Sunday, October 30, 2011

There Goes a Vacation

Diwali came with a full-fledged five day vacation this year. Of course, that's only for Civil: other branches probably got a week or even more! While Monday's classes were inevitable (despite poor attendance), we did try our best to get Tuesday's classes cancelled. All in vain, of course. This Department has no intention of cancelling any classes.

So we did have all our classes on Tuesday. 40% attendance actually: our juniors clocked 2%! In fact, a proxy was caught and that led to some serious fireworks. But on the question of Thursday - a poor day caught in between two holidays - we did manage to convince them that they were going to be greeted by an empty classroom. They relented, though not before one of them pushed through an extra class next Saturday.

And so began a long and rather boring five-day holiday. Diwali used to be a big deal in Bombay, but after that, it seemed just so superficial. We went to Haridwar, which was extremely fun. On Diwali, we ate out and engaged in wholesome bakar on the Library steps. I even went to the Temple, despite being agnostic.

And then came the weekend: I tried so very much to study but... well, you get it. I did start working on GRE though and found, much to my surprise, that I scored 330/340 in the diagnostic test. This is actually much easier that I thought - I probably wasted my time all these months trying to memorize words raw! So anyway, that saw the end of this lovely vacation. The mornings are much colder now and the sun rises late. Getting up for class, especially the 8:00 AM class, is sure to be a huge challenge.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Fitting End

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (2011)

Producer: Warner Bros.
Director: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and others
Pros: Excellent special effects, good elucidation of parts of the book that were somewhat confusing
Cons: Characters feels detached, deviates at points from the book
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

It's the end of an era, yet again. When the final installation of the Harry Potter books released in 2009, it was difficult to believe that it had all ended. Now, with the release of this, the final movie in the franchise, the world of Hogwarts has truly come to an end. Pardon me for this soliloquy, but the greatest literary phenomenon of our time deserves it.

HP7/2, as I shall call this movie, does not introduce anything new. Unlike all the other movies, which took pains to introduce new characters and new worlds, this one has a distinct feeling of consummation. The story picks up from where it left - Voldemort desecrating Dumbledore's tomb to steal his wand. We then go through the process of destruction of the horcurxes, which eventually renders Voldemort mortal. The pinnacle of the movie is the conversation between the spirits of Harry and Voldemort and the lucid portrayal of the piece of Voldemort's soul at the 'station.'

The screenplay here deserves celebration. The movie, whatever scenes it chooses to show, shows it so well that there is never a moment;s doubt in one's mind as to what just happened. But even good screenplay can be jeopardized by poor acting - fortunately, HP7/2's veteran stars put up a fitting final performance. So while the movie does deviate greatly from the original story, including a hitherto unseen set of events in the Chamber of Secrets, the actors pull it off so well that all is forgive. Now just the lead actors, the supporting actors also put up a good show, except Malfoy (Tom Felton), sadly.

The special effects are the USP of the movie (apart from the fact that it's the last one in the series). Stone soldiers, a force field of magic and a secret route hidden inside a portrait: the technology employed here is excellent and the 3D only adds to that. The ending, with Voldemort blowing up into a million pieces, is a fitting conclusion.

Sadly, the movie does not - maybe cannot - take up Dumbledore's past. This part, greatly emphasized in the book, is ignored almost entirely. Another problem is the detachment of the characters from the audience: this is actually part of a general trend. The first movie allowed us to connect to 11-year old Harry very well, such that we could feel his anger and his joy. This movie, with the 20-something Harry, puts you in the backseat. All you can really do is watch.

Undoubtedly, Harry Potter is the most memorable work of fiction of our generation. The end of an era would be a mild way to describe this movie. Whether you were a fan or not, you must not miss this one. Some moments in time are worth being a part of. (OTFS)

Here Comes Winter

It's that time of the year again, when fans go off, when that cold wind causes yellow leaves to fly around in vortexes. It gets darker sooner now - by six, it's as dark as night. Getting up in the morning is harder - the air is cold, the water is freezing. A trickle of sunlight is a cause of celebration.

It's not quite winter yet - the afternoons are still warm and the sweaters aren't quite out yet. But autumn is definitely here - you can feel it everywhere. Traditionally, the date when autumn begins to give way to winter is Diwali, which was Wednesday last.

Based on autumn, this winter seems to be a very cold one. Last year, we saw one, long cold wave, with the night temperature falling close to zero, making sleep a hard task. The year before that, we had several, small cold waves. This year could be a repeat of what happened two years back, or so my intuition says.

For me, autumn is the best season, even better than Spring. It could be because I love moderate cold, living in a tropical country. Whatever the reason, my favourite season is coming to a close now. The fog hasn't appeared yet, but it can't be very far away. The time has come to snuggle in my blanket and put on those sweaters again. Winter, welcome back.

IOTY11: Five Years and More to Come

Since 2007, Opinions 24x7 has honoured the people, the companies and the moments that have defined this country. In its fifth year, OTFS is proud to present the 5th Annual Indian of the Year 2011: Five Years and More to Come.

Indian of the Year 2011
March 2012

A Historical Assessment of Indian Security

India recently signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, which envisages vast security-related cooperation with the war-torn country. Some Indians believe that India should keep away from Afghanistan. However, it is imperative to look at India's overall security from a historic perspective.

The Afghan Invasion
India has been, over the centuries, invaded from a certain set of strategic locations. Afghanistan is one such - apart from halting Alexander's army, the Hindu Kush has opened the gates for a foreign invasion of India. So, we saw repeated invasions from the Mongols, only to be followed by the Mughals, who went on to conquer most of the subcontinent. In more recent times, the Taliban's reign in the country can be described as the darkest period in India's security history since the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

We must ensure that this danger is hedged against. Apart from ensuring a friendly dispensation in Afghanistan, a wide array of consulates all over the country will ensure that we know what is going on over there - far from the Taliban age. India should also consider an airbase in say, Kandahar, as well as a small security arrangement for, both of these for providing security to Indian assets there.

