False Dichotomies


Archive for the 'India' Category

Not Shooting an Elephant

Yelling cheerfully at the horizon seemed the appropriate thing to do. A primal scream for a primal place, at the top of the watchtower, looking out over Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. With me were two other souls: my friend Ameet, a Singaporean Sikh with a penchant for the wilderness, and our guide Gobi, a small tribal man with senses as strong as the animals that surrounded us. Gobi was the first to draw attention to my faux pas. His English was less than limited, but pointing downward with his hands while saying “Lower” did the trick. Ameet provided the commentary: “Shouting disturbs the animals.” Me: “He should have told us before.” Ameet (sarcastically): “I’m sure now they’ll put a sign up.” Read more

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Occupy India?

“We have no need, no need of your amber/Likewise your gold and your jewels – There is no true beauty in things of no use.” Waxwing (Alasdair Roberts – The Amber Gatherers)

“Would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Beamer, a necklace, or freedom?” Hip-Hop (Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free)

The ‘Occupy’ phenomenon hasn’t yet made it to India, despite the country having a rich/poor divide that dwarfs anything in the West, and the fact that the Indian masses clearly have the stomach for long protests, as the success of the Anna Hazare movement demonstrates. Perhaps the historical legacy of caste divisions means that people are more content to tolerate economic inequality in a way that they wouldn’t elsewhere; it’s certainly noteworthy that the most sustained and radical opposition to neo-liberalism in India has come from the proudly godless Maoists. But it’s also important to note that it isn’t entirely obvious where an Indian ‘Occupy’ movement would occupy. The economic centres of Mumbai or Delhi do not occupy the same place in the national consciousness as Wall Street in New York or the Square Mile in London for the simple reason that most Indians wouldn’t be aware of their existence. But a recent article in India Today offers one possibility for an occupy movement – pace The Educators – namely the homes of the country’s ostentatiously wealthy. Read more

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Paris and Ishika

Last week, Paris Hilton visited Mumbai to promote a new collection of handbags and accessories. On her first day in town, near a mall in the upmarket suburb of Andheri, and from the comfort of her chauffeur-driven car, she handed a $100 note to a beggar woman.  According to reports, the beggar woman, who was holding her baby, reacted in bewilderment. “Can I get change for this?” she asked the Mid-Day Metro photographer, Satyajit Desai. $100 is currently worth 4901 rupees, a miraculous windfall by any Indian beggar’s standards. But from her reaction we can assume that handling foreign currency was a new experience for her. Read more


Concluding the North

After a while, you start to think that Varanasi is held together by an invisible thread. Only by intuition can you become part of the matrix. I used to walk with trepidation in case I was mowed down by a motorbike or a cycle-rickshaw; now I didn’t need to worry – my movements were locked in to those of the other 3.6 million residents of this stinking city. Without looking, I knew when to stop, when to deviate from my path, and when to plough straight through. One false move would send everyone in my vicinity tumbling down like dominoes, but that doesn’t happen, not once you’re part of the crowd.

I’ve now spent one-sixtieth of my life in northern India, a not insignificant amount of time. I’m both proud and slightly disturbed by this. Proud, because some people are so repulsed by the place that they get on the first plane to Bangkok. Disturbed, because I haven’t learnt the language, acculturated, or managed to understand or accept the way things work here, and I suspect I never will. Read more


Kashmir vs Palestine

In 1993, according to a recent article in the Guardian by Pankaj Mishra, current Israeli President Shimon Peres met with BJP leader LK Advani and advised him that the best way to secure long-term Indian control over Kashmir was by settling non-Kashmiri Indians there. This neatly encapsulates the differences in Israeli and Indian policies when it comes to their occupied/disputed territories. Given the obvious injustice involved in maintaining control over a territory against the will of its population, it’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and ask why Israel and India have been so stubborn about maintaining their control of Palestine/Kashmir despite the conflict this causes. But if we are to assess future prospects for Kashmir/Palestine, we have to address the question head-on. Read more


What would you do? Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas

The millions killed during the Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan can be described as victims of a grass-roots genocide. Their slaughter was not ordered by politicians or warlords, but was the result of the brutality of their neighbours, caught up in the frenzy produced by the partition. The perpetrators were not brought before a war crimes tribunal, nor were the bereaved and dispossessed survivors compensated for their losses. It may be difficult to stomach, but today this is maybe for the best. The last thing an ever tense Indian-Pakistani relationship needs is a reopening of the wounds of the original division. But it remains astonishing how little a Western world brought up on the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and the Balkans knows about the sheer medieval horror of the violence on the subcontinent in 1947.

Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (the word has been translated from Sanskrit as ‘indifference’), written in Hindi and translated into English by the author himself, is perhaps the greatest of all Partition novels. In an unnamed town, presumably somewhere in the Punjab, a shadowy Muslim politican called Murad Ali pays a sweeper named Nathu to kill a pig. The act is described in excruciating detail (“The pig was sniffing at the rind of a watermelon close to its forelegs, its bloodshot eyes blinking and its little tail swishing.”), by contrast with the rest of the novel, which unfolds at tremendous speed. Nathu kills the pig and delivers it to Murad Ali. The next morning, the pig is found on the steps of a mosque. Mayhem ensues, while Nathu withdraws to the background, reappearing every so often as the moral and emotional centre of the novel, bemoaning his actions before being brutally dismissed from the story in one throwaway line in the final chapters.  Read more


Towards a Future: Some Suggestions for Solving the Kashmiri Question

Today is Indian Independence Day. Nobody in Kashmir is celebrating. The mobile networks are switched off. As on Martyrs’ Day, Srinagar is on lock-down. The Indian flag will be raised at a local stadium, in the presence of chief minister Omar Abdullah, but the event will be closed to the public. Last year, a J&K policeman used the event as a chance to throw his shoe at Abdullah. This national holiday, so fervently celebrated elsewhere in the country, potently illustrates the failure of India to convince the people of Kashmir that their future lies with the Indian Union.

Kashmiris are famous – or perhaps infamous – for their ambivalence. Pakistan, India, Independence – partition this way, partition that way. Even when talking those fervently in favour of independence, you get the sense that in their heart of hearts they know it to be both unrealistic and impractical. Unrealistic because of India’s massive soft and hard power around the world, and the lack of an effective diaspora lobbying Kashmir’s cause in western capitals. Impractical because, despite having decent resources, particularly in agriculture and tourism, an independent Kashmir would inevitably become squeezed between India, Pakistan and China, making the chances of Kashmir becoming a South Asian Switzerland slim.

So what’s a good Kashmiri to do? I would suggest that there are a number of steps that could be taken which would be both in the Kashmiri and Indian interest. I should hasten to add that these are not original ideas. Read more

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The Road to Eidgah

The Indian Army have found a solution to overcrowding in the subcontinent. A curfew. I saw how effective it was in Srinagar, a city of one million people which was suddenly as empty as Tel Aviv on the eve of Yom HaZikaron.

The occasion for the curfew was Martyrs’ Day, one of the key memorial days in the Kashmiri calendar. Originally it marked the day in 1931 when 22 Kashmiris were killed by the Dogra dynasty (there’s a certain irony to this: the Dogras were responsible for creating Jammu & Kashmir as a distinct geographic region), but it is also a day to remember the tens of thousands of Kashmiris killed since then. It’s also a cross-communal day, and politicians from across the spectrum are supposed to put aside their differences to mark a day of national unity. Read more

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Imagine if the Palestinian economy was reliant on Israeli tourism. Imagine that, every summer, the hotels and restaurants of Ramallah were packed with Israelis, with whom the local population had to speak Hebrew and answer to their every whim. Das Ist Komisch, right? Read more


Bam Bam Bholi (2)

Part one can be found here. You can see photos here.

When I reached the other end of Pantjani, my way was blocked. Soldiers. Barbed wire. Commands blasted from loudspeakers. Some sort of weird concentration camp, Lord Shiva style. “Path closed,” someone said. “Too dangerous.” It was three o’clock. Assuming it was an easy walk down to Baltal, I could still make it by nightfall. Besides, if I got stuck, there were always tents along the route to crash in. I asked another official about the road to Baltal. “Also closed,” he said. I set my Talmudic mind to work: The road to the holy cave is high and narrow, but the road to Baltal must be downhill and easy. Everyone around me wanted to go to the cave. They would not leave this mountain without doing their darshan. But me? I just wanted to go home.

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