Thursday, March 25, 2010

‘English cannot be given primacy over the language of our culture’

Pavan K Varma, in conversation with Kanchan Gupta, says the local must prevail over the foreign

My first encounter with Pavan K Varma, or rather his writing, was when I reviewed his book Krishna: The Playful Divine many years ago. Before reading the book, I had this image of him in my mind which later proved to be entirely wrong. I had thought of Pavan as a stuffed shirt, a self-obsessed and utterly boring member of the exalted, twice-born Indian Foreign Service. Half way through Krishna, I had begun to doubt whether I had the right impression of the author; by the time I finished reading the book, I knew I was wrong. No stuffed shirt would have written a book like that. When I finally met Pavan, which was some years later, I realised he was a cut above his colleagues in the IFS, a class apart from those who represent India abroad. At an open air Hindustani classical music concert where Kishori Amonkar was in full flow and all of us had lost track of the hour of the night, Pavan taught me, with great élan, how to appreciate the finer nuances of Raga Nand Kalyan which I would have missed otherwise.
One of our finest diplomats, Pavan K Varma remains rooted in all things Hindustani — from culture to clothes to language. And that is evident in the series of books he has written exploring the mindset and worldview of the Indian middle classes. A gifted writer — he makes his point without belabouring it repeatedly — he is what may be called a ‘thinking bureaucrat’, which could be mistaken as an oxymoron by those acquainted with our bureaucracy and babus. The Great Indian Middle Class and Being Indian fetched Pavan, and deservedly so, critical acclaim as a commentator with profound thoughts on the past, the present and the future. His new book, Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity, proves that praise for his earlier work was not misplaced. It’s a brilliant, incisive exposition of how colonialism has moulded the way we look at ourselves, our culture, and the world. “Those who have never been colonised can never really know what it does to the psyche of a people. Those who have been are often not fully aware of — or are unwilling to accept — the degree to which they have been compromised,” he writes in this book. That, in a sense, is the theme of Becoming Indian.

I met Pavan for a long adda on a lazy late spring afternoon in New Delhi during which we discussed his new book. What he had to say, as always, was scintillating. Below are excerpts from that free-flowing conversation:

Kanchan Gupta: So tell us, what prompted you to write this book? To take the middle class series nearer to a conclusion or something else...

Pavan K Varma: Essentially, after 60 years of independence, I thought the time had come for a cultural audit. This audit entails two things. One is a rigorous analysis of colonialism because, as I write, colonialism is not about the physical subjugation of a people but the colonisation of their mind. And while a political audit takes place after the Union Jack comes down and an economic audit takes place to take stock of what is lost and what is gained, a cultural audit is something that does not take place ... this is something which is common to all colonised countries... to, in a sense, recolonise the mind. So, it is both a rigorous analysis of colonialism and a meditation on the state of culture today in our country.

I must confess I profess a fair degree of anguish at our low threshold of satisfaction and self-congratulation. Because we are not only a nation, we are a civilisation. We have 5,000 years of history, antiquity, peaks of refinement, assimilation, diversity ... but underlying that diversity, what is not visible to a superficial observer, is great unity. We are not a parvenu civilisation, we were not born 200 years ago, and therefore it is legitimate for us to see where we are in terms of our culture today in contrast to the journey we have made and where we have come.

And I believe in the reappropriation of our cultural space without chauvinism or xenophobia. This is all the more important because we are simultaneously in an aggressive phase of globalisation where the subtext in the field of culture is often co-option, where the victim is the last to know. And, when the educated are relatively rootless, that co-option becomes all the more easier. So that, essentially, is the paradigm of the book.

KG: Nothing offers a better platform than a book for a study and discourse of this nature... By the way, some people feel you have been needlessly uncharitable towards English and Western culture...

PKV: There is hardly any space left for cerebral discourse. There has been an oversimplification of what I have to say in my book. One is that I am against English. I am not. I am not for the imposition of Hindi. I am just saying that there must be respect given to our languages and while English is an indispensable language of communication, specially to help us interface with a globalising world, it cannot be given primacy over the language of our culture.

There is a language of communication and there is a language of culture. The language of culture is a window to your history, mythology, folklore, proverbs, idioms, to your creativity ... and it’s the language in which we cry and laugh. There is no contradiction between the two. Recent research shows that all those who are well-grounded first in their mother tongue pick up a foreign language that much faster.

KG: Do you believe English is still a foreign language in India?

PKV: I genuinely believe that while it is a language of communication which has been indigenised in India, it can never take the place of our natural languages. And, badly spoken English cannot become the lingua franca of a country which is so rich in its linguistic heritage.

KG: Your book opens with an intense personal experience centred around your father — his attempt to learn English and thus qualify for the ICS, in which he was successful. Did that influence your career choices? After all, the IFS, in fact the civil services, are part of the colonial governance construct, it has a hierarchical structure put in place by our colonial rulers.

PKV: Without a doubt I am a product of the milieu that, in a sense, I was condemned to inherit. That is why I went to St Columba’s, St Xavier’s and St Stephen’s. And I am not against these schools and colleges. But I have mentioned in my book that my mother withdrew me from Modern School and put me in St Columba’s because she said the standard of Hindi in Modern School was too high!

People place priorities because they are products of a milieu. English was the language which was inherited by us, it was the language of social status and, by that virtue, it was a language of exclusion. If you did not speak English with the right accent and fluency, however shallow you might be in other respects, or accomplished for that matter, you could never be part of the charmed circle which ruled India.

So I am a product of that milieu but I am able, at some level I think, and I don’t take any special credit, to see that no nation can sit on the high table of the world as we aspire without giving respect and pride to their own culture and languages. So when we try to be like them at the cost of being who we are, that forces India to become a caricature. I have served all across the world and I have seen this happen.

The whole point is that you have to be an authentic spokesman of your own milieu. Today, I believe that as far as our general cultural scene goes, Kanchan, mediocrity, mimicry, rootlessness and tokenism have become features which we need to introspect about. I don’t say this with anger, I say it calmly.