The Burmese Invasion
Burma has been, for centuries, a leading force in our South East Asia affairs. The most memorable instance of a Burmese invasion was the defeat of the Varman Kings of Assam and the establishment of the Ahom Empire. Subsequently, the Ahoms were overthrown by the expanding British Empire, at the end of which Assam and other northeastern states joined the Union.

However, the security issue today is the insurgency in the North East. Burma (Myanmar) is India's single-most important neighbour in that it ensures our own territorial integrity. Of course, it could do much more, bur it's our job to make them do that. India must learn to play the infrastructure card there as we have in Afghanistan - which would give the Burmese a good reason to look beyond China. India must also work to lift Western sanctions on Burma and allow whatever democratic establishment exists to manage its affairs, particularly when it comes to Suu Kyi, who, after all, is an alumnus of an Indian college.

The Chinese Invasion
China today constitutes India's largest security concern, albeit a nascent one. In 1962, India nearly lost close to 10% of its territory. Even now, our only guarantee in case of another war are our nuclear weapons. India remains woefully unprepared for a Chinese onslaught. Historically though, relations across the Tibetan plateau have been extremely peaceful, despite these being some of the oldest civilizations in the world..

For India, the approach here must be two-pegged. First, consolidation and modernisation of our forces is a necessity. In that respect, the Chinese must be seen both as an enemy on land and in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, India needs to use its considerable soft power, which includes keeping close relations with the Communist Party there. How well we work on these two flanges will determine the stability of the wider region and indeed, coupled with the role the Americans play, the entire world.

Maritime Security
Most pan-Indian civilizations have been North India-centric, which is why maritime security has received so little focus in pre-Independence India. While some empires, notably the Cholas, effectively used the ocean to create a vast empire overseas, most ignored it. This is what enabled the Western powers to enter India and colonize it. Today however, the Indian Ocean remains our most critical zone of geopolitical issues.

Three International forces control the Indian Ocean: the Indian Navy, the Americans (through Diego Garcia) and the PLA Navy. The aim is of course, to control the trade routes of the world. Currently, India has a strategic Tri Services Command in the Nicobar islands, through which we patrol the Malacca Straits. We also have a mission against piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Piracy has come closer to India, as close as 40 nautical miles off the coast of Lakshadweep.

In terms of maritime security, there can be no substitute for hard power. Today, India's Navy is largely indigenous, producing most of its vessels within the country. India is acquiring an Air Craft Carrier from Russia and building one of its own in Kochi. INS Arihant is the country's first indigenous-built nuclear submarine. However, submarines remain India's weak point. We have several anti-submarine assets, but not enough submarines themselves. This is one aspect that must be looked into.

To conclude, we must understand that India's security has been built up over centuries. Pakistan has only been a recent problem, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that it is the only problem. Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Baby and the Bathwater

A recent controversy has been over the Right to Information Act and its effect on governance. After the massive controversy over the note from Pranab Mukherjee's office to the PMO, which led to the Opposition declaring that the UPA-II was in the midst of a civil war, voices from the PM downwards have called for changes to the RTI.

During the last Lok Sabha elections, voters found RTI to be a major achievement of the UPA. In particular, the fact that file notings were opened up was seen as a game changers - one activist said that it had 'brought the fear of God' into the bureaucracy. Any attempt to dilute the Act will damage the already beleaguered Government's reputation.

Almost on cue, Veerappa Moily came out and said that the Government was not going to amend the Act. But this is a smokescreen: the Act makes way for the Government to frame rules as to how information is provided through a Department. It is possible to tweak this in such a way as to create an effective censor and hide information wantonly from the public - which violates the spirit of the RTI Act. Indeed, the Government has come out with some new guidelines on file notings for bureaucrats, apparently to prevent a loose-tongues officer from letting too much appear in ink.

These are clear signs of a Government under siege. The fear of the RTI being used as a weapon against the corruption-riddled administration has forced them to the throw the baby out with the bathwater. Anything that dilutes the RTI is unacceptable. The argument that RTI hampers governance is a farce - if bureaucrats did their work properly, the should have nothing to fear. The same goes for elected representatives. 

Lights of Joy

It's called the festival of lights - a time to remember that, whatever be the hindrance, darkness will always give way to light.It's also a time when the country is brilliantly lit up - for thousands of years, people have welcomed Shri Ram after he consummated his exile. We continue to do so today.

Diwali is a fun festival, when people burn their money with crackers. True, it can get over-the-top at times, but even a simple act of lighting a lamp has a powerful significance. Celebrated wildly throughout the country - more in the North than the South or North-East - the festival has recently been celebrated across the world, the with the US Senate passing a resolution to that effect.

Diwali is actually a five-day affair, culminating with the festival of bhai duj. This Diwali, OTFS wishes its readers a prosperous year ahead, with the money being as white as the lights in the sky.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The End of a Dictator

The capture and killing of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi marks a bloody end to the NATO-enabled civil uprising in the North African nation. Gadaffi, a megalomaniac who help onto power since a oup in 1965, changed the country's capital, flag and administrative system, and declared to that world that "I am Libya," met an thoroughly undignified death at the hands of people whom he exploited and killed.

However, it is a fact that this uprising has set a bad precedent.NATO's blatantly illegal use of force, hidden behind a cleverly-worded UNSC resolution, has led to regime change in yet another country. The West clearly seems to believe that it has some divine right to dictate terms to the world - this at a time when we are witness to the rise of the East.

