22.7.17

The Murder of Muslims



In India today, nationalism has a religion. Hinduism. We may pussyfoot around it and refer to it as Hindutva, saffronisation or, what the ruling rightwing Bhartiya Janata Party calls “fringe elements”, but the discourse is clearly embedded in the faith of the majority community. 


Slurs against Muslims have become commonplace. A country that wants to declare the cow as the mother of the nation and where minorities have to prove their patriotism not by allegiance to the flag but to the political party in power is bound to descend into chaos.


Two years ago, a mob brandishing hockey sticks and knives barged into Mohammed Akhlaq’s house in Dadri in north India and assaulted all the family members before killing him because they suspected there was beef in their fridge. The meat was sent to the forensic lab and it was found to be lamb. 


When one of his killers died (of natural causes), he was given a martyr’s funeral; his coffin was draped in the national flag and there were speeches by leaders from Hindu organisations that have direct access to the government. 



Last month towards the end of Ramadan when Junaid boarded the train to return home with his Eid shopping bags, he might not have imagined that the elderly man whom he offered the seat to would egg on a mob punching him and his friends. Abuses flew. “Beef eater”, “antinational”, “mullah”. They pulled at their skull caps and newly-sprouted beards. Knives came out telling them to go to Pakistan. They were bleeding. Nobody came to their rescue. Junaid was stabbed. He died. He was 16.


At the stations en route some of the lynch mob got off, enough to let the cops shrug about little evidence. 


A scuffle for seats got transformed into a fight for political and religious space. Or, perhaps, religious assertiveness is seeking out reasons. 


Meat trader Alimuddin Ansari was beaten up by a mob and his van, ostensibly with cattle meat, was set on fire in Jharkhand. There seemed to have been a dispute with some people who were extorting money from him. Such excuses have become the norm where the victim is invariably Muslim, for it was not a spontaneous act. His movements were tracked for hours before he was murdered. 


Mohammad Majloom and Inayatullah Khan of Latehar were taking their cattle to a fair many miles away. Five men with a mission waylaid them. After they killed the 35 and 13 year old, they tied a noose around their necks and hung them from a tree.


“Prima facie it appears to have been a case of a gang attempting to loot cattle,” the cops said. For those in a hurry to rob and make a quick escape with the cattle to profit from it, they seemed to have relished in committing the murders. Not only did they kill the two, they hanged them. The hanging was a message. To shame. To hold them up as an example. How dare they not respect their gau mata, the cow mother, their religion? 


It is disconcerting that mobs are using cow protection as the higher cause even to settle petty disputes. The shaming has got a further boost because the videos are uploaded and shared. The message gets more traction. What is so evident in these viral videos is that the so-called ‘jihadi mentality’ that Muslims are accused of does not respond in kind. The victims are just overwhelmed by the suddenness of the attack; in some instances they are pleading, in one the man does not even have the energy or presence of mind to protest as they grab his hair and kick him. He just takes it like a stoic who has become accustomed to lie on a bed of nails.


***


Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has not uttered a word condoling any of these deaths. He tweets mourning for the loss of lives in a fire in Portugal, but makes no attempt to reach out to the families of those killed by men purportedly supporting his party’s Hindutva dream, a dream to reclaim ancient India and transform the country into a Hindu nation.


When he does speak, it is evasive: “All (state) governments should take stringent action against those who are violating law in the name of cow protection.”


How will this happen when some state governments are handing out expensive beef detection kits to the cops to smell for trouble, effectively converting the police force into cow protectors too? The very fact that there are several cow protection groups is worrying, for they aren't animal rights activists but soldiers of the faith.


“Bolo Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Rama), is the war cry. People are stopped in the streets and asked to owe allegiance to their god. A mentally unstable woman was slapped and forced to utter the words; a cleric was pummelled just outside the mosque by a group insisting he chant the phrase; journalist Munne Bharti was driving with his elderly parents. Suddenly, their car was surrounded by a group. They threatened to set the car on fire if they did not chant “Jai Shri Ram”. They did. An adult was frightened, for himself and his aged parents.

***


How is this not about religion, then?


