Monday, December 26, 2011

He Called Mother Teresa a Fanatic, a Fraud, and He Called Kissinger a War Criminal

Christopher Hitchens is not a household name in India. The limited familiarity with it is likely to be coloured by his intemperate condemnation of Mother Teresa as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud”. MT was a bit of a fanatic and a bit of a fundamentalist, but she was no fraud. And there can be no justification for Hitchens' statement that many people were poor and sick because of the life of MT.

But then, strong and confrontational opinions were the stuff that made Christopher Hitchens the great public intellectual that he became. He was at war with a series of enemies, ranging from George Bush to God. Actually, his views on religion were commonsensical. The real axis of evil, he said, was Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That did not mean that he approved of other faiths like Hinduism. He believed that organised religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”, a view that would be echoed by many who are dismayed by the violence that religion inspires.

The distinguishing feature of the Hitchens persona, next to his intellectual vigour, was his courage. He denounced the then all-powerful Ayatullah culture of Iran for the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. He condemned Zionism as “ an injustice against the Palestinians”. Naturally he made many enemies. But when he fell victim to cancer last week, even enemies rose to salute his wit, his punditic sensibilities and the integrity of his erudition.

His polemical prose was particularly devastating in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was less than 150 pages, but it marshalled facts, figures and arguments that lent powerful support to his theory that the international face of the criminally inclined Nixon Presidency was himself a war criminal.

Pointing out that Kissinger's overall record was “morally repulsive”, Hitchens confines his case to those offences that constitute a basis for legal prosecution for war crimes. These include “the deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina, deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh, the personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation – Chile – with which the US was not at war, and the personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus”. What a record!

Cambodia was bombed in secrecy. Kissinger lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he said that areas in Cambodia selected for bombing were “unpopulated”. Actually “350,000 civilians in Laos and 600,000 in Cambodia lost their lives. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis which persists to this day” with children still being born with disabilities.

In Bangladesh, 20 members of the US diplomatic team, joined later by nine senior officers of the South Asia division at the State Department in Washington, strongly protested in writing against American complicity in the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis. Kissinger's response was to transfer them to other posts, and to send a message to Yahya Khan thanking him for his “delicacy and tact”. Hitchens argues that Kissinger was gratifying Nixon's dislike of Indira Gandhi which originated with his loathing for Jawaharlal Nehru. He also describes how, within weeks of an eight-hour Kissinger visit to Bangladesh in 1974, “a faction at the US Embassy in Dacca began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers”. In a few months Mujibur Rahman and 40 members of his family were murdered.

The murder of Chile's democratically elected President Salvador Allende followed a similar trajectory. A famous Kissinger statement summed it all up. A country should not be allowed to go Marxist, he said, merely because “its people are irresponsible”. The Nixon-Kissinger syndication was the most lethal in contemporary power politics, its path strewn with massacres and assassinations. The ultimate injustice is that Kissinger, the Mephistopheles of his generation, is beyond the reach of a war crimes tribunal.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Across the Globe, Corruption is the Issue; Will It Defeat Us, or Will We Defeat It?

The rupee falls to a new low, industrial output drops by as much as 60 percent in some sectors, coal production nosedives for the third month in a row, fears of economic slowdown rattle corporate India – and how does the Government of India tackle the national crisis? It takes Ajit Singh into the cabinet. As if that isn't enough, it gives him civil aviation, a key sector already wrecked by a series of manipulative ministers.

Good for Ajit Singh. In a nation of rolling stones, he has been rolling with every party in the field – with various Janata formations, then with the Congress, then with the BJP, then Mayawati, then Mulayam Singh. Along the way he got Industry Ministership under V. P. Singh and Food Ministership under P . V. Narasimha Rao – and all attendant benefits thereof. But the most important point about Ajit Singh is that, after all these years of rolling, he is exactly where he started. He is not even a UP leader; he is only a Western-UP leader. Even within that restricted geography, his appeal is confined to Jats.

So what wonders is he going to perform for the Congress Party in the UP election? The decision to take him as a partner is supposed to be the brainwave of Rahul Gandhi, so no one within the party will dare raise the question. Only if the brainwave fails to produce results will the party find someone to pin the blame on.

