Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bush is not Clinton; Singh is not Sen


George Bush for Bharat Ratna! The Congress Party's official spokesman floated this balloon publicly in Delhi, so it may well come true. It may be the Congress's idea of honouring Bush. But it will also dishonour the people of India in the eyes of the world. What's more, it will dishonour the people of the United States who have persistently declared their strong disapproval of the man. How cut off from public opinion can the Congress be.

Fortunately, G.B. himself is saying nothing, doing nothing these days. That's not the American style. Bill Clinton is still in the centre of things. Jimmy Carter even got a Nobel Prize for his global activities.

What ex-Presidents usually do is write their memoirs. Clinton wrote a rather indifferent one, but got 10 to 12 million dollars for his effort. Then he hit the highly paying speech circuit. For one of those "leadership summits" in Delhi he was paid $150,000 by an Indian publishing group. Ronald Reagan made $2 million from a single speaking tour of Japan.

In America there are professional agents who arrange these book and speech deals. They have assessed that there is no demand for Bush in these fields. Remember, on retirement his most memorable statement was that when he looked into the mirror the next morning, he was going to like what he saw. Who wants to hear or read such self-justifying drivel? (Except Congress patriots in Delhi.)

Not that Bush is going to be hard up. He is a wealthy man anyway. George Washington was wealthy enough to decline his annual salary of $25,000 (600,000 in today's terms). John Kennedy donated all his remuneration to charities.

But being able to earn well after retirement is nowadays a matter of prestige. Bush can still make a few millions through what is called private equity consultancy. This is a system by which crony capitalists pay politicians sumptuously for opening doors and providing connections. Henry Kissinger is still making good money through this route.

Indian politicians are denied any of these recognised means of making money. That may be why kickbacks have become their preferred route. That may also be why none of them retires. The only Prime Minister after Nehru who tried to become an author was P.V.Narasimha Rao. But he made no great impact with his "Insider" tales. The likes of Morarji Desai wrote empty memoirs which people did not even become aware of.

This may be linked to the generally uneducated status of our politicians. Even in the Nehru family, Jawaharlal was an exception. From Motilal to Indira to Rajiv to Sanjay, nobody finished a university course and nobody was intellectually inclined. Narasimha Rao was a scholar. But the politician in him crippled the intellectual in him.

Manmohan Singh, highly educated and highly intellectual, has the capacity to write a few books that would be valuable historically. But he won't. The politician in him has grown so much that he wouldn't dream of rocking any boat, let alone Soniaji's. Our only hopes lie with the Amartya Sens who are free of political dependence and therefore give us some food for our souls.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

When patriotism is negotiable


Rolls-Royces and Rolexes sell well in India and private jets and yachts are becoming common. Yet the country is teeming with slumdogs.

One reason for our lack of real progress is that our policy makers enjoy the good life. It’s not just corruption. The Chinese establishment is profoundly corrupt. But when it comes to China versus the world, even the corrupt Chinese official cannot be bought.

In our country some of the seniormost ministers in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet were implicated with the American spy agency, CIA. Top-rung IAS mandarins have been known to serve the interests of other countries in return for a post-retirement job in the World Bank.

Even in routine everyday matters our lives are at risk because the patriotism of our rulers is sometimes negotiable. Drugs that are banned in the West are openly sold in India. Toxic electronic waste from Western countries is regularly transported to Asian countries for disposal. A shipload of municipal waste from New York City was recently dumped in Kochi. New medicines that cannot be tested on American citizens because of strictly enforced regulations are tried out on Indian citizens because regulations here are either absent or ignored.

There was a report not long ago that India was planning to lift its ban on asbestos mining. Now, asbestos is a Category One cancer agent. There is no known safety net against it. Once inhaled, the fibres lodge permamently in lung tissues and cannot be removed. Naturally 40 countries have banned the use of asbestos.

Some of these countries are selfish. Canada for example bans asbestos use domestically but exports it to India where there is no ban on usage. Now we know why so many buildings come up in our country with asbestos roofing that directly exposes those under it to cancer. The danger will become more widespread if the ban on asbestos mining is also lifted.

Monsanto, notorious for producing dubious GE (genetically engineered) seeds, has been physically expelled from most European countries. In India it flourishes through a subsidiary, Mahyco. They began with Bt.cotton which, despite all the claims by the company, caused widespread disruptions in many parts of the country.

Now they have turned to staples like rice and brinjal. If these go GE, they will grow only with the special seeds the company produces. A company with a monopoly on these seeds will have India at its mercy.

Field testing of Bt. Brinjal is done sometimes secretly, sometimes in defiance of such regulations as exist. Agriculture ministers in West Bengal and Karnataka were not informed when critical field trials of GE were conducted in their states. Following government-funded research studies, several European countries banned GE food. But an agricultural scientist in Karnataka where Bt. Brinjal is being tested said he was not aware of the ban. Isn’t it his business to be aware? The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Government of India said Europe’s action “is being studied”. If the study is still going on, how did Mehyco receive approval for seed production?

Even in America, the home of Monsanto, there are strict regulations that force companies to state clearly that a product is genetically engineered. In India, we are denied even the basic right to know whether we are eating nature’s brinjal, or brinjal with strains of pesticide that go into our blood stream. Human lives are valuable in America – but negotiable in India.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The double tragedy of Lankan Tamils


The real failure of the LTTE is that, instead of furthering the cause of the Lankan Tamils, it actually spoiled it. When the war was on, the majority of the Tamil population was either fleeing the country or held hostage by the militants. Now that the LTTE has lost the war, the Tamils as a whole will have to wear the badge of a defeated people – and face the consequences.

