Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Extreme Danger of the NCTC

On 27 February 1933, four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, there was a devastating fire in the national Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin.

Firefighters trying to save the building found in it a mentally disabled Danish bricklayer who confessed under questioning to be a communist who had come for "political work" in Germany.

Under the pretext that the nation was under assault by international communism, Hitler then invoked emergency powers to arrest members of the party en masse, including all its representatives in parliament. With their seats empty, the Nazis became the majority party, allowing it to consolidate power and set in motion a new wave of oppressions.

The key to Nazi success in moving from a parliamentary plurality to absolute domination of the German political landscape was an an intelligence apparatus with unaccountable powers of search, seizure and arrest. It allowed Hitler to keep tabs on all opposition figures, to cow them with threats, confiscate their property, arrest and torture at will, and murder those who would not bend.

Indians should consider that history before supporting the National Counter-Terrorism Center the UPA government is pushing again in the wake of the Hyderabad terrorist attack. It too will centralize dangerous power in an unaccountable intelligence operation wide open to political misuse. It too will have powers of search, seizure and arrest outside the existing legal framework.

They should also ask two questions about the renewed push for the NCTC:

  • Why did Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, days away from presenting the 2013 Union budget, break from that critically important task to urge action on the NCTC?
  • Why have all the Big Business media organizations suddenly become cheerleaders for our incipient SS-Gestapo?
The answer is the same for both questions: India is under great pressure to open its doors to foreign investment. The super-rich investors who turned China into a collection of "cancer villages" with the widest rich-poor gap in the world, are looking for another poor and populous place to put their money. But they are wary of the fractious unpredictability of Indian democracy.

The NCTC will be their control mechanism. It will not just target "terrorists;" it will define who is a terrorist.

Just as the SS-Gestapo widened Nazi targets from communists to political dissidents of all kinds, Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables, the NCTC can tar, contain and eliminate anyone who stands in the way of its masters.

And its masters will not be a free parliament; it will be the fat cats who run the global black market and manage organized crime worldwide.

If Indian democracy is to survive, not only must the bid for the NCTC as currently envisaged be turned down, there should be a popular drive to bring all of India's several intelligence agencies into a constitutional framework that provides oversight and has provisions to enforce accountability.

More, there should be a cabinet minister in charge of Intelligence, answerable to parliament, and a recourse mechanism for Indian citizens victimized by overzealous gumshoes.

If "intelligence professionals" shake their head and threaten inaction against foreign and domestic dangers, perhaps it is time we turned away from the whole idea of a centralized organization with vast powers. A community-based reporting system linked nationally and enabling a real-time flow of information and analysis that will empower local action might prove far more effective. An NCTC without police powers could be the national hub of that system.

My 2011 proposal for a CCTV czar overseeing a national drive would be an essential part of such a system.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Theory of Cumulative Cowardice

In response to the post on Moral Palsy at the United Nations, a reader sent me a list of books on psychopathology.

I am sorry if I gave the impression that psychopaths run the UN.

That is not the case.

The individuals in the top echelons of the organization are generally people who do empathize with the poor and needy of the world.

The only UN official I would categorize without hesitation as a true psychopath is Kurt Waldheim, who had a Nixonian disconnect from other people.

That assessment is not just because Waldheim lied throughout his diplomatic career about serving with an SS unit accused of war crimes in Yugoslavia during World War II. (He was able to get away with it because the CIA seems to have recruited him immediately after the end of hostilities. For details see the section on the UN in 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know)

My experience of his certifiable insanity was up close and personal.

It happened because early in my UN career, unseen Powers that Be detailed me to the four member team that wrote the official report of the first World Conference on the Human Habitat held in Vancouver, Canada.

Heading the team was Robert Rhodes James, Waldheim’s speechwriter, with whom I had an instant rapport, cemented after he concocted a nonsensical speech by the fictitious leader of a nonexistent country and got back a Unese version from the blonde bombshell member of the team.

After the conference, Robert would occasionally ask me to draft speeches for the Secretary-General, especially about the New International Economic Order, the demand by developing countries for an overhaul of the iniquitous “rules of the game” governing world order.

I never met Waldheim while writing his speeches, but did so at a farewell event in the Secretary-General's offices when Robert was quitting the UN to run for a seat in the British Parliament.

