Sunday, March 13, 2005

London Diary

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : London Diary

Blair has been in power for a political generation and at war against terror long enough for a measured, thorough debate. His motivation, however, was political as much as it was legislative. Blair is ahead in the polls but wants to confirm victory in this summer’s general election by wearing the George Bush mantle of Warrior Prince.

"Ikkoi gal hai." I do not understand the mysteries of free association but this quote kept wandering through my mind as I savoured, long-distance, yet another century by Virender Sehwag. The author of the quote is a federal minister of Pakistan who had best remain nameless during this great outbreak of peace between Delhi and Islamabad. He was discussing President Pervez Musharraf’s famous dictum that the future of his country lay in "enlightened moderation". Our minister, not too familiar with the complexities of English syntax, sat the phrase on its head and when queried, replied, "Enlightened moderation ... moderate enlightenment ... ikkoi gal hai (it’s the same thing)..."

That’s the great beauty of Sehwag’s batting: whether he opens his innings with a six or completes a century with a six, it’s one and the same thing. It is a happy state of mind that stretches, in varying degrees, across the great river-fed plains from Peshawar to the outskirts of Delhi. This mindset definitely changes once it crosses the border: Delhi is a city where craft is the operating element in statecraft. The state can go hang itself as long as the craft is brilliant. The plains of Punjab on the other hand breed a cheerful mix of talent and sincerity, both natural elements, that cut across creed. When Sehwag suggests that it is mother’s milk that makes him hit sixes, he is being truthful rather than sentimental. Nothing could be more natural than mother’s milk, the dominant life-metaphor for strength, purity and every moral virtue. Intelligence, in this syndrome, is subservient to sincerity. Sehwag’s problems arise when his sincerity is placed in direct conflict with his talent, generally on captain’s orders. This is what happened on the third day. Captain Sourav Ganguly ordered him to play out time, instead of playing against Pakistan. Sehwag was loyal, but it was no longer one and the same thing. Unfair.

Contrary to an impression that some of you may have gathered, the big story in London is not about babies of strange aspect but an anti-terrorist law that was shoved through Parliament at deadline hour by Tony Blair. Question one: why the rush? Blair has been in power for a political generation and at war against terror long enough for a measured, thorough debate. His motivation, however, was political as much as it was legislative. Blair is ahead in the polls but wants to confirm victory in this summer’s general election by wearing the George Bush mantle of Warrior Prince. At the heart of the new law is a provision by which a suspect can be detained without trial on the orders of a politician, rather than a judge. This is effective denial of habeas corpus. And it was this that persuaded a vital pillar of the British Establishment, the Lords, to return the bill thrice and force the longest confrontation between the two Houses in a hundred years. The Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and a section of Labour MPs took a stand against Blair’s harangue and threats that he would go to the people accusing them of being "soft" on terror, the contemporary taboo of western politics. The debate took place against a background of not-so-subtle signals that accomplices of Osama bin Laden, detained in Britain, were on their way to freedom thanks to such weakness. With evil-looking beards on his front-office posters, how could Blair lose the pubic relations game? Eventually, however, it was Blair who blinked, just one step before the edge of the precipice of excess. Perhaps someone pointed out a Tory slogan he could face in the elections: Would you hand over your liberty to a politician? Blair got his law at the last moment, after the Opposition got the right to review and possibly repeal this law within a year. Some interesting facts and parallels were washed up in the debate. At the height of the IRA’s terror campaign in the Seventies and Eighties, when multi-storeyed buildings were bombed to smithereens and in a famous incident at Brighton most of the Thatcher government nearly blown up, no one attempted to remove habeas corpus from the British citizen’s bill of rights. And out of the 17 men convicted under the current anti-terror laws, only three are Muslims.

The big show of the moment is a splendid exhibition at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly on an extraordinary people who range across Asia from a wedge in Europe to the depths of China, the Turks. The true majesty of this collection, among the armour and the jewellery and the art and the ceramics, lies in the splendour of books and manuscripts, exquisite in calligraphy and perfect in binding after seven and eight centuries. If this is what has survived, one can only wonder at what must have been lost to the excesses of time and the ravages of war. Rumi’s Masnavi had pride of place, for obvious reasons, but the piece de resistance, as far as I was concerned, was a beautiful collection of Khusrau preserved in Istanbul. The author, very correctly, was called Amir Khusrau Dihlivi. Since past glory so often invites rumination I wondered at what point Turkish power, and its Ottoman manifestation, began to decline. A famous schoolboy question, once put to me at lunch by the headmaster of a grand British school who confused my surname with knowledge, is: Why didn’t the Turks increase the range of their guns before their famed and failed assaults on Venice, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the bulwark of Europe against the East? It struck me that the answer might lie not in the range of guns but in the books before me. Battles are won by the supremacy of guns, but empires are preserved by the supremacy of books — the dissemination of knowledge to administrators and bureaucrats and scholars in the medressa and seminary. The superb master calligraphists who turned books into an art form also created powerful guilds that blocked the introduction of printing machines to the Ottoman empire. It was classic trade union protectionism. The Sultan acquiesced because he was either indolent, or more likely, a victim of the system in which these scribes were the recordkeepers and bookkeepers of empire. Europe was already much more than a century ahead when the guilds were finally browbeaten in Istanbul. Printing meant the mass production of books and pamphlets; it destroyed the elitism of education in the West and created a middle class and an industrial revolution. Europe broadbased knowledge and conquered the world. Turkey lost the knowledge edge, and lost the world.

A curious reverse process has begun. Tabloids and television control information at mass levels in a country like Britain and knowledge is once again, albeit slowly, becoming an elitist fact, returning to the pinnacle of the pyramid after seeping towards the base for four centuries. The new elite may be determined by merit rather than class, but it is still narrow. A paradox of democracy encourages this process. Politicians who want re-election have a vested interest in mass ignorance: the truth about Iraq, for instance, might become injurious to their health. Dumbing down in print media and phobia-promotion in television suits them very well. Good journalism — there is still a lot of it about, I am happy to report —irritates them and they seek to drown it with the bad.

How stupid can television get? Surfing channels through an idle phase in the hotel room, I discovered a new low amid the Lowest Common Denominators of modern television on a music programme called B4. An anchor offered high rewards to anyone who correctly answered this question. "Which of these three married Bruce Willis: Demi Moore, Roger Moore or Michael Moore?" No prizes from this column for the correct answer, even in an era of gay marriages.

As for Britain’s glorious tabloid journalism, the last word must remain with the everlasting Humbert Wolfe:

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no occasion to."

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