What stands out here is not just the atrophy of a party, but also a bankruptcy of ideas. Everyone's horizon ends at the next election; the mind cannot see beyond. Attention is therefore focussed on deals and shortcuts that can gain a seat here and a seat there. A man with a half dozen members in Parliament becomes worthy of purchase even if he is a serial fence-jumper with a negative track record. In the process feelings of despair grow among the people.

Parties resort to gimmicks because they are unwilling to fight corruption, the biggest issue of our times. They actually give the impression that they have an interest in continuing corruption. Even the latest anti-corruption initiatives approved by the cabinet look more like diversionary manoeuvres than the real thing. The BJP is in the same boat with its record in Karnataka putting even Congress transgressions in the shade. The parties are merely shadow boxing to mislead the public.

They won't succeed because 2011 has become a historical turning point in terms of corruption worldwide. When we saw Greeks and Spaniards protesting against corruption, we thought it was just an offshort of the Euro crisis. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US finally proved that a global phenomenon had developed against the abuse of capitalism and the rich getting richer at the expense of “the 99 percent”.

This has now gripped even Russia. Vladimir Putin, now in the throes of returning to the President's post, has been publicly booed and the vote share of his party reduced. Don't forget, Putin is still the most popular leader in Russia. The Russian economy is doing well, too. Oil prices are high and foreign currency reserves flattering. There has been improvement in roads, schools and hospitals as well.

So why are the Russian people restive? Because they see the government set up as highly corrupt. People are much better informed today because of the internet and the general perception is that Putin's party is a “party of thieves and swindlers”. We are familiar with that kind of perception and can therefore understand why there is unrest in Russia.

The implications of the unrest in India are more serious because, failing to understand the public mood, the ruling class is trying to suppress criticism. That is the surest way to let corruption defeat us instead of the other way round. At Sonia Gandhi's and Manmohan Singh's level, there is stubborn silence. In a crisis, silence is not leadership. It's betrayal.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Choices for Linguistically Warring India; The Canadian Way or the Ottoman Way

It is becoming clearer by the day that the linguistic reorganisation of states has done more harm than good to our country. Instead of welding the nation into a functioning federalism like Canada or Switzerland, it is reminding us of the Austrian and Ottoman empires that came to grief because they could not turn their multicultural diversity into a viable unity.

Back in the days of innocence, the national movement for independence was structured along the lines of Pradesh Committees, each pradesh generally comprising one linguistic region. That seemed a natural counterpoint to the imperial scheme of presidencies and princely states. Potti Sriramulu's fast to death in 1952 was a coercive tactic, but the States Reorganisation Act four years later did not necessarily appear in a negative light. There was hope that regional languages would flourish and that the overall effect would be progressive.

Ambedkar was among those who warned of the dangers ahead. Nehru had his reservations too. Distinguished foreign pundits cautioned that linguistic division could encourage secessionist forces (See Selig Harrison, India, The Most Dangerous Decades, 1960). The chief argument was that India was different, from Canada and the Ottomans and every other case in history because in India “linguism was only another name for (caste) communalism,” as Ambedkar put it. Proving his point, new states became battlegrounds for Marathi Brahmins and Maratha peasant-proprietors, for Kammas and Reddis, for Lingayats and Vokkaligas. D.R. Mankekar, a prominent editor of the 1950s, said: “We find once again, on lifting the linguistic cloak, casteism and love of office grinning at us”.

Bal Thackeray turned the grin into a growl. His nephew Raj Thackeray went the whole hog to unleash campaigns of violence against non-Maharashtrians. By not checking that tendency, senior leaders like Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh encouraged chauvinistic extremism. Patriotism became indistinguishable from bigotry. Belgaum City Corporation recently passed a resolution not to honour Chandrasekhara Kambar, this year's Jnanapith winner. It did not matter that Kambar was a son of Belgaum and studied there. It did not matter that he was one of the finest poets and playwrights of modern India. All that mattered was that he was a Kannadiga while many corporators considered themselves Maharashtrians.

Sadder still is the Mullaperiyar dam dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Simple logic shows that no two neighbours are more dependent on each other than Tamil Nadu and Kerala. To understand the full scope of this interdependence, it is necessary first to understand the difference in character between Tamils and Malayalees. Tamils are hardworking. Malayalees are hardworking only outside Kerala; at home they are happy with their Gulf money and their nonstop politics.

