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Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir's assassination: Terror takes a new turn in Pakistan

Till the day before yesterday, we had only 'suicide bomb' attacks. Yesterday, we saw for the first time a 'suicide gun and bomb attack'.

See video of the BBC report on the assassination here.

The game between terrorists and the state is one of improvisation. One tries to outwit the other. As Margret Thatcher said, a terrorist needs to be lucky only once, but others have to be lucky always.

Ever since Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan confronting headon explicit terror threat to her life, she has been lucky -- the closest she came to losing it was immediately upon her arrival when a suicide bomber killed scores except Benazir. Yesterday, an attacker improvised the cruel methodology, shot at her during the brief moments she emerged out of her secure van, and set off an explosion. Benazir's luck ran out.

Yesterday evening in my office, when I saw a colleague was rushing to our boss's cabin, I knew there was something major that had happened. "Bhutto has been killed," he blurted out. I couldn't believe that. The news spread all over within minutes. A strange sense of disbelief combined with shock descended, as we all looked at the streaming video on news channels.

One way Benazir was risking her life by doing what she did. But in another way, her return and willingness to be as close to the people, epitomised not just her faith in democracy but, more than that, her sense of conviction on what she believed in and her bravery. She was brave. She was brave to return to Pakistan in spite of threats. She was brave to campaign. She was brave in spite of the insecure environment. News reports had said she had even written to President Musharraf naming the people who were after her life after the first attack.

Will Pakistan be the same again? It's not the first political assassination or unnatural death of a Pakistan leader. Prime Minister Liaqat Ali was shot dead in 1951 -- very close to yesterday's incident. Pakistan has always been on the edge. And, that has never been a comfortable scenario for India, which has consistently taken huge blows because of the ideological turmoil within Pakistan.

Yesterday's turn is yet another new one. Pakistan will need radically new approaches to solve the unprecedented crisis it is facing. It's too complex an international issue that it'sn't easy to even suggest remedial measures. But now, it's a feeling of dreadful uncertainty of the future. One can only be hopeful that things would get better.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

BENAZIR BHUTTO KILLED

Pakistani former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been killed in a presumed suicide attack, a military spokesman has announced on TV. Ms Bhutto had just addressed a pre-election rally in the town of Rawalpindi when the bomb went off.

More here from BBC.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

BBC does not use the word 'terrorist'

The BBC as a matter of policy does not use the word terrorist. They choose words very carefully. Day before yesterday, there was a bomb attack on a mosque in Pakistan in which more than 50 people died. In their TV news bulletins, BBC did not use the word terrorist. More than that, they had a sentence: "... search is on for the organisers of the attack."
  • Read Telegraph story on bomb attack here
  • Read BBC online report on the bomb attack here

This is not a new policy. It looks like the decision was taken in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London Underground and bus bombings. While the first reports on the BBC website referred to "terrorists" later they changed it to "bombers". BBC's explanation was: they do not want to use words that "carry emotional or value judgements".

  • Read Telegraph report of July 12, 2005, on this here
  • Read the Criticisms and the BBC's explanation on July 13, 2005 here
  • Read the BBC's editorial guidelines on "Use of language when reporting terrorism" here
  • Read the BBC's editorial guidelines in full on war, terror and emergencies here
It's not surprising that BBC has gone for this, since it has a worldwide audience. What is okay for one is not for the other. One man's freedom fighter is the other man's terrorist. The bigger the audience, tougher it's to satisfy all, and more are the probabilities of inviting criticism. In India, some of the big newspapers and TV channels which have high readership and credibility have to tread such cautious paths to ensure they don't rub anyone on the wrong side.

Objectivity and impartiality are difficult to achieve, if not altogether impossible. And efforts to achieve that only robs the reportage of life. Use of seemingly neutral expressions runs the risk of making the report insipid. If one follows BBC news reports, it'll be clear that they use lot of hard facts and try to balance views with counterviews as far as possible, probably to make the news reports more authoritative and impartial. The challenging tightrope walk is probably the price BBC has to pay for the acclaimed global audience.