The Libya uprising has brought back the dangerous concept of 'Responsibility to Protect,' or R2P, which was the basis on which the UNSC resolution was passed. The idea that countries must gang up and interfere militarily in another country's internal affairs due to a perceived threat to human rights is preposterous - there is a difference between economic sanctions and outright military adventurism. This is a sick and sadistic twist to a human being's desire to prevent the death of a fellow human being.

This war has also brought forth the war-starvation that the West seems to be experiencing, despite Iraq and Afghanistan. The French and British Premiers used Libya as an excuse to bolster their already-poor reputations back at home. The Americans only joined in reluctantly - America probably experiences the most war fatigue of all, seeing as though it has been at war for every single day since World War II. But that did not prevent NATO from launching a grand politically-motivated war, with America creating a brand new Africa Command with deftness.

But the most troubling aspect is the way Gadaffi was supposedly killed in his last few moments. It is expected that he is to be taken alive to stand trial for Crimes against Humanity at the ICC. But he was killed after being tortured and humiliated. This just goes to show that while Libya tries to emerge as a democracy, there will remain a streak of tribal disaffection in Tripolitana - something that the new administration must watch out for.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Coming Soon: The Union Shall Fall

On December 25, 1991, the Cold War came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, it did not just end quietly: the fall was rather dramatic, with last-minute battles that tries to preserve the Union. Twenty years are what has been called the greatest geopolitical event of the decade, we look back at the circumstances under which the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics rose, dithered and collapsed, and what that has meant for the entire world since.

The Union Shall Fall
A Documentary
Coming soon on Opinions 24x7

UPA-II's Biggest Success?

Last week, President of Myanmar Thein Sein arrived in India on a state visit. But this was no ordinary visit: it came after his Government, barely a year old, instituted a number of reforms and cancelled a China-backed hydroelectric power project.

Could India's quiet diplomacy with Burma be working? For years, India has ducked Western attempts at isolating Burma, choosing to accept the military regime there and quietly encouraging it to embrace democratic reforms. This strategy can be summed up as - encourage, don't export, democracy. Indeed, India, China and ASEAN remained the only large countries or group of countries that had a close relationship with Burma.

All that seems to be changing now. Thein Sein, already described as 'Myanmar's Gorbachev' by some analysts, has instituted several key reforms, which were welcomed even by Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Even on a foreign policy front, Myanmar appears to be tiring of China's dominance in the country's economic affairs and is looking at India and ASEAN to keep it in check. But the true prize would be a withdrawal of Western sanctions on the country - indeed, Myanmar is looking at India to do just that. The MEA already reiterated its opposition to sanctions. Democratic India would have a much better chance of convincing the West than communist China.

But India too has much to gain from improving ties with Burma. After all, there is a large land border with as many as four Indian states, as well as proximity to the A&N Islands. The trade and energy potential is huge: India's land-locked Northeast would gain back another traditional market route lost after Burma was separated from British India. Burma's natural wealth is well-suited for India to use and the land border only adds to the value of it. From a security point of view, Burma has a central role to play in controlling insurgents in North East India, particularly parts of the NSCN and, perhaps, ULFA Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah, who might be hiding along the Sino-Myanmar border.

Myanmar represents India's route into the heart of South East Asia. It is the only ASEAN nation with which we enjoy a land boundary. Improving ties with the neighbour would definitely count as one of Manmohan Singh's few successes - despite his dogged domestic run. A falling Chinese influence in the region (already apparent in the warming India-Vietnam partnership) would be an ideal reply to China's 'String of Pearls' strategy.

A Doomed Yatra

Disgraced, defeated and sidelined in his own party, one would expect any leader to walk away with an 'I give a damn' attitude. Not LK Advani though. The 'Iron Man of India' seems to have made up his mind to fight back the forces in the BJP that saw his being sidelined post the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections.

What is clear is that LK Advani's Jan Chetna Yatra, currently underway, is an exercise in redeeming himself within the party. That it came as an utter surprise to the BJP's top leadership and also the RSS is well-known: the former Deputy Prime Minister had to go to RSS HQ in Nagpur to explain and was forced to declare that he had no desire to be Prime Minister.

Yet, he was not convincing. There seems to be no point for the yatri to return if he does not want to gain something from it. This yatra was not conceived by the top leadership of the BJP (of which he is a part, but not the core). But if seen in light of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's Sadbhavana Fast, it seems apparent that Advani is out to put his own man in the race for PM. As of today, the BJP is divided between Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, but if Modi is brought in from Gandhinagar, all hell could break loose.

The current yatra does not serve any purpose. The BJP has already put itself behind Anna Hazare's campaign: so what will this strategy do? One upon a time, LK Advani used a yatra to win his party to Government. That day is long gone: the BJP is currently, and regrettably, in a stage of decline and needs to shore up its credentials among the lower castes and minorities. Another divisive yatra will serve no purpose: rather, it will harm the party, which has been going strong of late and has some crucial elections coming up.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On the Precipice

Another mid-term. It's tiring now, given that I've done it so many times before. But this mid-term was, somehow, different. It felt as though I was about to tumble off at any moment. Let me explain.

After a devastating performance in MTE-1, CE-351 was a major priority and I devoted the most time of all to this. Luckily, the paper was easy. What a relief! Then came CE-341, which is always easy. No surprise there.

