Sunday, June 30, 2013

Almost Balanced

William Darlymple's recent essay, A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, is a very well-written, rather academic, discussion on what many in the West have described as the next 'Great Game' in Afghanistan, to use the British Imperial term. However, although it does make arguments grounded in facts, in the end, the 'remedy' if you may for Afghanistan seems to be more a leap of faith than any sort of balanced logic.

Now, to put it into context, Dr. Darlymple is not new to the subcontinent. Oh no, he has been one of the many intellectuals to have virtually made India into another home and his views are greatly respected. Unlike a lot of foreign policy hawks, he for one has tried to see both sides. And that is precisely why his essay is so useful. However, somehow, he seems to have restrained himself, choosing to start history from what was certainly a historic episode, the Partition of India, but ignoring the longer set of events that have created the mess that Afghanistan is i.e., British Imperial expeditions into the Pushtun areas and the false Durand Line.

The essay critically examines the nature of Indo-Pak relations since Partition and its implications for Afghanistan. Indeed, the country in the womb of the Hindu Kush comes across as a sort of self-contradiction: continuously influenced by foreign powers and yet fiercely independent, reacting even violently to any attempts to establish a puppet regime. That has been the story for decades and remains so today. Just that the outside actors have changed. With one exception - Pakistan. As the essay clearly points out, the country has, in its perpetual obsession over India, help up by Kashmir but not limited to it, repeatedly fomented trouble in Afghanistan, going so far out as to eventually lose control over its own creations, leading to the 'failed state' tag that the country now enjoys across the world.

In contrast, as the essay points out, India has never made it a zero-sum equation. Of course, India has tried to make sure that elements in Afghanistan are not inimical to it, particularly not to such an extent as to see a major catastrophe in the loss of Kashmir, but it has never gone to the extent of seeing tumult in Pakistan as a strategic victory. Although Pakistan has long held that India uses its network of consulates, particularly the one in Kandahar, to provide support to Baloch insurgents, India has denied it consistently and the Americans, who would be fearful of any foreign power seeking to harm the all-important Pakistani roads that ISAF depends on, have also never found any proof, which probably means that there is no proof and it is a fat story made up in Rawalpindi for both domestic and global audiences.

Darlymple goes on to add something that most Indians already know - Pakistan is not even considered a major threat to India anymore. Its abilities are limited to asymmetric warfare (although the horizon of tactical nuclear weapons is a new area of concern for the whole world) and has largely been contained in the border areas in Kashmir, with few major incidents such as 26/11. No, for Indians, the true threat is seen in China, a country that most Indians believe could overrun us if they so wished to. Most of India's strategic machinery and military development is aimed at mountain warfare and blue-water capabilities, both directed at China. This is also manifest in the number of foreign joint exercises India holds, most of which are with Indo-Pacific powers which are also deeply unsettled by China's rise.

All this the essay says with delightful authority and equanimity. The problem is its final section, where it seeks to make conclusions. It concludes that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could become a sort of reverse-sanctuary for the Pakistan Talkiban (TTP) and Pakistan realizes this and has therefore, has given up its zero-sum game. And therefore, India should 'stop' what it is doing (which even Dr. Darlymple says is not much and virtually nothing directed against Pakistan) - and only such a lasting agreement can bring peace to the area.

I beg to differ - Pakistan's 'realization' is a product of massive American pressure, the old trick akin to what the ISI did in 2001 (publicly attack the Taliban but continue to shelter its top leaders, not to mention Al-Qaeda). Like much of the disastrous Afghanistan campaign, this gain too will vanish with the last ISAF battalion that leaves Afghan soil. For, Pakistan's very reason for it to exist is to be anti-Indian. It is the very bedrock of its formation akin to the American Declaration of Independence. Its entire foreign policy is attuned to being anti-Indian, with Kashmir being a major focus, but not the only one, as many ISI-backed jihadists have spoken of Junagadh, Hyderabad and other areas that they seek to 'liberate.' To believe that such a State can so easily walk out of its ideological nest is erroneous.

And as an even deeper implication, the conclusion smacks of Imperial hypocrisy, with the West seeking to find any desperate way to leave respectably, prepared to cut as many sly deals as necessary, forgetting that while India does not seek to use Afghanistan as some base against Pakistan, it is not going to just stand back and allow that country to become the base for all things anti-India, an India-centric Al-Qaeda, to use the literal meaning of the name. If the West could so irresponsibly invade and occupy Afghanistan for their raw lust for revenge after 9/11, India at the very least reserves the right to make sure that it can keep its homeland safe. And India has very good reasons to believe that a dispensation propped up by Pakistan will be inimical to it - let us not forget just who were on-board that hijacked airplane in Kandahar.

It has always been fashionable in Washington and London to see all of South Asia as an Indo-Pak battleground. As 2014 approaches, and the spectre of humiliating defeat stares it in the face, the West is clearly trying to fall back on such old, failed ideas, looking for simple shortcuts to a gargantuan mess that the British started and the Americans enhanced. This policy is certain to bring it back in the future to fight another day, making the entire series of sacrifices so far a complete waste. William Darlymple would do well to keep that in mind - we all know that Eastern lives are cheap for the West, but at least think of the expensive Western sacrifices at stake. 

How Ironic

Cables from Kabul: The inside story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign
By Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan and Special Representative for Af-Pak

'Another Day, Another New Afghan Strategy' - a wonderful caricature from The Times summarizes way the West has handled Afghanistan, not just since the 2001 invasion of the Islamic Emirate, but well before that, since the creation of the anti-Soviet jihad. In this memoir - and it is just that, a memoir - the former HM Ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, shares details of the way the International Afghanistan Corporation, to use the term, works.

Now, in this age of Wikileaks and Snowden, the book's cover might tempt you into believing that it contained some juicy, hitherto confidential gossip. It does not, as the preface itself makes clear. The book is not a set of new revelations about Afghanistan, it is rather a window into the difficult world of diplomacy, particularly diplomacy involving America.

However, I for one, did not like this book. The writing is not exactly factual (which is OK) but deeply biased with terrible ironies that only the British can produce (which is not OK). Throughout, the author discusses the Anglo-Afghan Wars as though they were a natural wonder in history, with the Imperial Government in Delhi coincidentally doing its best to destabilize the tribal quarters there, culminating in the Durand Line. As though that is not enough, the way the British and Americans talk about fighting the Pashtuns in the South and East of the country knowing full well that the Durand Line is meaningless and no barrier at all for the Taliban is another glaring irony consistent throughout the book, despite Richard Holbrooke's reasoning that America is 'fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.' Cowper-Coles, despite his seeming obsession with engaging with everyday Afghans, seems to find it normal to discuss 'quasi-imperialism' as though it is akin to foreign direct investment - going as far as to explain why he felt the British made better imperialists than the Americans! So much for all talk of respecting sovereignty.

However, as a simple memoir, the book makes for good reading and is ordered chronologically to make it easy for Afghanistan-watchers like myself to place incidents in the right context, particularly the British mission in Helmand. The author's personal description of Hamid Karzai and his 'style' are valuable, though nothing comes close to his description of the American way of diplomacy - fast, impatient and often short-sighted that seems to be the greatest harbinger of defeat in what has been described as the graveyard of Empires. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Quite Inspiring

From the stables of Wieden+Kennedy Delhi, Guardians of the Skies is a rather inspiring ad calling for young men and women to join the Indian Air Force. Now, being an ad for something as governmental as the Air Force, it obviously cannot contain too much violence, despite the fact that violence is a fact of war. Nonetheless, the ad contains some memorable clips - from the life of an officer at home to the rigors of strategic discussions. And of course, there is the all-important panoramic view of the city!

With great music to compliment and an inspiring storyline, this is an excellent ad. 

Dissecting a Birthday

So today is my birthday and I've turned twenty two. From the stroke of midnight onward, I made sure to keep my Facebook chat off, lest I be deluged by messages. Of course, the website does not allow you to shut off your timeline. No matter, it feels good to be remembered at times, it even works to remind you of friends long gone. In the Facebook age, of course, it is not really necessary that everyone posting on your Timeline actually remembers you.

But anyway, lets not get into those technicalities. Instead, I was thinking of a problem that has been on my mind for a year or so now: why do people celebrate their birthdays? Think about it - most people are afraid of growing old, dying even, a process that starts, well, right from birth! In that sense, why celebrate a day closer to death? Then again, that's a pretty pessimistic way to look it - it could be in celebration of another year well done or in hope of a good year ahead. After all, hope is the fuel that moves us from one generation to the next.

