Saturday, December 18, 2010

Uncle Sam would love this nephew

An elusive contact becomes a key interlocutor for Americans!

Contrary to media reports and popular perception, the ‘secret’ cable despatched from the US Embassy in New Delhi on August 3, 2009 was not only about Mr Rahul Gandhi’s views on Hindu terror. A close reading of the cable, marked for the State Department and signed by US Ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer, would show that it was a report on efforts by the American mission aimed at “reaching out to Rahul Gandhi and other young parliamentarians”. The cable’s summary says: “In a review of the career and potential of Rahul Gandhi, 40-year-old heir apparent to the leadership of India’s ruling Congress party, the US Ambassador reports conversations with the young politician, speaking appreciatively of recent statements and potential for the future.” The key words, lest you miss them, are “reaching out”, “career and potential”, “heir apparent”, “appreciatively” and “future”. The man who represents American interests in India was keen on establishing ‘contact’ with the second most important person in the current, US-friendly dispensation in New Delhi; and it’s a hurrah! note to headquarters from him after having established that contact. As Mr Roemer highlights in his cable, “(Rahul) Gandhi… could become a key interlocutor… as we pursue a strategic dialogue with India.” Diplomats know who matters how much in which regime and which ‘key interlocutor’ can help push their country’s agenda. In this case, the agenda of the US, as it would like to see implemented in its newly discovered outpost in South Asia.

The cable mentions that Mr Roemer met Mr Gandhi at a lunch hosted by the Prime Minister “in honour of the Secretary” — his reference is to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Among the invitees was Indian Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, as well as other prominent figures from politics, business and civil society.” But notwithstanding their ‘prominence’, these worthies do not merit mention by name in the cable. Mr Gandhi does — he “was seated next to the Ambassador” and “shared his views on a range of political topics, social challenges and electoral issues for the Congress in the next five years”. Since the discussion took place three months after the UPA won a second term in office, we can assume that Mr Gandhi had by then worked out everything for the Congress till 2014; he had charted the course for the party, so to say, to a third, and spectacular, victory in a row, thus enabling his transition from heir apparent to ruler.

[Massacre at CST: Mumbai's -- and India's -- night of terror, November 26, 2008, when Pakistani LeT terrorists launched multiple attacks on the city.]

In between pointing out that the Congress, or the UPA if you wish, had a rather short honeymoon in its second term and detailing his plans to “find younger party members who would not carry some of the baggage of older Congress candidates” to contest and win elections, he commented on “the tensions created by some of the more polarising figures in the BJP such as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi” (these words have been used by Mr Roemer, we can’t be sure whether Mr Gandhi used them in his conversation). It is in this context that Mr Roemer asked Mr Gandhi about the “Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s activities in the region and immediate threat to India”. It would be in order to mention here that another US Embassy cable mentions that the LeT’s threat to India is real, has not diminished since 26/11 and the Pakistan-based group is planning high profile strikes, including a plot to assassinate Mr Narendra Modi.

We can only speculate on whether Mr Roemer’s query was in the context of that cable or he was subtly provoking a political response to a security issue to gauge any shift in the Government’s policy. It would be absurd to believe that the American Ambassador was unaware of hostilities between the Congress Dynasty and the Congress Destroyer in Gujarat. Be that as it may, Mr Gandhi’s response provides a glimpse into the intellectual abilities of the Prince who would be King one day. “(Rahul) Gandhi said there was evidence of some support for the group among certain elements in India’s indigenous Muslim community. However, Gandhi warned, the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalised Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community… The risk of a ‘home-grown’ extremist front, reacting to terror attacks coming from Pakistan or from Islamist groups in India, was a growing concern and one that demanded constant attention.” (The emphasis is that of Mr Roemer’s and not this writer’s.)

[The two-year-old girl who was injured in the Varanasi ghat bombing by Indian Mujahideen on December 7, 2010. She lost the battle to stay alive.]

The US Ambassador’s conclusion, based on the lunch table conversation, tells its own story: “Over the last four years, he was an elusive contact, but he could be interested in reaching out to the United States, given a thoughtful, politically sensitive and strategic approach on our part. We will seek other opportunities to engage with him…” It’s natural that there should be some amount of concern in Washington, DC about policy after the Regent vacates the masnad of Delhi for the Prince. If there’s one thing the American establishment is mindful of, it is that continuity is of the essence to promote and push national interest in foreign lands; regime change can have disastrous consequences. As for what the US mission really (emphasis added by this writer) thinks of Mr Gandhi, readers should look up the ‘secret’ cable tagged ‘Delhi Diary, January 30-February 19, 2010’, in which “A US diplomat romps through three weeks of Indian politics, from the chauvinism of the Shiv Sena to a new law allowing gay couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day.”

In keeping with the style of the cables that have been ‘leaked’ into the public domain, here’s a summary: Outrage over Mr Gandhi’s frivolous analysis of the internal security scenario of India and his ill-informed commentary on terrorism is fine, but only up to a point. What is of greater import is the ease with which the proverbial ‘Quiet American’ can co-opt those who desire to rule India through “a thoughtful, politically sensitive and strategic approach”. Somewhere out there, Mrs Indira Gandhi’s soul would be most distressed following the disclosure of this particular cable, but then, when alive she carried the “baggage of older Congress candidates” as her grandson disparagingly describes those who have served the party (and presumably the country) for decades.

[This appears as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on December 19, 2010.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Yatha praja tatha Raja

We The People Are Corrupt!

It’s virtually impossible to check the veracity of AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa’s assertion that the loss to the public exchequer on account of l’affaire Raja is more than the cumulative loot of India by its colonial masters during the days of John Company and later the British Raj. We could try and compute the official gains of the Empire from records in India House, but the value of the loot, in the strictest sense of the term, would be anybody’s guess. It is possible that the profits, both legitimate and illegitimate, that filled coffers in Britain over 200 years of its colonial enterprise in this part of the world added up to less than `1.76 lakh crore. Or, it is equally possible that it far exceeded the net worth of the Empire of Greed that A Raja built during his tenure as Telecom Minister under the tutelage of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Politicians are given to exaggeration and Ms Jayalalithaa is no exception.

Yet, the enormity of Raja’s loot can be minimised only at the risk of aping spokespersons of the Congress who refuse to accept that spectrum was sold for a song to firms many of which came into being only to grab a slice of the 2G pie. There is the additional risk of being seen as justifying the Prime Minister’s refusal to prevent the ‘Great 2G Spectrum Robbery’ since not to do so would be to repudiate the dharma of coalition politics. Needless to say, there was nothing dharmic about either Raja’s stunningly bald-faced defiance of all norms of probity or the Prime Minister’s resounding silence over the plunder that took place under his watch. By no stretch of the imagination does coalition politics mean allowing allies to denude the nation of its wealth: Rs 1.76 lakh crore is not exactly small change even in these days of rampaging inflation.

The outpouring of moral outrage over Raja’s crime may have served the purpose of forcing one of the most corrupt Ministers (by no means was he the lone wolf in the Cabinet) in the present regime to quit office in disgrace although he remains defiant as ever. But it has also swamped a revealing report on Global Financial Integrity that was released last week. The details of the report indicate the extent of corruption in India and confirm what we refuse to accept: We are a corrupt society with a corrupt system; a nation that silently indulges in corruption while raucously protesting against it, as is being witnessed at the moment.

The GFI report says, “From 1948 through 2008, India lost a total of $213 billion in illicit financial flows (or illegal capital flight). These illicit financial flows were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, and criminal activities.” Illicit financial flows pertain to the “cross-border movement (or transfer) of money earned through illegal activities such as corruption, transactions involving contraband goods, criminal activities, and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities”. The total of $213 billion is a misleading figure because “the present value of India’s illicit financial flows is at least $462 billion,” the GFI report explains, adding, “This is based on the short-term US Treasury bill rate as a proxy for the rate of return on assets.”

What we are looking at is illicit financial flows of Rs 20.85 lakh crore over 60 years. This, however, is not the sum total of all illicit gains through corrupt practices. “This estimate is conservative,” the GFI report says, adding by way of a cautionary note, “as it does not include several major forms of value drainages out of poorer countries not represented by money”. Among these ‘major forms of value drainages’, the report says, are trade mispricing that is handled by collusion between importers and exporters within the same invoice; the proceeds of criminal and commercial smuggling such as drugs, minerals and contraband goods; and, mispriced asset swaps where ownership of commodities, shares and properties are traded without a cash flow. All this should sound very familiar to Indian ears.

The GFI report points out that the “total capital flight represents approximately 16.6 per cent of India’s GDP as of year-end 2008”; that “illicit financial flows out of India grew at 11.5 per cent per year”; and, that “India lost $16 billion per year between 2002-2006”. Who are responsible for this huge outflow of illicit funds? High net-worth individuals and private companies were found to be the “primary drivers of illicit flows”. India’s “underground economy is also a significant driver of illicit financial flows”.

