Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rock the party

Now this is rare. As unusual as hen’s teeth. Our generation has seen no live performances. The famed Pakistani Sufi rock band Junoon – means madness in Arabic and obsession in Urdu – performed on the banks of the glistening Dal. A very enthused audience jived to Salman Ahmad, the lead singer, as he crooned hit upon another hit. In the VIP enclosure, Farooq Abdullah [an adrenaline high ex-CM] swayed to the hybrid tunes. The police chief soon joined Abdullah in the fun. Girls, in nearby enclosures, screamed at the top of their voices, cheering on the songster. Boys clapped wildly. The boatmen in the Dal raised their oars in a distance. Music filled the May air of Kashmir.

It was manna for the entertainment starved Kashmiris. 4000 people attended the much hyped-up peace concert. VIPs, children of bureaucrats, friends-of- the-children-of-bureaucrats, students bussed form various missionary schools in Srinagar and a footloose crowd. Security men -- comprising of the local cops [who help erect and maintain the barricades that separate the dignitaries from commoners], the CRPF [who watch over the vehicles of VIPs and can -- alas -- only listen to the tunes from the parking lot] and commandoes [who maintain a hawk-like vigil while the notables tap feet with the songster] – were present in great numbers.

Not surprisingly a great deal is being made of the rock and roll jamboree in Srinagar. It is being made to appear like a prelude to peace. Junoon -- the harbinger. The symbolism is already in place. A Pakistani band singing Sufi rock. The correlation is not too hard to fathom. Former bad guys turned good guys. Former Sufis to radicals -- back to -- Sufism. We just need to join the dots.

Connections apart, music -- no doubt -- is soulful. It is levitating. And no one perhaps needs it better than the Kashmiris. But one is compelled to question the timing of this little show. Kashmir is in a state of flux. We live in tumultuous times where cases of severe human rights violations have not been properly investigated. Where people continue to suffer on a daily basis. A dance jig by Dr Abdullah or a joyous shriek by some top official’s daughter, however shrill, at the Dal concert cannot be called peace.

They may briefly tell you that Junoon's music soared from the shores of Dal. They might as well add that it soared higher than the elegant poplars that line the high-security hotel lawns in which the band played. They won’t tell you that a few miles away hundreds of orphans sleep early – in the Kashmir Yateem Trust – because their parents were lost to the violence years. Their moist, unloved eyes deserve our respect. As do thousands of parents whose children disappeared over the years and no one – none of the VIP’s, none of the police chiefs, no judge present in the music concert – ever tells them anything about their whereabouts. Their parents’ agony – a sad legacy of war -- needs our sensitivity. They require our attention. And solidarity. Not the rock star – Salman.

Let me put this straight. I am not being sardonic here. I admit that there are many recreation outlets available to Kashmiris despite their daily brushes with violence. So you might as well argue -- why should I take offence at a harmless peace concert? Do we stop laughing because people have suffered? Or because they continue to suffer.

The answer is a big no. We must indeed try and live our lives full on. A music band complete with its gear – drums and guitars and microphones – playing in a strife-torn place, with a crowd swaying to them indeed makes great headlines. It also sends out a message. Everything is fine. Normal. There is nothing wrong in this manufactured message only that it is NOT correct.

Scratch beneath the glossy surface – the lush lawns, the imposing mountain backdrop, the legendary Dal, good-looking people, Farooq Abdullah's romps, rich brats hollering [they don’t talk in Kashmiri, by the way] – and you have the real picture. Old men humiliatingly frisked on the roadsides, village elders slapped in front of village gatherings, scores of war orphans, people carrying the sick in horse-carts with a lantern at night, dis-appeared young men, mass graves.

Scratch a little more and you have the real Kashmir. Villages with no electricity, cities with no roads, forests with no trees. Widespread corruption. No awareness for the protection of environment. A slow and painful death of the Kashmiri language in urban Kashmir. Ziltch intellectual curiosity.

Amidst all this a concert looks terribly out of place. Of course no one in the valley will tell you that they have a problem with these shows. ‘It brings peace here,’ some buffoon might tell you. Really, you struggle to say.