This is a double tragedy. First, the Tamils have a just cause. For half a century they have been victims of injustice and discrimination of a kind that no civilised society can justify. It began with Solomon Bandaranaike who, despite his left-wing claims, was a cheap populist. As Prime Minister in 1956 he proclaimed Sinhalese as the only recognised language of the country. As if to demonstrate the futility of vote-bank gimmicks, he was shot dead by a Sinhala extremist, even as language riots rocked the country.

Instead of learning some quick lessons, Sirimavo Bandaranaike made her husband’s blunder worse. She passed an education law in 1973 which effectively denied college admissions to Tamils even if they scored higher marks than Sinhalese students. Never was discrimination so blatant in a democracy.

Driven to the wall, Tamils revolted. But where could they turn? Sri Lanka was a functioning parliamentary system. Many Tamil leaders were active in the system. But the Sirimavo brand of foolish insensitivity snuffed out democratic hopes. This was where the second tragedy unfolded for the Tamils. With all future prospects barred to them through the education law, young Tamils were ready and willing to take to armed militancy. Enter Velupillai Prabhakaran. Evidently he was an excellent organiser and capable military strategist. But his political strategy was doomed from the start.

No sovereign country in today’s world will accept the idea of partition. Yet, that was the sole, non-negotiable goal Prabhakaran set for himself. He went further and insisted that he would be the sole, non-negotiable leader of all Tamils.

The result was serial murders that shocked Tamils as well as others. Prabhakaran’s agents relentlessly tracked down and killed leaders of Lankan Tamil groups one after another. Among them were Ministers, MPs, Mayors of Jaffna. Some were killed on Indian soil. Some of his own military commanders were shot for disagreeing with him. It was over the corpses of his fellow Tamils that Prabhakaran established his dictatorial hegemony.

One day or other this politically unviable rebel group was bound to be called to account by the full power of the Sri Lankan state. The present state, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has succeeded because its own ways are quite ruthless. Even Sinhalese citizens who questioned some of the activities of the Government were summarily liquidated. Sri Lanka is known for a free press. Many journalists, including some leading editors, have been murdered after they reported high-level corruption by people close to the President.

Will this be the approach as the Government now turns to the problem of the Tamil population? Obviously discrimination must end and Tamil citizens of Lanka must have the rights and freedoms others enjoy. Otherwise the country will become a permanent guerilla war zone.

The Prabhakaran problem could be solved by armed might. The Tamil problem can be solved only by wisdom and statesmanship. If the Government tries to win by killing its opponents, it will only be flattering Prabhakaran by imitation.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

“Them” and “Us” from Agra to Mangalore


Anger produces great art – creative anger against injustices and cruelties. Picasso’s “Guernica” was powerful because the artist was deeply moved by the atrocities of Spanish fascism. Vijay Tendulkar became the most forceful playwright of our time because he dared to attack the petty chauvinisms of the Shiv Sena and even that holiest of holy cows, the Poona Brahmin. Some of his plays were violently stopped, but Tendulkar was unstoppable.

Our film-makers have consistently shown courage in attacking the hypocrisies we take for granted. Himansurai tackled untouchability (in “Acchut Kanya”) and K. Subramaniam exposed the illtreatment of widows (“Balayogini”) as early as 1936.

Bollywood was quick to respond to terrorism. “Mumbai Meri Jaan” and “A Wednesday” examined the issues frankly and sensitively. “Shaurya” went further and anticipated the rise of communalism in the armed forces. What was a terrifying possibility on the screen became a terrifying reality on the ground when a colonel was implicated in “Hindu terrorism”.

Communalism is India’s most dangerous and most intractable problem. Tragically it has only been getting more dangerous over the years. Thought-provoking novels and heart-rending movies seem ineffective before vote-bank politics that feed communalism. From M. S. Sathyu’s “Garam Hava” in 1975 to Girish Kasaravalli’s “Gulabi Talkies” in 2008 we seem to have made little progress as a nation. In between, we fared much worse.

Sathyu’s story was set against Partition and the frenzied migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India. An old Muslim shoemaker in Agra saw no reason to leave his beloved home in Agra and all the wonderful neighbours and customers he had known for a lifetime. His harrowing experiences and cruel isolation, sensitively sketched by Sathyu and Balraj Sahni, made the film a modern classic.

In historical terms the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 was the most traumatic communal explosion since Partition. Rahul Dholakia’s “Parzania” depicted that great tragedy effectively – so effectively that it was never allowed to be shown in Gujarat despite the censor board clearing it. Now Nandita Das has tackled the same theme with great compassion in her “Firaaq”.

Kasaravalli’s latest creation shows that, as a country, we are where we were in 1975.Outwardly his story is about the arrival of television and how this new wonder complicated and eventually changed the lives of people in a small fishing village. But through it unfolds a more important and more disturbing story: how easily Hindu-Muslim problems can erupt.

People in the fishing village lived in great harmony, never noticing who belonged to what religion. Then a Hindu girl runs away to chase the dreams brought to her mind by TV serials. Caught in underhand business dealings, a Muslim fish trader also disappears. Gossipers link the two and suddenly the mindsets of the villagers change. Now it is “them” and “us” all the way. Gulabi carries on as before, like Balraj Sahni’s Muslim in Garam Hava. But she is isolated, harassed and openly abducted.

Kasaravalli presents the story with a naturalness that makes the film extraordinarily powerful. We see how harmless gossiping can incite communal feelings, how quickly hatreds can develop. It is frightening. Ironically this movie has been released just when unprecedented communal intolerance is erupting in Mangalore and its surroundings. Unintentionally perhaps, “Gulabi Talkies” has become a timely warning. What a pity that timely warnings are never heeded by the bigoted.