The report explains that from 1948 through 2008, “the Indian private sector shifted away from deposits into developed country banks and towards increased deposits in offshore financial centres”, also known as ‘tax havens’ from where money was accessed by many of the fly-by-night operators who benefited from Raja’s largesse. The fact that deposits in tax havens have increased from 36.4 per cent of illicit financial flows in 1995 to 54.2 per cent in 2009 tells its own story.

The GFI report provides some other interesting insights. For instance, contrary to the claims of successive Governments, more vociferously by the UPA regime, India’s underground economy, which is “closely tied to illicit financial outflows”, continues to expand with each passing day. The present value of illicit assets held abroad ($462 billion) “accounts for approximately 72 per cent of India’s underground economy — which has been estimated to account for 50 per cent of India’s GDP ($640 billion at the end of 2008)”. Just above a quarter of illicit assets are held domestically.

Champions of unrestricted free market economics and liberalisation insist that these will help fight the menace of corruption and the acquisition of illicit wealth. But this is what the GFI report says: “In the post-reform period of 1991-2008, deregulation and trade liberalisation accelerated the outflow of illicit money from the Indian economy. Opportunities for trade mispricing grew and expansion of the global shadow financial system — particularly island tax havens — accommodate the increased outflow of India’s illicit capital flight.” What should also cause concern is the statistical correlation between increasing illicit financial flows and deteriorating income distribution.

A country where lobbyists have Ministers wrapped around their little fingers and can get policy tweaked to suit the interests of unscrupulous corporates, a society which sees nothing wrong with greasing the palms of babus, policemen and politicians to access services to which people are entitled, a nation whose people believe it is perfectly alright to jump the queue by paying middlemen and bribing the crook at the counter, and a people inure to the crime of all-round corruption should not feign anger and outrage over Raja emptying the till of the store he was supposed to look after and manage while cocking a snook at one and all, including a Prime Minister too effete to protest. A severely compromised media only highlights the rot within.

We are what we are, and so are those whom we elect to office.

[This appears as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on November 21, 2010.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Corrupt system, corrupt society

66 die in Delhi house collapse. Does anybody care?

On Monday night a five-storey illegally constructed residential building in east Delhi came crashing down like a house of cards. By Tuesday, the death toll had mounted to 66.

The disaster occurred in the congested, filthy trans-Yamuna area of India's national capital. The parliamentary constituency of East Delhi is represented by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's son, Sandeep Dikshit, of the Congress.

Most residents are immigrants, a majority from Bihar. East Delhi 'colonies', which are large, sprawling urban slums with poor sanitation, near non-existent civic amenities, prolonged power cuts, poor water supply, offer cheap accommodation. Vast stretches of east Delhi have become a ghetto with over-flowing open drains, piles of festering garbage and potholed roads, for immigrants.

The building that collapsed stood a short distance from the 'world class' CWG Games Village. Lakshmi Nagar, and not the tinsel-and-glitter CWG facilities, presents the true face of Delhi.

Sheila Dikshit has washed her hands of any responsibility and slyly passed on the buck to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi where the BJP has a majority. What is not mentioned is that councillors have no executive authority which is vested with the Commissioner who reports to the Lt-Governor of Delhi.

MCD is a den of vice where corrupt babus and venal 'engineers' rule the roast. It's a babu-engineer-land mafia-developer-politician nexus at work. They are a law unto themselves. MCD exemplifies the cash-and-carry culture of Delhi.

But political parties are not free of blame either. Before elections, politicians promise to 'regularise' unauthorised colonies. The Congress, which for long has flourished on 'jhuggi-jhonpri' votes in Delhi, has mastered the art of 'regularising' unauthorised colonies. So its promise carries greater weight.

Before last year's Assembly election, Sheila Dikshit had promised to 'regularise' 1,200 of Delhi's 1,600 unauthorised colonies with illegally constructed buildings violating basic norms required for MCD sanction. The so-called 'Residents Welfare Associations' of these unauthorised colonies were given 'provisional certificates'. After the election, which the Congress won, the list was trimmed to 622.

Every time questions are asked as to why action is not being initiated against unauthorised colonies with illegal buildings, a counter-question is posed: Where will the residents go? That's a neat trick. Grab land, build houses which are death traps, rent them out to immigrants looking for cheap accommodation or sell floors to those looking for cheap housing or benami property, and voila, nobody can touch you.

Human life in India has no value attached to it. Nobody will be held accountable for these terrible deaths. To use a cliche, no heads will roll.

Those who pretend concern over corruption would do well to ponder over this: The loot at the top -- 2G Spectrum scam, Adarsh Housing Society scam, CWG scam -- symbolise the rotten icing on a rotten cake. As a nation, as a society, we are thoroughly corrupt. Or else the sprawling slums of east Delhi, which are loftily described as 'colonies', would not have existed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Prof P Lal, in memoriam

He inspired me to seek a living from the written word

Poet-translator-teacher. That’s how newspapers described Professor Purushottam Lal — better known as Professor P Lal — who died in his beloved city, Kolkata, on November 3. Readers were also informed he was 81. Those who knew Prof Lal also knew that he was not given to maudlin sentimentality — he often described Indians as “naively sentimental”. But perhaps he would have preferred to leave for the hereafter surrounded by shelves laden with books, framed prints of poets, hand-written manuscripts and his family in his crammed though spacious study at his house in Lake Gardens. That was not to be. He had been unwell for some time and required frequent hospitalisation; this time he did not return home. Death stalks us every day and night of our lives; when it finally catches up with us, it is usually without notice. That’s how we are destined to live and die. After the last prayer has been said and the final tribute paid, the passage of time begins to dull the fondest of memories. The cycle of life doesn’t stop turning; it maintains its own steady pace.

Prof Lal will be remembered by many of his admirers as a poet who had crafted a style of his own, very Indian, very desi, not dissimilar to the notes of Hindustani classical music, yet tantalisingly, just so, modern and European. Others will remember him as a publisher who had an eye for spotting young talent and gave budding writers the break they were looking for. That’s how Vikram Seth, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das and many others embarked on their journey to literary stardom. Then there are those who believe he was a gifted translator. His mammoth, 18-volume, sloka by sloka, rendition of Mahabharat in English shall continue to bear testimony to his remarkable ability as a translator. Prof Lal chose to use the word ‘transcreation’ and not ‘translation’; he wasn’t simply looking for words to replace words, but creating a new text based on the original.

He will also be remembered for his publishing house, Writers Workshop, which he ran single-handedly, well almost. For he never forgot to mention, in the opening pages of every book he ever published, that the volume of prose or poetry had reached the reader’s hands via the hands of a typesetter (who was partial towards the Times Roman typeface, possibly because there never was enough money to buy or cast new typefaces), a printer (who operated an antiquated though made in India treadle machine) and a binder (who used cotton handloom sari cloth woven in India). In his lifetime Tulamiah Mohiudden became as much an institution with his imaginative use of Sambalpuri fabric as Writers Workshop. Prof Lal’s son, Ananda, whom I have known as a friend for more years than I can remember, tells me Tulamiah’s children have continued with the tradition made fashionable by the binder of Writers Workshop books. As for the covers, they were invariably designed by Prof Lal: The title and the author’s name, hand-written in his inimitable calligraphy with a Sheaffer fountain pen, would be embossed on the hand-woven fabric in gold. Prof Lal was inconsolable when the nib of his pen broke after decades of use. That particular model was no longer available in stores. He wrote a letter to Sheaffer, wondering whether they could help him locate a nib. They sent him a new pen, with a similar nib specially made for his use. I will never forget the childlike delight with which he told me the story, showing off the pen as a priceless trophy. Yet, no two books ever looked similar. Ananda says Writers Workshop has till date published at least a thousand titles, but as always, and in many ways like his father, he is self-effacing. I am told the Writers Workshop list covers more than 3,000 books.

Pritish Nandy, the radical poet of the 1960s who went on to become a typewriter guerrilla and now produces Bollywood films, would remember Prof Lal as the publisher of his first, slim volume of poems. I was neither a budding writer nor an aspiring poet when I first met Prof Lal in 1981; so I have never had the privilege of being published by him. The only time my name featured in a Writers Workshop title was when Prof Lal wrote a book on his near-death experience in the late-1980s when he was struck by a strange bug while on a lecture tour in the US. In his dedication, he included my name. That was his way of expressing affection for a student who lazed on the back benches, rarely if ever turned in his assignments, but never forgot to attend his class. And that’s how I have always known Prof Lal — as a teacher for whom I had, and shall always have, the highest regard and utmost respect.

Prof Lal’s lectures were invariably scheduled in the afternoon when silence would descend on St Xavier’s College. His mellifluous voice, which he would never raise, would add to the sense of post-lunch lassitude. Unlike the other teachers, he never came armed with tattered, yellowing sheets of paper scribbled with notes. He would just stroll in, perch his elbow on the table and, after the customary greeting, gently initiate more of a conversation than launch into a prepared lecture. He would use metaphors that were magical, words that knocked on the doors of imagination. Perhaps it was practiced ease; years of teaching undergraduate students of English literature abroad had given him a certain sophistication lacking in the other teachers of the department who followed the strait and the narrow of the university syllabus, insisting we scribble down their words, learn the notes by rote and prepare for examinations in which we were expected to get a first. For Prof Lal, a third was as good as a first, provided the mind was not stuck in a groove and roved free, seeking pleasure in prose and poetry, essays and novels beyond the texts prescribed by Calcutta University. He would never bother about marking classroom attendance — presumably he found it repugnant that students should attend his lectures merely to mark attendance and not to learn.