The encounter was memorable for several reasons. Upon seeing Robert standing with a woman at the entrance to the Secretary-General's Boardroom, I assumed she was his wife, a mistake instantly corrected by a murderous look from her chilly blue eyes. She was Mrs. Waldheim.

Shaken and stirred, I repaired to the far end of the room and was seeking solace in a bowl of chips when the Secretary-General emerged from the door beside me.

He offered his hand and I shook it, introducing myself. Waldheim made a slow circle of the room, shaking hands, and within about 15 minutes – there were only about 20 people present including his own staff – he was back where I was. He stuck out his hand again and again I shook it muttering who I was. After another perambulation around the room he reappeared at my side again, and yet again I told him who I was and shook his hand. After a short speech thanking Robert for his services, Waldheim made his way back to his inner office, once again stopping to shake my hand en route. Throughout, he had the same pasted on smile.

I thought it was hilarious then, but in retrospect it is scary.

No one else I met in four decades at the UN, except perhaps a Canadian Under-Secretary-General of Public Information, came close to Waldheim’s level of lunacy.

With the general run of senior UN staff the problem is not pathological; it has to do with what I call cumulative cowardice.

It is a phenomenon readily observable in any UN office – perhaps in any national bureaucracy as well. At the lower, working levels of the organization where staff research and write official reports, the focus is substantive. The authors of reports have no compunctions about defending the integrity of their work; but as their drafts ascend the hierarchy for clearance, the focus shifts. Increasingly, those who read them are concerned not with substance but with the responses of member States. Finely attuned to prevailing political sensitivities, they adapt texts and decisions to minimize negative responses. Their directive principle is cowardice. A call from an influential Ambassador can reduce most Under-Secretary-Generals to jelly.

Because of that, senior UN staff have little integrity. They seek to please governments that could, if displeased, make their lives miserable and crimp their careers. They are unconcerned with morality or the long term impact of their decisions. Their personal moral sense is drowned in the unconscionable collective.

The United Nations does much good and it deserves our respect because it incarnates the universal and enduring hope of world peace.

But we cannot understand its failures without acknowledging that it also exemplifies in its daily life the "banality of evil," the phrase that Hannah Arendt used to describe how ordinary people came to support the horrors perpetrated on Jews in Nazi Germany.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Moral Palsy at the UN

The United Nations has just turned down a claim for compensation from Haitians killed and sickened by cholera taken to the island by it peacekeepers.

A UN spokesman told the Press the claim was "not receivable."

That is not because the claim is invalid.

The strain of the disease that has killed some 8000 Haitians and afflicted over a half million is a "perfect match" with the one in Nepal from where a contingent of peacekeepers arrived in October 2010. Their encampment allowed untreated waste to flow into a river that people depended on for drinking water. The contagion first hit  downriver from the camp.

The claim is not receivable because those who made the decision suffer from a contagion far worse than cholera: moral paralysis.

It is a disease with a long history within the United Nations.

Back in the 1960s, UN "development experts" working in the Sahel (the semi-arid southern fringe of the Sahara desert), put in deep bore wells without accommodating for the drought cycles endemic to the region. The wells supported a rapid increase in the animal and human populations of the Sahel but when the next long drought hit the whole ecosystem collapsed under their weight. The result was the great Sahelian famine that killed many thousands.

The UN should have rung the alarm bells about what happened and taken responsibility for its role in the disaster but it never did. I discovered what had happened when researching an article about the 1974 UN Conference on "Desertification" (a word coined for the occasion).

The UN's moral paralysis does not kick in only in the case of distant, poor and anonymous people.

In the 1970s, when a UN staff member in Chile "disappeared" along with thousands of others under Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime, UN brass in New York did nothing. It took a campaign by the UN Staff Union to shame Kurt Waldheim into spastic action.

As the editor of the Staff Union paper, I was feeling chuffed up about that until a senior UN official casually told me over a sandwich in the UN Correspondent's Association club room that there were also "disappeared" UN staff members in other countries. Except they weren't really out of sight. In Afghanistan, one was being tortured in prison; the brass in New York knew about that but considered it a "domestic" matter. (It took a continuing campaign by the Staff Union to identify the victims and bring about even the most minimal official action.)

