Saturday, December 06, 2008

CRIMINALISING HUMANITARIAN AID IN ETHIOPIA

David Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy who visited Ethiopia.


“I didn’t go there wagging my finger intending to lecture. I went because we want to see Ethiopia succeed.” David Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month. The comment followed Kramer’s meeting with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was there to discuss the controversial law that would severely threaten civil society organizations (CSOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and US government aid projects in Ethiopia..

If passed, the CSO law will severely limit organizations like Yoseph Mulugeta’s Ethiopia Human Rights Council. NGOs will have to get the state’s permission before spending money on public relations. Their judicial freedoms will be restricted. They will have to surrender confidential testimonies of abused victims. And even Ethiopians living outside the country will not be able to donate to NGOs.

“The overall effect of all these restrictions is in many ways the extinction of NGOs, particularly those that are engaged in advocacy and the promotion of peace and democracy,” Mulugeta said. He ruled out surviving on domestic funds saying, “Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world and individual contributions are not much. So we will have to abandon our activities and close down.”

But the CSO law is only the latest in a series of measures taken by the Ethiopian government that shrink political space and freedom. This was the consensus amongst a panel of experts brought together to discuss “Human Rights and Governance in Ethiopia.” The speakers included, Yoseph Mulugeta Badwaza, from the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHCRO), Chris Albin-Lackey, Special Initiatives Researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch and Terrence Lyons, Associate Professor of Conflict, Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the George Mason University. Lasting well over two hours, the discussion was moderated by Jennifer Cooke, Director of the Africa Program at CSIS.

The US has raised many concerns over the proposed CSO legislation because of its restrictions on foreign funding and the debilitating effect it could have on most NGOs in Ethiopia. Many are unable to raise money without access to foreign funding. David Kramer said, “We raised concerns with things like the 10% threshold of foreign financing that would raise lots of questions about organizations given the dearth of funding domestically for many operations.”

The draft law also proposes a cap on administrative overheads for NGOs. Kramer said, “I quite simply don’t understand why the government is legislating how much an NGO can spend on overhead.”

Kramer raised these issues the Ethiopian government as a “friend” and “ally”. The US wants to maintain a close relationship with Ethiopia and ensure the country prospers. The US wants to see in Ethiopia a “democratic, prosperous member of the international community, fully integrated so it represents a real stable anchor in the region,” Kramer said.

Ethiopia is a key US ally in an extremely unstable region and the relationship between the two countries hinges largely on cooperation in counter-terrorism. But the US government also provides significant humanitarian assistance to the country. Then why does Washington have such little leverage with the government in Addis Ababa to make it reconsider this legislation?

Kramer replied, “We don’t want to politicize humanitarian assistance; we don’t want to politicize HIV/AIDS assistance. Those are programs we need to continue and support because life and death is at stake…[but],” he continued, “I think what we can do and need to do more of is co-ordination with the donors. Speaking collectively, we do perhaps add onto more leverage than might otherwise be the case if it’s simply the United States voicing concerns.”
Not everyone participating in the discussion agreed with Kramer.

The US foreign assistance package offers limited room for leverage, according to Lyons. Citing statistics from last year, he said, “In 2007, US assistance to Ethiopia was – 50% for HIV/AIDS, 30% for emergency food aid, 7% for child survival and malaria prevention, 1.5% for agriculture, 1.5% for economic growth, 1.5% for education and 1% for democracy and governance, said Terrance Lyons.

“You don’t get leverage that way! You can’t say “Just pass the CSO law and I’m going to throw the AIDS victims onto the street!”

Chris-Albin Lackey from Human Rights Watch, also warned that the CSO law was “a bellwether and an alarming signal about the overall direction that Ethiopia is moving in.”
He connected the trend towards a shrinking political space with some of the undemocratic, ruthless counter-terrorism measures employed by the Ethiopian government. He said the government had escaped all accountability for the major abuses and crimes committed against ordinary civilians and the trade blockade imposed in the name of counter-terrorism efforts against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). He said, “Many believe this is just an extension of the old Ethiopian counter-insurgency strategy of draining the sea to kill the fish, as the same strategy was called during the 1980s.”

There is little or no credible information coming out of the Ogaden. The Ethiopian government denies access to most human rights groups. Lackey said the absence of information “will only be aggravated by the CSO law.” He added, “There is also an increasing tendency particularly at the local level of the state to view any and all critics as enemies and traitors.”

Listing out a pattern of abuses committed by the Ethiopian military against civilians, Lackey said the official response has been that “every single allegation is a lie. There has been no investigation and no attempt at meaningful accountability.”

He ended by rebuking the US government for not doing anything about allegations of torture, detention and murder. He said, “The very clear signal coming out of Washington has been that none of these abuses matter. Until that changes there will not be any meaningful international leverage possible around these issues.”

This article is also available on the website of the International Affairs Review, a publication of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

EAST OR WEST, FAIR AND INNOCENT IS BEST

I was looking at the matrimonial page in a leading NRI (non-resident Indian) newspaper and couldn’t help noticing a few unusual new additions to the sales vocabulary for young Indians of “marriageable age”. Or maybe these are not new around here although I certainly haven’t seen these terms before.

The parents of the girls describe their daughters' in usual glowing language. These girls are always “slim”, “fair”, “gorgeous” and one even said “exceptionally beautiful”. What they seek for their daughters is someone from the same religion and caste of course, but also someone who has a good “East West blend.” Haven’t seen that one before. . .


US citizens and green card holders are handed a clear advantage and if they are “into fitness” - even better.

Many of the boys’ parents also describe their sons with generous adjectives such as “fair”, “handsome” and one said, "charismatic". The son's wealth is nakedly mentioned
with the promise of even greater riches because he is invariably from an Ivy League school. But curiously, most of these wonderful sons are in the market to re-marry. Nothing wrong with that except that he is described almost as a victim since advertising a divorce raises a hundred red flags for most Indian parents. So, the new invention in the wedding vocab is “innocently divorced”! Have you heard that one before? I haven't.

The poor, helpless handsome, fair, wealthy son was innocently divorced by some wicked witch of the east-west. But thankfully, the parents can guarantee that the affair ended “issueless.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

KAZUO KAWASAKI AND FOREIGN POLICY

I was on the phone, walking absent-mindedly towards the Metro when I saw this window display at a spectacle store on Connecticut Avenue in DC. The frames being advertised of course are the now famous Kazuo Kawasaki, model 704, 34 gray. They look incredibly good but if you want a crash course in foreign policy, a real school is still better.

Friday, October 24, 2008

DEMOCRACY SHOULD BE ON THE AIR AND IN THE PAPERS

Indian journalism hit a new low when covering the Aarushi murder case earlier this year. Journalists appeared to have lost all sense of decency; hounding a grieving family, based on the sketchy, sordid details provided by the police.

I don’t want to dwell on the distasteful coverage again. I have written about it here before.

But the questions that remain are: What lessons has the Indian media learnt from the episode? Has it evolved a standard for the future? Will it self-regulate or will wait for a national outcry again, before learning to behave?

