Thursday, February 21, 2013

The problem in Northeast India that everyone knows, no one wants to talk about

This piece was written as an editorial for The Thumb Print, a web magazine on Northeast India, in October 2012. It was published in the November edition of the magazine. I am posting it now because I was reminded of it by the arrest of Nagaland Home Minister Imkong Imchen with Rs 1 crore in cash, guns, ammunition, and liquor, during election campaigning in the state

Stories of corruption among the high and mighty have shaken India in recent weeks. Even the first family of India, the Gandhis, have not been spared, for once. However no news of that size and shape has emerged from the Northeast. If anyone is saying anything on this it has certainly not made a splash. It seems as though the only honest politicians and bureaucrats left in the country are in the pristine seven sister states.
What a joke.
It is popularly believed by all and sundry that pretty much the entire government machinery in every state is corrupt. There is bribery from the clerk to the minister level. In the past, when insurgency was at its peak, several ministers in the region were also reputed to be profiting from the extortion rackets run by militant groups. An investigation by the National Investigation Agency in Assam even proved complicity between senior officials and insurgents.
Thousands of crores of rupees in development funds disappear into the ever open jaws of the state governments, which do little to justify their existence. The bureaucracies are bloated and there are seemingly three people for every task, but none of the tasks get done efficiently. Ministers whiz around in cars with red lights on top and bodyguards in tow, acting important. When they are not doing this they presumably occupy themselves by doing destructive politics and trying to pull each other down. Or fixing crooked deals.
There is no outcry about this because everyone is part of the system. The contractors are of course profiting from it. The insurgent groups, who are often linked to contractors, also get their cuts. They take the money and thereby join the corrupt system.
The bureaucrats, politicians, even security force personnel, from every state capital all the way to Delhi are already part of the system.
The local media is in many cases owned by political interests, or dependent on them for advertisements and favours. They play along.
Even local NGOs often get funding from the system. They are also compromised.
The local youths are largely in the pay of one or another of these interests. If they are not, they have no power and no voice.
So, no one says everything out loud, though everyone knows what is happening. Sometimes, rarely, some proof emerges in public.
The Indian government doesn’t really need to bother about the money because most of it finds its way back into the Indian economy. In any case, Indian politicians are stealing thousands of crores from the public themselves, so it’s no difference to them.
The Northeastern public mostly don’t pay tax so they don’t care either. It’s not their money. Yes, so they were supposed to get roads, bridges, schools, healthcare facilities and so on that never see light of day, but they are trained to believe whatever the neta of their ethnic group or tribe says.
The neta, like the insurgent, always says only one thing: “It is Delhi’s fault”.
If everything is Delhi’s fault, and the state governments are merely decorative,  then they are a pointless drain on the economy. It would be far better and more productive to downsize them drastically and give the funds straight to people’s banks in cash. It would still be money for nothing, which everyone loves, and it would be more honest and direct. Why this charade of running offices for the benefit of local people?
And don’t let it be said that it is outsiders who are to blame for all this. The outsider may have had some portion of the blame. But for years now it has been the local elites who are cheating their own people. It is the local elites who control governments and hold power. They’ve cried wolf about outsiders for decades but they are the biggest wolves in their own areas. They just dress in local sheep clothing.
The region’s backwardness is not the fault of Bangladeshi rickshawallahs or Bihari chana wallahs, or even of Bengali clerks and schoolteachers. The blame for that lies squarely with the region’s rich and powerful leaders, including insurgents. They have had great power for decades. What of the responsibility that came with it? Have they fulfilled their responsibilities?
The fact that a good chief minister can transform a state is being proved by Nitish Kumar in Bihar. Why has no CM in the Northeast done anything constructive?
If the Northeast, or any part of India or South Asia for that matter, is to progress, it HAS to sort out the issues that plague development.
As long as the wealth of the people is being looted by a corrupt elite (who divert attention by pointing to outsiders) the people will remain poor. They must understand that it is in their interest to have clean systems that work work efficiently. It will lead to development for all.
The people must also be wary of obscurantist forces that impede development out of fear, just as they must be wary of capitalist forces that try to loot the region’s natural wealth.
The world is racing ahead, with or without Northeast India. Even Myanmar, after all these years of being closed and backward, has started to race ahead now.
The choice is simple. Join the race, or join the list of places that no one cares about until guns or bombs go off and people die. Think Afghanistan. Living in such places is hell on earth.
Respect has to be earned. It cannot be gotten by beating up weak or poor people, or permanently going around with a begging bowl asking for money. There is no glory in that. If the Northeastern economy prospers, if there are fine institutions and great infrastructure in addition to its stupendous natural beauty and rich cultural mosaic, people will actually give Northeasterners respect. Now all they give it is a mix of curiosity and sympathy at best, and active denigration at worst. The only real respect for the region at present is for its musical and sporting talent, which are the only positive things to have come out of there in years.
If you are a person who cares about your region, the first thing you need to do is look at it honestly. Don’t let false pride or insecurity prevent you from admitting the truths you know in your hearts to be true. No illness can be cured if the patient denies that he needs medicine.
Our systems are sick. They need fixing.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why I am upset by Afzal Guru's hanging

