Sunday ka Funda

You go out for a meal and take a picture and post it. What are you really telling the world? You drive and capture the streets, the clouds, sunsets. Are any of these new to those who see them? You meet friends and one of the most important takeaways from this "wonderful evening" is to pose for a selfie, after taking picture of tea and snacks and of the interesting tree in the compound.

I can't say all of this is a recent phenomenon. I have done much of this, although I believe that taking a photograph of a meal you share with somebody is an intrusion into their space as much as yours. The same is true of wanting to capture any and every meeting.

This is not a judgment, for I am aware that I'd be guilty at some point in time of all of these. It points out to the utter isolation, so much so that even real interactions seem legitimate only when they are virtualised.

Like this very normal view of the balcony and from it. It is a wry comment on what we have become, the bareness of the room only highlighting disengagement with reality:


Should Modi Quit?

There are titters today when Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he would quit, if... Indeed, it could well be another drama queen moment, or even a well-orchestrated gimmick to take the heat off him.

He was reacting to hate-filled comments from his MPs and the Hindutva organisations that claim allegiance with the BJP by throwing up his hands:

"Modi, who held a meeting with the RSS leaders to express his disappointment, also said that he does not have greed to remain in the post if the image of the government is hampered by the leaders who keep making controversial remarks," a report in the Marathi newspaper Maharashtra Times said. The RSS, thereafter, gave a green signal to the government to take action against leaders who indulge in making controversial statements, it said.

Narendra Modi might not quit, but if he has said so and held it as a stick over the heads of his own party and its affiliates, then the rot is deeper. To brush it under the carpet with one-liners serves little purpose and in fact works in favour of the playacting.

There are a few things distressing about the report:

• The PM still consults the RSS about his government and his own role
• He appears helpless, and has no qualms about showing it
• The RSS gives the green signal for taking action.

This is "Modi Sarkar", and not Bharat Sarkar, according to most of the cadre. Are we foolish to believe then that he has no control over what the people he has placed in positions of power are saying?

The BJP-RSS combine has long practised such diversionary tactics, and it is understood that once a swayam sevak always one. However, having tasted power in the past few months and hobnobbed with world leaders he has probably become aware that hollow promises too need a level of statesmanship to appear less fake.

A while ago while addressing the MPs, he said:

"Please stop being my spokespersons because I don't need one. I am just a worker and speak for myself. Else, there is process which is laid down for the purpose and which everybody ought to follow."

If he really has no control, then he has no moral ground to continue in office. You take responsibility for your flock or act decisively against them. He has done neither.

Effectively, Modi's role has whittled down to being a benevolent dictator, the benevolence often arising from not doing or saying anything or by being propped up as the 'moderate' front as the RSS goes about its task of bulldozing. In the skirmish, partly out of design, Modi as public gainer is losing space. He is trapped in the conditionality of his situation. One is not suggesting that he is innocent; it is just that the demon he thought would protect him is hogging his position.

It helped him initially, but now he has been reduced to pushing the party like any ordinary worker. I am afraid, but he is more cheerleader than leader. The tired repetition of "development" on a loop is like a chant he intones more to himself than as a note of intent. Does it really bother him that the roadblock to developing anything are his own party members?

What has prevented him from sacking them? The RSS? Will he have the courage to jettison any such interference? He has been granted the licence, it would seem, to tweet to world leaders, address them by first name, and hold big glitzy and kitschy rallies in the United States and Australia. It looks increasingly clear that this is a deliberate strategy to keep him away from local pressing issues, and use him only for campaigning.

It does not help that he is willing to quote from a Nita Ambani speech at a function where he is the chief guest. It is not about standing on ceremony and political correctness. Such incidents convey that he is amenable.

That is the reason it is not difficult to imagine him in other roles were he to quit:

He could be a consultant to the Ambanis and Adanis
He could go on lecture tours
He could head a management institute
He could become a designer
He could write a script for a Bollywood film
He could bring out a dictionary of acronyms
He could train RSS pracharaks on how to keep up with the times
He could return to Gujarat as chief minister, something that still drives him.

The point is that the post of PM and he have not meshed. And if it is his MPs and the RSS that are the cause of it, then either he makes it clear to them by word and action that this is not what he will tolerate or he joins them. India does not need two centres of power, with one of them not even a political party.


This is what I wrote after he was sworn in as PM: Modi as Hindutva's Marionette


Vengeance against children? The Taliban in Peshawar

They were kids outside a school, running through the muddy roads. We walked for a bit and from a store one of the boys took out a candy and offered it to me. Then we took out lots of candies and shared them with other kids. There was much laughter and gaiety. I had written then that I was afraid of what might happen to them. Or what they might become.

Today, those kids in Peshawar are in my thoughts again. Because, six Taliban terrorists, murderers, barbarians, suicide bombers, soulless, gutless beasts, entered a school in Peshawar and shot dead kids like the ones I had met. The last reports mention 160 killed, 132 of them children. The reason: Revenge. They wanted revenge for their children being killed. Even if one tries hard to look at such twisted thinking, did the parents of these kids kill them? What does such vengeance achieve? Do the children know they are being used?

Would that infant nestled in the crook of my arm at a home in that city have grown up and attended that school? I wince. I avert my eyes as I look at frightened faces. But I know these faces will become 'adjectivised' and 'symbolised' and, in the process, dehumanised.

