Monday, 26 December 2011

Imran Khan The Politician

Imran Khan is making waves in Pakistan these days. Once written off as a man of no consequence in Pakistan’s political arena, hamstrung by what Anatol Lieven describes as an inability to distribute largesse, Khan has managed to draw over 100,000 people to an anti-corruption rally in Karachi

Khan had achieved a similar feat in Lahore in October 2011 and the repeat performance has confirmed that Khan has arrived on the political scene.

Recently I had read Khan’s book “Pakistan: A Personal History” where Khan mentions an anecdote which describes his personality well. Apparently when Khan was four years old, his cousins took him to a swimming pool at the Aitchison College in Lahore. Khan was seeing people swim for the first time and ‘could see that people seemed to be moving around near the surface of the water so I decided it must be quite shallow and promptly threw off my clothes and jumped straight in. I immediately sank to the bottom. After swallowing a lot of water, I was taught by my cousins to swim within a few days.’ Based on this experience, Khan says that, ‘Politics was a similar experience, though the learning process was much longer. I had nobody to teach me, no mentors and made many mistakes.

Has Khan learnt to play politics just as he learnt to swim? We’ll find out when the next general elections are held in 2013. However, it cannot be denied that currently Imran Khan’s political views – negotiating with the Taliban and ending drone strikes – coincides with the views of Pakistan’s all powerful army.

Friday, 23 December 2011

“Pakistan: A Personal History” by Imran Khan – Book Review

Almost two years ago, I had blogged about Imran Khan and my comments weren’t exactly very flattering to the former captain of Pakistan’s world cup winning squad.

I have now just finished reading a book by Imran which combines Pakistan’s history with Khan’s own story. Khan writes well and tells a simple story of how Pakistan has evolved since its independence, the challenges it faces and how Khan’s political party Tehreek-e-Insaf can offer a credible alternative to the established parties. One may not agree with everything that Khan has to say, but one is forced to admit that Khan has passion, drive and determination for his cause.

Khan has a view on a number of issues, ranging from Pakistan’s founders Jinnah and Iqbal to the Taliban to the path which Pakistan should take to get out of the morass it is currently in. Hardly surprising, I guess, otherwise Khan wouldn’t be in politics or write a book for that matter. Khan comes across as a conservative man, one very proud of his Pathan origins, his religion worn on his sleeve. I initially thought Pakistan: A Personal History would be addressed to and meant for young Pakistanis, ones who would vote in the next elections, but no, by the time I finished this book, I got the feeling that Khan was trying to explain Pakistan to the West, to ask for greater understanding (not sympathy- Khan is too proud for that) and respect.

The broad contours of Khan’s story would be known to most people in the sub-continent. As a youngster, Khan had a privileged childhood, went to one of the best schools in Pakistan, had a dream career playing international cricket for Pakistan, led Pakistan to its one and only world cup victory, built a world-class cancer hospital in memory of his mother with public donations, got married to the very pretty and very young Jemima, got into politics, initially made a hash of things, got divorced and has managed to stick around in the political arena till now. Mind you, there isn’t too much about Khan’s rise to fame and glory in cricket, other than occasional references to various incidents, both good and bad ones. If one expects a cricketing biography, one’s going to be disappointed.

Similarly there isn’t much about his courtship of Jemima. Khan tells us that he was all set for an arranged marriage when he met Jemima. He doesn’t use the words ‘fall in love” though he does say that he ‘found her attractive and intelligent and was particularly impressed by her strong value system and the fact that despite her young age she already had a spiritual curiosity.' I though Khan’s account of the reasons for their divorce much more honest and straightforward. I’d say this book is 8/10th about politics and ideology, 1/10th about cricket and the remaining 1/10th is other personal stuff.