Look at the state of our humanities departments, not an original work! This is the country of Nalanda? Doctoral theses are being written with footnotes by foreign scholars. Look at the state of our literature, the man who won the Bharatiya Gnanpeeth told me his books sell less than a thousand copies. Look at the state, pardon my saying so, of even our book reviews. If you are in the UK, the country that colonised us, on the weekend any broadsheet will have 30 to 40 pages only on book reviews. Here we have leading newspapers who have dispensed with book reviews!

KG: Look at the state of our classical arts... music, dance...

PKV: Exactly! Look at the state of classical dance… I mean I have been a cultural administrator also. Top exponents of a parampara which goes back 3,000 years have to telephone friends for days before a performance to fill a hall when the entrance is free. Look at the state of classical music, the raga represents a 4,000-year-old parampara and it is a very delicate structure... the elaboration of the mood the gradual vistaar and the drut... Today we have eminent musicians performing like adolescent pop stars, catering to the lowest common denominator of an audience.

Now, I am not against pop culture. In Hyde Park — I have lived in London — when you have a pop music performance thousands go for it. But on the same day I have seen people queuing up from 11 in the morning at 20 pounds a pop to attend a performance of Western classical music. Mature civilisations nurture both. We cannot be reduced to a sterile simplicity that it is either popular culture or nothing else at all. So these are things we need to think about.

Look at the state of our monuments. Of our museums. Of our libraries. The MGMA gets 30,000 visitors a year. The Louvre gets 2.5 millions at 12 euros an entrance. The Tate gets four million visitors a year at 1.20 pounds an entrance. These statistics are there in my book. A country like China, in spite of the setback of the cultural revolution, is investing in 100 new museums, 83 are already built. Beijing alone has 150 art galleries. There’s a full gallery district. Here you have a gallery but no curators, no cataloguing worth the name! So what has happened that our threshold of satisfaction has become so low?

KG: Maybe it’s the sarkari thing, perhaps we should get the state out of it?

PKV: Hundred per cent. But the state will be out of it when there is a cultural vibrancy in the people. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The performer will be bad if the audience is unresponsive. Whether at the level of the state or at the level of the common man or at the level of the artiste and our creative people, there needs to be something that jolts us out of our complacency. Because, as I said, we are not a parvenu civilisation. We were the benchmark of civilisational excellence, Kanchan. I was amazed when I read it, 200 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Bharata wrote the Natyashastra, 6,000 Sanskrit shlokas not on any particular art ... a meditation on aesthetics, what constitutes rasa.

Even in popular culture, Bollywood, which we hold as a brand ambassador now of India abroad, I have nothing against it, some very good films have been made, but 70 per cent of Bollywood is a lift of Hollywood! What has happened to India’s originality? Music and story? So, there is reason for us to introspect...

KG: We get carried away by foreign awards...

PKV: Yes, any foreign accolade! I give the example, I have nothing against Slumdog Millionaire although on merit I believe it was mediocre, but when it got the Bafta award, it had not been released in India, people had not seen it. Yet, without application of mind there was only only euphoria, it made headlines and breaking news everywhere. Similarly with the Booker. I have read 12 reviews of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger in the British Press, substantive reviews, some good, some damning, some panning it. In India, when the award was announced, there was hardly a review. In this great flexible civilisation with its own refinement touchstone, the only news is that it got the Booker! There has to be santulan, there has to be equilibrium, which is a sign of maturity…

KG: We are constantly looking at foreign awards…Somebody gets the Sahitya Akademi award or Gnanpeeth does not even find mention in the media…

PKV: I will give an example, I will name the person. Sitakant Mahapatra, a very sensitive Odiya poet, he gets the Bharatiya Gnanpeeth award, and his book sells 843 copies! Even till this day in Russia, when a new edition of Pushkin is published, a million copies sell. And they were selling even during the stage of transition during and after Yeltsin when people had not got salaries for three months. So you have to think...

KG: You also talk of the mimic men!

PKV: You see mimicry is a natural consequence of rootlessness. People mimic when they are not secure in their own anchorage and my worry is that for a great deal of the educated in India today there is that rootlessness and therefore that mimicry.

KG: But Nirad C Chaudhuri, about whom you are critical in your appraisal, was equally comfortable with his Indian identity while living in Britain...

PKV: Without a doubt. But Nirad C Chaudhuri, and this is my own feeling, went out to prove that if you have to be the brown sahib, you should be the most educated, most accomplished, most knowledgeable, beyond tokenism brown sahib. And he did it in many respects. His taste of wine, his knowledge of Western culture, his reading his writing… I personally believe that it was one of those complex consequences of colonialism which produces a man of his towering intellectual stature who judges himself only in terms of his ability to be the most accomplished Indian in terms of the Western touchstone of refinements. At another level he remained Bengali at home… But to be harmonious schizophrenics is also a sign of colonial legacy.

KG: You are also harsh with Rammohun Roy…

PKV: I have used Rammohun Roy as an example to show how the well-intentioned leader in the colonial phase needed to caricature his own civilisation in order to win the approbation of the ruler. First of all, his movement against ills within his own society and religion, especially sati, was a well-intentioned crusade. But if you read his letter to the Viceroy, he first devalues his language, the learning of philosophy and metaphysics, and without a doubt they struck the right chord. And, as you know, when he went to London he actually argued in the House of Commons for the permanent residency in India of the British and a mixed community through inter-marriage between both. So Rammohun Roy, as I say in my final paragraph, shows that people are products of their times. Colonialism was a hugely, hugely impacting influence on the lives of our well-intentioned leaders…

KG: But it did help bring about reforms…

PKV: I give him credit for his crusade against obvious evils, but I analyse how when you are part of the colonial syndrome, to do that you need to caricature aspects of your civilisation — which is totally unnecessary — to win the approbation of the ruling power. It’s only an example.

KG: Today we have crossover sahibs who subscribe to the idea of being global citizens, world citizens. For them, the Indian identity becomes baggage.