An old college friend, perhaps surprised by my reaction against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, asked me why I am adopting this position even though I have borne the brunt of militancy in Northeast India. My answer to him was that I am adopting this position precisely because I grew up as a ‘mainlander’ in Northeast India. I know both sides of this situation more closely than most people, who are only acquainted with one side or the other.
The situation in Kashmir is different from the Northeast, for a number of reasons. However there are certain things that are common to both. Both places have seen long spells of insurgency and protests against the Indian state, and the brutal response of the state in return. Both have areas under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the presence of army and paramilitary forces to ensure security.
In both places, the multitudes of security agencies based there over decades have failed to ensure security for anyone including themselves. The fact of the matter is that militants, spies and security men all operate in the same spaces, without any one of them displacing the other. In fact, the presence of one actually ensures the presence of the other. If there were no militants, there would be no deployment of security forces, right? But if there were 20 militants, and 2000 security force men from somewhere else got deployed, and then they raped a few local women, beat up a few random men, and generally made themselves unpopular, you would probably see MORE militants, and then more security forces, and then still more militants, and then still more security forces...
The worst sufferers are the common people of the place.
This is roughly what has happened in various parts of India. Everywhere that central forces have been used to try and crush militants, the number of militant groups have grown year on year. From one or two groups in Kashmir and Manipur, now there are 10 or 20 at least. The pehelwans of the security forces, who are trained to think in terms of violence alone, have kept increasing the levels of violence in conflict areas from the start until they reach a point where they realise it is all one huge mess. This is because, in an attempt to create confusion, the Indian intelligence agencies start to prop up their own militants as counters to the actual militants, until no one knows who is working for whom and it all gets very confusing.
Everyone in that bizarre matrix who is not protected by a militant group or an agency of the state becomes a potential target for extortion or exploitation.
Humongous amounts of money are made by some people among both security forces and militants. A war economy comes into being in which everyone with any real power (which in such areas flows out of the barrels of guns) becomes a stakeholder.
The average constable or militant has a really miserable and hard life, and is usually honest to their respective causes. They are expendable pawns in much, much bigger games.

Who is a militant?

