Saturday, 28 February 2009

Short Story: Bias

‘Why did this have to happen in this blasted valley?’ Sameer said aloud, though there was no one else standing nearby. Even if Sameer had raised his voice by many notches, nobody would have heard him as he stood near his car which flatly refused to move. The tall Welsh mountains that towered all around him were covered with snow. Sameer looked at his watch. It was two-thirty in the afternoon. The sun would start going down soon and if he didn’t get help in the next hour or so, he was done for. Sameer tried calling the breakdown service’s emergency help number once again. Call Failed, his mobile repeated.

There was nothing to be done, other than to put on his thick woollen overcoat, lock the car and walk down the road. With luck he would be able to find a house which had people in it. Thankfully it had stopped snowing, even though a bitterly cold wind continued to bite into his exposed face.

Sameer was not an outdoors man. In fact, he hated any work which required him to step out of his bank’s glass-panelled offices. However, this was a job which he could not delegate to a sub-ordinate. The client, a very valuable and old one, had insisted that Sameer give the adventure park tucked away in Snowdonia a personal once-over before he put his money in it. Sameer had been unable to say No. He had grown up in Liverpool, which was actually not too far from northern Wales, where he currently was. But he had put all that behind him. His clipped Oxbridge accent did not have the slightest trace of Scouse and the days of hardship after his parents came to the UK from Uganda were a distant memory.

After he had walked for five minutes, Sameer checked his mobile yet again. No, there was no signal. He climbed onto a large stone and looked at his mobile in the hope that the elevation would make a difference. It didn’t. Sameer looked around him. He could see a large flock of sheep in distance, but there was no sign of human habitation. One would have thought the British government would have found a way of ensuring every nook and corner of this great island had mobile signal coverage! Another ten minutes later, Sameer suddenly came upon a house. It was tucked away into an alcove and was invisible until one came upon it. It was a small house with a neat garden in front and wooden railings all around it. A sign on the gate said “Piano Lessons Given By Experienced Teacher”.

Sameer stood outside the wicket gate and shouted, ‘any body inside?’

There was no response. ‘Hello there! ‘Any body inside?’ Sameer bellowed louder.

Sameer shuddered with frustration. He could already sense the sun’s rays mellowing, ready to disappear. The winter solstice was just a week away. He would now have to open the wicket gate which was held in place by a lever and pass through the garden to reach the front door of the house. I hope to God there’s no dog, Sameer muttered to himself. But whoever had heard of a Welsh household without a dog? Sameer slowly opened the gate and walked in, expecting to be pounced upon by a sheep dog any moment. Was it his imagination or could he hear the faint strains of a piano? As he approached the door, a dog barked. Thank God the dog was inside the house, rather than outside it. And yes, someone was definitely playing the piano.

‘Hello! Anyone home?’ Sameer rapped on the door a few times till he saw a bell hanging a few metres away. He was about to ring it when the piano stopped playing. Sameer rang the bell anyway. A few moments later, the door opened and a woman peeped out, a large dog beside her. Why did it have to be a woman? Sameer asked himself. If it were a man, there was much better chance of receiving some help. I hope to God this woman does not turn out to be one of those dour and unhelpful ones, he told himself. Was this the piano teacher? Sameer wondered. Must be, since the piano was no longer playing.

‘Can I help you?’ the woman asked him in a quiet voice which suggested that she was going to be anything but helpful. She was quite well dressed for a village woman and was in fact good looking. But the rather blank look in her eyes did not suggest a helpful attitude to humanity in general. Sameer had come across millions of women like this one. They would never miss a please or a thank you or fail to hold open the door for you. But when it came to doing a real favour, they would back away. Oh! Did he know such women? Most of his female colleagues were of that sort.

‘Yes, Hi! I’m Sam. Sam from London.’ He had been Sam ever since he came to the UK and started school in Liverpool at the age of ten. Sam gave the women his standard smile, the one he always gave the bank’s customers. It was an effective smile, one without the least hint of plastic or anything else artificial.

‘Hello Sam!’

‘My car broke down and, and… there doesn’t seem to be any mobile coverage out here. I was wondering if …’

The woman did not let him complete. ‘If you were to continue walking, you’ll come to a phone booth and …’

‘Can I please come inside your home and make a single phone call?’ Sameer asked her, his anger showing in his voice. Oh for Chrissake, was he going to attack her if she allowed him inside? Not with a dog next to her!

‘If you were to continue walking, you’ll find a phone booth. And that’s not more than five minutes away.’ The woman’s voice was firm and insistent.

Sameer stood where he was. This was incredulous. He was a banker, it was very cold, the sun was about to set and the woman expected him to walk in the snow for five more minutes!

‘I’d be happy to pay you for the privilege for making a call from your landline.’

‘I’m so very sorry. But I’m alone in the house and … there’s a phone booth not too far away.’ Saying that, the woman actually shut the door in his face.

Sameer slowly walked out of the compound. Would that woman have treated him thus if he were white? No, she wouldn’t have. No way. No. There was no choice but to do what that blasted woman suggested and walk for another five minutes.

The woman who had given so much grief to Sameer went back to her piano. Her guide dog followed her, something he did all the time to make sure that his mistress did not fall down or collide with something. She picked up the music sheets written in large Braille cells and started to play once again. Should she have let that man in? she wondered. No, no, it was too much of a risk. He might have a polished city accent, but that didn’t make him any safer than a man with a Scouse or a Geordie or even a home-grown Welsh accent.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Can the suspension of civil rights ever be justified?

I was moved to write this piece after reading an article by Irfan Husain, a Pakistani journalist who divides his time between London , Sri Lanka and Pakistan . Husain writes about the situation in the Swat Valley of Pakistan where civil society has ceased to exist. The Taliban have chased the administration away, closed down girls’ schools and imposed the Shariah (beheading, floggings and all) on an unwilling populace. Husain wonders if in such a situation the suspension of civil rights will be justified. If those fundamentalists inflicting so much damage on the common Swat resident are to be tried under normal laws, most will get away since it will be very difficult to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt, assuming a judge can be persuaded to try them. Husain asks his readers in anguish:

So we return to the dilemma of how to treat these people: are they citizens who deserve the same rights as the rest of us, or do we subject them to the rigours of the benighted law they seek to impose on society? If we descend to their level of barbarism, do we not become their mirror image? And yet, if we play by conventional rules, we run the real risk that they will win.”

You will find Husain’s article here.

A week or so after Husain’s article appeared, the Pakistani government cut a deal with the Taliban, giving them the right, in exchange for peace, to impose the Shariah in the Malakand Division, which includes the Swat district.

I found myself asking the question, should we ever agree to relax the rules of civil society that most of us take for granted? The basic rules of civil liberty are as follows: no punishment without a fair trail, and not until one’s guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt, no detention for a period of more than a few days without charges being framed and legal representation provided, a right to be freed on bail during the trial period, unless there is a very good chance that the detainee will flee, and the right to not to be tortured or have to suffer degrading treatment while in custody.