There are quite a few interesting anecdotes about Khan. One is set during the 1965 War with India when Pakistanis expected the Indian army to land in Lahore where Khan lived. Some of Khan’s older cousins formed a junior defence league and were armed with guns. Two of Khan’s ‘overzealous cousins almost ambushed, shot and killed two innocent people, mistaking them for Indian paratroopers.’ It is not cleared if the two innocents were “killed” or “almost killed”. There is no mention of any punishment and so I presume it was only “almost killed”, but then you never know in Pakistan. There is another story of how Khan’s tips helped his brother-in-law Ben Goldsmith, who had lost about 10,000 pounds spread betting on cricket, recoup his losses. After the losses were recouped, Ben made enough money (in two days) for Khan to pay off his party’s debts. Mind you, Khan says he never gambled in his life till then and there is no mention of Khan repeating such a performance.

Khan mentions how Zia declared the Ahmediyas to be non-Muslims, but doesn’t comment either in support or against that declaration. Clearly, Khan doesn’t want to lose any votes over this issue. However, in the matter of Salman Taseer's murder, he takes a clear stand calling it tragic. Khan also takes the view that Tasser’s assassination and the subsequent killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is a result of the polarisation in Pakistan brought about by Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror. ‘Before 9/11, Taseer’s remarks recommending a change to the blasphemy law in order to prevent its misuse might not have even got a mention in the newspapers. At worst they might have roused a few statements by clerics wanting to mobilise public support among their constituencies, but in the current polarised climate everyone and anyone is at risk if they happen to be on the wrong side of the divide.

Khan goes out of his way to explain Islam, Pakistan and the Pashtuns (who can do no wrong) to the outside world, sticking his neck out in the process. Most of what Khan has to say is sensible and correct – to an extent atleast, such as that Islam has had a glorious past when it produced a number of scientists and geometricians and the like (when the West wallowed in darkness), that a genuine Islamic state would necessarily be a welfare state which would tolerate minorities, that the Taliban were fundamentalists, but never terrorists, that no Pakistani had taken part in the 9/11 attacks, that the Taliban could have been persuaded to have Osama bin Laden tried in an Islamic court of law, that it is still possible to make an honourable peace with the Taliban. Khan leaves one in no doubt that if his party comes to power, the Pakistani army will stop participating in the War on Terror. Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to get American aid, he feels it makes Pakistan aid-dependent and most of the aid money lines the pockets of the rich and powerful.

When Khan talks of the honour system, yes the very same idea which causes fathers to kill their daughters who fall in love before marriage, he says, ‘the concept of honour has received a bad press because of the deeply offensive honour killings, but by upholding one’s honour impoverished people living hard lives can maintain a sense of dignity and command respect. In the tribal area, the highly decentralized form of democracy is based on the jirga system – local councils of village elders, similar to the Athenian democracy of the city-states of......’ I’m going to leave this at that.

Again when Khan talks of opposition to women’s liberation, we are told, ‘While the masses in Pakistan are impressed by the tremendous technological progress of the Western world, their understanding of the Western moral value system mainly comes from watching television and they do not respect what they see. Therefore they are deeply suspicious of any attempt towards westernization – particularly women’s liberation. They don’t regard this as women having the right to fulfil their potential, but rather as having the right to be sexually permissive. Therefore westernised Pakistanis are considered to have loose morals too. One of the many derogatory things which people say about westernized couples is that "he does not get angry and she has no shame." It is because of this attitude that sometimes modernization is resisted because it is perceived to be westernization. People are also therefore wary of foreign NGOs dealing with women.

Khan’s sense of righteousness and destiny shine forth brightly, as Khan discusses Pakistan’s current political dilemma and the role he would play if he could win political power. We find statements like ‘that left only my party and the religious parties to take a stand.’ Khan wants Pakistan to ‘reclaim the vision and wisdom of the modernist reformers who paved the way for the creation of Pakistan. We need to do this because we badly need a cultural, intellectual and moral renaissance in Pakistan so that we are able to create societies and communities that are educated and enlightened, just and compassionate, forward-looking and life-affirming. We need to utilize our rational faculties and engage in scholarly discussion and reflection to find a solution to contemporary issues such as the blending of the positive aspects of Western culture with Islam. The new renaissance must also offer an alternative to the Western materialism and consumerism that has been totally imbibed by our ruling classes and which our country cannot afford.

