Friday, January 29, 2016

Rohith And Other Dalits: Carl Sagan To Sewage Cleaning

Rohith And Other Dalits: Carl Sagan To Sewage Cleaning
                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student, focused on the interstellar spaces and Carl Sagan. In a different location, a sewage cleaner looks for live cockroaches in the sewer, which ironically give him a sense of security: he can now clean the sewer without fearing death from foul gases. One day he miscalculated. He died. One is a real life character, the other from a masterpiece film, Court. But they are two sides of the same reality.

Rohith had a life of the mind, and he wrote sensitive prose, reminding us of the reflective student in our university days, exactly the one we chose to share our secrets with.

At this point, the Dalit in him becomes irrelevant. He could well have been one of us. That is why his suicide touches us more than the self immolation of a teen aged girl in Telangana: her parents did not have the money to build a toilet. She was ashamed.

Reams and reams have been written on Rohith’s predicament and there is yet no end to the things in the heart. One reason for the endless outpouring maybe our incapacity to access an educated, 28 year old Dalit’s mind. We are groping.

Sisyphus, the giant, has been asked to push a boulder up the mountain. From the peak, the boulder comes rolling down and Sisyphus has to resume his labour – push the boulder up again.

In the 60s, every University coffee house existentialist contemplated Sisyphus, as the ultimate metaphor for life’s futility. It was a fad. But for a Dalit tailor’s son, life’s meaninglessness must seem very real because now an educated mind has been placed on his shoulders. This, as the establishment’s walls grow higher each day even as universities churn out more and more Dalits, some quite as exceptional as Rohith. The Rohiths of this world have no network, no ties of school or blood to enable them clamber onto a higher rung. The sewage cleaner has no aim other than a mechanical desire to keep sewers clean. Rohith has been cursed with aspiration. They represent two tragedies.

Visit a five star hotel and statuesque men and women, impeccably clad, populate the main lobbies, arrival desks, restaurants. In sharp contrast are the keepers of the toilets: these are smaller men and women of weaker bone structure, more frugally dressed. These are Dalits, (I believe Valmikis are preferred) hired on contract from private agencies. The picture is similar in shopping malls, hospitals, airports, restaurants.

Placing Dalits on the rolls of these establishments would be risky: men and women employed to clean toilets and keep the establishments tidy would begin to look for upward mobility outside areas of sanitation. This would upset the unstated caste balance in the job market.

Caste hierarchies are thus regularized in collusion with the state. How would the state expect hundreds of thousands of Rohiths to cope with this confusing reality.

Some years ago, there was a minor agitation in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences against three upper caste candidates (two Brahmins) who inveigled themselves into the sanitation department. Marxist leaders intervened to call off the agitation. They thought the trend should be encouraged. Brahmins joining as sanitation labour was a revolutionary social advance.

The reality was different. The upper caste men never touched the broom or actually worked as sanitation labour. Soon enough, they were promoted as supervisors and accommodated in departments far removed from sanitation. Entry as sanitation labour was a ruse.

The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may be trapped in a paradox. Dalits can’t be made supervisory officers; officers will not pick up the broom.

A look at some of New Delhi’s garbage dumps revealed a startling new reality. The new safai mazdoors at these dumps are not the traditional sanitary workers; many of them are Muslims. Sachar Committee report on the socio economic condition of Indian Muslims may be in urgent need of revision. All of this is not unrelated to the condition of a sensitive Dalit like Rohith.

Nothing in recent years has encapsulated the Dalit predicament better than Court, the film I mentioned at the outset.

Narayan Kamble, a folk poet extremely popular among Dalits, is arrested on a ridiculous charge – that his poetry may have been responsible for the suicide of a sewage cleaner, who died by drowning in the sewage.

The police has been used by the system to silence a poet whose hold on the Dalits may be exploited by the political opposition. The voluntary act of suicide denies the sewage cleaner any sympathy for dying in his line of duty. His death is a political act.

The prosecution lawyer argues against the poet being given bail. The Sessions Judge obliges. There is absolutely no connect between those administering justice and those in need of it. In the latter category is Rohith too.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

India’s Capacity To Deliver On Projects Seriously Doubted In Iran

India’s Capacity To Deliver On Projects Seriously Doubted In Iran
                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

The nuclear deal with Iran was a milestone, ofcourse, but the lifting of sanctions last week freed Tehran to sign contracts left, right and centre. A thousand such contracts were signed on Sunday alone.
There was an impression that New Delhi would be ahead of others in the queue boosting economic ties with Tehran. But, alongside all the goodwill in Tehran is also a growing scepticism about India’s ability to meet deadlines?