PKV: I would say I honestly believe in today’s time, the authentic global citizen is one who has the tools to interface with a globalising world is one who is rooted in his own milieu, his own civilisation. Because it is only that person who is rooted in his own milieu who can be a confident interlocutor with the world. Otherwise, we are producing clones. One of the great myths spawned by globalisation is that having been reduced to a global image we have all become mirror images of each other. But I believe that differences are real, that diversity needs to be respected and people who are the legatees of such a civilisation must preserve that identity because only then will they get respect.

(Pavan K Varma’s book, Becoming Indian — The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity has just been published by Penguin.)

Photograph: Alwin Singh

[This interview was published in The Pioneer on Friday, March 26, 2010.]

Monday, March 22, 2010

S*IT hits the fan!

Media spattered and bruised

NaMo exposes p-sec fraud

The signs of desperation are showing. After failing to bring him down despite 8 years of relentless calumny and worse, Narendra Modi’s critics have begun to hit out in blind fury.

For more than a week English language media, including news channels, based in Dilli had been reporting with gay abandon how the Special Investigation Team set up by the Supreme Court (whose remit has now come under the apex court’s review) had Modi in a twist after ‘summoning’ him in the case filed by the widow of Ehsan Jafri, former Congress MP who died in the violence that followed the slaughter of 58 Hindus when a Muslim mob set two coaches of Sabarmati Express ablaze on February 27, 2002.

The p-sec media, which has been relentless in demonising Modi using the Goebbelsian trick of repeating its toxic lies in the hope people will come to believe them, launched a coordinated tirade on Monday morning, berating the Gujarat Chief Minister for failing to turn up before the SIT. Some accused him of running scared. Others even listed the questions the SIT planned to ask Modi. Is the SIT being provided with questions drafted by p-sec journalists and activists who have lost all sense of propriety? On Monday, Teesta Setalvad went to the extent of justifying ‘extra-judicial’ measures to bring Modi to heel!

Modi, of course, has had the last laugh – as usual at the expense of p-sec media elite and their jholawallah friends. In a stunning disclosure by way of an open letter to the people of the country, he has exposed media’s calumny and casuistry.

Had I owned a newspaper, I would have run a front page banner headline:

S*IT hits the fan!

with a second deck:

Media spattered and bruised

This demonisation of Modi has had no impact on the people of Gujarat. Modi won the 2002 Assembly election with a huge margin; he repeated the feat in 2007. The people of Gujarat, both Hindus and Muslims, have moved on, Modi has moved on and the State is a shining example of what good governance can achieve by all-round inclusive development and growth. In industry, agriculture and social welfare, Gujarat leads every other State.

But media won’t give up. It is still stuck in 2002. And, like a stuck record, continues to plan the same canard again and again, accusing Modi of imaginary crimes and trying to instigate a Muslim backlash. It has not fetched the p-sec media elite any results; it won’t either.

Modi’s open letter to the nation speaks for itself. Frankly, no further comment is needed to highlight the deviousness of those who use the cover of ‘free media’ to pursue their anti-Modi agenda. What do you think?

The following is the text of Modi’s letter:

My beloved countrymen,


I am constrained to write to you with a deep sense of anguish. Since last eight years, canards have been spread against me. For the past one week, if we analyse the allegations levelled against me, then the truth will become evident. Truth cannot be suppressed. It is now my duty to place before you the facts that bring out the importance of understanding what the truth really is.
After the 2002 Godhra incidents, I had categorically said in the Vidhan Sabha and in public that no one is above the Indian Constitution and the law, even if he happens to be the Chief Minister of a State. These are not mere words. My actions have reflected this statement in its true spirit. I assure you that this would be my stand in the future.
In spite of that, some vested interests, without losing a single opportunity and with malicious pleasure and without bothering to ascertain the truth based on mere whims and fancies have been tarnishing the good image of Gujarat, my Government and me.
Recently, there has been a systematic campaign to defame Gujarat through propagation of false reports titled ‘Special Investigation Team summons Narendra Modi’; ‘Narendra Modi did not appear before SIT’ and ‘Modi has shown disrespect to Supreme Court and SIT’. Such baseless allegations are being levelled once again against me to defame Gujarat.
I am therefore compelled to place the facts before my countrymen.
As soon as newspapers began reporting that Modi has been summoned by the SIT, the Government spokesperson immediately said that Shri Modi is bound by the law of the land and the Indian Constitution. He has always extended his cooperation to every procedure of law. And he is committed to do so in the future.
It is a matter of grave concern and needs investigation as to why and who started spreading lies that ‘SIT summons Narendra Modi on March 21, 2010’.
The purveyors of untruth failed even to think that March 21, 2010 happens to be a Sunday and a public holiday.
These purveyors of lies even did not once bother to check whether the key SIT officers, who are appointed by the Supreme Court, were present in Gujarat on March 21, 2010.
SIT had not fixed March 21, 2010 for my appearance. To say that I was summoned on March 21 is completely false. I shall respond to the SIT fully respecting the law and keeping in view the dignity of a body appointed by the Supreme Court.
The date of March 21, 2010 was invented by some vested interest and as a part of their effort to interfere in the due process of law. They wanted to paint me as a person who refused to respond to the SIT. This country has in the last twenty four hours witnessed a campaign of disinformation in which a section of the media became an instrument of the disinformers. I hope this section will now take corrective steps.
My beloved countrymen,
The people of Gujarat and this country have identified those who are defaming Gujarat continuously since 2002. But I want to tell the truth that spreading falsehoods has only one single purpose and that is to instigate people. It is a sinful action which will harm the working of a democratic state. Seen in the backdrop of events in the last 24 hours, it shows that there is a nexus among the vested interests in spreading lies against me in order to defame me. This machination has come unstuck and the people have seen through this charade.
The Government of Gujarat has always honoured and cooperated with the investigative agencies, commissions and the Supreme Court looking into Godhra and post-Godhra incidents. And that is why I never thought of giving a public statement on this issue. Despite unbearable pain, I decided to maintain silence in the belief that the due process of law would take its own course.
But now, as the lies reach a crescendo as never before, I am compelled to bring the facts before the countrymen. I also consider it my humble duty.
I hope the truth is not twisted by the purveyors of untruth to misguide the investigation. And I expect that the media would bring my deep pain and despair to the notice of the people.

