Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Times of the Hindustan

I don't normally spend time pointing out trivial mistakes in English usage of the kind we see in our press every day (it would be a never-ending and pointless exercise). But what I saw today in the Hindustan Times today really got to me. It's a "correction" in a box and it reads as follows:


Correction: "200 flights were cancelled across the north India" should have read "200 flights were cancelled across the northern India".


Yes! Standards of the English are declining in the India!

Happy the New Year!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

It's about class

Today a Kolkata based writer called Soumitro Das (why does it seem like they are all called that?) wrote an op-ed piece in the Hindustan Times ("The man in the middle") in which he frontally attacked the Indian middle class and its attitudes vis a vis the terrorist situation. He said a lot of things that are not normally said because social class, like its cousin caste, is the "elephant in the living room" for Indians. We're not allowed to talk about it because officially it doesn't exist.

Mr Das points out that "the middle class has an abiding fantasy of a benevolent dictator who will rule with an iron hand, restore order and commit everything to making material progress". In light of this he analyses the middle class outrage against Indian politicians and Pakistan post 26/11. One thought this article inspired in me is that some day we might go the Thai way, with the middle class clamouring to scotch the voting rights of the rural poor because the latter are (allegedly) responsible for electing low-grade politicians.

Even if I possibly don't share all of Mr Das's views, his article helped me focus my thoughts a bit. But something else I read in HT yesterday focused my thoughts in a different way, into an irrationally extreme rage. It was an interview of a lady who had been dining at the Oberoi/Trident on 26/11 and managed to escape alive. Here is what she had to say: "The fact that I chose to dine at the India Jones restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel that fateful night of 26/11, and the manner in which I escaped death by a whisker, reinforces my belief that there is a driving force that governs the entire universe. While the staff at Oberoi's ushered us into safety through the service entrance, I kept praying to Santoshi ma. It is her grace that I could make it out alive that night".

These words provide distressing (to me) insight into the thought process of a certain type of Indian. The driving force, or Santoshi ma, that saved her from death - why, pray, did it condemn many dozen others to die in the Oberoi? It seems she's really trying to say, without putting it in those words, that she personally possesses the virtue that made Santoshi ma take notice of her. By implication, presumably those that died were some kind of impious losers that S. ma could barely find time to think about! Notice also that the "driving force" (she's not referring to her own chauffeur I presume) made her choose to dine at the Oberoi that night. So why did this driving force choose her, and not for example the urchins hanging around outside the hotel, to savour a dinner at such a luxurious establishment? (I'll spare you the rest of the interview, in which the lady alleges that "...astrology is one of the most evolved sciences in India".)

Either Santoshi ma is the most biased deity around, or this is how some section of the Indian middle class constructs its world-view. It is divine grace that gives them the comforts they enjoy, never mind that equally deserving others are denied the same comforts. It is divine grace that saves their lives, never mind that other innocent people perish tragically.

In short I'm appalled by this lady's incredibly self-centred and self-serving comments (even ignoring her idiotic views on astrology). But perhaps I judge her too harshly as she's clearly conditioned by her family background? Not quite. Her late grandfather held a rather different world-view that accommodated the complex and varied aspirations of a truly enormous variety of Indians. Without that quality, he could hardly have launched the Quit India movement.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Security matters

Like everyone else in Bombay, I keep thinking about security issues these days. It's not so much because I'm personally afraid (I am, but not enough to keep worrying) but because I do care about this city and country and I keep hoping that our security apparatus is up to the task of protecting both.

Now I happen to live in Navy Nagar, one of the most protected parts of the city, and what I see post 26/11 is not terribly encouraging. To enter Navy Nagar you now have to pass a group of men in army fatigues carrying guns. So far, so good. But what do you have to do to convince them to let you in? It turns out, they would like you to show them a photo-identity card. Any photo-id will do. I don't like to make fun of security forces since I appreciate their work, but the reading skills of these gentlemen are not very impressive and I fear that a photo-id saying "Residence: Faridkot" and "Profession: Terrorist" might work just as well as any other.

Indeed the emerging picture is that they let in anyone who "seems OK". Sometimes I get waved on, and occasionally with a salute (i.e. they mistook me for a Navy officer). Several other cars, possibly of genuine Navy personnel, just race through the check point as if they were Formula 1 drivers. The checkers don't bat an eyelid. Even worse, I find that if I look determined to drive through then they let me through quite happily, while if I stop for them then they invariably check my ID.

