Friday, November 29, 2013

My New Kindle

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, the American shopping festival that always makes news across the world. I started by assuming that I didn't need anything and so would let it pass, considering purchases next year. But then, as fate has it, I started looking at some of the offers on Best Buy. And was I blown! Well, a confession: I knew what I was looking for. A Kindle. I just wondered what a bookworm like me would love to have. Well, obviously, courtesy CPL, I already had access to thousands of books (for free). But I'm not someone who lives in the last century (obviously) and I too, love digital.

I knew I was going to buy a Kindle sooner or later. And when you have so many deals around, why not sooner? I was confused between the three variations: regular, Paperwhite and Kindle Fire HD (8GB - the 16 GB one was out of my budget). And boy, was it a hard decision! Eventually, it came down to two facts:

  1. I basically needed it to read books on the go, when carrying paperbacks or even hardbacks was no longer an option. I am reminded of my final flight from Roorkee, when books were one reason I had excess baggage. And buying Kindle books is just so much cheaper, if I ever need to that is. (Wink, wink). So I checked and found out that the Fire HD did not have the famous E-Ink, which means that reading on it would strain my already-strained eyes. So, out it went.
  2. I needed a touchscreen. This was a no-brainer, by first ever phone was a touchscreen and the only keypad device I am used to using is my laptop (that could change this time next year). So, the regular Kindle was out. And so we had - the Kindle Paperwhite! 
As suggested by a friend, I inaugurated it with one of my favourite series from childhood - Animorphs! Very geeks, maybe even a little childish at this age, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate. Sure, there was always EB, but those books were just inaugural ones. Animorphs was the first series that I was really addicted to. And now, although I still have a 1,500-page O. Henry collection from CPL to finish, I can check out my Kindle once in a while till I am ready to go fully digital. 

As a friend said, you don't wonder what use you'll have for such devices. You get it for any reason and you'll find more uses! 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dangerous Moves in the East China Sea

Last weekend, China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea covering the disputed Senkaku islands that are administered by Japan but claimed by China. The islands lie south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan. Japanese PM Abe responded with a strongly-worded statement in the Diet, rejecting the whole idea of the East China Sea ADIZ and vowing to protect Japan's airspace. Almost on queue, the US flew B-52 bombers over the area in what the Pentagon said was a routine drill.

What is clear is that China is doing to Japan is exactly what it did to India just a few months back in the Depsang sector of Ladakh - using force to create new facts on the ground (or in the sea, in this case). This has been a frequent trend in a rising China's dealing with its neightbours - the South China Sea too has seen Chinese coast guard patrol being deployed. This ratchets up territorial disputes in Asia to a whole new level - democratic nations do not assert territorial claims through the threat of force. Of course, it is well-known that apart from the US, no Indo-Pacific power can challenge the PLA. And that is precisely why China's moves are so perplexing.

It is a fact that the US, since the Monroe Doctrine was espoused, has worked on the principle of containing rival powers. It has been this principle that made the US a global military power - whether it be Germany, the USSR or Imperial Japan. By using force to compel Indo-Pacific nations into submission, China is inviting the US to come to Asia and repeat the same strategy. This, at a time when the Chinese leadership is increasingly talking about the need to use soft power in its dealings.

It is clear that Japan's days of pacifism are numbered. In danger of losing territory and becoming a client state of China, Japan will have no choice but to develop its military and create an offensive Navy, although it is already the largest maritime force in the area after the US. India is already going through an arms build-up despite increasing financial constraints with INS Vikramaditya set to shift the balance dramatically in the Indian Ocean. China's moves are already creating a dangerous arms race across Indo-Pacific and it can only get worse after this ADIZ. 

One Year Ago: Placements

How time does fly! Today marks the anniversary of the day I was placed at ITC, bringing an end to my placement season almost as soon as it began. The memories are still so vivid... the GD, which was a case study and one that I aced. It was easy really, they were just seeing how confidently all of us could speak. I did goof up at one point when I forgot something and the whole table pounced at me, but I managed to take care of that.

The Tech round was easily the most intensive interview I had ever given. They certainly knew a lot and I struggled to find answers. What complicated the matter was the fact that I had no idea it was going to be so technical... thanks to the hype around HR rounds, I thought it would be all about HR. But it turned out that the very short HR round was a mere formality - everyone was selected.

Well, what came of my employment at the firm and how I came to Champaign, IL is history now. But what made me happy was to know that my successor in the DebSoc was also placed in ITC under very similar circumstances. I'm not a great believer in destiny, but coincidences are always nice to look at. Or was it? Because, if I learned one thing from my experience, it is that you need to be a supremely good debater to ace the placements - speaking confidently, thinking on your feet, covering your steps... it all came naturally to us. All you needed was a degree that let you enter the process!

Unfortunately, I've found out that the controversial negative days of placements led to a very ugly incident at IITR, with the top-gun of tech companies, Microsoft, walking out and possibly blacklisting the institution. This is a very serious matter and I think it is time to come clean on the controversial policy. It might have worked for some time - I certainly took advantage of it - but it is fundamentally wrong. I know the culture of secrecy out there, but an honest and open discussion between all stakeholders is the need of the hour. The aim must always be to hold the institution's name high.

As I see my juniors placed one by one (well, a lot of that happened on the "real" first day), I wonder just how far I have gone from that stage. Department medal, Kinra fellow, OPJEMS scholar... life has been kind to me, I suppose. Yet, there is so much more to do. So much more. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Queen Returns?

December 1 is when India's desert state, Rajasthan, votes to elect a new assembly. Opinion polls have predicted a victory for the BJP, in line with the trend in the state to vote for the opposition in ever election. This time however, there are two things that make the BJP case even stronger.

One, of course, is the Modi factor. Rajasthan's Mewar region borders Gujarat but is a case study in contrast with one of India's most prosperous states. Not unlike the rest of India, Narendra Modi's astonishing rise has been felt here as well and people do yearn for electricity, roads, food and jobs. Certainly, the Modi factor will have a role here not just in 2013 but also in 2014.

The second is the return of former CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia of the former royal house. Pushed into oblivion by her rivals within the BJP as well as the RSS in the 2008 elections, she has now come back with a ferocity, traveling the length and breadth of the state as the unquestioned leader of the Rajasthan BJP. There is no doubt that she is a formidable fighter who towers over the Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. She has been pushed around within the ranks of her party and the State Assembly several times, only to bounce back to power. And this time, she appears to have the backing of the Sangh as well. Her appeal goes beyond the middle-class and she has consciously tried to build up a following among tribals in the state. That will be tested next month.

Add to this the fact that the Congress' core constituencies - the poor and Muslims - are weaning away, and you have a political conundrum for the ruling regime. Incidents of police highhandedness in communal clashes have distance Muslims from the Congress, eliminating an important vote bank. At the same time, widespread allegations of corruption and broken promises have made voters disenchanted. The best bet for the Congress really is for the BJP to strangle itself through in-fighting.

