Telegraph Calcutta

Workman’s Secret Diary

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I swear on whatever book it is that you have yanked my palm onto that I shall speak the truth and the truth alone and nothing but the truth. Some folks say the moment they see me they begin to be convinced all over again that I would. I cannot vouch for 62 or so per cent of the people; they never voted for me, so they do not even count. I swear in the name of those who swore by me. Wajib?

I have this to say for a start. I work 18 hours each day, 365 days a year. No chhutti. Thirty eight per cent or so made me TheChaiwala with a capital T and a capital C, and the 62 or so, well they got what they got, who cares. These are numbers, abstract things, a bit here and a bit there does not really matter.

So those are my work hours. And you know I do not take a Sunday off; you would know, you see me on the idiot box doing some idiot thing each Sunday. Mondays you never notice what I do, but that is all your fault. Mondays I may bunk, and you never notice because you say to yourself a man who labours for us Sundays must be labouring even harder for us Mondays. Bewakoofon!

As I said, on oath to that fat book you forced my palm onto, I speak the truth, and nothing but. And here are a few things that I do while I labour for you each day. I wake up thinking: what next? What should I wear? How many times should I change what I wear today? Where should I go? What should I scream about? Who should I target and abuse? Who should I blame for what I have not been able to do? All of these and many such other things. But before I wake up, I sleep. I do sleep, don’t take me for some nishaachar raakshas, although many have told me I have a canny likeness. I do sleep. A few hours. But those are also hours slept in the service of the nation; I sleep the sleep of a Sewak. I sleep like a Chowkidar. Which means I sleep dreaming the tasks ahead, imagining what the nation requires of me. I am working at things in my sleep. Like what new poses should I strike for the next round of posters? And where should I have those posters installed? Then I have to think about which ones should be vinyl only and which ones should be backlit. And agencies have to be located and assigned to do one kind and another kind. Not everybody is able to do every job. Has anybody been able to do the kind of job I have done? Then there is the matter of content. Like what wisdom should I next download on you. You know my talent for devising acronyms. They come from hard work. Like I thought of APNA — All People’s National Agreement. APNA for me, your one and only beloved leedaah! Or then, there is AAPKA — Association of Alliances of People who Know Apna. Hai naa? You get the drift. My brain is always ticking. Then I have to decide who to follow on teetar; I like the wild ones, the ones that squawk noxious nonsense. Because if they do not do that, how will I appear better by contrast? Like Bapuji and Panditji? They looked better by contrast. Cunning fellas. I must course correct. I must think out how to disabuse you of the curse of Bapuji and Panditji. I must neutralise them. The problem is they were neutralised long ago — one by a Godsend, another by whatever, how should I care — but their memory obdurately lives on. I must terminate it. It takes time, and effort. It’s hard. And then I have to invent what next to tell you. That’s hardest, because how much can you go on telling without any doing? Takes talent. How do you live with the refusal of achchhe din to arrive? So I have to get into kachchhe din, and begin to devise what to say next about why achchhe din never came. And then,

Late night I lie and drink

A mugful of hot latte

And smirk and quietly wink

Jhooth boley kauwwa kaate.

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Telegraph Calcutta

The Windmills Of Holland

The Rascales. Where are they? Flying about? But of course, Rascales would fly; they were meant for that. But where are they? I can hear them dinning away in my ears, but I cannot see them damn Rascales. I can hear them. But why is it I can’t spot them? Perhaps their blinding jetstreams yes, one arching this way, the other that way, scarring the sky and dropping payloads of obfuscation. They are thundering through me, they are shaking me, they are shaking my foundations, I can feel them ripping through my clothing and my farce. But where are they? Oh.

Is that so? They are supersonic? You mean… Oh like our Pushpaks? You know those things, don’t you? You merely have to push and pak, pak, pak, pak they went; you could only ever hear them Pushpaks go pak pak pak pak pak, you could never see them. Or, at least, nobody has vouched, so far our collective knowledge and understanding goes, that they saw a Pushpak. They’ve heard about them, of course, but not actually seen. Like it is somewhat with these Rascales. Where are they? Bit like what Mahadeb has become. We know he’s there somewhere, but we can’t see or locate him. But at least Mahadeb isn’t zooming about and doing zinging flypasts and rattling the ATC and leaving everybody at a loss all the time. They named those things just right: Rascales. Fighters, right? Right. Look at the amount of fighting they’ve downloaded upon us on their sorties! Like a carpet bombardment of bad news. These Rascales, they’ve left us with no credible answers to offer, and they’ve carpet-bombed so merrily and profusely everybody knows. The deals. The payoffs. The cronies that were carted along and stashed with benefits. The capital that was handed away. Truly, with a name like that they never should have been trusted, these Rascales!