Khan is quite clear that it is the current ruling classes of Pakistan who are at the root of Pakistan’s misery. Not only do they covet foreign aid money, which they then siphon off, they also ape the West and do not subscribe to the values which Pakistan’s founders had espoused. The English language schools of Pakistan, which follow a curriculum different from that of state schools come in for some severe criticism for creating brown sahibs. ‘When Pakistan became independent, we should have rid ourselves of these English medium schools,’ Khan sermonises and then adds, ‘in other post-colonial countries such as Singapore, India and Malaysia, they set up one core syllabus for the whole country.’ I can’t speak for Singapore, and Malaysia, but Khan should have done some more research on India before making such a flattering statement. If India had done away with all English language schools, yours truly would not be posting this piece on Winnowed and Khan would not have written Pakistan: A Personal History in English if Pakistan had done away with all its English language schools.

Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to have the Western form of secularism. While noting that ‘Islam gives all the freedom of a secular society – yet an Islamic state cannot be secular. To understand secularism as it exists in the West today, it is important to remember the evolution of Christianity within the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the State and the Church had their distinct boundaries. Over the centuries, many other influences have shaped modern-day secularism. But the separation of Church and State could not happen in Islam since it has no concept of a Church.’ I don’t think the Church and State were so distinct during the days of early Christianity. Also, I don’t see how Islam not having a Church should prevent the State from disassociating itself from religion. Khan does offer an explanation by quoting Iqbal who said that ‘when a State is governed without the moral values that are rooted in religion then naked materialism is likely to replace it – exactly the observation made by Mohandas Gandhi when he remarked, ‘those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.’ The two greatest institutional tyrannies of all times, the Nazi Reich and the Soviet Union, were Godless constructs.

Khan ends his 364-page (sans le index) tome on the most positive note, telling us that his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf is the only party which can get Pakistan out of its current desperate crisis. ‘For the first time I feel Tehreek-e-Insaf is the idea whose time has come,’ Khan tells us.

Monday, 19 December 2011

“Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War” by Sarmila Bose – Book Review

I’ve always wondered why India and Bangladesh aren’t better friends than they are. I mean, when soldiers from West Pakistan were carrying out a genocide in what’s now Bangladesh, one which caused the deaths of a few million Bengalis, India stepped in and helped the Bengalis gain independence, losing a few thousand of its soldiers in doing so. Why then do so many Bangladeshis want to have, as good a relationship with Pakistan as with India? Why are so many Bangladeshis friendlier towards Pakistan than towards India? Why is the Bangladesh National Party able to flourish in Bangladesh, even gaining power on a few occasions, despite being inimical towards India and friendlier towards Pakistan and despite being allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami which had collaborated with West Pakistan and opposed Bangladeshi independence? All these questions I had raised in this post dated March 2009.

I just finished reading a brilliant book by Sarmila Bose, a research fellow at Oxford, which has provided me with the answers I have been searching for so long. Of course, the answers provided by Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War do raise further questions, but it is a very good start in getting a fix on what exactly happened in the run-up to Bangladesh’s independence, something which ought to have been done decades ago.

Bose questions many of the commonly held assumptions relating to the events of 1971 which led to Bangladesh’s independence. Was there actually a genocide by troops from West Pakistan against the Bengalis of East Pakistan? Were the Bengalis entirely innocent victims and were Pakistani federal troops the only aggressors, as portrayed by most media sources? Finally and most importantly, how many people died in those turbulent times? Did three million Bengalis actually die at the hands of troops from West Pakistan? Did India actually hold 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as PoWs?