This year, because of my periodic change in phone numbers, I was not flooded with phone calls, but I did get a fair share of them. I've never been big on birthday parties - a simple cake is quite enough for me. Last year though, it was quite different with a full bash by the river Isar with the DAAD Munich Gang. That, I would say, was my first authentic birthday party ever... the kind you hear about, see in the movies even! But those are memories. As one post on Facebook was nice enough to remind me, this is actually my first birthday since graduating from IIT Roorkee. When you join an IIT, it feels great, but leaving it is a very strange experience. And somethings never change, such as when I told my driving instructor where U studied and he said, "Hyderabad mein kuch nahi mila tha?"

Well, apart from that, IITR was kind enough to time their speed post dispatch so that I could get my provisional degree today. At 9.503, it was a tad higher than what I had calculated (9.502), but still puts me on top. And it was great to finally see my CGPA cross the 9.5-barrier, just so. Now, that's a good reason to celebrate! 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What is Civil Engineering?

Now, that's what you'd call a good question. In this JEE season, I have often been asked this seemingly-simple question and, despite graduating with the department medal, I still find it difficult to answer this question. It's not that I don't know, I do, or that it's too complicated to explain, it's very simple, but just that it's so difficult to put it in words. I find it much easier to explain it like this:

Sit down in a clam, quiet spot. Clear your mind and imagine an empty piece of land, just grass and trees and nothing else. This is probably what the earth looked like before what is now Civil Engineering (and also Architecture) came into being. Very beautiful yes, but you would grow frustrated if you had to live in it. Come rain or snow, you would be helpless. Crops could grow at one end and a stream for water somewhere else and you would have to walk great distances to go between the two. The path could be treacherously lined with rocks in some parts, making it a challenge to move around. Now, let's change that. Let's dig up the earth and get rid of those rocks that prevent us from doing anything. On top of those, lets put up some sticks to protect you from the wild animals and insects outside. Oh, but wait, it's raining again - lets put a roof over your head once and for all.

So, you can now sleep without worrying about being buried under a mountain of snow the next morning. But what about food and water? Lets start with the latter - suppose we take some wood and fashion pipes of them. And then, use them to bring water from the stream to your home, throughout the day, everyday. Of course, if you're a little careful, you'd want to make sure it's clean. Say we do that too - so now you have clean water whenever you want. What about food? Well, now that you have water at home, you can go to the farm to get some food - but there are still a lot of rocks on the way, making it difficult to get there everyday. Lets do something about it - let's clear a path, a permanent route, bypassing all the hazardous spots. It could be a little longer than usual, but safer and easier to get through. Who knows, in the future, maybe we could find a way to get there without having to get off a chair?

Oh, but wait, you've realized that your house is in a bad spot - whenever it rains, all the water comes down to your house! You need to relocate and you decide to take it apart and rebuild it somewhere higher up. First, you need to find a good place, which is as comfortable as your current one, but safer when it rains. Soon enough, you find what you're looking for - and now it's time to move. That's easier said than done - you need to plan how to do it. You have to make sure you can get clean water in your new home and you cannot work at the time of the day when you need to get food from the farm. So you sit down and plan and come up with the perfect way to relocate.

Very soon, a passing nomad sees your home and decides to adopt your way of living. He builds a house next to yours and learns your principles. And then come more - and more. Before you know it, your little house is one among many. The waste generated from such a large colony needs to be taken care of - you sit together and figure out how to get it done. The farms have expanded to cater for the larger number of people, but that has pushed a lot of farms far away. Railways appear to help you reach those places. Some of the farms need water - a canal system is designed. Some people decide to get food for the entire week instead of doing it everyday, giving them a lot of free time. They decide to find some work elsewhere and lay new paths to get there - some of those paths are built high up above existing ones, others pass across rivers and gorges. More people want to live near you, so larger houses appear, with houses built over houses. Rotten land, full of quicksand and marsh, is reclaimed. Waste water is cleaned and used again, as the stream is no longer able to cater to everyone's needs. For this, everyone gets together and builds a little tank to store water, making it easier to get over the dry periods.

And thus, your little house becomes a city - and the planet as we know it today.

This story summarizes what I think is Civil Engineering. Every part of it has deals with the manipulation of nature for man's common good. Perhaps, that is the motivation behind engineering itself, which is why Civil engineering (or rather, it's martial avatar, Military Engineering) is the oldest field of engineering. When you are looking for the right place to build a home, you are surveying the area - that's Geomatics Engineering. You dig up the earth to make it suitable to build a house upon - Geotechnical Engineering. You actually build a house, one that can bare the storms and seasons and does not collapse - Structural Engineering. You bring water from a stream to your home - Hydraulics Engineering. You find ways to clean that water to avoid disease - Environmental Engineering. To get to the farm, you lay down a new path - Transportation Engineering. You decide you want to relocate and come up with a plan - Construction Management. And as your home turns into a city, new solutions come up. You learn to irrigate your fields and store water, you find ways to manage the vast quantities of waste generated, you build new structures to walk across rivers and gorges and even existing paths... as the need grows, so too does the field.

Of course, this is still just the tip of the iceberg: the number of areas that Civil Engineering has entered is vast and shapes our lives everyday. It is what differentiates a barren strip of land from a place of human habitation. It has been this field of engineering that has helped us move our Civilization ahead: from nomads, to living in mud houses, to forts and towers, to skyscrapers, to space stations - and beyond!

Postscript: OK, so I forgot to mention one part. How would you like it if your house did not have a window and, even if it did, it faced a tree and sunlight could never enter? Or if your bedroom was very large while your kitchen was too small to cook in? Or if you lived next to a busy marketplace and never had a moment's silence? While Civil Engineering can tell you how to manipulate nature, it cannot tell you how to do it well enough to make you comfortable. That is perhaps the oldest art known - Architecture. Civil Engineering and Architecture tend to be wedded most of the time, but the relationship is full of arguments arising out of a difference in perspective. However, when they work together, they build the world that we have come to take for granted! 

What's Cooking in Delhi?

With the second rounds of Assembly elections this year approaching, there seems to be a keen contest brewing in Delhi. Traditionally, this state, which houses the National Capital, has always been a two-way contest between the Congress and the BJP. While Chief Minister Shiela Dixit of the Congress has been in power for almost two decades now, the BJP won a massive majority in Municipal elections held a few years back.

But this year, the game is about to get more complicated with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) set to enter the fray. AAP Convener Arvind Kejriwal, who enjoys a great deal of popularity on the social media and particularly among the middle class, has decided to directly contest against Dixit, to the extent that he has warned her that changing her constituency will not help as he will follow her wherever she goes. Therefore, the battle is not clearly at the Chief Minister's door. AAP has been spending the last year holding protests for a variety of causes; it was even active during he Nirbhay protests. In fact, it's shrillest campaign has been over water and electricity charges in Delhi.

However, AAP has failed to explain exactly what its own policies will be and how it would go about implementing them. It is one thing to run a negative campaign painting your rivals black, it is quite another to provide constructive solutions on your own. AAP claims that it is working on several manifestos, one for each constituency and one central manifesto for Delhi as a whole. However, it is yet to be seen whether the promises it makes are realistic.

In the midst of all this, the BJP Delhi seems to be losing the script a little. Kejriwal, while taking on the Congress, seems to have usurped the role of the main opposition party without even winning a single seat. Of course, it is possible that Kejriwal's playing to the gallery might fail. Does he really have a mass-base or is he just a middle class obsession? Do the people who participate in his protests actually intend to vote for him? These are difficult questions that will be answered later this year. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Not Impressive

The just-concluded fourth round of the Indo-US Strategic Dialogue at New Delhi was a major disappointment, if not a harbinger of difficult times to come under the Obama administration's second term. It has now become clearer that ever that the US is desperate to find an exit from Afghanistan and is ready to be extremely short-sighted to that end. The absence of any substantial point in the Joint Statement on the issue of talks with the Taliban accounts for as much.

But even beyond the all-important problem of integrating the Taliban, the Statement fails to address major concerns that India has. In particular, there has been no mention of India's concern over changes to immigration rules that will badly hurt Indian IT companies and employees. The IT industry has been the bulwark of the relations between the two and this direct attack upon it deserved serious attention, which it did not get.

And perhaps the most disturbing of all was the absence of a mention, however token, on UNSC reforms. This, despite that fact that Obama himself has supported India's candidature for permanent membership to the high table. Of course, this can be somewhat explained by differences between the two having cropped up, such as over Syria. But that just reinforces that fact that the relation is beginning to drift apart. Even the mention of US support for Indian membership to the nuclear export-control regimes is not very reassuring, given that it seems increasingly difficult for such membership to fruition.

