Friday, January 30, 2009
Text and images Sameer
There is a lake in Scotland called Loch Ness. Legend has it that it is home to the Loch Ness monster. For ages the monster has captured popular imagination in the western world and kept it at such frenzied levels that hordes can still be seen descending upon Loch just to catch a glimpse of the beauty, dubbed Nessie. Of course the monster story is pure imagination. With or without its famed beast the Loch is reported to have more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales.
Back home in Kashmir, a few minutes’ drive from home is another beautiful lake. This one has no beast in it. My sister likes to garnish history with some local lore. She believes there is an entire city submerged in the lake [Kalhana, the 12th century Kashmiri chronicler of historic fables supports her claim]. Wular, the Indian sub-continent’s largest fresh water lake, is no less mysterious.
Wular is azure everywhere you look. It has schools of carp and rosy barb swimming in its blue waters. Across the lake shore it is not uncommon to see little egrets, pecking away, their snowy feathers reflecting in the water. Dabbling ducks, with green heads like the Pakistani national flag, quack to each other on Wular’s placid waters. Pallas's fish eagle with a light chocolate hood over a white face can be spotted flying over the lake, watching over the marbled teal, the diving duck that is both rare and friendly.
Kashmir's celebrated King Zain-ul-Abedin is known to have been bewitched by the lily-embroidered lake. On many clear moonlit nights in 1444, the noble king – watched the still waves of Wular -- slowly weave their lakelet magic in ancient aqua loops. To contemplate in nature’s lap the King got an artificial island made in the middle of the lake. It still remains and is locally called Zaina lank. People say that at noon, almost daily, tides occur in Wular which are usually accompanied by mild storms. Fishermen at the lake take refuge in Zaina lank if the storm gets bad.
I have been bothered by recent reports from Wetland International [WI], South Asia, a reputed global organization dedicated to conservation of wetlands. The report for Wular is particularly distressing. The lake has shrunk to half its size due to massive encroachment, inflow of sewage and siltation. The reason – no brownies for guessing this one – bad policies by subsequent state governments. The WI note further says that deterioration of Wular has led to increased floods and droughts in the region besides affecting the fish and bird species. The 217 sq km lake has now been reduced to a mere 87 sq km. Encroachment continues.
In a place where opportunities are limited and ignorance is unlimited – and the specter of poverty always haunts -- it does not come as a surprise that such things transpire. As many as 18 villages tucked away around the shores of Wular have their sustenance attached to the lake in one form or the other. Close to 10,000 fishermen make their living by catching fish in the lake. The conversion of vast catchment into agriculture land and the hunting pressure on waterfowl remains widespread. This nonsense has to end. And now.
Wular is our heritage. All the fat guys in the ecology and wildlife department are busy in Srinagar, ostensibly cleaning the Dal up. That is another scandal where endless money has gone down the drain [or Dal must we say]. No one cares, not the least the environment and remote sensing department of the J&K government. They watch as the largest fresh water body in the sub-continent gets dirtier, than their deeds. The Environment and forest minister has to ensure that his guys don’t come to plant trees around the lake, which they did in the past in clear violation of wildlife norms [they forget to plant the saplings where they need to].
At the community level too there is absolutely no alternative to people’s active involvement. Awareness is key. People just cannot afford to dump garbage into the lake. Any illegal encroachment around Wular has to be quickly reported. We need the Pied Woodpeckers and European Hoopoes in our midst.
Already the number of migratory birds [which used to number upwards of 30,000 each year] is dwindling. If we don’t act now Wular will be a stinking pool filled with carcasses, plastic and human shit.
Monday, January 26, 2009
As Bush looked out of the flying machine -- at the vast multitudes -- he knew that this was no ordinary transfer of presidential power. Change, really, had come to America.
As the chopper got out of sight for the millions on ground -- booing 43 -- it was an end of a longish, nauseating nightmare. David Frum, the neocon journalist -- who wrote speeches for Bush – says that in the Bush White House – one thing was always unwelcome: Brains. Thank you David, but was it not you who came with that infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ phrase which Bush read out with such false bravado. With his extremely limited intellect -- but unlimited hot-airs – America hasn’t seen a worst president in its 220 year history.