Then came the bad news. CE-311 is a subject that has left the entire class flummoxed. It is simple, if taught well. That's a big IF. The syllabus covered was so massive that it took days for people to complete it just once. Still, even those who never study the entire course studied this once at least once. And the paper was a disaster - mainly because the questions were so poorly-framed. I mean, if you print 1.433 instead of 1,433 and expect us to solve the paper, you're barking up the wrong tree. The exam was a huge disaster and my hopes are resting on one 10-mark question, which is proving to be hugely controversial.


CE-321 was simple, luckily Three questions took 45 min and the remaining two took just 15! I was able to finish the paper - most people failed to do even that! But there was no time to study, as CE-331 came along. After the previous paper, which was a big joke, we expected another joke. We did get a challenging paper, but not something that could not be handled. Here too, a misprint caused a grave loss of time.

And finally, IEQ-04 proved to be more challenging than usual, although not impossible to solve. Sadly, unusually even, none of the last three papers was black or white. They could be great - or pathetic. I'm not sure what's right and what;s wrong. It's a strange semester, with that old lady haunting everybody. I'm continuously at the edge of a steep fall. What will happen? Let's see.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Black and White

AARAKSHAN (2011)

Producer: Prakash Jha Productions and others
Director: Prakash Jha
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpai, Saif Ali Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Prateik and others
Pros: Rarely-touched issue, some truly memorable lines, good cinematography
Cons: Characters sans depth, lousy ending
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5), although the issue it deals with is priceless

In this season of action-comedies, it's difficult to find a movie that actually has any reality attached to it. Fortunately, Prakash Jha decides to pick up a hugely important and topical issue and make a movie out of it. The name of the movie is a misnomer though - a very small portion of it, badly made at that, actually deals with reservations. The rest is about commercialization of education.

Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) is the principal of STM, most possibly the best college in the world (or so it's made out to be - an acceptable hyperbole). Not only is he a superb teacher, but he also has a strong desire to uplift the downtrodden Dalits of India. He has a daughter (Deepika) and her on-off boyfriend (Saif), whom he brought up from scratch. In comes the evil coaching centre-owner (Manoj Bajpai) and the Politician. You get the idea.

Before I get to the movie itself, let me say that its premise is well worth it. The topic of reservations and, more importantly, the commercialization of education, has been ignored entirely by the mainstream media despite the fact that it will have an impact on the future of the country for decades. The fact that we are now discussing this through a movie is a sign of hope, for which Jha deserves full marks.

If only he had written a book! As a movie, Aarakshan is rather poorly-made. The first and biggest flaw is the lack of depth in the characters. Bachchan is the all-mighty wise man who can never be wrong; Bajpai is the crazy old fool who use politics to get his way; the younger actors are all immature and quick to realise their mistakes; the poor people are very innocent and are willing to believe anything... the list goes on. At no point of time do we see a touch of humanity,a few grey shades or even some genuine emotion.

And as though that was not enough, after building up a larger-than-life climax, the movie fizzles out with an extremely old-school ending, not expected of any director today. For this, it deserves nothing more than a two. The music is so-so: it helps the movie, but is not worth listening to afterwards. However, I do have some good things to say too!

Firstly, the set is excellent. The STM set was made so that I would feel jealous: who wouldn't want to study in that castle of a place? And even the tabela seemed very real, except for the pervasive cleanliness (or maybe it's my own stereotype here). And the script is pretty good too, with some lines worth remembering. For instance, 'There are two India's growing in this country...' or 'Education is service without guarantee.' Wonderful!

If you want a simple movie that entertains you, Aarakshan is not worth it. However, if you like movies that leave an impression on you and force you to think about the larger issue, do have a look. Don't expect too much though. (OTFS)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Long Journey

After a week of relaxing at home, the time has come, yet again, to make that terrible journey half way across this great nation to Roorkee. Although I've made this journey so many times now that I've lost count, it always seems like a big deal.

The journey brings to my mind a common refrain - don't make an IIT in places that lack connectivity. I mean, this IIT is in Roorkee, which is in a small hill state called Uttarakhand, which most people confuse with Uttaranchal (it's earlier name). Connectivity here is pathetic: the trains barely wait at the stations because virtually nobody lives in this place to travel. For the same reason, there is a very tiny and very useless airport at Jolly Grant, which nobody uses except for chartered flights.

So, the only way to reach Roorkee is via New Delhi. Now, this city, the capital of India, is the land of mf's. On every roadside, there are at least a hundred dogs who want to hurt you, rob you, kill you or a combination of those. Despite the amazing connectivity that it boasts of, not to mention the best roads in this country, nobody knows traffic rules. In fact, the roads themselves forbid you from thinking about them. To go anywhere, drive down to the nearest roundabout, and choose from one of the six roads that branch out. Then, drive down to the next one and repeat this until you are lost. Finally, look at the street signs. That is, if you can pronounce 'Simon Bolivar Marg' or 'Nikolai Copernicus Marg'! Yes, it seems Delhi has actually managed to use up all Indian names, even as Mumbai tries to catch up!

So, after wading your way through this mess (or use the Metro - the one thing that Delhiites do not deserve), you reach New Delhi Station. Now, NDLS is a pretty unique station. You have to put your bag into a machine so that it an be screened. Amazingly, nine out of ten times, nobody is ever there to see - your bag just slips in and you can pull it out at the other end. You're never frisked and if that metal detector does explode, you can just walk by - it's all just show. The AC waiting room is so overcrowded that you can never find a place to sit (although it is well-used: after all, where else can you be greeted by men in towels who just bathed as though the waiting room is a 3-star hotel?). The non-AC room is so disgusting that hardly anyone goes there.

Finally, after boarding my dear Dehra Dun Janshatabdi, I travel across the Northern Plains as it gets progressively darker. Sadly, there is no way to know which station has just arrived, so you have to keep checking if it's your station.Again, it waits in Roorkee for a princely period of two minute, during which time half the train disembarks. So, book your place early - an hour early - and keep standing. Else, you might not be able to get off!