For the BJP, Rajasthan is a crucial cog in the march to Delhi in 2014. It is absolutely critical that it take back power in India's largest state by area so that the new state government can do enough good work to win big in the general elections next year. A loss is not an option here and, if the polls are anything to go by, it won't have to be either. 

Another Media Trial

The sensational Aarushi-Hemraj Murder Trial has been the talk of the town in India, with the parents, Nupur and Rajesh Talwar, being held guilty by a CBI Court and sentenced yesterday to life imprisonment. The so-called mainstream media was quick to pass judgment - in fact, so quick that they did not even wait for the detailed judgment - insisting that the CBI had botched up the investigation. Sagarika Ghosh, who is starting to remind me greatly of a particular journalist from Boston Legal, declared that the couple were absolutely innocent and any judgment otherwise was a 'rape of justice.' Judge, prosecution and juror, all rolled into one!

If anything, this whole case was vitiated by the parallel media trial from Day 1. The absolute frenzy around the trial is what prompted the then BSP-led Mayawati Government to transfer the case to the CBI, which eventually came to the same conclusion as the Noida Police. True, even this is based on circumstantial evidence but since when has circumstantial evidence been insufficient? True, death penalty through circumstantial evidence would have been dangerous (though not unprecedented, as we saw in the conviction and eventual execution of Afzal Guru), and the CBI's demand for the same was foolish, but life imprisonment is quite reasonable given the nature of the sordid crime.

The problem with the media is that they are so elitist, so fixated to an idea of family and values that is increasingly become irrelevant, that any attack on the middle class inertia is met with an onslaught on one-sided diatribes. Why is it that parents cannot kill their children? Oh, but they can, as long as they are from the illiterate masses of UP and Haryana. Middle class parents cannot do any such thing - although there was that one case where a father and stepmother grotesquely tortured their baby. Oh, but that was an aberration? Why is it then, that most cases of female infanticide today come from the urban middle class?

It is foolish, even a miscarriage of justice, to believe that the Talwars were de facto because they were the parents. Honour killing is everywhere, it is a part of our society, which is rotting at the center because of an old generation that simply refuses to see things from the perspective of the new and vows to have its way. The 26 reasons given by the judge are more or less valid, although the emotional factors such as the lack of tears in the parents eyes could be discounted. Circumstantial evidence is valid ground for conviction although it can also be grounds for mitigating punishment. It is not, however, a cause for automatic dismissal. Not all cases have eyewitnesses and CCTV footage and that is why proof must be beyond reasonable doubt and not all doubt.

The Talwar couple have vowed to take the fight to the Allahabad High Court - they have a right to that. However, the way the media is already going about decrying the CBI Court's judgment and parading the idea of the prosperous and perfect middle class family is dangerous and the fear is that it would lead to a miscarriage of justice. It is only hoped that the High Court does not fall to this maelstrom. 

What Peace?

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of one of the most dastardly terrorist strike on Indian soil. On 26/11 in 2008, armed terrorists from Pakistan raided the economic capital on India's West coast and held the city to ransom for two days, going on a mass killing orgy that left over 170 people dead, including some foreigners who were specifically targeted to damage India's tourism industry.

Five years on, the trial in India has reached its logical conclusion with one of the gunmen, Kasab, having been hanged to death after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his final mercy petition. Like everything else, the security around the coasts remains poor and India is still vulnerable to such an attack. But perhaps the most disconcerting part is that the trial in Pakistan, where the real conspirators live, has hardly gotten off its feet. Consider what the situation has been in the Anti-Terrorism Court: five judges have come and gone, the prosecution lawyer has been changed several times and the accused, who is out on bail, has made several speeches across Pakistan calling for continued jihad against India.

In the midst of this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's mindless attempts to shove all the pain under the carpet and continue to pursue a pointless and unequal partnership with Pakistan makes no sense. What peace? Has 26/11 been the last attack on India? Who continues to support terrorists as they try to infiltrate Kashmir? Who has been funding and training the Indian Mujahideen? The proxy was that the Pakistani Army and ISI continue to play on India leaves no one in doubt that the ghost of 26/11 is still very much among us.

But what is most disappointing is that, after witnessing first hand what a colonial police force goes through by being handicapped and under-funded, police reforms remain a distant dream for India. Instead of spending tax money on arming, training and improving the stock of our policemen, our democracy has let that issue pass by without a wink. That remains the true tragedy of 26/11.

For someone who spent crucial formative years in Bombay, as it was called then, seeing the siege so close to my own school was disconcerting. The event reminded me of my Mumbai roots and even as I now live half a world away, I can still feel that fresh, sea breeze at the Gateway of India. A breeze that blew that night too, five years ago. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

What's Called Fall Break



This week marks the beginning of Fall Break, an extended, week-long holiday in universities across the US to mark the quintessentially American tradition of Thanksgiving. The tradition traces its origin to European settlers who moved to this harsh new land. Families and communities would come together to mark another successful year away from their motherlands. Over time, like all American holidays, it became a shopping festival marked by crazy discounts. By one statistic I read, 9 out of 10 business fail during Thanksgiving - that's how deep the discounts can go.

Anyway, all that sounds really good for liberal arts majors. For engineering grad students like me, Fall Break is a rare moment when all input stops but demand peaks. While there are no classes, the volume of work piled up is astonishing: two projects, two term papers, thesis readings and homework. I wonder why they even care to call it a 'break'! But then, as I preached at the kitchen counter a few days back, I chose this life and everything that comes with it. And perhaps, I could not see myself doing anything else.

Anyway, I suppose I do have quite a lot to be thankful for. The last year was the culmination of a big part of my life - graduating from the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Roorkee with top honours. And yet, it was only the beginning of what is already proving to be a long and difficult journey. To dramatize (which I am very good at), I feel like an immigrant in this new, unknown country. Life is not easy - from both a personal and professional perspective, I feel like I have fallen greatly. I miss my old friends, I miss my old life. In fact, most of all, I miss myself, for I feel so different... polluted even. Am I pitying myself?

Anyway, time is short. With so much work to do, I can call it an end to this 'break' by heading down to my office to get some work done. Thanks to UIUC's smart card, I can enter the building whenever I want. Green St is empty with all the undergrads making merry at home. And here I am, as always, alone and fighting.

Happy Thanksgiving, to all those who care. We should count our blessing, especially after they're gone.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Test for NaMo?

Voting begins today in Madhya Pradesh for a new State Assembly and by all accounts, the BJP led by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is set to emerge as the largest party and form a third consecutive government in the 'heart of India.' Although the Congress used its full fire-power, with the Gandhi dynasty and former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh campaigning extensively, it seems highly unlikely that there could be any upset.

