Monday, July 31, 2006

This war is different

It all began on July 12, a day after the Mumbai blasts. Overshadowed by the grief at home, it never hit the headlines here. I have wanted to write on it for some time. But I held back hoping the crisis wouldn’t last long and there would be peace.

Peace and West Asia. They are so disparate as cheese and chalk. Like a square peg in round hole, one just doesn’t fit in the other. A lot of chiselling has been going on for nearly half a century, but the edges have only got more jagged.

On July 12, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon fired rockets into Israel; kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, demanding release of a prisoner. In return, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert described the capture of the soldiers as "an act of war". Israeli planes bombed Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and troops crossed into southern Lebanon for the first time since the military withdrawal of 2000.

It’s not the first time Israel is getting involved in the sort of situation that it is right now. A violent birth, a violent existence: its history is full of blood; ironically, though the nation is in the midst of a land that spells peace.

The Jewish state has been, to the region, like a foreign particle that the body is trying to expel. But the numerically inferior group has stayed on with single-minded determination. The stay has been long enough for a minority in the area to accept its presence as a fait accompli. But that’s all about it. Blood spills ceaselessly.

There are a few indicators to the fact that this two-week old trauma is much different from what we have seen in the past.

One, every time in the past, when Israeli pursuit of terrorists has had collateral civilian deaths, it heeded the politically correct suggestion and called off the aggression. This time, post-Qana (where 54 people, including 34 children died yesterday), Israeli PM today said it will not cease fire. Air raids are off for two days, but ground offensive supported by air force is on.

Two, this is the first major conflagration in the area post-9/11. Today the troubles, big and small, are no longer isolated phenomena scattered across the globe confined to national boundaries and politics. Regional catalysts have coalesced into a global uprising. The terrorists are well and truly in the open with their intent and methods. The sheer enormity of the conflict shows this isn’t the sort of battle that was waged before.

Three, this Israel-Hezbollah fight is seen as a proxy war between the US and Iran. During the Cold War era, in the conflicts of Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan etc, the US and the USSR were there by proxy. We never had a direct US-USSR conflict, though the world came perilously close to it many times. Much before this, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a precursor for Germany-Italy and the Soviets to gird up for the World War II.

Today, are we on the threshold of something similar?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bruce Barton

I happened to read about this wonderful personality called Bruce Barton.

He was a man of many talents -- advertising executive, religious writer, copy writer and United States Congressman.

His quotes are well-known. Some of my favourites:

** Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change - this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.

** If you have anything really valuable to contribute to the world it will come through the expression of your own personality, that single spark of divinity that sets you off and makes you different from every other living creature.

** In good times, people want to advertise; in bad times, they have to.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Study of bloggers in US by Pew

The following is a piece I wrote for The Times of India, Bangalore, dated July 22, 2006:

Bloggers are referred to as "citizen journalists", as different from "professional journalists". But a survey in the US has found that only 34% of them consider their activity as journalism and 65% said it is not journalism.

At the same time, a majority of bloggers engage in practices generally associated with professional journalism, like giving credits, quotes, checking facts, etc, says a survey conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project, a Washington-based non-profit research centre studying the social effects of internet on Americans.

Fifty-seven per cent bloggers give credits in the form of links to original sources and 56% spend extra time trying to verify facts they want to include in a post. Forty per cent quote other people or media directly in their posts, while 20% of bloggers said they seek permission before posting copyrighted material on their blog.

Thirty-eight percent also posted corrections in their blogs. This was more prevalent in bloggers over 30 years and with college degree, the Pew study showed.

Most bloggers are also keen followers of current events, and also use blogs as a source of information. Ninety-five percent of bloggers said they get news from the internet, compared to 73% of all internet users. Bloggers were also found to be more dependent on technology for social interaction.

"My life and experiences" was the most preferred topic (37%) for blogging, 11% cited issues of public life like politics and government, 7% picked entertainment related issues, 6% sports and 5% news.

Twelve million American adults, or 8% or internet users, kept a blog. While 54% were under 30 years of age, 55% used a pseudonym and 84% described the activity as a "hobby" or "something I do, but not something I spend lot of time on". While 59% of bloggers just one or two hours per week on their blogs, while 25% spend 3 to 9 hours.