I watched all the three programmes telecast yesterday by the BBC to commemorate 75 years of the BBC World Service Radio. They highlighted the difficulties experienced by reporters in covering conflict, where truth isn't in black and white but in different shades of grey.

The episode I liked was the one on West Asia, probably because it's one of my favourite subjects. The region is described as a crucible of violent ideologies and it's also one of the most difficult areas to report from. The reporters are clearly told not use the word terrorist, and to be objective and neutral. The programmes showed the efforts the BBC takes to ensure they have accurate information in their quest to get to the truth.

Reporting from West Asia can be tricky -- no one would know that better than BBC's Barbra Plett. In the programme "From Our Own Correspondent" broadcast on BBC4 on October 30, 2004, Plett said, "..... when the helicopter carrying the frail old man (Yasser Arafat) rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning...." That got her into real trouble. BBC is more often criticised for its anti-Israel stand than the other way round, and there was a barrage of complaints over the use of the word "cry".

The BBC governors upheld part of a complaint against Plett. Her comments "breached the requirements of due impartiality", they ruled. From Our Own Correspondent is a programme which, unlike a routine news report, allows the listeners to get the correspondents' personal experience of the news event. It's difficult to be impartial and objective while being personal. It's tough reporting under such circumstances.
  • Read Telegraph news item on the controversy here
  • Read the BBC transcript of Barbara Plett's report here
  • Read BBC report on their governors upholding part of the complaint here.
Barbara Plett now reports for the BBC from Pakistan, and is one of my favourite reporters. She has a very unique way of signing off.... "Barbara Plett... BBC, Islamabad". You need to listen to her!

Friday, December 21, 2007

London Calling: BBC World Service completes 75 years

The British Broadcasting Corporation is arguably the best mass news media organisation in the world. What is most remarkable is that it has kept pace with time, without losing its traditional core values: it hasn't changed, even though it has adapted to modern technology. Not many media organisations can claim that.

Some of the other channels that were quite popular in India were the Voice of America, Radio Australia, Radio Netherlands, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Deutsche Welle etc. I said were because today it's extremely difficult to receive these stations even on a good shortwave radio because of the crowding of the airwaves by other signals like that of mobile phones.

Up to a good 15 years back reception in the morning and evening was so clear, it was a pleasant experience listening to these international radio stations, some of which also have broadcasts in Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi etc. These vernacular language broadcasts are very popular in smaller towns and villages. I guess the airwaves there aren't as crowded as in cities like Bangalore, so probably reception there must still be good.

Though in cities we don't get good radio reception, those of us who have good broadband connectivity can go to the websites of these radio stations, and listen to podcasts. So to some extent the loss has been compensated, but it'sn't the same as listening to the transistor radio.

I first began listening to the BBC news in 1980, mainly because of the Iran-Iraq war launched by Saddam Hussein. That was the first proper war I could understand, so I kept tuning into the BBC to understand and follow it. Soon, I began to listen to many other programmes -- music, current affairs, documentaries, radio plays etc. Though I also listened to other radio stations, I was spending more time listening to the BBC.
  • From Marconi to MP3; the History of the BBC. Spend some time reading it... There are some radio clips dating back all the way to 1940s... Amazing... Click here.
This month, BBC World Service radio completes 75 years. It began as Empire Service. On Christmas Day King George V gave the first royal broadcast to the empire. It was scripted by author Rudyard Kipling.

The BBC World (television) has lined up a three-part series London Calling on December 22. "....To coincide with the occasion, independent film-maker Neil Cameron has been given carte blanche to film the BBC World Service’s journalists and managers in London and in bureaux, studios and front line reporting locations around the world...." says the promo announcement.

