Saturday, June 28, 2008

Say NO to Gorkhaland

Darjeeling must remain with West Bengal
In the summer of 1966, Hope Cooke, the American socialite-turned-Gyalmo, or Queen Consort of the ill-fated 12th Chogyal of Sikkim, created a furore in New Delhi by contesting, in an article published in the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology’s bulletin, India’s possession of Darjeeling that was ‘gifted’ to East India Company by Tsugphud Namgyal. In his book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Pioneer columnist and former editor of The Statesman Sunanda K Datta-Ray recounts how she argued that “no Sikkimese monarch was empowered to alienate territory”. According to Hope Cooke, Tsugphud Namgyal’s gift to the Company was “in the traditional context of a grant for usufructage only; ultimate jurisdiction, authority and the right to resume the land being implicitly retained”. She claimed Darjeeling’s cession was the “gift of a certain tract for a certain purpose and does not imply the transfer of sovereign rights”.
The immediate context of the Gyalmo’s assertion of the Chogyal’s indivisible rights was the web of deceit that was being spun, with more than a little help from the Kazi and other local players, by New Delhi to bring Gangtok within the orbit of its absolute control, converting India’s suzerainty into sovereignty over Sikkim. What happened subsequently is well known: Sikkim was annexed and made a part of the Union of India; the Chogyal was stripped of all powers and died a broken man; and, Hope Cooke, after separating from the Chogyal, returned to the US where she now lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York. These details are inconsequential today. What, however, is relevant is the history of Darjeeling, which is once again in the news, this time because Gorkha settlers are asserting their right to set up a homeland in the three hill divisions — Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong — apart from Siliguri and the Dooars, which they want to re-christen Gorkhaland.
History tells us how Sikkim’s borders once stretched up to eastern Nepal; how Prithvi Narayan Shah, who welded feuding clans and warring regions into a sprawling kingdom, grabbed Darjeeling; and, how General Ochterlony’s campaign against the Gorkhas resulted in the Treaty of Sugauli (also spelt Segouli) in 1816 when Nepal ceded 10,000 sq km of territory, including Darjeeling, to the East India Company. That’s where history begins and ends for the Gokhas both in Nepal and in India who are clamouring for Gorkhaland: Darjeeling was Nepali territory ceded to the British and, therefore, must now revert back to the Gorkhas.
But history also tells us, much to the discomfort of the champions of Gorkhaland, that the Treaty of Sugauli was followed by the Treaty of Titlya in 1817, whereby the British restored the land between Mechi and Teesta rivers to Sikkim, to which it legitimately belonged. Eighteen years later, the then Chogyal leased Darjeeling to the British who wanted to set up a sanatorium in its soothing, sylvan climes. In the brief lease agreement signed on February 1, 1835, the Chogyal is referred to as the ‘Sikkimputtee Rajah’. The Bengal Gazeteer informs us that in 1841 the East India Company granted the Chogyal a compensation of Rs 3,000; it was later raised to Rs 6,000.
This is how Darjeeling, till then an uninhabited mountain region, came to be inhabited. The British administrators needed ‘natives’ to first build and then maintain the picture postcard town that came up in Darjeeling. Some Bhutias and Lepchas were already there, others came from Sikkim. The demand for labour increased after planters cleared forests for tea gardens and Darjeeling Tea became a source of enormous revenue. The Gorkhas came, as did tribals from what is now Jharkhand, to work as ‘coolies’ in the gardens, plucking leaves and working shifts in the tea-curing and packaging factories. Bengalis sought and found employment as babus (clerks) in the tea gardens, in the municipal administration and other establishments, for example schools set up by missionaries primarily for the children of Anglo-Indian families.
In 1907, the Hillmen’s Association petitioned the British for a separate administrative set-up free from Bengal; the petition was contemptuously ignored, and rightly so. After independence and the reorganisation of States, Darjeeling, along with the Dooars, became a part of West Bengal. Darjeeling has since been designated a separate district, Siliguri is part of Jalpaiguri district in the foothills, and the Dooars are part of Cooch Behar district. The Gorkhas who came and settled in Darjeeling, Siliguri and the Dooars became citizens of India in 1950; a separate Gazette notification was issued to settle this point and remove any doubts about their citizenship.
The status of Darjeeling may have been considered a settled issue by Kolkata and New Delhi, and after Sikkim’s annexation, Gangtok, but not by the Gorkha settlers. In 1986 Mr Subash Ghising launched a violent agitation to press the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s demand for a separate Gorkhaland, citing West Bengal’s “step-motherly” treatment of Darjeeling and “exploitation” of its residents. He was clearly motivated by dreams of helping re-establish ‘Greater Nepal’ by creating a bridge between Nepal and Sikkim. The agitation ended with the signing of an agreement, which resulted in the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, an elected and empowered body that would look after development-related issues. Mr Ghising failed to deliver and became a Sagina Mahato, putty in the hands of the West Bengal Government and happy to have his snout in the trough.
Cut to 2008: Mr Bimal Gurung, a former associate of Mr Ghising, has parted company with the GNLF and floated his own separatist organisation, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, and revived the demand for Gorkhaland. He has audaciously staked claim to the three hill divisions of Darjeeling as well as Siliguri and the Dooars. The revival of the agitation coincides with Maoists — who hope to re-establish the frontiers of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s ‘Greater Nepal’ — coming to power in Kathmandu. Mr Gurung’s agitation has little to do with “local aspirations” of Gorkhas; it is as insidious and dangerous as the assertion of ‘Kashmiriyat’ in Kashmir Valley.
Those who are “sympathetic” to the demand for Gorkhaland would do well to bear in mind that ‘Greater Nepal’ is not only about Nepal expanding its territory in the east up to Teesta, but also recovering the land ceded by Prithvi Narayan Shah which stretches up to Sutlej. If we concede the demand for Gorkhaland, we should be prepared to concede vast tracts of land in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. If the latter is not acceptable, then a third partition of Bengal is equally unacceptable.

(Sunday Pioneer, Coffee Break, June 29, 2008.)

