Monday, December 08, 2008

Mumbai Attacks: PBS Special Coverage

As I'd mentioned, I was working for PBS (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) in Mumbai following the attacks.

Do see our reports:

1: Amid shocks, Mumbai residents question security
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/mumbaireport_12-01.html (click on "stream video".)

2: India's government under scrutiny after Mumbai attacks
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/mumbaianger_12-02.html (click on "stream video".)

3: After attacks, India's coasts are still vulnerable
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/indiasecurity_12-03.html (click on "stream video".)

4: Impact of Mumbai attacks resonates throughout India
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec08/indiareaction_12-05.html (click on "stream video".)

Give me feedback!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Muslimonomics

I can’t stress enough that we need to give more weightage to the special Friday prayers held in parts of the country to show mourn the terrorist attacks in Bombay. We’ve been saying for a long time that we wish the moderate faction of Islam would be more vocal and visible – and now we need to highlight this trend – so that other Muslims who have not yet voiced their disapproval will. I don’t think need doubt any ones intelligence and bother to spell out why.

The tide has to change. After the attacks, the gut reaction of many was that they were scared the fallout would be communal violence. Indians have shown great sense in distinguishing an attack on India by foreign terrorists and attacks between Hindu/Muslim factions within the country. This is vital, because it allows us to examine the situation at hand without further endangering the country by having to deal with communal violence as well.

We visited a village outside Bombay. It seemed people there had watched the attacks on TV, but most of them did not really understand the significance of what had happened. A few of them understood from the news that Pakistan is implicated and still seemed far removed from any urgent emotions. The rest seemed unaffected by what they had seen.

What struck me though, was that while the villagers may not have been able to understand the enormity of what had happened, they had all seen it live on TV. In fact, as I peeped into the many colorful houses, I could see TVs and fridges in almost all of them. In fact, our search for a village had been a challenge, because many farmers have sold their lands and concrete structures are replacing them. There is enough construction work in the area to bring home the fact that little India is rapidly urbanizing. And that means that the distance they have from events in the big city is slowly going to shrink. What this means is that the largely urban anger we are seeing will slowly penetrate to the hinterland. As yet, it is a work in progress, but television will be a huge catalyst in attitudes changing as much as the landscape changes.

But as news channels feed more Indians, what message do they wake up to? It is not just the news anchors I am referring to, because we all know that politicians use the media for their ends too – good or bad.

During our visit to Ahmedabad, Simon asked Narendra Modi his reaction to the news item that Modi’s frenzied speeches were used in the training camps to charge up these young boys. Deadpanned, Modi told him that he had no idea about any of it. Later, he turned to me and asked me if I’d forgotten about Godhra as yet or not.

Modi also categorically stated that he was ready to help the government in its fight against terror. “At a time of war, there is consensus,” he said.

But was there something he was not telling us? In highlighting security in his campaign speeches (will he undoubtedly well) will he be tempted to cut this “India problem” into little pieces of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian.

What could allow this division is another factor – as yet a non-entity – which Shashi Tharoor brought up this morning when we spoke to him: if any proof emerges that there were Indians complicit in planning the attacks – and those happen to be Muslims whose sympathies lie with extremist factions – then the danger of using that knowledge to play politics will lead to a very volatile and most certainly violent situation. So I have to ask, do we have it in us to further distinguish extremist elements from the majority of Indian Muslims as we have distinguished between international extremist Muslims and the general Muslim population back home. Quite a mouthful, I know, but a question to ponder.

But you see, the moment you ask this question out loud – “will politicians use the Bombay attacks to incite communal violence” – you expose the hypocrisy of such a electoral strategy.

We talked to people along the way, quite literally. Stuffing ourselves in a local train, we journey to a small village outside Bombay. While on the train we found people eyeing our camera equipment, and then quickly offering their analysis of the situation. I was heartened to find that within the confines of that box, many diverse voices came out. A young man, studying for his MBA, told me that he did not link these attacks to religion at all. It’s all about economics, he told me, and these young boys who fall prey to terrorist dogma only do so because they are poor and this is a quick way to earn money for their family. It’s quite true – if reports are to be believed then the captured terrorist told the authorities that his family was promised Rs 1.5 lakhs (a little under $3000) for his services. That is the extent of this deep poverty that breeds discontent, he told me. This is not the first time, it won't be the last.

But we might just come out of this stronger.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reaction. But action?

I’m still in Bombay. You’re going to watch the news and read all about the peace protest at the Gateway of India. People poured in from all parts of the city; much more than had been originally anticipated. At one point, I found myself separated from my colleagues, and watching an amazing sight. Some person – a politician I did not recognize – was accosted by a news anchor who threw a flyer in his face. She asked him why he was there with police protection (I could count about ten) and why that protection did not extend to common people. Needless to say, a crowd gathered, and the man just stood there, speechless.

There was emotion, there was chanting. The calls for Vande Mataram made me want to cry, but those were drowned out by cries against Pakistan, Deshmukh, Raj Thackerey and all politicians in general. A few cries against Sonia Gandhi, but not many people obliged.

I climbed on top of a small building where a number of photographers were perched. The crowd was gigantic, unruly, pushy, enthusiastic, angry, sweaty, patriotic, considerate, and unstoppable. But that birds eye view that I had also allowed me to see things from a distance, and brought home the fact that a few days after the terror attack, we are still as vulnerable as ever. Our police for the most part look disinterested and fat, and while crowds throng the Gateway, it seemed to me, from my vantage point, there is still no protection. No clear lines were demarcated, so surveillance of any kind (unless you count the countless TV channels).

Now, I’m sure this won’t surprise most of you reading my blog. It didn’t me. So let me not pontificate and let me start telling you a few more things. This morning I went down to the coastline and found a few obliging fishermen who took Simon, Denis and me to shoot the unending ocean. A little chatter, I broached the terror subject. Once they were sure that I was not implying that they had some prior knowledge of the event, they started telling us about the hapless state of security there. To their credit, and I kinda loved them for it, they were really defending the coast guard with some misguided patriotism, but did admit that they didn’t really see the coastguard much at all. They couldn’t remember the last time they had been checked for documents.

Yesterday we had gone to Dharavi. The mood there was angry too, and although no one from the world’s largest slum had been killed in the attacks, they were offended that this could happen in India. But when it came to the real world – had they even seen an extra policeman in their neighborhood? – they had not. But that didn’t worry them. They told me very proudly that they were such a tight community that even if one stranger walked in, immediately he/she was asked who-why-when-what. And, they added, we will protect ourselves. We’ll give our lives for each other. But they were all a little worried about stepping outside – catching a train – but like everyone in the city, if they had to do it, they’d just go right ahead and do it. What I liked was that the children were all well informed and very opinionated – and not in the mainstream media (how children are traumatized by the coverage of the attacks) but they spoke like little adults. That’s when I turned to Simon and said, “this is when you realize why India is such a successful democracy.” Why? Because he had expected them to be more concerned with their own economic struggles than national security – but was quite surprised to find out that was simply not true.

And that brings me to the real point I wanted to make (yes, I did take my time, I know). A day or two ago, we had an in-depth interview with MD of the Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra – a person I was totally blown away by. He was very smart, introspective and very articulate. I want to briefly recap some of the things he said to me in the middle of a deeply emotional crisis.

Firstly, he hoped that the result of all this “unprecedented” urban anger was not that we secure ourselves and leave out the poorer sections. The fishermen, the people in Dharavi. Them. He also told us why this attack has struck such a chord around the world (well, one of many reasons). It’s the ultimate urban nightmare, he said. Ten men running around the streets of a modern day urban city with guns and grenades. Honestly, I was getting visuals of The Dark Knight in my head when he was talking and it sent a chill down my spine. He also touched upon the fact that because we have tried to inject democracy in every aspect of our laws and the Constitution, there is no single unified commander-in-chief in India, and that needs to change. I think many people are echoing these thoughts. Another interesting observation he made was about the “Spirit of Mumbai”. He said that the very people who built up this myth following other attacks were the very ones tearing it down right now, and that both are extreme emotions, and the only way forward is to find a balance.

He’s right about that. If any of you saw yesterdays news report, then you would have seen the byte of the man in Dharavi – John Bhai – telling us that the government should attack Pakistan and it would take, what, two and a half hours to defeat it? Well, today at Gateway of India, stronger than Vande Mataram was “Pakistan Murdabad”. I think it was even stronger than anti-politician chants.

But the politicians might have gone one clear message – if it lasts – is that we will go after incompetent people, and that politicians will have to start becoming accountable like any other employee/CEO. Their careers should end with a huge debacle. We spoke to Milind Deora today, and he also agreed. He said that when a man is elected from a rural area and somehow is catapulted to becoming Home Minister of the state; it is no surprise that he is intellectually incapable of handling the job. That’s true, and its heartening to see that many voices have gone from blaming the government to the realization that if you don’t vote in urban cities, then it’s the rural votes that count. Nothing wrong with that – that’s not what I’m saying – but those are also places that vote according to identity for the most part (Dalit, Muslim, what have you). And we need to start voting on capability and credibility. That’s a long-term plan, but it has to start somewhere.

