31.7.14

Support Gaza, Lose Your Bank Account - HSBC's New Mantra?



Why is HSBC closing down the accounts of its Muslim clients in UK? Is it connected with where their sympathies lie on Gaza? On July 22, a few prominent organisations got letters saying that they have until September 22, after which they would not be permitted to bank with them because the services "now falls outside of our risk appetite".

They are solvent, and owe the bank nothing. So, what is it and why the pregnant-with-meaning "now"? According to the BBC report, the bank has said:

"Discrimination against customers on grounds of race or religion is immoral, unacceptable and illegal, and HSBC has comprehensive rules and policies in place to ensure race or religion are never factors in banking decisions."


They have an alibi in "poor money-laundering controls". This should be their lookout and not of those who have no such history.

The Finsbury Park Mosque's chairman Mohammed Kozbar said:

"The bank didn't even contact us beforehand. Didn't give us a chance even to address [their] concerns. For us it is astonishing - we are a charity operating in the UK, all our operations are here in the UK and we don't transfer any money out of the UK. All our operations are funded from funds within the UK."


HSBC is being irresponsible. It could not be because Abu Hamza, who was earlier in charge of the mosque, was convicted of terror offenses in the US. He was not with the mosque since 2005. Nobody is trying to hide anything. In fact, Mr. Kozbar said:

"The positive work we have done since taking over over from Abu Hamza to change the image of the mosque, there is nothing really that can explain [HSBC's decision]."


Ummah Welfare Trust has a more real Gaza connection. The letter from HSBC-UK said, "You will need to make alternative banking arrangements, as we are not prepared to open another account for you". The Trust has become defensive:

"We make sure we go out of the way to work with organisations that are non-partisan. What we do now is we do a check on Thomson Reuters and make sure that there is no link whatsoever with blacklisted organisations. We don't want to damage our relief efforts. We have tried our best to be non-partisan as much as possible."


A Trust has a right to choose its beneficiaries, and in Gaza they don't have to be balanced because Israel is getting enough from the West. Who is deciding on the blacklisted organisations that benefit, and what are the yardsticks to gauge that?

The Cordoba Foundation, a Muslim think tank acting as a link between Europe and the Middle East, and Anas al Tikriti who runs it, his wife, and two children have all separately received letters of closure without any reason at all. He said:

"It is unsettling. I am not used to being addressed in those terms. It's like I have done something wrong. The involvement of my family disturbs me. Why the entire family? I can only speculate - and I wish someone from the bank could explain [why the accounts were closed]. The organisations are mainly charities and the link is that many of them if not all of them are vocal on the issue of Palestine. It would be a great shame if that was true. As I'm left to speculate, that's the only reason I can come to."


HSBC-UK is doing something patently wrong, not only to its clients but also to itself. Had it provided a reason, however vague, it would still have some ethical leverage. If non-Muslim organisations have been told about closures, they would have had similar complaints. Where are they? Are they being circumspect, and if so why?

A sharp Op-Ed in Forbes blames it on "some discreet pressure from the American authorities (or the possibility of it in the future)". It also points out the hypocrisy:

"Whatever the youngest Mr Tikriti has been spending his pocket money on, it’s hard to believe that a small boy falls outside the “risk appetite” of Europe’s largest bank. And especially a bank that was, until recently, perfectly happy with the business of Mexican drug cartels, allowing them to launder their money through HSBC accounts in the Cayman Islands. Not only that, but the same US Senate committee that fined HSBC $1.9bn in 2012, also questioned the bank’s dodgy links with financial institutions in Saudi Arabia that, they believed, were responsible for funding terrorism."


Is the bank more concerned with its financial interests?

Nicholas Wilson, a HSBC whistleblower and UK-based financial activist, thinks so, and believes that is the reason for its pro-Israeli stance:

“HSBC has a bank in Tel Aviv and have held a licence there since 2001. They claim on their website to be the only foreign bank in Israel offering private banking. It could therefore be possible that they consider being seen to bank for pro-Palestinian organisations puts them in conflict with their ambitions in Israel."