History will test Obama. I hope he passes it. There is a certain pleasing fluency about him. You can smell sincerity as he talks and no I’m not for a moment suggesting that he rocks because he is Harvard and black with mixed parentage and with a Muslim middle name. My admiration borders solely on his leadership qualities. Obama is special because he is different. His is not going to be a faith based presidency but one that works on the sheer power of ideas. In the 21st century it is very important that the most important man in the world does not believe that God tells him secretly to attack countries in the Middle East.
Obama is exceptional because he is such a refreshing break from the past. All the last 43 presidents – for instance – have had European ancestry. 38 US presidents were of the British Isles descent, while three were of Dutch origins [The two Roosevelts and Martin van Buren]. The remaining two were of German descent [Hoover and Eisenhower]. Obama is a descendant of neither British or Irish or Dutch. He comes from the poorest of the poor: black slaves, Africans from Kenya. He has nothing fashionable, not the least his name. He has not one but two Arabic names: Barack Hussein
[The inauguration: A sea of people greet the new change]
Uri Avnery, the witty Israeli columnist, was swift to point out in a recent sharp write up: The first signs are small. In his inaugural speech, Obama proclaimed that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Since when? Since when do the Muslims precede the Jews? What has happened to the “Judeo-Christian Heritage”? [A completely false term to start with, since Judaism is much closer to Islam than to Christianity. For example: neither Judaism nor Islam supports the separation of religion and state.]
Obama’s tenure began on a very symbolic note. Day one in office he chose to sign an order saying Guantanamo and CIA’s hell-hole secret prisons will be shut by the year end. He signed another important order banning harsh torture methods like water boarding. In a domestic policy initiative Obama pledged to protect tax cuts for poor and middle class families. The new president shall reverse most of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers. A couple of hours later Bush era’s stem cell research freeze was lifted. Brick by brick everything Bush was being brought down.
Symbolism does matter. Bush lied about going to a war. He shut people up. He ridiculed dissent. He was perpetually close to ideas and diversity. He made a mockery of the American constitution by trampling upon people’s civil liberties and suspended the fundamental right to appeal -- the right to habeas corpus. And all along he resorted to scare-mongering. Like a headmaster he hollered: Look here kids, if we don’t erect these hate-walls, the Dracula will come and drink our blood. Of course it was all gibberish. There was only one truth about it: It was untrue.
One line encapsulated it all: 'We reject as False the choice between our safety and our ideals' Obama thundered, as a frosty, forlorn Bush looked on. Moments ago, the military attaché who carries the nuclear codes in a brief-case, had quietly crossed over and sat behind the new commander in chief.
The world was a new place.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
They say a son of slaves has come
some people will no more be called scum
And this boy from seaside Hawaii
brings a tear to the eye
by all the magical words he has to say
They say he has a funny sounding name
And he clinched the DC game
And his color isn't all that white
And his gaze remains without spite
They say he likes the good ol' Lincoln
And like Abe, has earned his run
And he breathes plumes of hope
And in a storm he is the guy rope
They say he must shut the dark bay
And he won't let the goodness fray
And he will fix the dis-respect
because no one really is a suspect
A rainbow change has taken place
Monday, January 19, 2009
Ergo -- most peers intermarry. Marriage outside the caste might somewhat dilute the hallowed status. In earlier days there used to be a block Peer surname but it got sub-divided over the years into a dozen categories according to their rank. So we now have Syeds and Qadiris and Muftis and Nagashbandis and Andrabis and Mantaqis and Hamdanis and Masudis and Bukharis and Nazkis and Geelanis and Rufayees and on and on. [Notice the emphasis on the last letter ‘I’, which translates to ‘Lakut Yae’ in Kashmiri]. In local idiom that is very poetic.
Traditionally the Peers were either clerics in local mosques or they practiced the craft of 'Peer Muridi’ [spiritual intuition to disciples]. They would also be in charge of various shrines. Ironically the practice of using poetic surnames along with personal names was not followed in ancient Kashmir. Academics observe that in olden days no caste system was prevalent among Kashmiri Muslims. People were mostly divided on the basis of their professional status.