And it is not just career UN staff who are callous. When I asked the politically appointed head of UNICEF about the arsenic-contaminated killer wells the organization had funded in Bangladesh, her response was astonishing. "The wells probably saved lives" she said.

What causes the basic lack of empathy that underlies the moral irresponsibility of UN brass?

I think it is the diplomatic version of the "vast carelessness" of wealthy people that Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. At the top levels of the UN diplomatic immunity translates into impunity. People are too insulated and removed from the suffering of ordinary people to care.   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reality Check for David Cameron's India Quest

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain began his three-day visit to India by invoking the "huge ties" between the two countries of "history, language, culture and business."

One wonders which particular aspect of the shared history of the two nations he found supportive of his current quest for broadened economic linkages.

Could it be what the East India Company did  after bribing its way to control of Bengal, the richest province of Mughal India? Within a decade of the so-called "Battle of Plassey" (Pilashi) in 1757, Bengal lay in ruins. The destruction of its economy was so severe a third of the population, some five million people, died of starvation in the first of the great "man-made famines" British rule spread across India. A conservative estimate of the overall toll of such famines is 100 million.

Or perhaps Mr. Cameron found inspiring the theft of the fabled Kohinoor diamond after the British defeated the Sikhs almost a century later. Maharaja Ranjit Singh's 11-year old son went with the diamond to Britain where it became part of the "Crown Jewels" and he was comprehensively debauched with drugs and sex to disable his potential as a leader.

Or maybe the Prime Minister is enthralled by the post-1857 "pacification" that involved the indiscriminate slaughter of some 10 million civilians, men, women and children. 

Mr. Cameron's historic admission that the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre was a "deep shame" does not begin to address the long line of British atrocities in India, most of which remain officially unacknowledged. They are systematically ignored or downplayed even in works of history by British scholars supposedly engaged in the pursuit of truth.

That is true not just of the colonial era. There is no honest British account of the cold-blooded manipulation of communal violence that led to Partition, the killing of well over a million people and the biggest migration in history as 14 million people were forced from their ancestral lands.
Nor is there admission that Britain created Pakistan as its proxy in South Asia and that it is the real sponsor of the terrorist "war of a thousand cuts" against India.

Such denial is not to safeguard national pride and honor. It is to hide the fact that Britain has maintained its imperial interests in the region, and indeed, globally, without benefit of the apparatus of colonialism. This has been achieved primarily by keeping control of the illicit trade in drugs, which Britain pioneered in the 18th Century by exporting Indian opium to China. It is now far and away the most lucrative sector of the world economy, with revenues of over $500 billion annually.

In South Asia the control of the drug trade has involved the use of the ISI, Pakistan's notorious spy agency established in 1948 by a serving British Army officer, to godfather Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Together, they have kept Afghanistan as the lawless badlands necessary to produce opium; it now supplies over 90 percent of the world's illicit supply.   

Where Britain does not maintain operational control of drug trafficking, as in Latin America, it provides money laundering facilities. Last year American authorities slapped a $1.98 billion fine on HSBC, Britain's largest bank, after investigators discovered that it had been laundering billions of dollars of Mexican drug money into the United States. The fine made not a blip in the stock market value of HSBC shares because investors have known of its primary source of profit since traffickers established the company during Britain's 19th Century "Opium Wars" to force the drug into China.

An interesting sidelight to the increased American pressure on British money laundering is that the terrorist "Left" insurgency in Colombia that has for decades provided the cover for drug running, has sued for peace and is now engaged in talks with the government.

The global money laundering system Britain put in place as its colonies dwindled is the core element of its new Empire. It consists of a string of tax havens around the world operating with London as a global hub. The system now caters to all sorts of criminals, ranging from super-rich tax evaders and corporate bigwigs hiding the proceeds of mispricing of trade to mafiosi engaged in garden variety organized crime. 

The tax haven system washes an estimated $2 trillion annually into the "legitimate" world economy. According to a recent report from Washington-based Global Financial Integrity, an NGO headed by a former World Bank economist, it also drained about $6 trillion out of poor countries over the last decade . Adding up the estimates made by a number of experts indicates that the total of illicit assets in tax havens is some $30 trillion, double the GDP of the United States.

