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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Two faces

The prevailing discourse on the mask argues confidently that the fabric meant to conceal identity has, ironically, revealed subterranean, strange contradictions in both the West and the East. 


Dena Abramowitz is outraged. The dear lady from Wisconsin complained bitterly in a letter to The New York Times that her grandson is stubbornly refusing to wear diapers. Those abominable absorbents, in the precocious young man’s reasoning, are, Mrs Abramowitz writes, an infringement on his personal liberty. The grandmother has blamed the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, for her grandson’s premature enlightenment whose luminescence has made it difficult to spot that Stitt had made this point about masks, not diapers. Mrs Abramowitz’s wily grandson, as is perhaps de rigueur in Trumpamerica, merely tweaked the fact.


Stitt, however, has an alibi: he was simply obeying his boss who had mocked masks and those who wear them — Joe Biden does — even as America lost over 200,000 lives to the coronavirus under his watch. “I think wearing a… mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens… Somehow, I don’t see it for myself,” Donald Trump confessed to the journalist, Bob Woodward, in Rage. The ‘anti-maskers’— a constituency of predominantly middle-income earning men who made up 60 per cent of Americans outside New York and Los Angeles till as late as June — like Stitt, may have taken their cue from the POTUS.


The prevailing discourse on the mask argues confidently that the fabric meant to conceal identity has, ironically, revealed subterranean, strange contradictions in both the West and the East. In the United States of America, liberty finds itself at war with reason — its philosophical sibling — with the anti-mask brigade invoking the principle of individual freedom to contest rational voices imploring the country to emulate, in a manner of speaking, the Phantom. The East — the twain seldom meet — has been far more receptive to the mask. But this, the pundits sneer, need not be a manifestation of virtue. That obedient Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans have chosen to hide their face is being attributed to the East’s willingness to be pliant to power. Had the framework of liberty been more robust in the East, snorts the liberati in, say, New York, there would have been, or so the argument goes, bonfires of masks in Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.


Excited propositions based on binaries — West versus East — usually suffer from blinkered vision. The West’s claim of a virile bloom in civil liberty need not be founded on cold data. In a recent article in The New York Times (“How Democrats Won the War of Ideas”), David Brooks admitted that only 24 per cent of Americans called themselves liberal, while the dominant 76 per cent were inclined to be conservative or moderates in political temperament. The East isn’t as docile as is being trumpeted. Asia, Jordan Sand argues in his fascinating and concise cultural history of mask-wearing, remained discernibly unimpressed with the mask even after Manchuria had been ravaged by the plague epidemic in 1910. Japan, he writes, took to the mask during the 1918 influenza outbreak only because the nation was eager to embrace the currents of internationalism. Of late, the inception of the date-masuku — a culmination of the desire to project the surgical mask as a fashion accessory — has been possible because of a quirky transformation of aesthetics in Japan.


But few discourses would contest the proposition that the mask exposes — its revelatory powers are formidable — the complicity between civilization and conflict. A brief glance at the violent purging of mask-wearing traditions around the world shows that their demise is irrefutably linked to civilizational projects powered by Empires. The Selk’nam perished at the hands of European settlers, taking their masked traditions — the subject of Anne Chapman’s illuminating book — to their graves; the advancing Mongols laid to waste much of East and Central Asia, shredding indigenous rituals as well as their intriguing masks. Contemporary civilizational enterprises have been as predatory. The ferocious masks of the Nuo, a folk opera of Southern China, were condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ by Mao Zedong’s China; his comrades in Stalinist Russia had cast their dreaded red eye on Slavic mask-making entrepreneurship. At times, these transgressions relied not on physical but moral — theological — depredation. Hawaii’s Polynesian warriors were made to shun their masks made of plant fibre after they embraced Christianity.


Could the antagonism to the masks of subjugated cultures stem from the primitive fear of, or a guilty fascination for, the masquerade? For the mask, unlike most other cultural contraptions, is a subversive prosthetic. It can, and has been, weaponized for its ability to perform two functions simultaneously: concealment of identity and impersonation. Ingenious subcultures have found a way to confound surveillance, ancient and modern, by keeping the boundaries fluid between the two countenances: consequently, it is not always possible to tell the face from the mask or the mask from the face. There is a line of thought that argues that the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theatre that began in Italy in the 16th century, lent itself particularly well to dissenting political commentary by employing masks as signifiers of identity and stratification. Little wonder then that the Establishment has always wanted to unmask such performative traditions. In a rare moment of truce, both the Church and the State — the French Parliament in this case — thought the Commedia to be a polluter of the mind and the body.


Yet, the mask survives. It provokes. It confounds the powers that be that are now designing retaliation with terrifying implications. Several companies are experimenting with algorithms that can neutralize the mask’s powers of evading traditional software employed for face-detection. The objective is, apparently, honourable: one San Francisco firm says that this kind of technology would ensure public compliance during the pandemics of the future. But how long does it take for such double-edged technology to get inducted into the global security apparatus and turn rogue? Not long, if the Indian experience is any indication. In March, Parliament was informed that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government had agreed — eagerly? — to set up the world’s largest face-detection database for the Indian police.


The other threat to the mask’s subversive gene comes from the virus that has, admittedly, resuscitated its popularity. As societies in the West as well as the East mask up to survive, the visor-veil-shroud is becoming a shared aesthetic, universal but also unexceptional. This gentrification could kill off the subversive mask, replacing it with a veneer on a face that, one fears, would be far more subservient.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Bricks must fall

When I went to the United States of America in 1979, to study in an undergraduate college in Vermont, I carried certain ideas and assumptions about the country. As a 19-year-old with reasonable reading in current affairs, I thought I had a balanced view of the US and its role in the world. I understood that American foreign policy since the Second World War had wreaked hell on many parts of the planet and added grotesque misery to the lives of millions of people. Yet, along with the strife and bloodshed, America had also exported some hugely positive ideas and attitudes. In the civil rights movement, in the widespread protests against the Vietnam War, in Nixon being forced to resign from the presidency by courageous reporting and federal agencies working with real independence to investigate their own president, the country had demonstrated that democracy and freedom of speech were not just theories to which one paid lip-service but principles that American civil society put into action. Coming out of a newly post-Emergency India, watching what was going on in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, not to mention Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Deng’s China, what America and Western Europe offered was crucial to struggles for political freedom and equality all over the world.   


Along with the outspoken democracy were the host of things that today would come under the label of ‘soft power’: most important was the gift of jazz, blues and rock and roll that the States gave to the world; next for me came the fearless churning in my own chosen field of visual arts, where every few years some crazy new upheaval would challenge the set of practices that had gone before; then there was the sexual revolution, which I was yet to understand as actually being three connected revolutions, but which, in conservative, fear-ridden India, seemed like a magical thing — the idea that you could be completely open about your desires without worrying about parents, police, the State or any other moralizing big brother or sister.


The America I ‘knew’ was, of course, the country as depicted in the news magazines, Time, Life and Newsweek, in the films, the music and the literature. A proper examination of the last three, at least, should have prepared me for the reality, but I made the elementary mistake of seeing the sophistication of the rendering far more than the things being rendered. Thus, I was waylaid by the spare and humorous aesthetics of rows of tomato cans screen-printed on a canvas, the panache and beauty of the camera movement and editing in the Hollywood and independent films, the hilarious lyrics and punchy musicianship of a song like Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” rather than the reality of a man who ‘puts his cigar/ out in your face just for kicks/ his bedroom window/ it is made out of bricks/ (while) the National Guard stands around his door’. 


Once in Vermont, it took some time to understand that I was in one of the most free (as in non-mainstream) and yet one of the most conservative areas of the US. There and travelling up and down the east coast, moving between New York and Boston — two of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world — and small-town New Jersey and Virginia, it finally got driven home just how parochial and ignorant many Americans could be.


Shortly after I got to Vermont, the hostage crisis in Iran began to take over the headlines. As news of Americans being held hostage in Tehran spread in the general consciousness, my first semester ended and I found myself spending part of my holidays in Washington, DC. Once, sitting with two American friends in a bar, some off-duty Marines at the next table began to stare at me. One of them leaned over and asked my friend something. Upon receiving the answer the muscular group of soldiers visibly relaxed and began to lift their glasses in our direction — “Indiaa! Awright!”. My friend told us that they wanted to know if I was “Airanian”, in which case they would have put me in hospital. On other occasions I tried asking people if they even knew where Iran was on a map and I realized they had no clue — their windows to the world were, indeed, made out of bricks.


The America in which I lived between 1979 and 1981 dumped the ‘softie’ Jimmy Carter and elected an incompetent, B-grade actor called Ronald Reagan in his place. A precursor to Donald Trump and so many other ‘strongmen’ leaders of today, Reagan too specialized in performing the vesh of a leader rather than actually being one. It is his policies (or policies made using him as a vehicle) of favouring the already wealthy, the morally reactionary and enemies of the environment that have trickled down to the current times and turned into a toxic torrent worldwide. Yet, those same years of the late 70s and early 80s also saw the sharpening of the American feminist and gay rights movements, inspiring and linking up with similar movements across the world. That was the same period when the awareness of concepts such as ‘ecology’ and the ‘environment’ moved out of marginal campuses such as my college into the mainstream.


