Monday, February 27, 2012

Italy shoots, Norway abducts, India bleeds: Must the world take us for granted?

Two astonishing events have shown up some of India's inadequacies for the world to marvel at: Italians killing two Indian fishermen and Norwegians taking two small children away from their Indian parents. Both involve conflicts of culture and race and both point to India's unwillingness to recognise that reality.

India's fishing boats are not allowed to be armed. Nor did a case of piracy ever occur off the west coast. Yet an Italian shooter formally said the boat was armed and moving aggressively. Maybe the shooters were bored. It was a big ship, a long voyage. It was evening, Grappa time. Excellent marksmen, they hit one hapless fisherman on the head, the other on the chest.

By Delhi's standards, India took a strong stand against the intransigent Italians. What we should notice, however, is Italy's herculean efforts to save their citizens from the clutches of India. Ministers, diplomats, lawyers and maritime experts dashed to India, with every conceivable legal/diplomatic manoeure up their sleeves. Compare that with India's virtual non-action when our merchant marine captains were arrested in Taiwan and South Korea.

A newly crowned Kerala Cardinal , still in the Vatican, reportedly pleaded on behalf of the Italians. This was odd even in terms of faith; one of the dead fishermen was a Catholic named Valentine (Jalestine?) and the fishing boat's name was St. Antony. Do Italian Catholics rank higher than Indian Catholics? There were enough Catholic priests in Kerala to protest against the Cardinal's misplaced priorities and that redeemed the Church's credibility to some extent.

If the Italian shooting was a crime, so was Norway seizing the Indian babies, aged 3 and 1, from their parents. The published reasons were that the parents were hand-feeding them and making them sleep on the same bed with them. The authorities also said there was an emotional disconnect between the mother and the kids. Despite the Indian Government's intervention, Norway's child welfare authorities refused to give any further explanation.

If the stated reasons are the only reasons, Norway is plain stupid. So there may be other reasons. But as long as the Child Protection Service remains high and mighty about it, it will be seen as a culturally insensitive, racially prejudiced, beehive of deviants. They have given the parents permission to see the children twice a year until the children are 18 years old. This in spite of an assurance to India that the children would be handed over to their father's brother.

The Child Protection Service has a rather notorious track record. A 2005 UN report criticised Norway for taking too many children under state care – 12,500 at the time, in a country whose total population is half of Bangalore district's. Also, let us not forget Breivik, the full-blooded Norwegian who machinegunned 77 fellow citizens at a Labour Party camp near Oslo last year. He no doubt ate with a baby spoon and slept in his own room from birth, his parents kissing him Good Night as they shut the door every night. A correctly brought-up psychotic killer.

What the Child Protection Service did to the Indian babies was nothing short of abduction. India should have brought on Norway the kind of heavy-duty pressure Italy is bringing on India in a much weaker case. But we saw only the usual protocol-bound mumbo-jumbo.

Norway itself set us an example. When the Supreme Court cancelled 2G spectrum licences, Norway's Telenor was one of the companies affected. Within days a Norwegian minister was in Delhi to pressurise India in favour of Telenor. Why didn't India send ministers, child welfare specialists, lawyers, diplomats to Norway to correct the injustice done to an Indian family for not bringing up its children the Norwegian way? Must we always let the world take us for granted? Either Norway must explain why it has done what it has done, or it must let the Indian children and their family return to India forthwith. If this is not done, India must declare it as an unfriendly act.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Did Bharata build Bharat Varsha in vain? Elections raise a legitimacy question

India is a model to the world in the management of free and fair elections. But in terms of what comes out of this massive exercise, India is an argument against adult franchise. Many of those who get elected are so unworthy that the legitimacy of democracy itself becomes questionable.

As many as 103 candidates in UP (35 percent of the total) have criminal cases against them. Some 30 candidates are contesting from jail. These include notorious mafia bosses. One candidate is housed in a Gujarat jail, another in an Orissa jail. Vijay Kumar Mishra is in Meerut jail for his involvement in at least 25 criminal cases. He goes out often, helped by constables, jail officials and court functionaries. Jail term is no obstacle for him to visit places, contact his foot soldiers and spread his messages among voters. Jail birds who contest elections in UP and Bihar almost always win. Or else....

The law that allows imprisoned criminals to contest elections mocks at democracy. Such laws get passed because criminals, dons and sundry undesirables sit in the chairs of law-makers alongside a few honourable members. The honourable members too are subject to the dictats of their party high commands. Thus, the deliberations and debates that must precede the enactment of laws are absent in the experience of post-Emergency India. What we have is a set of loopholed laws that promote the two C's that rule India – Corruption and Criminality.

