2018, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

A puppet in torment

Shakespearean tragedy has a canny kinship with Kashmir

When you’ve decided to dig in, it might be advisable to ensure you don’t burrow so deep that scrambling out is no longer an option. The Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is darting, helplessly but consciously, towards making a political grave of her power dugout. Her serial capitulations to the provincial shenanigans and the national worldview of her chosen partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are as astonishing as they are unsurprising.

Unsurprising because a dark, and yet unstated though frightfully abject, compromise was written into her decision to fall in step with the BJP after prolonged prevarication. Astonishing because no Kashmiri chief minister in living memory has been so sublime in submitting to routine rebuff and remonstration at the hands of an ally – the kind of heckling and humiliation that cannot be going down terribly well with the constituency she so painstakingly built over the years.

The latest of many snubs that Mehbooba has taken is her government’s declaration, doubtless extracted by some backroom arm-twisting, to the Supreme Court that Major Aditya Kumar of the 10th Garhwal Rifles was not named in an FIR by her police as one of those responsible for opening fire on a mob near Shopian that resulted in the deaths of two civilians in late January. If this isn’t a patent lie, it most certainly is a deferent volte-face few will fail to notice, not least her unquiet south Kashmiri citizenry. Mehbooba’s police and her party – the Peoples Democratic Party – had openly rowed with the army over the incident; Major Kumar’s father, himself a serving army officer, had gone to the Supreme Court protesting that his son was sought to be unfairly prosecuted. But Mehbooba sounded firm about addressing the killings, “Anguished over the tragic loss of lives in Shopian,” she had tweeted soon after the incident, “… have ordered a magisterial probe into the unfortunate incident and asked the enquiry to be completed within 20 days… We will take the probe to its logical conclusion. Justice and peace are two sides of the same coin.” Her counsel’s submission to the Supreme Court on Monday – my lords we have not named a Major Aditya Kumar – clarified to us yet again that Mehbooba is allowed neither magistracy over a probe she’s ordered nor her promised logical conclusions.

Continue reading “A puppet in torment”

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2018, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media

The Press seems happy to be co-opted by the government

Just a thought, if only as hors d’oeuvre: Sanjaya was arguably the first television reporter known to us, relaying the great battle live from a far distance. Imagine the consequences of Sanjaya telling Dhritarashtra what would please his ears rather than what transpired as the Kauravas and Pandavas had it off. All it would have taken for an epic subversion of the truth was one obsequious reporter willing to compromise with his craft to curry favour with his master.

After a prime minister lavishly lambasted for never speaking – “Maun Mohan Singh” – we elected a prime minister who never seems to tire of speaking. Some of that, we have been told by his own, amounts to no more than jumlas. But there is a more disturbing aspect to Narendra Modi’s mode of speaking. It’s one-sided.

Modi is into the final lap of his term and he is yet to open himself to questioning in a way that has been the assumed norm for all his predecessors. Our prime minister has his say and he would have no more. On Twitter. On diverse social-media platforms and dedicated web portals. On Mann ki Baat. To commissioned cameras from government-aided or government-allied operations that can be trusted to obey command, pack off and promote the puff. He does not grant interviews, not in the way we should understand them. The complicit silence over how interviews with the prime minister are conducted must be broken. Because people need to know. Here is how it’s done – you may mail a set of questions to one of the prime minister’s aides; they, or the prime minister himself, will examine them and pick which ones are convenient. Of those that the Prime Minister’s Office rejects or refuses to answer, there shall be no mention, or even a record. Subsequently, answers will be formulated and mailed back.

Continue reading “Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media”

2017, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar

My take on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s turncoat vault back into the lap of the BJP

Nitish Kumar on top of the Taxila ruins in Pakistan in 2012. Photo by Sankarshan Thakur.

His first chosen partner was, believe you me, the CPI(ML). His current chosen partner is a BJP as approximate to the RSS as it can get. Between them, Nitish Kumar has run the entire political spectrum, picking this one, ditching that one, in the pursuit and possession of power – from the provincial rogue called the Bihar People’s Party to national players like the Congress and the Left, each seduced at one time or another to afford him his embrace of the chair.

Nitish’s record of serial dalliance and ditchery springs from good reason, though. For, if power has been the central theme of Nitish’s career, the inability to secure it on his own is its central truth. Astounding as it may sound, the man who is in his third successive term as chief minister and who for a good while fancied himself as prime minister in waiting, has never won his home state singly. At his best he never had enough to propel him anywhere close to office; 17 per cent, never more. He needed booster feeds, he always needed an ally. Not a fanciful token as the CPI(ML) in 1995 – that effort fetched him the princely Assembly tally of seven of 324 seats in pre-Jharkhand Bihar – but a significant, bankable one.

He found not one but two.

Both would be handed good reason, at different junctures, to believe our chosen headline sits aptly on the man. For he has, at different junctures, found reason to kiss, then kick both.

It’s fair to reckon he’s not done with them yet; nor they with him. The guillotine-drop on Lalu Prasad mid-week and the immediate garlanding of Narendra Modi is by no means the last that’s been heard of Nitish Kumar in their annals. Not too far ago in the past, it was Modi under Nitish’s guillotine-drop, and Lalu the one getting the garland. There are scores here that await settlement.

Continue reading “I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar”

Essay, Kashmir, Telegraph Calcutta

Grave caged by Parray’s life

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.

Continue reading “Grave caged by Parray’s life”

2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

An Abstract Ecstasy: Gazing Down from the Mars Orbit

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.

2007, Essay, Journalism, New Delhi, Tehelka

Last Among Unequals

 

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.