Children, teachers, parents don't know what happened. Or why. They will not have ready answers. How can they? So, why should they be asked, probed, prodded? How is a mother or father to tell you how they feel about their dead kid? How is a child, injured and bleeding, to explain how the gun was aimed at the students who were shot straight in the head? And when they tell you about the teacher set on fire, what do you tell them? How will such details add to the information when the TTP has already claimed responsibility for the attack?

I won't hold on to the sentimentalism for long here, for I've seen a lot of public sentiment ultimately become predatory. Social concern has been reduced to scoring points — by almost everybody.

Even at this time, some Pakistanis are more agitated about calling out Taliban apologists than pushing for action against terrorism. The anger is understandable, except that not many of them would step out or know the terrain they hold forth on. Pakistanis do not visit Peshawar or the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkwa as a normal thing to do. It is the alien and alienated land.

The Taliban grew in these parts and drew blood here, too. It was only when they began to make inroads into the metro hubs that the government woke up. People woke up.

And then they shot at a girl.

This attack on the school has also led to the predictable let's-hang-on-to-our-icons reactions. People are talking about how Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize and then this had to happen. It is so jejune; this is all they could think about. Had they forgotten that she too was shot at before she brought them the Nobel, their prized possession?

One expects some modicum of respect, if not sympathy, for the grief-stricken.

How are rightwing Indians responding? Does brutality of this kind deserve to be torn into by ideological scavengers? Everything from the Partition being right to how this was just desserts for Pakistani atrocities during the Bangladesh War (today India celebrates Vijay Diwas for our role in 'liberating' that country), to how the Taliban are yapping at India's doorstep to how this is a result of Pakistani army and government fighting in India to "Why are Muslims like that?", all of these are being pecked at.

They make fun of the #illridewithyou initiative (after yesterday's Sydney hostage crisis where locals offered to travel with Muslims who might fear a backlash). They ask, "What, no 'I'll ride with you' in Peshawar?"

Portions from the Quran are quoted. Yes, minutes after feeling sorry for the children this is all that they can think about. Just suppose that quote is there, did the Taliban or any terrorist specifically mention it as the inspiration? If there are passages against non-believers, can't these people see who was killed? Muslims, not 'kafirs'.

Children inherit faith. They also trust everything. To be betrayed.

Do not call them shaheeds, martyrs, you unthinking ones. They did not die for any cause, and it is disgusting that you imagine that cause is civil society - you. They did not want to die. Some hid and played dead so that they could live. They were betrayed. You are betraying them again.


All the terrorists have been shot dead; one blew himself up.


Sunday ka Funda

Much as I detest crass ambitiousness – whether it be in the professional sphere, or the one-upmanship of social interactions, not to speak about the more damaging one of close personal relationships – I find some kinds of politically correct and syrupy assertions to the contrary examples of stepping on toes. They convey that by not doing so, someone will benefit from the munificence. It gives them a higher place to function from.

When this becomes cultural, it results in supremacist ideology. A slightly different view is expressed thus:

“Politeness is organized indifference.”
― Paul Valéry

The idea behind much indifference is also supremacist – it can afford to ignore others by faking concern or shielding real intent. 


How do we define Godse's nationalism?

Should we really have a problem if somebody considers Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, a nationalist? I am not as surprised by BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj praising him as by his subsequent apology under pressure.

Amid reports of a controversial ceremony organised by theright-wing groups in Maharashtra on Thursday to honour Mahatma Gandhi's killer,Nathuram Godse, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj said, "Godse was a nationalist.Gandhiji also did a lot for the nation." As a row emerged, the BJP leaderquickly backtracked. "If I said something by mistake I take it back. Idon't consider Nathuram Godse a patriot," Maharaj said.

What is the objection to? By making the MP do a volte face,will it alter the way the Hindutva groups think? Besides, if we are given tosaying things like “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, thenshould not the same principle apply to Godse? This would not have been thefirst time he was celebrated. Every year the Godse fan club holds a memorialservice. The rightwing mouthing Gandhian homilies is just that. They are merelyappeasing what most Indians deify.

And just how are we to define nationalism? Is a critique ofthe system anti-national? However reprehensible it was, for Godse killing theMahatma was an ideological act as well a nationalistic one because he believedthe nation had to be rid of those appeasing the Muslims. We are now governed bya party and its acolyte groups that believe as much. By getting a SakshiMaharaj to apologise we only put one messenger on the mat, not the message.

Godse chose a Hindu target, instead of killing Muslims. Why? This from my earlier piece:

“Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well andbowed to him in reverence,” he said. He did not go on a rampage against a group(an earlier attempt of his to kill Gandhi was unsuccessful because he wasafraid that the bystanders would get hurt) for that would have not made him aloyal soldier, a man who would do or die.
His brother, Gopal, said in an interview: “Gandhi used toclaim the Partition would be over his dead body. So after Partition when hedidn’t die, we killed him.” It was as simple as that.
A little less than two years after he had killed the Fatherof the Nation, Nathuram was sentenced to death by hanging. Before the noosewent round his neck, he spent five hours justifying his act. It was not to getclemency, but to declare that he was not a lowly gun-happy cad. His was not arevolution of the moment. In fact, it had the same fervor as the Gandhianethos. By killing one man, his legacy proves that his 90-page testimony wasrevealing the spirit and the undercurrents running through the public mind thatcould not be articulated.
It can be safely assumed that Godse was possessed of adesire to further a cause. The cause has had a cumulative effect. Just watchhow the RSS and its acolytes operate and see how they are likeunderworld/terrorist outfits.
Godse was irreligious, but communal. He rodeon the back of cultural regression, impersonating a renaissance to posthumouslybecome a figure in national politics. He may make us uncomfortable, but it wasthe bullet he fired soon after Independence that set in motion a legion ofexperiments with different kinds of truth.

