Friday, December 31, 2010

From “Adi” Shankara to “Adi” Vasi

From “Adi” Shankara to “Adi” Vasi
Saeed Naqvi

Funny, the mind should flit from Binayak Sen to Anthony Trollope? Trollope describes a conversation between two Tasmanians (if my memory does not fail me) in which one asks the other: if you see a native and a snake whom should you kill first? In a matter of fact way, the other replies: the question should not arise!

Those were days when the aborigines were hunted in hundreds for trophy. Let us not forget that Australia’s “whites only” policy continued until 1974.

In the Americas, natives experienced much worse. The intervention of the Church softened the pain: natives were shot to paradise after being duly baptized.

I appear to be digressing into these frightful stories because they are the very antithesis of the good work the remarkable medical doctor, Binayak Sen, has spent a lifetime doing among the tribals of Chattisgarh. But what about those elements of the state which seek life long incarceration for people like Sen? No genocide but “them” versus “us” exists, more so since “they” sit on resources required by “us” to sustain 11% growth. But did not “our” Home Minister suggest helicopter gunships last summer?

The amazingly imbalanced judgement on Binayak Sen handed down by the Chattisgarh court has some lessons for all. There has been from colonial times, reasonable co-ordination between the local courts and the police. This was in pursuance of the colonial purpose of keeping substantive laws for the administration of such justice as was necessary, and allowing procedural law (police lock up, for instance) to generate fear among people, whatever the eventual judgement.

The (A) that was added in 1870 to section 124 concerned sedition under which Mahatma Gandhi and such like figures were jailed for, say, six years. That was the colonial limit. But justice B.P.Verma obviously has his eyes set on posterity giving a record life imprisonment for a man who inspires universal admiration. Justice Verma is one of “us” trying to make an example of Binayak Sen, one of “us” collaborating with “them”. Basically, intellectuals are being put on notice. Don’t cross the Red Line otherwise this will be your fate. It would probably have been something of a deterrent in the confines of Chattisgarh. But His Lordship’s moffussil mind had not taken globalization and an age of instant communication into account which has enabled people like Noam Chomsky to join the explosion of sympathy for Binayak Sen.

The burgeoning tribe of intelligentsia among whom sympathy for Binayak Sen is in direct proportion to the severity of the Chattisgarh judgement, are now pitted against those who consider Sen a threat to their version of the hard state.

That Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh appears to be isolated is just that – an appearance. Just as he has been forthright on Malegaon and Samjhauta Express terror (along with Jehadi terror), so has he been candid on the Binayak Sen issue. The Congressmen who whisper that he is isolated have developed amnesia about a letter their leader, Sonia Gandhi, wrote in May 2010 on the issue exhorting her party men to make navigational corrections. She was very clear:
“While we must address acts of terror decisively and forcefully, we have to address the root causes of Naxalism. The rise of Naxalism is a reflection of the need for our development initiatives to reach the grassroots, especially in our most backward tribal districts.”

The Congress Working Committee member who supported the Party President in the most ringing tones was one who is in the news again – K. Keshav Rao. He is in the thick of Telegana issue which too is partly linked to Maoism throughout what is loosely called the “red corridor”. Through cavernous routes, the corridor also links up with Nepal where, given the deadlock over drafting the constitution, some Indian hardliners (a minority) would acquiesce in a spell of Nepalese army rule until the next elections

The numerous interconnections sometimes blur the faultlines that are spread accross the Indian landscape – communal, caste, regional, linguistic. A most durable faultline is the one least noticed at the popular level in that form – a faultline.

This faultline between the plainspeople and those of the forests, sometimes invested with demonic attributes in ancient texts, is the most durable one whose resolution requires exactly the healing touch of Binayak Sen.

A most perplexing paradox concerns the differentiated status we accord to the “Adi” Shankara, original Shankaracharya and the “Adi” vasi, original inhabitants of India. One is our highest “sage-saint” and the other not just the lowest of the low, but outside the pale.]

