Monday, April 9, 2007

Of poverty and extremism

It was about 5-6 years back. A routine office work had taken my friend to Jhargram, 190kms from Kolkata and on the main line from Kolkata to Tatanagar (Jamshedpur) on South Eastern railway. Travelers on the Kolkata-Tatanagar route know that Jhargram is where adivasi's get into the train and are a familiar sight with their bundles of cut wood. Often one sees youngsters going to Kolkata to take some exams for government jobs. My friend (let me call him Ani) was working in the IT department of a government owned company. By nature Ani was a friendly and gregarious person. On his visits to Jhargram, he would be put up in the Rajbaari (translates to "King's palace"), where even today one can get a room for Rs550 per night and have a retinue of 5 servants waiting on you.

During this visit, Ani had seen newspaper items about Naxal presence in Jhargram and some associated killings in the region. He asked a local district officer, an adivasi by origin and a very hard working fellow about Naxals. "Babu, do you want to see one of the training camps?", was the response of Murmu. Ani was not only keen at the prospect but also excited. He extended his stay by a day and both of them headed into the jungles the next day.

Deep in the jungles in Salboni (most of the journey was undertaken in a car), inside a hut Ani came face to face with 5-6 young girls. His guess is they were aged anywhere between 12-19 years. His initial questions on why they were not in school etc was met with hostile looks till Murmu (who was also acting as the interpreter) explained to them that the "babu meant no harm". Murmu then asked the girls to get some tea for the babu and that broke the proverbial ice.

After tea, Ani was shown cache of arms used for training, which was kept in a metal trunk underneath a bed. It had arms ranging from small daggers to country made pistols and rifles. As the visit came to an end, Ani proffered the girls two Rs100 notes. While they were obviously happy at this unforeseen bounty, there was something that was bothering them. Murmu clarified, "Babu, what will they do with hundred rupee notes here. Nobody will be able to change it for them. In the villages deep inside the jungle, people have not seen or used notes of such high denomination." Ani then gave whatever money he had in small denominations much to the happiness of the girls and left.

On the way back, Ani asked Murmu, "Are you involved with them?" Murmu replied, "I am not involved with them now. But I have seen the abject poverty and exploitation at close hand. These tribal people are honest people. So from time to time I give them any useful information I may have about police raids etc." Murmu had friends in the police department and used to get information about impending police raids. Similarly he tips off the local newspapers and journalists as well when there is a story to be told.

Throughout the return journey to Kolkata, Ani could not forget the images of the girls who did not know what to do with hundred rupee notes since it was too large a denomination for them. He had spent over five times that money for his two nights in Jhargram Rajbaari. He often thinks about it even today when he reads about the rising Naxal presence in the country. He is not surprised. Given the linkages and infiltration within the administration, the abject poverty and exploitation, the Naxals will always find willing recruits to join them in their deathly dance of violence and retribution. Another form of exploitation? Who knows?

(Note: The events mentioned above are true and based on my discussions with Ani (name changed).)

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Have a laugh

Today I will highlight some headlines and adverts in the morning newspapers that caught my eye.

The first one: The Babu Jagjivan Ram Centenary Celebration Committee has released half page advertisement today in Hindustan Times, which highlights "some important facts". I wanted to highlight two of these:

1. "He laid the foundation of nationalization in India by nationalizing private airlines and established Indian Airlines and the Air India"

Given the way Air India - at one time rated the best airline in the world when the Tatas used to run it - has shaped up since nationalization and has no notable achievements to its credit since then, I would have thought all admirers of Babu Jagjivan Ram would rather hide this fact. Should we question the intelligence of the Committee Members who were involved in designing and proof reading this ad or there are people who still genuinely believe that Babu Jagjivan Ram did a great thing by nationalizing Air India? The only people who would thank him for this would be the ageing air hostesses and all the union bosses of Air India. Definitely not any fare paying passenger.

2. "In 1974 when he was the Defence Minister, India won a war for the first time ever in its history. Nearly one lakh Pakistani soldiers surrendered and Bangladesh was created."

First, Bangladesh was created in 1971. At least basic historical facts should not be misrepresented. And then again, many would consider that India had won the 1965 Indo-Pak war, although a UN ceasefire ended the war. And this is not the febrile imagination of a patriotic Indian, but read the following comments:

a) Dennis Kux's "India and the United States estranged democracies" also provides a summary of the war.
Although both sides lost heavily in men and materiel, and neither gained a decisive military advantage, India had the better of the war. New Delhi achieved its basic goal of thwarting Pakistan's attempt to seize Kashmir by force. Pakistan gained nothing from a conflict which it had instigated.

b) An excerpt from Stanley Wolpert's India, summarizing the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, is as follows:
In three weeks the second IndoPak War ended in what appeared to be a draw when the embargo placed by Washington on U.S. ammunition and replacements for both armies forced cessation of conflict before either side won a clear victory. India, however, was in a position to inflict grave damage to, if not capture, Pakistan's capital of the Punjab when the cease-fire was called, and controlled Kashmir's strategic Uri-Poonch bulge, much to Ayub's chagrin.

c) TIME magazine analyzing the conflict, reported that India held 690 Mi2 of Pakistan territory while Pakistan held 250 Mi2 of Indian territory in Kashmir and Rajasthan, but had lost half its armour.
Cut off from U.S. and British arms supplies, denied Russian aid, and severely mauled by the larger Indian armed forces, Pakistan could continue the fight only by teaming up with Red China and turning its back on the U.N. ... India, by contrast, is still the big gainer in the war. Shastri had united the nation as never before.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As a patriotic India, I would expect that an ad like this released in India would actually hail India as the victor in the 1965 war.

The second one: A small news item in Economic Times caught my eye:

"Mumbai as Int'l Finance Centre: Cabinet to take a call"

I thought an overzealous sub-editor would have out a wrong headline. After all how can the cabinet decide whether Mumbai will become an international, global, galactic, Asian or South Asian Financial centre? I mean the cabinet can decide cement prices but surely it cannot decree what Mumbai will be come in a global context. Surely even Priya Ranjan Das Munshi will not be able to draft a law to that effect. But no, this does not seem to be the work of a late night sub-ed. Read the news item:

"The Cabinet will take a final call on whether Mumbai is ready to become a global financial hub. The high-powered expert committee..."

Need I say anything more?

The third one: Another headline from the ET:
"No legal bar on tainted becoming ministers: Govt
The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that there is no express bar under the Constitution which requires that the tainted ministers charged with commission of serious offences should resign."

I am amazed. Since there is no constitutional bar, what this government is saying is that it is free to appoint criminals as ministers and they do not have to resign. I wonder what crimes are barred and not barred by our constitution. I am planning to get hold of the list soon.

The last one: And lastly look at what the Congress party, which says it is the natural party born to rule the country and would like all of us to believe its secular ideals and modern outlook, is promising voters in Uttar Pradesh. According to a ToI headline, "UP Cong promises the moon"

The party has, in its manifesto, pledged to provide legal immunity to quota laws by putting them in the 9th schedule of the constitution and to give SC status to "machua" (boatmen) and 15 subgroups in this caste.

And this is what the heir apparent in the party has to say during his campaign - "After 15 years, now they are asking for one more term for development. This is a false promise. They have ruled you by dividing you on the lines of caste and religion," Rahul said amidst applause. Ha, ha! Congress party does not believe in divide and rule. And here is Mickey Mouse signing off.