Friday, December 24, 2010

High alert!

A news item on Dec 5th this year reported: “A security alert has been sounded across Uttar Pradesh and other communally-sensitive places in India ahead of Monday's 18th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a home ministry official said”

Presumably, the validity of this ‘high alert’ notice expired on the midnight of Dec 6th.. This emboldened some terror organizations to carry out a ‘low intensity’ blast in Varanasi, on the evening of Dec 7th. . Promptly thereafter, the Home Ministry issued a ‘high alert’ again. In fact, I heard one explanation that the terrorists must have planned to carry this out on Dec 6th, but must have realized it was difficult because the police was on ‘high alert’ that day.

Today, the Govt has issued another ‘high alert’ and has asked the NSG to stand in readiness.

What does this mean? That there will be brief periods of ‘high alert’ that will be announced in advance by the Govt and withdrawn after a few days, when the danger has seemingly passed? That the terrorists are supposed to lie low when the country is on ‘high alert’ mode?

In other words, when the default setting of ‘low alert’ mode is restored, you and I should be worried, very worried.

In one of his essays, R.K.Narayan writes about a childhood experience of an all-night journey that he had to undertake by bullock-cart to reach his home town after alighting from a train in a station thirty miles away.

“The bullock carts moved in a caravan, winding along a dark, tree-shaded highway. Robbers were known to attack such caravans about ten miles from the railway station at midnight. The menace was warded off by a simple expedient. One of the cart-men walked ahead carrying a lantern and a staff and throwing bloodcurdling challenges to the night air. “Hey, keep away, prowlers, if you don’t want your skulls pulped… Who goes there? and so forth, the other drivers also sitting up and urging their bullocks with the loudest swear words. This was kept up till we passed a jutting rock beyond the twelfth milestone; the moment we crossed this spot the challenger went back to his cart, curled himself up in his seat and fell asleep, the entire caravan following this example. By some strange law or understanding, the robbers never seemed to step an inch beyond the jutting rock. It always seemed to me that the robbers were missing a fine opportunity to attack with all the cart-men fast asleep and the only wakeful person being myself as I tried to sleep on a pile of straw expecting any moment to be killed.”

By some strange law or understanding, terrorists are expected to respect the Home Ministry’s ‘high alert’ warning and wait for the ‘all clear’ siren to be blown.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Be warned, Ministers.

In an article in The Outlook, Madhu Purnima Kishwar writes:

I fail to understand why almost every commentator, every TV anchor, every editorial writer feels compelled to pay ritual obeisance to the “personal honesty and integrity of Dr Manmohan Singh” while dealing with the scandals emanating from his cabinet colleagues. They do so even when there is clear evidence that the Prime Minister was well aware of various shady deals, as in the case of Telecom scam, and that he did nothing to stop the brazen economic crimes indulged in by his ministerial colleagues over the last 6 years.

Even if not guilty of an ‘act of commission’, the PM is certainly accountable for his various acts of omission. Doesn’t he know this?

While reflecting on the PM, I came across this passage from a book written by one Horace Wyndham. One of the characters suppressed by a feudal lord addresses the latter thus:

"Listen to me, Your Lordship. You have broken my business. You have ruined my home, you have sent my son to prison and my wife to a dishonoured grave amd you have seduced my only daughter. But, be careful, Lord FitzWallop, I am a man of quick temper. Do not try me too far. "

I thought this tone would suit the PM perfectly. I can imagine him addressing his cabinet.

Listen to me, you guys. Your have made a killing of several hundred crores from the Commonwealth Games. You grabbed apartments and buildings meant for war widows. You have made the nation lose Rs 1,76,000 crores by allotting the 2G spectrum for a song. But, be warned. I am a man of great integrity and quick temper. If I come across any instances of corruption, I will not tolerate it.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strong-arm methods

“Household Words” a journal edited by Charles Dickens, carried this chilling narrative in one of the issues that it brought out in the year 1856. It describes the practice of torture in the Madras Presidency by the District Collectors appointed by the British East India Company.

Indifferent as we are in England about Indian affairs, there are few who do not know that more than one-half of the entire revenue of that vast empire consists of a land-tax or rent, which is exacted from the occupiers by the government.