Bose tries to answer these questions by analysing various events that took place during that period, especially the massacres and interviewing various participants in those events, taking the trouble to meet with Pakistanis, Bengali fighters, Bengali civilians and non-Bengali civilians as she seeks to find if commonly accepted wisdom is indeed true. For example, in order to verify details of the attack on Dacca University on the night of 25th- 26th March 1971 which is supposed to have resulted in the deaths of 300 innocent students and professors who were killed in cold blood, some in their dormitories as they slept and some rounded up and executed in the University grounds, Bose interviewed army officers such as Lt. Muhammad Ali Shah of 18 Punjab who took part in the attack, studied tape recordings of radio communications among Pakistani army officers during the attack (which are preserved at the Liberation War Museum in Dacca) and reviewed documents prepared by the US consulate in Dacca. The attack on Dacca University is particularly infamous since one Professor Nurul Ula managed to films some of the killings and this footage is actually available on YouTube. Bose found that the students at Dacca University were armed and had trained for battle. The training was mainly with dummy rifles and the students’ weaponry was of course no match for that of the soldiers’, but the fact is that it was not a massacre of sleeping victims, but a two-way battle. Soldiers enroute to the University had to clear barricades of felled trees and on reaching the University, there was some initial resistance before the soldiers prevailed.

During the attack on Dacca University, Rokeya Hall, the Women’s hostel is supposed to have been attacked, with girl students having to jump out of their hostel windows to reach safety. Bose’s research shows that most girl students had vacated their hostel by 25th March and only 7 girls were left, all of whom stayed with a tutor on the night of the attack and survived. Some like Professor Guhathakurta and Professor Maniruzzaman were taken away from their homes inside the campus and killed. One Rabindra Mohan Das, whose father worked in the Provost’s office, and whose entire family was killed, tells Bose that 29 staff members were ordered to pile up corpses and were later killed. Rabindra Mohan Das and another boy were spared since they were considered too young. Brig (Lt.Col) Taj who commanded the 32 Punjab regiment told Bose that by his estimates, only 44 people were killed in the two main halls targetted. However, records of radio communication between officers who took part in the attack indicate that no prisoners were taken and that around 300 people were killed. The memorial at Dhaka University for the University’s faculty, students and staff who lost their lives during 1971 has only 149 names and so the number of faculty, students and staff who died that night has to be even less. Bose wonders what the real number is? Did the army men exaggerate casualties or were there fighters in the campus who were not students? Finally, Bose pertinently asks why the alleged mass grave outside Jagannath Hall wasn’t exhumed after the liberation?

The conclusions which Bose comes to are rather startling. According to Bose, the movement for Bangladesh’s independence was hardly peaceful or Gandhian, as claimed by many. Bengalis who were agitating for more rights and for freedom were usually armed with weapons ranging from rifles to sickles. In other words, they were not a peaceful bunch. From 1 March 1971 when the elected national assembly was postponed till the time the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1997, violent Bengali mobs and rebel fighters targeted Pakistani soldiers and their families and killed many. Despite this, federal troops exercised a certain degree of restraint. There were a number of massacres of Biharis which could be called genocide, especially because those killings did not discriminate between men women and children. On the contrary, when federal Pakistani troops massacred Bengalis, they usually let women and children go. Local Bengali Muslims were responsible for many of the Hindus who were killed or chased away from their homes. Greed for wealth and property was the prime motive for such actions. Many Bengali intellectuals killed just before the surrender by General Niazi died at the hands of collaborating Bengali outfits such as Al-Badr and Al-Shams (both commonly called Razakars) and not Pakistani troops.

Did India actually take 93,000 PoWs? The total number of Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan was only 34,000, plus another 11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel. India is right in saying it had 93,000 Pakistanis in its custody, but this figure Bose tells us, included civilian officials, civilian staff, woman and children. Pakistan’s President and Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen. Yahya Khan is given a clean chit by Bose who finds him ‘sensitive to Bengali grievances’. Bose reminds her readers that Gen. Yahya Khan actually ensured that the elections held were free and fair, thereby enabling the Awami League to win a majority.

Finally and most importantly Bose concludes that the total death toll from Bangladesh’s independence movement was neither 3 million Bengalis as claimed by Mujibur Rahman and as accepted by almost everyone outside Pakistan, nor was it as 26,000 as estimated by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, but between fifty to one hundred thousand and in this figure, Bose includes Bengalis, Biharis, Pakistani and Indians. If the Pakistanis had actually killed 3 million Bengalis or any other number close to it, one can be sure that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis would not be on good terms now. So many Bengalis would not have collaborated with the Pakistanis to the extent they did. We are given the example of two brothers, both of whom were in the Pakistani army. One brother, Maj. Gen. Imamuz Zaman of the Bangladesh army, defected to the rebels and the other, Brigadier Abul Lais Ahmaduz Zaman continued to be loyal to Pakistan. Both officers continue to serve their respective countries.

