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I had always thought that the most gruesome images ever captured by the lens of a camera were those depicting the plight of Jews and other prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps, copies of which abound in books, blogs and other literature related to the Holocaust. Whenever I have looked at these images, like most others I have cringed with horror and disgust, but always with a sense of assurance deep within that such abominable things had happened far away from home, and nothing comparable had ever taken place here in India. This misplaced sense of complacency was broken when I came across this collection of photographs. They were taken by the famous American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine during what is now known as the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 – a romantic name given to what was essentially a Hindu-Muslim riot of unprecedented scale that followed the call for ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League on the 16th of August, 1946. Incidentally, the last Independence Day was also the 65th anniversary of these riots.

One might say that my surprise at these pictures is unwarranted and betrays my ignorance of India’s communal past, since such riots have been common in India, the worst of them having occurred during the Partition of 1947. To such a charge my only defence is that while being reasonably aware of India’s communal history (including the events captured in Bourke-White’s pictures), I had failed to grasp the sheer savagery of these killings which took place not in a distant place but so close to where I have grown up – in the very heart of my home state, until I chanced upon these photographs. That Bengalis, the stereotypically peaceful and most complacent of people, could be swept up in a mass frenzy to the extent that they could delude themselves into committing a bloodbath of such horrifying proportions as revealed by these pictures was something I had not realized before. Some of the photographs are really graphic and makes one wonder how the photographer could stand steady in the midst of such ghastly scenes and capture them on camera. Bourke-White’s courage seems to be otherworldly to me, and she deserves respect for committing those scenes to posterity.

Sir Francis Tuker, the then Chief of the Eastern Command of the British Indian Army, described the riots in these words: “It was unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn. The underworld of Calcutta was taking charge of the city.” (Tuker’s vivid account of the events of 16th to 20th August can be found here.) If Bourke-White’s photographs seem gut-wrenching, then Tuker’s words are not to be left behind in their description of bestiality and read like something out of a Leon Uris holocaust novel. Narrating a scene in Bag-Bazaar Street – a very busy thoroughfare known for its famous rasgullas –   he writes: “On closer inspection of the bodies in this area we found that many were horribly mutilated and in one particular place a man had been tied by his ankles to a tramway electric junction box, his hands were bound behind his back and a hole had been made in his forehead so that he bled to death through the brain. He was such a ghastly sight that it was a wonder that the soldiers who were ordered to cut him down and cover him with a nearby sack, were not ill on the spot.”

A passer-by walking down Bag-Bazar Street in the present day is likely to be unaware of the dark history of the place, but many of the old buildings that line the street have stood standing there while the bloodbath had unfolded in front of them. But since they cannot tell their story, the passer-by shall never know. In fact, there is no monument in the whole of Calcutta that will remind him of the thousands who died on the streets in the summer of 1946. After all, it is only natural for a nation which has long suffered at the hands of foreign rulers to build, upon gaining freedom, monuments only to those who have died at the hands of foreign enemies and not those who are butchered by their own friends and neighbours. The new powers that be ensure that a vain and largely artificial sense of nationalism is made to cover up for the shame of a deep-rooted internal disunity, and generations of school children grow up with profound indignation over the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre and, at the same time, complete ignorance of something as ignominious as the Great Calcutta Killing. Through concerted efforts, public consciousness is filled with hatred for the enemy without, while the greater enemy that lurks within is conveniently forgotten. As a consequence of this collective hushing-up and shying-away from realities, the nation fails to develop the maturity to deal with deeper social problems. The policies, institutions and efforts that are necessary to mend broken bridges between communities are never put in place. People live their lives under the delusion that they are citizens of one great nation that brings together diverse communities, when the reality is that there are even today as many nations in India as there are communities.  The “Indian Union” is actually a union of illusions.

