¿Habla Español?

•June 29, 2007 • 5 Comments

This week CNN profiled a small town in Texas, called El Cenizo, on the border with Mexico, where the Mayor has declared Spanish as one of the official languages of the town. What that means is that council meetings can be held in Spanish and official government communication can be dispersed in Spanish. This report sent the conservative US blogosphere into a tizzy, with racist epithets flying around and the Alamo being revisted all over again. This, in spite of the fact that the town had undergone significant improvement because of increased public participation in town hall meetings and such, mainly due to the breakdown of the language barrier.

As the campaign for the 2008 US Presidential elections gathers speed, the rhetoric about immigration, one of the key issues this time, is getting more and more heated. One of the sub-debates in that conversation is about English as the official language of the United States.

Strange as it may sound, the United States does not have an ‘official’ language, i.e. a constitutionally mandated language for official government business. Perhaps the country’s founding fathers didn’t see it coming, perhaps they thought it wasn’t that important an issue, but the fact is that today the United States is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society, with Hispanics making up the largest single non-English-speaking block. Roughly 15% of the US population today speaks Spanish.

And therein lies the rub. In many states high school children are offered Spanish as a second language. Almost any call to a interactive telephone service has the mandatory “For English, press 1. For Spanish…”. Most non-governmental paper-work is available in bi-lingual format, and even ballot papers in some constituencies are bi-lingual. All this has conservatives frothing at the mouth. Many commentators have likened it to a cultural invasion, with some extreme ones calling it the end of the United States as it is known today! While many arguments in favor of English are rooted in very logical and practical reasons, such as the need to know English to succeed professionally since it is the language of the economy, many others are based on prejudice and border on the xenophobic. Among general English speaking Americans, it is more of linguistic chauvanism than anything else. More than the difficulty of learning a new language, it seems to be a belief that it is illogical to have more than one language spoken in a country. Television talking heads recoil with mock horror at the prospect of multi-lingual government communication, such as application forms or driving tests.

This irrational fear among Americans of having a second language in the public realm, or God-forbid, having to actually ‘learn’ another language, is mildly amusing to most Indians. In my entire life I don’t think I have ever come across an Indian who spoke just one language. Even with my negligible aptitude for languages, I can manage three with a splattering of a fourth!

For a country where the local language changes every 400 to 500 km, all this is perhaps not surprising. But what truly stands out is the number of languages ‘officially’ sanctioned by the Government of India. Besides the two official languages of Hindi and English for Parliamentary proceedings, judiciary and administration, there are two ‘classical’ languages, Tamil and Sanskrit. 22 languages are listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu). The government is obliged to take steps for the development of these languages. A candidate appearing for an exam can opt to answer the paper in any of these languages. Then there are the official languages at the state level, many of which are not even listed in the Eighth Schedule, such as Khasi and Garo (in Meghalaya), or Mizo, or Koborok (in Tripura). [info from Wikipedia]
There are 1652 known languages spoken in India, with 24 of these being spoken by more than a million people.
Add to this the fact that English is spoken as a second language by 20 – 25 million Indians. Certainly boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

It’s a pity that the average American is not exposed to such statistics. It would have certainly put a lot of things in perspective. But then this isn’t a nation which likes to take its cues from external sources. And language surely isn’t the only example.

With their Presidential elections just round the corner, and a history of controversy about electronic voting, now is as good a time as any to point out this little comparison, or a more technical take here.

Vaji Vaji Sivaji

•June 17, 2007 • 2 Comments

Watched Sivaji over the weekend. Catching a Rajni movie in the first week of its release, amidst the legendary hysteria that accompanies such an event, was something I had always wanted to do, but never could.  This time I didn’t let the fact that I wasn’t in India, or the 40-mile drive to the theater at 10:30 at night, stop me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Every minute of this extravagant excercise in post-modern kitsch can only be described by three small words. Over The Top. And I get the feeling that that was exactly what it was meant to be.

And not by a small margin either. There is no pretense, no attempt at vieling the glitz with layers of pseudo-intellectual dribble. No attempt at weaving a story or building characters, or deviating into complex narratives. It’s all grand entrances and dream sequences, dances where the screen explodes in colour, slapstick comedy and witty dialouges, coy heroines and instant love, evil villains and our hero taking them on. One at a time or all together. If there is a genre called Total Entertainment, this is it. Bollywood masala vendors, take note. THIS is how it is done.