Every once in a while, there arises a situation, usually involving insurgency or terrorism, when a law is enacted suspending these rights to some degree. There can also be a situation where the government turns a blind eye to the informal suspension of these rights. At the height of the Khalistani insurgency in the Indian state of Punjab in the 1980s, scores of people ‘disappeared.’ Usually they were suspected militants who could be tried and punished only with a great deal of difficulty, even if they were captured alive. It was convenient for the government to do them away using hit squads who also used that opportunity to settle personal scores and make some money. I’m sure many honest mistakes were also made. All this meant that many, many innocent people died in Punjab , though militancy was stamped out. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, if Indians were to be asked, was the Indian government right to have done what it did in Punjab , what would the answer be? Presumably at that time, the Indian government thought that such a hard-nosed approach was the only way of quenching the militancy. It thought that it had a choice between losing Punjab and using hard-nosed tactics. From anecdotal evidence, I feel most Indians would say that the Indian government took the right approach. I am not too sure, but I too just can’t bring myself to say that the Indian government was wrong.

The situation in Swat is much worse than that which prevailed in Punjab in the 1980s. The state has definitely withered away. Many Pakistanis have more than a sneaking sympathy for the mullahs, though they would personally not want to be under the Taliban. Coupled with the common man’s disdain for what is perceived to be a weak and corrupt government, Pakistani society has not been effectively mobilised to meet the Taliban’s threat. Let’s assume that Pakistan can be so mobilised and that most Pakistanis would support a harsher approach, one where anyone with suspected ties to the Taliban is arrested or abducted and imprisoned or killed without a trial. Would such an approach be justified? Now that the Taliban have come to power, they will take away the civil rights of everyone in Swat. If, instead of cutting a deal with the Taliban, the Pakistani government had gone in for a harsh crackdown on the Taliban, many fundamentalists who would otherwise not be punished, would have been killed after suffering torture. A few innocents might also have died. I know this will be controversial, but I feel that if it was a choice between losing control of Swat to the Taliban and suspending civil rights, I would have preferred the latter.

Generally, when civil rights are suspended, an enactment such as the Patriot Act or Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) is enacted, after which security forces lower the standards to a level even below what’s provided in the enactment.

After the 9/11 attacks, the US government and its allies have arrested many suspected fundamentalists from all over the world, put them in detention in various places including Guantanamo Bay and tortured some of them using a variety of procedures such as stress positions, exposure to cold and heat and cultural shocks. Is such treatment justified? I would argue that it is. Before I justify my response, let me tell you that my response is a very subjective one and is largely determined by my values, education and cultural background.

The threat from Islamic fundamentalists is very real. The fundamentalists do not subscribe to the values of civil society. Western society and non-Islamic chunks of the developing world are especially vulnerable to the fundamentalist since they all have many citizens who are disenchanted with their current situation and are willing to support the fundamentalists. Intelligence about the fundamentalists is very poor and precision arrests etc are not easy. Even more difficult is the obtaining of proof that will stand up in a court of law. It is all very well to argue that the disenchanted sections of society must be integrated and intelligence must improve and that the state should never stoop to the level of the fundamentalists. The reality is different. We know that such an improvement will not happen within the required time. More importantly, the chances of a genuine secularist being arrested and detained on suspicion of being a fundamentalist are not very high. In fact, they are pretty low. No, I’m not talking of time spent at airports clearing security. I’m talking about the chances of an individual being picked up from home and sent off to Guantanamo without a trial. Again, water-boarding and stress positions are definitely torture, but do not constitute third degree torture in my dictionary. If the authorities have a suspect who might have information that could prevent a terrorist attack or help capture other terrorists, I don’t see anything wrong in using such tactics to force a confession out of such person.

A lot has been written about how torture doesn’t work. Silly me, but if torture doesn’t work, why is it so widely used? It is widely used, because it usually works. If Mr. X is captured, water-boarded and discloses verifiable information such as having hidden a bomb in a particular place, you know that torture has worked. If it turns out that there is no bomb in that place, you know that it didn’t work.

If one doesn’t like the idea of torture, one should take the morally high position that torture shouldn’t be used even if it works, rather than say torture doesn’t work. The Americans also used cultural shocks to force confessions, such as interrogators insulting the Quran or having female interrogators touch the detainees. As far as I am concerned, I don’t consider such tactics to be torture though someone else might feel they are worse than third degree methods.

The actions of American secret service agents have been conducted largely in accordance with the Patriot Act and various internal regulations and memos. They might not stack up in a court of law which applies the usual high standards of care and proof. However, I don’t think any one was harmed just because he failed to pay a bribe or had a personal enmity with a federal agent.

The war against Islamic fundamentalism is one we just can’t afford to lose and for this reason, I feel that civil rights can be suspended. I can’t think of many other situations where civil rights can be suspended. I don’t think the Sri Lankan government is justified in imposing a White Van culture in the south of the Island . I don’t think the Indian government would be justified in following this approach in fighting the Maoists in the east of India . I do think that this approach can be followed in Jammu and Kashmir against foreign mercenaries there, though I wouldn’t support the use of such tactics against Kashmiris from Indian Kashmir.

Once again, these are very subjective views and can be controversial. A different person may say that the Maoist threat is greater and they should be dealt with greater seriousness. In any event, I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to be in the place of one of those many innocent human beings who are caught up in such insurgencies and suffer for no fault of theirs so that people like me can stay and secure.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Short story: Unexpected Guests

Thanamal Naidu is bemused when the car stops with a screech thirty yards away from his gate, turns around and drives right in through the knots of wedding guests standing in his courtyard. Not only Thanamal Naidu, but his guests are surprised as well. Their surprise grows even more when four well-fed tourists, clad in shorts with cameras around their necks, disembark from the car along with a driver and walk towards the wedding feast, wide grins plastered on their faces. The villagers are used to seeing cars, lorries and other vehicles trundle past them on the National Highway all day long, the NH5 that runs in front of their homes being a permanent feature of the landscape and their lives, but never have tourists stopped by to enter anyone’s home.

The tourists, two men and two women and their driver saunter in and make themselves comfortable inside the pavilion where the feast is taking place. They do not wait to talk to anyone, as people normally do when they are visiting. But Thanamal and the villagers put that behavior down to cultural differences. Atidhi Devobhava, Regard a Guest as God, the villagers believe and Thanamal Naidu, the richest man in the village, is no different. He puts up a brave and happy smile and welcomes the unexpected guests as if he had begged them to turn up at his son’s wedding. They could have done without the additional guests; it is the wedding of his seventh son and there are still two sons and three daughters to be married off.

Around two hundred people are eating the wedding lunch inside the pavillion. Food is being served by twenty men, bonded labourers from Thanamal’s fields. There are still around hundred and fifty odd people standing outside who are waiting for their turn at the tables, after which a couple of hundred people, the lesser souls such as the sweepers, the cleaners, the herdsmen, the washerfolk, the field-hands and the like, will partake of the wedding feast. Thanamal goes across to the guests and asks them, ‘Is everything okay. Is the food to your liking?’ The tourists do not understand a word of what he says. They talk among themselves in a language he assumes is English. The driver too cannot speak Telugu, having been hired from Delhi. Neither Thanamal nor the villagers can understand a word of Hindi. The driver has a perplexed look on his face, as if he cannot comprehend what’s going on. This is ridiculous, Thanamal thinks. If anyone has the right to look perplexed, he does.

‘Where’s Venkatesh?’ Thanamal demands. Venkatesh, the second son from his second wife, is a maverick. Instead of being content to live off his father’s land like his siblings, he had insisted on finishing the village school and continuing his education in Hyderabad. If anyone can understand what the visitors have to say, it is Venkatesh, who can read, write and speak in English, Hindi and Telugu.