I should have known better. As a matter of fact I did. I knew these Rascales would be up to mischief, especially if we brought them all the way from Gaul. These Gauls, always a troublesome lot. Look at the havoc they got up to each time Goscinny and Uderzo got down to plotting such a fun and simple thing as a comic strip. I mean, they just rammed and bamboozled their way through and left each of their efforts in such a shambles, overlaid with the leftovers of their devoured pork ribs too, and a dishevelled bard forever strung upside down at the end of it, blaring a dirge to the latest round of mass pandemonium. Never folks to trust, much less strike deals with, those Gauls. But, psssssst, the thing is the deal was tempting. You all now know how tempting, it’s all out in the public domain, and no longer a thing of our denying. In fact, it has begun to appear to me the more we protest it was a fine deal, the more people get convinced it was anything but. But what is one to do, running this ship and keeping it secure isn’t easy. Once in a way you need Rascales, or a fair few of them.

But I did say fewer. The bandits before me wanted more than a hundred, I sternly said a few dozen and no more. And I also laid down the rules: just send these Rascales as they are, fly them to us and we shall find ways of dealing with them. We don’t need the knowhow to make them at home. Tauba, tauba. We don’t want to be producing Rascales on our soil, no. And not more and more of them at any rate; we have enough of them already, can’t you see? We’ll pay you well, keep the change and keep your extra Rascales. How much would you want? Here. Incentive thrown in? Well, let me see, let me ask one of my cronies at home. He may be able to arrange an incentive, he is into many things, you see, resourceful fellow. So he may be able to serve something on the side for you. But keep it under wraps, you Gauls have a terrible habit of putting everything out in the public space. I am your Rottweilers and your Gayaks; don’t you want to put a veil on such affairs? Take care with us, please. As it happens, there’s enough trouble even before a single Rascale has arrived home. Just look at them, their phantoms crashing into my plate each day like those skeletons the tiny Gaul and the fat Gaul loved to chuck about all the time. This one’s done, but no more, and remember I did it out of good faith, for country, and a needy crony.

And there was also Juli
Who needed a holding hand
So we said, even if unduly
Let’s just shake it with Holland.

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Telegraph Calcutta

Soldier. Soldier

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There came a moment in my recent interaction with the chief of the army staff, Bipin Rawat, whose implications are unsettling enough to require remark. I ventured to get his sense of the situation in the Kashmir Valley, and he stopped me short and said he would like to wait a while before he opened up. “There is a new man there,” he said, meaning the recently appointed governor, Satya Pal Malik. “We want to give the new man time. I do not want to fix his position by making statements… I will speak later. He has to set the agenda. He has to decide what he wants to do, how he wants to handle the situation. If I speak now, people will say the army is trying to influence him or dominate the discourse in Kashmir. That will not be right. We have to see how he goes about it. If he has plans and he can rein in terrorism, we will be most happy.”

On the face of it, that seemed a fair comment — a new chief executive is in charge, he must run the place. But give that another read and you may perhaps realize what Rawat said is troubling on many counts. Referring to Governor Malik as nothing more than “new man” is the least of them. Implied in what Rawat said is that time is for him (and the armed forces) to grant to the civilian administration. Implied in what he said was the sense that Governor Malik was on test. Implied too was a taunt — “If he has plans and he can rein in terrorism, we will be most happy.” Implied, most worryingly, in his tone was something that said the buck stops with me: “I will speak later.” It was a tone of easy swagger and overlordship that appeared to make little allowance for what else there might come to bear on the future course in Kashmir — the elected government seated three corridors from him at the top of South Block, for a start.

How have we arrived at this pass? How have we arrived, almost without notice or cognition, at the military brass assuming — even exuding — an air that almost domineers civilian authority? How have we arrived at a general who hectors his presence and hollers policy intent ahead of the government that he is signed up to serve? “Talks and terror cannot go hand in hand”; “It is time to give it back to them [Pakistan] in the same coin”; “People need to be afraid of us”; “The army is your last resort”. It is how we have heard generals in Pakistan usually speak; it is a voice and a vocabulary a prided democracy such as ours should remain uncomfortable about.

