Anger of Quake Hit Nepalis Comes Home To Nepali Leadership

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Kathmandu, April 30: At the Tudikhel tent shelter mid-town last evening, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had

A day before, deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam nearly pulled out of the completion rites of a major rescue mission near the Shobha Bhagwati Bridge on the capital’s outskirts for fear of being heckled; he had to be assured by senior Indian officials in charge of the operation no harm would come to him before Gautam agreed to go.

On the boundary rails of the Singha Durbar, seat of Nepal’s government, Kathmandu residents have put up a missing-person notice as taunt to their representative in the Constituent Assembly: “Dhyan Govind, where are you? And where is the aid?”

The quake-hit remains of the Gorkha Boys School at Rani Pokhari in central Kathmandu.

The quake-hit remains of the Gorkha Boys School at Rani Pokhari in central Kathmandu.

The quake has opened a chasm between Nepal’s political class and the people that’s brimming over with ire and indignation.

“Our leadership has collectively retreated from responsibility in a time of grave crisis,” says Kumar Regmi, one of Nepal’s better-known constitutional lawyers.

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No hands to dig, no time to cremate

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Sindhupalchok (Northern Nepal), April 29: This is where nature often marinates havoc before serving up tragedy for Bihar – the confluence of the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi which collaborate to make a frequent killing field of the Kosi’s benighted floodplains downstream.
It isn’t their turn to wreak turbulence this season though, at least not yet. Death has sprung from underneath them and cannoned into the skies, ripping whatever fell its way – habitations, cattle pens, orchards, vegetations, mountain bends and causeways, often plain rock.

To see the state of boulders pounded, you’d think ‘rock solid’ isn’t a metaphor to use for impregnable strength anymore.

Where the quake passed, it plundered the mountain to powder and sent it down in showers. What survived the tremor underneath was buried from above.

Villagers of a remote mountain village in Sindhupalchok in Nepal’s north try to salvage what they can from their collapsed homes

 

Destruction has leapfrogged the hills of Sindhupalchok, scoring stab wounds in remote crannies that will take days, even weeks, to discover, much less heal.

“We’ve been left to ourselves all this time,” Bishnu Tamang, a Nepal police constable, told us in Sangha Chowk, a remote hill hamlet. “Everything has collapsed, how much can we dig with human hands, people and cattle are still buried under. We haven’t heard of help, we haven’t been able to call for help.”

Tamang, a strapping lad, his blue fatigues stained with the rigours of desperate rescue, complained, but he also spoke with faith and fortitude: “The truth is there’s destruction everywhere, our turn to be found and helped will come.”

They were a team of eight jawans, he said, too few hands to make a difference to the mayhem that had taken hundreds of families in its grip.

About 120km north-east of Kathmandu, Sindhupalchok is among Nepal’s northern-most districts. It is also, in many parts, hard to access.

At Tatopaani, higher up, Sindhupalchok abuts China on a “Friendship Bridge” manned by the red-hatted People’s Liberation Army (PLA); it’s where the road to Lhasa leads from. But the road to Tatopaani currently lies breached by avalanches and rock falls.

There are too many parts of Sindhupalchok defying access; when they are finally reached by search and rescue teams, it may well turn out this patch was especially favoured for devastation. The toll from these parts has mounted swiftly over the past three days; it’s estimated by district authorities to cross 2,000.

“Hundreds of villages are affected, we do not even know precisely which,” said Ganesh Shreshtha, a junior, but only official at the sub-district offices in Chautara. “It is impossible to have an estimate of those dead or affected but bad news is coming all the time, and we do not have many resources, not even enough men.”

Families escaped from affected villages were camped in Chautara’s open spaces, left to their own devices. Some had pulled vinyl sheets overhead, one group had found a length of corrugated roofing. They had lit wood fires, the women cooked what there was, sitting haunched. The children rolled in the red dust.

From the gorge of Dolalghat, where the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi meet, we had climbed a steep road to come upon the windy spur of Sangha Chowk; it had been blown off its perch like a straw thing in the wind. On both sides of the road, the rubble of what were homes rolled down the slopes.

Under a surviving tree lay the body of a dead man, covered over in a sheet of plastic held down by bricks. Nobody had claimed the body, nobody seemed to know who the man was. Probably just a passer-by taken by shock. They would have to cremate him sooner, but nobody in Sangha Chowk seemed to have the time.

Just across from the dead man under the tree stood Ganesh Giri amid the ramshackle mess of what he had been able to salvage from his fallen home – a dresser, its mirror miraculously intact, a wrought iron television rack with the television gone, a few bowls and ladles, dust-laden cushions, torn bed sheets, his granddaughter’s stuffed monkey toy.

Alas, the quake buried the girl, just six; by the time they got to pull her out, the rubble had asphyxiated her. “There are too many people down the hill and everywhere and there is no way to rescue them,” Giri wailed.

“And there are lots of cattle heads and goats and material. People are so afraid for their lives, they would not even go into rescue because they fear another tremor will strike and they will be gone. Why can the government not come to help? Why do the helicopters just fly by and never land? Why have we been forgotten?”

Forget what doses of strife the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi might offer Bihar post-monsoon, at the moment the recipes are being readied for Nepal – a hot pot of public anger with liberal sprinklings of dereliction.

Bhairav’s rath and wrath – A marvel of architecture lies in ruins in Nepal

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The Bhairav rath stranded in the devastated Durbar Square of Bhaktapur.

Bhaktapur, April 28: When Shiva’s chariot runs amok, it’s naive not to expect devastation in its wake. Bhaktapur is witness.

Once every year, and no more, residents of this cameo township 30 kilometres north of Kathmandu festoon their “Bhairav rath” and cart it around in celebration of the Nepali New Year, which falls in April’s first half.

It’s a mastodon chariot, fitted with four chunky wooden wheels; atop sit three tiers of a pewter pagoda. It only stirs when half of Bhaktapur strains to pull, and the other half pushes.

Last Saturday, the quake loosened its many tethers and rolled it down the alley it was parked in, a behemoth in free trundle. By the time it came to rest in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur’s brick-lined central piazza, the town lay plundered.

The “Bhairav rath” had travelled no more than a few metres, and no longer than a few seconds, but that is all it often takes strong quakes to wreak their havoc. And this was no earthly quake; this was the dance of Bhairav, revered manifestation of Shiva’s wrath.

“Before we could sense what was happening, it was all over,” said Raviraj Luintel, a Bhaktapur cafe owner.

“We were taken by a cloud of dust and when it lifted, it revealed half our town razed. It came and went quick, like a cannon bolt. It left us stunned.”

To Luintel it means little today that Bhaktapur is globally feted as a marvel of architecture and certified by the Unesco charter as a World Heritage City. “But where’s the city? It’s gone, what we have is remains of it.”

Guardian deities at a collapsed shrine.

King Ananda Malla, medieval potentate of the Kathmandu valley, was a pioneer and patron of fine design; he invested resource and rigour in laying out the capital of his Newari kingdom at Bhaktapur in the 12th century.

It was to be a polished red-brick city crafted around expansive squares, crisscrossed by paved lanes and dotted with ornate temples and gazebos. Successive Malla rulers embellished Bhaktapur’s masonry with intricate wood, metal and stone work, such that each structure was a unique piece of art.

Most of what took centuries to painstakingly arrange, it took only a trice to wantonly dismantle. At the mouth of the township, a sandstone dragon gaped pitifully from a pile of brickwork, a once proud figurine knocked rudely to the ground from its august perch.

Round the corner, in one of the tinier squares, stood granite lions and elephants and mythic bulls flanking a pyramidal stairway leading up – guardian avatars to a shrine that had now turned to irretrievable rubble.

To its side stood a temple, a chaste white steeple draped around a crimson Durga. Bamboo poles formed a makeshift circumference around it to prevent people from coming to peril. The quake had riven cracks right up the inner dome; the temple would collapse to the slightest hint of a tremor.

The artefacts museum close by had been marked off limits; an army guard said its walls had been rendered so fragile they could fall any time.

The squares, usually overrun by tourist footfall, were all taken by residents. They had spread out mattresses and stoked kitchen fires, and pulled out what worldly goods they could from their fallen homes – jewellery boxes, utensils, mirrors, linen, poly bags stuffed with clothing, fish and vegetables crated in styrofoam. Some still had dregs of ice.

“Even those whose homes are standing are afraid to go indoors,” said Malati Bishta, a goods store owner. “Somebody or another is forever warning of another quake, nobody wants to die, and so we are all living in the open, sleeping, eating, bathing, just looking at what has suddenly become of our lives.”

Bhaktapur is shaken, and petrified of being stirred again.

The Durbar Square is a restorer’s dream, and everybody else’s nightmare – escarpments of trampled roofs and shattered brickwork everywhere you look. It’s like a dinosaur has been on the romp, and forgotten to take its toy along – that humongous chariot, stranded in the middle of the vista, its wheels jammed into the ground, its ropes disarranged like a witch’s hemp hair.

Bhaktapuris fear to approach it yet, preferring a dazed bewilderment from a safe remove. Their eyes are still glazed, they move about as if in stupor, tourists in their own town surveying the ruins of the new, demolished Bhaktapur.

Unesco’s surviving heritage plaques on sundry walls must mock their reality. None of its proclaimed protections to the heritage city stood a chance when Bhairav resolved to dance.

Deluged by the dead – Pyres set water on fire

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Pashupati, Kathmandu, April 27: The Bagmati flows scant and shallow through Kathmandu. Today, it flowed slow and sorrowful, laden with far too heavy a mortal consignment to push along.

The banks had run out of ground to stack pyre on. The bodies would not stop arriving, each attached to its tableau of the inconsolable.

There was nowhere to go. They had to be waded in on a wobbly bamboo raft and set alight midstream.

 The Bagmati had become a river deluged by the dead, its waters on fire, its pebbled bed choked with the remains of what is no more.

Victims of the earthquake being cremated in Kathmandu on Monday.

Smoke rose in blue plumes and hung still on the trees, evading the drifts. The forbidding pagoda of Pashupatinath brooded over the proceedings, the eternal eye presiding over ephemeral rites.