In Madras, the Honourable Company is not only the head landlord; but the sole landlord. No proprietor, no middleman, no intermediate grade whatever interposes between the actual cultivator of the soil and the great company which is at once his seigneur and his sovereign. The Honourable Company itself lets the land, fixes the rent, raises or lowers the rent, and collects the rent.

For the purpose of rent-getting the presidency is divided into a number of pleasant little districts, each comprising some three or four thousand square miles and containing from half a million to a million of inhabitants ; and over each of these is placed a British head-collector, who, besides making his own fortune within the limited time is expected to supervise the collection of the entire revenue of the district.

To assist him in this duty a large staff of tahsildars, monigars, curnoms, duffadars, peons, taliaries, and other nondescript native officials of high and low degree, is spread through the several villages of the district—but, as this native staff is described by unexceptionable witnesses as little better than a delusion, it may be doubted whether on the whole their services are precisely such as we should desire to see employed in the collection of public money, or in the delicate negotiations between the Honourable East India Company and the miserable defaulters in the land-tax.

Connected with this department, there is also another Indian institution, which may seem, a little harsh to English readers. We at home should object if the collector of income-tax, poor-rate, or county-rate were empowered to proceed summarily, by his own authority and without the interposition of a magistrate, or of any civil process whatsoever, to arrest the person of the defaulter. Even in India itself, bad as things were, this used to be unlawful. But the Honourable Company is strict in money matters and, by an enactment, now about forty years old, all authority, whether of the revenue, the police, or the magistracy, is vested in the same set of officials—those very gentlemen who are declared thieves by their friends.

And now let us see how the case stands. Messrs. Elliot, Stokes and Norton have collected information from all parts of the Madras Presidency, and have heard evidence from every class, directly or indirectly concerned, from the rent-collectors and the rentpayers, and from every section of both. These gentlemen unhesitatingly report, as the result of their inquiries, that personal violence on the part of the native revenue and police officials prevails throughout the presidency, personal violence of such a character that, in five recorded instances, "death has followed upon its infliction." They declare this to be the only conclusion that any impartial mind could arrive at.

The use of wooden pincers (the kittie),trussing a man, bending him double (anandal), squeezing the crossed fingers with the hands, punches on the thighs, slaps, blows with the fist or a whip, twisting the ears,making a man sit on the soles of his feet with brickbats behind his knees,  putting a low caste man on his back, striking two defaulters  heads against each other,or tying them together by the hair, placing in the stocks,tying the hair of the head to a donkey's or a buffalo's tail, placing a necklace of bones, or other disgusting or degrading materials round the neck,— are some of the usual ways of expediting the receipt of money.

The police officials often however resort to more severe procedures, as, for instance, twisting a rope tightly round the arm or leg so as to impede circulation, lifting up by the moustache,  suspended by the arms while tied behind the back,searing with hot-irons, placing scratching insects such as the carpenter beetle on the most sensitive parts of the body, dipping in wells and rivers till the victim is half suffocated, beating with sticks ; nipping the flesh with pincers,  putting pepper or red chillies in the eyes, these cruelties being occasionally persevered in till death, sooner or later, ensues.

Rent-day, then, round Madras is not like Rent-day in Great Britain. The rents which are there collected are not the rents of a mere private proprietor, but of the Honourable Company itself.

The officials who figure on the Indian scene are not the steward, or bailiff, of some great estates in the Highlands, or in Connemara; they are every one of them the chosen and salaried servants of that great public body which represents England in India, and for every one of whose doings the good name of England is pledged to the countless millions whom we have taken under our paternal rule in that unhappy empire. For every official deed of theirs, for every act of cruelty, injustice, or rapine ; for every anna of the wretched ryot's substance wrongfully extracted ; for every torture or indignity inflicted upon his most miserable carcase, the Honourable East India Company is responsible.

While the account is quite shocking to read, it must also be recognized that there were conscientious citizens in Britain who brought to light these excesses committed by officials of the East India Company and raised awareness.

You miserable sub-45 creatures.

Mark Lowry, comedian, in this hilarious interview when he turned forty, explains how the description of birthday changes every decade.