What HSBC-UK is doing is passive-aggressive at different levels.

• By not giving a reason, it is being non-committal while at the same time expecting that the 'banned' clients come out with their own doubts. This will, the bank and its masters hope, expose them. Once their social and political affiliations are exposed, they can always use that to hit out at them. It won't be past them to suggest that money laundering is done through those tunnels of Hamas.

• The BBC report states:

The Charities Commission has confirmed that it is not investigating any of the organisations involved and says that if the charities don't have a relationship with a bank it could harm public trust in their work.


Targeting specific organisations will ensure a slow death of many of them, thereby pushing them out of the mainstream.

Bringing young family members into the picture is the absolute low in stereotyping. It can have a psychological impact, and these youngsters might be forced to either protest (and oh the West knows how they will protest) or retreat and stop being "partisan". It is another matter that in their school other kids can take sides.

It comes down to just one thing: You can only be on the side that is decided for you.

© Farzana Versey

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Image: Finsbury Mosque, Reuters

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.


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


13.7.14

Football's Holy War?



I have not watched a single World Cup football match this year. Among the slew of trivia surrounding the players that often overtook the games, the best one has been left for the finale.

Will the Pope root for his home country Argentina and would this be in conflict with his predecessor, a German? After all the society type gossip about hairstyles, shoes, girlfriends, and lookalikes, and that goth moment of the Suarez Bite, the finals between the two countries have found a new niche.

Pope Francis has shown that he is quite worldly-wise and not confined to the Vatican. The media is discussing whether he will be pitted against Pope Benedict XVI who is living in retirement now. Both are said to be football fans. According to Christian Today:

Some are cheekily suggesting that it will be a testament to who is the greatest pray-er, and perhaps even who enjoys the highest favour with God.


Sports do have the same appeal, and demand obeisance, as religions. The sounds from the stadium have an effect similar to mass elation or grieving during defining holy festivals or moments. The players have a cult following, and their posture during a winning or losing strike is quite like one of prayer. In fact, it often is a prayer.

The website calls it "the holiest World Cup final yet". One assumes other World Cup finals had their holy moments, or perhaps all such games have divine provenance. Where did Diego Maradona's "hand of god" come from?

Now we have the more urgent: "The question is: who will pray the hardest?" One might have questioned the almost direct intrusion of religion in sport, but the pope vs. pope imagined skirmish sounds like harmless amusement. And it is unlikely that those rooting for either team will do so for their papal affiliations. It's not like we are talking about Mick Jagger!

© Farzana Versey

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The image is obviously a meme.

Sunday ka Funda

Wrong



You need imagination:



You should have the talent to multitask...and feel indispensable:



...and you should believe that things come round full circle:

11.7.14

Umbrellas under the sky

The umbrellas are out, and the city weather is such that they only serve as accoutrement. Mumbai rains are more about tarpaulin sheets as awnings; water collected in little pools is muddy, dirty. Yet, there is something uplifting about grey skies and a downpour. I know this is a luxury only those who have homes and windows can afford. I know that newspaper pictures showing slum kids enjoying the rains are really about the water they rarely get to see. I know.

Back in the days, it was the mother of one such kid who sheltered me from sudden showers. I was walking to school, and had conveniently ‘forgotten’ to carry an umbrella. While raincoats were bad enough, umbrellas too conveyed a need for playing safe that my new teenage mind was naturally not inclined to. I stood beneath a tree as the downpour continued. She worked as a sweeper at the school. Hesitant at first (we are a casteist society), she finally asked, “Aaogi (will you come)?” Of course! In the seven-minute walk, she took care to cover me even as her sari was getting drenched. I still remember her face.