And most importantly, just as how I had briefly mentioned in one post about the MP elections right before the terrorist attacks, we need to see what the political parties will be up to in the lead up to the general elections. In the cities, I suspect, the conversation will have to be more mainstream – about policy and action to be taken. But in the smaller towns, will the BJP play the anti Muslim card, and will the Congress, in an aim to pander, again not take a stand on anything? And let’s not forget the rest of the motley crew.

The real fallout, and if there are any lessons learnt, we will find out when the election gets closer.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Death of a hero.

Hemant Karkare (12 December 1954 – 26 November 2008) was the chief of the Mumbai Anti Terrorist Squad. He was killed during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks after being hit in his chest by three bullets fired by terrorists

Not the best footage, but you can hear what a state funeral sounds like. I was about to cry the whole time.



Friday, November 28, 2008

An equal attack

I just want to remind everyone, including the Indian media, that this is not an A-list attack. The Taj and Oberoi were just some of the targets -- local spots like the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Cama Hospital -- have seen the most dead. With the inclusion of the Jewish House and the demand for the US/UK passports, it seems they have targeted rich, poor, Indian, foreign all in one clean sweep.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Shame on the government

I've been watching the news in horror -- this entire situation has been going on far too long. It's been almost twenty hours since the first gun shots, that turned into grenades, that turned into a hostage situation. But while I was watching Bombay burn, a thought kept gnawing me from behind: aren't we in the middle of cracking a terror trail right now (Malegaon). Why is it that the intelligence agencies are only adept at a post-mortem, and not good at any preventive measures? The fact that these guys are still bombing the Taj (its 5:07pm as I type), I can't understand how much ammunition they have hoarded up with them. My guess, that I also heard on TV, is that they checked into some hotel rooms a day or two ago, suitcases packed with grenades and bullets. The PM just addressed the nation -- his choice to do it so late in the day -- but personally, I don't think he should have waited this long. A country needs some sense of leadership, and the Congress certainly did not provide it. I'm not even going to talk about our extremely incompetent Home Minister.

The international news channels have some interesting commentary -- they said that the attack has been planned in time for Thanksgiving (as those five stars had dinner events going on) -- because the attacks are geared towards UK and US nationals. Terrorists have been unable to attack Americans and British in their own countries, and the call for people with British/American passports by the terrorists in the beginning has only cemented this idea -- This just shows how pathetic WE are; that terrorists cannot penetrate those countries, but ours, is easier than easy.

The Indian media is doing what it can. The only channel that is pissing me off a little bit is CNN-IBN as it has a huge screen at the back with its anchors placed on chairs in front very stylishly; as if they are covering elections or cricket. And sure enough, they have started opinion polls, and their chat topics, proving once again that they can and will never be a BBC.

Another point is that these terrorists have specifically targeted Jews -- Nariman House -- could be a game changer. Firstly, Americans won't stand for the Jews being targetted, because the American Jews won't. And Israel will be in the mix soon enough. Actually I think we should learn something from the Israeli's -- perhaps tie up with them and take some security training. I'm afraid to say but we don't seem to have well trained, fit, officers in our countries. And now, with senior leadership of the ATS killed in battle, we can only hope the younger bracket is up to the challenge. The police and defense services also need to be paid well so that top officers don't leave. And just like the army chaps, our police need to be physically fit. It's just something we need to stress on as a country. But I am happy to see that the special forces are taking special care to make sure no more civilian lives are lost. About 800 Army personnel, 400 NSGs, 40 Marine commandos, 600 Rapid Action Force personnel besides Mumbai Police officers are engaged in a fierce gun battle with the militants. That is quite a lot of forces, but yet we see no signs of the situation ending.

Cricket has taken the first hit, with the IPL in danger. Foreigners in other parts of the country are apparently fleeing, and national elections are no longer going to hinge of the economic meltdown. And on the other side, Pakistan has offered a "hotline" from Delhi to Islamabad so that we can share information. And this offer comes in the wake of Zardari claiming all Pakistanis have a piece of India in their heart. And while we have newspapers filled with Zardari's praises, we suddenly get news of these infiltrators coming in by sea from Pakistan. So what is it? Are they as bad as us when it comes to intelligence or just turning a blind eye? Every time we feel closer relations with Pakistan might serve the sub-continent, there are reminders that our neighbours are not to be trusted. It would be something if the government and army of Pakistan is completely unaware of these outfits running in their country. (No offence to my friends there, but my country is my country).

"Deccan Mujahiddin" is the alias for which group, we don't know. Experts are saying this is not Al Qaeda as there are no suicide bombers, but the outfit can change tactics, can't they? Lashkar is involved, apparently, having sent an email from Russia as a red herring. A terrorist just caught (5:38pm) seems to be a wanted Lashkar operative. Is this attack against India, is it against the visitors in India? There is still doubt, obviously. And I hope some RSS, VHP, BJP leaders have the presence of mind to call out to Hindu outfits and ask them NOT to plan attacks against Muslims as a retaliation (as the perpetrators are suspected to be all Muslim at the moment). I wonder if anyone is even capable of that.

My mother just said that she hopes the channels don't harp about the "spirit of Bombay" tomorrow -- instead stress on the point that people are ANGRY and demand action. It's this resilient spirit that allows our politicians to get back to doing nothing very much. And on the other hand, my friend Kundan informs me that many posters online seem to think that Narendra Modi is the man who can protect India from the terrorists.

I'll check in later; probably update this post itself.

Meanwhile my dog is suspicious that the piece of chicken momo I have given her is not as exciting as the one I am eating. Sometimes, I'd like to be her.

**
8:21pm

Arnab has rightly pointed out that in this attack the terrorists have exposed themselves in this attack -- walking around freely -- the "audacity" of this attack. Watching live news is a little tough because there is so much action -- and we are keeping track of a number of locations -- that putting together a coherent sequence of events is tough. But the NSG and RAF are in the hotels, and fire and grenades can both still be heard, which to me in insane.

Ratan Tata was on TV earlier, and was being asked some really stupid questions like "have you figured out how much damage?" It's still going on for heaven's sake. But he did point out that it seems the terrorists have very intimate knowledge of the buildings.

Advani has landed in Bombay, and immediately starting saying that this attack was worse than anything that happened during the NDA government. As the news pointed out, there had been rumours that the PM and Leader of Opposition (Advani) would fly down together -- much needed symbol of solidarity -- but it hasn't happened. In fact, Advani has shown himself to be rather petty and small minded by playing the blame-game while people are still fighting for their lives.

Suhel Seth came on Times Now and gave a very passionate and correct speech, talking about how pathetic our politicians are. He said that the people at the hotel, hospitals etc are the one who have stood by the people, not the politicians. And that we should delay elections, call a national emergency, and solve this terror crisis. I'm so glad that we are finally getting ANGRY -- Seth also pointed out that our political system has not allowed us to reward our heroes. And he said the same thing my mother did, that Bombay should not rebound in the morning, it should retaliate. Damn straight.

Maybe business houses and rich persons should get together, and without any strings attached, donate money for the armed services, to be used for training, uniforms

But away from the emotional feeling of it all; we need to discuss reasons. My uncle, a former foreign service man, having served in the Middle East called me to say that it probably ties up to the fact that Mulla Omar had recently announced that they were going to go after countries that sent troops to Afghanistan (therefore the call for US/UK citizens). Also, Pakistan and Afghanistan has been increasingly unhappy with our role in Afg; started with bombing at our Kabul Embassy -- this might just be a natural progression. Also, these terrorists have no escape plan, they are ready to die for their cause, so jihads. And they are very well trained. Some great points, and I've tried to contact Times Now, because perhaps the discussion needs to get away from the emotional to the practical now.

Another point he made was about the terrorists coming by sea; at this point it is not very clear where the two ships seized by the navy came from. Reports suggest that to be in Indian waters they had requested permission through normal channels. But from a cell phone left behind by one of the terrorists, one thing is clear -- calls are coming in from Pakistan. I went to the Dawn website to see what they had to say about Bombay, but their report made no mention of who is responsible for the attacks.

Actually, Times Now now (9:26pm) has a security expert from London -- Bob Ayers -- on, and he said that this attack has nothing to do with India the way the Madrid bombings had to do with Spain -- it has to do with attacking westerners everywhere they go. Morderchai Kedar, a Counter Terrorism Expert from Israel says that India needs to get to the root of it, fast, and figure out who sent them. Bob Ayers said that a period of confusion and false reporting always prevails, and that to suggest that Pakistan might be behind this is wrong and dangerous. A chronology of what happened has to be made, and when factual information is at hand, and to speculate on solutions before the facts have been ascertained is unprofessional.

Meanwhile Barkha Dutt is talking to Shobha De.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Something to talk about.

Watching TV, as is my calling in life -- apparently -- I got thinking. I was watching Sreenivasan Jain on Witness (NDTV) explaining the Malegaon blasts -- the Sadhvi and that insane gang who find the RSS inept and corrupt (as they apparently took money from the ISI??). Last I checked, the RSS, VHP and Shiv Sena were pretty much the bottom of the barrel when it came to non-Muslim extremism of any kind in this country, so I kept wondering, who the hell is going to take Abhinav Bharat's place, thinking them to be neutered? Lord.

