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.


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


Sterilisation or Sexism: The Opportunistic Battle for Primetime

One did not realise this was about competition, that too of the superficial kind. The celebrated anchor moving on to the sterilisation deaths in Chhatisgarh said, "Now to our next. This should be the first story across news channels..." Amazing. Why did he then choose to feature it after the 'girls not allowed in AMU library' and 'Abhishek Manu Singhvi spending Rs 5 crore on laptops' stories?

Are news items about what comes first, and if so who is in a position to judge others when they themselves do not follow the rules of conscience? Do the issues matter or not in this oneupmanship?

What happened in those sterilisation camps is really the sad state of affairs in our health sector. Hopping mad is not a solution, neither is demanding quick-fix action or primetime space. Indeed, dissemination of such news is important if only to make people aware that they cannot be confined to the la-la-land of full HD, but live in a larger world. One hopes such news also reaches those not leading such an existence, potential victims who need to be alerted.

According to this Guardian report, between 2013-2014 four million operations were performed; in a nine-year period between 2003-12, 1,434 people died due to such surgeries.

On November 8, some women were forced to attend the camps:

More than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp in the central state of Chhattisgarh on Saturday. About 60 fell ill shortly afterwards, officials said. At least 14 were in a very serious condition by Wednesday and the death toll was expected to rise.

Force is one of the factors that make it difficult to stem the problem. Reminds me of the horrible Turkman Gate surgeries helmed politically by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency. More than meeting targets, it was an assertion of power as it continues to be in some form.

India has to control its population. No question about it. The government cannot target the rich and the middle class, and perhaps due to education and a better living standard the "another hand to work" argument does not apply here, although the gender disparity is no less among these classes. So, invariably the poor are targeted. They are offered a small compensation, which they may or may not get.

Health workers are supposed to meet targets, and this results in a race, ignoring the health status of the women and whether they will be in a position to undergo the operation. The onus is on the women to control the population. This aspect is not addressed with enough seriousness, given that women are malnourished anyway and hardly in a position to demand a child. Childbirth is not easy for those who are expected to ensure that a boy child is born, or else they would have to bear the consequences.

This needs intervention, more than forced sterilisation. We cannot blame it on patriarchy and sit back to watch.

* * *

Talking about patriarchy and sexism Zameeruddin Shah, the Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), got himself into trouble for saying that if the main library was opened up for women then four times more men would visit it. The Times of India read "attract" to mean attraction between the sexes. It was an alarmist report. However, the response to it is no less alarmist.

The V-C saying more young men would visit if women were allowed implies they would do so because of them. I don't think there can be any dispute over this. It does not mean that AMU as an insitute of learning is backward; it just means that the V-C made an uncalled for comment. There was bound to be a reaction.

National Front of Indian Women general secretary Annie Raja said, “This shows the diseased mindset of the V-C. He is not fit to sit in that position. They should address the question of infrastructure rather than stopping girls. The library is meant for all students.”

Mr. Shah clarified:

“The issue of permitting undergraduate girls will have to wait until we create necessary extra space. Once the infrastructural issues are resolved and arrangements for safe transport for girls are made, we would certainly have no objection in permitting these girls have access to the central library. We are not at all sexist. We want women's empowerment and certainly don’t want to segregate our girls."

Many universities in India come up with weird rules, whether it is for what women should wear, whether they should be allowed to carry mobile phones, speak to men, be segregated. These incidents get widely reported, and nothing comes out of it, absolutely nothing. Each time a sexist remark is uttered, you will see the people who ought to be punished on TV justifying what they said. Those who would have been forgotten end up as newsmakers. Unless such news ensure that action is taken against the perpetrators, it just adds to the imbecility of discourse.

A different sort of alarmism comes from TV-dinner analysts. Another celebrated anchor said: "Systematic campaign to demonise Muslims ( &liberals). AMU VC comments in bad taste maybe, but blown into Islamic medievalism by media."