Finally, the typical Kerry-style soft-corner towards Pakistan was in full view, when the Secretary of State did not make any references to the terrorist threat that India faces as a result of camps in Pakistani soils. Some commentators have gone as far as saying that the fact that he chose to discuss Indo-Pak trade but not Pak-generated terrorism means that we are slowly heading back to the days of hyphenation, which is the clearest possible sign of a relationship in the doldrums.

With all this in mind, the Dialogue does not evoke much hope but actually reinforces a fast-spreading pessimism in the strategic community. 

Can't Call it Propaganda

Hello, Baster: The Untold Story of India's Maoist Movement
By Rahul Pandita

The texture of the cover is enough to give you a hint: this story is not pretty. It is not a story with a happy ending; if it ever ends, that is. This hard-hitting novel is more a collection of facts and figures, but it certainly packs a punch. Rahul Pandita, the Kashmiri Pandit who himself has seen a great deal of violence early on in his life, takes us through the early years of what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as India's gravest internal security threat.

Now, to be fair, there are many ways of looking at a story - in this case, you can look at it through the eyes of the Indian state and the Constitution, or through the eyes of the rebels. But it becomes truly credible if it looks at one from the eyes of the other - and Hello, Bastar does just that. Never has the book refuted the goals if the Indian state, the purpose for which the masses revolted against colonial rule. If anything else, it time and again reinforces them.

The book is indeed, not a one-side affair. It is an introduction to Maoist history and ideology - the former presented factually and the latter through various documents that the CPI (Maoist) uses to set its aims at every Party Congress. It does however, look at it from those caught in Maoist violence today and tries to explain that. True, it could have done a better job at it but it is still not a one-sided, 33-page essay. Perhaps the greatest evidence of that is the afterword by jailed CPI (Maoist) leader Kobad Ghandy, which one would expect to be a one-sided diatribe against democracy, but actually sounds like a speech that should have been made in Parliament with all ears listening, full of facts that concerned citizens have been pointing out to a government that is clearly not interested.

The fact that Indian democracy is feudal and has not brought freedom to millions of Adivasis. The fact that economic growth has bypassed most of India. The fact that we are an increasingly unequal society, the inequality being not just in economic terms (which one could still expect from any country) but in terms of opportunities and human rights (which is unacceptable). As Ghandy rightly says - these are important questions. Indeed, and Pandita does a good job in raising them. 

My Problem with Finance Companies

I've been involved in a recent spat on an online forum with my peers regarding the value that JEE ranks give to an IIT. My empirical reply was that recruiters don't care for JEE ranks but technical knowledge and, outside the top 100 ranks, the two have a somewhat inverse relationship, for a variety of reasons. I myself am someone with a very pathetic JEE rank but finishing with a silver medal in the end; on the other hand, I have seen titans who opened their branches getting a beating and dropping off to the netherworld in the end. And placements was the battle royal of it, with JEE ranks finding no mention anywhere.

However, I was quickly cut short by a counter-opinion that JEE ranks matter because finance companies (which is an umbrella term for banks, traders, financial consultancies etc.) do not come to Roorkee since it does not attract the top 500 among the JEE crowd. And then came the idea of publicity and how having AIR 1 in your institute gives it an aura that simply cannot be missed. I admit, all these arguments are correct - engineering and finance are miles apart and such companies do genuinely value the analytic skills of JEE students over the engineering skills they acquire at an IIT. In that respect, it does matter.

However, I have a counter-question: do finance companies matter? I'm not trying to impose my opinion on anybody, I am certainly not a socialist. But, facts speak and in this case, they say it loudly: the finance industry employs less than 1% of Indians, that in a country with millions of unemployed youth. It does not create any physical assets on the ground whatsoever, be it food or housing. In a country that has more hungry people than sub-Saharan Africa, in a country where thousands of farmers commit suicide every year, I really cannot see the point of an industry that contributes virtually nothing on the ground.

But then, so what? If people want to work in an industry that creates money from money and finally lands up with money, what's wrong with it? Nothing at all, except when it's the working class that is expected to pay for it. After all, the country spends a disproportionately high percentage of money on an 80% subsidy of IIT tuition. That, at the cost of spending less on so-called less talented students who study in other colleges in India. The reason for that is that these super-intelligent students are supposed to be able to contribute more to society. But as I've already shown, finance companies contribute virtually nothing.

Again, I emphasize that I am not socialist, but I am fair. If someone wants to become very rich, they have every right to do it but not by fleecing the general public. IIT students who join finance companies, I think, should be asked to pay back their entire subsidy. They do not deserve to have their luxuries subsidized by those who do not have the luxury to dream. Even on a purely capitalist perspective, it is wrong - the earnings of a man should go towards his own growth, not be used to subsidize somebody else's growth: that is plain crony capitalism. And we are talking about luxury here, not subsistence, so this is actually an income redistribution of the most perverse kind.

Now, one argument is that these finance companies create a massive amount of wealth and the income tax from that makes up for the subsidy. That is again, a very perverse argument. FICCI says that 75% of Indian engineering students are unemployable, if the money that goes into the IITs would go into making at least half of these employable, it would generate jobs on a much larger scale, something that mere income tax is not going to fix. A pure financial equation is not of the order here - it is a matter of where a country's priorities are.

And therefore, I conclude that if JEE ranks are important in order to attract finance companies, then JEE ranks should be the least concern of any IIT. It is not desirable to beg and grouch in front of companies that don't give a penny for the engineering skills imparted in the IITs yet walk away with the brightest in the land. They are, of course, free to take them in an off-campus arrangement, but at least on-campus, they should be shown the door. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Oh, the Traffic

Since I obtained my American Visa, I have been spending the time finally learning to drive. It's not very hard really - the controls are all quite obvious. The clutch (dis) engages some sort of a shaft that is supposed to latch onto a flywheel that transfers power from the engine to the wheels. Obviously, this transfer of power is based on conservation of torque and hence, gears come into play. The brake merely slows down the engine, so much so that crushing the breaks can turn it off. And the accelerator does the opposite and therefore, should be used sparingly.

All this is good if driving were about the theory. Unfortunately, it's not, for anyone can learn the controls, the real problem is using them in a real-life scenario. Enter, traffic. Now, I've heard rumours of Hyderabad's bad traffic before, and I've seen it, but never on the driver's seat. Now, I have. And it's terrible. One myth is firmly broken - that South Indians are very disciplined. They are not, they are terrible in fact and the culprit is the same: two-wheeler drivers, the bane of any roads. As a Civil Engineer, I know that expressways do not allow two-wheelers and now I know why.

On Hyderabad's roads, very rarely can you reach third gear - I am yet to ever reach fourth. Most of the time, you need to keep slowing down. In case it's really bad, you will have to keep stopping and then changing back to the first gear. Now, this gear business is really irritating and I must profess an acute envy of the Americans, who believe in auto-transmission. It would not have been so bad, however, had the instructor non insisted on me riding the clutch i.e., perpetually holding down the clutch slightly. I can't understand the logic - and a quick Internet search reveals that there is no logic.

True, it's an excellent safety strategy to declutch the engine in case of some potential mishap, but that can also be achieved my mildly tapping your leg on the clutch, not necessarily holding it down. Besides, in my particular case, I keep forgetting that the clutch is only partially held down and needs to be pushed fully while changing the gear - that can be a big mistake.

Fortunately, braking is somewhat easier - hold down the clutch and slowly lower the brake, it's pretty easy and I've earned plenty of brownie points for it. And, given how often traffic comes to a halt, it's a pretty useful skill. However, what I've realized is that everyone has a different style of driving - all aspects, even the way the gear joystick is held - and there is nothing beyond practice and a little bit of courage to face crazy drivers! 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The JEE Problem

JEE-qualified students across the country are now worried about which branch to choose and in which IIT. Our solution that promises lasting relief to the whole system. 

IIT-China War


After a long time, The Political Times returns with some fresh, provocative humour! 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Virtual Friends

For the last two years or so, I have been the subject of much attention on my Facebook social network. Not that I don't like it, everybody likes to see a decent number of notifications and have something to do in the virtual world. Somebody on a TV channel once called us the 'Facebook generation.' Well, he's probably wrong for those hundreds of millions of Indian youth who do not have access to Internet (or clean drinking water, for that matter), but he's spot on when it comes to me.