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Chief of the Army Staff Bipin Rawat

The meditated and deliberate manner in which the Narendra Modi government has come to project, and use, the armed forces for its political ends cannot be cause for comfort. Our armed forces are an institution — and an exemplary and distinguished one — of the Indian State; they are not an extension or an instrument of the government of the day or the political party the government belongs to. The Indian armed forces are neither the PLA of China, nor do they march like the battering arm of the Nazi party in Germany.

The government diktat on celebrating Surgical Strike Divas — the anniversary of the cross-border operation of September 2016 — is quite the symptom of a potential malaise the Modi government is nurturing. The Indian armed forces have a long and illustrious tradition of valour and service. There can be no argument that the jawan is deserving of our tribute and gratitude and, very often, celebration. But there should be an argument when a government picks out one event out of a boundless catalogue and orders a nation-wide jamboree. If its daily valorization of the jawan on the political maidan has made a stable trend of the politicization of the armed forces, the decision to celebrate Surgical Strike Divas could well set off the beginnings of the militarization of the polity, a polity dosed and spurred on militarism and vengeance of the kind that the Establishment has begun to unabashedly espouse and vow. It is not, in fact, the jawanthat the government is celebrating when it orders such festivity; it is the use of the jawan as a badge of achievement pinned to the lapel of the government of the day: who effected the surgical strikes? Modiji did, and so hail Modiji! Did it occur to anyone in the government, after all, that the anniversary of the war of 1965 came to pass barely a week before Surgical Strike Divas and it was allowed to go unnoticed? But of course Modiji was not in power then, so leave that anniversary, or any other whose credit the Modi government cannot claim.

It is quite another matter that the surgical strike of two years ago remains a thing of doubted depth and dubious dividends. If it was meant as a dare and deterrent, it proved resoundingly counterproductive. The Line of Control has never been so unquiet as during the past couple of years — ceasefire violations, often rather violent and sustained, have spiralled from 100-odd in 2010 to more than a thousand last year. The number of soldiers who died in Jammu and Kashmir since 2014 is now 219; the count in the previous five years was 144. The tumult in the Valley itself has shown no signs of easing.

And while the Modi government tilts full throttle harnessing the soldiery to its political ends, it actually offers the soldier or the brass little. It uses the jawan to feed its rhetoric, it pays little attention to feeding the jawan or his urgent requirements. Or even the requirements of national security. What did the vice-chief of the army staff, Sarath Chand, tell the parliamentary standing committee on defence just a few months ago? “Funds allocated are insufficient and the army is finding it difficult to even stock arms, ammunition and spares for a 10-day intensive war.” He had prefaced his position remarking that the defence budget had “dashed our hopes” and that the marginal increase had barely compensated for inflation. More than 80 per cent of the defence budget goes to meeting ways and means of expenditure. Sixty eight per cent of the equipment the jawan has is obsolete. Seek out sentiment beyond the rhetoric the brass brandishes and there is unease and restiveness to be found in the ranks — an imperfect OROP settlement, grouses on how the Seventh Pay Commission has filtered down, unhappiness over being yoked more and more to civilian undertakings, shouldering and mending failures that are not of their making. The Modi government borrows shine from the soldier each day, it bestows on him tatters. It is one thing to honour the casket of a soldier who falls in the line of duty, quite another to provide him well enough to stand and fight. Surely, the jawan that Prime Minister Modi so loves to extol from the pulpit deserves better. The nation does too.

Jai Hind.

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2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Splitting Headache

Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places

 