Rush hour at the open crematorium by the Bagmati had run more than 24 hours. There was no sign it would come to ebb anytime soon.

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Back in Hashimpura after 28 years: It is not about memory alone; it is about not forgetting

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After mass police acquittals, survivors ask: How can we forget loss of 42 sons?

Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987

Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Meerut, April 4: Hashimpura lives down the belly of a violated orifice gaped upon the midtown street. Ripped walls and leaky sewer veins make the darkened cavern; its low dwellings are a mangle of rusted girders poked through unfinished masonry; fly and mosquito squadrons drone about leprous pools of defecation, decay is a work in progress.

It’s a molested air Hashimpura wears. Over the low-voltage trundle of its many loom sheds, residents look upon the arrived outsider with furtive victim eyes.

” Hamari khabar 28 saal purani hai, uske baad yahan kuchh nahin hua (Our news is 28 years old, nothing has happened here after that).”

A patina of weary resignation has come to settle on their anguish and anger, and any hope of redemption there might have been. The pleas they regularly put out – one such vinyl banner hangs limp on the Hashimpura walls calling attention to, among others, the Prime Minister – are no more than notes to themselves, tatty dressing gauze on what won’t stop to bleed.

To sit down in Hashimpura’s bedraggled courtyards and listen to its people talk is to feel the cold suspicion they won’t be terribly beset if justice doesn’t step into their street after all. It’s been gone too long.

Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid

Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid

Almost three decades ago, in May 1987, male residents of Hashimpura were rounded up in a cordon-and-search op by army jawans, herded out onto the main road and handed over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), Uttar Pradesh’s chief paramilitary formation.

It has never been clear what Hashimpura had done to call upon itself the raid, save that it was a time of communal simmer and confrontation. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute had spurred sectarian fires across Uttar Pradesh; Meerut had erupted recurrently – arson and clashes between rival processions in February 1986 that put the city under curfew for a fortnight; in April, just a month before, a more purposeful and bloody collision that brought up a dozen dead, several more injured, and a city beginning to fear itself. Meerut was on the burner.

The custody of Hashimpura from the late afternoon of May 22 accounted for more than 250 persons. They were all loaded onto the back of constabulary trucks and driven off – most to lockups and jails, and 55-odd to the banks of the Gangnahar, or the Ganga canal, which cuts through Muradnagar on the Meerut-Delhi road.

There, by dark, they were ordered down and lined up by the waterfront, arms raised, shot and left to float down the water. Forty-two of those died, a handful survived, feigning death until the PAC jawans thought their job done and departed, lying still on the mud-bank or slithering into thickets of elephant grass.

The Telegraph ‘s front page of June 1, 1987, carries a photograph of Zulfiqar Nasir, then 17, vest pulled over his head displaying wounds from bullets that had grazed his armpit. He’d escaped, pretending to be dead, and come to Delhi, aided by rights groups, to tell his tale.

Zulfiqar’s account was widely put down at the time as “exaggerated” or “hallucinatory”. It was only when dead bodies began to float up and along the Gangnahar as far downstream as Hindon, close to Delhi, that the horrific contours of the Hashimpura massacre began to emerge and be accepted.

An execution squad had gone to work and put dozens of blameless men to death in the lee of the nation’s capital, no more than 60 kilometres from Delhi.

Last week, a lower court let off all 16 surviving policemen accused of murder for lack of evidence. In effect, 42 lives had been collectively and abruptly put to end but nobody had done it. After three decades the combined resources of the executive and the judiciary had conjured a whodunit. Justice delayed, then denied.

Much of it was achieved through serial denial and dereliction – destruction and disappearance of evidence, tardy investigation and case-making, leaden progress in the courts.

One of the first FIRs in the case vanished, the weapons used to kill were never seized or cited, the bodies of victims were swiftly cremated rather than being buried so they could not be exhumed for examination.

Vrinda Grover, counsel for the Hashimpura litigants, is blunt to allege a collusive conspiracy to bury the massacre: “From the very beginning, there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, to conceal them or allow them to be lost in the passage of time.”

Zulfiqar, now 45, might well believe it irretrievably lost. In the 28 years since he stood up at a press conference in Delhi to display his wounds and tell the story few survived to tell, Zulfiqar has trained himself as a machine-tools worker, established a small trade, got married, had three children and built a life of sorts.

But his central pursuit has eluded him – murder he witnessed first hand and himself narrowly escaped, but murder he cannot pin on the guilty, a constant shadow he can see but cannot grasp and nail.

” Khaate-peete hain, lekin naa izzat hai naa insaaf,” he says. ” Lekin chhor kaise dein, bhool kaise jaayen (We are well-to-do but we have neither self-respect nor justice; but how are we to let it be, leave it alone)?”

You don’t give up on your living; often, you don’t give up on your dead. It is not about memory alone; it is also about not forgetting.

It may seem a despondent enterprise but it is the enterprise of each Hashimpura home – an honourable closure. Unassuaged shadows shift about in these homes, heaving in dank corners, waiting to present themselves to anyone who would care.

Each home had men. Each home suffered scars from the operations of the afternoon of May 22, 1987. Those scars have aged but they remain sore, awaiting the poultice of, if nothing else, respect.

Zamanuddin, 78 and retired from most of life’s chores – “Now I just sit around and enjoy the company of friends while I can, there’s not much else to do” – wouldn’t bring up his murdered son until more than an hour into our conversation.

He wouldn’t bring up his battered other son, he wouldn’t bring up the rifle-butt wounds received on his own back that afternoon. He spoke at length of general grief and grievance.

“Everybody suffered, this whole mohalla, each of my friends, all these men you see.”

Half a dozen of them were there, seated under the dappled shade of a wizened creeper in the old-fashioned well of the house. Then the squeal of a child from some quarrel in some part of the house brought on the tears: ” Bachche rote hain to dil phat jaata hai (When children cry, it tears the heart).”

And the tears brought on a photo-frame and in it the fading image of a young man. Qamruddin, Zamanuddin’s eldest, photographed as he set out at the head of his baraat, handsome as a groom can get on wedding day, garlanded, portrait-ready.

It’s the only picture Zamanuddin has of Qamruddin, or would still be willing to see. There exists another but he has refused to hold or see it all these years.

Azizuddin, Zamanuddin’s youngest, fetches it – a black and white image turned sepia. It shows Qamruddin prone, a bullet hole in his upper chest, dead. He was among those the execution squad took to the banks of the Gangnahar on the night of May 22, 1987, and never came back.

“I was taken out too that afternoon and because I came back I assumed Qamar would too, we had done no wrong,” Zamanuddin says, now choking.

“I was 50 and they spared me for my age, they were after the younger lot, but it did not strike me while they were separating us, it did not strike me that was the last I was seeing of Qamar.”

He asks for the photo-frame be taken away, back to its dark corner in the anteroom; he gives his face a wipe, and then he steps out into Hashimpura’s rancid belly to point to us the way they were taken by the bayonets.

Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah

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An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah

An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah

Beerwah, Dec. 6: Out barnstorming the countryside a day after multiple terror hits to the Valley, chief minister and National Conference spearhead Omar Abdullah spelt out a blunt “no” to any post-poll deal with the BJP.

“That’s not going to happen, people can keep speculating and dreaming about it,” Omar told The Telegraph in an exclusive chat along his roadshow. He was touring his newly adopted rural constituency Beerwah, southwest of Srinagar.

It appears imminent the ongoing elections will throw up a hung Jammu and Kashmir House and there has been speculation in some circles Omar could ally with the BJP, or support its power effort from outside. Omar conceded the mandate may be fractured but said nothing will drive him to an alliance with the BJP, which is making an audacious first-time bid for power in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

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Grave caged by Parray’s life

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Kuka Parray's elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin

Kuka Parray’s elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones – Julius Caesar , William Shakespeare

Hajin (North Kashmir), Dec. 4: Where Kuka Parray is interred an argument still rings between good and evil, between what he was and he was not.

Who’d argue with a daughter whose eyes moisten when she points in the direction of Parray’s grave and lets out a sigh: ” Meray Papa… my father.”

Who’d argue with the fathers and mothers of those that Parray’s men wantonly killed – “that traitor who preyed upon his own”.

Not a blade of grass springs on Parray’s graveside, much less a blossom; and birds don’t alight to sing. For a cage it is where he lies, a padlocked enclosure of mortar and wrought iron filigree erected on his front lawn, a stained general in his cold labyrinth.

He wouldn’t be safe elsewhere in a place under open skies. He denied himself the eternal liberties the way he lived and died.

Between folk singer and folk terror, Kuka Parray became a blistered chapter in Kashmir’s contemporary tales, a chapter nobody fondly recalls but nobody would wish to forget in this neck of the woods.

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Lone’s unlikely asset in Valley – ‘No’, ‘yes’ and Modi

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Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Handwara (north Kashmir), Dec. 1: Sajjad Lone is walking too many paradoxes to bother finessing them.

His political legacy is separatist but he is pushing for an elected mainstream ledge. His wife Asma is daughter to the Pakistan-based chairman of the JKLF, Amanullah Khan, but she is scurrying tirelessly around town and hamlet canvassing an Assembly seat for her husband.

His shadow ally in this militancy-infested border outpost is the “Hindu nationalist” Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. The taunt that has relentlessly trailed Sajjad’s campaign is: “Jo Modi kaa yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor, is a traitor).”

But if Sajjad’s adversaries — chief minister Omar Abdullah and challenger Mufti Mohammed Sayeed — believe they are embarrassing the People’s Conference (PC) leader with the Modi link, they are shooting north Kashmir’s grey chill.

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Home a bus ride away on the other side of the hill, but out of reach

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Panun Kashmir protagonists Virender Raina and Ashwini Chrangoo in Jammu: “We are victims of a holocaust.”

Agitated Pandit migrants at the Jagti township near Jammu: “We are actors of a forgotten tragedy.”

Agitated Pandit migrants at the Jagti township near Jammu: “We are actors of a forgotten tragedy.”