Venkatesh is located in a corner of the pavilion, sulking away to glory. A few days ago, Venkatesh, his mother and elder brother had demanded that a portion of their land be sold to pay for Venkatesh’s further studies in Delhi. He would repay the money within a few years of finishing his studies, Venkatesh had promised. Thanamal was tempted to agree, but his first wife and he children, much more numerous than his progeny from his second wife, had vociferously objected. The bridegroom, Venkatesh’s half-brother had almost hit Venkatesh. Thanamal was forced to take their side. He had tried to explain matters to his second wife, but he had not been very successful.

Venkatesh comes up and speaks to the guests. Thanamal cannot not help but feel proud when Venkatesh confidently speaks to the tourists in English. Ha! Ha! It is the tourists who have difficulty in responding to Venkatesh. After a few minutes, Venkatesh turns around and tells his father, ‘they are French.’ Thanamal does not understand.

‘Fine, but what are they saying?’

‘I don’t have a clue.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘They speak French, not English.’ Thanamal understands. He turns around and explains to the villagers, just to make sure everyone knows it is not Venkatesh’s fault.

‘Ask the driver,’ someone suggests.

Venkatesh turns to the driver and speaks to him in Hindi. This time there is no hesitation on either side. The driver has many a question and Venkatesh seems to be able to answer them to his satisfaction.

‘What does he want to know?’ Thanamal asks Venkatesh.

‘He says the tourists were dying to see an Indian wedding and so he brought them here. He hopes that you are not offended by their unexpected arrival.’

Thanamal does not bother to reply to that question. Instead, he pats the driver on his back and moves on. There are other guests and he has to see to them.

The tourists are soon through with the feast. Thanamal expects them to walk across to where the bridegroom and the bride sit and wish them well. Instead, they get up as if they are at a restaurant and prepare to leave. The two men among the tourists take out their wallets and come towards Thanamal. Trying not to look too offended. Thanamal waves the money away with a smile and points in the direction of the newly weds. The tourists nod at him and troop off, followed by their women, towards the head of the pavilion where the bride and groom sit. The first round is almost over. The guests are abandoning the plantain leaves on which food was served to them and are leaving. To Thanamal’s shock, the tourists once again take out their wallets and insist on giving a few hundred rupee notes to his son and daughter-in-law. Maybe that’s they way they give gifts in their countries, Thanamal thinks. Even the lowest labourer from his field will have the sense to either wrap a gift, or if it is money, to place it in an envelope before gifting it. They may be white skinned and prosperous, but their culture is so much inferior to ours, Thanamal thinks and shrugs his shoulders. Foreigners are indeed funny. Look at the way they dress. Having given away some money, the tourists walk out without as much as a by your leave.

All the guests are shocked by such atrocious behaviour. They are even more shocked when they see another car filled with tourists enter Thanamal’s compound. This time, the tourists are Japanese. They have just started to serve the second round of guests. Thanamal once again hurries out to meet the new guests.

‘Where the heck is Venkatesh?’ he asks one of the men standing near him, though he doubts if Venkatesh can speak much Japanese. Venkatesh has finished his repast and is standing near his gate, admiring his only contribution to the wedding preparation, the wedding banner which his father asked him to hang in front of the gate. Write a nice wedding greeting in English, Thanamal had ordered him. Venkatesh had obliged his father and put up a banner with a lot of English alphabets in it. ‘MOCK INDIAN WEDDING FOR FOREIGN TOURISTS,’ the banner reads in large bold letters. ‘Pay Only As Much As You Please,’ it adds below.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire is:

A beautiful movie;

Very unrealistic. It is highly unlikely that you will find this story replicated in real life;

Exposes Mumbai’s underbelly without losing its artistic touch;

Not a grim movie throughout. It does have its lighter moments. There have been many Indian movies that were equally if not more grisly (Company, Satya, Nayakan);

Has a happy ending; and

Deserves the Oscar for atleast the following three categories: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Music Score.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Hitman’s £50 Cancellation Fee

A woman in London wants her husband bumped off. So she takes out £800 from her husband’s bank account and gives it to a lady-friend whose promises to get her boyfriend have the husband shot dead. Later, the woman feels guilty and changes her mind, but when she calls her lady-friend to call it off and get her money back, she is told that there is a £50 cancellation fee. Poor thing, she confesses everything to her husband, who informs the police. The judge takes a lenient view and sentences the woman to attend a life skills course rather than put her in prison.

No, this is not one of my stories. You can read all about it here.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Three Easy Steps to Remove a Tracking Device

If you have been convicted of an offence and have been ordered by a court to wear a tracking device, one of those bracelets which you can’t take off and which will keep your whereabouts known to the cops, don’t worry. You can take off your tracking device in 3 easy steps:

1. Take off the artificial leg on which the tracking device has been fitted.

2. Slip the tracking device off the false leg

3. Put your artificial leg back on and walk off.

If you are wondering how anyone would have a tracking device attached to a false leg, it actually happened to Bret Ravenhill, who was convicted of possessing cannabis.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Shortage of Officers in the Indian Armed Forces – A Sign of Serious Class Prejudice?

The Indian army has been facing a shortage of officers for some time now. This BBC report says that the Indian army is more than 11,000 officers short. The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force too face a similar shortage. The Air Force needs another 6,000 officers and the Navy another 3,000.

Ever since the private sector in India started to boom, the armed forces have not been topping the list of favoured careers for India ’s youth. India ’s generals, admirals and air marshalls complain that the armed services cannot compete with the private sector in terms of pay and perks.

However, the above is just one side of the story. Here’s the other side. Whenever the Indian army wants to recruit men (that is jawans or privates, not officers), they do so through a recruitment rally. Very large numbers of Indian youth throng these rallies. Not everyone gets recruited. For example, a month ago, more than 50,000 young men came forward to enroll themselves in the Indian Army at a recruitment rally organised in the Samba district of Jammu and Kashmir. Of the 50,000 who turned up, only 10,000 were found to be fit enough to be hired.

Once in a while, there are stampedes at these rallies and young men get killed.

Yes, there is no shortage of men willing to join the army as privates or jawans.

The obvious question which arises is, why don’t some of the non-officer personnel get promoted as officers? I don’t have statistics, but I don’t think many of our jawans get promoted to ranks beyond Subedar Major (Sergeant Major).

The Indian army has not got over its colonial hangover. Take a look at this video. It shows a large group of officer cadets eating in old colonial style and being served by men who are most probably army privates. (Update: I have been informed that at the Indian Military Academy, officer-cadets are hired by trained waiters specifically hired for that purpose. However, in officers' messes, privates serve the officers) The Indian armed forces have not made a serious attempt to make themselves more egalitarian. For example, officers are still provided with batmen. In this day and age, making privates/naval ratings and airmen work for their officers as servants is so disgusting!

The answer to the problem of officer shortage seems simple and straightforward. The armed forces should make it possible for its non-commissioned ranks to enter the hallowed officer class. The emphasis should be less on speaking perfect English and more on having the necessary skill-set and willingness and ability to learn. The Indian armed forces are almost a million strong and of this, the majority are non-officers. Surely it will be possible to select a few thousand of the brightest and best NCOs and JCOs and make officers out of them?

I found a five-year old news item which showed the Indian Air Force thinking on these lines. Since the Air Force still has a shortage of officers, I don’t think it has persisted with what it started in 2003.