History repeatedly teaches us not to take improvements of the human condition for granted. It also teaches us that you cannot locate the growth of freedom and social justice in any one place, that emancipation and equality require shifting cultivation around the globe, new or refreshed fields from which the impetus can be distributed. Today, when I read columns in Indian media that insist on seeing the forthcoming US elections only through the lens of what the results would mean for India vis-a-vis China or some other narrow economic focus, I find myself in vehement disagreement. It is critical for the well-being of this small planet of ours that Donald Trump, his coterie  of ethics-free Republican politicians be emphatically ejected from power by the American voters. Four more years of this man and the people who’ve been deliberately blind to his actions would be akin to an unchecked continuation of a raging wildfire that’s devouring the already denuded forests of humanity across the globe. Whether you believe in some higher power or are a firm rationalist, it’s time to pray that enough bricks have fallen out of walled-up American windows that not too long after November 3 we will see the back of this odious man.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Web of lies

Farhad Manjoo

Lately, I have been putting an embarrassing amount of thought into notions like jinxes and knocking on wood. The polls for Joe Biden look good, but in 2020 any hint of optimism feels dangerously naïve, and my brain has been working overtime in search of potential doom. 


I have become consumed with an alarming possibility: that neither the polls nor the actual outcome of the election really matter because to a great many Americans, digital communication has already rendered empirical, observable reality beside the point.


If I sound jumpy, it’s because I spent a couple of hours recently chatting with Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Donovan is a pioneering scholar of misinformation and media manipulation — the way that activists, extremists and propagandists surf currents in our fragmented, poorly moderated media ecosystem to gain attention and influence society.



Donovan’s research team studies online lies the way crash-scene investigators study aviation disasters. They meticulously take apart specific hoaxes, conspiracy theories, viral political memes, harassment campaigns and other toxic online campaigns in search of the tactics that made each one explode into the public conversation.


This week, Donovan’s team published “The Media Manipulation Casebook”, a searchable online database of its research. It makes for grim reading — an accounting of the many failures of journalists, media companies, tech companies, policymakers, law enforcement officials and the national security establishment to anticipate and counteract the liars who seek to dupe us. Armed with these investigations, Donovan hopes we can all do better.


I hope she’s right. But studying her work also got me wondering whether we’re too late. Many Americans have become so deeply distrustful of one another that whatever happens on November 3, they may refuse to accept the outcome. Every day I grow more fearful that the number of those Americans will be large enough to imperil our nation’s capacity to function as a cohesive society.


“I’m worried about political violence,” Donovan told me. America is heavily armed, and from Portland to Kenosha to the Michigan governor’s mansion, we have seen young men radicalized and organized online beginning to take the law into their own hands. Donovan told me she fears that “people who are armed are going to become dangerous, because they see no other way out.”


Media manipulation is a fairly novel area of research. It was only when Donald Trump won the White House by hitting it big with right-wing online subcultures — and after internet-mobilized authoritarians around the world pulled similar tricks — that serious scholars began to take notice.


The research has made a difference. In the 2016 election, tech companies and the mainstream media were often blind to the ways that right-wing groups, including white supremacists, were using bots, memes and other tricks of social media to “hack” the public’s attention, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis documented in 2017.


But the war since has been one of attrition. Propagandists keep discovering new ways to spread misinformation; researchers like Donovan and her colleagues keep sussing them out, and, usually quite late, media and tech companies move to fix the flaws — by which time the bad guys have moved on to some other way of spreading untruths.


The media ecosystem has wised up in some ways: note how the story supposedly revealing the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop landed with a splat last week, quite different from the breathlessly irresponsible reporting on the Democrats’ hacked emails in 2016. But our society remains profoundly susceptible to mendacity.


Donovan worries about two factors in particular. One is the social isolation caused by the pandemic. Lots of Americans are stuck at home, many economically bereft and cut off from friends and relatives who might temper their passions — a perfect audience for peddlers of conspiracy theories.


Her other major worry is the conspiracy lollapalooza known as QAnon. It’s often short-handed the way Savannah Guthrie did at her town hall takedown of Donald Trump last week — as a nutty conspiracy theory in which a heroic Trump is prosecuting a secret war against a satanic paedophile ring of lefty elites.


But that undersells QAnon’s danger. To people who have been ‘Q-pilled’, QAnon plays a much deeper role in their lives; it has elements of a support group, a political party, a lifestyle brand, a collective delusion, a religion, a cult, a huge multiplayer game and an extremist network.


Donovan thinks QAnon represents a new, flexible infrastructure for conspiracy. QAnon has origins in a tinfoil-hat story about a D.C.-area pizza shop, but over the years it has adapted to include theories about the ‘deep State’ and the Mueller probe, Jeffrey Epstein, and a wild variety of misinformation about face masks, miracle cures, and other hoaxes regarding the coronavirus. QAnon has been linked to many instances of violence, and law enforcement and terrorism researchers discuss it as a growing security threat.


“We now have a densely networked conspiracy theory that is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to take down,” Donovan said of QAnon. It’s a very internet story, analogous to the way Amazon expanded from an online bookstore into a general-purpose system for selling anything to anyone.


Facebook and YouTube this month launched new efforts to take down QAnon content, but Q adherents have often managed to evade deplatforming by softening and readjusting their messages. Recently, for instance, QAnon has adopted slogans like “Save the Children” and “Child Lives Matter”, and it seems to be appealing to anti-vaxxers and wellness moms.


QAnon is also participatory, and, in an uncertain time, it may seem like a salvation. People “are seeking answers and they’re finding a very receptive community in QAnon,” Donovan said.


This is a common theme in disinformation research: what makes digital lies so difficult to combat is not just the technology used to spread them, but also the nature of the societies they’re targeting, including their political cultures. Donovan compares QAnon to the Reverend Charles Coughlin, the priest whose radio show spread anti-Semitism in the Depression-era United States of America. Stopping Coughlin’s hate took a concerted effort, involving new regulations for radio broadcasters and condemnation of Coughlin by the Catholic Church.


Stopping QAnon will be harder; Coughlin was one hatemonger with a big microphone, while QAnon is a complex, decentralized, deceptive network of hate. But the principle remains: combating the deception that has overrun public discourse should be a primary goal of our society. Otherwise, America ends in lies.


New York Times News Service.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Damaging legacy

Ramachandra Guha

Four years ago, as the last American presidential elections were being held, I was asked to chair a talk in Bengaluru by Strobe Talbott. At that time the head of the well-known Washington think-tank, the Brookings Institution, Mr Talbott had previously served as deputy secretary of state in the administration of President Bill Clinton. In that capacity, he had played a crucial role in tilting America’s policy away from its traditional bias in favour of Pakistan towards a position more congenial to the interests of India.


The talk of Strobe Talbott’s that I was scheduled to chair was to be held in the third week of November 2016. By then the presidential elections would be over. Hillary Clinton was the favourite to win. In the event she lost and, instead of coming to Bengaluru in a mood of jubilant anticipation, Mr Talbott arrived looking (and feeling) utterly crushed. In our conversation before the talk he spoke bitterly about the fact that a pathological liar had befooled the American electorate. I agreed with Mr Talbott that Donald Trump had told a lot of lies during his campaign. But, I said, he did utter, again and again, two words that were true. These were ‘Crooked Hillary’. 


Donald Trump had portrayed Hillary Clinton as the quintessential Washington insider, her past record replete with instances of networks used and abused, favours given and received. Four years later the situation is very different. It is now Trump who looks corrupt and compromised, as well as inefficient and incompetent. His gross mishandling of the pandemic has exposed his administrative weaknesses, while the evasiveness about his tax returns has cast doubt on his integrity as well. His abusive and misogynist ways have alienated a large number of women who voted for him in 2016. By just appearing to be a plain, decent man, one who will listen to the experts rather than foist his own nutty views on public policy, Joe Biden is (at the time of writing) the clear front runner in the race to be the next president of the United States of America.



Democracies are meant to be governed in a collegial and collaborative manner. Donald Trump, however, is a vain demagogue, interested only in publicity and self-promotion. To be sure, there have been charismatic American presidents before, who presented themselves as larger than their office. They have included such figures as John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt in the 20th century, and Andrew Jackson in the 19th century. Yet none of them remotely approached Trump in their self-love. 


If Trump has not done more damage than he has, that is largely due to the resilience and inner strength of American institutions. The media, the universities, the defence establishment, the scientific community have by and large maintained their integrity. They have all pushed back, albeit with varying degrees of success, against his attempts to control and manipulate them to fulfil his own personal agenda. If Trump were to be defeated by Biden next month, then these institutions will all play a vital role in rebuilding America, in helping it heal the wounds within as well as in constructively reasserting its role in the world.


Like the world’s richest democracy, the world’s oldest democracy, the United Kingdom, is also governed by a self-obsessed demagogue. Boris Johnson’s path to power was not dissimilar to Trump’s. Within his own party, he was seen as a dashing alternative to the dull, staid figure of Theresa May. The Conservatives won the general elections of 2019 in part because of the wit and intelligence of their leader and because his rival, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, was seen by many voters as a dogmatic (as well as humourless) socialist absolutely unfit to run the government. 


Compared to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson is perhaps more maverick than malign, an ambitious opportunist rather than a proto-racist with autocratic tendencies. It took the last year of Trump’s term for his weaknesses to be exposed; whereas the turning of the public mood away from Johnson has come rather sooner. His attitude towards the pandemic and the Brexit endgame has shown him to be more an incompetent bungler than a fascist-in-the-making. Meanwhile, Labour, having dumped Corbyn for a leader with greater intelligence and administrative ability, has also weakened the prime minister’s case. An increasing number of British voters now see Keir Starmer in more favourable terms than they ever saw Jeremy Corbyn. Within his own Conservative Party, there are those who say that the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is more fit for the office of prime minister than Johnson himself.


The next general election in Britain is three-and-a-half years away. Johnson being defenestrated by his party even before then remains a distinct possibility. But, as with Trump, whenever he goes, the damage he has done will be undone by the institutions he has degraded but not destroyed — such as the Parliament, the courts and, not least, the media. Indeed, for all his faults and fraudulent behaviour, history may judge that it was David Cameron who, by calling for a referendum on Brexit when one was not needed, hurt the UK far more than Johnson.

