28.5.21

Is Arafat’s idea of Palestine obsolete today?




“I want a picture with Yasser Arafat,” I said. The American raised his eyebrows as I clicked him gushing over the waxwork of Aishwariya Rai at Madame Tussaud’s. “Why him?” he asked. Arafat, the Robin Hood figure who had managed to get respectability for an organisation created for guerrilla warfare was, for me, the closest thing to Che. 

It was in Mumbai over bitter tea with students in hostel canteens and idlis at Laxmi Hotel, a crummy little eatery in a bylane of Colaba, with a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that I began to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict three decades ago. Although PLO was seen as a terrorist organisation by many at the time, over a hundred countries had recognised it and more than 90 maintained its diplomatic missions and information offices, including India. That India was captured in photograph's of Arafat's easy camaraderie with Indira Gandhi. 

Today’s India will ask you, “Why do Indian Muslims get so worked up about Israel?” even as Palestinian homes are bombarded, and many are fleeing once again. 

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Read more in  Hindustan Times

1.5.21

Corona in Cow Land – India Critical

Pic: Indian Express


“India is gasping for oxygen. Thanks to GOI’s (Government of India) incompetency and complacency.” At any other time, Rahul Gandhi’s comment might have been construed as point scoring by a leader of an opposition party. Not now. 

In the latest report of April 27, there have been 323,144 fresh cases. In a span of 24 hours, 2,771 people have died. Many could have been saved. 

People are dying outside hospitals because there are no beds available. A big private hospital known for its celebrity patients has transformed its lobby into a Covid ward. In other hospitals patients are sharing beds; some are getting oxygen while lying down on the floor or even in an autorickshaw parked outside. These are the lucky few. Many are still begging for help. 

Hustlers see this as an opportunity. A sting operation in a city of Gujarat revealed a hospital bed racket. One desperate relative was told by a hospital worker, “I won’t take anything less than Rs 9,000. You will get the bed in 30 minutes.” $120 is a lot of money for the middle class. Imagine, then, the plight of the poor. 

In March last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown, giving Indians a mere four hours to stock up, the poor had no money to buy more than a meal. Overnight they were rendered jobless, and most of the migrants from other cities subsist on daily wages. 744 million earn Rs. 44 (58 pennies) a day. They live in sub-human conditions where a quarantine would be impossible. 

There are an estimated 1.8 million homeless people in India. Vaccination programmes do not include them. They need to produce proof of citizenship and residence; they have none. This is the reality that policy papers and party manifestoes do not address adequately.

If last year in March, Modi was flaunting Donald Trump at public gatherings, this year he and other ministers held massive election rallies. 

Last year the home minister denied that the virus was a threat; this year he denied that there was a shortage of vaccine. The PM announced a ‘tika utsav’, a vaccination festival, in an irony that escaped him because India has had to grant emergency import to the Sputnik vaccine.

Last year the PM asked us to clap and bang thalis – steel plates – to honour the medical staff. People came out in large numbers to dance and celebrate what they assumed to be the end of Covid when the truth was a shortage of N95 masks and PPE kits for the doctors and nurses they were applauding.

In the pandemic scenario, the government’s failure is not merely short-sightedness, but pig-headedness. 

Politicking in India includes pandering to religious sentiments. If these sentiments are about the majority, then leaders just look the other way. 

Even as India was struck by a surge in cases with a new virus strain, 3.1 million devotees bathed in the holy river Ganga on April 12 during the ongoing Kumbh Mela. The fair takes place once every twelve years. This time it was brought forward by a year because the stars in the galaxy apparently deemed it appropriate. The official website claims that “in such a cosmic occurrence, bathing in the Ganga sets human beings free from the cycle of birth and death”.

Sanjay Gunjyal, inspector general of police in the state of Uttarakhand, sounded helpless: “We are continuously appealing to people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible to issue challans (fines).” Even more frightening is his understanding that were the cops to enforce such norms there might be a “stampede-like situation”.

For such whimsies, the state has had to deploy 20,000 police and paramilitary personnel to keep an eye on the 600 acres across which the festival is held. Some of the sadhus (many walking naked) have tested positive. The chief minister of the state showered flowers on them and sought their blessings. Before the start, he had assured devotees that “unnecessary” restrictions would be removed and “faith of devotees will overcome the fear of Covid-19”.  

Most Indians are poor, illiterate and fatalistic. Last year it was cow urine drinking parties where the virus was given a karmic twist. “Coronavirus has come because of the people who kill and eat animals. When you kill an animal, it creates a sort of energy that causes destruction in that place.” Now the chief minister of Gujarat, when asked about the logic behind night curfew, replied, “Corona has originated from bats who can see only in night. Therefore the virus comes out only in night (sic).”

Godmen and political charlatans take full advantage of this. Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru who has built an Ayurveda empire due to his proximity with senior leaders, launched Coronil as a cure for Corona. Ministers were present to stand by him, including the health minister. He claimed he had research papers on it but showed none. Later he was forced to market it as an immunity booster and not a cure. But the damage had been done. There was a daily demand for a million packages. It wasn’t as much trust in the efficacy of the product as it was blind faith in a ‘holy’ man. 

But politicians who have tested positive aren’t using these indigenous palliatives. They are consulting qualified professionals, relying on real science. 