An Open Letter to President Obama on the Israel-Palestine Issue

Dear President Obama

How do you do Sir? Today is your 23rd day in office and you must be busy with your bailout package for all those undeserving banks. However, I’m sure you have an eye on the Israeli election results. The ruling centrist Kadima party is maintaining its one-seat lead over right-wing Likud. However, about 100,000 ballots are yet to be counted and the result is not yet official. Avigdor Lieberman’s extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu is in third place and Labor, Israel's founding party and Kadima's current coalition partner is fourth.

Assuming Kadima comes to power and Tzipi Livni becomes Israel’s Prime Minister, you will be dealing with a hawkish bunch of people who have repeatedly failed to make the compromises that are necessary to bring peace in the middle-east. The worst aspect of this election is that even Yisrael Beiteinu, much more rightwing than even Likud, is doing better than Labour.

Please don’t get me wrong Mr. President. I have always supported Israel’s right to exist. Israel was validly created by a UN resolution. Israel was meant to be predominantly Jewish and it is right in encouraging Jews to migrate to Israel. However, Israel wasn’t meant to be entirely Jewish. The UN resolution which created Israel did not allow it to carry out ethnic cleansing of Arabs. Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority has been shameful. Its treatment of Arabs in the occupied territories has been even worse. Further, building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is something that can never be justified. Arabs in Israel are discriminated against and are second-class citizens in their own country.

Israel’s economy is not in a good shape. To be very honest, Israel has survived till date mainly because of the unbelievable levels of US aid it has received over the years. Though Israel has shed its socialist past and has many world class companies and entrepreneurs, Israel still relies on US aid to get by, mainly because of its very high defence budget.

One of the biggest dangers facing Israel is the demographic bomb. The Arabs have a much higher birth rate and even without including the Arabs in the occupied territories, Arabs form 20% of Israel’s population. It is estimated by some experts that by around 2040, the Arabs will be a majority in Israel. Further, Israel’s enemies such as Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas are becoming more and more powerful and Israel no longer has its aura of invincibility.

Mr. President, just like you, I am a friend of Israel and I want to ensure that Israel continues to survive forever. To survive, Israel must Israel must make peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs as soon as possible. Now that (relatively) secular Palestinian organisations like the Fatah are weak and unpopular among Palestinians, Israel will have to make its peace with Hamas and Hizbollah. To begin with, Israel must allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state. No, I’m not talking of Jordan, though it may have more Palestinians than Jordanians. This Palestinian state should include not only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but should have its capital in East Jerusalem. All Jewish settlements must be withdrawn from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. President, if there is any force on earth which can force Israel to make this concession, it is the United States of America. The US of A has many levers with which it can force Israel to change. Withholding of financial aid is definitely one option. Not sharing US military technology with Israel is another. Israel may become weak in the short run, as a result, but in the long run, it will be stronger.

Mr. President, to Save Israel, you need to make it weak.

Yours sincerely

A blogger from the World Wide Web

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Dr. A.Q. Khan’s Release – Can it lead to trouble?

Well-known commentator and ex-RAW honcho B. Raman (about whom I have blogged) has written an elaborate article explaining why A.Q. Khan’s release could prove to be dangerous. Towards the end of his article, B. Raman says:

Khan is bitter against the West, particularly the US , for allegedly humiliating him all these years. Even in the past, he was known for his close friendship with Islamic fundamentalist leaders such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Qasi Hussein Ahmed, the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). He believes that he owes his release to their consistent support to him. He is also very close to anti-US officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Army-- serving as well as retired-- including Lt.Gen.Hamid Gul, former DG of the ISI. The danger in future will be not so much about his helping other countries as about his helping the anti-US jihadi groups, including Al Qaeda, in acquiring a military nuclear or a dirty bomb capability

There is every possibility that B. Raman is right.

However, I would like to consider a different and positive possibility:

Dr. Khan is not dangerous as long as he does not have government infrastructure supporting him and access to nuclear technology. A man just released from house arrest is unlikely to be able to lay hands on fissible materials and pass them on. There is a possibility that A.Q. Khan may try to teach a group of terrorists how to acquire and use nuclear materials resulting in a dirty bomb. However, since Pakistan is still receiving US aid, I assume that the US still has some say in the manner of his release (though it was stage-managed to be portrayed as the result of a court order. I assume that Dr. Khan will be under round-the-clock surveillance. If he contacts anyone or anybody contacts him, that person will also come under surveillance, leading to arrest and detention. It is also possible that Dr. Khan has agreed to this surveillance as a condition for his release.

By releasing Dr. Khan, the Pakistani government scores a few brownie points with its population which has always regarded Dr. Khan as a hero. As Swat is under increasing threat, it is important for the Pakistani government to be on the right side of popular opinion. No, I am not saying that buttering up to people by releasing Dr. Khan after doing a quiet deal with him is something a democratically elected government should habitually do. However, these are not ordinary times and matters may get even more interesting as we progress through 2009.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Fire the Foreigners First!

As the recession bites deep, this cry has been heard in various parts of the world.

A few weeks ago as Microsoft prepared to slash 5,000 jobs, US Senator Charles Grassley demanded that Microsoft fire all its H1B visa holding employees before a single American national is laid off. Microsoft has been one of the proponents for increasing the number of H1B visas issued each year. To Microsoft’s credit, it must be said that it did not give into Grassley’s demand. At least, it did not do so openly. US laws do not require employers to fire H1B visa holders first before firing employees who are US nationals. The principle is simple. Once a foreigner becomes an employee, s/he is treated like any other employee, even in matters such as layoffs.

Thanks to India’s growing clout, various Indian enterprises too had been hiring foreigners till the recession told hold. India does not have anything comparable to the H1B visa program. Employers can apply to the Indian government for work permits, which are granted, depending on the employer’s stature and the genuineness of the employment contract. One of the Indian businesses which hired foreigners was Jet Airways. When the airline business started to experience turbulence, Jet Airways’ management proposed a salary cut. This was opposed by its employees who demanded that Jet Airways should sack its expat pilots first. The local employees justified this on the grounds that expat pilots apparently get paid 40%-50% more than locally hired pilots.

Now the Indian press reports that Jet Airways has announced it will "phase out excess expatriate pilots" over the next few months.

I am not sure what ‘phase-out’ means? Does it mean that as expat pilots’ contracts expires, they will not be renewed?

I was wondering how Indians would have reacted if local employees in Microsoft’s US offices had demanded that their foreign colleagues should be fired first before the others even take pay cuts. And how would it have felt if Microsoft actually gave in to their demands?

Did Jet Airways ever examine the possibility that the expat pilots may want to stay on at an ‘Indian salary’? The ‘phased-out’ pilots are unlikely to get jobs back in their home countries considering the state of the economy everywhere. What is Jet Airways’ justification for firing expat pilots and not locally hired Indian pilots? Does it think it owes anyone an explanation at all?

Sri Lanka: No Monopoly on Stupidity or Cruelty

I am reminded yet again that no one in Sri Lanka has a monopoly on acts of stupidity or cruelty or arrogance or nastiness. A week ago, I had blogged about how the Sri Lanka government stupidly decided to be really nasty to foreign journalists covering the civil war.

Now the LTTE has gone one up in the Stupid-Nasty-Cruel scale. CNN reports that 17 people were killed and 45 others wounded Monday when a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a camp where civilians had sought refuge from the fighting between government troops and Tamil rebels in northern Sri Lanka.