The lesson the rightwing should learn from the Sakshi Maharaj and related episodes is that nationalism is a nuanced word and idea. If they are free to define it to suit their thought process, then so would the others, even if they might not deem Hindutvawadis to be nationalists in a liberal sense.


An Uber Rape?

On the night of Friday, December 5, a young executive called for a cab from Uber, the international company's Delhi branch, via its mobile app. Such services are convenient and make it easier for women to go out and travel alone.

As per reports, she left office for dinner and then a pub, where she had a couple of drinks. Once inside the cab, she is said to have dozed off. The driver Shiv Kumar Yadav drove her to a secluded area, beat her and then raped her.

He has been arrested; Uber has been prevented from operating in Delhi. And this has taken up much space. Why ban Uber, they ask? And they could well be asking, why ban the uber? In its very first report, Times of India referred to the woman's foreign education. Others are talking about her MNC job.

If you notice, there is an absence of ground activists in this rape case debate. Since the crime was committed by an Uber cabbie on a passenger, it is assumed the discussions ought to be exclusive. Society high flyers are on panel discussions because the media is catering to the advertisers.

While they outrage, they also act as a buffer for the company. Banning a cab service may not be the answer, but why expend so much primetime emotion over it? Are they spokespersons of Uber? Would they stand up for the local black-yellow cabs were they to be banned?

This poshness has resulted in an overemphasis on unsafe cities. Do note that, again, the suggestion is that such crimes only affect cities, and not small towns, villages and tribal areas. This cocoon of making cities safe tends to ignore the rest of India.

It is not surprising, therefore, that they use the Nirbhaya case as the yardstick. Nothing before that registers, or exists. This is the city that only cares about itself. The news show used the tag #DelhiShamedAgain. It ends up dehumanising the personal assault on the woman as well as men who are not rapists. This is of particular importance because it gives the residents another reason to decry immigration. The Bihari-UP migrants are blamed for shaming Delhi.

It also serves to take away the onus from the city to protect itself and creates the image of a helpless place being devoured by outsiders. There is the caste and the class divide, and then the rural/town and metro divide.

Strangely, it is the city person who raises morality questions: Why was she out alone at night? Why did she drink? Why did she take a cab? Why did she doze off? All these queries lead to the conclusion that a woman who does all of these or some is likely to be raped. Men who otherwise like to decide on how women should behave now empower them with the decision not to drink or go alone anywhere.

Social space is getting crowded. Women are part of the same crowd as men. This creates insecurity. Men are territorial about such space and according to them the gendered space will have to afford them an advantage.

It does not work like that anymore. I do not want to sound too cynical, but when men start protesting for women's rights it is also part of the dynamics of colonising.

The political establishment has mastered this, and masculinised it. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) protestors landed up outside the Home Minister's house. Uber had brought them there. Does anybody recall them ever raising the issue of the rape of political prisoners, including of their member Soni Sori when she was in Dantewada prison? BJP members are patting their backs on the early arrest of the rapist, as though delays are normal procedure. They are also pointing out that theirs is a new government and all the licences are from the old dispensation. What is worrying is that all this urgency is because Delhi is going to the polls. They don't want to suffer the way the Congress did for the 2012 incident. At the time the Congress was forced to act, too.

However, it is not only politicians who are political opportunists. There are kangaroo courts repeating again about castration and capital punishment for the rapist. They do not have any answers for what happens after that.

Yadav threatened the woman with a December 16 like assault. What lessons has anybody learnt? Did the protests, the media coverage, and government action make any difference to the way men have thought and acted in the many rape cases that have taken place in India, and not just the cities?

A day before this crime was committed, there was a report about an astrologer who predicted how women could be sexually abused according to their zodiac signs and offered remedies.

His predictions include age at which abuse would take place, location and by whom. He offered mantras for safety. This appeared in a newspaper; he has a show on TV. There was a Facebook page questioning him for encouraging superstition.

This is not only superstition. He is messing with women's lives as much as any criminal is. This sends out the message that women will be raped and abused. There is no room for a response from the women, except to recite some mantras.

Such charlatans and the media create paranoia instead of trying to alter the way people think and behave.


The cement man: A R Antulay

The perennial brat

A. R. Antulay reminded me of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace. He looked like the brat that popular tales about him in the media reported. His death only brings to the fore the realisation that in his last years his life was fairly invisible.

He was the first victim-villain of an exposé. Long before sting operations, there was Arun Shourie. In the 80s, he, backed by the owner of Indian Express, went all out to unravel what came to be known as the Cement Scandal. All constructions of that period, with peeling plasters and shaky banisters, are attributed to one man. Antulay was the kickbacks man. He gave out-of-turn permits for more cement to builders who then 'donated' to the Indira Gandhi Pratishthan he had set up. To even a casual observer, it would be evident that you cannot start a trust in the name of the prime minister and get away with it unless the PM knows about it.