I’m sure there are internal codes of conduct for every organization but this needs to happen at an industry-wide level. In neighbouring Pakistan, the media has understood its influence as a player in politics and in fact even its power to make and break governments. And while the country is not exactly the beacon of democracy, Pakistani journalism is taking a few very democratic steps, worthy of emulation.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., Zaffar Abbas, the resident editor of ‘Dawn’ in Islamabad said last month, “We handled the previous government; a new government has come in but it’s now time to have a self-assessment of our own performance.”

According to Abbas, “The role of the vernacular newspapers has become very important with 3 to 5 million newspaper readers and 50 to 60 million viewers of 24/7 news channels. It has suddenly changed Pakistan – changed Pakistan to an extent and with a speed that now people have started to say – what are these TV channels telling us? Is that the real politics in this country? Should there be some kind of control over the way issues are being raised? People are raising questions about anchors and reporters - have they become real players in making and breaking governments? Should that be allowed?”

To temper this new found power and influence the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has evolved its own code of conduct, part of which involves the setting up of a Media Complaints Commission.

Abbas explains, “We need to have a commission largely because some newspapers and TV channels in this country have started on the notion that since we are independent we can broadcast anything that we think is right. The difference between what is right and what we think is right is huge! And that is why the whole debate has come in. Do TV channels have the right to intrude upon anyone’s privacy? Can they cross the line of objectivity? What should be reported and what should not be reported?”

“So the whole concept is to go for self-regulation and to allow the members of the public to approach the complaints commission with their own views and their own complaints.”

A panel of retired judges and professors will look into the complaints and decide whether a particular newspaper or TV channel has violated the self-made code of conduct.

It sounds like a fairer, more democratic way of doing things although it is still in its nascent stage and has not yet been tested. And of course, being open will bring with it attendant problems. For starters, it will probably require tremendous effort and paper work to keep such an operation going.

It is however still worth trying in India because in a democracy why should power be concentrated so heavily with the media? Why should the media go unchallenged if it destroys reputations and careers without evidence? Why shouldn’t people be able to contest the way they are represented? If a free press is a crucial pillar of democracy, shouldn’t the media also be more democratic?

In the spirit of fairness, that most basic of journalistic tenets, this is worth trying.

Monday, October 13, 2008

SOME THOUGHTS ON ORISSA





Houses and churches were vandalised even in the first round of violence that hit Kandhamal district over Christmas 2007. Nearly 11 people were killed. Photo credit: Dr. Angana P. Chatterji


The Indian media devoted significant chunks of time and space to the Indo-US nuclear deal. But in the US, its coverage was conspicuous by its absence. The 700 billion dollar bail-out package and the shenanigans of the legislators on the Hill overtook everything else. Bush’s rare foreign policy ‘success’ went largely unnoticed.

So, given that a huge story involving India, of tremendous national and international importance got the royal ignore, how did the communal conflagration in Orissa make it to the front page? In the New York Times this morning was a colour photograph with a story headlined – ‘Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee.’

I am surprised not because it made the front page. I am surprised because there is enough and more happening on the campaign and in the American economy to dominate the front page. This is not to say that I am disappointed. I think such awareness forces India to be more accountable for its actions and that is a very, very, good thing.

What intrigues me is why this particular story received such prominent status.

The obvious answer is of course that several western Christian nations, the Vatican included, have questioned India on what it is doing to protect its co-religionists.

But a somewhat deeper and more convoluted answer is that the concern of the west is itself part of a long tradition of Christendom. For instance, before the 20th century, humanitarian intervention in military form, to protect people other than the intervening nation’s own nationals was largely done to protect only Christians from the Ottomans. In fact, “human” in the word 'humanitarian' two centuries ago usually meant being Christian. Persecuted Jews and Turks were ruthlessly massacred with nary a word of concern from anyone.

And interestingly, the discussion in India over the Orissa story has involved the damage to India’s image because it is the powerful west for the first time seeing one of its interests threatened inside India and raising questions on its conduct. Contrast this concern over the dent to the Indian image with the outrage over the US denying Modi a visa over Muslim killings in Gujarat. There was plenty of nationalistic anger over Indian sovereignty being undermined. With the Orissa story it is almost entirely about ‘image’.

Isn’t the contrast interesting?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

OBAMA GETS IT




Father: You need to learn how to drive because I can't afford to have you wreck my car again.

Son: But if I hadn't, your car wouldn't be shining with this new coat of red paint. Why can't you appreciate the makeover?

Father: Because it cost me money and if you don't learn how to drive you'll wreck my car again!

Now replace the frustrated father with Barack Obama and the cocky son with John McCain. If the logic of the two candidates on Iraq can be reduced to a simple analogy then this serves the purpose.

John McCain doesn't get it. He glorifies a tactic – the 'surge' in Iraq – but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the failure of the strategy – the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, this is just one of several things that reveal the 72-year old McCain to be a relic from the last century. America needs some fresh, 21st century ideas - Obama has them and he is the man for the job.

The ideas are simple. Obama advocates diplomacy and dialogue over dire declarations and threats. His message echoes what many scholars and practitioners have been saying for some time now, among them, five influential former secretaries of state – Henry Kissinger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Colin Powell.

Obama promises this fundamental shift in approach because it is pretty obvious by now that refusing to talk to 'enemies' doesn't make them improve their behavior.

However, Obama was heavily criticized by McCain for publicly saying that he would sit down without pre-conditions with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But that is a more responsible statement than John McCain's silly and muscular song, "Bomb…bomb … bomb… Bomb… bomb … Iran." (A modification of the Beach Boys' lyrics "Ba..ba..ba..ba..Barbara Ann".)

McCain's bullish strategy is also out of sync with American voters. In a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), a nonpartisan organization founded in 1922 to influence global issues, 65% of Americans voted in favour of talks with Iran. 68% favoured talks with North Korea and 70% with Cuba. Bombing is not on people's minds. Talking is.

On the question of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been against it from the start. He points out that this is a problem America created for itself. Every 'victory' since then has been too fragile and only attempted to cope with a strategic blunder while massively draining resources. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq and Iran kept each other in check and 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq' didn't exist. McCain chooses to be blind to all of the above. He insists you look at the new coat of red paint. He also wrongly paints Obama's withdrawal strategy as "defeat" when Obama's approach is simple – the US has to be careful getting out as it was careless getting in. 67% of Americans according to the CCGA poll support a time-table for withdrawal from Iraq. Again McCain is out of touch.

Obama also makes the argument that the central front on terror has been and still is Afghanistan. He wants a troop surge there. Here too he shows better judgment because today it is pretty clear that the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in the north-western corner of Pakistan is a safe sanctuary for every bandit and aspiring terrorist in the world.

During the first Presidential debate debate Obama rightfully also criticized Bush's one-man Musharraf policy in Pakistan saying, "Musharraf was a dictator but he was our (America's) dictator." McCain shot back in defense of Musharraf, that Pakistan was a failed state when the general took over. Frankly, it looks much worse today. Lastly, to be effective in Afghanistan, America first needs to improve its relationship with NATO allies and the rest of the world.

