Thursday, July 17, 2008


Time for a sabbatical.

I haven’t taken a vacation for ages now. It has been work and shit-loads of it. One of the most annoying things about the corporate world is this almost hysterical obsession with duty. The bugging sense of accountability. Attending to it. Creating stuff, in my case, on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Unrelenting in your endeavor. Trying to create value and capital for your organization and helping them help themselves to bloat their bottom-lines. The modern man has been reduced to that -- a mechanical creature, who works like an assembly line -- for someone else.

I’ve been lucky enough to be bestowed with a few creative bones. They keep me in good shape. Sub-consciously I always try to stave-off these demons of value creation, that drain your energy and time. Still I think I need to re-condition myself. Delhi is a huge, humid, haphazard metropolis that can distract you from reality and cut you from the roots. People perpetually keep hammering away at life here -- on the traffic signals, underneath over-bridges and across the road -- in those little cubby-hole shops. It is a constant commotion.

So all my bags are packed for destination Kashmir. A very enviable chunk of land, whose people are a little touched but sweet. It is full of butterflies and gossip but I don’t mind such hare-brained distractions, as long as it is naïve. Inwardly you sketch a smile at their rather simplistic perspective of life, which is mostly sappy. And you know that however hard you try to, you cannot unbelong to them. Slowly you end up loving the quietude of the place.

Amidst these pastoral settings, I am going to attend two weddings of two incredible people. Four really, their spouses included. Two of my closest pals are tying the knot. It is going to be loads of fun and frolic and feasting. The finger-licking Wazwan. And I shall try to stay connected to my blog -- and post -- while in Kashmir.

Till then, au revoir.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008


June was pretty eventful. It rained, clouds burst, lightening flickered and people shouted quite a bit. So while Europe played some spry football in relentless rain and as parts of India witnessed their first queer parade, Kashmir marched to re-claim its forest land. The endgame warmed some hearts and ached others. So while the Spaniards walked away with the UEFA cup and the unqueer bystanders watched the Delhi parade in a mix of horror and amusement, two significant things went completely unnoticed.

Both things concern us -- at a very basic level. And they are both connected to the larger question of human freedom and civil liberty. First, the US Supreme Court ruled on a key constitutional case. The 5-4 verdict stated that all prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay are now constitutionally entitled to bring Habeas Corpus in a federal court to challenge the legality of their detention, thus upholding the iconic right of any individual, whether guilty or not, to petition. Second, in the UK, the very courageous David Davis, Britain’s shadow home secretary shocked everyone when he resigned over a proposed 42-day detention plan [part of the Counter Terrorism Bill] authored by Messer’s Gordon Brown and co.

Both instances have been moral victories, if nothing else, for all those who value and cherish freedom and who find it preposterous that Prez Bush and his British acolytes are hell bent on trampling the fundamental freedoms of human beings. Bush, the war-monger, whose political countdown has already begun and who is, for sure, going to go down in text-books as a classical case of America’s most stupid Prez, began this by suspending the most efficient safeguard of the liberty of a human being -- the Habeas Corpus. Under Bush, anyone with a slightly different skin-hue, could arise the suspicion of the state, and hence could be held against his wish. Interrogated and thrown in some hell-hole to rot. Worse still, he could not fight or prove his innocence in any court of law. Thankfully the Supreme Court, in its June 2008 order, set the record straight -- while Bush is still in the dying days of his flawed Presidency. That is like one more egg on his arrogant face.

Across the Atlantic, continuing with the mini-me policies of the discredited Tony Blair, one fine afternoon Gordon Brown came up with his own parchment of draconian laws. He wanted to extend the detention period of anyone, innocent or otherwise, with a slightly different hue of skin -- and hence perfectly mistrustful -- to 42 full days from the current 28, reducing the emblematic and historic Magna Carta to a joke. Having convinced the Conservatives, Brown did manage to pass the parchment in the House of Commons. Just when it looked like a connivance, there was light: David Davis stood up in the Westminster to tell his own party and Brown -- that they had got it all messed up. Just like the kid in Andersen’s Emperors new clothes, he uttered the real truth: The 42-day joke was nothing more than an erosion of civil liberties in the United Kingdom. David resigned, while Brown fumed. However hope bobbed in the island country.