A painting by Leonid Afremov

I like faces under umbrellas – they look vulnerable, especially if the brolly is a foldable one. These became fashionable accessories, the two-fold and later the three-fold. Unfurling they looked as though a camel was getting up. Occasionally, they caused embarrassment when they refused to open up or the button got stuck.

My uncle once gifted me a fuschia-coloured one. It was a regular ‘ladies umbrella’, and it always seemed as though one was blushing. The flush of youth, the carefree gait as though one owned the damp roads that reflected light.

A scene from 'Shri 420'

Romance and umbrellas have a history. Two people sharing an umbrella signals proximity, and also the whole drama of wetness, hair dripping, faces aglow, and the low hum. This scene from ‘Shri 420’ epitomises it. Raj Kapoor and Nargis singing, “Pyaar hua iqrar hua, pyaar se phir kyon darta hai dil…(There is love, and an admission of it, yet why is the heart so afraid of it)” Perhaps because like the showers, there is no “manzil” (destination)?


Chaplin used the umbrella for other reasons

The large black umbrella is ubiquitous in the streets. They may come in different varieties, but the sturdy one with the curved handle stands for the person who has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It was there is R.K.Laxman’s cartoons of the common man. And it is there in Chaplin, the tramp, the guy who does not think about winning or losing, and bumbles his way through life that is often slippery. And slip he does, rain or no rain. It also acts as a crutch, something to hold on to when things go a little wrong or one’s own resolve is a bit shaky.

The black stands out against the mélange of colours, not only of other umbrellas but also of the shades that dot the Indian landscape, from paan spit to dead flowers, to neon clothes, to kitschy posters.

Umbrella tree - street art

This piece of street art is not Indian, but such a fine tribute to the umbrellas that have been a part of my monsoons. Some were lost or got stolen as they stood propped up outside stores or in buckets…and some just closed themselves on me.

© Farzana Versey



9.7.14

Rape, murder, and a demeaning verdict



What exactly are some Indian judges smoking? In a 141-page judgment that sentences a watchman to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of a young lawyer residing in the building he guarded, the language used by the bench is disgusting.

I am against capital punishment, and while the parents of Pallavi Purkayastha naturally wanted the criminal Sajjad Pathan to suffer for the cruelty and their loss it is not a personal battle.

However, should the judge not display some amount of sensitivity? She was attacked 16 times, and the prosecution thought this was extreme cruelty. The judge Vrushali Joshi said:

"It caused her a painful death. This can be termed as cruelty, but not extreme cruelty."


I am aware that these terms are in the rule-book and a judgment cannot rely on emotions, but what are the yardsticks to gauge extreme cruelty?

There is more:

Refuting the prosecution's case that it was a pre-planned murder, the court said when Pathan first answered Pallavi's plea for help after the power went off, he took another watchman to the 16th floor where she lived but did not enter the flat. "At 1am again, when the victim called him, he went with Khalid (electrician) when he could go alone," the judge said. The court added that from the records it appeared that when he saw Pallavi in scanty clothes, "he was excited and it was the point when he thought of ravishing her".


What is this? Where are those who keep talking about 'victim shaming' when it involves celebrities? The judge is casting aspersions on a woman who is not even around to defend herself. I am surprised Sajjad was not let off, given the tone of the verdict. The implication here is that he was a good guy who was in fact not comfortable going to the apartment of a young woman. Why? She was a resident like any other. Worse, the judge says that it was her clothes that "excited" him and "he thought of ravishing her". Rape is ravishment?

It is back again to what women wear, how they live, and the effect it has on the hormonal male mind. That he gets a character certificate for until that moment when he could not control himself should tell us just the kind of society we live in. To take a broader view, an example of this comes from the statement of Pallavi's live-in partner Avik Sengupta (who died due to a brain ailment later). While recording his statement during the trial he had mentioned that she used to complain about Sajjad staring at her. His response was: "You are a pretty woman."