By invading Iraq and ignoring Afghanistan things there have gone from bad to worse. Now countries like Norway and Germany don't want to shoulder the burden of a botched war. They refuse to send troops to the south where the insurgency rages.

George Bush's ramrod style has alienated allies and few people today share the sympathy epitomized in the French newspaper Le Monde's headline after 9/11 stating "We are all Americans."

83% in the CCGA poll, voted overwhelmingly to have America's standing restored. John McCain with his bluster and tough talk about 'victory' and 'defeat' in war has really not endeared himself to anyone abroad. Obama on the other hand has almost rock-star status in Europe. His race, youth and idealistic message of 'Change' have been electrifying.

But the substantive reasons that Obama trumps McCain on foreign policy are his intelligence, foresight and conciliatory tone. This will better serve America and the world where war-mongering and dire threats have failed.

Published on NDTV.com on October 4th 2008.

Friday, October 03, 2008

DENMARK - WHY SO HAPPY?

The ubiquitous Danish flag - Dannebrog - stuck in some incredible Danish dessert.


A view of the flat landscape of south Denmark from Skamlingsbanken.

When a Danish acquaintance asked me where Baghdad was, I had to quickly return my mandible from the depths of disbelief. Demark is not exactly at the edge of the world but some of its small towns can feel incredibly disconnected. Life here is regimented and everything happens at the appointed hour. How boring? Guess what? The Danes love it. In fact they are so pleased, they keep turning up in different surveys as the happiest people on Earth.

These findings have surprised many Danes themselves but after a 30 day vacation, I can see why they have plenty to cheer about. Steering clear of Copenhagen, I looked in three Viking nooks - the small towns of Haderslev, GrĂ¥sten and Odense. No trampling hordes of San Marco or Champs Elysees here and perfect for a ‘smell the roses’ kind of stay.

My investigations into Danish happiness yielded clues everywhere. To begin with, the Danes have done an excellent housekeeping job in their country. It is very clean and environmentally progressive. As if for proof, we packed a picnic basket of sandwiches and soda and drove to Skamlingsbanken - the second highest point in Denmark - from where you get a sweeping view of the flat landscape of the south. It is green and dotted with gigantic wind turbines that supply nearly a quarter of Denmark’s electricity needs. The Danes were thinking about global warming long before Al Gore.

The towns are equally well-planned and structured. A cathedral or church usually forms the centre of the town around which commerce begins with little shops and offices lining the streets and beyond that the houses start.

In Denmark it is as important to see the indoors as it is to see the outdoors because everything in the Danish home is geared towards creating the warm, fuzzy, ‘snug-as-a-bug’ feeling. They even have a word for it called - hygge (Hoo-ga). I understood what exactly hygge is when Niels and Kirsten Kvist invited me to their home for dinner. Like most hosts here, the Kvists directed the small group to their appointed place at the table and laid out a vast array of breads, salads and meats. However, the course to wait for, is always the last one. The desserts are worth all of Solomon’s gold. After dinner, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. There was cognac, wine, laughter and singing. Kirsten took her place at the piano and everyone joined in for the Danish folk songs. It was hygge.

Back in the outdoors, walking and cycling are the best ways to explore. Even the queen does it. The Danish royals have a summer home in the town of GrĂ¥sten and Margrethe II, the queen regnant, is often seen bicycling around town. Some people even claimed to have run into her at the local grocery store! There are few monarchs on two wheels buying broccoli today, reflecting Denmark’s strong egalitarian tradition and in turn, a strong sense of collective identity. A University of Leicester study listed it as one of the primary causes of the country’s high happiness quotient.

This collective identity finds several expressions. For example, the national flag, the Dannebrog is used extensively and in various ways. Little Dannebrogs are stuck on birthday cakes, souvenir stores are full of Dannebrog pens, magnets and stickers and of course the Dannebrog is hoisted on a pole outside every home and especially so on a birthday or wedding anniversary. Protocol however dictates that it must be brought down before sunset and this is taken very seriously, almost as seriously as the Danes take their fairy-tales.

In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen is adored. At Odense, on the island of Funen, scores of pilgrims beat the path to the home of the man who changed childhood forever with his tales of the ugly duckling who became a swan and the princess who despite many mattresses could detect a pea.

The Lego creations in Billund, the statues across Odense and, of course, the Little Mermaid, regularly vandalized in Copenhagen, all bear witness to Hans Christian Andersen’s continuing hold on public imagination.

Towards the end of my 30 days I was beginning to see why Danes can make legitimate claims to being so happy. With this collective identity, bung in free health care, free education, a green country and Carlsberg beer and you can see why the Danes are up there on the Happiness Index.

All is not perfect of course. Xenophobia and divorce rates are going up and some young people feel the welfare state and high taxes suffocate creativity and entrepreneurship.

In fact, if an old Viking ancestor were to suddenly pop around in the 21st century he might even nod gravely and tut-tut at the contentment of his descendents. While he may have been out on the wild and choppy sea exploring the world beyond, today’s Danes have eaten dinner at 6 and are in bed by 10. If the intrepid Viking looked restlessly outwards about 1000 years ago, today’s small-town life moves at a steady, predictable trot and is very inward-looking.

But apparently, as various surveys show, the Danes are perfectly happy with this arrangement. Writing just after the Great Depression, a visitor to Denmark observed, “There are few countries in the world which give the foreigner the impression, if not of actual wealth, at any rate of universal happiness and content.”

It sounds true even 70 years later. Baghdad may as well belong on another planet.

Published in the Hindu BusinessLine on 3rd October 2008.

Friday, September 19, 2008

MAJORITARIANISM AND THREATS TO DEMOCRACY IN INDIA

When the attacks against Christians started in Orissa in late August, one lady in faraway San Francisco was not surprised at all. Angana P. Chatterji has been warning of exactly that since 2003. Dr. Chatterji is associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and has studied Orissa’s land reforms and witnessed the state’s growing communalization for more than a decade. Her forthcoming book, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present. Narratives from Orissa examines the mobilization of divisive Hindutva forces in the state within the larger narrative of Hindu majoritarianism. I discussed with her Orissa’s communal conflagration, the Sangh Parivar’s dangerous propaganda about minorities and the threats to Indian democracy.

Q) Maoists claimed responsibility for the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati, a Hindu priest in Kandhamal district in Orissa. His killing started the violent attacks against the Christian community. But what do you make of this Maoist claim?

A) The murder of Saraswati was brutal and a Maoist group claimed responsibility even while Maoist activity in that particular area is actually not so strong. On the other hand, Subhas Chauhan of the Bajrang Dal blamed Christian militants for this. The Sangh's propaganda is not linked to truth. It doesn’t really change things if the Maoists claimed responsibility. They are now alleging that Christians are part of Maoist groups, and are still targeting Christians who have no connection to the murders.

