Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fifty years of the Goa annexation

Fifty years ago, five centuries of Portuguese dominion in Goa was brought to an end by an Indian invasion, at the cost of less than sixty lives, divided more or less equally between Indian and Portuguese forces. My uncle (father's elder brother) was a young air force pilot at the time, and, years later, he told me of his role in the operation.
He had flown a transport to Goa to evacuate Indian soldiers after the battle. News from the war zone was sketchy; there were reports the airport had been shelled. From the sky, the airstrip looked badly cratered, except for the first third of it, which appeared normal. My uncle aimed for the verge of the airstrip and hit the emergency brakes as soon as the aircraft's wheels touched the ground. He managed to get the machine to stop before the battle-scarred zone.
My memory isn't perfect at this point, but if I recall right, my uncle said there was a problem getting the plane to restart because of the emergency procedure he'd employed. It took him nearly as long to get to the building where armymen were waiting, as it had to fly from Bombay to Panjim. The victorious Indian soldiers appeared to have emptied Goa's liquor stores. Each soldier was carrying crates of rum, whiskey and feni. Once the men and booze were on board, the plane took off from a state that was now part of India.
The emergency brakes had been unnecessary. What had appeared to be damage from artillery shells was just asphalt patch-ups on a concrete runway.
When I land in Goa these days, I notice they still use asphalt to repair the runway, and the strip still looks battle-scarred when viewed from the air.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The army's special powers and Lord Curzon

Yesterday, on the eve of Human Rights Day, Clark House (an arts initiative run by Zasha Colah and Thakur Sumesh Sharma), Tushar Joag and Sharmila Samant put together a programme of screenings and discussions titled Against AFSPA at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Apart from a demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, it was an act of solidarity with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast for over a decade in protest again the repression of Manipuri citizens by the Indian army and paramilitaries. She has been held captive for attempted suicide and force-fed for all these years.
I was pleasantly surprised that an event so harshly critical of Indian state policy was taking place inside a government-run institution. Maybe the NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan's bureaucratic exterior conceals a radical, subversive agenda.
The proceedings were chaotic, bearing only a passing resemblance to the schedule provided on the invite. But they did a good job of demonstrating how insanely cruel the Indian government has been and continues to be to the people of Manipur. For over fifty years, an emergency law has been in place permitting soldiers to arrest, rape and kill with impunity. Mihir Desai, a participant in a panel discussion about AFSPA, and the only person on stage who spoke cogently, pointed out that any prosecution of soldiers needed central government sanction; and that, from over 500 cases forwarded to Delhi for consideration (I forget the exact number Desai mentioned, I think it was 581), not a single trial has been green-lighted.

I thought of Lord Curzon who, at the end of the nineteenth century, had a series of run-ins with the British army. Soon after he arrived in India as Viceroy, he heard that soldiers from the West Kent Regiment had gang-raped a Burmese woman. The perpetrators had gone unpunished after witnesses were threatened, and the matter covered up. Curzon had the culprits dismissed from the army and the entire regiment transferred to Aden (a punishment posting in those days) and denied leave or benefits for two whole years.
In 1900, after a private in the Royal Scots Fusiliers battered to death a 'punkah-coolie' (a man who operated cloth fans), Curzon wrote: "That such outrages should occur in the first place in a country under British rule; and then that everybody, commanding officers, officials, juries, departments should conspire to screen the guilty is, in my judgment, a black and permanent blot on the British name. I mean, so far as one man can do it, to efface the stain while I am here.”
In 1902, three troopers of the 9th Lancers Regiment (a cavalry outfit packed with members of the British upper class), just arrived in Sialkot, beat a cook named Atu so badly that he died after nine days of agony. Curzon lashed out at the biased investigation which, he wrote, "Consists of two Captains and a subaltern, not one of whom so far as I can make out, understands a word of Hindustani. Their idea of taking evidence and holding an inquiry consists in examining four witnesses, all natives. They never think of sending for the doctor or for a non-commissioned soldier or for the inspector of police. In fact they make not the slightest effort to arrive at the truth... I will not be a party to any of the scandalous hushing up of bad cases of which there is too much in this country, or to the theory that a white man may kick or batter a black man to death with impunity because he is only a 'd- d nigger'.”

