Friday, June 26, 2009

Midsummer Night Out

When I suddenly act cute for no reason and nod approvingly in a smart conversation on the subtle difference between blended grain and blended malt whiskey, I know I am being daft. So here I was with random people [being pals with this one hell of a guy, only] at 4am, passing the pot to the distant twinkle of a starry sky. I’d this sense of a cross between being lightheaded and permagrin. Or both.

Smoking grass is such a youthful thing to do. There is a boylike recklessness to it. The Jamaicans call it spliff, I think. I was trying hard to remember name of this guy from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ who does dope. That Irish bloke Wilde, who left the British Isles forever -- after being jailed for being a non-conformist by the prudish Brits -- made his protagonist smoke weed in his masterpiece.

Last night the night sky was sooty and the lights would flicker like a musical rhapsody. I could soon spot stars. Rare. Ever since I left the hills, I haven’t really seen the stars sparkle. There were these stars, on a clear cloudless night, hundreds of them, muted silver in color, no bigger than orchid seeds. [Jesus probably got it wrong when he said in the Bible: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seed] Orchid seeds are much smaller, I reckon, and the stars these days look tinier and farther away than their usual.

The night changed shades. Like a gal changes clothes. From pitch-black to a deep azure. The leaves were visible, clung tightly to twigs in the tall park trees, reveling perhaps in a quiet plant hug, while the whole world slept around them, disturbed only by the silly cackle of our stoned laughter. A cricket hopped on a cork and disapprovingly jumped off the Bowmore cap, wiping its antennae as it disappeared into the night. There was no cricket song to the darn insect.

Pals in pot fumes are like these wacky songs the soul needs from time to time.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Drama at the Chateau of Versailles

The French President has re-kindled the debate over Hijab at the Chateau of Versailles. Breaking one and a half century old tradition, Sarkozy addressed the French Parliament, greatly upsetting the opposition, which criticized the speech as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Like Louis XIV. The Sun King was the archetypal absolute monarch, who ruled France from 1643-1715. People were not allowed to knock on his door in the Chateau of Versailles. Instead, they had to gently scratch on the door, until the permission to enter was granted. As a result, many courtiers grew long fingernails. Sarkozy is styling himself as a modern day Louis XIV. [Major political parties like the Greens and Communists refused to attend the Chateau of Versailles event and the Socialists left early, saying that the venue for the address smacked of monarchy and a thirst for power]

Not surprisingly Sarkozy, who famously likes his pictures photo-shopped to look good [Paris Match had to retouch photos of Sarkozy in order to erase a love handle], attacked the concept and culture of Hijab in his Chateau of Versailles policy speech. "It will not be welcome on French soil," he began, sounding every bit like an authoritarian demagogue that he is, ever ready to trade away civil liberties for political gains. “We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity." Sarkozy has indeed chosen to fight a very wrong battle.

Two things are going to come out of it immediately. One – the decision will stigmatize Muslims at a time when France needs to do more in its fight against discrimination in the job market, which had led so many Muslim youth to feel forgotten by French society. When France needed their erstwhile colonial subjects to lay train roads or dig tunnels for them back in the 1940's and 50's they got them to work like mules. The immigrants significantly contributed towards French nation building*. Only when their second generation grew up in Paris suburbs and started attending schools, the French went cold in their feet. It so smacks of racism.

Two – we are now sure why Sarkozy flunked grades in school and college before he obtained his baccalauréat. He continues to not comprehend this simple idea about the diversity of cultures. Given that the concept of laicite [secularism] is sacred in France, the point is whether women are forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily out of their own will, and whether wearing the Hijab undermines French secularism. It does not. Like the same way Mr President has “no issues” with nude photos of his wife because he thinks the pictures are tasteful – and importantly -- the CHOICE is Carla’s, the CHOICE to don a scarf should be the sole discretion of a Muslim woman.

Modern states have no business telling women how not to dress. When we do not feel intimidated by a topless girl walking around a beach, do we really need to fret at a girl covering her hair? I think there is something profoundly hypocritical about banning Hijab in the name of pseudo-secularism and gender equality -- while the French government continues to subsidize private education for that globally influential misogynist religion -- the Catholic Church -- at a higher rate per pupil than public schools.

Sarkozy’s initiative has even his own cabinet split in the middle. The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, believes such a ban will only create tensions. It will isolate Muslims. France is home to five million Muslims. Hijab has always been a cultural symbol and Muslim women have worn it for more than 1,430 years. The dress was only put on trial after the events of September 11. Sarkozy only reinforces the paranoia.