It was always about religion, perhaps by a few skewed minds. 25 years ago Bal Thackeray, the leader of the militant Shiv Sena, had asked for the disenfranchisement of Muslims. He would address huge rallies at an open ground referring to Muslims as “katuas”, the cut ones without a foreskin. After the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, on the instructions of these political parties, and the riots reached what was then Bombay, the men in the streets would point at the crotches of Muslim men and snigger, “katua”. They were stopped and asked to strip for a random check by random people. Unlike the Sikhs after the riots in 1984 who discarded their turbans and shaved off their hair to protect themselves, Muslims could not get back their foreskin.


At the All-India Hindu Convention held last month in Goa, for 4 days all the cars at the venue were sprayed with cow urine to purify them. “Their car needs shuddhi karan. We do it to all objects — watches, clothes, sometimes even handbags. It’s a spiritual exercise.”


How people choose to practise their faith is a personal matter. But when you have a cow piss soda, cow dung and urine being made a part of ayurvedic medicines and astrologers treating people in hospital OPDs, then it becomes obvious that the cow and beef are incidental here. They are only the more potent batons to beat the minorities. There is also the commercial angle. Giving a charlatan guru called Ramdev land and business rights to run an empire ostensibly selling indigenous products is a strategy to bring the devil close to your home.


Young Hindu women are training in self-defence to protect them from “love jihad”, a bogey created by the rightwing suggesting that Muslim men are luring them to fall in love to later convert them.


In May last year, there was a report about a camp in Uttar Pradesh training the youth wing of militant Hindu organisations to protect the country from terrorists. In the video images they are aiming their air guns and sticks at men wearing skull caps. The governor had justified the drill: “Those who cannot defend themselves, cannot ultimately defend the country and there is nothing wrong if some youths are getting arms-training purely for self defence.”


That instead of urging these fit youth to join the army, they are being brainwashed to target a particular group makes the intention clear.


How is this not about religion?

***


The fallout of such brainwashing is not restricted to the extremist Hindutva proponents alone. There is a not-so-subtle attempt to deflect from the Hinduness of the terror by liberals too. An academic who has taken it upon himself to explain India to Indians on social media from his perch in the US has written about the global Muslim victimhood industry by playing victim: “One cannot use the term ‘Muslim terror’ (but Hindu or Christian or Left terror is fine) or even Islamic terror without worry of being termed communal, bigoted, or Islamophobic. The appropriate phrase is 'Islamist terror,' which, we are expected to clarify, has nothing to do with Islam.”


Some commentators have begun to call India Lynchistan, the land of lynching. We do not seem to realise that mobs thrive on notoriety. They are not seeking a popular mandate, because they already are the popular mandate. Paper tiger responses only embolden their cause. The truth is that nobody in mainstream media or in activism or with an outsider’s perspective, like Dr. Amartya Sen, has had the courage or the will to call these planned lynchings as Hindu terrorism. 


Is such nomenclature important? It is. Because it is a systematic attempt to annihilate the minorities, specifically Muslims. (Quite different from Islamist terrorism whose victims are mainly Muslim and, in some cases like the ISIS’s victims, also people who are liberal enough to support Muslims.) 


Muslims immediately distance themselves from any jihad violence, even though that does not assuage their neighbours from seeing them as potential suspects. Hindus are not doing so in large enough numbers, and they are chary of admitting the faith angle because they believe that Hinduism is not a monotheistic faith with allegiance to one book and one god. It is amorphous and therefore fluid, they reason.


The caste system and its treatment of Dalits and the backward castes certainly reveals ‘fluidity’. All the government-engineered riots have been masterminded by a vile intellect that outsources the war to the police and army and pumps up the trading class to decimate minority businesses. The murder of minorities is only a more violent assertion of this sheltered ghettoisation of the elite majority. 


There are many who use their internet liberalism to rationalise their own subtle bigotry. That many of them also have a stake in steak does lend weight to their public “I'm not too Hindu” utterances. 


In one such recent piece, the headline flashed about how Hindu victimhood is a manufactured cry. In the first para itself, though, the writer gave a clean chit to Muslims quoting, of all people, George Bush: “India is a country which does not have a single al-Qaida member in a population of 150 million Muslims.” Hindus do not have to prove whether they have allegiance to any extremist organisation, even if they elect them to power.


The usage of Islamist phrases like fatwa and jihad to explain Hindu terror acts and suggest they are only “mimicking” reeks of another version of Islamophobia and projects violence by Hindu extremists as a reaction to centuries of abuse by Muslim rulers. This historic narrative pushes the ‘tolerate Muslims despite their past’ idea, the moral compass revealing who considers itself the superior side.


