The invitation Modi did not get...

Of Bukhari, politics and politicians

"Should we invite him? Say, do you want us to invite the prime minister? If not, what are we debating?" Tariq Bukhari, whatever be his other qualities or lack of them, nailed it on all the TV discussions I surfed through.

His brother Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, recently named his 19-year-old son Shaban Bukhari as his successor. There is to be an initiation ceremony to anoint him the 'Naib Imam'. Invitations have been sent out. Narendra Modi has not received one, although some other BJP members have. Political leaders from other parties as well as foreign leaders have been invited. Nawaz Sharif is one of them.

This whole package has led to a most juvenile debate — from the use of the coronation to the nationalism of Muslims. There is something cussed about how everybody plays politics to the detriment of how to deal with the immediate.

Recently, there were communal riots in Delhi's Trilokpuri. Should Muslims not address this as well? Instead of doing so, Ahmed Bukhari explained his reluctance to invite the PM thus:

“Muslims of India do not recognise Narendra Modi as their leader, hence the invite has not been sent. He may have been elected the PM, but the Muslims of India do not accept him. Narendra Modi should first tender apology for the Gujarat riots.”

Let me get this out of the way. Bukhari has no locus standi in the community. He is seen by Muslims as the head of a mosque whose primary job is as moon-sighter during Ramzan. Outside of the Chandni Chowk area he is persona non grata. Indeed, he does meet politicians and they do try to woo him to support their candidate. This works at the symbolic level of secularism.

Unlike the Shankaracharyas and certainly the RSS/VHP remote controlling organisations, there is little by way of Muslim leadership that can speak with any authority on the community. Bukhari does not even have the febrile impact of, say, the Deoband seminary in Uttar Pradesh. In that sense, he is non-controversial simply because he is irrelevant.

Having said that, I fail to understand why Kamal Farooqui of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board was screeching about how Modi is everybody's prime minister and he respects the office. In that case, he was also the chief minister of Gujarat and people could justify everything as respect for that office.

Even more unfortunate is how one invitation has again raised the question about where Muslim allegiance lies. I do not blame Bukhari for this because as I have taken pains to point out he is not in a position to decide or influence. But why are those in power even bringing up the loyalty card? Why is it not assumed, as in the case of the majority community?

The Congress Party's Renuka Chowdhary called Bukhari a social reformer. That is her problem, not that of Muslims in India. Besides, to be charitable, we have very many people in power who are hailed as reformers in full-page ads when all they have done is added varnish to derelict structures.

My first thought when I saw a clip was: what if Bukhari had not made a comment on the PM? Would it be considered just one of those occasions where a name is left out? BJP members are appearing on TV to express anger over this deliberate omission is akin to wrangling for an invite. Some have even said that if anybody attends it would be an insult to 1.2 billion Indians and display a lack of self respect.

Is the invite to Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif a reason for the bluster? Pakistan has fired along the LoC so anybody being friendly with the leadership is anti-national goes the argument. Track II developments have not stopped. If India is serious, why is it permitting such initiatives? Why did we offer Diwali sweets to their border forces, which they declined? Why do we continue to watch their TV serials and why are their actors and singers such an intrinsic part of our pop culture?

These questions are not about alarmism, but a genuine need to understand why we resort to such passive-aggressive moves. Detente cannot be carried out in studios; it requires leaders. And pragmatism happens to be the core of politics. What we see is not that; it is pussy-footing.

Modi did invite Sharif for his oath-taking ceremony. When this was pointed out, a BJP spokesperson was livid: "What kind of arrogance is this to compare." That says it all. It is a display of arrogance that prompts such a statement. The PM's function had all the pomp and pageantry of a coronation, so for the party members to remember democracy now when some fellow will be anointed in a mosque is disingenuous.

It is also galling when they ask why people do not recall other riots. We do. Today is the anniversary of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs under a Congress regime. The PM has announced a Rs. 5 lakh compensation to the next of kin for the over 3000 killed. It is good, although late and rather obviously a point scoring move. However, if this is the precedent, will we see similar announcements for the 1993 Mumbai riots, 2002 Gujarat riots, 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, and a host of others?

Should the monetary exchange buy justice? That would be most unfortunate.

It is also time for the establishment to grow up and stop using the public to achieve its ends whenever elections loom ahead. There is too much of a price innocent people have to pay to 'earn' sympathy gestures.