As I post, a major poll for the respected Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has found that more than 61% of Britons believe six weeks detention is too long. The Upper house in the British Parliament or the House of Lords appears set to reject Brown’s parchment, since Labor has no majority in the upper house. Most political scientists in the UK now opine that the 42-day clause is almost certain to be scooped out of the Counter Terrorism Bill and thrown into history‘s trash bin. Meantime, David Davis is expected to do well, as he stands for a by-election tomorrow, having resigned his MP post on the issue, and stirring a nation-wide debate on liberty and rights in his country. I hope he makes it.

But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,
And give my rage a brother! Liberty!

Oscar Wilde wrote in the Sonnet to Liberty. It was in the 19th century. I am convinced he was right, then, as he sounds now.


Friday, July 04, 2008

A rendezvous with reason

Tariq Ramadan, 45, Muslim, scholar, activist, Swiss citizen, resident of Britain, active on several continents, is a hard man to pin down. That is how the New York Times portraits the western world’s most noted Muslim thinker. Two of the world’s most influential magazines Prospect and Foreign Policy rank him at number 8 in a list of the world’s top 100 contemporary intellectuals. He is regularly called Islam’s ‘Martin Luther’. Tariq teaches theology at Oxford. I had a chance to hear his profound views last night. We had tea together, afterwards.

My first impression of the wiry Tariq Ramadan was this: God, how could someone so lean and so Egyptian-looking be so smart. For beginners, Tariq oozes humility. He is witty and has a brilliant sense of humor. His English may be just okay but his understanding of life and logic is exceptional. The comprehension is both erudite and sharp. Like a cut diamond. And Tariq Ramadan has a beautiful conviction that is simply disarming. He swiftly anatomizes the most complex argument to barebones and does so with an immaculate ease, that doesn’t come to all.

The glitter in Tariq’s eye is haunting. Beneath his soft exterior lies an uber-cool intellect. The man constantly questions which is perhaps the most endearing thing about any great intellectual. He poses tough questions and then ventures out to provide equally stirring answers. ‘Criticism, Tariq began his talk, is important’. To be able to ask questions, unflinchingly, any question, regarding faith or life or politics is essential. Without being dogmatic. It not only clears doubts, he added, it unblocks the mind to many wonders, and it dusts away cobwebs. Although I haven’t read any of Tariq’s major works [which I hope to; I’ve been through some of his brilliant essays, though] I could immediately draw parallels with the likes of modern day thinkers like Zia-u-din Sardar and Karen Armstrong.

Tariq Ramadan greatly stressed Ijtihad. That is critical reasoning. In his 60 minutes of talk, he accentuated the theme many times. It is perhaps Tariq’s idea of reconciling Islam with modernity. ‘Don’t Google Everything’, Tariq said in his characteristic manner. He continued: Superficial knowledge is often hypothetical. Literal interpretation of a religious scripture can be equally damning. Elucidating the example of one of the 7th century Islamic wars, when Prophet Muhammamad wanted to position his army near a particular fortification but his military commanders didn’t agree. Muhammad said, ’I think the position is fine.’ At this a commander leaped forth and asked, ‘Is that God’s commandment or your own opinion, Sir’. Because if it is God’s command, then we don’t have much choice but in case it is your opinion, that may not be very prudent under the present circumstances. The prophet shot back, ‘It is my opinion and if you think I’m not right, let’s change the positions‘. This, Tariq extolled, is critical reasoning.