Q) Hindus don’t justify the violence against minorities, Christians in this case. But there is a latent anger even amongst ordinary people not involved in the Parivar’s organizations who genuinely believe that Hinduism is under threat in India. The threat in the Orissa case is from supposed forced conversions of Hindus of lower caste into the Christian fold. Therefore the violence against minorities is often explained away as “spontaneous” although not justified. Why are Hindutva groups so easily able to tap into the anger of ordinary people?

A) The blur between soft Hindutva and hard Hindutva gives the Sangh Parivar this permission. In the United States, for example, when there are instances of racism, what is our response to that? That people need to unlearn racism, right? That because they are the dominant group they are unreflective of national privilege and unreflective of structural and racialised privilege. Reciprocally, in India, which is an emergent superpower, Hindus are the dominant group. Where is the national commitment to addressing Hindu majoritarianism, revisionist history, and the subjugation of minority and disenfranchised peoples?

If you participate, and this is what Romila Thapar has warned us of for a long time… if you participate in writing revisionist history and then starting to believe in it, within a generation it begins to masquerade as true. Isn’t that what we saw in Germany?

Q) By way of corrective measures then, what should the Orissa state government be doing?

A) There are two things the government needs to do – one immediate, the other long-term. There is an abdication of responsibility for education. The text books are teaching, in many instances, revisionist history and at a parallel there is the extensive network of educational institutions run by the Sangh Parivar where there are no standards of curriculum, no commitment to social facts and ethical history. Then there’s a growth of Sangh Parivar organizations which has reached staggering proportions in Orissa. There’s no scrutiny or intervention into their activities. How are they influencing communities? How are they communalizing the polity? The activities and status of these groups must be investigated, and they must be held actionable. Civil society groups and the Left need to be far more vigilant. There needs to be a national outcry - other than the few leaders who insist on the integrity of India's secular state.

Q)You were part of a Tribunal that published a report in 2006 warning the government of such violence but your report was ignored. You even deposed before the Commission of Inquiry looking into the Kandhamal violence of December 2007. How is the Orissa government complicit in this violence against Christians?

Congress introduced ‘The Communal Violence Prevention Control and Rehabilitation of Victims Bill of 2005’ twice. But it hasn’t been passed. The Bill talks about holding the state accountable in instances of violence against minorities, crimes against humanity, genocide etc. That bill hasn’t been passed, so legally there is also abdication of central responsibility.

Then in terms of the state so many times it has been pointed out that the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, the Cow Slaughter Protection Act all of these acts should be repealed. No action has been taken. The two most urgent things that need to be done – one an investigation into the status, rights and privileges enjoyed by these groups - the Bajrang Dal, the VHP, the RSS, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram etc. Some of them have charitable status but they function as political organizations. They should not have charitable status and they need to be scrutinized in terms of the activities they undertake and its impact on society and their intent to communalise. They openly state that they are working for a Hindu state in India.

The second failure is the response to the riots. Why is it that both in December and now it took so long to stop the violence? The December riots were premeditated, and yet there was no timely action on part of the state. As well, the government should have anticipated Hindutva groups violence after Lakshmananda Saraswati was killed, especially following the statement made by the VHP and other Sangh groups.

Q) Do you think this was simply lethargic governance or complicity or both?

A) I think both. Lethargic governance has a lot to do with complicity with Hindu majoritarianism. So many in dominant society believe that minority groups (here Christians) are 'anti-national' and deserving of repression. And, so many in dominant society see Hindutva's violence as an aberration. The state and central government's refusal to restrain Hindu militias evidences their linkage with Hindutva (BJP), soft Hindutva (Congress), and the capitulation of dominant civil society to Hindu majoritarianism. How would the nation have reacted if groups with any other affiliation than militant Hinduism executed riot after riot?

Q) Have you seen any evidence of Christian groups, bribing or coercing people to convert to Christianity in Orissa? That is the main grievance against the Christian minority in this case.

A) I have spoken to so many people of the church from the Archbishop of Orissa to peasant Dalits and Adivasis who are Christians. I have not found coercion in terms of bribery, or in terms of threat. When I have spoken to Adivasis and asked, “Why did you convert?” They have repeatedly stated because Christians seem to have dignity, because in Christian society they would be held equal even when they are poor. For Adivasis and Dalits, conversion functions as resistance to structural and habitual caste oppression within Hinduism. For example, in August 2008, Madhusmita Das, a Dalit girl from Oranda village was barred from offering prayers at the Balunkeswar temple in Khaira in Jagatsinghpur district. As well, the priest asked that Das pay 5,000 rupees for the purification of the shrine.

Q) So given that what you’ve seen in Orissa is that there is no coercive conversion in the way that the Sangh Parivar would like people to believe, how come there is so much ready anger for them to work with? If indeed there are no forceful conversions then how are right wing groups able to turn the Adivasis and the Dalits so strongly against Dalit Christian groups and the missionaries?

A) India remains segregationist. The average upwardly mobile person of Hindu descent in Orissa has little relation to Muslims or Christians. Their sense is these are people different from them. The Sangh Parivar has capitalized on this to portray difference as a threat - to portray difference as something 'other', as an enemy to India and to India’s national culture.

Q) What is the problem with the way Orissa is being discussed in the mainstream media? Is there something in the story that is missing?

There are 6000 RSS shakas in Orissa. You have a decade of unchecked communalization in conditions that, at times, mirror those of a feudal society. Leaders of civil society, many ordinary Hindus in villages, in quiet places where they are not subject to the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda, think differently. Media representation of the Sangh's communalization also, often, reflects Hindu majoritarianist perspectives.

The brutality of Hindutva's violence should concern us, and the the extent of communalization, the creation of popular perception, and the unchecked access to resources, people, and propagandising of the Sangh Parivar in Orissa and so many other states should absolutely frighten us.

Q) What about the politics of reservation? Hindus feel that the government is stealing from them to give to minorities. Are they justified in their frustration with state policies?

I am of Hindu descent and I think that people, who are historically disenfranchised, by virtue of their gender, caste, creed or religion, deserve the state's support to exercise their right to equality, so that they have an equal opportunity in life. In the United States, where I also live and teach, I argue for affirmative action. I insist on the same for India. In India, Hindu majoritarianists allege that reservation gives minorities greater access to resources that rightfully belong to Hindus, upper castes, men, heterosexuals... . No. The non-disenfranchised within the majority community have disproportionate access to resources in the first place - resources that are not just their own. That’s the thing to understand. The majority community does not own the nation. Just because we might not understand difference, that does not make it undesirable. We have to share and shape the nation equally. Otherwise, it fails. Let’s start there.

Q) A lot of people argue openly that India “belongs” to the Hindus. What would you say to that argument?

It’s like arguing with someone who states that the Third Reich was worthy. There has to be to a large-scale secularization of society by having acknowledgement of, and care for difference, secularization, and democratization. Democracy dies with the assertation that India belongs to the Hindus.

