Thursday, November 24, 2005

A life lost without a fight

All the joy with which I returned from the 7 pm show of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on Tuesday evaporated when I switched on the TV. The 10 pm news programme was nearing the end and the anchor quoted a Reuter despatch to say that the Indian worker in Afghanistan, M R Kutty, abducted on Saturday by Taliban terrorists, had been killed. The channel ran footage of Kutty's wife weeping inconsolably, hugging her child. It was an extremely disturbing sight. The rejoinder that neither the governments of India nor Afghanistan had any confirmation was no solace, for rarely have such claims been proved wrong.
And, indeed the claim was right. On Wednesday, his beheaded body was found on roadside.
In December 2002, two Indians were kidnapped. At that time the governments at the highest levels got involved, the official machinery moved much faster to establish contact with the abductors and the captives were released after 19 days. This time, nothing of that sort was in evidence. It appeared just no one was bothered. Delhi administration was too preoccupied with Bihar election.
Delhi not being bothered about one distraught family in far-away Kerala isn't so surprising, but couldn't Kerala be bothered about its native? Its government was so shamefully dormant, made no attempt to take an initiative to save Kutty. Officials were more bothered about diplomatic proprieties and niceties, saying that since Kutty worked for a central government organisation and since he was posted abroad it was the duty of the Centre to resolve the issue. So much for the value of life and work.
Kutty's death was unlike any other. He risked his life by being in the place where he was. He was there not to push any ideology. He was there to earn a living, to support his family. He was a worker, but unlike any of us, chose to serve the nation (he worked for a central government organisation) in a very dangerous place.
Yet it is a pity that his employers (the government) showed no interest in the crisis. Journalists in Delhi had to contact the Indian high commission in Kabul to get details of the worker, so much cut off and indifferent were the people at the ministry of external affairs in Delhi. India should have taken the threat seriously, given that in August two British workers had been killed. There was no attempt made to contact the abductors.
Now what is the status of other workers of the Border Roads Organisation in Afghanistan? What security do they have? How unsafe are they? Are their lives also so cheap like Kutty's and ready to be gifted away to terrorists.
Terrorism is like any other crime in our society. What makes it news is its gigantic proportion and devastating reach and impact. Terrorism has always been there, and will continue to be there in one form or the other. Even countries like the US, which have a national policy not to negotiate with terrorists, have well-structured backroom channels to deal with the menace. Recently, I read somewhere how Indian private companies, mainly IT companies, have tied up with global insurance agents, to deal with terrorists, if and when a need arises, so that their employees are never harmed.
Like in a war, you never want the enemy to get the upper hand. You don't want them to walk away victorious. Nothing should be done to give the impression that terrorism has won. Contacting terrorists doesn't mean giving into them. It's a method of engaging them.
Kutty was like a soldier on our borders. Life of workers like him is in the line of fire. Such workers are national heroes. Often their lives are lost, a sacrifice to uphold a larger good, a higher moral principle, a national interest. But what hurts greater than the loss of life is the way it was lost -- without making any attempt to hold on to it.
Kutty's life was lost without a fight.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Child missing from home