There is also a D in the ruling dispensation – Dynasty. This round of elections will be remembered for the blatancy with which dynastic defiance asserted itself. Forget the way the Badal family overwhelmed Punjab and the way an army of sons, daughters and wives established their superiority in several areas. The attitudes verbally expressed by two rooted dynasties are enough to show that a return to democratic normalcy is nowhere in sight.

For Bal Thackeray it was a ceremonial occasion: the last campaign rally for the Mumbai Corporation elections. He was on stage in ceremonial regalia with rudraksha malas and a saffron pottu. Standing beside him, with saffron Shiv Sena shawls draped around their necks were crowned successor, son Uddhav Thackeray, and grandson Aditya Thackeray who was crowned with a ceremonial presentation of a sword not long ago. Against such a line-up, Bal Thackeray declared solemnly: “I will never let dynastic politics enter the Shiv Sena”.

That's the sign of a true Indian politician – the ability to deny what everyone can see, and to do it with absolute conviction. The wonder is that Thackeray made his declaration in the course of attacking “the way dynastic rule is manifesting itself in the Gandhi family”. He was no doubt provoked by that family's son-in-law, Robert Vadra, staking his claim to a political role.

Thackeray was right in one detail: Vadra's entry has “opened a can of worms in the Congress”. Vadra is described as a businessman. There is very little information on what business he is engaged in. The little that is known, such as his interest in real estate, is steeped in controversy. But, as he said frankly, politics is the family business. Even more frankly he said this was Rahul Gandhi's time, then would come the time of Priyanka Gandhi and himself, not to mention his children who, he said proudly, had the ability to mix freely with servants. Wow, the future of India is in safe hands.

All this in a country the greatest ruler of which, Bharata, had set a different example. King Bharata was not satisfied with any of the sons his three wives bore him. In his old age, worried about the Kingdom's future, he approached the gods who gave him a son, Vitatha, a person of extraordinary competence. Bharata crowned him king, holding up the principle that kingship was decided by ability, not bloodline.

That was then. Today, the country is no longer Bharat Varsha. To many dynasts like Robert, the Mahabharata must be alien.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Nostalgia over the glory days of Bombay: Even CIA fought its cold war there

No city arouses nostalgic sadness as much as Mumbai does. Other cities might have changed names, like Kolkata, or grown beyond recognition, like Bangalore, to the chagrin of old timers. Bombay not only changed its name; it lost its character, its elan, the creativity and cosmopolitanism that made it the urbs prma in Indies in the first two decades of Independence. Mumbai was built over the dead soul of Bombay.

Just a few names – from the literary world alone – are enough to recall the glory that was Bombay: Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawala, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes, Keki Daruwalla, Laeeq Futehally. There was a forum that brought all of them together, along with other names like Nirad Chaudhury, Satyajit Ray, Agha Shahid Ali, Salim Peeradina, A. K. Ramanujan, Kiran Nagarkar. That forum was a magazine called Quest.

It was edited by Nissim Ezekiel, the university professor who started modernism in Indian poetry in English. He nurtured Quest, too, in a style that was modernistic for the 1950s. Paying attention to the editing of manuscripts and diligent proof reading of typeset pages were uncommon then, but enforced in Quest.

Perhaps it was in looking out for good writing that Nissim set benchmarks. Many bylines appeared in Quest which were to become famous later. Controversies and debates enlivened its pages. In one issue, Jyotirmoy Datta attacked Indians who wrote in English, calling them artistically dishonest social climbers. In a subsequent issue, he got a fitting reply from P. Lal, of Writers Workshop fame, but in language that was elegant and with logic that was clinical compared to Datta's.

Long before The Blaft Book of Tamil Pulp Fiction gave respectability to what was dismissed till then as “footpath stuff”, Quest published an article titled “In defence of pulp literature” (March-April 1976). Ashish Nandy wrote “ A psychologist's guide to assassinations in the Third World”. An article on Konark by Marie Seton was accompanied by dramatic ink sketches by Satyajit Ray. There were poems by Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande, Allen Ginsberg, Jayant Mahapatra.

Intellectual products of this quality must be part of any country's zealously preserved cultural history. Fortunately a selection of contributions from the magazine's early years had appeared in a book called Ten Years of Quest. A larger, neatly packaged volume has now been published by Tranquebar. The Best of Quest (Eds. Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala, Arshia Sattar) is a generous (660 pages) keepsake. Given the variety of the contents and the adventure of ideas they represent, this anthology is one of the best things that happened in publishing in recent years.

