Monday, November 30, 2015

Saudi-US policies led to IS. Address this fact or face the 'Islamisation of Europe' scare

Western powers have pooled their formidable military resources to punish ISIS for its terrorism. But they may not succeed because they are themselves the Frankensteins who produced the monster through the agency of Saudi Arabia. The founders of the Saudi dynasty began it all with policies of unspeakable cruelty justified in the name of religion. In the imperial games and oil politics that developed subsequently, Saudi Arabia became -- and continues to be -- an ally of the West and of countries that follow the Western model, such as India. Thus, the "civilised" world is trying to destroy ISIS while still remaining tied to the single biggest propagator of the basic ISIS premises.

In a moment of history in the 18th century Mohammed Ibn Saud, the emir (chief) of an agricultural settlement met Mohammed Abd al-Wahab, an Islamic reformer, in Central Arabia. Wahab, whose puritanical ideas had invited antagonism from other leaders of Islam, wanted protection. Ibn Saud, an ambitious desert warrior, found in Wahabism a way to legitimise his plans to conquer and expand. Wahab was intolerant enough to condemn as heretics all Muslims who did not follow him. But even he found Ibn Saud's ideas extremist, for the warrior chief believed in military conquests of the merciless kind, killing prisoners of war and slaughtering all civilians including women and children.

This legacy was the guiding influence behind Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the king who established Saudi Arabia formally in 1932 and was bewildered when unimaginable wealth started pouring into his pockets following the discovery of oil. He followed Wahabism with conviction and used as his chief instrument of domination the dreaded bedouin army called Ikhwan (Brotherhood). Thoroughly brainwashed before they were enrolled in the National Guard, Ikhwan fighters were known for the masks they wore and for their special techniques of ruthlessness such as slitting the throats of male captives. Now we know the historical background to those savage scenes of hooded IS men beheading kneeling victims.

Why did its Western allies not stop Saudi Arabia's Wahabi evangelism in its early days? Lavishly funded programmes turned tolerant and easy-going Muslim societies such as Malaysia and Indonesia into assertively religious entities. Even in India funds flowed in freely and burqa-wearing became an identity-flaunting practice that proclaimed a new attitude of defiance. Everyone know that it was Saudi money and Wahabi radicalism that caused this ominous transformation, but the mighty West and liberal leaders of Asia's liberal countries adopted an attitude of denial vis a vis Saudi Arabia.

And then came George Bush and his evil genius Dick Cheney. The way they destroyed Iraq violated all norms of civilisation. They didn't slit throats. They did worse. Remember the gut-wrenching prisoner abuse pictures from Bhagdad's Abu Ghraib jail -- US-UK soldiers standing on the naked bodies of Arab prisoners, urinating on them, dragging them with chains round their necks and taunting them with dogs? This didn't subjugate Iraqis. It infuriated them. It infuriated Muslims en masse. ISIS was the direct consequence of the Bush-Cheney war crimes in Iraq. That's why it has grown beyond a political or military phenomenon. It is now a philosophy, a culture.

It cannot be suppressed by French and Russian air forces or by American drones which can at best deal with the symptoms, not the causes. Failure to address the root problems will only provide another reminder of how civilisations fall. Referring to the Goths' sack of Rome in 410, Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "In the hour of savage licence, when every passion was inflamed and every restraint was removed, a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans.... Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by the opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent and the helpless".

A more scary warning has been sounded by a member of the Dutch Parliament. Speaking in New York recently, he cited facts and figures to argue that Muslim ghettos controlled by religious fanatics have multiplied in European cities and that "we might be in the final stages of the Islamisation of Europe".

Like America's Iraq war, the present Western offensive against ISIS in Syria may well be creating a religious divide, driving more Muslim youths into jihadi terrorism. Religious television in Arab countries influence minds more powerfully than Russian missiles can influence events. The question arises whether ISIS is in a win-win situation. But the more important question is whether those opposing it are in a lose-lose situation and if so, why.

Monday, November 23, 2015

IS terrorism has hurt Muslims, but IS won't stop. We are in the middle of World War Three

Irony of ironies: People worst affected by the Paris terror outrage are Muslims. The ISIS may be an aberration of Islam, but it shoots and beheads in the name of Islam, it gets finance and weapons in the name of Islam. Naturally, when its brainwashed jihadists machinegun innocent citizens at random, it is Islam that gets the blame.

This became clear within a day of the shootouts in Paris. The refugees flooding into Europe from Syria, most of them Muslims, now have their paths blocked. The cry for stricter border controls is threatening the Schengen concept of visa-free travel. Many states in the US have declared that they will not accept refugees.