Quite ironically this had to happen a day after my previous posting on Nov 14, observed in India as Children's Day, when children are the focus of attention. My posting that day was on how elders need to radically change their ways of dealing with children.
The next day, Nov 15, at night around 9 I got a call from a friend saying her 13 year old son was missing from home. Children running away from home -- this is something that is at the back of every parent's mind, but you don't think it can happen until it does. Shocked, I just mumbled, "Did you check out everywhere...?"
Sobbing, the mother said, "I did. He is no where. Around 7.45, I had just asked him to kneel down as a punishment, since he hadn't studied what I had asked him to study. I flunked the book at him, and went to the kitchen seething in anger. After a few minutes when I returned to his room, he wasn't there. On his notebook he had scribbled: I am gone forever..."  
Since the boy is known to us, I hoped he might come to our house, or he might call up from somewhere, when he would realise that he had ventured into something that he couldn't pull off. With hope, I stayed home, rather than join their neighbours in the search. The fear was not that the boy wouldn't return before long, but what if, some criminals on seeing a vulnerable boy walking the street at night kidnaps him... It was too scary even to think... 
Around 10, a neighbour saw the boy apparently returning to the house, but on seeing the crowd, ran away. This gave everyone the hope that the boy was around the neighbourhood and hadn't gone far away.
The search continued. And, finally around 1 am the boy was found... curled up because of the intense cold, partially asleep... sitting on the floor of a nearby place of worship...
Relief all around. But it had sent shockwaves among his classmates and parents too.
A child (or for that matter anyone) would never take such a drastic step, unless he/she is under tremendous emotional stress. Obviously this boy was under lot of stress. Like many middleclass children, this boy too had lots of comforts at home. But that's not what mattered to him. It's what he missed.
The parents admitted to me that they used to beat the boy and shout at him. Their only complaint was the boy wasn't studying and was academics was on a downslide.
This is one problem that all parents face. How to keep their pre-teen and teenaged children under check. "You stop them, you are damned; you let them you are damned" -- that's situation they face. They are their wit's end not knowing how to react as highly enthusiastic, bubbly, confident, cheerful children are into everything... except studies.
The emotional trauma many children silently endure -- mainly because of lack of proper attention from their own parents -- is a reality which is not well recognised. The danger that lurks behind is enormous. If you are a parent (especially of a teenaged child), please do go through the points below. They are well-documented facts evolved by experts after intense study on modern child psychology. If you are not a parent, or you are not directly affected by this topic, please forward this to anyone you think will be interested.
1. Treat teenagers with respect. Don't insult them. Don't keep pointing out their mistakes, and never in front of others.
2. Don't compare them with other children. Each child is different and they are endowed with different abilities. Some may be slow learners, some may be fast. Some may be good at arts, some may be good at maths. Some may learn better by seeing, some may learn better by hearing. Every child has to be tackled in a unique manner, in a way that brings the best out of them.
3. Never beat pre-teen kids and teenagers. It's violent and demoralising.
4. Never nag children with commands and advices. If you think that a particular point has been made many times in the past (but not heed to) just repeat it once and leave it. Try to explain calmly without raising the voice why your child should listen to what you are saying. It works better when the kid is in the mood to listen.
5. Expose children to inspirational personalities. It works very quietly and at a subconscious level, and has a long-term impact.
6. Treat friendship with peers especially with those of opposite sex as quite normal. Never sound alarmist, though you need to keep a check, without seeming to do so. Never make fun of their boyfriends or girlfriends. What is a joke to a parent, could very well be an insult to the teenager. Be very cautious.
7. Explain matter of sex, if and when they crop up, in a matter of fact manner. Never instil the idea of "bad" or "guilt" with issues concerning sex. Tell them it is a physical activity like breathing, or an emotional feeling happiness, but they need to grow up to understand it fully. And, more importantly never say: "You won't understand" Instead assure them "You will understand as you grow up." There is enormous difference between the two.
8. Never harp too much on studies and marks. It irritates kids, and they lose whatever little interest they may have. If you see the marks dipping, try to find out why it is going down, rather than tell them: "study, study, study..." and punish them for not studying.
8. If you detect some marked deviant behaviour -- like disinterest in studies, arrogance, unruliness, lack of regard for what you are saying etc... treat it as a symptom of something wrong somewhere, rather than as a disease. Closely examine the child's activities, without making it obvious. Do an introspection and check if as a parent you aren't yourself committing a mistake somewhere.
10. Keep communication channels open with the child. Let him/her never be inhibited when interacting with parents.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Thought for Elders on Children's Day

