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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Farrukh Dhondy in Dalhousie

This is what Frarukh has been up to the last couple of weeks (courtesy Asian Age)
Plainspeak On Hills
Jun 26th, 2010 -- Farrukh Dhondy
"Underneath the lamplight
She stood those tortured hours
Waiting for the ones who knew
She wasn’t selling flowers.”
From Bictorian Bull
by Bachchoo
I am in Dalhousie, a settlement on five hill in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by the Punjab where all roads seem to lead. I have lost my way twice walking down and up the mountain roads of this beautiful natural spot, a colonial town, entirely now Punjabised, if that’s a word, a suburb of Delhi with hill folk thrown in.
I am the guest of a friend and his family and, very grateful for his sumptuous hospitality meet the elite of the hill resort at his lunch and dinner parties and am courteously included when his guests reciprocate with invitations for a drink, a barbecue or dinner. Most of the people I meet during this short sojourn, which I am using to finish some pieces of sustained writing, discuss the weather — here, on the plains and in London, talk about literature, international and national, discuss their pastimes of golf, tennis and their keep-fit regimen, talk international politics assessing Barack Obama and the almost new coalition government of the UK’s David Cameron with acute analysis and even committed concern, a contrast to the annoyance and disgust which they profess for the latest news of the tactics of the Bharatiya Janata Party to get their nominees into the Rajya Sabha or the antics of the Shiv Sena in calling a strike of rickshaw and taxi firms and drivers.
These are international people who can discuss the shopping, art and wines of Europe and, perhaps with greater familiarity, the prices and promises of America.
There are local topics of course — the access to the Internet, the flexibility of civic supplies and, interminably, how much their houses have acquired the trappings of modernity — the constructed cutting that makes it possible for the 4x4 to drive to the front door of the house, the storage tank for water that defies all shortage of supply, the annexe which can be rented out as a summer getaway.
I encounter these gentle folk, people I have inevitably already met, as I take an evening walk, a necessary ritual of being here.
The town was named after the Viceroy of India who introduced the infamous “Doctrine of Lapse” whereby Indian Kings without heirs would cede their territories to the British East India Company.(cf. Many books and films including Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players). In London I met a direct descendant of this reviled Viceroy who told me that his illustrious or infamous ancestor had never been to the place and didn’t in fact found the resort. It was named after his departure from India or even from this mortal dispensation. It somewhat surprises me that no politician of Himachal Pradesh, a relatively new and presumably possessively inclined state has sought to rename the town. After all, “Bombay” and “Madras” despite not being Hastingspur or Curzonabad had to go. Compared to Dalhousie, their names were in the scheme of things inoffensively neutral. (Indians pronounce the name as “Del-How-Zee” even though the British retain the Scottish pronunciation for the name: “Del-hoo-zee”, though in my brief sojourn I haven’t seen any itinerant Scotsmen here).
The people I do pass on the beautiful mountain walks are either those I have met at the lunch parties taking their pre-prandial exercise, middle-class Punjabi families waving holiday sticks and moving noisily along or gangs up from the plains for a break in the hotels clustered around the armpit of the hills know as the town centre. I also pass, every hundred yards, the servants of the “barabecue-Tandooratti” crowd walking the family dogs and then at larger intervals, coming out from paths in the lower hill or descending from the “pug-dandis” of the upper slopes, the hill peasantry who live in the shanties of the town or in the ramshackle constructions of the villages which one can see dotted about the distant deep and wooded valleys.
As one passes these socially distinct individuals or groups, or they overtake you in their determination to keep the tandoori calories in check, we greet each other. It’s always a “hi”, “hello”, “good evening” or even an English exchange about the weather, the wonderful view or the sighting of a langoor, the black and white fluffy monkeys of these parts. Walking though is a serious business it makes impatient and brief encounters, the political niceties are left to the encounter at the dinner party under the stars.
The local taxis, white personnel carrier vans for the most part, driven by brazen horn-blowers and packed with the non-home-owning or non-bungalow-renting type of tourist, twist at high speed around the mountain curves, treat the hair-pinned roads as though they were Ludhiana streets and drive close enough to walkers to drive them off the cliffs.
If the local holiday-makers, the ones you haven’t met at the cocktail pass you on foot, you might smile and say a “namaste”, in recognition of being the only humans at least five minutes from civilisation. The isolation of the hills breeds a bonhomie. You may get a “namaste” in return or, more usually, a stone-faced denial of your existence.
With the people of the hills, the natives of Himachal, sons of the soil of the state, one doesn’t even attempt a “namaste”. They wouldn’t understand. Dalhousie and, I suspect, the other ex-colonial hill towns of India, are divided worlds. At least two.
They originated as such. The houses which today are Indianised still have old colonial names. There is Snowdon, the house now dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore which was once the object of Welsh nostalgia. Then there is the oddly named “Param-Dham Norwood” with its oxymoronic dedication to the Vedas and a south London district.
The vestigial nomenclature of the Raj mixing in with modern India is the least of it. Dalhousie, providing a resort for the upper classes of the plains, some of them citizens of the international sphere and providing subsistence, if that, for those who don’t deign to greet you on your walks, doesn’t strike one as a reproduction of colonial India. It is more accurately the terracing of modern India.
Away from Dalhousie, a long way in economic and political complexion, the disparity has led to militant despair. What is so plain in this Himalayan resort is true on a much greater scale of any town in India. The difference is only that in, say, Mumbai the vast disparities are part of the productive terrain. Dalhousie is a resort to which people come leaving the causes and capitalistic justifications for the disparity behind.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