However, the election must be seen from a larger national perspective as well. The BJP did have its own stat cast in the state, including state MP and LOP (Lok Sabha) Sushma Swaraj, PM candidate Narendra Modi was the one to lead the charge. Bypassing the corrosive media comparisons between himself and the Madhya Pradesh CM, NaMo has put in a great deal of energy into this campaign and, if the BJP does believe that NaMo is their ticket to Delhi, then they had better hope that he can get through Bhopal too.

Corruption at both the State and the Center will be issues for the voters. To some extent, the introduction of some RSS favorites, such as Surya Namaskar in schools, will also be a factor, although not something as strong as inflation or livelihood. From MP, many lessons can be learned. The state is the ideal state for the BJP (after Gujarat, of course). Any core votes lost here will be magnified several times over in the 2014 General Elections. Therefore, although victory in Bhopal is virtually guaranteed (thanks in part to a hugely factional state Congress), the verdict should not be ignored. 

Asian Democratic Century

This week, the Emperor and Empress of Japan are scheduled to visit India, the first royal visit of the Chrysanthemum Throne since the two came here as crown Prince and Princess. The visit will mark a watershed moment for India's 'Look East Policy,' which has seen the greatest successes in cooperation with Japan, particularly under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It will also be a great moment in the build-up to what promises to be the Asian Century.

Forming the ends of the Asian arc of democracy, spanning the Indo-Pacific, India and Japan already have deep trade ties and cooperation. Japan is India's most vital partner in development cooperation, funding several key infrastructure projects. It is also an important military ally, both looking to develop their forces to take on an assertive and aggressive Communist China. Japan, an aging society, seeks India's help in maintaining a balance and exchanging expertise in order to preserve her prosperity. As Asia's first industrialized nation, Indians too have much to learn from Japan.

The state visit will cover the national capital New Delhi and the southern city of Chennai, which has become India's auto-manufacturing center, an important part of Japan's own commerce. Their royal majesties will have the chance to see an India very different, in fact nothing similar to, what they had witnessed over half a century ago - a more prosperous India, a more assertive and confident India, yet a more unequal India and a society in transition from a feudal background to an industrial one.

As for the world, they will witness the cooperation between not just two modern Asian democracies but two civilizations that have had links for centuries. From Buddhism to support for Netaji Bose, the Japanese have been a part of Indian history. And from development aid to a partnership for UNSC reforms, the pair have the chance to make this truly, the Asian Century. 

War is bad for Israel too

The breakthrough agreement between the P5+1 and Iran over its nuclear program has wide-ranging implications for the entire Middle East and Israel in particular. The deal gives Iran six months to stop enriching uranium to 20% grade, feasible for producing nuclear weapons, while also working to create a robust inspections regime within the NPT-signatory state. In return, the West will free up sanctions and give the new Iranian government some financial breathing-space. To that effect, President Obama not only threatened to veto any new sanctions from Congress but has also made sure that he can implement the agreement without Congressional approval.

For the Middle East, the time has come to realize that the old Shia-Sunni game cannot be played any longer through the West. Already stretched to the limit after Iraq and the continuing disaster that is Afghanistan, and facing growing challenges in Africa, America and NATO are in no position to lead any failed cause in Iran anymore. And certainly not when the only aim is for oppressive regimes in the region to to score points over Shias to further their theo-political agenda. And even more less when the only gain is some perverse masochistic feeling for an authoritarian leader in Turkey.

But the implications are the gravest of all for Israel, a country that has genuine reason to dislike and be worried about all overtures toward Israel. First and foremost, the world must be ready to accept that it would be an insult to all those killed in the holocaust to allow the Jewish state to be 'wiped off the map.' Therefore, not just the West but also the new giants of the East must not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. On its part, many years ago, India declared at a India-EU Summit that India squarely opposes another nuclear weapons state in the Middle East - a message delivered by none other than the Prime Minister himself.

But the real problem is that, by pushing for a strong military response, Israel is doing more damage to itself. In the run up to the accord signed today, Israel led a high-pitched and failed campaign against it. The Israeli PM has squarely rejected the accord. But the fact remains that the accord does more to protect Israel's interests than anyone else's. If Iran cannot wipe Israel off the map, Israel cannot hope to convert Iran into an American satellite state - not just because America does not have the energy or money to do that, but also because the Iranian people are too proud to ever let that happen (again). The best hope is a normalization of ties.

And it seems not everyone in Israel accept's Bibi's assessment - the Israel stock markets gave a roaring welcome to the agreement. The ultra-right wing agenda of the present regime there must understand that war will no help Israel but can potentially decimate it - despite its nuclear arsenal. And therefore, continued illegal settlements in Palestine, which evoke sharp responses from Iran, are pushing Israel towards potential catastrophe. Settling the Two-State issue is in Israel's best interests and the present regime there must understand that. For all the well-wishers of Israel, which Opinions 24x7 has always been,  nothing makes more sense. 

People of War

A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini

Coming after my reading of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini's second novel reaffirms his ability as a gifted writer who can weave history and fiction together in a touching tale. A Thousand Splendid Suns, referring to an old couplet about the beautiful city of Kabul, is a worthy successor to the first. if the first dedicated a good part of its time to America, this one remained squarely in that troubled country. And, true to the traditions of South Asian story telling, it revolved around indomitable love and sacrifice.

The most appealing part of the book is the way Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan are described so well - you can almost see the burqa-clad women looking at the "liberal" women driving cars. A lot of myths are dispelled through such images. And yet, the tragedy that was the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen victory and the Taliban's coup are not left to be understood merely through imagery: the personal tragedies of the protagonists run parallel to that of the country itself. Hidden between those stories are other social issues, from preference for a male child to domestic abuse.

Perhaps a stunning yet unsurprising aspect of the book is the characterization of the American-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan and its many benefits for Kabul and Herat in the wake of the dark years under the Taliban. While it is certainly true that the West managed to pull Kabul out of ruins (and mind you, the West also created the Taliban), it is not true that the picture is all rosy. The military strategy has been a disaster and the civilian casualties too high. Yet, for the reunited family of Tariq and Laila, it could not have come a day too soon. 

Thinking about JFK

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of former US President John F Kennedy, one of the patriarchs of the celebrated and still-powerful Kennedy dynasty. Due to logistical issues, President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, along with his famous wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, marked the occasion two days in advance.

Thinking about JFK, a lot of things come to mind. The first among them is his commitment to Civil Rights. To this day, African-Americans remember him as a champion of their rights, especially in the deep South, where even today they face discrimination, though it has become more covert than in JFK's time. It takes a President of courage to stand up to a very loud minority and champion the rights of all Americans that the silent minority believes to be true - JFK was that sort of President. What helped him further was the fact that he was the first 'President on TV' and therefore, whatever he said, made a deeper impact than ever before.