I was a back-bencher and would listen to him in rapt attention, my legs sprawled, eyes half closed. One day, after the bell rang, he waited for me to pick up my bag and walk towards the door. He called me over to where he was standing and said, “I won’t ask you why you never hand in your assignments, but for that alone I will invite you home for tea. Come over this Sunday.” And so it was that I set foot into the famed study where writers would meet for scintillating conversation and manuscripts would be carefully read to spot that special talent which needed a helping hand. Prof Lal was in his favourite armchair, reading a book. He put it aside as I entered the cavernous room on the first floor, the late afternoon sun pouring in through the open windows. I had expected him to rebuke me for not taking my assignments seriously. Instead, what followed was a long conversation that stretched late into the evening. That was the first of many such conversations, and the beginning of a guru-sishya relationship that endured over the years. An added benefit was the friendship I struck with Ananda, then at a loose end and now a professor of English at Jadavpur University.

Kolkata will miss an intellectual who made the city his home, far away from Kapurthala where he was born. While others, including his students, left Kolkata looking for greener pastures, Prof Lal stayed on, resolute in his belief that this was his karmabhumi. In his death, I have lost an affectionate teacher and someone who inspired me to seek a living from the written word. Meanwhile, the queue ahead gets shorter.

[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 14, 2010.]

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Obama comes job-shopping

Are we mindful of our concerns?

A friend on Twitter, @naveenks, made the most profound comment on US President Barack Hussein Obama’s visit to India, which officially begins tomorrow morning: “There was a time when Indian Prime Ministers used to visit the US looking for food to feed hungry Indians. Now US Presidents visit India looking for jobs for Americans.” There couldn’t have been a more apt comment as Mr Obama makes his first halt on a job-shopping trip to Asia. To Mr Obama’s credit, as also to his advisers’, no false claims of furthering ‘strategic relations’ have been made; hence, expectations should not soar in Lutyens’s Delhi or elsewhere in India. To that extent, it was unfair to expect him to name Pakistan — or its ‘non-state actors’ — as the perpetrator/s of the November 26, 2008 bloodbath while reading out his treacly message for the victims and survivors of Mumbai’s unending night of horror. This is not the first time people have pretended the fidayeen came from outer space and Kasab is an extra-terrestrial alien. His immediate predecessors, Mr Bill Clinton and Mr George W Bush, were keen on striking a strategic alliance between the US and India as part of a realignment of geostrategic interests designed to fetch mutual long-term benefits; Mr Obama does not need to toe their line and is at liberty to aggressively seek for America a ‘strategic relationship’ with Pakistan. The ongoing US-Pakistan ‘strategic dialogue’, which involves the active participation of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, speaks for itself and where India stands in the changed circumstances. Whiners do not make winners; a country that does not fight to protect its interests should not expect others to join an imaginary battle.

That does not necessarily detract from the importance of Mr Obama’s visit. An American President knocking on our doors for jobs to sustain his presidency back home is not an everyday occurrence. If only Mrs Indira Gandhi had been alive today, she would have relished this moment of triumph: India’s sweet revenge on the US for treating her so shabbily. Mrs Gandhi was not in Washington, DC with a begging bowl to feed her hungry millions, but to plead the case of Bangladesh and seek American support for a just war of liberation. MV Kamath, who was posted in Washington those days, recalls, “The United States, under President Richard Nixon, was strongly on the side of Pakistan. Nixon hated India with the intensity of a burning Sun. His unprincipled Secretary of State, a real chamcha and an unscrupulous one at that, was ever-willing to back his boss to the hilt. If Nixon showed anger against India, Kissinger would happily fan it. If Nixon abused India, Kissinger was willing to go all the way to insult it … The plane in which she (Mrs Indira Gandhi) travelled was ordered to come a halt at New York’s Kennedy Airport close to a stinking urinal deliberately. One had to hold one’s nose while passing by. According to the lowest level of protocol, she was received by a junior State Department official. I was one of those present on the occasion … The first meeting between her and Nixon was fixed. Punctual to the point, Mrs Gandhi presented herself but Nixon deliberately made her wait for some 40 minutes to show his contempt for his visitor ... It was bad manners at their worst…”

No matter how lofty the cause, Mrs Gandhi was a supplicant in Nixon’s court and he was loath to let this fact go unnoticed. That does not, however, require us to be boorish as Mr Obama comes looking for jobs to bail out Americans from an economic crisis that continues to get worse, causing unemployment to rise to a level that has forced his ‘coalition of voters’ — the college-educated, the suburbanites, the politically uncommitted — to disown their ‘Apostle of Change’ and make Tea Party a fashionable political term of grassroots resistance to what is increasingly being perceived in the US as bad governance and which has fetched the Democrats a walloping in last week’s mid-term elections the like of which has not been witnessed in 72 years. Mr Obama’s approval rating, let us not forget, hovers at 45 per cent, and he is not even in the last year of his term.

So here are the bare facts. Mr Obama arrives in India not as the world’s most powerful person (that honour now goes to Mr Hu Jintao, President of China), an American President who can assert his authority and swing congressional approval for long-term strategic deals. The mid-term elections have left him severely bruised and his presidency hobbled. Republicans now have a majority in the House; the Democrats’ lead in the Senate is too narrow to over-ride opposition to presidential initiatives. The reversals are far worse than those suffered by Mr Clinton and Mr Bush. Unlike Mr Obama, neither Mr Clinton nor Mr Bush was isolated within his party. The Democrats are increasingly reluctant to either endorse him or be seen to be endorsing him. Few candidates wanted him to campaign for them and the party is already divided on renominating him for 2012, although these are early days for the race which begins late next year.

Domestic issues, especially the American economy, will preoccupy Mr Obama through 2011 to shore up his ratings. It’s unlikely he will focus on foreign relations and policy unless they are directly linked to domestic concerns. Hence his honest admission that his Asia visit is meant to ‘shop for jobs’: Any big ticket agreement that is arrived at while he is in New Delhi is likely to be linked to job-creation in America. That’s why Mr Obama is pushing hard for Government-to-Government defence purchases by India. It obviates procurement norms, fast tracks contracts, and advantage accrues to the supplier Government: The Obama Administration can boast to have created that many more jobs.

India has agreed to purchase 10 C17 transport planes for the IAF. The deal would fetch the US $ 5 billion. More importantly, it would save up to 30,000 jobs. Mr Obama now wants India to place its order for 126 multirole aircraft for the IAF with Lockheed Martin or Boeing, or both. That would save and generate as many as 27,000 to 31,000 jobs. If India agrees, we would be underwriting Mr Obama’s job-creation programme and funding the recovery of the US’s badly hit economy to the tune of more than $10 billion. Curiously, as soon as India agreed to the purchase of the C17s, Mr Obama announced an additional military aid package of $ 2.037 billion (over and above the $ 7.5 billion ongoing aid) for Pakistan. So, by placing orders for American merchandise, India not only creates jobs in the US but also defrays part of the mounting cost of American civil and military aid to Pakistan. For the record, since 9/11, American aid to Pakistan has surpassed $ 25 billion; nearly all of it in military assistance.

India Inc has made two points in response to Mr Obama’s job-shopping agenda. First, with India emerging as one the fastest growing source of FDI in the US, thousands of jobs have been created and secured by us in that country. Second, notwithstanding this fact, Mr Obama has become increasingly protectionist. For example, tax breaks for companies that outsource business or employ non-Americans are being withdrawn; H1B visa fees have been raised astronomically; and, it’s more difficult to get business visas than ever before while many Indians with business visas are being refused entry at port of arrival.

It is against this backdrop that we should judge the outcome of Mr Obama’s visit to India, not imagined slights and grievances which have no place in hard-headed diplomacy.

[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 7, 2010.]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Free speech? Clever cover for India bashing

Hypocrisy of Left-liberal commentariat

Activist-author-anarchist Arundhati Roy remains recalcitrant. On Tuesday she issued a statement, in which, among other things, she “the people of Kashmir live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world”, “the Indian poor pay the price of this occupation in material ways and who are now learning to live in the terror of what is becoming a police state”, “pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds”. Curiously, or perhaps not, she claimed “Dalit soldiers” are getting killed in Jammu & Kashmir.

On Sunday, speaking at a seminar on ‘Wither Kashmir: Freedom or Enslavement’ in Srinagar, Arundhati Roy said, “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact.” She said she was proud to associate herself with “resistance movements” across India and counselled Kashmiris to “consolidate the gains” of the recent four months of anti-India agitation. “The power concedes nothing unless it is forced to,” she said, and demanded demilitarisation of Jammu & Kashmir. Then she went on to urge Kashmiris not to join the State police and the Central Reserve Police Force.