Since 2016, the world’s richest democracy has been sought to be run into the ground by a demagogue. Meanwhile, the world’s oldest democracy is also currently misgoverned by a demagogue. So we come, finally and inevitably, to the world’s largest and most populous democracy, our own. Narendra Modi came to power two-and-a-half years before Trump; and a full five years before Johnson. He, too, is a demagogue, a politician who thinks he is bigger than his party and his government, and who will not shrink from using deceit and falsehood in order to consolidate his power.

There are some ways in which Modi is similar to Trump and Johnson, but there may be more ways in which he is different. For one thing, he has been a full-time politician for far longer than they, with much greater experience of how to manipulate public institutions to serve his own purposes. Second, he is far more committed to his ideology than Trump and Johnson are to theirs. He lives and embodies Hindu majoritarianism in a much fuller (and hence more dangerous) manner than Trump lives white supremacy or Johnson embodies xenophobic Little Englandism. Third, in the enactment and fulfilment of his ideological dream, Modi has as his instrument the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose organizational strength and capacity for resource mobilization far exceeds any right-wing organization in the US or the United Kingdom. 

There is a final reason why Modi is more dangerous to the interests of his country than Trump and Johnson are to theirs. This is that the institutions of Indian democracy are so much weaker. Trump cannot command the Federal Bureau of Investigation to do his bidding, whereas Modi can direct our tax authorities and investigative agencies to do his. Sections of our judiciary seem to have lost their nerve; large sections of our media have certainly lost their spine. They are unwilling, or unable, to keep the prime minister in check, to hold him accountable for his errors and his excesses.


In his desire to extend his lease on power, Narendra Modi is also much luckier than either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. His luck lies in the unchanging nature of his Opposition. Trump will certainly find it far more difficult to defeat Joe Biden than he did Hillary Clinton. Keir Starmer is a more credible challenger to Johnson than Jeremy Corbyn ever was. On the other hand, despite suffering two humiliating defeats in the general elections of 2014 and 2019, despite the burden of nepotism and inexperience that he carries, and despite even his failure to retain the family pocket borough of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is still being presented by the Congress as the prime ministerial alternative to Narendra Modi in 2024.

All demagogues are bad for democracy, but some demagogues are worse than others. If Donald Trump loses next month, America may recover relatively soon from his depredations. Great Britain was shrinking into itself even before Boris Johnson became prime minister; his impact on the history of his country will turn out to be relatively negligible. However, the destruction that Narendra Modi can wreak, indeed has already wreaked, on Indian democracy is immense. It will take decades to repair.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Blind spot


On September 3, The New York Times published an extraordinary article that detailed Richard Nixon’s loathing of Indians, especially Indian women. Its author, Gary Bass, who had earlier written The Blood Telegram, a book-length critique of US diplomacy during the 1971 war, based his piece on tapes recently declassified by Nixon’s presidential archive. In them, Nixon is heard saying at various times that Indian women are the most unattractive women in the world, that they are sexless, that they turn him off and there’s a particularly entertaining bit where he wonders how Indians reproduce at all, given how repulsive their women are. 


What are we to make of these revelations? The first thing to be said is that they shouldn’t be a great surprise. Tapes released more than 20 years ago established that Nixon was an equal-opportunity bigot. He was energetically anti-Semitic, for example. He used to complain that Washington “is full of Jews”, that “[m]ost Jews are disloyal” and that “...generally speaking, you can’t trust the b*****ds.” He was also racist and the tapes brim over with casual prejudice about minorities. 


Perhaps the more interesting revelation is Henry Kissinger’s complicity in Nixon’s bigotry, given the fact that Kissinger is Jewish and had been at the receiving end of Nazi racism himself. Annoyed by the assistance offered by Indira Gandhi to Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan in June 1971, Kissinger described Indians variously as “a scavenging people”, as “masters of subtle flattery”, as a people whose “...great skill is to suck up...” It’s fascinating how fluently Kissinger uses the stock phrases WASPs once used to disparage Jews (subtle, flatterers) to denigrate Indians. This great practitioner of realpolitik was happy to use second-hand colonial clichés about sub-continental types to characterize desis. So if Indians were clever suck-ups, Pakistanis were a “fine people but... primitive in their mental structure”.


To students of diplomacy, the lesson of Nixon and Kissinger’s loathing of India and Indians might be that personal chemistry (or the lack of it) can seriously shape policy. Nixon’s generalizations about Indians and Indian women in particular, were based on a sample of one. He hated Indians because he loathed Indira Gandhi; she wound him up to a point where he became incoherent with rage. This was only partly because India’s tilt towards the Soviet Union and hostility towards Pakistan got in the way of Nixon’s strategic objectives. He also just hated her. Which might explain why someone as peculiar-looking as Nixon would even venture a view on the ugliness of other people. Say what you like about Indira Gandhi’s politics, in the looks department she was Rita Hayworth to his W.C. Fields.  


Bass has a marvellous story about the origin of this detestation. After losing to Kennedy in 1960, Nixon was in the political wilderness for the best part of a decade. He ran for governor in California and lost. In 1967, when he was plotting a comeback, he called on the Indian prime minister in Delhi. Twenty minutes into their meeting, a visibly bored Indira Gandhi asked an aide in Hindi when her ordeal was going to end. According to Bass, “Nixon had not gotten the precise meaning, but he sure caught the tone”.


To be fair to Nixon, he wasn’t alone in his dislike of her. Ten years earlier, when Indira Gandhi had accompanied her father to Kennedy’s White House, Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a ladies lunch for her. It didn’t go well. Indira wanted to be by her father’s side listening in on affairs of State and the First Lady resented that. In an interview recorded in 1964 but published much later, she didn’t hold back: “She liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don’t like her a bit. It always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon”.  


Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Nixon disliked Indira Gandhi for getting above herself, for not being ‘womanly’ enough. By the time Indira attended that unsuccessful ladies luncheon, she had already served as the President of the Indian National Congress. Given that Jacqueline was happy to admit that “I get all my opinions from my husband” and that her avowed purpose in life was to “...become the kind of wife that you can see that your husband wants,” it isn’t hard to see why she disliked the ambitious dynast she was hosting. It is to Indira Gandhi’s credit that she was detested for being herself by two people as different as Richard Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy. She was also in good company. In the same set of interviews, the former First Lady called Martin Luther King a “phony”.


Outrage apart, the sobering lesson of Bass’s revelations is how peripheral India was to American calculations in 1971 and how peripheral it remains today. Nixon might have loathed India and Indira but he loathed them in passing. India wasn’t important enough to be detested for its own sake. Nixon’s attitude towards the Bangladesh war was shaped by his strategic focus on China. Since Yahya Khan was helping him with the Chinese, he tilted towards Pakistan. China had to be reckoned with; India wasn’t important enough economically, politically or militarily to matter in itself. It was a sideshow in a great game being played out elsewhere. 


This is India’s geopolitical tragedy. It is consistently cast by the great powers as an attendant lord, who, in Eliot’s words, will do to “swell a progress, start a scene or two”. In its own mind, though, India is, if not Hamlet, at least a considerable player. There is no way of reconciling the roles India reads for and the roles it is cast in. India was a passing annoyance in 1971 because Nixon was trying to make up to China. Half a century later, India is of passing interest to Donald Trump because he’s reversing the United States of America out of the relationship with China that Nixon pioneered.


The growing belief that this phase in the US-China relationship has given India a ticket to the top table in the shape of the Quad is a happy delusion generated by comfortable think tanks. The US, Japan and Australia are amongst the three most affluent nations on earth. There is a solidarity and camaraderie about being rich together that draws wealthy countries into club-like alliances. In the looser frame of the Quad, India’s designated role is that of the poor relation who might do the heavy lifting that the others can’t or won’t do. The truth is that as far as our borders with China are concerned, our circumstances haven’t changed since Nehru: we’re still on our own. 


More generally, it’s harder than ever to see Nixon’s prejudices and profanities as relics of some bygone era. Nearly 50 years after electing one bigoted, profane and misogynistic president, Americans elected another one. If Trump’s private conversations were taped and transcribed, they’d be unprintable. America might have changed but given Trump, it’s hard to believe, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of America’s history bends towards justice. It seems, instead, to zigzag between high piety and rank prejudice. If Trump takes the next election, it’s going to be a very long zag.


Courtesy - The Telegraph

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Closed minds: BLM & anti-CAA protests :The Telegraph Editorial

Prabhat Patnaik  
On May 25, in Minneapolis, an African-American arrestee, George Floyd, was choked to death by a white police officer pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck. The whole of America erupted in protests, which targeted not just contemporary racism but also historical icons like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who had either been slave-owners or openly racist. The statues of Confederate leaders during the civil war, Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee, were brought down. The protests even spread to Britain where the statues of some slave traders were brought down and those of Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill had to be protected against a similar fate.

The protesters spearheading this veritable upsurge for social equality were neither charged with sedition, nor held captive under any UAPA-equivalent law. In fact, Donald Trump’s suggestion for using troops against protesters was opposed by the current Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, and his predecessor, James Mattis; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, who had accompanied Trump for a photo-op at St John’s Church, just across the White House, after the intervening space had been cleared of protesters, apologized for doing so, pleading lack of prior knowledge that he was being politically used. When right-wing groups wanted to organize counter-protests, they were in general kept completely separate from the protesters to prevent any clashes.