We desperately need a truth and reconciliation committee. We need to seriously atone. We need to learn to forget, forgive and forge a completely new beginning. We also need to be sensitive to the plight of so many of our people.

That is step one and we haven’t achieved it yet.

Rock concerts can always follow.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Slicing a Forest

When you defile the pleasant streams
And the wild bird's abiding place,
You massacre a million dreams
And cast your spittle in God's face.
~John Drinkwater

Article 77 of the Swiss constitution provides for the preservation and protection of its forest land. Environment is accorded more importance than -- hold your breath: public works, communication, economy and even political rights in Switzerland. In the American forests there are areas designated as wilderness by acts of Congress. No human being can go for logging, mining, road and building construction and land leases in these zones. In 1999 when a road was proposed in a national forest, President Clinton swiftly intervened. He ordered a moratorium. Construction work came to an immediate stop. One of America's great central tasks, Clinton quoted Roosevelt, is “leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us”.

Contrast this with Kashmir 2008. I’ve posted on this issue previously and I don’t intent to be iterative but this is something – invoking both Presidents Clinton and Roosevelt – we owe to our future generations. Let me simplify it a bit. Countryside Kashmir is being sullied and a lawful body is doing the damage. It is actually a board that oversees a pilgrimage to the Amaranth cave in Kashmir. They work less like a board and more like missionaries-on-a-mission, much to the chagrin of environmentalists/conservationists. The missionary cave board has an ex-military man at its helm. He is also acting as the governor of J&K. And these folks are openly flouting law and wrecking the pine and cedar forests of Kashmir.

Sample these headlines:
May 23, 2008: Greater Kashmir, Kashmir’s major daily:
May 23, 2008: Rising Kashmir, another major publication:
After denial SASB undertakes secret road construction plan in Baltal

SASB is the missionary board with its official appellation. It goes on building hundreds of huts and lavatories in the forest area causing considerable damage to the environment. More than 600 lavatories and 150 prefabricated huts have come up in the recent days. The land, newspapers report, is actually forest land falling in Sindh forest division where construction of any sort is strictly forbidden until proper approval from the state cabinet, forest department and other competent authorities. The law says that no construction – even a temporary one – can be carried out in the green zone.

To its credit the board applied for government permission last year. However the request was TURNED down. Undeterred the missionary board went about its work, making concrete lanes and concrete plinths using brick. In the middle of a virgin forest! Nobody ever tells these tomfools that if they ever attempted this anywhere else on God’s green earth, they would be locked up in some dark dungeon to rot for the rest of their adult lives.

That is not all. The missionary board has been working on a concrete road, cutting through the forest. They have secretly built a 3 km road Dumail onwards. My friend Omar reports in Rising Kashmir that the proposal to construct the macadamized road for the passage of light motor vehicles to the Amaranth cave, situated at a height of 3888 m above the sea level, was made in 2003 on the directions of State Governor. It is a crime. It is crime squared to pity.

Kashmir's beautiful forests have lots of European hoopoes in them. These are green and tranquil realms. And they have remained largely untouched by human intervention. A principal defining characteristic of these forest lands is that they do not have, and in most cases never have had, roads across them. We should let it be. The heady pines are vital havens for wildlife -- indeed, absolutely critical to the survival of some endangered species.

Ours is nature unspoiled. A treasured inheritance which we all should be proud of.

We cannot -- and should not -- allow a missionary board to tarnish it.

That is the least we can do for our little dell.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Magical May

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while now, never got around to it.
Suddenly it is high May and it is raining. I just love the steady patter of rain on my pane. It feels almost home. And refreshing too. Newspapers are replete with sloppy explanations, quoting the poor weatherman. Some f******* western disturbance causes the f****** hot air to go up and then winds from Kashmir blow in to fill the seducing gap, they tell us. And it rains. Kashmir, it appears, works like a shot of tranquilizer India cannot do without.

Glad tidings first. Obama seems certain to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination in the US. That is only if that spunky old war-mare Hillary would let him. Looks like she is going to go down fighting. It was exhilarating to see real democracy in action all these previous weeks. Day after day. Primary after primary. Caucus after caucus. Debate after debate. Vote count after vote count, it was sheer catechization. The way a candidate makes it to the top is perhaps the best example of participatory democracy anywhere in the world. [Though democracy is not always flawless, occasionally it does promote a dim-wit. Example: George Bush Jr].