We can't run away from the fact that we are a predominantly Hindu country and that there will always be factions who will prey on minorities to solidify their status. They will want support by inciting fear of the unknown, by playing identity politics, instead of actually doing society any good. That is old school politics and should end. My father and I had an argument the other day about the "Indian Obama". He said that Mayawati could be compared to him, for the reason that both have had a decent education and are minorities. I vehemently refused, because I said, Obama never asked for votes because he is Black, while Mayawati's entire rise was based on her identity as a Dalit. The day someone in India shoots to power because of the vision they have for the country, is the day we can compare them to Obama.

I see reports in the paper everyday that Obama's election -- plank and use of multimedia -- is inspiring politicians back home. That's good. But think about this: I read in a column in Mint the other day that India has always aspired for greatness, but never really done anything about it. I was mulling over that thought (I suppose the nuclear deal was a recent effort to acquire greatness), and I started watching late night TV.

My ex-colleague, Akash Banerjee, now with Headlines Today, was hosting a show called Ground Zero. The question he was asking was: after Sadhvi Pragya hit the headlines, has the conversation in Madhya Pradesh become about religion and not development? The usual suspects were there; Advani crying about Pragya's alleged abuse in jail, and Rahul Gandhi trying to remind people that the BJP only promises "temples" "terrorism" but never develops. And to be fair, if you look at the national media (save a few half an hour specials thrown in), the entire public discourse is around Sadhvi Pragya.

But the Indian Express carried a small piece about the inside details of the MP election. They said that speeches about Sadhvi Pragya and gang is left to the national leaders, the local leaders find that they cannot deviate from development issues. People understand that they need water, roads, food more than they need fluffy pillows for Sadhvi Pragya. It was most telling -- and reminded me of last years UP elections where Mayawati was doing all her campaigning on the ground, away from the glare of national media -- and that's why when she won, everyone in the Delhi studios were zapped, because for the most part, they had been on a different tangent. And again, reports have been published that it seems the BSP is going to gain in the state of MP. So again, it seems, not for anything the BSP has actually managed, it will be because everyone else has lost focus of why they are actually standing for those elections.

So, then, a question -- do we need to settle the question of Hindutva once and for all, or are we, Dilli-valas, so enamoured with the discourse that we fail to see that during election time, people are getting increasingly wary of these issues and rather focus on development issues. And aren't we media savvy enough by now (NDTV is celebrating a 20 yr anniversary for heavens sake) to admit to ourselves that talking heads in all out prime time debate shows (perhaps not Times Now as much, I find Arnab Goswami quite good) are increasingly pointless.

There was a time in the US (well, it still continues) that politics was being carried out by news anchors and talking heads. They came, they spoke, they argued: all about the issues they deemed important, and the audience was ... captive. The Jon Stewart "Spin Alley" moment was a turning point in my head (watch this) and ultimately, this election, you had people finally desperate to hear something substantial -- and Obama was the right man at the right now.

We in India are falling victim to the same issues. We don't need Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Rudy Pratap Singh's views on every issue, every night. We need some real people, experts, people from the states about which we are talking. News is increasingly going the spin alley way. In fact, this US election, an anchor called Campbell Brown hit the big time, mostly because she said, its one thing about giving everyone equal time, but its quite another to hear someone tell you its raining outside when its not, and not call them on it. (I like Arnab because he seems to do that. Perhaps not sitting in Delhi and therefore meeting politicians socially allows him this distance.)

Well, MP results will be out. Then we can see what is true: is talk of Sadhvi Pragya more important than talk about development? Are national leaders simply on a different tangent than local ones? Are our English channels really having a meaningful dialogue?

Watch and learn.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bollywood Dynasties

It's a tiny feature that has gone on air many many many months after it was done.. but I wanted to share..

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=VunWQsnzZi8&eurl=http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/fps/2008/11/2008111862719249160.html

You can skip to about 4:20 but the first story is really interesting (perhaps more than ours!!) -- but the second is something I worked on, and it's just a fun little snippet of an industry I almost never think about.

Hello world, blog will be back to business soon!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Black is the new President, Bitch!

Trust The Daily Show to get it right. In the run up to the American elections, people so busy trying to brand Obama as a socialist or a radical, everyone seemed to forget he was Black. In a way, that is amazing. African-Americans have done exceptionally well in many fields in the US, including politics, but in that sphere, the same glass ceiling (due to the Bradley effect or what have you) applied. Not anymore. Not anymore.

Martin Luther King's dream has been realised. Once the announcement was made, suddenly anchors on every channel left Ayers and Acorn and his middle name and all that other rubbish, and realised what a historic day it was for Black people. In McCains victory speech he acknowledged this -- perhaps its all the better he lost. Otherwise he would have been the man who came in the way of the equality of the races, and as a symbol he would have been hated by history. One of the bad guys. When McCain spoke I wondered if he realised that he was a footnote in history, because it didn't really matter who stood against Obama; I feel this was a time that just had to come. The culmination of the civil rights movement. If Beyonce and JayZ (?) can own the music industry, and everything Will Smith touches turns to gold... politics was next. (Especially when politics and media are so intertwined in the US. Infotainment at its best).

The New York Time's Judith Warner wondered if children will realise the sheer enormity of this singular achievement. Come up with all the reasons for this victory -- economy, Bush, a new message, a younger generation finding a voice in Obama -- that he is Black is the symbolic achievement we will remember for decades to come. We will all remember where we were when Obama was elected President. It has touched us all on a personal level. Just look at the Facebook generation. Practically everyones status had been changed to hail Obama.

It was fantastic.

PS - If you don't know where the title of this post came from, please watch Saturday Night Live sketches online. This election cycle they have been fantastic, starting from the primaries.

PPS And for an analysis of the Obama factor that I made over a year ago (and I think is quite correct), go here.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Mutually Suspicious

You might expect me to talk about the US presidential elections, and ordinarily I would. Obama is likely to win according to me, but lets wait another day! If I was in the states right now I think I'd have a nervous breakdown, but luckily I'm not!! (Ok, I'll be honest, unluckily -- I'd have given anything to be part of this election!)

So, to other matters, more important matters. Tehelka carried an interview -- Prakash Sharma, Bajrang Dal leader -- which was very interesting to read. With Hindu-Muslim mutual suspicion out in the open now -- you can no longer point only at Muslim extremists as being the perpetrators of terror in this country -- we need to take a long hard view at how we think.

Now, let me be honest, at the start of the interview, I was nodding in agreement with a few things he said. But they made me think, question myself.

"See, no matter what you say, the basic thing is, Bharat is a Hindu rashtra and because it is a Hindu rashtra, Muslims and Christians can live with such ease here. What Muslims are doing in India today, they will not be able to do in any Christian country. Similarly, what the Christians are doing here, they will not be able to do in a Muslim country."

Is that true, I wondered. I have friends in many Muslim countries, from the Middle East to Pakistan, and perhaps he is right. After all, it is our very secular nature that allows people to do as they want. But then again, I've met people who've come from places ranging from Doha to Dubai.. and no real complaints about their lifestyles as such if they are not Muslim. Perhaps I don't have knowledge at the grassroots level, but considering the violence against minorities in our country, I don't think we can really boast of this secularism any more.

But the more I read, the more I wanted to understand the mind of a Hindu nationalist.

"See, Hindus believe god can have any name, and the paths to god can vary. We have 32 crore gods and goddesses; it won’t hurt us if one more Mohammaden or Christian is added to the ranks. So what difficulty do Indian Muslims have in saying they are “Mohammamed panthi Hindus” or Indian Christians have in saying they are “Christ-believing Hindus”? After all, this is a Hindu nationality. "

He giveth and taketh away in one breath! Because he already calls them Indian Muslims and Indian Christians! What is with this insane loyalty test Hinduism espouses? Agni pariksha anyone?

He made it amply clear in the interview that he will justify his own Bajrang Dal's violence by any means, but anything other than that is to be condemned. Even when talking about conversions, and why Dalits convert due to the extreme caste system in the country, he admits Hindu society has its faults, but they are not so bad.

"No, this is the problem with the secular media. What is so complex about the issue? There was an agreement; Kashmir was given to India. If Nehru had not kept the issue in his hand and had left it to Sardar Patel, there would be no issue today. If these eunuch governments would give up their impotency, there would be no issue today. I am neither concerned about the BJP nor any other party. It is because of the impotency of our political parties that the Kashmir issue is not sorted out and has got so out of hand. Why do they get such a free hand? They go over to Pakistan and make friends with them, and we sit and feed them biryani? They should be crushed, not treated like sons-in-law!"

Ah, the secular media and Kashmir. Just remember this, I will come back to it later.

"I am talking of the whole secular spectrum. Tell me, what is wrong in our opposition to Husain? Muslims burn buses demonstrating against Taslima, so you send her out of the country. Why are you defending Husain? What is the need to show Sita minus her clothes? Will he paint Mother Mary naked? Will he paint his own mother naked? I say Husain should be punished in such a way no one in his family will remember how to paint seven generations later. If he ever comes here, I assure you there will be a spontaneous reaction to him. "

It is a good point though. These guys started harassing Husain ages ago, but they are not alone in violent protests over religious idols. Thats universal. But this whole "spontaneous reaction" bullshit needs to stop. You're not fooling anyone. It's like in school when they told you that some voluntary activity was compulsary.