Strangely, Arundhati Roy questioned the legitimacy of Kashmiris electing their own Government: “You (Kashmiris) should think how the elections were used against you.” In the same breath she added, “The Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy has not been elected.” Does she then, at least, admit India is the “world’s largest democracy”? Of course not! “India is behaving like a colonial power and suppressing one community at the hands of the other … They are sending Nagas to Kashmir and Punjabis to Manipur.”

The Union Ministry for Home Affairs believes there is sufficient evidence by way of Arundhati Roy’s seditious utterances to prosecute her under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. This section says:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Explanation 1-The expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Explanation 2-Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3-Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

The Home Ministry is said to be waiting for “political clearance”. The Congress is believed to be of the view that while a case should be filed against her and she should be prosecuted, Arundhati Roy should not be arrested to avoid “negative publicity abroad”. And what if the courts hold her guilty and send her to jail? What then? Or is the Congress banking on the decrepit criminal justice system to drag the case for years and decades, by when it will be inconsequential whether she is punished or not.

Over the weekend, three distinct viewpoints have emerged. First, Arundhati Roy should be prosecuted. Second, we should ignore her just as others on the lunatic fringe are ignored. Third, she should be allowed to have her say because “freedom of speech is guaranteed” by the Constitution of India. I have already expressed my opinion on the first two points. The last view merits further comment.

Contrary to popular belief, popularised no doubt by illiterate and ill-informed members of south Delhi’s Left-liberal commentariat that rules ‘national media’, freedom of speech is not unrestrained in India.

The Constitution provides for "the right to freedom of speech and expression" [Article 19(1) a]. However this right is subject to restrictions under sub-clause (2), whereby this freedom can be restricted for reasons of "sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt, court, defamation, or incitement to an offence”.

Arundhati Roy is clearly in breach of these restrictions. Anybody else violating sub-clause 2 would have faced the ire of the state. Second, by slyly referring to “Dalit soldiers” and urging Kashmiris not to join the police and CRPF, she is prima facie guilty of far worse.

That apart, for the Left-liberals to argue in support of free speech is disingenuous. The same freedom is rudely curbed when the Right wants to exercise this right.

As my friend and one of the leading scholars of West Asia, Barry Rubin, recently wrote, albeit in a different context, “Leftist attacks are designed to demonise, destroy and silence … Conservatives have been often demonised and, given liberal suspicion toward that side of the political spectrum, many liberals have believed whatever they’ve been told by often highly partisan and dishonest sources, failing to insist on fair play. Ridicule conservatives and moderate, traditional liberals will accept it without checking quotes, listening to responses, and demanding accuracy”.

In justification of their intolerance, bigotry and belligerence, the Left-liberals say, “We must draw a distinction between ‘hate speech’ and ‘free speech’.” Really? When does ‘free speech’ become ‘hate speech’? When it bruises bogus Left-liberal sensitivities? And, what if I were to insist, for good reason, that Arundhati Roy’s ‘free speech’ is ‘hate speech’ disguised in cockamamie jargon?

We could also ask whether those who have suddenly become vocal in protecting unrestricted 'free speech', which rests on the principle of absolute freedom to say anything, irrespective of consequences, had been equally vocal in protecting Varun Gandhi's right to say what he is alleged to have said (he says the tape was doctored; the issue is in court) during last summer's election campaign.

Arundhati Roy claims to be speaking for ‘justice’. There can be no justice till such time India is burdened with a flawed system based on the notion of laws being equal for all but privileges being different. The laws which she is accused of having violated shall never be applied to her because she belongs to the ‘intellectual elite’, the club of English-speaking professional dissenters who thrive on media publicity, who are feted by the commentariat, who are promoted by foreign media keen to portray India as a banana republic. Yet, the same laws are applied to others who are less privileged than Arundhati Roy and her gang of cheer leaders.

There is merit in the argument that nothing should be done to help Arundhati Roy achieve her goal of being seen as India’s Liu Xiaobo. There’s nothing she would love more than that and the adulation which would follow.

Yet, it rankles that she should listen to the grasshoppers sing while others serve time for offences far less serious. This is neither just nor fair. It’s definitely not my idea of justice.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Privilege of being Arundhati Roy

Since Arundhati Roy believes in a world of equals, why should she be more privileged than Chhatradhar Mahato?

If consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, as was famously (and tad bitchily) declared by the flamboyant Irish writer Oscar Wilde, then Arundhati Roy qualifies as an author-activist-anarchist lacking in imagination. For she has been consistent in denouncing the Indian nation, questioning the quality of democracy in this country, casting aspersions on the judiciary, promoting secessionism and justifying the murderous campaign by Maoists to capture state power. Outraged as most people are by her passionate espousal of azadi for Kashmir at a convention in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi last Thursday, they appear to have forgotten her previous assertion of the Kashmiris’ “right to secede” from the Union of India, not once or twice, but many times over. Similarly, this is not the first time that she has ridiculed the nation and the state or poured scorn over India’s democratic credentials which are universally acknowledged as among the best in the world.

“India needs azadi from Kashmir and Kashmir needs azadi from India,” she told an appreciative crowd of secessionists and their supporters, carted in from Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi University and other such taxpayer-funded institutions of learning that double up as fast-breeders of Muslim separatists and Left extremists for whom nationalism is as offensive as their nationality. But this is not the first time Arundhati Roy has outraged sensitivities. Two years ago, on August 19, 2008, after attending a rally organised by separatists in Srinagar, she had excitedly told mediapersons eager to record her pearls of wisdom: “India needs azadi from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs azadi from India.” She had then added with a flourish, as is by now her established style of exaggerating a point to sheer banality, “If no one is listening then it is because they don’t want to hear. Because this is a referendum… People don’t need anyone to represent them, they are representing themselves.”

Nor is this the first time that Arundhati Roy has questioned the quality of democracy in India; she has done so repeatedly. Invited for a book-reading session at New York’s Town Hall, she had stunned the gathering by suddenly launching a vitriolic attack on democracy in India. “The biggest PR myth of all times is that India is a democracy. In reality, it is not… There is no real democracy in India. Several States in India are on the verge of civil war… In Iraq, there are 1,50,000 military personnel, whereas in Kashmir Valley there are some 7,00,000,” she had said. Not surprisingly, she got a standing ovation. Who is to tell the Americans who applauded her that had India not been a democracy she would have been frog-marched to Tihar Jail immediately upon arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport on her return?

On another occasion, while berating the police for arresting Maoists and charging them with murder, Arundhati Roy had lashed out at democracy in India for not tolerating terrorism in the name of Chairman Mao’s blood-stained ideology. “The concept of Indian democracy is the biggest publicity scam of this century. Holding elections every five years does not necessarily mean that our country enjoys democracy.” Her notion of democracy, presumably, is a system that allows unrestricted lawlessness so long as laws are being followed in the breach by her ilk — deracinated, English-speaking, cliché-mouthing ‘intellectuals’ who wax eloquent on the plight of the unwashed masses but recoil in horror at the very suggestion of being counted with those on whose behalf they claim to speak — and their rage boys who kill and maim, rape and loot, burn and destroy to satiate their perverse desire to see India suffer. It’s fashionable for them to intersperse their accented English with deliberately mispronounced words in Hindi. Hence Arundhati Roy’s description of India as “bhookhey-nangey Hindustan”; she, of course, has known neither dehumanising hunger nor the indignity suffered by a woman in tattered rags. India’s well-heeled radicals who own farm houses built on illegally ‘acquired’ tribal land are not expected to sully their manicured fingers with desi daal-roti.

The issue, therefore, is not about Arundhati Roy trying to shock Indians who are proud of their nation and nationality, Hindustanis who are perfectly at ease with Hindustan, a billion people who wouldn’t want to swap their democracy with a Talibani social order and political system which she obviously admires because she was inconsolable and in unrestrained grief after Mullah Omar and his thugs were chased out of Kabul. Only the naïve and the uninitiated would be offended by her crudity which is designed to infuriate the most tolerant and liberal among us who believe free speech is one of the defining features of democracy. The real issue is the discriminatory attitude of our state which fosters a system where the law, in theory, is the same for all but privileges, in practice, are different. Nothing else explains why Chhatradhar Mahato, a flashily dressed, dimwitted blabbermouth from the boondocks of Lalgarh in West Bengal, should be in jail for aiding and assisting Maoists in waging war on the state and helping propagate their destructive ideology, charged under the amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, while Arundhati Roy, a sophisticated self-publicist and articulate propagandist of every conceivable anti-national ‘cause’, should remain untouched by the proverbial long arm of the law.

The UAPA says “secession of a part of the territory of India from the Union includes the assertion of any claim to determine whether such part will remain a part of the territory of India”. The offences listed under this law include any assertion or statement “which is intended, or supports any claim, to bring about, on any ground whatsoever, the cession of a part of the territory of India or the secession of a part of the territory of India from the Union, or which incites any individual or group of individuals to bring about such cession or secession”. Prima facie Arundhati Roy is guilty of these offences when she endorses the separatists call for azadi, incites Kashmiris to break away from India, and urges impressionable young men and women to get “involved in this cause which is their future”.

