Saturday, 17 January 2015

Book Review: Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, by Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan

Around 15 months after the release of leading corporate lawyer Zia Mody’s 10 Judgements That Changed India, two young and enterprising lawyers have brought out a book on criminal cases that caused India to shudder. Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan’s Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, cannot be called a thriller since the twenty cases analysed in the slim paperback volume are well-known to most Indians. However, what makes it a worthwhile read is the analysis and comments that intersperse the well-known facts.

Most cases involve a murder or two and the death penalty. One meets Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the cruel watchman in Kolkata who tormented and later murdered young schoolgirl Hetal Parekh. Santosh Kumar Singh who murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manu Sharma who shot and killed Jessica Lal aren’t missing. Baby faced Ajmal Kasab, Auto Shankar, Charles Shobraj, they are all there. The one person who I expected to find, but didn’t was Commander Kawas Nanavati. I guess the author had to leave out a number of big-time baddies and most probably there is some soul-searching going on in hell on account their omissions.

The best thing about 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is that Bhadra and Khan have done an excellent job of summarising each of the twenty cases and presenting them in a single-gulp capsule, garlanded with their commentary. For example, I had heard of Auto Shankar but had forgotten what exactly he had done (which was to run a few brothels and murder many prostitutes). Be it white collar offenders like Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh or Abdul Karim Telgi or events such as the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the reader is presented with a summary which is concise, to the point and lays open the various social and legal issues arising out of the case.

With the explosive growth in technology and information services, the media is all powerful and pervasive. Therefore, every time a sensational case comes up for trial, the media comes up with its verdict in a matter of days, if not hours, something which might be a problem since the judicial system takes many months if not years to produce a verdict and in the meantime, the media trial may influence or even prejudice the judges, making it impossible for the accused to have a fair trial. Bhadra and Khan tell us that trial by media was a concern in the Dhananjoy Chatterjee murder case. The only available evidence against Chatterjee was circumstantial and the media frenzy made it impossible for the trial to be held in a sterile environment. Bhadra and Khan wonder if the judges were affected by the sensational reporting that took place. They too are human, after all.

What happens when the murderer is someone powerful or related to someone powerful? Santosh Kumar Singh who continually harassed and later raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo was the son of a respected police officer. If he weren’t the son of a well-known police officer, would he have been acquitted by the trial court, though the trial court pointed out flaws in the CBI’s investigation? In the case of Nitish Katara’s murder, the accused Vikas Yadav was the son of influential politician D. P. Yadav. Similarly, Manu Sharma who murdered Jessica Lal, was the son of a Congress politician and Rajya Sabha MP. He was also distantly related to former president Shankar Dayal Sharma. Incidentally, in all these cases where justice was finally done, even though it took public protests to get there, the victims were also either middle-class or enjoyed some degree of respectability in society. For example, Nitish Katara was the son of an IAS officer. If Priyadarshini Mattoo had been a slum dweller instead of a middle-class girl, would she have got justice, I wonder? The Nithari Killings case illustrates this point. There, the victims were children of migrant labourers and the murder trial brought to the fore the lackadisical manner in which police respond to any crime involving poor people. However, the sheer depravity of the murderer made it impossible for the police to maintain their inertia. The murderer, Surinder Kohli, is still on death row.

Sometimes when the offence committed is particularly heinous, the accused, even if powerful, well-connected and rich, is left high and dry by his fair-weather friends, as happened to politician Sushil Sharma who murdered his wife Naina Sahni and had her burned in a tandoor. Unlike in the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case, Sushil Sharma was sentenced to death by the trial court. The High Court confirmed his death sentence. However, the Supreme Court, rightly in my opinion, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, pointing out that mere brutality does not justify a death sentence. Sushil Sharma’s actions were not premeditated, he had shot his wife dead in a fit of rage and his brutality was to the corpse.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was another politician who seemingly got away with corruption. The case arose when during a no-confidence motion in July 1993, cash bribes to the tune of Rs. 3 crores were allegedly paid to MPs from the Jharkand Mukti Morcha and other parties to defeat the motion. When in the dock, Rao invoked the defence of Parliamentary privilege. He also claimed that politicians were not public servants and hence not covered by the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1986. Though his conviction was overturned due to lack of sufficient evidence, the court did not fall in line with Rao’s arguments.

