2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah

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.

Continue reading “Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah”

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2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

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

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.

Continue reading “The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth”

2014, New Delhi, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

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

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

2014, Journalism, Kashmir, Reportage, Srinagar, Telegraph Calcutta

Srinagar: A Lost Magic No Money or Masonry will Retrieve

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
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.

2014, Journalism, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Vaidik, Hafiz Sayeed and the Sting on Journalism

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?

ved

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?