The LTTE is on the verge of extinction, though they are surrounded by over 200,000 human shields. I wonder what they seek to gain by launching a suicide attack at a refugee camp. I do know what they think they will gain. After this attack, Sri Lankan soldiers will treat all Tamil refugees with extra suspicion. Not that they have so far been very nice to Sri Lankan Tamils who managed to escape the LTTE’s clutches, but now they are likely to be especially nasty. The LTTE most probably feels that such nastiness will force the refugees back into the arms of the LTTE. The LTTE’s attitude towards civilians is not much different from that of the Al Qaeda’s which also has no qualms about (mis)using civilians in their fight against the coalition troops, despite the civilian casualties involved. In Iraq the Al Qaeda has apparently been using a special tactic to recruit women as suicide bombers. The potential suicide bombers are raped, which puts them in a situation where they think their lives are worthless, since Arab society treats rape victims with suspicion. The rape victims are then persuaded to carry out suicide attacks since death can appear to be preferable to a dishonoured woman’s life.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Anglican Priests in the British National Party

Until I came to the UK, as far as I knew, the abbreviation BNP stood for the Banque Nationale de Paris. However, Banque Nationale de Paris merged with Banque Paribas in the late 1990s and the merged entity is now called BNP Paribas. The British National Party is however a totally different animal from the French bank. Openly racist, its mission statement is set out in its website

The British National Party exists to secure a future for the indigenous peoples of these islands in the North Atlantic which have been our homeland for millennia. We use the term indigenous to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe.

Its immigration policy is summed up in the following words:

On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within sixty years.

To ensure that this does not happen, and that the British people retain their homeland and identity, we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement whereby those immigrants who are legally here will be afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin assisted by a generous financial incentives both for individuals and for the countries in question.

We will abolish the ‘positive discrimination’ schemes that have made white Britons second-class citizens. We will also clamp down on the flood of ‘asylum seekers’, all of whom are either bogus or can find refuge much nearer their home countries.

In short, the BNP doesn’t like non-European (that is non-white) migrants. The BNP has a presence all over the UK, including Scotland and Wales.

Since it is accepted that the BNP is racist and opposes racial equality, police officers are barred from membership of the BNP. However, when in November 2008, the BNP’s list of members was leaked (may be intentionally) and posted on the internet, it was found that some of BNP’s members were police offices, members of the prison services, government employees, teachers etc. It was also revealed that the BNP’s strongholds are places like Lancashire, Yorkshire and Essex where the economy is not doing very well.

This week the Church of England plans to debate a motion which will bar Anglican clergymen from belonging to the BNP. To be honest, initially I found the possibility that some priests could be BNP supporters quite shocking. I guess if BNP members are scattered throughout the UK and in every walk of life, some of them can be found to be wearing dog collars.

The Anglican Church has many priests from among the ethnic minorities, with some of them holding very high positions. Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester come to my mind immediately. My own feel is that most Anglican priests are non-racist and very decent human beings. I welcome the fact that the Anglican Church has shown the courage to confront the demons within itself so openly, though it is bound to raise eyebrows.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Two Intelligent Men

Avid blog-readers would have noticed the presence of two very intelligent men in the blogosphere for some time.

One of them, Mr. Bahukutumbi Raman (Mr. B. Raman for short), has been writing columns for various magazines (especially Outlook) for some years now. Mr. B. Raman used to be with the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, where he headed its counter-terrorism division for more than a decade till his retirement in 1994. Presently Mr. B. Raman is the Director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai. Mr. B. Raman’s blog can be found here.

The other ‘intelligent’ gentleman is Colonel Hariharan. Col. Hariharan’s blog informs us that he is a retired military intelligence professional with nearly three decades of experience in South Asian countries. Colonel Hariharan tells us in this very touching post of the time he spent in Sri Lanka as part of the IPKF. Colonel Hariharan’s blog can be found here.

Mr. B. Raman’s articles tend to be very factual, with an abundance of information of the sort that is not usually available to lay persons. In that sense, they are a delight to read. For example, this article on the situation in Tibet is filled with facts with very little of Mr. B. Raman’s own opinions. However, there are other posts which contain Mr. B. Raman’s opinions and views. For example, in this post, he says that there is an urgent need to tighten Sonia Gandhi’s security due to threats from the LTTE.

Col. Hariharan’s posts are very different from Mr. B. Raman’s. They don’t contain as many facts, (other than what’s available in the public domain) and focus instead on conveying Col. Hariharan’s opinions on various issues. I can assure you that they too are a delight to read. Here, you’ll find Col. Hariharan lamenting the fact that red tapism prevented the Defence Ministry from utilising its budget to the full, with the result that it had to surrender sixteen thousand crore rupees (that’s US dollars three hundred and twenty million) as unutilised money.

I think it is wonderful that Mr. B. Raman and Col. Hariharan have started blogging since their articles give lay persons access to expert analysis.

So far, I think I have read every article written by each of these gentlemen. I don’t have any disagreement with anything that Col. Hariharan has written. I can’t say the same for Mr. B. Raman. In this article Mr. B. Raman argues that it would be in India's interest to help Sri Lanka destroy the LTTE's military capability, but not its political strength. Mr. B. Raman says that the current crop of LTTE cadres had no role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. He argues that India should make a distinction between the ones involved in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the others. This view is in line with his view expressed in this post calling on the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora and the LTTE to overthrow Prabhakaran.

I don’t agree with Mr. B. Raman’s views. The LTTE is not the only Tamil movement in the picture even now. Leaders like Douglas Devananda of the Eelam People's Democratic Party and S. Thondaiman of the Ceylon Workers Congress are around. The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal formed by Colonel Karuna is a political force in the East. Further, if Prabhakaran were to be captured or killed, the LTTE will cease to exist. The LTTE is centred on the cult of a supreme leader and without Prabhakaran, the LTTE cannot survive. I really don’t see why India should try and save the LTTE even if only as a political movement.

Mr. B. Raman goes on to say in the same post that the ‘Indian political class never understands the importance of identifying and preserving our strategic assets in the neighbourhood. Jawaharlal Nehru let go our strategic assets in Tibet. I.K.Gujral, who was the Prime Minister in 1997, unwisely and in a moment of misplaced generosity let go our strategic assets in Pakistan. Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, has let go our strategic assets in Nepal and Sri Lanka. It could be a great tragedy.’

What does Mr. B. Raman mean by ‘strategic assets’? Does he mean assets which give India the ability to cause trouble in a neighbouring country? For example, if the LTTE were to survive (on India’s patronage), greatly weakened, but with the potential to be re-armed, and Sri Lanka were to do something that is not to India’s liking, say, it were to cosy up to China, India could rattle sabres by threatening to re-arm the LTTE. Is that what Mr. B. Raman has in mind? But it is exactly this attitude and approach that created the Sri Lankan mess in the first place! No country, however small or weak it may be, likes to be at the mercy of another country. India will not have a single friend in its neighbourhood if it follows this approach and tries to create ‘strategic assets’ in neighbouring countries!