As if to squeeze every drop of nostalgia out of the 50s and 60s, the editors have included some of the familiar advertisements of that beloved era. Ever heard of Erasmic razor blade, or Lambretta and Rajdoot two-wheelers? Binaca talcum powder or Terywool suitings? Tik-20, the pest-killer, was such a household name (since every honest household had resident bugs) that it figured in Vijay Tendulkar's celebrated play Silence! The Court is in Session.

Quest, like Encounter edited by Stephen Spender, was in a political trap. It was funded by America's CIA in the thick of the Cold War to build up an anti-Communist front. The editors of The Best of Quest seem slightly embarrassed and slightly defensive about this. Why should they be? Neither Nissim or Spender knew about the CIA's hand. They both did their work with intellectual integrity and the magazines achieved distinction thereby.

Besides, that bit of ideological politics also is part of the nostalgia of old Bombay. For the war against communism, the CIA picked Bombay, thus acknowledging the city's primacy in the interplay of ideas. The American lobby was a vociferous force then, and Bombay was its nerve centre. The fervour with which personalities like Frank Moraes fought, for example, V. K. Krishna Menon's candidature from North Bombay had to be seen to be believed. Battles then were over ideas – something an unformed mind like Raj Thackeray's cannot comprehend.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The wild animals of politics have sensed that the day of reckoning is here

This week the citizens of India can look at themselves and say: It's going to be all right. The second freedom struggle – for freedom from corruption – is beginning to show some signs of a satisfactory solution. The rise of public opinion in spontaneous response to Anna Hazare's campaign was the first sign that our country had the inner strength to stand up to the corrupt. Now the judiciary has helped restore a sense of sobriety and balance to a scene vitiated by wreckless corruption. Not that the struggle against the evil men in power is over. But when public opinion is reinforced by judicial wisdom, the wielders of power can no longer do what they thought they could do with immunity. The days of accountability are here. And the days of punishment.

Wild animals are the first to sense the imminence of an earthquake. Ditto with politicians. How else can we explain the unusual spectacles in UP? On election eve, Mayawati dismisses nearly half her cabinet to show that she is against corruption. Mulayam Singh, proud possessor of a feudal mind that sees all females as inferior creatures, feels obliged to withdraw his “offer” to provide jobs to victims of rape.

Ordinary citizens are so enraged by corruption that sometimes their emotions get the better of their judgement. No one will support the man who walked up to a cabinet minister and slapped him. Shoe throwing is less offensive, especially when the throwers do not look like they actually want to hit their targets. Unlike Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi, P. Chidambaram was within hitting distance, yet the flying shoe kept a nonviolent distance from him.

People have also used civilised ways to vent their anger at those suspected of involvement in deals. Like when Suresh Kalmadi was forced to leave a posh restaurant when fellow diners berated him for bringing shame to India. Let us not forget, also, that the disarray in the Anna Hazare team has in no way affected Anna's own standing as a beacon of hope for people who are disgusted with corruption.

The biggest boost to popular optimism comes from the Supreme Court's historical rulings last week. The requirement that public officials could not be prosecuted without the prior sanction of their superiors was imposed on the plea that, without such protection, there would be endless harassment of officials. In practice, it was used to protect corrupt public officials from legal action. More than a hundred officials have been basking under that protection and no doubt continuing their corrupt practices. In one stroke, the Supreme Court put an end to the malpractice. Now if sanction to prosecute is not given in four months, it will be deemed to have been given. A simple solution to what had been nurtured as a complex problem.

Equally historic is the court's verdict that every citizen has the right to petition for action against public servants suspected of corrupt practices. The argument that this might lead to frivolous complaints against honest officials cannot hold water; the courts have repeatedly pronounced severe judgements against frivolous complainants.

In terms of impact, perhaps the most important verdict of the past week was the cancellation of 2G spectrum licences given away by jailed minster A. Raja. It amounted to saying that the Government was collectively corrupt. We can add that the political class is collectively corrupt. Which is the fact of the matter. Which is also the reason why the story is not over. Bigger fish may yet be caught.

All of this is to the good. The manipulators of the system now know that the system is biting back. They know there is a climate change the world over and India is right in the middle of it. Public opinion is roused, activists are out, the judiciary is on guard, and the party is coming to an end for the thugs and pindaris of democracy. For once, we can say with feeling: Jai Hind.