Monday, January 23, 2012

The tragedy of exile

It can be a punishment worse than death

The ancient Greeks, who were otherwise sensibly cynical about suffering and pain in love and war, would become insufferably maudlin when it came to the plight of someone forced into exile. To be banished from your land and not be able to live among your people was considered a fate worse than death.

Euripedes crafted his tales around the theme of exile, each utterance of his exiled men and women drafted to tug at the strings of the reader's heart. Death was melancholic; exile was tragic. There must have been something universal about that perception.

For kings and emperors, dictators and tyrants, usurpers and pretenders who followed the demise of ancient Greece are known to have turned a deaf ear to pitiful cries of mercy while punishing those guilty of real and imaginary crimes by sending them into exile. Being fed to the lions, it would seem, was preferable to living in a foreign land among alien people.

But exile wasn't always a punishment that fetched individual sighs of horror. It was also the only option for those persecuted for their faith and belief. The Jews went into exile after the destruction of their Second Temple and till the birth of Israel wandered the world, waiting for the day they could return to Jerusalem and claim it as their own. The Zoroastrians fled Persia and sought shelter in India to keep the fire of their faith burning. In more recent times, the Dalai Lama led his people into exile after China grabbed Tibet through force.

The Parsis, having lost their home and hearth in the land of Zarathustra forever, became an integral part of Indian society. The Tibetans, on the other hand, believe Tibet shall be free once again. They live as exiles in India and around the world in anticipation of the day when they can claim Tibet as their land and drive the Han Chinese out. That may never happen, just as Napolean died dreaming of his country.

It's not that everybody who leaves his or her homeland to set up home somewhere else grieves for that which has been left behind. Southall may remind visitors of Punjab but Punjabis who live there don't see it as a reminder of their past. Those who weep into their whiskey and beer at Glassy Junction are not necessarily haunted by memories. Nor do those who have changed their names to Andy and Wendy after swapping their Indian passports with American citizenship feel either remorse or guilt for disowning their motherland.

Yet there are millions who feel an umbilical attachment to India, though they have never visited the land their forefathers left, or were forced to leave. These are the descendants of east Indians who, having offered to become indentured labourers for a pittance, crossed the kala pani, never to return again. Chutney music will no doubt be sneered at here in India, but for most east Indians in the Caribbean, it keeps them rooted to their culture and identity.

In Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, separated by sea and continents, indentured immigrant Indians clung on to ideas of caste and community, notions of kith and kin; if those were eroded with time, they re-invented them, but never abandoned what they thought was, and still think is, unique to their identity in the land of their exile. Like the wandering Jews they wove facts into faith so that new generations would remember and not forget.

Yet, for many exiles forgetting and not remembering makes it easier to cope with the reality. This is especially true for those who can't return home even if they wish to. Bangladeshi poet Daud Haider had to leave his country after being accused of blasphemy in 1974. He sought shelter in Kolkata, a city that adopted him as one of its own. In 1986 he was asked to leave India as his presence was deemed to be detrimental to relations with Bangladesh. Celebrated German writer Gunter Grass brought him to Berlin where he has lived ever since.

Till recently Daud would petition anybody and everybody in Bangladesh to let him visit the land of his birth just once so that he could meet his family, see the house he grew up in, talk to his childhood friends, smell the soil and taste the water that were once so familiar. Promises were made and broken. Hope that once burned bright is now a dying, flickering flame.

It's only when your country disowns you that you realise what exile means. Euripedes was right. Nothing can be more tragic than that. Ask the Kashmiri Pandits, they will tell you what it means to be exiled from the land of your ancestors.

[My weekly column in MidDay published on January 21, 2012.]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pity the nation that can't defend liberty

Congress's no-limit, interest-free, Minority Card

(It's the world's best credit card, issued by Vote Bank of India!)

Nothing could be more telling about the tarnished and tattered state of our secular republic than the Darul Uloom Deoband vice-chancellor, Maulana Abul Qasim, describing Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot petitioning the Union government to stop Salman Rushdie from visiting India as "a victory for democracy".

According to Maulana Qasim, "democracy is alive in India" because Gehlot has painted a grim picture of how mobs will run riot and law and order shall collapse if Rushdie were to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival; hence, he should be barred from entering the country of his origin.