These recent attempts to call out Hindu extremists is not organic. They are a response to some of us wondering why we did not link the Hindu word with terrorism. We have woken up or, in good old Hindu speak, and in deference to many of us being converts from the ancient religion, our third eye has been awakened.
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*****
Published in CounterPunch

21.7.17

In Whose Name?

It was one more invite to become a part of a movement. One gets inboxed these days with varied categories of causes, irrespective of what one’s position is. This sounds suspiciously like what marketing agencies would do when they want to test the reach of a product - target everybody and hope to find the right one. 

I'm usually a sucker for good marketing. Sometimes I make foolish purchases, but often I have no regrets even if the product is of not much use. 

But I'd not be able to buy a cause; I'd have to believe in it and the people espousing it. 
Which reminds me...


As someone who is opposed to the government - any government - why was I not involved, then, with the protests against the lynchings in India? Because the Indian elite does not have it in them to fight a sustained battle. 

Among those who made a public display of being at the #NotInMyName rally many don't ever categorically state their position, if they have any. In fact, there was the belief that these protests would convey India’s ganga-jamuni tehzeeb, pluralistic culture. It was obvious they were shying away from saying it was against majoritarian supremacism.

At the rallies across cities were telling each other to “stay safe” knowing well that those who are the victims don't have that choice. The self-congratulatory tone for ‘braving’ the rains to be there shows how removed they are from the reality of India. People brave the elements. Every day of their life.

They were perhaps using this as a platform to assuage intellectual guilt. But how can you make up for your silence by being out with friends, in your comfort zone? The "this is the least we can do" argument is a cop-out. It's feeding their sense of complacency: "I don't wanna do more".

The term #NotInMyName itself conveys a distancing. Like, bro, this shit isn't about me. I don't have to take responsibility. 

Terming those who don't agree entirely with #NotInMyName as cynics and contrarians still does not explain their often unstated position. 

Why don't we hear about the poor from the slums at such protests? How many have bothered to include the families of the victims? Where are their voices? They'd be more valid than offkey singing and aphorism-laced speeches. 


How many Opposition politicians attended the protests? Aren't they the ones who can pressurise the government best?

Let's get real. Would soldiers show up in, say, #NotInMyName protests against killing of civilians by their colleagues in Kashmir?

That's my worry - it being overtly non political. This provides too many escape routes to those who might not be interested in taking a stand anyway.


Everybody wants to be an online martyr for ten different causes at the same time. It often happens over the bodies of the real dead.


9.6.17

Sticks, Stones and Human Shields: The Army in Kashmir



"Apologise, apologise NOW to Major Gogoi!" demanded the anchor of some panelists and those outside the TV studio who disagreed with the army major using a Kashmiri man as a human shield. India has a huge army presence – 700,000 – in Jammu and Kashmir. It has the power to treat civilian areas as a war-like zone under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Yet, a soldier ties a man to a jeep, parades him in the streets, ostensibly to shield people at a polling booth from stone-pelting locals.

The man who was used as a human shield on April 9 was not a stone pelter. Why, then, did Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi get hold of him, beat him up and strap him to a jeep? The message here is clear. The Indian army and the state view every Kashmiri as a threat. Major Gogoi was given a special commendation soon after for “sustained counter-insurgency efforts”. He began to give TV interviews, in his uniform. 




While this demystified Kashmir facetiously, it brought with it nationalistic hype based on falsehood. Not only does the army have to deal with Pakistan across the border, it was implied, but also the enemy within. And the enemy that was until now militants were shown to be the local people - a shawl weaver, as in this case. It came to be seen as insurgency that required a counter.

Farooq Ahmad Dar could be the man at the store a tourist might visit; he was exercising his democratic right by voting, although in Kashmir not voting is itself a democratic thing if one considers that fighting against state shackles is a right and an important duty in a democracy.

“This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagements are there when the adversary comes face-to-face and fights with you...You fight a dirty war with innovations,” said Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat.

This leaves no doubt as to how the army in Kashmir today views the people. Every word that the General uttered is less about him having to “maintain the morale of my troops” and more about being adversarial to suit a political agenda as well as whipped-up public sentiment: “In fact, I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do). Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you.”