The Telegraph report on the first wave of Kashmir migration in early 1990

The Telegraph report on the first wave of Kashmir migration in early 1990

Jammu, Nov. 28: Among The Telegraph’s reports on the first torrent of Pandits fleeing the Valley in 1989-90 was the story of a little girl and her grandmother.

They’d been ejected from their Habbakadal home in Srinagar and flung into the disarray of a campsite on Jammu’s outskirts. The girl played with sand in a pit, as she would do with snow; her grandmother hadn’t rid herself of a lifetime’s habit of carrying a kangri (firepot) around.

The Jammu weather didn’t warrant a firepot, so instead of embers she stored in it lozenges for her granddaughter and keys to a faraway house she’d never return to unlock. It’s likely the old lady is no more, the little girl would be a 30-something somewhere. It’s unlikely she’s home.

Kashmir’s Pandits flew frightened and far from the violent aazaadi eruption, like birds off a startled tree. In the 25 years since, they’ve gone everywhere but not back up the Banihal Pass, never to that native tree of theirs.

The horror of departure shivers Raka Khashu after all these years. “I was a schoolgirl and I heard our entire neighbourhood warning us of consequences, from the mosques, from the streets, it was horrific. And then they came home and shot my grandfather dead.”

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The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth

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On Tuesday, Jammu and Kashmir casts the first vote in what’s probably its most consequential election in many decades.

The house of the Abdullahs, the first family of Kashmiri politics, is palpably in decline. A new “outsider” claimant to power — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — is in dramatic surge.

he field is abuzz. Players like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP and Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference too are backing themselves in what is the most open contest the state has seen.

It is an election pregnant with implications, for India and for the region. What could it mean if the
BJP were to grab controlling stakes in India’s only Muslim-majority province? How will it impact relations with Pakistan, which occupies one chunk of Kashmir and is deeply and violently enmeshed in the affairs of the part India governs?

There is another, oft ignored, facet that this election could be about, a brutally plucked piece of the riven map of J&K — this is also the 25th anniversary year of the hounding of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes, a calamitous chapter that left a populace adrift and the Valley a radically altered space.

Kashmir’s Pandits restively await the end of exile. Is this election to be the herald of that hour? A status report on India’s unspoken Partition

Mun tu shudam
Tu mun shudi;
Man tan shudam
Tu jaan shudi;
Takas na goyad bod azeen
Mun deegaram
Tu deegaree

(I am You and You are me; I am your body, You are my soul; So none should hereafter say, I am someone and You someone else)

So singing out Amir Khusro’s sufi verse, Mohammed Sheikh Abdullah turned to embrace Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmiri Musalmaan to Kashmiri Pandit, in front of thousands gathered at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

It was November 2, 1947; the ink on Kashmir’s accession to India was only a week old. What followed would knock the stuffing off that sublime vow and render it a tattered feast for vultures.

Banihal, Nov. 24: This is an obituary notice that has long required posting: Kashmiriyat is dead.

But never mind, nobody’s shedding tears. Not least the standard-bearers of that celebrated covenant of syncretic concord and peaceable, if not also rich and festive, cohabitation.

A quarter century after they tore ties, suture upon suture, Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits have heckled Kashmiriyat to gory expiry. That achieved, they have dumped its cask and stomped off opposite ways to curse the faith they once together espoused.

The few that insist Kashmiriyat is still alive are stoking wishful rumour, frosted embers at the bottom of a kangri, the signature Kashmiri hotpot. Kashmiriyat? Then you must also believe the “Happy Valley” suffix to Kashmir isn’t a cynically deluded indulgence.

Down opposite sides of the Banihal Pass, up 9,291ft in the Pir Panjal bridgehead between Jammu and Kashmir, has come to prosper a migraine aspiring to become a civil war. If there is a broken truth on earth, it lies here, it lies here, it lies here.

The mouth of the Jawahar tunnel at Banihal Pass which links Jammu to the Kashmir Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The travesty is, there aren’t a more kindred people likely to be found — they come from common roots and genealogy, they kiss the same soil, eat the same food, speak the same language. But their conversation has become a grisly caterwaul ringing in the depths of the Jawahar Tunnel, a connector that has now become a divide three kilometres long.

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P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley And The Rajdeep Sardesai Book They Almost Forgot

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Between two Finance Ministers, a Book Launch Nearly Gives In To Budget Talk

New Delhi, Nov. 7: For a fair while it was tough to make out if the evening was about a hot-off-the-press bestseller or about superannuated or future budgets.

Between an incumbent finance minister and his immediate predecessor and adversary, the launch of Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014 The Election that Changed India (Penguin Viking, Rs 599) became a dour policy duel rather than a soiree of political spice that lies liberally stuffed between the covers.

P. Chidambaram challenged Arun Jaitley to have the courage to scrap the controversial retrospective tax proposals with the comfortable parliamentary majority his government enjoys; Jaitley appeared the meeker to the task, suggesting he expected the outgoing UPA to have “cleaned up the mess” before departing from power.

“I feel let down, if I enjoyed such a majority as you, I would have repealed the retrospective tax,” was how Chidambaram cast his dare to Jaitley. “And I sincerely hope you do that in your next budget, that you will scrap it.” Continue reading

Srinagar: A Lost Magic No Money or Masonry will Retrieve

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The city Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to put poultice on was a thing of magic taken by a shock of water and flung into the past. The greater part of Srinagar is now but a memory no amount of money or masonry will retrieve. Cuckoo Wazir took me up a ramshackle stairway to the third floor of his Rajbagh mansion to show me what the September flood had taken and what it had left behind.
Cuckoo Wazir's sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar

Cuckoo Wazir’s sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar

In the dank hallway he picked on a wall stripped to bare brick and it gave like crumble cake. “A month and a half after, it’s all still soggy,” Wazir said, “It is probably unsafe being up here, all of this looks ready to fall.” Much of the mansion’s interior — partly rented out by the Wazirs as a boutique guest home — was heritage construction: old cedar beams and gables, and traditional Kashmiri mortar of husk and clay and pounded wood; the amalgam kept homes warm. “They don’t do homes like this any more,” Wazir, wizened, stubble-faced and weary, said stoically, “We have lost what we can never recover. And most of what is left of our home we must bring down, this won’t survive.”
Hired hands lumbered all over the compound and the peeling interiors, salvaging torn furniture and bloated volumes, hammering mosaic floors, sawing off rotten woodwork. Wazir’s wife and son sat on a heap of soggy carpets, surveying the the unstrung glass beads of what might have been a magnificent chandelier.
A deathly stench floats about where autumn only ever brought redolent flower-scented drifts, one sweeter than the other. It is a cloying flood-pollen conjured by untended rot — drowned garbage and medicines, clogged drains, putrefying pools of water, plentiful human waste, decaying animal flesh. It is an invisible violence that has caused an eruption of masked faces on the streets.
What used to be until this summer Srinagar’s prided and envied upscale neighbourhoods — Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, Gogji Bagh, Wazir Bagh — are now rubble, the scattered leftovers of a shark’s wanton meal. The deluge had scythed right through the midriffs of handsome homes, ripping timber and glass, ransacking interiors, churning dainty lawns and flower beds to pasty mud. Most homes lie abandoned, their molested effects tossed asunder like entrails left behind after a fitful postmortem. An elderly man in Wazirbagh thought he was done with clearing up the insides of his devastated home, but now he stood confounded by a monumental pile at his gate. “This has no end,” he sighed, “You clean up one place and another place is screaming to be cleaned up, there is just no end to it. And winter is nearly upon us.” Mounds of refuse on every street corner are ready evidence the municipal works are paralysed.
Srinagar’s central hub — Lal Chowk and Residency Road, tailing off it — has become demolition row. Flattened shop fronts getting the first doses of recovery at the hands of cleaners and carpenters and painters and masons. It will be some time before the buzz and bustle can be restored. The Telegraph’s midtown offices barely escaped the waters by dint of being on a high floor, but access to it wasn’t to be had for weeks. And now that my colleague Muzaffar Raina has doughtily resumed operations, his remains a largely solitary enterprise amid doomed establishments. There isn’t a place to go for a quick cup of coffee. The old world garden cafés nestled among leaping chinars and avant garde delicatessens have alike suffered the flood, drowned to their gills, unable to make a quick turnaround. “How on earth?” cried out one restaurateur, “The furniture, the furnaces, the foodstocks, the cooks and waiters, all gone, I can barely serve myself a meal.”
In Qamarwari, a conservative Srinagar neighbourhood the flood knifed through, we saw this afternoon a magnificent old home being hammered down and carted away to grave in wheelbarrows. It was a mud and timber three-storey, classic of the way pre mortar homes were constructed. It had a wooden stairwell, a fire flue, ornate windows and two lookout gables at the top. But all of that was too gone in years to withstand the knocking; it had to be brought down. All that remained of how grand the home may have been was an outline etched on the walls of the neighbouring house. Like Wazir’s mansion, this Qamarwari residence is forever gone, and will unlikely be replaced in the way it used to be.
A new Srinagar will surely erect itself on its ruins, but it will never quite be the old one, the magical one the shock of water came and took away.

Cuckoo Wazir's sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar

Cuckoo Wazir’s sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar

An Abstract Ecstasy: Gazing Down from the Mars Orbit

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Sankarshan Thakur

New Delhi, Sept 24: In some ways this is the unfolding of an abstract ecstasy. The closest representation we have of the rapture over getting looped into the orbit of Mars may be fictional — Star Trek, Kirk, Spock and Scotty and their Enterprise adventures in the nowhere. That’s where Mars remains located in lay consciousness, somewhere in Nowhere. There’s n/o Rakesh Sharma beaming down on crackly television screens from up there. There’s no opportunity to ask how India looks from space. There’s nobody rehearsed-ready with the cheesy ‘saare jahan se achchha’. Mars is far too distant to afford cognitive vision of the earth, some 660 million kilometres as the orbiter flies. It’s also far too arduous and enigmatic an odyssey to yet put a human through, Mars is where we have long suspected life to exist, even sinister sci-fi fantasy of a kindred, or rival, species.