Mr. B. Raman says Nehru let go of India’s assets in Tibet. I don’t claim to have Mr. B. Raman’s expertise or knowledge, but I don’t think Nehru did anything of that sort. Under Nehru, India did not give much importance to defence and cut defence spending, as a result of which, we were unprepared for the Chinese assault in 1962. I believe that during I.K. Gujral’s time, India stopped arming Baluchi militants. Were they a strategic asset for India? If India were still doing that, could India have used them as a stick to beat Pakistan with? Could we have told Pakistan, ‘you stop causing trouble in Kashmir, we will stop causing trouble in Baluchistan?’ I doubt if it would have worked, since the trouble in Kashmir is caused by militants outside Pakistan’s control. On the contrary, the enormous sympathy which Indian received after the Mumbai attacks wouldn’t have materialised if the international community believed that India was causing trouble in Baluchistan. As for Nepal, the average Nepali doesn’t have much love for India since India continued to prop up the monarchy long after it lost the people’s support. India stopped supporting the monarchy only after its downfall became inevitable. It cannot be said that India voluntarily gave up its assets (the monarchy) in Nepal.

Having said all that, I do hope that Mr. B. Raman continues to blog and write articles and express his views which are very interesting, whether one agrees with them or not.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Short Story: The Old Man With The Crocodile Skin Bag

I ran into the old trader one cold foggy morning at Palam airport, on my way to Calcutta to attend one of those conferences which have of late become the bane of my life. He was standing ahead of me at the check-in queue, dressed in a faded navy blue sweater that had obviously seen better days. Like me, he too was travelling light with just a tattered old brown bag slung across his shoulders. He was small-built man with a noticeable stoop, his head was almost entirely bald and he must have been at least seventy years old. By the way he carried the brown bag, I could see that it wasn’t particularly heavy.

When my turn at the counter came, there was some delay in issuing me with a boarding pass and I did not see any more of the old man till I boarded the aircraft. He had the window seat adjacent to my aisle seat. As I tucked my hand luggage and jacket into an overhead locker and settled down, he stowed his tattered bag under his seat before sitting down next to me. I wondered why he did not do what everyone else did and keep his bag in one of the bins above us. He must have guessed what I was thinking for he said, ‘I hate to let that bag out of my sight.’ With that and an enigmatic smile, he turned sideways to stare out of his window, only to turn back to me and say, ‘it’s made of crocodile skin, you know.’

That made me curious. ‘I thought hunting crocodiles was illegal,’ I said, hoping to draw him into a conversation. Normally I like to spend my flight time reading something useful and did my best to avoid chatting with anyone, but the old man and his bag had got me intrigued. He didn’t look particularly wealthy, but he could obviously afford to travel by air, which not many people in India can do, despite the recent boom.

‘It wasn’t illegal in Cambodia. Not when I used to do live there. No!’

‘Never been to Cambodia,’ I told him.

‘Not many of our people have,’ he responded with a smile.

‘I have travelled a lot more than the average Indian. I still do.’

‘Been to Vietnam?’

‘No, but I’ve been to Thailand. Once. To speak at a …’ I was going to say ‘at a conference,’ but the old man’s snort of derision stopped me short.

‘Cambodia is quite different from Thailand. Where else have you been?’ he asked me with a sly smile.

I was tempted to take offence, but there was something about that old man, an air of mystery which only goaded me into continuing my conversation with him.

‘A few times to the US, once to London, once to Bern, and to a few cities in the south-east and the far east.’

It was the old man’s turn to tell me of his travel exploits. ‘I’m a trader. Used to be one. Now, I’m retired, but my family still carries on with what I used to do. I have done a lot of business in the south-east. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, Vietnam. And of course in Cambodia.

‘What about Laos?’ I asked him flippantly. Didn’t you ever go to Laos or Brunei?’

But the old man took my question seriously. ‘I’ve been to Brunei once. But no, I’ve never been to Laos,’ he said.

They soon started to serve us breakfast and our conversation petered out for a while.

‘Was it a good place to do business?’ I asked. ‘Cambodia, I mean,’ I added.

‘There is nothing like a good place or bad place for business. Either you are a good business man or you are not. Do you know the story of two shoe salesmen who went to a village where everyone had bare feet? One said, oh dear! No one wear shoes here. The other said, Wow! No one wears shoes in this village. What a great opportunity to sell shoes!’

‘Did you spend much time in Cambodia?’

‘Oh yes I did. I retired two years ago and handed over the reins to my sons. Till then I spent all my time in the south-east and Cambodia used to be my base. Never stayed there for more than a month at a time though. I was always on the move. On my own all the time. My family was in Calcutta, the sort of lifestyle I had, there was no way my wife and children could have lived with me. I travelled up and down all those countries. But Cambodia was the place I called home during those years. The best place of them all! The most beautiful place on earth! Nice friendly people. Cheap labour. Not too much competition. What more can a man ask for?’

I did not have a ready reply to that question. I guess a businessman who lived in the most beautiful place on earth and had access to cheap labour without having to face much competition was bound to be happy. What would make me happy? A magic formula to prepare power point presentations for conferences and gullible audiences who swallowed everything I told them?

‘I have this cousin who immigrated to America at the time I went to the South-East. I always tell him that he made a mistake. I made much more money in the South-East than he ever did in America.’ I resolved right then and there that if I ever migrated, I would go to the South-East, rather than America.

‘Are there a lot of crocodiles in Cambodia?’ I asked him, wanting to know more about the bag and why he was so attached to it.

‘Oh this bag! I got it from my servant. His father was a crocodile hunter who also skinned the crocs and made bags out of them.’

I don’t think I would ever want to carry around a crocodile skin bag. But I could understand why the old made would want to carry it around. It obviously reminded him of a country of which he had very happy memories.

‘There was a civil war in Cambodia, wasn’t there?’

‘Oh yes, there was. More than one war actually. The Americans bombed Cambodia for many years in the hope of destroying Vietcong and North Vietnamese bases. Still things weren’t too bad. Then they overthrew ..’

‘Sihanouk,’ I said, determined to show that I knew something of Cambodia’s history. But the old man had a faraway look in his eyes and wasn’t in a position to appreciate my knowledge.

‘Yes, the army staged a coup and took over power when Sihanouk was away. There was so much fighting and bloodshed and then ….’ here the old man’s voice faltered. ‘Then the Khmer Rouge took over power.’

We were silent for a while. ‘My servant, the man who gave me this bag, he was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Ultimately I had to leave Cambodia for good. I moved base to Malaysia,’ the old trader said.

‘Pol Pot is no more, right?’ I asked the old man who did not reply. I decided to keep quiet till he was ready to talk again. The old man stared at his breakfast tray and said ‘it was a good place to do business, till I was forced to leave.’ He had finished his breakfast by then and was sipping his coffee

‘I guess you had to leave because of the Khmer Rouge.’

‘Yes.’ He sighed as he finished his coffee. ‘I wished I could have continued to stay there.’

‘You shifted to Malaysia as soon as the Khmer Rouge came to power?’

The trader started at me incomprehensively for few seconds before he said, ‘No, no, as soon as the Khmer Rouge lost power.’

Christians Respond to the Atheist Bus Campaign

I have blogged about the Atheist Bus Campaign earlier here and here.

In response to the Atheist Bus Campaign, three Christian groups have launched, counter-campaigns that say, well, (what else do you expect?) that God exists.

The Trinitarian Bible Society is running a £35,000 campaign which will put posters on 100 London buses with a quote from Psalm 53 that reads: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God."

The London-based “Russian Hour” satellite TV channel, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church is paying for adverts on 25 London buses in March that will feature a photograph of a monastery as well as the slogan: 'There is God, believe! Don't Worry. Enjoy your life!' Alexander Korobko, the head of Russian Hour says that ‘We are living in a difficult time, when crisis is being extensively promoted, and people need some life-asserting message.’

