Friday, October 24, 2008
Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta
As India flounders in its pretentious war on terror and an effete Prime Minister touts the emasculating nuclear deal he has negotiated with the Americans as evidence of his derelict Government’s robust health, a resolute Sri Lanka led by a determined President is on the verge of smashing the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which has terrorised that country for the last 25 years. Reports emanating from the battlefront in the north say that the Sri Lankan Army is within striking distance of Kilinochchi. According to Col R Hariharan, who was the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force during our ill-advised and disastrous entanglement with Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, “Six divisions of the Sri Lankan Army have gheraoed Kilinochchi. The situation is critical for both sides.” For the beleaguered LTTE chief Prabhakaran this is possibly the last big battle of his life; for a decisive President Mahinda Rajapakse, Kilinochchi is the last barrier to re-establishing Colombo’s authority on Tamil-majority northern Sri Lanka.
Even while you are reading this, the LTTE’s ‘administrative headquarters’ may have fallen and the Sri Lankan Army could well be on its way to Paranthan and Elephant Pass, the strategic land bridge that allows access to Jaffna. Once the battle is over, so shall be the bloody saga of the LTTE which, in the guise of fighting for Tamil minority rights in Sinhalese majority Sri Lanka, has inflicted death and misery on both communities. Jihadis looking for a shortcut to zannat and its nubile houris did not make suicide-bombing fashionable among terrorists; that credit goes to an LTTE ‘Black Tiger’ who blew himself up along with 40 Sri Lankan soldiers on July 5, 1987. Since then, ‘belt-bomb assassins’ have been the LTTE’s main weapon of assault, often resulting in ghastly outrages against civilians. Recall the terrible night of May 21, 1991, when Dhanu, a LTTE suicide bomber, pulled the trigger of her belt-bomb while bending to touch Rajiv Gandhi’s feet at a public meeting in Sriperumbudur.
Whatever be New Delhi’s public posture — preferably studied silence — it should at this moment be hoping, if not praying, for Colombo’s victory. The LTTE is listed as a terrorist organisation in India and Prabhakaran is wanted for ordering Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Since the pusillanimous Government we have at the moment can neither annihilate the LTTE (in fact, it is incapable of busting terrorist sleeper cells on India’s territory) nor bring Prabhakaran to trial, it should rejoice at the sight of the Sri Lankan Government moving close to its goal of making the ‘Tamil Tigers’ an extinct species. Yet, this is not the case. Faced with the prospect of the DMK deserting the Congress-led UPA to show that its sympathies lie with Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who are undoubtedly caught between a rock and a hard place in Colombo’s all-out war against LTTE, it has decided to play the same tattered card that has in the past fetched us nothing but grief.
On the Prime Minister’s instructions, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon summoned Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India CR Jayasinghe and conveyed to him New Delhi’s concern over the “humanitarian situation” in the island nation’s northern region. Lest it be construed as blatant interference in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs, Mr Menon also mentioned New Delhi’s displeasure over the harassment of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. No mention, however, was made of these so-called ‘Indian fishermen’ ferrying fuel and supplies to what Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK boss M Karunanidhi has described as “our brethren”. Mr Menon is believed to have told Mr Jayasinghe that India is “gravely worried over the situation arising out of the conflict” and that “Sri Lanka should ensure the rights of its civilians are respected and they are protected from attacks”.
The airing of the Government’s ‘displeasure’ has not been limited to diplomatic channels. Mr Manmohan Singh and his Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee have also expressed “concern over the situation”, particularly the “humanitarian effect” of the conflict. Mr Singh, sanctimonious as ever, has deemed it fit to express his anguish and demand that Sri Lanka should seek a “negotiated settlement” rather than a “military victory”. Mr Mukherjee, so as not to be seen as lagging behind his Prime Minister, has said India will do everything “in its power” to ensure a political settlement to Sri Lanka’s “ethnic problem”. For good measure, he has added, “It is essential that their (citizen’s) rights be respected, that they be immune from attacks and that food and other essential supplies be allowed to reach them.” On October 6, National Security Adviser MK Narayanan had summoned Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner GGAD Palithaga-negoda and “stressed that Colombo should act with greater restraint and address the growing insecurity in the wake of killing of unarmed people there”.