Deoband’s chief maulana wants Rushdie’s entry ‘prohibited forever’ as demanded ‘by so many people.’ That’s balderdash. The ‘so many people’ he refers to are mullahs and those who are prone to running riot over bogus grievances and spurious issues. The vast majority of Indians, irrespective of faith, is not in the least bothered and would, if asked, wholeheartedly support the idea of Rushdie visiting this country whenever he wishes.

Not so the Congress. It can’t resist the temptation of seizing an opportunity to indulge in crass Muslim vote-bank politics when it senses one. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the Congress has a hand in manufacturing this mullah-led demand and the threat of violence to keep Rushdie away from India. It’s of a piece with the party’s electoral strategy in Uttar Pradesh premised on the cynical belief that pandering to the belligerence of mullahs and their ilk will fetch the party a rich harvest of Muslim votes.

First we had senior Congress leader and law minister Salman Khurshid brazenly promising that his party will increase the minority quota, which is euphemism for Muslim reservation, from 4.5% to 9%. That pledge fetched the Election Commission’s ire but the message has not been lost. Then we had Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh seeking to reopen the bogus debate over the Batla House encounter of 2008, blaming the prime minister and the home minister for not ordering a judicial inquiry as demanded by the malcontent of Azamgarh who are either SIMI or IM supporters if not closet activists.

Simultaneously, the mullahs of Deoband suddenly remembered Salman Rushdie — all these years they were not offended by his many visits to India, including his attending the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2007, but have discovered merit in blocking it now as Uttar Pradesh prepares to go to polls. Not surprisingly, the refrain was taken up by fanatics in Rajasthan where the Congress is in power. We haven’t heard a whimper from anywhere else in the country.

For the Congress, the minority card is the most powerful credit card in the world. It has no upper limit; it does not bounce; and it comes interest-free. Little wonder that the party has been using this card for the past six decades, encashing votes by pretending to be the sole protector of Muslim sentiments and sensitivities.

Sadly, there’s little realisation that, in the process, India’s Muslims have been further ghettoised, left to wallow in imagined slight and all-consuming denial. It should be of no comfort to the community that threats of violence generate fear, not respect; nor should it mistake the Congress’s cynical politics of appeasement as the route to social development and economic progress of Muslims.

The reality, tragically, is to the contrary. And so we have mullahs threatening violence and the Congress capitulating to their demands in pursuit of its policy of limitless appeasement. Rajiv Gandhi’s government banned The Satanic Verses even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa. The Shah Bano judgment was subverted by abusing the Congress’s parliamentary majority. In more recent times, Denmark’s prime minister was asked to call off his scheduled visit to India lest it upset Muslim sensitivities allegedly inflamed over cartoons nobody had seen in this country. And Shimon Peres was ‘discouraged’ from attending the annual HT Summit lest the presence of Israel’s President on India’s soil upset Muslims.

Salman Rushdie may yet visit India and make an appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival. But that’s really inconsequential. What is of consequence is the amazing audacity of mullahs who now want to have a say on who gets to visit India and who doesn’t, who should live here and who shouldn’t, and the astounding willingness of the Congress to comply to their outrageously vile demands. That way lies the path to disaster.

This is no longer about Salman Rushdie or his Satanic Verses. It’s about what remains of our secular republic.

[Column in DNA, January 20, 2012.]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

19/01/90: When Kashmiri Pandits fled Islamic terror

First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

-- Martin Niemöller on German intellectuals who failed to stand up to Nazi terror. Applies to our intellectuals too who have spectacularly failed to raise their voice against Islamic terror.

'Be One With Us, Run, or Die...'

Srinagar, January 4, 1990. Aftab, a local Urdu newspaper, publishes a press release issued by Hizb-ul Mujahideen, set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1989 to wage jihad for Jammu & Kashmir's secession from India and accession to Pakistan, asking all Hindus to pack up and leave. Another local paper, Al Safa, repeats this expulsion order.

In the following days, there is near chaos in the Kashmir Valley with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference Government abdicating all responsibilities of the state. Masked men run amok, waving Kalashnikovs, shooting to kill and shouting anti-India slogans.