Some day we might get a leader in Delhi who has the courage and moral conviction to hold soldiers responsible for a few of the innumerable atrocities perpetrated in Kashmir and the North-East over the past decades. Right now, we can't even provide the millions of citizens living under AFSPA as much protection from the army's cruel excesses as the British colonial system did.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ashura musings

In categorising the world's major civilisations, Samuel Huntington divided Christian Europe into Western Civilisation and the Orthodox World, but took the every nation from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Tunisia-Morocco to be part of a single entity called the Muslim World. Yet, the clash between Shias and Sunnis is the longest continuously running conflict in the world. It simmers here, boils over there, but there have been no successful moves towards ecumenism in the region, and The Arab Spring has now exposed, on a geopolitical scale, this fault line running through the Middle East. Those living in West Asia have recognised the amplified threat, but the rest of the world has failed to do so, partly because we tend to classify the region exactly as Samuel Huntington did.
The two countries at the fore of crisis are Bahrain and Syria. Bahrain is a Shia majority country ruled by Sunnis, and Syria a Sunni majority country ruled primarily by Shias (Alawis to be exact, members of a heterodox sect who have drawn closer to conventional Shia beliefs in recent decades).
Let's stick with Syria, because it is turning dangerously unstable. Syria's ruling political group is the Ba'ath Party, which espouses a secular, pan-Arabist ideology. The other nation to have been ruled by a faction of the Ba'ath Party was Iraq. Iraq was the mirror image of Syria: a Shia majority nation controlled by a Sunni Arab dictatorship. Since they espoused the same beliefs, it is hardly surprising that Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad hated each others' guts.
Seen from today's foreshortened perspective, pan-Arabism seems to have been a convenient way to paper over the Shia-Sunni dispute. When Saddam Hussein successfully rallied Iraqi Shias to his cause in the war against Iran, it suggested that ethnic identity was stronger than denominational identity in the Middle East. Pan-Arabism, though, ended up being a flash in the historical pan, while the Shia-Sunni divide is as strong as ever after 1300 years, and extends well beyond the Middle East into Afghanistan and Pakistan, as recent bombings have tragically demonstrated.
The vote against Syria by the Arab League showed that political alignments now mirror sectarian ones. Iraq and Lebanon, the only two Arab nations with substantial Shia populations as well as some form of electoral democracy, refused to join 18 Sunni-ruled Arab states in condemning the violence unleashed by Bashar al Assad. Should Syria collapse into anarchy, there's a good chance it will lead to a pogrom against Alawis, and that might draw Iran, and perhaps even Iraq and Lebanon, into intervening. In such a case, Israel and Saudi Arabia would not just stand by, and if those two nations were to get involved in the conflict, the entire world would be affected.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The myth of creating consensus

Every time a row erupts in Parliament, there are MPs and medipersons who accuse the government of 'failing to evolve a consensus on the issue'. Chetan Bhagat's take in today's Times of India on foreign investment in retail is typical. Titled Shopping for Consensus, the argument advanced in the article has three facets. First, that FDI in retail is a smokescreen to occlude more important issues like the Lokpal bill. Second, allowing Tesco and Walmart to open supermarkets in India is a good thing in itself. Third, that "the government, with humility, should involve everyone in Parliament to get a general policy consensus on FDI, not just for retail, but all sectors, across all industries."

In other words, talk sweetly to Prakash Karat and he will hit the Like button of WalMart's Facebook page. Bhagat ignores the simple truth that there exist in every parliament ideological divisions which cannot be bridged. Electoral democracy would be pretty useless if that wasn't the case, since we'd have a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Moreover, even when two parties have economic policies that are as similar as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which has been the case with the Congress and BJP over the last two decades, the party in opposition will fight policies tooth and nail that it would support as head of a ruling coalition. And it will not budge despite all the discussion and consensus building in the world. This happened with the civil nuclear deal and is happening again in the present dispute. What has changed is that Parliament is growing dysfunctional, with increasingly frequent disruptions and forced adjournments.