That massive pool of money generates the multi-billion dollar "hedge funds" that have made a travesty of free market mechanisms, especially commodity markets. Indians struggling with the ever increasing cost of petrol and diesel can blame it on hedge fund manipulations that have kept oil prices over $100 per barrel amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. They can also blame the system for India's pandemic of mega scams: without a convenient way to stash black money the corrupt would be far less prone to steal on such a scale.

All this is becoming generally known because Germany and the United States, increasingly irate at the loss of billions of dollars in revenues to tax havens, have begun to push for change. Mr. Cameron's recent threats of a referendum that might take Britain out of the European Union is a response to pressure from Germany for uniform application of EU banking standards on all its members. The announcement last week that the next head of the Bank of England will be a Canadian is probably the result of pressure from the United States to clean up the City (financial center) of London.  

Against this background, Mr. Cameron's push for India to open up its financial sector to British investment should be seen as an invitation to national suicide. His vision of a string of "business centres" around the country to facilitate British-Indian trade should be seen in the same light.

So what is the future of the British-Indian "partnership"?

It is difficult to see how we can build one when Britain is using its proxies to subvert and destabilize India. Perhaps the only way to make a new beginning is to be utterly blunt about Indian perceptions of and expectations from Britain.

Britain should stop whitewashing its colonial record and consider the grim reality that its Empire was the bloodiest construct of power the world has ever seen. In Africa, Asia and the Americas no nation has been as oppressive of other races. Britain was by far the leading slave trader out of Africa and transporter of indentured labor out of Asia. It has killed with famine, sword and fire more people than Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun, Hitler or Stalin. In the defense of its imperial interests it has precipitated two World Wars and is now presiding over an empire of crime that drains the poorest countries of their hard earned wealth. During the days of Empire and now, treachery has been a staple in Britain's international relations.

How can Britain respond to such criticism? 

At the minimum it can review its history books and initiate soul-searching among academic propagandists of the imperial record like Niall Ferguson, touted by The Times of London as the “most brilliant British historian of his generation.” A "Truth Commission" such as the one that eased South Africa out of the apartheid era might help. So could a national discourse on the value and meaning of life. In that journey of mind and spirit the British might find useful guides in the Sermon on the Mount, the Eightfold Path and the Bhagavad Gita.

In terms of state policy, a renewed British-Indian relationship will require Britain to withdraw support from terrorist groups and insurgencies, wind up its involvement in the drug trade, and stop running the global black market.

If all this seems a very tall order, it indicates how far Mr. Cameron's proposals stand from Indian perceptions of reality.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Creepy Crawly Update

The visitor counter on my blog disappeared after I published the Midnight's Children review.

It has done so a number of times over the years, always in the wake of a post with a significant number of readers.

The disappearance of the counter led me to check what Webmaster Tools had to say about the health of the site. This is what I found:

  • On 2 February 2012 the Google search engine had indexed 217 URLs on my site and none had been blocked by a robot.txt. (A robot.txt is used by the owner of a web site to block search engines from indexing outdated information.)
  • On 9 September 2012, the number of indexed URLs on my site peaked at 774; since then it has dropped precipitously and now stands at 529. Webmaster Tools says such a drop indicates the site has been hacked.
  •  On 3 February 2013 (the latest data available), the number of indexed URLs was 529 and the number of blocked URLs stood at 594.
  • On two occasions the site had returned "not found" error notices to the Google search bot.
  • The number of other sites linked to the Undiplomatictimes blog has dropped from over 450 to 64.
  • The "search" function on the blog has been disabled, so readers cannot find an old item by typing in a keyword. 
These developments mean that some technically competent entity -- institutional or individual -- wants to minimize the number of readers I have.

Heading my suspect list are the rich and powerful people who run India's anti-national "elite" media.  They have the motive and the means to hack and censor.

It is also possible that the nebulous Thought Police who had me in their sights in New York have followed me to India.

