Monday, June 30, 2008

Kashmir's newest Intifada

Something dramatic has happened in Kashmir over the past one week. It has gotten murky like a bat out of hell. Tulips and tourists have suddenly been abandoned, like used condoms. All of a sudden, as if on cue, people revolted. Despite government's assurances of peace and the all-is-well rhetoric, these last couple of days have pointed to the contrary. Much to the chagrin of New Delhi, the ruling establishment and intelligence sleuths in Kashmir, the make-up wore off. The mask slipped unexpectedly. And Kashmir rebelled -- again.

One cannot comment in hindsight because we still seem to be trapped in some sort of mindless frenzy. From the outside it looks like a maelstrom where everything seems to be going inwards. Including sanity. From whatever I've managed to glean from my interaction with a cross section of intellectuals and Kashmir-watchers here in New Delhi and my conversation with folks over the phone, it is clear: India has gotten it afield in Kashmir. Somehow they just can't fathom the sentiment.

Oflate I've posted on the ecological fall-out of the now-communally colored Amarnath yatra. The pilgrimage has been an annual affair for more than a century. Being brought up in Kashmir, I vividly remember how peacefully the yatra used to be conducted in the past. There never was anything sectarian about it. Till winds of hate blew in. And there was a missionary board! Things soon spiraled out of control.

***

Kashmir is a theatre of many vicissitudes. It has many legatees. There is India. There is Pakistan. Then there is Kashmir itself. There are pro and anti India parties. There are pro and anti Pakistan bodies. Mainstream parties often compete with separatists for attention span in Kashmir. Both have a visceral hatred that is often mutual and both follow a distinct brand of politics. While the separatists live off dissent and hard-talk, the mainstream guys tweak their policies, as and when expedient.

Ergo -- after all the peaceful years of yatra, the National Conference [Dr Farooq Abdullah's party] decided to form the Amarnath board in 2000 to streamline the yatra. It soon turned out to be Frankenstein's monster. In 2003 Gov Sinha took over its reigns. He picked a petty minded official [Arun Kumar] -- who looked more like a ring-master with a whip than a state bureaucrat -- to run the board. Slowly the missionary board flexed its muscles. It began a parallel government. They started collecting taxes on their own. They tried to insulate the annual religious exercise and reduce its local dependence. So the poor pony-wallas and restaurateurs and porters, who made their livelihood out of it and eagerly awaited the annual yatra, were soon out-of-business. It completely altered the local economic parameters.

Not completely satisfied, the board looked further ahead. With no respect for the fragile eco-system of the area, it worked on plans to increase the influx of yatris. More yatris meant more pollution. More environmental depletion. The missionary board would have none of it. It now eyed prime forest land. Hundreds of yards of it. Green, lush real-estate in the middle of gorgeous woods with European hoopoes in them. It appeared to silence the wood-songs for ever. It wanted to dig up the myriad fragrant flowers to erect hundreds of thousands of toilets on it.

Gov Sinha is an old ailing gentleman who took pre-mature retirement from army before taking up boring assignments like the ambassadorship of tiny Nepal. In 2003 he was send to Kashmir. Sinha quickly turned aggressive in the usually peaceful Raj Bhawan and teamed with Arun [petty-minded, poison-tounged] to carry out a number of scams. Only last year the gang tried to hoodwink people by installing a fake ice-cube in place of the naturally occuring formation, because the stala-gmite melted away quickly. Prior to that Arun's wife [also a civil servant in JK state] unscrupulously attempted to expedite the land transfer. To his credit Mufti Sayed initially did try to block the deal. Raj Bhawan eventually persuaded the current state government to allow the transfer.

The Congress led government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad put its John Hancock on it. They rather insensitively -- and irrationally -- endorsed the transfer of land to the missionary board. The ever tipsy Mufti Sayed's PDP too signed on the dotted line. Like good ol' boys. At this point it looked like an arrangement that suited all stakeholders. The land transfer was quietly sanctioned. The board could not have asked for more. The poison-tounged Arun was wild with glee and whipped at the terrified June air. It was a co-ordinated chorus. NC-creates the monster. The monster is hungry, as they usually tend to be. It asks for land. Congress gives it land to graze upon. PDP's sloppy gatekeeper [forest minister] throws open the doors. The monster triumphantly walks in, looks at its spoils and wags it tail. It doesn't look back though. In a distance a storm was brewing.


***

Before we go to the eye of the storm, a quick word about the opera of normalcy in Kashmir. Frankly, the peace concerts by Junoon and artificial tulip gardens, named after a former dead prime minister, is a big farce. It is a joke with a fake gloss. Beneath the façade of golf courses and houseboats and Farooq Abdulla's dance jigs and ski resorts, Kashmir has big, dark, deep wounds. Big enough to keep dolphins in. The wounds from the war years haven't healed yet. The
alienation sentiment lives on. And unfortunately India is a little unsighted on this.