Negotiations for building of the Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf was signed in 2003. The cabinet approved $85 million for the first phase. But nothing has moved, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the UFA summit for swift clearance.

Iran’s National Railways signed a deal in 2013 for 2,50,000 tons of rolling stock. The first phase of the transaction should have been completed by now. But Tehran does not know what the last minute hitch is?

New Delhi must speed up its implementation process. A new and vibrant Iran with the world knocking at its doors, will go elsewhere. The attractiveness of Iran cannot be overstated against the rest of bleak and dismal, war ravaged West Asia. Iran’s clout is already in play in the evolution of the Syrian script towards the Geneva process.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are trying to shepherd all parties to the Syrian conflict in the direction of Geneva. Notwithstanding their determination to set into motion the Geneva process between Damascus and the Syrian opposition, ground realities inside Syria continue to alarm.

Even according to the United Nations, 4,40,000 civilians, elderly and the very young, are either besieged by rebels or government forces in the country.

This is not all. International Red Cross in Syria confirmed to me over the telephone other forbidding data: nearly four million people cannot be accessed at all. Either roads are not motorable or gunweilding men and occasional snipers keep aid workers at bay.

High pressure diplomacy by the US and Russia is trying to douse the flames but the conflicts continues on two planes – the battlefield and the media. A series of tactical battles are raging across Syria.

These are little proxy wars. At his crowded press conference at New Delhi’s Leela hotel, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was quite firm: only Syrians will be allowed to attend the Geneva conference on Syria’s future. “Those fighting inside are actually proxies of outside powers. Since these powers are financing the groups, they will determine the stands of the various delegations.” Muallem shrugged his shoulders. “That is the reality – we can’t help it.”

Riyadh is in difficulties trying to put together its preferred delegation because it’s would be nominees are in common parlance “terrorists”. The definition of “terrorists” has therefore been contested in the Syrian context. King Abdullah of Jordan was tasked by an earlier conference to identify terrorist groups. He threw up his hands in despair because one country’s terrorists were another’s freedom fighters.

Saudis are in a tizzy on another count: the entire leadership of Jaysh al Islam, the group they had diligently nurtured, was wiped out in one rocket strike three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Damascus has also scored a string of battle victories.

History will measure Secretary of State John Kerry so much more favourbly compared to his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. He has invested everything into a series of diplomatic successes – Cuba, Iran and now possibly Syria. Moscow too has not had a Foreign Minister of Sergei Lavrov’s stature – atleast not since Andrei Gromyko.

Look at the determination of the two competing statesmen. Riyadh and Ankara would like their proxies in Syria to be in control of more area to be able to play a better hand at Geneva. Towards this end they would like the conflict to drag on. During this period there may emerge from the motley gangs in Syria groups that look like segments of an opposition. So Riyadh hopes.

This dilly dallying had the potential of delaying the January 25 deadline set for the inauguration of the Geneva process. With lightening speed the Kerry-Lavrov duet turned up in Zurich to plot the journey forward.

Kerry then flew to Davos to announce the scheme. Initially, the meeting in Geneva of the Syrian parties will be “proximity talks”. Representatives of the government and the opposition will separately meet the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who will shuttle between rooms.

“You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table, staring at each other or shouting at each other”, Kerry explained. “You are going to have to build some process here.” The idea of this Unity Transitional government was “proposed by the Iranians”.

At this particular moment in history the script is evolving favourably for Iran, Hezbullah, Russia and the Syrian regime. But four million people in Syria remain in peril because of the unpredictability of what a country like Saudi Arabia might do in desperation. Saudis have support even within an incoherent western camp. Remember British Prime Minister, David Cameron told the House of Commons that there were 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria.

Really, moderates with guns?

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Can A Socialist Like Bernie Sanders Ever Become US President?

Can A Socialist Like Bernie Sanders Ever Become US President?
                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

It was one of those rare wintery nights last week when a friend walked in, rubbing his hands vigorously to keep warm. He kept looking over his shoulders nervously, like he had seen an apparition. “How did you know?” he asked, pointing a finger at me. “How did you learn about Bernie Sanders?”

He is one of those committed American university types who regards any speculation on world affairs, which deviates from the right wing script, as a conspiracy theory. The world, according to him is kept stable by “establishments which supercede populism”.