However, one problem I have been facing is the large number of friend requests I get from complete strangers. It started all the way from school days, but back then it didn't make much of a difference - I added juniors from school assuming that they would help me keep in touch with the happenings there. How wrong I was. Nobody talks about interesting stuff, like the new book store in town or the new teacher at school. They talk about their relationship problems, their witty jokes, the latest movie that they saw etc. Which is all very nice except when you have no clue as to who the person is.

Once I realized this problem, I stopped adding everyone who added me. I still remember, once upon a time, when I had a clean friend requests inventory, dispensing with requests immediately or within a few days. That has changed now - I have well over a hundred pending requests and I have no idea what to do with them. And since IITR MUN 2012, the number of people that I have been meeting has risen exponentially, so much so that I can't remember all of them. So I decided to do the obvious - ask. Whenever I get a friend request, it runs through a check: Do I know this person? If I can answer the question affirmatively myself, then I simply accept the request with no further questions asked - and I really do give it a great deal of thought.

If however, I can't answer it for myself, I ask the most obvious question - Have we met? As a testament to my memory, a vast majority reply, that is if they reply at all, with an emphatic no. I often wish to ask the most obvious follow-up question as well i.e., Why did you add me then? But I have never done that, since it goes beyond my requirement of accepting or rejecting a friend request. At one point of time, I would still add a stranger if we had a decent number of mutual friends, but of late I have met strangers with nearly 200 mutual friends, so that system was effectively defenestration.

To be fair, I do make some exceptions. There would be nobody from The DebSoc that I do not know, but any junior from Kshitij would get my nod. I'm not evil, I just want some reason to add the person. At times, I have even shown a soft spot for Civil juniors, but that is restricted to the year immediately junior to mine - the logic being that they might want some advice or guidance and, since I depended on my seniors for that, I can't deny my juniors that. I have never refused to give any friendly advice to anyone, not even if they come without a reference, but that does not mean that I am going to add them to my list and observe their activities on my wall.

I know that, among my peers, I probably stand out like a sore thumb. There are others, equally and probably even more famous than I am, who add everybody who cares to send them a request - I have seen people with well over 1,500 friends, although I believe Facebook had a limit of 1,500. Perhaps they updated that. I know people who send friend requests to anyone interesting they find (especially pretty girls). But I have no intention of letting my Facebook go haywire and seeing a stream of unintelligible updates on my wall. I'm probably not too social in that sense - I still prefer the old-fashioned way of making friends, despite my vast digital footprint. And even among them, I prefer a small, closely-knit group.

Now, I've found that people consider that very obvious question - Have we met? - to be extremely rude, a sign of arrogance. I, for one, cannot understand how: it is the most basic question you can ask in such a situation! But then again, since when have I had a problem with being deemed arrogant? The way the world runs, just about anyone who values themselves is deemed arrogant. In April, I went on an un-friend-ing spree, removing close to 150 contacts on my Facebook in a matter of a few hours (unfortunately this was also in the middle of exam prep, but I still got an A+, so no harm done!). That still left me with a little under 700 friends and close to 200 subscribers - the friend requests that I have not accepted. And I still had a deluge of friend requests, close to five per day, from total strangers with a veritable army of mutual friends behind them. The day I was selected in ITC was epic - 10 in one single night!

However, I hope this problem will go away once I settle down in Illinois. I can understand that undergrads are a little to enthusiastic to remain well-connected, but in grad school I don't think I'll have any such problem. I hope. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Time to look at Reality

The Hon'ble Madras High Court, in a single-judge bench, made an interesting judgment that set off alarm bells across social media, and rightly so. Now, before I begin, I would like to point out that I am not insulting the court or doing anything that could be deemed contempt of court. According to the Supreme Court, an objective analysis of any decision does not amount to contempt of court and that is what I shall attempt to do.

In its decision, the Court opined that a man and woman above the legal age of marriage, who indulge in consensual sex, are deemed to be married. Note that the judge did use the term consensual, so the silly tweets saying that rapists are married to their victims make no sense. Now, the judgment did not come out of thin air, it was a decision in a very serious case, where a man and a woman in a live-in relationship bore two children and the man tried to dump his partner and children. The judgment was meant to protect the woman in a case where the man was clearly trying to exploit her and his children. Nobody can doubt the verdict in this situation as it is consistent with previous Supreme Court judgments on the rights of a woman in a live-in relationship.

The problem is that, not stopping at this particular case of a long-term relationship outside marriage having been established, the Court generalized it to the smallest possible unit of sex - a one-night stand. A reading of the judgment without any biases clearly points out that even a one-night stand is enough to establish marriage and, for the man to have sex again, he must obtain 'divorce' from his first 'wife.' Now, when the issue got larger, the Justice in question did clarify that his decision was made to protect women from exploitation, which is perfectly fair. However, it has an unintended effect, a serious one - it penalizes consensual premarital sex between consenting adults who do not wish to do anything more than obtain sexual gratification, which is not illegal by any statute passed by the legislature.

And that is where the clash comes in - here, we see a clear generational clash. The unspoken assumption of the judgment is that all premarital sex amounts to exploitation and therefore, needs to be curbed. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it has no legislative backing - exploitation does not have a blanket definition and it needs to be duly demonstrated. Secondly, it actually goes against the Supreme Court's ruling in Khushboo vs. Kanniammal and Anr., wherein the highest court said that it is not a crime for two consenting, unmarried adults to live together. In fact, a deeper reading of that judgment even implies that holding pre-marital sex to be 'wrong' is a symptom of judging a woman by her virginity, a social problem that has seen women being subjected to horrors such as honour killings and being forced to marry their rapists.

In a lead story, Tehelka explored the world of sex in urban India, which is already very common among unmarried couples, both of whom are majors, and even growing among minors. Laws have failed to keep up with this phenomenon - we must remember here that laws do not define society, it is society that defines its laws. A conservative law in a liberal society is simply impossible to properly implement because it is incompatible with society at large. Pre-marital sex, whatever hot-headed politicians and religious outfits might say, is a reality and is borne of a sexual liberation that is itself born of economic liberation of young men and women in a modern, prosperous society. To say that such a thing is 'wrong' is to unfairly impose a particular view of society onto everyone else, which is not just morally wrong but unconstitutional insofar as it damages personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. To impose that view with violence or indeed, judicial verdicts, is even more wrong.

Therefore, the case in the Madras High Court needs a serious review about the view of society and culture that it imposes on a young population finding its feet in a globalized world. You can condemn it, say that it does not fit into ancient Indian culture, say that it leads to 'vices' among young people - but you cannot impose a legal penalty on it. That much personal freedom we do continue to enjoy in our liberal democracy.  

Oh, Dear Uttarakhand

The floods that have wreaked havoc in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand are a huge disaster for the small hill state where I had the privilege to live for three years, albeit in one of its two plain districts. The Himalayan hills of Uttarakhand are truly beautiful and of great natural value. Tourists throng the area throughout the year - in the summer and monsoons for the adventure sports on offer and in the autumn and winter for the trekking and camping options. Moreover, the state describes itself as a holy land for Hindus, with several significant shrines paying host to lakhs of pilgrims each year.

It then makes for a sad scene when Uttarakhand is ravaged by floods of the kind we see today. To be fair, it's not new to the Hill State - cloudbursts have been a recurring feature and should be expected around the end of June. But this year, the sheer quantum of precipitation and the early monsoon borne of a moving trough caused all things to go haywire, leading to immense loss of life and property.

I'll be honest - it pains me to see this. Despite my Civil Engineering tendencies, by which I mean I take it all to be unimportant because the return period is so high that it makes no sense to prepare for such a crisis, I do wish there were things that could be done to have avoided this. Now, some non-engineers on those loud TV channels have talked about banning all economic activity in the area, essentially leaving it in the stone age; and others have talked about 'stopping' so many pilgrims from coming each year.

To the first group, I would say that their suggestion is just not an option. We are in the 21st Century, people cannot be expected to hunt for survival. They needs roads, electricity, pakka houses, schools, hospitals etc. These are simply necessary and if we are not going to bring these to our border hill states, then China is and then we have a problem. True, it can be done keeping the environment in mind - Environmental Engineering is no longer an abstract, coffee-table concept, it is a fundamental field on engineering that can provide us with a suitable way to minimize our environmental impact. We cannot eliminate it, there is no point even trying to. Even the fancy zero-effluent buildings are not exactly zero-effluent but rather, low-effluent. Science and technology gives us the ways to do it, the problem is the politics, in particular the sand mining mafia that has ravaged the region with political support. It is this that needs to be stopped, not the legitimate development needs of the people.