Secondly, one thinks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union tried to ship nuclear warheads to Cuba in response to a similar American move in Turkey. That was perhaps one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War that would have certainly sunk the world into nuclear catastrophe. Standing up to the American military-industrial complex while also ensuring that the Soviet Union does not perceive any weakness from the American President were two difficult goals that he met well. That sort of leadership is difficult to come by today.

Perhaps JFK's most enduring legacy remains the Peace Corps, a revolutionary idea at the time of the Cold War. The idea of using civilians to build bridges between nations is relevant to all countries at all times and JFK's leadership propelled the idea forward - something that all leaders across the world should still think about.

At the end, JFK will be remembered as a young, charming but clear-headed President. Perhaps, if he were President in this century, he would not have been able to overcome the obstructionism that has become endemic in Washington. And although I do not proscribe to a lot of his ideological ideas, I would still consider him a worthy role model for Americans today. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

What is the Paid Media up to?

Last week, on dictator Indira Gandhi's birth anniversary, a curious piece of 'news' appeared on the website of one of the many paid media websites. It was quite simple yet carried deep, dangerous meaning - a juxtaposed picture of Indira Gandhi and her granddaughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The caption described the (superficial) similarities between how they look.

Give me a break - can there be a more brazen attempt to desperately cling to power? For one, the two do not look similar - Priyanka looks much more like her (Italian-born) mother than Indira. And even if they did, how does that matter whatsoever? The misdeeds of Sonia Gandhi's UPA are so vast that even Indira Gandhi would have given up hope on it and called for a general election earlier than scheduled. When Indira became PM for the first time through cheap political in-fighting, she gave up her Rajya Sabha seat and was elected to the Lok Sabha. The UPA, in both its avatars, has used a Rajya Sabha member to further Sonia Gandhi's causes. Is there really any comparison?

What is even more disturbing is that such pictures or suggestions do not even count as journalism and yet appear on so-called news websites. The reason is simple - the Congress knows that Rahul Gandhi is a failed experiment, no match for Narendra Modi and leading them to a massive defeat in 2014. There seems to be an attempt, subtle for now, to project Priyanka as the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. And the trickier question of pushing Rahul baba aside is left for the future. This is all fine - political wrangling is part and parcel of democracy and however cheap it may look, it's how politics is.

What it is not is journalism. Lets face the facts - the media is bankrolled by the Government, be it through ads or Padma awards. The Congress has systematically destroyed every pillar of our democracy and the media is not immune to that destruction (it was perhaps one of the first to go down). And this is just a sign. In communist nations, they call such 'reports' propaganda. In the world's largest democracy, it is becoming business as usual. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tornado Warning in Champaign

Sunday was a tragic and difficult day for residents of Illinois, with dozens of tornadoes sweeping across the Midwest. The situation was particularly bad in Washington, Ill., where virtually the entire community was uprooted and a few people killed. CNN reports that Gov. Quinn of Ill. also visited the area to see the devastation firsthand. Outsiders have been asked not to come there by state and federal officials and there are enough volunteers as of now.

In Champaign, while the tornado did not land, there was a tornado warning in effect. Students at the Engineering Library were asked to move to the lower floors. I could make out the exceptionally strong winds, but it was not until that advisory that I realized that I was witnessing my first tornado season. Which is strange, because I thought that tornadoes do not come all the way up to Central Illinois. Well, presumably not, because just a few miles away in Lafayette, which houses Purdue University, the tornado did make landfall and I am told there were power and Internet outages at the university.

From what I've seen, Champaign city was very lucky to have escaped the tornado, given that Champaign County itself has been declared disaster-hit. Structurally, given that almost everything is made of wood, I can't imagine anything at least on White, Clarke, Healey or Stoughton surviving a tornado. I suppose it's another good reason to get renter's insurance.

PS: Mix 94.5 is running regular updates on how you can help the survivors in Illinois through contributions. I recommend tuning in. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Everything Depends on the IAC

The Indian Navy formally inducted the refurbished, Soviet-era aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya yesterday at a Northern Arctic Naval Base in Russia, providing the Navy with some breathing space to decommission aging carrier INS Viraat without losing a crucial leg of the marine defense program. While INS Vikramaditya will bring in some modern weapons systems, it should not be the linchpin of India's maritime strategy. 

The Indian Ocean is fast becoming what the Pacific was in the last century. As the world's energy needs spiral out of control and trade reaches levels never before seen in human history, the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are becoming critical in geostrategic calculations. If, sixty years ago, it was the Japanese and the Americans fighting for domination of the Pacific, today it is a host of actors doing the same in the Indian Ocean - the United States, China, Australia, India. The winner will be the superpower of this century. 

In this climate, the need for a blue-water navy is felt more strongly than ever before in India. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be subject to foreign domination over our nation's extended maritime boundaries. India is a maritime nation. With a vast, warm-water border and two strategic island territories, the advantages we gain from dominating the Indian Ocean are countless. As an example, a think tank once discussed the idea of asymmetric pressure on the Chinese, using the Indian Ocean to force the Chinese hand even as it uses its superior military might to annex more Indian land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. 

Yet, the risks are also great. Fighting on land is one thing but fighting on water is another. The risks we face of a naval attack have never been greater and the Chinese have been using this deftly with their 'String of Pearls' strategy. Indeed, it is not too unlikely that a Chinese naval base would come up either in Pakistan or Seychelles in the next few decades and that will certainly be a game-changer. Therefore, it is necessary that we create a blue-water navy in this decade itself. 

And that depends on the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) Program. IAC-1 is already in the advanced stages of construction in Kochi, while IAC-2 is just starting. Both of these represent the larger aim of a blue-water Navy: two carrier groups, one on each coast, and one reserve carrier group. In the next ten years, India looks to raise its fleet to 200 fighter ships to complement the carriers. However, missed deadlines and cost overruns are already threatening to derail the IAC Program. We simply cannot afford to do this - with the Chinese at our heels, domination of the Indian Ocean is India's only real chance to fend off Chinese subjugation, with the PLA having gone too far ahead to catch up with.  

खंडित - २ : समानता

मेरी कक्षा में चालीस छात्र है - और मेरी बुरी किसमत है कि मुझे ही कक्षा के एकमात्र बंगाली के साथ समूहित किया गया। हर साल के तरह, इस साल भी हमे एक वर्ग परियोजना पर काम करना था ।  मुझे इस विषय में कुछ विशेष रूचि नहीं थी परन्तु परियोजना करना मुझे अच्छा लगता था क्योंकि मुझे हमेशा अच्छे सहयोगी मिले थे।  सिवाए इस बार।

"देख बंगाली, मैं तेरे साथ काम नहीं कर सकता हूँ! तुम बहुत ही रहसीन हो और मैं केवल मनोरंजक सहयोगी के साथ काम कर सकता हूँ।  शिक्षिकाजी से बात करके दल बदल देते है। "

"कितनी बार एक ही बात बताना पड़ेगा - शिक्षिका ने कहाँ है कि दल नहीं बदले जायेंगे? अब या तो हम साथ में काम करेंगे या साथ में दूबेंगे।  तो काम करे?"

