Friday, September 28, 2007

A nuclear deal for Israel now?

Israel, which like India is not a signatory to the NPT, is lobbying for a deal that would allow it to benefit from civilian nuclear energy. This request is surely going to be political hot potato in the US. If it accedes to the Israeli demand, it will have to deal with the obvious criticism that it supports a country that possesses nuclear weapons while stunting the progress of another that doesn't have any. India's case is different because New Delhi does not pose a direct threat to Tehran. But Tel Aviv does (at least according to Iran). We know the only country in West Asia to have nuclear weapons, ahem, is Israel. And Iran is not going to take it quietly... These are interesting times!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Indian Express coincidentally answers some questions asked on this blog

In my post on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia, I had asked if any Indian university would have the courage to invite any person vociferously critical of India, its government and policies. The Indian Express in its edit on the president’s visit to Columbia on Wednesday thinks no. Here’s their explanation:

“So here’s a sobering question for the world’s largest democracy: Would one of our premier institutions — let us take this opportunity to mourn the fact that there are so few of them — have had the vision to host an event that attracted similar controversy and political opprobrium. The answer has to be no. There are two sets of reasons. One is that we are not yet a mature system in that institutions don’t have the degree of operating autonomy to take decisions that go against the supposed national grain. The few universities that take things like furthering dialogue seriously and have the brand to attract marquee policymakers are vulnerable to official interference of all kinds. Ministries can block seminars and discussion forums pretty much when they want to; ‘anti-national’ is the adjectival equivalent of a blunt instrument.

The second reason is less obvious but more important. We have developed a tendency to want to listen to only those who say what we want to hear. Would a certain well-known university known for its left-leaning academic staff and campus politics invite an unapologetic American neocon? Doubtful. Would any top-of-the-line institution host a speaker who flatly and aggressively contradicts, say, India’s position on Kashmir? Doubtful. This inability to engage with the ‘other’ has of course infected politics and is partly engendered by current political practices. Thus it is that the two national parties can barely say hello to each other. Put it this way. A US president may in the near future have to talk to Iran’s. But when a BJP president and a Congress president will have a constructive chat is anyone’s guess.”

It is a pity we did not let George Bush address a joint session of the Indian Parliament when he visited in March last year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Scindia old boy Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon at work?

Some news from my school.

There's a proposal to draw a ropeway to the Gwalior fort, which houses The Scindia School, from Phoolbagh in the city. While Jyotiraditya Scindia, now President of the Board of Governors, has opposed it for the "environmental damage" it may cause to the fort, BJP's Yashodhara Raje favours it for she believes the ropeway will bring "glamour" and promote tourism in Gwalior. Now Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon has also stepped in and written to the MP Chief Secretary claiming it would affect the school's compound and the principal's residence.

It may be unfair to comment on this without an idea of the project but it sure is an interesting development. Also heartening, provided it is not politically motivated, to see Menon take interest in the school. Get more of this story here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Must Read: Spat between Columbia president and Iranian president

"Too bad bin Laden is not available" read one of the fliers that was being passed around at the venue of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University. Many understandably criticised the university's decision to invite the Iranian president (given his hatred for the "zionist regime" and "support for terror"). Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who seemed almost apologetic about having him over, launched into a vigorous defence of the freedom to express. Using that as his shield, he attacked him and dug his knife deep into the president. Calling him a "petty and cruel dictator", Bollinger labelled the president as someone who's "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated" because of his stance on the holocaust. "Will you cease this outrage," he asked the president, who was reportedly seated 10 feet away from him. (NYT reports Ahmadinejad wore a "frozen smile"!)

Bollinger's speech is stirring but only when it concerns individual liberties of scholars, journalists and other Iranians. He should have stayed clear of attacking the president on foreign and nuclear policy, where he questioned Ahmadinejad why Iran supported terror in Iraq against the US, funded terror elsewhere and why Iran refused to adhere to international nuclear rules. That put him on a weaker wicket given America's support for , shall we say, favourable or friendly terror in West Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. After all the US actively supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran that killed millions and the CIA fomented a coup to unseat Iran's only democratic government so far (that of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953). Like Iran, America's foreign policy isn't immaculate.

