Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The spy ring that never was

Today, an armed forces tribunal will begin hearing a 31 year old case, known as the Samba spy scandal. Tomorrow might have been a more appropriate day to start, because the case reads like a horrific April Fool's joke. The man pictured above, Sarwann Dass, a gunner in an artillery unit, was tempted into spying for Pakistan in the early 1970s. He and another low ranking spy, Aya Singh, were arrested in 1978, and quickly confessed before officers of the civilian Intelligence Bureau. After this, they were handed over to Military Intelligence. Somebody in MI decided they were part of a more widespread conspiracy, and tortured the two men to discover who their superiors in the Indian forces were.
Soon enough, Sarwann Dass provided a couple of names, and then more. Those he implicated were arrested and themselves tortured, and accused other fellow officers and jawans. Nobody knows how many serving men were arrested from their base in Samba in Jammu between August 1978 and February 1979, but the figure is certainly over 50 and perhaps as high as one hundred.
A few of these men, while admitting their guilt under duress, said things that could be factually disproved. For example, one told the interrogators he was with his Pakistani handler when he was, in fact, attending an official function. They hoped these discrepancies would help absolve them when their case came up for hearing. It was a false hope. The court martial paid little heed to hard evidence and went entirely by the often impossible stories that had been made up by the defendants in order to get the pain and humiliation to cease.
The two real spies got away with a few months in jail, earning their full salary all the time. Some of the innocent were sentenced to between seven and 14 years in prison. Others faced summary discharge from service.
As the media gradually got to the bottom of the issue, families of those imprisoned lobbied for their release and members of the civilian intelligence apparatus questioned the army's conclusions, pressure mounted on the legal system to try the case in a more even-handed manner. In 1994, Sarwann Dass admitted in an affidavit that he had made up everything he said about the spy ring. In 2000, the Delhi High Court overturned the verdict of the general court martial. And now, over three decades later, the army is readying to make paltry amends.
The one thing that stands out for me in this episode is the effect of torture. The Samba case provides the most effective argument against the use of harsh violence in investigations. Yes, such methods might help you land a few criminals or even a terrorist or two. Yes, beating up suspects may occasionally lead you to incriminating evidence, which then can form the basis of a legal case. More often than not, though, torture transports investigators to the land of red herrings, wild goose chases and witch hunts. All detainees break, sooner or later, even hardened army men, and begin saying whatever they imagine will please the investigators
When anybody suggests it is worth torturing enemies of the state in the interest of national security, remember Havaldar Ram Swarup, who died in custody with thirty-nine injuries on his body; Captain R S Rathaur, who had needles placed under his fingers, a metal rod inserted in his rectum, his hairs pulled out one by one, who was dragged around his cell with a rope tied to his testicles; remember Major Ajwani, who refused to admit the confession of a manifestly broken jawan, and was himself arrested as a spy and sacked.
The officers from Military Intelligence who were in charge of the investigation, Brigadier Grewal, Lt. Colonel Madan, Major Jolly and Captain Sudhir Talwar -- the latter two personally overseeing and participating in the brutality -- were promoted and retired with all their privileges intact. I hope the army tribunal admits the truth and censures them in some form while they are still alive.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Amitabh, Modi and Congress foolishness

One of the many annoying things about Narendra Modi is how he equates himself with the state of Gujarat. Whenever Modi's administration is criticised, particularly with respect to the riots of 2002, during which a thousand mainly Muslim citizens were killed under his watch, and probably with his connivance, the Chief Minister proclaims that all of Gujarat has been insulted. I'm astonished at how many people actually fall for this humbug.
Now the Congress has made the same equation between person and state, approaching it from the opposite side. The party, currently engaged in a needless spat with Amitabh Bachchan, is arguing that Bachchan's promotion of Gujarat as a tourist destination implies support for Narendra Modi's government.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari wants Bachchan to clarify whether he supports the Modi government's role in the riots. I have a question for the voluble Tiwari: if your party is so concerned about victims of mob violence, why have successive Congress governments in Maharashtra taken no action on Justice Srikrishna's report, which nails the perpetrators of the 1993 Bombay riots?