MJ on Bhopal

Is peace on sale in Bhopal?
M.J. Akbar
Here are answers to the questions you no longer have to ask. First: how long would deputy chairman of the planning commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, protégé of the Prime Minister, ranking leader of the World Bank Alumni Association and senior advocate of multinational corporate interests, have taken to send Rs 983 cr to Union Carbide or Dow Chemical if Bhopals workers had killed the plant, rather than the other way around? My guess is 983 seconds. Ahluwalia would have probably sent the funds by wire.
The Madhya Pradesh Government made a request for Rs 983 cr as additional compensation for the rehabilitation of gas victims. Ahluwalia could not find the money in 2008. When, in 2010, public anger at 26 years of injustice not from Carbide, or Dow Chemical, but from Indian courts and brazenly insensitive Delhi Governments reached a crescendo, Ahluwalia discovered the money in 983 seconds, and released it quietly, a few hours before the first meeting of that desperate vote-saving device called the Group of Ministers.
Why was there no money two years ago and why is there money today?
Money was never the problem; Ahluwalia and his masters simply did not care for the gas victims. They were far more worried about the health of Dow Chemical, which was threatening to teach India a lesson for not eliminating any hope for liability payment from the company that had bought Carbide. Gas victims do not participate in discussions between India and American industry. They cant speak English, and dont live in Lutyens bungalows, so how would they understand the exchange rate between Delhi and Wall Street?
Does the Union Government have Rs 1,000 cr lying around in petty cash, which an upwardly mobile bureaucrat can pick up whenever he chooses to? Or does the Planning Commission have a secret account for emergencies like a sudden outburst of public opinion?
Officially, no: All expenditures must go through due process and find a claim on the national budget. But there is lots of moolah available from diversion; if you cant dip your hand into the holy Ganga, there is always a quiet tributary teeming with fish. Each year, many departments cannot actually spend their allocated money and therefore return unspent portions. The Minorities Ministry has been notorious for finding ways in which it can avoid expenditure. In any case, a Union Government can always find money if it wants to.
Why did the Madhya Pradesh Government wait 24 years before it asked for Rs 983 cr? Why not in the first 983 days? Or in the next thousand days? Why wait for over 8,000 days?
The snail-pace of the system is the easy, but bogus, answer. Over the last quarter century, Congress and BJP have shared power in Madhya Pradesh for about an equal number of years. They have offered a range of Chief Ministers, from the charismatic to the useful to the voluble to the forgettable. Irrespective of their comparative merits, each CM has been motivated by one primary desire, re-election. That is the basic propulsion machine of our democracy, as indeed of any other democracy. The great tragedy of Bhopal is that it never became a game-changer in electoral politics, either in India or in the state, and so politicians simply did not care enough about the consequences of their indifference or malice.
A decisive general election was held within four weeks of Bhopal, but the mood of the voter in 1984 was shaped by the martyrdom of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the youthful promise held out by Rajiv Gandhi. Congress won every seat in MP, and very nearly every seat in most of the country. Five years later, it was Bofors, to be followed by Mandal and Ram Mandir. Life moved on. Bhopals dead, as happens so often, became a vague memory, a cause limited to activists rather than national purpose. It has taken 26 years for Bhopal to enter the political narrative, which is why Opposition parties are reactivating their comatose limbs, and Government is discovering money that it could not find for a quarter century.
Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hold Ahluwalia, or anyone else, accountable?
The UPA Government and its fulcrum, the Congress, believes that this is only another passing storm, albeit one of unsuspected turbulence. They can see the storm becoming a gale, with a couple of tornados hidden within the chaos. They have probably allotted private codenames: Tornado Digvijay, Gale Rasgotra, Storm Narasimha, and perhaps even Irritating Disturbance Singhvi. Hurricane Arjun (Force 4) is still to break, although, if it follows traditional patterns, it will veer and dissipate before hitting landfall. By the summer of 2011, Congress hopes, Bhopal will return to that old backburner, and a general election will still be a thousand days away.
It must be praying that Rs 983 cr will buy at least 983 days of peace.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Open letter from PM David Cameron to Aung San Suu Kyi