Q) The majority community in India believes that minorities are actually well protected, indeed appeased. It is also often pointed out that the fact that a Muslim and Dalit can become the President of India is evidence of democracy’s success. But clearly, as the repeated riots and death toll suggest, minorities are threatened in India. So, what does Indian democracy need to do to really protect its minorities?

Not in reality. An argument that Dr.Ambedkar made is that to 'protect' minorities as secondary citizens, already tells us that they are not equal in the nation. To have Indian democracy function minorities and other disenfranchised groups cannot remain people with special rights and special laws that work at the discretion of the majority community.

Q) Tell us something about your book ‘Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present’? What is the central argument you make on the communal situation in Orissa?

Since June of 2002, I made 15 research trips, to about 73 villages and towns across 17 districts in Orissa.The book is an intensive look at the slow and spectacular violence of Hindutva in Orissa since 1999, against a larger story of Hindu militancy and majoritarianism in India. It offers an account of the regimentation of Hindu militant mobilizations in the making of 'nation', manifest through culture and society, politics and economy, religion and law, on gender and body, and land and memory. I examine Hindutva's proliferation, linking village to state and state with nation, in manufacturing imaginative and identitarian agency for violent nationalism.

A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.
- Eugene V. Debs.

Increasingly we will find that to solve the new problems the world faces, this will have to be our approach.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

BEG TO DIFFER

There are a lot of homeless, hungry people on the streets of Chicago. Outside my apartment, I hear the jingle of coins all morning as a panhandler (urban beggar) downstairs shakes his large plastic cup at pedestrians. Many others simply sit slumped against a lamppost with a cardboard sign reading, "I am Hungry."

However, if there are hundreds of people pouring out of a baseball game and several other panhandlers to compete with then they get creative. One guy outside Wrigley Field held up a huge sign that read, "Why Lie? I just need a Cold Beer."

Another guy didn't bother with signs. In fact, I'm not sure his activities are even within the realm of begging. He takes a dollar to click a picture of you and your buddies all standing together before baseball broadcaster Harry Caray's sculture outside the stadium. You don't have to stop passers-by and request them to do it for you. Just give this guy your camera, get snapped up and stuff a bill into his cup.



Thursday, August 28, 2008

SNAPSHOTS OF A CHICAGO SUMMER


A view of Lake Michigan from Navy Pier.


Navy Pier's other two-legged visitors. The seagulls get nice and close.



Chicago is a great city for anyone interested in architecture. This is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's creations in the historic Oak Park area. Of the many beautiful homes in the neighbourhood, this one is my favourite.


Another Frank Lloyd Wright creation. His designs are versatile and this one is influenced by the Tudor style.


The Art Institute of Chicago, famous for its huge collection of Impressionist art.


The Lions outside the Art Institute have stood there for over 114 years. Made of bronze, they were installed in 1894 after Edward Kemeys exhibited the plaster model the previous year at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.



Sears Towers (behind the first brown building). It was the world's tallest building between 1974 and 1998. It's structural engineer was Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bengali American, widely regarded as the "Einstein of structural engineering".



Plenty of strange encounters and photo-ops on Michigan Avenue.


A puppeteer outside the Art Institute of Chicago. His puppets are old, shabby and torn but he does a pretty neat job getting them to sing some blues.


Stop here, make the right move and walk on. An ongoing game of chess on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue. It is a great place to wander aimlessly.




The 'Taste of Chicago' food festival is largely a waste of time. The food is lousy, people with greasy hands are jostling for space and everything is over-priced. Besides, how much can you eat? Actually, I take that back. Even if you can eat up a storm, the 'Taste of Chicago' is skip-worthy. You won't miss a thing.



The Chicago River flows through downtown Chicago and originally emptied into Lake Michigan. Since this ended up polluting the waters of the Lake it's flow was directed towards the Mississippi River Basin. Just follow the river to look at some of Chicago's fabulous buildings.



I found this store inside a building in Wicker Park. I didn't have the time to go in so, sorry, I can't tell you what exactly the 'Scandal Sale' was all about. Besides, part of it was censored.


The ornate Marquette Building inside the 'Loop' in downtown Chicago. The original colour of the building was more red but years of soot and dust have blackened the exterior considerably. This early steel frame skyscraper was completed in 1895 and was named a 'National Historic Landmark' in 1976. Step into its lobby to see some shimmering mosaics and sculptures. This is just one of Chicago's many splendid buildings.


Lunchtime in downtown Chicago.


Part of the 'El' tracks that form the 'Loop'. Ring a bell from Gotham City in 'The Dark Knight'?



Lunchtime in downtown Chicago.


The open area in front of Daley Plaza attracts all kinds of Chicagoans. There are people doing intense reading, some talk loudly on cell-phones, some eat lunch, men in suits take a break from work and children slide down the strange looking sculpture in the background. The piece of public art in the picture is an untitled sculpture designed by Pablo Picasso. It was the first major public art work in downtown Chicago and is today a major landmark.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

ASIAN AMERICANS FOR THE MATH PROFESSOR

Daniel Biss speaking to members of the Asian American community. He is a Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives in the 17th District. Biss is currently Assistant Professor of mathematics at The University of Chicago.

Asian Americans who came out to endorse Daniel Biss, listen to his speech as he spells out some of his key priorities if elected.

In a small crowded room in Skokie in Illinois, leaders of the Asian American community gathered on July 10th to endorse Daniel Biss. 30 year old Biss, an Assistant Professor of mathematics at The University of Chicago is a Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representative in the 17th District.

Speaking before an audience of around 25 people on a stormy night, Biss said, “The most important thing is that though I’m not Asian American I can pledge to you with absolute confidence that if bad decisions continue to be made they will never be made because no ones listening to the community and they’ll never be made without actively seeking out the community for advise and support.”

Judge Sandra Otaka, the first Asian Pacific American appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court introduced the speakers and endorsed Daniel Biss. She said, “We do not need to continue to elect same old same old.”

The other endorsement speeches were made by Jerry Clarito a Filipino-American and Vice President of the Skokie Park District, Gina Lee, a Korean-American and social worker at the YWCA and finally Pramod Shah an Indian American and Niles Township Trustee.

Pramod Shah said, “As one of the few elected officials of Asian descent it is obvious to me that Asian Americans are under represented at all levels of government from the city of Chicago to suburban municipalities and last but certainly not least at the state level.”

Shah added, “After working with Daniel I can say with certainty that he will be an advocate for the Asian American community.”

Daniel Biss is a mathematician with a Ph.D from MIT and an undergraduate degree from Harvard University. He volunteers as a math teacher at a charter school in Chicago and feels strongly about improving education in Illinois where per pupil spending is one of the lowest in the country. Calling it “shameful” he said, “It’s an indication that Springfield’s priorities don’t have anything to do with investing in the state of Illinois’ future.”

To change that he is counting on the support of the nearly 13,000 Asian Americans residing in the 17th District to show up to vote for him on November 4th. He said, “This election wouldn’t be possible without the Asian American community.”