You BECOME 21. You TURN 30. You're PUSHING to 40. You REACH 50. You MAKE it to 60. By that time,you’ve built up so much speed you HIT 70. After that, it's just a day-to-day thing"

Yes, old age catches up quite fast. I can vouch for that now. But it is not all bad news.

In a recent article, The Economist dips into various global studies on the subject and explains the correlation between age and happiness.

When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

….One paper, published this year by Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University, and Angus Deaton of Princeton, breaks well-being down into positive and negative feelings and looks at how the experience of those emotions varies through life. Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

In short, what these studies tell us is that, after the peak happiness in the twenties, there is a steady decline till the age of 45 or so. At this point, there is a U-bend and we start the upward climb on the happiness curve again.

So, what I want to convey to the kids in the age group 25-40 is this: No doubt you are young and all that. But you are on the downward slope of the happiness curve and will keep sliding steadily for some more years. Whereas, I have bottomed-out of that curve and am well on the ascending part of the graph. Take that, you miserable lot.

Hill cricket

A few years back, a friend of mine suddenly decided to leave the corporate world and join a Foundation that was into social work.

What drove him- someone with a promising career ahead of him- to make this jump, I had asked him.

He had happened to attend one the programs organized by the Foundation, in one of the southern districts of Tamilnadu, he told me. It was a sports event- the Village Olympics- in which hundreds of farmers and others from the rural community had taken part. It was perhaps, for the first time in their lives that these people had ever indulged in a properly organized activity of this scale and nature. There was much fun and revelry and the simple folks went back home in such high spirits. It occurred to my friend then that if he were a part of the Foundation, he could put his organizing capability to good use and contribute to the cause of bringing joy to hundreds of people.

Quite an amazing decision, I felt, my friend had taken. And he didn’t sound morally superior or use a condescending tone as if he was the chosen one to light up the lives of the villagers. I felt his passion was quite genuine.

I was reminded of this friend when I read this story of the 1,342-team T20 Mahasangram cricket tournament being organized in the hills of Himachal Pradesh.

In its second year, the tournament, branded as “the world’s biggest”, hopes to take cricket to every village of Himachal Pradesh. Organised by the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), the tournament, which began on November 29, will go on for a month and a half. The participating players are mostly local villagers and though the organisers provide them balls, they have to pool in for bats and helmets, food and travelling expenses.

With breathtaking views of the Kullu Valley and the Dhauladhar ranges, the setting is spectacular. But the playing conditions are nowhere near perfect. The pitch is matting and the playing field is far from level—balls hit by a right hander towards the leg side tend to roll downhill where children in slippers play with bats crudely carved out of any available wood and balls made of cloth.

Balls are sometimes hard to field when they slide off slopes or plop into streams. Occasionally, play has to be stopped as cattle and ponies traipse along the outfield, on their way to the jungle to graze.

Yet, the game goes on. The players, dressed in white, like regular Test cricketers, come in all shapes, sizes, ages and professions. The enthusiasm shows when they bend that little bit extra to send the ball racing, then dive to stop singles and come up smiling after having saved runs and bruised their elbows.

It is a wonderful story, well narrated by Jonathan Selvaraj, the IE reporter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

India vs Egypt

Amira Nowaira, in her column in The Guardian, writes on the eve of the Egyptian elections:

Egypt's contradictions may be a source of infinite amusement, but also one of genuine distress. Where else can you find a state of emergency that stays in place for 30 years? The word "emergency" implies a brief, intense situation that should disappear as soon as it is dealt with. But 30 years?

And where else can you find a presidential candidate casting his vote for another instead of himself? This was what the 90-year-old Ahmed El-Sabbahi did in 2005, when he proudly declared that he gave his vote to Mubarak.

More seriously, where else can you find a banned organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood getting high-profile coverage in the media and a sizable representation in the 2005 parliament? If the organisation is illegal and banned, why are they all over the media, giving interviews and making statements?

Where else can you find a nation with more than 50% of its population under the age of 15 that is ruled mostly by septuagenarians and octogenarians? Whenever the ruling NDP tries to indicate its endorsement of the nation's youth, it is actually referring to people in their 50s. One must admit, though, that the NDP deserves marks for consistency at least, for if power is still in the hands of octogenarians in the prime of life, then the 50-year olds of the NDP are green youths still being groomed for their future.