"How do you justify your demographic insecurities? We are a billion plus. Minorities barely make up 18 percent. Orissa has 95 percent Hindus –
Don’t look at it at a national level. Go to the particular district and see. There used to be a few thousand Christians there, now there are several lakhs. Why did only particular portions of India become Pakistan and Bangladesh? Because they were Muslim majority areas. Why are there secessionist movements in Christian dominated regions of the north-east? In the future, there might be fresh talk of partitions. They will raise their populations then ask for partitions. You will not understand these things. We do not oppose Muslims per se, we only oppose statements like Abdullah Bukhari who said recently that they will create such a movement, things will be worse than 1947. "

How do you ever manage population control in an environment like this? And its such a myopic view from a leader who rather have a thosand hungry, poor, illiterate followers than plan for their successful future.

The point that he considers every demand of the Muslims as anti-national. Even their demands of being treated equally, equal opportunity -- everything is considered anti-Hindu by him. So where is the space for debate?

"You will find the only reason the talks broke down so totally is because Shri Shahbuddin made that incendiary statement: “What proof do you have Ram was born here?” If you question our very identity, the basic fount of our culture -- Did Ram exist or not -- what discussion can there be? Let them take the initiative on anything. Let them amicably give us the three birthplaces, and there will be no more fight. Does any Muslim leader have the courage and statesmanship to initiate talk on this? "

AKA this conversation will only work if you agree we are right.

BUT his comments on secular media being great apologetics and in fact doing a disservice to the country made me think. It's not that his views are totaly baseless, its that they are an extreme version of what they should be. Agreed, there is a deep divide over Ayodhya (and he mentions this funny statement by a Muslim who said, if my baby is born in a Boeing 747 will I take the plane home? Hee.) and perhaps he is such a staunch Hindu that he does feel threatened by other religious groups being present, but his outlet is violence, spontaneous as it may be, and thats the problem.

But he did mention how secular media/people react. It made me think about a email doing the rounds, claiming to prove who actually owns the Indian media. It says that there is a lot of Middle Eastern money coming in that wants to ensure that the media is sympathetic to Muslims more than Hindus -- thus the secular bias. The same claim is made for international channel tie-ups, that are funded by Christian groups in their countries. How true this is, I don't know. But its out there.

Now, this Hindu-Muslim/Secular puzzle is made even more complicated if you take Kashmir in the middle. To give Kashmir autonomy would encourage other secessionist, so a no-no. But the alternative is to let them continue living under guard. And with Kashmir, where the Muslims could not decide if they wanted to stay with India or Pakistan, we equate their struggle with the rest of the Muslims in India (who wanted to stay, and struggle for their place within Indian society), and so neither can be addressed correctly? Am I reading this right because it is just so complicated!

Anyway, I read this piece by Pankaj Mishra in Outlook. He said a few interesting things too. "For years the overtly Islamic and violent aspect of the insurgency in the Valley kept many secular Indian liberals from visibly sympathising with the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims." And Prakash Sharma's answer to that is that the media has not highlighted the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits (though Tehelka says it is working on such a story). I've heard my dad, a KP although my family was already in Delhi at the time of the exodus, complain of the same. Why is one story lost in the service of the other? Or perhaps its not lost "in the service of the other" but simply waiting to be found?

Does Kashmir hold the key to solving these problems? Can it be a catalyst? I'm throwing the question open guys, cause I want to know too. What do you think?

Are we also caught up in "the idea of India" (much like the idea of the "American Dream"?) he asks. Great question I think. Because we keep claiming India is this, it is that, but its not really, and you just need to put on the TV to understand that simple fact. Everyone seems to hate each other, mutual suspicion. And this common love of cricket and Bollywood that we seem to find so cute, to me, isn't all that cute anymore.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A tale of two cities

Mumbai and Bombay. Somehow the usage just seems to -- inadvertently -- denote the biggest difference between how people see the city.

Bombay, of course, is cosmopolitan. Open for everyone. BUT Mumbai is only for Mumbaikars. Raj Thackery (who finally someone, even if it was Lalu Prasad Yadav, called a mental case) has been arrested, and as I type, is going to be taken to court shortly.

As you all might know, Raj and his band of MNS workers have been attacking non-Maharashtrians in the city, claiming that they are taking away jobs that actually belong to Maharashtrians. The hysteria has been a multi-pronged strategy, which has included calls for all shop signs to be in Marathi, all state communication in the same language, beating up taxi drivers and so on. The sheer power of Raj -- his ability to lead other goons like him -- made the state government nervous about arresting him. Bombastic threats were made, to the effect that "watch what will happen if you arrest Raj Thackerey!"

This entire deal has been making me think of identity as an Indian. The fact that Raj has a following is most disheartening to me. But its not just as an observer. I'm half Kashmiri and half Maharashtrian. Since I wasn't born in Kashmir, I can never buy land there. (Consider this my pitch to change that law!) Chances are, especially since I can't speak Marathi fluently (and plus not a pure breed), if it was up to Thackerey & gang, I wouldn't be welcome there. Delhi is my home. I can't imagine what I would do if this state because some exclusive party too. But as my mother reassures me, I was born in the city! (Phew -- that has to earn me some brownie points!)

But then again, if I have to be fair, the Delhi CM also lamented a while ago about migration into Delhi. (Poor UP and Bihar). And the frustration stems from a real place, of course, because since movement within our country is a constitutional right, the government can never be sure of how many people will reside in a state on any particular month. So, resources are never enough. They cannot be planned well enough. Bigger questions about budgets follow.

Beating up people who are looking for a better life is not the answer. Many have argued that it is the fault of governments of backward states -- especially UP and Bihar -- that just do not have jobs and infrastructure to provide to their people. It's probably very true, and these states need to be developed with some long term aims. Bihar has been destroyed again, and I hope Mayawati is actually doing some good out in UP -- one mostly hears of her many statues and fights with Sonia, but I'm ready to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Our media, of course, is helpful as ever. Is this the face of urban terrorism, asked CNN IBN. I'm not sure exactly what the meaning of this new label is, and if that is really the point. Arnab Goswami, I was very happy to note, was holding representatives of MNS, Shiv Sena to task.

What will happen to Raj? Because I'd sooner go to Bombay for a visit than Mumbai.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

money matters

The closing statements said a lot. There was McCain, appealing to the American voters to let him fulfill his destiny, to serve Americans again, and Obama, focusing on how he wants to change policies to rescue America from this slippery slope.

You must have seen it all, read it all, how McCain sneered and rolled his eyes as Obama spoke; how Obama smiled as McCain criticized him. McCain was simply unpleasant. He wasn't always like this, go back and google his appearances on Conan, Leno or even The Daily Show. He spoke his mind. He was fun. But, I suppose as a Republican candidate (after all, he is not running as an independent candidate) he was taken more traditional positions.

But it all boils down to policies and the Republicans severe aversion to having the government involved in people's private lives. (Although, under Bush, the government was not only in their phones, but now is nationalizing banks, which for them, really, is a strict no-no.) Coming from India, we are well used to the government with its finger in every pie. In fact, over here we want more privatization. We feel that is more effective. But let's also keep in mind that if private companies were allowed to do what they wanted -- as has happened in the States -- one would need to government to come out and sort everyone out. Obama's basic argument is that private players have not always been able to solve problems, because they don't have larger policy issues in mind, but profits for themselves and shareholders. That's not wrong, but a country needs a long-term plan too. Even here, say the phone companies hiked up charges to insane amounts, we would expect the government to step in and tell them to calm down. Remember the common man, and all that. ((Same to same Obama.))

I won't bother recapping other arguments they have, you know them. But I did see something on BBC that is worth recounting. They reported, last night as I lay awake at 3am for no reason, that America has seen shopping sales drop drastically in this year -- and the trend seems to have started even before reports of a financial crisis. The country -- despite problems -- has always depended on the American consumer to spend, spend, spend, thereby reviving the economy. That's why, as I understand it, Republicans say taxing the rich doesn't make sense. Then they'll have more money to spend, and it will all go back into the economy and trickle down. Well, clearly, that's not the case.

So, is it worth taxing the rich so that government has the money that it must necessarily spend on some kind of reform, research, relief, instead of a jacuzzi?

I guess my point is that a mixed economy seems to make the most sense.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

All about the trigger

What Bal Thackeray said today, that Sonia Gandhi’s attempt to de-link terrorism from religion is wrong, made me think really hard about some issues in front of us. One the one hand she is correct – by making terrorism a purely ‘Muslim’ issue (instead some some very, very angry people who just happen to be Muslim), we put the entire community at risk. People don’t trust them, the police give them a hard time, and their lives just suck that much more. But then again, de-linking it from religion is also kind of a Sarah Palin answer to global warming: she says it doesn’t matter whether it is man made or not, but of course it matters, if you don’t know what caused it, how will you prescribe the right cure? So, and especially so, after the Indian Mujahideen (responsible for the latest series of bomb blasts) claim in an email that they are angry about anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, about the Babri Masjid and Mumbai riots, which were clearly Hindu-Muslim issues, how can we dare to frame this entire problem outside the purview of religious problems? Now, I’m not a total retard and of course by linking this recent spate of terror activities to Muslim extremism, I don’t mean to link every Muslim to terror. But, unfortunately, the Catch-22 is, this happens.