The army has always done what it wanted to do. Civilians are shot dead, sometimes “by mistake”, sometimes “on suspicion”; it has blinded people, including children, with pellet guns by barging into homes. Kashmiris live in fear. The soldiers might live in fear too – the fear to perform and gather enough targets to meet a goal set by their superiors.

In the past, a colonel who had handed over arrested militants to the civil authorities was chastised by his superiors and ordered to produce "kills", even fake ones would do. Col. Harvinder Singh Kohli dressed up five men and made them play dead. They were sprayed with ketchup and photographed. The bosses, in order to keep the regiment reputation high, cajoled Kohli to recommend gallantry awards for them. He was in a fix. The lie was sought to be made into the truth. The dynamics here suggest blind obedience and how hierarchies work. While he was sacked, his superiors got away.

Similar questions can be asked about the human shield incident. Was Major Gogoi acting on his own or was he used as a shield, or as a fall guy, by the top brass? There has been much talk of his “out of box thinking” that helped maintain restraint. If, indeed, he was trying to protect the officials and cops at the election booth, why did he parade Dar for five hours through nine villages where there were no mobs? And if the army believes in exercising such restraint, why are there so many missing Kashmiris and unmarked graves?

Every attempt has been made to portray Dar as not just a stone pelter but the leader of a mob in order to make the act of parading him more heroic, especially after the army lost its men to cross-border incidents, some with their bodies mutilated. While there is public anger, it has also raised doubts over the army's ability to retaliate.

The human shield story is a PR exercise for the forces, It might seem ridiculous for the army to prop up a comparatively soft hero for mere innovation in dealing with a civilian mob, but in Gogoi it has scored a coup. By putting him on a pedestal – even if for a pedestrian act – the army has made a political point. The Major is from Assam, a state where AFSPA has been used against militant groups. 

When the local boy is accepted – and the North East is often treated as the outsider in India – it acts as a placebo. How false perceptions are built is borne out by a report of the Major being "lionised in Assam as medieval war hero who fought Mughals". This stretching of the imagination projects a mythical quality on a sneaky act, besides seeing Kashmiris as marauding outsiders in their own land, which they believe has been occupied by India.

It is baffling how the army that has been fighting terrorists, as well as conducting surgical strikes against Pakistan, finds it difficult to deal with stone pelters. The central government has allocated $ 9.38 m for an all-women battalion specially to handle such protestors. 


The devious manner in which Kashmiri sentiment is being demonised is borne out even by those who ought to know better. The former chief minister of the state, Omar Abdullah, wrote in an article, “'What about the stone-pelters?' is the instinctive question. My humble counter-question is, will we and should we hold our army to the standards set by stone-pelters and agitating mobs now? Is that the indication of this inference? God help us if that’s the way we are headed."

On what basis is he decorating the army with the higher moral ground, that too as opposed to civilians and not even militants? Is it because as a politician he is aware that the forces can't act independently? A service officer, responding to my critique, had written to me some years ago: "It is important to understand that the boundaries of the army begins below the Chief of the Army Staff. The army is a tool in the hands of a government, to be utilised by its political masters for whatever purposes they feel fit. Defence budgeting, foreign policies, cross border policy, usage of army to handle domestic situations or riots etc are political decisions. These decisions have got little or nothing to do with army per se."

It is worrying that the go-ahead for the human shield incident could come from high up. It might not have been a direct command, but its justification by political leaders conveys their consent, even admiration, for such acts. The Bharatiya Janata Party with its ally People's Democratic Party is in power. Kashmir is a prestige issue. Since it is unlikely that their bruised ego will get the salve of respect, they are betting on notoriety. 

A recent piece has become a talking point for referring to the General's statement and the situation as a "Gen Dyer moment" (harking back to the Jallianwala massacre in British-ruled India). The symbolic analogy may have truth as its basis, but the hyperbolic assertion makes a victim of the predator.

This is manna for evening news hawks. They have successfully reached homes where an article on a website is shown as an enemy of the state, sponsored by Pakistan. Patriotism has got transformed into a pantomime of genuflecting before authority figures. All manner of stereotypes are flung at the viewers. "Those sitting in airconditioned rooms, how dare you criticise the army...what have you done for the country? The General is doing his duty to save us." 