Gangajal is holy to the caste Hindu; Mahua brew to the tribals – a drop is given to a child at birth and sprinkled on the dead before burial. The tribal must carry defensive weapons which the Forest Act forbids. This is not just a civilizational gap but a system of separate development, apartheid, which a reformed sate and thousands of Binayak Sens will take decades to bridge.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Spokespersons at the Inquisitions, Cap in Hand

Spokespersons at the Inquisitions, Cap in Hand
Saeed Naqvi

The Burari session of the Congress, NDA rally, JPC-PAC sparring, onion and scams, are all building up to a lively election season beginning early next year – Tamilnadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Pondicherry, Assam, leading to UP elections in 2012 and the General Elections in 2014. And the media, not political parties, have snatched the initiative.

In no great democracy in the world have I seen two major political parties, ready with a battery of spokes persons, skating their way from channel to channel in mesmeric control of the anchor, whose job is to initiate a relentless tu-tu, main-main, a telegenic version of the traditional cockfight, described aptly by the poet:

“Udhar raqeeb, idhar hum byulaye jaate hain,
Ki daana daal key murghey laraye jaate hain.”
(Rivals from both sides invited and made to fight over a bait.)

Who gains? The political parties?

The gainers from these painful inquisitions are never the political parties. The only gainers are the channels who operate on the principle that louder the din, higher the TRPs.

If this, indeed, is the state of affairs why do political parties feed programming which is counter productive?

Supposing the Congress (or BJP) were to decide that it would not send its spokespersons, cap in hand, to the Anchor’s parlour, what would the party stand to lose?

The Nation, I am afraid, does not sit around prime time news shows as around an altar or a God. Lutyens Delhi and Malabar Hill do. We know all about the latter: the most vociferous breast beaters after 26/11, showed no interest in the subsequent elections!

In fact not only does the Congress (or the BJP) not stand to lose anything by their non appearance in the humiliating arena, the channels would suffer enormously. Will they proceed with the show minus the Congress (or the BJP) point of view, and thereby risk their declining credibility plummet further?

Supposing the parties have teams of researchers working on the day’s or the week’s press briefing on any subject ranging from the Scams, urban crime, onions or Nerega. Do the channels dare ignore these? For the parties, subsequent TV discussion would have the following merit: they, not the channels, will have set the agenda.

For example, there has been no national debate on the political or economic resolutions adopted at Burari. Or, for that matter, on foreign policy.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao lamented in Karan Thapar’s excellent interview, that the Nation requires a more informed debate on China. The transcript of this interview appeared in the Hindu. What we have at the moment is a surfeit of uninformed, negative attitudes on China shaped by the anchors who do not know their elbow from their knee on the subject.

Anchors are careful on the US and Ratan Tata. In fact Ratan Tata, touched on the raw in the Radia Tapes, chose to grant an interview to a channel of his choice.

It was said of the great Egyptian singer Umme Kulsum’s performances on Radio Cairo that even news broadcasts were delayed indefinitely when she was singing.

In Indian history, when Mikhail Gorbachev as Secretary General of Communist Party of the Soviet Union, granted the first ever interview in the Kremlin, Doordarshan played the interview in full, lasting one hour and twenty minutes. Doordarshan was a government channel. What better could we expect?

But the Tata interview was on a channel which carries the free market on its shoulders. It beat the Gorbachev interview in sheer duration by a long shot.

All I am saying is that the political parties must ask, when they send their bleating lambs in, not who will slaughter them but who owns the slaughterhouse?

Pardon my memory tossing up couplets with nagging frequency:

Mir Taqi Mir, whom some consider a greater poet than Ghalib, says:
“Kitni daaman gir hai yaro uski maqtal gah-e-wafa,
Us zalim ki tegh taley se ek gaya to do aaye!”
(How compelling the arena where she (or he) puts the faithful to the sword; just when one has been put away, two more queue up in the shadow of that sword)

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Monday, December 20, 2010

200 Years Of Lucknow Should Be Planned Creatively

200 Years Of Lucknow Should Be Planned Creatively
Saeed Naqvi

The development route to popular governance appears to have infected UP’s capital as well. Mayawati plans to make Hazratganj look brand new – underground cables to replace overhead wires, all hoardings removed, fresh paint, that, familiar pale yellow of the Hazratganj of our memories. All for the fabled avenue’s 200th anniversary.

But will it all be ready by December 26? The scene today is reminiscent of those nervous weeks before the Commonwealth games. The games did take place, rather spectacularly. Is Monsoon Wedding an apt metaphor for the way we do things?

