Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vietnam and the spectre of Osama

The major lesson American politicians learned from the quagmire of Vietnam was this: they could contain the outrage caused by the killing of hundreds of thousands of foreigners, including civilians (though the dissemination of gruesome images and stories had an impact), but couldn't afford significant losses to their own forces. Accordingly, after Vietnam, the United States opted for a war strategy that involved days or weeks of carpet bombing from great heights combined with missile strikes, guaranteed to cause substantial collateral damage but minimising the risk to American troops.
Yesterday, the American Senate released a report revealing the downside to that strategy. It confirmed beyond doubt that American troops had Osama bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora back in December 2001, and chose not to pursue him with massive force. It seems illogical that an army would launch a war specifically targetting those responsible for the 9/11 attack, only to let the leader of the pack get away. The only explanation is that a ground offensive in Tora Bora would have cost many American lives, something Bush and Rumsfeld baulked at allowing. They sent in a mere 100 American commandos along with a few battalions of Afghans and backed these up with the usual barrage of air strikes. The result, the Senate report confirms, was that bin Laden escaped across the border, the Afghan insurgency was boosted and a new one developed in Pakistan.
Donald Rumsfeld is reputedly a keen student of history, so I'm surprised the actions of generals from Alexander to Chingis Khan didn't teach him the importance of pursuing an adversary relentlessly, across countries and continents, until his capture or killing. Obviously the lesson of Vietnam trumped these earlier exemplars.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Suhel Seth and M J Akbar

Yesterday I watched a BBC World debate about women in the workplace. The discussants included the head of ICICI Bank, the head of PepsiCo, the head of Renault-Nissan and ... Suhel Seth. Seth also heads a firm, but it isn't one you are likely to have heard of. What was he doing there? Is he an expert on women's rights? Does his organisation employ lots of females? No, and no. He was there because he's become the go-to person whenever there is a spot vacant on any debate panel on any English news programme.
This is bewildering, because Seth has never said anything interesting on any of the dozens of subjects I've heard him hold forth about. It's like he has a handbook of clichés in front of him, and combines phrases from this book with references to whatever happens to be the discussion of the day. He makes points forcefully and articulately, but never with any hint of insight.
During a break in the Beeb's programme, I switched to CNBC India, where Deepak Parekh was being interviewed. Parekh is the polar opposite of Suhel Seth. He speaks on matters of which he has deep knowledge, and I always come away having learned something I didn't know before.
I accept this is an unfair comparison. There is room for generalist commentators in the media, and my own blog covers a very wide range of issues, political, cultural and even financial. I hope, though, that I bring a perspective to these subjects which readers might not agree with, but feel is well-informed and individual.
Suhel Seth revels in conventional wisdom, while his manner always suggests he's saying radical things. This, at least, is the impression I have from having watched him frequently on the Big Fight and similar programmes. Irritated by his contribution to the 'women in the workplace' debate, a subject about which I admit even the most penetrating thinker would be hard pressed to produce anything of interest, I sought out his writings (his role as cultural commentator extends to columns and a blog) wondering if they would correct my impression of him. Instead, they confirmed all my misgivings.
Here's the opening of his latest blog post on CNN-IBN's website, with notes from me after every sentence or two:
"On November 26, 2008, a billion people felt the helplessness and vulnerability of the kind we have never experienced ever."
A slight exaggeration here, maybe? And one that is in keeping with the exaggeration of the attack itself, because it played out on TV for an extended period.
"When 10 misguided young men held an entire nation to ransom and there was nothing the nation could do except live in disbelief and post that, in denial."
Wrong on three counts. First, the terrorists made no demands and therefore could not be said to have held the nation to ransom; second, the nation's administration reacted by sending in commandos; and third, there was never any hint of denial on the nation's part. In fact, when a minister appeared to downplay the seriousness of the assault, he was forced from office.
"There was an outpouring of anger and much dismay at the 'system': most of us raved and ranted and when our turn came, we left for salubrious climes instead of voting for the right person."
Odd that we were in denial, yet managed an outpouring of anger and dismay. A second conflation of 'we' who can leave for salubrious climes with the billion-strong population of India as a whole.
"The elections which were going to be manna from heaven threw up the same rogues, many of whom are back in the very offices they were shamed to give up in the aftermath of 26/11."
Straw man. Who ever said elections were 'manna from heaven'? Oh, I forgot, that's the phrase that presented itself on Seth's cliché handbook. In the Maharashtra election, which is what Seth alludes to, the choice was between an ineffectual centrist coalition and a right-wing chauvinist one that had proven itself equally ineffectual in the past. Not a great choice, but one which produced a result liberals welcomed.
"Almost twelve months later, we are still quite befuddled. By the David Headleys of the world and their impunity and at the lack of any co-ordinated intelligence gathering system that ideally should have been in place by now."
The David Headleys of the world have impunity? I thought the guy was under arrest and charged for plotting an attack on a Danish publication. We only heard of him because of well co-ordinated intelligence gathering.
"But then as in Shakespeare's words, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves and that is the real point."
Nobody has suggested the fault lies in our stars.
"We have sadly become a nation that is Teflon-coated because we genuinely believe this intangible 'system' is demonic and there is nothing we as common men and women can do."
'Teflon-coated' is used for people to whom no criticism sticks. Reagan, the Teflon president and so on. Not sure it applies to citizens harried by a demonic system.
"This is perhaps the best way of perpetrating the evil of the system."