Once in Roorkee Station, it's bargaining time! The rickshaw pullers will loot you. Fortunately, the new guards are all armed with the standard rates, but as one puller told me, "they'll learn." Finally, there is a bumpy ride to the IIT Campus. I wonder which genius of a civil engineer put five tiny speed breakers on a mostly-unused road. It's a miracle we don't just fall off!

After all this, I'm back in RKB, with my dear LAN wire in place, my Soil tut incomplete (and due) and the practical complete (clairvoyance, you see). And that is how you reach IIT Roorkee. No wonder it's motto is - nothing can be achieved without hard work!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

New Story: Another Cup of Chai



“Howrah se Jammu Tawi jane wali Himgiri Express Platform Number 1 pe pahunch chuki hai.”

The train pulled in with a loud whistle. But even before it came to a halt, the coolies had entered, shouting their rates and looking for customers. Vendors rushed to sell water and peanuts – it was a long journey, only half done, and the passengers were tired.

Sadly, my journey ended here. I can’t say I like travelling by train, especially not in the hot Indian summer. But as you rest your back on the blue, plastic-covered bed and stare out at the infinite mass of fields, hills and trees, your mind can’t help but relax. You’re never really alone in a train – oh, far from that! – but I have always found that I feel completely alone in a train. Just me and nobody else to worry about.

Meerut: one of UP’s busiest stations. Every day, millions of migrants from the darkest villages in North India come here to find work – rickshaw pullers, casual labourers, domestic helps. You might not know it, but that driver who takes you shopping every other day came to Meerut on this very train. As the doors opened, those millions set foot on the platform, on their new destiny. But that’s not what I was here for.

The journey had tired me out but I had quite a long day ahead of me. I spotted a tea stall a short distance away and decided to sip some hot tea to regain some of my energy. I picked up my bags and watched as men rushed to the stall to buy tea before the train left. Some bought just one for themselves, some bought cups for others. It was a good day – business was good.

The day I last saw my father was a good day too. I still remember it distinctly: trains were not very good back then and the fan was not working. We were going to Vaishno Devi in Jammu – a small family of three. Having lived in the hills of Darjeeling all my life, I was not used to the heat and rush of Meerut. I kept close to my mother because I was afraid of the other people in the compartment – you are never alone in a train.
My father decided to buy himself a cup of tea. He asked me if I wanted anything and I asked for a toffee. All young children have a sweet tooth and I was no different. The train was to halt there for a few minutes, and all the noise was making me uncomfortable. I closed my eyes and went to sleep on my mother’s belly. A child’s sleep is perhaps the purest thing God has ever created, untouched by the darkness of the world that he lives in.

I was woken up by my mother’s wailing. She was talking to that scary man in the black coat – I was afraid to look. But she seemed worried. Very worried. When the man in the black coat went away, I looked at her. She was crying. Father was nowhere in sight and I wanted my toffee. I pulled on her sari and she pulled me into her arms. We disembarked at the next station and took a bus to Meerut. She took us to a police station, which was frightening, even to a little child.

We waited the whole night in the police station. She did not sleep at all – I could sense that she was worried, ready to run at the slightest sign of danger. Her tears had dried up by now but she was still crying. The next day, she spoke to the inspector again and then we made our way to the bus depot.

I sipped the last drops of chai from my glass. It was good stuff, and I’m saying that despite having lived in Darjeeling. Life can be strange at times. After all, this was the very station where I last saw my father. Perhaps this was the very tea stall he had wanted to buy a cup of tea from. I looked around at the millions of faces around me. A man was talking to his wife through the window; a beggar without an arm was begging for alms; little children selling cheap comics and paper soap were darting in between compartments. But my father was nowhere in sight – neither then, nor today.

The chai was good; it gave me some of my strength back. As the train began to leave the platform, I picked up my bags. Meerut was a new city for me, yet I felt as though I had been here my whole life. Just as I reached the exit, an urchin caught my trousers and began begging for money. He was one of those typical little urchins that dot the landscape – small, malnourished, with particularly large eyes. I would have liked to ignore him, but he persisted. I pulled out a toffee from my pocket and handed it to him. He took it and ran away. 

Book Review: Takes Time to Digest

THE WHITE TIGER
By Aravind Adiga
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize

Anyone on his or her way to India in 2007-08 would have heard of the miracles of outsourcing and a tech-savvy, modern society that is going to take over the world. Te White Tiger is set in that very mood - or rather, Aravind Adiga has set out to break that mood into 1.2 billion pieces.

The book revolves around the life of Balram Halwai, or at least that's what the Government named him, and his journey from a feudal village in Jharkhand to a driver in Delhi to an enterprising businessman in Bangalore. Throughout the story, he addresses his thoughts to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is set to visit India on a heavily guided tour.

The book tries to show the world the 'other' India, the one which still lives in the nineteenth century, and convince the reader that all it takes to go from the nineteenth to the twenty first is a Maharaja costume. Sadly, in its attempt to describe a side of India the audience does not usually talk about, the narrative seems to be rather forced, The idea clearly, is to shock the reader. So we go through stages of brilliance, when Balram seems to have lost his mind, only to come out wondering just why anyone would write such a thing!

Not that it's too fictitious to be true - it's very realistic and the metaphors are splendid (I could almost hear the chickens clucking!). But it gets a bit too stretched at times - when his dead mother's leg juts out of the fire, when he laughs with defecating men... there are parts which are downright distasteful and make you want to close the book, because the story really does not go very far ahead. Indeed, the ending seems so forced and contrived that you'd be mistaken for imagining it to be from some pamphlet that the PM would hand over to Mr. Jiabao!