In some cases, it would appear that the final verdict shielded the mighty and powerful. In the Auto Shankar case, the accused took his secrets to the grave, possibly shielding some powerful politicians. In the Jain Hawala Case, many high profile politicians like Sharad Yadav, L. K. Advani and Arjun Singh were involved. It was held by various high courts and the Supreme Court that there was insufficient evidence to convict them. Can the prosecution successfully prosecute people who control it, Bhadra and Khan ask?

Even death row convicts are entitled to rights. What happens when a convict awaiting execution suffers from the Death Row Syndrome? It is perfectly understandable that a condemned prisoner would undergo severe trauma while waiting for his or her execution. In the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, the death row syndrome was sufficient cause for the commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is not restricted to murder cases. The infamous Telgi stamp paper scam, a case involving stamp paper forgery on a massive scale, led to many reforms in collection of stamp duty in Maharashtra, E-stamping is a direct consequence of this case. Charles Shobraj was a killer and a conman, but he successfully filed cases against the government seeking better prison conditions and rights for prisoners.

Not surprisingly, the Sanjay Dutt case finds a place among the top twenty. After all, how many famous film personalities can claim to have had been in touch with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees and hidden a chache of weapons on their behalf? However, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India does not discuss the matter of Sanjay Dutt’s frequent furloughs from jail.

It can be argued that rape is as heinous a crime as murder. Hanufa Khatun was a visiting Bangladeshi national who was raped inside a waiting room in a railway station. Chandrima Das, an advocate practising in Kolkata, filed a writ petition seeking compensation, making it possible for the Supreme Court to opine on important questions such as whether compensation may be claimed from the government for harm suffered on account of the private acts of government employees and whether a foreign national may file a writ petition against the Indian government. The Vishaka Case was filed by a number of women’s organisations subsequent to the Bhanwari Devi gang rape and it led the Supreme Court to define sexual harassment at workplaces and prescribe guidelines to prevent it.

Nothing exemplifies the need for a good witness protection programme as the Best Bakery Case. Immediately after the targeted slaughter at Best Bakery during the 2002 Gujarat riots, nineteen year old Zaheera Sheikh, daughter of the bakery’s owner, filed an FIR. The prosecution did not win any brownie points during the trial, at the end of which 21 accused were acquitted. 37 out of 73 witnesses turned hostile, including Zaheera who had lost so much during the attack. An outcry followed and the case was moved to Mumbai. Later Tehelka showed Zaheera receiving an 18-lakh bribe from a BJP MLA. The Best Bakery Case exposed so many flaws in the Indian judicial system and emphasised the importance of witness protection programmes, something which is lacking even now.

Bhadra and Khan call the Nitish Katara murder an honour killing. What’s more, I got the impression that it was described thus even by the trial court. Wikipedia, which is my main point of reference for almost everything these days, describes an honour killing as 'the homicide of a member of a family by other members due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principals of a religion'. In other words, when a man is killed by his girlfriend's or fiancée’s family members, it is not an honour killing. Just nitpicking!

Bhadra and Khan have reserved the best, or rather the most interesting case, for the last. Afzal Guru was hanged in February 2013 after he was convicted of having played a central role in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Was Afzal Guru really involved in the attacks, the authors wonder? The only link between Afzal Guru and the deceased militants was that the latter seemed to have made calls to Afzal Guru’s mobile phone. I am not going to divulge any more here. Please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India at times ventures into issues which are very much outside the scope of crime and punishment. For example, while discussing the Naina Sahni Tandoor murder, Bhadra and Khan ponder over how the case ‘brings to light the consequences of living in a society where choices are often dictated by religion. If Naina could have married the man she truly loved, she would have still be alive.