You can’t claim to be liberal and ban individual choice. The French – and Europeans largely – have come to practice an absurd form of secularism which has indeed come to rubbish everything that secularism stands for. We seem to be at such a point in history where we are seen to care too much about the rights of beetles and houseflies while rubbishing the inherent beauty of human co-existence and liberty. When governments go all-out to abolish cultural symbolism close to the belief system of a billion and a half people around the globe, the cherished human rights, naturally, go up in holy smoke. Like Jeanne d'Arc. That was 1431. This is 2009.


* As the major colonial power after Britain, France could call on a potential workforce from what is called the Maghreb [North-West Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia], certain countries in Sub-Saharan Africa [Senegal], Indochina [South-East Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] and the DOM-TOM [Départements d'outre-mer and Térritoires d'outre-mer] like Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana [in the Caribbean]. The vast majority of these workers were from Algeria, the jewel in the crown of the French colonial empire.
[Source: The University of Sunderland,UK]

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How serious are we about our Human Rights?

Bhaiyoo mea bacha (brother save me), moajee mea bachao (mother save me).
~Cries of the two girls allegedly gang raped inside an army truck by Indian troopers in Shopian, as heard by an eye-witness

I don’t know how a non-Kashmiri may react to this. As a Kashmiri, despite having acquired a different accent in alien lands, I can very well identify with the sad shrieks that purportedly came from the army truck. We mostly call for our mothers or brothers whenever we are in pain. We think, in our simple world view, that they are our guardian angels -- in dreams, in life, in death. And will come to protect us. Every single time. That explains why Asiya and Neelofer – now sleeping an eternal sleep in the peach fragrance of countryside Kashmir – must have hollered the way they did. And that is why the poor man, shivering in his old hut, is speaking the gospel truth.

My first reactions as I read the news story was this: How dehumanized have we become? There are people – and the tribe is swelling -- who have become bored with the narrative by now. They seem to be insulated at the moment -- and hence -- they foolishly think, such a thing might never happen to them. That is such a make-belief attitude because in reality no one really is immune. In choosing to prefer economic well-being over human rights they allow for the door to be left ajar, and a likelihood for such an atrocity to recur in future. May be, just may be, the economic realities of life make everything secondary, even inherent rights one gains as a human being.

I was talking to a friend in London, fiercely tutored, Ivy League, deeply interested in Kashmir affairs. He observed that there is no push for human rights in Kashmir from the people at the helm of affair: be it the state or the separatists. The truth be told there is no human rights set-up in Kashmir. It is not that people are unaware – they understand what living in occupation entails. Kashmiris however don't seem to care about these things collectively; even though it is in our interest. 'I think they don't care because human rights don't lead to a financial gain', my pal quipped. We have become an individualistic society – like so many other societies around the world -- pretty much interested in personal fortunes.

The debate about human rights should be at the core of our consciousness. Unfortunately it isn’t. We remember our human rights only when there is a rape or a murder or a dead body is thrown out of a speeding SOG van. If human rights was what people valued more than a stable economic system and job creation then they should have been clear that the valley will not vote until there is a proper human rights protection and the enforcement of human rights violations in Kashmir. Instead we voted a bunch of people, who make a crooked pile, into power. Do we expect an elected MLA to speak up sincerely for human rights? [Ms Mufti’s antics can be squarely dismissed as political gimmickry] As long as lowly people salute them and open doors to their cars and as long as their lofty Karakul’s sit intact on their petty heads, anything goes.

In Kashmir there is no communitarian sentiment or communitarian institutes which will have a serious impact in terms of consistently advocating and defending the rights of people. The marches and protests do help but can they solve our problems. Perhaps not. It is like saying lets march against Pinochet and he will give us human rights. Omar -- the CM, says his officials misled him, Umar – the cleric is mum. The Bar Council is meek. Most voices are either disparate or desperate. If the leadership is like this how can there be a human rights centered movement in Kashmir? Old boy Geelani can’t certainly pull it off, alone.

That leaves the people in a conundrum. One will find it surreal that one day they will support the government [which oppresses them], next day they will deride the CM for hurting them; following on, they will be back to the government for patronage, give them support, knowing fully well that they will hurt them again; and lo and behold they do hurt them again. Now that is both odd and erratic.