However, the true brilliance of the book lies in the way even these ideas are presented - a gripping narrative that pushes you ahead without giving you much time to think. Metaphors are hurled at you at every corner and the story enters quiet recesses at just the right moments. Indeed, it feels very much like a man's thoughts - far-apart, disconnected, yet convergent. And therein lies the beauty of the book.

Why this won the Booker Prize over the other contenders, I cannot say. This book is meant to shock, it's scaffolding, backbone, very essence rests on a foundation of shock. And in that process, Mr. Adiga has written himself a bestseller!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

America's Autumn of Discontent?

For the last two weeks or so, America has beet witnessing a rebellion of sorts against corporate greed and Wall Street that has today landed the world's largest economy in the world's largest debt-trap and rendered the political system dysfunctional.

The current crisis in the US is entirely a resultant of political wrangling and a new-found extremism within the Republican Party. One one side, you have President Obama and a host of renowned economists saying that taxes must rise, not just from an economic perspective but also from the social perspective of balancing the burden of debt. On the other, you have the Republicans and their financiers demanding a larger spending cut than every cent borrowed with absolutely no tax increases. President Obama has tried a lot to compromise, but the Republicans have rebuffed him each time.

Now, the "99%" has come out with their 'Occupy Wall Street' campaign, calling for tax increases and a guarantee that the 'social contract' will be honoured. One ominous sign is that, although the movement has already spread across the American mainland, the mainstream media has chosen to ignore it or look at it simply from a law and order situation. Nonetheless, with a Presidential election due next year, it will be taken note of.

Americans today talk of a class war - the rich wall street bankers, with all the political clout, versus the poor and the working class, with nothing more than a token vote every now and again. There is a seething undercurrent of anger directed at Wall Street and the political system that, they allege, lies to them about everything (although, honestly speaking, the truth is out there for the alert to notice).

Now, this being America, drawing parallels with the Arab Spring is highly inaccurate. We are not going to see large-scale protests, rioting, police highhandedness (I could be wrong on this one) or a political earthquake. We are going to see far more heated debate on this issue, as Obama can be sure that his new plan to raise taxes on the rich will indeed win him votes if he can carry it to the masses. It would also reinvigorate the Democratic Party, which is angry with Obama's repeated capitulation to the right-wing in their own party as well as to the Republicans.

Clearly, the class lines are clear for the 2012 Presidential Elections. My bets are very much on a reelection for Obama but then, one year is a lifetime in politics.

Mayawati's Century!


Inspired from this news report.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hyderabad in Hardship

As the strike by coal miners in the Singareni Collieries enters its fourth week, NTPC is set to close down another unit in its Thermal Power Plant in Ramagundam, further plunging the state into an emergency.

In the city of Hyderabad, four hours of power cuts a day is being imposed, while it goes as high as eight hours a day for minor towns. While the average man if definitely inconvenienced, the biggest crisis can be felt in public institutions and farms.

All hospitals now depend on generators for major operations; teaching in schools has become next to impossible unless it is raining and the weather is cool; without RTC buses, domestic helps have gotten an indefinite holiday; casual labourers do not find any work and are on the brink of starvation; auto drivers are fleecing the public no end with highly vulgar demands; pensioners are left without any pension; farmers are not being provided electricity at the most crucial time... the list of woes goes on and on.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, the gutless UPA government is refusing to upset the status quo. In the garb of consultations, it is trying to tire out the movement, while the TJAC seems determined to have its way this time. And the less said about the Kiran Kumar Reddy Government in Andhra Pradesh the better - it is busy conducting exams and inaugurating new buildings, as usual.

The continued harm being caused to Hyderabad will have a lasting effect. Businesses have already run away from here, people are migrating too. The cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial atmosphere that made this city great have all but disappeared. An increasing sense of xenophobia directed against non-Telangana people as well as immigrants from other parts of the country is tangible. Violence is just around the corner, in fact, it has already erupted in some places.

The Telangana movement and the way it is being handled marks a new low in politics of the region. It marks a new low in the statesmanship of the Central Government. The has come to take a decision and enforce it at all costs. Hyderabad cannot be made to suffer any longer.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Part 4: Meet the Royal Family

The current Manikya Dynasty has been ruling Tripura since the thriteenth century AD, although it is titular in nature today after accession to India. Nonetheless, the family is extremely wealthy and has some major business contacts, making sure that it is by no means irrelevant.

The family is led by Rajmata Bibhu Kumari Devi, a former MP and Minister in UP, educated in Lucknow and a social activist who travels extensively. Her passion includes education and art. Her most recent trip to Bangladesh came with the comment from a newspaper that she was 'trying to make peace with the Bengal that her great grandfather-in-law could never do.' She spends her time today in Agartala, Shillong, Kolkata and Lucknow.

Maharaja Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman Manikya Bahadur, born 1978, is the present and 186th Manikya King. An erudite businessman and social entrepreneur, he is Chairman of the Royal Heritage Hotel, the first of its kind in the region. A sports fan, he funds several football players from the region. Apart from that, he is also a music enthusiast whose Royal Tripura Foundation has hosted several musical concerts in the region, particularly two large ones in Shillong and Dimapur. He is the founder-editor of the regions most widely-circulated political weekly, The Northeast Today. a member of several students bodies, he prefers to stay away from national politics and serve the people of Tripura in his own way. He divides his time between Kolkata, Shillong and Agartala. He is probably the youngest of the titular kings of India.