Back to the judgment, some of it is absolutely shocking:

The prosecution had claimed that the most aggravating circumstance against Pathan was that he had boasted about the crime and even laughed about it. But the court observed that he must have laughed as he was frightened after committing the crime and said that Pallavi being a strong girl had resisted him. "One cannot come to the conclusion that he must have enjoyed killing her," the judge said.


So the judge is psychoanalysing it as nervous laughter and covertly blaming the victim for being "a strong girl". The fact that she resisted till the very end — there were blood trails till her neighbour's flat indicating she was seeking help — draws attention to the rapist-murderer's intent and not become reason to highlight his laughing at her strength.

He is young and I agree with the tenure of the sentence. Life imprisonment should set him right. I do not agree with those who think the death sentence works as a lesson. If anything, the judgments should be worded with care and send out a signal to people. Women should be made to feel safe and empowered and men should be made to realise that they have no right to infringe on a woman's body or space irrespective of how she is dressed or how she chooses to live.

The person committing the crime is not the only criminal.

Another point:

Earlier reports that quoted Sajjad Pathan's security agency head as saying that he has brought shame to Kashmiris. Some newspapers played this up. How often do you hear about a whole region responsible for the acts of an individual? Immigrants have been blamed, but it does not become a cause for the state they come from to feel chastised. Sajjad Pathan could be from anywhere.

© Farzana Versey

3.7.14

NSA spied on BJP to spy on Congress?


What exactly does the NSA spying on the BJP amount to? Is the target the office of the political party, or its senior leaders, or media cells, or its workers on the ground? Or, was it using the enemy of the 'enemy'?

The latest disclosure by Edward Snowden has got the Indian government in a tizzy:

That the omnibus spying programme by the US National Security Agency enveloped 193 countries (including India) comes as no surprise, but what is striking is that the Obama administration in 2010 sought authorization from the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to conduct surveillance on BJP among six political outfits worldwide. Others listed in Edward Snowden's disclosure of the NSA operation are Amal of Lebanon, an outfit with alleged links to Hezbollah; the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator of Venezuela, with purported links to FARC; Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; Egyptian National Salvation Front; and Pakistan People's Party.

The PPP and BJP seem like misfits in this group. The former, in fact, had a fairly charmed equation with the US authorities, and although Narendra Modi was denied a visa, there would be no reason for the Obama government to snoop on the party. Some have suggested that it was based on Rahul Gandhi’s 2009 conversation with the then US ambassador Timothy Roemer that Hindu terror was “the bigger threat (to India) may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community”. This is apparently in comparison with the LeT.

Why would the US toe his line? America has a lot to gain with its ‘war on terror’ that is exclusively jihad-driven because those regions ensure profiteering. Paranoia over Hindu terror would be a waste of time, for India does not offer any tangible benefits (the Americans have been busy patenting tulsi, and yoga and spiritualism are now a part of their culture).

The NSA acted in 2010. The BJP was not in power, nor was there a major riot immediately prior to it. Even if there was, it is not the business of any other country. If anything, the BJP could have been “of valid interest for US intelligence” to get information about the ruling Congress Party, the whispers, rumours, and details about scams that the government would probably want to hide, and the opposition parties keep notes of. As reported, the Congress had raised objections about the spying last year. This is not a matter of which party is targeted, but of the country. The BJP ought to have raised the issue then along with the Congress, just as the Congress should join forces now.

Surprisingly, the former foreign minister Salman Khurshid had taken a benign view:

“Some of the information they (the US) got out of their scrutiny, they were able to use it to prevent serious terrorist attacks in several countries.”

Did the US administration share such information with the Indian government? When has the US ever tried to prevent terrorist attacks anywhere? It only lands up later, adding to the mayhem.

The revelations state:

Only four countries were off-limits from the snooping: loyal allies Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

If terrorism is the main reason, then these countries are home to immigrants. Would the hosts not be at risk, if one goes by western stereotyping?