Contrast this with the situation in our own country where a similar movement for social equality, the anti-CAA anti-NRC protest against patently discriminatory laws targeting Muslims, which took every conceivable precaution to eschew violence, is being targeted with a vengeance, with several of its participants being booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and that too after the movement was withdrawn because of the pandemic. Amazingly, virtually every institution of the State, including even those charged with defending citizens’ rights, is conniving with this repression. In fact, it is a sad comment on the pusillanimous complicity of virtually every institution of the Indian State in the executive’s repressiveness that 13 human rights experts attached to various UN bodies felt the need to write a joint letter to the Government of India to release those arrested for the anti-CAA agitation; they accused it of sending a “chilling message” to India’s “vibrant civil society” that criticism of government action will not be tolerated.

But let us leave aside the current repression against anti-CAA protesters. When the protests had begun, the Delhi police had entered the Jamia Millia Islamia campus on December 15, and used tear gas and lathis against students, including even those who were studying in the library. The police are not supposed to enter any university campus without taking the permission of the vice-chancellor; no such niceties were observed on this occasion. The university authorities even lodged an FIR against the Delhi police. The police claimed that some miscreants, who had damaged public property nearby, had entered the campus to avoid capture, and their own actions were only meant to nab them.

Let us momentarily accept this. There can still be no doubt that the brutal and indiscriminate police action inside Jamia led to several innocent students being badly injured. Let alone launching prosecutions against the erring police officers for their high-handedness, the Central government under whom the Delhi police falls, has not even offered any compensation to the injured students. In India where, rightly, the government compensates even those affected by natural calamities, the refusal to compensate victims of wanton and wilful excesses perpetrated by its own forces is an act of blatant discrimination. The National Human Rights Commission, which has just produced a report on Jamia violence, does recommend compensation for injured students; but it wants the Delhi government to make the payment, which is a non-starter. Oddly, it blames students for the police violence and wants the “real actors and motives” behind the protests “uncovered” (The Wire, June 26), as if students are mere manipulable marionettes. 
How do we explain such contrasting responses of the United States of America and India to similar movements for social equality? Some would argue that ‘communalism’ and racism are quite dissimilar, the latter being a legacy of centuries of inhuman imperialist oppression by metropolitan powers of people of the ‘outlying regions’. But while it is true that the histories of the two phenomena are different, the fact remains that the majority of Muslims in India today are among the poorest people in the world. Their victimization is no less odious than that of the blacks in the US; a movement against an obvious instance of such victimization, the Citizen (Amendment) Act, is as deserving of support as the anti-racist movement sweeping America. How then do we explain the difference in attitudes of the two societies?

To say that the US administration is more ‘liberal’ than the Indian one would not do. Cornel West, the philosopher of African-American origin at Columbia, has called Trump a “neo-fascist gangster” in an interview; the fact that he has not been hounded for this remark is not because he is wrong and Trump is indeed more ‘liberal’, but because the US system imposes stricter limits on what Trump can do compared to what the Indian system does on a comparable Indian administration. This only changes our question: why this difference?

One may be tempted to say that while the ‘educated’ in India would fight as hard for social equality as in the US, the ‘people’ here are less ‘enlightened’. This alas is untrue, for the capitulation of all the institutions of the State, which are manned by the ‘educated’, before a communal agenda would be otherwise inexplicable. The problem lies with the ‘educated’ themselves.

John Maynard Keynes, the economist and ‘liberal’ thinker, had set great store by what he called the “educated bourgeoisie” for the defence of liberal values and for a reformed capitalism that he thought was essential for upholding them. At the other end of the political spectrum, Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, had talked of socialist consciousness — as distinct from trade union consciousness — being brought to the working class by bourgeois intellectuals who had de-classed themselves and seen the “historical process as a whole”. The role of the ‘educated bourgeoisie’, in short, is crucial in any contemporary society; the difference between the US and India with regard to their respective movements for social equality lies, above all, in the fact that the ‘educated bourgeoisie’ in the US has been more punctilious in playing a democratic role than its counterpart in India which, in turn, has to do with the difference in the two education systems.

There is much breast-beating in India about our educational institutions not figuring among the top 200 or so according to some orderings. This is a totally false criterion of excellence; far more crucial is whether our education system imparts to students, not by rote or ritual, the fundamental value of social equality that underlies our Constitution.
Meanwhile, before we accept as the new ‘normal’ a situation where the police enters campuses and beats up innocent students with impunity, where socially-conscious students fighting for equality are put into jails under the UAPA, we must remember that we pride ourselves on being the largest democracy in the world.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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Prized and Nobel minds :The Telegraph Editorial

Ashok V. Desai  
Winning the Nobel Prize has been the epitome of intellectual achievement for over a century. Those who win it go to Stockholm to receive it from the king of Sweden (unless they have won the peace prize, which is awarded in Oslo). The ceremony, in my memory (no, I did not go to receive the prize), is unimpressive. The king and courtiers sit on one side in a hall; prizewinners sit on the other side. The name of a prizewinner is announced by a courtier, who also summarizes her — mostly his — achievements. Then the prizewinner walks towards the king, who has meanwhile been given the prize; the king hands over the prize, the prizewinner bows, and goes back to his/her seat. It is nothing compared to the rituals of British monarchy; even a knight kneels before the queen and is lightly tapped with a sword on his shoulder. The best part of the Nobel ceremony is the banquet that follows.

Alfred Nobel’s biography is far more interesting. He manufactured explosives for use in construction. After they killed a number of workers, he invented dynamite, which was much safer. He fell in love with his Austrian secretary, Gräfin (Duchess) Bertha Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, but she went back to Austria and married someone else. After that he devoted his life to innovation; by the time he died in 1896, when he was just 63, he had 355 patents. To the consternation of his relatives, he left his money to fund prizes for contributors to knowledge. They fought and filed cases; it was 1901 before they could be overcome to set up five prizes — three in the sciences, one for literature, and one for peace, the passion of Bertha.

Nobel Prize winners’ contribution to knowledge is, no doubt, significant according to the experts consulted by Nobel Prize givers; but we do not know what their fellow-scientists — those not consulted — thought of them. The announcement of Nobel Prizes is followed by hagiographic media reports, and some criticism, but it is forgotten in a few days. Whom do scientists think highly of? And how many of them got the Nobel Prize? 

Scientists do not conduct a poll of who amongst them is the best; but an indirect indicator is citations: how often a scientist’s work is referred to by other scientists. Citations were organized for the first time by Eugene Garfield, who was crazy about classification. He collected three degrees — in chemistry, library science and linguistics; in his PhD thesis, he developed an algorithm for converting the names of chemicals into formulas. The problem of organizing citations was first encountered by the legal fraternity; lawyers needed to have a list of all possibly relevant previous cases they might need to refer to in a case. Its solution was created by Frank Shepard, who produced the first list of cases in 1873. The references were printed on stickers, which lawyers could stick in the margins of their case files. Garfield used punch cards normally used in library catalogues, and then started publishing lists. Today it is all computerized, organized and sold for a handsome sum. Citation lists tell us nothing about the content of an article, let alone its quality, but they are the best thing we have.

Amongst the most cited scientists, 11 are physiologists, six chemists, four physicists and three economists. Three of them received the Nobel Prize in 2019: Esther Duflo for economics, John B. Goodenough for chemistry, and Gregg L. Semenza for physiology and medicine. Esther Duflo is well known in India since she is the wife of Abhijit Banerjee. The best introduction to her is what she said about herself once: “What drives me remain simple questions: what makes poor people tick, what keeps them stuck, and how economic policy can help them. This is what helps me get out of bed, even when I am jetlagged and feeling quite sorry for myself.” “She is a quiet person when you meet her,” according to Chiki Sarkar, “but is quick as an arrow.” In her childhood, she read about Marie Curie, who used her Nobel Prize money to buy radium for research (actually, she won two Nobel Prizes, and bought French government’s war loans with the second one). Duflo is a riveting speaker.

John Goodenough is 97 — over twice the age of Duflo. He served in World War II as a meteorologist in the US army. He was awarded the prize for his invention of lithium batteries, which power small devices like shavers and phones. He has all his hair intact on his head. He laughs a lot at his own jokes, even those that are not obvious to others. He thinks dialogue is the key to good research; in other words, research is a communal activity, and involves discussion, both cooperative and competitive.

Gregg Semenza got his doctorate in 1984; since then he has published 405 papers (most of them joint ones) — roughly one a month. He was on the soccer team of Sleepy Hollow High School in New York. He has concentrated on research related to cancer and heart disease; both are leading ailments in the developed world, and attract enormous research and funding.

All three are members of the American academic system, a vast research and teaching industry, which converts its own, government and corporate funds into usable innovations. But there is a difference between Duflo and the two scientists. They have grown up in systems that are older than her; they fitted as cogs in a machine. Duflo initially thought of becoming a historian, and then of joining the French civil service. Then she went to Moscow, did odd jobs as research assistant and thought of a thesis on Russia. She did her first degree in history and economics. Then she went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did a PhD for which she did a ‘natural experiment’ in Indonesia relating to education and wages. Then she ran into Abhijit Banerjee; together they have done a series of natural experiments related to poverty. 

What I find fascinating about Esther Duflo is that she so often turns to something unexpected. One is never sure what she will take up next in her lectures. It is the same with her research. It is full of surprises. Scientists give dozens of references in their articles; they have to because they are building on the foundations laid by their predecessors and colleagues, and it would be disastrous for them to be seen taking credit for the work of others. Duflo has few references in her papers because there has been little previous work in her line. She is a pioneer. Is she an innovator? Or is economics still an infant science where there is not so much previous research to refer to? Not being addicted to reading academic literature, I cannot give an informed answer. But Duflo has done a great job of studying common people. She should now do another experiment — write for common people. One way to success, according to economists, is to expand the market for one’s products. She should practise what they preach, and turn her economics into fantastic anti-fiction.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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A road less travelled: Lessons from the history of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - The Telegraph Editorial

Military historians know Balakot as the place where the armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Syed Ahmad Barelvi fought a major battle in May 1831. The aam aadmi knows Balakot as the place where the Indian Air Force launched a raid on a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp in February 2019.