Religion forms the subcutaneous layer of all politics in India. When the PM addressed the nation recently, he said, “Tomorrow is Ram Navami. Maryada purushottam Ram's message is for us to be disciplined.  It is also the 7th day of Ramzan. The festival teaches us patience and discipline. Patience and discipline are both needed to fight Covid.”

His government has showed no such qualities. For a while it appeared that even the supporters of the ruling party desperate over the loss of loved ones had tired of the mishandling. That the virus would prove to be a great leveller. That they were waking up and could be the resistance. But the rightwing was back to its old ways. 

When Naveen Razak and Janaki Omkumar, two medical students, danced to Boney M’s Rasputin and the video went viral, the rightwing started the hashtag #DanceJihad. It was seen as a jihad because the girl was a Hindu, the boy a Muslim. A lawyer said, “I smell something wrong here. Janaki’s parents should be careful. And if they are careful, they won’t have to be sorry later.”

Social media rose to the occasion. It pronounced that the two young students were a shining example of communal harmony when all they had wanted to do was spread some cheer around. 

When Pyare Khan arranged for oxygen worth Rs 8.5 million, his past as a slumdweller was raked up and his faith was highlighted. In fact, his act was referred to as “oxygen zakat” – Muslims offer zakat, a portion of their profits, during the month of Ramadan. Some liberals on social media platforms pointed this out as a reason why Muslims should not be mistrusted. They do not realise how problematic it is to expect a community to be held up to a standard the majority never has to. 

Heart-warming stories may act as a necessary salve, but they sometimes deflect from the harsh reality. A hospital’s ICU unit caught fire. An eyewitness said there were two nurses, but no doctors around. All he could see was dead bodies. 14 patients died in the fire. 

Priests are refusing to perform the last rites. In a moving account, a journalist recounts how they had to bathe her dead grandmother before the cremation: “My father cranked up the AC of the car to keep her body protected from heat…My mother, two of her sisters and I tied a bedsheet from the car to a pillar in the basement to create a private space for that. We did all we could to give her as dignified a farewell as possible.”

In many places there is a shortage of burial space and wood for cremation. Death, as much as life, is defenceless. 

Published in CounterPunch











30.1.21

Modi or Rahul, All Respect the Mahatma. Why No Spirit of Inquiry?





Years ago I had walked into the manual scavengers’ colony at Dadar in Mumbai, and for the first time discovered that there is a Mahatma Gandhi that is not a road name, not a face on currency notes, not a statue or a line drawing, and most certainly not a universal metaphor for all that is virtuous. 

For the first time I discovered that there is a Gandhi that others see, and not as a human beyond the Mahatma angle, but as a seriously flawed person. The obeisance industry refuses to even consider the viewpoints of Dalits, feminists and anti-communalists. From politicians to the leftist ‘azaadi from poverty’ ring leader Kanhaiya Kumar, they quote the Mahatma when they wish to speak out against Hindutva. 

Fact is, Gandhi was the Lord Ram and the Chanakya of his time. The rejecter of a throne manoeuvring the game of thrones.



Read more here

21.1.21

Blackface and whiteface in the time of Kamala Harris


As one woman of mixed race will be sworn in as the vice president of the USA on January 20 despite – or because of – identifying as black, another woman, a civil rights activist, had to give up her job five years ago for adopting a black identity. While Kamala Harris is seen as a symbol, Rachel Dolezal was accused of being a fake.

Fact is, the Harris “deception” has greater import because of the position she holds and, more importantly, her lack of any real engagement with black lives. Her affiliations have been of the kind a typical white person might have.

Read more in Hindustan Times

31.12.20

How Does One Write For A Revolution? Farmers’ Delhi Protests

Writers in an agitation often employ shock value to make a statement. The point here is: where are the authentic voices?

The question isn’t restricted only to the farmers’ protests. During the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh, “Hum dekhenge” became the anthem. 


A few new poets did emerge, but they came across as ‘outside’ voices. 


Read more here

19.11.20

Did Indira Gandhi Help Shape ‘Anti-Pakistan’ Narrative?




103 years ago to the day, Indira Gandhi was born (19 November 1917). And 36 years ago, on 31 October, when Indira Gandhi was shot dead, we were stunned and genuinely sad. She seemed imperishable. 
She had mastered the art of playing both ‘victim’ and ‘rescuer’ – post-Emergency, after her son Sanjay’s death, even after death as her spirit hovered around when her politically-disinclined son was pulled out to save India. 

As I look back at the three major unfortunate events she was responsible for, we can see how her actions shaped post-Partition politics and that continue to echo today in more insidious forms. 

Read the full article in The Quint

2.11.20

Robert Fisk: the Reporter as Messiah



Osama bin Laden called his journalism “neutral”. It was one among the many accolades and awards Robert Fisk, who died on October 30, received. 
There are not many reporters who can claim to have covered all the major events in a strife-torn part of the world – from the revolution in Iran to those in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, covering all of the Middle East. 

A man who spent decades in Beirut, weathered dust storms, bullets and wars, had become a Messiah. He did not tell his besotted listeners what they wanted to hear; he told them what the West wanted them to hear – that the war against terror was real. It was all coddled up in minutiae. The romance of Fisk’s old-world discomfort with the internet and emails and his sitting over telex machines were all immensely charming. About how he could open the old rattlers apart and get them to start, but when his computer said, ‘disk failure’ he had to just give up, and a story was lost. 

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Read the full article in Hindustan Times