Such noble thoughts can occur only to those who refuse to learn from history and cannot distinguish between what is good for India and what isn’t. Mr Mukherjee’s comment revives memories of Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to airdrop ‘relief supplies’ on LTTE-controlled Jaffna in June 1987 and thus help Prabhakaran stave off imminent defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army which had laid siege to the peninsula. That was not a humanitarian gesture but an outright military intervention which was to pave the way for Rajiv Gandhi’s subsequent folly by way of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the despatch of Indian soldiers to that country’s killing fields where many of them died horrendous deaths. That particularly dark chapter of the Congress’s proclivity for misadventure has never been fully made public; the bits and pieces that are known are sufficiently revealing of how horribly wrong Rajiv Gandhi and his advisers were in framing India’s response. We appear to be on the verge of repeating that ghastly mistake.
It is unlikely that Colombo will be bothered about New Delhi’s treacly concern “over the situation” or be impressed by Mr Singh’s demand for a “negotiated settlement”. What is more than likely is that those who view India’s claim on Jammu & Kashmir as that of an ‘occupying force’ will quote Mr Singh to express their concern over the situation in the Kashmir Valley and demand a ‘negotiated settlement’. And if one of them decides to airdrop ‘relief supplies’ to ease the plight of Kashmiri separatists and terrorists we will be expected to treat it as a ‘humanitarian gesture’. It may not be entirely incorrect to suggest that those who have short-changed the country on the nuclear deal are now preparing the ground for such intervention.
AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 19, 2008
Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta
Since news from the United Nations rarely finds space in our newspapers or mention on television news, not many people are aware of the fact that on October 17 the General Assembly is scheduled to select five countries as non-permanent members of the Security Council for a two-year term beginning 2009. Among the competitors for the Asian seat are Iran and Japan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Japan is the natural choice, but P5 politics, which determines the course of events in the General Assembly and the Security Council, is driven by factors that have little to do with logic or reason, leave alone global concerns. Hence, it is not surprising that China, which is reluctant to see Japan sharing space at the Horse Shoe Table, is believed to be slyly campaigning for Iran's membership. Beijing's economic and energy interests take precedence over those of the region, hence it is not bothered about Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons nor is it concerned about the implications of such lethal acquisition.
Russia, after effectively blocking any further action against Iran despite new damning evidence, this time collated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which shows Tehran is close to stockpiling sufficient weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear bomb, is lobbying for Iranian representation in the Security Council. Moscow is clearly motivated by the urge to poke Washington in the eye and the strategic imperative to regain space in what the Americans now refer to as the 'extended Middle East'. As the contours of a looming 21st century Cold War take shape, a resurgent Russia sees President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran as a substitute for Gamel Abdal Nasser's Egypt. The Kremlin's claim that it has put off the planned supply of state-of-the-art military hardware to Tehran need not be taken seriously.
If, and it is admittedly a very big if, Iran does make it to the Security Council as a non-permanent member, it would be a mockery of all that the UN professes it stands for. Iran has not only violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, it has also held up the IAEA to ridicule, refusing to abide by any of its rules. The Security Council has passed three resolutions imposing trade sanctions on Iran to bring it to heel; thanks to Russia and China, the efforts have gone to waste. That the sanctions have had no deterrent effect can be gauged from the contents of the latest IAEA report, which says, "As of 30 August 2008, 5930 kg of uranium hexafluoride had been fed into the operating cascades since 12 December 2007... This brings the total amount of uranium hexafluoride fed into the cascades since the beginning of operations in February 2007 to 7600 kg. Based on Iran's daily operating records, as of 30 August 2008, Iran had produced approximately 480 kg of low enriched uranium hexafluoride."
Strategic affairs experts say this means "under optimal conditions, Iran could use between 700 and 800 kg of low enriched uranium to produce 20-25 kg of weapons grade uranium, enough for a crude fission weapon". Gary Milhollin of Iran Watch, writing in the New York Times, has predicted that Iran will have the low-enriched uranium necessary to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb by mid-January 2009. There is further evidence to suggest Iran is not too far from putting together a weapon of mass destruction -- recently it tested long-range missiles and tried to retrofit them to carry nuclear warheads. If you are still unconvinced, you only have to read the text of Mr Ahmadinejad's rabid, rabble-rousing speech at the General Assembly on September 26 in which he has reiterated Iran's determination to forge ahead with its uranium enrichment programme.