Yuvarani Kanika Devi is the eldest of the four daughters of the royal family. Married to Yuvaraj Chandra Vijay Singh of the House of Dumraon (in Bihar). She works for women empowerment and education of girls in Dumraon, Kolkata and villages in Uttarakhand. She is a mother of two.

Rani Saheb Pratima Devi, born in 1962 in Kolkata, is married to Shri Dhawal Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal. She is a mother of one daughter and runs a hotel and a school in Jaipur. She also spends her time in social service in the area.

Yuvarani Pragya is a prominent scientist, businesswoman and convener of the Tripura chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). She spends her time in India and Italy.

Maharani Kriti Devi married Maharaja Yogeshwar Singh of Kawardha, Chhatisgarh and runs a heritage hotel there, apart from working for rural development. She is also a conservationist and member of PETA.

Maharani Priti Devi is the last surviving descendant of Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya and aunt of the Rajmata. She is wedded to Maharaja Prithviraj Singh of Kutch, Gujarat. A conservationist and social reformer, she resides in Kutch, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Research based on information on the official website of the Royal Family of Tripura and other sources. 

(Series Concluded)

Part 3: The Modern State

During the British rule in India, Tripura remained an independent kingdom that accepted British control of its foreign affairs and advice of the Resident Officer. However, in 1947, with the formation of the Dominion of India, the Maharani Regent Kanchan Prabha Devi signed the instrument of accession, thus tying the fate of her kingdom forever to that of India.

However, Partition came as a catastrophe for the State. The traditional rail and roadways, apart from the Chittagong port, which were used by the Kingdom were suddenly closed off as East Bengal became East Pakistan. Suddenly, a once-prosperous state found itself landlocked and linked to the rest of the country by a miserably-weak road system. Within the state itself, several district headquarters were inaccessible by road. The state capital, which was moved from Udaipur to Agartala a few decades before, became the soul point of growth for the state.

The Secession of East Pakistan
Following the States Reorganisation Commission, Tripura was merged with the state of Assam, which, along with NEFA, represented the entire region of what is now called North-East India. However, in 1962, after the Indo-China war, Tripura became a Union Territory and then a full-fledged state. By this time, privy purses and titles of rulers were abolished and the monarchy became titular.

In 1970, with swathes of East Pakistan ravaged by storms, 'Bangabandhu' Mujibur Rehman won the general elections in Pakistan by winning all the seats in the East wing and none in the West. But his claim to form the Federal Government by virtue of his majority in the National Assembly was rejected by the military dictator in connivance with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The Pakistan Army was sent into the East Wing to quell dissent, which led to a massive influx of refugees to Tripura. The state bore the brunt of a refugee population equal to its own and eventually became a forward base for Mukti Bahini, the Bangladesh liberation force trained by the Indian Army under directions from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The Liberation War of Bangladesh was a time when the states of Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam came into sharp focus (the first two were formed just recently). Today, there stands a monument in Agartala in memory of the sacrifices of the people of Tripura during this period.

Insurgency
In the 1980s, secessionist violence broke out in Tripura mainly led by the tribal groups in the hills. Several groups such as the National Liberation Front of Tripura, the All Tripura Tiger Force, Tripura Liberation Organization etc. came into being. The initial reaction was to use military might to handle the situation. However, over time, it was realised that development and not domination was the key to fighting the insurgency.

The Government led by Manik Sarkar and his predecessors led the movement towards ushering in development in the state. Today, Tripura is virtually free of insurgent violence and is one of the most peaceful states in the region, along with Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Agartala is the home of one of the North-East's premier technical institutes, the National Institute of Technology Agartala, and several smaller colleges. The Manik Sarkar Government has handled tribal-non-tribal relations deftly and won the last assembly elections by a landslide. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

US-Pak Relations set to Tumble

The past week saw one of the most dramatic confrontations between American and Pakistani diplomats since the two countries entered into an alliance with each other during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. One day, it was Adm. Mike Mullen telling Congressmen that the Haqqani network was a 'veritable arm of the ISI' and the next, it was Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar being called from the UNGA summit and a declaration that the Haqqanis were the 'blue-eyed boys of the CIA.'

While it is well-known that relations between the two nations have turned bitter since the arrest of Raymond Davis and the raid at Abbottabad later, seldom has it come to such a low as to see public bickering between top diplomats. Minister Khar's even sent out a veiled warning that the alliance itself would be in danger if the US did not back off.

As a sign of increasing hostility, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani called an emergency meeting of Corps Commanders in Rawalpindi, which concluded that Pakistan would not put America's strategic interests before its own. A parallel civilian meeting called by Prime Minister Gilani said as much too.

However, with the US sticking to its deadline of July 2012 for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan is sure to face extreme pressure to do just that. Any departure from the region without ensuring that threats to America - particularly the Haqqani network - are eliminated would open the gates for more 9/11-style attacks. However, reconciliation with terrorist groups seems to be a more difficult option than ever before, as the assassination of the Chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani clearly demonstrated.

One solution out of this mess would be to attack Pakistan and eliminate those very groups that the Americans want to see eliminated. However, this would be an extremely risky move that could endanger troops in Afghanistan, who would virtually collapse without the transit routes through Pakistan. While the Northern Distribution Network is a viable option, the bulk of supplies is still through the former and shifting that is no easy proposition. Furthermore, it would breach international law and could never get support from the Security Council. Lastly, it would bring China and America into conflict in yet another theater.

Another strategy would be o put Afghanistan's security into a regional framework, preferably under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Regional Counter-terrorism Centre. This would be an acceptable compromise to all but would still require a truce between the Taliban and the Norther Alliance-Government in Kabul. And, as a guarantor, it would require some sort of permanent American presence in the region, something that no country is willing to accept.