But at the same time, in the light of Hindu-Christian strife, there have been calls to ban the Bajrang Dal. This is a clearly religious problem, and again, by lashing out at Hindu extremists, it doesn’t automatically mean all Hindus are extremists. (There are just so many more Hindus in India, the same rules do not apply.)

See, the entire problem (and of course I’m not pointing out anything new here) is that politics takes advantage of the religion, and then any normal, rational discussion is lost. For example, in the news are reports that Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Yadav would like the Bajrang Dal banned because that would help their minority vote bank. Now, their reason for supporting the ban should ideally be that the Bajrang Dal has been proved, without a shadow of a doubt, to be an extremist organization, and for the safety of its targets and for the national peace, it should be banned. The same goes for extremist Muslim groups – the reason we should go after them is because they kill people and create chaos, not because it would excite a Hindu vote bank.

But, my point is, if people are using religion to perpetuate violence, then we should call them on it. As all non-extremist Hindus should denounce extremist Hindu organizations, so should Muslims do the same with their rouge outfits. And we should not become too political correct (or incorrect) and not do the right thing.

The world is what it is.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Modi to the rescue

So, is Narendra Modi a national hero for rescuing the Nano -- the car for the common man? The one lakh car? How does one feel about the fact that Ratan Tata, known to be one of the most honest businessmen in India, is sharing the stage with Narendra Modi, one of the most villified politicians by the educated elite (a crowd that ironically, Tata belongs to, although I have no idea if he ever vocally criticized Modi). Are we to forget Modi the communal evil now, since he has recently been exonorated from some communal carnage in the state? Is his new avatar the saviour of capitalism? Even his toughest critics will have to praise him for this move.

This story is as much about the Nano, capitalism and industry in India -- as much as it is about Narendra Modi, the good guy.

Mind boggling.

random house

Was meant to go to Orissa for a shoot, but with the violence and flooding, things came to a standstill. That's when I started writing -- aimlessly at first -- a book. Now, there's no telling if I will finish the book, I can't make out if its interesting to anyone besides me (although the two people who've read it seemed to enjoy it). Plus I'm more racy novel than anything deep and insightful, but who cares! As long as its fun and you learn something. (What is it about, you ask: all in good time!)

Anyway as I started to lift my head and watched news, I was as disappointed as anyone with what happened with the Tata's in Bengal. And whats more, they have now decided to go to Gujarat with the Nano, which makes me wonder how Modi, villified for violence against Muslims, has proven to be a good CM in terms of business and industry. I guess this experiment with democracy is all good, but when you need something done, a firm hand is the best?

Meanwhile, a fellow journalist gets killed -- murdered -- on Delhi roads late at night and the CM thinks she was being "adventurous". Just makes you realise how out of touch Old India is with New India, where travelling at night is quite routine for many women -- and men. Did our CM not know this? That's what I'm shocked about. On my own, I've seen this city at all times of the day and night, thats for sure, and I've been lucky; nothing has ever happened. I was stopped at a police check near the PM's house once, all the cops were drunk, misbehaving. Luckily one was sober and told me to just drive off. I know that unless a female cop is present they can't stop me at night, but there was a barricade -- I had no choice. But thats almost all of my misadventures.

Recently I attended a do where there were many of my ex-collegues from the Indian Express and I was asking them what the deal was with this Indian Mujahideen. The emails said the bombs were for Gujarat, but to me, its still baffling how bombing Delhi aimless really helps their own lives. It's a pretty retarded strategy was strategies go -- unfortunately, a very dangerous one. So thats my new project for myself; following the terror trail more closely. I remember when the Indian in Australia was suspected of terror -- I forget his name right now -- India boasted of the fact that there was not one single Indian Muslim terrorist. Now they seem to be everywhere. What is it then?

We had this conversation about stereotypes last night. I won't repeat much of it since it was politically horribly incorrect, but at the end of the day my thought was that stereotypes are based on behavior patters, and then blown out of proportion. But, as far as my understanding is, the best part about stereotypes is that they can be broken.

So, to things we believe are so not true and how we can prove that. And aimless racy novels. Cheers.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Countdown 2010

DELHI'S ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Delhi is undertaking a massive development scheme before it hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But Al Jazeera's People & Power found that many locals are doubtful the new projects will benefit everyone.

As the dust settles on the Beijing Olympics preparations are proceeding full-steam ahead in the Indian capital Delhi for their own multi-sport bonanza – the 2010 Commonwealth games.

With 85 nations due to compete in 17 different disciplines it is the largest event of its kind ever to be held in the country and the construction in the city reflects the scale of the event.

"We're a big economic power now. I mean India is looked at, India and China are looked at from a different angle altogether," Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Indian Olympic Committee, says.

"We are going up economically, and people expect that sports-wise also we must do well."

Delhi has promised it will surpass the Melbourne games of 2006 and the Delhi Development Authority is the agency that has been charged with converting the capital into a "world class city" in two years time.

"The city, because of the Games, wherever it is – whether it is Athens, China – moves 10 years ahead, and Delhi will also move ten years ahead with the Commonwealth Games," Kalmadi says.

Moving ten years ahead means 24 new flyovers are in the pipeline and ultimately about 200km of new network on the Delhi Metro.

Infrastructure fear

"We have a big Commonwealth Games Village for 8,000 athletes. A number of competition and games venues are being built almost from scratch, some are being renovated," Tejinder Khanna, the chairman of DDA, tells Al Jazeera.

"So there's almost several billion dollars of infrastructure up-gradation and new infrastructure is being added."

Critics fear this new infrastructure will damage the existing environment of Delhi and that it will be the poorest who pay the price for this development.

"Delhi has many landmarks around the city from the Qutub Minar to the Red Fort to Safdarjung's Tomb. I think everything here should be preserved. There's a lot to keep. A lot to accentuate, a lot to rehabilitate,” Michael Jansen, the CEO of US consulting company Satellier, says.

"For Delhi the question really is, how do we maintain and accentuate the historic buildings in the city and then build a modern city around or into it – which I think will be the challenge."

But some people are being pushed back to accommodate this modern city. Forty kilometres away from Delhi is the area of Bawana.

People now forced to live here had been living in a slum colony in Delhi known as Yamuna Pushta before their land was taken away by the government.

The area will now house the Commonwealth games village, a state of the art facility for athletes competing in the games.

Appalling conditions

"Almost 200,000 people were actually displaced and were pushed to the outskirts of Delhi – to Bawana – so that there could be beautification that could happen," Vimlendu Jha, an environmentalist, says.

Bawana residents say their conditions are no better than before

In Bawana, the memories of the day of demolition are still fresh in people's minds.

"It was the afternoon when the bulldozers came," 25-year-old Rafiya recalls. "When it came towards us, we stood in the middle. All around us, houses were being torn down. My family was amongst the last to leave.

"My father had spent his entire life there, and died there, so we did not want to leave that place and move anywhere else."

What also angers Bawana's new residents is that their new living conditions are as equally as appalling as before.

The government gave them land to build houses. They can stay here for only five years and none of these houses have toilets.

There are some temporary toilets but they are often unaffordable for people living on less than a dollar a day.

Khanna says there was no other option for Bawana residents as authorities do not have substantial housing to provide.

"What you've done is that you have removed a slum and created another slum at a different location. So you have displaced a problem, rather than solving a problem," Jha says.

Authorities claim they are under no legal obligation to re-house residents but critics argue they have no real choice in the matter.

"Right to resettlement doesn't exist," Harish Salve, a lawyer with the Supreme Court of India, says.

"But yes, as good government, as a welfare state which we are as far as possible, if driven by poverty people have come and settled in inhospitable surrounding you must resettle them."

'Race against time'

Meanwhile, the government is busy building the Commonwealth Games village on the bed of river Yamuna, a construction that Jha says is highly hypocritical.

"We've seen lot of illegal constructions; lot of slums have been removed, vacated from the river bed, saying that 'oh well, they pollute the river', and that any form of encroachment is bad for the river system and the eco-system of the river," he says.

"How about the Commonwealth Games? Where did the government think that it was suddenly eco-friendly to have big construction and it was eco-unfriendly when there were slums that were supposed to be there?"

The authorities however insist they have all the necessary permits to build on the riverbed and the Indian Olympic Committee says it is too late to switch the project to another site.

Some analysts say that setting up facilities for the games is proving to be a race against time for the government and in order to meet deadlines they are taking quick decisions that sometimes result in irreparable damage.

Local residents say that trees in the Siri forest have been cut down to make way for the Commonwealth stadium and have been done so from the centre, in order to disguise the cutting for as long as possible.

Delhi has developed the city's Metro system for the games [EPA]
"If 1,000 trees are cut anywhere – I mean, that we are very particular, at least 10,000 more trees must be grown elsewhere. So all those factors have been looked into," Suresh Kalmadi of the Olympic committee says.

Salve says this attitude is a case of literally not seeing the forest for the trees.

"A forest which is a few hundred years old, as this Siri Fort forest is, is an eco-system. You can plant trees - you can't plant an eco system," he says.