Or even perpetuating it. You misread the handbook there, Mr. Seth.

The blog goes on in this fashion, but Seth's writing never gets so bad that it's good. For that, one can turn to M J Akbar's article on the same subject published in the Times yesterday.

I stopped reading Akbar's columns eons ago, following his questionable role in the St.Kitts affair. The case involved documents suggesting that V. P. Singh had amassed millions of dollars in an offshore account on the island of St.Kitts. Akbar wrote a series of articles assuming the authenticity of these documents long after every other respectable journalist had dismissed them as pathetic forgeries created by Congress politicians and their associates to tarnish V.P. Singh's image.
Akbar, at the time, was closely associated with the Congress, even becoming spokesman for the party for a period. Since then, as far as I have gathered from infrequent glances at his columns, he has turned against the party and can find nothing good to say about it. Here are excerpts from his analysis of the November attack and its consequences. I have refrained from annotating the text, so you can enjoy fully his wild mixing of metaphors:
We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.
It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature.
If it’s warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well.
Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player...
The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.

The article is titled, Terror threat: We have lost the plot. M.J. Akbar lost the plot a long time ago.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tibet, China, India: The Lies and the Facts

The Dalai Lama is a wonderful chap. He is wise and full of good humour and has led a peaceful resistance movement for half a century. His antagonist, the Chinese government, is hard to sympathise with. The regime has committed gross crimes in the past and continues to deny its citizens certain basic human rights. It is not surprising, then, that the Dalai Lama's cause finds favour across the globe. The demand for Tibetan independence, unfortunately, is backed by arguments that twist history, misinform the public and are on occasion willfully deceptive.

Greater Tibet
Take a close look at this image. It is the map of Tibet according to the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala. This is the area that the organisation led by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, wants to liberate from Chinese rule.
The map will mean little even to most who actively proselytise the cause of Tibetan independence, so let me explain its implications. The area which is generally known to the world as Tibet is the bit in yellow, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The other provinces on the map never had Tibetan majorities and were never under Tibetan rule apart from a brief period when Tibet became an imperial power, and controlled, also, a large swathe of areas now within the Indian republic. It is absurd for the Tibetan government-in-exile to claim that all of these regions, which constitute together a fourth of the total area of the People's Republic of China, belong in an independent Tibetan state. Is it any wonder that the Chinese government looks upon the Dalai Lama not as a holy man desirous of gaining autonomy for his province but as a dangerous secessionist?