On the whole, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, is well-written and is an excellent read, especially for non-lawyers who want to hear it from the horses’ mouths.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Book Review: Pirates of Bollywood, by Kalyan C. Kankanala

All of us living in Indian towns and cities have seen pirated books and CDs being sold at traffic signals and on sidewalks. I’m sure many of us wonder why the police doesn’t take any action against an activity which violates the law so blatantly. True, piracy is an offence which only harms the owners and creators of the literary creations which have been pirated. A number of human beings make a living out of piracy and pirated goods are much cheaper than the real stuff, which makes a number of buyers happy. Another important reason is the general lack of awareness regarding intellectual property rights.

In Kalyan C. Kankanala’s latest IP blockbuster Pirates of Bollywood, Arjun Mamidi, once again plays the lead role. Those who read Kankanala’s previous novel Road Humps and Sidewalks, would be familiar with Arjun, the clever IP lawyer from Hyderabad. Arjun’s pretty wife Shreya, Associate Jose and guide dog (Arjun is blind) Neo also make an appearance. Since Pirates of Bollywood is all about piracy of Bollywood movies, a number of actors and producers make it to the cast. All of Kankanala’s characters are very Bollywoodish, with a fair dose of masala thrown in. This applies to the police officers as well, especially the pretty Helen Joseph.

The plot revolves around the attempt by Ganesh Shan, the Chairman of Tunes, one of the largest production houses in Bollywood, to execute Project Pi, with assistance from Krish and Khan, a management consultancy firm. Project Pi would see a multi-pronged assault on piracy of Bollywood movies. Naturally, there are many who do not want Project Pi to take off and as the project gets underway, the bodies start to pile up.

As may be expected from Arjun Mamidi’s fans, there are some courtroom scenes where Arjun gets to display his erudition and knowledge of law. Just as in Road Humps and Sidewalks, Arjun gets into harm’s way more often than not.

Kankanala introduces the concept of piracy rights. In case you haven’t heard of it before, piracy rights enable to holder of those rights to sell pirated copies of the movie or book or other intellectual property, with the blessings of the copyright holder, who would take stringent action against all pirates, except the holder of piracy rights. I guess piracy rights are awarded when a copyright holder believes that piracy cannot be stopped and would rather channelize it fruitfully. All of this is illegal of course. I’m not going to explain any more here, because if I do, I’d give away the plot. I’ll leave it to you to read this very interesting novel and find out for yourself.

Kankanala writes in simple English, though there is a surfeit of adjectives and clichéd phrases. None of that detracts from the plot or the suspense as the story unfolds. A very interesting read, I would recommend Pirates of Bollywood to everyone interested in knowing more about the status of intellectual property rights in the Bollywood film industry.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book Review: Warrior by Olivier Lafont

There are novels and novels and novels. Realistic literary novels bring to you the grime of real life, the sweat dripping off the brow, smiles and tears, joy and sorrow, usually in moderate measure. The beauty of the narration, the quick turn of phrase and the author’s eye for detail, if administered properly and in the right measure, could make the literary novel a pleasure to read, for readers who appreciate such stuff. Chicklits and thrillers are essentially fantasy novels, but attempt to persuade the reader to identify with the hero or heroine and also cling on to the faint hope that all of it could happen in real life. A genuine fantasy novel on the other hand takes the reader to a fantasy land and keeps him or her there on the strength of the fantasy. The characters and settings are so far off from reality that the reader is under no illusion that the story could come true. Just as in the case of thrillers, the prose may not be up to the mark all the time and the writer’s strength of imagination needs to be supremely high and fascinating in order to carry the story.

There are writers and writers and writers. There are real writers and there are ghost writers who write autobiographies for celebrities, or help out those who want to be known as writers, but can’t really write. It is rare to find a celebrity (other than a famous writer) write well. Olivier Lafont, of mixed Indo-French heritage, known to Bollywood fans as Sunit Tandon of the 3 Idiots fame, is one of the delightful exceptions to this rule. A well-known personality in the Indian movie and TV circuits, Lafont’s debut novel Warrior, an adventure fantasy, has been published by Penguin India very recently.