Mars is not the near neighbourhood Cosmonaut Sharma popped over to for a dekko; it may be the planet next door to us, but we are talking a galactic next door which takes close to a year to approach at hypersonic velocity. Don’t be taken by the bionic tweets that trended all day on the @MarsOrbiter signature, transmitting pert “howdy…I’ll be around” texts to its American predecessor in orbit @MarsCuriosity. That’s just another fetching trick of science, a proxy handle synced with @MarsOrbiter but tweeting from terra firma. In the first six or so hours that it became operational @MarsOrbiter mimicked the speed of its eponymous owner, rocketing from zero to 55,000+ and counting. Last heard, it was breakfasting its battery panels on “Good ol’ sunlight”.

So what does it mean that a 15-kilo projectile embossed with the Tricolour is now describing elliptical rings around Mars, one of only four footprints in that part of the solar system? It’s a first because ISRO was able to plug it in on first attempt, but actually it’s a Fourth — the US, Russia and the European Union are already where we arrived a little past seven this morning, Earth Time. Mars has been exhaustively probed for close to four decades now; the Americans landed the first of their Viking explorers in 1976, and since then the red planet has lain needled like a patient under investigation for symptoms, its surface scrolled and scraped for signs life, water, minerals, gas, something hitherto unknown; its atmosphere bottled and tested for whatever it might offer as clues to the past and pointers to the future; its unexplored acreage mapped and photographed so profusely, Mars volumes are probably pushing Earth catalogues in libraries. So what does it mean to follow where many have gone before? What does it mean to be able to remote manipulate the most minute cogs in a cubiod flying hundreds of millions of miles away when there isn’t enough swiftness with marshalling crude pumps to salvage a drowned city? Srinagar could have done with a few. What does it mean to be able to receive images from far space the world has already seen when we haven’t even begun to map vast swathes on our home patch? The anti-Naxal offensive suffers for lack of the lay of the Abujhmad/Dandakaranya jungles. What may it mean to get a measure of Martian air when we let fester some of the most alarming pollution levels and have half the nation defecating 24/7 in the open? What does it tell us that ISRO scientists can avert the possibility of a far away collision with the tap of a button, but nothing seems to prevent slaughter at level crossings? What does it mean to extol scientific temper to the skies one day and encourage the intemperate irrationality of “love jehad” the other, one a salute to modernity, the other a medieval exhort? We rightfully celebrate cutting-edge sophistication of technology on one half of our television screens, while the other half plays out the raw brutality of a tiger slapping a man dead mid-afternoon in the capital’s zoo, a ghastly fracture between lofty achievement and disarranged fundamentals. Is arriving in the orbit of Mars a little too far to travel to be able to only say “Me Too”?

That said, it’s cynically churlish to knock what’s been achieved between the eminences of ISRO today. It’s to deny the evolved vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, grand architect of our modern temples, and to repudiate the excellence and industry of generations of scientists mentored by a standout gallery — Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao, K. Kasturi Rangan, G. Madhavan Nair and, now, K. Radhakrishnan. It is to be amnesiac on stellar accomplishment that men of science have brought to bear on an undertaking as complex and unwieldy as India , from critical food sufficiency and remarkable upgradation of health standards, to agency on nuclear science for energy and for strategic defence. It is to not comprehend how and why India came to represent global leadership on IT, or what revolutionary changes the information/telecom initiatives wrought on our society and economy post the mid 1980s. It is also, pertinently, to lack perspective on a political discourse that has become the vogue — “nothing happened in India for 60 long years”. The orbiter isn’t of post May 2014 vintage. And it is a successor instrument to those that began to be imagined and crafted several decades ago.

Not all that happens in the rarefied quietude of science laboratories is esoteric indulgence. The many satellites that India has propelled into space daily help forecast weather, track soil and agricultural patterns, organise traffic and foretell routes, facilitate telemedicine and teleeducation, work your ATMs, allow you the great and many splendoured gift of cell telephony. All of it is high achievement harnessed to winching aspiration closer to fulfilment.

The Mars orbiter may be at a remove from the utilitarian, probably India’s first pure science endeavour. Not many applications will flow from it, the experts say, but what it might achieve is to push the frontiers of human knowledge but dropping a probe into the great unknown. Was it not Bertolt Brecht who somewhere said that the only commandment science knows is to contribute to more science? That’s the endeavour the Indian orbiter has now joined with three others in the Mars orbit. Keep tuned to @MarsOrbiter and it will probably help peel some of the abstraction away and bring to us a more tactile sense of why there does exist reason to celebrate. At the moment, it’s on a breakfast break, feeding sunlight to its battery fins.

Vaidik, Hafiz Sayeed and the Sting on Journalism

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New Delhi, July 14: An interview that nobody has read, and probably hasn’t yet been written, flamed into the headlines today, stoking partisan skirmishes in Parliament and ethical paroxysm, even some envy, across newrooms.

Should Ved Pratap Vaidik have taken himself into a Lahore safehouse for an hour-long conversation with Mohammed Hafiz Sayeed, amir of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the man India accuses of plotting the Mumbai terror assault and calls a clear and present danger to Indian security?

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But before that, Ved Pratap Vaidik, who? He seems a man convinced he escapes simplistic description and is entitled to a higher, multifaceted calling. He describes himself as a “journalist, ideologue, political thinker, orator”. His specialty is South Asia — “Aryavarta” to his preference —from Afghanistan all across the India’s northeastern periphery. He was once opinion editor of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times, then editor of Bhasha, the Hindi cousin of the Press Trust of India. Came a time, he forsook the quotidian yoke of employment, and turned freelance fount of varied wisdoms, an aspiring rishi to political rajas. He occasionally found them and offered them what he could. His current hat is Chairman, Council for Indian Policy, an institution of unclear provenance. He is also yoga teacher Ramdev’s best-known non-yogic impresario, and, should you happen to ask, high counsellor to a string of political leaders across party lines.

Congressmen, he revealed today, wanted him at one time during the P.V. Narasimha Rao days, to be elevated to deputy Prime Minister. Earlier this year, he delivered a “civilizational discourse” to a Delhi gathering attended, among others, by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Ramdev. And earlier this month, on July 2, he was able to effect that first-of-its-kind cross-border tryst with Hafiz Sayeed.

Journalism took him there, Vaidik insists, no ulterior motive or undercover task. The bafflement remains he took the better part of a fortnight to announce his journalistic coup, and when he did, he appended no journalism to it. What he did put out was a photograph seated across Sayeed, between them a table with a jug of water, an offering he declined, this being the month of Ramzan. What he also gave out of his interview was interviews of his own — I told Hafiz Sayeed about Narendra Modi and him being a “brahmachari”, he told me he had three wives; I told him Indians accuse him of promoting terror, he told me he has never done any such thing, he’s only been defamed by America under Indian pressure; I told him more about Modi and he said Modi will be welcomed in Pakistan, he himself wants to come to Delhi and Mumbai and address gatherings, and that his mother escaped to Pakistan from Ropur (in Punjab), when she was carrying him. The tone would suggest this is not a senior Indian journalist interviewing a man India considers Public Enemy Number One; it approximates a Track II, no notes, conversation more.

Questions arise, several of them. For a start, what exactly was Vaidik doing with Hafiz Sayeed?

The Congress, scanning the board for pins to dig into the Modi government, was quick to raise the “traitor!” charge and demanded an explanation on why the government was dispatching emissaries to cosy up to an internationally proclaimed terrorist and professed India tormentor: we need to know immediately if this government is negotiating with terrorists instead of demanding they be brought to justice, as we have been.

The BJP rushed to rubbish the charge and dust off any hint of intimacy with Vaidik or his mission. “We have nothing do to with it,” protested parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, “I have checked with the ministry of external affairs, there was nothing. We were neither consulted, nor did we consent to any such thing. For the record, Hafiz Sayeed remains an enemy of India.” Vaidik himself appeared diligently engaged all day today, trying to deflect Congress volleys, protect the Modi establishment from taking hits. “I went on behalf of nobody, I went on my own,” was his relentless song, “It was something I did as a journalist.”

Which begs another question. How did he secure access to Hafiz Sayeed?

Vaidik’s doesn’t constitute the first Indian media effort to question Hafiz Sayeed, though the jury remains out on whether he intended to question the JuD boss in the first place. Dozens of Indian journalists have tried and failed. The truth is Sayeed remains a prized entity for formidable Pakistani state actors — the GHQ/ISI complex which dictates policy — and retains the benefit of their proctection. You don’t get to see Hafiz Sayeed by knocking at his Johar Town residence in Lahore; a likelier prospect is you’d get knocked before you get anywhere near if you make a solo attempt without travel documents. Phonelines need to be burnt, subterranean connections made, purpose and credentials verified and channels cleared, before such a meeting can come to be. Vaidik seems to have had the benefit of all of those; he has gone where no Indian journalist has ever been before.

Arriving as part of then foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s media crew at a Lahore five-star in the September of 2012, some of us caught a shivered whisper in the hotel lobby: Anyone here who wants to meet Hafiz Sayeed? What? Really? Or was it just a mischievous truth-or-dare trick? But how? When? Where? It can be arranged, the whisper offered, probably here, probably somewhere nearby, within ten minutes. He lives in a double-storey in Johar Town, after all, and he enjoys the way of his will. There were not a few excited and willing among us: Hafiz Sayeed, a scribe’s big story, let’s take it. But then, the whisper vanished, almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Only the electric ripple of it remained. The hive of spooks and securitymen, Indian and Pakistani, in the hotel atrium couldn’t possibly not have caught a sense of it. They swiftly banished the prospect of Hafiz Sayeed, even the floating spectre of the promise.

I would have taken the chance with both hands and two hooves, but even then, as now, there were those among us who declared, astonishingly,

that even offered an opportunity they’d decline on some cuckoo illusion that interviewing Sayeed would compromise their patriotism. It’s  a stance Vaidik dexterously used all day today to secure holes in the frayed masonry of his story: “As a journalist, I’d meet anyone, I’ve met the LTTE’s Prabhakaran, I’ve met armed Naxalites, I’ve met many enemies of the state, but that is my duty as a journalist.”