Tibet as an independent nation
"As recently as 1914, a peace convention was signed by Britain, China and Tibet that again formally recognised Tibet as a fully independent country." The sentence I have quoted is from the introduction to Tibet's history on the government-in-exile's website. It is an outright lie, and the fact that the Dalai Lama has done nothing to alter it in all these years makes me think less of him. Media reports favourable to the separatist cause invariably quote the 1914 treaty as ground for considering Tibet a once-independent state.
Before 1914, all agreements regarding Tibet's boundaries were signed between Britain and the Qing emperor, proving that Britain did not consider Tibet an independent nation. In 1914, when the Qing empire had crumbled, a conclave was held in Simla between representatives of British India, Tibet and the weak new Chinese government. The final draft agreement provided for Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, and marked boundaries between China, Outer Tibet (more or less what is today the Tibetan Autonomous Region) and British India.
The first lie Tibetan activists tell, then, is that the treaty defined Tibet as a "fully independent country". The 1914 document cannot possibly be interpreted to mean any such thing, containing as it does the sentence, "Tibet forms part of Chinese territory". The Chinese envoy, moreover, rejected the draft. The second lie in the government-in-exile's statement is that all three parties signed on to the deal.
In 1914, Britain had an extant agreement with Russia, which included a commitment that all agreements about Tibet would be signed with China. Since the Chinese did not sign the Simla agreement, London believed it contravened the Anglo-Russian pact. As a result, Britain itself did not publish the accord as an official document till the Anglo-Russian treaty ended in 1938. The basis of Tibet's claim to independence, then, rests on an agreement that did not offer Tibet sovereignty, was not signed by China, and rejected for decades by the very power that drafted it, Britain.

Arunachal Pradesh
The recent diplomatic spat between China and India was sparked by the Dalai Lama's trip to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, an area China has never accepted as a settled part of India. Tawang has an interesting history. The boundaries drawn by the British in the late 19th century placed all of Arunachal in Tibet. Later on, British India moved north, but Tawang stayed a part of Tibet. Only in the 1914 agreement was the boundary of British India shifted further to swallow up Tawang. China, remember, never signed on to the agreement. The dispute over boundaries was central to its refusal to sign. The man who drafted the accord was Lieutenant-Colonel Henry McMahon, and the boundary he drew is called the McMahon line. It was a classic colonial land grab. Unfortunately, after 1950, the independent republic of India, which repudiated similar land grabs where they were found inconvenient, took the position that McMahon's border was the settled international boundary between India and China.
China was willing to talk the issue through, but after India gave the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959, relations between the nations soured, eventually leading the Chinese to undertake a land grab of their own. During the 1962 war, Chinese forces overran Arunachal, and India's military fled pretty much all the way to Calcutta. Afterwards, however, China voluntarily withdrew from almost all the areas it occupied, including Tawang.
In an impassioned editorial page article in the Times of India last week, the activist Tenzin Tsundue wrote, "For India to keep Arunachal, based on the McMahon Line, the only choice is to recognise Tibet's independence. It cannot legitimise the McMahon Line border otherwise." His argument is that, while McMahon's boundary is unjust (Tawang ought really to be in Tibet), the 1914 accord, signed by the 13th Dalai Lama's envoy, commits any future Tibetan government to respect that border, something China will never do.
I believe the opposite is true. The current Chinese regime is open to a final settlement of the international border with minor adjustments. Their forces have had control of Tawang in the past and withdrawn. India is helped by the fact that the citizens of Arunachal Pradesh have no great love for China. The situation would change radically if Tibet became a sovereign republic. Historically, geographically, culturally, linguistically, Tawang is closer to Lhasa than to Delhi. Instantly, secessionist movements would arise in Arunachal and Sikkim demanding to be part of the newly created Tibetan nation. At that point, a number of Tibetan officials would doubtless discover that the 1914 accord was, in fact, imposed by a brutal colonial regime, and must therefore be rejected.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Foreign Policy Hawks Swoop Again

The mainstream media, aided by hawkish commentators like Brahma Chellaney, have in the past few months consistently pushed the idea of China's supposedly aggressive anti-India posture. This trend has reached an absurd extreme with reactions in this morning's papers to yesterday's US-China joint declaration. In the past, Indian diplomats were prickly about the slightest interference in what we call our 'internal affairs' even when the affairs are bilateral or multilateral. In the current scenario, bureaucrats and politicians have behaved responsibly, while media reactions have been over the top.
The lead article in today's Times of India adopts a tone echoed in numerous publications. Titled, 'US wants China to police S Asia?', the piece by Saibal Dasgupta and Indrani Bagchi quotes a sentence from the US-China joint statement and proceeds to over-read it:
'“They (US and China) support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan,” the joint statement said.
This is a rare occasion when a US president has acknowledged that Beijing has a role to play in the India-Pakistan relationship. The move, if serious, runs counter to predictions of US foreign policy experts that the US would not acquiesce in a future Chinese hegemony in the region.'