The initial part of the novel is set in Mumbai, in suburbs such as Mahim and Bandra and well-known roads and landmarks such as Turner Road, Carter Road, Linking Road, Pali Hill etc. The end of the world seems to be neigh and Lord Shiva’s son Saam’s blissful existence is thrown into turmoil. Saam leads a humble, non-descript existence as a watch mender, with his live-in girlfriend Maya when the monsoon brings, of all things, snow to tropical Mumbai. There is turmoil and there are riots. People panic and godmen and charlatans reign. The Peerless meet to take stock of the situation and it falls upon Saam, the only demi-God in attendance, to save the world. To do so, Saam who has been living on earth for a few centuries in various guises, has to risk all that he has. Saam’s bout of indecision (before he finally makes up his mind) reminded me of Arjun’s dilemma in the Mahabharat. Arjun had Lord Krishna to help him make up his mind. Saam doesn’t have anyone.

By the time Saam is ready to start his crusade, Mumbai has had heavy showers, not of normal rain, but showers of blood. Saam sallies forth with a few companions and Maya. One of his companions is Ara, his half-brother with whom he has a love-hate relationship. The companions are a disparate bunch – some of them like Lalbaal, Moti and Fateh are very strong and powerful and are not mere mortals, but the scholar Fazal is not only human, but also rather frail. Saam has to locate the Kaal Veda if he is to save the world. What follows next is an advanced version of Star Trek, mixed up with a lot of genuinely good original stuff as Lafont stretches his readers’ imagination to unbelievable levels and takes them to the ends of this earth on steeds which have received the Supreme Blessing and are invincible. And when I started to think that I couldn’t possibly take anymore, Saam and his companions take the Ship of Worlds in search of the Kaal Veda for a trip out of the known world, into a different dimension in terms of space and time. During the voyage, they pick up another companion, Lieutenant Goeffery Gordon, formerly of the British Indian army and its Afghan campaigns. The Lieutenant carries an old fashioned Baker carbine. The carbine and the Lieutenant stay loyal to Saam till the end. Some of his other companions don’t.

Warrior moves back and forth in time and as Saam has brushes with the Marathas, the Portuguese and the Colonial British, Lafont demonstrates his mastery over Indian history and mythology. Time and again Warrior reminded me of the Mahabharata, as the demi-god Saam and other immortals and extra-terrestrials battle each other as the earth lurches towards its end. Lafont’s descriptions of battles are impeccable and there are no repetitions, no easy task when the entire 374 page tome is peppered with fights and battles. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the best thing about Warrior is the way it pushes the limits of credulity. For example, while on the Ship of Worlds, Saam is forced to explain Earth and its inhabitants to a being who hails from a place mostly composed of metals and hard minerals, where carbon is a rare and prized element found only in the deep earth. ‘We are carbon-based creatures. On our world, most creatures subsist on a combination of oxygenated water or air, and a complex mix of molecules. We are organic. That is to say, we develop and grow from absorption of basic elements. In time, we grow old and lose out earlier functionality, till we die.

Warrior is what we Indians call paisa vassol. It is pure entertainment and despite a story line vaguely similar to the Mahabharata, does not come with a goody-goody message. I do not want to disclose more and give away the ending and spoil it for other readers, but I strongly recommend this novel to everyone who wants his or her imagination to be taken for a soaring, topsy-turvy, stomach-churning and terrifying ride.

Warrior was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 3: Kurukshetra by Krishna Udayasankar

Kurukshetra is the third and final book in Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy. As was expected and as the book’s title suggests, the Great War takes centre stage and the book is almost entirely devoted to it.

As the war unfolded, I wondered what shape it would take. Would it be a violent ancient battle fought by sturdy men who lived and died violently, battle axes and bows in hand and no technology at play? Or would it involve advanced weaponry, arrows intercepting other arrows, warheads raining death and destruction, involving technology which would not be out of place in the modern day battlefield. As mentioned in my reviews of the first two books in this trilogy, namely Govinda and Kaurava, Udayasankar has mortalised all the characters in the Mahabharata, with the gentle suggestion that those brave and exceptional beings later became legends over the millennia. This approach led me to expect a battle without any shock and awe technology. On the other hand, I remembered that Udayasankar had retained a trump card in the form of Firewrights, the secret order of inventors and craftsmen who created technology which was out of the world, for that day and age. The Firstborns may have crushed the Firewrights, but their technology survives, as do many Firewrights in disguse. We are told that Drona and Ashvattama were Firewrights, as was Govinda Shauri, aka Krishna.

