Monday, September 25, 2017

In a world of bullies, tiny Kim now equals mighty Trump; What if one makes a small miscalculation? It's scary

Kim Jong-un is said to be unpredictable and half mad. Donald Trump is known to be unpredictable and often acts like half mad. Both have nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. North Korea's latest muscle-flexing was so scary that Trump said he might be forced to destroy North Korea. The foreign minister of North Korea replied that he had heard "sounds of a dog barking". More hurting perhaps was German Chancellor Angela Markel's criticism of Trump's trumpeteering. "Any form of military solution", she said, "is totally inappropriate".

We now have a clear picture of the conundrum into which these unpredictable half-mad gentlemen have led the world. To put it another way, we can now see the cleverness with which Kim and his tiny country have cornered the world's mightiest military behemoth. May be the funny-looking dictator is not as mad as we are told. May be there is a method in his madness.

To see the nuclear annihilation threat in perspective, we should recognise the Kim family as contemporary history's most successful political dynasty, lasting 72 years as of now with the third generation in charge. Kim Il-sung, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese who was trained by Russians became the leader of the northern half of the country when Korea became free at the end of the war.

He invented a personality cult, projecting himself as equal to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. History books were re-written to give him a divine origin. If his pictures were printed on cheap paper, the printers were punished. Newspapers carrying pictures of him were not to be used as wrapping paper. He assumed the title of Great Leader and developed his own ideology called Juche (self-reliance).

Kim No. 1 died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over. His was a desultory reign with the economy going down and a famine hitting the people in 1998. But he oversaw the country's first nuclear step with a detonation in 2006. He died in 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took control. Not that the dynasty had no critics. All the three Kims were ruthless in eliminating potential rivals through execution, torture and banishment into labour camps. Some estimates say that there are about 120,000 political prisoners in the country today.

Kim No. 3, currently facing Trump, has an obesity problem that's uncontrolled (he weighs more than 200 pounds). He is said to have heart problems that felled his father and grandfather. But he is not just a playboy. Schooled in Switzerland, he is comfortable with French, German and English. He loves racing cars, football and pop music. Additionally, he is an ardent student of military history and strategy. Under him North Korea has seen modern consumer culture spreading. Agriculture has picked up, farmers are no longer slaves but share croppers. Special economic zones have been developed. Overall prosperity has increased.

And of course the nuclear capability of the country has grown by leaps. Obviously he is smart enough to know that if he drops a bomb in the wrong place, he and his country will be wiped out and the world will not moan for him. Like other nuclear powers, he must be seeing those lethal weapons as a protective shield rather than as a conquering device. But he wants his nuclear pile to be equal to that of the US. Clearly he has the contacts necessary to do so. In 2004, two years before the first detonation in the reign of Kim No. 2, Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q.Khan, had admitted to have transferred the technology to North Korea. There must have been other players, too. And why not? Unknown players helped Israel secretly to amass a still-secret nuclear stockpile. What's good for Tom must be good for Dick and Harry as well.

Israel went nuclear as insurance against its enemies. North Korea had the same motivation, the main enemy being the US which led the Korean war against the North. Enemies of the US who had no insurance met with horrible deaths. Saddam Hussein was trapped in an underground hole and eventually hanged before TV cameras. And all that on the basis of a lie -- that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Well, here's North Korea proudly displaying weapons of mass destruction. Even the bombasting Trump given to bombastic threats is unable to strike.So Kim No. 3 has won so far. Bullies produce bullies. But if one of them makes a miscalculation, all of us go up in smoke. Scary indeed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

How 'Scoundrel Christ' betrayed his twin brother Jesus; A laboured re-telling that fails to impress

You are sure to hit the best-seller list if you write a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. New versions of old religious legends are today an industry in itself. Some religions are too rigid to accept such liberties. But Christianity and Hinduism seem to be fertile ground for free-thinkers.

The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman was published in 2010. This is one instance where the familiar disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance... is coincidental" is indeed superfluous. But you will be disappointed if you expect juicy blasphemy by a non-believer. Pullman is a believer and the blasphemy is disguised as humour.

And there is only a small bit of it. Christians brought up on the idea of Immaculate Conception will be outraged by Pullman's rather entertaining version of the birth of Jesus. In this version, Mary, 16 years old, allowed into her room at night a young man who whispered through the window that he was an angel. He said, "you are going to conceive a child". And she said, "But my husband is away". And he said, "But the Lord wants it to happen at once". It did. When he came home and heard the news, Joseph, so old that he "had not touched her" during their marriage, cried bitterly. He was consoled by Mary who said: "I've done no wrong. I've never been touched by a man. It was an angel that came to me".

