Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jazeera, Al-Jazeera

The channel brings another perspective on news which is both important and interesting

It is unfortunate that Al Jazeera English is not available as a channel in India. Although the existing news channels cover important international events and international news that relate directly to India, we miss out on analyses from an atypical point of view. Media are critical to understanding the internal mindset of different nations and people, which is impossible unless we have a broad spectrum of perspectives made available to us.

Since 9/11, the Arabic avatar of the channel has consistently ruffled the feathers of the American establishment. Al Jazeera’s alleged link to Osama bin Laden and its propensity to make ‘martyrs’ of suicide-bombers are just some of the controversial reasons which helped the channel emerge as an internationally recognised brand. The launch of its international channel, now globally available from the Middle East and Africa to Asia and Europe is a landmark event, because it has given the channel a footprint that is comparable with that of the BBC and CNN. Although it is banned in the US, it has managed to gain some acceptability in western circles by employing some well-known BBC and Sky News names, like David Frost and Riz Khan at its London headquarters.

Reviews of its initial programming were mixed. Some critics felt that it consistently chose to ignore developments in the West — like John McCain’s decision to enter the US presidential race. It focused instead on issues of concern to Africa and the Middle East — elections in the Congo, tribal welfare in Brazil, or the use of fairness creams in Africa!

And that is precisely the point. Al Jazeera’s focus is to offer viewers ‘all the news from all the angles’. The channel makes the point that to recognise what makes a nation tick, it is imperative to understand developments that are central to its life. In the Congo, for example, John McCain’s decision to enter the US presidential race is certainly not news. He doesn’t matter to people there, unless he wins.

Because Al Jazeera has multiple broadcast studios located around the world, its news menu alters from region to region: from Doha to Kuala Lumpur to Washington to London. The idea, of course, is that news in one part of the world does not have the same significance elsewhere.

As the global village becomes smaller, it is imperative to have a bird’s eye view of it; one that allows us to zoom in and to really listen in on what is going on. How well Al Jazeera’s experiment will pan out is yet to be determined. But one thing is sure — it should not be dismissed.

India should watch Al Jazeera more closely. It is now being increasingly understood that the only sound that is louder than a nation’s pulse is the pulse of an alternate world view.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Cuba, by the way

I don't normally do stories from the vault.. but, here you go:

Old Havana was so much better than the tourist traps

It was just what we needed after a brutal winter in Montreal — a warm sea breeze, rum on the beach, and music wherever you went. I fell in love with Old Havana with its beautiful Spanish architecture. While the presence of the police on the beach was a constant reminder that we were in a communist country, for the most part we stayed oblivious, chatting with locals, building bonfires on the beach, haggling over prices of street art and, of course, cigars.

One day the four of us decided to drive down to Varadero, a city built for tourists. We had to pay a tax to drive in-a convenient mechanism to keep the locals out, and I was disappointed at what greeted us: a long road with big resorts on either side. There was absolutely no character, no music, but ATM machines aplenty!

I felt relieved that instead of this manufactured holiday, we had experienced the ‘real’ Cuba! After spending the day in the comfort of a luxury resort, jet-skiing and the like, we decided to drive back to Havana at about 3 am. Half an hour into the journey, a thunderstorm washed out the road and we could barely see the night! Not sure if we were even on the road, we steered on until we found the light of a cafe in the distance. The locals were stranded much like us, and because my friend Ivan spoke Spanish, we spent a great evening laughing with them, finding out about their lives. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped — as torrential downpours often do!

We got home by sunrise, and went to Havana to have an early breakfast at a popular local restaurant. Women arrived to buy freshly baked bread, and Varadero and its shiny buildings seemed like a bad dream!

The last day turned out to be cloudy and the beach was closed with a red flag. A few of us made our way down there despite the lack of sunshine. I’m not sure how, but Ivan almost magically found a band of local singers to serenade us. Authentic, yes! Comparable to high-end resorts? No, actually, they don’t compare!


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

drumrolls please, we have a build-up...


The last thing I read before I went to sleep was a chapter from the book ‘Shantaram’. He was told- a dream is the place where a wish and fear meet, and a nightmare is when they are the same thing. Interesting, I thought, as I fell asleep.

Well, I had a nightmare, followed by a dream. And let me tell you, when I woke up, I was completely speechless. It made sense, what I’d read. I love dream analyses, I keep an irregular dream diary- but this, THIS- this, was absolutely fascinating. A wish and a fear.