Are we to admire and be grateful to a general for voicing pugnacious thoughts to legitimise a helpless man being paraded in the streets? The irony really hits home when the words of the man who was tied to the jeep are repeated: "Am I an animal?" 

Farooq Dar now suffers from mental stress disorders. He has nightmares. There is no report yet on the condition of those suffering from delusions of grandeur. 

***

Published in CounterPunch

5.2.17

Raees and the Secularism Sham



An Indian rightwing politician made a snide remark against Shahrukh Khan soon after the release of his film 'Raees':

"The ‘Raees’ who is not of his country, he is of no use. One should stand with a ‘Kaabil’ (worthy) patriot. It is now the turn of ‘Kaabil’ people of the country whose rights cannot be taken away by any dishonest ‘Raees’ (wealthy)” - Kailash Vijayvargiya

That was enough for the movie to get politicised and to become a political statement.

Generally speaking, all creative works can be seen in the light of a political message, including abstract art. But Raees got politicised because politicians and their sycophants started talking about it. It wasn't organically viewed as political.

Those not on the right decided to take this to further their own idea, and in doing so they've missed the important nuances that convey exactly the opposite of what they are praising the film for – a brave attempt at projecting a real Muslim character. This is not the first time. Muslim smugglers, criminals, bootleggers have been quite common in Bollywood, whether or not they turn out to be intrinsically nice guys. 'Raees', in fact, does little more than projecting the good Muslim through the majoritarian prism.

The trajectory was conveyed when the posters were out with the tagline: "Baniye ka dimaagh, aur miyabhai ki daring", the stereotype of the brainy Brahmin Baniya and the brainless machismo of the Muslim being firmly established not too far from Mahatma Gandhi's own portrayal of "the Hindu is a coward and the Mussalman a bully".

In one of the early scenes, the child Raees who has weak eyesight and cannot afford spectacles steals the glasses from the Gandhi statue. The daring miya has to borrow even his vision from a dead stone baniya.

Raees has no history, which means this is what Indian Muslims should be – ready to merge anytime in the mainstream. His mother picks and sells scrap and teaches him a lesson in dignity of labour and secularism – "Ammi Jaan kehti thi koi dhandha chhotaa nahi hota aur dhandhe se bada koi dharm nahi hota..."

The fact that he has from childhood been helping the bootleggers suggests a skewed perspective of his religion being as impure as the liquor in the land of prohibition.

The introduction of the adult Raees is a brilliant strategy. We see him beating his now blood-soaked back with chains during the Muharram mourning procession. It is very powerful imagery. Symbolically, situated in a different land in contemporary times, it also conveys Muslim self-flagellation and obsession with martyrdom. How often have we been taunted for crying victimhood? This only accentuates the "you brought it upon yourself" accusation often flung at the minorities.

The film puts the onus of secularism on the Muslim. The Hindu characters don't mouth any clichés. They are not made to prove anything. One review even mentioned that the film had dared to portray a character rooted in his faith and made him rise above it.

The worst and most offensive portions are the portrayal of the post Babri Masjid demolition riots and later bomb blasts. Muslim Raees can be accepted only when he feeds those affected. Yet, we have this pathetic moment during a cash crunch when one of Raees' workers suggests they could shut down the langar in the Hindu area. Our hero gets angry and states that victims have no religion.


They do not. So why does his wife pack a tiffin for Lakshmi chachi and not a Zakia or a Bilquees? What was our hero afraid of? Why were the Muslim victims invisible? We know about those days of 1992-93.

Worse, Musabhai who has helped Raees is shown to have deceived him to smuggle RDX, instead of gold. He assures that this will ensure jannat for him. What sort of secularism portrayal is this if you are going to dish out stereotypes the way news media does by inviting weird mullahs and even more weird suited Islamophobic intellectuals to bait them?


I'm surprised these triggers come from director Rahul Dholakia, who had made 'Parzania' on the Gujarat riots. Or was it input from Shahrukh Khan who had met Raj Thackeray to ensure a seamless release for the film?

It is problematic to applaud the Muslim character as hero as though it is an anomaly in a nation where 14 percent belong to that faith.

When criminal Raees finally has to accept a crime he has not committed, honest and tough cop and his nemesis Jaideep Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) takes him to his dream community housing project and shoots him. This is poignant, even humane given how the character is, but the subtext is also about the possibility of extra-judicial killings, of people being bumped off without due process of law. When Raees poses that final pertinent question to the cop – "Will you be able to live with the burden of my death?" – one wonders if this will be addressed to those who run the system and have blood on their hands.