As for the second group of people, there is no real answer anyway. For them, anything Hindu can be trampled upon in the name of secularism and even saying something otherwise is communal and therefore, anti-national and a threat to society at large. One someone chooses to take their axioms as gospel truth and deems it wrong to even suggest otherwise, there is no real argument left. But for those willing to listen, there exist excellent management methods, routinely deployed to managed enraged protesters, which can help us manage even larger crowds. The Amarnath Yatra is a fine example of this, but then in J&K, the definition of minority gets reversed. You see my point. Every Hindu of this country, indeed every citizen, has a right to go to these holy places, particularly if they are paying from their own pockets. To deny them that right in any name is unconstitutional and therefore, anti-national.

Today, I saw a picture of LBS Stadium in Roorkee flooded because of the rains. I remember a time in third year when the gaon was flooded similarly and yet we made our way to class. Sadly, the pilgrims stuck there do not have such an option. 

A Journey Through Life

The idea of Empire in Exile came to me in one of my many lonely walks across the IIT Roorkee campus. Towards the end of my stay there, I had grown extremely ponderous - the weight of the four years behind me was resting on my mind. When I started OTFS, the primary reason was to find an outlet for my pent up emotions. JEE preparation is not easy and you don't get much time to talk about things with your friends or relatives - everyone expects you to study like a maniac!

But that utility remains valid even today - for as the saying goes, you come alone and you leave alone. I came alone, I left alone, but I was affected by the many who I met on the way. Almost every character in EIE was in someway related to the people I met there; every major twist was related to a major event from the last four years of my life. I found my greatest enemies and my greatest friends, all to come down to the simple realization that none of it matters - in the end, it all depends on what you think of yourself.

My story was important for me - I would be fooling myself if I said that I would want to forget it. The lessons learned are important, they define me today. The story flowed naturally from me, because it was my own  - story. As you noticed, at times, there was an unending stream of EIE posts - I would like to call it an explosion of creativity!

Seleucus was deeply principled but did not understand that the world around him does not have to accept his principles. He made mistakes and had resigned himself to his fate, until the Keeper put some hope back into his life. He tried again to stand on principles, hoping that his sincere actions to defend Landeb would speak for themselves. But he soon realized that the world was not going to be handed down to him on a silver platter- and so he fought to win what was his. His victory did not end his tale, for winning an Empire is one thing and keeping it is quite another. His tale of conquest in Rorankite and his subsequent downfall with the misadventure in Jacobia told him that the time was near for him to leave. And when he did, he left with his head held high, confident that whatever he had done, he was entitled to be proud of it. There is a lesson there for all of us - it is the lesson I have learned, perhaps what countless others before me have learned.

And through EIE, I hope it is a lesson others will continue to learn. Did Seleucus find the path of his Keeper?  Did they ever meet again? What became of Rorankite under Tiverium Osten? What became of Seleucus?

But that is for another day.

(Series Concluded)

Farewell

The moment I stepped in, he rushed to me and hugged me.

"I was so afraid you would not come back to Debin! That is why I was so upset that you did not let me go to Syracuse with you," Tiverium said.

"I would never go without seeing you, Tiverium. And I would never go without seeing Landeb-Chymeria."

"How was your time at Syracuse?"

"Enlightening - and wonderful."

"Meaning?"

"I have learned one lesson - I must never be afraid of who I am or what I seek. I am proud of my origins, but I am also proud of where I have reached. Syracuse was my home, Tiverium, I had to go there. But it is by my own actions that Landeb-Chymeria is my Kingdom. A King must end his reign in his own Kingdom. It might have started there, but it will end here."

***

The entire royalty of Rorankite, with the exception of the rulers of Syracuse, had assembled in Debin - it was a momentous occasion, the end of an era.

"The end of fifty years of Dolcian rule over Rorankite - but certainly the most prosperous years we have seen!"
"Nay, the end of a great era, the coming of an even greater one under our Emperor Tiverium Osten!"
"Call him Dolcian if you will, but his actions suited the noblest of Rorian traditions, certainly a role model for generations to come!"

The gossip continued in the streets as the common people assembled in their finest attires to witness the event. The Emperor would address his people, royalty, his former cabinet and Assemblymen - everyone, virtually. And then he would ride out. It was eerily similar to how he had been banished from Syracuse, yet there was one fundamental difference - this time, he would leave with his head held high.

"People of Rorankite,

"It has been an honour to have served you. It was under me that the Terms of Confederation were reached and we entered this period of immense prosperity. And I am sure that, as long as we uphold those principles, there will be even greater days to come.

"If I could gift my experience to you to serve you for eternity, I readily would. However, it is my firm belief that there is no better teacher than time. Therefore, I leave you here to trace your own path ahead, sure in the knowledge that our Confederacy remains strong and that my successor, Tiverium Osten, will always keep the interests of the people in mind."

And then he began his walk - the whole audience stood in reverential silence. He was not sad, he did not seem to have any misgivings. He was smiling, greeting those who lined the path on his way. He walked proudly - our greatest ruler.

And then he left the gates, no longer our ruler.

"The Emperor is gone!"
"Long live the Emperor!"

The Final Visit

"Your young Prince has not accompanies you? I thought he was your agent here in Syracuse?"

The same stinging tone - she had hardly changed. Anatolia was never one to mince words, she had always preferred to say what she felt up front.

"I asked him not to come - I wanted to finish this part of my life without mixing the other part into it," I said.

"What is left here for you, Seleucus? Everything ended that day, when you were exiled. Why do you return here?"

"How can I not, Anatolia? I grew up here, my memories are etched to Syracuse. I know you do not agree with the way I was ousted, yet you seem to be in the forefront of enforcing it. Why? Was it Normander?"

She burst out laughing. "Normander? He is not capable of anything, he is best left to fight with his weapons. No, Seleucus, no. Much water has flown since that day. You were not here to see it, we were. The people of Syracuse, Seleucus, are not capable of ruling themselves. The moment you left, there was a beeline to appropriate your legacy. This is the result of your ideas - you know it is! You are always welcome here, Seleucus. Your ideas are not."

I had resigned myself to that - my idea, now in place in the most powerful kingdom of the land, has no place in my own home.

"Normander never liked you - he always frowned on our relationship. Then how did this come about?"

"We were both distressed by how the Syrenician royalty was tearing your legacy apart, I had the idea to stop it, he had the resources. I was the mind, he was the body. We did it for you Seleucus - at the end of they day, we wanted to defend you, not ourselves."

I nodded - it was a choice they made, and they did it with what they felt was the best at the time.

"Have you missed me, Anatolia, at least once after I left?"

"Every single day, Seleucus, every single day."

***

"There is no point asking about friendship anymore, Seleucus, you ended that in the dungeons."

"And yet, is everything between us to be defined by one moment, Normander? Are friends not entitled to hold different opinions?," he replied.

I paused - he was right, but it was beyond my comprehension. "Seleucus, I am not as great as you. You were meant to be King, not I. Perhaps you are right, I do not know, but it is not easy..."

I could not control myself - I missed those days we had together. How can I ever forget it? And yet, so much had changed. Too much.

Seleucus put a hand on my shoulder - it felt like one moment, one last moment, when nothing had changed.

"I understand, Normander. I do not ask you to change your opinions, you are entitled to them. I just hope that you will, some day, forgive me for all the wrong that I have done to you," he said.

"Seleucus, I do not know when such a day will be. Perhaps our friendship was cursed from that day... you remember that day. But one thing I can tell you - I have not forgotten our past, and I cherish every moment of it. The least I can do for you is to ensure that your farewell suits your stature. I know you are very popular among the masses - they deserve to bid you farewell suitably."

He stood staring outside the window, towards the woods. In those woods, when that curse was struck, perhaps our destiny was cemented. Apart.

***

The crowd was massive - all of Syracuse has assembled in the Central Square. Normander had kept his word. I stood with them, I spoke to them. It was what I had wanted to do for all these years - to be with the people of Syracuse. To be with my people.

The time had come to leave at last - somehow, I wanted to make it quick. A drumbeat announced the arrival of King Normander and Queen Anatolia, they had come to see me off. I was touched.

"My people of Syracuse," Normander said to the gathering at large. "Take this opportunity to say goodbye to the greatest ruler Rorankite has ever had - Emperor Seleucus. One of our own."

As my royal chariot made its way to the gilded gates, I could heard a rhythm coming from the audience that lined the path.

We will hold you in the deepest corner of our hearts,
We will talk of your legend for generations to come. 
May you be born again in your home of this life,
May Syracuse be blessed with your era revived. 
Oh! Hear what of their ruler the people say,
Gone forever, but from our hearts, never far away. 