But all along, he himself issued reason for his “purely journalistic mission” tale to be doubted. Journalists don’t go on roving foreign missions — and should not — promoting home governments. Vaidik did. His own writing from Pakistan contains the best evidence of it. Among the things he told the Pakistani leadership, according the solitary piece he wrote for a home publication: “Modi hasn’t uttered a word against Muslims and is good for all Indians”; “Nobody has a bad word to say of Modi in Pakistan”; “All of Pakistan is looking forward to an early Modi visit”. Upon his return home, Vaidik penned a paean to Arun Jaitley’s maiden budget and titled it, “Modi kaa Manmohak Budget” (Modi’s Spellbinding Budget).

The reason why a “dubious” cry attends Vaidik’s journalistic-mission protestation isn’t far to seek. And we are still wondering where the core of all this clamour is? His “interview” with Hafiz Sayeed. What desk did he send it to?

 

Last Among Unequals

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Chandra Shekhar was a deeply flawed politician but in many ways he embodied an ethos that has little resonance or currency in today’s India.

In this, his seventh anniversary year, an appraisal I wrote in 2007

In extant public consciousness, the facial stubble probably lies copyrighted as signature statement to Anil Kapoor or to Abhishek Bachchan. But that could only be a trick of not knowing. The stubble was launched as street vogue on the face of a fledgling socialist called Chandra Shekhar in the mid-1960s and has endured through the decades as trademark lean and hungry look of the smalltown neta with bigtime ideas and ambitions. There was a tribe of north Indian politicians that came to subliminally believe you had to have a stubble if you wanted to be taken seriously. In an era where there was still some political premium on being and appearing rustic and rooted rather than cityslicker-swish, the unkempt visage was what made first impressions. The stubble was, if you like, the fashion statement of a certain political species — rough and always ready for the road, no time for personal care because public life wasn’t meant to be about any of that.

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Chandra Shekhar was no Gandhi, there can be no confusing them. (And even Gandhi was in many ways no Gandhi; didn’t Sarojini Naidu remark how she wished the world knew how much it cost to keep the Mahatma poor?) But if symbolism is a legitimate tool for setting norm and standard, we may have lost in Chandra Shekhar the last great villager-politician. Not because to the end of his days, the man wore nothing but rumpled dhoti-kurta, bandi, ahinsak chappals and, in the bitter cold, a khadi shawl; not because he preferred to squat and chat in the kutia he had had constructed in his 3 South Avenue Lane home; not because he kept open house there even when he was, for a trice, Prime Minister; not because he never went campaigning in choppers; not because he never got seduced by the dazzle of the celebrity-corporate complex that debuted harmlessly on Page 3 and has now extended its insidious grip, octopus-like, to all vital precincts of national life; not even because he was the only contemporary politician to have walked — his 1983 Bharat Yatra was no air-conditioned cross-country in a souped-up rath, it was a sole-splitting marathon at the end of which he had his feet wrapped in reams of gauze — the heart of the land.

It was because he was utterly unembarrassed about his lack of chic. It was because it would have embarrassed him to be seen as enamoured by it or aspiring to. That isn’t true any more of many of those who fashion themselves as sons of the soil. The list includes Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh, both of whom owed much to Chandra Shekhar that they aren’t generous enough to reveal. Mark this contrast — Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh have, in time, turned into prosperous and unabashed little dynasts; Chandra Shekhar, for all his years, access and influence, never promoted his family into politics. Sons Pankaj and Neeraj are private people, barely recognised beyond their departed father’s close circle.

It has become kosher, in some ways even obligatory, for the political classes to flaunt wealth, or the company of the wealthy, these days — the cocktail appearance, the shake-a-leg gig, the flash car or cell, the private jet courtesy so-and-so. In Chandra Shekhar’s book that was strictly schlock. Like most politicians of a generation getting framed up on the walls, Chandra Shekhar took a dim, even contemptuous, view of such ethics; he thought such exhibitionism uncouth and unseemly in a country still overwhelmingly populated by the poor. The last time I saw him — a brief meeting in the improvised hut at 3 South Avenue Lane several months ago — he lay already quite consumed by the rot in his veins but still typically irascible at the way things were. “Matibhrasht neta hain is desh ke jinko GDP ka das ank laakhon mare kisanon se jyada bada dikhai deta hai.” (The leaders must have lost their minds to view two-digit GDP growth as bigger than hundreds of thousands of dead farmers.)

It wasn’t as if Chandra Shekhar didn’t build personal wealth; the modest farmer’s son from Ballia in east UP came to acquire fabled — and dubious — estates in the name of the Bharat Yatra Trust at Bhondsi on the fringes of New Delhi and back in his native Ibrahimpatti. It was not as if he did not deal with big and dirty money; as leader of a political concern that had to be kept going and, later, as Prime Minister, he had to. But he had a way about money; money was not about personal ostentation, it was even less about losing sense of realities and perverting policy as a consequence. If ever he used one, Chandra Shekhar probably needed an aide to operate the mobile phone, but he knew his rabi from his kharif and was familiar with all the miseries that happen in between. And he wasn’t afraid to evoke that sensibility even if he was the only man doing so. He left the Praja Socialist Party to join Indira Gandhi because he became convinced that Congress conservatives were bent upon gobbling her — and socialism — up. He fought off the rightwing syndicate with Mrs Gandhi. He left her side when he sensed her turning autocratic and preferred jail to submission. He fought tooth and nail — and in vain — against the formation of the Janata Dal under VP Singh because he thought VP a Congress crony and an opportunist and said so openly. He wasn’t bothered to know if he convinced anyone.

But at the worst of times, he commanded patient hearing in the Lok Sabha or outside, whether it was running against the national mood and warning of the dire consequences of sending armed forces into the Golden Temple or, in the vortex of the post-Babri demolition turmoil, remonstrating with the Left not to push the Sangh Parivar so hard that there was no room for return. Too much a secular-socialist ever to agree with the Sangh and irate at the horror it had enacted in Ayodhya, Chandra Shekhar still counselled dialogue — don’t forget, they too are people who belong to this country, they have strayed, they need to be corrected, you can’t extern them. Not for nothing did the late PV Narasimha Rao say that the closest the Ayodhya dispute came to a resolution was during Chandra Shekhar’s premiership. But then that was a stint with “short-term” written all over it.

He was a die-hard inclusivist because he was grounded in the contrary pluralities of India and understood that contradictions cannot be fought, they would have to be managed. No wonder his friendships ran deep and across ideological lines. No wonder that little Chandra Shekhar wanted done went unrequited in the power corridors. The man only ever held one post — Prime Minister for seven lame-duck months — but he wielded influence far in excess of what he let on. He became much reviled too for the strings he could pull over the phone from 3 South Avenue Lane. Did he care? He didn’t much. On the contrary, he continued to offer plentiful fodder to critics. His weakness for Thakur aggrandisement — wasn’t the rivalry for the Rajput crown at the bottom of his visceral differences with VP Singh? — his loner’s inability to create an organisation, his clumsy late-life grab for high office, the sordid company he often kept. Suraj Deo Singh and Chandraswami, one a dreaded Dhanbad mafia don, the other a high-flying conman. It can’t be he didn’t know the truth about them. But here again, it was that stodgy streak of personal conviction working against public perception — they were friends, Chandra Shekhar couldn’t be bothered what the world thought of them.

For more than the last decade, Chandra Shekhar stood in the Lok Sabha as lone representative of a party that had no brand recognition and that has probably died unlamented with him — the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). But being solitary seldom shook him. He was, from the beginning, an as-is-where-is man, like me, lump me. A little before the end, he made another contentious, and solitary, flip — vote Shekhawat for President, not Pratibha. He was nearer to the Congress than he was to the BJP but then, Shekhawat was a friend. The stubble had by then turned from pepper to salt-and-pepper to pure salt on his face and now it’s turned to ash. But that was the original one and it lies copyrighted in his name.

 

Not At The Placenta

papaIn the fifteenth year of Janardan Thakur’s passing, representing an old essay from an MW anthology on Fathers and Sons  

The jacket on the man in that picture is nearly fifty years old, only a little younger than I.  The first time I saw it was in a photograph sent back by my father from a long trip to the United States; it is the colour of lightly burned ochre and it has leather buttons on it the size of baby chestnuts. That man is Janardan Thakur, my father, and the boy on the arm of the chair is me. The picture was taken the day Bangladesh was born. To the right of where we sat, still flows the Ganga. To the left was what used to be the residence of the Principal of Patna College, a two-storeyed British era mansion with a deck overlooking the river and a portico up front where cycle rickshaws would lumber up and halt.

Patna had very few cars those days, and you saw fewer around the university; my father had a white Vespa, and when I went out with him, I liked to stand in front, between him and the handlebar, a vertical obstruction that impeded vision and skewed the scooter’s centre of gravity. But it was a thrill riding the prow, even with all the dust and fleas flying into my face.

The Principal of Patna College at that time was a man called Mahendra Pratap, a fiesty votary of the liberation of East Pakistan and a friend of my father’s. He’d hung up a large red-and-green of the new nation in his living room, and he’d called my father that morning for a celebratory breakfast. He was a big man, so big it seemed incongruous to me he could be chirpy as a bird, which he was that morning. He’d hugged my father as if he’d just been bequeathed a personal kingdom. He seemed not to know how else to employ his jollity; he pulled out his Rolliflex and took pictures. This one was among those he sent my father several months later. I remembered quietly sliding down the out-of-bounds bank to the river as my father and Mahendra Pratap engrossed themselves in conversation. He wanted to know what the Americans had been saying about the sundering of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. “So Mr Kissinger couldn’t prevent it, heh?” he grunted triumphally, “Nor his Seventh Fleet, heh? Come back in the evening and we shall raise a toast, but meantime tell me the mood in America.”