मुझे कभी समझ में नहीं आएगा कि यह देश कैसे चलता है। हम एक लोग है ही नहीं - कश्मीरी और मद्रासी, पंजाबी और बंगाली - अलग लोग ही नहीं, अलग राष्ट्र-समान है।  अब बात है कि दिल्ली ऐसा शहर है जिसमें सब लोग रहते है, लेकिन इसका यह मतलब नहीं कि हम सब समान हुए। इसके बावजूद, बंगाली सही बोल रहा था - या तो हम साथ काम करेंगे या साथ मरेंगे!

"सुन, दो घंटे से काम ही कर रहे है, थोडा चाय पीने चलते है - बेहतर काम कर पाएंगे। "

सच यही है कि यह बंगाली बीस घंटे काम कर सकता है बिना हिले परन्तु वह चाय पीने तैयार इसलिए हुआ क्योंकि उसे बहस नहीं करना था।

***

"तुम्हे क्यों लगता है कि मेरे बंगाली होने से तुम मेरे साथ काम नहीं कर सकते हो?"

तो अंततः उसने पूछ ही लिया। मुझे बंगाली क्यों नहीं पसन्द है?  बात नहीं कि मैं उनसे कोई निजी दुश्मनी रखता हूँ - सच बताऊँ तो मैं बहुत कम बंगालियों को जानता हूँ।  परन्तु वह अजीब लोग है - सुबह सुबह उठकर ज़ोर से अजीब गाने चलाते है, अपने आपको दो नाम देते है और… दिन भर मछली खाते रहते है!

"तुम लोग बस बहुत ही अजीब हो - हम पंजाबियों से बिल्कुल अलग। मुझे समझ में नहीं आता है कि हम दोनों एक ही देश के कैसे हो सकते है। "

"पर यह बात मैं तुम्हारे बारे में भी बोल सकता हूँ। "

"हाँ तो बोल दो! वैसे भी हम इस देश के थे ही कब…"

मुझे पता नहीं मैंने ऐसे क्यों कहाँ - मैं जीवन भर भारत में ही रहा हूँ और मुझे आगे यहीं रहना है। परन्तु नानाजी मुझे बताते रहते है…

"तुम पाकिस्तान से आये थे क्या?"

मुझे पता भी नहीं चला कि मैंने उस पर कब हाथ उठाया - उसने जब कहाँ कि मैं पाकिस्तान से हूँ, तो मुझे बहुत अधिक गुस्सा आया।

"मुझे माफ़ करो, मैं तुम्हे नहीं मारना चाहता था।  परन्तु आगे कभी मत बोलना कि मैं पाकिस्तान से हूँ - जब भारत का विभाजन हुआ तो मेरे पूरे परिवार को दिल्ली आना पड़ा … नानाजी कहते है कि आधा परिवार भी नहीं पहुँच पाया, सब बीच में.… पर तुम बंगालियों को क्या पता इसके बारे में?"

"मैं समझ सकता हूँ, लेकिन तुम्हे यह बात जानना चाहिए कि विभाजन के समय केवल पंजाब ही नहीं, बंगाल का भी विभाजन हुआ था।  मेरे परिवार को भी ढाका से दिल्ली आना पड़ा। "

मैं शायद कक्षा में ध्यान नहीं देता हूँ पर मुझे पता है कि विभाजन के समय क्या हुआ था।  परन्तु मैंने हमेशा इसे पंजाब के दायरे से ही देखा है - शायद इसलिए क्योंकि मेरे अपने मरे थे। बंगाल बहुत ही दूर था... या फिर.…

मैंने उसे ज़मीन से उठाने के लिए हाथ आगे किया।

"एक पंजाबी एक बंगाली को उठने में मदद करना चाहता है? सोच लो। "

तीन महीने से हम उस परियोजना पर काम कर रहे थे और तीन महीने में मुझे पहली बार उसके किसी भी बात पर हंसी आयी।

"हाँ बंगाली, एक पंजाबी तुझे उठने में मदद करना चाहता है - हम दोनो पहले भी गिर चुके है।  शायद इतने भी अलग नहीं हैं। "

(समाप्त)

#ThankYouSachin

And just like that, the final leaf fell. One of the world's greatest cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar, officially retired from all forms of cricket today, ending an illustrious career of nearly three decades that made him the equivalent of God in a cricket-crazy nation. And quite rightly, possibly on purpose, the end came in his hometown, the legendary Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

Two interesting yet opposing hashtags were trending on Twitter throughout the Test match against the West Indies - #ThankYouSaching and #ThankYouSachinForRetiring. The latter, of course, represents that group that has been pushing for Tendulkar to retire for at least the last three years and to be fair, he had become a burden on the team. That does not mean that he was not one of the greatest cricketer's of all time, it just means that he is off his peak and even statistics will attest to that.

Still, now is not the time to discuss past versus present. It is the time to look at the future. Yes, Tendulkar is gone but let us see that India won his final Test match with a resounding victory of an entire innings. Some rather ultra-enthusiastic fans called for an immediate declaration after Sachin's last wicket fell so that he could play again in the second innings but fortunately, the team did not take these chants seriously. The aim, like in any sport, is to win fairly, which is precisely what they did. I cannot imagine anything that would have made Sachin happier than to know that Team India can continue winning without him. For someone who has spent so long with the Indian cricket team and has seen the rise and fall of titans, it is only appropriate that the future be as bright as the past was.

Till then, a proud yet sad nation stands in unison to thank a man who gave us such wonderful cricket. As my tweet put it: #ThankYouSachin for the years of good cricket. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Since when has NYT become racist?

A shocking article in last week's The New York Times, which I still believe represents the gold standard of journalism, left me wondering as to how far racism was deeply embedded into its editorial standards. The article was related to the epic World Chess Championship currently underway in Chennai, where reigning world champion Vishwanathan Anand takes on the top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen in what has so far been a nail-biting competition that is yet to bring out a clear leader.

The article in question was mainly about how the game of chess, despite having more players globally than ever before in its illustrious history, is facing decline in the West for want of an inspirational player who can bring the game to a new generation. It asserted that, if Carlsen defeats Anand, he would become a 'global' celebrity in the West and would reinvigorate the game. This sounds quite a lot like white supremacist ideology to me - the white man defeating the backward native becomes an instant savior of the superior white civilization.

What was surprising is the way the article described... well, geographical reach. According to it, by becoming famous in the West, Magnus gains stature throughout the world, but Anand, arguably one of Chess' most gifted players in history, is limited to India's geographical boundaries (don't worry about his ties to Spain) and is therefore, inferior. Of course, India being a small, third-world nation has no impact on the world beyond its borders, because only the First World can have soft power.