Reports of killing of Hindus, invariably Kashmiri Pandits, begin to trickle in; there are explosions; inflammatory speeches are made from the pulpits of mosques, using public address systems meant for calling the faithful to prayers. A terrifying fear psychosis begins to take grip of Kashmiri Pandits.

Walls are plastered with posters and handbills, summarily ordering all Kashmiris to strictly follow the Islamic dress code, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks and imposing a ban on video parlours and cinemas. The masked men with Kalashnikovs force people to re-set their watches and clocks to Pakistan Standard Time.

Shops, business establishments and homes of Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley with a recorded cultural and civilisational history dating back 5,000 years, are marked out. Notices are pasted on doors of Pandit houses, peremptorily asking the occupants to leave Kashmir within 24 hours or face death and worse. Some are more lucid: "Be one with us, run, or die!"

'Asi Gachchi Pakistan, Batao Roas te Batanev San...'

Srinagar, January 19, 1990. Jagmohan arrives to take charge as Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. Farooq Abdullah, whose pathetic, whimpering, snivelling Government has all but ceased to exist and has gone into hiding, resigns and goes into a sulk. Curfew is imposed as a first measure to restore some semblance of law and order. But it fails to have a deterrent effect.

Throughout the day, Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists use public address systems at mosques to exhort people to defy curfew and take to the streets. Masked men, firing from their Kalashnikovs, march up and down, terrorising cowering Pandits who, by then, have locked themselves in their homes.

As evening falls, the exhortations become louder and shriller. Three taped slogans are repeatedly played the whole night from mosques: "Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-O-Akbar kehna hai" (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-O-Akbar); "Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa" (What do we want here? Rule of Islam); "Asi gachchi Pakistan, Batao roas te Batanev san" (We want Pakistan along with Hindu women but without their men).

In the preceding months, 300 Hindu men and women, nearly all of them Kashmiri Pandits, had been slaughtered ever since the brutal murder of Pandit Tika Lal Taploo, noted lawyer and BJP national executive member, by the JKLF in Srinagar on September 14, 1989. Soon after that, Justice N K Ganju of the Srinagar High Court was shot dead. Pandit Sarwanand Premi, 80-year-old poet, and his son were kidnapped, tortured, their eyes gouged out, and hanged to death. A Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital in Srinagar was gang-raped and then beaten to death. Another woman was abducted, raped and sliced into bits and pieces at a sawmill.

In villages and towns across Kashmir Valley, terrorist hit lists have been floating about. All the names are of Kashmiri Pandits. With no Government worth its name, the administration having collapsed and disappeared, the police nowhere to be seen, despondency sets in. As the night of January 19, 1990, wears itself out, despondency gives way to desperation.

And tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits across the Valley take a painful decision: To flee their homeland to save their lives from rabid jihadis. Thus takes place a 20th century Exodus.

Pandits don't live here anymore, the Valley has been cleansed of Hindus...

Srinagar, January 19, 2012. There are no Kashmiri Pandits in Srinagar, or, for that matter, anywhere else in Kashmir Valley; they don't live here anymore. You can find them in squalid refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi. At least 300,000 Kashmiri Pandits who fled their home and hearth in 1990 have been reduced to living the lives of refugees in their own country; many have since migrated to foreign shores.

Of those who remain in India, two-thirds are camping in Jammu. The rest are in Delhi and in other cities. Many of them, once prosperous and proud of their rich heritage, now live in grovelling poverty, dependent on Government dole and charity. In these 22 years, an entire generation of exiled Kashmiri Pandits has grown up, without seeing the land from where their parents fled to escape the brutalities of Islamic terrorism, a land they dare not return to, although that land still remains a part of their country.

A large number of them are suffering from a variety of stress and depression related diseases. A group of doctors who surveyed the mental and physical health of the Kashmiri Pandits living in refugee camps, found high incidence of 'economic distress, stress induced diabetes, partial lunacy, hypertension and mental retardation.' Statistics reflect high death rate and low birth rate among the Kashmiri Pandit refugees.