Ultimately Udayasankar treads a fine line on the battlefield, as she keeps her characters very much mortal, but reluctantly gives them occasional access to Firewright technology, which allows arrows to intercept arrows, missiles loaded with black nitre to be launched and poison gas to be deployed. Udayasankar’s approach works well and one is treated to a realistic narrative of an ancient battle involving modern day technology.

The Kurukshetra War has a number of sub-legends such as Abhimanyu’s attempt to enter the chakravyuh and his consequent death, Jayadrath’s death at the hands of Arjuna, Grand Sire Bhisma’s fall, the duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim etc. and Udayasankar deals with all of these with elan. I waited for Dharma to say Aswathama Hatha Kunjara, but those exact words were missing in Udayasankar’s realistic narrative, though Dharma does come close to saying those words.

I had never heard the story of Bhagadatta and his war elephant Supratika and I would say that Udayasankar’s execution of this particular sub-story is possibly one of the best sections of Book 3. I could feel the terrible fear experienced by the Pandava line as Bhagadatta’s war elephants charged towards them, but as the great Supratika fell, I couldn’t help, but feel extremely sad. The duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim is almost equally good.

During the Second World War, as Nazi Germany baulked at the idea of mobilising its women, the Soviets went all out inducting women not only into factories, but even to the battlefield. The USA and UK followed suit, but to a lesser extent. Udayasankar takes a leaf from the Allied diary and tells that that the Pandavas did the same by enrolling commoners who were not Arya by birth. However, the Pandavas are still vastly outnumbered by the Kauravas and each day on the battlefield depletes their army, whilst the Kauravas take far fewer casualties. Consequently, the ratio of Kauravas to Pandavas is further skewed as the battle progresses.

Were Hidimba, Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha and other Rakshasas really non-humans, ogres or giants as the legends have made them out to be? Not according to Udayasanakar who offers a perfectly rational explanation for the gentle forest dwellers (she calls them Rishasas) who ended up fighting on the side of the Pandavas. Similarly, Udayasankar tells us that the brave warrior Shikhandin (Shikandi) was not a eunuch, but rather the victim of calumny by his ex-wife.

If Panchali walked away with the honours in Book 2: Kaurava, Uttara does the catwalk in Book 3: Kurukshetra. Just like Panchali, Uttara is showed to be a strong female, one who gets her husband Abhimanyu to treat her as an equal and grow to love her. However, Uttara gets on better with demure Subhadra than with strong-willed Panchali. I’ll not disclose any more here, but will leave it to you to read this fantastic book and find out for yourself why this should be so.

Just as in the first two books, almost all characters in Kurukshetra come in shades of grey. Yudhistir or Dharma, as Udayasankar calls him, continues to be an object of derision, though he too shows a few redeeming qualities.

Towards the end, Udayasankar discloses the identity of the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights, which is yet another reason to pick up book 3. Go on, do buy this fantastic book and read it and if you haven’t already read the first two books in this trilogy, do read them beforehand, even though it is perfectly possible to enjoy Kurukshetra without having read Govinda or Kaurava.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Book Review: Wisdom of the White Mountain by Kandathil Sebastian

A human being born at the bottom of the Indian caste ladder is almost certainly doomed for the rest of his or her life. So it seems to the case for Thomas, a fair-skinned dalit Christian boy whose real father is upper caste landlord Shivaraman Nair. Being a Christian is of little use since upper caste Christians shun him. His dark-skinned foster father hates him since it is obvious to everyone that he is not the real father. His biological father is ashamed of his existence and plots to wipe him off the face of the earth.

