Monday, February 25, 2013

The politics of not having to apologise

The politics of not having to apologise
MJ Akbar 
The Times of India

If an apology could change the past, it might mean something. If it could rescue the future, even more so. But no apology arrives until the mind has already changed, making it a historical tautology. It took a British PM 93 years and 11 months to admit that the Jallianwala massacre was “deeply shameful”. The “sorry” word still did not slide through British constipation, but who cares? 

The slight delay in David Cameron’s pseudoapology was logical. The British remain convinced that the Raj was a good thing for the natives. Britain’s best-known , as distinct from its best, historians get lucrative media space and happy television assignments to add decibels to collective self-congratulation. Their narrative glosses over some inconvenient facts. The British empire was launched in 1765 with the zamindari of Bengal. Almost immediately , a man-made famine killed one-third of Bengal’s population, estimated at a staggering 10 million, because of the East India Company’s insatiable greed for land revenue. British rule ended in an equally devastating Bengal famine; this time, some three million died.
The average rate of growth in the last five decades of the Raj was just 1 per cent, and the rural economy lay devastated, but who dare argue with the march of bagpipes at heaven’s command through textbooks? Even our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh thanked the British for their rule. 

The majority British view was that Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer saved the Empire in 1919 when he ordered his Indian and Gorkha troops to open indiscriminate fire on peaceful protestors gathered at Jallianwala on Baisakhi day, April 13. With 1,650 rounds, they killed 530 and left over a thousand seriously wounded. That was efficiency. Barely a bullet was wasted. Dyer had not imposed martial law, nor given warning. He shot to kill and justified this decision before the subsequent Hunter Committee by claiming that he had scotched a serious Punjab rebellion with this show of force. 

The governor of Punjab in 1919, Michael O’Dwyer , thought Dyer went overboard when he ordered Punjabis to crawl, but supported the carnage at Jallianwala. Public opinion in England was vigorously supportive of Dyer. The Morning Post opened a subscription to reward Dyer, ‘Defender of the Empire’ ; its editor, Sir Edward Carson, was the first to send a donation, followed by O’Dwyer. The grateful British gifted a purse of £30,000 to Dyer. 

Dyer and O’Dwyer (who was shot dead in London in March 1940 by Udham Singh) could not comprehend that their only significant achievement , in historical terms, was to put India on a radical orbit that ended with freedom in 1947. Rabindranath Tagore returned Western honours; Gandhi switched from a recruiting agent for the British army to the Swaraj struggle; Motilal Nehru abandoned European furniture at Anand Bhavan and Savile Row suits to wear homespun. 

The 20th century was born at Jallianwala Bagh. In a curious way, India should thank the butchers of Jallianwala for ripping apart the last mask of British colonization. 
But colonization was an achievement, not a regret , in the age of empires. There is no particular reason for Cameron’s contrition. But there are many reasons why Indians should apologise. 

When will Indians and Gorkhas apologise for killing fellow Indians at Jallianwala? They continued to squeeze the trigger on unarmed, helpless civilians amid screams and shock until ammunition ran out. When will brown bureau crats of the Indian Civil Service, who found clever explanations for colonial exploitation apologise ? British rule was never a solely British enterprise. It could not have survived a day without an obedient Indian comprador class, most purchased by nothing more glamorous than a salary. When will the zamindars and nawabs, who squeezed a famished peasantry to death and feasted in garden-palaces on the rewards, apologise? 

The British used a million Mir Jafars, who queued up to serve, during their 150 years of true power. They had come a long way to rule, not to turn the other cheek. A transfer of wealth to the “mother country” was standard procedure in the era of European colonization, and not uniquely British. It must also be stressed that British rule, for all its faults, was much more humane than that of France in Algeria, Belgium in Congo or the Dutch in Indonesia. 

India’s problem with history is a consistent unwillingness to do some serious research in a mirror. The British did not establish their rule, step by careful step, merely because they were strong; they succeeded because Indians had become weak. How about a collective Indian apology on behalf of our recent forefathers? 