Cemented ties: with Indira Gandhi

Ramnath Goenka detested Indira Gandhi. Unlike media owners today, he did have an ideological reason. Arun Shourie was to be his hitman. In a series, he built up his case. It became a sensational piece of journalism in the truest sense of exposing the chief minister. The courts pronounced him guilty for the extortion of Rs. 30 crore. It sounds like peanuts today, but was a huge amount then. He, a barrister from Lincoln's Inn, could not defend himself. He probably knew that his only defence was that he was a 'loyalist', a word that encompasses all the flaws of chamchagiri but also possesses a kernel of genuine loyalty.

In Maharshtra, as one from the Konkan region he knew the terrain. It was his territory. But he would only be remembered as the man who gave cement a bad name, and of course as the man Shourie vanquished.

But he was not quite done. A little after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, he was back in the news. Unfortunately, even as he spoke out those words — “I said a man like Karkare is born among millions... Who pushed him into the trap of death? Who sent him there to be killed by the Pakistanis?’’ — I had a queasy feeling that he would be used.

Suddenly, Muslim leaders came out of the woodwork; maulanas stood up for him. That is what bothered me. To question something ought to be a part of democracy and civil society. Antulay had never been a Muslim leader. So, for him to be anointed the “Muslim messiah”, even though he had mentioned Pakistan terrorists, was reducing the argument to the lowest common denominator which we as a society are so good at doing.

Why did he speak out? “Nobody spoke. But I did. I said so because it has been found that a number of things are pushed under the carpet in the name of a state subject. A federal agency is being made... I said it at an opportune moment as a reminder of duty.’’

Many people want to know about Hemant Karkare. Many people were interested that the probe into the Malegaon blasts must not stop. Some wondered about bad timing. If anything, that was the only time to talk.

Antulay was planning to resign. He said so: “I am a self-respecting person... forget the resignation. That is a very simple thing. I had resigned from chief ministership of Maharashtra...when 100% of Congress MLAs were with me.’’ Asked about clarifications, he said, “A clarification is sought when something is hidden.”

I thought then, that whatever be his agenda if any, he should at least stick by his decision. He copped out, instead, with the take-home package of "too err is human" from the UPA-1 PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh for his rebellion. Antulay forgot all about what was pushed under the carpet. He returned to that wonderful portfolio of Minority Affairs Minister, the totem to beat all totems,

Was he an extortionist or a contortionist? A victim or a villain? Or will Antulay now be just the grey of a RIP?


The Scarf at Saarc

Some might find it cool, the swagger and the scarf. But all these leaders at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu look like characters in a Bollywood film. They could be part of the rugged terrain, as dacoits. Or, village chiefs ready to extract their pound of flesh from the poor. Or, perhaps they are the rustic version of Men in Black or The Godfather. They could also be members of an extended family that has come together for a wedding, hiding the bad blood between them for public appearance.

Indeed, none of these South Asian leaders has a benign demeanour, at least in this photograph. It is, I suppose, an occupational hazard, but they do have to travel with baggage that is very heavy.


Capturing Kashmir: The Lotus and the Chinar

Published in CounterPunch, Nov 28-30

They lined up in the wintry chill, some still homeless after the floods, because hope lies in hoping. As one more predator swooped down on Jammu and Kashmir, democracy was declared after the first round of voting on November 25. The uber nationalists had spoken in the dictatorial tone they adopt to thrust their assembly-line idea of consensual politics.

Kashmir is a target to be achieved, no less than a Mission44 to bag enough seats to ensure that the ruling rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre captures the state. Anybody likely to get in the way has to be silenced. The polls were announced a month ago. Around 35 people per day have been detained since. According to a report in the Indian Express, many of them were scanned from their pictures at protest rallies and categorised as “stone pelters” and “trouble mongers”. The bigger threats have already been confined: “Among prominent Kashmiri leaders, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani are under undeclared house arrest. Shabir Shah is in prison. Yasin Malik has recently been moved from prison to hospital for the treatment of a kidney ailment.”

Dissent won’t be heard. This does not concern bespoke democrats. Mission 44 reveals the cussedness to hold a state hostage by using every trick, be it through the army’s planned errors, floods or religion.

Sympathy factor

Election month has resulted in fast-track justice to work its magic on the sympathy vote. If the government employs AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) that gives a carte blanche to the army to make a point, it can also dictate when the forces should perform public penance. In a state where encounter killings are common with unmarked graves and half widows standing testimony, what has prompted the sudden change in modus operandi? It is not as egalitarian as it looks.

On November 3 two teenagers, Faisal Yusuf Bhat and Mehrajuddin Dar, were shot dead in Budgam. 118 rounds were fired; 28 bullets were pumped into the boys. The operation was so shoddy that it seemed like the soldiers were parodying themselves. Headlines such as 'The Army accepts its mistake' imbued the forces with the magnanimity of accepting their fault.

Now, just three weeks later, the verdict is out. The army has “indicted” nine soldiers and recommended court martial proceedings for the “mistake”. The mistake in the words of Lt General D S Hooda of the Northern Army command was this:

“There was some information about a white car with terrorists. Obviously, the identity was mistaken in this case. We take responsibility for the death.”

Terrorism has become a good excuse, even if it means shooting the unarmed. This has been a pattern, which is why the parents of the young men rejected the compensation money of Rs 10 lakh offered by the army. Said Faisal’s father: “The blood of my 14 year old son is not so cheap that I could barter it. I reject this compensation. I will pay Rs 20 lakh to army in return if it hands over the killers to us.”