The real Lucknow, the city’s core, had, with the winds of change, enclosed itself in Aminabad, Nakhkas and Chowk, distancing itself in that order from Hazratganj’s partly Anglo-Indian veneer.

In the old city the saying was “gandi galiyan; saaf zubaan” or “dirty lanes but elegant speech”. Hazratganj did not live in the confusion of this past. It was one broad avenue, lined on both sides with shops, some of which were institutions like Kazim and co, the watch dealers, a sort of rendezvous for Lucknow’s declining aristocracy.

Transaction at no shop or business was possible without a brief conversational interlude. This was particularly true of Ram Advani’s civilized book shop, where to be seen was to be literary,

When I was a boy, the best pastry shop in the world was “Benbow’s” at the big chauraha which has given way to a garment outlet. I remember longingly watching the pastries, scones, chocolates from the pavement outside. Yeat’s description of Keats literally describes my circumstance.

“ I see a schoolboy, when I think of him;
his nose pressed hard against a sweet-shop window.”

Across the street from “Benbow’s” was Lucknow’s intellectual hub, the Coffee House. Precocious lads we must have been, because the faces of those around each table are etched on my mind. I was generally escorted by a communist uncle, a socialist cousin, and that moody cousin with an intellect like a basement junkyard of ornaments. Not to be forgotten was my “Aunt Agatha” who rubbed shoulders with the finest minds in the coffee House with a twin purpose – pursuit of knowledge and compilation of a catalogue for name dropping.

There, in that corner sits communist leader Dr. Z. Ahmad and Dr. K.M. Ashraf (author of the History of the People of Hindustan). At the adjacent table, Ram Manohar Lohia holds court. Amritlal Nagar and Prof. Ehtesham Hussain are all ears as Ananad Narain Mullah recites his ghazal. Then Majaz, Lucknow’s most beloved poet, winds his way between the tables with his sidekick, Salaam Machlishehri. Majaz pacing up and down Hazratganj was a constant – witty, sensitive, always stone broke and in search of a drinking host.

Ironically, Majaz wrote the anthem of Aligarh Muslim University, his alma mater, and died this month forty five years ago in a Lucknow country liquor shop.

His epitaph:
“Phir iske baad subah hai, aur subhe nau, Majaz.
Humpar hai khatm shaam e gharibane Lucknow.”
(There, a new dawn breaks. The evening of Lucknow’s dispossessed ends with me)

And how can the story of Hazratganj be complete without that brilliant vagabond, Safdar.

When Safdar reached home in the early hours of the morning, his father was asleep. When the father was up to spread out his Aminabad pavement bookshop, Safdar was slumbering. “For forty years we have not seen each other”, Safdar boasted. He generally washed his face in Kwality’s (another institution) and ate breakfast at Royal CafĂ©, across the street. There were always people vying with each other to host him for his wit and conversation.

Outlook editor Vinod Mehta, a contemporary, summed it up succinctly: “He doesn’t know where his next meal will come from: all he knows is that it will be a terrific one.”

The 200th anniversary is a great idea, but why this hurry? Hazratganj will not be ready by December 26. Let the very best in the land choreograph a show to remember nearer March in time for Holi. We can even consider a grand Sound and Light show, pulling together all the marvels of Lucknow on this occasion.

Since the concluding cultural event on December 29 will be at the Residency, we can fall back on the 1857 siege of that address. In situations of war, there are tragedies on both sides. An evocative recitation can be from the pages of “A Lady’s Diary of the Siege of Lucknow”. It can be a gripping show with proper lighting – December’s cold will not help. March will be perfect.

As for the Mushaira, one can suggest to the invited poets that a quartrain, sestet or a ghazal be on the theme of Lucknow or Hazratganj.

One of Lucknow’s theatre groups can contemplate a skit or a play at the coffee, bringing to life its memorable past.