One can dispute Bose’s numbers on the basis that she has placed a great deal of reliance on her interviews with Pakistani army officers. Also, some of Bose’s suggestions and inferences can be challenged. For example, while investigating a massacre at Thanapara village, on the banks of the Padma, where a number of villagers had gathered, Bose tells us that before the shooting, the Pakistanis had accused the villagers of being Indians who had crossed over and explains that Thanapara is very close to the Indian border and at the time of the massacre, the water level was very low, making it possible to easily cross-over. However, we are also told that the men were segregated from women and children and only the former were shot. Surely, Indians wouldn’t have crossed over with their families, including children! However, Bose seems to be convinced that the soldiers thought the villagers were Indians who had crossed over.

Bose takes great pain to show that the killings by the West Pakistani soldiers do not amount to genocide as defined by the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because they were not carried out with the aim of wiping out the Bengali race. Bose justifies this by explaining that on numerous occasions, men were segregated from women and children before being shot. In some cases, such as when a number of Hindu refugees fleeing to India were killed at a place called Chuknagar, the reason for killing was because the killers thought the Hindus would receive training in India and return to fight them.

With a few weeks after Operation Searchlight was launched on 25 March 1971, the Mukti Bahini were almost entirely crushed, though they continued to launch sporadic, but ineffective attacks which only succeeded in attracting reprisals. Indian forces therefore carried out frequent infiltrations into Bangladesh many months before the formal commencement of war in December 1971, using artillery, tanks and occasional air strikes to support the Mukti Bahini.

Why did the Bengalis start a movement for independence from their co-religionists just over two decades after fighting to break up India on the basis of religion? India was partitioned because elites among Indian Muslims felt that they would be marginalised in an independent India. In all probability Bengali elites started feeling marginalised by the Punjabi elite in the West and decided to have a country of their own. The Muslim Punjabi’s inability to understand the Bengali’s love for his language and culture doubtless played a role. Bengali hatred towards their countrymen from the west was focussed on the Punjabis, to the exclusion of other ethnic groups. Derogatory terms were used to describe Punjabis – such as Shala Punjabi (Punjabi bastards) or Punjabi Kukur (Punjabi dog) or Borbor (barbarian) or doshu (bandit) or noropisach (human demon) or noroposhu (human animal). Bose tells us that in comparison, West Pakistanis referred to the rebels as miscreants or Muktis or Awami League thugs. There were many instances of Pakistani soldiers helping Bengalis, but civilian accounts describe such soldiers as ‘Beluch’ or even Sindhi, though there were very few Baluchi soldiers in that theatre of war and in any event, the average Bengali civilian wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Punjabi and a Baluchi.

Bose ends the book on a dramatic, but thought provoking note. ‘When the Pakistani army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971, he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When the soldiers of the (Bangladesh) army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975 he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law, and three sons, the youngest a child of ten.

Ultimately, neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different parties with a terrible human toll. The war of 1971 left a land of violence, with a legacy of intolerance of difference and a tendency to respond to political opposition with intimidation, brutalisation and extermination.

I found this book, the main body of which runs to just 183 pages, with appendices and an elaborate and useful index taking up another 55 pages, difficult to read (though I read it over a single weekend) since the typeface is very small and cramped, making it strenuous for my eyes. The very matter of fact and clinical manner in which Bose discussed massacres and other atrocities did not make it any easier.

Friday, 16 December 2011

“Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas” by Homen Borgohain and Pradipta Borgohain

Well known Assamese writer Homen Borgohain and his son Pradipta have come up with an excellent book on the Nagas, one of the most distinct ethnic groups within the Indian sub-continent. With a past that is shrouded in mystery and smoke from the fires of Naga insurgency yet to disappear completely, the proud Nagas have been misunderstood by mainstream India and its politicians. Scrolls of Strife makes a valiant attempt to reverse this position.