Everyone laughed when he said, “You can cash that in after I’ve won.”






MIND-BLOGGING

Every time I come across an interesting factoid or a beautiful line in a book I have tried to re-read it, to commit the words to memory. Of course it doesn’t work. The interesting detail on the next page quickly erases the previous one.

There is usually only a faint flicker in the memory bank when I later come across a book I have read, naturally leading to much disappointment.

“What is the point of reading?” I have asked myself in frustration.

Still, I dithered from keeping a diary of anecdotes, quotes and factoids. Diaries can get lost and they also pile up quickly, collect dust and hurt trees.

But finally, I have found a solution. It’s so simple that I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I’m going to put everything up here on the blog.

That way, it can be with me forever and I can also share it with you.

I can refer to my own blog if I need to use the information in my writing and best of all I can finally remember a good book long after finishing it.

'THE VERY DEVIL TO PAY'

The police firing upon Gujjars in India recently killed 26 people. That figure is part of a long tradition in crowd management by the Indian police.

For instance, in 1932 when Gandhi and the Indian National Congress re-started the civil disobedience movement the police and government responded swiftly and ferociously. Congress leaders were imprisoned and the police charged ruthlessly upon the crowds. People were killed and wounded and more than 100,000 arrested.

Ainslee T. Embree in his book 'India's Search for National Identity' quotes from a letter written by an Indian observer to Ramsay MacDonald, then British Labour Prime Minister.

“The police in India, ill-educated, ill-paid, and drawn from the lowest strata of society and accustomed to rough modes, when actually authorized and encouraged to strike persons in the streets, irrespective of station, age or sex, cannot be expected to restrain themselves. Stories of inhuman and barbarous chastisement go about, creating bitterness and racial and communal rancour. Believe me, there will be the very devil to pay for another generation.”

We must be that generation.


Monday, July 14, 2008

US IS RIGHT ON MODI

The US has eroded its credibility on human rights but on Narendra Modi the State Department has got it right. The credit for it goes to a few strident advocacy groups.

It is now highly unlikely that Modi bhai will visit Uncle Sam this year, simply because he won't get a visa.


Modi was invited for the World Gujarati Conference in New Jersey in August. But even before he could apply for a visa advocacy groups in the US and Canada uniting under the banner of 'Coalition Against Genocide' (CAG) wrote to the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice saying, "We urge the State Department not to allow Mr.Modi to enter the country under any conditions, as the circumstances under which he was denied a visa in 2005 remain largely unchanged, and the minority communities in his state continue to face systematic human rights violations."


In 2005 the State Department denied him a diplomatic visa because the purpose of his visit was not deemed to be so. They also revoked his tourist and business visa and Modi had to end up addressing an NRI gathering via video link. CAG had also been busy on other fronts. They lobbied Chris Matthews, TV anchor for MSNBC's 'Hardball', to decline from speaking at a convention where Modi was the chief guest. Sponsor 'American Express' also pulled out.


The CAG's plea has been backed by a US government agency, the Commission on International Religious Freedom which also urged the State Department to "reaffirm its past decision." Commission chair Felice D. Gaer said, "As official bodies of the government of India have found, Narendra Modi is culpable for the egregious and systematic human rights abuses wrought against thousands of India's Muslims. Mr. Modi must demonstrate to the State Department and to the American people why he – as a person found to have aided and abetted gross violations of human rights, including religious freedom – should now be eligible for a tourist visa."


This is the right question to ask a man who has been entirely unrepentant and who has unfortunately gone unpunished in India. Modi may yet scoff defiantly at these words but they should also tell him that Newton's third law of motion, which he so infamously quoted after the riots, is back to bite him.


Meanwhile, Modi's popularity with certain NRI groups reflects poorly on them. Economic development and administrative efficiency are often invoked as a justification for their support. But this argument makes serious mockery of the word "development" when people can be lynched and raped on the streets of Gujarat and no justice is done to them six years later. These admirers of Modi should in fact use their proximity to pressure him to apologise for what happened.


In the US some people conflate criticism of Israel with being anti-Semitic. Similarly conflating criticism of Modi with being anti-Gujarati or anti-Hindu has become a popular way to abuse those who seek accountability for 2002. But any rational person will tell you the difference.


Also, jaded arguments about Modi being "democratically elected" do not concede that he has not been made to answer for his culpability in the riots.


So till his friends in the US and elsewhere confront him on his complicity in 2002 their support will be morally suspect.


Meanwhile the US administration is right in taking a tough line. And for those fighting against his hateful, communal brand of politics this is a shot in the arm. These symbolic snubs will have to suffice for now till real action can someday be taken.


Published on the NDTV.com website on July 14th, 2008.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

THE FALL AND RISE OF DEVON

Ann Kalayil, Director of SAAPRI



Padma Rangaswamy, Director of SAAPRI



A view of the main Devon Avenue with all the South Asian restaurants and shops.



The meeting in progress at the Indo-American Centre after the release of the SAAPRI report.





On Devon Avenue in Chicago you can find anything for a South Asian wardrobe or kitchen - from a sequined saree to sweet paan, it’s all available here. What you can’t find though is parking. And that is having a huge negative impact on this once prosperous neighbourhood.

Susan Patel, who runs Patel Brothers Handicrafts and Utensils on Devon Avenue said, “Businesses have grown but infrastructure on Devon has not.” That in turn is now impacting the growth of business. The parking problem is just the most obvious in a whole range of issues facing the community.

For years all sides have complained - residents about the shop owners and shop owners about each other and the police. Resentment was building up but no serious dialogue took place. However, the ice is starting to thaw a little as all sides realize they could use each others help.

That participatory approach was on display at the
Indo-American Centre on 19th June at the meeting of the West Rogers Park community of which Devon Avenue is a part. Perhaps for the first time nearly 60 residents from ethnically diverse backgrounds and a few South Asian business owners got together. The occasion was the release of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute’s (SAAPRI) report titled ‘Developing Devon: Creating a Strategic Plan for Economic Growth through Community Consensus’ It forced all stake holders to sit down together and discuss the neighbourhood’s problems.

Ann Kalayil, Director of SAAPRI has lived in Devon since 1972. She said, “You cannot look at resolving the problems on Devon Avenue without residents.” Deb Rigoni, who has lived there for 28 years said, “We’ve felt that they (South Asian business owners) don’t care about what we care about but that’s not the case.”

Having brought people together, K.Sujata, Director of SAAPRI announced, “Now that you’re here, we’re going to make you work.” The audience was broken up into four groups which the report identified as areas for improvement - building leadership, improving infrastructure, promoting business development and creating a better place to live and work. It was the beginning of a dialogue.

But besides the talk, real action has already been taken. The local chamber of commerce had started addressing many of the problems identified in the report. One of its priorities is to educate business owners about the various funding opportunities available to improve their stores. Amie Zander, Executive Director at the
West Ridge Chamber of Commerce said, “When I first used to go to the South Asian stores to tell them about the Chamber and that we were there to help, people would immediately have their guard up. I guess they didn’t have such government funded bodies to help in India or Pakistan and so it just didn’t occur to them to come take our help.”