Cameron could do both Britain and India a favour by clarifying that his “deep shame” was only a political nod to his domestic Punjabi voters ahead of a difficult election in 2015. That would make sense. Britain and India could then forget about any silly apology, and continue treating each other like very good tourist destinations.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The other half of murder

Byline for 24 February 2013
The other half of murder

Could death be a half-truth? This question is obviously a killer’s last hope and best alibi. There is enough truth in that great genre of mystery fiction to suggest that murder can often be an open debate. This does not help the dead, for there can be no murder without a victim; but this remains a serious concern for the living. Whether murder is committed in cold or warm blood, there is no legitimate end without justice.

The pictures depicting the killing of a 12-year-old child, Balachandran, in Sri Lanka, were stark. The chubby innocence of his face was a further torture to the imagination. His only mistake was being son of the wrong parents, as far as his killers were concerned. His father was Prabhakaran, the defeated and slain dictator of the LTTE, who spent his life trying to partition Lanka and create a separate country for its Tamils. No war is pleasant, but this one was especially ruthless. Balachandran became a hostage after LTTE’s annihilation in the winter of 2008-09. Channel 4, the British TV station, which has been running a campaign against human rights violations by the Lanka Army, aired footage of this murder and alleged that orders had come from the very top.
The official Lanka Army reaction, through a spokesman, called the story “lies, half-truths and…speculation”.

If that is only half the truth, then what is the other half?

The only speculative part is the bit about orders coming from the very top but that is common sense even if the source has not been identified. No officer would risk elimination of such a high-profile prisoner without clearance from the highest in the land. Twenty four hours later, someone more intelligent in the Lanka government added that the visuals had been morphed. The channel explained that it had verified the images.

But there is a simpler answer. If the pictures are a lie, then the child must be alive. If he is alive, he is in Lanka government’s hands. All the authorities have to do is produce the child. That would be the ultimate habeas corpus: produce the body, in this case hopefully alive.

That is unlikely to happen. What will follow is silence, tons of it, in the quiet confidence that media stories cannot be repeated forever. This silence is being, and will be, supported by the three major powers with an interest in Sri Lanka: India, China and the United States. No one will seriously question Colombo at a Geneva human rights forum, or weaken relations with the present government which took the decision. They will endorse the logic of this murder. Colombo has killed the child for one reason, and one alone: that he should not survive to wear his father’s mantle ten or fifteen years later. An extra-judicial exit was the only “solution”. Delhi, Beijing and Washington are not terribly squeamish when it comes to present or future terrorism. One false word and their own skeletons will clang noisily, awakening all sorts of demons in Geneva and elsewhere.

As in any conventional murder mystery, the killers did overlook an obvious detail, the sort of clue that sets the grey cells of a Hercule Poirot whirring at a frantic pace and opens up the path of discovery. Colombo’s wise men missed one of the great new facts of the contemporary age, the rise of the mobile phone.

All the mass manufacturers of such phones are as much camera makers as communication specialists. Everyone is now a walking camera. We are still groping through the full implications of this mobile phone revolution, but one thing is already clear: justice has moved from the time of eye-witness testimony to camera-witness evidence. We are undecided about CCTV surveillance. When there is a terrorist attack we want them everywhere. In calmer times we worry about government snooping into our private lives. Perhaps there is no such thing as privacy anymore already. Telephone conversations are routinely taped by secretive agencies. Governments have other worries. Any official today can take out his camera phone and copy a file in a second, exposing corruption if he so wishes, or simply waiting for the opportunity to indulge in some supplementary blackmail of his superiors on the side. Almost every event is being recorded, sometimes with a sense of celebration, sometimes out of a sense of grievance. We get antsy at the thought of a barbarian government assaulting our privacy. But the anonymous individual can be a greater danger.