Logic and storyline are the obvious casualties, not that anybody particularly cares. But there is a brazenness about the humour too. Of course, being linguistically challenged watching a Tamil movie, I had to rely on generous doses of interpretation. From what I could gather, the script writers probably had a mandate to go all out.

But truth be told, script and coherent storyline were the last things on my mind, as I spent 3 hours and 10 minutes coming to terms with the sensory overload of colour, Rahman’s music (though nowhere near his usual ethereal touch), larger than life characters, beautiful women, mind boggling sets, Matrix-inspired gravity defying slo-mo action, and the sheer spunk of a 58 year old man pulling it all off, in style!

I think what detractors of this school of film-making fail to realize is that they are judging such movies by their own standards. Yes, there is no logic behind an impromptu group dance on the side of a hill, or a single man single-handedly taking on a hundred armed musclemen. There is no depiction of reality because the makers are simply not trying to depict reality. No, this is not film-making gone wrong. There is a method to this seeming madness. It is deliberate. It is successful and it makes money. Lots of it.

As for the young Rajni fans, very few other species have undergone more psycho-analysis in people’s minds than this group. To the average person, the concept of perfectly reasonable, mature, intelligent people behaving hysterically at the sight of a balding middle-aged man in a wig performing impossible stunts and romancing girls a third of his age on screen, Fansis undoubtedly difficult to grasp. And no, we aren’t talking about James Bond minus a wig (though one wonders why nobody seems to mind his fans doing the same). But watching a few of them in action on Friday evening, I got the feeling that the adulation was not really for the man himself, but for the triumph-of-the-underdog quality he represents, the coolness and sheer style he portays through his on-screen persona. But isn’t that true for all the reel-life ‘heroes’ in the history of modern cinema, Indian or otherwise?

So, did I enjoy the movie? Loved every minute of it. The three hours passed by in a psychedelic daze, though the ringing in my ears and the spots in front of my eyes took much longer to dissipate!

The Right To Die

•June 7, 2007 • 3 Comments

Jack Kevorkian. The name arouses passions in the United States, and intense ethical questions in the minds of many around the world, who followed the dimunitive, wiry pathologist’s lonely fight against the US legal system in the late 1990s. I vaguely remember reading about the man in those days, when he was portayed in the world media as some sort of a psychopathic serial killer, rather than someone fighting for a cause he believed in.
He was released from prison on June 1st 2007 after being incarcerated for more then eight years for second degree homicide. Killer to some, and hero to many, the frail 79 year old ‘Dr. Death’ has not lost any of the fire that he spewed when he challenged the legal system of the United States to stop what he considered his mission of mercy.

Kevorkian appeared on Larry King Live on CNN on June 4th, perhaps the only complete interview by Larry King that I ever sat through. It was fascinating, and the questions it provoked were disturbing.

Jack Kevorkian believes, with as much conviction as is possible to believe with, that human beings have a right to their own life. He believes that any law which prevents a person from taking his or her own life is unjust and unnecessary. He is by no means the first person to think on those lines. The debate over the right to die is as old as the earliest philosophers. But Kevorkian maintains that his fight is not about the rights of the patient. His fight is about ‘his’ right as a physician and an ethical human being to legally end, or help to end, the life of a patient who has expressed an explicit desire for death, to put an end to his or her suffering.

And that is where traditional supporters and campaigners for euthanasia have always found Kevorkian to be too radical. He was so convinced of the morality of his view of the issue, that he went so far as to invent machines, the Jack Kevorkian and the Thanatron‘Thanatron’ (death machine) and the ‘Mercitron’ (mercy machine) to enable the patients carry out the deed themselves. He advertised in papers for ‘death counseling’ and even tried to place ads for his machines in medical journals. He was refused, of course. He helped more than a hundred and thirty people end their lives, and all this with the full knowledge that he was in violation of the law. Indeed, as he pointed out in the Larry King interview, he invited the legal spotlight on him. He wanted the prosecutors to go after him. He wanted to get this issue in the mainstream and take it all the way to the Supreme Court. And he was prepared to pay the price for his beliefs.

