2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Theek Kiya? Singh Stings the Opposition Again

New Delhi, Aug 30: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emerged from his Rajya Sabha joust this afternoon springy of step and momentarily cheeky of tone. “Theek kiya?” he wondered to an aide, affording his deadpan demeanour the most fleeting relief of a wry smile: Did I do the right thing?

He’d be told soon, stepping into Parliament’s Central Hall en route to his offices from the upper house. He was instantly gobbled up by a gaggle of junior ministers and Congress MPs gushing in felicitation: Just right, Sir, slammed them the way they deserved to be, was the sense of the ecstatic hubbub. Ram Kirpal Yadav of the RJD joined in as rep of ally benches. “Kamaal kar diya sir, chup kar diya, aap hamesha bina kagaz ke bola keejiye.” (Splendid job, sir, you silenced them, you should always speak without a prepared text.) The Prime Minister seldom walks casually into the Central Hall; he hovers there even less, preferring to fox-trot the stretch when he has to. Today, he may have had intimations ovation awaited him.

Singh, actually, did have a prepared text, although he appeared not to speak off it; it was a text simmering in his head. He had come ready to spill it on the Opposition, to give back some of what had been heaped on him. Continue reading “Theek Kiya? Singh Stings the Opposition Again”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Zubin: A Barbed Note in Kashmiri Fencing

New Delhi, August 28: A Mughal garden, an Israel-based conductor, a German impresario, an Indian sponsor, a Kashmiri audience — it was always likely such a cast of characters would bring the plot to boil.

The heat around German ambassador Michael Steiner’s effort to stage a Zubin Mehta concert on the decks of Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh is being stoked so rapidly, there are fears the project might combust ahead of its September 7 staging. From Kashmir’s separatists to rights picketers to online lobbyists to religious leaders, a symphony of discordant protests has swept up the indignant belly of the Valley and left the organisers shaken, if not yet shoved.

 

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Hurriyat spearhead Moulvi Mirwaiz Farooq has labelled the Zubin concert a mischievous attempt” to project Kashmir as a “normal place whereas we are a disputed zone of conflict”. Activist Gautam Navlakha decreed the move devious for more than just political reasons. “Germany and European Union is eying the Indian market and they want to invest here. It is a give and take. Germany would help India to improve its image on Kashmir globally while India would allow it to invest in its markets,” Navlakha argued, flaying what he called the use of music as an imperial tool, “People of Kashmir in general have no interest in such type of concerts, they know the real designs of India.”

Under mounting pressure of adverse opinion, Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Bashir-ud-Din, added his decibel to the contrarian clamour. “It is a wrong signal that the people of Kashmir are prosperous and have the leisure to participate in such high profile events,” the Mufti said and urged the Germans keep the gift of Zubin to Kashmir under wraps and away: “I appeal to the honourable German ambassador to reconsider the decision and instead spend on helping education, healthcare and economy of Kashmiri people.”

This is not the first time music has become a barbed note in the cantankerous argument over Kashmir; somewhere in the darkened passages of the Jawahar Tunnel, somewhere between Banihal and Qazigund, music turns to contraband and must be rejected entry to the Valley.

In February, Pragaash, an all-girl band of Kashmiri teenagers, plugged off, hounded by a fatwa fanned by on-line campaigns. In 2011, students of Kashmir University panicked at anonymous threat calls and abandoned a campus concert they had christened Ilhaam, or divine message.

In both those cases, proscription came mounted on religious constructs: music is haraam, unIslamic, a decree defied with flair and felicity by a long and accomplished line of Muslim patrons and practitioners. When the faithful pray across Kashmir’s mosques and shrines, they sing a sonorous song.

The objection to Zubin Mehta’s music is political, a quarrel about time and place; it is not about Islam, it is about Kashmir. None of the nay-sayers has raised a brow on his Parsi roots or his Israeli residence. Neither has anyone questioned the conductor’s fabled accomplishment. But very often it takes little in Kashmir for issues to get cannoned into articulation of thwarted nationhood — “aazaadi”,that undying Kashmiri ember forever looking for a flame.

Nervous managers of the Zubin event — the German embassy in Delhi is its prime mover — are proceeding with elaborate preparations, regardless, although they have one apprehensive eye riveted on the pre-concert roil turning ugly. As would be expected for any Zubin Mehta concert, the interest quotient is high and global, no less because of the exotic location. More than a dozen prime networks including members of the European Broadcast Union, have sought telecast facilities, international guests are slated to arrive. The hosts are struggling to cope with requests even as they are worried over Kashmiri calls of rejection.