In any case the Kashmiri Brahmins – considered to be some of the smartest Hindus – occupied most of the important court and -- later -- government jobs. Peers would gradually assume that responsibility. The control of the pulpit would naturally make them special to believers.
With changing times, the vocation of Peers has also transmogrified. Take a random name in Kashmir’s swelling media frat. You will inadvertently come up with a peer name [of any stripe]. The Peer monopoly over media is total. The mosque continues to remain their stronghold. Locals will tell you that Peers know the rituals better. In a saint ridden place their control over shrines and tombs is also complete. The main standard bearers across the political spectrum -- in both Azadi/non-Azadi camps – Mirwaiz, Syed Ali Geelani, Mufti sayed – are, yes you guessed it right, Peers. They are the new Pandits of Kashmir.
I’ve always been baffled by this rather weird fixation for surnames in Kashmir. One would understand such a phenomenon as a bygone corollary of bigotry but when you have educated – but under-exposed – people still hung up with their ancestry, you seriously need to pause and ponder.
We didn't all come over on the same ship, but we're all in the same boat.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
I remember my dad's apple firm had a telex code. It was called Chinar. I used to ask dad in a kid's innocuous bager: 'Why do you have a Chinar symbol for your apple business? Why not an apple tree?' Dad, I recall, said in a reassuring tone, "Chinar is our identity, sonny." Booune, as plane is locally called, has always been the emblem of Kashmir.
Reminds me of the poet-philosopher Sir Mohammad Iqbal – of Kashmiri ancestry -- who in his wistful style waxed eloquent about the valley:
Jis khaak ke zameer me ho aatish-e-chinar
Mumkin nahi ki sarad ho voh khaak-e-arjamand
The land that has in its conscience the spark of Chinar
Thy celestial dust won’t douse yet
The romance with Chinar that started with the widely respected Iqbal has carried on. The lanky and erudite – liked and hated in equal parts – Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah [Omar Abdullah’s grandpa] called his autobiography ‘Aatish-e-Chinar’. The book bagged the 1988 Sahitya Academy award – India’s most outstanding literary achievement [Some say that Yusuf Teng ghost wrote it]. Even a hugely repulsed bloke in Kashmir like Rushdie couldn’t resist it. He calls a central character in his latest book, Shalimar the Clown, Booune. Sir Salman, of Kashmiri ancestry knows that the significance -- of the odd plane -- cannot be lost even in an era of hatred and intense heartache.
Poets and kings alike have admired the plane tree. The Mughal Emperor Akbar who annexed and visited the valley for the first time in 1579 fondly mentions Chinar in his memoir Akbar Nama. The Char Chinar [four planes] bang in the middle of Srinagar's famed Dal lake is a testament to Mughal fascination for the tree. The Booune leaf is a recurring motif in Kashmir's handicrafts and woodwork.
Booune is found mentioned in the 14th century mystic-poetess-princess Lal Ded’s saintly wakhs (poems). Chinar has been a lonesome witness to the vicissitudes of Kashmir’s fluctuating fortune and its prized possession by rulers of various stripe – cruel and benign: from the Buddhist ruler Asoka the Great, who founded Srinagar in 250 BC to the various Hindu Kings, who followed him. From the mid-12th century Muslim blitzkrieg in Kashmir right upto harsh reign of the 19th century Dogra feudatories, Chinar perhaps remains the sole spectator to happenstance of everything Kashmiri.
In old days the locals used to collect the plane leaves in heaps and transform them into charcoal for use in the Kangris [fire pots that Kashmiris fight the intense winter with]. Not so much now! Not in the time of blowers and braziers. I think the romance is fading. Like everything Kashmiri, the Booune is fast dying. There was a time when every village and hamlet had scores of the graceful huge tree. Less than 19,000 remain now. The systematic ruin of Kashmir seems to have pervaded onto its Chinars.
Az Jehangir Dame Naza Chi Justand
Ba Khahishi Dil Guft
Kashmir Diger Hech
On his deathbed, the 17th century Mughal Emperor of India, Jehangir was asked by his royal courtiers as to what he wished in the hereafter. With a heavy heart and in a feeble, dying voice, the poet-king replied: Nothing but a soul as refreshing as Kashmir.