This column is set in the same place, although it deals with neither of these major events, but with a third, which happened in between. In May 1939, a great Indian patriot visited Balakot and its surroundings, and left behind an account of the landscape and the people who inhabited it. This is contained in her unpublished diary, a copy of which I found in the archives.

This Indian patriot was originally named Madeleine Slade. The daughter of a British Admiral, she became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, living with him in his ashrams in Ahmedabad and Sevagram. She changed her name to Mira; and, as a further mark of her identification with her adopted country, went to prison for long stretches during the freedom struggle. As someone who crossed racial boundaries totake the side of the oppressed, Mira Behn has been widely commemorated in the literature on the nationalist movement.

I knew a lot about Mira Behn, but discovered only recently that she had visited Balakot in 1939. At that time, what are now the sovereign, separate, nations of India and Pakistan did not exist. Balakot fell in the North West Frontier Province of British India. The province was home to a group known as the Khudai Khitmatgars, who were led by a follower of Gandhi even more remarkable than Mira Behn. His name was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and he had, by the force of character and example, persuaded the war-like Pathans to embrace the credo of non-violence and inter-faith harmony.

In the spring of 1939, Gandhi sent Mira to the Frontier Province to promote spinning and weaving. It was on this trip that she visited Balakot, travelling there by road from the town of Abbottabad (now famous/notorious as the place where Osama bin Laden was hiding, before he was detected and killed by United States Navy Seals). This is how Mira described the scenery en route in her diary: ‘Round the villages and farms, and along the ravines there are green trees, while the fields, all gently terraced, and forming slopes and curves like the sounds of the sea show a delicate variety of browns and greens, picked out here and there with an emerald rice field. And all this little world surrounded by blue hills and the great snow mountains beyond.’

Halfway to Balakot, Mira and her Khudai Khitmatgar companions stopped for the night. Early the next morning she took a walk. She found that ‘work had already begun in the fields. Treading out of corn, winnowing and ploughing are all in progress. As I was returning home the sweet summer notes of the cuckoo fell on my ear’. 

After breakfast Mira and her companions set off for Balakot. On the way they passed a forest bungalow which she thought ‘a possible place where Bapuji might have some rest and quiet’. It was at a comfortable altitude of 3,900 feet: ‘all alone in the fir woods, with peeps of the snows above and the mountain valleys below, it is certainly a very attractive spot, but water is scarce’. (Gandhi had come to the Frontier Province the previous year, and was contemplating another visit. Although this never took place, it is strange to contemplate that the Mahatma might have taken a health cure in a Forest Bungalow so close to Balakot).

The way to the village of Balakot lay through the valley of the river Kumbar. The road was ‘narrow and rough’, as well as ‘steep and twisty’, and the car found it hard to negotiate the bumps and bends. Mira found the scenery absorbing, though, for the road ran ‘along near the right bank of the river, which is a big torrent, racing and tumbling down from the snow mountains. In its haste, as it rushes over its rocky bed, and dashes against the many twists and turns of its course, it rises into waves as formidable as the Sabarmati in flood. Here and there along its banks and shallows are great tree trunks that have got caught up on their way to the Jhelum, while others more successful pass headlong on down the centre of the stream’.

 Having reached her destination, Mira provided a characteristically vivid picture of the place. ‘Balakot is a large village fitted closely around one side of a little hill like a bee-hive, situated exactly at the entrance to the Kagan Valley. It has no road to it. Only stony foot-paths which are, in parts, more like stairways, and very often have a stream running down them. The bazaar is tightly packed, the roof of the house below often making the terrace of the house above. Among the shop-keepers many Hindus and Sikhs are to be seen’. 

Mira had been told that the Gujjar shepherds who lived in Balakot ‘spin and weave the wool of their flocks into very good blankets’. But, to her disappointment, the Gujjars were not in station, having gone on their annual summer migration into the pastures in the higher mountains. However, seeing her crestfallen look, her escort, a Khudai Khitmatgar leader named Abbas Khan, said he would send a messenger to bring some Gujjars down to the village by the next day. They came, whereupon Mira ‘asked them various questions about their woollen industry’. 

From Balakot, Mira and her escorts proceeded further into the mountains. They halted at a village named Bhogarmang, which had terraced rice fields neatly laid out, as well as weaving and bee-keeping. Mira was impressed by this, ‘but the thing which rejoiced my heart more than anything else in this village’, she wrote, ‘was the living Hindu-Muslim Unity.’ She found that a ‘Hindu family, headed by a dear little old white-haired man, was on the sweetest terms with the young Khans who said that he had been the friend of their Father and Grandfather, and that the two communities had always lived in an atmosphere of mutual aid and consideration’. On hearing this, wrote Mira, ‘the prayer which instinctively rose in my heart was “May no ‘Leaders’ ever reach this little village and spoil its sweet and natural life!”’

This village, a model of Hindu-Muslim harmony, was Mira’s last stop. The next morning she left for Abbottabad. A few weeks later she was back in Sevagram with Gandhi. In September 1939 the Second World War broke out in Europe, changing history forever. Among the consequences of the War for India (and Indians) was a deepening divide between Hindus and Muslims. This was stoked and provoked by the ‘Leaders’ Mira feared; who existed in large numbers in both communities. Over the course of the War, the spirit of communal harmony that had once existed in the Frontier Province broke down completely, with Ghaffar Khan’s party rapidly ceding ground to the rival Muslim League. Although the NWFP did not experience riots as bloody as in the Punjab, after August 1947 the Hindus and Sikhs who lived there had to leave Pakistan and take refuge in India.

The Balakot that Mira visited in 1939 has changed beyond recognition. It no longer has a multi-religious character; instead, it now has a camp to train fighters promoting Islamic fundamentalism. The landscape must surely be very different too; as in other mountain regions in South Asia, the forests would have thinned out rapidly, the charming stone-and-wood houses replaced by ugly concrete structures, and the once thriving traditional crafts on the verge of extinction. 

This column presents a fragment of historical memory, but let me end with a reflection on what the present can learn from the past. There are no more than a handful of Hindus and Sikhs left in the province of Pakistan once known as NWFP, and now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On the other hand, there remains a large (and often vulnerable) Muslim minority in most Indian states. Can one hope that the ‘mutual aid and consideration’ between Hindus and Muslims that Mira once saw around Balakot will be securely established in villages across our country? Or will our ‘Leaders’ prevent it?

 ramachandraguha@yahoo.in
Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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Silence is grey: Whither press freedom? - The Telegraph Editorial

Democracy is not just about ‘being’ a system and how a nation is organized. It is much more about it ‘becoming’ inclusive and accountable to those who constitute the nation. One of the important indicators of the vibrancy of a democracy is the freedom of the media in it, something as important as breath to a living body. While in itself it is no vital organ of the State, its absence can leave the body inert. Two recent reports indicate that the media in India are gasping for breath.

The World Press Freedom Index report put out by Reporters without Borders has India ranked 142nd out of 180 countries covered in 2020. In 2019, it was ranked 140. It observes that globally there is a “crisis caused by growing hostility and even hatred towards journalists”. Placing Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil at the 107th rank and Donald Trump’s United States of America at the 45th rank, it points out that the two leaders “continue to denigrate the media and encourage hatred of journalists in their respective countries”. The press freedom report presents a comparative global view of the media; Getting Away with Murder by Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar is an India-specific report. It points out that 36 instances of attack on media persons took place during 2019, and 198 between 2014 and 2019. One in every five attacks involved murder. The increasing frequency of such attacks is alarming. Almost invariably, the perpetrators have not been punished. Most cases have not moved past the FIR stage, and only a few have come to a court trial. The report records that the perpetrators of the attacks include “government agencies, security forces, political party members, religious sects, student groups, criminal gangs and local mafias”. 

The media have now become so much of a hazardous occupation. The hazards include physical attacks, threats and trolling in the foulest language, mental torture and lack of adequate legal relief. In such a situation, can the country expect the media to stand up and speak when and what they are expected to? The Constitution does provide freedom of expression as a fundamental right, but it is subject to ‘reasonable restrictions’, an expression that the regime seems to have left to a spacious interpretation. In addition to PoTA, UAPA and the century-old Official Secrets Act in force since 1923, other regulations too are being used to target inconvenient media houses, journalists, cartoonists, writers, film-makers, cinema artists, dramatists, publishers and information activists. Law, which ideally should defend the independence of journalism, is being used to silence it. Besides, extra-legal methods are also being used. If any courageous television or print journalist raises questions, she or he is trolled relentlessly. Ask Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, for instance. In an ideal democracy, they would have received a Pulitzer-like prize for their courage and depth in writing. What they have received is arrest by the National Investigation Agency. Extending adequate constitutional and legal protection to scribes and questioners could be wished for had wishes been horses. This wish is quickly dashed by an inscrutable delay in criminal investigation and python-slow court procedures. Asha Rajdeo Ranjan has been making futile rounds of the CBI courts to get to the book the killers of her husband, a bureau chief of Hindustan, who was murdered in 2016. One cannot easily forget, alas, that a female court employee, who charged a mighty judge with sexual harassment, was sacked and that her case was heard and dismissed by the very same judge. Is gagging the questioner the new normal in India? 