In other words, by joining China in supporting improved India-Pakistan relations, the US has accepted Chinese hegemony in the region. There is a double non-sequitur here. First, the desire to see an improved relationship between two nations does not constitute playing a role in that relationship. Second, playing a role in the relationship does not imply hegemony in the region. The leap from 'support for improved relations' to 'hegemony' is breathtaking.

This, by the way, is not the first time that a US-China joint statement has mentioned the India-Pakistan relationship. A little over a decade ago, when Bill Clinton travelled to Beijing, the two nations signed a declaration devoted entirely to South Asia. It called for a far more activist (intrusive if you like) role for the two nations, and explicitly mentioned the Kashmir dispute as an area which called for intervention:
'Reducing Tensions and Encouraging the Peaceful Resolution of Differences between India and Pakistan
We are committed to assist where possible India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully the difficult and long-standing differences between them, including the issue of Kashmir. We
welcome the resumption of dialogue between the two countries and encourage them to continue such dialogue, and we stand ready to assist in the implementation of confidence-building measures between them, and encourage the consideration of additional measures of this type.
Responsibilities of China and the U.S.
China and the United States have long sought friendly relations with both India and Pakistan. We reaffirm this goal and our hope that we can jointly and individually contribute to the achievement of a peaceful, prosperous, and secure South Asia.'

Sunday, November 15, 2009

President Everyman

Barack Obama has worked in universities in New England and Chicago, bridging the freshwater - saltwater divide. In the midwest, he speaks of his mother's Kansas upbringing; when addressing troops, he refers to his grandfather Stanley who fought in WW2; in West Asia and North Africa, he mentions his Muslim father. His childhood years in Indonesia allow him to feel at home in South East Asia; in sub-Saharan Africa, his Kenyan half is prominent; and now, in Japan and China, he has used his time in Hawaii to label himself the first Pacific President of the United States.
Nothing connects President Obama to India, as far as I know, apart from the picture of Mahatma Gandhi he keeps in his office. When he visits this country, though, I suspect he will reveal some biographical detail that will encourage us to claim him as an honorary Indian.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Among those honoured at this year's Mumbai Film Festival was the Greek auteur Theodoros Angelopoulos. The hosts MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) apparently couldn't find a person worthy of presenting the citation to him, and opted to bring on a group that included Rohan Sippy, Ashok Mehta and the director duo Abbas-Mustan.

You can see the brothers Abbas and Mustan Burmawalla on the extreme left of this picture, dressed, as always, in white from shirt to shoes. They're listening intently to Angelopoulos's acceptance speech (thank you, Sankalp, for the info and pic).
After this interaction, I hope Abbas-Mustan familiarise themselves with Angelopoulos's films, starting, I suggest, with Ulysses' Gaze; Angelopoulos, meanwhile, ought to dip into the body of work created by those who honoured him on stage. Taarzan: The Wonder Car might be a good place to begin.
Next year, MAMI should felicitate Jean-Luc Godard, and ask Dharmendra and Jeetendra to present him with the award and speak of how influential Godard's vision was for them in the 1960s and 70s.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Volkswagen rewrites history

Volkswagen has monopolised the advertising in this morning's Times of India, including the entire front page and back page. The back shows an impressive looking factory, supposedly the mammoth plant built at Chakan, near Bombay.

A line at bottom right reads, "Images for representational purposes only. Terms and Conditions apply." What is one to make of that? Is the image a composite? It looks real enough, especially all those people walking along the road although a sidewalk is available. Strange.
Elsewhere, Volkswagen is decidedly economical with the truth.