One consequence of this character difference is that agriculture, which needs sustained hard work, has come to a standstill in Kerala. All necessities are imported. If vegetables and fruits and chicken do not arrive in truckloads from Tamil Nadu daily, the Malayalee will starve.

Firebrand politician Vaiko once tried to take advantage of this. He blocked all truck movement to Kerala so that the Malayalee would starve and learn a lesson. He quickly reversed gear because Tamil farmers, denied their assured market, began starving too. Even Vaiko had to concede that the Tamil farmer and the Malayalee consumer were made for each other. The survival of each depended on the other.

This is why the Mullaperiyar issue is actually a non-issue. Land on the Tamil side is arid, so water from Kerala is essential to the Tamil farmer. It is just as essential for Kerala that the Tamil farmer gets the water he wants for, otherwise, Kerala won't get its daily food supplies. Never was collaborative coexistence more elementary. And never was the failure of political leadership more evident. Kerala repeatedly assures full water supplies. With that the dispute should have ended – but linguistic egos keep it going. A Tamil employer in Doha, Qatar, sacked his Malayalee employee for supporting the idea of a new dam. Nothing more need be said.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sure, We are a Happening Country, but What Shouldn't Happen is Happening

“What is happening in this country”? asked Pranab Mukherjee in the aftermath of the Sharad Pawar slapping incident. Every tax-payer and voter in this country has been asking the same question, though not in the sense in which Mukherjee meant. What indeed is happening under the auspices of the eminent leaders of the Government and the opposition? What the citizen knows is:

□ That dumb things are happening in the country. Like introducing the FDI retail decision at the most inopportune moment. What was the urgency to present it as a cabinet decision when Parliament was in session and a critical election in UP was round the corner? The American Ambassador's very undiplomatic intervention? Is pleasing the Americans worth the price of alienating political allies as well as UP voters? Or was someone trying to divert attention from the 2G fire engulfing P. Chidambaram? It is not easy to imagine Pranab Mukherjee straining a nerve to save Chidambaram with whom he has been openly clashing. The pros and cons of the FDI policy apart, the manner and timing of the government move betrayed a sad lack of political sense. Congressmen themselves came out in open criticism. Did such a mess have to happen?

□ That anti-democratic trantrums are happening in the country. Only Indian genius could invent the idea of attending Parliament in order to block its proceedings. The present Parliament has wasted more working hours than any Parliament in the last 25 years. Leaders like Sushma Swaraj are proud to announce that Parliament won't be allowed to function. Any reason is good enough. In the current session, first it was boycott of Chidambaram. Then it was food inflation. Then FDI. One week of washed-out session cost the tax-payers Rs 24 crore. Parliament is a forum for debate and decisions, not a site for street demonstrations. Common people are unanimous in their call for no work, no pay. But MPs are so shameless that they are demanding red lights atop their cars. This is democracy going bizarre.

□ That intrigue and machinations are happening in the country. Either Sonia Gandhi's health condition, or her partisans' impatience, or the former aggravating the latter, has led to what looks like preparations for a post-Manmohan Singh regime – which need not wait till the end of the Prime Minister's term. This was clear when T.K.A. Nair was ousted from the position of the PM's Principal Secretary and Pulok Chatterji put in his place in July. Nair was Manmohan Singh's close and trusted aide even before he became Prime Minister and Chatterji is a known extension of the Sonia Gandhi parivar. The message was that the Prime Minister's Office was too important to be left to the Prime Minister. So when does Rahul Gandhi step in? And people like Digvijay Singh? The economy is in trouble, but all we have is politics by contrivance.

□ That meaningful efforts to end corruption are not happening in the country. Shaken by the public anger that swelled the Anna Hazare tide, the Government went through some motions of working on an honourable Lok Pal Bill. Now we know it was not all that honourable. A bill with sufficient holes through which bureaucrats and politicians can collect their mamools may well be what comes out of it all. How will public outrage express itself next time?

Look at the one state, Karnataka, where an effective Lok Ayukta had done wonders. The post has remained vacant since Justice Santhosh Hegde retired. They did appoint an exceptionally good successor, Justice Shivraj Patil, but a minor issue involving a cooperative society housing site, was raised to harass him and he resigned. Karnataka not only lost a worthy Lok Ayukta; it is unable to find a retired judge antisceptic enough for the post.

When Pranab Mukherjee raised his question, the answer was staring him in the face: What should be happening in the country is not happening, so what should not be happening is happening.