(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

Friday, June 27, 2008

Muslim rage against America

This isn’t about India’s interest!
Strolling along a flagstoned Byzantine lane in the Arab quarter of the walled city of Jerusalem near the Temple Mount — the Al Aqsa mosque is an imposition of later vintage — I spotted a bowl containing pieces of exquisite coral in the window of a Bedouin jewellery shop. The man behind the counter was obviously an Arab, one of the many who live and work in Israel and are far better off than the Palestinians in Gaza Strip and West Bank, although they are loath to admit it. I greeted the man in halting street Arabic and inquired about the coral. A smile broke out on his face and he asked, “Indian?”
In Egypt, the question would have been, “Indian or Pakistani?” Since Pakistanis do not visit Israel, the second option did not arise. I answered in the affirmative and tried to steer the conversation to the price of the coral, but he would not have any of it. He issued rapid-fire instructions to his assistant, asking him to get mint tea, which arrived within minutes. Meanwhile, he launched into a harangue on how India had dumped Muslims both at home and abroad to “befriend the Zionists and the Americans”.
For evidence he cited the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and Israel’s supply of military hardware to India. His knowledge of the twists and turns of the nuclear deal, the rejection of it by India’s Muslims and the Left’s ideological opposition to New Delhi forging a strategic relationship with Washington, DC, was truly amazing.
Asked about the source of his information, he said, “Arab newspapers from Misr (Egypt) and Saudi Arabia”. Apparently, local Arab sheets published in the Palestinian Authority areas had been reproducing commentary and opinion articles from newspapers published from Cairo and Riyadh. As for Indian Muslims feeling agitated about India moving closer to the US, the Internet, he said, was an excellent source of information.
The shaai was good, but the coral was far too expensive for me — I had a feeling he had raised the price after sensing my unease over his diatribe and at times abusive references to how “Hindus are conspiring with Jews and Christians against Muslims”. So we parted company after the customary round of kissing; I promised I would return for the coral, perhaps he knew I wouldn’t.
But the halt at this Arab jewellery shop was not entirely wasted: It had provided me with an insight into the ‘ummah web’ — how Muslims separated by borders, land and sea remain connected, feeding on each other’s anger and fuelling each other’s rage with the help of conspiracy theories and imagined grievances. Much of the rage is directed at the West; most of the anger is aimed at the US. As for the Zionists, if the ummah had its way, insha’allah, Israel would cease to exist.
Months later, at an international conference on radical Islam, in which most of the participants were Muslim scholars and theologians, this perception of the ummah’s worldview was strengthened as participants stopped short of chanting “Death to America!” while caustically rebuking both the Congress and the BJP for taking India closer to the US and Israel. A participant from India, by no means a fanatic mullah with hennaed beard and skullcap, asserted that if the Government went ahead with formalising the nuclear deal with the US, it would be as good as “ignoring the sentiments of 150 million Muslims at home” and “enraging Muslims abroad”.
There is nothing startlingly new about such aggressive assertion of ‘Muslim sentiments’, which are invariably pegged to imagined grievances and inflamed by perceived notions of Christians and Jews — and, in India’s case, Hindus — conspiring against the ummah. From Indonesia to Turkey, via the sand castles of Islamic states in between, the targets of Muslim ire are the same; the intensity of rage ebbs and flows depending on events as they happen and as they are seen to happen.
So, cartoons that allegedly lampoon Mohammed published in a Dutch newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, of which nobody had ever heard before, become the cause of angry street protests and threats of murder and mayhem one day; on another, jaundiced reports of torture at Guantanamo Bay, whose details pale in comparison to the horrors inflicted by the Taliban, result in violent outrage. At Friday sermons, the two disparate issues are slyly merged into one: Islam is under assault; the ummah is endangered; and, America is to blame.
It would be erroneous to trace the Muslim rage that we see to post-9/11 American policy and the war on terror being waged by President George W Bush. It is true that Muslims view the Taliban’s loss of power, which Mullah Omar and his band of Deobandi fanatics wielded ruthlessly and which saw the sickening debasement of women and girls, as a blow against the ummah and their faith. It is equally true that Muslims grieve over the fall and death of Saddam Hussein, who turned to god after decades of Ba’athist atrocities that included mass slaughter and terrible torture.
Yet, Muslim displeasure with America is not merely on account of the discontinuation of the shocking spectacle of shari’ah being enforced in its purest, most pristine form in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein getting his just desserts. It predates 9/11. Mr Zafarul-Islam Khan, editor of Milli Gazette, published from Delhi, traces the “roots of Muslim anger at the US and West to long before the illegal and unjust current imperialist crusade in Afghanistan under the guise of fighting terrorism”.
The ‘roots’, according to him, lie in “normalisation of relations with Israel”, “US role in condoning Serbian aggression in Bosnia” and “economic attrition of the Muslim world resources”. The list of imagined grievances is too long to be reproduced here, but it does highlight two points: First, Muslim concerns — for instance, in India — transcend local realities and are essentially pan-Islamic issues that agitate the entire ummah; second, even if there were no India-US nuclear deal, India’s Muslims, as also their co-religionists elsewhere, would have been equally angry with America and Mr Bush; they would have still gathered in frighteningly huge numbers in Delhi and rioted in Lucknow to protest against his visit to India.
Seen in this context, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member MK Pandhe was merely stating the fact when he warned the Samajwadi Party of a Muslim backlash if it supported the nuclear deal and joined forces with the Congress to push it through. The Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind’s protest against the CPI(M)’s “attempt to communalise the issue” and the claim by other Muslim organisations, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami, that Muslims are opposed to the nuclear deal because they believe it is “not in the national interest”, need not be taken seriously.
Unless we must believe that the Arab shopkeeper in old Jerusalem who chided me for New Delhi’s increasing proximity to Washington, DC and Tel Aviv shares the ‘concern’ of Indian Muslims for India’s national interest. If this is absurd, as surely it is, so is the Jamaatis’ concern for India’s national interest, which, thankfully, has not yet been supplanted by the ummah’s interest.