Update, March 31: Here's the usual Modi mode again: On his blog, Modi wrote, "Unsubstantiated criticism of the land of Gandhi, Sardar (Vallabhbhai Patel) can never be tolerated. Gujarat will give a befitting reply again, and again and again come what may." He claimed that his appeal "had not been heard by those who are bent upon defaming Gujarat nor do I foresee that it will be heard by them now."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The new diet enemy

As kids we heard that the Coca Cola company produced the world's most popular fizzy beverage using a secret formula that was locked in a Swiss vault and known to only a handful of top executives. The drink had, at the time we heard this story, been banished from India. After its return in the 1990s, a friend complained we weren't getting the real thing. The Coke he'd drunk on his recent US trip had a superior kick and flavour. To get the real Coke one still had to go to the USA, he insisted.
Around that time, I learned that, even if the story about the secret formula had once been true, Coca Cola in the USA certainly no longer followed that recipe. That was because it used high-fructose corn syrup instead of sucrose, or normal sugar. It had switched to HFCS, as had most other fizzy drink producers in the US, because subsidies provided by that country's government to corn growers made HFCS cheap, while tariffs imposed on sugar imports made that commodity relatively expensive.
Today, the average American consumes a little over 17 kg of HFCS per year, compared to a little over 21 kg of sucrose, a startlingly close race considering HFCS is an industrial product never used for cooking on a small scale. Since US obesity rates began to spike at around the same time as consumption of HFCS, conspiracy theorists have pointed to it as the cause. All they have to go on, however, is correlation without any established causal link. More recently fructose has begun to be identified as a villain, because it puts a greater burden on the liver than glucose. This scare-mongering article by Dr. Joseph Mercola connects fructose, HFCS and the ills that plague America's diet. The connection doesn't seem far-fetched at first glance; after all, a commodity referred to as 'high fructose' must be high in fructose, right? Not quite. Normal sugar, like HFCS, is composed of a combination of fructose and glucose. While the most commonly used HFCS variety has a fructose to glucose ratio of 55 : 45, sugar contains the two in a 50 : 50 balance. There's little daylight between the two in terms of fructose levels, something Dr.Mercola conveniently downplays.
Now, a new Princeton University study has suggested that HFCS causes significantly greater weight gain than the same calories ingested in the form of sucrose. It isn't the fructose level to blame, apparently, but the way the body breaks down HFCS as opposed to sugar. Expect immediate pushback from the HFCS lobby led by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, the company at the centre of Stephen Soderbergh's amusing film The Informant. The movie starred Matt Damon as Marc Whitacre, the man whose co-operation with a US Justice Department price-fixing investigation cost ADM at least $500 million.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Decline of the IPL

The recent auctions of new teams and raising of salary caps marks the beginning of the end of the Indian Premier League. All the revenues imaginable are being squeezed from the jamboree: endorsements on every square inch of clothing; television commercials beamed not just between overs but between balls; and aggressive merchandising of team shirts. Despite this, all but two of the eight teams have suffered losses during the initial years of the IPL's existence.
Now, the Sahara group has bid 370 million dollars for the Pune franchise, and a consortium named Rendezvous World Sport 333 million dollars for Kochi. This means the two will pay the Board of Control for Cricket in India four or five times as much each year as the other franchisees. Nobody has been able to figure out how these businesses propose to turn a profit given the way IPL finances are split. You can read detailed analyses of the issue here and here.
The Sahara people, having made a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, appear bent on squandering it at the top, having lost money on their airline, television company and, probably, luxury township projects. For those who bought franchises in the first round, this is probably the best time to sell and walk out with a handsome profit.
What irks me about the IPL is its lack of quality. Each team is composed of, maybe, three good foreign players and three good Indian ones; a couple of journeymen; and two or three guys who are just there to make up the numbers. This was exposed during the Champions League, when not a single IPL team reached the semi-finals despite having home advantage. With two more teams to contend with, local talent is going to be stretched even thinner. How long before the public realises that excitement is no substitute for excellence?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health reform

Ever since he began his unlikely run for President, people have been asking about Barack Obama, "But what has he done?" His thin resume was spotlighted by Hillary Clinton and John McCain during the campaign, and the Nobel Prize he won soon after taking office led to derisive comments about image winning over substance.
Well, nobody can ask that question after today. Obama has spearheaded a change deeper than anything crafted under the two Bushes and Clinton. He is already the transformational President people thought he had the potential to become.
A number of Americans have been angered by the thrust of the reform, and turned off by the process. In the long run, though, I believe the Democrats will benefit greatly from this vote. What Americans hate, above almost everything else, is losers. Once a legislative victory is achieved, it can be sold to the public from a position of strength. Democrats have rarely had the luxury of doing that in the past forty years. I hope they learn the trick before the November elections.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