On the occasion of her 65th birthday.
Dear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Today you will mark yet another birthday under house arrest – cut off from your children and your family. My thoughts, and thoughts of so many people in Britain and across the world, will be with you and with the people of Burma. The injustice of your continuing detention mirrors the injustice that the regime has inflicted on your country and your people for so many years. Throughout that time, you have stood firm, at enormous personal cost, for the principles of liberty and justice. You have become a powerful symbol of the strength of the human spirit. Like my predecessor, I personally have long found your example deeply inspiring. I want to assure you that as Prime Minister, I will maintain a close interest in Burma. The British Government I lead will do all it can, both internationally, working through the United Nations, and bilaterally, to bring a brighter future for Burma and your people, in which they enjoy full human rights and true democracy. I have never forgotten your own request: that we should use our liberty to help the Burmese people to obtain theirs. I promise we will do everything we can to achieve that.

Friday, 11 June 2010

MJ's recent piece

The many colours of red
M.J. Akbar
Red is not a single colour. By the second half of the Sixties most of the world Latin America, Africa, Asia, most of Europe was awash in its many hues, and Vietnam took its counter-intuitive edge to the campuses and television screens of America. By the late Sixties, and through the early Seventies, the Naxalite offensive had turned parts of India scarlet. The epicentre was Bengal, but the seepage was powerful enough to affect Delhi. Mrs Indira Gandhi, the most perceptive politician of the last half century, recognised its implications amidst the comfort zones into which a slothful Congress leadership had retreated. She broke the party and reinvented herself as a pink ruby in a clutter of paste diamonds.
Mrs Gandhi was astute enough to launch a major offensive against poverty, but did not have the economy to sustain her political will. Nor did she have the conviction in shared governance to build alliances within Parliament, and with industry, labour, peasantry, academia and media that could become the vanguard of change. India is too heavy a weight. It moves only when we all pull together.
That familiar adage of the freedom movement when Bengal sneezes, India gets a cold worked for the last time during the red upheaval of the Sixties. The sun rose from the east, but that sharp red streak of dawn faded quickly in the harsh sunlight of the rest of India. Bengal rejected scarlet, and dyed itself in the pale red of democratic communism, introducing a doctrine that challenged other applications of the phrase. Where the Soviet-East European model, for instance, gave primacy to communism over democracy by subverting the latter into a one-party dictatorship, Bengal became a one-party state in a cooperative electoral process that legitimised the party through election victories that might arouse scepticism, but whose credibility could not be challenged. The fulcrum of Communist rule in Bengal was social stability, which Congress had destroyed in the Sixties by cynical manipulation. The peace of the last three decades has veiled the fact that Bengal is a partition province, with a history of Hindu-Muslim antagonism that has deeper roots than Punjab. The Muslim League was born in Bengal; and Punjabi literature has nothing compared to the anti-Muslim froth that layered so much of the best Bengali writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Why is the colour of Bengal swirling back towards the tricolour of India? There are many reasons, of course, including the rather obvious failure of the Left to embed itself into the consciousness of contemporary youth in the manner that it once dominated the minds of Bengali youth in the Seventies and Eighties. The young comrades who once drove a wedge into the sky kept the dream alive in their children, but have now lost their grandchildren, the teenagers who are leading the celebrations after every Mamata Banerjee victory. But there is a second, equally important, albeit unrecognised, reason for the electoral debacle.
We are used to dividing Bengal along Hindu-majority West and a Muslim-majority East, with the border as the only definition. But there is a new West and East in our Bengal. Official statistics say that the Muslim population of West Bengal is 28%; it might rise to 30% after the current census. But this demographic is not evenly distributed. Muslims are concentrated in the eastern districts of West Bengal, parallel to Bangladesh, forming about 40% of the voting population in the thickly populated regions south, east and north of Calcutta. Any map of the results will show that the core reason for Mamata Banerjees success lies in the shift of the Muslim vote from the Left towards her persona.
One uses this term carefully, since she is at the moment a personality who has inspired a revolt, but not been able to institutionalise her advance into a political structure. It is interesting that Muslim enthusiasm for Mamata has not transferred to the Congress. The Left has made gains where it contested the Congress, and its overall vote has increased by 4% compared to last years general elections. The Congress was routed in Pranab Mukherjees constituency, which has a Muslim majority.
If Mamata repeats this performance in the Assembly elections, one-party rule will be replaced by one-woman rule. The Left, technically, is a coalition, but in truth, Bengal has been ruled by the CPI(M). Having ensured social peace for three decades, the CPI(M) took the Muslim vote for granted, indifferent to the reality that the grandchild was not ready to accept what father had.
Could anything change what is widely seen as inevitable? The Left has begun to implement a job reservations policy for minorities; we do not know if this is too little, too late. Change is an exciting thought for a generation that has not experienced violence, so the young may dismiss this as a cynical last throw of the dice by a defeated gambler. Moreover, Mamata has empowered Muslims by making more of them candidates, but she will be vulnerable where she gives seats to the Congress.
The red of Bengal has already been diluted by time. The tint of the future will be determined in 2011, and the easel is with the Muslim voter. Both sides know that.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Thursday, 3 June 2010