"It is this attitude, and its this complete lack of awareness and planning, which is at the heart of the Indian problem."

Planning problems

Lack of planning is hindering Delhi from becoming the "world class" city it aspires to be.

The Road Research Institute has been monitoring the infrastructure in Delhi and says that basic facilities like pedestrian signals and zebra crossings are sorely lacking – meaning walking on Delhi roads has never needed more maneouvring.

"Just for the sake of widening the roads we are just cutting down the size of the footpaths. And whatever footpaths are available they are not at all pedestrian friendly," Nishi Mittal from the institute says.

The games' organising authorities suggest such hindrances are merely teething problems and that a fluid transportation system will be in place by 2010.

"There's going to be a lovely transportation system coming in," Kalmadi says.

"All these stadiums are also being connected by the Metro. So, lot of things happening for the common man."

However, despite the millions of dollars already invested in the infrastructure of the Games, many believe that millions of people may not benefit from it.

"Whatever Games we're talking about, it doesn't really help the common man. It comes and goes," Vimlendu Jha says

"But in the process of coming and going, you don't lose so much. You don't put everything at stake."

WATCH:



(I worked on this).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Of presidential decisions

There are a couple of things that really hurt the intelligence of the American voter, and the Republican party’s recent justification of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate is one of them.

Let’s start from the beginning. When he announced Palin as his choice for veep, she said in a minor speech something to the effect that even though Hillary Clinton is out of the race, this move (and her becoming VP) could show women that the glass ceiling can still be broken. Fabulous. But for me, the entire point of Hillary Clinton was that she was someone who made it on her own. (You might say being married to Bill helped her, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that she would have kicked ass even if he hadn’t been a politician). So picking a random woman to be his running mate, the only qualification needed that she be female, makes McCain seem like a total idiot in my opinion. Harks back to debates in India about making Pratibha Patil president of the country simply because she was female. (And from what I understand this president has made no impact on the country, except for occasional reports about crass behavior from her family in the press.)

But back to Sarah Palin, who I’m sure must be a nice lady. But McCain met her in February for the first time. So let me try and wrap my head around this – he has decided to make this woman, who he barely even knows, his VP. And so, if he were to die in office (I know, terrible to talk about it, but the man is old, so you need to think of Plan B), then Sarah Palin, someone who admittedly has not given Iraq much thought, will be leader of the free world -- and in charge of foreign policy?

And then of course is the small gloating from the GOP about Palin’s 17 year old daughter being pregnant, which they think will make voters think she is just-like-them and can relate to them. You know the last time we heard such an argument? When they were selling George W. Bush to the Americans!

In presidential candidates, you don’t need people who are like the rest of us. You need people who have higher standards, who have excelled in life.

I think it was Bill Clinton’s speech at the Denver DNC when he said that in his first presidential decision (of choosing a VP), Obama has “knocked it out of the park”. I like Joe Biden. So what about McCain’s first presidential decision? I read somewhere he picked a Palin rather than one of the usual suspects because he still wanted to appear to be a maverick, and that he still had it in him to keep people guessing. Pick your battles, I say. And in picking a running mate, pick someone you admire and respect, not some person you barely even know, but think might fit into some narrative the media will love.

Very disappointing John McCain. Not that you had my vote (if I could) but you are losing the respect too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

toilet mafia

There is a sanitation officer, the residents of Bawana Resettlement Colony tell me, who makes Rs 3000 a day. ‘Makes’ is just a nice way of putting it. What they mean, of course, is illegal earning. The police are not far behind, with a daily intake of Rs 15,000. All thanks to the toilet mafia. I know, you are wondering: What?

Some background: When the slum dwellers of the Yamuna Pushta were moved to Bawana – “resettled” – the government told those who could supply ID cards that would be allotted plots of land. They paid for them – Rs 7000 or Rs 5000 – depending on the size. Empty plots, which, depending on the savings of the slum dwellers, they have either built up into brick houses or jhuggis. From illegal colonies to actually owning land is a great leap for many, but before you wax eloquent about how we are serving the common man, wait. Sewage lines do not connect the plots of land, so houses cannot have individual bathrooms. So, an entire block has to share a bathroom complex or two. That’s 4000 families, roughly 28,000 people. And so whenever any of them want to use the bathroom, have a bath, wash their clothes – they have to brave the heat, the cold, the day, the night, lines, men, women, children, to have a little personal space. But it doesn’t end there.

From 2004 to 2006, Sulabh was handling the toilet complex. The lavatory cost Re 1, and to bathe/wash clothes cost Rs 5. That’s a lot of money for a family of six or seven, as they often are in the Resettlement Colony. In 2006, the MCD took over, and made use of the toilets free. But the more things changed, the more they remained the same. The Sulabh workers stayed on, taking money from residents who did not know the rules had changed. And so the daily struggle continued. If anyone was unable to pay, but needed to use the bathroom, they were manhandled. Poverty was a reason the bathrooms were made free. But practically, it seems, it did not serve the interest of the authorities to tell them. And from their daily collections – remember that the strength of the colony is about one lakh people strong – the sanitation officer took a cut, the police took theirs, the men who guarded the toilets, and some money trickled down to the local politicians office I was told. And therein lies the toilet mafia.

But the story hardly ends there. A few NGOs – Action Aid, Par Darshita -- along with some residents who work with them figured out this game. After consulting a lawyer, they decided that the best weapon against this mafia was to tell everyone the truth. A pamphlet was prepared, ‘nukkad nakat’ or street plays with the message, and a rally called on June 30th to announce this to the community. The night before, in true Hindi movie style, members of the mafia turned up at the NGO office and threatened members if they proceeded. But they did, the rally was held, the message spread, and sure enough, it ended with the mafia coming in and disrupting everything.

I was there the day of the rally, and saw quite a few fights over bathroom usage. It should be surprising that a toilet mafia exists, but its not. Who is responsible for the mess in Bawana? I told a bunch of senior bureaucrats this story over dinner, and most of them simply shrugged and told me that the MCD has a very bad rep. But what does that mean, exactly? That because the MCD is known to be corrupt, we cannot expect it, or rather, we will not expect it to function? This is not just a problem for the residents of Bawana. Not just for the MCD. It is a health hazard to have areas around the house and colony be used like open bathrooms, which they invariably are, for the lack of another option. Isn’t it an environmental matter as well? And can the Government of Delhi wash its hands off the problem by squarely blaming the MCD?

The colony might be able to recapture its bathrooms; it might not. All I know is that waiting for a bathroom can be unbearable sometimes.

Now imagine if you didn’t have one at all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's my trust vote and I'll shout if I want to

They came from everywhere; wheelchairs and stretchers – jail. And the anticipation of drama delivered! From the moment a crore of rupees was placed in the House by three BJP MPs – everything changed. Read on to see how the BJP's staged drama did not hold a trust vote down.
Any spellings, typos, etc, I’ll do tmr – I’m exhausted from typing and need a drink.

To be sure, the day did not start like this. My alma mater, I was a little surprised to read in the morning, lauded the first day of the debate – “the country was given snapshots of major political formations’ thinking on a complex and crucial issue. Hosting debates of such depth, apart from passing laws, is really what Parliament is about,” it felt. But the contrast between a real conversation about where this country is heading and name-calling just served to remind people like me that some people, unfortunately, just don’t care.

But Chidabaram, Gandhi and Lalu, all gave entertaining and fiery speeches.

“The BSP and SP, so far outside of the two coalitions, have not so much ditched partners as much as tried to find space in national politics,” the Express editorial had read. I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that, but what do I know?

But I’ll say this, despite what anyone says, it did turn out to be a vibrant debate in the end! Not deep, just dynamic.

The prime minister was to speak soon.

More than one crore rupees has been placed in the House – is it orchestrated drama? It is a “blot in the history of Indian democracy”, says Barkha Dutt, asking if “ a vote can be taken at all”. Its 4.16pm. The Speaker is obliged to refer this to a committee. But last night, as Barkha said, the PM had challenged MPs to prove they were offered money. This could be why this is happening.

But the Speaker’s hands are tied and cannot allow a vote now, can he?

Lok Sabha adjourned till 5pm.

Historic moment of shame, they said. Honestly, I didn’t feel shame as much as irritation. You were offered money? You refused. Then shut up and vote. Buying, bribing, bartering MPs is not new. That they are waving this money around means that they are not voting/abstaining under pressure.

Then came news of proof. S.C Mishra, BSP, came on TV so say that the PM should resign.

Speaker spoke. All three leaders have been asked to submit their complaints. BJP, again, made demands. Let people air their grievances in parliament, the PM should resign.

Back to the studio. Vinod Mehta echoed my thoughts, that people of this country will not be very shocked. They may be enjoying the stunt? I wonder. Shekhar Gupta said this is how cynicism builds up – all politics is run like this. Mehta said cynicism cannot increase in this country!

Mayawati on TV: Wants PM to resign, if this is how he has behaved to save his government. Standard statement.

Vote or walk-out? Shekhar Gupta says but a walk out is also a vote. Also that Mayawati had people join her “not because of some long lost love for Dr Ambedkar”.
A “cattle market out there” pointed out Vinod Mehta but made a good point – “it has been a cattle market since the day the trust vote was announced”.