Jawaharlal Nehru was not just the first Prime Minister of India and an erudite, socialist, Anglophile politician; but also had a great fan following among children, much like the current President Abdul Kalam. And, for that reason, his birth anniversary is celebrated in India as Children's Day.
It's a day when children are willingly let into a world where normally the writ of adults run. Thus, in schools and colleges, children swap places with teachers, they sit along side professional radio jockeys and go live on air, they hold centrestage in mock legislature and court proceedings. In short, for one single day, the elders willingly lend their ears, let the kids speak, let them be what they are, or what they want to be.
Most children have whale of a time on Children's Day. They do on other days too; until the fetters fall on their gay abandon; until they are structured subliminally to conform to societal stereotypes -- by, who else, elders. Children's Day, should have its share of heightened level of activities for them, but it's also a day for adults to ponder over their role in shaping children's future. How much of a good role model are we -- more importantly the celebrities and public personalities -- to the children?
Children are easily characterised as "tomorrow's citizens", "the future of the country", etc. But how much of time and effort are we investing in them? More often than not they are taken for granted. "O, they will grow up," is one ubiquitous adult remark about children. Of course, they will, as long as they get something to eat when they are hungry.
Children who are lucky to have the three basic needs -- to be fed, to be clothed and to be housed -- fulfilled, miss two equally important things: 1) caring for their emotional well-being, and 2) plenty of inspiration and role models.
The mind of a child in today's fast-changing world is hardly understood, most importantly by their own parents. Very few children -- blessed though they may be in all basic necessities, comforts and even luxury -- have a rocksolid foundation of good ideals and values in their very own homes. It is on this foundation, the child, when he grows up, falls upon when he is faced with crises, to draw, not just comfort, but resilience to spring back to life. Not surprising, many seemingly well-qualified elders stumble, wobble, collapse and rot away in times of crisis.
Role models, how many we have? And sadly today we have to ask, how genuine are they. For, there have been far too many instances of well-placed personalities and celebrities -- inspirational figures one day but -- stripped off their aura and plummeting to doom -- the next day. With crooks and criminals, in their original garb and also in disguise, abounding in multitudes, for a child to be inspired is a serendipitous chance.
This day belongs to adults to as much as to children. A day for the elders to stop and ponder, while kids make merry.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

K R Narayanan -- India's scholar President

Very rarely India has seen persons of scholarly pursuit occupying the office of the President. K R Narayanan -- arguably only the second person of such eminence, after S Radhakrishnan, to occupy the high constitutional position -- passed away yesterday in Delhi after battling lung and renal problems.

The Indian President is much like the Queen of England, only that in India the occupants are elected. President is the Head of the State, while the Prime Minister is the Head of the Government. The President has little executive power. Using his moral authority, he can only counsel the government, which is formed out of lawmakers who are elected directly by the people once in five years.

Funnily, the government needs the stamp of the President for almost all important decisions, even legislations approved by a majority vote. This peculiar role of the President has been many times misused by the ruling party to ram through -- mostly executive -- decisions without even giving a pretence of weightage to the wiser counsel of the President. And, this has given rise to even demands that the post be abolished.

But, the constitution has the provision for a President for very valid reasons. It's an entirely different issue that the executive hasn't often deemed fit to consider the views of the Head of the State.

It works like this. Being a democracy, in India, majority rules. For example, if the executive feels that the death penalty should be abolished, and majority of lawmakers concur with that, well then that's it. It's abolished. After such a law has been approved by the House of the People (Lok Sabha), it needs the stamp, approval of the President for it become a full-fledged law.

Thus it's one man's wisdom against a collective decision. This is a very essential check -- even in a democracy -- since what's right and wrong is also subjective and could vary. Even though 500 odd lawmakers represent a billion Indians, the crucial decision is, after all, that of 250+. And, it could very well be, if not wrong, at least not appropriate, or may need some tempering. Especially when highly political decisions are taken.

In the above example, if the public opinion is that death penalty shouldn't be abolished, and the independent media (which India is very fortunate to have) reflect this view, then the President (irrespective of whether he himself is in favour or not) has the responsibility to halt this law on its track and counsel the government to rethink on the legislation, probably modify it.

It's here the wisdom the President comes in. It's not that one man's decision is more dependable than that of 250+. What a President should actually contribute is an academic and scholarly input into a subject that is being put to a mere test of numbers. (Incidentally, in India the collective decision of elected lawmakers is also brought into scrutiny by the independent media.) And, of course finally, the voice of the majority will prevail. But the issue is: has it considered any inputs, if any, of the President.

There was a time, when the office of the President was mostly used as a tool for political expediency. It touched a nadir during the time of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Political parties that nominate candidates for presidential poll, have tended to pick malleable personalities rather than those with scholarly pursuits. Also, very rarely there has been healthy exchange of ideas between the legislature and the executive on side and the Head of State on the other.