It is reminiscent of some locals rejecting the central government’s gestures during the September floods. A group throwing away food packets back into the waters that had rendered them homeless was about anger and self-respect, the latter a luxury when life is at stake, but the assertion of it remains a potent image of a people holding their own despite the helplessness.

Those reporting it, however, sought to convey that it amounted to ungratefulness. Nothing quite ‘otherises’ people like a formal transaction, a quid pro quo, especially when they have a right over the state machinery. “Aren’t you grateful to the army” became the slogan as those stranded for days without food or water and trapped on the roofs of houses wer epulled up into helicopters even as another army of Kashmiri volunteers reached the smaller villages in makeshift boats.

For those outside the state the army reputation acquired a halo. The soldiers were working under directions from the government. Their role was as political as it was humanitarian. Majid Pandit, a media person and photographer, astutely observed, “Militarization of Humanitarian Assistance: Vulnerability of this space in present times. This calls for a case study.”

Mainstream media infiltrated the state to communicate to the rest of India the picture of a land being rescued by the same soldiers who Kashmiris have thrown stones at. Additional Directorate General of Public Information tweeted from its official account, “Despite fighting the fury of floods in Kashmir, Indian Army carried an operation at Laribag, Kupwara eliminating one LeT terrorist.”

Even in the midst of such tragedy where 85 per cent of the populated areas were under water, the message sent out was that this is a terrorist region where assimilation is possible only by elimination.


In the Valley where the desire for azaadi might be deemed as separatism, the political establishment can use different strands of separatist compulsions. Sajjad Lone is just the sort of person they would go looking for —an ambitious man with a chip on his shoulder and nothing to lose (he lost in2009 and 2014). His whiter than the rest stand had made him into the black sheep of the separatist family. His calling card today is that of an ex-separatist. So when Narendra Modi with his ultra-nationalism approached him, he felt indebted: “The national party that dominated the political scene in Kashmir was the Congress, and they confined themselves to the Abdullahs and Muftis. Now there is another national party in power and its national leaders come to Kashmir and meet people like Sajjad Lone.”

This was done without any reference to the elections to suggest that there was no axe to grind. Lone turned into emotional jelly: “I cannot tell you how humble he is. He was talking as if I was the Prime Minister and not him.” He was baited not with anything real, but that titillating phrase, “wait for a little while and then see whether there is change or not”.

Personal history is being repeated. His father Abdul Ghani Lone was killed in 2002. The whitewash job had peddled him as the “lone moderate voice” even though he said that he had nothing to do with the Indian government. The PM from a blatantly Hindutva party was handing a posthumous certificate to a blatantly separatist leader who had once commented that his life was in danger “wherein many guns work at the same time”. Sajjad was to comment later:

“At the end of the day, the man who takes up the gun is responsible for his own actions. We can't criticise them because we are not risking our lives, but, as a Kashmiri, I feel politics should have a much bigger role in the current world scenario.”

Twelve years after the senior Lone was killed, the son is being ‘moderated’ to be fit enough for a saffron mainstream.

The sellout

The shrewd strategists manning the goalposts are not averse to playing along, ideology be damned. At a rally, Modi invoked “Allah Ta’ala”, giving full credit to the exalted god of Islam for the river Chenab. With his emphasis on “a Kashmiri is a Kashmiri” he debunked the role of religion in politics to the crowd, but the backroom boys were busy with meeting clerics. Ramesh Arora who is in charge of the BJP's Kashmir affairs wing said:

“This notion that BJP is a communal party is wrong. Kashmir is the land of Sufi saints and Islam will grow better during our regime.”

This is no different from the BJP position of bettering other faiths by claiming them to push the Hinduisation agenda. What comes across as a secular statement — “the religion of the chief minister is immaterial” —is really a means to keep options open and pave the way for a non-Muslim candidate.

However, it is not about catering to the Kashmiri Pandit population that is being used only for seats to be captured. Obfuscation prevails: “From Jammu and Kashmir we will find solution to the issue of the refugees. I want to tell those spreading lies that they should not mislead people.” Modi did not mention the Pandits by name. Worse, he spoke about the “problems of refugees that have been existing for 50 years”. For someone who is willing to sup with the separatists he has no sympathy for, political compulsions forced him to avoid mentioning 1989 as the year of Pandit ‘exodus’, when infiltration had peaked.

From the Pandit point of view, this is unpalatable. Unlike the Kashmiris still in the region who continue to suffer, they have always been comfortably ensconced in the capital political scene irrespective of the party in power. What they seek is a restoration of their identity and are not ready to be a watered down version in an all-purpose ‘Kashmiriyat’. The Panun Kashmir movement has its own separatist notions, yet the community’s aspirations are being sidelined to favour the Valley’s pro-independence groups. Ram Madhav of the BJP, a former top-rung RSS leader, saidof the separatists: “This is the time for them to work for development. They should fight both the corrupt NC and PDP.”

Such is the level of opportunism to grab space from the ruling National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party that even azaadi is being wooed to build the development cage. Also, there is no mention in the manifesto of Article 370 that grants the state special status.

Campaign manager Ramesh Arora observed:

“We have a clear stand on Article 370, which Modi and other leaders of the party have made specifically clear that we want debate and discussions on the issue. If people think it benefits them, then let it be but if they say it has not benefitted them, we will proceed accordingly.”