But Iran's violation of the NPT, its taunting refusal to abide by the IAEA's rules although it is legally bound to do so, and its seemingly inexorable march towards manufacturing the second 'Islamic Bomb' -- credit for the first goes to international smuggler (and later peddler) of nuclear know-how AQ Khan of Pakistan -- are not the only reasons why it is undeserving of being allowed entry into the Security Council. Mr Ahmadinejad's opening lines while addressing the General Assembly -- "Oh God, hasten the arrival of Imam Al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those who attest to his rightfulness" -- were the least offensive of what he said that day. Deliberately ignoring the UN Charter, he misused the platform to indulge in rank anti-Semitism and heap abuse on Jews and Zionists, making a spectacle of his deep-seated hatred of the Jewish people. "The Zionist regime is on a slope to decline," he thundered, adding its disappearance is inevitable. It was of a piece with his repeated threats to "wipe Israel off the map" and his appalling denial of the Holocaust; worse, in a replay of crude Nazi propaganda to generate hatred towards Jews, he claimed that "a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists" dominate financial and political centres in Europe and the United States in "a deceitful, complex and furtive manner".
Sadly, the gathered assembly of world leaders listened to a fanatic's rant without so much as a whimper of protest; if Mr Ahmadinejad's appearance in the UN was a shame, the silence that followed his hate-filled speech was shameful. It required Israel's President Shimon Peres, incandescent with rage, to point out, "He is a disgrace to the ancient Iranian people. He is a disgrace to the values of Islam. He is a disgrace to this very house, the United Nations, its basic principles and values."
There's a third reason why Iran, so long as it is led by a fanatic anti-Semite in pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons, must be denied a place in the Security Council. Mr Ahmadinejad is directly responsible for promoting, funding and aiding Islamist terrorism. He has converted Hizbullah into a fearsome Islamist militia and divided Lebanon. He has made Hamas into what it is today, dividing the Palestinian territory and thus making a two-state solution that much more difficult to achieve. He is now trying to scuttle the Iraq defence plan since it does not envisage absolute power for the Shia militias he has nourished with the sole purpose of becoming the arbiter of that country's fate. He is a threat to not only those whom he derisively describes as 'Zionists' but also to all of 'extended Middle East' -- unless halted, he can unleash a fierce and bloody battle for supremacy in Sunni-majority West Asia and North Africa. The doors of the Security Council should remain firmly shut to Iran till such time it disowns Mr Ahmadinejad and discards forever his nuclear weapons programme.
AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 12, 2008
Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta
It wasn't a lachrymose but a disappointed Ratan Tata who on Friday announced the "unfortunate and painful" decision of Tata Motors to pull out of West Bengal and shift its Nano project from Singur to a State not blessed by the presence of Ms Mamata Banerjee and plagued by her antediluvian politics. Nor was Mr Tata being needlessly melodramatic when, recalling his earlier declaration that he was determined to stay put in Singur and would not move out even if a gun were to be pointed at his head, he said, "I think Ms Banerjee pulled the trigger." Questions have been raised in the past as to whether the often-violent agitation led by Ms Banerjee, which has forced the Tata Group to abandon its Rs 1,500 crore project and dampened investor confidence in West Bengal, was entirely sustained by her grit and the brawn of Trinamool Congress supporters. By reiterating that a business rival may have funded the anti-Nano agitation, Mr Tata has revived those questions. Ms Banerjee will no doubt wave the slur away as no more than a canard to discredit her, but that won't silence her critics, of whom there are many -- the majority does not necessarily support the CPI(M).
Ms Banerjee's reaction to Tata Motors' formal decision to shift the Nano project, which was to have been the showpiece of 'New Bengal' meant to enthuse potential investors, out of Singur has been predictable. "It hardly matters to us. It is a joint gameplan of the CPI(M) and the Tatas to leave ... The allegation that our agitation was violent is bogus," she told her faithful. Only they would believe such bunkum -- there cannot be a "joint gameplan" because neither the CPI(M) nor the Tata Group stands to gain from Friday's decision; as for the agitation not being violent, it's her claim versus hard evidence to the contrary. But Ms Banerjee is being truthful when she says "it hardly matters to us". She and her party, as well as the rag-tag coalition of Naxalites past their revolutionary prime and Ford Foundation-funded subversives with whose help she has succeeded in 'pulling the trigger' not only on Mr Tata but also West Bengal's future, loathe the very idea of industrialisation and its concomitant prosperity for the masses. If the poor would cease to be poor, compulsive and professional agitators would find themselves twiddling their thumbs far away from the glare of television cameras. That's not a very happy prospect for either Ms Banerjee or those who mimic Arundhati Roy.