In the mood for a little more blasphemy? Well, author Pullman says that Mary had twins -- Jesus who was healthy and boisterous and Christ who was a weakling. As time passed, "there came more brothers and sisters". Pullman slips into what must be taken as straight humour (without blasphemy) when he starts dealing with the miracles attributed to Jesus. The well-loved story of water turning into wine is a case in point. In Pullman's re-telling, Jesus first feigned innocence when he was told, in the middle of a wedding reception, that they had run out of wine. Then "he took the chief steward aside and spoke to him, and soon the servants discovered more wine". The author's line: The steward had hidden the wine hoping to sell it and "Jesus had shamed him into honesty". So much for miracles.

The thesis of Pullman's narrative is that corporate interests had seen the promise of building a big institution, the church, on the foundations of Jesus's popularity. They recruited his twin brother Christ who betrayed Jesus and helped the corporate plotters. Rather far-fetched a stroy for believers to accept, and too outlandish for others to comprehend. This is one of those books where the author was fired up with a title but could not weave a story to match it.

The Indian tradition is too liberal to allow much scope for blasphemy. See how the Charvaka school of materialism finds acceptance despite its rejection of notions like karma, moksha, the vedas and the very idea of God. When Ramanand Sagar brought the Ramayana to television in 1987, he took liberties the camera allowed: Arrows would stop midair, Goddess Saraswathi could be seen inside Kumbhakarna's mouth making him say nidra instead of indra. All 78 parts of the serial were artificial and melodramatic. But people would have a bath, wear fresh clothes and sit reverentially before their TV sets to watch Hanuman leela and Sita swayamvara.

Greater sophistication arrived with the entry of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi. Inevitably different people have reacted differently to them. Some believe that Pattanaik trivialises Hindu philosophy, a reference perhaps to volumes like Fun in Devlok and The Sita Colouring Book. Tripathi began by re-imagining Shiva at trilology length, then started reconstructing Sita as a warrior princess. Nobody objects to the liberties he takes with the storyline and characterisation. That's because the underlying element of devotion is intact. An atheist, Tripathi turned religious as the books seized him.

It may be difficult for us to see Sita as Ravana's killer. But she was Ravana's daughter in another re-telling. A.K.Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas was enlightening in that sense though Hindutva zealots got it removed from the history syllabus in Delhi University. How can petty minds erase truths from history? With the likes of Tripathi at work, there will be 400 Ramayanas soon. Can zealots keep pace with the march of writerly imagination? And the unstoppable push of marketing? Sita and Rama will endure after Philip Pullman's Jesus and Christ are forgotten.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Assassins of old were honest, modern ones are cowardly. But the cowards are destroying the Indian dream

In the days of Nathuram Godse, things were straightforward and honest. When he shot Mahatma Gandhi there was no attempt to hide his identity. The courage of his conviction emboldened him to say bluntly, "I did fire the shots... I do not desire any mercy to be shown to me". His final statement before the court was an eloquent defence of the Hindutva view of history.

Courage of conviction similar to Godse's was seen again in 1984 when Beant Singh and Satwant Singh shot Indira Gandhi dead. They were her bodyguards, professionally committed to protect her. But their ideological commitment proved stronger. Again, there was no attempt to escape from responsibility. In fact, according to some reports, they shouted Sikh slogans as they fired their weapons. When Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a bomb in 1991, it was known that the LTTE was behind it; soon after the horror they informally admitted it, too.

Times have changed and ideologically motivated killings are done these days in cowardly fashion. Godse and others were proud of their ideologies and therefore had no problem coming clean on their killings. Today's ideologues are different. They are ready to use the violence demanded of them, but they lack the conviction to own it up. They kill in clandestine operations, then run away into the safety of darkness. In that darkness, obviously, hide protectors powerful enough to protect them. The protectors also are cowards who hide themselves.

Thus, the killers of Narendra Dabholkar in Pune have remained untraced since the murder in 2013. Three years after the event, CBI arrested ENT doctor Virendrasinh Tawade who is still in jail. But CBI suspects that the killers are Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar. There is no trial yet and no answer to the question: Who killed Dabholkar?

Govind Pansare was shot in 2015 in Kolhapur and died four days later. Sameer Gaikwad was arrested seven months later. In June this year he got bail. A Special Investigation Team took into custody Virendrasinh Tawade already in jail in the Dabholkar case. Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar are also wanted in the Pansare murder case. Nearly three years after the event the question remains: Who killed Pansare?

Six months after Pansare was silenced, ideology-driven murderers turned their attention to Karnataka. They killed M.M.Kalburgi in Dharwad. That was on August 30, 2015. To this day neither Karnataka police nor CBI have been able to make a single arrest. The state's authorities, evidently more incompetent than their counterparts in Maharashtra, cannot answer the question: Who killed Kalburgi?

Interestingly, though, there are some strange parallelisms among these unsolved murders. All three victims were free thinkers and rationalists, opposed to conventional beliefs including religious. Dabholkar campaigned against superstitions. Pansare, a communist, carried on a war against caste. Kalburgi fought idol worship. On the other side, Tawade and Sameer Gaekwad were members of the Hindu rightwing Sanathan Samstha. Vinay Pawar was a friend of Gaekwad. Add to these interconnections the fact that all three killings were carried out by motorcycle riders. Two cyclists shot Dabholkar on a public road, two cyclists shot Pansare and his wife in their house, two cyclists entered Kalburgi's house posing as students and shot him.