The foundation of the Kashmiri ethos is based on its separateness and specialness. For the people, benefit is not about a cost-effective analysis and it is unlikely that their views will be sought. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairperson of the Hurriyat Conference, had written an open letter to the ‘People of India’ just before the May general elections:

“We urge you to recognise that the Kashmir issue is not a peripheral or isolated one… (It) continues to destroy life and obliterate the rights and aspirations of our people in Kashmir who desire only to live free, peaceful and dignified lives. The continuation of this tragic conflict is also a direct threat to your interests and well-being as a people.”

This sounds like a more honest understanding of democracy than the gleam in the eye over Srinagar as a smart city. The ski resorts and tulip gardens are for others. Kashmiri pragmatism about these does not dilute their idealism that goes beyond the number of seats to grab.


The Taj Mahal's People

Politicians have always hankered after the Taj Mahal, and so it was not surprising that the man known more for his hate speeches than his politics now wants the Taj property to be handed over to the Waqf Board. Nobody will take this seriously, but the responses to Urban Development and Minority Affairs Minister of Uttar Pradesh Azam Khan reveal the desperate need for others to claim it too. It used to be a temple, they say. But, unlike the Babri Masjid, nobody will demolish it because it is a cash cow and the most recognisable monument of India and among those of the world.

The Imam of the Lucknow Eidgah said, “We should be allowed to offer prayers at the Taj Mahal five times a day. We have handed over a memorandum to the chief minister and he has taken it positively.”

Absolutely not. The Taj or any heritage sites suffer the worst due to human intervention. Also, there will be huge logistic and security problems. The one-off music festivals are a bad idea too, but at least they don’t happen everyday. (Here is an old piece on the auctioning of the Taj and other political ideas.)

I am not terribly enamoured of the Taj, but I do believe it makes for some great pictures (as well as some awful ones). The ones that use people are no less than a prayer:

We have all come across such moments and it would fall into the category of stereotype except that photographer Steve McCurry has saved it (obviously so designed) with cropping. The effect is amazing. Just the reflection and perspective can be upside-down, much as how the subject would view it. Meeting of man and monument.  

* * *

The next three photographs are all by Raghu Rai, who creates interesting images. He also stages them. 

Above is an extension of the urban folklore – an everyday scene in the forefront instead of the tourist brochure. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the Taj does not stand out in brilliance against the seemingly ordinary but appears to become part of the tale.

                  * * *

This one looks old Hindi cinema, probably of the 50’s and 60’s. It is obviously staged. I might even call it exploitative, and not for its physicality. The woman’s expression does not belie any torment or ecstasy. She is as stoic as the monument. The pot she carries has no meaning except cosmetic. It is a striking picture because it conveys the human as stone. (She could be a replication of a statue.)

* * *

Superb. There are two ways to read this. Viewed from the crowded cityscape perspective, the Taj is not all that big…it appears here as though an army of protestors is marching towards the palace. Or it could be seen as the shining white light in the area of darkness, the diva sometimes, and the knight sometimes. Finally, it is the reality of the poet... 

“taj ik zinda tasavvur hai kisi shaayar ka
iska afsana haqeeqat ke siva kuchh bhi nahi
iske aaghosh mein aakar ye gumaan hota hai
zindagi jaise muhabbat ke siva kuchh bhi nahi”


Rampal, Ramdev and Political Complicity

He is a criminal. And a godman. He operates from a fortress that he calls an ashram. And his followers are armed. This man should have been arrested long ago. But in India godmen, even the charlatans, not only survive but thrive.

The often-exaggerated reporting on television was this time quite accurate, at least in the scenes they showed us. It did look like a war zone. Sant Rampal began to call himself a saint inspired by Sant Kabir and as happens often managed to attract a crowd of people to believe in him.

There are no checks on such people, and even their crimes are not treated with seriousness. He has been charged with the murder of a villager by one of his devotees, and he has avoided attending court after 40 summons. He is still free. What powers does he possess that no police force, no intelligence agency, no government can find him and put him behind bars?

On Tuesday, cops surrounded the Satlok Ashram, but could do little. Because this despicable 'godman' has transformed his followers into an armed militia. They threw acid and petrol bombs at the police. Worse, they used human shields, including women and children. Bodies were found; seven of his followers are dead, cause not yet ascertained. Rampal is safe.

Some devotees who came out said they had been forced to stay inside; others, almost 2000, put up a brave front and protested on behalf of their guru even as the cops used batons and water cannons.

In all this, the police started beating up the journalists. At some point the news story altered a bit and the focus was on the media being attacked. Nobody knows why this happened. Were there some higher orders to divert attention?

As it turns out, it was the local people of Haryana who forced the authorities to stop water and power to the ashram. But knowing how powerful the ashram is, they would be well-equipped or provisions could be arranged. It is a well laid out high security den that has its secret entrances and exits.

After the violence, fresh charges have been filed by the Haryana Police:

The case has been filed under Sections 121 (waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India), 121A (conspiring to commit certain offences against the state) and 122 (Collecting arms etc. With the intention of waging war against the Govt of India).

Besides, the cases have also been slapped against the accused under Sections 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war) and other charges that include attempt to murder, assault and under various Sections of the Arms Act, police said.

This looks good on paper. But, how did the devotees get an audience with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and also the President of India?