Naturally, the Naga quest for independence from India forms the crux of this book. The Borgohains try to examine this struggle from the Nagas’ point of view as well as from the other side. Since the Borgohains are not Naga, a fair amount of space is devoted to explain how the Nagas view them. Do they see them as Assamese or as fellow North-Easterners with a common Mongoloid heritage? Homen Borgohain is an Ahom (which makes his son Pradipta half-Ahom) and we are told that Homen finds easy acceptance in various parts of the north-east, especially in Manipur and Mizoram where he is mistaken for a local.

The Borgohains give various reasons why people from the mainland find it difficult to understand the Nagas or to accept them as one of their own. Food habits are an important reason. The Nagas, like the Mizos, are die-hard carnivores and eat anything and everything, including dog meat and bat meat. Their popular drink ‘Ju’ is form of rice beer, which attracts insects which lay eggs and spawn maggots and has to be drunk with the live maggots inside. The average Indian from the mainland with so many dietary restrictions would just not be able to share a meal with the average Naga. The Indian army has been present in Nagaland for many decades now and for many Nagas the Indian soldier epitomises India. However, the Borgohains are careful to point out that the Nagas have troubles not just with Indians from outside the northeast, but also with Assamese and the Manipuris.

The Nagas have a love-hate relationship with the Assamese since the region that is now Nagaland was once part of Assam and many of the bureaucrats who governed the Nagas were Assamese. The Borgohains narrate numerous examples of the animosity towards the Assamese – for example cars with Assamese number plates are much more likely to be vandalised in Nagaland. On the other hand, many centuries ago, the Nagas had learned to get along with the Ahoms who were almost as egalitarian as the Nagas. Since the various Naga tribes speak distinct languages that are mutually unintelligible to each other, a pidgin called Nagamese has evolved, which is largely based on Assamese. We are told the story of an Angami Naga who married an Ao girl. When asked what language he proposed to his future wife, the man replied, ‘Why, in Assamese, which is the language of love for all Nagas.

After Nagaland was formed in 1963, many Nagas like the Tungkhul Nagas were left out of Nagaland, which has given rise to the demand for a greater Nagaland or Nagalim. The Borgohains tell us that until 1971 when Bangladesh was created, Pakistan did support the Naga insurgency from bases in East Pakistan, but doesn’t do so any more. The Chinese had an affair with Naga insurgents, but devout Christians and communists make strange bedfellows and after the Chinese failed to persuade the Nagas to link their insurgency with the Naxalites of West Bengal, they became disenchanted with the Nagas.

The Nagas fought the British but later grew to respect and even like them. During the British rule, American Baptist missionaries converted most Nagas to Christianity. Unlike mainland India where the people had organised religions which prevented conversions on a large scale, the Nagas’ animist faith did not stand up to missionary zeal. We are told that the Baptist missionaries had either the active or tacit support of the British government, but the reason for their overwhelming success was their dedication and single mindedness. Christianity tamed the Nagas who till then were head-hunters. However, it also unalterably changed the Naga character. Until Christianity was introduced to the Nagas, each Naga village was a sovereign state and each Naga home a castle. Christianity took away that village/clan/tribe based identity which the Nagas had.

Naga insurgents have tried to use Christianity to whip up support for their movement. ‘Nagaland for Christ’ is a catchy phrase, but do Christian missionaries actually support the Naga insurgency or the demand for independence? Apparently, there has been only one instance of a foreign missionary assisting Naga insurgents.

One of the best things about Scrolls of Strife are details of how various Indian leaders got along (or did not get along) with the Nagas. The Borgohains tell us that Mahatma Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan and Rajaji understood the Nagas and were very sympathetic towards the Naga cause. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru was not, especially after the Nagas staged a walk-out in 1953 at a meeting in Kohima where the Burmese Prime Minister U Nu was also present. Indira Gandhi is supposed to have given the Nagas a patient hearing and they liked her. B. K Nehru did the opposite.