27.11.16

No eulogies please, it's Fidel Castro

Evolution of man? (Photo montage: Fox)

A 90-metre long cigar as commemoration on the 90th birthday might fit in more with a dictator or a feudalistic leader in any part of the world rather than a perennial rebel.

That cigar, though, was an over-the-top representation of Fidel Castro, much as most symbolism tends to be. It is an overt image that might have nothing to do with beliefs and actions. In fact, Castro had stopped smoking 30 years ago.

This imagery has sustained, although he is not as big a character on the T-shirt market as his compatriot Che Guevara. Castro was what seemed like almost a gentleman politician who had to hobnob with world leaders. Even though he would be dressed the part of a rebel, it was more like a uniform when it was not seen as an affectation.

I say all this now.

In years when one was acquiring knowledge beyond books, I got to read about the Bay of Pigs. Suddenly, John F. Kennedy became the bad guy. It is not Islamist terrorists that made me appear to be politically anti-US, but these superpower tactics that had not as yet appeared anywhere on the Middle East horizon. The fact that a small bunch of brigand-like leaders could challenge this mighty power had all the trappings of grand romance.

Of course I did not know too much, which is how romances work anyway. Only the peripheral mattered: That Castro was dressed for the part. That he was with Che. That he smoked a cigar (which, incidentally, looked so Hollywood – but the irony of that didn't hit me just then). That the US tried several times to get him killed. That he did not like capitalism ("I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating... because it causes war, hypocrisy and competition.").

This was probably naïve and, some might suggest, hypocritical. Cuba under Castro was like an island known best to the outside world for the stuff that its leader smoked. In that, the freedom-seeking rebel Castro was Cuba, and by appointing his brother Raul as President in his later years, it does seem like he was protecting the cult.

However, there is also a tendency to strip a person of the gloss that perceptions form of him. It might not be inherent, so it is really not his to make or mar. Socialism, which Castro stood for, is indeed an ideal for any society to aspire to. It is not easy to implement in its purest form, though, because somebody 'ushering in equality' is itself an imposition.

US President-elect Donald Trump said, "Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty."

The comment, coming as it does from this man, only proves that what he says about Castro applies to him as much. This statement was not his first. His initial reaction was simply, "Fidel Castro is dead!"

The King is dead. Long live the King. Trump seems to herald his own accession rather than grieve for the Cubans.

In death, should one choose to highlight the good or the evil? Can the evil be interred with him or should it be aired for the sake of verity, of history, even though the truth would be based on who and where you are?

I wonder if Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was thinking about all of this. He paid a fulsome tribute to Castro that has been rebuked. He said: "While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante'."

What? Why? Wtf! Such have been the reactions. I notice that many are conservatives; one of them even wants him to retract his statement and not attend his funeral.

Given how the West operates as extrajudicial keeper of democracy in lands not belonging to it, many in those parts of the world would mourn for none.

The hashtag #trudeaueulogies did a nice tongue-in-cheek turn with examples such as these:

“While a controversial figure, even detractors recognize Pol Pot encouraged renewed contact between city and countryside.”

“Today we say goodbye to Mr. Mussolini, the former Italian prime minister best known for his competent train-management.”

"While Emperor Nero was controversial, his dedication to song and writing poetry signaled a Roman artistic renaissance."

He shall remain remarkable and legendary because he stood up against the mighty. It's a pity his people who suffered could not.  They will remember Fidel Castro the most.

***

Meanwhile in India, we remember that Castro gave Indira Gandhi a hug in Delhi at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1983:


20.11.16

Show me the money


For over ten days now, all of India is talking about money. A nation where over 32 per cent people live below the poverty line, and where some have not even seen big denomination currency notes, this itself seems like dark comedy. Dark comedy becomes a reality when the demonetisation move ostensibly introduced to get rid of black money mocks itself with a bureaucrat seeking and getting a bribe in the new currency notes.

On November 8, Prime Minister Modi decided that all ₹500 and ₹1000 notes were not to be legal tender from midnight onwards. This pushed even those who did not have black money to rush and offload these stacks.