There are two ways the footage of Balachandran’s killing could have reached media. Someone could have leaked it from government records. Or it might be a soldier in the death squad who thought he wanted a gruesome but historic memento, and then began to grapple with his conscience. We do not know, yet. But something slipped through that security net, and it was not a lie.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Pope and the Caliph


The Pope and the Caliph 

M.J. Akbar

Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered not for the ease of his arrival, nor for the unremarkable quality of his tenure, but for the courage of his departure. It takes character to sublimate one’s ego to the demands of duty, and to recognise that both body and spirit have now lost their ability to serve the great cause of an institution such as the papacy. His example has inevitably inspired questions about a Prime Minister, or two, who seems to have passed his sell-by date. As the poet might have remarked, nothing he did in his grand office excelled the humility of his exit.
When history is written with a cold pen, Pope Benedict will be seen as no more than a brief hyphen between predecessor and successor. But this extraordinary event just might begin to raise questions, albeit along a tangential arc, about a doctrine that has controlled the image of the Pope for the last 140-odd years: infallibility.

There were more similarities between the Catholic Pope and the Islamic Caliph than either might care to admit. Both were territorial monarchs who imposed a halo of divinity upon a worldly enterprise. Both could use religion as a shield for their politics of power. Succession was limited to an oligarchy in the church, and dynasty in the Caliphate; but equal care was taken to ensure that the throne did not fall into careless hands. The Pope’s ceremonial attire is no less opulent than any king’s. In one respect the Caliph was more cautious; he did not outsource his power to any Holy Roman Emperor. But both ordered armies into the field, used torture against their enemies, took booty, amassed and lost fortunes, and were a major factor in the power play of their areas of control and influence. The Caliph actually displaced the church across all his territories, from Byzantine Turkey to Asia Minor and north Africa.

By the 19th century and the gradual rise of a modern nation-state, both the papacy and the caliphate began to lose their energy and purpose. The Caliph’s empire was whittled away by nationalist urges [encouraged by traditional and new enemies] in Greece, the Balkans and finally the Arab regions. The Pope’s lands were limited to fiefdoms in Italy, and Italian nationalists soon reduced the Vatican to a handsome church and a few marketplaces in the heart of Rome.
It was at this juncture, in 1870, that Pope Pius IX saved the institution in the short run. He called a council and forced it to declare that a Pope was infallible; he could do no wrong. Unable to compete with men, he elevated the papacy to the voice of God. Quite a few previous Popes might not have sniggered in public, but they would have laughed heartily in private at the thought that a Pope was the epitome of virtue. There were colourful Italian Popes who enjoyed excesses of the flesh with insouciant joy. They sired illegitimate children and delighted in the delicacy of their food. Their greed and crass exploitation of faith led to the protests which the German Martin Luther channelised into the Protestant church.

But the best of them were brilliant politicians; most of them were extremely capable rulers. And when history made their temporal power a figment of imagination, they reinvented themselves in their alter ego: they claimed total control over the personal lives of their flock, issuing edicts of the sort that still makes birth control a sin among Catholics.

The Caliph was less fortunate when the time came for Turks to pack him off. The Sultan could not become an upgraded Sheikh ul Islam because Muslims, like Jews, believe in tawhid, or the indivisibility of God: it would be sacrilegious for any Muslim to claim that he had become as infallible as divinity. [It might be mentioned, in passing, that it was only in the early part of the fourth century that Christian bishops adopted the trinity as a central tenet of their faith, at the Council of Nicea; before that most Christians did not consider Jesus son of God.] The Vatican survived, and flourished; as an independent state with supranational power over Catholic believers, it has ambassadors across the world.

Pope Benedict’s retirement creates the unique situation of two infallible Popes being alive at the same time. One answer to any potential dilemma is obvious: it is the office which is infallible, not the individual. Benedict returns to life as Joseph Ratzinger, this time even without the privilege of being Cardinal. But what if he differs with a successor who suggests that long-held convictions, as on birth control or women priests, need to be revised? The Catholic church changes, if it changes at all, from top down. But a democratic age builds pressures from down-up, as for instance in Catholic Ireland, which is in the midst of debate on abortion.
Pope Benedict protected the status quo in office. Would he be tempted to save his legacy with the moral power of abdication?