Just a few hours before Sameer Bhat, better known as Sameer Tiger, a most wanted Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in a gun battle in Drabgam in South Kashmir this week, he had pushed online a short video of a local youngster being interrogated by him on suspicion of being an informer. Towards the end of the clip, Sameer Tiger pronounces a warning on an army officer that he surely meant for a much larger audience: “(Major) Shukla ko kehna sher ne shikar karna kya chhora, tujhe laga jungle hamara hai? (Tell Major Shukla just because the tiger had stopped hunting, you thought the jungle was yours?)” Major Shukla would take a hit in pursuit of Sameer Tiger soon after, his assault party would hunt Sameer Tiger down, but Tiger’s dire dare rings on: it’s a vicious survivor’s skirmish, Kashmir, and it’s often tough to tell hunter from hunted, one day’s trophy chasers can become another day’s trophies.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a resumed spike in the locate-chase-neutralize campaign of security forces against militants – 218 in 2017 and 62 so far this year. Many of those killed were marked men – men with foregrounded profiles in the insurgency lane who had become rallying figures for others. It is evident that policy is now driven by what Ram Madhav of the Bharatiya Janata Party revealed to this newspaper in an interview last year: “We will go after them (militants) with the utmost harshness.” But there are two other aspects to the hot pursuit in daily play. Jawans have taken the recoil – 83 were killed last year and 28 so far in 2018 – and militant ranks have swelled on the rebound. Nobody can quite put a number to the ranks of those who disappear from homes every other day, but everybody who has a sense of the ground would tell you that the number is not merely high but also alarming. Just recently, I spent some time visiting homes and crossroads in the villages of Pulwama and Shopian, tormented spurs to Kashmiri insurgency, and the line that dropped like a hammer into my notebook came from a boy barely into his teens: “Bring a truckful of guns to these parts and I assure you they will all be claimed within half an hour,” he told me, “Everyone is prepared to pick one up and put it to use, just ask around.” Shadowy protagonists of armed Kashmiri secession, this side or that of the cantankerous fence with Pakistan, need not invest in motivation or recruitment; New Delhi and its striking arms are doing a splendid job of it.

Continue reading “A Splitting Headache”

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Scorpion Curled

The threat to a free media in India is never far away

 

One of the appointed margdarshaks of the Narendra Modi dispensation, L.K. Advani, was, at one time, minister for information and broadcasting. He ascended the job writing copiously on the derangements of the Indira-Sanjay Emergency regime (1975-1977) and issuing a rap on the media that still resounds as reminder of what must not be repeated: “When the Press was asked to bend, it crawled.”

A lead act of the same dispensation, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, himself a victim of Emergency-era excesses, seldom misses an opportunity to recall the menace and darkness of those 19 months, or to champion enshrined constitutional freedoms. In his Foreword to The Emergency, an essential memoir of the era by the journalist, Coomi Kapoor, Jaitley wrote: “Political developments during this period were all aimed in the direction of suppressing democracy and turning India into a totalitarian state. Fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 were suspended… The newspapers quickly began to toe the government line… The most alarming aspect of the Emergency, as this book so vividly narrates, was that Indira Gandhi managed to demonstrate how easy it was to misuse the Constitution and convert democracy into a constitutional dictatorship. In this journey, she seemed to have picked up some clues from Adolf Hitler…”

Continue reading “A Scorpion Curled”

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The master of spin

Ripples of the Modi marketing tide have already begun to roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those who noticed will already know that Graeme Smith, the former South Africa cricket captain, has flagged off the Narendra Modi campaign for 2019. For those that did not, here is how it happened. May 27, the first day of the last year of Modi’s term. A pulsating corner of the Wankhede arena, where the final game of the Indian Premier League was about to get under way. Smith stood kitted out in traditional regalia – rust kurta (Sunil Gavaskar would follow sporting saffron and oblige with his own pitch, but not yet), linen mantilla streaming down his neck to the knees, churidars and kolhapuris to boot. The pre-match show had warmed up just right when the big question was popped to Smith. It wasn’t who’d take the IPL trophy but what he thought of the “prime minister’s great fitness initiative” which had by then already been promoted to viral-grade. Off went Smith and his interlocutor from the screens, and all of the Wankhede green along with them, and in floated Modi in padmasana, hands folded – ” Mere pyare bhaiyon, behnon, deshwasiyon” and so on. By the time the clip ended and Smith came back on camera, he was shedding petals of adulation like a tree shaken in fall – great, stupendous, fantastic, so inspiring, I mean what can one say… The prime minister and his fitness footage would recur many times over that evening, many great cricketing trees would line up to be shaken, then fawn and foam with all manner of blandishment as contribution to a cunning work of propaganda. The closing fixture of IPL 2018 had become Modi’s opening gambit for the Indian premier league of 2019.