Danger of homemade stings is, Shekhar Gupta pointed out, “Even when a good thing happens, it gets lost”. He said we need a deterrent, even if one person went to jail, it may go a long way. And if something like this happened? Should the PM resign? No, they said, but “someone should go to jail” says Shekhar Gupta with a side story. A BSP MLA was sent to jail. His widow has now been elected from a BSP ticket. And the man who murdered him, is now out from jail, to vote right now, on a BSP ticket!

Jaswant Singh was on the phone, he sounded so lazy, like he was sitting at home having a whisky and cigar, I couldn’t help smiling. But he said the BJP is fine with a vote in an “extraordinary situation”.

IBN had some leads on the bribing story, and had in its possession some tapes of bribes. So it decided to hand them over to the Speaker, because they had concerns over Parliamentary Privledge.

6.30pm, the Parliament was back on. The Speaker was again interrupted by disrupted elements. Mr Owasi was allowed to speak. He said the BJP had guided the Left in this drama, and he supports the government on matters of social welfare. He believed the Left front “for no reason whatsoever” withdrew support. He went on to ask why people are claiming Muslims are against the deal – why has no one pointed out what Hindus stand for, Dalits etc. It is for the PM to decide foreign policy, and said the Left front hates minorities. If Advani becomes PM, it is the Muslims who will suffer.

Mehbooba Mufti got up, and said after listening to the debate, that the BJP is only opposing the deal because it wants to take credit for it. Screaming to be heard, she said they only want to renegotiate the deal.., she was drowned out by cries from ‘istifa do, idtifa do’.

Omar Abdullah got up said he did not know if the one crore is true, but it is the reason smaller parties are being disrupted. He does not see a distinction between being a Muslim and being Indian, and he sees no reason to be afraid. The enemies of Indian Muslims are “the same enemies the poor people of India face” – poverty, hunger and so on. Not a member of the UPA, but he, being unhappy with the Left for becoming certifiers of who is secular and who is not. When he was with the NDA, he says the Left thought he was an outsider, but now they claim he is secular. He did not resign over Gujarat and his conscience has not forgiven him – he would not make that mistake again. To catcalls of the Amarnath Yatra, he said the fight was for land, but the Kashmiris has not turned away pilgrims. “Hum aapke jaise communal nahi hain!”
Very powerful and well spoken, I felt a chill, and I won’t lie – I welled up a bit!

The next speech was given by man – Virendra Kumar (JD)S -- who wanted clarification on certain things the PM had said on the Hyde Act. (I want to point out that all these speeches were made with the BJP shouting slogans in the background). He desperately ran through a page or two of the speech of the PM (as far as I could make out). He laid his objections on the table.

Next up was a speech to support the government, for the poor by Briswamuthiary, an independent MP. “We are indigenous people and have numerous programmes in our villages,” and in Assam, he wanted some tribes on the SC list, one area to be made another district (?), more funds for the Bodo people. His demands were very basic – schools, money – probably not the best time to discuss this, but he’d probably never had a full house with the nation watching before.

The Speaker insisted that the North Easterners speak – Mani Charimeiner from outer Manipur – said he would support the government as he has been promised that the Common Minimum Program would be re-examined. It is an under developed area, full of problems, but he said he has decided to “share the problems of the nations” and support the nuclear deal. He also wanted the desire and aspirations of the Naga people to be fulfilled.

Yerranaidu, TDP, very angry, bright yellow kurta. He opposed the motion not just on the basis of the deal but other failures. The PM’s office became a hotbed for political deals in the name of energy security, and the sovereignty of the country is being given to the Bush administration. “The Bush is going,” so he asked what is the hurry? China took ten years to finalize the 123 agreement, he said, and there is no unanimity among political parties, no majority, and since this issue is not of the Congress but the country, and he could not support the motion. He asked the PM few questions. One seemed silly, even the Speaker chuckled, the other (as my mother said) was not true.

Next a woman –Ranjeet Ranjan (LJSP), asked for respect of the House (which she actually got). She praised the PM for his honesty and said that she was prepared to come here to denounce the deal, but after seeing the events of the day, she is disgusted. She was clearly impressed by Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah’s passion. She said, fiery and passionate, some people point a figure at others while they have ACs, money and criminals with them, and that the opposition has shamed the country. Single handedly she was blowing up the BJP and Akalis (as her husband is from Punjab, she seemed to know Punjabi very well), and said Sikhs always sacrifice without asking for something in return, and it is the duty of the Akalis to support the government. Then she supported it herself.

The next got only two mins when he started – in support of the government – Murmu of JMM. The need that the country has for electricity, and how the government is going forward to meet that need – the deal is for the good of the country. He was satisfied with the explanations of the deal, and did not understand why the Left deserted the government after four years. He said the opposition keeps talking about the government giving money – well, who was ready to take it??

I was glad to see other MPs disgusted by the BJPs behavior in the House today, not just us couch potatoes.

The PM stood up and the BJP flocked, asking for resignation, not allowing him to speak. “Whatever decision there is, we will carry on…” I could barely hear through the loud chanting for his resignation. He handed in his speech after barely even a minute, so that the trust motion could take place.

7:21pm – He asked the House to ‘ay’ and ‘nay’, but everyone sounded equally as loud, so he asked for a division. Some demands came out saying ask the Rajya Sabha members to leave, but the Speaker asked those asking not to be frivolous. Votes were being collected physically in the House.

Lobbies were cleared at 7:26pm. The secretary-general was asked to stand up and make the announcement with screaming and shouting in the background. The Speaker himself is quite talkative and I thought spoilt a few moments of quiet.

But then it started. Buttons were there to be pressed. For those who didn't use them, slips were going to be provided, and they had to sign, write their names and ID numbers, area, and date. Abstention slips would be provided. A screen on the wall had a computerized number.

Yes 253
No 232
Abst 002
Total 487

Confusion. Weren’t there more people who had to vote? Another 54 votes have to be counted yet; those are people using the slips instead. I don’t really understand why some people haven’t used the buttons, but all I know is that it could still swing another way. But the Congress is in a substantial lead, people starting congratulated the PM. Jayanti Natrajan explained that sometimes peoples buttons don’t work, or were not pressed properly, so right now the government still has to wait.

Barkha asked the question again – “Has the vote been overshadowed?” Swapan Dasgupta asked, the question is, “Will it be a tainted victory?” Will the deal seem compromised? Shekhar Gupta still thinks that if allegations are true, then one person needs to go to jail at least. Vinod Mehta was more concerned about smaller parties and their role now. And the question invariably turned to elections – should they have done it earlier, when should they do it now? More talk went on in all studios – Sagarika Ghosh making a really funny crack about how this might just be a good reason we need new technology (buttons not working)! The PM’s standing, the future of the Left… it was quite an interesting evening at the NDTV studios.

The government won the trust vote, and Vande Matram played, and we saw Parliament standing quietly for once. Sounds like 275 v/s 256, but no one seems sure. Ten absentations. Much wider than anyone expected, except, Prannoy Roy tells us Barkha was sure the Congress won have a clear win.

After the event, we find out about the best speech we never got to hear, that of the prime minister. I look forward to reading the text.

Singh is King.

The one with Rahul Gandhi

In the conversation that followed this post -- I had promised to give Rahul credit when credit was due. So, I decided to follow his speech in Parliament today and 'live blog' of sorts, report what he said and give my thoughts etc. Here goes you goes (btw props to Lalu for this highly entertaining speech that I am watching as I post this!)

**
… The day seemed to pick up with Rahul Gandhi. “I have decided to speak as an Indian” he said as the BJP erupted in flames. He then asked some BJP members to listen to him, and also to speak as Indians (and that they do, he does not doubt that). He made the assumption that all parties speak for the interest of the country. Why are we meeting he asked, because of the “serious problem of energy security”. To an interrupter, he said, “I will explain how energy security is directly related to poverty”.

Talking about his recent visit to Vidharba, and meeting a woman laborer with three sons; their income, their lives. (We had entered the ‘common man’ part of the speech). The sons want to collectors, engineers and in the private industry. Sasikala is confident her sons will achieve their dreams. That house had no electricity. He asked them how they study. They pointed to a lamp and said that was how. Energy security reflects itself everywhere – Sasikala, industry, all Indians.

The opposition was unable to shut the hell up, probably as not to give Rahul the respect I thought he deserved. Energy is necessary for growth – both for BJP schemes and Congress schemes. The point, that if we do not supply our energy supply into the future, growth will stop and we will not be able to fight poverty, he said. He had stated the problem, and now wanted to give the solution.

At the mention of another farmer Kalavati, the opposition interrupted. Rahul burst into a smile, while the Speak tried to keep the calm. Rahul graciously told him “aap se sikhe hain”. After repeated interruptions, Rahul got angry “I’m glad you find it funny, but Kalavati is a woman whose husband committed suicide because he was dependant on only one crop – the cotton crop.” Kalavati, who only depended on her husband, told Rahul that she- - (we had to wait a while for the story, because big, hairy men kept screaming at the Chair and Rahul) -- the Speaker got totally frustrated and said he would fix a time for the vote and allow no further discussion. Pranab Mukherji asked the House to allow Rahul to speak. Back to Kalavati, she said, instead of sowing one crop, she sows three, including milk from her buffalo and a pond for backup water. “So the answer to our problems is..” he said, as the BJP burst out into flames again. Renuka Chowdry very cutely (I thought) got up and sternly wagged her finger at the Opposition, lost in the din. Pranab Mukherjee actually had to physically go to where the Left was to calm them down. The Speaker got frustrated and adjourned the house.