And thereby hangs a tragic tale that has been all but wiped out from public memory.
An entire people have been uprooted from the land of their ancestors and left to fend for themselves as a weak-kneed Indian state shamelessly panders to Islamic terrorists and separatists who claim they are the final arbiters of Jammu & Kashmir's destiny. A part of India's cultural heritage has been destroyed; a chapter of India's civilisational history has been erased.

Had this tragedy occurred elsewhere in Hindu majority India, and had the victims been Muslims, we would have described it as 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide.' We would have made films with horror-inducing titles. We would have filed cases in the Supreme Court of India. Our media would have marshalled remarkable rage in reporting the smallest detail.

But, this tragedy has occurred in Muslim majority Kashmir valley, and the victims are all Hindus, that too Pandits. What has been lost is part of India's Hindu culture, what has been erased is integral to India's Hindu civilisation.

Therefore, the Government makes bold to record that the Kashmiri Pandits have "migrated on their own" and their "displacement (is) self-imposed"; the National Human Rights Commission, after a perfunctory inquiry, refuses to concede that what has happened is 'genocide' or 'ethnic cleansing,' though facts add up to no less than that, never mind that at least 300,000 lives have been destroyed.

And, our jholawallah brigade of secular activists rudely turn up their noses to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits: Hindu sorrow, inflicted by Islamic terror, stinks.

Today, on January 19, the 22nd anniversary of the forced flight of Kashmiri Pandits, look back at India's wretched history of secular politics and consider the terrible price the nation has paid at the altar of appeasement because the Indian state has, and continues to, toe the line of least resistance.

(This is a slightly modified/updated version of the first of a two-part essay that appeared on on January 19, 2005.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Biblioclasm now equated with iconoclasm

When books are burned in the end people will be burned too -- Heinrich Heine.

Nazis burning books at Bebelplatz, Berlin, April 1933

Every visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has been a revelation for me. The sprawling Holocaust memorial, perched between two hills, brings alive like no book or film can the soul-searing horrors of what the Nazis did to the Jews. But it’s impossible to absorb it all in one go; the vile deeds were far too many. On each visit I have discovered something that I missed the last time I walked through, with leaden feet, the zig-zag maze of the Holocaust relived.

And so it is that on my last visit to Yad Vashem I stumbled upon, quite literally, a pile of books on the stone flagged floor of the memorial. The display marks an important milestone in the transmogrification of the Nazis into beasts: The burning of books that were considered 'Un-German' and the cleansing of libraries with fire.

That was in April 1933 and Hitler was yet to start implementing his 'final solution'. But that act was a precursor to what was to follow. Heinrich Heine, the celebrated German critic and poet, had written in early-19th century that "When books are burned in the end people will be burned too." His words proved to be eerily prophetic some 100 years later.

Last October, on a wind-swept grey afternoon, I stood at Bebelplatz in Berlin, in front of St Hedwig's Cathedral, trying to recreate in my mind the April evening in 1933 when students, enamoured of Hitler's demagoguery, had gathered there and made a bonfire of books after ransacking one of the largest libraries. The building still stands, magnificent yet melancholic, at the edge of the square. The spot where the bonfire blazed now has a plaque recording the shameful event.

Joseph Goebbels, spitting fire and brimstone, had egged on the vandals: "No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaser, Erich Kastner... The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path..."

As we all know, that path led to history's most hideous mass murder. Even suckling infants were not spared. Heinrich Heine foresaw the crematoriums at Dachau and other concentration camps. We also know that that the path ultimately led to the destruction of the Nazis and all that was glorified by Goebbels. Not very far from Bebelplatz lies the bunker in which Hitler committed suicide.

To be fair, the Nazis weren't the first to seek to reduce to ashes, albeit in vain, ideas and opinions that militated against their ideology. Human history is replete with tales of books being burned by rulers, conquerors, dictators and men of faith in robes.

The Qing dynasty would routinely burn books; modern day rulers of China continue with the practice. The Bishop of Alexandria ordered monks to burn everything that remotely questioned doctrinaire faith; a mammoth library stands there now. Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked Nalanda and set fire to its library which is believed to have burned for three months; the ancient university will soon rise from the ruins that remain.