In short, anyone upto mischief and possessing the tiniest brain can easily get through. So what's the point of the barrier then?

This is also what I find about airport security checks. When you pass the metal detector, it normally beeps. No one pays the tiniest attention. Usually it beeps because one is carrying coins or wearing a watch, but it would beep in quite the same way if one was carrying a weapon. The pat-down, even nowadays, is totally cursory and I suspect it will not reveal a small carefully concealed weapon. So what's the checking for?

I'm not proposing elimination of checkpoints, nor do I believe that checking should be made much more intrusive. What I am trying to suggest is that it be made more intelligent. Intelligence is not in short supply in India but it needs to be conveyed to the security staff instead of just taking some guys and randomly putting them out there so everyone feels something is being done.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

All about our mothers

Condolence is a tricky thing, at least for me. When someone has been bereaved, it's difficult to know what note to strike and what not to say. I remember a couple of disastrous efforts on my part, both involving colleagues who had lost their mothers. To one of them, who I was meeting after a long time, I mumbled "I heard about your mother" in what I thought was a sorrowful and compassionate tone, hoping I could quickly come up with a follow-up line. But in my embarrassment I spoke in a thick voice as if I was chewing toffee, and he quite naturally mis-heard. "What about my mother?" he asked, glaring at me. "She died, that's what about my mother". So that conversation ended right there.

On the other occasion I met a different colleague soon after his mother had passed away and, for reasons I cannot now fathom, I started out with "Is everything alright?". This person, who's never been very fond of me, looked extremely annoyed and said "No, everything is not alright. My mother died. So everything is definitely not alright." Oops. Clumsy me.

I suppose it can be hard for people to read your intentions and your confusion. Moreover in the cases at hand I believe the people concerned did not like me to start with (don't be shocked dear reader, such people really do exist!!). Anyhow I believe that I handle these things better after all these years (or as one might tastelessly put it, "many colleagues' mothers later").

My clumsiness aside, most condolers seem to belong to one of two extremes. One type will weep, clutch your hand and tell you in dramatic tones how sad it all is and how awful you must be feeling. On the other side there are the insensitive people who bluster their way through, with something like "Hi, old chap. Pity about your mother, eh? Good for her though, really, at her age. Life moves on, doesn't it - bought some new stocks lately?".

And there's a media version that falls somewhere in between the two. Barkha Dutt of NDTV is said to have asked families of the Bombay attack victims questions like "how do you feel, now that all your loved ones are dead?". (To be fair to Barkha, I don't think she quite said that, and I basically appreciate her and her reporting though I'm aware that most of my friends don't).

Now the reason why all these thoughts passed through my head is that Bombay is currently going through some confusion about how to deal with the terror attacks that took place four weeks ago today. Is it a continuing tragedy, not to mention that the surviving terrorist is being held within our midst, so therefore we must speak in hushed tones and avoid celebrations and parties? Or does life move on and we once more indulge our obsessions with the stock market and celebrate the re-opening of "iconic" hotels?

Some will tell me this is all quite irrelevant to the majority since it affects only the upper crust of society. And such people have already been roundly (and rather deservedly) condemned for their self-centred, Taj-centred, Oberoi-centred, not-CST-station-centred view of life. But I'm afraid that betrays ignorance of the soul of Bombay. Partying is an epidemic, an addiction or at least a regular habit in this city for much more than the Taj Hotel crowd. Hardly a couple of weeks can go by without some new festival popping up and providing yet another excuse to dance. And here we are at Christmas and the New Year.

I'm not exactly plugged in to the party circuit, but am watching with interest and a tiny bit of empathy as the confusion plays out.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Dawn article

I'm indebted to my old friend Utpal Chattopadhyay for sending me this link to another amazing article from The Dawn.

I'm currently enjoying a peaceful vacation in Udaipur, with newspapers and world events farthest from my mind... tonight I might end up dining in one of the many restaurants that screen "Octopussy" on a daily basis!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rising Dawn

Over the last couple of weeks I pointed out a couple of times, with examples, that The Dawn of Pakistan is overall a balanced and sensible newspaper. Many of my Indian readers knew this already, while others were greatly surprised by the discovery (though there's no greater surprise in finding some balanced, intellectually honest and secular people across the border than there is in finding unhinged, illogical and communal people on this side!!).