This is just a very sketchy outline of the approximate situation in the conflict zones of Kashmir and Northeast India. It was necessary as background to start answering the question on Guru.
There is no doubt that he had at some time in his life been a militant. What does the word ‘militant’ mean? It can mean “engaged in warfare or combat” or “aggressively active for a cause”. While the first meaning, of engaging in combat, is illegal, the second one is not. It is possible to be a militant feminist or environmentalist, for example; both would be considered not only legal but even socially laudable. Similarly, it is possible to hold strong political views that may not accord with those of policemen, and still stay on the right side of the law.
Guru was a militant alright, but his period of engaging in warfare was very brief. There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a lot of Kashmiri youths took up arms to fight for freedom from India. Guru, who wanted to become a doctor and had just got admission to an MBBS course, was among those who were swayed by the prevailing air of rebellion.
Such things have happened elsewhere in India at other times. Our country has seen a rebellion in Punjab, at least 15 such movements across various states in the Northeast, a Naxal uprising in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, occasional rumblings in Tamil Nadu, and an ongoing Maoist and tribal rebellion against the state through a vast swathe of India from the Nepal border down to Karnataka. In fact, if you take a map of India and colour out the bits that have one form of rebellion or other going on against the state, you’ll realise that the only bits of India you can safely leave out are the big cities. Everywhere else in this country, there are multitudes of people who are seriously pissed off with the state for one good reason or another.
In the cities, you don’t have insurgency, but the people who are not part of “India Shining” are often lured into crime or political violence. Go meet the cadre of any political party. They are not investment bankers and engineers. They are more likely to be vada pav sellers or auto wallahs.
The search for power is therefore common to people everywhere. Nor is the mere fact that someone or some group is protesting against the state unusual. A country as ‘multinational’ as India has to deal with it as a matter of course. 

The trouble with Kashmir

In my humble opinion, India has dealt with it very badly when it comes to Kashmir. The situation of Kashmir is complicated by its history and geography. It was a Muslim majority state with a Hindu king who wanted independence from both India and Pakistan when the British left. So the genesis of the ‘azaadi’ movement in Kashmir starts in significant measure with Maharaja Hari Singh’s reluctance to join India. His reluctance was shared by his bitter opponent Sheikh Abdullah, who was the popular people’s leader among the Muslims of the the Kashmir Valley. The Sheikh had launched a Quit Kashmir movement in 1946 that was opposed to the unpopular king and also called for the abrogation of the treaty by which Kashmir had become part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The valley of Kashmir had fallen to the rule of the Dogra kings after the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh collapsed and his satraps became independent. The Dogra raja, who stayed on the right side of the British by keeping out of their wars with the Sikhs, struck a deal with the British after they defeated the Sikhs. He bought Kashmir from them for Rs 75 lakh. Kashmiris ask whether he bought all of them and their descendants too.
Further examination of this complicated history will get in the way of taking the story forward, so I will leave it at that. I am not writing a history book here; I am merely trying to make a few quick points en route to the present topic, which is Afzal Guru.
The Maharaja was forced to join India by the action of Pakistan, which sent in raiders to take Kashmir by force in 1947 itself. They would probably have succeeded if the people of Kashmir themselves had not resisted the invaders, who came expecting to be welcomed as liberators.
At the beginning of that first war of 1947, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir officially became part of India, pending a plebiscite which was promised by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the United Nations. That promise has never been kept. The Pakistani forces had taken about half of the state of J&K before they were halted. They did not withdraw their forces, and neither did India, and both kept saying “pehle aap, pehle aap”, so neither side withdrew.
That is where matters have stood since then. India and Pakistan have stayed their ground through two wars and many skirmishes. The Kashmiris have been rumbling on about the promised plebiscite. The people of Jammu and Ladakh, who differ from the Kashmiris in ethnicity and religion, have thrown in their lot with India.
Despite all this, life in Kashmir went on quite peacefully for years after 1947, through all the wars with Pakistan, in each of which the Kashmiris largely remained true to India. They had a sense of their distinct history and identity, which was as Kashmiris. They were not looking to become Pakistanis. And so, writers including the very perceptive and caustic Sir VS Naipaul went and stayed in Kashmir, and wrote a book largely set there, without mentioning any militancy. Movie after movie was shot there by Bollywood stars. The tourists flocked. Life went on.
Things took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse only after 1984. That year, Maqbool Bhat, a founder of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was hanged in Tihar jail. The JKLF itself had little presence in Kashmir at that point. It had been founded in Birmingham in England, and the murder of an Indian official for which Bhat was hanged had taken place in England.
In 1987 a state election was held. The National Conference and Congress parties which were in power faced rising unpopularity. Kashmiris allege that the elections were rigged, a charge that has been made by writers on all sides of the political divide. Those elections were the turning point. Till there, perhaps, matters could have been controlled.
One politician who stood for election to the legislative assembly and came second decided to chuck democracy and pick up the gun instead. His name is Syed Salahuddin, and he joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. Another young man, Yasin Malik, who had been radicalised by Bhat's execution, started the local units of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Entire political parties with their cadres and supporters left the democratic process in disgust after the 1987 elections. Militancy in full earnest started by 1989.
Many idealistic young men joined the fight against what they perceived, with some cause, as an unjust Indian government. They were convinced that the only way to get justice was through violence. The Indian government threw in the army and the killing started on both sides.
Afzal Guru was among many who joined, and later, surrendered. They became disillusioned with militancy and tried to return to the mainstream. Some of them were able to do so, but some of them were denied a second chance in life. Guru has consistently maintained that he was in the latter category. The police never stopped harassing him and extorting money from him, he claimed. He wanted to live a normal life but was denied the chance.