Rampal supporters demanded a CBI probe into allegations of his role in a murder conspiracy. A team of five of his supporters also met President Pranab Mukherjee and submitted a memo seeking a CBI probe. The Union home ministry has so far decided not to intervene, but is closely monitoring events.

Do victims of violence during riots have such access to political leaders?

All this is extremely dangerous because people like Rampal set up a second-rung establishment. 'Baba's Commandos' take direct inspiration from the RSS; they are called the Rashtriya Samaj Sewa Samiti (RSSS). This is how planned it is:

RSSS functions like an army battalion, which is divided into several companies and platoons. Each company and platoon is headed by trained commanders. These days, they assemble every morning and evening to be briefed about their routine for the entire day. Armed with pistols, RSSS's quick reaction team patrol the ashram round the clock. Its intelligence wing is closely monitoring the movement of police in adjoining Barwala and Hisar towns and instantly provides information to their headquarter in the ashram.

There are some 4000 young people in this army that guards the 12-acre property. Do they have a licence for those guns? It is surprising that there has been no big exposé on this.

We have become accustomed to soft power centres that do well because the political power centre might benefit in some manner. Think of Chandraswami, Asaram Bapu, Swami Nityanand, not to speak of the politically active Adityanaths. Ashrams are often dens of money stashing and vice. These are social crimes that feed off the public. Why are they protected?

Just as the Rampal tense situation continues, we are left to ponder over why the new government has decided to provide Z-category security to that other charlatan, Baba Ramdev. 40 CRPF personnel will provide him cover wherever he goes.

Who has threatened him? Have there been any checks? If Z-security is all about vanity, then why is Ramdev, a yogi, granted such vanity even as he must not seek it too? This man has a cure for everything, from AIDS and cancer to homosexuality. What is he vulnerable to?

He is a friend of the BJP who is allowed to often speak on behalf of the government. Nobody in the government questions him or his motives.

We saw him in action during the street protests and his escape wearing a salwaar-kameez. He had audaciously claimed when he was externed after his tamasha at the Ramilla Grounds (the pavilion air-conditioned for his common man comfort): “Today is the blackest day in history. We will observe black day all over India. The fast is not over."

He could see his history as India's history because he has the backing of leaders who believe in a convoluted history. Unfortunately, where such 'spiritual' leaders are concerned, all political parties either fall for their claims or use those claims to cover up their own. Nobody is serious about putting an end to their antics. (Read The Republic of Ramdev and the comments.)

It isn't as simple as bad godmen. It is about bolstered-by-politicians godmen.

With the threat these Babas pose to us, all Indians should get Z-security as protection against them.


[Update: News comes in that Rampal has been arrested. BJP spokespersons are using this as evidence of how they've been quick to end the reign of a "Congress baba". There will be political oneupmanship, and once again this diversion will take away from the blatant abuse of illegal power.]


The Problem with Political Tags: A Rejoinder to Pervez Hoodbhoy

Trapped between Arundhati Roy and Malala, I squirm at the labels.  

How does believing that icons are vulnerable to capitalistic co-opting make me or anybody a communist? The purpose of this piece is, therefore, not so much about Malala Yousafzai as about how she and other issues serve to pigeonhole people. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a respected academic and liberal commentator. He recently wrote an article titled, "Why does Malala Yusufzai’s Nobel bother so many on the Left?"

While quoting from my 2013 piece, he refers to me as a "left-wing author and activist". When did this happen? I do not have a problem aligning with left-wing thought, but I cannot claim to be left-wing simply because I have had no real engagement with the Left politically or in any tangible manner. Also, the word activist should be used judiciously. Indeed, I worked with two NGOs, and many of my earlier feature pieces could be deemed activist in nature. But, again, ethically one does not deserve these appellations.

Labelling is not unlike name-calling, especially if it is aimed at specific individuals. Apportioning tags to groups is less irksome because the name represents an idea that is manifested in the group in some manner. I am guilty of referring to supporters of the rightwing as "Sanghis", and my explanation is that by default they adhere to the RSS philosophy. If one were revolted by it, one would not imbibe the wine in new bottle, so to speak.

Digression aside, I have interacted with Hoodbhoy several times, and met him in Islamabad. He features rather prominently in my book in the section on rebels, including Ahmed Faraz and Ardheshir Cowasjee. His being in it is as normal as my featuring him there. If it reveals his liberalism, then why should it not reveal mine?

He says I "lashed out" at Malala for not realising that she was a victim of child labour even as she spoke about it. I am surprised at such hyperbolic expression from him that reduces my detailed analysis, whether you agree or disagree, to an outburst. His anger against my "leftist" views comes out thus:

"But hang on a bit! This “kid” and “cocooned marionette” did not achieve world-wide admiration for opposing US-led wars or child labour or for a thousand and one other such good-and-great things. The bullet that smashed through her skull came because she opposed the Pakistani Taliban’s edict that all education for girls must end forever in the Swat valley after 15 September 2009, and her vigorous campaign for every girl child’s right to education."

If child labour was of no consequence, why did he point out my "lashing out" at her for it? There were schools in Swat; there are schools in Swat. Why does it always have to be a bullet that awakens Pakistanis?

The dismissal of opposition to the US-led war as among the "thousand and one other such good-and-great things" is disappointing. The worst form of terrorism that common people face has been after US intervention. It does not mean there was no terrorism before, but it was confined to marked areas; it did not spill out into the urban streets as it has in its present form. Hoodbhoy knows all this and more. Has he forgotten? Not quite.