A waking nightmare is a whole different ballgame, and as I watched this tragedy unfold in Kashmir on my television, I wondered how it is that I was born into what I believe is a post-materialist generation, while my fellow Kashmiri’s in the state will not understand that concept for generations to come.

Ghulam Nabi Mir hurled a bomb at worshippers at Tahab. He was paid 1000 rupees for the job. He claims the Hizbul Mujahideen paid him, the Army seconds his account, although the militant outfit denies involvement, saying they would never jeopardize their freedom struggle by throwing a bomb in their own stronghold- Hizb’s south Kashmir base.

You know what struck me as the police [army?] questioned him as to why he did it [the camera’s were there]- that he mentioned he had been paid a thousand rupees, (besides the death threats), and he did not realize what a meager amount it was, despite the questioners surprise as well.

‘ONLY a thousand?’

Five people died. That’s the number of an average family. So this is how much life in Kashmir is worth?

It speaks volumes about the poverty and desperation in the region.

At work, I was asked today if I had an opinion on the joint Indo- Pak terror deal. Do I? It’s all well and good to sign a deal, but what is the guarantee that it will work? Do we trust each other to be honest? Will we share information? Will they share information?

Brief re-cap for those joining us now: Especially in the Indian controlled region of Kashmir, intensified insurgency and the presence of the Indian army (for safety measures) has led to an unbearable state of affairs. Bombs, terrorist attacks and more bombs have kept the region from functioning normally- and people like Ghulam Nabi Mir at having the chance for a ‘real’ life. Although we had our problems since partition, after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, Afghani Mujahideen fighters infiltrated the state making things worse. Along with the separatists who wage war to free Kashmir from the clutches of India, this makes for a terse situation.

Now, for the longest time, India has insisted that Pakistan is behind the terrorists. Pakistan toned down their involvement by calling the separatists ‘freedom fighters’ and lamely admitted that they were sure there was cross border terrorism, but somehow avoiding responsibility for it.

Manmohan Singh called India and Pakistan both ‘victims of terrorism’ in Havana. Really? We are victims of cross border terrorism while they set up state sponsored training camps under the ISI which perhaps have a life of their own. To equate the two is wrong, but perhaps he was trying to extend an olive branch and lay the foundation for a peaceful future.

I thought to myself today, why would Pakistan want to sign this deal? After 9/11 Musharraf certainly tried to disassociate himself from the terror groups, and the Lashkar and Jaish were banned. [We know they do exist, just under different names.] Now, this move by him was certainly clever given the international suspicion regarding Islam- and especially Islamic fanaticism- but is it a path he can hope to stay on?

[If you watched Jon Stewart’s interview with the General on the Daily Show, he does admit that when the US asked them if they were with the Allies or not, he thought about the best way out, and took it. When the situation does not apply, will the strategy change?]

A view I’d read on the Internet argued that while Pakistan remains an Islamic state, how will it turn its back towards the Islamic extremism successfully? Is the extremism coming from Afghanistan as they claim or vice-versa as Karzai would?

G. Parthasarthy, former Ambassador, has a bleak view of this new joint venture and calls it a trap. It is a mistake to move away from internationalizing the issue, and now if India were to complain about another Pakistan sponsored attack, we will be told to discuss it in our new forum. The questions that need to be clearly answered before we can trust our neighbors are straightforward: do they still continue to use terrorism to reach their foreign policy goals?

But a differing view was offered by a Professor at Jamia Milia, Radha Kumar, who said the fact that Pakistan had even begun to admit that ex-Lashkar operatives do exist instead of hotly denying their existence altogether is progress; and this platform will make it easier for the rule of law to apply.

Personally, I have so many dear Pakistani friends that at times I find it next to impossible to believe that we should not trust them. But personal friendships forged in Montreal are very different from matters of national security. Personal friendships did not make Ghulam Nabi Mir’s life less desperate.

There is much to gain for both countries if we could normalize relations, but to do that the one unanswerable question of Kashmir needs to be answered. Ask yourself this then: if we move away from Siachen, will the Pakistan army try and re-capture it? Can you say no for sure? Ay, there’s the rub!


Jawaharlal Nehru said the only alternative to coexistence is co-destruction. If only hopes and fears meet to resolve themselves. If they turn out to be the same thing, we may never wake up from this nightmare.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

police the police: i'll be watching YOU

And what a welcome home it was!