The TP were a constant presence in my life during the decades I spent covering the United Nations. In the post 9/11 period, they put bugs in my phones and car, and just so I would know, occasionally brought them noisily alive with police chatter or racist hate radio. They would also routinely delay invitations to prevent my attendance at receptions and other events that would be news-gathering opportunities.
[Ironically, the TP also arranged widespread photocopying of my copyrighted $200-a-year newsletter to supply copies to UN insiders and deny me critically needed funds. On one occasion, alerted by a UN staff-member who had been told to photocopy my weekly output for distribution to top brass, I complained to the Secretary-General's Spokesman. That led to a meeting with an official of the UN Legal Office who threatened to take away my Press credentials if I pressed the matter. I wrote to the Secretary-General asking if he supported that threat and elicited an offer to settle. After doing some research I submitted an estimate of 135 pirated copies over several years. It led to nothing. A New York lawyer I consulted told me not to bother pursuing the matter, as the UN was notorious for copyright violation and could not be brought to book because it was immune from prosecution.]  

In earlier Creepy Crawly posts from Pondicherry I have noted the activities of the TP after my return to India. (See here and here.) Since then, the intimidating surveillance seems to have stopped, at least for now.

In Goa the surveillance continues but I get the feeling it is benign and maybe even protective. Perhaps someone in the Intelligence Bureau has found time to actually read my blog.

PS: All this should perhaps be seen as a continuation of the theme of the previous post on how the British dominate the global narrative.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

How Britain Controls the Global Narrative

Why does the British government build a splendid new home for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) when it is imposing painful cuts in all other areas of public expenditure?

Why does the BBC need a “World News Room” with more reporters worldwide than CNN and far more than India, China and Africa combined?

Why continue to have full-fledged services in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and Swahili?

The answer is the same to all the questions: it is critically important for British power to impose its narrative on world affairs, and the BBC, a widely effective instrument of propaganda since the heyday of Empire, plays a key role.

Why bother when the Empire is dead and gone?

That’s the beauty of controlling the narrative: the Empire is neither dead nor gone; in fact, it is more powerful today than ever.

As the formal structures of colonial rule came down in the second half of the 20th Century, Britain created a string of “tax havens” around the world, globalizing a system long dominated by its own Jersey Islands and Switzerland. There are some 70 tax havens now, most of them in small island territories like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Mauritius, and they operate with the City (financial center) of London as a global hub to launder and invest the world’s black money. Partial estimates put its assets at about $30 trillion, double the size of the American economy, and the annual flow of laundered money at $2 trillion, about the same as Indian GDP.

This system handles the proceeds of criminal activity ranging from tax evasion and official corruption to the trafficking of prostitutes and drugs. According to the latest report from the Washington-based NGO Global Financial Integrity, it drained an estimated $6 trillion from poor countries over the last decade, more than ten times what they received as “development aid.”

The system also victimizes affluent countries, including the United States and Germany; their super-rich use it to evade billions in personal and corporate taxes.

Unlike developing countries, the affluent ones have been trying to deal with the problem by pressuring and penalizing major international banks that are part of the system, albeit with little success. US authorities last year imposed a fine of nearly $2 billion on HSBC, Britain’s (and Europe’s) largest bank without causing a blip in the company’s share price: investors have known about its most lucrative line of business since drug traffickers founded it in the 19th Century. 

It is a measure of Britain’s control of the global narrative that mainstream media report all this sotto voce and explain none of it. Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent talk of a referendum that will open the door to British withdrawal from the EU is in response to intensifying pressure from Germany to rein in London’s role in money laundering, but it would take a Sherlock Holmes to detect that in the reportage.

The announcement on 7 February that the Bank of England, in an unprecedented departure from iron-cast tradition, will appoint a Canadian as Governor, has also gone without any media excursions and alarums. Obviously, it reflects tremendous pressure from Washington, and even though television cameras have recorded Cameron’s state of clipped cold rage, no reporter has bothered to say why.

How can Britain dominate the global narrative when there are so many other independent media organizations?

Two factors allow it.

One is that the super-rich in all countries are heavily invested in the global black market, and they either own mass media at the national level or control them indirectly.

The other is that much of the “elite” media in developing countries, including India, serve British interests. The links that make them British proxies are widely known. The staff of BBC’s Arabic Service resigned en masse to establish Al Jazeera, and the Sheik who financed the move is a firm British ally; he now runs the most influential media organization in the Arab world. The most influential of Arabic print media operate from London.

In India, as I have noted in previous blogs, the British handpicked the families that run The Times of India and India Today media groups; their patriarchs were financial operators who thrived under colonial rule. NDTV and even The Hindu despite its strong nationalist credentials, also have a pronounced pro-British slant that points to ties deeper than natural affinity. The content of many other English-language publications, especially Outlook and OPEN among the glossies, justifies suspicion their basic journalistic integrity lies suborned.