If Ahmed Bukhari, or anybody else, incites people to violence and bigotry pull him up, arrest him, try him. Just do not use every occasion to flash your prejudices and give even more legitimacy to a non-entity.

End note: Just wondering what would have been the reaction had this been a khatna (circumcision) ceremony of Bukhari's son/nephew/grandson and not an anointment.


Flanagan's Wake

I like Richard Flanagan already. He has won this year’s Booker Prize for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ that I have not read. I have read nothing by him, but following the award the search has yielded some wonderful insights.

Of course, I like him for saying that he is “ashamed to be Australian” because of the environmental policies of the government. But, what is more interesting is how he gets into the mind of another real person. A good writer does not only create characers out of thin air. S/he can make the most simple reality appear profound or mystical or mythical.

Flanagan has done it with David Walsh that I now know so much about Walsh and so little about Flanagan. This he manages to do without any self-effacing sophistry. In fact, he pushes the boundaries of language to create something out of somebody. In the essay for The New Yorker, he wrote:

Attempting to describe Boltanski’s devil is like trying to pick up mercury with a pair of pliers. At fifty-one, Walsh has the manner of a boy pharaoh and the accent of a working-class Tasmanian who grew up in Glenorchy, one of the poorest suburbs of the poorest state in the Australian federation. His silver hair is sometimes rocker-length long, sometimes short. Walsh talks in torrents or not at all. He jerks, he scratches, and his pigeon-toed gait is so pronounced that he bobs as he walks. He is alternately charming, bullying, or silent. As he looks away, he laughs.

This comes somewhere in the beginning, so it has to be tantalising. Flanagan certainly knows about a good way to grab attention. From his subject as arriviste, to his perversities, his enterpreneurship of the arts and his inner demons, it is a sheer treat.

Walsh’s favorite novel is “Crime and Punishment,” and conversations with him can sometimes feel like talking to the deranged narrator of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground”: possessed, but rarely less than compelling. His obsessive desire to explain makes his thoughts sometimes seem to proceed algorithmically. Though the condition has never been diagnosed, Walsh and those around him believe that he has Asperger’s. It would explain his extraordinary gift with numbers, but it is hard to know where the condition ends and bad manners start. Walsh’s rudeness is legendary. “Let’s face it,” a close friend told me. “David can be a complete cunt. But he is also the kindest and most generous man you will meet.” Walsh funds a major tennis tournament, the Moorilla Hobart International, as well as Hobart’s MOFO music festival. There are also many and ongoing private kindnesses: kids he sponsors at Hobart’s Quaker school, support of several families, and friends he constantly helps. Pointing out that Walsh has always spent more than he has earned, Ranogajec said, “David was never motivated by money.”

I doubt if the idea behind the Booker Prize is to make you fall in love with a person the writer writes about, but here you have it. I am in love with David Walsh and I couldn’t be bothered about finding out anything more than I know about him through Richard Flanagan.


Sunday ka Funda

Sometimes, soundtracks make you cry. Sometimes, simple words do. Sometimes, your thoughts find mirror images. From one of my favourite movies.

Yu Shu Lien: The Green Destiny Sword. You're giving it to Sir Te.
Li Mu Bai: I am. He has always been our greatest protector.
Yu Shu Lien: I don't understand. How can you part with it? It's been with you a long time.
Li Mu Bai: Too many men have died at its edge. It may look pure..., but only because blood washes so easily from its blade.


Line of Uncontrol

The shells that came in. Pic: Reuters

There is tension on the border again. For the past one week. India will not talk with Pakistan. Everybody knows this standoff won’t last. Cannot.

What is shocking, however, is the tone. Civilians have been killed, and nobody seems concerned about that. It is all about flexing muscles. The PM woke up from his slumber – and these days it includes giving automaton high-maintenance speeches at election rallies (his terrain) for assembly polls in Maharashtra – to get into I’m ok, you’re ok mode. “We have responded with courage to ceasefire violations,” he said, “Everything will be fine soon.”

How soon is soon, how fine is fine? Who is he talking to – the general junta, his party members, the armed forces, the opposition, Pakistan? This is what he should be telling those who are vulnerable.

I watched one TV debate and all I could hear was the anchor blabber about pulverizing Pakistan, as though the all of Pakistan and its government were sitting at the Line of Control.

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said:

“India is a responsible state. It is never an aggressor. But at the same time, it has a paramount duty to defend its people and its territory. Our Armed Forces particularly the Army and the BSF in this case have only one option – that is to respond adequately and defend our territory and our people.”