Fortunately, there have been signs of change. And, Narayanan shone like a beacon. He was one intellect who made his views known, and didn't meekly surrender to majority decisions. Many times he has counselled the government on executive decisions, even -- defying tradition -- summoned ministers and bureaucrats for clarifications. He has forced the majority to stop, and ponder over their decisions. While many Presidents have been just rubber-stamps, Narayanan just did what he was supposed to do, and was often unfairly called an activist President.

The fact that Narayanan is the first President who belonged to the class of society (Dalits or untouchables) who were once -- as a matter of institutionalised social policy -- widely shunned and discriminated against is not important. Of course, he did capitalise on the constitutional provision of positive discrimination (reservation for socially marginalized people -- Narayanan was one such, because of his caste). But, that's precisely what he was supposed to do. But matters much more is the fact that his erudition and scholarship vindicated the positions of eminence he graced.

Narayanan was succeed in 2002 by an equally eminent person as the President -- Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist, who pioneered India's space and missile technology. Again like Narayanan, Kalam also worked hard his way up. Again, like Narayanan, he has infused life and dynamism to Presidency in his own way. Kalam's term expires in 2007.

Narayanan will always be looked upon as an ideal, who refused to bow down to adversity and who blended sound intellect with purposeful social practice to make India a still better place on Earth.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Natwar Shame

So, finally Natwar Singh is gone, but only partially, as India's foreign minister -- he remains as a minister without portfolio. More than a week after The Hindu broke the story about his name and that of the ruling party, the Congress, figuring in the report of Paul Volcker, who was asked by the United Nations to go into the scandal surrounding the allegations of bribery in UN's food-for-oil project for Iraq.
There is a saying to the effect that in politics the best confirmation is the denial. The more vehemently someone denies, the deeper he is in the mess. Or so that's the premise. And, ever since the news broke, Singh has been protesting his innocence louder and louder.
In politics it is often what's perceived that matters. Because, politics is more about popularity than anything else. You may not be guilty but if people perceive that you are, then you are as good as guilty. It's a price a politician pays for being in the game. We have heard of numerous scandals in India and abroad. To be fair to those whose names have figured, many of them may not been involved at all. And, there may not be any way to prove conclusively that the person was directly involved in the scandal.
Smart guys know that on such occasions it pays to take a few steps back rather than stand one's ground and scream. Since the dirt has been splashed and it has fallen on you (may be just because you happened to be around), the immediate concern should be to get out of the way so that more dirt doesn't fall on you. It's a pity that Natwar Singh, a career diplomat-turned politician, couldn't get it right but messed it up.
India's foreign minister selling oil is not the crime. He is said to have paid (indirectly through a front man) bribes to get Iraqi oil sold at international rates in contravention of the guidelines for oil-for-food programme. (UN rates for oil were much lower than the international rates.) May be he could argue that it was a political choice so that people of Iraq (who were suffering from the West's sanctions) could be benefited because of more money flowing in. The excuse of charity for committing a crime, neither sounds nor looks good, and worse, when the Foreign Minister of a country does that. Even though I have my sympathies for Iraqis, if my country's foreign minister did what is said to have done, I am ashamed.
Natwar Singh, who has a left-of-centre stand in international politics, was one of the diplomats who was roped into politics by Rajiv Gandhi. He is one person whose thoughts on international diplomacy I have been closely following, and I have been impressed by most of his views, especially on how international geopolitics must evolve post-Cold War.
How graceful it would have been if he had stepped down the very day the scandal broke. All his protestations of innocence would have had a much different meaning then. As it is said, "Power corrupts, and corrupts absolutely". How true!