Nations where euthanasia is legal, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, permit ‘voluntary assisted suicide’. What that means is that the patient requests an end to life voluntarily, and that the information, guidance and means to do that is provided by another person. The actual act is carried out by the patients themselves. In most nations ‘euthansia by omission’ is legal, even if it is not explicitly laid down in law. This is a situation where death is brought about by withholding essential care or food and water from the patient (eg. the recent Terri Schiavo case in the United States). Kevorkian is totally against this as he considers it inhumane and likens it to Nazi experiments with euthanasia. According to him, these countries and the state of Oregon in the US, where voluntary assisted suicide is legal, do not make the cut. His reasoning is that since they do not allow anybody other than the patient to carry out the act, it effectively cuts off the most deserving beneficiaries of the law, patients who are so devastatingly disabled that they cannot lift a finger, let alone have the ability to collect information and means to end their own lives. What happens today when such patients request death with dignity is that they are physically unable to help themselves and nobody else is allowed to help them either, leaving them in limbo. A physician risks losing his or her license if s/he is involved in assisted suicide procedures, at least in Oregon.

Brotherhood - a painting by Dr. KevorkianKevorkian has always maintained that his patients were terminally ill and requested their own deaths while their mental faculties intact and they were capable of taking rational decisions on their own. Two obvious questions arise here. One, the definition of ‘terminal’, which seems to be changing everyday with advances in medical science and continuing debate on medical ethics. Two, the verification of the mental capacity of the patient to take such a decision. Kevorkian claimed that all his patients had to undergo psychiatric evaluation to determine whether they were making a conscious rational decision and that they were not being covertly pursuaded or coerced by someone close to them. Autopsies on some of his patients showed later that they were not terminally ill, but were probably just severely depressed and suicidal.

This provides a lot of fodder for campaigners against the right to die. Though often dismissed as religious zealots by people of the opposite viewpoint, they have many valid points which, though quasi-religious, are rooted in questions of ethics, much like most of religion itself. Most of the objections are to the ‘terminally ill’ tag. According to Kevorkian, a terminal illness is one that “curtails life, even for a day”. The state of Oregon, on the other hand, puts a time-frame on it…six months to live. Opponents say that it is scientifically impossible to predict the life expectancy of a patient, and many survive for long periods, even after being labeled terminally ill. Another objection is to the perceived cheapening of the value of life. The contention is that for most severely disabled persons, depression comes about not due to the hopelessness of life itself, but due to the lack of support from society for their condition. And that can be changed. Depression can be cured. In fact, for certain severly disabling illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, depression is symptomatic. And quite a few patients of Kevorkian were suffering from MS. They are also of the view that assisted suicide places no value on the sanctity of life. It lays no emphasis on resolving the issues which causes people to look towards death as a relief. Instead it provides death itself as a solution. Then of course, there are arguments for the very real dangers of voluntary assisted euthanasia turning into non-voluntary euthanasia for monetory reasons or simply to do away with the terminally ill, mentally ill or simply, the old.

When asked by Larry King whether he believes there is a God, Kevorkian said no, and then hastened to add, “there could be one though”. When Larry said “Nobody knows”, he replied, “That’s right. That’s why I don’t believe it.”.

Most western cultures, steeped in the traditions of Semetic religions, tend to see things in black and white. Laws against taking your own life almost always have religious roots. I was interested in finding out the Hindu religion’s position on euthanasia. Unlike Semetic religions, which lay a lot of emphasis on fixed positions of right and wrong, eastern religions mostly tend to judge actions by their consequences. So, not surprisingly, what I learnt was that Hindusim has various points of view on this topic. Some believe that to help end a life of pain and suffering would be to fulfil their moral obligations, while others feel that helping to end any life is against the natural order of things and will interfere with the cycle of birth and death laid out in our fate.

The Indian legal system, however, has always looked towards western culture and legal traditions for guidance. And in this case too, it is no different. Suicide or abetting suicide is illegal under Indian law. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes suicide, was challenged in 1994 in the Supreme Court by petitioner P. Rathinam. The court ruled in his favour, giving hope to champions of euthanasia. But in a startingly contradictory verdict in 1996, the constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309 were upheld. The court remarked that Article 21, which states that all Indians have a right to life and personal liberty, cannot be widened to include euthanasia, and that suicide and assisted suicide were made punishable by law due to “cogent reasons in the interest of society.”.

In the middle of this legal muddle, extraordinary cases appear and disappear from public consciousness. In 2004, Venkatesh, a 25 year old patient from Hyderabad, suffering from severe muscular dystrophia and with only days to live, wanted to be granted the right to die, so that he could donate his organs before they deteriorated one by one to the point of becoming useless. His plea was rejected a day before his death by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. It ruled that by Indian law, a person could not donate his vital organs if he was not brain dead, and by granting the right to Venkatesh, the court would be effectively legalizing his right to take his own life. This set off an intense and unprecented debate about the right to die in India, but over time it dropped off from the media radar.