The Christian Party, is to run adverts on 50 bendy buses that proclaim: 'There definitely is a God. So join The Christian Party and enjoy your life.' George Hargreaves, the Head of the Christian Party has admitted that the Christian party's campaign is part of its preparation for the European Elections in June this year. Hargreaves says that ‘what the atheists have done through their campaign is provided the Christian party with an irresistible opportunity to both proclaim the existence of God and promote the existence of the Christian party.’

‘Thank God for atheists,’ Hargreaves adds.

I wonder how the atheists would respond to it. I just can’t see them saying, ‘Thank God for the believers!’

The Good Childhood Inquiry Results Are Out

I have in the past blogged about children in the UK here.

In September 2006, the Children's Society commissioned the UK 's first independent national inquiry into childhood. The results of the Good Childhood Inquiry are now out.

On the whole, British children are not unhappy. 93% of the children say that their parents care about them. 27% said they often feel depressed. Bullying was identified as a major source of anxiety. Parental conflict and separation was another.

This report says that most of the obstacles children face today are linked to growing individualism in society, in particular the belief that individuals must make the most of their own lives, rather than work for the common good. This report blames excessive individualism for problems such as family break-ups, teenage unkindness, commercial pressures towards premature sexualisation, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and acceptance of income inequality. The report says that although freedom and self-determination bring many blessings, the balance has tilted too far towards individualism in Britain . I think this is true all over the developed world and the westernised parts of the developing world.

In a sense, I agree with this report. In the UK , all over the developed world, and the Westernised parts of the developing world, individualism is becoming more and more important. It is taken for granted that every individual has the freedom to focus on himself or herself, at the expense of everything else. One of the first victims of such individualism are children. As parents spend less time with their children, children grow up to be selfish and more individualistic.

I wouldn’t say individualism is totally bad. Until a few decades ago, women were confined to their homes. Elders in the family collectively decided who would go to school or college, who would marry whom etc. As technology improved, it began to be possible for women to do many of the jobs which men did. As values changed, families became nuclear. As consumerism grew, families realized that two incomes are necessary to buy all the consumer goods they wanted, go on the holidays etc. I am not sure where the line ought to be drawn, if it should be drawn at all. Is there anything wrong with a society where everyone is very selfish, but where all laws are obeyed and where there is enough for everyone? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The YouTube Offensive: Sri Lanka vs. LTTE

The battle between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE takes place on land, air, sea and ............. on YouTube. Both sides to the conflict post videos that support their cause. The videos are either produced by media departments of the Sri Lankan Government or the LTTE or their respective supporters or third party videos, such as ones from Al Jazeera or Times Now which cover events favourable to the party posting the video.

Pro LTTE videos are targeted at the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. There are videos with visuals of LTTE cadres training or fighting, with songs eulogizing Eelam in the background, videos of LTTE fighting units such as the Charles Anthony Brigade, clips showing LTTE heroes such as Brigadier Balraj who died recently,
visuals of civilian casualties caused by Sri Lankan army shelling, videos of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora demonstrating their support for the LTTE and videos propagating the LTTE’s Eelam cause in general.

Prabhakaran’s Heroes Day address can be found on YouTube. You can see Prabhakaran reminiscing about the past and his friends. There are videos of the Black Tigers, women fighters of the LTTE, Sea Tigers, the Tamil Eelam Air Force and the Truth Tigers (LTTE cameramen who record fighting footage).

Sometime, pro-LTTE videos contain a message for others. Here’s a video of a Times Now broadcast posted by an LTTE supporter which conveys a request made to India by B. Nadesan, the political head of the LTTE, to repeal the ban on the Tamil Tigers. It claims the LTTE is a true friend of India and makes no mention of fighting the IPKF or assassinating Rajiv Gandhi.

Videos posted by the Sri Lankan Government’s media department tend to be of broadcasts from Sri Lankan TV stations and in Sinhalese. I assume these are addressed to the Sinhalese living outside Sri Lanka who don’t have easy access to Sri Lankan TV.

The LTTE’s media department does not issue videos in Sinhalese with a view to winning over the Sinhalese population and persuading them to agree to the LTTE demand for an Eelam. Neither does the Sri Lankan Government post videos in Tamil which could address the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora and persuade them to stop supporting the LTTE. The LTTE’s actions are perfectly understandable. Even if the LTTE were to post videos in Sinhala, it is unlikely to win over the Sinhalese. However, the Sri Lankan Government’s omissions don't make sense. As a democratically elected government which claims to represent all Sri Lankans, it has a duty to ensure that it’s point of view is conveyed to Sri Lankan Tamils. If the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora were to stop supporting the LTTE, the LTTE will not be able to sustain even a guerrilla campaign against the Sri Lankan army. For example, here’s a Sri Lankan army video which tries to show that the LTTE has been using civilians as human shields. This is in Sinhala. Why isn’t it in Tamil?

Here’s another which shows a LTTE child soldier named Ushanthini rescued by the Sri Lankan army. Ushanthini speaks in Tamil, but after a few sentences there is a voice-over in Sinhala. Why isn’t the entire video in Tamil?

Videos in Sinhala only preach to the converted. It is high time the Sri Lankan Government addressed this lacuna in its YouTube offensive and aimed its offensive at the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.

Update: After I posted this article, I have noticed that many videos with English or Tamil commentary have been posted on Youtube, setting out the Sri Lankan government’s point of view. Well Done!

M.P!! Where The Hell Are You?

We elect professional politicians to represent us in Parliament. We expect them to take up cudgels on our behalf if we have been short-changed by the government or anyone else. I say ‘expect’, though I ought to be saying ‘hope’ rather. M.P.s in Europe have a much better record of standing up for their constituents than the ones I’ve known in India . I’m sure all of us have experienced occasions when we’ve been let down by our elected representatives. We shrug and move on. But not Mr. John Taylor, an eight four year old man from London, who has taken his M.P. to court for not doing enough to get him compensation for a wrongful conviction in 1962. You can find more details here:

I’m not sure how the courts will rule in this case, but I think Taylor has set a brilliant example for all of us to follow. An M.P or any other elected politician is a professional meant to do a job, not unlike a lawyer or a doctor or a software engineer. If a doctor gives you the wrong treatment and you suffer on account of his negligence, wouldn’t you sue him? Similarly, why can’t you sue an M.P or M.L.A for being too lazy?

I am now making a list of things I want my M.P to do something about.

1. My telephone connection hasn’t been very good in the last one week
2. I ought to get a tax refund
3. The train which takes me to work is usually late
4. It’s been snowing too much in the last few days
5. My dinner is getting cold

The Pope Shows His True Colours

Not everyone has heard of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the French Catholic who led a movement that caused a schism in the Catholic Church in the late 1980s. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had effected so many drastic changes in many Catholic traditions in order to reconcile the Catholic faith with modernity. For one, the liturgy was reformed, simplified in a manner which the common man would understand. Henceforth Mass would be in the local language rather than Latin. For another, it recognised religious freedom. This meant that the Church would not try to have the coercive power of the State to ensure religious compliance. Many people were unhappy with the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre being one of such unhappy people. The unhappy ones like Lefebvre wanted Latin to be used in Sunday Mass. They opposed dialogues with other religions and said that Jews should convert to Christianity. Pope John Paul carried on a discussion with Lefebvre and other dissenters like him, hoping to convince them to change their minds. In 1988, Lefebvre ordained 4 bishops to carry on his work after his death without approval from the Vatican . Such an act of defiance got Lefebvre and his 4 bishops excommunicated. Lefebvre passed away on 25 March 1991. Lefebvre’s followers call their movement the Society of St. Pius X.