How else do we explain the ease with which, four and a half decades after independence, a minor political outfit running short of ideas for nation-building can turn to the business of nation-breaking over a hypothetical temple, and in so doing not only rekindle that old blood-lust, but also gain national acceptance through that exercise? (I refer obviously to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to prominence with the Ayodhya Ram Temple affair, a shameful episode in independent India’s communal history.) What is even more unfortunate is that the very people who masterminded these events are today nurturing ambitions for prime-ministerial office. Mr Advani, the veteran of Ayodhya, is once again embarking on another of his national rabble-rousing missions, and Narendra Modi is on a self-righteous fast claiming to be a messiah of communal harmony. Our collective memory is so short-lived that their ambitions might just bear fruit, and then there shall be very little we can do to prevent history from repeating itself.

Be that as it may, the intent of writing this article was not to dwell on the murky political situation of the day and I have digressed from the main theme. I have recounted a historical event; but unless it has some connection to the present and to the future, documenting history is a meaningless exercise. Its only value lies in being able to record the causal relationships between human actions and their consequences so that every generation can decide for itself which actions to repeat and which to avoid. Edward Gibbon described history as “little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs represent a typical and fairly recent page from that register. In fact, as our experience shows, the context has not changed much from 1946 to 1992 to 2002, and even in the present day, the causal relationship between unbridled demagoguery and human suffering is being repeatedly evidenced not just in India, but the world over. The ‘register of follies’ is being written in every day and each page tries to remind us how easy it can be for ordinary men and women to forget eons of civilization behind them and, under the slightest provocation, become beasts for a day.

If after repeated reminders we do not learn, then there is very little to be said of human intelligence and lesser still about the future of the intelligent race.

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Photo courtesy ibnlive.com

Of late, quite a few people I know have asked me for my opinion on the Anna Hazare affair and I have been averting comment. What with all the rumpus and brouhaha generated by the so-called ‘movement’, I found myself irritated with and disinterested in the entire affair. Now that the episode is well behind us, I feel it is possible for me to reflect dispassionately on the past events and lay down my thoughts on some of the issues surrounding it. I have been surfing the internet for opinion pieces on the issue and most of the ones I came across tended to veer towards extremes – either thoroughly dismissing Anna Hazare as a passing irritant, a blackmailer of democracy, a misguided old buffoon who had no sense of the times (like Arundhati Roy’s diatribe against Hazare, reeking obviously of communistic drivel and conspiracy theories)  or else eulogizing him as a modern-day Gandhi and his movement as the harbinger of great changes to come. One cannot expect today’s media to be objective on any issue and it is no surprise then that the more I think about it, I realize that the reality lies somewhere in between the extremes. A rare opinion piece that I found was this, and I feel it puts the issue in somewhat proper perspective. I wish more opinion pieces were written in this vein.

The first question to which I applied my mind was that of the the size or magnitude of this ‘movement’. It is being hailed by many as a mass revolution of the kind not seen since the days of the freedom struggle. All I can say to such commentators is that a basic appreciation of scale and proportion of events is manifestly beyond their grasp. In this age of social networking, when the concept of ‘motion’ is defined by the number of likes on one’s status message or the number of times it has been ‘retweeted’, it is very easy to call an event a mass movement. Even in terms of the awareness that it generated, I suspect much of it was confined to the watchers of 24×7 news channels and Facebook addicts- essentially the urban young and middle-aged. The few who actually ‘moved’ in this movement were the ones who turned up at the Ramlila Maidan, the epicentre of all activity. But even the crowds that assembled there are not a measure of the scale of the movement, for Ramlila Maidan is no far-off Dandi which takes an arduous march to reach, but a centrally located, well-connected public square in the heart of the country’s capital city. I can atleast vouch for the fact that in downtown Jamshedpur, in the corruption-ridden state of Jharkhand, the response to Anna’s call was really muted and I think it must have been the same in any city outside the NCR.

But inspite of all this, it must be conceded that Team Anna are good strategists. They chose their timing (August 15) and location well, and were able to capture the attention of urban India in the shortest time-span and with the least amount of effort. Add to this the government’s stupendous ignorance of elementary statecraft which led it to arrest Anna Hazare and jail him even before he had said the word ‘go’, and you have actually created in a flash a modern-day Gandhi and a crusader against an immoral and highhanded authority. No wonder that even those who were not sure until the last moment if ‘they really were Anna’ were converted as soon as they heard the news of the arrests, if not in the cause of the Lokpal but at least to uphold their own civil liberties.