Back to the TV channels, the news of numbers of MPs shifting around seemed crass in comparison. Barkha asked, “Why didn’t he speak as a party member? (in politics you are judged by how political you are)” – I could not disagree more. Jayanti Natranjan said the speech would resonate with the young people of the country – and she is right. I personally feel (having heard only the first half of his speech) that he has shown me a glimpse of the lead that he could be. But Chandan Mitra, editor Pioneer, looking more and more like a pet of the BJP, says of Rahul’s speech “Barkha, you and I have been seeing villages with kerosene lamps for years. And the Congress was in power all that time.” What the hell does that even mean? Does that solve the problem from any angle? Does it look forward? I can’t understand it at all.

My mother came for lunch (reminding me I have a dental appointment, but I’m missing it for the rest of the show) and said – “It is a measure of his success that he is being interrupted.”

Chandan Mitra, while not defending interruptions at all, said that if Rahul was seasoned he would have continued because the “decibel level was not that high”. About horse-trading, Mitra said, this marked the end of ideology. Newstrack India, a website, wrote an editorial saying that a “political party is a group of people who come together to contest elections and hold power in the government” -- very apt I thought.

Meanwhile, IBN was tracking Mayawati and her impromptu meetings as indicative of desperation outside, to keep her flock together. Dipdosh Majumdar said that the opposition might be interrupting to try and postpone the vote – which is why the Speaker at one time burst out to say that he might as well have the vote right now. Is this a strategy while more horse-trading goes on behind the scenes?

IBN then said the numbers for the government have changed to 272 as a MP from Nagaland had just decided to support the government. Has the government “fixed this vote?” Many allusions were made to the fact the Congress is an old hand at riding out no-confidence motions in the past, and can do it again. A smug Brinda Karat told NewsX that Manmohan Singh was finance minister when Narasimha Rao won his trust vote, so has the experience necessary to win this.

The markets started looking positive around 1.44pm, although I don’t think anyone could concentrate on anything but Parliament. Mohammed Salim meantime, very good naturedly laughed off Kumari Shailja statement that the Left has been living in an ivory town, now turning saffron. In retaliation to what Chidambaram said in the morning – Salim said that China is self reliant when it comes to energy, and India wants to depend on outside. He said to Shailaja – “You are working for ‘self’ and ‘Reliance’”!!! That was charming!

The thought was echoed again by Brida Karat to NDTV “Now we know why this government never takes action against black money because it comes in handy at times like this”.

Break over – and some MP I didn’t recognize was speaking. He was defending Mayawati, so I guessed he was from the BSP –Brijesh Pathak, as I found out. The Speaker chided him – seemed the grouse was about Amar Singh’s allegations about Mayawati. “Ab dekhiye sadan mein kya ho raha hai” says the man speaking out of turn. The irony! There was a curious defense of Mayawati going on, and how she will be trapped through the CBI despite evidence to the contrary. The man was screaming, claming that he was approached and that he was told that cases against Mayawati will be dismissed if the BSP votes with the government. Other members jumped in, apparently BSP men have been approached by the CBI. The Speaker told them to calm down as they were under the protection of the House, but they were too hysterical. Then Gurudas Dasgupta wanted to speaker to form a committee to look into the allegations “here and now” which made the Speaker laugh!

This went on for a while. The Left, BJP and BSP kept making the same point over and over again, probably nervous of what Rahul Gandhi was going to say, delaying it for as long as possible. The Speaker then graciously allowed them to finish, after which, asking Rahul to continue.

Rahul started again, “I spoke about two poor families..” and went to compare Kala’s pond to nuclear energy as the country’s insurance policy. The way our nuclear industry is today is neither going to act as insurance or a direct resource. The hands of the government are tied – we neither have the money or the technology. The PM, he said, has identified the problem. But, he added, Vajpayee, also saw the problem and moved to address it. A light moment when he encouraged the BJP to clap at this.

There is need to talk about energy security in the long term, and everyone needs to work together. Diversification means a balanced portfolio – solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear. “The magic of what PM is doing, is that out of within the problem, he has identified an opportunity that is significantly larger than the problem itself”. It is based on the fact that two countries will use the largest bulk of new energy that comes online – China and India – and can define how the world’s energy moves.

(Silence in the House followed the rest of the speech.)

“Like a big buyer… we have the ability to shape the global energy market... energy has destroyed nations and built nations. Our old opponents grew to their prominence because they controlled coal… the US controls hydrocarbons”.
Think like a big country, he said -- “Instead of worrying about how the world will impact us, we should start thinking about how we will impact the world”. Talking about the IT and Telecom industry – and the role that India has grown to assume in these industries globally – “we see the revolutionary impact that IT and computers have had on this country”.

The decision is not about 3% or 7% or usage of energy. “Whether India can become a global power in a type of energy that will become very important in the future”. We know the link between dependence on hydrocarbons and poverty today. One must not underestimate the link between industry and the poor. Many governments will run this country, but we should not be scared.

He repeated the point a few times, I thought it was to give the channels the best soundbyte possible. “We have to sit in this room and solve our problems together… Any voice can be heard in this room, any voice can disrupt another in this room... I’m proud of this”.

Act on courage. 70% of us are young, he said, he was above the average age, one that is brimming with confidence. We have to believe in our people and what they are capable of what they can do. These are guides for every single Indian.

He ended with a call for bipartisanship, and support for the motion.

***

What did the pundits make of him? Dipdosh Majumdar felt the first part of his speech did not work too well – stories about the poor women – but the latter half was good. He gave him a 5, because he did not begin in a way that “did not gel with the audience”. Perhaps he is right, after having seen Lalu, there are ways to control the house – yes – but substance, foreign policy and a point of view was clearly there, whether you agree with it or not. And posturing is important. He positioned himself as a decent, thinking man, in a rowdy, crass crowd.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Manjeet

You guys don't know Manjeet. He's the head waiter at Aura, The Claridges. He might even be Manager -- am not sure, known him for a while, not sure how the promotions have gone. Often, because he knows a good chunk of out "gol-chakar" circle (oh the irony)... we end up having a great conversations. Sometimes its about who hasn't paid the bill in a few weeks. Others, its about whats happening with the world. Now, Manjeet is the proud father of two -- savvy, because he sees a very rich crowd come in and out of his 'office' -- and everyone wants to be his best friend. "Manjeet, a few extra shots...", "Manjeet, get us in... oh TEN of us".. It's a process. But as his kids approach school going age, he's less interested in talking about social deviants, and more about what school they can go to.

In Delhi, as you all know, its tough. He's figured Sanskriti (a government officials school for the most part) is his first choice. Some others follow. I've told him to take a look at Shivniketan (or Mrs Gauba's School -- great legacy, Rajiv Gandhi went there, but now it's expanded beyond nursery). It's tough for Manjeet, he doesn't quite know it yet, because he hasn't done the drill, but schools don't come cheap. But he's from Himachal, he tells us proudly, and even on his 80,000 salary (a wife and two kids) he finds time to give an occasional 500 rupess and the odd blanket to the 80 year old mochi in his neighborhood.

I asked Manjeet if he knew what was happening with the government right now. A little amused, he asked me if I was pro-Congress. He had been listening to a friend and I talking at the bar all evening about big business, how much they were worth, and how some of the richest people in town (I don't mean rich.. I mean richEST) were the simplest. He figured we were pro-government. In this case, I was. I said, yes, Manjeet, I don't want his government to fall. Not over the nuclear deal.

Manjeet told me how the Congress was pathetic. Vajpayee, he said, was the best PM we've had. And, if you think about it, the partition of the country -- fault of the Congress. Terrorism -- their fault. Today? Look at inflation.. sugar.. rice... that's my concern. I tried to tell Manjeet that inflation happens with every party at the helm. Sure, there are policies, but gas, its a worldwide phenomenon. Not limited to the Congress. Right now, have you heard of the nuclear deal? Of the Left?

He shrugged. He'd never heard of the Left. This man who works on Aurangzeb Road. A road here, a gol-chakar there, and he'd be at Congress headquaters, at BJP headquaters, at CPM headquaters, hell, at Parliament if he wanted to! But he did have family in the army.

A jawan is paid, what, 10,000? 8,000? Some, when they come home, after saving and saving, come home with 60,000. Is that anything? What have they done? I'm from Himachal, he said. My people joint the army for honor. What did Indira Gandhi do? I don't know if this is a fact but, he said, she once said that the army would only be paid for 26 days in the month. So the General at the time told her, fine, but the other 4 days, if there is a problem, don't expect us to be there. "Uski phat gayee", he told me, giggling.

He hadn't even heard about the protest on India Gate, when ex-officers tried to ask the government for better pay. It was ten minutes from where he works, about fifteen from where he stays (somewhere behind Lodhi Colony).

It made me wonder. His faith might be misplaced, but where exactly should it be placed? This is not rhetorical. Give me an answer.