The mass media are only one aspect of Britain’s control of the global narrative. Another powerful tool has been the United Nations, of which it makes more intelligent and nuanced use than any other member State. In fact, others are usually oblivious to what London is doing.

For example, developing countries did not react last year when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed the British Prime Minister to a 3-member panel that will advise on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have been the benchmark for the 2000 to 2015 period.

Mr. Cameron has no experience that would fit him for that role, and as noted above, he is the defender of a system that drains wealth from poor countries. His appointment makes sense only as a preemptive move to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda will not broaden the focus of attention from purely domestic standards to the debilitating international environment over which Britain presides.

The United Nations has also proved useful in keeping inconvenient statistics out of public view. The information Global Financial Integrity reports is difficult to ignore but UN agencies manage to do it routinely and with no explanation.

A third method Britain has used to keep control of the global narrative is proxy conflict within developing countries.

In India we have had bitter experience of that tactic during the colonial era and after, but that is only one aspect of the picture. The larger canvas has been the manipulation of the entire Muslim world.

History books record clearly the steps by which Britain took control of the Islamic narrative but contemporary analysts studiously ignore what happened. The process involved four major steps.

One was the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. British support raised a caravan robber operating out of Kuwait to power in Riyadh and expanded his domain to the holy places of Islam, bringing them under the control of an extremist sect, the Wahhabi, that mainstream Muslims had considered “haraam.”

Step Two was support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a violent secret society founded in 1932 that took root first in the British controlled Canal Zone of Egypt, in a mosque built with British money. Since then, it has provided the leadership of every major “Islamic terror” organization in the world.

Step Three  was the creation of the "Palestine problem," a series of amazing treacheries that established an enduring conflict by pitting a desperate and traumatized Zionism against the rising but equally wounded sense of Arab nationalism.

And Step Four was the religious polarization and division of India to create Pakistan as a proxy. To control Pakistan itself, a serving British officer set up the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the spy agency that is the real center of power in that country.

Those four steps, supported by the romanticizing of Arabia's medieval past, pushed the narrative of Islam into a reactionary and violent mode that has made it difficult if not impossible for progressive forces to survive. The current course of events in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Mali exemplify that reality.

On a relevant personal note: a few weeks ago I was invited by Oxfam, the British charity, to a meeting to discuss the post-MDG agenda. The theme was inequality as it affected Muslims in India. When I informed the organizer of my intention to raise the issue of British mischief in dividing Indians along religious lines the invitation was revoked. The takeaway from that experience is the significant involvement of supposedly liberal British civil society in controlling the Muslim narrative.

Britain has been far less successful in gaining control of the Hindu narrative but that might change if fascist elements use religion to gain political ascendancy; my next post will deal with that danger.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Midnight's Children: the Film

Dipa Mehta and Salman Rushdie have told television interviewers that their dank depressing film Midnight's Children is a "love letter to India."

That's like a declaration of love for its victims from the Japanese banshee in The Grudge (who Mehta seems to have taken as a fashion model).

As with the novel, the film is a noisome dump on India.

Their primary difference is that the film, bound as it is to images, turns the turgid logorrhea of the novel's "magic realism" into revealing political scat.

For example, the film brings into high relief the bastardy of the main character, Saleem, Rushdie's alter ego: he is the son of a departing Englishman who cuckolds a poor wandering minstrel.

How much Rushdie's fiction has followed fact is a moot point, but considering that the novel gets its force from its rendering of history, this detail should probably be taken as more than embroidery, especially as it explains so much. 

In the film a nurse at the hospital where Saleem is born switches him for the son of the wealthy Muslim couple that bought the Englishman's house. She does so ostensibly to strike a blow for India's poor; a pecuniary incentive from the distant British parent is so much more believable.

That would also explain why Rushdie was sent off to England as a boy and never returned, his very British view of Indians as tragicomic freaks and misfits, and the totality of his blindness to the country's great post-colonial achievements.

The baby who replaces Saleem in the minstrel's home is named Shiva; he grows into a malignant scoundrel, joins the Indian Army and becomes the hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War. He also fathers a child from Parvati the powerful witch who is another midnight's child.