Two months ago he was waxing eloquent about the inevitability of a Jeb Bush – Hillary Clinton contest for President, both establishment candidates. When I said “Bernie Sanders”, he waved his hand menacingly at me. He was severe. “A socialist as a US President?”

He was not alone. Conventional wisdom everywhere pointed to a Bush or Clinton candidacy. But that script has changed. Bush is nowhere around and Bernie Sanders has left Hilary Clinton yards behind him in the polls. Should he ever emerge the Democratic nominee, my friend will have to be placed under heavy sedation.

Trust Fox News to needle Republicans about “a self avowed socialist” gaining traction for the Democratic nomination. The barb produced the expected response from a Republican Governor, John Kasich. “If Sanders is the nominee, Republicans will win all 50 states. I know Bernie Sanders, and he is not going to be President.” Never mind if Kasich himself is polling at less than 3 percent nationally.

I cited Vice President Joe Biden’s thumping endorsement of Sanders as evidence of his electability. Biden said Sanders was doing a “heck of a job” on the campaign trail offering an “authentic voice on income inequality”. Such fulsome praise for Sanders must be seen as some sort of a critique of Clinton.

“Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real. And he has credibility on it.” My friend nearly choked on his drink.

He has been through other shocks this past year. He was floating on cloud nine at Lord Mandelson’s interview about Jeremy Corbyn, the then candidate for the Labour Party President. “He is too far left” said the Tony Blair acolyte dismissively. “The country will never elect him Prime Minister.”

Even after Corbyn became Party President by a long margin, Mandelson and his tribe would not give up. “This is an invitation for the Conservative Party to continue their rule.”

Even during the worst spell of Murdochization of the world media, segments of the British media retained their character. Corbyn received balanced notices.

This was not the case in, say, Spain, where, La Prensa, as a central column of the two party establishment, provided no space to Podemos, which is something of a Communist Party under its charismatic leader Pablo Iglesias.

There was a similar antipathy to the Catalan nationalists headquartered in Barcelona. But despite the almighty Spanish establishment throwing its full weight behind the Peoples Party, Podemos won beyond all expectations. Without its 69 seats no government can now be formed in Spain.

These developments are not inexplicable. World affairs are following a pattern. Peoples’ tussle with their respective establishments has been the defining reality these past few years.

In liberal democracies, establishments have consisted of two party systems, their apron strings tied to Corporates who, in turn, clasped the hands of major multinationals. This network bred crony capitalism on a large scale. Skeletons of corruption came rattling down the cupboards.

Two party systems everywhere, therefore, have been in bad odour. Voters began to look for alternatives. The shift is to the left in Latin Europe, to the right in the Nordic north. Elsewhere the voters are simply breaking out of the two party systems which were inextricably tied to big capital. Alternating the two parties, Corporates had cultivated a system custom made for them: heads I win, tails you lose.

This is the framework in which a rank outsider, President Joko Widodo’s rise to power should be seen in Indonesia. Nearer home, Arvind Kejriwal’s profile is, at the moment, only confined to the capital region. But the manner in which the BJP-Congress establishments have turned upon him, checkmating him at every culvert, is ample proof that establishments fear AAP as an idea.

My friend heaves a sign of relief that all names mentioned above are only at the cusp of change. Establishments will throw everything in the fray to resist change. The year 2016 will decide the shape of the world to come.

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Friday, January 8, 2016

Are Saudis Betting Their Barrels On A Shia-Sunni Divide?

Are Saudis Betting Their Barrels On A Shia-Sunni Divide?
                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

How far will this latest escalation by Riyadh of the Shia-Sunni conflict go?

It looks like an act best described by a Hindi saying:
“Marta kya na karta?” (what will a desperate man not do to escape expiry?)

It is possible to construct a theory that the hanging of the Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr was an expedient. Otherwise the hanging of 47 others, mostly Sunni extremist allied to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda may have seemed one sided.

The existential danger the Saudis face is not the Shia uprising in Qatif and other pockets in the eastern province, nor is it Iran’s rise to power.

Riyadh is on sixes and sevens because of grave internal threats. Iran and the Shia arc are designed to externalize internal dangers. Strains in the coalition within the GCC and pronounced fissures in Saudi society are sought to be glued. The region is being directed to watch the menacing clouds of Shia ascendency all around them. This, it is hoped, will cause the Saudis to take their eyes off the one billion dollars a month unwinnable war in Yemen, the Syrian script meandering along routes inhospitable to Saudi purpose, an economy in decline, the Obama-Kerry team giving up the pretense of taking dictation from Riyadh – a screen is needed to obscure this frightful Kaleidoscope. The Shia threat is that screen.