The US also got authorisation to spy on international non-government agencies – the United Nations, European Union, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank – that it anyway twists to suit its political agenda. With key tactical information, it can cause a good deal of covert harm.




The Indian response has been tepid. There is greater concern about how this will pan out, as Modi and Obama are to meet at the end of September. It sounds wicked to say so, but perhaps they would like to share notes. After all, the Indian PM is known to spy on his partymen, and Snoopgate did not appear out of thin air. And while this may sound like a conspiracy theory, the timing of the leak is just right. It will give them time to indulge in some real diplomacy after the earlier embargo on Modi. This is an unusual ice-breaker, but given that Angela Merkel could condone the spying Modi will just grin and bear it.

Meanwhile, the official channels are bureaucratic with their “summon a top diplomat” and the sophomoric “India also sought an assurance from the US that it will not happen again”.

There is a lot that happens that might not be in the realm of WikiLeaks knowledge, and it is unlikely to stop. The only way to get on top of this is to have our own intel agencies so smart that they can snoop on the snoopers.

© Farzana Versey

2.7.14

Rumours and Reality - Revisiting Sunanda Pushkar



While the death of Sunanda Pushkar, wife of former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, appeared to leave several unanswered questions, I am not sure about the latest “twist”.

Dr. Sudhir Gupta, head of forensic sciences at AIIMS, has filed an affidavit in the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) claiming that he was 'pressured' by former Union minister and president of AIIMS, Ghulam Nabi Azad, to act in an 'unprofessional' manner to cover up the matter. 
"(The) applicant could not muster courage of openly placing the facts in black and white as the former president of AIIMS Ghulam Nabi Azad was an immensely powerful politician and the then health minister, and the husband of late Sunanda Pushkar was also a minister and a powerful politician," the affidavit stated.

Why was the job more important to the doctor than ethics? This query is valid now because there are charges of plagiarism and misconduct against him. Is he trying to cover his own tracks by alluding to a cover-up? What exactly does being pressured to act unprofessional really mean? This case was very public; the police were on the trail. Importantly, the forensic findings pointed out injuries, an overdose and drug poisoning. If there was pressure – and it not unlikely – nobody seemed to have keeled under it, at least as far as a medical report goes (although there were contradictory ones).

Before further investigations, the doctor should be interrogated not only about the nature of the pressure, but what he did not reveal in the report that he was forced to cover up. If it is different from what he gave the police, then he should be tried in court and his license taken away until he is cleared. It appears that he wants to be in the political good books and is more concerned about saving his own position.

Now that the case has resurfaced, there are a few points that need to be addressed.

The Congress made a huge mistake by fielding Shashi Tharoor, although he did win the Thiruvananthapuram seat. The point is about probity. He is not an accused, but the death of his wife under public and social media glare, where he himself was involved, sent out a message of arrogance and powerplay.

BJP members suggesting that there has been silence have got it all wrong. The media, in fact, went into overdrive then. The rumour mills were churning out conspiracies and propping up some of the players, however tangential their involvement with the personae. (My earlier post)

There were three main reasons they felt that Sunanda could have been murdered:


  1. She had said she would expose the IPL backroom deals.
  2. The ISI would want her out of the way because she suggested that Tharoor’s friend was a mole.
  3. The relationship between the couple.


Regarding IPL, she essentially indicated that she was made into the scapegoat. Either way, as it was sweat equity it would be difficult to pin down as financial skullduggery.

The ISI angle is ridiculous, and one of the reasons the case did not gather momentum. Tharoor is not a big-ticket minister, so sending a honey trap would not make any sense. Also, a gushing fan as honey trap would be counter-productive. The only notable point here is that the lady was planning to write a book on the Kerala elections. Seriously, there were attempts to get a publisher for a Pakistani to cover elections in an Indian state that has little emotional or real connect with the neighbouring country. The ISI can be accused of many things, but not stupidity.