(Narendra Modi)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tough guy act by limp-wristed UPA

How will Congress react if push comes to shove?

Nearly five years after the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared what was then billed as a ‘tough anti-hijacking policy’, the UPA Government has decided to amend the antiquated Anti-Hijacking Act of 1982. The purpose behind the proposed amendments, we are told, is to make the punishment for hijackers harsher so that the law acts as a deterrent. It would be churlish to cavil against such intent. After all, what good is a law unless it scares the daylights out of potential criminals and forces them to desist from risking the state’s clenched fist of fury?

The Government, therefore, should be complimented for deciding to make the law against hijacking more stringent. On Friday, the Cabinet discussed and approved the proposal, as drafted by a Group of Ministers headed by Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram, to introduce the death penalty for hijackers of aircraft. The 1982 law stipulates that hijackers and/or their accomplices will be sentenced to life imprisonment as well as made to pay a fine. Obviously, such measures have not proved to be a deterrent, hence the decision to make hijacking a capital offence. This will also necessitate an amendment to the definition of hijacking. Although the exact language of the proposed amendments has not been disclosed, it would be safe to assume that the amended law will describe hijacking as tantamount to ‘waging war on the state’.

Till such time the draft Bill amending the Anti-Hijacking Act of 1982 is circulated, any detailed comment on the proposed changes in the law would be premature. It also remains to be seen how much of the UPA Government’s declared policy to prevent hijacking of aircraft and deal with hijackers in the event they succeed in seizing a plane is reflected in the Bill. Policy and law are not necessarily inter-changeable, nor is there any binding requirement for the former to be codified through an Act of Parliament.

However, it would be in order to recall the salient features of the anti-hijacking policy that was cleared by the CCS in August, 2005. The policy commits the Government to treat any attempt to hijack an aircraft, or the hijacking of an aircraft, as an act of aggression against India. Hence, the Government will respond in a manner that is fit to deal with an aggressor. Second, hijackers, irrespective of whether they succeed or fail in their mission, will be sentenced to death. Third, the Government will engage hijackers in negotiations but not to cut a deal. Negotiations will be aimed at bringing the hijacking to an end, to comfort passengers and prevent loss of lives. Fourth, IAF fighters will try and force hijacked aircraft to land. Fifth, if hijackers try to use the aircraft as a missile to strike ‘strategic targets’, as was done on 9/11 in the US, the plane will be shot down. Sixth, if a hijacked aircraft lands at an Indian airport, it will not be allowed to take off under any circumstances.

According to details of the policy made available to media in 2005, the Bureau of Civil Aviation would be asked to prepare a list of designated ‘strategic targets’ that hijackers might target with a commandeered plane. Since the list would qualify as ‘Top Secret’, we will never get to know what all are deemed as ‘strategic targets’. The Government is neither obliged to nor should it voluntary disclose the list. As for the decision to shoot down a hijacked plane to prevent it from being used as a missile to blow up ‘strategic targets’, it is supposed to be taken by the CCS. If there is no time to go through the elaborate process of summoning the CCS, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister or the Home Minister are authorised to take the call. Air Force officers not below the rank of Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations) will have the authority to prevent a hijacked aircraft from taking off, if necessary by shooting at the plane. All this, of course, is based on the presumption that the policy, barring the death penalty for hijackers, which requires an amendment to the 1982 law through an Act of Parliament, has been implemented. For all we know, it has been shelved in a ‘red corner’ file in the ‘Not to Go Out’ section in the Prime Minister’s Office.

We no doubt need to adopt a tough law both to prevent hijacking of aircraft and punish hijackers. But are a no-nonsense policy and a tough law sufficient to deal with a problem faced by Governments across the world after 9/11? More important, what good are a policy and a law if they are not implemented? It’s not only about determination, which the UPA Government lacks in large measure, but also compulsion. For instance, if push came to shove, it would be a tough call to issue instructions to shoot down a passenger aircraft. Apart from the moral dimension, there is the legal aspect: Can the state take such an extreme measure? The courts in Germany and Poland have ruled otherwise.

Which brings us to the other moral compulsion: Can any Government decide to callously ignore the plight of the families of hostages on a hijacked aircraft? The low point of the NDA Government was no doubt its capitulation to the demands of the hijackers of IC 814 which led to the release of three Pakistani terrorists, Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Sheikh Ahmed Omar Sayeed. That capitulation followed the NDA Government giving in to the demand of the families of the hostages “to do anything to secure their release”. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee erred, that he should have stood firm rather than be persuaded by tearful relatives of hostages to accept the hijackers’ demand. But would any other Prime Minister or Government have acted differently? Mr Chidambaram has been candid enough to admit that this is a question not easily answered.

As for the deterrent value of the death penalty proposed for hijackers, it is doubtful whether terrorists will feel deterred. Jihadis are not scared of death; they see it as ‘martyrdom’ which will fetch them a short-cut to a zannat teeming with houries. In any event, the threat of a state which does not have the courage to punish terrorists after a fair trial — Afzal Guru, held guilty of masterminding the jihadi attack on Parliament House in December, 2001, and sentenced to death by the Supreme Court in 2004, is yet to be executed — will raise no more than condescending twitter among those planning to hijack passenger planes. It is one thing to have a Prime Minister who is a fawning admirer of the US and eager to do its bidding, it is quite another to act like the Americans did when they intercepted an Egypt Air plane carrying the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 over the Mediterranean and forced it to land in Sicily. Or conduct a daring commando raid on foreign soil to free hostages as the Israelis did in Entebbe in 1976 . That requires courage, not a harsh Act of Parliament or a hard policy, neither of which is worth the paper it is printed on.

Which does not make the Congress any better. The UPA has miserably failed to deal with the Maobadi problem just like it has made all of India vulnerable to Pakistan-sponsored jihadi attacks. The amended Prevention of Unlawful Activities Act remains on paper; the much-touted Operation Green Hunt is no more than Government bluster. It increasingly appears that no Government in India is keen to tackled internal security issues. Which is a shame and a pity.