Propaganda Darshan

Propaganda Darshan
Times of India
Thank heaven for little Doordarshans . An offshoot of the government-controlled TV behemoth, Doordarshan Bharati, broadcast a moving hour-long documentary on the late genius Ustad Amir Khan, at least 35 minutes of which was free from the excesses of a garrulous presenter and experts tripping over their own repetitions . This unknown channel had the pawmarks of its parent's ethos: a logo like a design patch from a 19th century sari; a script font quivering in a style that was synonymous with deep emotion in the 1950s. But whenever Doordarshan dips into that treasure house, its archives, there is magic.
This should be Doordarshan's true public calling. It should eliminate news from its oeuvre, since it is run by politicians. News is almost always injurious to any government's health. Propaganda is safer, so Doordarshan is ordered to sell propaganda as news. Why should our taxes pay for political propaganda?
You can measure a government's desperation by the effort it puts into disinformation. Doordarshan reported the AgustaWestland scandal not, as others did, with evidence gathered by the Italian police, but with stress on some heavy breathing by our defence minister, St Antony of Kerala, who suddenly discovered the virtues of transparency and "experts" of the sort who claimed they had never witnessed such ministerial integrity ever before. There was, naturally, no mention of AK Antony's shocking silence over the past 11 months when he repeatedly shrugged off details of the scandal brought to his notice.
Fortunately, the Italian government did what the Indian government refused to do: investigate on its turf. Antony remained curiously unmoved even when the name of a service chief popped up, with implications on the credibility and morale of the force. A Member of Parliament, Prakash Javadekar, wrote to him. Antony continued to do nothing. Why? Antony calls himself an honest politician. If, therefore, Antony was not protecting himself, who was he protecting?
The defence ministry's explanation for inaction was silly. It sent a request for information to Rome through the external affairs ministry. When it got nothing, it did nothing. But this was always an Indian crime as much as an Italian one. Italy did not wait for information from India; why did India wait for Italy?
In any cover up, deft use is made of that extremely useful fish called the red herring. A shoal of facts, mostly irrelevant, is thrown into the stream of information to divert the chase. Let's keep this simple.
What are we looking for? Evidence of bribes through agents. The concern is not about the quality or specifications of the helicopter, which may all be very good indeed, but the fact that commissions were given to honour what former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has called the rules of the system. According to the confession by Guido Haschke, the principal middleman, to the Italian police, bribes began to flow from 2007 and continued till 2011. We know who was in power in Delhi then. Haschke got 20 million euros, and allegedly passed on 12 million to Sanjeev and Rajiv Tyagi, relatives of ex-IAF chief SP Tyagi. Why did the Indian government look the other way?
There is at least one good political reason for Antony's prevarication. It is reasonable to assume that he hoped that delay would push the investigation process beyond the general election in 2014. This government's bliss is directly proportionate to voters' ignorance. Antony's shock at Italy's speed was evident on his face.
The manipulation of time is part of political strategy. CBI moves rapidly against an electoral adversary of the Congress like Jagan Reddy. CBI becomes immobile when told to move in the coal block fraud, since friends and cronies of ministers are involved. Five months ago, after massive public outcry, CBI was given charge of "coalgate" . We have just learnt from CBI's director Ranjit Sinha, who appeared before a parliament committee, that his agency has not yet received files he asked for. The distance between the two offices can be covered by a pleasant walk, but neither demand nor delivery was considered worth any hurry.
Jagan Reddy has been repeatedly denied bail on the specious argument that, despite being out of power, he might still have enough influence over officials to subvert their investigation. Compare this with the generosity towards coal minister Shriprakash Jaiswal, who is suspected of being complicit in the scam; he is close to the owners of AMR Iron and Steel Pvt Ltd, one of the beneficiaries. Jaiswal was not even shifted to another portfolio, let alone dropped. Officials in charge of files report to him. Should we be terribly surprised if CBI cannot get them?
Once there were double standards. We have raised the game to triple standards. But democracy has its own way of rescuing truth from a maze, and handing it to independent media, en route to the voter.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is Rahul able and capable?