For instance, the chamber launched the Small Business Improvement Fund or SBIF which offers up to 50,000 dollars to shop owners to remodel and spruce up their establishments. Less than a block away, Seyedisa Hashimi was cutting fresh meat for an Indian customer who watched Udit Narayan crooning on TV while waiting for his order. Hashimi opened his halal meat store seven months ago. Neither had he heard of the Chamber, nor the opportunities for funding.

That’s precisely the gap SAAPRI hopes to fill. Padma Rangaswamy, Director of SAAPRI said, “Our contribution has been to alert people about what resources they have.”

Even as common infrastructure problems have been addressed, an organized South Asian voice was missing. That changed in March this year when Susan Patel witnessed the harassment of a driver by the police right outside her store. She said, “This man was pulled over and there was a larger police presence in a very negative way. There was no cultural sensitivity.” She took photographs of the incident and called a meeting with the police commander. Since then the group she started called the Concerned South Asian Business Owners of Devon is actively tackling the infrastructure problems and business challenges confronting them. She said, “There was so much that we agreed upon but noone was doing anything about it.”

And they need to because the present gritty feel of a deteriorating neighbourhood is putting people off. Rachna Wadhwani who lives in the heavily South Asian populated suburb of Schaumberg said, “Walking around Devon you don’t get that good feeling. Everything looks shabby and run-down.”

Besides, she doesn’t even need to come to Devon anymore because a plethora of South Asian grocery stores and restaurants have opened up in her neighbourhood.

Devon business owners now realize that they need to get more creative if they have to bring people back. Most people are proud of the ethnic diversity of the area with Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Irish-Catholic from different parts of the world living there. Shop owners realize that one way to improve business is to exploit that feature.


But it has been surprisingly difficult. Deb Regoni stood up at the meeting and said, “I don’t feel well-schooled about this neighbourhood. There are certain stores where I feel I’m in the way. So we need to get back out on to the street and be like old communities used to.” Another senior citizen remarked to her, “Chicago is a community of individual conglomerates.”

That idea got immediate traction and neighbourhood tours are proposed. Rohit Maniar, Vice President of the National Republic Bank of Chicago on Devon said, “If we have a tour of the residents and they are introduced to the merchants both sides will feel easy.”

Alderman Bernard L. Stone said, “I don’t see any pessimism along the street. I see a lot of enthusiasm in spite of generally a pall over the entire country.” Whether that’s true or not Devon’s South Asian business community is certainly starting to organize to improve business because hard times are calling for urgent action.



Published in India Abroad in the July 4th issue.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

LOOK CLOSER HOME BEFORE INVOKING AMERICA

America has been invoked in recent times after every terror attack on Indian soil.

Experts and ordinary Indians react in anger, naturally, to the violence, and urge the Indian government to look at the American example of counter terror.

After all, as we’ve been reminded many times before, there has not been a single attack on American soil since 9/11. In India on the other hand, there have been at least 15 major terror strikes after the Parliament attack on 13th December 2001.

But this analysis is over simplistic because during this time when American citizens have been safe in their malls and subways, their country’s “war on terror” has actually destabilized large parts of the world - the Middle East and India’s own neighbourhood of South Asia.

So, if we just for a moment apply more stringent conditions in examining the US record in protecting its citizens it becomes clear that it has come at the cost of someone else’s safety. US policies have hurt the security of the region and in fact India as well. The result of the American effort in protecting Americans – no further attacks – is good; but the approach is heavily hypocritical and morally unjustifiable. It sends out the wrong message that the means in this “war” don’t matter. So those who invoke the US should be reminded that there is little to emulate and for various reasons.

Some simple numbers first. The 9/11 attacks killed a little less than 3000 people. Within a month of launching strikes in Afghanistan the US surpassed that number in Afghan civilian casualties. You can imagine what the figure must be like seven years on. The US military, however, does not document civilian deaths or “collateral damage” so the exact number is unknown but according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in the last
two years alone nearly 8000 people have been killed.

In Iraq the numbers are much higher. According to the Iraq Body Count Project more than 85,000 people have died.

So, collateral damage is a euphemism which means that some people are killable under some circumstances (like Afghans and Iraqis) while American citizens are not under any circumstance.

There are more double standards. For instance, democracy is good in some places but not good in others. It is not good in Pakistan because it slows everything down. Oh bother! So as long as Musharraf - the Undemocrat can get things done then he gets Washington DC’s support.

Admittedly, Pakistan has been a very difficult question for the Bush administration but it beggars belief that they continue to studiously support Pervez Musharraf even after voters rejected his party. On the other hand, Pakistani lawyers who have surprised the world with their tenacious movement to have the judiciary restored have not received any support from Bush and Co.


So even while propagating the virtues of democracy as the antidote to terrorism and war the US stoutly supported a military autocrat. While Indian admirers were looking at America’s secure shores they didn’t notice the damage being done just across the border even if Pakistan’s own leaders should get a fair share of the blame.

Beyond the double standards the major problem with the war on terror in South Asia has been that it was relegated to second place. Iraq’s witless war had to be won and so Afghanistan was ignored. The best troops and equipment were pulled out and diverted to Iraq. During that time the Taliban and Al Qaeda regrouped in Pakistan and today they are launching vicious attacks inside Afghanistan. NATO says they need at least 10,000 more troops to be effective in the country.

These policies negatively impact India as well albeit in a less direct fashion. Today Indian reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are running up against a nasty old foe in the Taliban. Pakistan’s reckless military has allowed these fundamentalists to regroup even as the US was too busy in the battle in Iraq. In the past the mujahideen have turned their attention to Kashmir so this Talibanisation of Pakistan is just bad news for everyone.

America’s actions abroad belie the lofty language it has used in the war on terror. I smile ruefully when the US is invoked after terror strikes because the world is possibly more unsafe because of America. South Asia doesn’t look rosier for sure.

So, for those who still think the “tough” measures of the US are admirable, here is a beautiful question from the late Catalonian cellist Pablo Casals. He asks, “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

It does and that is the problem.

Published in the Indian Express on July 3rd 2008.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

OVEREAT OR THROW?




When I was a wee lassie I was taught not to waste food. Thanks to that early lesson I try really hard to finish everything on my plate and in my cup. Sometimes I will even overeat just to clean the dishes.

But America has skewed its sizes and now I'm struggling to marry good habits to good health.

Here's what I mean. I'm trying to write a travel piece right now but I don't know if it should be a travel piece or a piece on culture and whether its tone should be serious or funny. To clear such cerebral fogs I always need a cup of coffee. It is the fuel that drives a stalling brain.

However, I just want enough of it to recharge but not so much that I'm up for the next twelve hours. But there seem to be no options for those with smaller stomachs. The smallest size looks like a jug compared to a regular cup of coffee in India. Starbucks even calls its smallest size 'Tall'.

