27.7.14

Sunday ka Funda




“What do you think an artist is? ...he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

― Pablo Picasso


There is destruction everywhere. And I thought about Guernica. As those who visit here often know, I am opposed to posting violence porn, especially if the images have children. I explained my stance earlier.

Guernica is not just art; it is deliberate defacement. That becomes its message along with the motive and the inspiration. The realism lies in the unreal.

How would it be if that painting came alive not as faces behind the 'masks', but as masks? Here is one interpretation. In the robotic sinew one can feel the cracking of bones.


26.7.14

Sania Mirza and the Majoritarian Trap



What is worse than Sania Mirza being called Pakistan's daughter-in-law is the certificate of nationalism she has been getting from supposedly secular people. I am questioning their credentials simply because they are sticking their necks out for what appears to them as a 'legitimate' cause — a celebrity achiever.

If you watch TV discussions, then it will take you less than a few minutes to figure out the game-plan. The higher the decibel levels of those rooting for such causes, the more the reason to believe they are taking over the secular discourse from the minorities, even if it concerns the minorities. The "Sania is the pride of India" train of argument ends up sounding like the usual line of appeasement rather than a fact that it is.

It all began with Telangana BJP leader K Laxman questioning the TRS government's decision to appoint Sania as brand ambassador of the newly-formed state. As one report stated:

"Sania was born in Maharashtra and settled in Hyderabad only later and, hence, is a "non-local", he told reporters here and sought to dub her as "daughter-in-law" of Pakistan, pointing out that she was married to that country's cricketer Shoaib Malik."


There are two separate issues here, and from different sources it seems that the 'local' one was Laxman's target and she was used as a handy example to drub the 'nativity' clause. However, the politician decided that he could beat on her further as he found another reason — her marriage to a Pakistani.

The India of Outrage has gone ballistic over the latter. Being called a daughter-in-law of Pakistan is not an insult, unless you find it insulting or use it as a slur. [It would be surprising given that the same people talk about the countries as long-lost siblings.] When she got married, Pakistanis too said she was their daughter-in-law. This happens to be a technical detail.

Where did the question of not being Indian arise? It is easy for 'well-wishers' to choose their concerns to suit themselves rather than the person who is the object of it. It is puerile to ask whether anyone would have talked about her being the daughter-in-law of Australia or America had she been married to one, for no one would bother to sit in a TV studio and breathe hot air for an Indo-Australian alliance, unless of course there is nice conference invite awaiting them soon.

The Pakistan-India conflict is real and gives quite a few fake peaceniks an opportunity to use it to show off their secular stripes. At least a few of them are subtle bigots. Such bigotry manifests itself in 'innocent' little asides along the lines of, "think about how insensitive it is to hurt Sania, that too in the month of Ramzan", as a socialite columnist did on TV the other night. In one swoop Sania transformed it into a Muslim affair, and how majoritarian India must grant its minority their holiness. That was not the issue, but it has become one because they are connecting varied unconnected dots, including the Muslim force-fed while fasting.

Sania Mirza's vocal opportunistic supporters have managed to transform her into a Muslim who needs to be protected while she prays and fasts and conducts other religious business. They wouldn't be concerned about what she does on the tennis court.

A major reason this snowballed is her own public response. It is one thing to stand up and fight for oneself and quite another to become defensive and give others room to manoeuvre.

"I am an Indian, who will remain an Indian until the end of my life."


What was this a reply to? Being called "daughter-in-law of Pakistan" or a "non-local"? She provided a history of her ancestors and their role in Hyderabad. This was perhaps to clarify her origins. Why was stating that she would remain an Indian even necessary? She represents us on tennis tournaments, and is awarded and rewarded by India.

And now, she has been forced to go further, crying on camera:

"I don't know why I am picked on, I don't know why I have to justify that I am more patriotic, why I have to act like I have to slit my wrist to prove my patriotism."


The image is reminiscent of the pleading man during the Gujarat riots, and how public perception wants to see the minority. Getting defensive only gets frothing-mouth backers who do precisely what the BJP wants them to: certify her credentials.

Or you have the likes of BJP's Subramanian Swamy who wait for such opportunities:

"When people have divided loyalties, we cannot expect them to represent country or any other part of the country faithfully."


People are aware of the sickness of his mind, and his consistent droning of how Muslims are Indians only if they admit to Hindu ancestry. No one has taken him seriously.

However, for those who are talking about the matter getting politicised, let us not forget she is the brand ambassador of a state, which is a political appointment. It is a bit surprising that she stated:

"I strongly condemn any attempts by any person to brand me an outsider. Hurts me that so much time is being wasted on a petty issue of my being appointed as brand ambassador of Telangana."