There are still a very few things in the world as scintillatingly exotic as the crisp rustle of fallen dry Chinar leaves in Kashmir during autumn. You just need to take a stroll around the woody shades of Booune.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Avnery ofcourse is an authority on Israel and I look upto him for his erudite views. To add, UA's write-ups often are a sharp blend of his experience as a soldier, politician, writer and peace-activist.
Here is a link to the maverick Avnery:
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The world wide protests against the Israeli assault in Palestine saw thousands of people across the world pouring out on the streets. In London, close to a hundred thousand people marched on Jan 10, 2009. Tariq Ali, the brilliant British intellectual, spoke to the protestors.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
The creature is Israel. For more than two weeks it rained hell-fire missiles on Gaza, killing anything that walked, never flunking to call it a justified act in its ‘defense’. Now it is behaving plain ugly. Some of the worst human rights incidents have come to light in the last two days. One seriously wonders if the current crop of Israelis has really descended from the victims and survivors of Auschwitz. The Nazis were savage. History will be no kinder to Zionists.
The tales emerging from Gaza [where Israel continues to ban foreign media; Freedom of speech drivel applies to Iran alone] are horrific -- to say the least. Emergency teams have found toddlers, barely able to crawl, crying by the corpse of their dead mother in a bombed-out home in Gaza. The Red Cross is not pleased. ICRC boss in Israel and Palestine Pierre Wettach says that Israeli military was aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they try to make it possible for Red Cross or Red Crescent to assist the wounded. The desert monster is unmoved.
In another outrageous instance a group of Palestinian civilians were asked to leave their homes by the Israelis. They were herded into a UN complex, which was designated safe. Soon after, the drone of fighter jets was heard. GBU-39 precision-guided bombs rained. Moments later all the non-combatants were dead. UN says it had passed on coordinates to Israel and marked the building with a UN flag. Yet the monster blared.
Independent media reporting from inside Gaza write that Israeli forces have been firing phosphorus shells over densely populated areas, violating international law -- by deliberately inflicting blazes on civilians. F-16 aircrafts are making ultra low-altitude strikes in Gaza, causing sonic booms in an attempt to terrify the citizens. Children and women are especially freaked out. The beast grins.
The UN meantime is watching helplessly. Israel won’t relent. It has influential friends. The president of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann and the Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, Richard Falk [an American Jewish academic] have shown spunk. They continue to talk in strong voices. Today Navi Pillay, UN’s most senior human rights official said that the Israeli military may have committed War Crimes in Gaza.
Gaza, an area of 139 sq miles, was illegally occupied [along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem] by Israel in 1967. It was placed under military boots till 2005. Israel continued to squeeze and encircle it till 2008. Now it bombs its frightened citizens – in full world view. The assault – both aerial as well armored – is inhuman.
But when have monster’s being human?
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, at Harvard Law School is an old apologist for Israel. Apart from defending Israel for every possible crime against humanity that it commits, he spends time supporting the distribution of pornography in the US and counseling the likes of OJ Simpson [That cheat who now thankfully rests his heels to where he really belongs]. Unsurprisingly Mr Dershowitz thinks that Hamas is to be blamed for the current Gaza bloodshed. He is not alone. Fox and CNN are wily collaborators to his day dreams. The BBC is not far behind. Even Al-Jazeera English is party.
I’m currently in India. The specter of shallow capitalism is so frightening in this part of the world that all major TV channels [They have a diminutive CNN here too] dismiss Gaza in less than a minute. Majority of the mainstream corporate media is fixated on what an aging local film actor [hammy at best] plans to gift his latest girl friend. May be also because Indian’s are increasingly imitating the American’s and all that matters is valuation -- market and capital -- and other vagaries. Barring respectable exceptions Indian media is simply not up to snuff.
Coming back to battleground Gaza, Israeli warplanes continue their endless sorties. Last night the Israeli’s bombed a Palestinian school. 42 children were instantly killed. When the Zionists stoop to such abominable levels of brutishness, and increasingly start acting like monsters, whose appetite for blood just doesn’t quench, their spin doctors’ quickly rush to TV stations. To weave an intricate tapestry of lies and half-truths. No matter how grave the situation, poor professor Dershowitz has to show Israel in good light. This winter is being celebrated as the season of half-truths.