Their chant continued as we left the gates. I stopped listening - it was over. At long last, I was free. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tiverium Osten

"I thank you all for joining me here today, this last meeting of the Royal Cabinet," I began. Every Secretary was present there, except Prince Tiverium, Secretary of the Camp Kam'yakha. He was on the agenda and therefore, asked not to attend.

"The agenda for today is just one, and a very important one. As you all know, I have decided to enter the next phase of my life by relinquishing the royal throne that I have held for over half a century. In other Kingdoms, it would be as simple as choosing a successor and then leaving, but in Landeb-Chymeria, the people choose their rulers. Therefore, we are here to send a name to the National Assembly to be my successor, where he must defend himself and be confirmed.

"If he fails to convince the National Assembly, we will have to send another candidate. But as I said, this would be the last meeting and therefore, I do not expect him to be rejected. The name I propose is my long-standing ally and friend, as well a member of this Cabinet, Tiverium."

There was a polite clap from the Secretaries, but I could see that there were still some misgivings.

"But, my King, is it not true that he was, at one point of time, a common thief?" asked the young Secretary of Family Affairs. I had expected that question.

"That is true, and I knew that there would be apprehensions. I myself was once a common labourer. What I wish to say is that the rulers of Landeb-Chymeria, and by extension, all of Rorankite, must be in touch with the people. If we do not understand our people, we turn into dictators. Yes, he was forced to rob food and money for survival once - life had left him with little choice. Yet, when his circumstances changed, he worked his way up, to find a more respectable way to live life. That is what we expect of any citizen of our great land. And that is why I believe he will be well-suited as your King."

She sat down, but they did not seem convinced. I was about co continue, but the Secretary of State rose to speak. He was the most senior member of the Cabinet, the only one who was a member of every Cabinet since I was first confirmed as King. They took his words very seriously.

"I think it would be necessary for me to add that Prince Tiverium has been an exceptional leader. I remember, when we planned to overthrow the tyrannical King Malus, his tactical skills and leadership were of great value to us. And since then, he has always led from the front in times of crisis. It would be prudent for this house to consider whether it is wise to dwell on someone's past and ignore everything else. He was a common thief once, I myself had resented him for that. But he became a leader, he built himself up. And therefore, he will value his position, he will not look to exploit people, for he himself has been the victim of unspeakable exploitation. Do we want a King who is entirely detached from the Kingdom, or one that knows it and has given his life to it? That is what we must consider."

They were convinced - it was indeed a powerful intervention. I nodded at Valhalla in approval. I had sensed that he had resented Tiverium somewhat, but his strong endorsement was a huge victory.

"My King," said the Secretary of Defense. "I must say that I agree with the Secretary of State - he is right. We need a King who knows his people, not someone who is far from us. Yet, at the National Assembly, the same questions will be raised. How do we ensure that they do not keep focusing on his past? The Assemblymen can be quite stubborn, especially the older ones."

There was silence - it was true, they could be very stubborn indeed. There had to be some way to differentiate his past and his present.

"Tiverium came from Jacobia," Valhalla began. "He came from the West, a common thief. But that is not the Tiverium we seek to elevate. The one we speak of is the able leader, the compassionate Secretary of Camp Kam'yakha. Tiverium would become King of all of eastern Rorankite, with the exception of the tiny territory of Syracuse. Therefore, we must be sure that we are not talking of Tiverium of the West, who was a common thief. We are talking of the leader, Tiverium of the East."

It was brilliant - a new title. A new way the world would know him. A barrier.

"Tiverium Osten," the Secretary of Foreign Affairs said. "The old term for 'of the East.' The Assembly would love it - Tiverium Osten!"

We all repeated, full of energy. Tiverium Osten!

***

The Speaker rose once the final numbers had been tallied. The debate had lasted for a surprisingly short period of time, Tiverium has proved to be even better than Seleucus at handling the partisan Assembly. Now, it remained to be seen whether it would work.

"In this august National Assembly o Landeb-Chymeria, among the 300 members present and voting, the ayes have 250 votes, the nays 50 and none abstained. By the power conferred upon me as Speaker under the Constitution, I hereby declare Tiverium Osten the next King of Landeb-Chymeria and Emperor of Rorankite!"

There was cheer across the Empire as citizens celebrated their new King. But he would not be King yet - not until the last day of Emperor Seleucus had ended. 

Closing Loose Ends


Dear Andesian, 

It has been years since we met, but I still remember the wonderful days we had. You, as Prince of the Sodes and I, as Prince of the Central City. The fun times we had! I am sorry we were unable to meet the last time I came to Syracuse - official schedules would not let me. And I was not welcome there, that was clear from the King and Queen. 

I am writing to you today because I have made up my mind to go forth on 'The Journey,' what Kings must undertake at the end of their lives to make way for a new generation. It has been fifty years since I became Emperor of Rorankite and much has changed this then - but I hope our friendship remains as strong as ever! But I do not wish to leave without visiting my home one last time - Syracuse. Oh Andesian, I hope you understand how much it pains me to have to live away like this. My exile seems so unfair, yet I can do nothing. But I cannot leave in peace unless I visit my beautiful Syracuse one last time. 

I know it will be very difficult - I am told that, after your King was killed, you were made a member of the Royal Advisory Council and thus spared. I shudder to think how those days must have been in Syracuse. But you do have direct access to King Normander. Could you arrange a meeting for me, something by which I may be able to see my home one last time?

Yours ever,
Seleucus

***

"How can you leave like that? The Empire needs you... I need your guidance," Valhalla said. It was the first time I had seen him talk in a personal manner.

"I have gotten old, Valhalla, you know that. I know you do not agree with many of my ideas anymore, that is fine. It is a customary Journey that I seek to make and besides, Tiverium will make a fine King," I said.

"But what of me? Did you care to ask me first? No, again, my opinion does not even matter, does it?"

"Valhalla, your predecessor, Alabaster, was a man who did not need anyone to guide him. He singlehandedly saved the Kingdom. And I assure you, you have fit well into his place - you have nothing more to learn from me."

"Fine, you will never listed to me anyway. But I have just one last thing to say to you, if you will listen."

"I will always listen to my Secretary of State."

"I don't know about Alabaster, you knew him better than I did. But if I am able to be even half as great as you were, I would consider my life a success."

***

Dear Seleucus,

What a pleasant surprise it was to read your letter! And yes, I was very upset that I could not meet you, as were many of us who come from the old royalty of Syracuse. We have now been subsumed in the administration  -Normander is not really the person to talk to, he takes no interest in the affairs of state. That would be Queen Anatolia. 

And let me assure you, if you seek to come to Syracuse, there is no power in the world that can stop you. You remain as ever popular here as you were - perhaps even more, for when you ascended the throne of Rorankite, we were so proud to see one of our own, finally conquering our colonizers. Repose your faith in the people of Syracuse, Seleucus, for there you will find your true value. 

In any case, I have discussed the matter with the Queen - I had expected to face stuff resistance, but upon hearing that this would be your last visit to the Kingdom, she readily agreed to host you. I do not know what she has in mind, for she never reveals her thought to anybody. Not even Normander, he does not even exist for her. She has become a loveless individual, must detested here, so I do not know what you can expect from her. But in any case, we do hope to see you here, to meet you again. 

Yours forever,
Andesian

Journey through the Empire

"The other Kings are clearly trying to win favour over you - there have been protests for decades calling for other Kingdoms to devolve power as in Landeb-Chymeria and they are trying to channel that against you. Therefore, you must visit all the Kingdoms again and re-assert your authority."

I had said it almost in a single breath - the idea had just come to me, yet it seemed so obvious.

"Are you not looking at this too simplistically, Tiverium?" the Emperor asked.

"No, I am serious!" I said. I knew this would work - I just knew it would. "You often hold village council meetings here in Landeb-Chymeria to meet people directly. You should do the same in the other Kingdoms, you have that right."

"I do, but there are no village councils in the other Kingdoms, just a Royal Representative. And what would the other Kings think of it?"

"As for the other Kings, how are you concerned with that? They are working to weaken you, you have every right to defend yourself! And we can get a group of respected people from each village... I will do it. I cannot see your image tarnished like this further."

He stopped smiling and looked at me, as though I was a monster. Had I crossed a line?

"No, I mean... I didn't..." I tried to explain. "Do it, Tiverium. Organize it. I will follow your instructions," he said. And he left.

***

"Oh no, how could I possibly engineer anything against Emperor Seleucus? He has done so much for us, we have full faith in him!"