The people of Kashmir do not deserve to suffer just because they voted a bunch of lackeys to power. Or just because our leadership isn’t up to it. Till date we have not shown consistency in our actions and as a result, the government knows that a protest means nothing and that we will bear the insults for a few days and then things will be back to normal. It is the utter lack of consistency and lack of development of institutions by Hurriyet that is responsible for our directionless response. One cannot play ping pong with government and give in every time they ask for votes. That makes us politically immaterial.

We can, perhaps, begin by developing an intellectual culture in Kashmir and start working towards a human rights oriented approach. Till then, I am afraid, the body-bags will come.

PS -- The women in the picture are mothers whose sons have gone missing, after being picked up by the army, in Kashmir. Srinagar, June 10, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Frenzy Returns

We are now faced with the fact, my friends that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
~Dr Martin Luther King Jr, iconic leader of America’s civil rights movement, ‘Beyond Vietnam’ address, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967.

A fear of the awkward looms. Last year around the same time a new-found furor floated about. Fresh slogans were coined. Millions marched. The frenzy returns this season. Kashmir is agitated like an active volcano, brimming with broken promises, chunks of deceit, voting machines, lordly corrupt leaders, rusty bullets, cherry-color blood. Tulips. It imploded, yet again this June. Does this month symbolize anything for us? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The imperial British formally accepted the idea of Pakistan – a separate homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent on June 3, 1947. Six decades on Kashmir still gets these June jolts. At the moment a charade of democracy is on display in Kashmir, a place overhung by Chinars and smoked over by fumes of our moral mildew.

Early June, when it smells of green apples in countryside Kashmir two cheerful girls – Asiya and Neelofer – went giggling to their tiny orchard and simply melted into the evening. A frenetic search yielded no results. Next morning, as if by magic, both girls appeared near a depth-less canal – bruised, battered, repeatedly raped and killed in cold blood. In Kashmir rape is rare as goblins. Despicable as it is, the incident soon turned murky. The doctor, who conducted the post-mortem, told Kashmiri newspapers that the two ladies were gang-raped.

In the post-mortem report, the doctor added, they mentioned that the injuries and samples collected from bodies clearly suggested rape and murder. A friend who has access to the pictures of the two girls was quite unequivocal: ‘Third degree gang-rape, around a dozen times - multiple times after death’. A strike was swiftly called to condemn the horrible act. Tempers frayed.

Like most conservative societies in the world Kashmiris are extremely touchy about two things – our religion and identity. Add honor to the list. I agree it is an arguably naïve stance to take in a modern world but back home in Kashmir we have been living in a timeless warp forever. To make matters worse the 38-year old CM [much is made of his age] proved that he is as inept at gauging the pulse of people as his notoriously colorful dad. Adding fire to the fuel, Omar attempted to sweep the muck under the proverbial rug.

He declared in a press con that primary findings indicated the girls were neither raped nor murdered. It was prima facie a case of drowning. [In ankle-deep water]. In pre-judging the findings Omar was not only plain condescending but utterly insensitive too. [The victims families have since gone on a hunger strike, seeking justice for their daughters]. Public sentiment smoldered. Sensing trouble Omar changed tack and conceded that ‘something has happened there’. Yes, Mr CM – multiple rapes on two young girls -- our girls -- their helpless cries piercing the sad air of their small village. Dying a most painful, brutal death next to – [who knows may be inside] a CRPF camp. Pray, when will you guys stop being smug and stop living in denial?

An investigation was ordered. Justice Jan is going to look into the matter and shall report to his neighbor [lives next to Omar] in 30 days. Is that going to ameliorate the hurt? Rather than coming out with a forceful statement, assuaging the victims’ families and at least sounding a little more empathic, an insane police force has been let loose against those protesting human rights violations. Instead of making a candid, passionate appeal, what you get to hear from the chief minister’s office is the same old trite, banal, moth-eaten crap: These are communal forces, vested interests, anti-development, political rivals out there to get me. The trigger-happy cops and paramilitary forces, whose only vocation in life is to fire tear gas canisters at school kids, occasionally successfully comatosing some of them with a direct hit, roam aimlessly like wild creatures.

Often enough the state uses brute force to get over with a given situation. In reality, nothing goes away. It simmers slowly. And it comes back. You think it is over, as the very brilliant British-Pakistani intellectual Tariq Ali once said, while it isn't. The administration is choosing to go after anyone -- having especially singled out Syed Ali Geelani -- who dares look them in the eye and say the uncomfortable truth to their face. It is an irony. The Jammu based English daily Kashmir Times is far more pragmatic and insightful in its coverage on the Shopian incident while Kashmir based English papers are editorializing the futility of resistance. I reckon many ideological constructs lead people to take the kind of political positions they take but we can't truly afford to decontextualise our economic well-being from our legitimate aspirations.