Increasingly we are witness to a warped coverage of the events. A fitting analogy that I couldn’t help adapt: In the BBC's reportage Palestinians 'die', Israelis are 'killed' [the latter implies agency, the former could have happened of natural causes]; Palestinians 'provoke', Israelis 'retaliate'; Palestinians make 'claims', Israelis declare. Schools, mosques, universities and police stations become 'Hamas infrastructure'; militants 'clash' with F-16s and Apaches. 'Terrorism' is something Palestinians do, Israelis merely 'defend' themselves – invariably outside their borders. All debates, irrespective of fact or circumstance, are framed around Israel's 'security'. So much for balanced reporting!
As Israeli bombers target more and more innocents in the burning ghettos of Gaza we are going to see two recurring themes emerging from the likes of Dershowitz and Michael Oren and Charles Krauthammer and Michael Goldfarb and hysterical groups like AIPAC and the Israel Project and the Israel on Campus Coalition: pure fakery and falsehood. They will in all likelihood hoodwink and lie – through their teeth. It may have already begun.
Israeli apologists have already started humming: You know it was Hamas that broke the ceasefire. Israel is just defending itself. That is a huge lie! The truth is [all you got to cut through the fog of lies is look up The Economist and London’s The Guardian] that Israel broke the truce twice. First on November 4, 2008 when its bombardment killed six Palestinians in Gaza and again on November 17 last year when another bombardment killed four more Palestinians.
In a scenario where truths chase half-truths and TV images are fabricated to cut out Israel’s monster like teeth, we have brilliant, fearless people like Robert Fisk who continues to file his unmistakably accurate stories from the middle-east. Intrepid Israeli’s like Amos Harel, Yuri Avnery and Avi Issacharoff continue to instill hope. There are many more brave hearts who continue to write the truth.
There is an amazing thing about truth: It will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. James A. Garfield would agree. He was America’s twentieth president. Sadly they didn’t let him rule for long. He was shot only four months in office.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
The election verdict is majorly about three things. One: Kashmiri people want a basic decent life -- good roads, good education, better jobs and they know an elected, political government is best equipped to do that. No governor speaks Kashmiri and Kashmiri's have trouble explaining themselves in Hindi. Two: People in the countryside were always less likely to take the separatist call for a complete boycott seriously. [2008 is not 1990’s. Dissent, we know, has its shelf life].
The boycott call was summarily ignored, at least in rural Kashmir. And lastly: The Azadi sentiment lives on, and is not expected to die anytime soon.
In reality Kashmir is too bruised to be soothed by a winter election, held under the heels of half a million troopers – the highest civilian-military ratio anywhere in the world. You lock up the entire separatist bandwagon, brook no dissent and stamp out any protesting voices. And then have the gall to call it a democratic exercise. That is unabridged nonsense.
While the mainstream camp has been mostly inept, the separatists continue to live in relative comfort. The top chaps belong to a class – the like of us included – whom Marx would have easily called bourgeoisie. The chief protagonists -- Mirwaiz Farooq is loaded and happily married to an American [He occasionally slips away to the US for holidays minus the Kara Kul]. Syed Ali Geelani’s son safely practices medicine far from the madding crowds and the Lone brothers drive around in luxury SUV’s. Sajjad went to a prestigious college in UK and is married to Asma, daughter of JKLF founder Amanuallah Khan]. The list is long and rich.
In hindsight the boycott call was perhaps pushing the envelope a little too far. I’m pro-choice. The separatists may not be. Buoyed by the million-strong marches in the August of 2008, they issued blacklists. At a much fundamental level the people who formed part of those long marches perhaps understood well enough that Freedom being freedom, no one is going to come to their rescue. There are bills to be paid, children to be sent to school, roads to be repaired, garbage to be cleaned. You also need Azadi from the stench emanating from litter outside your home.
There are real issues that an average Kashmiri has to deal with. With the first snow, the electricity lines snap. The roads continue to be antiquated, pre-1947. Traffic is plain crazy. Clean water is a priority. Healthcare is a sham. Employment stays stalled. Kashmiri politicians, owing their allegiance to India, positioned themselves on exactly these issues and managed to garner votes. Ergo this is a vote for development. Period.