And a bust of Lucknow’s most lovable poet, Majaz outside the Coffee House. An entrepreneur with imagination can transform the Country Liquor Shop near Lalbagh, where Majaz suffered the stroke which killed him, into a compelling port of call for the creatures of Bachus, a pilgrimage for Sufis who resonate well with the meaning of Majaz. A film director can picturize Majaz’s masterpiece, Awara.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaks Legitimize Conspiracy Theories

Leaks Legitimize Conspiracy Theories
Saeed Naqvi

Wikileaks has not only knocked open the door on 250,000 secret diplomatic cables, it may also have inaugurated an era when audacious discourse will not be placed under the stifling blanket of that expression – “Conspiracy Theory”. So far only a tiny fraction is in the public domain. In fact at this rate we are in for a sensational five years unless, ofcourse, Julian Assange loses the world war in cyber space.

Eversince Columbus set sail to discover the new world, all important discourse has been controlled by the West. We learnt to remember Columbus Day, but nurse an amnesia about the genocide that followed his landing. Over the five centuries since Columbus the avenue for discourse has narrowed to an alley: bear left or right and you stray into the forbidden turf of conspiracy theories.

In no other field were the terms of discourse increasingly more rigid than in the conduct of international relations, particularly since the First World War when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and transformed into modern Middle-East, Israel being central to it.

A sort of dismissive disbelief greeted me earlier this week when I told a group of media scholars that Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussain’s Foreign Minister, was a clear headed, and one of the more lucid interlocutors I had ever met. How could someone on the side of “Evil”, so acclaimed universally, have anything to commend him?

Do the US ambassador to Baghdad, before operation Desert Storm, April Gillespie’s cables to Washington paint Aziz in flattering colours? Wait for Wikileaks.

It was not quite Kosher to discuss at a diplomatic dining table, say, Anthony Lewis columns in the New York Times suggesting that Gillespie had told Saddam (though with some diplomatic ambiguity) that his interests in Kuwait were understandable. There were all those encouraging gestures from the US Exim bank, senator Bob Dole’s meetings with Saddam. Again, wait for Wikileaks to confirm it all.

A number of writers and diplomats gave credence to the line that Saddam had been “lured” into Kuwait to create justifications for a new global coalition. This coalition had multiple objectives: to smash the old Soviet affiliate, Saddam and his Baathist infrastructure; to confirm a post Soviet role for the US in NATO; to check enhanced German-Japanese (Axis) role in the post Soviet distribution of global power.

The discourse was not centered in India, although the MEA may find its Baghdad ambassador’s notes of the period interesting. He now rears honey bees!

It did not take long to snuff out such unauthorized discourse. Deviants from conventional wisdom were promptly proclaimed the lunatic fringe, “conspiracy theorists”.

Take the bombing of Tripoli Libya, in April, 1986. Why was Qaddafi being targeted? His six month old daughter was killed in the attack. Conventional Wisdom in Tripoli’s sea front hotel, infested with journalists, was that the CIA had picked up “reliable” gossip that a Berlin discotheque was singled out by Qaddafi for acts of terrorism. A Berlin discotheque? Strange target. Was trouble not brewing since the Tripoli regime laid claims to the Gulf of Sidra? Such queries were greeted with raised eyebrows. Qaddafi was a fundamentalist supporting terrorism. That settled the issue.

Qaddafi’s much advertised fundamentalism was nowhere to be seen in Tripoli. The country had possibly the world’s first military academy for women. No Mullahs, but the most educated in the community led the Friday prayers. Women had equal rights. Indeed, Qaddafi’s personal bodyguards were women. Where was the alleged fundamentalism?

No, I was told. I was deluded by conspiracy theories. To end my isolation, Foreign Minister Bali Ram Bhagat, with a few other Non Aligned Foreign Ministers, materialized in Tripoli to commiserate with Qaddafi. Wikileaks may be able to confirm why, but soon upon his return, Bhagat was sacked! Was Rajiv Gandhi rapped on the knuckles by Reagan? Conspiracy Theory?

A conspiracy theory I have nursed privately concerns Israeli “hippies” keeping a watch on the straits of Mallaca, from Indian territory – Nicobar islands.

When the Tsunami struck Sri Lanka, Aceh in Indonesia, Andhra and Tamil Nadu on December 26, 2004, guess who was the first ambassador to call on South Block? The Israeli Ambassador! He sought permission to evacuate Israeli citizens from Nicobar which was in the eye of the Tsunami. The Ambassador asked if he could arrange to fly out the Israelis. But once the waters subsided, the Israeli “holiday makers” preferred to stay on!