The truth about Guru

Is this true? Well, only his immediate family and the policemen involved can tell for sure. But it is a fact that there is rampant corruption in our police forces. It is also true that police routinely pick up the ‘usual suspects’ for any crime, whatever the crime. It is also true that many a time, police wrongly fix someone in a case for their own reasons, which can range from media and political pressure to personal scores. The rate of convictions in Maharashtra, for example, is below 10 per cent, meaning 90 per cent of those in jail are eventually found innocent by courts.
So if Guru was suspect, the police isn’t squeaky clean either.
They picked him up within three days of the Parliament attack. The men who investigated the case were from Delhi Police’s Special Cell. They were ACP Rajbir Singh, a famous ‘encounter cop’, and his colleague Mohan Chand Sharma.
How many of those encounters were real has been moot for years now. There was an infamous one in Ansal Plaza in Delhi, for example. If you Google that you can find for yourself that it was dodgy, to say the least.
Rajbir died in March 2008 after he was shot with his own service revolver by a real estate agent in Gurgaon with whom he had some shady ‘business dealings’. By then, he was said to be an alcoholic, and quite unhinged.
Sharma died after the Batla House encounter. He was killed in a shootout with terrorists, but there were questions after a photo of him walking out of the encounter surfaced. He was clearly wounded but also conscious and walking with support from two men.
Guru has now been hanged.
With his hanging, one chapter is closed, but a darker one may now be opening. His involvement with the attack on Parliament is not in dispute. However he was not among the actual attackers. He was charged with helping the actual attackers find a house in Delhi. He also helped them buy other things such as clothes and a bike.
The police said he did it on orders from a Jaish terrorist nicknamed Ghazi Baba. Guru claimed he did it on orders from a man named Davinder Singh from Kashmir Police’s special cell. Ghazi Baba was killed in an encounter with BSF in Srinagar 2 years after the Parliament attack, in 2003. The operation was lauded by BSF chief Ajai Raj Sharma, who was Delhi Police chief at the time Parliament was attacked. He had taken charge as BSF chief in 2002.
Here one may pause to wonder what the Border Security Force was doing in Srinagar, which is not on the border. However all manner of forces get deployed in counterinsurgency operations in places like Kashmir, so let that pass.
Anyhow, after Guru’s arrest, two other men, SAR Geelani and Shaukat Hussain, were also arrested and charged with the conspiracy to attack Parliament. The trial court sentenced them to death. Their death sentences were overturned by the higher judiciary, which found no merit in the case against Geelani. He got out of prison, and was shot at by an unidentified gunman. He took three bullets but survived.
Guru was sentenced to hang purely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. 