Those who succeed in life, those who become rich and famous, those who make a lot of money, are not necessarily those who have worked hard or are extremely intelligent. Providence or sheer luck, if you will, plays a big role. So it seems to be the case with Thomas, or Thoma as his fellow villagers call him. Escaping from the jaws of death, Thoma, along with his friend Balu, runs away from his native village and makes his way (inadvertently) to the big city (Kochi) where he falls in the lap of a gang of hit men, who like him and adopt him. Just as some people are lucky with games of chance, Thoma is lucky with adventure. From the gang of hit men, he ends up with a group of Islamic fundamentalists, who too decide to help him and use him for their own ends. Thoma sees a lot of violence and his journeys take him to Pakistan and Kashmir.

However, lady luck does not desert him. Towards the end of the novel, Thoma achieves material success, though his riches are on account of his becoming an ascetic. A pretty western woman is willing to satisfy him sexually, for her own ulterior motives. However, Thoma doesn’t care for wealth or comfort anymore.

Kandathil Sebastian’s novel Wisdom of the White Mountain, the second in his Mountain Trilogy, is not merely the story of Thoma and his escapades. Rather, it asks profound questions about the purpose behind human existence and examines the root cause of sorrow in the world. Sebastian’s first book, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, was more about the severe damage caused to the western ghats by human intervention and exploitation.

Written in simple English, Wisdom of the White Mountain conveys to its readers the immateriality of wealth and riches and the importance of peace of mind, something Thoma looks for everywhere and achieves only towards the end.

Wisdom of the White Mountain runs to less than 200 pages and I finished it is a couple of two hour easy sittings.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Book Review: The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, by Salil Tripathi

I have been fascinated and perplexed by Bangladesh (actually more perplexed than fascinated) ever since I became interested in international politics. One of the many unanswered questions I’ve had about Bangladesh is how the founding father of Bangladesh and almost his entire family, including ten-year old son Russell Sheikh, could be killed within less than 4 years of its independence. I remember once discussing this with a stranger on a train – I must have been fifteen then and my correspondent had made a claim to extensive knowledge of global politics – how Bangabhandu and his entire family could be killed by Bangladeshi army officers, who were unpunished as yet, then. ‘Mujibur Rahman was a good man, but he was surrounded by bad people, especially his sons, who were really nasty. One of them once abducted a senior army officer’s wife, just because he liked her and you know what he did to her, and the army officer couldn’t do anything about it. Just like that. They were above the law. The army men hated Majuibur Rahman and his family so much that when they launched their coup, they killed them all.’ It would be an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked. To be honest, I did not fully believe that story, traces of which can be found on the internet, such as here and here.

As I grew older, I kept looking for answers to my questions. I found some answers, but until I read Salil Tripathi’s latest book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent - The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, no one had satisfactorily answered my questions regarding Mujibur Rahman’s killing and the aftermath. Tripathi gives a number of interlinked reasons as he explains how the mid-level army officers who plotted and carried out Mujib’s executions not only succeeded, but also got away for so long, until Mujib’s daughter Hasina came to power in 1996 and set in motion the wheels of justice (or revenge, if you will).

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is not just about Mujib’s killing and the delivery of justice (or retribution) to his killers. Rather, it is a concise history of Bengal, starting from the arrival of Islam leading to the East India Company’s rule and Curzon’s partition of Bengal. The 350-odd page tome ends in January 2010 when Farooq Rahman and Mujib’s other killers went to the gallows.

I found Mujib’s personality, as sketched by Tripathi, to be fascinating. Tripathi tells us that Mujib was a physically weak child, taking two years to complete his third grade. He also needed eye surgery and missed four years of schooling as a child. However, when he reached adulthood, he was tall and handsome. He married at the age of eighteen. He studied law, but never graduated. He became close to Suhrawardy and stood by him during the Calcutta riots, which Suhrawardy was responsible for. However, after Pakistan became independent, he was vociferous in his opposition to Urdu. In short, I got the impression that Mujib was an emotional man with charisma who, if he hadn’t become a successful politician, would have turned out to be one of those absolute no-gooders who drink tea at way-side stalls and pontificate endlessly.