Embassy officials were tight-lipped, wary of a syllable ringing wrong. But one of those assisting the mission said, “They are following the mood in the Valley very carefully, they mean this as a gift to the people of Kashmir, they do not want it to become anything else, or worse, invite Kashmiri wrath. It is a programme for Kashmiris in Kashmir, not a state event or even a VVIP gala.”

Ambassador Steiner, one of the most engaged western emissaries in Delhi, has run seven secure-all missions to Kashmir over the last month. He has spoken to cross-sections of Kashmiris — political leaders, community elders, journalists, students, bloggers — but he remains unsure whether he was able to convince them. The late flurry of protests has verily run in the face of his efforts.

The government of India, usually discouraging of third-country activity in Kashmir has kept an aloof posture but waved the event on, processing cumbersome paperwork and addressing security concerns. Incredible India!, a ministry of tourism enterprise, is a major event sponsor.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, who has endorsed the concert and extended it logistical and security assistance, is irked by the prospect of disruption and rock-jawed about seeing it through. “These voices are not new coming from the Valley,” a senior Omar aide to The Telegraph, “They do not wish any normal activity to happen in Kashmir, it is their case to keep the place locked and unhappy. We will see to it they do not succeed.”

Zubin Mehta, the man at the centre of the brouhaha, has spoken not a word. A concert in Kashmir was his wish and idea, expressed to Ambassador Steiner in July 2012, when he came here to receive the Commander’s Cross of the German Order of Merit for conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra between 1998 and 2006. Mehta, who remains an Indian citizen and is probably India’s greatest living contribution to the world musical stage, said he’d love it once to have a chance to lead Bavarian musicians at a performance in Kashmir. They’re probably busy loading their props and instruments into a special plane in Munich, yet unsure if they will get to play. That opportunity will double the reward for their Conductor. Zubin Mehta is this year’s recipient of the Tagore Award for cultural harmony. In Kashmir, the jury remains out on that one.

 

 

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only

New Delhi, Aug 24: The attendance was A-list, the atmospherics protocol-perfect, the adjectives superlative, the applause generous and obliging.

It was an occasion deserving of nothing less. The government had just hatched a glittering Jurassic egg Rs 60 crore worth on prime acreage in the capital. It would have to count as a rare moment in this age to watch six tiers of mortar, grit, granite and glass pressed into the service of information when all of it can be devised, disseminated and received on baubles that fit the crook of a palm.

Information Inflation
Information Inflation: Delhi’s New National Media Centre

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paced the motions of opening and commending the marvel called National Media Centre (NMC) this morning, his communications adviser unwittingly laid bare the irony mocking the enterprise — Pankaj Pachauri broadcast his boss’ speech live to the world pushing Twitter tabs on his hand held from the front rows of the inaugural hall. Continue reading “New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar’s New X Factor: Y?

New Delhi, Aug 16: Earlier this week, Nawal Kishore Yadav, an RJD member of Bihar’s upper house, defied the party to praise BJP frontrunner Narendra Modi as the most promising leader on the political scene. Yadav earned suspension for extolling Modi, but touched off a troubling thought for the RJD brass to mull: was the MLC merely declaring a personal preference or was it an articulation of a changing sense on the ground? Are Bihar’s politically and numerically (closing on 14 percent) influential Yadavs re-examining options amidst shifting equations in the state?

A change in the Yadav mood is nothing the RJD boss Laloo Yadav is willing to countenance even as hypothesis, but some around him now concede they sense a “disturbing restiveness” which could play out in the run-up to the 2104 polls. “Yadavs have stuck by Laloo and the RJD through the worst of times,” said a senior RJD leader, “But there are new factors intervening in the political process, things are changing fast, we need to watch our flanks.” Continue reading “Bihar’s New X Factor: Y?”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

The Hand that Rocks the Bihar Cradle

Even as crude provincial caricature, it was a tableau tough to locate in Bihar until very recently. A dummy Nitish Kumar dolled up as object of derision, a placard in hand that proclaimed: “Alpasankhyak voteron ko hum apna daamaad bhi banane ko taiyaar hain….I am even ready to accept minority voters as sons-in-law…” Beside him, a live prop as stereotype of the minority voter. Another representing the Congress and proclaiming it is willing to “gamble away the nation” for minority votes. In the backdrop to such coarse burlesque, the purported solution: an enthroned representation of Narendra Modi.

The incendiary Bettiah tableau
The incendiary Bettiah tableau

It was partly the public mounting of such and similar montages that lit the fuse to communal clashes in mixed settlements off Bettiah in north-west Bihar last week. A few days before the Bettiah hostilities, a skirmish had erupted in Katihar over burial rights and quickly contained. A few days after Bettiah, an argument over a dhaba menu near Nawada triggered unfounded rumour-mongering, criminal rousing of passions and two violent deaths. Continue reading “The Hand that Rocks the Bihar Cradle”