The options are far and few and situation on-ground, which is deteriorating everyday, bodes tough days ahead for NATO and Pakistan. Gen. Kiyani may have decided to skip his meeting in London, but Pakistan cannot avoid this topic much longer. 

Something's Missing

The journey back home to Hyderabad was rather uncomfortable this time. While I did manage to wake up well in time (unlike what happened in May), and walk gently along to my coach on the train, the trouble started right from there. First, these two aunties who took it as their birthright to stand right in the middle of the aisle while someone hoisted their luggage up, blocking the entire route even as the train left in two minutes flat. Some people really know how to make a pain out of themselves.

Then, after a fun cab ride to IGI, came the line. Oh, what a line it was - it could put the erstwhile RKB-Cautley mess to shame! The Spicejet counters were packed and it took me about half an hour to sign in. Large families that insisted on window seats when there were none didn't help either.

In the flight, I was delighted to meet three Biharis who had never traveled by air before. Sadly, I was given the window seat, which means that the idiot next to me kept his head firmly on my shoulder so that he could philosophically tell his mates about the wonders of human innovation and how shall the world really is! Of course, it wasn't entirely a loss because they gave me plenty of reasons to laugh - like when they asked for Pav Bhaji and a few minutes later, the rather dour flight steward had to explain that the food was not complimentary (I can't blame them given the quantity)! And then there were the thousand rupee notes which he used to pay - the look of a flight steward when he has to find change for  a cup of tea that costs twenty rupees is golden!

At RGIA, I was informed that my parents had not cared to come and pick me up as promised. So, with the bus service already dysfunctional thanks to the Telangana agitation, I was forced to take a cab home. And I realised, to my horror, that Delhi Police does a much better job of running a pre-paid cab service than the Cyberabad Police (Delhi - 1, Hyderabad - 1000000000). I also noticed the acute lack of RTC buses on the road - which was good (because they weren't occupying all the space on the road) and bad (because the increased usage of private vehicles took that space instead).

Back home - good food, a bath and a warm bed awaited. I am back!

Gandhi Peace Lecture: Nation-Building and AFSPA

On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi's 142nd Birth Anniversary, Opinions 24x7 is proud to institute the Gandhi Peace Lecture. The topic for this year is 'Nation-Building and AFSPA.'

Commenting on a move to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, a retired Army General stated that, if not for AFSPA, the entire northeast would have seceded from India, broken into a million splintered groups constantly at war with each other right in India's neighbourhood. AFSPA, according to him, had kept these groups under check and kept the country united.

From a military point of view, his assessment is absolutely correct. The Army was tasked with controlling insurgency and secessionism in the region and that is precisely what they did. Unfortunately, while dealing with your own people, such a military-centric vision comes with its own shortcomings. While AFSPA might have controlled insurgency in the sense of limiting its intensity, it has failed to control the number of insurgent groups. Indeed, since 1958, a number of groups have come up because of the law.

Nation-Building
However, to look at the problem of insurgency from a purely martial point of view would be tragedy. During Independence, when Manipur joined the India Union, we signed an unwritten social contract which envisaged respect for local tribal customs as well as assistance in integrating the State with the Indian mainstream. In other words, Independence brought with it a new challenge - nation building.

What is the difference between a country and a nation? Political scientists say that a country merely represents the physical area over which an authority holds sovereignty; a nation includes the people who see themselves and their lives somehow entwined with the lives of of others in the nation. A purely martial view of insurgency ensures that the country is sustained - it fails at nation-building.

he situation in Manipur today is a classic case of failure to build a strong sense of nationhood. The state is one of the most impoverished in India and the police-politician nexus rules like a classic dictator of yore. Democracy is limited entirely to elections held every five years, while the common man lives in constant fear of the armed forces on one side and the insurgent groups (which fund themselves through extortion and the drug trade) on the other. The population never even hears tales of 'India Shining': for them, they are part of another India entirely, one that is neither democratic nor prosperous. Intermittent economic blockades take a massive toll on an already-suffering people, while politicians and insurgent groups look for every opportunity to line their own pockets.

A Call for Peace
The most gut-wrenching aspect of the insurgency and AFSPA here is the cold-hearted silence from the Indian mainland. Despite a ten-year old fast by Irom Sharmila against AFSPA, all calls for repealing AFSPA have been stone-walled by the Union Ministry of Defense. Their argument is simple - during a war, the Army needs legal cover. However, this belies the fact that you cannot be at war with your own people - an insurgency is fought in hearts and minds, not in the battlefield.

There is the argument that any Government, and the Army is a veritable arm of the Government, must first and foremost ensure the unity and integrity of the nation. This is true, but it comes with a time limit. The immediate danger of secession which prompted the imposition of AFSPA is gone. Some would argue that it is, but to them, I would say that if fifty years of virtual martial rule could not end the danger, then it is not going to in another thousand years. The immediate danger is gone but the lack of development and an acute sense of apathy from the mainland perpetuates violence here - directed at the Armed Forces.

The Solution, if any
Over fifty years of AFSPA has badly damaged Manipuri society. Life is little more than living hell as the common man is caught between bullets from both sides. Violence has never solved anything - it has just created an illusion until the next crisis. As the leaked parts of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission rightly said, AFSPA has come to symbolize hatred amongst the people of Manipur.

The solution lies in not looking at this from a law and order point of view but as a crisis of development and an absence of governance. This can be solved by purely civilian and non-violent methods, but that would first require us to get over the de facto addiction we have to violence. And for that, repealing AFSPA is a crucial first step. That is not easy, but it is not impossible. All it needs is political will and a sense of attachment to every part of the country - including with out brothers and sisters in Manipur.