As for the story that one of Mujib’s sons had abducted and raped an army officer’s wife, Tripathi merely says that ‘there had been rumours that an Awami politician had misbehaved with Brigadier Dalim’s wife at a party. He had complained to Mujib, but Mujib hadn’t taken the complaint seriously.’ This was only one of the various reasons why some army officers got really annoyed with Mujib and killed him, along with his family.

The reasons for Bengalis in East Pakistan wanting their own country has been well-documented and repeated ad nauseam. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, many in East Pakistan were angry that East Pakistan was left undefended. West Pakistan got the bulk of resources and development. When Cyclone Bhola stuck, West Pakistan sat back and smirked. On top of it all, Punjabis could not understand why Bengalis loved to sing and dance and follow other Bengali customs which seemed to be entirely “Hindu”. These are covered by Tripathi too and there are no big surprises. However, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent also provides answers to a few other questions which have tormented me for a long time. How could Pakistan and Bangladesh resume normal ties and become rather good friends, if Pakistani troops had indeed massacred over 3 million Bengalis, as widely claimed, I’ve always wondered? Also, if India had sacrificed its soldiers so that Bangladesh could be free, how come there is so much animosity towards India in Bangladesh? I have blogged about these questions in the past. Tripathi offers some answers. It should not be forgotten that East Bengal had in 1947 opted to be with Pakistan, rather than India. There are many more reasons which are of course much more nuanced than I could explain in the course of a book review. Do please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

Did Pakistan play a role in Mujib’s killing? Tripathi does not rule out the possibility. How else could Pakistan come out in support of the new rulers within a few hours of Mujib’s execution? Tripathi wonders.

After Mujib’s assassination, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad took over power. Mujib’s killers received praise and promotions. Various leaders perceived to be pro-India were arrested and less than two months later, on 3 November 1975, the imprisoned leaders were executed in jail, allegedly on Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad’s orders. At the same time, a counter-coup took place on 3 November 1975, allegedly at India’s behest and Khaled Mosharraf took over power. Four days later, on 7 November 1975, there was a counter-coup to the counter-coup and Ziaur Rahman was 'the last man left standing'. Trust me, Tripathi explains all of this much better and in greater detail and you’d better hear it from him.

Interestingly, Tripathi tells us that when Bengalis in East Pakistan started to fight for independence, the Indian government had wondered if the Indian state of West Bengal also join the struggle and seek unification with Bangladesh. I found that funny. Tripathi is painfully dispassionate when he says that 'the decision to send the troops into East Pakistan was particularly hard and difficult for India, since its foreign policy was based on peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in particular its neighbours. The policy was based on hard, cynical and practical reasons – India didn’t want the world to poke its nose in Kashmir, and it already had Tibetan refugees, it did not want to appear to be interfering in internal affairs of others.

Did Pakistani forces kill three million people during the period from 25 March 1971 until the surrender of Pakistani forces? The strongest argument agains this number has been put forth by Sarmila Bose and Tripathi takes note of the various discrepancies in the mainstream narrative, but he does not offer a concluding verdict in this on-going debate.

Tripathi is a good raconteur, but never ceases to be a neutral reporter, always taking care to present both sides of the story. For example, as he examines the various types of discrimination faced by Chakmas living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other minorities in Bangladesh, he wonders why Bengalis who faced so much persecution at the hands of the West Pakistanis find it so difficult to be so fair to other minorities who are even more vulnerable.

Tripathi does not talk about the mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles' personnel in 2009, which ended in the deaths of so many officers, including its Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife. I wish he had. This is the only grouse I have against this book.

As the book ends, one is left wondering about Bangladesh’s future. As more and more young Bengalis are attracted to Islamic fundamentalism, will it go the Pakistan route? Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh was not formed on the basis of religion, rather, it was formed because the majority of people living in Bangladesh wanted to be as much Bengali as Muslim. However, if Bangladesh is as much Bengali as West Bengal, would it become a poorer cousin of India and this seems to be unacceptable to many in Bangladesh. I could go on, but I am going to end here with a strong recommendation to all my readers to buy a copy of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent and read it. Just like Colonel Farooq Rahman, you won't repent either.