Did she not say she was humbled by the honour? How does it become a petty issue?

Then there are those who want others to speak up for her. Do they have any doubts about her nationality? Why do we need anybody to ascertain it? This is not about the sport where peer reviews of performance might be helpful and are seen as healthy feedback. The subtext is that Sania's Indianness depends on how other Indians view her, especially her colleagues. How different is it from her opponents?

The debate's emphasis on her icon status and a pride of India reveals how much this is about achievement, and public visibility. Would those who are now rallying behind Sania Mirza ever speak up for the many unnamed Muslims who are questioned, berated, and even locked up because their community affiliations make them by default suspect?

© Farzana Versey

23.7.14

A Fasting Muslim and the Shiv Sena





Who would have imagined that the humble chapati would take centre stage in politics? It is on national television in the form of grainy images of a beefy-looking man forcing another man to eat it. They are no ordinary men. One is a Shiv Sena leader, the other is a fasting Muslim. Being Muslim is tough enough; a fasting Muslim seems to be even more of a dangling identity.

However, I'd like to ask whether it is only the Shiv Sena that is using/abusing or capitalising on this identity. To get to the story first:

A group of around 11 Shiv Sena MPs, apparently angry over not being served Maharashtrian food, allegedly forced a Muslim catering superviser who was fasting for Ramzan to eat a chapati at the new Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi last week. Within hours, IRCTC, the Indian Railways subsidiary that was catering for the Sadan, stopped all operations in protest, and complained in writing to the Maharashtra Resident Commissioner, saying the employee, Arshad Zubair S, had been “deeply pained and hurt… as religious sentiments are attached”.


Would this have become news had it not been a Muslim at the receiving end? Unlikely. And the tone would have been vastly different. What we see now is bluster from all sides, and Mr. Arshad who might have certainly felt violated in some way will have to go along with the "hurt sentiment" politics because he is only a pawn. In his complaint, he said:

“All the guests along with media reporters and staffs of Maharashtra Sadan got into kitchen where I was getting the orders prepared. They caught me and put the chapati into my mouth. I was wearing a formal uniform set as prescribed by IRCTC and everybody in the panel also knew my name as ‘Arshad’ as I was wearing the name tag. Even then they inserted chapati in my mouth which caused my fast to break on the eve of Ramzan. I was hurt with the thing they have done as religious sentiments are concerned.”


The hurt should be over such physical abuse, of forcing anybody to eat anything. The Shiv Sena is communal. It is obvious that those MPs deliberately made him eat, although they knew he was fasting. They had problems with other facilities like electricity, so would they give shocks to the person in charge? Why did the media keep quiet if they were present then? This is being projected as protest against catering vs. religion now.

The incident occurred a week before it was reported. Did it take the authorities seven days to figure out what happened and what hurt was involved? Worse, we are ignoring the issue of damaging of property, parochialism and arrogance of power that the episode is also about, even if there is no story in these.

The MPs were throwing dish covers and threatening the staff. What kind of behaviour is this? Why was there no police complaint immediately, which gave leeway to the officials to cling on to the moral dimension of a fasting man?

The MPs want a Maharashtrian caterer, citing other state bhavans as an example. Arvind Sawant said:

“The food at the Sadan is terrible...They even gave stale water. We wanted to sort these issues out amicably, and did not come with the intention of committing violence. But even on that day, the Resident Commissioner refused to meet us, and after a lot of delay, said that he had gone to receive the Chief Secretary at the airport. Is that not an insult? No tod phod happened at all, but we have been provoked in a sustained manner. Nobody was manhandled, but if you keep abusing, will someone not slap?"


I am quite flummoxed about "stale water". But it is important to note that while denying that any unruliness took place, he is justifying it. The mob wrote "Jai Maharashtra" on the walls of the Regional Commissioner's office besides the behaviour mentioned earlier.

The Shiv Sena often talks with its hands. However, this incident could also be about its political equation with the BJP for the coming assembly elections. Using one chapati, they have raised their 'concerns' before the ruling party:

• The North vs. Marathi maanus
• Violence as legitimate means
• Role of regionalism
• Muslims as religion flashers

All these happen to be the BJP's favourite subjects, too. Therefore, who will benefit the most from emphasising the religious aspect? Or, should we ask, who is bailing out whom?

© Farzana Versey

18.7.14

Are your jeans distressed by lions?




If you are the sort to shell out over a thousand dollars for a pair of jeans “designed by tigers”, then you have until July 21. Animal conservationists are marketing this bizarre idea to you. Even if you won’t buy the jeans you might feel like you are contributing to the welfare of the poor beasts.