A lot has been said and discussed on the subject, and it is rather obvious that the PM's populist move, and the false premise of how such money is used for terror funding, is not going to work this time.

What the overnight tamasha has done, though, is to challenge the social dynamics of class. Suddenly, anybody not categorised as poor is assumed to be rich.

I did not suffer because I did not have too many old notes with me. Just ₹15,000. The just is deliberate when you consider that four people in India would survive on this much for one month. As though this is not humbling enough, there have been stories of deaths, violence, illness, quarrels, hunger, of marriages postponed, of empty markets, half-stocked stores...people are affected.

I thought I was the affected, too. On the first day, I landed up at the bank. This was most unusual for me. I suspect I wanted to experience the moment. A friend I bumped into said, "Why do you need money? I thought you lived on ideas."

"Yes. But what if right now that idea is money?"

In the queue I did not see any poverty. In keeping with its international reputation, the bank was plying us with tea and coffee. We, the few people ahead and behind, were jokey and relaxed. We were more concerned about Americans under Donald Trump. But live jokes can't be played in a loop. After an hour and a bit, I gave up.

My banking is these days restricted to using the ATM. One is in control there and not waiting before a teller who will scrutinise your cheque to authenticate whether your money is indeed yours.

***

The doctor did not have a credit card swiping machine. His secretary pointed at a bundle of notes that were used to return as change. I didn't have the cash and I had got this appointment after a month. "You stay quite nearby, don't you? Then you can issue a cheque."

"Oh, that would be nice. I'll be back soon."

"We have that much trust in you."

I wondered why I was trusted. This was my first visit, we did not know each other. Trust in social situations is based on class factors - I wore a fragrance, was reasonable dressed, seems educated, and spoke in English. Would this courtesy have been extended to a person who would speak in Hindi or Marathi, who would be shabbily dressed?

We, all of us, judge people on superficial aspects. It isn't always wrong to do so, but is it a foolproof yardstick?

***


Eight days later when I managed to get the new notes, I had my first encounter with the streets. At a small store where I made some purchases, I told the seller that I had the ₹2000 notes and he would have to get me the change and, no, I would not accept the old currency. In the next ten minutes he had tapped people around his store and brought me the change, some in ₹10 denomination. 

He was accepting old money because he had no choice. "I wait in the bank for 4 hours to exchange and then come here. Can't afford to lose clients."

"But there is a limit to the amount changed..."

"We try all sources...different banks, different people."

***

At the signal, a eunuch approached me. "Dus, bees rupaiyya de do, sab achcha hoga..."

For 10-20 bucks I was being promised utopia. I had no change and said so.

"To phir 500 de do, saree khareed loongi aur tumko yaad karoongi..."

For 500 bucks, I'd be remembered by a eunuch. 

This was an unusual barter, especially since I have an inbuilt need to be forgotten. 

***

Any such upheaval brings forth genuine sympathy, and then there is a segment that will ride on it. On public fora, such displays reek of opportunism where this becomes one more chance to build up a samaritan profile. 


19.10.16

How Pakistani Muslim Tarek Fatah became a Hindu Rightwing Fantasy


Among the many absurdities that constitute iconoclasm is the hero worship of a Pakistani by the Sanghis, an extremely narrow-visioned, ill-mannered segment of the Indian rightwing.

Although they get their name from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), they lack the organisation's disciple and abstinence, real or merely touted. They are, in fact, totally out of control.

But this is not about them. It is about their new hero — Pakistan-born Tarek Fatah, who was educated in Karachi, worked there as well as in Saudi Arabia, and now lives, writes, hosts a TV show in Toronto, Canada.

He has been widely seen as a Muslim-bashing atheist in the past. He spoke out against anything Pakistan, which made him appear like a liberal to Indians. He spoke against Islamic countries, which suited the Islamophobes. 

The Sanghis accepting him is, therefore, understandable. 

But why would he, a well-read, fairly erudite person, play to a gallery made up of those abhorrent to the worldview his lapses into rationality seem to fight against — religiosity, conservative mindset, and mixing of religion and politics? 

This is where we need to pause and take a deep breath. I watch him as he responds gleefully to his social media followers and then I watch him on Aap ki Adaalat, a mock courtroom show. Then I read what Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said about him being a "deep Pak" man. 