The best I can say about Tim Burton is that I prefer Mars Attacks to Independence Day. Burton's Alice In Wonderland, which should be called Return to Wonderland or Alice in Underland, is a disappointment on most fronts. It mangles the story of the Alice books into something like the Narnia tale of good battling evil. Except that Burton doesn't believe in good, so he makes it a fight between evil and less bad.
Some of the characters , like Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the Cheshire Cat, are nicely imagined. But making the Mad Hatter, the Doormouse and the Rabbit into subversives determined to restore order to the land by replacing the Red Queen with the White one was never going to work.
The music stands out for its atrociousness, Burton must be tone deaf to have allowed that stuff within a mile of his film. And the special effects make you appreciate exactly what an advance Avatar constitutes. The most disappointing thing about the 8.45 pm screening we caught at INOX was the lack of kids in the auditorium. Scanning the crowd when the lights came on at the interval, I noticed just four children in a crowd of about 100. I can understand 10th graders being preoccupied with their exams, but the low attendance of youngsters, and the consequent failure of Alice In Wonderland at the Indian box-office, signals that even ten and twelve year olds these days are being made to sit home cramming text books.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Holding Israel to account

The Israelis obviously thought the Obama administration was too busy with internal issues to pick a fight in the Middle East. I'm glad they were wrong. For far too long Israel has been given carte blanche to do what it wants in territory it seized by force in the past: build settlements and security walls, blockade, invade, deny Palestinians the right to movement, the right to livelihood, any rights at all.
Every time a peace plan is drawn up, the Israelis agree not to expand or build settlements, and then proceed to expand and build settlements. It must seem like a charade to them by now, which is why they announced a new building plan in East Jerusalem even while Vice President Biden was in town. When he expressed displeasure, the Israelis moved to Plan B, which is apologise but continue to expand and build settlements. It seems now that Obama and Clinton want actual evidence of real actions rather than words, a demonstration on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu's government that it is seriously interested in resolving the Palestinian issue through dialogue.
The Jewish American lobby has immediately gone to work in favour of Netanyahu. American newspapers are full of commentaries stressing Israel's stragetic importance to the United States. I don't understand this. In what way does Israel's existence help the USA? I can't think of a single important strategic objective that the US gains from the relationship. All it causes is anger in the Islamic world directed toward the United States.
This is not to suggest the US should abandon an ally in the interest of pleasing populations and governments which, in many cases, do not adequately respect human rights. But let's stop the 'strategic interest' humbug and recognise that Israel needs the US, the US does not need Israel. Somehow, both Israelis and Americans have forgotten this fact, and the result has been a ridiculous tail-wagging-the-dog scenario playing itself out for over a decade.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dev Benegal's Road, Movie

I'd have loved to like Dev Benegal's Road, Movie, because I know him personally and admire his earlier films, but I'm afraid it is a mess. The film is part coming-of-age story, part magic realist fantasy, part political critique, and none of the parts is satisfying or convincing.
Vishnu (Abhay Deol) leaves his stifling home, and his father's perfumed hair oil business, to drive an old truck from Jodhpur or thereabouts (no actual locations are mentioned) to a town on the west coast. The truck contains a mobile cinema of the sort popular decades ago. In the course of the journey, Vishnu picks up a young boy; an old, wise man who is a genius with anything mechanical; and a beautiful gypsy woman. The old man offers to keep Vishnu's truck in good repair provided he is driven directly to the fair to which he's headed. He takes Vishnu off road, on what he calls a short-cut not marked on any map, and they end up on a deserted salt flat, probably the Rann of Kutch, which proceeds to fill with itinerants and traders. The group encounters a vicious policeman and later the local water mafia, but manages to evade them by employing the allure of cinema and that of perfumed hair oil. Then the old man dies for no particular reason except that old men of this sort are marked for death in the movies; and the gypsy and boy walk away into the desert for no particular reason except they have served their purpose; and Vishnu drives his truck into the sea for no particular reason.
I'll give one example of what I mean by confusion of genres. When the group is arrested by the policeman, they screen film scenes to keep him entertained. A big deal is made at this point about stealing power to operate the projector. In the Rann of Kutch, though, where an entire brilliantly lit mela materialises from nowhere, there is no indication of how the show is being powered. One can accept any transgression of realism, but there needs to be internal consistency within a narrative, and no attempt appears to have been made in this direction.
Aside from Vishnu's mobile phone, which, in any case, plays no role in the plot, everything about Road, Movie could have happened in 1980. It would've been more appropriate in that period, because today even the remotest communities have had a taste of television. The magic of the movies isn't what it used to be. The film seems out of date not just because India has changed dramatically in recent years, but because its mood is substantially 1970s existentialist arthouse. Like many of those arthouse flicks, Road, Movie is tedious: its failure to capture the playfulness of the picaresque leads to its 90 minute running time seeming interminable.
Definitely a film only foreigners can enjoy.