My father had only recently returned from a studyship in the US ; he’d been gone six months, probably a little more. He mailed close to a hundred picture-postcards during that time to populate his absence and to relentlessly promise return. I can’t quite tell what they should mean to me today now he’s gone somewhere nobody ever gets postcards from. They are all there somewhere in my cloister of my abandoned treasures, rubber-banded and curling at the corners, my father’s wad of notes to me. They came from far, and at that time, magical places – Bangkok, Kowloon, Osaka, Maui, Honolulu, San Francisco, Salem, Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati, Missouri, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Long Island. There was a line common to all of them, a default appendage, like a signature: “I am missing you but I will soon be back.”

The first one he sent me was from Bangkok of the floating vegetable markets on the Chao Phraya. He must have posted  that within hours of waving us off from the Dum Dum tarmac and arriving in Thailand. I can still sense my quiet grouse from that morning, looking at the PanAm jumbo parked in the haze, convinced the only mission of its sortie was to steal my father away, an abduction I confusedly watched and he air-kissed his way to. Could this be a good thing, him vanishing into the neck of that blue-white whale of a plane? He seemed happy to go; I never did make up my mind, although over the next few months, I missed him to tears. I was eight, and provincial. I had no notion of where my father was headed, or why. I only knew he was excited. He’d bought a pair of Chinese shoes the previous day from Bentinck Street, he clicked his way to the plane, turning once, then again, but always headed farther and farther until he became a blur climbing up the ladder, and vanished. Swallowed. I stood there, on the open Dum Dum gallery, refusing my mother’s hand, angry that she had allowed this to happen, let him go. From the moment he had taken the stairs down to customs and entered a space I had no passport to, everything had slipped out of grasp and become irretrievable. I had no way of reaching my father anymore; and he was completely taken by the notion of flight. When the ladder was unhooked from the aircraft and rolled away, the great abductor was free to fly. It revved its engines and  began to nose away into the morning mist, and took off in a great groan of bereftness.

That first postcard he sent me already had that line at the end: I am missing you but I will soon be back. He had begun a chain and every subsequent postcard would become a link in the journey back to where we would be together again. By the time he returned, they had become such a daily high, I was almost wistful my father wasn’t still out there mailing them from faraway geographies.

It was during that time that I first got a glimpse of the jacket. It was in a photograph he had sent back, tucked between sheets in a par avion envelope. My father stood wearing it on a promontory across the Grand Canyon. It was an eve-of-twilight photograph, that splice of day between glare and gloom when all the world seems burnished in Macenna’s magic. He sported thick sideburns those days and he stood looking back into the camera in fawn Levis and that corduroy top. I know I say this of my father but I haven’t seen a handsomer sight. There are some things that get so irrevocably imprinted in the eye that there isn’t any need more to revisit them for recall. A Vishwanath square-cut, or Nargis lapsed on Raj Kapoor’s pectoralis major mid-street on a night of torrents, or those airliners sharking into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. That picture of my father is one such. It is in the albums somewhere that I haven’t revisited in a while but I have never needed to; I can see each detail down to his lengthening shadow travelling out of the bottom right of the frame. He filled out that jacket like I have never been able to although I have now owned it for more years than he ever did. And for all the trips it has taken to the cleaner’s and for all the petrol and weaker scouring agents it has been subject to, it still smells of him. Or perhaps it is just the memory of him ionising around my nostrils at the sight of burnt-ochre corduroy.

Memory is only a little about memorising, it’s one in a constellation of things that make up that magical thing called memory. Sense and sensation, association, connection, smell, colour, time, distance, space, voices, silences, genes and the chemicals that make them up, behaviour and its weird geometry. My father never actually taught me to clip my nails but I do not know when or how precisely, I began to clip my nails exactly the way he did, with my fingers splayed and the blades sniping in arches. I was familiar with my shaving rituals long before I sprang facial hair, just what swathes the blade would cut into foam, just those arcs across my face.. My fingers had been choreographed for a typewriter keyboard before my brain trained in Pitman lessons. I see my handwriting from early school on a few Enid Blytons that survive in the household and I see my hand now and can’t decipher the route it took from an awkward squarish scrawl to a stylized slant. Too many years of seeing my father’s writing; too many postcards received from too many places. He never actually taught me. But that is the tango genes dance with behaviour on the helix of memory. There will be pitfalls and missteps in the perilous architecture of the helix but if the tangoing can override them it will eventually spin the dancers into a trance of subconscious fusion. Among the many things —good and bad—I took from him is my habit of smoking, my love for cigarettes and each little act that goes into reducing them into ash. The manner of lighting matches and the manner of bringing the flame to tip, the lips wrapped around the filter in a kiss, eyebrows screwed on the little box of light in closed palms, and then the first puff of smoke shot out like a plume of gunfire. And the fingers yellowed from years of holding and burning the tip too close. I don’t remember if it was he who told me this or I who told him but Graham Greene once indulgently and romantically described his nicotine scars as the “golden fingers of a smoker”. Quite late in our years together —  late enough for us to have been comfortable in each other’s company latenights at Leopold’s (a bar in Mumbai’s Colaba district fabled for its libertine, even risqué, nocturnal turnings), which is saying a lot considering the conservative stable we came from and the stable whose rules both punctiliously respected while there – I briefly developed a habit of flicking away burnt out cigarettes with a pincer thrust of the index and the thumb. Soon enough, I noticed him doing the same with rather easy facility.

In the years that he has been gone, I have often spied my mother looking at me in a strange sort of way, in a way I have never seen her look at me, almost as if she were looking at someone else and I just happened to be in the way. I used to shrug it off as my imagining but one day, leaving home and headed for and appointment in peril of being missed, I stopped and asked her, rather irritable, “What is it? Why are you looking like that at me again?” She capped her brow with a palm and said, “Nothing, nothing, it isn’t you, it’s your father, sometimes, with some things, it is like he were blowing through you.” Here’s memory in unfathomable dimensions; it is the memory of one man but it has come to reside within me through various conscious and subconscious routes, and finds various exits —  gait, voice, temper, manner, gesture, agitations, the trajectory of my eyebrows, the way I peer over my half-moons sometimes. To my mother, that same memory is an external, even physical, construct. She should know. She has spent more time watching the two of us, together and apart, than we could ever manage.

We all come attached to our mothers and keep going through a series of dis-engagements starting with the placenta at birth. There isn’t a choice about it that we have; attachments to mothers is one of the most essential givens of nature. Fathers are the variables of this equation. Their quantum is a matter of being worked out, about being deciphered through unwritten formulas. Fathers and offspring discover each other along the way or they don’t.

On the first night of my first real disengagement from my mother—my father had taken me, on my great insistence and on my many promises not too cry, to out north Bihar village to attend yearly rituals – I wailed so disconsolately for my mother, my father almost had to scrap the visit and ferry me back. In the event, he didn’t have to but that was achieved by unleashing his fury – one of the few times he did so – on me. I was barely four then and I was told I would never be going out with him again. I did. More times than I can remember. Then on, we never were on a journey not together until he turned the alley where entry is strictly by invitation. I remember him at the point where he forked off alone and forever.

It had to be Bombay, the city that he had grown to love so in such short a time that it could not have just been the sea. Or perhaps it was, I cannot yet reckon. I was on my way back from assignment in Goa to New Delhi and had stopped over to see my parents. But my stopover was shorter than short. Kargil, where military attrition was fast spiralling into what would become the war of 1999, was pressing, and I had to get the first flight out. We spent the morning together in my parents’ Colaba apartment and then my father said he would take a ride with me to Dhobitalao where he had ordered sets of old classics in a second-hand bookstore. He got down en route to Sahar and I touched his feet, as I always did at meetings and partings, and he crossed the road and waved. He was wearing, by some quirk, an ochre shirt and he beamed in the high Bombay noon. I remember thinking on the way to the airport what an odd father and son we made. We drank together and discussed Anais Nin at Leopold’s but it wasn’t ever that I left him without seeking his blessings the old-fashioned way, at his feet. He never demanded it but I have a sense he would have been disappointed if he didn’t. I never felt like not doing it, and that was only because I did not want to disappoint him. He borrowed cigarettes from me but there was something about him that forbade me to puff in front of him. I never did. He disliked me smoking, especially smoking too much. But all he ever did was to scribble advice and leave it in my books as markers. It takes two to tango and we both knew the rules.

Pracharak To Pradhanmantri: Narendra Modi’s Extraordinary Journey

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The last time India elected a single party to rule itself Narendra Modi was an anonymous pracharak of the RSS apprenticing in the debris of devastated barracks. Indira Gandhi’s assassination had handed Rajiv a merciless Lok Sabha majority; his adversaries lay decimated. The BJP had two members of Parliament. There wasn’t much to apprentice with in the Sangh Parivar’s mainstream precincts. It was 1984, a time for solitary reaping in the Opposition’s ransacked ranks.

The next time India elected a single party to rule itself, three decades later, the 16th day of May 2014, Narendra Modi stood adorned with the coronet of unprecedented achievement. In fact, a string of unprecedented achievements. The spearhead of the first non-Congress party to wrest power single-handed in New Delhi. The first from a classified backward community to arrive at the helm of the nation. The first chief minister to become Prime Minister in a single, stunning leap. Pracharak to Pradhan Mantri. When he mounted the Vadodara rostrum on Friday evening astride an electoral avalanche and pronounced himself merely “Mazdoor No 1”, he spurred his delirious votaries to roaring. It’s solitary reaping time no more, it has become a harvest beyond the imaginings of those who sowed the seeds of this saffron tempest.

Risen at twilight was a man a constituency far wider than Vadodara’s millions, far wider than India’s billion-plus, was looking at with a rainbow range of sentiments — hope and expectation, rapture and ravishment, bewilderment and keen curiosity, even fear and apprehension. Narendra Modi is about to be sworn into leadership of the world’s biggest democracy, the globe is tuning in, or will have to. A leading EU ambassador in Delhi told The Telegraph as the EVMs were wheeled in for the cascade count on Thursday night: “For us he has been a man not to ignore for a while now, which is why we made our openings to him more than a year back. Now, we cannot afford not to know who this man really is, what he means, what he intends, how he will conduct what he intends to conduct. At the moment he probably dictates the highest curiosity value the world over.”