(The Pioneer, leading article, Edit Page, June 28, 200g)

(c) CMYK Printech Ltd.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Prime Minister in high dudgeon

A supplicant in the court of George W Bush
The Prime Minister, by all available accounts, is in high dudgeon. Having promised the Americans that he would ensure the bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation is signed, sealed and delivered before President George W Bush vacates his current lodgings, Mr Manmohan Singh finds the deal foundering on the rock of Communist obstinacy. Ever since the July 18, 2005 joint statement, which was issued after his meeting with Mr Bush at the White House, Mr Singh has pursued the deal with single-minded determination, caring little for national pride and even lesser for national interest. He has had no compunction keeping the Opposition in the dark on so momentous an issue; at the same time, he has craftily invoked Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's name to convince the BJP into supporting what is patently an unfavourable deal, not least because it serves American commercial and strategic interests, subsuming those of India.

Three years down the line, with time running out rapidly both for him as well as his mentors in Washington, DC, Mr Singh, under increasing American pressure to deliver on his promise, is now desperate to conclude the nuclear cooperation agreement. So, though not for the first time, Mr Singh has slyly let it be known that he is prepared to resign from office rather than see the deal die its deserved death. At a time when the national economy is in the doldrums and prices of essential commodities are shooting through the roof, all that he can think of is appeasing the Americans at any which cost. He is least concerned about the appalling performance of the Government he heads or the shenanigans of his Cabinet colleagues. The fact that governance, and along with it India's development story, has virtually come to a grinding halt does not appear to bother him. Nor is he particularly perturbed about the gloomy internal security situation.

All that he wants is the draft 123 Agreement to be converted into a bilateral arrangement that will severely compromise India's strategic interests even while serving US commercial interests by reviving the out-of-business American nuclear power industry, without fetching us any tangible gains. Since propagandists have been claiming that the deal will allow us access to American technology, it needs to be said, and said again, that this is so much bunkum and no more. The ban on transfer of dual-use high technology shall continue to remain in place and the commercial nuclear power technology that will be provided will be under restrictive safeguards. Of course, Mr Bush will be able to claim a foreign policy 'success' and his end-of-term report card shall not be drenched in red ink. The Democrats, who are slated to seize control over both Capitol Hill and the White House after this November's elections, will then use the agreement to further their non-proliferation agenda: Forcing India to sign the CTBT is only the thin end of the edge; the crushing blow will come in the form of the missile technology control and fissile material cut-off regimes to which we shall have to abjectly surrender.

In this wondrous land of ours, such fine details are of little or no consequence. You are either with America or against America. If you are with America, and believe that it is in India's interest to have a strategic relationship with the US -- which is indisputable -- then you must support the deal. What if you do believe in forging a strategic partnership with the US but are opposed to the nuclear deal in its present form for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology but national and strategic interest?

The Left's obstruction of the deal stems from its ideological opposition, call it posturing if you will, to 'American imperialism'. For evidence, look at the CPI(M) Polit Bureau's statement issued on Saturday: "A massive disinformation campaign has been mounted that nuclear energy is a solution not only to the shortage of electricity in the country but also an answer to the oil price rise. This is nothing but a cover to promote the strategic ties with the US." Earlier last week, the CPI(M) had berated the Government for trying to forge an India-Israel-US axis, which to the Marxists would be evil personified. But there are also those who are opposed to the deal as much as they are opposed to the Left's anti-imperialism sloganeering and its bogus anti-Americanism. Most, if not all, of them belong to the same middleclass which our politicians mistakenly believe unequivocally and blindly supports everything American.

It is entirely possible that the Congress, or at least certain sections of it, faced with mounting disquiet over rising prices -- inflation now stands at 11.05 per cent, the same level as in 1995 when Mr Singh was the Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao's Government -- has come round to the view that it can mollify the middleclass by pushing through the nuclear deal with the US. It may not be entirely coincidental that the latest effort by the Prime Minister to conclude the agreement follows the publication of the results of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which shows that 55 per cent of Indians support Mr Bush; 66 per cent view the US favourably; and, 90 per cent are gung-ho about trade with America. What it does not highlight is that these findings reflect the 'attitudes' of 2,056 Indians who live in chrome-and-glass cities, many of whom would do whatever it takes to see their children migrate to the US and become American Green Card holders if not citizens. The remaining more than a billion Indians do not necessarily agree with them, which, however, does not suggest India hates America.

The fact of the matter is Mr Singh is as clueless about prevailing national sentiments and concerns as the Congress. Cocooned in the sanitised world of 7, Race Course Road and South Block, he has no idea about the anger that is boiling over in India's cities and villages as people struggle to keep their home fire burning. It will be hugely entertaining to hear Congress leaders, and their lackeys in the UPA, tell voters at election rallies that while the Government may have failed to hold the price line, it has succeeded in securing cockamamie guarantees of nuclear fuel supply, which in turn, at some distant date, will provide the people with nuclear power. What they will not mention is that nuclear power, when new reactors go critical more than a decade later, will be frightfully expensive and never contribute more than a tenth of India's requirement of electricity. So, never mind if you are hungry now, vote for the Congress.

Meanwhile, I have missed the deadline hoping to hear that the Prime Minister has made up his mind.

A conversation with Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies, the latest novel by Amitav Ghosh based on the cultivation of poppy along the Ganga in the Bhojpur region to feed East India Company's opium factories and sustain Britain's illicit opium trade with China that left the imperial coffers in London overflowing with wealth, has just been published. It is a fascinating story that unfolds in the 1830s, centred around Deeti, and reminds us of the journey undertaken by 'girmitiyas' — indentured workers who signed an agreement or 'girmit' — across the forbidden kala paani to foreign shores to work in sugar plantations. It is about disinherited nobility, disempowered peasantry, caste, community and kin — the many identities that make up the Indian identity at home and abroad. The following are excerpts from a conversation between Kanchan Gupta and the celebrated writer that took place on a rain-drenched afternoon in Delhi

Kanchan Gupta: I am sure it feels great to have your tenth book published. Sea of Poppies has made a big entry and been received with rave reviews. The British newspapers have lavished praise on the book, especially The Times. And this is only the first of a trilogy…

Amitav Ghosh: A trilogy, yes…

KG: So, how do you plan to carry forward the story of Sea of Poppies?

AG: You know, I think my approach to it is going to be like driving a car at night. You can't see very far ahead of what you can see in your headlight. You keep driving slowly down the road so someday you will get there. I don't think that one can have a sense of what it is going to be like at the end of it. The interest and pleasure of it will really lie in the writing.