While 70% said they blogged only when they felt like, 22% did it on a regular basis.

Access the full report here

Friday, July 21, 2006

O, no! blogs are still blocked

There is still difficulty in accessing blogs, inspite of the Department of Telecommunication's clear note to the ISPs to block only the offensive websites.

The DoT, according to a press release, is also asking the ISPs why action should not be taken against them for blocking access altogether. There seems to be complete confusion over this issue.

Here's the PIB press release.

More edits on blog gag

Two more mainstream newspapers have carried editorial comments on the ISPs' arbitrary act of blocking webpages and websites.

The Hindu, in its editorial, An Assault on Free Speech, says:

"The action apparently followed a request from the Intelligence Bureau on security grounds. The order itself does not, as is the usual practice, invoke the authority of any law, nor is it clear why access was denied to the whole class of bloggers who are reported to be at least 40,000 strong...

"Blogs have indeed revolutionised the dissemination of information, particularly in times of crises such as the tsunami of 2004 and the recent Mumbai blasts. They have given ordinary people a voice that carries far. But to collectively view them as a threat to civil order appears to be a gross exaggeration."

Deccan Herald, in its editorial, Bloggers Win, says:

"Despite the removal of the blocks, bloggers still plan to go ahead with their PILs questioning the right of the government to block freedom of speech in the first place...

"Blogging in the cyber world serves as an expression of free will and commercial enterprise and it is this freedom that the government tried to curb. In a democracy this amounted to impinging on the constitutional right of freedom of expression. Censorship in any form in a democracy is abhorrent and condemnable and should never be attempted again."

Blogs are back

The ban is gone, after some four days. I could access Blogspot blogs today, a few minutes after midnight. The curb came quietly and seems to have also gone quietly. The widespread coverage the gag got in the mainstream media, and also hundreds of protest postings by Netizens across the nation, have no doubt, played their part in exposing the misguided action of someone, and in restoring order.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Times of India editorial on blog gag

The Times of India has editorially commented on the blanket shutting out all blogs. In today's first edit, "Cyber Gag", TOI says:

"For a nation that's supposed to be IT savvy, this ham-handed attempt at censorship betrays little understanding of either technology or security...

"What makes the blanket ban more appalling is that a site that rendered public service by listing phone numbers of hospitals where victims of the Mumbai blasts were taken, was also blocked by it...

"What's needed is to be able to anticipate threats to security, and work out coherent short- term as well as long-term strategies for meeting them."

Blog ban to be lifted?

Rediff has this news that the arbitrary blocking of blogs will be lifted in two days. Let's hope so!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blocking blogs makes no sense

Many of my regular readers, in most parts of India, may not be able to read the postings here, at least for some time, till the directive given by the government to ISPs to block blogs hosted on some sites is lifted. Since I can continue posting, and since even in India, I am told, some places can indeed access the blocked sites, let me continue blogging, which is totally innocuous.

On 17th night the first mails had come into my inbox from bloggers who were experiencing difficulty in accessing their own sites after publishing a post. The doubts that it could have been server problem were replaced by a combination of frustration and anguish as news spread like wildfire on the internet of the Indian government having told ISPs bar access to some blogs.

Yesterday I was fully busy with a reporting assignment and couldn't follow the strange censorship that had taken effect covertly. Today, I find that the blogsphere is all this and nothing else.

One person among the hundreds who have been diligently tracking the issue is Neha Viswanathan from London. Interestingly, the Indian media -- the print and the electronic -- have taken up the issue vigorously. The Times of India has an interesting article on how to Circumvent Censorship.

A typical case of throwing the baby with the bath water. Apparently the intent was to clamp down on malicious, rabid, inflammatory and, possibly even, subversive messages being posted by disruptive elements in the aftermath of the Mumbai blasts.

According to a Financial Express report, the government directive was to block only 18 URLs that were found to be offensive. The entire community is being blocked out, it seems, because the ISPs aren't equipped to filter all the pages, since the servers are located abroad. So, they have ended up blocking the entire domain, thus shutting down all the blogs.