Ground realities in Paris are more ominous. When the editorial staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were mowed down by terrorists last January, there were high-spirited appeals from important people in Paris for seeing the peace-loving Muslim majority as distinct from jihadi assassins. Not this time. The French feel betrayed this time. As President |Hollande said: "It is cruel to say that on Friday it was French who killed other French." The pride of the French in their Frenchness has been hurt.

The country's Prime Minister put it more bluntly when, the day after the terrorists struck, he called for "the expulsion of radicalised Imams." Some mosques in Paris have been desecrated. Muslims paying homage to the dead along with other Parisians have been mocked and challenged. The Muslim driver who was ferrying us around Paris failed to turn up when he was due two days after the carnage. He had taken ill, his employers explained.

It was eerie to be in France when Europe's biggest terrorist attack in a decade hit Europe's most glamorous city. So huge is the city of Paris that one or two locations can shudder and shake without other locations feeling anything. This time the shock waves spread instantaneously. Even a small group of students we visited had stories to tell. How some friends escaped miraculously -- and some perished in horror.

For a visitor from India what stood out was the way the Government, the civil society and the media handled the crisis. The Government made clearcut statements such as "France is at war" that reassured the people. There were no half-brained retaliation such as Delhi witnessed in 1984 against the Sikhs, and no half-brained leader trumpeting that when big trees fall, grass gets crushed. The most "provocative" call was for the arrest of all the thousands of citizens in France's notorious S Files, an index of people considered potentially dangerous to the state.

At the level of the people, the rise of resentment against Muslims is a new phenomenon in a country that has accommodated more Muslims than any other country in Europe. Apart from that, grief is expressed with such restraint that it somehow seems deeper. The flowers placed at the public square around the Republique monument had turned into a small mountain within two days, numerous candles glowing brighter than the fabled lights of Paris. A week later people were still spending hours there, quietly standing around, trying to suppress their sobs and not always succeeding. In restaurant windows riddled with gun shots, they had shoved in long-stemmed roses. Car windows sported the French tricolour in defiant pride.

The same dignity and pride marked the way television channels covered the news day after day. There were no national debates with half a dozen wise guys shouting all together, no one calling the terrorists names, no pronouncement on what the nation wanted to know, no snap judgements on all and sundry. There were no closeup shots of dead bodies and pools of blood. Instead, when four, then six and then eight and ten and more victims were identified by the authorities, the channels showed their bright and smiling faces, displayed their names and occupations -- and left it to the viewers to soak in the sadness of it all. There were numerous interviews -- not with politicians and party spokesmen, but with security experts and professors specialised in terrorism. The effort, consistently, was to give people information as distinct from political lectures.

We may have to wait indefinitely before we reach that level of maturity, if at all. Meanwhile, the news is not good. Most experts are of the view that terrorists will strike again. "It may not happen always, but violence will continue," as one put it. The Pope summed it up most poignantly when he said that the Third World War was on.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Naseeruddin Shah wins by saying how bad he was. But the fanatic fringe cannot understand

Reading Indian biographies is not exactly a soul-lifting experience because most of our autobiographers tell us how good they were. Naseeruddin Shah tells us how bad he was -- how conceited, arrogant and selfish, how easily given to drugs and women, how awful to look at. When his brothers went to IIT and the Defence Academy, he became a drifter, watching movies and plays. He couldn't get along with his father any more than he could get along with his first daughter. It is this brazen candour that makes And Then One Day: A Memoir a good read.

But he leaves the reader in no doubt about his natural fascination for acting and for memorising classical passages. While still in school he considered the possibility of becoming a professional actor "in spite of the face I had". A school teacher told him to read Macbeth and Hamlet because most people couldn't tell one from the other. He was quite impressive at school debates. "My speeches, peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, were well memorised, thoroughly rehearsed.... I invariably blustered my way to some prize but seldom did I know what I was talking about".

The beaten track is comforting. The ambition of middle class parents to see their wards becoming doctors and engineers is rooted in the traditional concepts of security and safety. When someone breaks the mould and strays into unpredictable areas like acting, fear grips the elders. The stage gripped Naseeruddin when he was still a school boy ( "it was the only place apart from the cricket field where I felt happy in my skin"). Everything that happened in his life was in one way or another shaped by this early fascination.

Despite his memorising capabilities, NS was a flop in school. He was used to being 50th in a class of 50 and left school in shame, having failed in Class 9. But he was never upset by such things because he had developed a capacity to imagine that he was someone else. There is philosophical substance in his observation that pretending to be someone else could be a source of great solace for actors. "It does seem like an aberration of behaviour to want to be someone else all the time, and I think it happens to people who, like me, can find no self-worth early in life and thus find fulfilment in hiding behind make-believe".

NS was surprised when he accidentally heard about a shool that taught drama. He managed to get into the National School of Drama in its heyday under Ebrahim Alkazi. Then he came to hear about the Film and Television Institute in Pune and he managed to get admission there when Girish Karnad was its director. He has interesting comments to make about the two schools, the gist of it being that it was at the FTII that he learned the basics of acting and also received opportunities to break into films.