The first three pages of this 2010 article in the Caravan form the prologue of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, in a slightly modified form.

Tripathi is also the author of Offence: The Hindu Case

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Book Review: The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan, a young but celebrated journalist has come up with a book on Sri Lanka, yet another in a long list of recent releases which seek to understand why the fabled Serendib has had to undergo so much pain and suffering since its independence. In Mohan’s account, no one is blameless. Even the victims of Sri Lankan army’s torture are shown to be harbouring irrational animosity and distrust towards Sri Lankan Muslims who speak the same language (Tamil).

Divyan and Prashant, two ex-LTTE fighters are incarcerated by the Sri Lankan army after the Sri Lankan civil ended. During their imprisonment, the men are repeatedly interrogated and tortured. After their release, they struggle to find gainful employment in a Sri Lanka where there seems to be very few avenues open to Tamils. Employers prefer Sinhalese and even infrastructure projects in the north refuse to employ the two Tamil men who are very keen to find some work. I found the inability to find employment or otherwise earn a decent livelihood subsequent to their release from the detention centres to be much more painful and cruel than the torture and interrogations they faced when in custody. In other words, there is total absence of hope for the relatively young men, who nurse a number of wounds and scars, not all of which are physically manifest.

Sarvanatha Pereira is a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up-country in Nuwara Eliya, a fluent Sinhala speaker to boot. However, his ability to speak Sinhalese and surname which enables him to pass for a Sri Lankan, only leads to trouble, since he is suspected to be a spy. What I liked best about The Seasons of Trouble was the way Mohan unspooled Sarva’s tale slowly, maintaining an element of suspense throughout. Until I covered more than half the book, Mohan kept me wondering if Sarva had been in the LTTE, as accused by the government thugs who abducted him. As Sarva flees to a Western country for asylum, one can’t help but root for him and hope that he is successful. With this too, Mohan keeps her readers guessing till the end.

In multi-cultural Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and Tamil have lived in isolated cocoons with very little interaction with each other. Schools are either Sinhalese or Tamil or Muslim and most Sri Lankans are mono-lingual. Mohan tells us that “In Sarva’s homeland, the hard-driven Tamil plantation worker was deemed okay but not the Tamil university student protesting discrimination. The happy-go-lucky Burgher with his glass of whiskey passed muster, but not the Burgher with a government job. The trading Muslim was fine, but not the praying Muslim. The devout Sinhala Buddhist was all right, but not the inquisitive one. These groups had to fit in, flow into the crevices the majoritarian state created for them.

Mohan tells us that the LTTE, which had once expelled 72,000 Sri Lankan Muslims from the Northern Province, was no less cruel than the Sri Lankan army which ultimately defeated it. The LTTE used to forcibly conscript children and used them as cannon fodder. Its propaganda was everywhere, including in schools and colleges. After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan army has been deployed in strength in the captured north. Sinhala classes have been made compulsory for everyone, though Tamil is not taught to Sinhala students in the south. Mugil, a former LTTE combatant, finds that her son has a Sinhala teacher who does not know any Tamil, who teaches her pupils Sinhala songs by rote. The students are unable to form a single original sentence in Sinhala.

Of course, there are glimpses of hope. Many of the aid workers helping Sarva and others like him are Sinhalese. Mohan reiterates that there are alternatives, imperfect though they might be.

The only place where I found myself disagreeing with Mohan was when she casually mentioned that Hamas had trained some Tamil militants in the eighties. As far as I know, the LTTE and other Tamil insurgent outfits had ties with the PLO and certain Kurdish groups. I am reasonably sure that no Sri Lankan Tamil outfit has collaborated with any fundamentalist Islamist group, including Hamas. In any event, Hamas was founded in December 1987.

Mohan writes well, in simple English which is to the point, as she tells her readers one of the saddest stories the world has ever heard. As the book ends, Mohan tells us how the Bodu Bala Sena has started to target Sri Lankan Muslims. Unfortunately, Mohan is not a fiction writer and The Seasons of Trouble is a true story.