Who broached this idea and who willingly gave the nod, is quite puzzling, in a country like India which is quite advanced in Information Technology. And, it is also by now, quite well known that such curbs don't work.

One, a prospective villain isn't going to be deterred by this ban at all. Two, since the virtual world of internet has a free-for-all element unlike the real world, it is in the nature of the medium to have a very broad spectrum of opinions on various issues. Truth and lie, real and fake, all coexist on one platform. Three, bans simply don't work, whether it be in the real world or in the virtual. Four, such curbs which have no sound basis only tempt technology whizkids to work on circumventing the hurdles. And, the more things are suppressed, stronger they bounce back.

And, if one has noticed, as much as the widespread protests, are alternatives that are freely flying over emails and discussion groups, on how to get around the block. The techies seem to have taken this as a challenge and seem to be in a race to invent or discover newer and newer methods!

The government -- if it suspected foul-play in the webworld -- should have got its techie sleuths to monitor suspicious sites. Our police and intelligence wings do have a cyber crime cells. What are they for, then? There is ample technology available to track down offensive websites, spy on its managers and content generators, and then to pounce on the villains who are misusing the wonderful cyberspace for disruptive activities.

Blocking out blogs in an arbitrary and blanket fashion is no way to ensure a citizen's safety. Nor it is a remotely acceptable way to educate people on vices and virtues of this world. This looks like another of our knee-jerk reactions to terror. Substantive efforts have to be mounted on ground, in the real world, to secure out lives.

I hope wiser counsel will prevail and this ban will be lifted before long.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Where is my Government?

Whenever there is a terrorist attack, the immediate response of the administration is to tighten security all across the nation, especially at key localities and installations.

The drill was gone through after Tuesday's bomb blasts in Mumbai too. So much so, that day before yesterday flights from Delhi were inordinately delayed consequent to unprecedented security checks.

Yesterday, there was a news item on wire services that Delhi airport had returned to normal. It wasn’t clear whether those elaborate preemptive security drills had all been give up. Looked like.

This is classically referred to as ‘knee-jerk reaction’. How absurd it is, if security is tightened only after major attacks, and, presumably, lax at all other times.

What US did; what we did

The explosions in Mumbai were among the worst terrorist attacks in India. True, India has grown up with terrorism. Only difference is, earlier we wept alone; today we have Bush, Blair and the rest of the world to weep along with us.

After 9/11, the US totally overhauled its security apparatus, at the risk of even going overboard. It's better to err on the right side, they thought. Loopholes were plugged. Security drills, in fact, became so invasive that people grumbled at first, but gradually came to terms with their inevitability. The US hasn't slackened one bit since then.

After our 7/11, it's déjà vu. Copy-book, stereotype reactions. Pakistan, SIMI, Lashkar, Kashmir, Nepal, Bangladesh, blame game, the arrests, unearthing of plots and circumstantial evidences... it's the same old stories all over again.

Not quite surprising. Our planning and strategizing aren't so much different from the way we have been trying to remove poverty ever since we got Independence; or the way we have been trying to uplift the downtrodden and discriminated. So clichéd.

When a man-made calamity of this magnitude takes place, besides the relief and succor for the victims, what is of paramount importance is for the Government of India to stamp its authority. There were emergency cabinet meetings and an address to the nation by the PM day before yesterday. With all due respects to the intellectual eminence of Dr Manmohan Singh, I must say that if one watched his body language, it was anything but one that conveyed the Stamp of the State's Authority.

Politics of terror

One reason for this seeming lassitude, perhaps, is a certain amount of weariness brought about by our prolonged exposure to terror of various magnitudes. Lack of civility, discourtesy, rudeness, corruption, constant disruptions to law and order in our society: we are cohabitants of terror.

Among the post-blast stories are how our politicians occupying positions of power have been acquiescing radicalism, militancy and fundamentalism. As shocking as Tuesday's explosions is our governmental inertia. Firstly, political flirtations with fundamentalism have to stop forthwith. A thin stream of oxygen it may be at best, but political nod for violent militancy is what sustains disruptive ideologies.