Is Rahul able and capable?
M.J. Akbar
The Times of India
10 February 2013

Nothing happens in a waiting room. 2013 is the waiting room for 2014. Do not expect too much excitement. Time will disappear through the passage of the predictable, occasionally diverted by a faint dread of what might happen once the great surgeon of democracy, the voter, gets his scalpel on the body politic in a general election.

A huge yawn greeted Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement that there could be elections in September this year rather than March next year. Yadav’s support is crucial to the present government’s survival, and even a few months ago the shrill buzz provoked by this claim would have rattled window panes in every television studio. But no one took him seriously. He has become the boy who cried wolf and then laughed precociously at his little joke. The only people predicting a 2013 election are a few astrologers, and they have been around the block once too often.

In real terms it does not much matter whether elections are held early or on schedule. Patience is a democratic virtue. Voters take time to decide, but once they have done so they do not easily change. Politicians who see public opinion drift away always encourage the self-sustaining hope that some last-minute miracle will ensure survival. Bengal’s Marxists were palpably surprised by their defeat in the last Assembly elections, when no one else was. The famous British dictum that a week is a long time in politics is often repeated. It is equally true that a year can be a short time.

Voters know already that Dr Manmohan Singh is the last of the past. They are searching for the first of the future. If you cannot understand why Narendra Modi gets a rapt audience at a Delhi college, turn to the duller news items. We now learn that, despite the long sequence of illusion strung by UPA’s nominated cheerleaders, the Central Statistics Office predicts that GDP will grow at only 5 per cent in the coming year, the lowest in a decade and down from 6.2 per cent in the previous year. But, poor as this is, it is less politically harmful than the conclusions of another government body, the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, a think tank of the Planning Commission. It reported that despite becoming the world’s fourth largest economy, employment was not growing either in India’s non-agricultural sectors or overall. It described the Indian story as “jobless growth”.

The young like statistics as much as anyone else, but what they really want to read in newspapers is advertisements for jobs. Delhi’s college audiences believe that Modi can engineer and encourage the industrialisation that will create jobs, and has confirmed his credentials in Gujarat. That, in their lingo, is “awesome”.

The voter’s question about Rahul Gandhi is uncomplicated: what precisely has he achieved to justify a claim to become Prime Minister? Genetic entitlement is passé. Rahul is 42 but has never held a job in either the private sector or public life. A fitful presence in Parliament, interspersed with long holidays abroad, does not constitute a job. Rahul could have become a minister at any time in the last eight years, and proved he was competent, as, to take one instance, Sachin Pilot has done. Rahul has campaigned , sometimes with his sleeves rolled up, but that is not quite executive experience. And after three decades as a family borough, life for the poor in his constituency, Amethi, is far below voters’ expectations. The voter is influenced by facts, not claims.

It is a myth that the young are only searching for youth in a Prime Minister: they also want proof of competence. Age is less important than ability. When the young want glamour they go to the movies, not to Parliament.
This of course is only one factor in that complex potpourri called an Indian election; Modi’s increasing appeal, to state the obvious, still has to cross the acceptability barrier for many voters. The parliamentary system is not as personality-driven as the presidential, so local variations will throw up their own patterns.