People like Kevorkian, though polarizing figures, help bring these issues to the forefront. We in India too need to be jolted back to address this question again. Laws should be enacted and people should be educated about the concept of a ‘living will’, which lays out your wishes in terms of treatment, and if necessary, euthanasia, in the unfortunate event of a situation where one becomes incapacitated.

Odds And Ends

•May 21, 2007 • 5 Comments

And the rain is back. Just when I thought the misery was finally over.
In a place where the mood swings with the weather, that can’t be good news. And as if to confirm my theory of an evil conspiracy out to get me, came serious problems at work and bad news from my doctor last week. Suffice to say that I’m no longer the invincible superhero I thought I was. Which, according to conventional wisdom, should have put a lot of things in perspective. But no such thing happened. I was more pissed than anything else. I mean, to be told with finality that you can no longer so much as take a whiff of that ghee-drenched mutton biriyani, or bite into that scrumptious burger with the two layers of cheese, is not just nasty and mean, but patently unfair. And apparently it’s all because of my genes. People I know can wolf down all the butter, pizza, and cheeze in the world, and a couple of rare steaks over the weekend for good measure, and *still* have healthy cholesterol levels?? Is there any justice in this world? And to think I put in the fight of my life to quit smoking a year ago!

Plenty happening back home. Our man, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji is kicking up a storm of potentially historic proportions in Punjab. A quasi-religious organization set up in the early half of the twentieth century, the Dera Sacha Sauda has been a feature of the Punjab social structure for decades. From what I Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Jilearnt over the last week, it mostly caters to ‘lower caste’ Sikhs, which in itself was a revelation, since I had no idea that Sikhism, which was started as a socially progressive offshoot of Hinduism, till today had inherent discrimination based on caste, of all parameters. The current leader of the sect, Ram Raheem Singh, took charge in 1990. And since then, the fortunes, following, political clout, and scandals within the organization just kept growing. For an organization that attracts members of all religions, and is known for its dedication to social causes (disaster relief, campaigns against illiteracy, female infanticide), it is indeed a strange state of affairs that its leader has allegations of murder and rape against him and is currently being investigated by the CBI. Still more startling, and murky, are the links of the sect to the Congress Party.

Many analysts are of the view that this entire so-called controversy is a manufactured one, and is just a political game between the Congress and the Akali Dal. It bears mentioning that whenever the Akali Dal has been in power in Punjab and Congress has been in power at the center, the state government has never been allowed to complete its full tenure. It has either been dismissed by the federal government or brought down by other nefarious tactics. This time too the uncomfortably close links between the Dera leadership and the Congress are beginning to remind us of the all too familiar Congress ‘hand’ behind most such unrest. After all, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has gone on record asking his followers to vote for Congress in the Vidhan Sabha elections. But the Akalis are not above any blame either, The state government sat back and let the violence escalate. Polarization of Punjabi society on religious lines can only benefit political parties with huge religion-based vote banks. The scary thought here is the possibility of this degenerating into another situation like the late 70s and 80s. BhindranwaleThen too Sikhs were on the warpath against the Nirankaris, yet another sect in Punjab. That unrest marked the beginnings of Sikh nationalism and exploded with the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, yet another Congress creation (an interesting take here). If the fanatic fringe of Sikh clergy continue to call the shots in Punjab, as they seem to be doing today, the Indian government may just have the makings of another monster on its hands.

Meanwhile, the are-we-there-yet tour of Bangladesh rambles on. Where were we…one-days? Tests? Oh…there was a century? Two? You don’t say…! The oldies are out to prove a few points. But getting out on 101 and 100? Man, they could have made it a little less obvious! Anyway, Tendulkar found his voice after the runs, Claims the team should have a say in selecting the new coach. Sounds like a pretty reasonable sentiment on the face of it. After all, they are the interested party, and who better than the ‘coachees’ themselves to decide who should be coach. But I’d be interested in knowing whether this has any precedent in professional sport. I mean, does any professional sports team actually empower its players to select their coach by a democratic process (presumably)? Think football (real football, soccer to ignoramuses), basketball, hockey, American football, baseball, anything. I always thought that professionally managed teams had their coach selected for them by their management. Not that we cannot *set* a precedent, of course, but I’m just curious. Of course, tennis players mostly select their own coaches, but we’re talking about team sports.