This is where our pride of being a great democracy falls flat. If you ask anyone why day before yesterday, our former defence minister and present chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Mulayam Singh Yadav exculpated SIMI, that is currently under security official’s scanner, pat comes the reply: for votes. Even if Yadav has his soft corner for the arraigned outfit, doesn't discretion warrant that at least he keep his mouth shut. Quite expectedly, yesterday, he says he never referred to SIMI in that manner.

Our style of bravado

It’s three days since the tragedy. Yet there is no relook at our national security apparatus; no meeting of chief ministers or state police chiefs to review policing methods; no new strategic initiatives to make the common persons’ lives safe; no move to outlaw parties or politicians proclaiming sympathy to terror outfits. (Incidentally, a week or so back, a new hi-tech equipment was installed at Karnataka chief minister's official residence to scan incoming vehicles for explosives.)

It is fine to talk of Pakistan's involvement. We show our bravado by telling Pakistan that we won't talk until they smash the terror network operating there. I don’t think the foreign secretaries’ meeting will take place. That's fine. But that is only a part of the solution. What are we ourselves doing to make our lives safer? Pretty little.

Our intelligence gathering network has to be strengthened and the authority should ruthlessly come down on suspects. SIMI has been implicated but not one person has been charged, much less convicted. Most of our convictions are on confessions rather than incontrovertible evidence. Where are our detectives and undercover agents?
Unless the State exercises its authority in no uncertain manner, chances of luck favouring us always are all too bleak. Pessimistic, perhaps; but realistic, I believe.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Zidane unconvincing

So, finally Zinedine Zidane has spoken, but he didn't tell exactly what Materazzi had said that led to the violent head butting during Sunday's world cup soccer final in Berlin.

He said to the effect that the Italian had said harsh, very personal things, about his mother and sister, two or three times.

France, as indicated by its media, has completely forgiven Zidane. Quite understandable.

But I am not convinced. Was Materazzi more important than world cup? Was that... whatever Materazzi uttered... worth giving up the World Cup Football Crown for. I fully believe the Cup was well and truly France's way.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mumbai blasts

Near simultaneous terrorist attacks at 7 places, across 25 km, from north to south of Mumbai, some three hours ago... This brings back memories of January 1993 explosions in Mumbai post-Babri Masjid demolitions.

The Parliament attack on Dec 13, 2001 was thought of as the worst terrorist attack in India. I think today's overtakes that in terms of extent, casualty; and the planning and coordination by the perpetrators.

Who could have undertaken this savagery? Without batting an eyelid, we all would point the finger across the border – the terrorists who have made Pakistan their base. Pakistan's condemnation is already in. The Pak government has said that terrorism is the bane of our times. The 9/11 made Gen Pervez Musharraf switch sides; but there is hardly anything on the ground to show that he has choked the lifeline of terrorists who are based there.

We are all so vulnerable. Terrorism is a virus for which no one has found a cure. Not even America's awesome military power has been able to stamp it out for ever. We don't need intelligence inputs to know that terrorist attacks could be coming. As Margaret Thatcher said after the Hilton hotel attack, "We need to be lucky always, a terrorist needs be lucky only once."

Home minister Shivraj Patil says there were intelligence tipoffs. May be someone up there took those hints lightly and just slept over vital clues. If that was the case, the blame should be fixed. There is a limit to which we can blame Pakistan. We need to protect ourselves. Our intelligence gathering and security apparatus are most often found wanting, to say the least.

At an individual level, we can only get philosophical and spiritual on such occasions. All one can do is to try and get back on our feet as quickly as possible and get on with our daily lives. There is nothing to gain by fretting and fuming over things over which we have little control. What we can actually do is to find a way forward, because we have to move forward.

It's not the first time Mumbai has been devastated, either by man-made disaster or natural. Every time, the city has shown its resilience. This time too Mumbai will overcome the tragedy. Let everyone out there in Mumbai know that the whole of India is with them.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Shame, Zidane!

