle of Mayhem

The decision to go to the Kumbh Mela was, in retrospect, not that a great one. After 12 hours of driving and walking for more than 18 kilometres to the Sangam I was in a ‘temporary’ city that saw more than 3.5 crore people in a day. It was on the same day that 30-odd lives were lost in a stampede.
The photos below were taken during my February 10-12 trip to Allahabad to attend the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela, as one associates with the event, is about taking a dip at the sangam and the nagas/sadhus. Bereft of the spectacle the nagas put, the mela, in my opinion, is a tame affair.
One does not always feel so, and particularly me, but it is events like this that make our country unique. I don’t say this from the point of a believer, but as a cultural and sociological phenomenon. 
My visit to the Kumbh Mela, unlike majority of the people there, was not out of religious fervour — it was more of a journalistic itch that took me there.
(Right) Kanpur (on the way to the Kumbh Mela) at 6 am.
An abandoned warehouse behind a petrol pump in Kanpur

He was not the only one who had that expression

En route to Sangam. It was a different experience to be part of this ocean of
pilgrims chanting and walking to the Sangam. This photo was clicked
some 13 kms before Allahabad
(Left) Horse-carts at Malaka Harihar, about 17 kms before Allahabad. We had to leave our car here and walk all the way to the city.
By the sheer volume of people who reach the sangam, this is a modern day wonder. The organisation and running of the mela is by no stretch of imagination an easy task. Two very good things that one could notice at the mela was the cleanliness of the whole place and how well lit was the whole ‘city’ at night.
(Right): You can’t expect 3 crore people to use the road. People used the railway bridge to cross the Ganga. I am standing on the 1 km-long bridge over the Ganga.

(Left): ‘Ganga Raksha, Bharat Raksha’: If this is how it's going to be, I'm not putting my bet on India.

(Right): Sangam Lite: People who did not prefer to reach the Sangam could take a dip in the Ganga over here.
The tricolour gave the whole frame a feel of a shot from ‘maa tujhe salaam’ video

(Right): While clicking this, I thought it was going to be a great one. I was just over-estimating my photography skills.
(Left): A temple (I guess) in Allahabad city.
(Right): The mela grounds deserted in the night. The whole Sangam township was well lit.

(Right): FDI in Sangam: Two ‘firang’ sadhus (unless this is a case of rare albinism) with their followers at an ahkara at the Kumbh Mela.
(Left): Fear mongering is a way of getting people into the fold.

Waiting for followers….

(Left): While the sadhus had people queuing to have a ‘darshan’ this sadhvi was not very happy at being left out.

(Left): In the akharas at the Kumbh Mela, it almost seemed like the sadhus were competing with each other to attract followers. So the whackier or unique the sadhu the more followers he/she enjoyed. There is nothing 'unique' about this sadhu, except maybe his 'high' expression.
(Right): This sadhu was whacky. Sanjit Kumar has more stories…

This sadhu was more than willing to strike a pose.
Now who would say 'no' to free publicity!

(Left): This stone allegedly floats in water because of some chemical used by the sadhu.