KG: But surely there's a big picture… there could be various routes to reaching the final destination. Even if you are driving at night you do know where you want to go…

AG: Yes, there are various routes, various options. But you know, two or three years down the line I may decide to take a different route… It's impossible to talk about something that's not written yet.

KG: In a recent article you have mentioned how one of your ancestors travelled from East Bengal to Chapra and although there's no conclusive evidence, most probably he was involved in the opium trade… Is that what triggered your interest or is it that you wanted to build a story up to 1857 since it is very much there in our conscience now?

AG: No, it's nothing like that. You know my interest really began while I was writing the Glass Palace. I became very interested in the whole business of indentured workers. The process of indenture and how it happened.
It's a curious thing about indenture… the children of the indentured workers, I mean the great, great grand children, you know, there are some very great writers among them… VS Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul… some of our greatest contemporary writers… and they have given us a very vivid picture of what it was for the descendents of these people to grow up wherever they happened to be.
But from our end, from the Indian end, we really never had any sense of what happened. How those processes came into being, how the indentured labourers left, what was the mechanism by which they left. And for me this had a very personal connection simply because of my family having lived in the Bhojpur region for a long time.
I wanted to write about the early years, when indenture first started, which is actually in the 1830s. Once I started looking into it and researching it, it became pretty inescapable because, I mean, it's a strange thing that we have so completely forgotten it now, but this was the biggest opium-producing region the world has ever known.

KG: Michael Binyon, in his review of Sea of Poppies in The Times, begins his article with a very telling line, "The British version of history glosses over the time when this country was the world's biggest drug pusher." That was 200 years ago…

AG: Not even 200 years, until the 1920s it was the biggest drug pusher in the world.

KG: And now you have Afghanistan growing the poppies and feeding Europe's hunger for heroin!

AG: You know, we can take no pleasure in that, this is one of those stories. The whole business of drugs is quite an incredibly grim and hideous thing. I mean, I don't think it's a pleasurable irony in that sense. You don't want this scourge inflicted upon any nation. It's good to remind ourselves of this history. You know, really it was these drugs grown in India that brought about the downfall of China.

KG: Some Indian authors have written about indentured labour, or mentioned it in their novels. Sunil Gangopadhyay…

AG: Aachchha? I didn't know about this…

KG: Why did you choose poppy cultivation and the opium trade? It could have been indigo. After all, indigo cultivation and the entire process was equally dehumanising and fed imperial coffers, it was equally devastating.

AG: Indigo and opium are not quite similar, you know. Indigo was a plantation crop, opium was not a plantation crop. There was some idea of converting opium into a plantation crop. So, we must resist the temptation of assimilating them, although they were similar in the sense of imposing a monoculture. But the mechanism was quite different.
These (poppy cultivators) were peasant farmer who basically were given advances to work on the land and it was through this mechanism of credit that things intensified.

KG: How did you think up Deeti?

AG: You know, the difference between writing history and writing novels is that history scholars are there already while in novels sometimes you just have an idea or you have an image. All my novels have begun with certain images, certain pictorial or visual images. And that's how it happened with Deeti.
As much as Deeti sees Zachary (who steers Ibis, the ship carrying indentured labourers to Mauritius, in the book) while she is standing in the Ganga, I similarly had a sense of actually being able to see her. She became for me the centre of the book around whom the story unfolds or anchors itself.
It happens like that. You know, you can't plan a book the nuts and bolts way.

I knew Deeti would be an important character right from the start — all my characters are important — but I didn't really expect she would become the central figure the way she has. She did become for me, how shall I say, she became the mast...

KG: She carries the book forward, linking the various strands and layers or the story…

AG: That's right.

KG: And then you built the other characters keeping her in mind or they just happened?

AG: No, no. They are completely individual and separate characters.

KG: Kalua, the 'untouchable' bullock cart driver who rescues Deeti, for instance…

AG: Kalua, too. He is a completely individual and separate character. You know what happened with Kalua (laughs) was when I went to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius — which is a truly marvellous archive and they have preserved all the earliest papers of the indenture, including the immigration slips — I looked through the papers carefully and I came upon one which had this name Kalua!
It's a strange thing, a lot has been written about these indentured labourers and immigration certificates that they took, but I discovered something which I have never seen anyone comment upon. I will tell you what it is.
See the immigration slips are like this (draws a rectangle in the air) and they have a few printed lines for name, age, caste, appearance, weight. Later they began attaching photographs but on the earlier ones there were no photographs.
All of this is written in English. If you turn the thing over, in the corner it's written in Bangla, you know, little notations are written in Bangla. And that was what really caught my attention. The things that were noted on the back of the slips tell a peculiar history. Each of the notations ended with a Dafadar — for example, Ismail Dafadar, Rafiq Dafadar or Lallu Dafadar and so on.
That's one thing you would see on the back of the slips. And also in Bangla you would see a version of the name of the indentured labourer. So, clearly what happened is that these dafadars were the ones who recruited the indentured labourers and brought them to Kolkata. There he went to some gomusta or serishta, a Bengali babu, to whom he would hand over the slips and he would be told to bring his gang. The gomusta or serishta would
ask for the names of those seeking indenture, scribble them on the back of the slips and then put down the dafadar's name who would be paid per head. This would be the initial
The slips were then passed on to another gomusta or serishta, also a Bengali clerk, who would then translate the names into English. So, on the back of the slip in Bangla it is written 'Kalua', on the other side it is 'Colver'! When you see that piece of paper you already see such an enormous journey.

KG: In Trinidad I was told that the corruption of names took place when the indentured labourers got off their ships and English clerks entered their names in ledgers. So Basudev became Basdeo …

AG: This is the mythology. They had to have the migration certificates before they left. The corruption of names was done by Bengalis sitting in Kolkata! That was to me a real discovery.

KG: Why Mauritius and not Trinidad? After all, Trinidad symbolises everything about indentured labour.