Tariq was candid with his views on the raging debates of the time. He opined that he gets really put off by this talk of religions being outwardly peaceful. Are they really peaceful? Have major world faiths being peaceful? Has Christianity been peaceful? No. Has Islam been always peaceful? The honest answer is: No, Tariq said to a mainly Muslim crowd. The reasons aren’t always religious or ambiguous. They can be attributed to human nature. Human beings are inherently violent creatures. They can be easily provoked. ’I can just say something that makes all of you irate’. That is human psychology. All religious histories are ridden with flaws because a religion is all about humanity. Humanity is about humans -- and humans can be flawed.

There is a pressing need to understand the other point of view. Tariq said he often puts himself in the other’s shoe to be able to comprehend his stated position. He wants Muslims, the younger gen, especially to try and connect the dots. Islam is a continuation of the great monotheistic faiths. If a Christian were to acknowledge Islam, he would have to forfeit his Christian beliefs about Jesus. That would be, naturally, an impossible situation for him. So one has to develop an intellectual empathy with adherents of other faiths. Simplified it means that we must sometimes attempt to look at things from a different perspective rather than insist upon rigidity or a literalist, narrow interpretation of our own texts. That would bring about symphony and love -- something terribly needed in the modern world.

Talking about the tendency of people to glorify their own religions, Tariq pointed to the rather common religious sentiment: We are the best. Muslims often say that. The best of all Ummahs. The Jews say that too: We are the chosen people. Christians tom-tom: Jesus atoned for us, so we are a privileged bunch. So who is right, Tariq went on? Muslims. Jews. Christians. Who? Everyone thinks he is the best. The answer is not Muslims, as -- may be -- a Muslim audience would want to hear. It is not Christianity or Judiasm. The true answer, before God, is not the one whose religion is better, because all of us would tend to differ on that, but whose character is better. It is the in-born human-ness that is important. It is the redeeming features of goodness and not where you are born. It is your constant struggle to be a better human-being that counts.

And religion indeed is an important vessel. Tariq explained: There is something called spiritual communion. It is a set of values you inherit and imbibe in your formidable years. It grows inside you all along. You could be modern or western or capitalistic or un-capitalistic but somewhere hidden in you is a sense of affection, of association, of connection, of fraternity with another Muslim. Same with a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu. It is not about segregation. It is a mystical connect. A bond. A pledge, that after all your wanderings and disassociations, you can always return to. You can only experience that with your co-religionist.

Tariq Ramadan prelected about the concept of humility. Education is mandatory. And with knowledge comes humility. It is a very strange thing. The moment you think you have it, you lose it. Accusing professors and universities of elitism, Tariq underlined the need to connect universities with cities and with the common man. Without a practical understanding of humanity around you, your books and academic discourses won’t lead you anywhere, he said, looking to the Jamia vice chancellor in the eye. And arrogance never helps. Apparently the first reason, Tariq winked, why I hate Bush junior is his arrogance. He talks like a pharaoh.

In hindsight listening to Tariq was enriching. Tariq is a religious reformer par excellence. He has been lately accused, by several right-wing elements, of trying to Islamize the west. Tariq is the grandson to the legendary Hassan Al-Bana, the spiritual head of the pan-Islamic Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who was assasinated in 1949 by government agents. Named after the African military commander Tariq ibn Zaid, who conquered Spain in 711, Tariq has an illustrious pedigree but that hasn’t deterred the man. The Nietzsche quoting, French speaking, ever touring, ever debating, academic, philanthropist, Oxford professor, dialectical, charismatic, devout Muslim -- Tariq Ramadan strives to build bridges between Islam and the west.

He continuously talks about constructions, connections, intersections and the universal values that align every religion. He debates Prez Sarkozy on prime time French TV, amidst intense heartache and friction, and manages to outwit him. Tariq continues to be the universalist intellectual that he is. His views on a constellation of issues from stoning to hijab are both profound and welcome. An almost recurring theme in his conversation is love.