The big danger for UPA lies in the possibility that government could lose sense of purpose in a year of drift. Politics does not offer the luxury of a gap year in governance. Schemes that were meant to kindle embers are already wandering in limbo. The Budget could provide a fillip, but finance minister P Chidambaram has a problem: there is simply no money left in the treasury for drama. Even defence is probably heading for a cut.
A waiting room does, however, provide both opportunity and time for prayer. UPA ministers should pray very hard that onion prices do not go berserk in February 2014.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Ghosts of past hover over gender justice

Byline for February 10, 2013

Ghosts of past hover over gender justice

M.J. Akbar

A Supreme Court judgement may be anchored in law, but it sails a long way through the mind of judges before it becomes a public pronouncement. Law and justice are both human and therefore prone to frailty and error. But we respect the Supreme Court as the final authority because we trust its integrity enough to believe that even the occasional mistake is an honest one.
One means through which the legal system protects its credibility is the doctrine of “contempt of court”. Dissent is not recommended, at least if you want to stay at home rather than in a cell. But surely their Lordships will permit some space for perplexity? There must be an ante room for discussion, particularly since a Supreme Court judgement is much more than the final word on the fate of an individual criminal. It is also the template by which all courts in the nation will shape their decisions in millions of cases in process of judgement, or in crimes of the future.
On 5 February newspapers reported that a bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and J.S. Khekar confirmed the death penalty on an adult who had kidnapped a seven-year-old boy and then killed him after failing to obtain ransom. The justices concluded that they saw no hope of reform in the criminal, that his perversion was inhuman, and the murder was cold and premeditated. All of this is absolutely true; the rationale for their decision to confirm the dealt penalty is inarguable.
But there was a curious codicil in the justification, which their Lordships noted as aggravating circumstances. I quote: “The parents of the deceased had four children, three daughters and one son... Kidnapping the only male child was to induce maximum fear in the mind of his parents. Purposefully killing the sole male child has grave repercussions for the parents of the deceased...” The bench continued, “Agony for parents for the loss of their male child, who would have carried further the family lineage, and is expected to see them through their old age, is unfathomable.”
The implications of such thinking are astonishing. It implies clearly that the parents’ agony would have been less if one of the three daughters had been similarly kidnapped and murdered, for the girl would not continue family lineage or provide for her parents in old age. The judges stressed “sole male child” factor as bearer of “the family lineage” and sustenance provider.
Which world are the judges living in?
We know the world they inhabit from another judgement, delivered just a week before, also involving an appeal against a death penalty. Justice Sathasivam was again on the bench, this time in the company of Justice F.M.I. Kalifulla. It is difficult to repeat their decision without a sense of horror at the double standards that the Supreme Court has applied. Before them was a man convicted by both the trial and high court. This savage murderer had raped his minor daughter, and been arrested after his wife complained to the police. When released on parole, he axed both his wife and daughter to death.
This abominable, barbaric rapist and killer lives, thanks to their Lordships Sathasivam and Kalifulla.
One wonders: has the great ferment rising across India against rape and gender prejudice escaped the attention of the Supreme Court? Chief Justice Altamas Kabir has certainly heard the howl of anguish from women. He said that if it were possible he could have joined the protests in Delhi. Was the Chief Justice helpless while his brothers delivered such discordant pronouncements? What will trial courts and high courts do in future when a father who has raped and killed his minor daughter, and has axed his wife for being a mother, appears before them? Will they stop long short of a death sentence the next time, because of the precedent sent by Justices Sathasivam and Kalifulla? Is the life of a raped and murdered minor girl less than equal to the life of a kidnapped and murdered boy? Does a man who killed two women deserve clemency, while the man who killed one boy gets hanged?
Is this justice?
The Honourable Supreme Court has the option of silence. We cannot push our questions beyond a limited point. Is silence the only answer that the court will choose?
If the Supreme Court, and Parliament, have the courage to do so they should abandon the death penalty. Then there will be no debate when governments delay the implementation of a death verdict on Afzal Guru for years, and finally act only when the President of India indicates that his patience is over. Our prisons can teem with rapists who have also killed minor daughters and wives. But as long as the law permits this ultimate weapon called the death sentence, that sword of justice must swing without conscious or unconscious prejudice.
Gender bias is dead. It is being buried in parts each day by modern India. Justice cannot be swayed by ghosts of a past age.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Questions for Hafiz Saeed