AG: Well, the Trinidad indenture began much later. Mauritius indenture is the first. In proportion of numbers, it's the biggest. Also, it is the only place in the world where the descendents of indentured labourers are a numerically preponderant group.
So, in many ways the Mauritius indenture is the most interesting because it establishes the patterns for all the subsequent indentures. Among the girmitiya communities around the world, they look upon the Mauritians as the aristocrats!

KG: We have forgotten that Mauritius was also a penal colony where people were despatched as punishment. People only refer to Andaman islands…

AG: Yes, and prisoners would be stripped and photographed. In a way, the penal colony in Mauritius was the original Abu Ghraib. Photographing them naked was an assertion of control and served the purpose of humiliating the prisoners. It remains the metaphor of the imperial experience.

KG: You have used words that we don't come across every day… a language that was spoken during the East India Company days by the sahibs. The reviewer in The Times could not comprehend most of the stuff. He has written, "But the clothes — zerbaft brocade, shanbaff dhoti, alliballie kurta, jooties and nayansukh — or the ranks and offices — dasturi, sirdar, maharir, serishtas and burkundaz — are frankly incomprehensible. And that is Ghosh's trick: We clutch at what we can, but swaths of narrative wash over us, just as they did over those caught up in a colonial history they could neither control nor understand."

AG: It's all about assimilation of words. I have used words from the Oxford English Dictionary. Today we hear that English is more absorptive and assimilative, that it has become global. But in the 19th century the role played by Asian languages in English was much, much greater than today. In the 20th century what happened, without being stated, is a purification of English where Asian words were dropped or treated as marginal to English language.
When you read this book, you will find many words that have crept in so completely that they are not even recognised to be foreign. But there's a category of words that even though they are English, appear in the guise of something alien. If they go and look at the Oxford English Dictionary and find these words there, what is The Times going to say? Why are these words any more foreign to English than the other words they are accustomed to?
We are taught there's a standard English and these are the words that can be used. So, if it's a gun, you can't call it a bandook, although it is in the Oxford English Dictionary. Take for instance balti. If you look up the Oxford English Dictionary, balti is defined as north Indian style of cooking. But actually balti is a Portuguese word which was introduced to Indian languages by the laskars, it meant a ship's bucket. Which Indian will believe balti is not an Indian word?

Languages, for me, are like water, they flow into each other and cannot be distinguished from one another.

KG: You deserve to be complimented for the effortless ease with which you introduce entire phrases and sentences in Bangla and then continue in English. Do you do this because you just take it for granted that the readers will get the hang of it, even if they do not understand Bangla?

AG: Look, when we were kids, we were reading books in English, books which had things like 'potted meat'. I had no idea what potted meat meant, but that didn't stop me from reading the book! You can't expect to understand every word of a book, and why should you? In any book that you are reading there will be things that will elude you, that are going to be outside your comprehensive understanding.

KG: It was a pleasure speaking to you.

AG: We had a very interesting conversation.
("India was the biggest opium producing region in the world" -- The Pioneer, Opeditorial page, June 20, 2008. (c) CMYK Printech Ltd.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Who killed Gen Zia?