So our monster's whinnying was soon picked up by the deflated separatists. It was God sent fodder for them. They swiftly banded with the conspiracy theorists. Slogans came up at an amazing speed. 'Kashmir on sale'. History tells us that nothing moves masses like nationalism with a dash of religion thrown in. Soon Kashmir poured out on streets. In scenes reminiscent of the early 1990's when the struggle started, an Intifada [uprising] began. It all came back, the Kane Jung's [stone pelting], flag-waving, the songs, the exuberance.

Young men marched on in their hundreds demanding the revoking of land transfer. Politicians were caught unawares with their pants down. Police panicked. They used excessive force to quell the protests. People held on. Years of war have made them tough fiber. A week of complete shut-down ensued. Such open defiance of authority came as an utter jolt. Kashmir wanted no compromise on its land. Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own, Seneca the Roman thinker averred long years ago. Correctly so.

Politicians being politicians, soon did a volte face. PDP started making noises. The deputy CM, a PDP guy, spoke in such harsh language [against the land transfer] that Mr Geelani, the no-nonsense separatist leader seemed to have genuine competition in a long time. NC threw up its arms. They thought the land deal was plain bad and admitted that the monster made by Farooq Abdullah had got some of his stupid brain and was behaving ugly. Meanwhile Kashmir burned.


****

Day six of the Intifada, PDP pulled the carpet beneath Congress' feet. The government clearly is in a minority now. It may drag on though with some little support. The missionary board has been de-fanged. The state government has taken over the yatra management, as I post. The posion-tounge has been diagnosed with a rare foot-in-mouth disease and dispatched to some less aggressive errand. For the moment the storm seems to be slightly weakening. However nothing short of a complete revocation of the original transfer order will satisfy the masses. The ruling Congress party is playing it safe though, trying to balance the equation because the hindu right-wing is seething in Jammu provence. Ironically hot heads -- on both sides of the divide -- always think they get a raw deal.

Remarkably the last one week witnessed a hundred marches. People's power. Green flags on Srinagar's main clock tower, mass cancelling of weddings, torching of CRPF bunkers and 500 injured. Five dead. An outpouring of emotions as if all hell had broken loose. Warring Hurriyet factions united. No business, no schools, no transport, not a whimper of life for more than a week. An issue that connected and electrified seven million people. In a week of mass mutiny -- on an unprecedented scale.

I reckon it is about two things.

One: Kashmir is not 100% healed. It is still wounded, despite the swaddles and doles. Rather than concentrating on trivial issues, like concerts and silly parks, the government of India must address the main problem: the strong sense of detachment Kashmiris harbor. Un-healed it is a tinder-box.

Two: Kashmir's newest Intifada is nothing but pure nationalism. People in all societies and all ages have experienced it. There is nothing odd about it. Though the separatists may claim victory and the mainstream parties like PDP may attribute it to their born-again activism, the truth remains that more than religion, more than communalism, more than separatist politics, more than the environment [that's my position], it is about love for Kashmir -- Her waters. Her colored birds and trees. Her forgotten culture and greens. Her land. It may be latent but events in this past few days have shown that it takes only a couple of hours to fly off the handle.

Sameer

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rain rain!

It is high June and it is raining. Again, the rain-winds paid no heed to the poor weatherman’s forecasts and arrived un-invited [but still welcome]. Caught off guard, and not wanting to loose his silly job [of forewarning, forecasting, and foreseeing], the weatherman quickly went to town saying the Monsoon has arrived -- early. They never get it right, do they? Why do we need the weatherman?

Rains have been intermittent for the entire last week. I love the sound of ceaseless tapping made by a million tiny rain globs. It is like an ancient aqua dance. Nature is an orchestra conductor with a magical wand-in-hand. An unseen choirmaster to whom the clouds bobble. Winds blow. Plants prance. And heaven’s open up. Like tiny teardrops, which are beautiful, glistening and innocent, rains come.

Longfellow says that the best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain. So it rains. All the world’s umbrellas and parasols, raincoats and rain-shelters cannot stop it. The orchestra continues. The smell of earth after the first rains is raw, sharp and unlike any human scent. It seems to remind us that we are all earth-people with earth-color. Despite our earthy prejudices.

Rain is a temptation, I can hardly resist. I wish it always rains. I like to walk in rain. When it rains on me it cleans up many dusty layers and cuts through the cobwebs. I imagine old chimney’s happily piping up smoke in a distance. I think about a flock of swallows fluttering somewhere in a frenzy, caught up in the rain, looking for some dryness.