The next question is that of democracy and whether the tactics employed by Team Anna amounted to a subversion of democracy as some, particularly politicians, have pointed out. I do not see how that can be true. Involvement of non-parliamentarians in the drafting of legislation is an ordinary affair and most bills brought by the government are drafted by experts or bureaucrats who are not parliamentarians. Members of the public, whether in form of NGOs or pressure groups are perfectly justified in seeking representation on a drafting panel, particularly when the envisaged bill is of burning interest to the nation, and it is finally up to the parliament to accept the bill in that form, modify it or reject it altogether. However, the modus operandi adopted by such pressure groups and the government’s reaction to them sets the tone of as well as precedent for future political discourse. In Anna’s case, it was fast-until-death (and pass-the-bill-by-nightfall-or-I-die) which, howsoever justified it may seem to those who are reminded of the fight against the British Raj, is essentially a strong-arming tactic representing complete abdication of reason and appeal to popular sentiment. Unlike the Raj, Today’s government is of our own making and this kind of opportunistic and bulldozing behaviour to bring it to its knees does not really set Anna and his team apart from the very politicians they want to crucify.

Now to the deeper issues in tackling corruption and whether the Jan Lok Pal, if and when it materializes, will achieve anything significant in that direction. From what I understand, the Lok Pal will be another punitive institution to add to the host of such institutions already existing – like the ED, CBI, CAG, CVC, law courts etc. No matter what shape the legislature gives to the Lok Pal, it will be practically impossible for a body comprising of 10-12 persons to attack corruption at the grassroots – which is where it resides and hurts most. As far as the Rajas and Kanimozhis are concerned, the ordinary people are not concerned with their fate, and they are best left at the mercy of investigative journalists and their own fair-weather colleagues. Indian bureaucracy consists of an estimated 3.5 crore government employees spread all over the country and beyond, and it is no laughing matter trying to bring them under the ambit of anything. Investigative and punitive bodies can at best scrape the surface when it comes to dealing with corruption in this behemoth of an organization, and that too only in the rare cases where the wrongdoer has been foolish enough to leave his tracks uncovered.

For any real change to take place, systemic interventions aimed at changing the behaviour and culture of the bureaucracy need to be introduced. (For an example of what I mean by systemic change, take a look at Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu’s policy paper on decriminalizing the act of bribegiving. Drawing from game theory, he suggests that such a simple intervention can reduce the incidence of corruption in the country significantly.) Policy makers could also take cues from the corporate world in this regard, which has evolved several elegant mechanisms to align the organization’s desire for performance with employees’ fundamental greed for money and advancement. Volumes can be written on such mechanisms, but the moot point here is that the approach to eradicating corruption has to be systemic and not superficial, and the whole idea of Lok Pal belongs in the latter category. Viewed as a first step, it is perhaps desirable, and indeed Anna Hazare’s agitation shall be successful if it serves as a warm-up for more serious discussions to follow in its wake.

Finally I would like to reflect on the person of Anna Hazare in the capacity of a leader and reformer that he is being made out to be. Parallels with Gandhi are being drawn and bandied around effortlessly. (Business schools are in fact already hailing the campaign as a fit case study on leadership.) I cannot say if he is made of the stuff that great, transformational leaders are made of. In fact, I doubt if he considers himself anything more than a Gandhian and an activist, and in the recent episode it was only too evident that he was being used as a mere façade, a figurehead of sorts for the movement while the masterminding was being done by others under his brand name. Leadership I feel is more about long-term vision and bringing about fundamental changes and taking people along (Gandhi went from village to village educating people about the ills of a subservient existence) rather than sitting in one spot and strategizing for the next hour or planning the next move.