There’s more. Section 18 of the amended UAPA lays down that “Whoever conspires or attempts to commit, or advocates, abets, advises or incites knowingly facilitates the commission of, a terrorist act or any act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Section 18B says, “Whoever recruits or causes to be recruited any person or persons for commission of a terrorist act shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

If the law of the land were truly applicable to all, then Arundhati Roy would have been in jail by now. Or, if we were to put it another way, had India’s democracy been perfect and not flawed, she would have been denied the presumed right to undermine the Indian state in so brazen a manner. Ironically, what she so crudely berates also affords her the freedom to abuse the very system of which she is a privileged beneficiary. The elite that is India’s bane would be incomplete without Arundhati Roy.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on October 24, 2010.]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Secede from 'bhookhey-nangey Hindustan', Arundhati Roy tells Kashmiris

Delhi Police protects secessionists at anti-India 'convention'

It was a stunning display of defiance right under the nose of the Government of India and under the protection of Delhi Police – defiance of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which has been amended to bring under its purview not only those who indulge in secessionist and anti-national activities that amount to waging war on the state but also those who propagate secessionism and assist anti-national elements in waging war on the state. And this happened right under the nose of the Government of India, a short distance from North Block where the Ministry of Home Affairs is situated. The Indian state was pitilessly ridiculed and mocked at, those waging war on the state were openly asked to step up their campaign, and terrorism was glorified under the protection of Delhi Police.

On Thursday afternoon, a group of separatists, Maobadis and their sympathisers and publicists gathered at the Little Theatre Group auditorium on Copernicus Marg in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi, ostensibly for a convention whose theme was ‘Azadi – The Only Way’. It was organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, a front organisation of the Maobadis.

The ‘convention’ was moderated by SAR Geelani, a key accused in the Parliament House attack case who escaped the gallows due to poor prosecution, prompting the judge to comment that it’s a pity he did not pay for his crime although it’s clear he committed it. SAR Geelani, ironically, teaches at Zakir Hussein College in Delhi; he lives in comfort at the expense of taxpayers.

The only voices of protest against the undiluted abuse and scorn that was poured on India were those of Kashmiri Pandits who repeatedly raised pro-India slogans and waved the Tricolour. After a while, SAR Geelani ‘directed’ (I use the word after due deliberation) the policemen on duty to throw out the pro-India members of the audience. The police obliged, dragging the Pandits and pushing them out of the hall.

The following are excerpts from what was said by two key participants:

Arundhati Roy: “Kashmir should get azadi from bhookhey-nangey Hindustan… India needs azadi from Kashmir and Kashmir from India. It is a good debate that has started. We must deepen this conversation and I am happy that young people are getting involved for this cause which is their future. The Indian Government is a hollow superpower and I disassociate from it… Earlier we used to talk about holding our high and now we prostrate ourselves before the US… Kashmiris have to decide whether they want to be with or get separated from bhookhey-nangey Hindustan where more than 830 million people live on only Rs 20 per day… In the early-1990s India opened two gates – one for the Babri Masjid and the other for the economy… We ushered in two kinds of totalitarianism: Hindu totalitarianism and the other economic totalitarianism... I am also aware of the stories about Kashmiri Pandits. I must tell you that Panun Kashmir is a false group…”

Syed Ali Shah Geelani: I urge Kashmiris to boycott interlocutors and reject the eight-point agenda of India for defusing the crisis in the Valley. The people of Kashmir are not against dialogue, but the talks should be on the core issue of azadi and Pakistan should also be involved in the discussions… The dialogue should not be bilateral. India, Pakistan and representatives of people of Jammu & Kashmir should sit together… They must take into account sacrifices made by Kashmiris during the last 63 years. Indian Government has to accept our five-point agenda, only then will we initiate talks with interlocutors. Otherwise, I ask Kashmiris to boycott them… We demand Indian security forces should be withdrawn from Jammu & Kashmir under UN supervision; political prisoners should be released; cases should be registered against the killers of 111 innocent people killed during the last four months… We want the right to self-determination… Today it is said that interlocutors will come and meet a host of people in the State for one year to understand what people want. This is a fraud. It is an attempt to delay everything hoping that poeple will forget… Kashmir is not an internal dispute but an international issue…

SAR Geelani added a clarification: “Kashmir does not only mean the Kashmir Valley but the entire Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Muzzafarabad, Baltistan and Mirpur...”

It could be argued that the principle of free speech, which is one of the pillars of democracy, allows individuals to spew venom at the state. But when free speech transmogrifies into open call for secession, should the state remain an idle spectator?

A last point. If Chhatradhar Mahato of PCPA can be held under UAPA for providing assistance to Maobadis and propagating their cause, then why should the same law not be applicable when it comes to Arundhati Roy? Because she speaks and writes in English, is a Booker winner and is feted by foreign organisations?

I have discussed this point in detail in an earlier blog entry: If there's no democracy in India, why can't she move to Swat Valley?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Games over, punish those who looted India

The knives are out in Congress

Within days of the Commonwealth Games getting over, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered a full-fledged inquiry into the ‘conduct’ of the sporting event which has cost the country’s taxpayers anything between Rs 70,000 crore and Rs 1,00,000 crore. The official estimate of Rs 27,000 crore is misleading since it does not take into account ‘miscellaneous’ expenditure: For instance, perfectly good pavements were torn up and relaid, and relaid yet again; plants that cost Rs 50 at nurseries in upmarket areas are believed to have been purchased at Rs 1,000 each; and, money meant for Dalit welfare has been diverted for building flyovers. Examples abound of the effort that has gone into making Delhi shine. The inquiry ordered by the PMO will be conducted by a committee headed by former CVC VK Shungloo, an officer known for his impeccable integrity.

With the CAG, the CVC, the CBI, the ED and now the PMO gunning for those who looted the nation in the name of the Commonwealth Games and used ‘national pride’ as a cloak to cover their misdeeds, the knives are out. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has pointed a not-so-dainty finger at Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi, suggesting that he is to blame for the loot.

Mr Kalmadi has not wasted time in hitting back. He has pointed out that Ms Dikshit was in charge of all construction-related work and her budget was a whopping Rs 16,000 crore while his was a measly Rs 1,600 crore. It is indisputable that much of the loot happened under Ms Dikshit’s watch. The other agency involved in the preparations for the Games was the Union Urban Development Ministry. It has a lot to answer for, too.

The Congress, alarmed by the prospects of a free-for-all, has promptly issued gag orders. That has not prevented Mr Kalmadi, who, as photographs published in Mail Today point out, has a new swagger to his walk while Ms Dikshit looks distinctly worried, from reiterating his charges and asserting that the Delhi Chief Minister can’t escape responsibility.

Meanwhile, the CAG and the CVC have reopened investigations into projects undertaken by the Delhi Government. The CBI has taken files from the OC office into its custody. The ED has launched proceedings against the OC for inexplicably inflated payments. The Income Tax Department has raided the premises of firms that were given contracts for infrastructure-related work. Among the offices that were raided on Tuesday are those of Sudhansu Mittal, known for his proximity to certain senior BJP leaders, at least one of them a member of Delhi4.

BJP president Nitin Gadkari has called for a JPC inquiry. Although a joint parliamentary committee weighed heavily in favour of the Congress is unlikely to do more than a cover-up job (recall the JPC’s report on the Bofors scandal), it’s an idea worth pursuing. At least a lot of details will become public and those who have had their snouts in the trough will be outed.

In mid-August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised that those guilty of wrongdoing would be handed out “severe and exemplary punishment”. The nation expects him to keep his promise.

India deserves far better than a tacky closing ceremony that reminded me of Sports Minister MS Gill telling mediapersons not to worry about the poor and tarred preparations, assuring them the Games would be like a “big fat Punjabi wedding”.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When Hindus abandon Hindus under attack...

Humiliated and fearful of the organised fury of the Muslim mob, Hindus don't celebrate Durga Puja this year in Deganga.

(Photo shows desecrated Kali Mandir in Deganga)

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when Hindu grief in one part of the country would not go unnoticed in its other parts. And so it was that Hindus across north and central India, as it existed before the demise of British colonial rule a year later, observed a ‘black’ Diwali in the autumn of 1946 to commiserate with their co-religionists of Noakhali in Bengal. The infamous Noakhali riots, which erupted on October 10 even before the last corpse had been removed from the bustees of Calcutta which had burned for days following Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s call for ‘Direct Action’ on August 16, witnessed what Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was to later describe as a call to Hindus to leave or perish in the “flames of fanaticism”. If Direct Action Day led to the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’, the “organised fury of the Muslim mob” — as an enraged member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly rudely but pithily put it — was unsparing in Noakhali. Hindu homes were set on fire, Hindu women were raped and girls abducted, Hindu men were murdered. It was this unrestrained butchery and the Hindu grief in its wake that moved a million Hindu hearts in central and north India and the diyas remained unlit that Diwali.