I feel like a rain man. When it is dark and cloudy outside, I’m oft transfixed by lightning -- the ferocious signature of God on his palimpsest. In red ink. Like a furious school teacher, signing a poor marks sheet. In red. Cross at us for some archaic reason. Don’t we do our home work well enough?

It is high June and it is raining. On our new development. On flyovers. On Boeing tailfins. On farmhouses. On half-constructed skyscrapers. On mega malls. On metallic eight-way lanes. On high-rise buildings. On cherry color low-rise buses. On flower beds.

It is raining. In-to our old miseries. In large puddles. In the begging bowls of the homeless who have nowhere to go. In desolate alleys. In the plastic tea-cups of construction workers. In the hollow of abandoned beer cans. In the crevices of history.

Mystic summer rain.

Sameer

Friday, June 13, 2008

Et tu, Brute?

It is a shame. And a pity. It gives you a mellow heartache. Over and over again.

This is my back-to-back blog post about Senator Barack Obama. Despite my liking for him I must admit that like every other petty politician – last week – he too became wussy. Call it realpolitik, obligation or moral duplicity because there is no other way to describe it. I call it the great American Tartuffery.

So…the day after Barack Obama -- of sophistication, of decency, of engagement, of peace, of dialogue, of rapprochement, of transparency, of audacity – won the Democratic Party nomination to run for office, he went running over to the annual Washington rave organized by those scheming gentlemen of AIPAC. And then rather shamelessly threw himself at their feet. Hillary and McCain had already pledged their fealties but one expected Barack to have some respect. Alas AIPAC is a tough mastodon. It wants complete obedience. 100% obsequiousness. Expectedly they extract it.

Professors John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government were so right. In their book ‘The Israel lobby’ – the duo highlight the power of the Jewish lobby in the US. At the core of it all is the gargoyle -- AIPAC. They represent Israel in the US. They are its apologists. Its ears and eyes. Its voice. They lobby like mad. They throw money like crazy. They canvass, fund-raise, run dis-information campaigns, know every actor who matters in the corridors of power, seldom refrain from using sleigh of hand and importantly, they smile at you. And there is only one objective. Garnering support of Israel.

So this year AIPAC called all the faithful to their annual rave party. Hillary arrived. Now she sounds every bit like a republican. Many in the American right adore her hawkish views. The only problem is that she lies a lot [Remember her campaign fibs, naughty girl]. At the AIPAC get-together Ms Clinton said her predictable lines to applause. Then McCain came. We know the old cocky gent. He quietly seconds every stupid policy decision Bush takes. He too read from the book. Since he is an outright boor and not as charming as Hillary, he got a fewer claps.

And then Brutus converged. Obama, I mean. And making use of the great dexterity and his Harvard oratory lessons, he convinced the AIPAC attendees that he was their long-lost friend. All his palaver about hope and disengagement gave way to tough talk. [The AIPAC likes it that way]. For the nth time, he had to re-assure his audience that he is a friend of Israel. [That is mandatory]. That Iran is bad and will be toughly dealt with. [That is not optional, you have no options]. Obama carried on explaining like a tired school teacher. It was pure balderdash and proved that beneath that black-underdog-non-conformist demeanor he is just another hypocrite when it comes to Jerusalem.

Infact he went a step further, much to the delight and disbelieving ears of the committee [jokingly likened to elders of Zion by Jon Stewart] and said that Jerusalem will be the undivided capital of Israel. That is like saying – in a way – the Israel-Palestine conflict should go on for another bloody century and the blood bath and bad-blood must continue. He knows, well enough, that Jerusalem is the root cause of the world’s single most intense conflict. Jerusalem is the problem. It is symbolic and it means heaven for both sides. And, no matter what, the Palestinians will never agree to his rather naively-simplistic-and-partial suggestion. What about the change he promised?

May be – Obama doesn’t mean it. May be he is simply playing to the gallery. And it is only a clever move in the run up to the White House. May be as President he won’t really practice it. After all he represents not only the historically oppressed blacks but the collective hope of all the smothered voices.

In hindsight, I suspect that Obama, despite all his wordiness and wit, may just fail to make the transition from being an eloquent leader to a great world statesman. It appears that he too falls squarely in the bracket of ‘they-are-all-the-same’. May be he is simply in tune with the times. But times do change. Are a-changin', as Dylan once crooned.

Obama has convinced me on earlier occasions. I don’t know what to make of his Brutus act.

Sadly he still has my vote :( Call it hope.

Sameer

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Obama for America

Finally after a tortuous journey and an intense stand-off, Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. In doing so, he has not only done the impossible, he has made history. He shall be the first ever black to run for office. And if he beats the Republican fella John McCain in November – I so hope he does -- he will be the first ever African-American in history to do so.