This week also marked the 40th anniversary of the student revolution in France. It was the May of 1968 when a million students abandoned their lycee and university classes to bring upon a profound social change in France. The rebellious youth were disillusioned among other things -- with the Vietnam War, the old society of Europe and traditional morality. Charles de Gaulle [CDG], the iconic French president tried to crush the uprising. Brute force was used to put it down but the students held forth. Soon workers joined them. Intellectuals like the existentialist John Paul Sartre backed the revolution. Police soon swung into action and occupied the prestigious Sorbonne University. Tempers frayed. Protesters were arrested in their hundreds --including Sartre -- and swiftly charged with sedition. At this CDG intervened and had charges against Sartre dropped. ‘You don’t arrest Voltaire’, CDG famously remarked.

A million young men marched in Paris on the magical morning of May 13, 1968. De Gaulle’s administration shuddered at this open defiance of authority. What started as an impromptu protest had become a movement that now seemed completely unstoppable. At one point CDG had to go into hiding. The brilliant Tariq Ali recalls those nostalgic – and eventful years – as the street-fighting years. Eventually France changed forever. Religion, patriotism and respect for authority gave way to liberal morality – epitomized by equality, sexual liberation and respect for human rights. The world watched in total awe. Students in those tumultuous May nights plotted and managed to bring about a dramatic shift in values.

Closer home the rampant pillaging of fragile countryside ecology continues unabated. Everyday -- for the past one week -- whenever I check a Kashmiri newspaper online I am immensely saddened. There are daily reports of impunity with which the beauty of Pahalgam is being destroyed. Dirty CRPF make-shift tentments – where troopers in groups of 10's -- eat, sleep, loll and play cards -- have come up all over the lush dell. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, trenches are being dug for excreting, bang in the middle of a golf course this time.

Kashmir is no doubt a tranquilizer but does that mean we overdose ourselves on it.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Hope lives on!

Sixty years after the ethnic people of Palestine were driven away from their homes by Zionists, Palestinians continue to struggle. Strewn across harsh deserts and refugee camps, the gallant people of Palestine still hold the keys to their old homes in Jerusalem. Two new generations have been born in exile since the Al-Nakba [The catastrophe] but the hope to return lives on...!

Palestinian kids are killed each passing day in Gaza and West Bank. People queue overnight for a mere food hand-out. Women are routinely kicked around at Israeli check-points. The displaced Palestinians continue to live a miserable existence. It is endless agony and hardship. Cold nights with no fuel to warm. Pain. Yet a shimmer of hope floats. Call it defiance. Resistance. Human spirit.

They shall return some day, to their home, heart and hearth.

An elderly Palestinian lady shows the keys to her home in Israel, 60 years after she and her family were thrown out by the occupying Zionists.

The third generation: Hope lives on. Palestine burns bright in tender eyes.

Candle-light: Palestine, the banner reads. That says it all.

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Happy 60th B'day Israel

Israel has just turned 60. Festivities have broken out. Night creatures are out, sipping Maccabee beer and cheering, blaring horns and waving the Star of David. Every country in Europe is dialing Tel-Aviv for congratulatory messages. ‘Oh, how glad we feel, you made it, Olmert?’ The situation is the same in case of Israel’s master-state US: Newspapers are going the whole hog: ‘Fantastic Israel’. ‘Historical feat’. Indeed. That Texan dim-wit Bush junior is expected to join the soiree over the weekend.

After all Israel did manage to survive. In the end the Jewry got their promised homeland. Eventually the Zionist dream of self determination -- of the Jews -- seems to have come to some fruition. In between the state of Israel fought six major and countless minor wars and lived to rejoice. It is a world leader in space technology and arms manufacturing. Israel – almost miraculously -- revived the dying Hebrew language and prouds to call itself a modern day democracy.

Alas the celebrations for the 60th birthday of the miracle state had to be held in tight security. Thugs, they say, do not sleep well; usually they're afraid of retribution. This is exactly how Israel feels. It is a strong country, aided by a clandestine nuke program and backed by the west 100%. Israel won wars against its Arab neighbors and has been largely successful in putting down the Palestinian voice.