It could be argued that perhaps Mr Tata has been too hasty, that he should have been more pragmatic and cut a deal with Ms Banerjee. After all business, like politics, is about being sensitive to local realities and making compromises. Kalimati would not have become Jamshedpur had Sir Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata been impatient and impractical. His correspondence with his sons, Sir Dorab Tata and Sir Ratan Tata, bears testimony to his insistence that enterprise cannot be devoid of the human factor. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Sir Jamsetji believed that India's poverty was not on account of its lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and he set himself to the task of creating those opportunities. More than a century later, Mr Ratan Tata can claim that he too believes -- or should it be believed? -- West Bengal's poverty is not on account of the Bengalis' lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and that he tried to create those opportunities through the now-abandoned Nano project. No, it's not about altruism alone -- Sir Jamsetji never lost sight of profits; there is no reason why his descendant should be indifferent to the profit motive. Unlike many other entrepreneurs who couldn't give a damn about shareholders, Mr Tata has repeatedly asserted that he has to be mindful of their interests.
And it is this insistence on not short-changing those whose money is at stake -- shareholders, financial institutions and the Tata Group -- that forced him to take the "painful decision" to opt out of Singur. Persisting with the project would have meant dealing with agitators and those who revel in fomenting discontent; a settlement with the few farmers who have held out was no guarantee of peace in the future. Like Banquo's ghost, Ms Banerjee's shadow would have loomed large on Singur for a long time to come. More importantly, despite the efforts of a goody-two-shoes Governor to broker a settlement and a recalcitrant CPI(M) willing to climb down from its high papier-m?ch? horse, a deal really was impossible to achieve, made doubly impossible by Ms Banerjee's insistence that either she should have her way or Tata Motors should pack up and leave. The last of the farmers holding out against the West Bengal Government's compensation package had agreed to a land-for-land deal along with enhanced monetary compensation. Ms Banerjee would have nothing of it: She insisted that they must be returned their land. That, Mr Tata said, was not possible because it would scupper the project, being set up on 600 acres of land, which was dependent on dedicated vendor units located in its close proximity on the remaining 397 acres of land. That's how Nano remains cheap. Ms Banerjee was not interested in a solution; she wanted to celebrate the departure of Tata Motors as her victory over big capital, just as CPI(M) leaders had celebrated every time an industrial unit was shut down and workers rendered jobless in the 1960s and 1970s -- by the 1980s, there were no more factories left to shut down and West Bengal's economy had shrunk to Burrabazar. So, the Nano project had to go.
Thereby hangs the tragic tale of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's ambitious plan to rejuvenate industry and attract investors. Despite his emotive slogan of 'Do It Now' and valiant efforts to refashion West Bengal's moribund economy by forcing a shift from agriculture to industry, Mr Bhattacharjee is now left looking as pathetic and pitiful as his favourite poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. His predecessor and veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, I am sure, is smirking. The man who is responsible for turning West Bengal into a sprawling industrial wasteland was aghast at the thought of industry returning to the disinherited State. With Tata Motors pulling out and potential investors signalling their intention to look elsewhere, he can now rest easy -- his legacy shall remain untouched, undented. Neither Mr Basu nor Ms Banerjee could have hoped for a happier Durga Puja as the faint flicker of hope is extinguished in homes across West Bengal.
AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 5, 2008
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Kaffiyeh and the kafir
Friends, you must have seen these images (published in newspapers) which show three Muslim boys arrested in Delhi as 'terrorists' wearing the Arab headgear usually called Arab rumal..." This is an excerpt from an e-mail circulated earlier this week by Muslims outraged by visuals of three of their co-religionists, arrested after the September 19 raid on Jamia Nagar and suspected of being members of the terrorist organisation, Indian Mujahideen, being produced in court by Delhi Police. The outrage is over the claimed 'stereotyping' of Muslims as well as identifying what has been referred to in the e-mail as the 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' with Islamic fanaticism and jihadi terrorism.The 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' is the kaffiyeh which has three variants. The white kaffiyeh, with tassels that designate the social status of an individual, is worn by sheikhs with claims to nobility and is part of the dress code that sets the Arab palace apart from the Arab street. Colonel TE Lawrence, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', wore one, keeping in mind his exalted status. Rudolph Valentino made a fashion statement of sorts by wearing the white kaffiyeh in the 1921 silent film, The Sheik as part of his costume. Both Lawrence and Valentino contributed to the stereotyping of the Arab sheikh who would otherwise not be seen wearing a kaffiyeh in Monaco, Cote de Azure or the sleazy nightclubs of Phuket. But this version of the kaffiyeh need not distract us.What is of interest are the black-and-white and red-and-white chequered variants of the kaffiyeh. The first gained global prominence when Palestinian terrorists adopted it as a statement of their faith, initially in Palestinian nationalism and later in radical Islamism. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Yasser Arafat who made the once humble peasant and Bedouin headgear, meant to keep the scorching desert sun out, into a badge of Palestinian identity. That honour must go to Leila Khaled, a leading light of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was among the hijackers of TWA Flight 840. The flight from Rome to Athens was diverted to Damascus where it was blown up in a spectacular display of Palestinian fury. That was in August 1969. Leila Khaled tried to hijack an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York on September 6, 1970, but was overpowered and captured by Israeli skymarshals.Between the hijacking of the TWA flight and her failed attempt to hijack an El Al flight, Leila Khaled became an icon of the Palestinian movement which by then had begun to embrace terrorism to further its agenda. The celebrated black-and-white photograph of Leila Khaled the Palestinian terrorist, which became the leitmotif of PFLP posters and Arab propaganda, reproduced here, shows her wearing a black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and holding an assault rifle, a 1960s version of the Kalashnikov. Her demure appearance is as deceptive as the Orkut profiles of the Indian Mujahideen cadre -- between the perception and the reality lurks the mind of a terrorist who can slaughter innocent people without batting an eyelid. Little or no purpose is served by pondering over appearances and educational qualifications -- Mohammed Atta was a brilliant student of architecture at Cairo University and was rated highly by his teachers at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg -- or sympathising with parents who are unable to accept the bitter truth about their children having grown up into pitiless monsters.But let us return to the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh. Arafat, taking a cue from Leila Khaled, was quick to realise the potential of the kaffiyeh as a visible, photogenic statement of Palestinian aspirations. After the first intifada inspired by his belligerence and the second intifada fuelled by the deadly cocktail of anti-semitism and Islamic fanaticism that forms the core of the ideology of hate preached by Hamas, the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh evolved into an abiding symbol of 'Palestinian Islamism'. There is nothing innocent or demure about those who flaunt it -- it is an aggressive, often terrifying, assertion of militant Islam; for good measure, the Al Aqsa mosque has been incorporated into the chequered design of the kaffiyeh as a declaration of the final objective of those who wear it. Arafat's stylish arrangement of the kaffiyeh so as to form a triangle symbolising the Palestinian state as perceieved by Fatah, now exists only in fading memories of the man who gave political legitimacy to Islamic terrorism.Which brings us to the third variant of the kaffiyeh -- the red-and-white chequered version which is referred to as an "Arab rumal" by Muslims in India. Like the burqa -- referred to as the "Arab purdah" -- it has been popularised by the Tablighi Jamaat and adopted by many of India's Muslims, especially the clergy, to announce