Japanese brand Zoo Jeans includes wild beasts in their design process to create the perfect pair of ripped denim. In order to do this, sheets of material are added to old tires and giant rubber balls and tossed into the animals’ cages at Kamine Zoo in Hitachi, Japan. The lions and tigers then have the chance to chew, gnaw, and scrape at the fabric, taking “distressed denim” to the extreme.

Do they even realise how cruel this is? Lions and tigers are carnivores; they tear into pliable flesh. Bears are omnivores. Denim does not smell or feel like skin or plants, and rubber has a unique scent and feel. The animals probably assume they will be rewarded after they’ve got rid of the ‘excess baggage’.

The zoo and World Wildlife Fund are being horribly insensitive, and to think this is to benefit the animals. WWF and People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rant about ill-treatment; they file complaints against cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies for using animals as guinea pigs. They have a point, but they aren’t doing any better.

These organisations have a history of regressive ads that put human models behind cages, chain them, or make them wear edible clothes. At the same time they use loaded, even sexual, imagery. With Zoo Jeans too, ripped by animals has a certain ring. It defeats the purpose. They end up perpetuating an idea they claim to oppose – that of the ‘wild beast’ as fantasy.


© Farzana Versey

Statues and Historical Trickery: Set in Stone

Published in CounterPunch

Memorials work well as masks. Britain has commissioned a statue of Mahatma Gandhi that will stand in Parliament Square in London to commemorate the centenary of his return to India from South Africa to fight for the freedom struggle. The British were the colonial power then. Is this about retribution and, if so, does it not amount to self-chastisement?


It seems more like political pragmatism conjoined with an assertion of its own past, for the chancellor George Osborne emphasised that “it's time for Gandhi to take his place in front of the mother of parliaments” while playing along with the new government: “New Indian prime minister Modi invoked his memory in his inaugural speech to parliament.”

The Sikh Federation of UK has opposed it, calling Gandhi “a blatant racist, a sexual weirdo or worse a child abuser and someone discriminating on the basis of the Hindu caste system, which is now outlawed in the UK”.

That such criticism comes from a minority Indian community tells us something about dislocated memories. Immigrants tends to revel in nostalgic gestures and even play along with the brown sahib Chutney Mary fantasy or the imported from home pop culture. To take a stand against a canonised figure is reflective of their own mainstreaming. By going against protocol and calling out negative aspects even though they were not directly affected by it, they are consolidating their role as a political voice beyond turban issues.

Instead of causing discomfort to the hosts, it will only add to the humanisation that keeps the foible factory well oiled. It works as assertion of power, too.

Political reclamation

Are these creations in stone set in stone? More than history, they are a validation of contemporary political expediency.

The Indian Finance Minister has allocated Rs. 2 billion for a statue of Sardar Patel, independent India’s first Home Minister and a prominent leader during the freedom movement. Public anger is over the disparity in setting aside half the amount for 29 other schemes, including a national war memorial.


The problem is deeper than expecting political correctness. Governments always invest in symbolism. The ruling BJP is ostensibly attempting to correct earlier oversight where Mahatma Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family reigned over memorial space. But this is also vendetta, for while Patel was from the Indian National Congress and critiqued the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he was also perceived as divisive. The tribute’s emphasis on his unification of the country highlights the divisiveness of the Partition.

The ruling BJP has no history of ‘governance’ during the freedom struggle. A political party that suffers from amnesia about more recent events has decided to build the highest statue in the world; at 182 metres it will be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Contemporary public space is tantalising and democratic. Anthony Weiner, the sexting mayor, got temporarily immortalised on The New Yorker cover with the head of the Empire State Building sticking out of his crotch as he snaps it. One might wonder whether the public monument or the public politician was the target.


Defacement of statues is a fairly common practice. When a rally to protest against the killings in Assam and of Rohingyas in Myanmar at Azad Maidan turned into rioting, two young men were captured hitting out at the memorial of fighters of the first struggle for independence. A desolate monument became a matter of national shame, and inevitably ended up as a question mark on patriotism of the community the two individuals represented.

The right to dissent, group apathy – both of the police and the protestors – were forgotten to resurrect the desecrated. The group burned vehicles too, but living objects are not invested with a future because they do not appear to have a past.

Over-writing history

Apart from the glossing over of facts, there is often an exertion on their behalf. The thought behind the stenciling of 9000 bodies on Normandy beach appears to be a fitting tribute to the nameless: “The idea is to create a visual representation of what is otherwise unimaginable – the thousands of human lives lost during the hours of the tide during the WWII Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. The silhouettes of those individuals will be drawn on the beach at the rate at which they fell only to be totally erased by the incoming tide as their own lives were.”