Recently, Supriya Sharma of the Scroll.in, who filed a story about shortages in food supply, really a humdrum journalistic task, had to face a first information report. The report filed by her was not just about one of those seven lakh nondescript villages where migratory labourers returned after the lockdown to languish. This was a report related to the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency. Staring before her is, possibly, the reward of a jail term. Given this sorry state of those who raise questions and the hazards created for the media as a profession, is it surprising that the media and media persons lie supine? Yet, intimidation by those in power is not entirely new for the media. What is new is the threat posed to it by a fraudulent competitor — fake news. Bolsonaro and Trump alone are not the masters of generating fake news. The present regime in India is a cut above them in doling out to credulous citizens ‘facts’ that bear no rational scrutiny. The media, by nature, are cautious, sceptical and careful in accepting tall claims. Therefore, social media is used for circulating this parallel ‘news’. Ideally, social media should have performed its role as a historical culmination of print and television media, but is being put to use as their adversary.

What should have been respected for its independence as a pillar of democracy is now made to emit trivia flowing out of the regime’s propaganda machine. Television channel news rooms are shrill today because the anchors have lost their own voice. They are busy shouting down dissenting voices rather than raising questions that concern the country and its citizens. The painful loss of nerve by the media in India may be a natural consequence of the prevailing political environment. Far more painful is the citizens’ complicity. Sadly, a large section of India’s citizenry has chosen to remain a mute witness to the silencing of the questioners. In terms of transactions — knowledge and economic — the media are the producers and the citizens consumers of what they produce. However, for safeguarding our democracy, citizens must learn to look at the media as a democratic institution and stand by it when under attack. If the regime’s propaganda divides media and social media, citizens committed to democracy must bring the two together in a complementary relation.

Most citizens appear to have shifted loyalties away from print and TV media and taken to using social media platforms for news and views. They are jubilant that they are no longer mere consumers of media content but its producers. This excitement and the unmatched speed with which the content can be relayed make social media users impervious to the fact that the terrain is constantly assailed by thought viruses. Besides, the technology that provides social media its user control and speed also provides the State a vantage ground for mounting an invasive surveillance. That, too, is aimed at silencing questioning. This may suit a regime in power for one or two terms but is disastrous for our democracy and nation. The situation cannot change unless citizens come forward to actively defend the freedom of media and mind.

The author is a literary critic and a cultural activist; ganesh_devy@yahoo.com
Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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Pinch for punch: Banning Chinese apps : The Telegraph Editorial

Those who live by the sword don’t always die by the sword; they are able to hold on, for a time, with the pretence of a sword. It is when that pretence is no longer sustainable that they perish. Often, there is not even the requirement of a sword at that stage; the accumulated consequences of the pretence are enough to sound an end.

Scarcely a year on from his “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” pyrotechnics against Pakistan — a hyper-chested fire-breather act post Pulwama that delivered him a handsome electoral endorsement — the strongman image of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has suffered blows that he appears too shocked and shaken to even admit to.

The military purchase of the Balakot air-strike remains clouded in a welter of claim and counter-claim but there was a swift and dramatic response to the horrific terror-strike at Pulwama for which blame was summarily nailed on Pakistan. Fighter jets were scrambled and sent across the LoC for the first time since 1971. They did exhaust their lethal payloads over Pakistani territory before returning home. A punch was delivered, an intention stated: “Hamara siddhant hai, hum ghar mein ghus ke maarenge.” Modi received vociferous applause at every stage he mounted thereafter. He made many belligerent speeches on the back of Balakot and became the Rambo pin-up of the 2019 election. He earned a wholesome victory as Papa-Protector.

Last summer seems funnelled so far and deep in the past this summer. The Chinese — not some proxy mercenary infiltrators, as in Kargil, or a shoot-and-scoot terror outfit, as often in Kashmir, but the uniformed People’s Liberation Army — have ingressed deep into what India considered its flank of the conundrum that is the unmarked Line of Actual Control. Not at one point, and not a furtive breach. At multiple points, with a brazen dare — come get us. They have come in large numbers. They have come with construction and military hardware. They are settling down, as if it were their rightful squat. They are pitching tents where Ladakhi horses would go summer grazing, they are digging kitchens where Indian patrols would often take breathers. In the course of achieving all of this, one day they killed 20 Indian soldiers, injured dozens of others and took 10 captive, whom they later released. A few days later, Beijing’s envoy to Delhi issued a chit of paper blithely proclaiming the Galwan Valley as Chinese real estate from his office a stone’s throw away from the prime minister’s residence. 

We have, over the last two months, suffered in-your-face violations of territorial integrity, through military grab and diplomatic assertion. Modi has not been able to bring himself to utter the word, China; the contrast with how he responds to transgressions by Pakistan is not merely striking, it’s bewildering. Modi has employed an array of relative nouns and third-person pronouns to hint at the direction of China but it would appear as if China is too formidable — or too sacred — for him to blame by name. Going purely by the prime minister’s words, there is, in fact, nothing to blame China for because there has been no intrusion of Indian territory at all; those soldiers sacrificed their lives in the process of delivering a blow to those who had eyed “Bharat Mata”. Those blows have been effectively delivered. End of matter, let’s move on.

But lies do not travel well; they are sooner tripped by the truth. Modi’s ‘no intrusion’ assurance has been blown apart, in great part, directly or indirectly, by various wings of the government he heads. The foreign office mumbled a plea to China to back over to its side of the LAC. The Indian ambassador in Beijing remains on record for a series of admissions — that the Chinese are on the Indian side of the LAC, that they have erected (military) structures in areas India considers its own, that such activity needs to stop and the PLA needs to move back to its side in order for disengagement and de-escalation to happen. On the military side, senior commanders have been in negotiation. What could these be about if the PLA has not made inroads and altered the LAC on the weight of military superiority and the will of political bosses it answers to? What do satellite images from independent watchers tell us other than that the Chinese are audaciously taunting India from new ground they have captured, even embossing on a promontory overlooking Pangong Tso a shape that resembles the Chinese map? The Papa-Protector construct is taking more than just ribbing and jabbing in sensitive parts.

But Modi’s political adversaries may be sorely wrong to sense this is their gotcha moment. There are reasons for this. The first involves their own ineptitude. The Congress, probably the only political party even interested in questioning the government on its alarming failures in eastern Ladakh, has not been able to build either mood or momentum on an issue of legitimate concern to all Indians. Instead, it has been cleverly trapped by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its proxy force-multipliers in the media into a whataboutery bout: what about Nehru? What about 1962? The questioning of Modi — and it is legitimate questioning over diplomatic miscalculation and military slip-up — has somehow failed to achieve a significant breach beyond the constituency of those who stand opposed to him anyhow, for a million other reasons, Ladakh or no Ladakh. At least not yet. The perception of the sword continues to hold sway.

There’s another, probably more significant, reason. Modi remains, by far and away, the best diviner of the electoral pulse. And keeping the advantage on it is what most matters to him — keeping power. It would be foolhardy to believe Modi is plodding on in denial mode on the reverses in Ladakh without a sense of its potential to damage him, or without a plan. So there is an audible churn under the wheels of the armed forces, and a visible build-up of men and hardware on the frontier. There is, if only symbolic, the sidewinder punch on popular Chinese software applications. There is the mandatory invocation of Bharat Mata to keep the ranks rallied.

There is, to ringing contrast from all of this, nothing from the usually bellicose Modi. But it is unlikely that his refusal to address the issue personally and publicly is merely a consequence of wishful thinking that if he continues ostrich-like for a bit longer the crisis will somehow pass. Not addressing China and Chinese aggression cannot even be a mid-term plan. It requires demonstrable trysting. Is there something in the works Modi can pull off from his position of disadvantage? Through engagement? Through diversion? Through another disruptive bolt of a decision Modi is so capable of springing? It cannot be easy for Modi — far larger than life, far larger than what he must see of himself in the mirror — being on the wrong side of a bout, taking punches. He would also be aware that pinching, as he has done with the ban on Chinese apps, is no match for a punch. He is the man who wields the sword. Or is he beginning to turn into the pretence of it? The answer will inevitably come.
Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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Shifting lives in the mangroves : The Telegraph Editorial

Since 2007, the Bay of Bengal basin has seen at least 15 major cyclones, including Sidr in 2007, Aila in 2009, Phailin in 2013, Hudhud in 2014, Bulbul in 2019 and Amphan this year. Amphan made landfall in the Sunderbans, home to five million people, on May 20. More than 13.2 billion dollars worth of property was destroyed and more than 500,000 people left homeless. An Unesco heritage site, the Sunderbans are known for their biodiversity and the conservation of the Bengal tiger. More recently, it has turned into a site for climate-resilience experiments funded by global agencies. After Cyclone Aila in 2009, the World Bank had allocated a colossal Rs 5,032 crore to the Sundarbans Embankment Reconstruction Project to build ‘modern’ cement and block embankments. These embankments were breached during Amphan, flooding homes, destroying crops and salinating agrarian fields. Before we start rebuilding those embankments, let us consider if more concrete is the best way forward. 

Embankments are lifelines. The Sunderbans’ villages — ‘abad’ cleared for human settlement — are located on low-lying islands in a brackish water delta with diurnal tides. This is a unique landscape where the forest is a river. In this shifting landscape, the forest cover swells and shrivels with the ebbs and flows of the twice-daily tides. Islands experience the daily erosion and accretion of soil. During high tide, these islands would be submerged under saline water if it were not for the embankments that allow habitations and agriculture to flourish. Embankments are as old as human habitation in this region. 

However, concrete and cinder block embankments of the recent past are like imposed lines in a moving landscape. Sometimes they do more harm than good. In the past decade, a 3,500-kilometre periphery of the Sunderbans islands has seen the transformation from mud embankments (bandhs) to concrete dykes. Concrete embankments are 5 metres high and 30-40 metres wide. Covered by nonbiodegradable polypropylene sheets, the concrete embankments replaced the older mud bandhs. More importantly, several thriving mangrove forests on the riverbed had to be uprooted to transform the bandhs into dykes. Mangroves are natural shock absorbers during cyclones. Without these intricate mangrove roots systems binding the soil, riverbeds begin to gradually weaken.