Curiosity may not prove enough to fetch answers, though. Narendra Modi remains an enigma even to those who have been closest to him. The mother of the 64-year-old Prime Minister-designate included. In 2002, following his first victory in Gujarat, I travelled to his native Vadnagar to attempt piecing together a face that even then seemed worth a close look at. She lived at the time in a tiny two-storey house abutting a water-tank that’s hub to Vadnagar. The old lady was reticent to begin with and remained so through the half hour of time she granted. All she offered me was: “But what do I really know about my son? He left us as a teenager saying nothing to me other than that he was going. He has rarely come back, he has always had us told he is at work. I know little of my son.”

Ask a top PR executive who has worked closely with Team Modi and he sounds like an echo of the mother. “The one thing I can tell you about Narendra Modi is that anyone who claims to be close to him or to know him is lying. It isn’t possible to become close to Narendra Modi.” There is a territory Modi has practised to shield zealously from any prying — the core of Narendra Modi. At the end of the day — or at the beginning of it — the man who has courted, and won, stirring mass adulation, is a solitary man.

But clues to some of what he wanted to fashion for himself he had begun to drop early. That same year I went to Vadnagar following Modi’s 2002 victory, I wrote a long piece which began thus: “There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company — and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.”

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Poll Recall: Telegraph May 14/Bihar-UP: Along Buddha’s Last Walk, The Vibrant Myth Of Messiah NaMo

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Gautam Buddha’s last walk has become a Narendra Modi inroad. It must have been along these banks somewhere that Buddha crossed the Gandak bed and carried on to his mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar in 483 BC or thereabouts.

Having preached his last sermon at Vaishali, where part of his remains were later brought; having persuaded weeping Lichchhavi disciples to give up their pursuit at Kesaria, where a denuded stupa stands, a massive red-brick rotunda islanded in flat farmland; having brushed off his last pursuers with the gift of his begging bowl near Khajooria. Thereafter, he walked mostly alone and incognito until he crossed the river and came to rest in Kushinagar.

All along this 200-odd-kilometre run from Vaishali in north Bihar to the jagged fringes of east UP, we came upon again and again the Buddha legend in repose and a Modi newly rampant.

Irrespective of who wins these contests that closed on May 12 — all of these are gridlock battles, mind you, meshed in complex caste-creed loyalties — the spectre looming over the field is Narendra Modi’s.

He has come to acquire exclusive cross-country command of the discourse in a way neither national adversaries nor local competition can match. Few people even mention Rahul or Sonia Gandhi; Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad figure often, but only as counterpoints to Modi, where they can match him, where they’ll get rubbed.

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Poll Recall: Telegraph May 7/Kashmir: Final solution: Mind Your Business

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 A shop to run, a lathe to work at, a field to till — Baramulla knows too well not to wait for messiahs

Under the simmering canopy of the Kashmir dispute lumbers the realm of the forgotten Kashmiri.

In a vale so tiny — it is 130-odd kilometres long and 40 kilometres at its widest — that realm is never far to seek but it seldom attracts notice.

The tourism industry doesn’t mark out routes to it, the guides will never take you there, the state stays mostly away and averse, the politicians, oh but they barely even remember. Barely even at the time they require this realm most, at election time.

Hamara siyasat se matlab nahin, siyasat ka hamse nahin (we have nothing to do with politics, politics have nothing to do with us),” so saying, Mohammed Alam, cloth merchant in the one-lane bazaar of Kamblinar, wished us on.

In a day or two, men and materials will drone into the heart of the village, churning dust and curiosity, and set up a polling centre in the tumbledown structure that calls itself a middle school.

Alam won’t be bothered going in to vote. Nor his mates in the Kamblinar bazaar that stocks nothing beyond the most rudimentary things — you can acquire torch cells but not torches; they would have to be got from Handwara, the closest retail hub, two hours on a local bus that plies once a day.

Alam’s reasons for not voting are not what you’d classically expect from a Valley Muslim. His reasons are not about subscribing to the Hurriyat’s boycott call, or about the protracted sub-continental quarrel over where Kashmir should belong.

It’s merely about what Alam said in the first place: about not giving anything to politics because it gives nothing to you. “I will not acquire a bigger shop or a plot of land or a better school for my children if I go and vote,” Alam said sardonically. “I have a chance of doing that if I run my shop well. We are happy being what we are, let me not be told some masiha (messiah) will change things overnight.”

His friends from Kamblinar’s little merchant community — half-a-dozen shopfronts including a bread-and-tea vend — said they wanted to add no more to what Alam had said.

“You can see we are happy with what we have, and you can see what we do not have,” one of them said. “Should we be fooled it will come from casting a vote? We’ve tried that. All we have heard is talk of a final solution to Kashmir. Meantime, what are we meant to do?”

We had arrived in Kamblinar quite by accident. We had strayed looking for quite another village in the up-and-down maze of rural Baramulla — Chandoosa, the native place of Supreme Court lawyer and PDP candidate, Muzaffar Hussain Beg. We had climbed up the arrow road from Srinagar to Tangmarg, humped over Gulmarg — teeming with the summer’s first tourists scratching about the dregs of remnant snow — and plunged down the back of the forested shrine of Baba Reshi.

Quite suddenly, the clamour of tourist Kashmir had faded and an ante-dated Kashmir had taken over. We had travelled no more than 10 minutes downhill and we had plunged in time, into a radically removed environ from the luminous signposting of Gulmarg, shorn of its glitter, bereft of the excited hubbub of its hotels and eateries, the tinkle of easy cash and the chirp of commerce.

There was barely a dwelling to be seen that wasn’t ramshackle, barely a field that wasn’t being worked with bare human hands. We passed struggling horse carts and farmers pushing wheelbarrows. We barely came across motorised transport. We saw no hospitals or health centres, only the odd school where the classrooms were empty. There were no security people either, as they are elsewhere in the Valley.

The road had vanished and rubble had taken over. The Chandoosa of Beg was nowhere to be found. Somebody told us it may lie beyond the bend north of Kamblinar

That’s how we came to meet Alam.

Chandoosa was not one but several bends in the undulating valley from Kamblinar. “You’ll find nothing special there,” Alam said to us by way of caution. “It’s just the same as here, a forgotten place.”

In the centre of Chandoosa, we found iron smith Abdul Khaliq working his denuded lathe, the only man in the village with the time or the patience to talk. “I’ve been at this since I was a child,” he said motioning to his workstation of scattered metal things, “since the angrez (Englishman) ruled. Nothing has changed, not even my tolls or how I craft them.”

Khaliq was happy to have pictures taken; to look at him was to see a man from centuries ago. “I voted once, for Sheikh Abdullah, but never after, they all come and say good things and go, the fools, they are no good, a waste of time.”

The mustard was being harvested, and soon it would be time to sow paddy; Khaliq had his hands full crafting or sharpening farm tools. Isn’t he happy to have a fellow villager in the fray, the famous Beg? “But who?” Khaliq cocked his ears. “Yes, we are told he is from here but does he ever come? I have never seen him.”

Baramulla, one of the three Valley seats other than Anantnag and Srinagar and probably the one with the longest LoC run among them, has another famous contender — Sharifuddin Shariq of the National Conference. Shariq has represented the constituency three consecutive times. But with little to show for it.

It’s a harsh place, the Baramulla countryside; its bedraggled beauty does little to offer relief from the daily grind of subsistence life. Neither do those who compete to represent it in the high halls of legislature. For them, the lot of the people, remains in abeyance until they are done with the high rhetoric of Kashmir’s “final solution”, which looks nowhere in sight in this abandoned wilderness.

 

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 1/Kashmir:Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014

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As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Srinagar, May 1: At a little past ten in the morning, the wan morning sun began to pick out little groups of women in the village square across from the polling station. They waddled out the lanes in twos and threes and soon they turned into a buzzing congregation, like birds sniffing out the safety of their course. Then one gathered steps and vanished past the ajar iron gates where armed jawans stood. Then another, and another, and then the children of some of them began to tug them forth. The plunge was taken. The women had joined their men; two queues began to curl out the polling booth at Dardpora in Budgam.

Not long after, as the hubbub mounted around the polling hive, a group of youngsters walked up and stood across the jawans at the iron gates. They wore track-suits and gelled hair, their sneakers were slaked with mud; they may have come off a morning’s nets on the cricket field. One of them revealed a voters’ slip in his palm but none of them was going in. “Baayecaaat!” he shouted out and then the others shouted too: “Baaayecaat!!”

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Poll Recall: Telegraph April 29/Kashmir: Hands Off Buttons, Eyes On Modi

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Farooq Abdullah being assisted off the dais by security personnel at Margund in north Kashmir

Farooq Abdullah being assisted off the dais by security personnel at Margund in north Kashmir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surest sign that the Kashmir campaign is part of a mainstream election is that Narendra Modi has come to drop in the thick of it.

The surest sign that the mainstream here is differently defined is that three-fourths of Kashmiris aren’t bothered voting.

Panchayat elections have drawn upwards of 80 per cent voters in parts of the Valley. Assembly polls this last decade and a half have seen an average 45 per cent turnout.

Electoral engagement in Kashmir comes tethered to compulsions of quotidian utility, local means and ends; it’s no benchmark of political endorsement. If it is, the interpreters of the Kashmiri Morse in New Delhi and beyond should spell out the message of 25-odd per cent, no more, coming forth to vote for Parliament.

But between those insistent truisms has sprung a teaser that captivates voter and boycotter alike: Is Modi coming? Is it going to be iss baar Modi sarkar? More Kashmiris are interested in how India is voting than Kashmir itself. Is Modi really coming? What will that do?

Is this election Kashmir’s renewed interrogation of the idea of India? Having spurned the polls themselves, are they reading in the 2014 ballot-leaves clues to the prospect of a re-negotiation?

What could Modi do? For better or for worse, but surely something new, something beyond remaining knocked as the “arch-stone” in the edifice of secular India?

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Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections

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Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.

All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.

Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Laloo Yadav after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”. Continue reading

Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh

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Patna: A country egg hatching in a remote poultry pen has become Giriraj Singh’s thing of armour against invited assault. But we shall come to the eggs presently; first, the reason why this tale’s protagonist is on eggshells.