Tulips without stipple isn't exactly beautiful. The stipple is our very cherished honor.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

To resist or not to resist

Freedom is never free
~An old European maxim

And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Kashmir stands at a very strange crossroad in its chequered history. These are confusing times. We are, I must admit, slightly tipsy, unsure of which thoroughfare to take. For well over 62 years there have been green ghosts haunting us. Hard as we have tried to, we haven’t been able to exorcise them. Ever. Ours is a uniquely inscrutable nation. At various moments in the past six decades we have dared to aspire, fight elections, sloganeer like crazy, flirt with that Utopian idea of freedom and fought a low-intensity battle with a nuclear power. We have been variously bruised, humiliated, punched at, reviled, threatened, pampered and bought over.
Yet we continue to dream.

Cut to 2009. The calculus is as weird as it always has been. Omar Abdullah rules the kingdom. His loyalties lie with India. Most Kashmiris, especially the young like him. For once he sounds totally sincere and bright. I personally feel he is a refreshing break. Syed Ali Geelani is an ailing old man who rules the dissenting space in the same fiefdom. His loyalty is not to India. A vast chunk of people like him too. He too sounds utterly convincing and captures popular imagination more than Omar. He wants an end to India’s rule in Kashmir.

Those for Omar want to bury Kashmir’s acrimonious past and there is a growing number who speak about the futility of rebellion. Against strikes and mass protests. They quote statistics to drive home the point that our economy is battered because of this bedlam. Tourists flee like hunted deer and the poor labourers go jobless. World has changed, the argument goes and bricks are no answer. With time wounds must heal.The opposing camp has a diametrically opposite ideological argument. And they too speak in a guileless tenor.
A hundred thousand people did not get certainly slaughtered in Kashmir for nothing. Our parents’ were kicked around and our women dragged out of their kitchens not because we would settle down in the end to sit with a third generation Abdullah who didn’t even know Kashmiri till a few years back. The wounds, the feeling goes, go dark and deep. Big enough to keep dolphins in.


After years of bloodshed, after a long, drawn battle people sat to reflect and introspect by a river in which much of their crimson blood has mixed. Much has been lost – brothers, friends, sons, children and honor. Some are still unreported from the dark dens they were schelepped to. Just when our transitional phase seemed to start, someone waved to us across the river. A nice boy with a plow on his back talked development and joy. And tulips. And truth. People liked the sound of his chatter. They forgot old wounds and clapped. Hard.

Just then the plow boy’s dark knights come swooping from behind. They lunge at the crowd randomly. The order is abruptly broken. Claps give way to shrieks. People protest. The state wants to take away the luxury of innocence! It tramples upon human rights with impunity. Slogans rent the terrified June air. Will our sorrows never be sad enough? Will our lives never be important enough? There are no answers. Only tear-gas shells, occasionally falling on passers by.


Kashmir has some real soul-searching to do. Are we for shut-downs, as Geelani would like us to or do we stay mute? What if tomorrow it is our turn to be picked up in a bottle-green color SOG gypsy only to be thrown out dead? Another corpse, another numeric, another commission. But wait, does a strike also not mean zero-income to the poor vendor, to the artisan who lives off tourism or to the boatman in his waiting shikara? The middle-class and the elite [that includes all of Hurriyet and perhaps the likes of us] are sure insulated [when are they not?], but aren’t we being insensitive to the plight of the less-privileged?

What do the strikes give us? What do we want to prove? Who takes note of it anyway? I reckon, a shutdown may not mean anything per se but it sure symbolizes something. It is like declaring outloud – look here, you bully – whatever it is – freedom, frenzy, nuttiness, romanticism – is clearly not over yet. Woodrow Wilson, the Nobel prize winning 28th US president and a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era once remarked, ‘The history of liberty is a history of resistance’.

As long as Omar Abdullah does not rein-in his piratical troopers there will be people leaving work and coming out of their homes – spontaneously – and protest. As long as brutal laws, meant to doctor the dreams of people, are not done away with, there shall be strikes. Agreed it is a conflict in our souls: do we allow our economy to be destroyed or do we let our collective dignity go, like a tent on a stormy night? Do we listen to our head or our heart? History is testament that as a nation, Kashmiris have mostly gone by the sentiment.