Six-and-a-half decades later, Hindus, it would seem, are no longer moved by the plight of Hindus. The pseudo-secularism aggressively peddled by political parties of all shades — even the BJP has begun to subscribe to the bunkum made fashionable by the Left-liberal intelligentsia in the hope of ridding itself of its ‘communal’ (read Hindu) tag — and the divisive politics of caste identity have made Hindus inure to the plight and sorrow of fellow Hindus. Nothing else explains the indifference of Hindus towards their hapless co-religionists in Deganga who, after suffering the “organised fury of the Muslim mob”, led by Trinamool Congress MP Haji Nurul Islam, have been virtually abandoned by both community and state to their fate. Starting September 6, Haji Nurul Islam and his thugs, who met with resistance when they tried to demolish the main Durga Mandap that has existed for long, ran riot in Deganga block of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, a short distance from Calcutta. Hindu homes were ransacked, Hindu shops were set on fire, Hindu temples were desecrated. All this happened while the district administration and the police twiddled their thumbs. In West Bengal, the Marxists are loath to take on the mullahs; for the Trinamool Congress, the mullahs are powerful allies in Ms Mamata Banerjee’s quest for power at any price.

Humiliated and simmering with rage, abandoned and forsaken by their own in West Bengal and elsewhere, the grieving Hindus of Deganga decided not to celebrate Durga Puja, the most important festival in the Bengali Hindu calendar, this year. The Durga Mandaps in Deganga wore a deserted look, the joyous sound of dhaak, the traditional drum, was not heard, and an overwhelming sense of mourning prevailed. Fear played spoil sport, too: If the September riots were any indication, Muslim belligerence was not to be taken lightly. Meanwhile, in a demonstration of crude triumphalism, Haji Nurul Islam and his goons, with the full support and blessings of the Trinamool Congress, have built and inaugurated a new mosque right in the middle of Deganga market. The high-volume and high-pitched azaan is more a taunt to the Hindus than a call to prayers for the faithful.

The ghetto now rules Deganga. The Hindus, reduced to an awful minority by Muslim ‘settlers’ who entered West Bengal illegally and settled in Deganga as ‘citizens’ after being provided with ration cards by the local committee of the CPI(M) that facilitated the inclusion of their names in the voters list, can only grieve over their persecution today. Ironically, the Hindus voted en bloc for the Left, as did the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants-turned-Indian citizens. Then the demography changed radically; the pampered minority became the oppressive majority. That coincided with the waning of the Left Front and the waxing of the Trinamool Congress which, mindful of numbers, chose Muslims over Hindus in Deganga and strengthened its hold by patronising the likes of Haji Nurul Islam. When Ms Mamata Banerjee went around ‘inaugurating’ Durga Puja at various pandals in Hindu majority constituencies of Kolkata this year, she did not spare a thought for the Hindus of Deganga; she need not have because their votes do not matter. That’s the power of demographic change, forced and natural.

Nor does the Left Front, especially the CPI(M), care about the Hindus of Deganga. The Marxists believe survival depends not on alienating the mullahs but pandering to them. Hence the recently announced communal quota; hence, too, the West Bengal Government shamelessly looking the other way as students of a tax-payer funded Islamic ‘university’ — really an over-glorified madarsa — in Kolkata force their women teachers to wear the burqa on campus. Then there is the media which has blacked out the plight of Hindus in Deganga, striking an ideological posture with which we are all too familiar. But it is not Left-liberalism that has kept Deganga out of the columns of newspapers and prime time bulletins of 24x7 news channels: It is the fear of incurring the wrath of both Ms Mamata Banerjee and her Marxist foes. The tragedy that has befallen the Hindus of Deganga is similar to the stuff that once made Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ a popular inclusion in Sunday papers.

Postscript: I have received the following e-mail from Hindu Samhati, the only organisation which has been trying to draw the attention of media and authorities to the fear that reigns in Deganga, admittedly without any success so far:

“Minor Hindu girl abducted by Muslim youth in Deganga in broad daylight on October 1.

Victim — Sangita Mandal; age 17 years, four months. Class 12 student. Daughter of Sukumar Mandal. Address: Village Purba Changdana, PS Deganga.

Kidnapper — Naharul Islam; age 22. Son of Abdul Rahim. Address: Village Doharia.

Sangita was abducted in a Maruti Omni van at Ambika Nagar in front of Polytechnic College.”

In a similar case of abduction and forced nikah when the mother of the minor girl appealed for justice to a division bench of Calcutta High Court earlier this year, the honourable judges of secular India’s secular justice system had cited sharia’h to legitimise the ‘marriage’, insisting that the age of the girl was inconsequential. We live in depressing times.

[This appears as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on October 17, 2010.]

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ram ki Nagri, once again

But Ayodhya judgement at best a partial closure

During a recent television debate on ‘Saffron Terror’ (the coinage is an oxymoron, but such details don’t bother the ‘secular’ intelligentsia of this wondrous land of ours) I found myself seated next to Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president and MP from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi. Within minutes I was convinced that Mr Owaisi, dressed in an achkan and his heart bleeding profusely for suspected terrorists, lacked both manners and grace. He would interrupt everybody, insisting he had the right to have his say -- without, of course, conceding that right to others. Half way through the show, he suddenly turned towards me and smugly asked, “Will you accept the court’s verdict on Babri Masjid?” I refused to answer him, and for good reason. Later, after the show was over, I asked him, “Will you accept the verdict?” His answer was spontaneous, “Yes, we will.” And then added slyly, “But that’s not the issue. Will you accept it?” I headed for the studio exit.

Mr Owaisi’s question was not as innocuous as it may have seemed to others. For nearly three months a story had been doing the rounds in Delhi, the sum and substance of which was that the much-anticipated judgement in the Ayodhya case would be a two-one majority verdict in favour of the Muslims, upholding the Sunni Waqf Board’s claim to the disputed 2.7 acre land where the Babri Masjid stood till it was demolished by enraged Hindus on December 6, 1992, to reclaim Ram Janmabhoomi and rid India of one of its many monuments glorifying invaders who remorselessly laid the lives of kafirs to waste and destroyed their places of worship with vengeance.

Those who believed this story pointed to tell-tale signs: The pattern of deployment of security forces; the choice of date for the verdict (it was originally scheduled for September 24, a Friday); and the cockiness of Muslim organisations not known for holding the secular judiciary of India in high esteem and their repeated assertion that they would abide by the judgement. Mr Owaisi had obviously heard and believed the story. When I expressed my doubts about its veracity to a fellow columnist, he sneeringly replied, “You are living in denial.” Days before the judgement, questioning the wisdom of those who did not want it to be delayed any further, he tweeted that the “verdict will leave lotuswallahs disappointed”.

South Delhi’s commentariat is adept at the game of Chinese whispers, but it is also divorced from reality, preferring fiction over fact. The verdict of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court -- really three separate judgements with the judges concurring on certain key issues -- bore no resemblance to the inspired ‘leak’. The judges agreed on three important issues: Muslims do not have exclusive claim to the site held sacred by Hindus; the ground where the central dome of the Babri Masjid stood belongs to Ram Lalla as has been argued for centuries by Hindus who believe it is Ram Janmabhoomi; and, a temple existed at the spot that was selected by Mir Baqi to build a mosque to celebrate Babur’s victorious military campaign in the region. On the third point, two of the three judges also agreed that the temple was desecrated and destroyed to build the mosque; one of them held this to be un-Islamic, a point validated by theology.

It’s politically correct to say there are no winners and losers following the Ayodhya verdict. But we all know that’s not true. Why else would Mr Owaisi, whose party was last in the news for opposing ‘Hyderabad Liberation Day’ celebrations on September 17 because “many Muslims (razakars) were killed” when the people rose in revolt in 1948 against the Nizam for refusing to join the Union of India, be incandescent with rage? The same man who, having willed himself into believing the cockamamie story that two of the three judges would rule in favour of the Muslims, told me he would accept the High Court’s verdict, is now indulging in what comes easily to him and his ilk: Intemperate, provocative language. “We are not satisfied with the judgement. The evidence presented by Muslims to the court was strong… It seems that it has not been given due consideration,” he told one newspaper. To another he said, “There is anger building up among the Muslim community over the verdict but, god willing, it may not translate into street violence.” Notice how he is leaving the option of mobs taking to the streets wide open. Mr Owaisi is not alone; he has Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav of “ek parinda bhi paar nahi kar sakta” fame, to keep him company.

At the same show I was interrupted by a leading light of south Delhi’s commentariat when I made bold to suggest that little purpose will be served if we keep on going back to history. “What history? Tell us,” he tauntingly said and, along with Mr Owaisi, broke into raucous laughter. I could have given the example of the vandalism that had occurred in Ayodhya in 1528, and elsewhere in India since then: Varanasi, Mathura, Ajmer, Delhi -- the list is endless. But I chose not to bite Mukul Kesavan’s bait, choosing, instead, to place my faith in the wisdom and fair play of our secular justice system. That faith stands vindicated today. At one level, the Ayodhya judgement liberates Ram Janmabhoomi and serves to address, albeit partially, latent and lingering Hindu disquiet. At another level, it is a deeply personal victory for me and some other writers, all of them close friends and professional associates, who chose not to sway with the wave and told the truth as it was rather than join the crowd of intellectually bankrupt dhimmis who unfortunately hold positions of power and authority in free, secular India. They are the real losers and look more pathetic than ever before.