Say what you will of him, but Narendra Modi has a killer’s sense of the moment and an opportunist’s unabashedness to grab it. He is a genius of the photo-opportunity, such that he has reduced the camera to a duteous devotee of his postures. Postures that often require key members of his Close Protection Team to be off-frame so he is left in solitary grandeur while the shutters work. Postures that often make his VVIP guests or hosts wonder why India’s prime minister has suddenly broken into a solo pantomime of gesturing. Postures that he often astutely plots ahead with megalomaniacal attention to detail, as at Santiniketan recently when an ardent supporter was said to have breached security to arrive prostrated at his feet. There was no breach, as the untroubled demeanour of the SPG guard in the near background amply suggested. What was there was the crafting of a photograph that would burn the wires.

Continue reading “The master of spin”

Telegraph Calcutta

Aye Mere Watan ke Logon

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Ah, the juices. The juices when they begin to flow. From the fount itself, pure, undiluted, no artificial colours or sugar added (*Conditions apply). Those can often be tough conditions when they apply them, mind you. No artificial colours. No sugar. No sugar, please note. Those conditions they warned about being applied can be bitter. But the juices. And when it is Walrus rus it is special rus. It’s like no other. It’s the Walrus, after all; the rus is written in, intrinsic. Some folks also call him NarangiRus. The native folks, folks who belong here, as distinct from the folks who do not belong and are to be categorised alien, or invader, or infiltrator, or, as has now been spelt out in the latest edition of the Revised Boxford Dickshunary, termites.

Termites are tough to tackle. They get into spaces few other living things get into. And once there, they dig in, dig, dig, dig, deep and settle. And when settled, bite. They get under the skin and give themselves a treat from inside that cushioning. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. And when it’s the Walrus they get into, the treat turns special. It becomes a treat, dripping with rus. They suck and suck until they can suck no more. Imagine a bagful of rus the size of a Walrus, and imagine the puny termite; how much can the poor fellow take in? But take away and take in the termite does, to capacity. In teenie-weenie bits with its teenie-weenie teeth. Small bites that turn into big burning blisters: TERBITE!!! Ouch! Kaanta lagaaaa! That’s why termites are nothing to tolerate.

But don’t tell that to the Walrus, not in the mood he is currently in. Gentle. Genial. Shedding rus. NarangiRus from NarangiPur, where he is native to. NarangiPur-Upon-NarangiSea. Where everything is Narangi. Which is how they want all of the Brahmaand to be: Narangi. There’s time yet, but they are trying. Trying hard. Very hard. So hard that NarangiRus, or Walrus, has himself waddled out and decided to woo a constituency far wider than he or his TeamNarangi would ever have imagined, or even bothered with. There he is, beached, having hauled himself out of the NarangiSea, and prepared to be face-to-face with a congregation he does not often present his Narangi eminence to — before whosoever might be interested. Walrus, dripping on the beach. Dripping the juice of kindness. Almost the kindness that drips off Mahadeb’s bhaanrs of tea, but they haven’t dripped such a long while it is no longer possible to imagine the sweetness they dripped.

But forget Mahadeb; Walrus is here. Surveying the field on the beach. Brooding, Yoda-like, picking his people to comment on and commend. Oh you lot, yes, you did some good work chasing out those gora charlatans and setting up a fence and giving some sort of shape to this geography of ours while we waddled in our NarangiSea, wondering what to do, which way to go. You know about the time, we were in a bit of a look-London-see-Berlin phase. You know that Bunch of Boughts kind of phase. We bought into a few of those things, yes, but we are thinking whether we bought right. We are not entirely convinced we did, but let’s not talk about it at the moment.

For the moment, just come closer, let me have a look at you. Be not afraid. I have tusks, but I have whiskers too. Soft whiskers. Look. And I am vegetarian, plain Narangi. I know I may have left you menaced. But that was then. That was when I needed to. I no longer may.

Come, take a closer look, don’t be conditioned by what you thought of me, judge me for what I am today. No harm shall come to you. As long as you behave as I wish you to. Conduct yourselves the way we would have you conduct yourselves. You shall have nothing to fear. My tusks, ah, but they are nothing I can do anything about. I was born with them. But as I said. I have whiskers too. And I drip sweet rus, the whole of me drips it. Come, let me examine you close, let me see if you belong, let me convince myself. Or you convince me. Tell me you’ll behave, and do as I tell you. Then I shall have no problems. How can we be bigger if we do not have amidst us the smaller or the lesser, after all? Come my dears, you serve a purpose.

Come under my shade now
Even though you aren’t my own
Else, I do so solemnly vow
’Neath my tusk I’ll have you thrown.

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