King Nicater of the Mercantile Estates was always ready to speak - especially in the face of threats. The Emperor had just held discussions with people of his Kingdom, while I held my own with him, in the presence of his lovely wife Queen Selena.

"Are you accusing us of creating these protests, Prince Tiverium?" she asked. I smiled.

"Certainly, I am, and you know it is true, my Queen," I replied.

Nicater tried to look angry, though the look on his face gave away the truth. "Now, Prince, that is not the way..." he began. I cut him short.

"Will there be anymore protests against Emperor Seleucus?" I asked sternly.

Queen Selena tried to rise, but the King urged her to remain silent. "Oh no, Prince, we will never encourage such things. I will personally see to it that the protesters' misgivings are tended to. They are clearly misled, I will handle it. It is my solemn oath to the Emperor," he said.

"Good," I replied, and got up to leave. I could here Selena complaining about something - she would probably be the only protester left after I was done.

***

"It was a wonderful experience - people were so warm, they had so much to say," the Emperor said.

We were seated by the river Isar again - we came here more often these days, and it was always Seleucus who proposed it. He seemed to want to be near the Keeper, his mentor, and the only way to do that was by coming to the Camp.

"I told you, my King, you were being subjected to a false impression that you were unpopular. You remain as popular as ever and there will be no more protests," I said, confident that I had taken care of the protests at any rate.

He kept quiet, staring at the same spot that he had been staring at for a few months - the road leading out of the Camp.

"You have done well, Tiverium, you have done very well. I can now, with confidence, repose trust in you."

That disappointed me. "You mean you did not trust me as of yet?"

"Oh no, I have always trusted you, but now I can repose that trust in you."

"What does that mean?"

"Tiverium, I want to find the Keeper, I want to sit by his feet and learn. He has taught me much, but I seek more."

"But, my King, we have not seen him for years, he might be... that is to say, there is a chance that..."

"He might be dead, yes, I know. But I want to follow his path and find his his last remains. If it were not for him, I would have remained an empty shell. He filled me with life, everything I have is because of him. And I want to know what became of him."

"I do not understand, Seleucus. I do not understand."

He smiled at me, his mysterious smile again. "Tiverium, the time has come for me to embark on my Journey. And I can now leave the Empire with you."

The Business of Attesting

I'm currently in the process of applying for a set of transcripts and realized that I needed the photocopies of my grade sheets to be attested. Now, this is not the first time that I have had to get something attested. Given the circumstances I found myself in, I made several rounds of the very sarkari Academic Section and was quite proficient with the ways of a government office, where everything had to be attested, since the copies would be kept safely away for records. Even the facade of a digital system made no difference, the digital system simply runs parallel to the classical system.

However, because I was surrounded by professors, it was never a great hassle, since they were all so-called Gazetted Officers. Now, who has this unique distinction? Lots of people, actually - anybody who has an official stamp issued with authority of the President or the Governor. And that number runs into tens of millions in India. And yet, it is dreadfully difficult to get anything attested.

The reason is probably the root of all problems in India - everybody is looking to make a quick buck. Nothing exemplifies this more than the notary, the failed lawyer who has no job but to sign on stamp paper outside court houses. There is even a Bollywood line for this - 'main tumhara zindagi barbaad kar dunga, tum court ke bahaar notary banke rahoge.' For these people, I can understand that they charge close to Rs. 100 per signature and stamp - their livelihood depends on it. But when doctors, engineers and, in some instances, teachers and school principles, begin asking for money to attest something, you can clearly see that the whole system has become rotten. Someone who has a fixed income of tens of thousands of rupees per month wants to make a few hundred rupees over some hapless individual who the government refuses to trust in photocopying something. Ironically, a government employee accused of corruption is still eligible to attest something!

Where does this silly concept of attesting come from? I think it's another example of the colonial hangover that we have not been able to get over. Once upon a time in British India, all Gazetted Officers (the British created the Gazette of India) were British - white men. And the people who needed their services were Indians - the natives. Of course, the natives were a bunch of liars and thieves who could not be trusted. Trust the natives? No way! Now, of course, there was no 'photocopy' then, the idea was that any document signed had to be counter-signed by a Gazetted Officer to prove to the British official that the signature was not fraudulent. But the principle was still the same: you had to prove your honesty and the only honest people were those who worked for the (British) Government.

And that continues in the modern-day field of attesting: Government offices, having hardly changed any rules of procedure from the days of colonial administration, do not believe that common people can make honest copies of anything and therefore, you must have everything attested by an 'honest' Gazetted Officer, who of course will not lie about anything below a value of Rs. 100 crores. It's small change, after all. And our modern nation, challenging the might of China and America, taking the Empire back to the Brits, still clings to these old, outdated systems.

Jai Hind. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Massacre at Jacobia

The War Room was activated again. I had summoned all the Commander and Admiral to discuss the fall out of the mutiny in Jacobia. It was a small territory in the West, but a mutiny from its forces would have a terrible impact on the rest of the forces. But it was much worse - the mutiny was not just a military affair, it was accompanied by a Civil revolt.

"Defense Secretary, here is the transcript of the Jacobian King's speech," as aide said. I took the memo from him.

People of Jacobia,For fifty years, we have been denied our rightful place in the Empire. We are ruled by a dictator of an Emperor, not even Rorian by blood, who has taken our forces away. We are left to beg, to negotiate for what is rightly our own. But no more - if it was not bad enough that we were denied our right to keep our own Army, it was much worse that it was placed under a foreigner from Syracuse. We have been insulted and we cannot remain in Rorankite any longer. We will build an independent nation, outside of Rorankite. Join me in glorious revolt - both Civil and Military. Together, we will bring the pride of being Jacobian back to Jacobia! 

I looked up in surprise - "I thought he was depending on a Dolcian invasion to back him? Then why the rhetoric about our King?"

"It is just that, Secretary, rhetoric, he has not told too many people of his ties with Dulsburg," the aide replied.

I drank some water - it was going to be a long time before this mess could be sorted out, and with civilians involved, it would have to include the King.

***

"So the threat is that the moment we call the King of Jacobia for talks, Dulsburg will intervene?" the Emperor asked. His face showed no sign of anger at all, despite the strong provocation from the other side.

"We have no choice, my King, the situation grows worse. If we wait too long, Jacobia will slip out of our influence - we must immediately call him for talks," the Secretary of State declared. The rest of the War Room nodded in agreement. But the Emperor seemed to have other ideas.

"Why should we walk into their trap? We have an Army much greater than the combined forces of the Dulsburg Commonwealth, why not use it to quell the rebellion?" he asked. We kept quiet, all except the Secretary of State.

"Because it is a Civil revolt, not just a mutiny. We do not send our army against out own people," he said sternly. Again, the War Room nodded in agreement.

"Does that mean we are bound not to, Secretary? That is exactly what Jacobia has calculated, are we to fall into their trap? Let us not bind ourselves unnecessarily - the Terms of Confederation bind us to defend the unity and integrity of the Empire at all costs," he said, equally sternly. I was afraid it was going to turn into a fight between the two.

"There are limits to what we can do - think of the repercussions, what the masses at large would think? There would be protest all over the Empire at such action. How will we face that?"

The Emperor kept quiet for sometime - he was looking at the charts in front of him, but he was in deep thought. He looked up at the entire War Room.

"Send the Army. We will not negotiate with traitors. No, Secretary of State, I have heard your case, this is final. We will stand on the principles of the Terms of Confederation."

***

"Here is my resignation, I cannot handle the protesters. The entire Empire is protesting against you and I am left to answer questions. You do it," Valhalla said tersely.

It was true - the operation in Jacobia has been bloodier than expected. The mutinying soldiers had holed themselves up in civilian homes and a lot of lives were lost in the crossfire. The Empire was angry.

"Rorian blood is not cheap!"
"Dolcian don't kill our people!"

The chants could be beard everywhere and the other Kings were encouraging it - after all, the freedom to protest only existed in Landeb-Chymeria, but there was no protest here.

"Valhalla, I said I will handle the fallout. I reject your resignation - again. You had done the same during the Battle of Kam'yakha. You are too important for me to lose in my Cabinet. I will take all the criticism," I replied.

"Have it your way," he said and walked out.

It had been a disaster. There was anger everywhere, even the National Assembly had passed a resolution condemning the move. But I had no choice - we could not have allowed Jacobia to secede. And it was sickening, the way they used Dulsburg so opportunistically while making tall claims of Rorian 'purity.'

I looked out the window - it was peaceful. But I knew that I had to be careful in the future - my hold was weakening. Not much time left. 