In this ad, the text states: "In the late 1930s, when the world was busy focussing their engineering minds (sic) on large cars with large engines, we scratched below the surface. We racked our brains and dwelled on what the people really wanted. The solution was the Beetle, a small car that would not just take them from point A to point B, but make the journey memorable as well."
Memo to copy writers: when selling German products, DO NOT mention the late 1930s. Because, like, some might respond to this ad by saying, "Wait a minute, was the Beetle the result of a car manufacturer considering what people really wanted? I remember reading that Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to produce a small, inexpensive car. It could be built only because of subsidies provided by the state. And wait a minute, there was something about the design being stolen from a Czech model, for which Volkswagen later had to pay substantial damages."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mobiles and Tamiflu

Since November 1, prepaid connections have been discontinued in Jammu and Kashmir. The Home Ministry ordered the prohibition because it felt vendors were issuing connections without vetting applicants properly, creating a security threat in the troubled state. J&K's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, is protesting the move, but the Centre rejects the idea that the entire population is being punished. Just get postpaid connections, says the Home Minister, they're equally cheap.
The principle, though, is plain unfair. If the Home Ministry found, during random checks, that connections were being given to customers without proper verification, it should have penalised service operators and vendors. But governments in India, whether state or federal, are perfectly happy to prohibit a range of services because of fear of their possible misuse.
A great example of this is the ban on the sale of Tamiflu across the country. No chemist is allowed to stock the potentially life saving drug, though a generic version is manufactured in vast quantities within India. A few hospitals in each state hand out the tablets, after tests confirm a patient has swine flu. Now I'm no doctor (those readers who are, please verify the accuracy of what I'm saying about Tamiflu), but I've heard that Tamiflu should be taken within 12 to 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. The first stop for most people when they have fever is their GP. He prescribes the usual medication, and only elevates the case if the fever does not abate. By the time a patient gets to a hospital, is diagnosed, and tested for swine flu, the 48 hour mark is long gone, and Tamiflu is virtually useless.
So why aren't doctors allowed to prescribe Tamiflu, and chemists to sell it? For fear of misuse, which might lead to resistant varieties of the virus emerging. Dozens of Indians have doubtless died already because Tamiflu was not presribed in time.
It is true that, once the drug is available at the local chemist's, all and sundry will walk in and buy it, with or without prescription. Nothing will be done to address this laxity. I recall seeing the Gus Van Sant film Drugstore Cowboy, in which Matt Dillon and his fellow addicts break into chemists' shops to get their hands on prescription drugs. My reaction was: just come to India, you can buy all the prescription drugs you want, no matter how lethal, over the counter.
Even if the authorities clamped down on the sale of scheduled drugs without prescription, it would be easy enough to get one from most family physicians. When I first travelled to England as a student, I was asked to fill out a form listing ailments I'd suffered from, and get it signed by my GP. There was nothing serious in there apart from a bout of Hepatitis I'd suffered a few months previously. My doctor looked at what I'd written and said in a troubled voice, "Why did you put in the jaundice? They may not give you a visa." I told him I didn't think the visa would be a problem, but since I'd heard some kinds of Hepatitis were chronic, it was best to provide the information just in case I had a relapse.
This grew into an argument, with him insisting I should lie in the form, and me telling him it was my concern, not his, whether or not I got to England. Astonishingly, he refused to sign the document, and I had to get a signature from another doctor, who knew nothing about my medical history, and was not concerned about my prospects.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What waiters should never do

Bruce Buschel has compiled a list of 100 things restaurant staffers should never do. I've supplemented this with a list of my own geared to Indian restaurants. Please add your own pet peeves.


drag furniture across hard floors while setting tables if some guests are already seated.

form chatting huddles at the counter or in corners.

proffer plastic bottles of water for temperature checks.

watch the cricket match on TV instead of attending to guests.

crouch, or place a hand on a chair and lean down to speak.

automatically suggest the most expensive item on the menu when asked for recommendations.

presume guests will order a particular dish because they have done so the last dozen times they visited.

insist on helping guests place napkins on their lap after they indicate they are capable of doing it themselves.

be stingy with menus by having two guests share a card and then snatching it away at the first opportunity.

place the bill before the male rather than at a neutral spot after a couple finishes dining.

Serve red wine warm (room temperature in Bombay is rather higher than room temperature in Bordeaux).

Monday, November 2, 2009

Title Trend

These are the titles of some recently released Hindi films, along with a couple of high-profile movies due for release soon: Blue, Wanted, Wake Up Sid, What's Your Rashee?, London Dreams, Acid Factory, Let's Dance, Paying Guests, New York, ShortKut, Luck, Life Partner, Daddy Cool, Do Knot Disturb, All The Best, London Dreams, Jail, 3 Idiots, Kites and My Name is Khan. It's as if all the Hindustani words in the dictionary have been used up.