MJ Akbar; After scripting acts, Amar now acts on a script

This from MJ Akbar recently.
Out of Turn
The Times of India
Which required better acting from the irrepressible Amar Singh: a 14-year association with Mulayam Singh Yadav or his role as husband of Dimple Kapadia in a Malayalam movie?

Politics is carbon-dated by events, not time. Partnerships need tensile strength to survive misunderstandings when suspicion warps a relationship into a tangential curve. Mercury rather than blood flows through the vein of public life; politics is very human and turbulent, and ego floats beyond the reach of rational discourse.

The best politicians are very talented, but often that blessing is flecked with problems characteristic of a maverick. The big chiefs like talent in their subordinates, but squirm at its attendant frailties. Bright sparks tend to possess an implacable desire to place a mirror before stupidity. The reverse mirror, however, displays a more provocative facet. Jealousy and intrigue are companions of ambition; if the talented were not ambitious, they would not be in politics.

Any institution, whether party or government, demands the stability of an uncontroversial script, or the comfort of silence from geniuses who can never find an equitable balance between their self-estimation and the role they have been given in what is essentially a Brechtian beggar's opera. Jairam Ramesh is a sharp and well-read politician, except when his tongue goes to his head. He has been a good environment minister, willing to stand his ground and even take a risk or two. But collective responsibility demands caution: you have to keep space between your blow-drier and your brain. Jairam Ramesh may even have been right on China, but he was wrong to say what was right.

Despite his penchant for the unusual, Amar Singh has been a far more careful politician, sticking to his responsibilities at some cost to his individuality. Happy memories are the first casualty of an unpleasant divorce, but it would be unfair to forget Amar Singh's mastery of the craft of first-past-the-post democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav got the votes, but the real point in our system is to get winning votes. Backroom strategy can turn the first into the second in a difficult election. The conversion of Jayaprada into a Begum of Rampur who became more real than the real Begum deserves a chapter in any analysis of Indian democracy. Amar Singh has now taken on a more formidable challenge, the reinvention of Amar Singh.

Actors slip easily into politics because they have MBAs in the management of adulation. They have studied the arts of froth and the science of glamour, most notably the cruel fact that it has an early sell-by date. Madhubala remains an ageless icon because she died in her Thirties; death interrupted decline. A Dimple Kapadia is a rare phenomenon: she will be forever 16 thanks to 'Bobby' and a personality that is incompatible with domesticity. Women actors generally choose marriage as their retirement home. For a very few, 40 is too old for cinema and too young for oblivion, and they shift careers. Men get a few more years if they live in a gym. Politicians, however, do not possess the courage to become actors. Amar Singh has the élan to act a script after so many years of scripting an act.

The problem in both professions, of course, is finding an audience, without which you are not in business. An alliance with Mulayam Singh was ideal because he could guarantee a minimum box office in the worst of seasons. Nor were they involved in a multi-starrer like Congress, where great battles seethe beneath surface discipline. It was a two-star act, with Amar Singh the perfect alter ego to his leader. Perhaps a midlife crisis was inevitable, leading to a parting of ways. Mulayam Singh still has an audience, but can he turn it into a winning proposition? Amar Singh knows how to win, but does he have an audience?

When such questions set out in search of answers, they can lose their way in the by lanes of paradox. The definitive replies will be available only in the next assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh. If Amar Singh picks up, to give an example, the votes of his fellow Thakurs, it will hurt Congress rather more than Mulayam Singh's socialists because Congress is counting on a mobilization of upper castes and Muslims. And the greater the fragmentation the better it will suit Mayawati, whose core support remains consistent even if her supplementary vote is drifting.

If dancing has been described as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then there is a similar divergence between position and intention in politics. Subtle histrionics mix basic instinct with populist promise; rhetoric carries the message. The voter plays along, suspending disbelief en route to a polling booth.
Amar Singh is good before any camera, either in a studio or on the street.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London