Questions for Hafiz Saeed
MJ Akbar
03 February 2013
Times of India question for the internationally recognised terrorist, ideologue and mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack, Hafiz Saeed, resident of Lahore, who has just offered sanctuary in Pakistan to our superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Pakistan was carved out in 1947 to ensure security for this subcontinent's Muslims in a separate homeland. Why, six decades later, has Pakistan become the most insecure place for Muslims in the world? Why are more Muslims being killed each day, on an average, in Pakistan than in the rest of the Muslim world put together?
This continual mass murder is not being done by Hindus and Sikhs, who were once proud residents of Punjab and Sindh but are now merely a near-invisible trace. Some Pakistan leaders even express pride in the fact that non-Muslims , who constituted around 20 per cent of the population in 1947, have been reduced to less than 2 per cent. In contrast, the percentage of Muslims in secular India has increased since independence. Hindus and Sikhs are not killing Muslims in Pakistan; Muslims are murdering Muslims, and on a scale unprecedented in the history of Punjab, the North West Frontier and Sindh. Why?
There have been riots in India, some of them horrendous. But the graph is one of ebb from the peak of 1947. When a riot does occur, as in Maharashtra recently, civil society and media stand up to demand accountability, and the ground pressure of a secular democracy forces even reluctant governments to cooperate in punishment of the guilty. When Shias, or other sectarians, are mass-murdered in Pakistan on a regular basis, the killers celebrate a "duty" well done.
History's paradox is evident: Muslims today are safer in India than in Pakistan. The "muhajirs" who left the cities of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 1947 would have been far safer in Lucknow, Patna and dozens of cities in their original land than they are now in the tense streets and by-lanes of Karachi.
Could Shah Rukh Khan have become an international heart throb if his parents had joined the emigration in 1947? Since he is talented he would have gained some recognition on the fringes of elite society, but he could not have become a central presence of a popular culture that has seeped and spread to every tehsil and village. Nor is Shah Rukh the only Muslim superstar in Mumbai's film world; Salman Khan is bigger than him. Shah Rukh and Salman and Amir Khan do not hide their identity through an alias; their birth name is their public persona.
The television set in my office serves two main purposes: it shows cricket and offers access to an FM radio station which plays old film songs. A song by Muhammad Rafi was on the air while the previous paragraph was being written: Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare. It is a beautiful classic, written by Sahir Ludhianvi. Rafi, as his name confirms, was a Muslim. He was born in 1924 in western Punjab and came to Mumbai as a very young man in search of dreams. Those dreams had not come true by 1947. Rafi had the option of returning to Lahore. He chose to remain in Mumbai, and brought his family in what might be called the reverse direction. It was a wise choice. Mumbai made Rafi's voice immortal. Rafi, like India, was the distillation of many inspirations.
Hafiz Saeed and his ilk possess cramped, virulent minds which condemn the ragas upon which our subcontinent's music, both classic and popular, is based, as inimical. They want to destroy a shared Hindu-Muslim cultural heritage in which Muslim maestros took classical music to splendid heights under the patronage of padishahs, rajahs and nawabs . Instead of art, they possess vitriol, even as the violence they spawn turns Pakistan into a laboratory of chaos. They call themselves guardians of their nation, but they are in fact regressive theocrats who are shredding the Pakistan that Jinnah imagined.
There is an answer to the opening question. Extremists who reduce faith to a fortress do not understand a simple truth: faith cannot be partitioned. Islam was a revelation for mankind; it cannot be usurped by a minor tract of geography. Nations are created by and for men, within boundaries of language or culture or tribe. Religion comes from God; it is not a political tool for human ambition. Those who equate religion with nation distort the first and destroy the second. Pakistan has become a battlefield for dysfunctional forces because theocrats will not permit it to become a rational state.
Logic suggests a reciprocal offer: Pakistani Muslims would be safer in India. But that offer cannot extend to Hafiz Saeed. His mission is to be India's adversary. What he does not understand is that he is really Pakistan's enemy.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Men are the weaker sex

