Thursday, July 31, 2008


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.”


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 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


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 website on July 14th, 2008.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


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


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


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.