Yet 60 years after it was founded, it continues to have an appalling human rights record -- in many cases the worst in history -- and is at best known as an aggressor state. Israel has indeed come a long way from being victims of European anti-semitism till a few decades back to victimisers. Who would think that the same guys, who closely survived the Nazi gas chambers in those dreaded pre-WW II days, today shape the racist Israeli foriegn policy?

The state of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948, about six months after the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition what was then Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Shortly afterwards Israel flexed its new-born muscles, using unspeakable terror and plunder, and drove some 700,000 Palestinians out of their homes. The ongoing Israeli anniversary is calculated according to the Jewish lunar calendar. Palestinians are due to mark the occasion, al-Nakba [the catastrophe] on 15 May.

Around 1917, when the Brits entered Palestine, more than 92% of the population of Palestine was Arab – by all historical accounts -- and there were at that time no more than 56,000 Jews in Palestine. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Palestinians at that time lived in peace with each other. Palestinians in the early 20th century owned 97.5% of the land, while Jews [native Palestinians and recent immigrants together] owned only 2.5% of the land.

Prior to 1948, most Israeli Jews were persecuted and dispossessed European Jews who made a one-third minority of the population. Then the mass flight [major aliyah] of Jews from Europe began. It was the world's most brazenly illegal immigration exercise. And for Israel to become a "Jewish majority" it had to expel and dispossess the two-third Palestinian majority. 80% of the Palestinian people were terrorized and thrown out from their homes, farms, and businesses and have been kept out for the past 60 years. They continue to live as refugees – in miserable conditions -- across the neighboring countries. Israel is now 7 million plus -- and Jewish.

In her 60 years of flawed democracy – Israel -- routinely treated Palestinians differently compared to its Jewish citizens. Even now it is no more than a form of apartheid democracy – as the former activist US Prez Jimmy Carter calls it -- which only Israel is allowed to exhibit. In the occupied West Bank there are, for example "Jewish Roads" and "Non-Jewish Roads". Israel issues national identify cards where the religion of the card holder is clearly shown in bold type. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have to drive vehicles with license plates that have different coloring than the cars driven by Israeli settlers. Palestinian citizens have to live in segregated communities [or ghettos] because development is strictly limited to Jewish places. Ironically, the word "ghetto" was invented to describe the living conditions of Eastern European Jews in Tsarist Russia!

That is not all, Israel -- in an effort to shut the Palestinians completely out -- has erected an apartheid wall 60 meters wide and up to 8 meters high within the West Bank. It will run for 703 kilometers and separate the Palestinians from the Jewish settlers. Despite the international court of justice ruling it illegal, Israel's racist wall snakes on through the West Bank, taking legitimate Palestinian land [whatever is left of it] and providing for the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements. Palestinians are to be left in limbo. They will face a daily commute through 11 transit points. Towns such as Qalqilya and Jayyous, formerly prosperous, with fertile hinterlands and good water supplies, are virtually encircled, with their farms and greenhouses on the Israeli side. Democracy.

In case history or geography bogs you down, here is a little play of the numeric: Find the similarity in these numbers. 106, 111, 127, 162, 171, 228, 237, 248, 250, 251, 252, 256, 259, 262, 265, 267, 270, 271, 279, 280, 285, 298, 313, 316, 317, 332, 337, 347, 425, 427, 444, 446, 450, 452, 465, 467, 468, 469, 471, 476, 478, 484, 487, 497, 498, 501, 509, 515, 517, 518, 520, 573, 587, 592, 605, 607, 608, 636, 641, 672, 673, 681, 694, 726, 799....
These are the resolution numbers passed by the United Nations condemning Israel in the past sixty years. For her countless attrocities, tortures, massacres, rapes, little genocides, savagery and indifference towards the Palestinians. These numbers are only indicative and the list is really long. Ironically Israel doesn’t care a shit about what UN says. UN resolutions work against Iran, Iraq and the like. Not democracies. Not Israel of course.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, famously told his aide [and a prominent Zionist leader] Nahum Goldman just before he died: Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it's true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations' time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it's simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out.