Why I opposed Guru’s hanging

This finally brings me to why I am upset about this hanging. The Supreme Court passed a judgment, and it has been honoured, but as an individual citizen I continue to have misgivings.
The reasons for my misgivings are as follows. Firstly, I am wary about police versions as I am of militant versions. I know that both sides commit excesses in their fight against each other. They see it as all being fair in war. I disagree with both. I think they often make problems worse with their extremism and their wrongdoings.
The courts pass judgment on the basis of evidence and witnesses. I think that the process can be manipulated by those with influence. Remember a film called Damini that had Sunny Deol playing a lawyer with a “dhai kilo ka haath”? That was about how the court system can be manipulated. It happens in real life too, but there is no Sunny Deol to the rescue.
I don’t question the courts, but I do wonder about whether all the evidence is true or manufactured, and whether all the witnesses are telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. These are misgivings I have on most occasions, so I am not making an exception for Guru’s case. On the other hand, people who will freely curse the police and doubt the court system for every other type of case suddenly develop great faith in them when it comes to terror cases. That makes no sense.
Even if the police version is believed in entirety, there remains the question of whether a man should hang for helping some people rent a house and buy a bike. Whether he knew what they were planning to do cannot be proved one way or the other. Those men died in the attack, on the spot, so only Guru himself would know whether they had told him of their plans. In court, he consistently denied he knew, though he had said something else in his police confession.
Given all this, I feel he should have got the benefit of the doubt.
After all, the killers of Rajiv Gandhi, whose guilt is beyond doubt, are still alive for a crime they committed 10 years before the Parliament attack. And in Punjab, the terrorist who killed a serving Chief Minister, Beant Singh, is still alive even though he proudly admits he did it and is refusing to ask for mercy. His date for hanging was fixed at March 31 last year, but he is still not hanged.
So, why the double standards? Why are older cases still held back while a more recent case was dispensed with?
The answer, it would appear, lies in politics. The President is a political appointee, and his decisions are political decisions, not purely legal ones. Tamil Nadu is electorally important to the Congress, and hanging Rajiv Gandhi’s killers would be unpopular with the Tamil extremists who are backed by mainstream politicians including both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. So, no can do.
Punjab is a tricky case. The Akali government in the state is openly allowing Sikh militants to regroup and fanning identity politics, but no one dares touch them. The BJP is in alliance with them and conveniently looks the other way.
There were no such compulsions in the case of the Kashmiri, Guru. His state politicians including the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah were against his hanging, but they didn’t even get to know about it until it was a done deal.
Such things can’t and don’t go unnoticed. The reactions from across the political spectrum in Kashmir have been uniformly angry.
The anger is giving a chance to terrorists to fish in troubled waters. Yasin Malik and the JKLF surrendered arms many years ago, in 1994. Now, Hafiz Saeed landed up to share a stage in Islamabad with Malik, in protest against Guru's execution. Saeed, who is a nasty piece of work, has also met Syed Salahuddin and promised revenge.
Meanwhile, President Obama has announced the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The ball is in play there. Expect a Taliban resurgence there. Also expect a lot of jihadis to arrive in Kashmir. That is what happened last time a superpower withdrew from Afghanistan. That was the Soviet Union, in 1988...after which some of the fighters made their way to Kashmir to look for employment. Yes, jihad is also a job.
So what India has very stupidly done is create a situation in Kashmir that is exactly the same as the one that started the whole militancy there in 1989. Back to square one, with a vengeance. Except, this time it is worse in many ways.
Every intelligence officer, politician, academic and journalist who knows anything at all about all of this has therefore condemned the hanging of Afzal Guru. AS Dulat, the former chief of RAW who was Kashmir adviser to AB Vajpayee, is one of them. B Raman, former deputy chief of RAW, is another. Pravin Sawhney, a former army officer who now edits the military journal Force, is a third. Prof Radha Kumar, who was one of the three interlocutors appointed by the government of India for Kashmir, is a fourth. And so on.
The only people convinced the right thing was done are those who are clueless about Kashmir, or politically blinkered, or both.
Until a majority of Indians start to learn a little more about the stories behind the rhetoric, there is no hope of things getting any better, in Kashmir or anywhere else. Things will only get worse.
Until we realise that Kashmir is not a barren piece of land, but a land with real, living, breathing people we will continue to make mistakes in our Kashmir policy. Those mistakes will return to haunt everyone. The Kashmiris will suffer most, but so too will mainland India. The divides will deepen and the worst fears of each side may come to pass.
All this can be prevented. What is required is wisdom and empathy, on all sides.