This side of the world, CNN decided that it was time to pay tribute to Asian Americans. So we have an ongoing ‘Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month‘ to contend with. By some strange twist of geography, Indians are also included in this rather generic demographic. One question being tackled is the real or perceived ‘pressure to achieve’ in Asian culture. So you have stories like this or this. Now, is ‘pressure to achieve’ necessarily a bad thing? In the United States of America, the birthplace of Individualism, it apparently is. So, in this land of freedom, if you want to be a bum, your parents should just stop ‘pressurizing’ you and allow you to be just that. And judging from the average American teen, they’re doing a pretty good job of it too.

I think what the Americans have really cracked is higher education. No one does it better than them. And no one earns more money off it either. And that’s part of the reason why the system is so successful. But they are way off the mark with primary and secondary education. Call me a cultural conservative, but I think the formative years in education are for absorbing knowledge, rather than questioning concepts at every step. Realistic, intelligent questions cannot be asked with half-baked knowldege. But that is the exact opposite of what seems to be the conventional wisdom in (American) schools these days. I think this is where Asians differ culturally from their western counterparts. They are culturally more deferential to elders, teachers, even more so during their childhood and early teenage years. The byproduct of this is a readiness to ‘absorb’ knowledge during those crucial years as a student, and analyze, raise questions much later, during higher education, much more closer to adulthood, when there is enough confidence in the knowledge learnt during the early years. I have not stepped into a high-school classroom in the United States. But the impression I have is that ‘attitude’ takes a very central stage there. So, I have a problem when this wonderful cultural trait of Asians in general is dismissed as ‘parental pressure’.
Respect for elders, making your family proud, academic excellence are traits that are given a lot of importance to by Indians, and Asians in general. If the fear of disappointing your parents can drive you to work twice as hard to get those grades and crack those exams, I say, more power to the parents!

Contrary to popular American belief (as evident from some of the comments to the above stories on CNN), countries like India are not filled with docile brain-washed dorks cramming to save themselves from potential mental and physical abuse by domineering and success-demanding parents. I see well-rounded successful, intelligent individuals. If there are people with permanent scars caused by extreme parental pressure, I’m yet to meet them in the last 33 years of my life. Instead what I see in the United States are 10-year olds beating up homeless people and pea-brained teenagers going on shooting sprees in schools. These are extreme examples, yes. There are lunatics in all cultures. But I’d rather live in a society with demanding parents and the resultant intelligent people, than in one with slacking individualistic parents and juvenile delinquents.

A friend recently admitted his three-year old daughter to pre-school here. As he proudly pointed out to the teacher how his child could recite the alphabet and count till 10, he was mildly reprimanded for putting ‘undue pressure’ on the child and lectured that this was not how it was done ‘here’. She almost made it sound like abuse! I got a very good feel of this attitude when I read some of the comments in response to this cute YouTube video.

It looks like rain again. So much for my long weekend.

A Piece of Rock ‘N’ Roll History

•May 15, 2007 • 1 Comment

A few things are worth staying awake for, even till 2 AM on a Sunday night. The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, on public television last night, was definitely one of them.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll CircusI had no idea it was on. And I had no idea what it was. While casually flipping channels before calling it a night, suddenly there was this dated looking concert going on with a guitarist with a faint resemblence to a very young Pete Townshend in white bell-bottoms and platform heels going absolutely nuts on what looked like an in-studio soundstage. I kept watching, fascinated. And what followed was an absolute blinder of a performance by The Who…tight, spunky and with enough power and intensity to give me a buzz on nothing but some after-dinner orange juice…! The song was their rock-opera’ish medley ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’. It went on for about 10 minutes, and I couldn’t bat an eyelid.

It was only during a commercial break that I found out what I was watching. It was ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Pete TownshendCircus’, an event put together by the Rolling Stones way back in 1968 for television. Performed in front of a small invited audience, and it was shot inside a set resembling a circus tent with the audience outfitted in colorful cloaks and hats. And wait till you hear who else was on stage! Jethro Tull, Clapton, John Lennon, Taj Mahal, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and of course, The Rolling Stones themselves! That all these legends got together for a single concert and the fact that two bands of the stature of The Who and The Rolling Stones played at the same concert is just fascinating. And while the Stones performed, among the audience, getting drunk and going wild, Taj Mahal, Lennon (with Yoko Ono tagging along all the time) and Townshend…an unbelievable scene straight out of rock and roll history! Legend has it that Mick Jagger had requested Brigette Bardot, and later, Johnny Cash, to host the show…but both declined, probably not inclined to associate themselves with a bunch of social misfits, who, back in 1968, were not really the type of characters you would want your children to emulate.