There are a few quick things to be learnt here. The beauty of liberal democracy in action. Even if Obama was vying for the top slot within the Democratic Party, it was a real battle of nerves. In the beginning, all odds were stacked against Barack --100% rookie, a political nobody, a completely green guy, with no clout or pedigree to take on the mighty Hillary. And yet he beat her and how! Obama is black, a junior senator from Illinois, has a Muslim parentage and zero lobbyists to back him. All he possessed and used to a devastating effect in these preliminaries was – vintage Hope. And hope sailed him through.

Obama impressed all and sundry. He mesmerized the audiences. He was inspiring from the word go. The consistency with which he debated his opponents and came out tops was indeed moving. His foes pulled every dirty trick in the dirty political kitty against him but he stood his ground. Then his pastor said something silly. Remarkably he didn’t disown him but rather gave a stirring race speech that went down as one of the finest ever on racial relations. End of it, Obama actually looked the Change he promised.

And he went from state to state, coast to coast, turf upon turf, taking on the extremely well-heeled, well-funded, politically suave Clinton. If Hillary was popular among the elderly whites, the Hispanics and the women, Barack’s appeal cut across the board – white and black, East to West Coast, students and workers and more importantly -- the youth. People absolutely loved his policies. His promises. His energy. The glint in his eye and the hiss in his voice struck an immediate chord. He seemed the right answer to everything wrong about Bush and his mad-men.

In endorsing Obama one is also compelled to marvel at the beauty of American democracy. It is downright participatory and grass-root level. Each candidate is laid bare as he goes through the grind. It is about wits as much as issues. It is about integrity as much as values. It is compassionate and long-winded but worth every slogan. And it is fascinatingly lovable. Barack of course chartered the choppy waters and emerged stronger and more lovable.

Now he battles the other big genie – John McCain. Barack is 46. John is 71. It is youthfulness versus experience, as they say. Courage against arrogance. Hope against fear. Already camp John has filched Obama’s election motto and tweaked it a little for their own conservative campaign. No issues here. Barack, I hope, doesn’t mind petty pilferages. We have won myriad battles; we are ready for the big war. McCain?..Bring him on.

Wait till Jan 20, 2009. You’ll have a young man as the 43rd President of the United States. Unless they don’t shoot him, as Gore Vidal and Doris Lessing think.

Sameer

Monday, June 02, 2008

Juices

I’ve been bitten by the walking bug. I brisk-walk for more than half an hour every day. It has been two weeks now and I hope to continue with the routine. Surprisingly I seem to be enjoying the evening mosey. The weather was utterly pleasant all through May and I must have walked a few miles – in a long long while – and actually sweated. Day-1, I was content to perspire only a little. Finally I was breaking free of my mechanized life – car and workstation and press conferences and copy-editing and creating stuff – and into the openness of a verdant cricket field. And I loved the smell of sudor.

I soon conspired to bring Wasy and Aaby along. The trick worked. They too liked it. And soon we added aerobics to our walking/running regime. It is an open-air work-out and by the time we begin to stretch and spread ourselves it is almost early evening and inky. You can see endless stars – small to beautiful -- twinkle overhead and it feels like an act from some very romantic 70’s movie. The mise en scène is heavenly. Commercial airplanes fly by the minute and occasionally deflect your attention with their cockpit and tail lights. Reclining on the grass I often think of all the people in the planes and their mixed mid-air laughter. An air-steward ambling across the aisle with a tray laden with chilled juices. On ground – with a fellow on my feet -- I give-out juices of another kind.

Apart from the playground I’ve been spilling my creative juices all over – on glossy copies for ads to mundane finance stories for my org. You don’t get no time for other creative outlets – such is the cruel arrangement of the darned market forces. I’ve been also trying to crack some real good works but –frankly – I have struggled in my efforts. Time is a premium in our lives.

I drink lots of juices. I swilled a can of cranberry juice last night and it was amazing. I’ve reduced milk in my tea by 100% -- leading my band to accuse me of everything from elitism to stupidity – but I am unfazed and am actually liking the bitter taste of the tiny tea granules. With black tea, you can count the number of tea atoms in your cup. I tease my pals for missing out on the real taste of the brew. Expectedly they fume at me ;) and I love it.

Now the secret behind all this frenzy: I’m going to attend a string of VVIIP [very very incredibly-important people's] weddings. I got to shop for suits and shirts. Importantly I want to get into the smart-fit ones. I've always believed that style was more important than fashion, said Yves Saint Laurent, one of the greatest fashion icons of the 21st century. The legendary designer died this morning in Paris.

So the juices will continue to flow till the shopping day dawns.

Sameer