Click here for the programme timings. The programme timings in India are: (to get GMT subtract 5h 30 min):

Part I Winners And Losers
Saturday 22nd December at 1340
Repeated: Saturday 22nd December at 1940; Sunday 23rd December at 0140; Sunday 23rd December at 0640; Sunday 23rd December at 1340 & Monday 24th December at 0140.

Part II The Battle For Truth
Saturday 22nd December at 1540
Repeated: Saturday 22nd December at 2140; Sunday 23rd December at 0740 & Sunday 23rd December at 1740

Part III Changing Faces
Saturday 22nd December at 1740
Repeated: Sunday 23rd December at 1540; Sunday 23rd December at 2240 & Monday 24th December at 0740.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Blogger comments using openID & Google's Knol

Two interesting tech-related developments.

Blogger now supports openID

Blogger has fulfilled one of the most persistent demands. It now allow readers to comment by using their blog URL with openID-enabled services like Wordpress, Livejournal etc.

What is openID?

When we visit websites, some of them require us to register with them using a username and password. The problem is for different sites we need to login with (sometimes) a different username and password. Websites that conform to OpenID technology allow us the convenience of logging in using the same username and password for all. Read more about its what, where and how here.

Blogger has chosen a few popular OpenID providers -- like Wordpress, Livejournal, Typekey etc -- to highlight on the comments form. But since the whole technology is literally "open", we can use any URL that we control as our "OpenID URL". Read more what is Blogger is doing about it here.

A competitor for Wikipedia?

The other bit of interesting news is that Google is testing a possible competitor for Wikipedia.

"The service, called Knol, which is short for knowledge, would allow people to create Web pages on any topic. However, unlike Wikipedia, which allows anyone to edit an entry, only the author of a “knol,” as the pages in the service would be called, would be allowed to edit. Different authors could have competing pages on the same topic," says this article in The New York Times.

Related links:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

School shootout in India too: now what next?

Ever since yesterday's shooting of a 14-year-old boy in a Gurgaon school I have been speaking to a number of people, children included. After all that, I am more worried than relieved.

This morning, a friend of mine gave me a shocking bit of news. She told me how, last evening, a few boys in the 16-18 age group in her neighbourhood almost justified yesterday's incident. "Probably the boys may have been provoked so much," is what they told my friend. She was so shocked she didn't know how to react.

It's very clear children aren't able to comprehend the gravity of the incident. "What crime a child could have done that needs to be punished by shooting him dead" is not a question a teenager can understand. Leave children, today we are supposed to be progressing to a stage when the crime of even an adult is not worth being punished with death. Reformation, not punishment, is the key. Or, so I thought.

If a teenager has to plan a murder 24 hours in advance, steal his father's gun for the purpose, smuggle it to school, discuss the plan with his friend, shoot his classmate, then pass on the gun to his friend to carry on the crime.... well, this is the limit to which our society can descend. Or, is there something worse that's awaiting all of us?

I don't think the boys can be blamed. Their parents in particular, and we elders in general, must share a good part of the blame. Every human being is born innocent until he is corrupted by the society of elders. There is no use blaming western influences, violent computer games and English movies: after all, villains -- virtual or real -- are not a modern-day phenomenon. If "the evil" is able to increasingly influence our children, then it only indicates how less potent "the good" has become. We have been celebrating festivals commemorating the victory of "the good" over "the evil". But in our day-to-day lives, who is winning?

Today, we have news that the parents of the killers have gone into hiding, and left their children alone in a juvenile home with no visitors at all. How tragic that that these teenagers have parents who have left them in such a plight. Should these children, may be cold-blooded murderers in the eyes of the law, should be punished? Hopefully, the law-enforcement agencies, in whose care they are, will provide counsellors and therapists to these children; so that, may be not immediately, but gradually they can be reformed, and they can grow up into responsible adults.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

British Library, Thiruvananthapuram, to close down

"The British Library in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala, south India) will cease to function on March 31, 2008. All transactions will be terminated on February 29. The library’s stock of books will be redistributed among other British Libraries in the country. These decisions were announced at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday by British Council’s Minister of Cultural Affairs Rod Pryde," says a report in The Hindu.