Pak One blew up with him, US Ambassador Raphel and eight Pakistani Generals
Who killed Gen Zia?
General Zia-ul-Haq, military dictator of Pakistan, patron of Khalistani terrorists and a 'staunch ally' of the US who collaborated with the CIA in the American funded and armed jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, had hoped to win the Nobel peace prize in 1988 for halting the spread of Communism. At least that was what he had been led to believe by the Americans.
Instead, Gen Zia died in an air crash on August 17, 1988. The US-supplied Hercules C-130 aircraft, a sturdy turboprop transport plane with multiple, fail-proof back-up systems, in which he was travelling, did loops in the sky and then nose-dived to the ground, its tail doing a 'whiplash' before it turned into a huge, roaring ball of fire. Along with Gen Zia, US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel, head of the American military aid mission Gen Herbert M Wassom, chairman of Pakistan's chiefs of staff committee Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman, and eight other Pakistani generals and the crew, were incinerated in that blaze.
Pak One could not have gone down in so dramatic a manner within four minutes of taking off from Bahawalpur, a dusty outpost in Punjab province where Gen Zia and the Army top brass had gathered for the field trial of Abrams M-1 battle tanks which the US was trying to sell to Pakistan.
The plane had been double security checked and had done a dummy mission the previous day to ensure all systems were working fine. 'Code Red', the highest security alert, had been in force for some time in Islamabad and nobody could have had access to the aircraft, barring those whom Gen Zia trusted. And there weren't many in this rarest of rare category of military officers in Pakistan.
Foul play was suspected and Gen Zia's grieving widow openly declared that "his own" had killed him. With Gen Zia no longer scowling at them menacingly, Pakistani journalists had a field day speculating on what could have happened. The Reagan Administration was remarkably calm in its response; the Pakistani establishment, now headed by a new Army chief, reacted with astonishing haste.
No autopsy or forensic tests were performed on the bits and pieces of human bodies, charred bones, disfigured heads, scorched torsos and boots with severed feet recovered from the crash site. Families of the victims were "strictly instructed" not to open the coffins containing their remains and to bury them immediately. Arnold Raphel and Gen Herbert M Wassom were buried with military honours at Arlington Cemetery.
For all the speculation that followed the crash and the exit of a particularly vicious dictator who ordered men and women to be flogged in public and adulterers to be stoned to death as part of his 'Islamisation' programme, nothing definitive ever came out of the joint US-Pakistan inquiry. The Pakistanis insisted the plane had been "sabotaged"; the Americans vaguely suggested "mechanical failure".
The real story remains an abiding mystery 20 years after the event. If it was, indeed, an assassination then Gen Zia is the only assassinated South Asian Head of State whose assassins remain unidentified. His fiery exit cannot but haunt others, especially Gen Pervez Musharraf, who is believed to have been sufficiently alarmed on reading recent media reports that a military aircraft was on standby for him to leave the country if push came to shove, to issue a formal denial and get the US State Department to issue one, too. The objective situation that prevails in Pakistan -- a President under siege, a dysfunctional Government, widespread disquiet and Americans desperate to retain control -- is similar to that which prevailed during the last months of Gen Zia's 11-year-reign.
Seen in the context of the political turmoil, the uncertain future that stares Gen Musharraf in the face, the Army buying peace with Al Qaeda elements and the US waging a reverse jihad against the very jihadis it had once nourished to fight the Soviet troops, Mohammed Hanif's spectacular book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, published by Random House this week, acquires a certain importance. Hanif describes his book as an "alleged novel", but its characters, barring the person telling the story and a few others, are far from fictitious.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a painstaking recreation of the weeks leading to Gen Zia's plane crash. Laced with dark humour, it tells the story of a man doomed to die the way he did, his death foretold by a sura of the Quran which he chances upon. The book also reopens chapters that had been presumably closed, reviving all the conspiracy theories that had gradually disappeared from Army mess gossip and Pakistani newspapers over the past two decades.
Hanif has effectively revived the big question: Who killed Gen Zia? He dismisses the crafty assertion of the Americans that the plane went down because of "mechanical fault" by not even touching on it. Instead, his book unfolds the various possible plots and unmasks the potential assassins and conspirators, pitilessly exposing the underbelly of the Pakistani establishment, dominated by the Army and the ISI, and the nexus between Pakistan and the US, which is frighteningly destructive for the former and cynically self-serving for the latter.
What A Case of Exploding Mangoes does is to present the various conspiracy theories in their specific context and then integrates them into a big picture where the central purpose of each conspirator is to get rid of Gen Zia for reasons that range from self-aggrandisement to liberating Pakistan from a man who made a mockery of Islam while pretending to be a fanatical believer, from national security to international geo-politics. Hanif forays into uncharted territory armed with slivers of the truth behind the crash of 1988, and paints a fascinating picture of low intrigue in high places, including those in Islamabad and Washington. So who did it?
Theory One: The CIA did it. Arnold Raphel was the American ambassador co-ordinating the US-funded jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But was he really in the loop? Hanif's account has it that William (Bill) Casey, then CIA director, had a direct hotline with Gen Zia and, along with his friend Prince Naif of Saudi Arabia, would drop in for a hearty Punjabi meal at Army House without bothering to inform Raphel of his arrival in and departure from Pakistan.
On a day-to-day basis, Chuck Coogan was running the show for the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There were many others representing various US agencies.
Raphel would often wonder whether he was in command, a point highlighted during the Kabul-Texas barbeque he hosted for his 'friends' where 'OBL' -- Osama bin Laden -- strolled in and was warmly welcomed by Coogan. Later that evening, Gen Akhtar, yet to be stripped of his job as ISI chief, got the feeling that the CIA was done with Gen Zia and had little use for the man with shining white teeth and a dancing moustache now that Moscow was pulling out its troops from Afghanistan.
But why would the CIA also kill Raphel and Gen Wassom? Here the theory splits into two possibilities. First, the CIA carries out its missions on the basis that there could be collateral damage. Second, Raphel and Gen Wasson were supposed to travel by their own aircraft, parked at Bahawalpur, after attending the field trial of the Abrams tanks. Gen Zia insisted they travel with him on the C-130 at the last minute, virtually forcing them to join him on the journey.
The CIA had enough contacts in the Army to have ensured a "mechanical fault" in Pak One while it was parked at Bahawalpur. The US State Department and the Pentagon were prompt in denying permission to the FBI to investigate the crash although American officials had died in the disaster. Congressional hearings were short-circuited and a 250-page file, stamped "Top Secret", remains classified in the vaults of the US National Archives. What has fuelled this theory is the stunningly meek response of the US Administration, then headed by President Ronald Reagan, to the crash and the calm manner in which a National Security Council member, Robert Oakley, was despatched to take over the American mission.
Theory Two: The ISI did it. This is where Hanif's book comes alive. Gen Akhtar was unceremoniously removed by Gen Zia from his job as ISI chief after it was discovered that he had bugged Army House and was not only recording the dictator's telephone conversations but also filming him with a spy camera embedded in the monocled eye of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in a portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam. The job went to Gen Aslam Beg, an ambitious soldier who was then vice-chief of Army staff.
Slighted, humiliated and stripped of all power, Gen Akhtar plotted Gen Zia's assassination with the help of his factotum, Major Kiyani, and other loyalists. They placed a can of lavender air freshener, laced with VX gas -- which knocks people out in two minutes and kills them during the third minute -- in the air-conditioning duct of Pak One. The can would be activated during Gen Zia's return journey.
Gen Akhtar was not supposed to accompany Gen Zia to Bahawalpur, but was summoned to join the delegation on the morning of the visit. He tried to break off after the Abrams field trial, but was buttonholed by Gen Zia into accompanying him. Before the flight took off, Hanif tells us, a panic-struck Gen Akhtar told the crew not to switch on the air-conditioning system as Gen Zia was 'unwell'. As luck would have it, the pilot tried to duck a crow and the sudden loss of altitude switched on the system, releasing the deadly VX gas.
Hanif's account mentions radio transmission being picked up by Gen Beg's aircraft, following Pak One, according to which the pilot and the crew in the cockpit were dead within three minutes of the air-conditioning system being switched on. With nobody in control, the C-130 crashed to the ground, nose first, and then blew up, four minutes after taking off. So, if the ISI did it, its plan was botched by Gen Zia's insistence that the plotters fly with him.
Theory Three: The Army did it. Despite Gen Zia's zealotry, the majority of the officers in the Pakistani Army was appalled by the dictator's insistence on injecting Islam into every sphere of Pakistani life and converting soldiers into mullahs. Gen Beg is depicted as a cold, calm and calculating officer of the old school, who is not easily charmed by Gen Zia or forced into doing anything against his better judgement. He could have decided to deliver the Army from Gen Zia's vicious grip.
Gen Zia tried to convince him also into accompanying him on the return journey from Bahawalpur, but the wily General managed to steer clear of the doomed delegation and insisted on travelling in his own Cessna. He saw Pak One going down but did not return to Bahawalpur. Instead, he proceeded to Islamabad to take charge as Army chief and preside over Pakistan's return to democracy.
As ISI chief, he may have come to know of the plot hatched by Gen Akhtar and decided to ignore it. This would also indicate why he steadfastly refused to board Pak One even at the risk of offending Gen Zia. After the crash, the Army showed little interest in getting to the truth.
A sub-plot of the Army being behind the crash has it that a disgruntled cadet -- Ali Shigri in Hanif's book -- decided to avenge his father's murder by those running the American jihad. The cadet dips the tip of his sword in a phial of krait's venom and nicks Gen Zia while he is inspecting a drill at Bahawalpur. But the theory is flawed because Gen Zia's death by itself would not have caused Pak One to go down, unless it coincided with the CIA and ISI theories.
Theory Four: A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Gen Zia was gifted crates of Bahawalpuri mangoes which prompted him to have a 'mango party' on board Pak One. He dragged Gen Akhtar, Raphel and Gen Wassom along with him on the return journey for the 'mango party'. One of two things could have happened subsequently. Bombs hidden in the crates of mangoes may have exploded, bringing the aircraft down. Or, they may have been laced with poison, killing those who consumed them. But since the flight had not yet stabilised, it is unlikely the mango party had begun. And according to eyewitness accounts, there was no mid-air explosion; the plane blew up only after hitting the ground.
Members of the Pakistani-American investigation team who rummaged through the crashed aircraft are believed to have found traces of phosphorous, potassium and other chemicals on burnt mangoes that can be used for making an explosive device. What if the plane did explode midair and then crashed?
After all, the eyewitness accounts may not be as truthful as they have been made out to be. Frankly, nobody saw Pak One going down, except Gen Beg, and he would have good reasons to steer clear of giving an honest version of what he saw.
So who was behind the exploding mangoes? It could have been the Mago Growers Association, a Communist organisation miffed with Gen Zia for being a "staunch ally" of the Americans. It could have been the Afghan secret service getting back at the man who helped destabilise that country in so awful a manner. It could have been the CIA. It could have been the Army. Or, it could have been 'OBL' testing his skills at blowing up planes in preparation of 9/11.
Cover story, Foray / Sunday Pioneer / June 9, 2008
(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