David Ben Gurion said that for every two Jews there are three opinions. This is equally true of Indians. Doesn't it describe all communities? To a degree, yes, but I suspect that in the case of our largest neighbour, "Two Chinese, one opinion" is likelier. Evolving consensus in India is an impossible task. Nehru fought for years to get the Hindu Code Bill passed; and he couldn't manage anything close to unanimity even within his own party in that time. In recent months, the BJP has been uncooperative in introducing non-controversial, non-ideological changes, such as a nation-wide Goods and Services Tax. What's the likelihood, then, that the main opposition party will accept government policy in a matter where there are votes to gain by the bushelful?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Foreign investment, trade, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy

Amitav Ghosh's blog entry for November 5 was a review of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari. The book makes out a case against foreign investment which Ghosh accepts, with a few caveats:

"I don’t for a moment doubt that Aseem and Ashish are broadly correct in their diagnoses and prognostications – yet I do think that they paint a picture that is, in some respects, too monochrome in its darkness. Take the Information Technology sector of the Indian economy for example: this is a non-polluting, knowledge-based industry; the compensation is usually fair and the working conditions are generally safe. This sector has been a godsend for hundreds of thousands of young people and it has served to decentralize economic power in India, moving it away from its traditional locations to other towns and cities. It is also a fact that the people who run this industry are on the whole much more thoughtful and socially conscious than other industrialists. I see nothing to bemoan in the success of this sector, limited though it may be: on the contrary I think it offers much cause for celebration."

It's common knowledge that the IT sector derives its revenues almost exclusively from exports, the bulk of them coming from the United States. There's been a lot of grumbling in the US about American jobs being offshored, and many politicians on the Left favour a more protectionist system. Most Congressmen and Senators, though, feel the US must remain a broadly open market if it is to be an evangelist for lower trade barriers around the globe. There will, however, be a breaking point at some stage. It is naive to believe our IT exports will be allowed to grow indefinitely even as we retain strict barriers to imports and investment. The future of Indian information technology is dependent on a continuous process of lifting trade and investment barriers within India.

This is a connection that opponents of foreign investment in retail fail to make. Aside from the benefits and impairments that follow as a direct result of Tesco and Walmart opening supermarkets in India (and there will doubtless be impairments; those who claim kirana stores will be totally unharmed should study the battle between Tesco and small retailers in Thailand), the move is a logical step in a process that offers India gains in areas unrelated to retail.

While Amitav Ghosh sees some positives in India's experience of liberalisation, Arundhati Roy is a far more strident critic of the process, and more closely allied to Shrivastava and Kothari's monochrome black palette. Back in 2006, in a talk titled Bombay in the Age of Globalisation that was part of a conference at the Tate Modern in London, the recording of which you can listen to here, I took on a passage from Roy's book The Algebra of Infinite Justice :

"In the early days of Indian liberalisation, I was convinced that it was a sell-out to neo-imperialists. Though I do not retain that belief, there are many who do. Arundhati Roy, one of the most eloquent speakers against the twin processes of liberalisation and globalisation, has written it has resulted in 'a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in world history.' She follows this up in the same essay with the statement: 'Across the world as the free market brazenly protects western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer.' Here are the statistics for the balance of trade between India and the US [PowerPoint Slide].
Trade Surplus in favour of India:
2001: 5.98 billion dollars
2002: 7.71 billion dollars
2003: 8.07 billion dollars
2004: 9.46 billion dollars
2005: 10.81 billion dollars
As you can see, India has been running a surplus, and this has grown from 5.98 billion dollars in the year 2001 to 10.81 billion dollars in 2005. A strange outcome if western markets are as protected and third world markets as open as Roy contends. But I suppose one should never let mere facts come in the way of a good theory. The book of hers I quote from was, by the way, published by Viking Penguin, which is owned by Pearson PLC, an 8 billion dollar multinational conglomerate."

Is there any country where the phrase 'do as I say, not as I do' is applicable more frequently than in India?