The Columbia president, closing his remarks, even said he felt the president lacked the "intellectual courage" to answer his questions and prayed his performance at Columbia inspired enough Iranians to defeat his party electorally. His last words were: "I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better."

Ahmadinejad came up next and questioned why the Bollinger had to "vaccinate" the students and faculty with his speech. Why cannot they make up their minds, the president asked? He then began with pointless philosophical rhetoric on God, Almighty, Adam, Allah, Mankind, etc. And he made a fool of himself when he insisted Iran did not have even a single homosexual and presented a hollow defence when questioned why Iran repressed its women. "It's not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God. They represent the kindness, the beauty that God instils in them. Women are respected in Iran. In Iran, every family who is given a girl, they are 10 times happier than having a son. Women are respected more than men are," he said. Yeah... Yeah... Whatever.

But I think he made a point, and his best one at that, when he asked why we should "close the books for good on a historical event". Why should "holocaust deniers" not have the freedom to express themselves and be imprisoned instead? Wonder what Bollinger's response to that would be? I wish some Indian university invited India's bete noire to come and speak to us. Would we do that? And who would it be?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Indian Idle?

This euphoria over Indian Idol beats me. Sure, there have been lot of politically correct comments made about how this show has enabled people from beyond the metros to make their presence felt and reassert themselves. Yes, agreed. The munda in Punjabi Bagh (New Delhi) at least now knows there's a city called Shillong somwhere in India. Nothing more.

It is unfortunate regional disparities have to be settled - if at all they are - on a television show that at best may be described as a con exercise masquerading as a lacklustre pop gig.

The final episode of Indian Idol received over seven crore votes, a figure The Telegraph points out, is more than the entire population of the northeast. Each SMS cost between Rs 2-3 and calls from mobile were priced at Rs 6/min. Given the load of pre-recorded shit one has to go through before voting (and to do a lot of other things these days), a call to vote would have easily lasted more than a minute. So, let's see - seven crore votes would mean an earning of at least Rs 14 crore (considering all of these votes came in through the cheapest SMS route @ Rs 2 for each SMS). Add the ad revenue, and that would mean a super loot for Sony and its executives. So what if the finalists get two cars and the winner Rs 1 crore? That's pittance for all what has been raked during the enitre Indian Idol season.

Indian Idol is no nation-building or amity-promoting exercise. It's a money-making racket. It's not even a talent hunt show. In any case, what becomes of these idols after the initial cheer? The two earlier idols have been tethering on the edge of oblivion. Can you even recall their names? To ensure the two don't topple over, they were presented on the stage during the final yesterday singing songs that failed to register and entertain. Will Prashant Tamang have a better future? I sincerely hope so. But I still suggest he keep his job with the West Bengal police.

Also, why cannot the idol be selected by a panel of outstanding judges? Lata Mangeshkar has criticised the process of choosing winners through votes. The organisers defend the policy saying it allows democracy to find a voice. At the same time, SET India, the organisers, have refused to let us know the margin of votes with which Tamang won. Now which democracy would not want its citizens to know how many votes did the winning candidate and his nearest competitor receive?

How about placing the organisers, like in our democracy, under the RTI Act and demanding information they have so far witheld? Just a few quick questions I would like to ask:

1) How many votes did each candidate of the third edition of Indian Idol receive?
2) What was the amount of money generated through these votes?
3) Why cannot normal rates be allowed for texts and calls to vote? Why do voters have to be charged premium rates?
4) The profit earned by SET India?

Enough of a rant! See you in the next season of Indian Idol!

Syria, Israel and North Korea - Axis of Mystery?