PS: The BJP, in the five years that it was in power after the IC 814 humiliation, should have amended the 1982 anti-hijacking law and adopted a tough policy to deal with hijackers. Instead, it chose waffle over action and paid the price in 2004 -- and again in 2009.

[This appeared as my regular weekly column Coffee Break in Sunday Pioneer. (c) CMYK Printech Ltd.]

Thursday, March 18, 2010

US cuts deal with terrorist Headley!

Mockery of America's alleged war on terror
So much for justice and so much for America's alleged war on terror! In its wisdom, the US Department of Justice, no doubt with clearance from the Obama Administration which is blinded by its perverse love for Pakistan, has decided to enter into a plea bargain with Pakistani-American terrorist David Coleman Headley aka Daood Gilani (his father was a top Pakistani diplomat)who played a key role in the 26/11 jihadi attack on Mumbai, masterminded in and launched from Pakistan by the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, the favourite handmaiden of the Pakistani establishment.

Headley has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bomb public places in India; conspiracy to murder and maim persons in India; six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of American citizens in India; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in India; conspiracy to murder and maim persons in Denmark; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in Denmark; and conspiracy to provide material support to Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.

The DoJ indictment of December 7, 2009, filed against Headley can be read here.

A statement issued by the US Department of Justice says Headley attended the following training camps operated by Lashkar: A three-week course starting in February 2002 that provided indoctrination on the merits of waging jihad; a three-week course starting in August 2002 that provided training in the use of weapons and grenades; a three-month course starting in April 2003 that taught close combat tactics, the use of weapons and grenades, and survival skills; a three-week course starting in August 2003 that taught counter-surveillance skills; and a three-month course starting in December 2003 that provided combat and tactical training.

By agreeing to a plea bargain, the US DoJ has ensured:

a. There will be no trial and hence no public disclosure of details that may have indicated a larger conspiracy; no depositions by witnesses; no chance of CIA chaps being called in if he were to claim he was a CIA agent. [Headley has been variously described as a CIA 'agent', 'double agent' and 'strategic asset'. There has been no official denial. Needless to add, there has been no confirmation either!]
b) Headley will escape death penalty, despite causing the death of several Americans in among the 173 innocent people who died in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack.
c) Prevent his deportation to India to stand trial for crimes, including mass murder, committed on Indian soil.
The DoJ statement says, “In light of Headley’s past cooperation and expected future cooperation, the Attorney-General of the United States has authorized the United States Attorney in Chicago not to seek the death penalty against Headley".

The deal makes a mockery of America's so-called war on terror. US Attorney-General Aric Holder has absurdly argued: “Today's guilty plea is a crucial step forward in our efforts to achieve justice for the more than 160 people who lost their lives in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Working with our domestic and international partners, we will not rest until all those responsible for the Mumbai attacks and the terror plot in Denmark are held accountable. Not only has the criminal justice system achieved a guilty plea in this case, but David Headley is now providing us valuable intelligence about terrorist activities. As this case demonstrates, we must continue to use every tool available to defeat terrorism both at home and abroad.”

Having allowed Headley to get away with his crimes, what punishment is America talking about?

As fellow tweeter said in his response to the stunning plea bargain: "Post-Headley, wonder why the US doesn't end the charade of 'fighting terror' by putting itself on its own list of terrorist nations."

Our pusillanimous Prime Minister, of course, will continue to look up to America for strength, guidance and inspiration. Who is to tell him that this India's war and we have to fight it ourselves, on our terms, our way?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don’t block the ‘Internet Hindus’

That won't silence the clanging bells!

Hindus who are proud to assert their identity and fly the Tricolour high have now found a new platform to have their say, the way they want it, without fear of being shouted down. Tired of being derided by pseudo-secularists in media who see nothing wrong with Muslim communalism and Christian fundamentalism but are swift to pounce upon Hindus for being ‘intolerant’, their cultural ethos crudely denigrated by the Left-liberal intelligentsia as antediluvian, Hindus have begun to harness technology to strike back with deadly effect.

They are bright, they are well-educated, they are not burdened with regional and caste biases, they are amazingly well-informed on national issues and world affairs, they are rooted in Indian culture, and they are politically alert. They hate being told they are wrong when they know they are right. They have a mind of their own and refuse to be led like sheep. Not surprisingly, they hold the Congress, the Left and regional parties in contempt, as they do journalists who cravenly ingratiate themselves with the establishment. For them, India matters — and matters more than anything else. Meet the ‘Internet Hindus’.

In recent days there has been a spate of articles disparaging the ‘Internet Hindus’, variously describing them as “loonies”, “fanatics”, “irrational”, “Hindu Taliban” and, by an enraged news channel anchor, “gutter snipes”. Much of the criticism has come from left-of-centre journalists who believe they have unfettered monopoly over media as their inalienable birth right. Exalted members of Delhi’s commentariat, who are indistinguishable from the city’s la-di-dah socialites, tend to turn up their noses every time they hear the phrase ‘Internet Hindus’ as they would at the suggestion of travelling by public transport. Others are given to contemptuously brushing aside ‘Internet Hindus’ as being irrelevant and describing their views as inconsequential. All this and more has neither dampened the spirit of ‘Internet Hindus’ nor blunted their assertive attitude.

Here are some statistics, culled from an ongoing online survey, which would help create a generic profile of ‘Internet Hindus’. The survey is open to all Hindus who use the Internet; the response has been overwhelming. Of those who have responded, 88.9 per cent have identified themselves as ‘Internet Hindus’, indicating they attach no shame to the term though their critics would want them to feel ashamed. Of the respondents, four per cent are aged 20 years and below; 55 per cent are aged 30 and below; 31 per cent are 40 and below; and, only 10 per cent are aged above 40. In brief, 90 per cent of them are young Indians.