What a World Cup Final match it was! Soccer-wise, it was such a great match. But it ended in such a disappointment.

I was... no longer I’m... a fan of Zinedine Zidane. He started off as a footballer on the streets of Marseille. And, he ended his wonderful career in utter disgrace as a street-fighter. Instead of walking off with the Soccer World Cup, head held high, Zidane ambled away, head bowed, mid-match after being sent off by the referee.

Zidane may have his story to tell on why he violently head-butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi with just 10 minutes left in the extra-time. Materazzi may have said something very nasty to Zidane. But nothing justified what Zidane did – launching his head into the chest of the Italian, who fell back on to the ground. It was sheer madness. A man of his experience, he just couldn’t let himself fly off the handle on such an important occasion.

Only six minutes earlier, Zidane had leapt gloriously into air to head one into the goal but only to be punched off by Italian goalie Buffon. We all kept talking how Zidane could dictate the course of a match; how he was leading the French attack on Italy's impenetrable defence, especially in the second half. When he was injured, we felt how France needed him on the ground to get the victory they deserved.

After Zidane was red-carded, on his last match, I didn't want France to win. A team led by such a guy didn't deserve to win, irrespective of how well they played.

Okay, Zidane has a history of violent temper... He had once stamped his boots into the thigh of a Saudi player. I thought he had overcome that. And, it was such a shock to see the TV replay of Zidane's madness. Horrible. What a disgraceful way to end one’s glorious career. What a shame, not just for Zidane or France, even for the game.

There is an argument that since the referee didn't see Zidane's act, it wasn't an offence. It was Buffon who protested. Then, referee Horacio Elizondo of Argentina consulted the lineman; and sent Zidane out. I wouldn't agree with the view that the protest should not have been upheld this way. It was such a grave offence that the dignity and glory of the game had to be protected.

Not that Italy didn’t deserve to win: 6-4 (1-1 after extra time). With a wonderful defence, they held together against French onslaught. But, are we now going to talk about Italy or Zidane?

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Sports extravaganza

What an evening it'll be today!

4.30 pm: Bangalore Derby.

6.30 pm: Wimbledon Men's Final
11.30 pm: Soccer World Cup Final

At Wimbledon, it will be one of the best matches. The Australian Open champion, Roger Federer, taking on French Open champion, Rafael Nadal. It's the first time since 1952, that the pair who played the final in Paris would also be playing the Wimbledon final. It's really difficult to see who will win, though my guess is Federer will.

In the World Cup, I am with France, which is a stronger team than Italy.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Emotional torture of children

When I was a student, I detested people, mainly elders, asking probing questions about studies. How many marks did you get? How much did he get? How much did she get? O, I am sure you could have got a little more. Why, was the exam paper tough? See, she hardly studies, how she gets good marks! Very intelligent girl!!

How the hell it matters them, I always thought. I was reminded of this when I saw a parent launch into a tirade of comparison and deprecation of a child.

A couple of questions, which indicate a healthy curiosity for someone they care for, are fine. But where the discussion and the probing questions become disgusting is when they launch into a game of comparison, pitting one kid against the other. It can be torturous for children who are made to listen all these. An emotional torture, which takes place in a very subtle manner.

Unfortunately, in spite of all the education and awareness, many parents still get into this unhealthy practice. At the heart of the parent is a good intention. But that’s not the way a child perceives. Nothing is more nagging and frustrating for a child than being compared to another child, that too by his or her parent.

The damage a parent causes to the child this way is enormous and often underestimated. The child becomes cynical, defeatist and loses respect for parents. The damage becomes apparent and plays out later in life, in their ’20s and early ’30s. I wonder if some of the behavioural deformities of adults could be attributed to such flawed childhood.

I am not surprised when late teenagers or young adults commit suicide, after examinations. Imagine what they must have been subjected to if they simply had nothing to clutch on.

In the midst of all luxury and material comforts, what many children miss out nowadays is a reassuring cushion at the emotional level that home alone can provide .

Every child, every individual in fact, is unique and gifted in his or her own way. What a child needs in these days is encouragement and positive reinforcement. Let us not belittle children, and make them feel useless.