It begs the question: Why did they not do so when the first incursion and shelling took place? How did it reach those civilian areas? We have not shied away from aggression, so we don’t need this halo effect now. The minister further added:

“If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable.”

What is the measure of affordability? We do know that Pakistan is a nuclear power and it has got aid and the ability to generate money. If it is about making it unaffordable in socio-political terms, then we are dealing with a nation that has suffered defeat a few times.

Some views suggest that Nawaz Sharif wants to divert attention from local issues; others suggest that Modi is using this to gain points for the polls.

Across the border, the Pakistan People’s Party has a court jester in the form of its patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto.

Last month he had said, “I will take back Kashmir, all of it, and I will not leave behind a single inch of it because it belongs to Pakistan”, provoking titters from Kashmiris. Now he says, “Another attack on LoC. Seems India adopting Israel model vs Pakistan. Modi must realise we can retaliate unlike his victims from Gujarat.”

Not only is this juvenile, it is vicious. This punk is using victims to further the cause of his adrenaline. Those displaced in the Gujarat riots are indeed in no position to respond simply because this is not a movie. Real lives are different. He might like to talk to those in Baluchistan, Waziristan and even Karachi. He is not in power, but if this is the only way forward for him then he has already lost it.

I have not read the Pakistani papers, but it is bound to be a blame game.

This has continued for too long – the rabble-rousing on TV and social media, the verbal duel between politicians, and the inability to protect our borders, which is how civilians get killed. Why don’t we examine that?

No leader or army person has a right to place the lives of innocents at risk to further their macho political machinations and greed. Jammu and Kashmir is barely getting back on its feet after the floods, crops, trees have been flattened and these people are talking about bulldozing. 

It might help a great deal if the media is told to shut up. We do not need opinions of ill-informed news anchors who drool over the possibility of war. The border areas are not your studio nor our living room.   I have been cynical about staged 'aman ki asha' projects, but if I had to choose between peace and war, it will be peace by a long shot. Whether it is with Pakistan or Timbuktu.


Holy cows and cartoons

India loves cows, the temple variety not the ones left with festering wounds to forage in garbage dumps. The new government is serious about cow protection. As I said, we love cows, some worship them.

So, when a cow knocks on the door of an elite space club should it be considered insulting? According to the Indian worldview, the cow should have the right to be there, was in fact born to be there. Why, then, did some demand an apology from the New York Times for this cartoon in response to the Mars Orbiter Mission?

Do we consider the farmer and the beast any less when compared with our space missions? If so, then this is cause for serious concern. India is largely a rural country and agriculture continues to be its mainstay. How does it convey the image of a backward society when this is what feeds us as well as a few importing countries?

The farmer is not being obsequious about entering the elite club; he is assertive. The cow too is rather saucy and sanguine. It is the westerners reading the news who seem to be worried and shocked. They look backward because they have not come out of their cocoons to keep in touch with the world to see how far others have progressed, far enough for India to be the only one to succeed in its Mars Mission at the first attempt.

We anoint a scientific operation with a Sanskritised, almost mythified, name like Mangalyaan, we pretty much treat it as some sort of divine intervention, and then we project our insecurities on others. Strangely, I hear that Malayalis objected to it most on social media because many of ISRO’s scientists are Malayali. What does this tell us about our parochialism? It is natural to feel proud of one’s own, but let us not see a slight where there seems to be none.

The farmer and the cow are as much images of India as the camel and the bedouin are of the Middle East, in fact more so. It does not mean we have nothing else. If anything, this is a paean to the India of the majority – the villager. It is true that the farmer did not send the mission into space but scientists may come from rural backgrounds. Have we forgotten the euphoria upon the success of the mission? The most telling picture was of women scientists with flowers in their hair jubilating.

If we have a problem with the cartoon, then why not with this impression of what is Indian womanhood from a certain perspective? That too is a stereotype, where the lab-coat is seen as elite privilege.

After being pressurised, the newspaper apologised. Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, said:

“The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text - often in a provocative way - to make observations about international affairs. We apologise to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon.” He further added that the cartoonist “was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens”.

India is too vast; the people are too many and disparate. That leaves the government. This mission did not happen overnight after Narendra Modi came to power, so it is not the success of the present government at all. But I see this more as NYT trying to still play host to the PM after his NRI-slavering visit. The Indian authorities might see in this censorship of a kind an opportunity to use as precedent whenever we are faced with some truth even if it is not, or should not be, inconvenient.