What was it like to be number 8 among the world’s top 100 intellectuals? That is the 100 most gifted people among 6.6 billion. And you are at number 8 in the planet, Sir ! Just how does it feel ? I asked Tariq over black tea. ‘Normal, very normal,’ the gentle giant said with a tiny smile.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

The secular sentiment

I’m pained to see several sections of the rightist media trying to paint the latest uprising in Kashmir as communal. Without being apologetic, the skew needs to be straightened: The fact remains that there is nothing remotely communal or sectarian about this tumult. It has been secular from the word go. Infact it has never been about religion. It has been a fight between the people, on the whole, versus a discredited establishment. No one in Kashmir is against the Amarnath yatra.

There was a complete ten day shut-down in Kashmir against the transfer of land. Nothing much moved. Even emergency services kept strictly off the roads. Small children would dig-in around every alley to fight tough street battles with the police and paramilitary troopers. Even journalists were stopped. The only vehicles that breezed past the stone-wielding kids, the tear-gas smelling airs, the barricaded roads of Srinagar, the tyre-burned turnpikes -- were the Yatra cabs. About 9,000-10,000 yatris visit the mountain-god daily. Without one minor incident, not a single Yatri [pilgrim] was hurt. This is not communal!

In the intense impasse between people and the government, the feud was mainly about land. The argument ran thus: The yatra is fine. The increase in the number of yatris is also fine. Providing the pilgrims better amenities too is fine but why the heck does the government need to transfer prime forest land to the missionary board. It could very well extend all these facilities without the transfer of land. After all the yatra has been going on for more than a century. At no point in this tussle with the government did anyone -- people, separatists, opposition political parties -- in Kashmir say anything against the yatra. This is not communal!

People vented their anger against the establishment because the whole land transfer/diversion deal was done surreptitiously. Secretly like a gang of thugs, the establishment appeared to be apportioning the loot. It took the ex-CEO of the board Arun [poison tongued, petty minded] to come out with some of the clandestine details in a press conference. No wonder his rants shocked people. Mainstream political forces immediately saw red and decided to go with the grain. Yet just as the state festered -- on the touchy issue of identity and just when the government was feeling plain helpless, the yatra went along. Long queues continued their sing-song trek to the cave. This is not communal!

Despite the charged atmosphere and all the bad blood, the last ten days saw a restraint that is typical of Kashmir. Call it Kashmiryat, call it the legendary Sufi ethos or call it pure secularism -- that while politicians bayed for each others blood and people felled to bullets and hospital wards were inundated with the injured, local people in Srinagar [as reported by national and International press] set up langars [mass-community-kitchens] to feed the returning Yatris. Since the entire city was closed and transport was non-existent, local people rose to the occasion, taking care of the yatris who in some way were central to this enfolding drama. This is not communal!

Separatist leaders in Kashmir are known for their hard-talk. Yet they appealed for calm. Time and again the likes of Mr Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar, despite their efforts to color everything green, called for tolerance. Appeals were issued to help the stranded Yatris. The truth be told mainstream guys across the board -- Omar Abdullah to Mehbooba Mufti -- too extolled lenity. There were no reprisals, no assaults and no hate-talk against any community. It was a simple case of masses versus the state on an emotive issue -- that of identity and selfhood. This is not communal!

Never before -- in more than 130 years of its being -- has the Yatra needed the land. People of Kashmir have a right to ask, and rightly so, why now? Why so secretly? Why hush-hush? Why give it to a missionary board that has behaved so aggressively in the recent past? Why couldn’t the state tourism provide all the facilities for which the land is sought? The government response was, as usual, pathetic: Nary a word. Late confusing noises emerged. But these were just noises that jarred and made no sense. Results: An uprising on a massive scale. A tide that swept everything. All parks with aubergine colored tulips in them.

End-result: Land is back with the state.

Contrast this with the multiple attacks by the Hindu right wing, who with no understanding of the issue, muddle things with their rusticity. In Jammu and elsewhere. Listen to their communal language. The irrational outrage. The threats. The prevailing confusion. An extremely fake sense of jingoism. The vulgar brandishing of tridents. The ultimatums.

This is, for sure, communal.