their religious identity and their allegiance to Wahaabi Islam. In Saudi Arabia, minor clerics and the muttaween, the religious police or members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who patrol the streets to crudely enforce shari'ah, wear the read-and-white chequered kaffiyeh, as do commoners.But those in India who have adopted this variant of the kaffiyeh -- you will find many of them in Muslim ghettos like Jamia Nagar and the area around Jama Masjid, as also in places as far apart as Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and Malappuram in Kerala -- are not inspired by the Arab street. They identify it with Islam and the Arab origin of their faith. For them the kaffiyeh is a bridge that transports them from the reality in which they exist -- as a minority community of believers among the kafirs of Hindu majority India -- to that which they aspire for: An Islamic state, a Nizam-e-Mustafa, where shari'ah shall rule supreme.The kaffiyeh in India is a physical manifestation of the ongoing silent transformation of the country's Muslims. We do not get to see the changes that are taking place in their personal lives, the fanaticism that is rapidly replacing faith, the social codes that are being introduced to bring India's Muslim society in conformity with that which is held up by mullahs and maulvis as 'desirable' and 'sanctioned' by Islam, the precedence given to the Muslim ummah over the secular Indian nation. We occasionally get to read about an Imrana and a Gudiya, but such stories do not reflect the churning that is taking place, the rapidly increasing number of educated Muslims who, instead of logically pursuing the good life ensured by good jobs assured by their professional qualifications, are eager to throw it all away to serve what they are told, and convinced, is the 'cause' of Islam. For evidence, look at the profiles of the young men who have been arrested so far for their role in the horrific bombings in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi, and probably also the earlier terror attacks in Mumbai and Hyderabad.There are two possible responses to this reality. Like most Muslims, we can slip into denial mode and refuse to acknowledge the harsh truth. We can lash out at Delhi Police for draping the faces of suspected terrorists with red-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and denounce the 'stereotyping' of Muslims. There are those who will discover merit in the demand that there should be no police raids on Muslim ghettos without consulting the community and taking it into confidence. They would also subscribe to the view that a commission should be set up to prove that the terrorists who bomb India's cities are "not Muslims" -- in other words, an inquiry with a predetermined finding!Or we could confront the truth and work towards halting the spread of radical Islamism and preventing an entire community from lurching towards fanaticism and embracing the sordid symbols of Wahaabi intolerance, for example the kaffiyeh or the "Arab rumal", which has fetched nothing but grief wherever it has been allowed to flourish. This is a task that cannot be left to compromised individuals like the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia who, to prove his credentials with the extremists, has offered to siphon public funds to defend those accused of terrorism. The state must step in with its full might, and uphold the secular principles of our republic where the kaffiyeh and all that it symbolises clashes violently with the idea of India.
The Pioneer [OPED] Friday, September 26, 2008
The Bong connection
Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta
Do join us for the annual monsoon lunch which we are hosting this year. There will be khichudi, beguni and ileesh maachh bhaja," Mrs Banerjee was insistent with her invitation as I got out of the car, a Saab fitted with a fabulous music system from whose unseen speakers Hemanta Mukherjee's digitised voice wafted out, warm and mellifluous, untouched by the icicle-forming chill of the airconditioner on full blast. Even at this late hour, almost close to midnight, the heat outside was blistering.Summer in this part of the US can be as bad as what we have to suffer in the dust bowl of India, also known as the National Capital Region. It had been a hot and humid day and I had sweated profusely, walking from one building to another in the sprawling university campus. I had looked forward to an easy, boozy evening of casual banter and Tex-Mex grill at the house of a professor of cinema (why can't we have film appreciation as a full course in our colleges and universities?), a laidback, now approaching middleage, child of the Sixties with vivid memories of Woodstock, who was hosting a reception for me to meet Indian American members of the faculty. Nearly all of them turned out to be Bengalis, barring a professor of mathematics whose father had fled to the US when Brahmins were banished from Tamil Nadu.The evening was boozy and the grill was wonderful though I thought the 'hot' sauce was a bit of a scam, but there was little casual banter. The faculty members