So good was the subsequent co-operation between the US and India during 2004 that a term, “Tsunami model” was coined to institutionalize co-ordination between New Delhi and Washington in South Asia, a sort of three legged diplomacy.

This is just a flavour of the kind of stuff that will find its way into journalism in the coming weeks, months or years. Is this good or bad? As the Editor said to his doubting reporter: publish and be damned!

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Monday, December 6, 2010

The Media’s Hall of Fame.

The Media’s Hall of Fame.

However much those in the media, ignored by Niira Radia, discuss those who were not, the fact of the matter is, that Niira Radia has established the Indian Media’s First Hall of Fame, a sort of high point for media aspirants. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of “notoriety” (“fame” did he say?) would be a churlish way to describe those in the spotlight.

Pain would be bearable if my diminished utility for the likes of Radia was attributable to my declining years. But the truth is mortifying: one never had any utility whatsoever of the variety that would entitle one to a niche in the Hall of Fame. Ridiculous, the waste, sad time!

Just as we must choose our parents with care, so must we choose with care the institutions where we take our first steps. Woe is me: I made bad choices on both counts. Parents emphasized culture, manners, speech, books, morals but not wealth. So I grew up with the wrong values.

The Statesman as a professional nursery was another hopeless choice. We don’t like to increase our circulation, I was told, because being Nehru’s first newspaper, its prestige was national. The Editor, to insulate himself from pressures, had just two friends in New Delhi – one Sinclair of Burmah shell and the other, army chief J N Chaudhury, the latter for being suitably “English”.

With such training, what hope?

To build media empires, seek Rajya Sabha nominations, contest elections, were instincts pulled out of our DNA by those inept choices of parentage and professional nurseries.

Ofcourse, there were those need based transgressions like that Public Relations officer helping a colleague’s name taken off the Press club notice board for non payment of dues. But word was soon out. This one misdemeanour affected the yearly increments.

But pardon me because I am comparing apples and pumpkins. Nostalgia is sometimes unhelpful in analyzing contemporary reality.

The first major hit that rattled the media was Indira Gandhi’s 1975 emergency. It divided the media between those who hated Indira Gandhi and those who hated those who hated Indira Gandhi. The divide has not yet been composed. After she split the Congress in 1969, she depended on the Left. Appeared the 1974 JP movement, backed by Ramnath Goenka, Nanaji Deshmukh and others opposed to the left. The post emergency libertarianism was heavily laced with Hindutva and socialism tolerant of it. It was a promising platform for sections of industry inimical to the Left. The metropolitan media, traditionally westward inclined, also became implacably hostile to Indira Gandhi.

The next major change in the media followed the post Soviet Liberalization of the economy. First, the victorious authors of market economy inaugurated an era of live 24 X 7 global TV with the coverage of operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Almost on cue, the Indian TV opened up. Indeed, it burgeoned.

The linkages between the global media and the new, energetic, untested Indian metropolitan media were not comprehensive but limited and insidious.

The global media would have atleast two sets of software: one for its own viewers, another for the global audience. International affairs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, Europe would be controlled from Washington (Atlanta, Georgia) and London. The Indian media would not (could not) take any initiatives in the coverage of world affairs. The line would be “foreign affairs do not give us the TRPs”. If it became essential to use some foreign clip, there were always CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP and Sundry others to oblige.

Has anyone thought of using the RTI to check out the Murdoch, CNN antecedents or linkages of the media currently in the news? Nothing wrong with the links but there are implications for a “self professed” prospective UNSG member.

In earlier days, the journalist had to seek a professionally fruitful and ethical equation only with the governmental establishment. Today, the TV journalist /star is also entrepreneur, worried as much about news as about TRPs, Ads, Corporates, whose money is often keeping the channel buoyant.

The balance of power between the government and the corporates has changed radically, buffetting the TV entrepreneur/ journalist from both. In the confusion, an embassy or two in Chanakyapuri toss in their line. Sometimes the media is rendered so supine by an unnerving coherence between the government, corporates, the MNCs, and the embassies that speakers corner at Hyde Park looms in the mind’s eye as a happy vision of freedom. In that moment of weakness if only Radia would call! But, as in Prufrock, I do not think that she will “sing to me”.