The disgusting article is shocking and puts the publication in poor light. The days of white Western racial supremacy are over for good. Anand inspires many not only in his own, large country but also beyond. It is his skill and finesse that determine how inspirational he is to the world, not the colour of his skin. It seems that some habits die hard, racism being one of them.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

End this Colonization

Media reports suggest that the full body of the National Human Rights Commission has found that a majority of encounters carried out by security forces in Manipur, under the protection of AFSPA, were fake and were nothing more than cold-blooded, state-sanctioned murder in the 'Jewel of India' that has been in the grip of insurgency for virtually its entire history since joining the Union.

It is ironic that in a country that has seen the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh, where security forces of the British Colonial Administration led by Gen. Dyer killed innocent people in cold blood, that our own security forces can perpetrate such horrific crimes against humanity. Fake encounters are not simply last-minute ideas but require extensive planning not just in execution but also in the cover-up. There is always AFSPA to prevent any overt judicial action, but the need to prevent any public arraignment is met by a systemic culture of violence and lawlessness by those who are supposed to uphold the law in the Northeast.

What is clear is that AFSPA has failed in letter and spirit - a law that was supposed to put down an insurgency in the face of a massively incompetent civilian administration has turned an Indian state into an Indian colony, precariously tethered to the Union at gunpoint. After over 50 years of AFSPA, Manipur still has a corrupt and incompetent civil administration and depends on the Army to control its citizens, who live in the last century with little access to electricity, negligible transportation infrastructure and frequent economic blockades that force women to hunt for firewood to feed their children. It is shocking that the Indian populace, otherwise quite outraged at the drop of a hat, can sit behind while this tragedy has played out in our Northeast over a half century.

Opinions 24x7 reiterates its demand for the immediate and complete repeal of AFSPA in Manipur. The NHRC must establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to ascertain the human tragedy that has played out in the state over the last half century and look for a amicable and constitutional solution to the festering insurgency. A violent, military-led approach will not work either in the short-term or in the long-term. It is disturbing to see leaders in Delhi quoting Mahatma Gandhi and looking the other way when innocent Manipuri people are gunned down by their own army. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

खंडित - १ : पेशेवर रिश्ता

न जाने कितने रुपये दूब गए आज की दावत में ! पोते का जन्मदिन है और सब आ गए मेरे घर में इसे मनाने। परन्तु जन्मदिन मनाने का उद्देश्य ही क्या है? यह याद करना कि तुम मौत के मुँह के कितने पास आ गए? वैसे भी, इतने खर्चे के बाद मैं मौत के बहुत निकट पहुँच ही गया हूँ! और तो और, बिजली! अगर अंग्रेज़ अभी भी बंगाल चला रहे है तो इस बिजली के बारे में कुछ करते क्यों नहीं? मैं तो हमेशा से बोलता आ रहा हूँ कि गांधी-नेहरू के चक्कर में ढाका का सर्वनाश हो जायेगा और यही हो रहा है।

"बाबा, आप फिर से सपनो की दुनिया में चले गए? आज तो हमारे साथ रहिये, आपके पोते का जन्मदिन है !"

झरना, मेरी बेटी - कभी मैं उसे सपनों की  दुनिया में सुलाकर सोता था और अब मुझे ही सपने देखने के लिए कोसा जा रहा है! पर अब क्या करें , बंगाल में किसी को भी सपने देखने का विलास न रहा।  बातें चल रही थी कि अंग्रेज़ों का निधान विश्वयुद्ध में खाली हो गया और इस कारण वे बंगाल को न जाने किसके हाथों छोड़ने वाले है। घोर अन्याय, घोर अन्याय! यदि इन क्रांतिकारियों को ढाका का नियंत्रण दिया जाये, तो मेरे जैसे छोटे व्यापारी का क्या होगा, किसी ने सोचा है?

"कितना अच्छा लग रहा है आज, हम सब को और अवसर मनाने चाहिए, है न?"

मेरी पत्नी - इसके ऊपर तो मैंने अपने जीवन-भर कि कमाई बर्बाद कर दी - कभी कलकत्ता जाने की इच्छा तो कभी बंबई ! बस, अब बहुत हो गया।

"पता है तुम्हे, इन क्रांतिकारियों के वजह से कितने घाटे में चला गया हूँ? ऐसे दावत के लिए पैसे लगते है, पैसे कहाँ से आयेंगे?" मैंने कहा और अगले ही क्षण खेद हुई - सच में, औरत के पेट में कोई बात नहीं रहता सकता!

"आप भी न, हमेशा पैसे के पीछे भागते रहते है! क्यों, आपके उस सहयोगी का क्या हुआ, जिसके माध्यम से आप अब तक व्यापर चलाते रहे? कोई पंजाबी है, क्यों?"

यह बात सुनते है मेरे नालायक दामाद के कान खड़े हुए - और मुझे लगा था कि  अपने बेटी का हाथ एक पुलिस अधिकारी को देने से कुछ लाभ होगा !

"बाबा, यह क्या बात है, आप किसी पंजाबी के साथ काम कर रहे है? एक पंजाबी के साथ बंगाल में काम? कुछ गैरकानूनी तो नहीं है न?"

अब मैं क्या बताऊ अपने इस दामाद को - कानूनी व्यापार तो होता ही नहीं है! क्या गलत किया मैंने? शांति से अपने कृषि भूमि में नौकरों से काम करवाके उपज को पंजाब भिजवा देता हूँ।  और क्यों नहीं? पंजाब से मेरे उपज दुनिया के हर कोने में जा के मेरे लिए तिहरा मुनाफ़ा कमाते है।  यहाँ बंगाल में मुझे घाटे में काम करना पड़ता बस इसलिए क्योंकि सरकार ने आदेश दी कि अकाल के कारण सारा फ़सल बंगाल में ही बेचा जाये।  अकाल! यदि इन तुच्छ लोगों ने कुछ काम करना सीखा होता तो कोई अकाल न होती !

"नहीं, नहीं बेटा, मैं भला कानून के विरुद्ध कैसे काम कर सकता हूँ?"

"आप ठीक कह रहे हैं लेकिन मुझे आपके इस पंजाबी सहयोगी से मिलना है।  कहाँ रहते है, ढाका या कलकत्ता?"

इस बात पर मुझे सच में बहुत हँसी आयी।

"बेटा , भला एक पंजाबी बंगाल में क्या करता? उन्हें तो माछ-भात से घृणा है! रहते है किसी लाहौर में - हमारे लिए तो अलग देश ही है।  बस कभी मिले थे और हम कुछ चिट्ठी लिखते है एक दूसरे को ।  अब दो व्यापारी आपस में बात भी नहीं कर सकते है क्या?"