It seemed to me that the city was on fire. On one hand, activists forced the courts to re-examine the Priyadarshini Mattoo & Jessica Lall cases, and on the other, the sealing drives pitted the traders against the government, causing havoc in the city.

This is why I came home.

While talking to Kundan, he pointed out that for every Jessica Lall case there are tons still waiting for court dates. Yes, I said, but the ones that are getting attention are Delhi based cases, and because of the activist mechanism in place- compounded by media attention, it’s a start. And smaller cities can follow this example. Look at the Dalit murder case- it’s because the people have objected that the police are launching an investigation and now the Chief Minister expects some results in a month.

But, the real problem we face is trickier. No, it’s not an over-zealous media that seems to try criminals and deem the innocent/guilty (yes, Manu Sharma should have a fair trial; I didn’t think he would get it, but I have to admit, Ram Jethmalani certainly has my attention. His theory that someone else shot her because of reasons other than the fact that she refused to serve alcohol—is intriguing. I want to see what evidence he has.) No, it’s not even the judiciary per se- (and yes, the move to make the judges more accountable is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be since the judiciary wants to remain independent and will not allow the legislature to judge it). No, what is worrying me is the state of the police. The guardians of truth, justice, honor (yadayadayada)- and how scary it is that we can totally not depend on them.

First, this is for all of you who may not have come across this very troubling incident in the news. So there was an exam to enter the police, which the 17,000 odd applicants found rather tough. In protest they started rioting- destroyed shops, assaulted women, generally behaved like the sort of hooligans that need to be locked up by the police. Ah, the irony.

On top of that, even in the Dalit murder case- and this is one of many in the country- the police did squat to register a complaint or carry out an investigation till there was uproar amongst the people. On a smaller scale, we have all experienced it, the always bribable traffic cop.

The general lack of faith in the police is troubling me- or rather, the general lack of performance by them. When they need to be efficient, they certainly are. So what it seems to boil down to is that ordinary people who do not have the benefit of the media spotlight or a powerful relative/friends can find police co-operation and efficiency an arduous task.

Let me explain. When a crime is committed and one goes to the police in India, they determine if an incident has taken place. In the case of cognizable crimes (capable of being known as is the dictionary definition) the police are allowed to arrest without a warrant- this happens for theft, burglaries and the like. Now, according to the law the police have to take down a FIR (First Information Report) that is accepted by the law without question. The theory behind it is this: when the police are told of a crime, they do not have any prior information so the statement stands and if the person changes his/her story later, they can be accountable for changing it. Now, a lot of times the police wait to see the scene of the crime, question other people and the like so that the FIR has as much information as possible—however, this is not really what the law envisioned. But, on the flip side, sometimes the police don’t even write a FIR unless they are bribed or forced. This can make it very trying and very difficult for the regular citizen who does not have clout to have faith in the police. For example, as mentioned, this was what happened with the recent Dailt murder case in Nagpur. The police only started to investigate the crime after there were mass protests. It figures, a Dalit family would need a mass based support to get any iota of justice.

It’s the same when it comes to checking corruption within the government- because most Public Service Units have their own Vigilance Commissions that keep a check on the activities. However, this is tricky because to register a complaint, one needs to go through a bureaucratic process, and not surprisingly, many of those in the hot seat look after their own, especially with a little incentive. The CBI does step in to expose many crimes, but they do have a limit on how many investigations they can handle.

So while the media allows power to the people, even more today because of the mushrooming channels that take up causes, the police has not yet stepped up its game. And with the possible inclusion of those horrible hopefuls who went rioting and raping because their entrance exam was too tough- the future appears bleak.

But bringing out these injustices in the open is the only way to change things. The RTI (Right to Information) Act has helped many people find justice because when you demand an official answer to why the law was not carried out, authorities have found it easier to perform their jobs instead of making excuses about it.

The law is on our side. Enforcing it is a whole different ballgame. And we must regain the right to be protected fairly and equally. Its time to take back the night.


‘Dantedownunder’, a fellow blogger, asked me what I plan to do with opinions. It’s a question I have often asked myself. Will participating in a rally make more of a difference than my rants (although, I hope my writing is not construed as ranting) on this blog. Now that I am joining the editorial department of the Indian Express, I know a larger audience means larger responsibility. But as they say the pen is mightier than the sword, and I hope this writing leads to bigger and better things in the future.