Inquisition: The burden of Goa's past

Church of St Francis
The burden of Goa's past
Goa is dotted with charming little grottos dedicated to Mary and her son, shaded by ancient trees with gnarled trunks. Some of these are believed to have mystical powers to heal the sick and ensure a safe journey for motorists. The devout stop by every day to remove yesterday's floral offerings, light candles and place fresh flowers -- crimson hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, bright yellow honeysuckle or a clutch of flame of the forest -- while whispering prayers and seeking salvation. I was told that for many Hindus these grottos are on a par with neighbourhood temples -- the burning joss sticks are often their contribution; at some of the grottos there are earthen diyas.
Of course, these humble grottos, often crafted out of stone, pale in comparison to Goa's majestic, lime-washed churches that tower above everything else and bear testimony to its colonial past when it was an outpost of Portugal. That's how it would have remained had the Indian Army not marched in and liberated Goa on December 19, 1961. This was preceded by a surge of nationalism among Goans of all faiths who were eager to break free of Portugal and throw in their lot with India. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was to later capture this mood in his film, Saat Hindustani, which also marked Amitabh Bachchan's entry into Mumbai's film industry. Abbas won the 'Best Feature Film' award; Bachchan was honoured with the National Film Award for the 'Best Newcomer'. And so was history made.
The departing Portuguese offered to take home their loyalists. But only a handful of Goans boarded the ship to Portugal. Some years ago, during a visit to Lisbon, I met a few old Goan families who had migrated to the 'King's country', opened up small businesses, usually corner shops, and then began to miss their 'mother country'. Their children have sort of integrated with Portuguese society, but the elderly women and men still feel left out, their printed knee-length cotton frocks and crisp linen suits a bit of an oddity in today's Portugal.
But let's not digress from the majestic churches of Goa. A slim pamphlet meant for tourists informs visitors, "Church-building was one of the main occupations of the early Portuguese and in fact one of Vasco da Gama's main missions for finding the sea route to India was to 'seek Christians and spices'." It goes on to add, "Christianity was forced upon (Goans) with religious fervour by the Portuguese during the period of the 'Inquisition' with wide scale destruction of temples and this continued till the official end of the 'Inquisition' in Goa in 1812. Most of Goa's churches were built on the very site of former temples. The confiscated lands of the temples were handed over to the Church and the communidades. In fact, the first Hindu temple allowed to be constructed by the Portuguese in 300 years was in 1818 at Panaji."
I have yet to come across credible information about churches being built on the site of razed temples, but thanks to the late Sita Ram Goel, I have had the opportunity to read an excellent treatise on the Goa 'Inquisition'. The contents of the eponymous book are extremely revealing; since they are based on Church and Portuguese documents, they cannot be outright denied or repudiated by those, both at home and abroad, who would like to gloss over that period of Goa's history when Hindus were disadvantaged on account of their faith.
"His Majesty the king has ordered that there shall be no Brahmins in his land and that they should be banished."
"In the name of his Majesty I order that no Hindu can or shall perform marriages..."
"The marriages of the supplicants are superstitious acts or functions which include Hindu rites and ceremonies as well as cult, adoration and prayers of Hindu temples..."
"I order that no Hindu temples be erected in any of the territories of my king... and that Hindu temples which already have been erected be not repaired..."
Anybody familiar with the brutalisation of Hindu customs and practices, indeed Hindu faith and belief, could mistakenly believe these are extracts from firmans issued by India's Muslim rulers. But these are not extracts taken from firmans issued by the court of Aurangzeb. They are from firmans issued by Goa's Portuguese rulers who recognised no religion other than Christianity as the legitimate means of communion with god. It was no secular rule that they imposed, but a ruthless system of pillage disguised as trade and a cruel administration for whom the heathens, especially Brahmins, unless they embraced Christianity, were nothing more than "supplicants" to be crushed into submission or exiled into oblivion.
Nobody talks of the Goa 'Inquisition', but that does not mean it never happened or there is no evidence to prove that it happened. There exist, in full text, orders issued by the Portuguese Viceroy and the Governor. There exist, in written records and travelogues, penned not by the persecuted but by the persecutors, full details of the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Church.
Hindus who dared oppose the religious persecution by the Portuguese administration or the Church were punished, swiftly and mercilessly. Those who were fortunate got away with being banished from Portuguese territory. The less fortunate had their property seized and auctioned -- the money was used, in large measure, for furthering the interests of the Church. The least fortunate were forced to serve as slave labour on the galleys that transported riches from India to Portuguese shores.
These are events that occurred in the distant past and should not be allowed to influence relations between Christians and Hindus in today's Goa. This is all the more so because the post-colonial Church in Goa has been deeply nationalist and refrained from aggressive proselytisation or offending Hindu sentiments. Nothing illustrates this better than the work done by Fr Agnel's mission to promote education and nationalist values. It would, however, be in order for the Vatican to offer an apology and thus close a bitter chapter of Goa's -- and, therefore, India's -- history. If he were to take the initiative, Pope Benedict would demonstrate that he is a man of courage and conviction, apart from being a man of god.