Be that as it may, the very fact that so many people flocked to the Ramlila Ground when he announced his fast betrays the deep-rooted angst in people against the rotten system that they are forced to be a part of. They were not looking for a Gandhi at all and they would have rallied around anybody who was willing to go on a fast against corruption. It also betrays a poverty of good leadership of the inspirational kind in our country today, for given the dearth of choice, people can not afford to discriminate. In fact this movement was as much about identifying with a leader as it was about fighting for a cause and it would do our nation a whole lot of good if the politicians of the day are able to read the writing on the wall and rise to the occasion.

Of Gandhi’s arrival in Indian politics, Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India:

And then he came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition…Political freedom took new shape and acquired a new content.

In our anxious wait for that badly-needed ‘whirlwind’, we seem to have been swept off our feet by a storm in a teacup.

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Irom Sharmila Chanu

Aung San Suu Kyi

Even as the world observed International Women’s Day on March 8 and India rose to the occasion by initiating the passing of a landmark piece of legislation that is expected to bring about dramatic changes in the role of women in politics, all of this seems little more than lip service when we turn our attention to the plight of two women in particular– Irom Sharmila Chanu and Aung San Suu Kyi – and their protracted struggle against injustice. What ought to make us more uneasy is the fact that one of them is an Indian citizen whose struggle is against the elected Indian government.

Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for more than a decade in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which is in place in large portions of the north-east, including her own state of Manipur. She is alive only because the authorities have been force-feeding her under arrest, to prevent her from committing suicide. On March 8, she was released from captivity as a token to mark Women’s Day, only to be rearrested on the charge of trying to commit suicide. The AFSPA is an act that vests the army with arbitrary powers on the pretext of maintaining peace in a ‘disturbed area’. However, it has been misused over the years by army personnel and basic rights and freedoms of the people of the north-east have been repeatedly violated. Countless lives have been lost to indiscriminate firings and extrajudicial encounters, and the perpetrators have never been brought to task because the Act gives them immunity from prosecution. Irom Sharmila’s fight, therefore, is not one for the rights of women, but rather for the right of any human being to live in dignity and freedom and his right to the protection of his life and personal liberty. These are guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen of the country, and the people belonging to disturbed areas can not be treated as exceptions. Fundamental rights are not favours to be dispensed or withheld by a government at will. They are the aspirations of a free people born in a free society, and the constitution is but a document that recognizes these aspirations. Denying a group of people their fundamental rights, therefore, is not just a subversion of the Constitution, but an outrage on their dignity and a criminal act per se.

The Indian government has been reluctant to do away with the draconian AFSPA, citing the secessionist atmosphere in the region. What it fails to realize is that secessionist or anti-state actors everywhere are always in minority, while the majority is always law-abiding. In imposing what amounts to military rule in the region and thereby withholding from the people the rights and freedoms that their brethren in other parts of the country enjoy, the government is further alienating them and aggravating the separatist feelings. This kind of a strategy to contain separatism can only be counter-productive in the long run. The government must wake up to this reality and undo the wrongs that have been allowed to happen. Repealing the AFSPA, as recommended by the Jeevan Reddy Commission and various international human rights organizations, can and ought to be the first corrective step in this direction.

Not very far from Imphal, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to languish in captivity in Rangoon for the fourteenth consecutive year. Though her fight against the oppressive military junta has received wide international attention and earned the Burmese government severe censure and sanctions, very little has come of it. The military continues to hold her in house arrest on flimsy and unsubstantiated charges, and has recently debarred her from contesting the upcoming elections. It is but obvious that the elections, if and when held, are going to be an orchestrated event, very much like those in Pakistan under General Musharraf’s rule, intended more as a PR exercise than a genuine social and political reform. Sooner or later, however, the military is bound to collapse from within if not from without. History tells us that such totalitarian regimes generally meet one of the two fates: they are either overthrown by popular revolution or they succumb to external pressure and economic sanctions. The present regime in Rangoon has been resisting both, little realizing that the longer you stretch the string, the harder it snaps and hits you back. Be that as it may, Suu Kyi’s relentless fight against the military regime should stir the conscience of the neighbouring nations, particularly India, and also of powerful nations like the US, who should step up pressure on the Than Shwe administration to step aside and let the Burmese people determine their own destiny.