Two (or three) motorcyclists entered Gauri Lankesh's compound and shot her. She, too, was a rationalist. She, too, opposed superstitions and conventional religious beliefs. As a journalist, she also had clear political views; she fought the very concept of Hindutva. This and the similarities with the earlier killings of rationalists have spread the impression that Gauri too was felled by Hindutva forces. Trollers strengthened the impression by suggesting that she deserved death for her anti-Hindu views.

Partisans turned the whole thing into a vicious political war on social media, indicating the depths to which bigotry has dragged the country. What is certain as of now is that India has become a dangerous place for independent thinkers. Even the barbarous practice of lynchings is condoned. Gauri was not as powerful an opinion maker as Kalburgi or Dabholkar. Even then she would not be allowed to live. Intolerance has reached levels that threaten India's basic values. The outpouring of protests across the nation, sensational in itself, is reflective of a fear complex that has seized the people. Are we losing the dream? If Gauri's killers are not punished, there will be more Gauris because assassins will feel safe in our system. Gauri herself will remain an exemplar -- a journalist who was killed for her journalism.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Brave judges do us proud, carnal godmen bring us shame. Is the goodness of the few our only salvation?

What an amazing week it was. The judiciary made us feel proud, not once but three times back to back. At another level, though, the nation was shamed by a seducer whose frenzied followers killed and destroyed to support his freedom to rape. India remains an unending puzzle, inspirational one day, incorrigible the next. Just as a group of judges project the country as a model of democracy, a mob of idolaters turn it into the world's laughing stock. Can we ever win?

For a long time to come, we will proudly recall that historic week's triple bang: A No to the cruelty of triple talaq, a Yes to citizens' right to privacy, and a firm No to the right to rape in God's name. The talaq judgment, passed by a three-member majority in a five-member bench, was overshadowed by conventions of religion when in fact the emphasis should have been on constitutionality and the principles of equality. Nevertheless, the fact that the five judges came from five different faiths carried its own message at a time when majoritarianism is being asserted aggressively.

No shadows fell across a nine-member bench's unanimous verdict that privacy was a fundamental right protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty. Some sentences in the judgment read like aphorisms that should be put up in golden letters in offices and homes: Privacy constitutes the foundation of all liberty. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern. Criticism and critique lie at the core of democratic governance. Tolerance of dissent is equally a cherished value.

Against such proclamations, the Government's reactions looked childish. The Law Minister turned himself into a farcical figure by claiming that the Court had actually affirmed the Government's position that the right to privacy was a fundamental right subject to reasonable restrictions. The Government's stated position was not that at all. It was that privacy was a common law right that was a subspecies of many rights and hence incapable of being termed as a standalone homogenous fundamental right. Eminent lawyer K.K.Venugopal paid the price of accepting the position of Attorney General by putting up the contrived argument that the right to privacy was an elitist construct. The Court dismissed the submission as unsustainable. The message was clear: What is good for the politics of a ruling party is bad in law.

It becomes ugly when what is bad in law is tacitly approved by the establishment. Tens of thousands of men were pouring into Panchkula days before the verdict was to be pronounced in the Dera Sauda rape case. Weapons including AK 47s were also being stored. Yet, Haryana's Chief Minister Khattar did nothing, said nothing. Finally, when violence claimed 31 lives and left 250 injured, he said anti-social elements had created problems. The Punjab & Haryana High Court exposed him by calling the Government's inaction "a political surrender to allure vote bank".

That's exactly what the official position was. Khattar and many BJP luminaries had been publicly cultivating the Dera Sauda leader because the man, for all the criminalities he was involved in, had gathered a following that ran into crores. This is a peculiar Indian phenomenon. No other country offers frauds such a free run. Born-again Christian zealots of the West and their imitators in India have developed the God industry with modern corporate efficiency. But they command neither the mass following nor the vote potential of the godmen in India.

Criminally culpable godmen have been riding high under all religious labels because of conspiratorial support by those in power. The illegalities of the Dera cult had received support from Chautala's National Lok Dal and from Hooda's Congress before the BJP, all of them condoning criminal actions for perceived vote bank support. What is new is the level of Khattar's incompetence. If he had belonged to any other party, the BJP would have created a ruckus for his removal. In the event, the BJP extended unprecedented protection to him, proving to be as unprincipled as all other parties. All the more reason we should admire the courage of the High Court and the CBI court judges. In a dangerously charged atmosphere, the CBI judge had to be airlifted to the makeshift court. Unpurturbed by threats all around him, he pronounced that the Dera chief deserved no sympathy.The goodness of the few makes up for the wickedness of the many. To that heaven of upright minds, my father, let my country awake.