We’ve got the apology from NYT (and it is always great to see NYT apologise, for different reasons), but are we going to hide the farmers from us? Will cows be placed on pedestals behind walls? Why can’t we own up to what is ours?


The Dumbing Down of Debate — Of Bhagwat, Jayalalitha and a news anchor

Why are we a part of so much noise?

Sometime last month, a friend from Pakistan sent me a text message after a long gap of non-communication. He began by asking why I had not written anything on azadi and inquilab, the public protests of Imran Khan's party. I did subsequently post something, but the fact is that unlike earlier I did not feel the need to time it.

Part of the timing thing is, of course, old journalistic habit of commenting on an event or doing a follow up feature story. It wasn't mere deadlines I was meeting; thoughts were racing through my mind and wouldn't rest until they were put down. The mental race continues.

However, I have begun to wonder and ponder. There are many reasons for it, but here are a few.

I was trying to locate an old column of mine after Jayalaithaa's arrest. Not only did I recall where it was published around the time when the case first got in the news, I remembered the picture that was used as well. While rummaging through the piles, I stopped. What was I doing and why? Did I want to scan the piece and put it up? What would it achieve? Did I want to use bits of it? Both were possibilities, and although my views are not dated I am conscious that despite the long articles written now, what registers most are stray sentences. Like some others, I do have a few of such sentences that can be highlighted. But, it is tidbits that seem to overwhelm — the number of the Tamil Nadu CM's domestic staff, what she ate, drank, wore. Would one want to break the linkages, the ingrained cohesiveness? Would one want 'light' readers to snigger about what they register as pop psychology, the calling out of which is another pop fad?

In any event, I gave up the search. Along the way, I found several pieces. One of them was on the RSS, another mentioned Mohan Bhagwat, who is in the news today because as chief of the Hindutva organisation he managed to get direct entry into national TV as Doordarshan telecast his speech live. If he has said pretty much the same things on earlier occasions, why should what happens now surprise me at all? Nothing has changed. If anything, it is the public secularists who are claiming their pound of flesh by revealing how fearful they are when they cannot even critique this kowtowing to a non-party organisation and drag in religious heads of other communities that do not — and thankfully so — have the standing to be so propped up.

It is the political wayfarers who find sustenance in such liberal rabble-rousing. In the process they ignore that history was no different. Perhaps, the ignoring is willful: It is about grabbing a spot in the sun. It is about a whoa moment holding on to the crutch of a meme to make a point that skims only the crust and lacks the drive, patience and integrity to probe the crux.

One would understand had such testosterone response been from novices. Why do seasoned analysts too join in the dirge of "We are going downhill" when all this has happened before, and not in ancient times? It has happened before our eyes in the 80s, 90s and the 2000s. The RSS speeches are the same.

What we should be doing is to keep our antenna up and raise our voices instead of looking like frightened deer before headlights. There is a horrible fallout of this: the guys in the front are getting hit. The mastermind is safe. For example, Doordarshan gets blamed for the Bhagwat speech when we know that the national channel follows government diktats. Besides that, attention is diverted from similar rightwing nonsense from previous regimes. It is one reason you rarely hear about the 1992-93 riots. This bothers me a lot.

Everybody likes a good fight, to be able to nurse wounds and egos, knowing well that in this junk-food version of news things come cheap and don't last long. And that is such a convenient thing for them. There is no fealty expected in the long run, no commitment.

During the PM's trip to the US, the way the word Modi was used revealed how indebted many in the media are to the new government and its head. A play on the name became less pun and more about building the cult.

Following an altercation between a media person and the rightwing cheerleaders, an industrialist close to the PM reportedly conveyed a message that Modi regretted what had happened. This is what should concern us more, that a businessman is acting as the conduit between a PM and a journalist.

Those holding forth have little or no experience in or about the media, just as the neo-experts are not experts at all. Journalistic space has been taken over by rightwing think-tanks or liberals with too many books and a lot of dust in their shelves. All that is debated is not news. Trivia and gossip too are discussed, and they have a place. But in the enthusiasm to legitimise the trivia or the addenda, opponents are getting more importance. Which is what they want and what they probably incited. Worse, the serious is getting reduced to the level of the frivolous, with its own version of flouncy bouncy analyses.