The vote must not be mistaken for an embrace. Kashmir has multiple wounds dark and deep. They can rip open at the shortest notice. And let’s not fool ourselves. The UN position is clear on Kashmir. Elections in the state of J&K – previous as well as present – and all subsequent decisions of the elected government are going to have NO bearing on the final status of Kashmir.
Where is the ambiguity?
Let’s hope Omar and his team luck. He has got some shady guys on board but that is the nature of coalition politics in this part of the world. Barring his stint with the rightwing BJP – which he has since atoned for -- he has a clean slate to write a new chapter for Kashmir.
Thursday, January 01, 2009
Omar Abdullah has risen from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix. For those who came in late, Omar is the scion of Kashmir’s first family of mainstream politics: the Abdullah’s. His party the national conference [NC] is currently in favour at New Delhi [Flavour of the month, as the corporate-ad media would have it. As if parties were ice-cream cones]. India’s very own GoP -- Congress party -- has decided to truck with NC. This would be the third marriage between the two parties [Indira-Sheikh accord, Rajiv-Farooq accord]. The last two matches didn’t last. Everyone hopes this one does.
Omar has promise. He has everything it takes – He is young [At 38 he will be JK’s youngest ever CM]. He has potential, is known to speak his mind and is eloquent. Both his father and grandfather have been key to the somewhat absurd political theatre of Kashmir. Sadly, outside the hustings, the Sheikhs proved utterly disappointing. While grandpa Sheikh had his moments, Farooq was a flop, whose only vocation in life is his fondness for dance and golf. You don't do 'disco' and attempt 'fat shots' while your backyard burns.
I don’t want to dig history up. It has been murky in the hills. Kashmir’s past has been witness to court intrigues and family duels. New Delhi has forever played Brutus in the vale, while general after ambitious general in Pakistan has attempted to be an Edmund, straight out of King Lear. Amidst such high drama -- where promises were made to be broken, where the tallest leader was promptly cut to size for even daring to stand up, where allegiances change overnight -- the Abdullah’s have kept the flag [of secularism, of family rule, of India] fluttering in Kashmir. And it has never been a cake walk.
A very intelligent newspaper editor once cheekily told me that for the Kashmir imbroglio to be resolved in our lifetimes, we need to wait till the current crop of politicians die. I reckon we don’t need to wait for that. Although I don’t think much of this sub-continent practice of passing the baton within the family [like an heirloom because it makes such mockery of democracy] one's willing to make concessions for Kashmir. We have had enough of the vintage variety who sadly represent our very corrupt polity. They mostly wear huge Kara Kul caps on petty skulls. Kashmir needs a huge dose of educated and promising minds. In that case, Omar is a welcome relief.
They say uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Omar is going to lord over a state where his bete noire [PDP of the Mufti’s] and ex-bed fellows [a rejuvenated BJP] are going to lunge at him at every possible opportunity. Add to that the separatist camp, which is still smarting over its apparent loss of face after a complete disregard to their poll boycott call. They can be upto mischief anytime. I don’t know if Omar has read Hegel. There was never a greater need for dialectics.
Abdullah III has got to deliver on myriad fronts. His turbulent state deserves better than pock marked roads and light less nights. He must see to it that his ministers don’t get fat -- as they are often wont to -- and make hay while the sun shines. He has to seriously sit down to try and make genuine attempts to reach out to the youth and not let them go waste. He has to ensure that the troopers don’t attempt their bravery on a poor peasant in their dreaded camps or his task force doesn’t torture a school kid to death in custody. He has to make sure that civil liberties are not trampled with in the countryside where no TV cameras go.
Even if he attempts to achieve one of the above mentioned, Kashmiris will be forever grateful to 40 Gupkar, Kashmir’s 10 Janpath.
It is never going to be easy. I just hope he proves to be the exorcist we badly need to stave off our past ghosts, who still haunt us, from time to time.
I hope Omar makes none of the mistakes of his ancestors.
As for Azadi [freedom], that is for another day.
Happy New Year