Well, the last week has seen the publication in The Dawn of an interview with the father of the captured terrorist Ajmal Kasab who has positively identified his son. While it appears that the initial investigation was done by a British newspaper, the fact that The Dawn would unearth and publish this information attests to their journalistic standards. There is little doubt that they will have been condemned by Pakistani fundamentalists and their supporters as "unpatriotic" for this, very much as sections of the press in India are reviled for exposing anything the Hindutva crowd doesn't want exposed.

Earlier one of my readers, in a comment about this posting of mine, cited a particular Op-Ed piece in The Dawn and concluded "It just goes on [sic] to show what sort of a phoney newspaper Dawn is!". As I've said before, there are articles in The Dawn that I disagree with, but this is true too of any Indian newspaper you can name. What is striking is that it carries so many courageous and brutally honest articles at a time when its country is on the defensive and a siege mentality is being propagated there. So, I think people who are looking at this newspaper for evidence that everything and everyone Pakistani is "phoney", might be better off looking in the mirror...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Overheard in the gym

The cast: Muscle Boy 1 (MB1), Muscle Boy 2 (MB2), Middle-Aged Runt (Me).

Note: all comments due to "Me" were made only in my own mind, as indicated by square brackets [].

Scene: In the locker room of a gym in Colaba, late evening. A huge march is unfolding on the street in front, a stone's throw from the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Hotel, to protest against Indian politicians and their inaction on terrorism.

MB1: Arre yaar, you know that Nariman House was a centre for Mossad agents.

MB2: Really!

MB1: Of course! How could those people be priests? Come on, there were two terrorists for the Taj and two for Oberoi and you think they would send two more just for some stupid priests?

MB2: Oh.

Me: [So how come everyone including Baby Moshe didn't come out with guns blazing? I mean, can the Mossad be that bad?]

MB1: They were Mossad agents, I'm telling you.

MB2: You know, the U.S. has told us to go ahead and do what we have to do.

MB1: Yes but we don't have the balls. Look at the U.S. After their reaction to 9/11 no one has dared to attack them.

MB2: Yes and you know, last week the terrorists had planned to attack the U.S. too, or... or... (thinks furiously) or maybe the U.S. consulate, I'm not sure. But it was in the PAPERS!!

Me: [So how could it not be true?]

MB1: We don't have the balls, I'm telling you. Napunsak (impotent). That's what we are. Bloody napunsak.

MB2: Napunsak.

MB1: Yah, Napunsak. I'm telling you.

MB2: Anyway it's no use protesting is it! (referring to the march taking place outside)

MB1: No, absolutely no use. No point at all.

MB2: It's better to be at the gym... (pauses as a bright thought strikes him) getting fit to fight terrorists!

MB1: You're right!!

Me: [Be sure to publicise your mobile number in case the nation needs you!]

"Stateless actors" - born on a desert island?

Asif Ali Zardari has said he very much doubts that the captured terrorist in Bombay is a Pakistani. So far, so good - he's free to express his doubts. The terrorist may after all still turn out to be Indian, or in principle he could be a citizen of Sri Lanka, Sweden, South Africa, Nagorno-Karabakh or any other country.

But then Mr Zardari extends this doubt to a suggestion that defies logic: the terrorists who attacked Bombay were "stateless actors". I ask myself, how does one end up being stateless? By being born on a desert island not claimed by any of the world's 203 sovereign states? So perhaps these terrorists hail from the Niue and Cook islands off the New Zealand coast? Or from an unexplored part of Antarctica?

Though stateless, they're not in the least bit weapon-less?

Well I'm probably being too harsh on Mr Zardari who has to dig himself out of a tough situation. Perhaps his statement is to be interpreted as code for "even if they come from, and are armed in, my country, I don't recognise them as Pakistanis". If so that's a good beginning, though there's a very long way to go from there.

Balanced opinion vs. loose hinges

This Opinion piece in The Dawn today, Media falls in the old trap is an excellent example of a balanced opinion from the Pakistan press.

I must mention that Indian news channels last night disgusted me by repeatedly airing some stupid material from Pakistan TV and then getting involved in a childish media war about it. We don't need proof that part of Pakistan's media is unhinged - just as part of India's media is unhinged. (Parenthetically, one of the most unhinged TV channels in the world is Fox News in the USA!).