Beyond the Gates

We were sitting by the Isar after many years. As Secretary of the Camp Kam'yakha, I came here regularly, but Emperor Seleucus had very little time, despite the Camp falling withing the boundaries of Landeb-Chymeria. It was decades ago, when the civil war had led to Landeb annexing Chymeria and creating the Confederacy's most powerful Kingdom. Yet, it had not ended there, not nearly. There were always new problems, some new disputes to handle.

Which is why it felt good to have him back to the Camp. He had aged more than his age and grown quieter, perhaps lonelier. He had never returned to Syracuse, preferring to use me as his agent instead. I, for one, could not understand what was wrong his the Syrenician leaders - they were happy to be a part of Rorankite, having completely broken off relations with the Dulsburg Commonwealth, but their royalty was in strict opposition to Seleucus, even in the face of overwhelming support for the masses.

But all that seemed far away as I looked up at my King. Seleucus, he had changed my life. He had been like a father to me, turning a little robber into the Prince of Landeb-Chymeria, heir to the throne of the Rorian Empire. I knew not what twist of fate had sent him to us in the Camp, but I was forever grateful. Today, he seemed in a thoughtful mood, staring afar at the road outside the camp through the trees. I decided to ask him the question that had been bothering me for sometime.

"My King, may I ask a question?"

He smiled. "Of course Tiverium, your questions are always welcome."

"Has there ever been any love in your life? A woman... you have never had a Queen. Why?"

I was afraid I had gone too far with that question, but he continued to smile.

"I did, Tiverium, I did. Once, when I had my own Empire, there was a woman in my destiny. But in exile, no. I have never been able to bare the loss... I think  am not capable to love anymore!"

"No... how can you say that? You don't have to be held down by your past!" I protested.

"You are right, I don't. But I am. I cannot forget... never. That day, when I was exiled, stays with me forever, till the day I can finally be free of this life."

I protested. "But surely, this makes no sense! You are the greatest ruler Rorankite has ever seen and you do not even acknowledge it as your own kingdom! What holds you down here then?"

Again, he smiled. I was about to apologize for my outburst - it was not right on my part. He had seen much more suffering than I had. And he had protected me from mine. But he spoke first, calmly.

"The Keeper has never returned, has he?"

"The Keeper? Of the Camp? Why, no... he left, on his Journey. We have never heard from him after that day."

"His memory keeps me here, attached to this soil. He rebuilt me, he is what stands between my ruins and my empire. I miss him greatly, Tiverium, these fifty years have been very hard without his guiding presence."

I nodded in gentle understanding - the Keeper had been like another father to him. I will never forget the day he left - it was a tragedy that had befallen Seleucus.

He put his arm around my gesture, a gesture he often used to indicate that he had something happy to tell me.

"But I also have one more reason - you, Tiverium. I remember it was on this very spot by the Isar when I revealed my true identity to you, that dark night when I slept under the stars and moon. You have been with me through the ups and downs of empire, you have trained and learned. One day, all this will be yours."

He stopped, a little hesitant to continue. I hugged him - I knew saying this meant a great deal to him. He looked at me, a smile in his face.

"And that day is not far," he finished.

***

The Royal Palace at Cartes was unusually quiet despite the large number of people inside. The King was being briefed on preparations.

"Yes, my King, tomorrow morning, Jacobia will declare its Independence from Rorankite. The Dolcian forces are ready to defend us."

The King sat back, taking a deep-breath. "And how long will they be able to hold out against Seleucus?"

"Emperor Seleucus of Rorankite will not want excessive bloodshed, there will be a stalemate and he will invite you for talks. That will be an implicit recognition of Independence, which is all the Dolcians require to invade."

Fast-paced and Well-researched

The Judas Strain
By James Rollins

Continuing in this amazing season of novels, I finally managed to read a book that I had with me for four years but could never get beyond the prologue until now. And it did not disappoint - The Judas Strain is a real page turner, it's scope is huge with events taking placing simultaneously in ever corner of the globe.

Rollins brings back the Sigma Force and its terrorist counterpart, The Guild, as a strange new disease begins to spread and wreak havoc, turning people into cannibals, their bodies rejecting themselves. And as with every novel of this theme, the protagonists are locked in bitter mortal combat to save the world - and conquer it.

The USP of the novel is it's well-researched plot, convincing at every stage. It is not excessively complicated, despite the preview which talks of a new angelic language, and the technicalities are built into the story, so that no part of the book feels like a textbook. The way the author takes holes in our knowledge of history and fills them up with his creativity is a major factor here. A knowledge of ancient history and Hindu mythology is not a pre-condition, although the book will definitely fire up your curiosity. 

Oh, the Rupee!

The past week was one of the worst in history for the rupee, when the Indian currency, which also has the Nepalese Rupee and Bhutanese Ngultrum associated with it, experienced it steepest slide in years against the US Dollar, ending at a historic low, a slide that was temporarily arrested only after the RBI intervened. However, this intervention does not really mean much and there seems to be no reason to believe that the rupee would not slide further.

The reasons are two-fold. On the one hand, the US Fed seems to be preparing to end its round of quantitative easing, which would mean and end to cheap dollars lying around the world. This fear has already seen capital flying out of emerging markets and all major, floating currencies depreciating sharply against the USD. In particular, the South African Rand appears to have performed even worse than the Indian Rupee. This perhaps serves as a lesson as to how an open currency regime can wreak havoc in developing countries.

But there is another reason. The truth is that the UPA-II Government has sunk India's economy with the help of an economist Prime Minister - in many respects, the world now looks up to Indonesia and not India. Our populism-ridden, coalition-era politics has ended what would have been a promising future. With no enabling environment for job-intensive industries, a lack of natural resources due to an opaque and corrupt distribution process, an uncertain regulatory environment and much more are the gifts of the UPA to the nation and that has seen sentiment taking a nosedive. This is a fundamental cause of worry because, irrespective of what the Fed does, it means that the Indian Rupee is truly on a fundamental downward trend.

Students and businesses will be immediately harmed by the depreciation, but the general population will eventually face the brunt as imported items - including fuel - become costlier. Clearly, we are in for a rough ride ahead. The worst part is the talk of a 'secular' UPA-III, which will probably be the last nail on the Indian economy's coffin. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Got to Hand it!


Lenovo's latest ad introducing its range of mobile phones in India is a smart mix of fun music that welcomes you to the ad and eventually takes you to the product at hand. Another example of an introductory ad, it does not focus on the features, but marks the product out as a sort of premium brand, for those who like to go to exotic places and indulge in adventure.

I'm not sure how far the product will be, but a good beginning nonetheless. 

The Surreal Case of Jiah Khan

It's not everyday that affairs of Bollywood stars and not-so-starry stars makes any impact on me. Most of the time, I look at them and there appears a hashtag in my mind - #FirstWorldProblems. But the recent case of the suicide of Jiah Khan, who I recalled with a bit of difficulty as the lead actor next to Amitabh Bacchan from Nishabd, not a very noteworthy film.

Anyway, the reason I've taken an interest in this case is the because of the legal question it has thrown up. Suraj Pancholi, Khan's ex-boyfriend, has been taken into custody for alleged abatement to suicide i.e., driving Jiah Khan to commit suicide. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be much of a case here - it actually seems more like the police and some lawyer somewhere trying to win cheap publicity over a sad death.

There is a very specific meaning abatement to suicide - it means harassing a person, making their life so difficult to live that they are left with no choice but to commit suicide. As with any criminal case, it must have a mens rea i.e., it must come with a criminal intent, a wanton desire to force the person in question to commit suicide. And that is where the case seems to be flimsy for, if reports are to be believed, Mr. Pancholi did leave Ms. Khan, which precipitated her tragic lapse into depression, which in turn pushed her to suicide. All very tragic, but sadly very common. Young people today seem to be so easily thrown off the precipice, perhaps it is an indication of the rotten state of our times.

However, you really cannot blame the boyfriend in this case. It was not his intention to push her to depression, leave alone suicide. It was a sad outcome of a set of circumstances in which both had a hand. Break-ups happen in a relationship, it's a fact of life. Nothing in this world is permanent, except change. And one must learn to cope with change, not run away from it.

Philosophy aside, the way the police have behaved in this case actually puts up a dangerous slippery slope. Coming from @faking_news, it seems funny at first, but it is a good point - "Now ministers should be arrested for farmer suicides too." That is the point - a set of circumstances that leads to a tragic suicide cannot be called abatement to suicide, it must be wanton and with well-planned tactics that would not arise in the natural course of events. And that is where this case needs a serious consideration from a legal perspective.