Monday, November 7, 2005

Paris and Ahmedabad

As Paris burned, uncontrolled for the 10th day yesterday, my memories went back to the riots that broke out in Ahmedabad when I was there from 1990 to 96. That was a tumultuous period in the history of modern India. Though there were pathbreaking political, economic and social changes, what would be remembered most is the Babri Masjid demolition, which triggered nation-wide communal riots. 
Ahmedabad -- the commercial capital of the state where the famed apostle of peace and non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, was born -- had become a festering ground for rabid, radical, reactionary religious ideologies. To be tolerant was like being unworthy of existence; and every year there were at least half a dozen riots, big or small. For me getting curfew passes -- so that I could get to my newspaper office and back -- driving through deserted streets dotted with gun-wielding policemen, and listening to high-handedness of the administration and sufferings of people had become a routine exercise.
The way the Paris riots broke out reminded me of the way many of Ahmedabad riots broke out. Two children running frantically into a neighbourhood locality was enough to leave some 10 people dead by the end of the day. The fact that the children were probably running after a cricket ball wouldn't have been noticed. From nowhere a stone would have broken the glass panes of a house, in no time shops would have pulled down shutters, people run helter-skelter, probably some innocent stabbed, some car set afire.... another round of madness would have been let loose. 
Before police could have arrived at the spot, the incident (no one would know for sure what it actually was), ominously catalysed by rumours, would have spread to neighbouring localities and other communally sensitive areas.
Paris riots is an explosion of pent-up tension in the social fabric, similar to bouts of violence India sees. India is worse in many ways, as we have to grapple with multiple issues of complex divergence.
Such incidents are also a reminder that there's no land of absolute equality, liberty and justice. Affluence, glitter and glamour also hide an underlying strata of society, struggling for ever to establish its dignity and worth. It's just a question of where do you belong.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

How Pak prevails over US

Nearly 73,000 people died in the October 8 earthquake that hit Pak-Kashmir. But terrorism that springs from there is not just alive but retains all its ferocious potency. The Oct 29 triple blasts in Delhi and the Srinagar blast yesterday are ample proof of that. The quiet hope Indians had that the quake would have been a divine retribution has been belied, tragically.
Once when India blamed Pakistan, it used to be seen as some sort of a perverted paranoia of blame game. Post 9/11, the world is convinced about Pakistan being a crucible of terror groups, working not just against India but against the world.
When you think deeply, you can't but trace it all to Musharraf, very sweet sounding though he is. The only time you feel that the media-savvy general is really interested in dismantling the terror network is when says so. And, he has been saying so for years. Thanks to his excellent communication skills, part of the world still believes that he is genuinely trying to turn off the terror tap -- scores of attacks and hundreds of deaths notwithstanding.
The goody-goody image combines very well with a bargaining chip that the general wields quite effectively. It's the self-portrayal of him being the best guarantee against the nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. "Don't play with me too much. If you harm me, if I am gone, then the nuclear weapons will be in the hands of the terrorists," that's his implicit message to anyone who tries to tell him what to do and what not.
This has worked superbly against the US administration. That's Musharraf's victory, and a defeat for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld etc, which they have failed to notice. And, when the most powerful nation has been won over, what hope do the rest have?

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Diwali thoughts

The unfortunate few
It was downright depressing to see the photo in the newspapers today of a young boy with his right eye plastered. All of five years, Harshith has been operated upon for an injury he sustained while watching crackers being set off as part of Diwali celebrations. He is not alone. Some 40 cases of accidents have been reported in the last two days of revelry in Bangalore. Most of them in the age group of 10 to 20. Every city would have had similar cases.
We all had fun, setting off crackers and sparklers for Diwali. But accidents are accidents, all said and done. Brushing them off with a casual remark: "O, such things do happen" -- is not just being insensitive but cruel as well. We should learn lessons. Those accidents could definitely have been prevented, had someone been a little more careful. On such a festive occasion, those who were grievously injured didn't deserve it at all.
The noise
I don't like the loud crackers. I have never in my life burst one such myself. I have watched people setting them off. I could never make out what made them so happy. I wonder how such a piercing noise can ever be so enjoyable. Even if people enjoyed those ear-splitting bursts, I think they should have spared a thought for the little children, elders and the sick. It was an issue of moderation with a concern for others, not just the pleasure for oneself.
Spirit of Delhi
It was amazing the way people of Delhi got on to their feet after being shattered by the triple explosion on Saturday. Terrorists wanted to totally disrupt the Diwali celebrations. But the shops opened and people flocked back the very next day. By doing so, we didn't wipe off terrorism from the face of the earth. But it was a little act of resilience that would, in an incremental manner, make those acts of savagery meaningless. Scenes of diyas lit in memory of the departed had a touch of poignancy. It's not a battle that we have to win, but a larger war, that too a far too complicated one.