In seeking common ground, as people on both sides are trying to do, one hopes the valuable point gets made that there are Indians and Pakistanis with similar views, counterbalancing the nut cases on both sides who'd just like to blow each other up with no concern for what happens to the world.

To change the subject, talking of "unhinged" media reminds me of two Indian politicians whose hinges have come off in the last couple of days. In case you've just come back from Mars, Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan had this to say about the family of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan who died in the gun battle against terrorists (the family rejected the CM's condolence visit):

"If it were not Sandeep's house, not even a dog would have gone there."

Not to be outdone, BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi came up with this priceless gem: "Some women wearing lipstick and powder have taken to streets in Mumbai and are abusing politicians spreading dissatisfaction against democracy. This is what terrorists are doing in Jammu and Kashmir".

I realise now that the growing criticism of India's political class over the last week has been far too mild. Not just their ethics and competence, but evidently also their sanity is in question!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"The Hindu" comes out with details

It's amazing how fast my blog postings turn obsolete. The Hindu has come up with a very detailed article about the captured terrorist (including yet another name for him, Mohammad Ajmal Amir Iman). While the sources of the information are not named, and while The Hindu could be wrong as it has been wrong before, the fact is that this is a very scholarly publication generally known for its careful pursuit of factual information. Moreover its political ideology (roughly CPI-M) does not make it prone to irresponsible anti-Pakistan rhetoric (digression: it is, however, prone to irresponsible pro-China rhetoric!).

The new report is as detailed as this sample indicates:

"The man in the photo was born on July 13, 1987 at Faridkot village in Dipalpur tehsil of Okara district in Pakistan’s Punjab province. His family belongs to the underprivileged Qasai caste. His father, Mohammad Amir Iman, runs a dahi-puri snack cart. His mother, Noori Tai, is a homemaker." You can read the full article here.

Interestingly the Faridkot in Okara district is the only Faridkot, out of three, about which The Dawn had nothing defensive to say in its article "The misplaced hype about Faridkot" that I referred to in my previous blog posting. So I think it may be time for The Dawn to continue its investigations, taking into account the new revelations (or allegations) appearing in The Hindu. The Dawn is a serious newspaper and if they discover that the hype is not misplaced, it would be appropriate for them to say so.

In denial?

Today I read an article in The Dawn, Pakistan, called The misplaced hype about Faridkot. It illustrates many points I've been trying to make.

First of all the article is written in a clear and non-loony tone much as any article in the mainstream Indian press. Its main thesis is that there is no evidence, much less proof, that the captured terrorist came from Faridkot.

I agree with some points made in the article but not with others. But again, the level of logic, while not meeting my stringent standards, is hardly lower than that of much that's written in the best Indian papers.

(i) The article observes that there are several towns/villages named "Faridkot" in Pakistan as well as one (or more) in Indian Punjab. Therefore merely naming "Faridkot" does not demonstrate anything. I agree with this. An apparent certainty conveyed by the mention of this name has not stood up to scrutiny.

(ii) The article points out that the Indian media doesn't even know if the captured person is called "Ajmal Amir Kamal, Muhammad Ajmal, Muhammad Amin Kasab, Azam Amir Kasav or Azam Amir Kasab". This is also true. The Hindu used the first form yesterday while the third and the fifth are the most common. The names are not minor variants of each other. If they can't get the name straight, can we trust that they have got other more important details straight?

(iii) The article also goes on about how people in a particular Faridkot are "secular" and "peaceful". This is interesting, note that secular is held up as a positive value in The Dawn (while a number of Indians in mainstream politics deride "secular" as something terrible to be, much like "liberal" in the pre-Obama US). But as a proof that no terrorist could come from there, this is really no good. Character certificates for villages don't tell us if a terrorist originated there or not.

(iv) The Dawn quotes the Economic Times of India as saying "We can tell you who this man is and how he has become the vital link for investigating agencies to crack the terror plot". This is the kind of thing that bothers me from the Indian media. If they can tell us, why don't they tell us?

(v) Finally, noteworthy for what is left unsaid, The Dawn article has focused only on the origin of the terrorist. Much more important, as I've said previously, is where he was trained and armed. This is a key issue and one on which they have nothing to say.