I have been wanting to write about this for long. I finally get to. Earlier this month, Israeli jets violated Syrian airspace and bombed an "unidentified" target near the Syrian border with Turkey. What should normally have been an incident marked by high-wattage verbal exchange has instead been enveloped with curious silence. Syria has complained to the UN about the incursion but has not spoken out on the nature of the site attacked. Israel, sticking to its policy of ambiguity on sensitive matters, has not commented on the strike. The Americans haven't been helpful either. But the two sides have acknowledged, directly or indirectly, that an attack did indeed take place.

Journalists who have reported from and on West Asia have been stunned by this development and how little they have been able to unearth about it. The most credible theory floating around is that Israel bombed a Syrian stockhouse of basic components of a nuclear programme that it acquired at discount rates from North Korea as it seeks to purge weapons out of its nuclear programme to meet international denuclearisation deadlines. The obvious question that arises is whether this attack was designed to be a pre-cursor to a similar surgical attack on Iran? Syria may have been bombed but was Iran the actual target? Much as I would like to get to the answer, there seems very little out there that may help us reach a definite answer. What strikes me is that despite the reams being written on what might happen in West Asia, things remain very unpredictable. Nobody saw this attack coming. Nobody has made perfect sense out of it. At least till now.

Creeps me to think that such an attack by Israel may burst out of the blue. Even more when I try and imagine what Iran's response is going to be. Surely not just defence fire. Iran has already issued a warning to Israel after its attack on Syria. John Leyne, BBC's correspondent in Terhan, puts it best when he says that wars occur when two sides completely misunderstand each others' intentions. Given the shroud of secrecy, Iran and Israel surely don't.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tajbakhsh is freed, finally!

The detained US-Iranian academic and dedicated Indophile Kian Tajbakhsh has been freed by Iranian authorities after being held at Evin prison for over four months. He was accused on being an agent of western forces trying to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran. Tajbakhsh was released on a bail of $100,000. Sometimes I wonder if the Iranian authorities, after failing to prove their charges, think of these detentions as ways to mint money. Haleh Esfandiari, the other famous academic detained, was released last month for a bail of $320,000! Imagine the number of these academics/journalists/foreigners detained and the amount that has been possibly raised. Surely, it runs into millions of dollars! Wonder if bail's an euphemism for ransom in these cases?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Good question from Australia

Why should the Australian state pay for the breast augmentation of its sailors? Get the answer here.

Ever wondered why Ram Setu is called Adam's Bridge?

Ram is back on the front pages. Not in the religious and mythological texts where he ought to be.

The BJP, claiming to defend Hindu interests, is crying hoarse that the Sethu Samudram Shipping Canal Project offends Hindu sentiments since it destroys the bridge that Ram, according to widely held beliefs, built with help from his Vanar Sena. The Congress, desperately trying to save its face, has withdrawn the affidavit that insisted there's no proof Ram ever existed and even pledged to review the project. The Left, while careful not to earn the wrath of Hindus, says that religious affairs should be left to the individual with the rider that faith should not hold back development. And the atheist DMK leader Karunanidhi has flatly said Ram did not exist and that the project should go on.

Amidst this brouhaha, there's one obvious question that nobody has yet asked or answered. Why is Ram Setu called Adam's Bridge in the first place? According to Muslim legend, Adam crossed over this structure to Adam's Peak, in Ceylon, atop which he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years. This priceless info come from Encycolpaedia Britannica. The veracity of this may be debated just like in the case of Ram Sethu.
Ram Sethu? Yes. But also Adam's Bridge. (Image from NASA)
But it does raise some interesting follow-up questions:

How important is Adam's Bridge for the Muslims? Possibly, even for Christians?

Why has nothing been said or written about it?

Are we just wasting time on Ram Sethu because the BJP and its allied organisations picked it up? If not, would the sethu have been bulldozed without raising any eyebrows?

What if Muslim political parties lobbied to save Adam's Bridge saying it offends their beliefs? How would that change the reactions of our political parties?