What is even more fascinating is the history of the film itself. It was organized by the Rolling Stones, but never saw the light of day. The recording went on for almost 20 hours, supposedly. The bands were exhausted and the cameras kept on Mick Jaggerbreaking down. The Who were fresh back from a concert tour and set the stage on fire with their electrifying performance. But the Stones were a bit out of form, as it were, and were the last band to take stage, early in the morning. They felt it was not their finest performance. Added to that was the indignity of being upstaged by The Who at their own event. But that’s all conjecture and rock and roll intrigue. The fact remains that the movie was canned and never released. It was finally released in 1996, though The Who had used their performance footage in a later album.

All in all, a very entertaining piece of history, though surely not the best that these set of musicians ever put out. Besides the performance by The Who, another incredible set of the concert was by a ficticious band called ‘The Dirty Mac’ (so named, apparently as a nod to Fleetwood Mac, the most popular band of the time)…ficticious because it comprised of Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Keith Richards and Mitch Michell (whew !!). They turned out a ripping version of Lennon’s ‘Yer Blues’. Yoko Ono played the spoiler, as usual, when she came on in the next track and completey ruined it by some kind of wailing or mournful shrieking that she continued throughout the song, completely riding over Clapton and Keith Richards, who really looked like they wished she would go away. Never liked Yoko, never understood her so-called ‘art’…I think she was the biggest fake of 60s pop culture. The Stones looked and sounded great to me…though apparently Mick Jagger didn’t think so himself. Fans and they themselves probably compared it to their standard level of live performances. They breezed through Jumping Jack Flash, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy For the Devil and Salt Of The Earth, which was done sitting among the exhausted audience, with a completely drunk (or stoned?) Pete Townshend visible in the background, swaying with the song with a seat cushion on his head (!?).

This DVD is surely a collector’s item. I don’t really understand the Rolling Stones decision to withhold the release of it for 30 years, but they hold themselves to a high standard. Maybe they were right. It seems like a collector’s item now, but back in 1968 it may have looked like an extremely amateurish attempt at avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll art.

But on Sunday night, it surely gave me a high, making me wonder whether I was born in the wrong generation, rather that at a time when there was a certan earnestness and honesty in music (we’re, of course, not referring to Yoko Ono) in contrast to the manufactured lip-synching synchronized-dancing tv superstars of today.

Bangladesh – Which Path Will It Take?

•May 8, 2007 • 7 Comments

Sheikh Hasina made a triumphant return to Dhaka today. After almost two months of jostling, the caretaker government finally gave up its clumsy efforts of trying to keep her out of the country permanently.

So just what is going on in Bangladesh?
Recent events have an eerie similarity with those in Pakistan over the last few decades. The euphoric return to democracy after decades of military rule, the gradual souring of the dream as elected governments ruined the country through rampant corruption, ineptitude and political violence, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and coming back full circle, the relief when the military took over the reins of government again (in the garb of a caretaker government). There was no coup, of course. The caretaker government is in place according to a unique feature of the Bangladeshi constitution which requires the outgoing government to hand over power to an interim one that oversees a free and fair election. That they have the strong backing of the army is an added bonus.

Khaleda Zia handed over power to the interim government, headed by the President at the appropriate time. But the latter was seen as being biased and unreliable, leading to violence on the streets. A reconstituted caretaker government assumed power, backed by the muscle of the army. It took upon itself to ‘clean up’ the country’s politics and root out endemic corruption. It took the unprecendented step of indefinitely postponing elections, and riding on a wave of popular support, it went about arresting high profile people, such as Prime Minister Zia’s son, on charges of corruption and misuse of power. But then it’s rather botched effort at sending outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, into exile in Saudi Arabia, caused it much embarrassment and loss of face. It’s futile attempt at keeping her arch rival Sheikh Hasina stranded in London now seems to have backfired badly too. On the face of it, the country seems to be falling into a downward spiral that it cannot pull itself out of.

Bangladesh is one of the most politically polarized countries in the world. The reason for that lies in the personal history of the two women who dominate Bangladeshi politics today. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first President and ‘father of the nation’. She is one of the just two family members alive today, after Mujib’s entire family was gunned down in the bloody coup of 1975. One of the primary beneficiaries of that political murder? Ziaur Rahman, appointed chief of army staff after the assassination, and self-declared president two years and a coup and counter-coup later. Zia was founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). His widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, chief of BNP and three time Prime Minister of Bangladesh, is the other prima donna of Bangladeshi politics, and loathed, arch-rival of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party. It was never proved, of course, that Ziaur Rahman had anything to do with Mujib’s assassination, but the insinuation was always there.This historical baggage carried by these two rivals permeates every aspect of Bangladeshi politics. Their, and by extension, their party workers’, hatred for each other is legendary. The policies of the two parties may be almost indistinguishable, but to their supporters, that hardly matters. This is the time-warp that Bangladeshis seem to be living in since 1991.