If I throw away half I waste food, or drink in this case, and money, but if I drink it all up I get over caffeineated. Theres no way I'm saving the other half because the only thing worse than stale coffee is perhaps stale tea. Why must I be confronted with ethical questions in this simple act of buying coffee? Curses.

With food I always bring a doggie bag home but I can't eat hardening ravioli or darkening lettuce leaves for another three meals. So I invariably have to trash that as well after one meal at home.

There are ways to get around the problem. Maybe I should just tell the guys making my coffee to fill only half the cup although I will have to pay full price. I will also stoically suffer their 'is-she-a-lunatic' expressions. Or I could buy a coffee-maker and brew my own little muggies. But why can't there just be smaller quantities available?

Till I establish why sizes have been skewed let me just say that there is a discernible bias against small stomachs. Don't think we don't get it.

In fact, I'm marking my protest here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

AIR INDIA WOULD HAVE KEPT ME SINGLE

I was delighted to hear Praful Patel, the Civil Aviation Minister say that Air India either needs to perform or perish. Personal experience suggests it is successfully doing the latter already.

My husband and I were alone in a hotel room in Frankfurt four days before our wedding in India. But we weren’t feeling at all romantic. No…it’s not what you think. We were in love and wanted to marry. The problem was how do we get there? How to get home?

Both of us were students in the U.S and followed the “cheap works best” approach to flying. So, when Air India offered us the lowest fares to Mumbai, we took it. Zero in-flight entertainment, robotic air-hostesses and wailing babies cannot deter two people bent on getting hitched. Despite dealing with rude staff, we boarded a sickly yellow Air India Boeing 747 from O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, with the proverbial song on the lip. In a few days we would wear weighty clothes and ponderous garlands, exchange some solemn vows and walk away into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Little did we realize that our path was littered with obstacles. We weren’t supposed to be populating hotel rooms on the way there and how it all came to be is a story of betrayal by our embarrassing national bird, Air India. I want to kick the protruding backside of the smiling maharaja when I see one.

There was a happy hum on board our flight from Chicago where it all began. Fellow Indians were pinching the cheeks of children and enquiring about their names and health. An English movie of grainy print played on a single giant screen at the front of the aircraft. It was extracted no doubt from a Hollywood archive shelf marked ‘Ancient’. Not in the mood for it, I would’ve certainly finished ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ instead, except that my panel lights didn’t work. Neither did my husbands and neither did his neighbours’. We had both carried only books to entertain ourselves and therefore had nothing to do. Everyone slept, but like alert owls we sat quietly in the dark. Oblivious to the impending food crisis I grumbled about the service instead of just being thankful for meals at least.

A few hours and much wakefulness later the lights came on and one small but tough croissant was placed before us. The hungry and tired don’t fuss about such things and we ate our “breakfast” content with the thought that we would soon land in Frankfurt for two hours, stretch our legs and then sleep all the way to Mumbai. From there my husband would fly home to Calcutta and me to Chennai to attend my first ‘ladies-only’ function on the 24th of December. I had budgeted three days of R and R because brides need that.

But Air India had other plans. They usually do.

We were asked to disembark at Frankfurt and once without, informed casually that two of the engines had failed while landing. Surely, they needed time to repair them and so if passengers would be considerate enough to wait for two more hours things would be set in order and we would be on our way again.

Now, my husband is a business consultant, which means, he has been dodged and duped by airlines all his working life and doesn’t buy these “slight delays” or “technical snags”. So when he heard the words “engine failure” his heart started a downward descent.

But since there was nothing we could do about the vital organs of an ageing 747 we waited patiently in the lousy Frankfurt airport. It was uncomfortably cold, uncarpeted, overcrowded and under-seated and the most exciting food available was cheese toast. Four hours became six, six became ten and ten became fourteen. We should have been in the motherland by then but were stuck instead in the fatherland. And, I, the bride, deprived of sleep and good news, grew older.

Those with American passports had long been allowed to leave for a comfortable hotel while we went about the airport like IDPs. Meanwhile the smiling maharaja became the silent maharaja. There were simply no updates or announcements!

Finally, a little before midnight, rumour circulated that Air India was collecting passports to get visas because the plane of our dreams was grounded. By then my husband and I were gummy-eyed, sleepless, unfresh and angry. Parents, aunts and cousins back home were frantic. Flights to anywhere in December are packed and to India, forget it you must be kidding. How were we going to get home? The only thing available was first class on Lufthansa – 10,000 dollars for both of us. Nope. We’d just have to stay single.

Air India wasn’t saying anything. They were about to put us up in a hotel and my husband was sure that an engine failure basically meant - get a different plane. Would Air India do that? When would they do it? More importantly, I would have no time to go through my fittings, beauty sleep, bridal pampering, and my round of personal invitations. The salad had been tossed up and was falling to the floor.

With heavy feet we reached the hotel and with heavier hearts we went to bed but not without making a plan. We decided we would sleep for just a few hours and get to the airport before all the other passengers. Everyone would be trying to get their tickets written over so we needed to be first in the queue at the AI counter.

The next morning, the restaurant downstairs was full of cheerful chatter. This unexpected German holiday was quite a nice surprise for some. But I thrust a bun with poppy seeds into my bag and off we went to the airport.

An hour after waiting at the Air India counter a German lady finally appeared. We told her our story stressing that a union was at stake. She was a stern sort and didn’t say much. But suddenly she produced two tickets on Kuwait Airways that would take us to Mumbai but with a layover in Kuwait. That wasn’t good enough. We wanted to fly straight home. What if we got stuck in Kuwait? By then she saw how anxious we were and the cockles of her heart began to warm-up a little. Hammering away at her keyboard she scanned for seats. And voila! A few minutes later she produced two direct tickets on Lufthansa to Calcutta! Wow! Hurray! But wait, what about our four bags full of wedding stuff?

Oh.

By way of a joke she said, “I’ll try and get them out but I hope your wedding dress is not in there.” Ha. Ha. My husbands stuff was but what good is a wedding suit if it makes you miss your wedding? So we ditched our bags, hoping they would come on the Air India flight, whenever, and sprinted across the confusing Frankfurt airport to reach the Lufthansa counter to get our seats confirmed. We realized that we had under-reported our wedding story. We had to use it to full effect now. We repeated it to the young blonde at the Lufthansa counter who was lovely and sympathetic. But she had bad news. My husband was confirmed. I was not.

We took the chance and raced to the gate where passengers were boarding for Calcutta. Seconds before the gate closed and the last confirmed passengers had boarded, an efficient German lady finally put us through. We couldn’t believe it. We were finally going home! We would attend our wedding after all! We looked terrible, we hadn’t changed our clothes in 48 hours and our bags were left behind. But it didn’t matter. We collapsed into clean seats in a fresh white plane, looked at each other and burst out laughing.

We landed in Calcutta like a set of beggars without any possessions except each other. But it was alright because we still had a beautiful, fun wedding. We made it in time and took our solemn vows. One of them is to never fly Air India.

Published on the ndtv.com website.