Update: I've read up a bit about the film now, and it seems it relies on memories from when Dev was a teenager or a young adult. This fits very well with the time frame in which I located the movie. He should have made it a period film. The distanced irony that comes from looking at another era would've imbued the film with a contemporary spirit. I'm reminded of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's best film, which is about Crowe's tryst with rock music as a young writer in 1970 or thereabouts. It captures the mood of that period, when rock music and the sexual revolution were still young. It would've been absurd for Crowe to set the same narrative in the noughties.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Slim pickings for Gates

Forbes magazine has released its latest billionaires list. Bill Gates, for the first time in recent memory, has been superseded at the top of the charts. The new richest man in the world is Carlos Slim, a Mexican of Lebanese extraction whose original surname was Salim.

Gates has slipped a notch partly because he's given away billions. The other reason is that the company he founded, Microsoft, has spent a decade in the doldrums. Exactly ten years ago, on March 10, 2000, the Nasdaq reached a peak of 5132 intraday, 5048 closing. That Friday, investors in technology stocks went home happy, as they'd done most evenings for a number of years. They woke on Monday to a different world. The Nasdaq opened 4% down, a sign the tech bubble had finally burst. The index hasn't come anywhere close to its previous peak in the subsequent decade.

The trigger for the fall is unclear, but one cause was investors' fear that Microsoft was about to be declared a monopoly. That happened on April 3, when Judge Thomas Jackson suggested the firm be broken into two.

Microsoft lost over half its value between December 1999 and May 2000, much less, it has to be said, than many other tech companies. The problem is that the company never recovered, and spent all of the noughties hovering in a range between 20 and 30 dollars per share. Considering the number of products launched in that period: the Xbox, Windows Vista and the Zune MP3 player to name a few, the steadiness of the Microsoft chart is remarkable.
When companies like Apple and Google began to create more noise than Microsoft, Gates was dismissive, confident his firm, which at the time was ten times the size of the insurgents, could muscle them out before they became serious competitors. While Microsoft flatlined, though, Apple and Google soared.

Both now have a market cap of around 200 billion dollars, compared to Microsoft's 250 billion; it seems only a matter of time before one or the other passes Microsoft to become the most valuable tech company in the world. Something tells me Bill Gates will be more upset when that happens than he is by the latest Forbes rankings.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My friend Goodwin

Housemates from 7, Fyfield Road. Standing, left to right: Henrietta Kaninda (Zaire); Me; Rick Russell (USA); Evelyn Tait (Scotland); Sitting, l to r: Jeff Moore (Canada); Dean Hickman (England); Goodwin Liu (USA); Beate Dignas (Germany); Patrick Callaghan (Irish Republic).