The realism in this case simply denudes the deaths of dignity. If at all there is any catharsis, then it is for the war veterans who come with stenciled memories. The tides point to evanescence not only of lives lost, but of remembrance as well. This is not the case with the Berlin Wall where graffiti and souvenirs of broken pieces symbolise the ossified together with the metamorphosis.

Chronicling of history is often voyeuristic as evident from the 9/11 Museum and Memorial at Hangar 17 at JFK International Airport. A report said: “But it’s the smallest artifacts that are most poignant, each one a reminder of a life cut short. Identity cards, mangled keys, a woman’s bloodstained shoes, a fire fighter's crushed helmet, an executive's singed credit card, wristwatches and mobile phones have been painstakingly logged by curators. The owners will never come to claim them.”

This is dehumanising. Credit cards, shoes, watches do not have a stamp of identity. Mangled vehicles are not specific to ownership. Museums of calamitous events too are a thought projectile of a certain period that serve as a reminder of bestiality rather than loss.

There are mass killings taking place in many parts of the world. There are never any curators for large-scale calamities and natural disasters. Buried beneath the debris are relics epitomised as unmarked graves. They are history in motion.

At the other end of the spectrum are industries that qualify as memorials to the changing times. The promise of fumes to keep home fires burning on cold floors is the politician’s gateway to delusionary development. In this scheme, progress is predatory.

Authenticity vs. imagination

Most icons are sculpted in a pose. However representative it may be of their personality, the freezing not only imprisons them but also becomes a caricature. In places like India, it transforms into slapstick when politicians get atop cranes to garland these statues. The pedestal is slippery irrespective of what the stone monuments symbolise.

They are immortalised in the stasis of a pointing figure, a walking stick, or a sword. Instead of being the sum of their parts, they become those parts. Maratha hero Shivaji would be nowhere without his horse.

Mythic figures are freer to explore and display with temerity. This does not go unnoticed, as it is quite common to see cigarette stubs in vaginal orifices of temple statues. In a surprising move, Silvio Berlusconi decided that Venus needed to get an arm and Mars had to get a penis fixed. The 175 AD statues were sought to be made ‘real’ completely erasing the erasure.


During Queen Victoria’s visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Michelangelo’s David was given a decorous fig leaf. Madame Tussaud’s often faces the demand for the removal of what some perceive as a controversial waxwork not because it is inaccurate, but probably because it is. On a visit a few years ago, I found the area where Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro stood rather empty at a crowded time. Even at the altar of kitsch they were peremptory. The dissonance lay in the eyes of the observers who wanted them displaced when they could be melted.

The engagement with mute symbols would suggest that statues are people in perpetual rigor mortis.


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© Farzana Versey


17.7.14

Gaza: An unequal battle


Four boys went to the beach to play. Sons of a fisherman. Israeli aerial strikes killed them. One of the boys was wearing a jersey with German footballer Mesut Ozil’s name. The player has donated his earnings for Gaza. Also, this:

Ozil caused controversy after he declined to shake hands with a FIFA official because of his support for Israel.

There is no pussyfooting here, which is as it should be.

The Israeli army is smart, so can it not recognise who or what it is targeting? The New York Times photographer who was there had this to say:

"A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants, the Israel Defense Forces’ intended targets. Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters, either."

I have deliberately chosen to quote from the NYT because it is big on pussyfooting, so this should make even more sense to those who want to see the genocide as a quid pro quo when it is an unequal battle. Two-thirds of the victims are women and children.

Another child asked preacher Dr. Mohammad al-Arefe:

"I am Mohammad from Gaza and I am 11 years old. I was hoping to ask you a question, Shaykh: does the dirt and rocks that enter my mouth as a result of the missiles break my fast?"

Meanwhile, some Israelis were posting ‘Bomb Shelter Selfies’.


Let the figures speak for themselves:


15.7.14

Is nationalism about not meeting Hafiz Saeed?




They are demanding his arrest and want his passport impounded. The very people who Ved Pratap Vaidik is accused of being close to or would be his natural allies are distancing themselves from him — the RSS, the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

When the noise dies down, perhaps we can try and examine the questions a meeting with a terrorist raises.

Vaidik is said to be a member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in turn always has a say in issues pertaining to the BJP and therefore in matters of the state.