The film makes far clearer than the novel that Rushdie's storytelling is not about characters "handcuffed to history," but about stereotypes used to stamp a British political narrative on post-colonial South Asia.

Ayub Khan's military coup in Pakistan, Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency in India and the Bangladesh genocide mark turning points of the plot, underlining the stock theme of British colonial rule, that the natives are incompetent to run their own affairs.

As in the novel, the film gives not a hint that British puppet-masters pulled the strings for Partition and have made relentless use of Pakistan and "Islamic terrorists" as proxies against Indian democracy.

The British effort to control the narratives of others extends far beyond South Asia, and it is one of the most unremarked aspects of contemporary global affairs; my next post will explain. [Those who want a detailed exposition should check out "1001 Things Every Indian Should Know."]

Saturday, February 2, 2013

“Cultural Terrorism” or Media Madness?

The news agency IANS carried an anonymous article on 31 January with the headline “Cultural terrorism: Idea of India threatened.”

“Shah Rukh Khan one day and Kamal Haasan the next" it began. "Is it mere coincidence or a sign of an increasingly knee-jerk, reactionary India that two of its most loved film icons are forced to go public to painstakingly reassert their secular identity and insist, in case the message is lost, that they are proud Indians?”

The next paragraph noted the predicaments of Ashis Nandy and Salman Rushdie and declared the query in the lead merely rhetorical.

In print and television, our “elite” English media commentators have been on a similar binge of shrill and confused hysteria, tarring with the same brush cases that have nothing in common.

Consider the facts:

Salman Rushdie is a Brown Sahib resident in Britain who for four decades has vilified his two putative homelands and ancestral faith. He is now engaged in promoting a low watt film version of Midnight's Children, the comprehensive dump on independent India that first brought him fame.

Television channels have been carrying endless replays of his indignation at the "cultural terrorism" that has kept him from attending the Calcutta Book Fair to which, he claimed, he had been invited.

Media have given little play to the statement by organizers of that event denying they ever invited him and that he is lying in claiming they paid for his plane ticket.

Quite clearly, Rushdie merely lost his nerve after learning that some Muslims were still outraged at his dump on the Prophet of Islam in Satanic Verses. His false claims repeated a pattern set last year when he was a no-show at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Ashis Nandy is a sociologist in his dotage who said something really stupid as a panelist at the Jaipur Literary Festival: that the lowest castes were responsible for most of the corruption in India.

When someone outraged by that calumny initiated legal action under a law meant to maintain social order, Nandy backed away from his untenable proposition saying he was misunderstood and misquoted. What he actually meant was that the lower castes were caught in their corruptions more often. That too is arrant nonsense, but no one in the media dwelt on it.

Shah Rukh “it’s lonely at the top” Khan is an actor with an outsize ego who seems to believe his own media hype. He had a badly ghostwritten piece in a special “global issues” edition of Outlook magazine about his post 9/11 travails in America.

Airport authorities in the United States have detained him on several occasions for hours at a time, ostensibly because they mistook him for a terrorist.

A dimwit minister in Pakistan thought the article was about the star’s difficulties in India, and called on the Indian government to provide him greater protection. That led the actor to make a televised statement telling the Pakistani to mind his own business and declaring that he was quite safe and happy in India.

Kamal Hasaan is an actor/film maker whose movie Viswaroopam was banned in his home state of Tamil Nadu, supposedly because some Muslims were offended by its depiction of terrorists motivated by their religion.

As the film is innocuous and has a Muslim hero, it is likely that it offended Chief Minister Jayalalitha and not a fringe group of Muslims. She has reason to find offense in the film’s derogatory references to Brahmin women (of which she is a powerful example, particularly so at the head of a political party rooted in the anti-Brahmin movement let loose under British auspices).

In his initial hurt response at the ban, Hasaan told reporters that Tamil Nadu authorities wanted him out of the state, and perhaps he would have to flee the country to a more secular one.

In less emotional statements since then he has tried hard to downplay that response, dismissing one interviewer’s concerns about his artistic freedom by declaring, “my country comes first.”

Quite obviously, the four cases have nothing in common.

If the hysteria they have generated underlines a common theme, it is that “elite” Indian media have become so politically obtuse as to pose a clear and present danger to the country.