Let me conclude by quoting Nirad C Chaudhuri, a writer whom I greatly admire for speaking his mind freely and without caring a hoot about how many toes he tread upon: “Muslims do not have the slightest right to complain about the desecration of one mosque in Ayodhya. From 1000 AD every temple from Kathiawar to Bihar, from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas has been sacked and ruined. Not one temple was left standing all over northern India. They escaped destruction only where Muslim power did not gain access to them for reasons such as dense forests. Otherwise, it was a continuous spell of vandalism. No nation with any self-respect will forgive this. What happened in Ayodhya would not have happened had the Muslims acknowledged this historical argument even once.”

Well-meaning people believe the Allahabad High Court’s judgement will help bring the Ayodhya dispute to a closure. But the Ayodhya dispute is a manifestation of the historical faultlines that run deep through our society. Till such time we admit the existence of the faultlines and accept the causative factors, there can be no real closure. Settling a title suit is not quite the same as addressing what Niradbabu described as the “historical argument” of India’s imperfect past which makes our future tense. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, there is little or no reason to believe that we are anywhere near a real closure in the absence of any meaningful and sincere acknowledgement of the “continuous spell of vandalism” as symbolised by the monument to honour Babur which stood in Ram ki Nagri till December 6, 1992, and whose reconstruction is still being sought.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who gains from the Games?

If the people and the country have not benefited from the Commonwealth Games, then who are the beneficiaries? We don’t have to look far for an answer to this question.
(What's in it for her? A labourer's child at a CWG venue.)

Delhi is bedecked with huge banners and festoons in garish colours, creating a faux festive atmosphere to mark the Commonwealth Games which begin on October 3. Foreign sportspersons and delegates arriving in India’s capital city to participate in the Games can be forgiven for thinking that the residents of Delhi are celebrating a much-anticipated event which the organisers, in spite of the scandalous manner in which the preparations have been handled, bringing shame to India and all Indians, strangely insist will be ‘better’ than the Olympic Games at Beijing and the Commonwealth Games at Melbourne. Little would they know that the residents of Delhi, as also the vast majority of this country’s population, are seething with rage and do not share the enthusiasm of those who have let India down wilfully, smugly confident that they shall never be held accountable for their sins of omission and commission.

Nor will the foreign visitors get to see the ungainly sights of Delhi. All along the road from the Games Village, built on the flood banks of Yamuna violating all environmental norms and with an eye to the ‘premium’ that can be charged from prospective buyers of these apartments after the event is over, to the various stadia, huge boards have been put up, beyond which lie ramshackle ‘colonies’ that are in reality sprawling urban slums. Ironically, even if the visitors can’t see the ‘other’ Delhi, they will get to smell it: There’s no way the organisers can block the stench that rises from the open sewers of these ‘colonies’.

Yet, despite the last-minute sprucing up and the banners and festoons, India’s most pampered city doesn’t quite look pretty — or prettier than what it looked like till a fortnight ago. If anything, it looks tacky. A fellow blogger’s description comes to mind: It’s like lipstick on a pig. Apart from politicians, bureaucrats and contractors who had their snouts in the trough for the past seven years and have only now been sent scurrying by a Prime Minister appalled by the battering the nation’s image has received in recent days to try and salvage whatever can be salvaged, at this late hour, of the country’s dignity and honour, nobody is celebrating what was supposed to be India’s coming out party.

The banners and festoons are embossed with the seemingly seductive slogan, “Come out and play”. If the organisers thought this would make CWG 2010 a people’s event, like almost everything else to do with the Games, they have got this wrong too. For the people of Delhi, the sub-text of the message reads: Don’t you dare come out of your homes while the Games are on. Such is the apprehension of harassment on the roads, coupled with antipathy towards an event that has fetched abiding national shame instead of unleashing a tidal wave of national pride, that those who can afford to get out of the city have booked their passage. Sensing windfall profits, even low-cost airlines have trebled the cost of tickets.

Offices have offered their staff the option of working out of home. Vendors and kiosk-owners who make an honest living from a hard day’s work, unlike the organisers of the Games, have been banished. Thousands of migrant labourers who have toiled at the Games venues for the past many years, setting up home in hovels, have been told to pack up and leave, just disappear. For all practical purposes, the city will wear a deserted look during the Games.

Which brings us to the question: Whose Common- wealth Games is it anyway? When the NDA Government agreed to bid for the Games in 2003, it was obviously guided by those who sold the ‘India Shining’ lemon to the BJP. Confident that the NDA would win the 2004 election and the one after that too, they saw the Games as a celebration of India’s arrival on the global scene as a major economic player. The NDA, as we all know, did not win the 2004 election and lost further ground in 2009. But its legacy could not be disowned by the UPA Government; the Congress saw the Games as an opportunity to make political capital, at home and abroad: It would mark the triumphant return of the party to the centre stage of Indian politics from the margins to which it had been pushed.

So the Games became a party — and partisan — affair with control over its preparations and conduct vested with the Delhi Government, the Union Ministry of Sports, the Union Ministry of Urban Development and the CWG Organising Committee. Between themselves, they carved up the pie. Institutions became irrelevant as individuals emerged as key players. Understandably, there was neither accountability nor responsibility attached to the planning and completion of projects. And nobody bothered about the escalating cost of the Games as taxpayers, and not the Congress, were funding the extravaganza. From the initial budget of Rs 1,899 crore, the total expenditure now stands at anything between Rs 70,000 and Rs 100,000 crore. Such was the brazenness of the Delhi Government that it did not think twice before diverting funds meant for Dalit welfare to building roads that have already begun to cave in. And such is the disdain towards the people that Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit airily dismissed the import of a showpiece overbridge collapsing like a pack of cards by saying it was not meant for foreign athletes but spectators.

If anybody stands to gain from CWG 2010, an orgiastic celebration of everything that is venal and abhorrent about public life in India, it is the organisers and their political patrons. The sorry plight of India’s sportspersons will remain unchanged; they have gained nothing from this event whereas they should have been the focus of attention. In any case, the Common- wealth Games is not considered a major sporting event and is rated lower than the Asian Games. Yes, Delhi will have more flyovers and underpasses, but that’s a small consolation for a city turned upside down and whose people will now have to live with the ravages of the Games for years to come.

The question we should really ask is: What has India gained from the Games? The gross mismanagement, the discomfiting questions raised by auditors, the shocking disregard for financial integrity and the embarrassment of overshooting deadlines not by days and weeks but by months have caused enormous damage to India’s image abroad. More important, it has shaken the confidence of Indians at home — they are no longer too sure that their country can take on the world; for them, “Come out and play” is not a challenge but a taunt.

When CWG 2010 begins with the promised gala opening ceremony (provided it doesn’t rain and the organisers don’t make a hash of it) with dancers in sequined dresses gyrating to AR Rahman’s music (never mind the silly lyrics which, like everything else about this colossus scam, do not make any sense) and a spectacular fireworks display, millions of Indians will be left wondering whether what Sports Minister MS Gill calls a “big fat Punjabi wedding” is justified in a country where 37 per cent of the people live below the poverty line and children go to sleep hungry. If the people and the country have not benefited from the Games, then who are the beneficiaries? We don’t have to look far for an answer to this question.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]

Corrupt rulers, cynical people

The filthy underbelly of Delhi, best described in Kipling’s words as a ‘packed and pestilential town’, has been exposed by the CWG mess.
(Toilets at CWG Village. Organisers said hygiene is not an issue! - BBC)

August 24, 1690. This day at Sankraal, I ordered Captain Brooke to come up with a vessel to Chuttanuty, where we arrived about noon, but found the place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for our present accommodation, the rains falling day and night.” The “deplorable condition” of ‘Chuttanuty’ (Sutanuti), laid to waste by the Nawab of Bengal three-and-a-half years ago, would have dampened the spirit of any other official, but Job Charnock, no stranger to Bengal, had set his mind on building the headquarters of East India Company at this place and remained undeterred. His persistence paid off when Calcutta was born of the union of three villages — Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. Much later, it was to become the Empire’s Second City, the centre of British affairs in India.

Yet, for all its economic, political and social importance, Calcutta was not free of blots and blemishes. Two centuries after Charnock landed in Sutanuti, the celebrated chronicler of British India and for a while Assistant Editor of this newspaper, Rudyard Kipling, visited Calcutta and was not impressed either by its magnificent buildings that symbolised the power of the Raj or the splendorous lifestyle of the ‘White nabobs’ who controlled trade and commerce. Rather than lavish praise on the city and its residents, Kipling caustically wrote:

Thus the midday halt of Charnock — more’s the pity! —
Grew a City
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it Spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built on the silt
Palace, byre, hovel — poverty and pride —
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.