were serious and ponderous, more so the ex-Jadavpur University lot which was given to both hectoring and lecturing me, their poor upcountry cousin who was visiting America courtesy a State Department grant. Among them was Prof Banerjee who taught some exotic course related to particle physics. From Garfa Main Road to this university town, he had travelled a long distance, moving up from the crowded footboards of the ramshackle double-decker buses plying on the 8B route to a cool, silver blue Saab. Mrs Banerjee, who too had travelled a long distance from Bagha Jatin and no longer needed the comfort of the 'Ladies Seat' on the 8B bus, the only seat with its dark green rexine intact, on hearing that I had been away from home -- and Bengali food -- for more than a month, promptly invited me to her annual monsoon lunch on Saturday, which was two days later.Prof Banerjee took a paper napkin, scribbled the address of their house, and offered to drive me back to the hotel where I was staying and I accepted his offer graciously, doing a quick calculation of the dollars I would save in taxi fare. The grant was not meagre, but it was inelastic. The previous week I had been rather reckless in celebrating my being made a 'Citizen of the State of Arkansas' by Governor Bill Clinton. When I mentioned that occasion to President Bill Clinton during a 'line-up' at the White House, his smile broadened into a grin although I am sure nothing registered on his mind.But let's return to Mrs Banerjee and her lunch. I wasn't quite prepared for something so theatrical. The curtains of their cavernous drawing room and sprawling dining space had been tightly drawn to recreate the dark and gloomy days of monsoon in West Bengal. The place was teeming with expatriate Bengalis, the men dressed in kurta-pajama -- some of them were wearing neatly pleated dhuti -- and the women were clad in heavy brocade and Banarasi saris. There were two incongruities: The ubiquitous can of Budweiser beer (everybody seemed to be holding one), the abiding symbol of American 'taste', and me dressed in T-shirt and khakis (everybody stared at me as if I were an intruder at a secret society's ritual ceremony, an alien amid the natives). The bouquet of expensive perfumes and after-shave lotions mixed with the smell of khichudi (bubbling in a pot), begun bhaja (sputtering in a pan) and ileesh maachh (sizzling in another pan) in the open kitchen off the dining space to swamp the absence of the more-alluring -- some would say seductive -- aroma of Joba Kusum hair oil, Kanta scent and Cuticura talcum powder associated with such a gathering back home.As high noon turned into afternoon and the women exchanged gossip or sang along, often gratingly, out of tune and scale, with the Rabindrasangeet playing in the background while the men got sozzled on Budweiser beer -- of which there seemed to be an unending supply -- Mrs Banerjee announced lunch was ready. It was a hearty feast washed down with more Budweiser. The women compared the merits of 'eggplant' available at one supermarket with those at another. I gingerly poked at the extra large piece of 'ileesh maachh' which Mrs Banerjee had selected for me from the platterful of fried fish. It tasted like ileesh but wasn't quite the same. And how did she manage to find ileesh at the local supermarket? "That's shad you are eating," Prof Banerjee's colleague in the department helpfully informed me, "In America, we use this as a substitute for ileesh."Later that evening, back in my room at the hotel, I marvelled at the enduring -- and, despite its comic elements -- and endearing effort by a group of Bengalis, far away from their land of birth and origin, to cling on to an idiom which for them was central to their cultural identity. The annual monsoon lunch in a place where it does not rain and from where their children cannot even begin to imagine the incessant downpour that drenches Kolkata every year helps them retain their 'Bong' connection, an idea so frivolously trivialised by Anjan Dutta in his film, The Bong Connection.The sense of alienation that immigrants feel in a foreign land, which Manju Kapur has sought to capture in her latest novel, The Immigrant, through the tragic yet elevating story of Nina and Ananda, the constant conflict between your own culture and that of your adopted country, remarkably crafted into everyday stories about first and second generation immigrants by Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth, the wistful longing that underlines desire and its suppression of which Bharati Mukherjee has written with great effect, are something which we who have refused to move and migrate can never really either appreciate or understand. Yet, migration blues and cultural disinheritance do not come attached with trans-national or trans-continental journeys alone. We who have migrated from one State to another, looking for jobs and a better life, opportunities denied to us in our 'home State', are not really strangers to such emotional conflict. In our own way we try to cling on to our separate identities, stressing on that which makes us different from those around us.