During Cyclone Amphan, these modern embankments, with their whopping budgets and their supposed state-of-the-art material, developed cracks, broke and collapsed. Engineering shortcomings coupled with bureaucratic corruption result in shoddy embankment construction and negligent maintenance. Thus, Amphan’s destruction was very much a disaster by design too.

Modern embankments are harder to repair quickly. Cracked cinder blocks and cement require machinery, such as earthmovers and cranes, to be lifted out, often causing further damage to the already fragile riverbeds. They also make the villagers dependent on the presence (and absence) of the irrigation department for repair work. Following Amphan, the work of repairing embankments has also been characterized by quick fixes. In some instances, several embankments were fixed during low tide only to be submerged during high tide. In various blocks of the Sunderbans, including Gosaba, Kakdwip, Hingalganj, Namkhana and Pathorpratima, the heavy material that replaced the mangroves have not only eroded the riverbed but, in several instances, also taken large chunks of the riverbed down with them, creating further mudslides and irredeemable loss of land. These supposedly stronger embankments could not withstand the strength of the cyclone. Concrete walls may not be the way forward. 

For those who live on the river’s edge, embankment repair and reconstruction entail a double dispossession. First, they lose land to the swelling rivers through erosion, and then they are forced to give more chunks of land to the irrigation department for the construction of new ring embankments to fortify the existing ones. The poorest and the landless people, who belong to the lowest caste groups, mostly live on the threshold of disappearing lands on the river’s edge. Since Aila, at least one member from each of these households has migrated to cities in search of work. The Covid-19 induced lockdown has brought them back to a devastated landscape, uncertain recovery and an unknown future. Some who have returned have lost parts of their land to the river; others might lose tracts to land acquisition. As the sociologist, Amites Mukhopadhyay, has shown, the market valuation and compensation for land in the low-lying islands cannot be considered sufficient or fair when the displaced will have to pay the premium of moving to higher ground in the inland areas where local politicians, school teachers and local government officials reside. 

In response to endemic cyclones and rising sea levels, environmental economists, conservationists and writers propose a project to gradually depopulate parts of the coastal peripheries of the Sunderbans through a ‘planned retreat’. They are speaking about the planned retreat of approximately 2.5 million ‘vulnerable’ people. Where would the government relocate them? Do we yet have a study of the many factors that create vulnerability? What kinds of lives and livelihoods can the government guarantee to a climate-displaced population? Let us put these well-known questions aside for a moment and, instead, ask why is it the case that policymakers think that the poorest are the most easily movable? A well-executed planned retreat to a higher ground which guarantees a flourishing life and livelihood can be the best option when it is built on consensus. Prior experience cautions us from championing this option. Yet, if we are to begin a planned retreat, why not begin by dismantling the Farraka barrage, which impedes sediment deposition, a critical part of land formation in the delta? Or, as the anthropologist, Annu Jalais, asked, why not begin a planned retreat of Salt Lake, or Rajarhat, built on erstwhile marshes, affecting the downstream ecology of this mobile landscape? One may assume that large portions of the residents of Salt Lake and Rajarhat have the economic wherewithal to move and build new lives elsewhere. Yet, such a thought is utterly inconceivable, if not laughable, for our policymakers.


Sunderbans’s ecology also demands that we reimagine relations among land, water and humans. Loss of land due to erosion (bhangan) in the Bengal delta is sometimes followed by new land deposition. A lightly-amended 1825 East India Company-era law decides the ownership of newly formed land or char. Within the ambit of this law, the landless people who move to the chars (charuas) are deemed as encroachers. What if we discarded the property-thinking in this mobile space and liberated ourselves from the idea of encroachment? Indeed, the historical archive is replete with moving markets (haats) and settlements, like those of Shirajgunj or Bakergunj (in present day Bangladesh). Only from the late 1800s did the seasonal haats begin to frustrate the East India Company: fixing people in bureaucratically-imposed lots of lands and putting markets in a fixed place became a necessary step for regularizing tax and tolls in the lower Bengal delta. Surely, we can do better than continue to blindly emulate the colonial masters we denounce. 

What if we started listening to the people who wanted to move to a newly formed char? After all, we imposed these property lines and we can undo them too. Perhaps we can then begin to accept that some of the residents of these disappearing villages, who know how best to work the land, should be able to choose how they want to move as the rivers move. Might it be that some might prefer to move with the shifting land and rivers than retreat to the polluted airs of the higher ground? We won’t know the answer if we don’t ask.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.
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Cherished voices, collective romance

By Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Say ‘Anglo Indian’ and those who are not Anglo Indian themselves will conjure up a certain image — brown to blonde to golden hair, light to pale grey to true blue eyes, freckles and furrows that could be ‘ours’ yet different, ‘we’ yet in another way, ‘one’s own’ yet ‘not quite oneself’. Attires straight out of one’s boring wardrobe or bored trunk yet strangely smarter. Speaking an English difficult to describe but tempting and easy to copy (‘No, Men’, so much more tender than ‘No, Man’). A cuisine blending Indian substances with un-Indian devices of which Devil Chutney is King, Pepper Water (an alternative rasam), Queen, and Curried Trotters an all-weather Aunt. A lissome ease in cricket, a smooth swing in billiards, a flair for school teaching, magic with quizzes, a way with written words, panache on the stage, studio and screen, genius in music sung or played, a swirl in dance, an ornament in legislatures, a glory in national defence.

And above all, in a niche all its own, a collective romance. Is that possible? In India, yes. The Anglo Indians’ idyll with the Indian Railways is quite exactly that. And will last, even when not one Anglo Indian in shiny black jacket and brave tie serves on them, for as long as rolling stock shudders on Bharat’s iron tracks. John Masters’ Bhowani Junction (1954) is not the world’s greatest novel, nor the film (1956) of that novel with Ava Gardner playing Victoria Jones and Bill Travers, the hero, Patrick Taylor, an Oscar winner. But of truer intent a piece of fictionalized history has not been written, or filmed, reflecting the trials, torments of being part of a community, born of British (specifically, English) and Indian parents. This excerpt from the story captures it all:

Patrick Taylor: Where’s your hat?
Victoria Jones: I never wear it, unless I have to.
Patrick Taylor: But, the sun — it will get you all brown at this time of day.
Victoria Jones: It’s not the sun that makes us brown, now, is it.

Yet, the non-Anglo Indian visual of the Anglo Indian also holds behind that frame the dust of neglect and tangled cobwebs of prejudice. These are the products, first, of partial awareness, incomplete knowledge, ‘set’ attitudes, haste and, at the end of it all, an impatient, blind predisposition towards an ‘us’ and ‘they’ typification of people. And buttressing them is the vein of power in the global ‘major’ that desires to dominate the ‘minor’, whoever she or he is.

A democracy is about majority rule. Good democracies ensure that this does not hurt minorities. Bad democracies could not care less. A republic is about sheltering all — majority and minorities, equally. Good republics ensure that the smallest has the same status as the biggest. Bad republics are not bothered.

Wanting the Indian masses at long last to have a say in the governance of India, the architects of our Constitution opted to be a democracy. Wanting, simultaneously, India to be a just nation, fair and even-handed to all, they opted to be a republic as well. And sought to be good at both, not fake.

One of the earnests of this intent was the Constituent Assembly’s decision, enshrined in Article 331, to reserve two seats in the Lok Sabha for representatives of Anglo Indians and to provide for state assemblies to do the same. In the midst of all its preoccupations with rights and responsibilities, the jurisdictions of the executive, legislature, judiciary and balancing unitary and federal nostrums, why and how did this concern for Anglo Indians come into the Constituent Assembly’s calculations?

It came in because of the wisdom of that Assembly. Renaissance men and women comprising that body had what may be called a restless concern for India’s vulnerable, disempowered social groups. This led, most famously, in the reservation in the Lok Sabha of 84 elective seats for the scheduled castes and, likewise, 47 for the scheduled tribes, enshrined in Article 334.

In reserving the two seats for Anglo Indian members of parliament and for Anglo Indian members of legislative assemblies, the Constitution went beyond even what it had done for the SCs and STs. Not in terms of numbers, obviously, but in terms of the mode. The reserved Anglo Indian seats were to be filled by nomination, not election. This meant they would not have to contest elections, would not have to electioneer, ask for votes. This was affirmative action not by arithmetical justice but procedural facilitation. Why and what for? For, the architects of the Constitution knew that by virtue of who and what they were, Anglo Indians had not entered the currents of Indian politics, of the freedom struggle, had not formed themselves into a political force that could marshal or even catalyse electoral resources. And yet being India-born, being residents of India, were part of the tapestry of India, its mosaic, its life-blood. They could not be left voiceless in the many-tongued legislatures of the new nation.

To adapt a phrase of the former president, K.R. Narayanan, from another context, the path of nomination in an electoral democracy is a pedestrian crossing laid through a zooming highway to let the un-motorized, un-engined and un-wheeled to feel and be mobile. The nomination route of twelve such MPs to the Rajya Sabha and of similar MLAs to legislative councils where they exist is to enable those who have contributed to arts, literature, sciences and social services but who, in the cut and thrust of electoral contestations, would not stand a chance of getting elected, to participate in legislation. The nomination of Anglo Indian MPs and MLAs follows the same logic.

Did not the Parsis, it could be asked, by the same token, deserve the same consideration? And Indian Jews? Touche! one might respond, good point! But the ‘point’ overlooks a fundamental fact. The reservations for and nominations of the Anglo Indian legislators had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with representation. The provision was not to make of the Lok Sabha a Conclave of Religions. What was envisaged in giving Anglo Indians legislative space was giving a section of India representation not because it was Christian but because it was politically un-electable on its own.