The current situation of women in the world presents us with a glaring paradox. On the one hand, there are the genuinely empowered women who are represented by the Hillary Clintons, Angela Merkels and the Nancy Pelosis in the western world. Even back home, we have women in key positions in every walk of life. Meira Kumar presides over the world’s largest elected assembly, Pratibha Patil is the supreme commander of the armed forces (against which Irom Sharmila is fighting), and Sonia Gandhi is arguably the most powerful person in the country. On the other hand there are women like Rebiya Kadeer, Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila who are leading the struggle against wanton oppression and human rights abuse from the forefront in different parts of the world. What then prevents the former from coming to the aid of the latter? What prevents Ms Clinton from paying a visit to General Than Shwe in Rangoon and impressing upon him in no uncertain terms the indignation of the freedom-loving people of America at Suu Kyi’s detention and demanding her immediate and unconditional release? Why for that matter does President Obama not live up to his Nobel Peace Prize by coming to the aid of Suu Kyi who happens to be another peace laureate? What prevented Ms Gandhi from insisting that on March 8, the House engage in a constructive debate over alternatives to the AFSPA in the north-east, instead of pushing through a controversial and largely symbolic legislation whose long term impact, if any, is yet to be understood? What stops the young and promising Agatha Sangma, member of Parliament and a minister moreover, from raising her voice in her own government against the rights violations in the north-east, a part of the country from which she herself hails and whose troubles she can not be ignorant of? Why, after all, is there more tokenism and lip service in these matters than concrete action?

It frustrates me every time I am reminded that women like Irom and Suu Kyi are being held captive against their wishes, more so because their fight is a righteous one by all standards. They are fighting for the very same things that Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela have fought for in their generation and age, and as it was with these men whom we today look upon as heroes, so it shall be with these women, the heroines of tomorrow. The confines of the prison cell shall prove to be very weak indeed for them, for their spirits are free and always soaring.  As the author of Shantaram puts it, they will always be “free to hate those who torture them or to forgive them. Though it doesn’t sound like much, but in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility…”

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Before getting ready to settle into the plush Governor’s House in Calcutta for the next five years, outgoing National Security Advisor M K Narayanan has let the cat out of the bag by revealing that Chinese hackers have targeted the computers at the Prime Minister’s Office and other top security establishments. We have not been told how serious the matter is, or how successful the hackers were in extracting useful information, but the mere fact that an attempt was made and has been acknowledged by the NSA himself raises serious concerns over cyber security at the highest levels of government. It is also not known for sure if the Chinese government is behind these activities, but one can perhaps hazard a guess without straying too much off the mark.

The Chinese government is swimming in unholy waters. On the one hand, it is trying to shield its own people from knowledge of the atrocities committed in the past by its communist regime by blocking out specific content from internet search engines, while on the other, it is going out of its way to fish out sensitive information from the systems of rights activists (as Google claims) and now from computers in the PMO. It won’t give, but it will only take. The same might be said for its land-grabbing tendencies along the Sino-Indian border.

Be that as it may, defence remains our best and only offence in such matters, which brings us to the all-important question – Is India prepared to tackle cyber espionage in the 21st century? Mr Chidambaram seems to be doing an excellent work in tightening up security in the country after 26/11, but cyber terrorism is a very different and perhaps more potent threat today, and needs to be dealt with on a war footing. India boasts of a thriving IT industry, and there is no reason why it should lag behind on cyber security as well. The Prime Minister has shown his ingenuity by appointing an IT czar at the helm of the ID cards project, which would otherwise have languished like most government schemes if assigned to a minister or a civil servant.  He can show the same ingenuity in the matter of dealing with cyber incursions, and come up with an out-of-the-box idea to show the way. How about a Narayana Murthy as Minister for Cyber Security?

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