Vaidik was in Pakistan and met the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed, who is also named as the mastermind in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The United States of America had declared a bounty of $10 million on him. He is among the most wanted men. India has been sending dossiers on the 26/11 attacks to Pakistan and Pakistan has been sending its own files.

Was Vaidik working for the Indian government or, as Rahul Gandhi said, "The question is whether the Indian embassy in Pakistan facilitated this event...whether they helped...in anyway."

The equally important question is: Why did the Pakistani establishment that is so guarded about Saeed's access to the Indian authorities permit such a meeting? Indo-Pak relations are so fragile and rife with suspicion that those traveling across borders are inevitably tracked.

Is the BJP, desperate to create a good impression without compromising on its public pugnacity, using Vaidik? The Congress Party's Shashi Tharoor wants to know, "Was he an envoy of the government? Was he doing some back channel diplomacy?"

The man himself says he is nobody's envoy, yet he told Saeed, "Modi should not be feared, he is a good man..." There were other peacenik gestures, peppered with his political philosophy: "I have met enemies of the country in the past...my experience says resolution of conflict is possible not through the gun but talks."

Would a journalist do this? The simple answer is, yes. If you get to meet a wanted man who is often quoted as a reason for the problems with detente — assuming that November 2008 is our cut-off date — then an interviewer might use a soft option to set the tone, to create the right atmosphere. It is surprising that senior media persons are talking about why he did not ask Saeed for his voice sample and details about his role in the attacks.

India has decided that, like Kashmir, it will make 26/11 into its victimhood USP and use the bluster to bolster aggressive patriotism. We seem to have forgotten about how many people have been killed in the country during riots.

All the terrorists on the ground that day were killed by the commandos, except Ajmal Kasab who remained in prison and was later executed. Pakistan did not claim his body. This is essential to understand the basis of India's demand for Saeed and Pakistan's reluctance to adhere to it. The idea of a mastermind is to stay away from the heat. How many generals are killed in wars? How many politicians accept their sins of omission, if not commission? Even Osama bin Laden was not directly responsible for any of the blasts. In fact, he was probably not an active participant in strategising. His role, as evident from the videos, was to keep the war alive against those he perceived as enemies.

Hafiz Saeed has a cloak of a pseudo social organisation and continues to make public appearances in Pakistan and, like some of our own stalwarts who do not actively belong to any political party, seems to have a say in the country's affairs. Yet, India has been demanding his voice sample, when his voice is available at the click of a button.

Vaidik has claimed he went as a journalist. Forget the denials; that would be part of the plan. He has made it into a casual impromptu assignment where a Pakistani counterpart asked if he'd like to meet Hafiz Saeed, and he agreed. Any journalist would. But given the cases against him, did Vaidik not pause to wonder about the implications? The Indian media has concentrated on the predictable nationalism line, which is completely off-track and disturbing. The job of a journalist is not to toe establishment thinking, but to probe for facts.

For a moment let us set aside the Vaidik drama and ponder over how the line of questioning could go against other investigative reporting. Should criminals not be interviewed? Have journalists who spoke with Dawood Ibrahim, another wanted man, been arrested or questioned? Journalists in war zones meet rebel leaders, they even disguise themselves to get a scoop. The western media has many stories filed where Osama and other members of Al Qaeda were interviewed. In India, there was the famous case of R.Gopal, editor of Nakeeran, and his exclusive access to sandalwood smuggler and dreaded dacoit Veerappan. For years, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments could not locate him, but Gopal did through an emissary. He even tried to get the criminal to surrender and negotiate with the government.

Vaidik has been part of a Track II initiative, the Regional Peace Institute, that includes Congress leaders Salman Khursheed and Mani Shankar Aiyer, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Mehmood Kasuri.

If chest-thumping nationalism means seeing Pakistan as the opponent, then why do we indulge in diplomatic manoeuvres at all? The 'peace-keeping forces' return with nothing but tales of goodwill. Assuming Vaidik is indulging in such manipulated intercession, we learn that Saeed wants to visit Delhi and Mumbai, and are assured there would be no protests were Modi to visit Pakistan.

These bon mots might sound obsequious, but that is the takeaway from all diplomatic endeavours. What we now have are black and white arguments. Hafiz Saeed latched on to the controversy and tweeted, "Row in Indian parliament over a journalists meeting with us shows the extremism, narrow mindedness of their politicians. Utterly Shameful."

This is what misguided hype does. It boomerangs. Besides the queries regarding journalistic independence as well as the hypocritical stance of political parties, beating on 'envoys' who meet terrorists is like using a straw sword. Hating Hafiz is a non sequiter; he is probably Pakistan's human shield.

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© Farzana Versey