Oafs circumambulate their lives, and drive their opinions. AMU has students from all communities and faculty from all communities. The V-C is a former armyman and his faith ought to be of no consequence if he has said something that is cause for pause. One gets the intent quite clearly when "liberals" are deviously tagged along with "Muslims", conveying that the libs suffer a similar fate when they take up the Muslim cause.

If such people want to hit out at the BJP, then they should learn to aim and not use the shoulders of Muslims to fire the gun. The HRD minister Smriti Irani did jump in to respond to the V-C's remarks by saying it hurt her and agitated her. It is a political ploy, there is no doubt about it. But, did she speak about AMU being medieval, or Muslims and Islam being medieval? Even had she done so, she is a politician. What are these self-labeled opportunistic liberals?

They have a nice coterie to protect them. Suddenly, with the magnanimous gestures so typical of majoritarianism — "some of the most intelligent/progressive people we know are from AMU" — adding to the noise, it was about how AMU was a grand institute that was being slaughtered, when sterilisation deaths should have been given more attention. (In doing so, they did not realise that they had fed the frenzy, to begin with.) The media was blamed, often by other media persons. It has stopped being funny. This is just competitiveness for space. The fence sitters are always poised in such a way that they fall on the cushioned grass where they are butt-safe.

What I would like to hear about is how the Chhattisgarh deaths are about medieval practices of modern medicine that India continues to use. This should be drummed into our heads, and it does not mean we need to ignore sexism elsewhere for it.


Does not abuse of these women count?

Only because the police force represents the establishment, should we ignore how some cops, especially female, are treated by civilians? In Bareillly, Uttar Pradesh, men have been calling up the police stations and harassing women cops with sexually provocative comments.

This reveals a certain cockiness, besides a problem with attitude. It does not help that this report refers to the men as "desperate romeos" and the sexual harassment they indulge in as "dirty talk".

A frustrated police department has now blocked the SIM cards of 90 mobile phone owners. In October alone, more than 1,738 such calls were made. Many among those, knowing full well that the calls were being recorded, spoke such obscenity that the women cops were forced to run to their seniors for help.

Why does the report make these female cops sound like 'damsels in distress'? They have a legitimate right to complain about abuse at the workplace, whether it is by their colleagues or callers. Had a male policeman been threatened, he too might have approached his seniors.

The CO (Circle Officer) added that there were occasions when the woman cop would just hand the phone over to a male colleague, but the intrepid caller would roundly abuse the male cop, too, and threaten him with dire consequences.

Clearly, the Indian media may talk about using terms like "survivor" instead of "victim" for those who've suffered sexual violence, but has no concept of how to respect the rights of women without such sound bite crutches.


Should the fight against 'love jihad' be restricted to Hindu-Muslim alliances? Why are moderate Hindus and liberals not taking up intercaste 'honour' crimes?

Those news items are relegated to inside pages and rarely get any prominence, that too only if there is a hook to make them saleable. Meanwhile, incidents such as these continue to take place:

A Vijayawada-based man was arrested for allegedly raping his teenaged daughter over several months as punishment for having an affair with a youth from a different caste, after the victim and her mother approached the police...

"Initially, his intention was to punish her with that cruel deed. Subsequently, he developed an interest in her and went on repeating the same for almost a year", said PI (Nunna rural) Vara Prasad, who is probing the case.

A Appa Rao started out with vengeance, revenge against another caste person. There were no political ideologies involved, which is often the case. Do they matter less if there is no 'love jihad'-like catchphrase attached to them? Is there any sympathy for his teenage daughter, about her future and the love she lost?

If the Sanghis are hanging on to the phrase to demonise it, those battling against it have also made it into a business franchise. As there is a steady stream at the doors to partake of it, they realise it makes little sense to diversify into what stares them in the face by the same perpetrators — caste divisiveness and anti-Dalit sentiments. Should someone find an appropriate title, maybe our concerned liberals might join the bandwagon.


Also my piece on love, jihad and politics