Why is a nation that was born from the flames of ethnic, linguistic and cultural pride determined to hitch itself to the yoke of Islamic fundamentalism? It should be understood that Bangladesh’s so-called slide into Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. The process can be traced all the way back to the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the gradual disconnect that grew between the predominantly Hindu educated class (the Babus) and the Muslim peasants. The horrific communcal violence and formation of East Pakistan in 1947 only cemented that divide. But still there was a thread of secularism and Bengali nationalism that existed in the fabric of East Bengali society. This was given a voice by Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, culminating in the formation of the Mukti Bahini, and with political and military backing from India, the birth of the nation of Bangaldesh.

Mujibur RahmanNot surprisingly, Mujib was an avowed friend of India and a committed socialist. He was also highly regarded in the civil society of West Bengal. This rattled many in the new nation, who did not take kindly to the watering down of the Islamic identity of the state in favour of a more Bengali identity. This section of Bangladeshi society, having experienced the blood-letting and communal hatred of partition, viewed India with deep suspicion and regarded it as a scheming Hindu state. In fact, the Jamaat-e-Islami openly collaborated with the Pakistan army against the formation of Bangladesh. This is worth remembering when we in India tend to over-simplify present-day Bangladeshi attitude towards us as ungrateful and selfish.

Ziaur RahmanAfter Mujib’s assassination, Ziaur Rahman, exploited these feelings to the hilt and created the right-wing BNP, which still dominates political thought in Bangladesh. The word ‘secularism’ in the preamble to the Constitution was replaced with ‘Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim’, Shariat and Sunnah gained in social and legal importance. Islamic education became compulsory in schools. The parallel with the other Zia (ul-Haq) on our western border is almost surreal. And he was overwhelmingly popular among the masses of Bangladesh. He played to the nationalists by moving further and further away from India and the Soviets. When seen in this context, it is not surprising at all that the BNP, under Khaleda Zia came to power with the help of an alliance with Islamist parties, and has maintained a public show of almost disdain towards India from the beginning of her three terms in office.

As a result of the changing nature of the India-Bangladesh relationship over the decades, the new generation of Bangladeshis, disconnected from the bloody events of their nation’s birth, have been brought up in an environment that is increasingly anti-India. Many of them harbour an intense dislike for their mammoth neighbour, though for different, and more confused, reasons than that  of their earlier generations. Perhaps it has more to do with the wave of Islamism that is sweeping through much of Islamic South Asia and the perception of India as an overbearing anti-Islam state, that is uncomfortably closely aligned with the United States of America. This is a situation that is ripe for picking by Islamic radicals. Mujib’s secular socialist Bengali nation has remained the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in name only. For all practical purposes it is today the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. Political outfits like Islamic Unity Front (Islami Oikya Jote), Bangladesh Islamic Assembly (Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh), and even Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Sunni Islamist political party founded in Jerusalem (!), have exploited the situation. B Raman opines in Rediff that groups aligned to the International Islamic Front formed by Osama Bin Laden are active in Bangladesh today.

I have myself witnessed the growing radicalization of Muslims living on the border areas of Assam, thanks to mushrooming madrasas funded by Arab petrodollars and staffed by fundamentalist wahabi fire-and-brimstone preachers from across the border. Hailakandi, a once-idyllic district town in southern Assam where my father’s family hailed from, is now overrun with illegal immigrants and is dotted with unregulated madrasas, the changes having taken place just within the last decade. Assam is a sad case really. Ignored by the center for decades, exploited for its oil and tea, and finally getting some recognition after the All Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation of the 70s and 80s (and the accompanying violence…who can forget the Nellie Massacre?), only to be lost to radicals like the ULFA once again, due to a government hopelessly out of its depth and playing the only game it knew…vote bank politics. The ULFA, of course, has changed colours almost completely, turning from a violent organization based on an ideology of Assamese nationalism to one that has become a Paresh Baruahpawn in the hands of the ISI and Bangladeshi intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) (link). Paresh Baruah, the head of ULFA, and other self-styled senior leaders like Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia continue to be harboured and sheltered by Bangladeshi intelligence, helping them raise funds, travel around the world and maintain camps in Bangladesh. ULFA is also said to be intimately involved in Bangaldeshi political violence, with the finger of suspicion for an attempt on the life of Sheikh Hasina in 2004 pointing towards them. It is safe to say that the organization has completely lost grass roots support in Assam, with more and more people becoming tired and fearful of of its terrorist tactics, its pandering to the very Islamic radicals and Bangladeshi infiltrators that it used to speak out against earlier.