I was out of town with limited web access for four days, but managed to check Google News one afternoon, and was delighted to read that Goodwin Liu, my closest friend from my grad student days, has been nominated to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The Courts of Appeals are roughly the equivalent of India's High Courts.
Goodwin came to Oxford to study PPP (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology), after a degree in biology from Stanford, and seemed headed for a career in medicine, following his parents and older brother. He found himself drawn more to the social sciences and, after a bout of the soul searching to which he was prone, switched to PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), and busied himself with deciphering Locke and Hume.
We lived in adjoining quarters, and spent long periods in each others’ company. Most of the time it was I hanging out in his room, because it was hospitably done up, while mine resembled a cavern. I was a pretty good cook, and Goodwin an exceptional one. However, while I was often content to scramble a few eggs with Gouda or head for the college dining hall, he’d make full meals each day, usually a preparation of rice, vegetables and strips of pork stewed in flavourful stock, accompanied by a side dish like broccoli with oyster sauce. He was generous sharing what he cooked, as also everything in his kitchen cabinet. An exception was made in the case of chocolate products, once Goodwin discovered I tended to scarf huge quantities of these. He might feel like a chocolate covered Jaffa cake at midnight and discover the entire pack he’d bought the previous day was gone, with the Indian next door the lone suspect.
We talked a lot about politics, and have continued those discussions through letters and emails after leaving England, although our exchanges become less frequent each year. Having a fair insight into the way Goodwin’s mind works, I’ve been astonished to read the attacks on him after his nomination. Conservative critics have called him "a hard-Left ideologue", "one of the leading radical legal theorists out there", and "far outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence". On blogger wrote, "It is shocking that President Obama would nominate an extremist like Goodwin Liu, who expresses outright hostility to the most fundamental principles of our democracy, to the federal bench".
Unlike in India, where judicial appointments are made by a collegium without political intervention, federal judges in the US are nominated by the President and have to go through a confirmation process. This leads to partisan debates around the faultlines of US politics: affirmative action, abortion, gun control etc. Since it is difficult to fault Goodwin’s qualifications (Stanford, Oxford, Yale Law School, clerking for a Supreme Court judge, professor of law at Berkeley), conservatives are painting him as sympathetic to the far Left. I know this isn’t true because, back in University, I was a far Left ideologue of sorts, and Goodwin’s position was clearly very different, more or less that of a conventional coastal Democrat.
It wasn't what he believed that was interesting, however, so much as how he thought about issues. He was never summarily dismissive either of my Chomskian take on US foreign policy, or the perspective of another close friend of his, Micul, a moderate Republican whose critique of affirmative action had been moulded by Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter. I’ve rarely come across anyone as respectful as Goodwin of views opposed to or different from his own. If the common sense belief is valid that the two qualities most required in a judge are that he should be knowledgeable and that he should give both sides a fair hearing, Goodwin is a perfect choice for the post to which he’s been nominated.
When Jabeen and I first visited the US, Goodwin hosted us in San Francisco. The day we left the city, he offered to drive us to the airport early in the morning before going back home, dressing for work and heading to office (I think he was working for a private law firm at the time). Once at the airport, he got off to help us with our baggage, and I, out of habit, locked the passenger door before shutting it. In the US, I discovered, this has the effect of locking the entire car. When Goodwin tried to get in, he found himself shut out.
“Did you lock the door?” he asked.
“Well, yes, that’s what we do in India”, I said sheepishly.
He had a number for some insurance firm, and said he’d call it while we checked in. When we returned five minutes later, a man was using a slim jim on the car door. I was probably more relieved than Goodwin that things had been quickly sorted out. He waved goodbye and, against a background of patiently listening to dozens of my US foreign policy harangues, allowed himself a patriotic parting shot.
“You know, Girish, this is why I like the United States.”

A stressed Goodwin, probably trying to get an assignment done on time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mandu's Bhagoriya festival

Our final morning in Mandu coincided with Bhagoriya, or elopement, festival ('bhag' means run), one of the most special days in the adivasi calendar. We scooted before the celebrations reached their peak, and before our driver could drink himself silly (he not only drove well, but provided a lucid account of adivasi life, on which this post is based). Starting around noon, troupes started arriving in Mandu's main plaza from surrounding villages. Each band carried one massive dhol along with accompanying instruments like flutes. The music, dancing and drinking began soon after. By 5pm every adivasi man and woman (and many children) would be tanked. Then some form of exchange initiated by a female (the acceptance of paan, a little gulaal applied to the chosen man's cheek) would seal her partner for the night, provided he wasn't too inebriated to perform. Men, apparently, don't have much leeway to reject girls. In most cases, parents negotiate with the boy to settle a marriage, otherwise it's just a one-night stand. Among the adivasis a payment is made by the man's family in advance of the wedding, reversing the practice of dowry prevalent among caste Hindus. As a result, girls aren't viewed as a burden, and no selective abortions are practiced.
Unfortunately, the sly intercession of political parties has upset the traditional progression of bhagoriya performances. Look carefully at the picture and you'll see four different platforms in the square. Each was constructed by a political outfit (the BJP, Congress and two adivasi organisations). Loud announcements were made continually on squeaky microphones, drowning out the music that was being played without the benefit of loudspeakers. It was great to see the blaze of colour, the gaudy sarees and the turbans bigger than heads, but otherwise the tamasha wasn't what we'd anticipated or hoped for.