Of course, no reasons have been given. But it is obvious: lack of money.

With a presence in 11 cities, the network of British Libraries in India is the largest in the world. The cities are Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram. The Bhopal centre will also be closed down.

It's depressing. It's sad that a state like Kerala should lose such a treasure of knowledge. The libraries used to get a lot of support from the British government, but over the years that aide has been reduced; leaving most the centres to find resources on their own.

What is more surprising is the low membership the Thiruvananthapuram library had -- just 6,100 since 1964 when it opened! Kerala is a highly literate state, a vast number of students, a number of colleges and research centres... well, it's quite surprising. Was it the lack of proactivity on the part of the library administration or the lack of enthusiasm of the public? Or was it both?

I became a member of this library in 1980. I'm still a member, having transferred my membership, to Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and now to Bangalore. The annual fee then was Rs 40. The Thiruvananthapuram library was one of my favourite haunts. Whenever I got free time, I headed to this library. I remember the pin-drop silence inside. People spoke in whispers. An amazing variety of books and magazines. During mid-80s video cassettes were made available, which could be viewed in library.

The librarian Mr Parthasarathy used to be so kind to give a complimentary copy of "London Calling" -- a monthly magazine the BBC used to bring out. It gave the programme schedules, write-ups about presenters, newsreaders, correspondents etc. It was such a great help as I used to be really addicted to the BBC. It has tapered off a bit now.

I used to spend hours going through the reference copy of Wisden. I memorised the laws of cricket (since I used to umpire school cricket matches), pore over statistics and profiles of cricketers.

I used to borrow fiction and non-fiction alike, mostly biographies, travelogues and books on cricket like those by Neville Cardus. I used to sit for hours reading British papers like The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and magazines like New Statesman... The library was a wonderful window to the world.

It's truly sad that this window is being shut. Of course, today there are a variety of other means to get information but I doubt if there are many other places that give the same ambiance as a British Library gives.

The Kerala government (a communist one) has shown interest and assured whatever help it can give to help keep the library open. Even chief minister V S Achuthanandan made a surprise visit to the library on Saturday. But I doubt if the British Council will reconsider the decision, though I wish it does.

No doubt, Thiruvananthapuram will miss the British Library.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Malaysian Indians: Resolve the issue

One thought that the situation in Malaysia, where ethnic Malaysian Indians have been carrying out a campaign inter alia for equal rights, would sort itself out. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem so. And, what a bad time for this to happen: Malaysia is celebrating 50 years of its independence from Britain.

Background

One of the underlying causes is the issue of Malays being favoured over other immigrants in Malaysia (Bhoomiputra Policy). Then there is an issue of ethnic Indians seeking compensation from the British for the plight as it was the British who brought them in 19th century from India to Malaysia as indentured labourers.

It all came to a boil on Sunday, November 25, when thousands of Indians gathered, in violation of a court stricture. One of the aims of the rally was to demand the compensation. The rally was broken up by the police. The next day the protesters, who had been charged with sedition, were released since the prosecution could not translated the words purportedly uttered in Tamil.

Then charges and countercharges were traded back and forth between government and political leaders in Malaysia and India. Even PMs of two countries spoke on the issue. Things now have taken a new twist, with 31 of the protesters being rearrested and charged with attempt to murder -- on Dec 4, 26 were charged, and the next day 5 more and the bail applications of all of them were rejected.

Here are links to two blog posts on this by Sophie:
Possible fallout

The unfortunate result of all such agitations is that the real issue gets pushed to the sidelines. I think whatever issues the immigrants have they must present it in such a way that the Malaysian would do well to address it. Now for at least some time the focus will be on the court case: the attempt to murder a police officer during the Nov 25 rally.