In more recent times, on January 14, 1989, copies of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, were consigned to the flames at a protest in Bradford. That act of biblioclasm drew attention to a book that few had read till then, triggering a fatwa (issued by none less than Ayatollah Khomeini) demanding the author's head for which a reward of $1 million was offered. India notoriously became the first country to ban the book.

The abiding shame of that act still hangs heavy on us, partially redeemed by the NDA Government's decision to issue Rushdie a PIO card which allows him to visit the country of his origin without any let or hindrance. But shame is alien to those who live in the joyless world of fatwas and decrees; it means nothing to those who wear intolerance on their sleeves.

Hence the demand by Deobandi muftis that Rushdie shouldn't be allowed to enter India. Strangely, the demand continues to find a resonance among those who pose as 'liberals' and preach tolerance. In the land of Charvak, biblioclasm is now equated with iconoclasm.

Which takes me back to where I began: Yad Vashem. As name after name is read out of 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust in the unlit Hall of Remembrance where a single flickering flame is reflected 1.5 million times, I once again ask myself: How could they do this?

Stepping out and walking down the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, shaded by cypress trees, each honouring a non-Jew who, like Oscar Schindler, defied the Nazis, my spirits lift. All is not lost in this wondrous world of ours.

Books burned by Nazis, a display at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

(MidDay, January 14, 2011.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pink elephants and flying horses

What’s the BSP complaining about?

Nobody quite remembers In and Out at the Park, Kolkata’s first discotheque, probably because it never quite took off as a happening place. But Pink Elephant, though not the first discotheque in the city, is still remembered, especially by those with spreading midriffs and balding heads who were hip and smart in 1982 when it opened.

The choice of name for an establishment is often accidental. It’s doubtful whether great debate and deliberation went into naming the Grand’s discotheque as ‘Pink Elephant’. What may have worked in its favour is that it had a certain zing; it was unusual; and, hence, it was attention-grabbing. The bizarre became the fashion of the day.

The Grand’s managers or those who crowded the dance floor wouldn’t have known of a little-known mixed metaphor, used rarely but with great effect in certain situations: The pink elephant in the room. It derives from the metaphorical idiom ‘elephant in the room’, which means someone or something so obvious that it cannot be missed by anybody. But when that elephant is described as ‘pink’ by a person, he or she is presumed to be drunk to the gills and thus hallucinating. For, there’s nothing called a pink elephant.

Chief Election Commissioner SM Quraishi has turned that truism on its head, and a pink elephant is no longer just metaphorical. Driving along the arc as you exit Sector 18 in Noida, you see a series of pink elephants, babies and adults, trunks raised in a belligerent show of defiance against those who ordered them covered. When Quraishi decreed that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s statues, as also those of her elephants, the BSP’s election symbol, at Dalit Prerna Sthal in Lucknow and Noida should be banished from public sight, little did he realise the implications.

Officials tasked with the onerous job had to work within severe limitations, apart from that of a short deadline. The plastic sheets could not be green, red, saffron or blue, as these are all party colours. Translucent sheets would not do because it would defeat the purpose. The only other colour available was pink. And so the elephant statues stand wrapped in pink plastic sheets, their silhouette in sharp contrast to the open space around them. As for Mayawati, she has been encased in makeshift tin sheet boxes. Kanshi Ram and Bhim Rao have been spared the ignominy.

Ever since it was inaugurated last year, Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, as the park in Noida that reminds those with a sense of history of Queen Hathshepsut is known, has rarely seen any visitors. Commuters rushing to their offices in Delhi or home in Noida would just zip past the sprawling pink sandstone memorial that Mayawati has built to herself, Kanshi Ram and BR Ambedkar. The statues were never noticed, nor were they ever talked about.

But it’s no longer so. The flow of traffic gets sluggish as everybody tends to slow down as the arc begins, and gawk at the rows of pink elephants. There, it is excitedly pointed out to others in the car, stands Mayawati. Where? There, stupid, that large steel trunk standing vertically over there. Aw. The pink elephants are pretty though. So cute, no?

Yes, they are. And as in-your-face and eyeball-grabbing as the shocking pink which is Mayawati’s favourite colour. What’s the BSP complaining about?