The caretaker government of Bangladesh has promised India that it will cooperate in the fight against insurgent outfits that take shelter in their territory. This itself is a step up from the standard denial tactics of the previous Khaleda Zia government, a trick it seems to have learnt from Pakistan – deny everything…keep denying till the world gets tired of the questions. And this trick works, because unlike aggressive western powers, India keeps asking the same questions in the face of repeated denials and blatant lies, and never takes affirmative action. India just does not know how to take the next decisive step. When, defying all odds, it does take some action, the results are usually spectacular…case in point – the ULFA being smoked out of the jungles of Bhutan by the Special Frontier Force with help from the Royal Bhutan Army, their camps demolished, their cadres killed or on the run. 

India is keeping its fingers crossed about the future of Bangladesh, naturally. But it should probably do more than that. A return of Sheikh Hasina and her secular Awami League party will be the ideal situation as far India is concerned, and may be the best path for Bangladesh itself to go down. I still have faith in the inherent ability of the average Bengali to favour good governance over fanaticism, cultural pride over religious dogma, but who knows? Times have changed and entire societies have changed in character. Bangladesh is at the crossroads. Which path will it take?

An Ode to Digital Photography

•April 27, 2007 • 3 Comments

The other day, as a friend complimented some of the photographs I had put up on this blog, it occurred to me that if it were not for digital photography, I would probably have never had the confidence to even consider photography as a hobby. Indeed, how many of us weekend photographers had actually thought of a camera as anything other than a tool to click photographs of garishly made-up relatives at wedding receptions? Beautiful photographs, of nature or everyday life, were things that started at us from pages of coffee table books and National Geographic Magazine. They still do, of course, but at least some of the mystique behind the craft has been taken off. As with any art form, the aesthetic quality, appeal and beauty of photographic imagery is still completely dependent on the creativity of the artist, but technically at least, some of the wizardry seems to be achievable by us mortals.

The social impact of digital photography cannot be overemphasized. It has done for the appreciation of the art of photography what the walkman did for the appreciation of music. Maybe the comparison isn’t so apt, because the walkman did not really encourage millions of people to spontaneuosly start creating music, as in the case of the digital camera and photography, but the scale of the impact was certainly similar.
With the walkman in the early 80’s, suddenly, music was personal, and could be appreciated on-the-go, with stunning clarity, and without the need for sophisticated tape decks and speakers. It brought about a huge increase in the number of people who listened to pre-recorded music, a proliferation of music on tapes, and resulted in opening people’s minds to different kinds of music which they would have probably never taken the trouble to check out if it were not for the walkman’s easy use and portability and the easy availablity of taped music.
With the digital camera, photography was demystified. For newbie photographers, it slowly changed from being an exact science to a more forgiving one of trial and error. Ordinary people could actually afford to make mistakes while taking photographs without fear of paying, literally, for their follies. For most people, digital photography and its affordability and ease of use completely changed the way they stored memories of their lives. For others, it changed the way they thought about still imagery itself, from a simple means to store memories, to actual art. The thrill I feel on seeing results from my camera are akin to what you feel when you finally crack that guitar lead that you’ve been trying to play for ages. It’s that same kick you get out of the feeling that you can also produce results like the pros!

digitaledit.jpgWith digital cameras becoming more and more advanced (and I don’t mean just the exponential increase in megapixels, which really has very little to do with the aesthetic appeal of a photograph), more and more of us are beginning to dare to call ourselves photographers. Endless resources on techniques on the internet and exposure to the work of extremely talented and creative photographers, thanks to online photo sharing websites such as PBase and Flickr, are attracting more and more people to this wonderful and addictive activity. I, for one, would love to see the tribe grow and grow. For, that first characteristic of a photographer, that ability to see beauty in every thing around you, is but the first step towards the love of all life itself.

My current favourite online gallery? Got to be Claude Renault’s masterpieces on India, though Gil Azouri’s nature dreamscapes would come a close second.