Friday, February 01, 2013

DAVID: The one minute review

The characters are fascinating, the music is excellent and varied, most scenes are beautifully shot, the actors are variously menacing, or quirky, or charming, as required by their various roles, the actresses are all talented and very beautiful except Isha Sharvani, who is's all good, except that the three strands of the story never become one coherent story. Was that the whole idea, that it SHOULD remain three separate strands? Well, then, I'm afraid that left me feeling rather unsatisfied as a viewer.
As anyone who's ever written a book of fiction can tell you, there is a crucial difference between real life and fiction. Real life can get away with not making sense, not having a neat resolution, not bothering with a nicely paced progression. Fiction mostly can't. 
That's the trouble with David. I went looking for a film with 3 lives, and 3 destinies that I expected would somehow be connected by the one name. I got exactly what was advertised: 3 lives, 3 destinies, one name. And no connection. Well, very little. In that lack of connection between the Davids, the filmmaker lost his connect with me.
Nonetheless, David can be pleasurably watched just for all the things that are right about it, and director Bejoy Nambiar should be complimented for all the things he did right. He also deserves kudos for showing the courage to experiment, in a field where playing safe is the default option. 

Vishwaroopam protesters, irritants without a cause

So I went and heard what Kamal Haasan had to say, and watched his film Vishwaroopam. After watching it, I think the protests against the film were complete rubbish, and entirely unwarranted.

The film is an action thriller on the theme of international terrorism. It is set in New York and the region now known as AfPak, meaning the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.Both the main villain in the movie, played by Rahul Bose, and the hero, played by Kamal Haasan, are shown to be Muslims. This Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim formulation itself is perhaps not very imaginative, but that is the worst that can reasonably be said against it.

As mainstream entertainment cinema, it does what it is supposed to do, which is entertain. There is plenty of action, a bit of song and dance, and a dash of suspense.
It cannot reasonably be considered more offensive than plenty of other films that have been made on the subject of terrorism in recent years, including many that played to packed halls in India. For example, Aamir Khan's Fanaa had him playing a Kashmiri terrorist, which is certainly closer to home than Rahul Bose playing an Afghan terrorist.

We also see similar stories playing out in the daily news with rather alarming frequency, and have, for at least the past 13 years. It's been on TV, there are enough and more clips online, and those who are especially unfortunate have seen some of it live, in places like Mumbai, for example. Those acts have been perpetrated by terrorist groups that operate in the name of Islam. It is known around the world as Islamist terrorism (and if there are terrorist acts by Hindu extremists in the name of Hinduism, it should be called Hindutva terrorism. Denial never changes truths).

As Javed Akhtar pointed out, those fringe elements from the Muslim community who are protesting the film now for showing a certain kind of terrorism in fiction did not come out in protest when there was actual terrorism in the name of Islam in fact. They are accusing Kamal Haasan of projecting Islam in a bad light, but what light do the real actions of Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and their ilk project Islam in? People's impressions of Islam have been formed, and ruined, by the actions of those groups, not the cinema of Kamal Haasan.

The kind of people who are protesting now are the ones who give their community a bad name. They should be told to shut up, because they are annoying and silly.