The third reason is the personal equation between the minister and his wife. Sunanda was quite open about accusing him and just as suddenly expressing positive vibes. But to call him a murderer when they were both image-conscious people is a bit much. If things did go wrong, then they had other ways to resolve the issues. They had been through such phases in life separately before they got married to each other. Her father, brother and son all stood by Tharoor even in their moment of grief. Were they pressured too?

She was certainly in bad shape as her online activity reveals. But she was an independently wealthy woman and not dependent on her husband. She was also a glamorous person with a public profile that did bring its share of snarky comments. She had survived them.

In January, she became a corpse in a five-star hotel room. With injuries. They have not been explained. No amount of poisoning can cause these. Tharoor has said he wants the cops to probe. He should pursue the case, not to absolve himself but because like others he too must be concerned about it.

Until then, the rumours will over-ride justice.

© Farzana Versey

1.7.14

Storm after the silence: Now it's Tapas Pal

Think about it. Why was the Tapas Pal clip not aired earlier, or why did it not go 'viral' on June 14 when he made the rape remarks? Is there a PR lobby that ensures some people stay in the news, or their leader gets an opportunity to be "shocked", an emotion recollected in tranquility?

That comment should have died and been buried. Exhuming it serves no purpose other than to confirm what we already know. This business of shaming those who have proven they are shameless simply gets them mileage.

Tapas Pal is a Bengali actor from the 80s. He is also a Trinamool Congress Party leader. A week ago he had said:

"Ekta jodi kono birodhi aajke Trinamuler kono meye, kono baap, kono bachchar gaye haat dey, tader gushti ke ami jaa taa kore chole jabo. Amaar chheleder dhukiye debo rapekore chole jabe, rape kore chole jabe…(If anyone from the Opposition dares touch a daughter of Trinamul, a father from Trinamul, a child from Trinamul, I will do whatever I can to their entire clan. I will set my boys on them, they will rape them, they will rape them.)"


This particular statement is more political than gender-related, although some reports have mentioned that the target would be women cadre of the opposition. The TMC and Communists are old rivals, and both have a history of violence. Some have explained it as a response to some CPI (M) workers getting violent. It is no justification.

This does not need any analysis. He himself said so:

"I am a ruffian and have committed many such acts. Let anybody dare stop me," Pal had said, much to the applause of his supporters.


The worrying aspect is that his supporters applauded him. His statement has to be seen in the context of how the public responds too.

Demanding his arrest is becoming a showpiece for his party leader Mamata Bannerjee to express shock, quite forgetting her own attitude when she had accused a rape victim of faking it. A spokesperson told the media:

"The chief minister is shattered by the comments. The party has already cautioned him on Monday and demanded a written explanation from him in 48 hours."

This is beyond ridiculous. What is there to explain, and why would it take 48 hours for what is on record? He has already denied it, saying that he used the word "raid" and not rape. Irrespective of it, there is threat of violence. His wife has apologised on his behalf. He should be isolated, instead of getting an opportunity to speak.

Before anointing our commentators for their concern, let us ask where was the media when the statement was made? Are there reports or opinion pieces on this soon after the incident?

That this clip has become a talking point now also reveals the total disconnect between national and regional news. Unless, it creates a buzz, the big news channels won't pick it up. When they do, it is to sensationalise it, run a kangaroo court, and hammer at it till 'justice' is done.

What has happened to such remarks earlier? They took up primetime space, brought in a few new faces, and objectified rape again in the studios. Till the next celebrity case took over.

All those who think they are sensitising the public, I am afraid nothing of the sort is happening. If that were important, then those listening to Tapas Pal's speech would not be egging him on. These are ordinary people who adhere to a similar pugnacious attitude to claim space. Women have traditionally been considered territory. Is there any newspaper or TV channel ready to run a campaign against this topic, which is not controversial but can have a long-lasting impact?

That's when we can talk about concern. Now it is just another gravy cart. Or, a storm after the silence.

© Farzana Versey