PR sums it up the best: Europeans for centuries took turns gang rapping their Jewish citizens, and their guilty conscious burns them from the inside. This guilty conscious is the reason why the West covers up Israeli war crimes and continues to paint Israeli apartheid as "the only democracy in the Middle East". Somebody has to pay for their crimes against their European Jews so long it is not a Westerner who pays the price.

History will tell that not only did the west wrong the innocent Palestinians by making them pay for their own historical, shameful crimes, but also they also wronged their Jewish citizens twice: Once for the many Holocausts they have committed against them, and the second for locking them into an endless struggle with stubborn Arabs who would not sell their rights.

Democary at 60. Israel. Clap-clap.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A week in the mall

In the days of yore, Indians had a different meaning of the word mall. ’Mall’ used to be anything but a 1 million square foot exclusive retail and ramble zone. If someone was really loaded -- in the pre-globalization days -- his money was commonly called Mall. And then globalization happened. The Gandhi-esque money of old coffers and deep pockets -- hoarded over many socialist years -- came in direct contact with the Franklin-smelling dollars of the capitalistic west. And lo presto! There was the New Age Mall.

Post-globalization we have become so used to the mall culture that one is likely to find his/her future wife/hubby in some cozy bistro or across a mall aisle. We are abandoning the hot, dirty, pan strewn, beggar-infested marketplace for the climate-controlled confines of the ubiquitous, fast mushrooming malls. Fitted with neon lights and glass and steel escalators and imported trees the malls come abuzz with the generation next Youngistan -- sales boys and sales girls and a whole new range of products – from Namibian butterfly berry crème for cracked heels to Swiss military knives for everyone. Everything and anything you need or do not really need is on offer -- at the swipe of a credit card.

It feels jolly good. The most satisfying argument is: The crowd is decent. Everything stacked [which they unstack for you, in real quick time] is beyond the purchasing power of the lower middle class and the toiling masses, so effectively the poor – and ugly India -- is shut out from the air-conditioned limits of the great Indian malling experience. The middle-middle classes come in their droves. Sari-clad housewives carefully stepping onto the escalators. Families of six. Mostly touch and feel. Check the tag and let go. They are happy hopping shops. Consequently higher the income ladder you go, more you shell out. Cutesy show-windows ambush your attention span. Big brands vie for your eye-balls.

Raj is 6ft2, a childhood pal and on the verge of crossing the dash between bachelorhood and wedlock. He asked me to help him shop for his wedding. Like a nice buddy I obliged. We raided all the major malls. Since Raj is a meticulous fellow, he went about checking the detailing -- from shirt stitching to color combinations to ankle measurements and I joined him in the fun. Enthusiastic salespeople went out of their way to help him get into a jacket or try another mega size shoe. While we were treated like royals on weekdays [when there is barely a soul in the malls], we had to jostle for attention over the weekend [when everyone and his doggy descends on the malls]. End of the eventful week, I too was poorer by a few grands. But that’s exactly what consumerism is all about.

In between an impromptu dance party, quickly set up a mobile ramp and broke into a jig. Nobody knew why but they danced their heart out! Then there is this rather mundane exercise of handing over your shopping bags to the guard – usually a dark skinny guy in blue uniform – and collect a coupon. Usually people bark to the dark guy [who must never have seen a school] in their acquired call-centre accents: Guard, keep the bags together. Gimme a single coupon for all my merchandise. Pronto! Often enough the poor guy looks bewildered. Not to worry though. The confusions are small casualties in a big-big mall.

Overall I’ve mixed feelings about malls. It is vanity but variety. Consumerist zones but comfort. The familiar sight of rich fat kids biting into chocolate-filled ice-cream bars. Heavily powdered females conceit writ large on their glossed faces. Over-excited teens. Retired army officers with curved moustaches in golf Tees. Swagger intact but slightly drooping. High testosterone north Indian males out there to splurge. Credit cards in hand, ready to flitter for an over-prized Kelvin Klein underwear. To be worn beneath low rise jeans, for the lapel to show. An occasional cleaning man, mopping the floor, breaks the decent crowd portrait. But the fiesta continues.

Happy malling