NS has a way with words. He needs only a sentence, sometimes just a few words, to sum up personalities and situations. Here's his portrait of his school Director: "Girish Karnad, Rhodes scholar, towering intellectual, pioneer of the art film movement in Karnataka, committed theatre worker, the author of two authentic contemporary Indian theatre masterpieces, Tughlak and Hayavadana, and all-round Cool Cat more known for his writing than his acting". If that is too long, consider this self-assessment. "I kept to myself, and stumbled upon that part of me which revels in being alone". Or this conclusion: "The utter fearlessness, the astounding physical and emotional agility with which he performed is a quality Shammi Kapoor shared with Hindi cinema's certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar". You also come across throwaway phrases like "beautiful waterfall of a voice".

NS studied at Aligarh Muslim University because he couldn't get admission anywhere else. A chapter is titled "The Aligarh University absurdities". He describes the University as "a hotbed of communal conservatism if not downright fundamentalism". When he arrived at his hostel, even as he was unpacking, senior students called him for namaaz. He notes: "I felt miffed at being compelled to pray when at the moment I had nothing to pray for".

This is the man Shiv Sena fanatics criticised in the name of religion for attending the function at which Sudheendra Kulkarni was black-inked. Naseeruddin later said it was the first time he became aware of his religious identity. The compartmentalisation of India gives no chance for non-religious individuals to be non-religious.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The winner in Bihar won't be this party or that. It'll be caste -- to the detriment of democracy

India rotates round caste like the earth rotates round the sun. It is surprising that the founders of our Constitution did not recognise this when they laid down the hopeful rules of our model democracy. Look at two different cases - Karnataka and Bihar - and we will be dismayed by the extent to which democracy has become a shell under the impact of caste.

In Karnataka, the ruling Congress finally expanded the cabinet. A leading newspaper ran a 'Know Your New Ministers' feature, giving personal information of each of the four new cabinet members. Mentioned clearly was: "G. Parameshwara. Community: SC. A.Manju. Community: Vokkaliga. Manohar Tashildar. Community: Balija (OBC). Vinay Kulkarni. Community: Panchamashali Lingayat".

The newspaper did its duty by giving readers information that was locally vital. In the process it also showed that it is too simplistic to say that Karnataka is ruled by Vokkaligas and Lingayats. There are 116 types of Vokkaligas and at least 42 types of Lingayats in official listings. Now that the cabinet has recognised Panchamashali Lingayats, what of the Aradhya Lingayats, and Sadar Lingayats, and Banajiga Lingayats, and Nonaba Lingayats, and Jangama Lingayats, and all the others? There are so many castes and so many subcastes that no cabinet will be able to satisfy all of them unless we have 100-member and 200-member cabinets. When religion and caste become the basis on which political policies are decided, democracy goes out and castocracy comes in.

Bihar is of course the undisputed standard-bearer of casteism. It conveys nothing if we say that 82.7 percent of Bihar's population is Hindu, for 'Hindu' is a hazy notion, so hazy as to be immaterial. To make sense we have to say that Backward Castes make up 51 percent and Dalits 16 percent. Against that 67 percent of the population, the forward castes account for only 15 percent while Muslims upstage them with nearly 17 percent. These are the primary numbers around which politics, elections, power, party formations and ambitions revolve.

The BJP's dilemma was that its traditional base in Bihar rested on the upper castes -- Bhumihars, Brahmins, Rajputs and Kayasthas. What could that minority do against the Yadavas, the Dalits and the Kurmis who were handling power for more than a couple of decades? That explains the BJP's desperate efforts to present itself as a champion of the backward castes and the equally desperate efforts by leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav to consolidate their hold on the backward votes.

The BJP pushed several backward and Dalit leaders to the forefront in this election. Its electoral rhetoric was also highpitched on the virtues of development for the backward. But it was trying to do what was impossible, ideologically and tactically. How can you hoot for India and Pakistan in the same cricket match? The BJP's dilemma was clear from the fact that it was unable to name a chief ministerial candidate because the obvious choice, Sushil Kumar Modi who had been deputy chief minister and whose capabilities as a thinking leader had found recognition beyond party boundaries, was an OBC and projecting him would alienate the forward castes.

As for Nitish Kumar, he fortified himself by inventing brand new types of backwardness. He expanded the OBC idea to include a new EBC idea (Extremely Backward Community) and he expanded the Dalit idea to include a Mahadalit Caste. More castes of course meant more privileges, more concessions, more benefits -- and more votes. This process also produced phrases the internal contradictions of which were hilarious. The "upper backward" like Yadavas and Kurmis were in power till now. The "lower backwards" like Badadhi, Kahar, Kewat, Kumhar, Lohar, Tatwa, Teli, Sanav, etcetera could now hope for some crumps of office. What an exciting game.