Such a torrent of censure and rejection he never did expect to descend on him for uttering the “undiluted truth of my heart”. Such a clap of overhead thunder it was, resonating from foe and friend, it left the bellicose Giriraj moping in a corner of his west Patna bungalow.

“I have been told I must hang, I have been told I must be arrested, I have been told I should be charged with treason, I have been told I am anti-national, and nobody is defending me. Everybody, even people in my party, is tearing into me. For what? For telling the truth? I am devastated, this moment has brought me to think if I should leave public life altogether, what’s the point if I cannot say the truth?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The counter-torrent issuing from Giriraj is in spate. He won’t stop. “I am telling you, and maybe I should not be telling you, but I feel like leaving politics, doing something else. I have probably won the Nawada Lok Sabha seat (polling in Nawada was held on April 10) , but even so, I feel so wronged, I want to give it all up.” Continue reading

Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014

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As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Srinagar, May 1: At a little past ten in the morning, the wan morning sun began to pick out little groups of women in the village square across from the polling station. They waddled out the lanes in twos and threes and soon they turned into a buzzing congregation, like birds sniffing out the safety of their course. Then one gathered steps and vanished past the ajar iron gates where armed jawans stood. Then another, and another, and then the children of some of them began to tug them forth. The plunge was taken. The women had joined their men; two queues began to curl out the polling booth at Dardpora in Budgam.

Not long after, as the hubbub mounted around the polling hive, a group of youngsters walked up and stood across the jawans at the iron gates. They wore track-suits and gelled hair, their sneakers were slaked with mud; they may have come off a morning’s nets on the cricket field. One of them revealed a voters’ slip in his palm but none of them was going in. “Baayecaaat!” he shouted out and then the others shouted too: “Baaayecaat!!”

Women and elders hesitantly join the polling in Budgam

Women and elders hesitantly join the polling in Budgam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The young boycotters stood their vocal dare. The jawans stood opposite, eyeball-to-eyeball, but impassive. Those in Dardpora that wished to vote passed betwixt. Nothing happened. Continue reading

Kashmir Won’t Vote, But It’s Riveted On Which Way India Will

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Margund (North Kashmir), April 28: The surest sign that the Kashmir campaign is part of a mainstream election is that Narendra Modi has come to drop in the thick of it.

The surest sign that the mainstream here is differently defined is that three-fourths of Kashmiris aren’t bothered voting.

Panchayat elections have drawn upwards of 80 percent voters in parts of the Valley. Assembly turnouts this last decade and a half have seen an average 45 percent turnout. Electoral engagement in Kashmir comes tethered to compulsions of quotidian utility, local means and ends; it’s no benchmark of political endorsement. If it is, the interpreters of the Kashmiri morse in New Delhi and beyond should spell out the message of 25-odd percent, no more, coming forth to vote for Parliament.

But between those insistent truisms has sprung a teaser that captivates voter and boycotter alike: Is Modi coming? Is it going to be iss baar Modi sarkar? More Kashmiris are interested in how India is voting than Kashmir itself. Is Modi really coming? What will that do?

At the Abdullahs’ election rally in Margund in North Kashmir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this election Kashmir’s renewed interrogation of the idea of India? Having spurned the poll themselves, are they reading in the 2014 ballot-leaves clues to the prospect of a re-negotiation? What could Modi do? For better or for worse, but surely something new, something beyond remaining knocked as the “arch-stone” in the edifice of secular India? “He’s not a man to hang around,” a retired civil servant with stated separatist aspiration told me of Modi over tea last evening, “He speaks a new language many may not like, but it is a new language. He may have new terms of reference to spell out to Kashmiris.”

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Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim

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Between one Akhtarul and one Anisur could lie the scrambled clues to the confounded run of the Muslim voter in Bihar.

The former junked his JD(U) ticket from Kishanganj on Tuesday in the name of preventing a split in the Muslim vote. The latter sits a little shaken if the move will leave the minority voter confounded mid-election. Anisur sounds not terribly pleased with what Akhtarul has done. “We have prospered under Nitish Kumar as has the whole state, such decisions spread confusion, this is not the time to be confused.”

As general secretary of the Imarat-e-Sharia, a pre-Independence charitable body with a jurisdiction spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and parts of Bengal, Maulana Anisur Rahman believes he has commitments to the community that transcend the exigencies of an election.

“We must be able to think ahead,” he sagely counsels no one in particular. “This is an important election, probably the most important we have seen in recent times, this is a time for united approach, not confusion. What Akhtarul has done creates khalbali(confusion), I find it hard to approve.” Continue reading

In The Backseat Of Misa’s SUV, A Swinger At Moodyji

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Maner (Pataliputra), April 15: The heat is such, it is burning up the standing stalks of wheat. The air conditioning in Misa Bharti’s road-ragged SUV is turned to “high cold” but she’s sweating in the front seat. Cooling doesn’t work when the windows have to be kept rolled down; rolling them up doesn’t work when you’re trying to catch each extended hand, smile at each approaching face, wear each garland flung at you.

The campaign is lurching to a close in Pataliputra’s rural outback, there isn’t much more Misa can do on her final spin than sweat a little more in her seat, bat away a few more flies, swig a few more draughts of a home concoction.

“There isn’t even time to eat today,” Misa mutters to herself, “sab kuchh gaadi mein hi karna hoga… Everything will have to be done in the car.” She isn’t getting down, she tells her driver, as a cluster of supporters appears down the road. “Chalte rahiye… keep going.”

The driver turns to her and nods but tells her he doesn’t know where to go. “Someone said Punpun, someone said Maner, someone said Phulwari, the road forks ahead, so which way?” Misa doesn’t know either. “Chalte rahiye,” she says again. She sticks her head out of the window, cranes her neck into more garlands, grins widely and urges the driver on. Continue reading

Single And Single: A Short Political Inventory of the Unmarried, the Separated and the Widowed

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The most powerful singles club in the country just got a little less crowded. Narendra Modi, has declared a long-denied wife mid-bid to Prime Ministership of India. But till just the other day, singlehood in Indian politics carried formidable heft. Modi’s chief adversary and undeclared pretender to the top office, Rahul Gandhi, has often teased a public and formal pledge not to marry. With one entry on his nomination form in Vadodara — “Jashodaben” — Modi announced himself as a living paradox: married in a marriage he neither committed himself to nor consummated. It was a bal-vivaha, child marriage, Modi was 17, Jashodaben two years younger. Even in that day, such coupling would not have had the sanction of law.  But on paper that now carries the weight of his signature, Modi is single no more. The singles club of our public people may just have lost its best known member.

It remains, even so, a mighty gathering possessed of influence across and up and down the nation.

When Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abduallah’s announcement in September 2011 that he was separated from wife Payal, he rendered himself the country’s eighth chief minister without a formally designated current partner.

Already in when Omar finally announced himself at the club door — squishing  speculation and kicking grapevine en route — were J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik of Orissa, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, Shiela Dikshit of Delhi and Mamata Bannerji of Bengal. Narendra Modi of Gujarat, still there at the time, has just stepped out. But Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan has just returned, having recently grabbed the state back from the Congress.

Single people still rule over close to half of India’s population — 49.47 percent of Indians according to last count. And in a nation so moored to family and family values and in a polity so overrun by dynasties, they also constitute a charming collateral trend. But does that alone make a case for speculation on similarities in public behaviour and governance patterns? Yes and no.

Single chief ministers can all, for instance, be said to have more time available to devote to affairs of state by the sheer fact of not having to bother with family at the back of the office. Some also argue that a single person is less liable to resort to nepotism or other forms of corruption. And it is often suggested that they are less liable to be driven by pelf because most may not have progeny to hand it over to. Experience suggests much can be said on either side of these generalizations.

An individual’s performance in political office — as indeed in other jobs — is likely to depend more on individual personality, energy levels, and ethical and value systems than on marital status, say consultant psychiatrists who specialise in family affairs. Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar have both been singled out by a US Congressional research group as the most efficient among India’s political administrators. But there the similarities between the two — personal and political — end. Mayawati is widely perceived to be a 24/7 chief minister but that has not put Uttar Pradesh among the best governed states in India.

“A single person may appear to have more time on hand than a married person, but how much and what a person sets to do and actually achieves is influenced by these factors — not marital status,” said Anjali Chhabria, a consultant psychiatrist in Mumbai who runs a clinic called Mind Temple.

“But a person who is married but unhappy is likely to have less energy and ambition than a single person who’s happy,” she said. “The state of mind determines ambitions — someone who’s happy, whether single or married, is more likely to want more and achieve more.”

One expert said the value system that is part of an individual’s personality will guide behaviour in handling issues where there is scope for nepotism or corruption. “It may seem that a single person without family concerns has less chance of being greedy — but that is necessarily true,” said Shashi Bhushan Kumar, a consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi. “Take the case of Bihar’s [chief mimister] Nitish Kumar — he’s got a family, but has a very modest lifestyle,” Kumar said.

More time on hand may not necessarily translate into efficiency. Several studies in the past have suggested that marital status can influence mental health, sleep patterns, and even work performance. A study by social scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark released earlier this year, for instance, showed a positive association between being married and work effectiveness. The study based on an analysis of expatriate academics in Nordic countries showed that married people appeared to have better work outcomes than single individuals.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who lost his wife to pulmonary edema in 2007, and Omar, who probably lost his wife to incompatibility, may both disagree. Nitish advocates seldom tire of arguing that his “single” status is what gives him the edge over competition. Omar has suggested his being single has not impacted his work.

Nitish has a credible ring to his claims on being clean — he is a widower, his son is a meditative recluse, he has nobody to accumulate money and pass on to. The same does not hold true of Jayalalithaa who suffers a credibility deficit on the cleanliness count; she may not have a family but she does, like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, has a foregrounded foster family. In both cases, the foster families weighed heavier on the “single” leaders than many other real families do.

So a club it is, but between one single and another lies a fair duality. Narendra Modi only just underlined that to us, unveiling Jashodaben on his ticket to Prime Ministership.

 

 

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