The provision for nominating Anglo Indians was meant to lend a hand to a demographically weak, culturally isolated and politically unorganized but distinctive and proud community whose voice needed recording, whose presence needed space, not for the gratification of that community but for the completeness of our democracy, of our republic. Article 331 did not do Anglo India a favour, it did India’s political self-image a service.

While extending, rightly, the reservation of seats for SC and ST legislators, Parliament has extinguished the reservation for Anglo Indians. True, the provision was subject to the president’s (read government’s) sense of the need for that reservation. The ‘small’ number of Anglo Indians, we are told, was one of the reasons given for ending the provision. A figure was cited, with little basis. But smallness of size, in fact, would have made an extension even more logical.

So, the question is, ‘Why?’ A restless concern for domination activates India’s dominant classes now.

In a home, well-off or poor, that which is precarious, precious, rare, is specially nurtured. It is held in both hands, swaddled in caring fabric. Our Constituent Assembly knew that. It cradled the shards of history, the fringes of human sensibility, even as it created the loams of posterity.

When Frank Anthony suggested the reservation of seats by nomination for Anglo Indians, his point was appreciated at once. But then that was the age of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar. Variation was prized then, not...

I leave it to the reader to complete that line.
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Smooth transition in Oman good for the region

By Anil Wadhwa

he passing away of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, the longest serving monarch in the gulf, who ruled for 45 years, ends an epochal era. Oman has declared a state mourning for three days and the Omani flag will be flown at half-mast for 40 days. Although never acknowledged officially, Sultan Qaboos was apparently suffering from colon cancer since 2014, and had been in Germany and Belgium multiple times for treatment. Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said, 65, well known to India, and the serving Culture and Heritage Minister was sworn in as the new Sultan before the Ruling Family Council on Saturday, 11 January.

According to a 1996 decree, read with its amendments, the much admired Qaboos’s successor was to be chosen by a royal family council within three days, failing which a Council of Military and Security officials, Supreme Court chiefs and heads of the two Consultative Assemblies had to put into power the person whose name has been secretly written in a sealed envelope by the deceased Sultan.

According to unofficial reports, Qaboos was on life support for a few days and the process of selection was completed before the announcement of his passing away. Photographs put out by the Royal Office indicate that the decision was made on the basis of the name in the sealed envelope. The Sultan of Oman must be a member of the royal family as well as “Muslim, mature, rational and the legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents”. Amongst the 80 odd possible contenders, Qaboos had two other male cousins, who were amongst the frontrunners. These included Assad Bin Tariq Al Said, the eldest, and a brother of Qaboos’s ex-wife – a personal representative of the Sultan and a Sandhurst graduate; and Shihab Bin Tariq Al Said, a royal adviser and an ex-naval commander. They, along with the new Sultan Haitam bin Tariq Al Said are sons of Tariq Al Said, who was Oman’s first Prime Minister. The fourth main contender was Taimur Bin Said, son of Assad Bin Tariq Al Said - born in 1980 and a senior official in Oman’s State Scientific Research Council – who had represented the Sultan on several occasions.

The new Sultan is a graduate of Oxford University Foreign Service Programme and went to Pembroke College in Britain for his post-graduation. He was the first head of the Oman Football Association in the 1980s, and is a sports enthusiast. He served as Under Secretary (1986 to 1994), and later as the Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1994 to 2002).

Born in Salalah, an Omani coastal town, washed by the Indian monsoon, on November 18, 1940 as the only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, a Mayo Alumnus - who ruled Oman since 1930 – the deceased Sultan Qaboos had a lonely and cloistered childhood. When Qaboos visited his grandfather, who lived in India from 1930 to 1965 and is now buried in Mumbai - he was tutored privately by Shankar Dayal Sharma, who rose to become the President of India. In 1996, when Shankar Dayal Sharma visited Oman as President, Sultan Qaboos broke protocol to receive him at the airport, drove him personally, and made it a point to spend considerable time with him.

In 1960, Qaboos went on to study at the British Royal military Academy in Sandhurst, served in the British army for a year, and after an educational tour of the world, returned to Oman in 1964, when he was asked to study Islam and the Omani culture and heritage by his father. Meanwhile, the British wanted Oman to open up to the outside world due to the discovery of oil in the 1960s, and given the reluctance of Sultan Said bin Taimur, helped Sultan Qaboos to depose his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Sultan Said bin Taimur was shipped off to Britain, where he died in 1972. Sultan Qaboos had the challenge of fending off rebels from Dhofar, which he did with the help of Britain, Jordan and Iran, and was able to meet the challenge of various factions and regions by uniting them with a combination of responsible positions and accommodation - devoting himself to being a nation builder, a modernizer and strengthening Omani culture and identity. In 1978, he married Nawwal bint Tariq, a cousin, but the marriage ended in two years without any children.

Qaboos established Oman’s first cabinet, government departments and two advisory bodies, including the elected Shura Council representing the country’s provinces or Wilayats. In 1996, Oman got its Constitution. Qaboos also modernized the Omani army, but given the background of the rebellion and regional rivalries, he kept extensive executive powers in his hands. Besides being the ruler, he served as the country’s Prime Minister, the Supreme Commander of the Army, defence and foreign ministry as well as the governor of the Central bank. In 2011, when Oman also saw street protests in line with Arab Spring; protestors demanded jobs, higher pay, lower taxes and wider political reforms but did not seek the removal of Qaboos – a testimony to his popularity. He responded by creating 50,000 new jobs, increasing state spending in public services and expanding powers of the elected Shura Council.

Sultan Qaboos will be remembered as the father of modern Oman. He pushed education, healthcare, greater participation of women in civil affairs, roads and highways, trade, and opening up the economy to the non-oil sectors like tourism. Qaboos admired classical music, and in 2011 he opened the Royal Oman Opera House in Muscat. He set up oil refineries, a number of ports as well as fish processing plants. Qaboos followed a policy of good neighborliness and cordial ties with different countries -a policy dubbed as “a friend of all and a foe of none”. Oman under Qaboos thus emerged as a trusted mediator in a number of disputes, helping defuse the 2013 US- Iran stand off and played a key role reaching a nuclear deal between Iran and big powers, including the US, in 2015. Oman maintained excellent relations with regional rivals Saudi Arabia as well as Iran.

Oman under Qaboos helped release 15 UK sailors from Iran in 2007 and signed a landmark 25-year agreement with Iran for supply of natural gas. Qaboos did not join Saudi Arabia and UAE in the war again Al Houthis in Yemen, in keeping with Qaboos’s belief that the issue could only be solved through dialogue. For the same reason, Oman did not take sides in a dispute between Qatar and the GCC states of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Oman also did not break ties with Egypt when it established ties with Israel unlike other Arab or GCC states. Qaboos was awarded a number of times for his role as messenger of peace, and India also honoured him with the Jawaharlal Award for International Understanding in 2004.

Under Sultan Qaboos, defence, trade, investment and people to people ties as well as intelligence cooperation with India all grew leaps and bounds. Strong links were developed between the armies, navies and air forces, and regular exercises are now a norm. Oman has been extending support to Indian navy’s anti piracy missions and Indian naval ships are regularly welcomed by Oman for overseas deployments. Indian naval ships and aircraft repeatedly utilize Omani airports and airbases for refueling and operational turnaround.

A defence Cooperation Agreement was signed in 2006. India helped Oman in building a border fence on the Oman Yemen border in order to protect Oman from growing unrest in Yemen. India has a listening post in Ras Al Hadd and berthing rights for the Indian navy at the Muscat naval base. In February 2018 India secured access to the facilities at Duqm port for the Air Force and Navy and in 2019 a maritime cooperation agreement was signed which will have far reaching implications for connectivity in the region.

Bilateral trade reached US$6.7 billion in 2017-18. Over 3200 Indian companies operate in Oman, with an investment of $2 billion. In Duqm special economic zone, an Indo Oman joint venture Sebacic Oman is undertaking a $1.2 billion project for the largest Sebacic Acid plant in the region. A ”little India” integrated tourism project worth $ 748 million will come up in Duqm in the near future. An Oman India bilateral Investment fund is functional. Oman has also invested mainly in the oil and refinery sector in India. Qaboos personally granted support to the building of two temples in the country. Oman is the only country in the middle east to have an indigenous Hindu minority. A Hindu crematorium is located in Sohar, south west of Muscat.

Oman occupies the South East corner of the Arabian Peninsula and holds a strategic enclave across from Iran at the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and the route for tankers carrying about one sixth of the world’s oil supply. A many as 800,000 Indians live and work in Oman. The smooth transition process should, therefore, be welcomed in India and the region.

Sultan Qaboos leaves behind a rich legacy. In a rare interview with Kuwaiti publication Al Seyassah in 2008, Sultan Qaboos had said ”The sun has risen on our land, and we will regain our previous fame and strength and become a country worthy of respect and appreciation.” It will be important for the new Sultan to maintain Oman’s status as a mature and neutral state. There are new challenges facing the Omani economy, including unemployment. He will need to ensure that there is no Royal family discord, and no resurgence of tribal rivalries and political instability, at a time when young leaders have assumed power in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Oman will need to continue playing a significant leadership and mediatory role in the region, riddled with jalousies and disputes. Oman’s desire for peace and stability and Sultan Haitam Bin Tariq Al Said’s proximity to the decision-making process in the past will enable him to continue Oman’s policies.

(The writer was former secretary (east) in the ministry of external affairs and served as the Indian Ambassador to Oman between 2007-2011. He has also served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Thailand and Poland and is currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.)
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