The excitement is enhanced by the fact that what goes up can come down. The Patels in Gujarat were quite high in the social-economic ladder till not so long ago. But their traditional businesses declined and agriculture became less and less rewarding, so the phenomenon known as Hardik Patel came up demanding reservations and quotas for Patels and classification as backward. As if on cue the Brahmins of Gujarat have also demanded reservation for them in government jobs and educational institutions. Haryana's Jats, Kerala's Namboothiris and Tamil Brahmins, every one wants reservations. Everyone has realised that in India to be backward is the way to go forward. "Democracy is not just a form of government. It is a form of society", said Ambedkar. Poor Ambedkar.

Monday, November 2, 2015

How Muthuswamy Dikshitar invented fusion music -- and bhakti's gain became Indian Army's loss

In Carnatic music, Tyagaraja's position is so exalted that only specialists spend time studying the other luminaries of the Trinity. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar demands attention at the popular level for he did unconventional things in a conventional world. His living for a while in Varanasi absorbing North Indian culture and his composing in Sanskrit when Tyagaraja and Shama Sastri stuck largely to Telugu might have been no more than pursuit of personal preferences. But there was daring in his invention of a new genre, Fusion Music, more than a century before it became fashionable.

Ever the traveller, the innovator, the experimenter, Dikshitar was attracted by the unfamiliar but attention-grabbing music played by military bands in the garrisons near his residence and in Fort St. George, the seat of the colonial government which he often visited. The bands played marching songs and folk beats from Ireland and Scotland and Wales. They had the power of all folk and military music -- to make the listener keep pace with the beat, humming and tapping.

Dikshitar liked the lilting rhythm, the compelling beat and the sheer simplicity of the music. He kept the tunes exactly as they were, discarded the English and fitted Sanskrit lyrics into the tunes. This was towards the closing phases of his life (1775-1835). The Carnatic world of the time paid no attention of course. Traditional to a fault, orthodox to a fault, it could only look at "Indo-colonial" music as a travesty.

In less capable hands it might indeed have been a travesty. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar turned it into something of a musical phenomenon. Not only did his lyrics fit the tunes perfectly, they retained the integrity of the Carnatic tradition by adhering to such intricate details as correctly placed pauses and precise syllable lengths. This made the nottuswara (a delightful fusion word, nottu being Tamil for English musical notes) worthy of scholarly attention. Vidwan T. M. Krishna, scholar as well as vocalist, has done extensive research into the history and significance of nottuswara sahitya. Last week he released a CD containing 36 of Diskhitar's "beat music" songs.

He did it with elan, heading a chorus of a few dozen children and singing the numbers with them. The children outperformed him, though. He needed written scripts in hand to be able to recite the lines.With no such aid, the children belted out the lines from memory, song after song after song -- and with the precision in enunciation that Sanskrit demanded.

There is poetic justice in a daring composer of the past getting as interpreter and promoter a daring musician of the present. T. M. Krishna is a ranking classical singer of the new generation. That has not prevented him from criticising the newfound tendency to turn music into a trade. He opted out of the Chennai "season" (performing during the season is the ultimate stamp of recognition in the Carnatic universe), saying the music had disappeared from the festival, that money and middlemen now decided who should perform and who should not. Many aficionados had already been saying that at many venues the idli-vada was the real attraction.

Small wonder if Krishna feels an affinity with Muthuswamy Dikshitar who, two centuries ago, walked into areas where others feared to tread. Apart from the nottuswara CD, Krishna has also brought out a series of three CDs (one more due soon) of what are called Audio Books. This is part of a project to produce a full archival repertoire of Dikshitar's kritis. Projects as ambitious as this require commitment of a special kind.

One aspect of nottuswara music, however, limits its appeal. In keeping with Carnatic music's unwavering thematic uniformity, Dikshitar's Sanskrit lyrics have bhakti as their solitary subject. Military/folk tunes do not quite jell with bhakti and vice versa. Irish "snaps" for example inspired Dikshitar with their lilt, speed and contagious rhythm. Those qualities serve the purpose of snaps very well, because the purpose is to enliven drinking sessions at popular gatherings. But Dikshitar's purpose, as the purpose of all Carnatic composers, was to liven up bhakti.

This can lead to embarrassing dichotomies. The Rakes of Mallow, for example, is a famous Irish pub song with lyrics that are delightfully subversive. But in Diskhitar's hands dancing, drinking/Breaking windows, cursing, sinking became Vande Meenakshi tvam sarasija. If Dikshitar had switched from bhakti to patriotism for a moment, the Indian Army would have been marching to a nottuswara version of kadam, kadam budhaye ja. Well, we can't have everything, can we?