Men are the weaker sex

The one certain fact about this uncertain business called advertising is that you can’t do without it. Such compulsion does not mean this hit-and-run affair   necessarily works. It is difficult to predict when a campaign will be a hit, and when the agency has merely run away to lubricate its salary sheet.
The worst spiel in recent times was surely the advertising of a brief, and eminently forgettable, India-Pakistan cricket encounter last December. The agency was not promoting sport between traditional antagonists; it was announcing the consequences of an existentialist war with all the finesse of the massacre-friendly Nadir Shah on a Delhi weekend in 1739. Conversely, the best campaign I have seen in a long while has been the television advertisements which raised the curtain on the women’s cricket tournament: wry, tongue very much in cheek, and emasculating men with a pleasing insouciance.

There is no mystery about why. Women’s cricket went well because the agency believed in it. It represents something far more than fund raising for an already bloated game.

Women’s cricket has been around for a long while, scratching at the turnstiles, seeking attention and the legitimacy of public support. At long last, it is an idea whose time has come. It now represent the third great revolution in a sport that has long been a mirror of social mores.

The first liberation came when “professionals” in Britain won equal terms with “amateurs”. Professional is a term that carries so much pride now that we quite forget that once it was synonymous with something as “grubby” as earning money for talent in sports. It took a world war, the second of the 20th century, to destroy the stupid pretentions of aristocrats who forced their working class “professionals” to use a separate entrance to a cricket field. The nobles wore silk scarves and gloried in the vanity that they were, literally, a class apart because they did not have to actually do anything for a living. They were lords of the manor, and hence lords of the field. Today, mercifully, merit rules. Commerce bows only before success, and success is not a genetic entitlement.

The second revolution matured in India and Pakistan, when merit took cricket away from the confines of the middle class, and into the small towns or city  bylanes where a new India and Pakistan was being incubated. The urban middle class shares at least one trait with the white or brown aristocracy; it has many alternative routes to achievement. Cricket was a pleasure, even when exacting, but it was not quite a hunger. The gnawing desperation to beat the odds of life through excellence in a game whose financial value exploded beyond the dreams of avarice created a new base for triumphant upward mobility. If any astrologer had told 10-year-old M.S. Dhoni’s parents that he would one day become as wealthy as he is now, they would have given him a nice cup of tea and told him to go tease someone else. It is the same with many dozens of other achievers; and Dhoni was financially far better off at birth than Yusuf or Irfan Pathan.

Women’s cricket is one of the many reflections of the changing status of women. Women were once taunted by men as the weaker sex only because they could not compete with the brutal violence of males. In truth, you need a much tougher body and spirit for childbirth; men, by comparison, are sissies. They simply have more powerful muscles. Women have a far stronger mind.
But this assertion is only a part of the emerging story. Men have punished women through the ages with segregation, and then attached a false morality to their subjugation. Sport is freedom from segregation. We might not notice this in India, where trousers and jeans have become the preferred wear of women. But the fact that Pakistan’s women  wear trousers when they go to bat and field will be a huge spur to a society that is still controlled too often by men who have not left the 19th century. There was a time, during the regime of General Zia ul Huq,  when some Pakistani fundamentalists wanted television coverage of cricket banned because women at home would be able to see the  alluring Imran Khan rub a red cricket ball down the front of his trousers, and therefore near his crotch. It has been a long journey since then. We should celebrate this journey. Cricket will do a hundred times more for gender equality in Pakistan than a thousand speeches by well-meaning liberals.
There are countries which do not send women to the Olympics for “moral” reasons; or, more accurately, because they believe that the sight of women will encourage immorality. I cannot imagine anything more stupid. To display one’s face and ability is not nudity, neither among men nor women. Why shouldn’t women be allowed to behave as normally as men?

One thing is clear. It is men who are the weaker sex.