Discrimination on whatever counts need to be redressed. But I don't think it will serve the Indians' cause well, if they violate established rules of the land. Mahatma Gandhi managed to bring British empire to its knees by violating the rules and gathering mass support. But times have changed. Even the Mahatma would have modified his agitational approach to suit today's realities.

What should be done

Every nation, just like India, is conscious of its identity and security. How sensitive are Indian politicians and people when it comes to foreigners! Forget foreigners, each Indian state and its people are so conscious of the language and culture that their possessive obsession and intolerance find expression in many covert and overt ways. So, to that extent one has to recognise Malaysia's right to ensure discipline and order in their society.

I guess organisations like the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Actions Force) should try to change the anomalies by being within the Malaysian system; not by forcing itself out. Indian have a representation in the coalition government -- Malaysian Indian Congress is their party and its president Samy Velu is also a works minister.

The organisers of the movement should also realise that much of the Indian immigrant community is not as well off as, say for example, the Chinese. So, it's important that the leadership of organisations like Hindraf show lots of maturity and farsightedness while resolving this matter. I don't think these issues can be sorted out on the streets. The Malaysian PM has appointed a committee to look into the anomalies in representations and benefits. The Malaysian Indian leadership should seize the opportunity and get their issues resolved.

Malaysia is a multicultural country and not without a number of underlying issues. But that should not stop it from continuing to be a model for many other such pluralistic societies. It's a Muslim country but people of all other beliefs have full freedom to practise their beliefs. That freedom should not be misused. The society and the government are much more tolerant than in some some Gulf nations or even the neighbouring Singapore. It's in the interests of all immigrants as much as of Malays themselves that this issue is not allowed to escalate.

Useful links:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A filmy reality

The reality for many people is just filmy: as thin as a strip of film: thin and light; hazy and misty; sometimes fine and gauzy.

It has all happened at an amazing pace. Yesterday afternoon, Madhuri Dixit's comeback movie Aaja Naachle hit the screens. By evening, the discusison generally centred around how good the movie is, how well she has performed, how successful has her comeback been, etc. Around midnight news came in that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati had banned the movie across her state. Reason: a line in a song that is offending to the Dalits, or the backward caste people.

The damage control has been equally fast-paced. Seasoned producer Yash Chopra within hours of the late-night diktat, sent out instructions to get the offending line removed. By today morning, we have had apologies and clarifications pouring in on the lines of "o, we never thought it would hurt people", " we never meant it", "we are really sorry you people are hurt", etc etc.

Surprises didn't end. Many parties woke up to find how Mayawati had beaten them hollow in encashing an opportunity. Isn't that what politics is all about? Better late than never, thought Punjab and Haryana governments, so they too banned the movie, even though it was many hours since the makers of the movie had got the lines deleted and many apologies had been made. And, most interestingly, the UP government had also lifted the ban within hours of it being clamped.

This is a superb example of what our priorities are, what excites us, what is the sense of our accomplishment, what's our idea of the future.

Cynicism apart, one must notice the silver lining. Here was an issue which could turn explosive. Mayawati saw it coming before anyone else, grabbed it; and closed the issue in a matter of hours.

All said and done, rarely have decisions been taken so fast and with such efficiency. The winners: Mayawati and makers of the movie; and of course, Madhuri Dixit.

I only wish such quick decisions were taken for many other pressing issues that plague all of us; issues wherein basic necessities of livlihood are involved: food, health, education, shelter and transport (that's my favourite order.) What Mayawati achieved was victory that has no bearing on the life and limbs of people. What she did was she prevented some other political party from possibily making political capital.

She and people of her ilk -- who are, whether we like it or not, invaluable players in a democrartic society -- should be perceptive about, focus on and act on -- not lines of film songs but -- matters of far wider import and impact, that have a beairng on people's aspirations, livelihood and comfort.