It is probably a conspiracy theory, but hypothetically this could bell the cat. After all, he was an adult when he went off to Saudi Arabia, his pet hate. Why did he choose this Arab kingdom and not any other country if it is so ideologically at odds with his own? 

Right now, it would be safer to state that while his relationship with his fans among the Indian right wing is mutually beneficial, it would be more appropriate to say that he is making them dance to his tune. As he spoke on the show, running down Pakistani leaders, Arabs, Indian Muslims, they cheered lustily. These young people were a fine study in bigotry. All were from Delhi, the nation's capital. This is the future of India. It is easy to dismiss it off as a mere studio audience, but think of the other studios where this is replicated. 

Even worse is that they did not seem to have a clue that they were being held hostage. In fact, it is amusing to watch many right wing intellectuals (those who at least have the capability to analyse) laud him for what they might have dismissed in others as a nautanki performance. 

So, forget what the others – Muslims, leftists, liberals of various kinds – have to say about him. Do the serious rightwingers lack self-esteem that they are willing to be indebted to a foreigner? In the Raj days, the RSS was obsessed with the British. Today's Sanghis might find getting approval from the west a bit tough, so they are willing to bite a Pakistani bait. 

How does he manage to get them to do so? By completely denying that he is Pakistani and asserting that he is Hindustani. It is no mean feat for a Muslim Pakistani to appeal to the Hindutva brigade. His young fans plead with him for a reply, they call him a cute teddy bear (among them are young women who might have suffered at the hands of Bajrang Dal had they as much as celebrated Valentine's Day with a male friend). They often come across as blabbering fools begging for munificence and he obliges as paternal pontiff.

The man who needles and provokes from a Twitter handle and TV studios, who does not even want to be with Muslims, is hailed as the best Muslim by them.

He is a smart man and is willing to update his own positions. There has been a tactical shift. He is marketing his Muslim identity in a most passive-aggressive manner. He quotes himself incessantly, posting news and trivia about Muslim demonic acts. These days, his stand is like that of a reformer on a mission to clean up his religion.

He picks up random "my kind of Muslim" examples to ensure he remains relevant to his Muslim roots. This is very important because Indian Muslims are a large group, they cannot be done away with overnight. He professes to help the jaahils see the light.

The most eye-popping of his declarations was that Prophet Muhammad was against cow slaughter. “Why do Indian Muslims insist on eating cow meat then?” was his provocative query. That beef is consumed by other Indians, including Hindus, did not bother him; that he did not have a thing to say about cow meat in other countries by Muslims reveals clearly that he was riding on the Indian cow vigilantism. Amazingly, he does not care to shame those who go on a rampage and kill suspected beef eaters and even cattle traders.

Had his agenda not been so laughable, it might have been laudable. He will tell us about a mullah caught with his pants down, but not about the charlatans and their history of abuse in ashrams. He does not ridicule Hindus like Swami Adityanath. 

For the past few months he has become a regular on Indian TV. What exactly does he represent — Pakistan, India, Balochistan, Muslims, Islam? It is quite interesting that he happily accepts all the identities (he has to accept the Pakistani one for authenticity) even though he is none of them. This strategy is working out well. 

People like Tarek Fatah hate Indian Muslims comfortable with their roots and the tree unlike rootless expat Pakistanis who realise they won't get a toehold back home. He has seen that the Sanghi is most threatened by the idea of the Indian Muslim and plays on that. He challenges Muslims in the subcontinent to critique Arabs, but will not question Hindutva. He thinks he is liberal because he takes on his own, but if an Indian Muslim questions the government, he thinks we are traitors, or even Pakistani under the skin. The idiotic Sanghis buy that from a Pakistani. Why?

He really does not have the global reach they imagine, so he can't take their message far. If one were to use monetary analogy, then they are sponsoring him for selling their story to them. No guesses for who laughs all the way to the bank.

The media is not so stupid, though. For them this is a wonderful opportunity to do their second-rate journalism and feed on rightwing populism by adding to the "snakes within" phobia. He fits the blueprint or plays it. He pontificates on how radical IMs should behave. You will be able to better imagine the extent of the damage when you consider that these channels would never invite an atheist Nepali Hindu to discuss Indian Hindus because of, say, Bajrang Dal types. 

Appalling to think that a Tarek Fatah can imagine he'd get Indian citizenship on the basis of spewing hate against Muslims – and that his fans seem to believe that is qualification enough.