Doesn't this show how politicians can make an issue out of anything and everything? And why do we fall prey to such manoeuvres each time?

Sometimes all it takes is a simple question to make sense of a nonsensical national debate. A question that still eludes our commentators and politicians - Why is Ram Sethu called Adam's Bridge?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Yet another sting. - the victim this time is Goa's leading paper

It's called "Cash For Editorials". A blog has stung Goa's leading paper, Herald, claiming it sells editorial space for Rs 3 lakh. More here. A monster we unleashed is now biting its creator.

Stings - An excuse for shoddy and half-hearted journalism?

Yet another sting has fallen flat on its face, entangling itself in legal and ethical complications. (Live India’s reporter Prakash Singh finds himself behind bars for concocting a plot to frame Uma Khurana.) The question everybody is now asking – Do stings have a legitimate place in journalism? Most respond yes. But what nobody says is that a sting is a poor excuse for bad journalism. It’s something the police ought to do to catch criminals. Not journalists for a copy.

Once in the 1970s, the panel for Pulitzer prizes had to decide whether it wanted to award Chicago Sun Times a prize for a widely appreciated story on how cops regularly prised money out of bar owners. To set the trap, the students went to the extent of opening bars. The cops came and, expectedly, asked for money. Only to be caught in the act on hidden cameras. Good story, you think? The Pulitzer panel didn’t and rightly so. The students were not reporting, they were acting. They were not reporting news but creating news. This is what we are experiencing today in India with stings. We (journalists) no longer report news but manufacture it. We are no longer flies on the wall (what we ideally should be), observing and reporting, but actors in the script we write. We still do have to have to ask hard questions and labour well enough to get the facts. But that doesn’t mean we can get it through other means.

As the pressure to deliver piles on the newly created television channels and papers, stings have emerged as a shortcut to “great” stories and TRP ratings. Nobody wants to labour like Woodward and Bernstein did for Watergate. Who has the time? It’s simpler to act than to report meticulously. Tehelka got prostitutes to do the luring act (something they initially hid) and NDTV got an eyewitness (Sunil Kulkarni) from the BMW case to expose the defence and prosecution lawyers. Pray, where and what was journalism in that? Aaj Tak even sneaked in a Shatrughan Sinha (who was then a MP) look-alike into the Parliament premises and cried hoarse about a security breach post-December 13. Never mind that anywhere else in the world it would have been passed off as something comical. Remember the recent breach by a Laden look-alike at the APEC summit in Sydney? It was carried out by a satirical and not a news channel. Looks like I have missed out on a defining change in television journalism in India - farce now qualifies as breaking news these days!

The truth has never been simpler – We have worked our way around ethical and logistical hurdles for a quicker copy. We are plain lazy and in far too great a haste to follow the rules. Nobody unfortunately seems to be saying this in the ongoing debate.

(PS: Yours truly is a print journalist. Therefore, I can claim to speak for ourselves.)

Tajbakhsh "to be released soon"

The detained US-Iranian scholar and Indophile Kian Tajbakhsh says he'll be freed soon. Hopefully it turns out to be true.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Can Jews be anti-Semitic?

The neo-Nazi gang (Image from Haaretz)
Apparently, yes! Police in Israel have arrested a gang of Jewish "neo-Nazis". This is the first such instance. Their targets included orthodox Jews, foreigners and gays. The group of eight Russian-origin Jews, all between 18 and 21, even desecrated two synagogues with the swastika. Eli Boanitov, the gang's leader, was definant even after his arrest. "I won't ever give up. I was a Nazi and I will stay a Nazi, until we kill them all I will not rest," he told the police.

The problem is that this malaise goes well beyond this group. These new immigrants from erstwhile Soviet Union, who arrived in droves for economic reasons, have struggled to integrate into the Israeli society. Few speak Hebrew, many of them live in ghettos, they enjoy their pork (most Jews like Muslims stay away from pork), have their supermarkets and media outlets and have little connection, if any, with Judaism. Looks like the enemy lies within Israel now.