The educational profile of the respondents is awesome: 43 per cent are graduates (most of them from top-notch engineering, science and medical colleges); 46 per cent are post-graduates (a large number of them have MBA degrees from the best B-schools); and, 11 per cent have PhDs. It is understandable that none of them is unemployed. Those without jobs are still studying (17.3 per cent) and can be found in labs and classrooms of the best universities here and abroad. Of the 82.7 per cent who are employed, 3.1 per cent earn up to Rs 2 lakh a year; 18.4 per cent earn up to Rs 6 lakh a year; 34.7 per cent earn up to Rs 12 lakh a year; and, 26.5 per cent earn more than Rs 24 lakh a year. Nearly 60 per cent of them frequently travel abroad on work and holiday. Some 11 per cent have travelled abroad at least once.

Contrary to the impression that is being sought to be created by their critics, ‘Internet Hindus’ are open to ideas, believe in a plural, law-abiding society and swear by the Constitution. They are often appalled by the shenanigans of our politicians, including those of the BJP, and are ruthless in decrying politics of identity and cynical vote-bank policies. They have no gender prejudices and most of them think banning FTV is downright silly in this day and age. The ‘Internet Hindus’ will not countenance denigration of their faith or biased media coverage of events, but 91.9 per cent of them respect and accept other religions. Asked if India is meant only for Hindus, an overwhelming majority of them, responding to the survey, said, ‘Hell, no!’

So why do they infuriate pseudo-secularists in media and make Delhi’s commentariat see red? There are three possible explanations. First, the Net is beyond the control of those who control newspapers and news channels. While the print and audiovisual media have for long excluded contrarian opinion and denied space to those who disagree with absurd notions of ‘secularism’ or question the quality of reportage, the Net has provided space to the ‘other’ voice. Real time blog posts now record the ‘other side’ of the day’s story (“The Prince was shouted down in Bihar, not feted by students!”), Twitter affords instant micro-blogging even as prime time news is being telecast (“That’s not true. I live in Bareilly. This is not how the riots began!”), and YouTube allows unedited amateur videos of events (the Meraj riots, the Islamist violence in Kashmir Valley) to be uploaded, giving the lie to edited and doctored versions shown by news channels.

Second, unlike carefully selected ‘Letters to the Editor’ in newspapers and ‘Feedback’ posted on news channel websites, the reactions of ‘Internet Hindus’, often savage and unflattering, cannot be thrown into the dustbin or deleted with a click of the mouse. English language media journalists, long used to fawning praise from readers and viewers, are horrified that someone can actually call them ‘dumb’ in public space and there’s nothing they can do about it. Third, the established elite, most of them middle-aged, are beginning to feel threatened. Here’s a new breed of Indians who have used merit and not ‘connections’ to make a mark in professional excellence, young men and women who are educated and articulate, and are willing to challenge conventional wisdom as preached by media ‘stars’ who have rarely, if ever, been questioned. The elite who dominate newspapers and news channels are seen by ‘Internet Hindus’ as part of India’s past, not future. As one ‘Internet Hindu’ writes in his blog, “A large number of ex-elite can’t stomach fact that children of bankruptcy are better travelled, better read and dominate the Internet!” Harsh, but true.

We can describe the ‘Internet Hindus’ as the “lunatic fringe”, but that won’t change the fact that their tribe is growing by the day. Soon, those on the fringe will move to the centre and their critics will find themselves precariously perched on the fringe. The Right is gaining ground as is the access and reach of the Net; newspapers and news channels, the Left’s last refuge, no longer command absolute control over information flow. It would be unwise to ‘block’ the voice of ‘Internet Hindus’, as then their clamour to be heard will further increase and there is nothing we can do to silence them. The times they are a-changin’.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on March 14, 2010. (c) CMYK Printech Ltd. ]

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Women's quota Bill hits roadblock in LS

BJP's potential 'naysayers' after meeting LK Advani on Thursday: They don't look very excited about the Bill!

The women's quota Bill, meant to reserve 33 per cent seats in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies on a rotational basis for the next 15 years, has run into rough weather in the Lok Sabha. Suddenly, all parties which supported the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, are facing rebellion in their ranks with MPs openly threatening to defy party whips.

[I oppose the Bill because it restricts freedom of choice, the cornerstone of democracy, and is essentially meant to mobilise votes and not empower women. See my earlier blogpost, An assault on freedom of choice, explaining why I oppose this Bill.

The RJD and SP, as also BSP, were expected to toughen their stand as they have larger numbers in the Lok Sabha. Mamata Banerjee could go with the naysayers as she remains unpredictable.

But what has come as a shock to the BJP, which has been stoutly defending the Bill and enabled its passage in Rajya Sabha, is discontent among its MPs who feel the party erred in going with the Congress.

Their objections are three-fold:
1. The Congress will walk away with all credit and BJP will get none. Congress statements, the triumphalism of its leaders and media coverage praising the Congress and its president alone bear out this point.
2. The proposed rotational system will have an unsettling impact on MPs who have been nursing their constituencies for long. They will be asked to stand aside. The provisions of the Bill and analyses of its fallout bear out this contention.
3. Caste equations, settled over several elections, will be upset by the sudden introduction of this law. What it means is women candidates are untested in caste-driven constituencies in the Hindi belt. Understandably, MPs from Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh are most worried.

The rebels are mocking at their Rajya Sabha colleagues, saying they backed the Bill because they wouldn't be affected by the proposed quota.

Sushma Swaraj has denied any rifts within the party over the Bill. But there's no way she could have admitted it either.

Meanwhile, there's cross-Opposition consensus that marshals won't be allowed inside the Lok Sabha when the Bill is introduced, discussed, debated, voted (if at all it reaches the last stage).

As a principle, I disagree with the BJP taking this position. Forcible disruption of House proceedings cannot be allowed under any circumstances. Having faced similar disruptions when it occupied Treasury Benches, the BJP should have disassociated itself from the 'no marshal' demand. But then, I am not a politician!

Second, I sense the Congress working on a different calculus altogether. I don't put it past the Congress to announce a series of lollies for Muslims (the AG asking the Supreme Court to hasten hearing of Andhra Pradesh Government's appeal against HC quashing its Muslim quota is a useful indicator) and even agree to 'consider' Muslim and OBC quotas within the women's quota at the last minute. That would leave the BJP (and Shiv Sena and possibly Akali Dal) in splendid isolation while everybody else would gang up and back the amendment to the Bill which would go through without the BJP's support.