"नहीं बाबा, ऐसा कुछ नहीं है, देश के लोग आपस में अवश्य बात कर सकते है। "

"वैसे पंजाब और बंगाल कभी एक देश के तो हो ही नहीं सकते लेकिन जैसे सही हो… कानून के अनुसार। "

और उस रात मुझे दूसरी बार अपने शब्दों के लिए खेद हुई - झरना, मेरी प्यारी, मासूम बेटी। 'हम सब एक हैं' गाना बंद ही नहीं करती!

"बाबा, आपने सही नहीं कहाँ इस बार - गांधीजी कहते है कि सारे हिंदुस्तानी एक है और हमें साथ में अंग्रेज़ो का बहिष्कार करना है। "

"देखो बेटी, मुझे आज रात बहस नहीं करना है पर तुम्हे पता है कि मुझे इन क्रांतिकारियों के प्रति केवल घृणा है।  एक पंजाबी और एक बंगाली एक ही देश के कैसे हो सकते है? यदि हम इतने दूर न होते तो अब तक उनके तलवार के नीचे दब जाते।  नहीं, मुझे बोलने दो अब - उन लोगो के साथ केवल पेशेवर रिश्ता रखना ही ठीक है।  उनके वजह से अंग्रेज़ो ने राजधानी कलकत्ता से दिल्ली स्थानांतरित की - आगे हम सब को पंजाबी सीखना पड़ेगा और मछली खाना बंद करना होगा।  क्यों रहे हम ऐसे लोगो के साथ एक ही देश में? क्या पंजाब और बंगाल के बीच कोई समानता है? बिलकुल नहीं!"

अब बीवी को भी कुछ बोलना पड़ा - "लेकिन मैंने सुना है कि शायद ढाका ही हिंदुस्तान में न रहे।  क्यों , दामात जी, आपको कुछ पता है इसके बारे में?"

"कुछ बात तो हो रहे है माँ जी, लेकिन ऐसा कुछ भी नहीं होगा, गांधीजी ने कहाँ हैं कि हम सब साथ रहेंगे। "

गांधीजी, गांधीजी! पता नहीं यह नाम कब तक गूंजता रहेगा मेरे घर में।

"देखो, अगर कुछ हुआ भी तो हम ढाका में ही रहेंगे - उन पंजाबियों के साथ कौन रहना चाहेगा? जब तक हम सब साथ है, सब ठीक होगा!"

इस बात से सब खुश हुए और गांधीजी का नाम जपना बंद किये।  सच में - बहुत अधिक सोचते है! इस उपजाऊ धरती को हम क्यों त्याग करते? मेरे पूर्वजों यही जिए और यही मरे और मेरा पोता भी यही करेगा।  हमारे ढाका में।

(निरन्तर…)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Old World meets New

The Kite Runner
By Khaled Hosseini

In strategic lore, it is called the Graveyard of Empires. The land that has led to the collapse of mighty powers that tried to conquer it. And yet, to those which influenced and were influenced by its culture, it is an exotic land whose customs are a part of folklore. Afghanistan - a once-prosperous country, now ravaged beyond recognition. But what of the people? What does war do to such a society?

The Kite Runner, an International bestseller, is a poignant tale of human emotion in the time of war. To paraphrase, there are many children in it but not much childhood. It takes you through the beautiful dystopia that was Afghan society under the monarchy, where Hazaras were typically used as fodder in the games of Pashtuns (they still are), where children grew up to imbibe inequality as a way of life. It goes on to show life under the Taliban, where it got bad for everyone and much worse for Hazaras.

But what touched me was the way it described America - the New World. That phrase just had so much more meaning - not just a newly-discovered world, but a world where you could build yourself anew, where prosperity awaits those who are willing to sacrifice enough for it. In many ways, a society of our dreams. Perhaps the author, having lived in the US for a few decades himself, failed to acknowledge the shortcomings of life there, but the overall idea is right.

A must-read novel that will leave you with much to chew on. 

Ahead of its time

MY BROTHER... NIKHIL (2005)

There was once a time in India where the mere mention of HIV was taboo, associated with the spoiled rich of Mumbai and Delhi, of prostitutes and escorts and of homosexuals, who were possibly too vile to be allowed to live. We have come so far today and one of the reasons is the good work done by directors like Onir with this movie. My Brother... Nikhil is not your usual Bollywood film. For one, its style of narration is still rare in the Bombay cosmos. And so is its treatment of a variety of subjects that, even in 2005, would have been considered taboo.

You can call it an art-house movie and it probably is, but this is one movie that packs a punch. Nowhere is it repetitive or insensitive, neither does it try cheap tricks to pull in an audience. The level of understanding that the director shows to his characters is spectacular to say the least. Set in small-town Goa (which itself is India's smallest state), it brings out the sheer hypocrisy of society in dealing with HIV/AIDS. Perhaps the most moving scene was when Nikhil's mother says that she wished he was never born. Few words, strong emotion.

We might be almost a decade post the movie, but in many ways, it is relevant today. Be it HIV/AIDS or homosexuality or just about anything that sets people apart, the need to respect other people is badly lacking in India. We can only hope for movies like these to push the boundaries of society. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

No Fear Here

There is a saying in old Braj literature:
विनाश काले विपरीत बुद्धि

Nothing describes the Congress' latest moves to gag the media as opinion poll after opinion poll indicates a massive defeat for the party in the coming Assembly Elections and next year's General Election better than this. I&B Minister and Congress Spokesperson Manish Tewari sent out a not-so-hidden but quite empty threat to the media, taking issue with their comparison of the PM's Independence Day speech to that given by Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar on the same day. He went on to add that, during such important days, the media should cover only the PM and the President and, if they covered anyone else, they would 'face penalties.'

Talk about gagging the media in the world's largest democracy. The Government does not create laws, Parliament does, and the law is clear that the Government cannot dictate general content in the media. It is not even about laws and procedures, it is about the basic idea of democracy, something we proudly wear on our sleeves around the world. Can the world's largest democracy start penalizing the free media for not toeing the official line?

But of course, as Narendra Modi pointed out in a blogpost, this is nothing new for the Congress. First, they created a stifling, government-controlled system that wrecked India's centuries-old tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship and made us a weak, socialist state. Then, when the Allahabad High Court passed a verdict that barred Indira Gandhi from contesting elections for six years for electoral malpractice, the party suspended the Constitution and created India's first and so-far only dictatorship. Decades later, the Congress-led UPA Government uses a mixture of Government advertising and Padma awards to influence and control the media and in the most dictatorial of ways.