The Pioneer [AGENDA ] Sunday, September 7, 2008
Pakistani perfidy dawns on US
There has been a spate of damning reports about Pakistan this past week, each one of them reinforcing the perception, long held in India but only now beginning to dawn upon the Americans, that there is a wide gulf which separates Islamabad's word from its deed. The New York Times has informed us that on July 7 US President George W Bush secretly instructed the American special forces in Afghanistan to launch ground assaults inside Pakistan 'without the prior consent' of that country's Government. The decision to enhance the American response to the hit-and-run tactics of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters with camps on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line from 'hot pursuit' to 'ground assault' follows Washington's grim realisation that the war on terror, seven years after being launched, is going nowhere.The Taliban may have been neutralised in Iraq and the surge in the deployment of American troops may have fetched a sort of peace in Saddam land with Shia radicals calling a temporary truce with Sunni insurgents, but the Taliban and Al Qaeda continue to confound and frustrate the mighty American military in the mountainous, inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan, just as the straw-hat clad Vietcong had in the paddy fields of Vietnam. Shifting tribal loyalties and mounting collateral damage have only made the task that much more difficult for American and Nato troops in Afghanistan. Bodybags and war casualties have virtually stopped arriving in the US from Iraq, but the number of those arriving from Afghanistan has increased by leaps and bounds. As if this were not bad enough, there is now unimpeachable evidence to show that Pakistan has been far less than honest in reporting its contribution to the war on terror. The ISI has been assiduously pursuing its pernicious policy of promoting the Taliban and Al Qaeda with the purpose of regaining what it lost after 9/11: Strategic depth through a puppet regime in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai has been making this point for the past couple of years, but the Bush Administration chose to ignore his complaints in the mistaken belief that American interests were better served by pandering to Gen Pervez Musharraf. In a sense, if there was deceit in Pakistan's actions, there was equal deceit in America's response. Now that American blood is being shed, Mr Bush has decided to change his policy. It is possible that the US Army has let it be known that Washington cannot continue to pamper Islamabad at the cost of American soldiers. Last Wednesday's statement to the House Armed Services Committee by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, reflects the hardening of Pentagon's views.Just to let Pakistan know what it is getting into by playing a double game, US forces have begun to make their gunpower felt in the frontier tribal areas. This has predictably led to a hue and cry about Pakistan's sovereignty being violated and revived the mullahs' demand that there should be no cooperation with the Americans in what they insist is a 'war on Islam'. Faith is a convenient cover for jihadi fervour. Pakistan's Army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is not known to make too many statements or public appearances, has indulged in sabre-rattling of the variety meant to enthuse demoralised soldiers. President Asif Ali Zardari, who even in his wildest imagination couldn't have dreamt of becoming the head of state till last December's assassination of Benazir Bhutto changed the course of politics and opened new vistas of opportunity for a person till recently reviled as 'Mr Ten Per Cent', has also made the right threatening noises. But he knows, more than anybody else, that of the three 'A's that guide Pakistan's destiny - Allah, Army and America - the third should not be made to feel cross and upset.But all this is unlikely to bring about any tectonic shift in Pakistan's policy of exporting terror to further its foreign policy and strategic objectives. The ISI's powers remain uncurbed and the 'state within the state' has substantial support in the military to browbeat the political leadership and the civilian Government. In any event, the PPP Government, which is in office but clearly not in power, is too effete to tell the ISI and its sponsors in Rawalpindi where they get off. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani tried to tame the ISI and make it accountable to the political leadership but, tail firmly between his legs, had to beat a hasty retreat.It is unlikely Gen Kayani, who has served as Director- General of the ISI, will try to rein in the rogue 'state within the state'. On the contrary, there is now evidence which suggests that he has been fully aware of, if not a complicit partner in, the ISI's activities in Afghanistan, including the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The suicide bomber who wreaked havoc on July 7, killing two mission officers, two security guards and 54 Afghans, was a Pakistani from Manshera; the explosives were from the Pakistan Ordnance Factory in Wah. All this could not have happened without Gen Kayani's knowledge -- information may be highly restricted in Pakistan, but it does flow to the right people at the right time.For the moment, American action is likely to force the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to stay put in their camps and the ISI to keep a low profile. But sooner than later, it will be back to business as usual. Mr Bush, in the dying days of his presidency, can only push the envelope thus far and no further; his successor will have to take a call on how to deal with the festering problem called Pakistan. Mr Barack Obama has been particularly harsh in berating Islamabad and shown little or no circumspection while threatening tough action. Indeed, while the Bush Administration has tried to gloss over the siphoning of American military aid running into billions of dollars by the Pakistani Army as revealed by US oversight and audit reports, Mr Obama has gone on record to suggest that the aid and assistance meant for fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda are being diverted to fuel Pakistan's military ambitions against India.It is likely that Mr Bush's successor will be less well disposed towards Pakistan. But there is a small, niggling doubt. Previous US Administrations that have fulminated against Pakistani perfidy and belligerence have gone on to mollycoddle those in power, whether in civvies or in khaki. Let us also not forget that the CIA has happily collaborated with the ISI in the past and will do so again if it serves America's interests at that moment.
The Pioneer [AGENDA] Sunday, September 14, 2008