He starts by mentioning Arundhati Roy, and her rather tame and obfuscating quote on Malala after the Nobel. Why anybody would interview her on this subject beats me. Having hemmed and hawed, she manages a few things. Hoodbhoy says, "For one who has championed people's causes everywhere so wonderfully well, these shallow, patronizing remarks were disappointing."

Only disappointing.

It is rather uncomfortable for me to share the page with Roy, even if it is on the subject of Malala. This is the problem with labelling. We end up with people we may not want to have any truck with who enjoy the perks of basking in titular titles.  The supra Maoists, supra Ambedkarites, supra Islamists, supra Media who use all these labels to their advantage knowing well that these labels will not stick. There is a pecking order even in labels.

Public conscience seems to belong to those who gatecrash into causes and do with them what the urban intelligentsia does with Malala — ride on it, but ensuring that they are not left to hold the baby. Their left-leaning is to get a nod from the imperialist sub-sect that looks after the intellectual 'exile'. They come late to the party, and reiterate what has already been said. That is typical capitalist behaviour of doing a recce before investing.

Then, there are the neat halves as exemplified in Hoodbhoy’s quotes that need to be rebutted:

"Unsurprisingly leftist critiques of Malala’s Nobel have been eagerly seized upon by right-wingers ... In the weeks after she was shot, several students at my university told me they see Malala Yousafzai as Malala ‘Dramazai’, an ‘Illuminati Psy Op’, and a willing tool of the West who is out to badmouth Pakistan..."

If it is wrong to blame the holy scripts for fundamentalist inspiration, then why is it so easy to apportion blame on the Left? If the Talibs are not reading the Quran before hitting their next target, then why would they be reading Marx or Chomsky? The few non-standard views I have read have not called her names or doubted that she was shot at. However, it is not really about whether "the West is out to badmouth Pakistan" but the West choosing heroes convenient to it.

If right-wingers in Pakistan are reading Leftist works, then what are right-wingers in India doing that they seize upon the liberals in Pakistan to justify their stand? The moment a Tarek Fatah (Canadian Pakistani writer and "liberal activist") posts a link to the Hoodbhoy piece, Hindutva proponents find an opportunity to gloat. Their other hero is Taslima Nasreen who has absolutely no compunction about being hosted by the right-wing in India and keeping pretty much silent on the atrocities committed by them in the country she chooses to live in, and live off.


The discovery of Nehru

On Nehru's birth anniversary, the idea is not to take away from the majesty of the individual, but to bring into focus the dilemmas that human beings who are forced to be what they are not face.

As he could not give them the loin cloth ethnicity that would give them something to talk about, I suspect Nehru used the buzzword 'industrialisation' to make the British feel that they had done a good job of tutoring the natives. He had no agenda for industrialisation (except socialism!) and he was mighty afraid of the spectre he had created and also envious of those who could do so. Therefore, while Gandhi, who had no interest in the subject, happily partook of the hospitality of the Birlas, Nehru the angel of industrialisation stayed away.

It couldn't have been probity. It was contempt for the Marwari community that had the money and the business acumen to take India towards the unholy grail.

It may be difficult to digest the image of Nehru as a communalist, but in a larger sense he was. In that he was aware of where he came from and from where others did. The doyen of the Parsi community, J R D Tata, had an uneasy relationship with him. If Nehru knew his Mozart, had been to Cambridge and used his silverware with a flourish, so did most Parsis. They built an empire, believed in philanthropy and did not think it necessary to hide their westernised thinking. Nehru did not like that.

The final blow came when Firoze Gandhi, no mean parliamentarian himself, swept his daughter off her feet. The father never forgave that. Had he not strictly forbidden Indira during her childhood from reading fairytales?

With Muslims, there was talk of his 'Islamic flavour' and political amity, but when it came to brasstacks, things were different. In 1937, he rejected Jinnah's proposal for a Congress-Muslim League coalition saying that there were only two parties in India - the Congress and the
British. Many believe this was when Pakistan was born.

Another example of his parochialism is evident in his sending his widowed sister Vijayalakshmi's suitor, Syed Hussein, off on an ambassadorial assignment, thus putting an end to the romance. But on the poor man's death Nehru, the public romantic, did not forget to build a mausoleum in his memory. To be fair, he did look after Sheikh Abdullah's family when the latter was in prison, which made the Sheikh weep uncontrollably on the platform where the dead Nehru lay.

Millions may have followed his funeral procession and his popularity in life may been unprecedented, but it is also true that security guards hid behind the bushes of his house and the kitchens of his prospective hosts were examined before he could taste a morsel. His populism put him at risk.

Later in life, he was besotted with "the old Hindu idea that there is a divine essence in the world". His Will stated that his ashes be strewn over the Ganges. It may not have been a religious gesture, but two days before his death he had written about the "concept of dharma".

History judges people in many ways. One is to judge them by their last words. In which case Nehru saw to it that if the divine essence went out of the grasp of his family, divine wrath would turn upon the country. The architect laid the foundation in the form of a magic carpet. He could pull the rug from under our feet anytime he wished.

Did Nehru, then, also believe in voodoo tricks?


[This was published in Mid-day, November 13, 1996]


Also: Nehru, Ambedkar and a cartoon