On 24 January 2009, Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the 4 bishops excommunicated in 1988 in a bid to end the schism between the Society of St. Pius X and the main Catholic Church. One of the 4 bishops is British-born Bishop Richard Williamson who has frequently expressed doubts over the existence of Nazi gas chambers and doesn’t think more than a few hundred thousand Jews were killed by the Nazis. Of course, the reinstatement is not an endorsement of Williamson’s views since Williamson was not excommunicated for his personal views.

As ought to be expected, this reinstatement caused a hue and cry. Jews are upset that a groups which wants to convert them rather than have dialogue with them should be back in favour. Many Catholics are upset that a group which opposes modernisation should be back in favour. They suspect, as I do, that Pope Benedict XVI is at heart, a very conservative Catholic who will not modernise the Church’s views on birth control or Priests’ celibacy or homosexuality. I have always believed that it is practically impossible for a moderniser to become the Pope. The previous Pope, John Paul II, though admired all over the world, was a conservative at heart who made sure that he would be succeeded by another conservative. In all probability, Pope Benedict XVI will do the same.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Training Sri Lankan Military Personnel in Tamil Nadu

If the Indian government wanted to provide training to Sri Lankan military personnel, may be as a friendly gesture, may be in exchange for something else, how do you think the government should go about it? Where do you think the training programme should be held? I would have thought the training would be arranged at a venue outside Tamil Nadu, since Indian military support for Sri Lanka attracts a fair amount of flak in Tamil Nadu. But no, the Indian government has apparently been training Sri Lankan Air Force personnel at the Tambaram Air Force base in Chennai!

I would like to know if this was just a case of carelessness or was the training meant to be a secret, which leaked out? If it is the latter, it is a cause for concern.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom

I see so many visitors to the UK getting confused with the terms ‘England’, ‘Great Britain’ and the ‘United Kingdom,’ which are often (wrongly) used interchangeably. For those interested in trivia of this sort, here is an explanation of what each of these terms mean:

England excludes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an independent country and is excluded as well.

Great Britain is composed of England, Wales and Scotland

United Kingdom, the full form of which is the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ is composed of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It does not includes Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, namely Jersey and Guernsey.

Crown Dependencies are the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. They are self-governing, though the Head of State is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth. The Crown is represented by a Lieutenant Governor. Though not part of the United Kingdom, foreign relations, defence, and ultimate good governance are the responsibility of the government of the United Kingdom. All three Crown Dependencies are tax havens and they are technically kept outside the UK so that they can offer low rates of taxation to its residents.

British Isles includes the entire United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and all three Crown Dependencies, namely the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

British Islands refers to a geographic area. It includes the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland.

British Overseas Territories are territories such as Gibraltar, Bermudas, Falkland Islands, Cayman Islands etc. There are fourteen such territories. Until 2002, British Overseas Territories were called British Dependent Territories. Before that, they were called Crown Colonies. Just as in the case of the Crown Dependencies, the Head of State is the British monarch.

Immigrants and Expatriates

The other day, a friend of mine told me that he was being sent by his firm to the US of A. ‘So you’ll be leading an expat life in New York ? I asked him. I got a delighted nod in reply. Expats all over the world lead a comfortable life, padded with double pay and perks which are meant to compensate them for the ‘hardship’ they put up with in leaving ‘home’ and moving to a foreign country.

I couldn’t help but wonder why my friend the Expat was getting such a different deal from say, an Asian or African immigrant in New York . No, I’m not talking of illegal immigrants who travel to an El Dorado and discover the harsh nature of an illegal existence. Every year, so many people legally migrate to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and various other western European countries. They are considered to be a burden on the host society and most locals don’t really want them there, though their employers do. I decided to ask various friends what in their opinion is the main difference between an immigrant and an expat. These are the answers I got:

“Immigrants have made a permanent move to a new country whilst expats are there only for a fixed period.” This is not always the case, since many immigrants do return to their home countries and expats may stay on permanently.

“Expats are sent to their new country by their employer, whilst many immigrants start looking for a job once they get there.” Again, this may not always be the case. Highly Skilled Immigrant Programme (HSMP) immigrants to the UK , now called Tier 1 immigrants, don’t need to have a job in hand when they get to the UK . However, all immigrants to the US (H1B or L1 visa holders) have a job in hand when they get off the boat.

The best answer I got was this: “Just a matter of status Old Chap”

An Incredible India where locals dance with tourists!

I was on a train and saw an advert for the Incredible India campaign on a billboard at a station called Fleet (a town in Hampshire, not to be confused with Fleet Street in London ).

Join the celebrations! Dance with the locals” the advert said. A picture of a couple of tigers accompanied this slogan.

I am all for promoting tourism, but should it be done with stories like these? I’m sure there are a few bits of India where locals might dance with tourists, but the average Indian looks at foreign tourists as a cash cow, meant to be fleeced. Many women tourists, especially those unaccompanied by men, suffer from varying degrees of harassment at the hands of young Romeos who think all western women are on the prowl for some free sex.

The tourism ministry needs to extol the virtues of India , but without venturing into the realm of fiction writing.

On the flip side, something must be done to reduce the fleecing and harassment of tourists by the locals.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Take Care of Employees Who Are NOT Fired

Imagine a company making a good thirty percent of its employees redundant. Should it try to give the redundant employees as good a deal as it can afford? If you think the answer is a no-brainer yes, think once again. According to this article in the Time, the employees who are not fired will suffer from survivors’ guilt and their productivity will suffer. Does that mean more money should be spent on the seventy percent who are NOT fired, to ease their guilt, may be at the expense of the thirty percent? After all, they will be staying on and the company should be on their good books, shouldn’t it? In any event, this makes nasty economic sense, doesn’t it?

Monday, 2 February 2009

Fight To The Last Child Soldier and Human Shield

The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora has turned out in large numbers in support of the LTTE. In Toronto, London and elsewhere, there have been large demonstrations by Tamils of Sri Lankan origin demanding an end to the fighting in Sri Lanka.
I agree with the protestors. A ceasefire is essential now if the Tigers are to be able to re-group, re-arm and fight another day. As we all know, the Tigers are determined to fight till the last child soldier they forcibly recruited, till the last civilian human shield is on his/her feet.

Desperately scoring own goals as victory looms ahead

Just as the Sri Lankan army is on the verge of capturing the last bastion of the LTTE in Mullaitivu, the Sri Lankan government warned foreign diplomats, western journalists and international aid agencies that they would be “chased away” from the island if they attempt to side with the beleaguered Tamil Tigers. This doesn’t qualify as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it comes perilously close.

In the meantime, Sri Lankan journalists are subjected to even more violent attacks.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

How Low Can A Judge Stoop?

How low can two judges stoop?

Two judges in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania took over $2.6 million in kickbacks for guaranteeing placement of juvenile offenders to private detention facilities operated by two companies, namely PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care LLC. Apparently, some juvenile offenders were sentenced to detention over the objections of juvenile probation officers, in other words, when it was unnecessary.

Who will judge the judges? More details in this report.