Of course, the amended Bill would then go back to the Rajya Sabha for a fresh vote. The BJP would then have the choice of either voting for communal/caste quotas or voting against the Bill. Since it is unlikely to do the former, the Bill would fall.

That's a win-win situation for Congress and all 'secular' parties, including Left. The BJP would then be painted as the villain of the piece and everybody else, especially Congress, would claim to be champions of what the Prime Minister calls "women's emancipation" and Muslim/OBC empowerment.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spoof on Dubai assassination as marketing tactic!

Israeli actors mimic scenes in the surveillance footage from the Hamas assassination in Dubai for a supermarket commercial in Petah Tikva, central Israel, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. An Israeli supermarket commercial is looking to cash in on the infamous surveillance footage of an assassination team killing a Hamas commander in Dubai. A new TV campaign for the 'Mahsaney Kimat Hinam' supermarket chain shows actors wearing wigs and hats and carrying tennis rackets as they make their way through store aisles.


JERUSALEM – An Israeli supermarket on Wednesday looked to to cash in on the infamous surveillance camera footage showing suspected assassins stalking a Hamas operative in Dubai with a new advertising campaign.

The commercials for the "Mahsaney Kimat Hinam" supermarket chain shows actors carrying tennis rackets, and wearing hats, glasses and wigs — the same disguises worn by the alleged killers — as they make their way through store aisles.

"We offer killer prices," announced the advertisement's tagline.

Advertising executive Sefi Shaked says the campaign was inspired by footage released by Dubai police that allegedly shows the disguised killers prowling the halls of the posh hotel where Hamas commander Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh was slain on Jan. 19.

Israel's Mossad spy agency is widely suspected in the killing.

"It's a funny take of this event," Shaked said. "We were fascinated by the technique of using surveillance cameras instead of (expensive) high production commercial cameras, and the latest events in Dubai gave us a great opportunity."

An actor wearing a tennis outfit like the one seen in the Dubai footage browses the frozen food section. An actress wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat mimicks Israel's policy of neither confirming or denying involvement in the assassination, saying she "couldn't admit to anything."

Dubai has accused Israel of carrying out the killing, an allegation strengthened by the fact that many of the forged European passports used in the operation bear the names and details of dual nationals living in Israel. Several European countries whose nationals' passports were used have summoned Israel's ambassadors for an explanation and have sent investigators to Israel.

Israel says al-Mabhouh was a key figure in smuggling weapons to anti-Israel militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

The commercials are expected to air in time for the upcoming Passover holiday season starting at the end of March.

Monday, March 08, 2010

An assault on freedom of choice

Women's quota or Biwi-Beti-Bahu-Behen-Bhanji quota?

Is the Women's Quota Bill motivated by genuine concern for gender equity?

Monday’s appalling bedlam in Rajya Sabha deserves to be condemned without any equivocation. MPs affiliated to Samajwadi Party, RJD, BSP could have stalled proceedings without making a spectacle of themselves and denigrating Parliament in so crude a manner.

Had Government insisted on tabling the women’s quota Bill, aimed at reserving 33 per cent parliamentary and Assembly constituencies for women, those opposed to the measure could have spoken and voted against the proposed amendment to the Constitution of India in both Rajya Sabha and, later, in Lok Sabha.

Like any other law adopted by Parliament, the women’s quota Bill, once enacted and signed into law by the President, can be (and must be) challenged in the Supreme Court as ultra vires of the Constitution. A Constitution Bench should decide its validity/legality.

The proposed law reserving legislative seats for women is bad in law. It should never have been proposed, leave alone pushed for adoption by Parliament.

The women's quota Bill flies in the face of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India to all citizens. Article 15 promises:

"Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them."
If the Bill becomes law, it will:

.Remove all incentive to nurse constituencies;
.Sitting MPs will insist nomination for their own kith and kin.
.Institutionalise the Rabri Devification of politics.

If experience with reserving seats for women in panchayats and local bodies is any indication, the Bill should really be called the ‘Biwi-Beti-Bahu-Behen-Bhanji Bill’. We will have ‘proxy’ women MPs who will be no more than puppets on strings pulled by their husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, brothers, uncles. The possibilities are truly mind-boggling.

This is not about political empowerment of women, but legitimising nomination of kith and kin. Democracies which have empowered women politically and liberated them from gender bias, discrimination and misery have achieved it through policy initiatives and not fraudulent legislation or bogus quotas.

Most important, it strikes at the very core of democracy: It restricts freedom of choice.

The women’s quota Bill is a travesty and a fraud on the Constitution.

Had the Congress and BJP not issued three-line whips and allowed a free vote, 90 per cent, if not more, of their MPs would have voted against the Bill. The fear of offending their leaders and inviting punitive disciplinary action, apart from the compulsion of being seen to be ‘politically correct’, has silenced MPs in Parliament. You should hear them speak in private.

Gender equity is better served through other measures. Not by bogus laws that will help perpetuate and perpetrate dynastic rule by another name.

If the Congress, the BJP and CPI(M) were genuinely concerned about the poor representation of women in State Assemblies and Parliament, as they raucously claim to be, they would have amended their respective party constitutions and made it mandatory for the inclusion of 33 per cent women in their list of candidates for elections (as has been suggested in the past and demanded by women members of these parties), with the proviso that constituencies would be selected by a random draw of lots to be conducted in the presence of independent observers, nominated by what are now referred to as civil society groups.

Meanwhile, we must remain vigilant against the shrill demands of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav for communal quota. It is entirely possible that Congress will cut a deal, grant communal quota, to get Bill through, and then claim credit for both ‘empowering women’ and ‘empowering Muslims’. Was Monday’s disruption stage-managed to include communal quota by way of forging ‘consensus’ as demanded by Lalu and Mulayam? Nothing can be put past the Congress.

Of course, if this were to happen, it would be interesting to watch how BJP responds. Without the BJP’s vote, the Bill can’t get through Rajya Sabha.