But now, when it is becoming apparent that the Congress is about to lose badly in the next round of elections, it has decided to take its control of the media above ground. Can our democracy survive with such ruthless and callous tactics? Are we to live in constant fear that if we criticize the Government and the all-mighty Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? No! India is often compared to China and we hold our heads high that, despite not being as prosperous, still value free speech and expression. We consider our democracy an asset. But if we are to live in fear of The Family and its whims and fancies, we might as well burn the Constitution and return to a Nehru-Gandhi dictatorship.

Any so-called penalties that the Government might seek to use to threaten the media into submission would be wholly unconstitutional. That has never stopped the Congress from doing it, but if we believe in democracy and the idea of a free India, then we as a society must fight this monster. We cannot live in fear. We will not live in fear. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Whither from Here?

Going by the rail network, it is India's last state. Created out of political urgency in the wake of Northeast India's first, but certainly not last, insurgency, Mizoram today lies at a crossroads that might seem like an anachronism for the so-called mainland.

That anachronism is a rail head that is soon to reach the capital, Aizawl. The hills of the Northeast are mostly unconnected by India's otherwise massive railway network, a mixture of political apathy and engineering challenges. To keep the locals quiet, the Central Government massively subsidises the state.

But a curious turn of events has been taking place not just in Mizoram but in the entire region over the last decade - globalization has been catching up here, steadily but surely. A new generation has migrated to the megalopolises - Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore - and the traditional barriers of tribal identity are beginning to be drowned out. At the same time, strategic considerations have led to somewhat better connectivity and this has only reinforced the trend.

It is unlikely that the 2013 Assembly Elections will transform Mizoram in any significant way. The Congress remains the overwhelming political force here and that is not going to change any time soon. And yet, change is in the winds of the hills and the rhetoric is beginning to change, ever so slowly.  

Winning the Adivasis

The elections in Chhattisgarh could prove to be a turning point for the Congress in Central India. Out of power for ten years and fighting an extremely popular Chief Minister, the Congress should have been looking to consolidate its strengths and win back its traditional vote block of dalits and adivasis.

Should have. Instead, what we are seeing is a recipe for losing the elections. After the tragic assassination of NK Patel at the hands of the Maoists, the party's traditional factions ruled the roost and the target, as always, has been former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and his family. It is no secret that Jogi is amazingly unpopular within the state unit and the only reason he still exists is because of his close ties to Sonia Gandhi. But that does not mean that the so-called high command can control the wave of resentment that he created during his tenure. As the elections approach, the Congress is in a mess and victory seems difficult.

And yet, there is a chance. The current Chief Minister Raman Singh might be popular, but his ministers are not. The electorate can see where the mining money is going, despite the gigantic welfare state that the BJP runs here. If you are a poor agriculturist in the state, you will practically be mollycoddled by the government from cradle to grave, such is the extent of the welfare state. But populism can only get you so far - the brash style of many ministers, in sharp contrast to that of the Chief Minister, could cost the BJP dearly and the Congress is the natural winner in what is mostly a straight contest between the two national parties. While the party has tried to stem the bleeding by denying tickets to some candidates, it simply cannot do that on a scale necessary to please the electorate.

Surprisingly, the entire election seems to be centered around the relatively peaceful central plains of the state while the insurgency rages on in the south and the forests of the north remain largely ignored. That perhaps says a lot about the crude political calculations that led to the NDA Government creating the state. Whether it will be able to live up to its promise will be a major question come election day.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bringing the Quad Alive

Monday night, the UIUC Indian Graduate Students Association (IGSA at Illinois) celebrated Diwali with is signature event, the Diwali Quad Lighting. Always the best event of the year for the Indian community at Illinois, it saw a record footfall. Like every year, candles were distributed free to cost for visitors to light all over the Main Quad in front of the Illini Union.

For the volunteers, the focus was the fund-raising through selling food. Although nobody really counted, well over 500 plates of tasty food were sold - from gulab jamun to samosa chat (which sold out within minutes) to papdi chat. The customers were not just Indians (although there were plenty, mostly undergrads) but a mix of nationalities, something that I think only America can achieve. Most were wondering why we were doing all this and I had the privilege of explaining the story to a few -albeit a very shortened version of it.

Celebrating Diwali is always a nice experience. Given how I kept moving all the time, I found that this is the only festival that is celebrated all over India for more or less the same reason - a unique, pan-Indian festival. Now, I find that this extends well beyond India's borders - for the large expat population too, it is a unifying festival. Little wonder than that we saw such grand response for Diwali at Illinois.

As for the team behind it. including me, it was a nice way to get to know each other, with over half the team being made up of new people. There are many ways to meet people but I think volunteering in such groups is the most productive of ways. Being Indian is a fact that should be celebrated - together. And that's what we did.

Picture (c) Copyright, 2013 Sushobhan Sen

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Diwali in America


It's the festival of lights again - Diwali. This is perhaps the only festival that I have vivid memories of celebrating from every city that I have lived in. In Kochi, which was a muted affair in Link Laxman; in Goa and Mumbai as part of Navy celebrations; in Hyderabad on the road and the corridor; in Saharanpur, a quiet affair due to a personal tragedy; and finally in Roorkee, amid friends and deadlines. And now, in Champaign. 

The funny thing about America is that it is much easier to fire a gun than to burn a cracker. So, there will be no crackers here. Maybe that's good, I've always longed for a quieter Diwali anyway. Because of some logistic issues, IGSA will be celebrating its Diwali night on Monday. That leaves me with one weekend to study for an exam and get the related homework done by Monday! 

This would be my first Diwali outside India and it does feel strange - I am surrounded by many Indians here, but somehow, that emotional connect is lacking. Perhaps that's what they mean by growing up? But then, I've just about made up my mind to be a globetrotter, to find a new place, even country, to stay in every few years. And if that's going to be my life, then it's good to get used to it now. For: 

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” 
― Nathaniel Hawthorne

Happy Diwali everyone!

Friday, November 1, 2013

First Halloween Night


Thursday night was my first experience with the curious American tradition of Halloween. Of course, the whole world knows about it through TV and movies, but to experience it for the first time is always special. First and foremost, it is a children's festival, so when adults celebrate it, they are actually just reliving their childhood. And what better way to do that than by getting some free candy in class from the Professor?

Coming to costumes, I went as a doctor. The kind that needs a nurse. Need I say more? Although a children's festival, the streets were still full of a variety of characters - witches, cartoons, superheroes, insects and much more. And where would American adults in funny costumes head to for a fun night? Obviously, to a pub. And so we tried to hit a few like the Red Lion only to land up at the old favourite for all Engineering geeks - Murphy's.

The atmosphere is quite nice and a major improvement over the otherwise monotonous time I have at pubs. Just a walk around the place invites people to click pictures with you simply because it's fun - from a reindeer to the Joker to even a ladybug! All in good fun of course - what else do you expect around a bunch of drunk people?!

But then, all good things must come to an end and I too had to get back home to sleep so that I could get back home in time for my class for HCS. Good times in America.