Kipling was accused of being cynical and allowing his antipathy towards Hindoos who, though restricted to native quarters, shared the city with their colonial masters, get the better of his judgement. In retrospect, Kipling was just being prescient in his own inimitable style. Even before the Union Jack fluttering atop Governor House was replaced by the Tricolour at Raj Bhavan and the last British official, trader and fortune-seeker-turned-boiler operator at Victoria Jute Mill left Calcutta, the city had begun to crumble. Garbage and poverty, hunger and disease, death and decay enmeshed to become the leitmotif of Calcutta, compared to which Delhi, Bombay and Madras were small towns.

As Calcutta’s collapse gathered speed, Delhi — or rather New Delhi — emerged as free India’s First City, pampered at the expense of every other urban centre. Over the decades, Delhi has grown, “As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed; So it (has) Spread; Chance-directed, chance-erected”, but it has never had either the glitz and glamour of Bombay or the sedate respectability of Calcutta. It’s a city of ghettos, both real and of the mind, where the elite live in what are referred to as ‘posh colonies’ while politicians and bureaucrats occupy sprawling bungalows in Lutyens’s Delhi. Then there is another Delhi where people live in festering urban slums and ‘unauthorised’ colonies of various kinds. The chrome-and-glass malls, bridges and underpasses are an alluring distraction from the city’s filthy underbelly. If Calcutta was India’s ‘pestilential city’ in the 19th century, Delhi best fits Kipling’s description in India of the 21st century. For evidence, look at the alarming outbreak of dengue and swine flu. Neither class nor cash serves as a protective barrier in this “packed and pestilential town, (where) Death looks down.”

Despite the huge sums of money that are spent every year to make Delhi a “world class city” — a phrase popularised by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit — there really is little to show by way of public services that are in any manner better from those provided in India’s other, and lesser, cities. A corrupt administration supervised by venal politicians who believe glib talk is a substitute for governance cannot be expected to perform any better. Delusions of grandeur no different from those that clouded the mind of the last Mughal Emperor whose writ did not run beyond the walls of his serraglio prompted Delhi’s rulers to believe they would be able to stage the “best-ever Commonwealth Games” and stun the world.

In the event, the preparations for the Games, which have cost India’s honest tax-payers upwards of `70,000 crore, have turned out to be no more than the Great Indian Rope Trick. Initial audit reports suggest limitless loot by those entrusted with the task of creating new and refurbishing existing infrastructure; a final assessment would reveal the enormous scale of the thievery that has taken place in the name of hosting the Games.

It would, however, be dishonest to blame politicians, bureaucrats and contractors alone for fetching such ignominy and abiding shame: India is being laughed at by the entire world; this nation has been reduced to an object of ridicule and pity. More than politicians and organisers, bureaucrats and contractors, it is the people of Delhi who are to blame. There is a certain callous disregard for values and ethics that sets apart the elite of Delhi from their counterparts in other cities. So long as their lives are not adversely affected, they are reluctant to take a stand on behalf of others, leave alone the nation. Scrutiny of Government’s actions that involve spending taxpayers’ money by citizens is an alien concept in Delhi.

Nor are the elite of Delhi easily moved by the horrific realities of life to which others are subjected in this city — poor sanitation, non-existent civic services, corrupt babus, rationed water, endless power cuts, ill-equipped hospitals and a criminally indifferent police force. It is amusing that there should be widespread anger over Games Organising Committee secretary-general Lalit Bhanot insisting that excreta-encrusted toilets and bathrooms at the CWG Village (which Ms Dikshit says is better than the one built for the Melbourne Games) are “clean to both you and us” but “may not appear so to some others”. If only newspapers had published, equally prominently, the bathrooms and kitchens at All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, we would have known that accepting filth and squalor as ‘normal’ is a way of life, and not an exception, in India’s “world class” capital city.

By this time next month the Games will be history; what will remain are the leftovers of an orgiastic feast at the taxpayers expense: Bridges that are badly designed and poorly built, roads that are no more than a layer of asphalt and stadia with leaking roofs nobody will use. Life will go on as usual. The slums will become more squalid than before. Yamuna will once again be reduced to a fetid drain. And we will still be ruled by the same lot who have let India down. As for the guilty men and women, none of them will be either shamed or shunned.

[This appeared as Edit Page Main Article in The Pioneer.]

Sunday, September 19, 2010

History and faith are beyond law

Belief is independent of who owns the disputed land in Ayodhya and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that a Ram Mandir shall rise again where it once stood.
(Babri Masjid, built by Babar after demolishing temple at Ram Janmasthan.)

James Tod joined the Bengal Army as a cadet in 1799, presumably looking for a life of adventure in the heat and dust of India. He swiftly rose through the ranks and, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, provided valuable service to the East India Company. His uncanny ability to gather information helped the early colonisers smash the Maratha Confederacy. Later, his assistance was sought during the Rajputana campaign. Colonel Tod, as he was known, was a natural scholar with an eye for detail and a curious mind. He was fascinated by the history of Rajputana and its antiquities as much as by its palace intrigues and the shifting loyalties of its rulers and their factotums. That fascination led to his penning two books that are still considered mandatory reading for anybody interested in the history of the Rajputs, although latter-day scholars of the Marxist variety would disagree with both the contents and the style, neither leavened by ideological predilections. The first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan was published in 1829 and the second in 1832, nearly a decade after he returned to Britain.

Thousands of people, Indians and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, visit Ajmer every day to offer a chaadar at Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a shrine where all are welcome and every prayer is answered, or so the pious choose to believe. Many stay on to visit the other antiquities of Ajmer, among them a magnificent mosque complex which bears little or no resemblance to its name: Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. People gawk at the columns and the façade intricately carved with inscriptions from the Quran in Arabic. They pose for photographs or capture the mosque’s ‘beauty’ on video cameras and carry back memories of Islam’s munificence towards its followers. Don’t forget to visit Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they will later tell friends and relatives visiting Ajmer. As for Indian Muslims who travel to Ajmer and see Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they would be tempted to wonder why similar mosques are no longer built, a wonderment that is only partially explained by the fact that sultans and badshahs no longer rule India. The crescent had begun to wane long before Bahadur Shah Zafar was propped up as Badshah of Hindoostan by the mutineers of 1857.

Such speculation as may flit through troubled minds need not detain us, nor is there any need to feel sorry for those who wallow in self-pity or are enraged by the realisation of permanent loss of power. Hundred and fifty years is long enough time to reconcile to the changed realities of Hindustan. So, let us return to Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra in Ajmer. Few who have seen and admired this mosque complex would be aware of Colonel Tod’s description of it in the first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “The entire façade of this noble entrance … is covered with Arabic inscriptions … but in a small frieze over the apex of the arch is contained an inscription in Sanskrit.” And that oddity tells the real story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra.

This is no place of worship built over weeks and months for the faithful to congregate five times a day, it is a monument to honour Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri who travelled through Ajmer after defeating, and killing, Prithviraj Chauhan in the second battle of Tarain in 1192 AD. Stunned by the beauty of the temples of Ajmer and shocked by such idolatory, he ordered Qutbuddin Aibak to sack the city and build a mosque, a mission to be accomplished in two-and-a-half days, so that he could offer namaz on his way back. Aibak fulfilled the task given to him: He used the structures of three temples to fashion what now stands as Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. Mindful of sensitivities, his men used their swords to disfigure the faces of figures carved into the 70 pillars that still stand. It would seem India’s invaders had a particular distaste for Indian noses portrayed in stone and plaster.

The story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra is not unique. Hindustan’s landscape is dotted with mosques built on sites where temples stood, often crafted with material from the destroyed places of worship. Quwwat-ul Islam, the first mosque built in Delhi, bears testimony to the invader’s smash-and-grab policy, as do the mosques Aurangzeb built in Kashi and Mathura, or the mosque Mir Baqi built at Ayodhya on the site Hindus believe to be, and revere as, Ram Janmasthan. The pillars and inner walls of Babri Masjid, as the structure was known till it came crashing down on December 6, 1992, were those of a temple that once stood there, a fact proven beyond doubt. Somnath was fortunate: It was sacked repeatedly, but no mosque came to occupy the land where it stood — and still stands — in Gujarat.

By next Sunday, we will know who owns the land where Babri Masjid stood and a Ram Mandir now exists. Unless something extraordinary happens between today and Friday, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court is all set to give its judgement on the title dispute that has been pending in various courts for more than six decades. It is anybody’s guess as to what shall be the verdict of the three-judge Bench; what is for sure is that the claimant who loses the case will immediately appeal to the Supreme Court and it will be quite some time before the issue is resolved beyond further legal dispute. Hence, there is no need for either celebration or mourning, with its attendant consequences, at this stage.

In any event, we must bear in mind that courts can at best decide on who owns the land, not the sanctity or otherwise of the land. Similarly, court judgements can neither rewrite history nor controvert historical facts. Faith and history are not subjects of legal scrutiny, nor do they require to be constrained by the narrow interpretation of law. Hindus believe Maryada Purushottam Ram was born at the spot where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528 by Babar’s army of invaders as one of the many mosques that came to symbolise, over hundreds of years, Islam’s conquest of Hindustan. That belief is independent of who owns the piece of land today and is manifested in the unshakeable faith that has sustained the hope for five centuries that a magnificent temple shall rise again where it once stood on the banks of Saryu.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer.]