I also want to mention here that any reader of my blog who followed the link to The Dawn (the link was broken yesterday but I've fixed it now) would have seen several other Ed and Op-Ed articles which are far more accommodating about the possibility of Pakistani involvement in some form. That sounds fair enough to me, after all we can't expect a Pakistani newspaper to come out shouting "Yes we did it" any more than we can expect Indian media to come out bluntly exposing some things our government has done in Kashmir in the past.

But at the end of it, the big question is, when will the Indian government provide us (i.e. Indians, Pakistanis and the world at large) some convincing evidence of Pakistani involvement at the training and arming stage, which I strongly believe to be likely? That's far more important than the name or village of origin.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Yes and no

The terrorists aimed to bring the Taj hotel down.

They did not aim to bring the Taj hotel down.

They phoned headquarters in Pakistan during the attacks.

They did not phone headquarters in Pakistan during the attacks.

They worked at the Taj/Oberoi before the attacks.

They did not work at the Taj/Oberoi before the attacks.

They rented rooms at Nariman House.

They did not rent rooms at Nariman House.

All the "denials" above are from The Hindu, India's most authoritative newspaper, quoting reliable sources like the police and the NSG (see for example this and this). Where then did the original, evidently false, assertions, arise from?

Don't the original false reports stick in most peoples' minds forever? And if this is the level of our confusion on relatively simple, local facts, how are we ever going to make a convincing case to the world about the origins of this conspiracy?

Operation Water Rat 2006 - don't miss it!

Yesterday (November 30) evening, CBN-IBN aired a re-run of a programme first aired on February 2, 2006. In this video two journalists showed how they managed to bring a cargo of 45 kg of "contraband" (empty boxes, but which could have been full of explosives or anything else) through international waters into Bombay by fishing boat completely unchallenged. They drove the boxes to the Gateway of India and, with the Taj Heritage in the background, recounted to the camera how they could well have been terrorists trying to bomb the Gateway and sites around it. Today it makes chilling viewing.

You can see a truncated (5-minute) version of the video online here. It's truly astounding. But the full TV programme was even more astounding for the details it revealed about the dysfunctional Customs and Coast Guard. It's not that there is poor policing of our coasts, there is no policing at all!

If anyone finds a longer version of the video online, please let me know.

How might a Pakistani feel?

It may be too delicate and complex a point to make to my stressed and overheated country, but it's been made by others and I'd like to make it in my own way.

When Indians chant "Pakistan murdabad" ("death to Pakistan") in the context of the recent terror attacks in Bombay, as has happened in more than one rally in recent days, what exactly do they mean?

If it means death to Pakistani people then I don't support it, and I sincerely hope no one means that. It is as scientific a fact of life as the earth orbiting the sun, that there are innocent people sharing the same values in every culture and country. In the case of Pakistan it's particularly clear, as many wonderful Pakistanis are known to us either personally or through their writings. Just go to the Editorial pages of The Dawn, Pakistan's leading English daily, and see for yourself that the writings share the same values as any leading Indian daily (though one may not agree with everything written there, which can also be said of Indian dailies).

So perhaps the chant means death to the Pakistani government. Well if that's the wish then it's already happened, for their would-be Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning last year. But that's not an event that should please any Indian.

Back to Bombay, it's perfectly plausible that the terrorists who carried out the recent attacks were Kashmiris. If so, we can hardly chant "death to Kashmir", given that we believe Kashmir is "an integral part of India".

Now all this brings me to my last point. Extending the above logic somewhat, people may claim (and have claimed, in the British, American and Pakistani press) that Pakistan is simply not involved in these attacks and India is indulging in needless finger-pointing. On this point, I part company with these "progressives". Whether the terrorists are from Kashmir or Pakistan, it is a certainty that they were extremely well-trained and well-armed, quite on par with the Indian commandos who eventually wiped them out. Such training and arming does not happen in a vacuum. The needle of suspicion (a well-worn phrase) happens to point to Pakistan, where by Pakistan I now mean (i) the geographical territory called Pakistan, and (ii) several people and organisations based in Pakistan or having bases in Pakistan. IF the Pakistani government has power over these areas and bases (that's not clear as of today, look at how little power the Indian government has over some parts of India) then the government would of course share the responsibility.

So if the chants are aimed at the people and organisations, almost certainly in Pakistan, who trained and armed our recent invaders then much as I dislike death threats, I will put my pacifism on hold and say yes, anger against them is quite justified. But let's not forget that innocent Pakistanis are victims of those same people as much as any of us are.