PS: The absurdity of the proposed law is best illustrated by Shahrukh Khan’s tweet, addressed to a television journalist:

“tell me is this bill a good thing or wot? sorry dont understand the details..need enlightening in 140 words please.”

The future of democracy in 140 words? As they say on twitter, ROTFLMAO.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Veil of darkness

Exploits of the burqa brigade

An apocryphal story is told of how an infamous smuggler who operated from coastal Gujarat in the 1970s would ensure raids on his house by the police would not result in the seizure of ‘incriminating’ material and documents. Every time the police knocked on his door, whether at high noon or sunset, he would send word that he was praying and could they please wait till his communion with god was over? Mindful of not hurting ‘minority sentiments’, the police would cool their heels on the street or sit in their jeeps while his men swiftly strapped gold biscuits, cash and hawala documents to their muscular bodies. Next, each one of them would don a voluminous, ankle-length burqa and stand around their boss. The door of the don’s den would then be thrown open to the patiently waiting policemen who would troop in, move from room to room, look under beds, sofas and cabinets, and, after failing to lay their hands on any ‘incriminating evidence’, profusely apologise before trooping out. Some 25 years later, a senior police officer who was a frequent visitor to the don’s den courtesy the raids which never led to either arrest or prosecution told me, “It was so frustrating. We knew all about his trick but there was nothing we could do about it.”

Kalimuddin Shams, who would contest West Bengal Assembly elections as a Left Front candidate and was the acknowledged mastaan of Kolkata’s Kidderpore Docks, used the same trick on the day of polling in his constituency. There would be endless queues of burqa-clad voters who would refuse to show their face or have their finger inked as that would amount to ‘intimacy with strangers’. Each one of them would step into the polling booth, vote for Kalimuddin Shams, and join the queue again. Needless to say, Hasina Bano would get to vote more than once, as would ‘her’ friends. On counting day, Kalimuddin Shams would be declared the winner with a huge margin. It’s not surprising that the CPI(M) held him in high esteem: He had mastered the art of rigging elections without leaving any tell-tale evidence behind. “They were brazen about it. You could see their lungi sticking out from beneath the burqa, their hairy arms would be visible. While standing in the queue they would casually lift the veil on their face and smoke beedis. But there’s nothing we could do,” the Chief Election Officer of West Bengal told me after demitting office. Kalimuddin Shams, who never tired of reminding officials “I am a Muslim first and then an Indian” and had once famously declared (while serving as a Minister in the Left Front Government) that “Muslims form a separate nation in this country”, was not someone to be trifled with.

The burqa has proved to be useful to others, too. Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, tried to escape the July 4, 2007 Army crackdown ordered by Gen Pervez Musharraf on his jihad nursery clad in a burqa. The Pakistani commandoes proved to be tougher than the 1970s police of Gujarat and West Bengal’s polling staff, and the maulana in drag was spotted, arrested and carted off to prison. Islamabad’s Deputy Commissioner of Police, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, told the BBC, “The maulana came out of the mosque with a group of girls wearing a burqa and carrying a handbag. The girls protested when he was stopped. But the officers were suspicious and after a search, Maulana Abdul Aziz was identified and arrested.” According to another version of the maulana’s failed flight to freedom, put out by AFP, he was “picked out” by security officials “because of his unusual demeanour”. The agency quoted an official as saying, “The rest of the girls looked like girls, but he was taller and had a pot belly.” A third version, which was gleefully related to me by a Pakistani journalist, was far more delightful. Apparently, the maulana decided to wear women’s shoes to make his disguise as authentic as possible. After much rummaging in the dark as bullets whizzed through shattered windows and shells landed on the roof of the women’s madarsa, he found a pair of high heels, slipped them on, and tottered out with a group of women, clutching a handbag. There was a problem though. The shoes were a size too small for the him and he couldn’t quite keep his balance on the high heels. It was this comical sight that drew the attention of security officials. Gen Musharraf’s regime charged Maulana Abdul Aziz with murder, incitement and kidnapping (of Islamabad’s prostitutes). The Pakistani Supreme Court, in its wisdom, decided to let him walk free on April 16, 2009. Public memory being notoriously short, the maulana was accorded a ‘rousing reception’ when he returned to Lal Masjid.

In more recent days, one of the Taliban suicide-bombers who attacked guest houses in Kabul on February 26, killing six Indians and other foreigners, is believed to have worn a burqa to avoid detection by security guards. It was a common trick used by Palestinian terrorists when suicidebombings were a feature of daily life in Israel. Meanwhile, our Supreme Court is hearing a petition seeking exemption for burqa-clad Muslim women from getting themselves photographed while registering as voters or revealing their faces to officials at polling booths, keeping in mind their “religious sensitivities”. On March 1, Muslims ran riot in Shimoga and Hassan in Karnataka, allegedly enraged by an article published by a local daily, Kannada Prabha, penned by dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, questioning the religious basis of forcing Muslim women to wear the burqa. Taslima Nasreen has since clarified that she did not send the article to Kannada Prabha for publication. It transpires that the daily took the article from her website, but these details are not germane to the organised mob fury which resulted in the death of two persons.

Since we began with an anecdote, it would be in order to end with another. The former ‘Grand Mufti of Australia’, Sheikh Taj al-din al-Hilali, wanted for inciting terrorism in the country of his origin, Egypt, is given to describing women who do not wear the burqa as “uncovered meat” and blaming them for “enticing rapists”. On one occasion, while addressing the faithful after Friday prayers at Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Sheikh Taj al-din al-Hilali rose to the defence of a serial rapist, Bilal Skaf, asserting, “If I come across a crime of rape, kidnap and violation of honour, I would discipline the man and teach him a lesson in morals and I would order the woman to be arrested and jailed for life. Why? Because, if she hadn’t left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn’t have snatched it... If one puts uncovered meat out on the street or the footpath or the garden or the backyard without a cover, then the cats come and eat it. Is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat?”

Must we let ulema who insist “women should not be seen in public as they cause social turmoil” answer that question? What do you think?

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