Anti-Defamation League maintains defensively that this incident is more a reaction to anti-Russian discrimination in Israel. But this incident has raised once again the question - Who should have the right to "return" to Israel? The country's Law of Return permits anyone who is Jewish according to halakha, religious law, or their relatives (including grandchildren) to immigrate to Israel. This has allowed many second or third generation Jews to migrate from across the world (obviously helping Israel win the demographic battle against the Arabs and also the publicity battle about Israel, despite its problems, being a magnet for new immigrants). Those in favour of changing it argue it has permitted many with scant dedication to or respect for Judaism to move to Israel. "It undermines the Jewish character of the state," says MK Zevulun Orlev of the National Union-National Religious Party.

Rather than luring immigrants en masse, the aliyah authorities are naturally being asked to be more selective to get the best and the faithful of the crop. It will be interesting to see how Israel balances its demographic fight with its struggle for security.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Globalisation of diseases - chikungunya goes to Italy!

Given their frightening frequency, I have become unresponsive to reports about malaria, dengue and chikungunya. But this one caught my attention. It says chikungunya has finally established itself in Italy where 160 cases have been detected. Antoine Flahault, a French professor, claims the Italian outbreak was a "world first" outside the tropics. Chikungunya fever, says BBC, is named after a Swahili word meaning "that which bends up" - referring to the stooped posture of those afflicted.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Should we blame Mother Teresa for perpetuating the image of "poor Calcutta"?

Yes, says Chitrita Banerji in her provocative op-ed in the NYT.

“Ten years and one beatification later, however, the relentless hagiography of the Catholic Church and the peculiar tunnel vision of the news media continue to equate Calcutta with the twinned entities of destitution and succor publicized by Mother Teresa. With cultish fervor, her organization, the Missionaries of Charity, promotes her as an icon of mercy. Meanwhile, countless unheralded local organizations work for the needy without the glamour of a Nobel Prize or of impending sainthood,” Banerji argues. She then concludes, “Mother Teresa might have meant well, but she furthered her mission by robbing Calcutta of its richly nuanced identity while pretending to love it.”

I guess she has a valid point about the interest for propagating a destitute image of Calcutta. The more desperate it gets, more stellar would the Missionaries of Charity’s work seem to be. After all, would MoC be as popular as it is today if it were based in, let’s say, Bombay (which according to Banerji has more poor than Calcutta)? I wonder why Banerji does not mention “City of Joy” (the book and the film) in her article. Together with Mother Teresa, City of Joy has sealed an image of Calcutta that centres much around life in poverty. That is paired with the idea of Calcutta as a yesteryear city and a city that seemingly revels in living in a world gone by. This persists even as other cities, including smaller ones such as Hyderabad, Pune or Bangalore, have moved ahead.

That is not going to change till benefits of development and economic liberalisation reach all segments of the population in eastern India. Traditionally eastern India has had some of the poorest states which send migrant labourers to Calcutta. (In 2004-05, Bihar had a per capita GDP of Rs 5,772 and Orissa had Rs 13,601. Delhi’s neighbour’s, on the other hand, fare better: Punjab (Rs 30,701 and Haryana (Rs 32,712) – Source 2006 National Health Profile). And I guess the governing political parties in West Bengal are largely responsible for this decay since they have convincingly failed to provide the necessary jobs or the conducive environment required for private enterprise to flourish and provide the jobs that the government doesn’t. Ironically, the Catholic MoC has to thank the "atheist" Communist government for providing it with the necessary destitute conditions to work and progress in.

But then I don’t have the necessary credentials to pronounce a judgement on Teresa or Calcutta. Neither can I call myself a philanthropist nor have I lived long enough in Calcutta to call it home.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Esfandiari is free, not Tajbakhsh

An update on the dententions of US-Iranian academics.