Well, the ‘emergency’ in India lasted much less than 30 years. Also, I don’t think I’ll be able to cite examples of any Indian politician casting his vote for another opponent. But, to that question about octogenarians ruling a country where 50% of its population is less than 15-years old, I believe I can provide a strong counter-claim.

In Tamilnadu, we have a 85-year old Chief Minister who has to be taken around on a wheel-chair. Competing with him is the Governor who is also 85 years old and who can barely get up from his chair..

According to a report, the average age of the Indian Union cabinet is 64.4 years which is almost two-and-a-half times the country's median age at 25.9. This is far greater than most of the developed economies where the difference is only a decade or so. Even the Chinese leadership is more youthful with an average cabinet age of 61.2 years.

The only way we can correct this geriatric tradition is by adopting the system suggested by Italo Calvino in a short story -which I had cited in an earlier post.

Sorry for what?

In one of the Radia tapes, Mr Tarun Das, ex-CII, is heard accusing Mr Kamal Nath of corruption. The Hindu reports

Mr. Das says Mr. Nath can still make his “15 per cent” on this. “You can do national service and also make money… and do really something worthwhile here,” Mr. Das says, to which Ms. Radia's responds: “This is still an ATM [automated teller machine] for Kamal Nath.” “Absolutely,” says Mr. Das.

Asked by The Hindu how he could speak of a Minister doing national service if he was “also making money” and why he pushed for Mr. Nath's candidature despite harbouring apprehensions about corruption under his watch, Mr. Das said his “15 per cent” remark was “irresponsible and unfortunate.”

I regret that, he said. “Loose talk. My public apologies to Mr. Nath.”

Should Mr Tarun Das have apologised?

All of us have some private conversations which we, under normal circumstances, don’t allow to get into the public domain. Talking to my wife in the privacy of my home, I might use the choicest expletives while describing my boss, secure in the knowledge that he is not going to hear about it. But, if my phone had been kept on by mistake and my curious boss- the crook- at the other end manages to eavesdrop on the sensitive dialogue, am I supposed to apologise to him?

Taking the argument one step further, suppose there is a device invented that can read my mind, will I be arrested on charges of harbouring an intention to molest a woman, when I am just fantasising about her?

The rules of civilised behaviour do not apply under all conditions. Digging my nose in public may be gross, but it is perfectly alright when I am alone. If someone catches me doing it, using a secretly-embedded camera, am I supposed to feel bad?

Bug anybody’s phone or room, several dark secrets and skeletons will tumble down. It would be stupid of that person to apologise for something he or she had said during a private and exclusive conversation with another person. Such conversations are like the noise created by a crashing tree deep inside a forest. No one else is supposed to hear it.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Indian Alchemist

Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence in its despatches in the year 1846, narrates this interesting case.

The ingenious knave who successfully contrived to defraud an unsuspecting conicopillay in the service of his Highness the Nabob of no less a sum than 425 rupees, and who almost immediately after the achievement became noninventus—has been apprehended at Chittoor, and is now there in durance vile.

It may be remembered that the fellow, a Fakeer, set himself up for an alchemist, and that having won the confidence of the conicopillay by a prefatory trick, he undertook to convert as many silver rupees as this man could furnish him with into as many gold mohurs, by a process which terminated in his own favour at the time, for it made him master of 425 rupees, and set him, thus enriched, on a felicitous tramp into the interior.

But his joys were destined to be of short duration, for a talliar of police, armed with a warrant, was sent in pursuit of the fugitive, and soon came up to the chase.

How the minion of the law came to direct himself to that especial point of the thirty-two points of the compass is problematical, and can only be solved by ascribing to the nasal organs of the officers of police that nicety of scent for carrion which distinguishes the vulture. But be this as it may, the Fakeer was apprehended and on him was found the "handkerchief" which contained the reagent, but not the reagent itself.

The Fakeer acknowledged the fraud, and said that he gave twenty rupees to each of bis accomplices. He may be expected here shortly to undergo the process of magisterial purification.—

Suckers and conmen have been around for a long time. Only the tricks have mutated and evolved over time, keeping pace with new technology