Internal dangers may be peaking today but they are not of recent origin. 1979 will be etched on minds of the Saudi ruling elite for two earthshaking events: Islamic Revolution which brought the Ayatullahs to power in Tehran and the siege of the great mosque in Mecca.

It was the latter event which shook the Saudi regime because the uprising was a massive expression of discontent against the Saudi “monarchy”. The concept of “Kings” is anathema in Islam. This explains why to keep himself above opprobrium after the Mecca uprising and the Iranian Revolution, the anxious Saudi monarch labeled himself “the Keeper of the Holy Shrines”.

The leader of the Mecca uprising, Juhayman al-Otaybi, would have been at the head of the Islamic State directed against Riyadh had he been around today. Just as Riyadh blamed Iranian collusion in 1979, it has turned upon the Shia threat today.

More recently, the Saudis started paying a heavy price for helping create extremist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq when in December 2014 the Kingdom’s Northern Border with Iraq was breached by Islamic State elements. Saudi General Oudah al Belawi was killed in the operation. Would this level of success across a border so heavily protected be possible without “inside” help? This is the kind of speculation which frightens the regime.

It cannot be disputed that Sunnis constitute an overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims. But this overarching fact obscures nuances which cannot be wished away.

If the Sunni world of the Saudi dream is so coherent, why did Riyadh bankroll Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military to topple a thoroughbred Sunni Prime Minister, Mohammad Morsi? Because Riyadh is more scared of Muslim Brotherhood than it is even of the Shias. “Brothers” represent a strong anti monarchy, political Islam, with a silent following in the Kingdom itself which has often erupted in the social media.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, another candidate for the Sunni alliance, donned the cloak of the Justice and Development only after Turkey’s secular constitution stopped his Guru, Necmettin Erbakan from holding Prime Minister’s office because the Refah Party he led was avowedly Islamist.

If Morsi as a Brother was unacceptable to the Saudis, how is Erdogan kosher for a Wahabi monarchy.

Riyadh has listed Sudan in its Sunni coalition. Records of the Mahdi’s war with the British from 1881 to 1899 describe the charismatic Mahdi as a “Sufi”. There are many question marks on the validity of Riyadh’s coalition.

How does the Sunni coalition compare with the Shia axis sketched by Riyadh? The Kingdom’s list of a Sunni alliance consists of heads of governments, not the people. A Shia alliance, if it were ever announced, would have people’s support.

There is no available declaration by Tehran of a Shia axis or a coalition. Tehran and Bahrain are overwhelmingly Shia. Over 65 percent of Iraq is Shia. Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, Pakistan, all have substantial or influential Shia populations. Not long ago, a saying in the sophisticated circles of Cairo was: “Sunna bil deen; Shia bil hawa” – Sunni by faith but Shia by culture. This because of 200 years of Fatamids in the region.

The puzzle for most observers of West Asia is the composition of Yemen. Former Yemen strongman Abdullah Saleh is a Sunni but also a Zaidi like a majority of Yemenis?

The Ottoman Caliphate ended in 1924 but an Imamate, a system in which the Imam is the supreme leader, ended in Yemen only in 1962. The Imam as leader of the faith should not be mixed up with the Imam as keeper of a mosque like Delhi’s Jama Masjid.

After the battle of Karbala in 680 AD, one of Imam Hussain’s grandsons Zaid ibn Ali, crossed over to Yemen to continue the war against those who martyred Imam Hussain at Karbala. The appellation, Shia, did not reach Yemen until much later. This explains the Houthis becoming Shias later. In this framework, do Yemenis qualify as Sunnis in Riyadh’s sectarian coalition?

Looking for details in the Shia-Sunni divide is as difficult as looking for needle in a haystack.

The purpose of current aggravation by Riyadh is two fold: to throw a smokescreen on its precarious internal situation, and to give the Israel lobby in the US one more card to play against the rise of Iran. This is a common aim of Riyadh and Jerusalem. The job of the lobby is to give the sectarian divide traction in the US Presidential campaign, tilting the argument in favour of Saudis who may be persuaded to bankroll many undeclared projects. They could, for instance, finance Islamic militancy in the Caucasus as one more way to get at Putin.

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