Coffee Break / Sunday Pioneer / June 8, 2008

(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

Friday, June 06, 2008

Mush should fear exploding mangoes!

Recall how Zia made his exit!
Mush should fear exploding mangoes
News from Pakistan provides the much-needed levity in these otherwise dreary times when we live in fear of rampaging Gujjars demanding their community be excluded from the Hindu caste system, declared a tribe and thus be pushed down the social hierarchy that is sustained by the cynical politics of caste identity practised by every political party, the BJP included. Over the past week, two major stories have emanated from Islamabad.
The first was based on comments by AQ Khan, the man who stole nuclear know-how from European countries to build an 'Islamic Bomb' and then sold technology and hardware to rogue states, among them Iran, Libya and North Korea, made to mediapersons during a funeral. Khan, who has been under house arrest ever since the Americans went public with his illicit trade, has now claimed that he peddled blueprints, centrifuges and the glowing stuff at the behest of Gen Pervez Musharraf. The Americans, who are still shoring up their favourite Pakistani, have responded with a banal statement that neither confirms nor refutes Khan's assertion. "We have not changed our assessment that AQ Khan was a very major and dangerous proliferator. He sold sensitive nuclear equipment and know-how to some genuinely bad actors," an unnamed US official has told ABC News.
Here are two facts about the 'dangerous proliferator'. Khan travelled to Pyongyang, Tehran and other such destinations, hawking technology to build nuclear bombs, after Gen Musharraf had been appointed Army chief by a gullible Nawaz Sharif, whom he was to later depose in a coup, and during his early years as Pakistan's military dictator. Second, Khan would use military aircraft, which cannot take off without clearance from what we refer to in this part of the world as 'highest level', for his foreign travel from Pakistani bases under the Army's control. For Gen Musharraf to pretend astonishment over Khan's nasty business is as laughable as the Americans feigning outrage over the father of the 'Islamic Bomb' wanting to spawn its siblings with other mates. Khan has merely said what everybody has known for long, including Gen Musharraf's minders in Washington, DC.
The other story which has had the Pakistani media in a tizzy for the past few days, and has been strangely ignored east of Wagah, is about Gen Musharraf preparing to flee Pakistan to seek shelter in another country. Colourful details, all of them strenuously denied by Gen Musharraf but not the Government of Pakistan, of which he is the notional head of state, have appeared in Pakistani newspapers -- about how he has had a raging row with Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, his hand-picked successor as Army chief; how the military he once headed has now turned against him; and, how a plane has been kept parked and ready to fly off with him into the sunset. Americans have swiftly come to the aid of their beleaguered 'staunch ally', letting it be known that he continues to enjoy their support.
But wait. Let's not rush to conclusions. Pakistan has a long history of Army chiefs viciously biting the hand that once lovingly fed them; of Americans dumping favourite dictators like cads dump women after bedding them; of politicians selling their souls to the devil for loaves and fishes of office; and, of people swinging from one extreme to another. Gen Ayub Khan came to power in October 1958 because the Americans didn't want the Pakistanis to elect a Government. He went on to famously declare, "We must understand that democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate like Britain." His job done, Gen Ayub Khan was given the boot by Gen Yahya Khan, who, after seizing power, remained closeted with 'General Rani' (a name that should ring a bell here) as Gen Tikka Khan let loose his rapacious soldiers on the Bengalis of East Pakistan.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, still smarting under Pakistan's humiliation in 1972, sacked the military's top brass and appointed Gen Zia-ul-Haq as Army chief. To stop Bhutto from going ahead with his 'Islamic Bomb' project, the Americans facilitated an Army coup on July 5, 1977, which led to the installation of Gen Zia as 'Martial Law Administrator'; less than two years later, on April 4, 1979, Bhutto was executed by his favourite General. The Americans went on to use Gen Zia to wage the Washington-sponsored jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. With the law of diminishing returns setting in, his utility became questionable. On August 17, 1988, a US-supplied C-130 Hercules, carrying Gen Zia and the American Ambassador, Arnold Lewis Raphel, exploded soon after take-off from Bahawalpur. Raphel's death was what Americans describe as 'collateral damage'. Gen Zia's grieving widow claimed he had been killed "by his own"; whiskey-induced cantonment gossip placed the blame on "exploding mangoes".
It's mango season this time of the year and Gen Musharraf, who has darkly hinted in his memoir, In the Line of Fire, at what may have caused Gen Zia's plane to explode, would be stupid not to worry about his future now that the Bush presidency is nearing its end. If a crate of mangoes, gifted to another military ruler, could have exploded in mid-air, what's there to stop something from blowing up in his face? Given the ignominious exit made by Pakistani Generals who seized power to 'set things right' in Mohammed Ali Jinnah's Neverland, he may put up a brave face but deep within would be an extremely troubled man.
To rid himself of stress in his trying time, he could order a copy of Mohammed Hanif's hugely entertaining novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, published by Random House and due for release later this week, and look for insights between the lines into the way the Pakistani military, the ISI and the Americans work in tandem to get rid of Generals -- and lesser individuals -- who have outlived their utility. He may think he knows it all, but he would be surprised to find out what all he doesn't know. For starters, he could begin by checking whether Jinnah's portrait in his living room blinks at him. The rest he can read in Mohammed Hanif's account of the days leading to Gen Zia blowing up with exploding mangoes aboard a C-130 Hercules 20 years ago.

Coffee Break, Sunday Pioneer, June 1, 2008.
(c) CMYK Printech Ltd.