Just as interesting is the description of various Naga leaders like Zapu Phizo, T. Sakhrie, Thuengaling Muivah, J. B. Jasokie etc., their struggles and ideologies. The story of how T. Sakhrie took the path of peace and was beaten to death by Phizo’s men is as heartrending as the various tales of army brutality and discrimination faced by the Nagas in other parts of India.

These days many Nagas live and work in different parts of India where they sometimes feel discriminated against. The insurgency against India has been put on hold and the uneasy peace is likely to last for a while. Nevertheless, the Naga continue to be proud of their tribal identity, their culture, their (relatively new) Christian faith as they ponder their future in an ever changing world.

If there is one thing I didn’t like about this book, it’s that there are numerous references to the Battle of Khonoma where the Angami Nagas apparently put up a terrific fight against the British. However, the actual battle is not described and I could not even find it on the usually reliable Wikipedia. You can read about it on this blog though I can’t vouch for its veracity.

On the whole, this book is an excellent read and ought to be widely circulated within the Indian mainland – just so that fellow Indians know each other better.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

When A Lawyer Falls In Love by Amrita Suresh – Book Review

I picked up this book because I was under the impression that lawyers almost never fell in love, at least to my knowledge, and I wanted to read an account of a genuine, 24 carat lawyer falling in love. You know, I thought I would find out (how a hard-nosed lawyer could possibly fall in love) and pass on the information amongst my friends, many of whom, like me, are practising lawyers – my once in a lifetime contribution to my legal fraternity.

I was disappointed. Amrita Suresh’s book is about law students and not lawyers, which is not such a bad thing, but then, it could have been about art students or medical students or engineering students for all the difference it would have made. If one is looking for those nuggets of detail specific to law schools and those who study there, those tales of intense competition, rivalry and camaraderie, moot courts, idiosyncrasies of senior lawyers and such like, information which only lawyers and law students can generate, one would be disappointed. To be fair to Suresh, the novel’s back cover explains that Suresh isn’t a lawyer and the preface discloses that her knowledge of law schools has been gained through a close friend who went to a reputed law school.

Suresh writes well. The sort of smooth, feel-good writing one would associate with the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or maybe even Nancy Drew. Most of the time, the writing is meant to convey the ache in somebody’s heart, like this one: ‘‘Ankur, I made this card for you,’ Sonali said handing him a neat light blue card. There was a cute sketch of a chubby little girl holding a flower and looking down. Sonali was exceptionally good at drawing. Just as she was exceptionally good at everything else. Like tormenting him.’ The dialogues usually play to stereotypes, like this: ‘A bulb is easy to fix,’ the young female engineer replied, ‘a male ego isn’t.

The plot revolves around affairs of the heart, as the title would indicate or rather, affairs of multiple hearts and one is in little doubt as to the outcome even though Ankur Palekar is baby-faced and diminutive and the object of his affection, Sonali Shah does show short-lived partiality for the tall and handsome Rohit Randhwah. Almost all the leading characters come through the novel without any damage or injury. I wouldn’t say that Suresh has fleshed out her characters very well – they are rather two dimensional, but her descriptions do suffice for this tale. For example, while introducing the reader to Pavan Nair, the fall guy on many an occasion, we are told that: ‘Next to Souvik sat Pavan Nair, a guy, it was said, with a mind the size of a mighty star. When viewed from the earth that is. His painfully obvious observations made those around him want to develop homicidal tendencies.'

Sonali Shah believes in astrology and if the explanations of the zodiac and exceptional amount of dialogues revolving around star signs are anything to go by, author Suresh must take the stars very seriously.

We are told that AIU College is one of the most reputed law colleges in India and it is fully residential. However, there are no concerns about bad food in the hostel mess or the other usual discomforts one would associate with hostel life. There are students from all over India, as befits a law college that is so very reputed. There are Holi parties, college cultural festivals where smart, pretty, handsome law students meet smart, pretty, handsome engineering students and everyone has a good time. When the story kicks off, Ankur Palekar and friends are in their third year and when one reaches the last page of this 230-page ‘very light read’, they have graduated and are ready to step into the big bad world of lawyers. There are a few mentions of exams, with the characters worried more about their love affairs and one doesn’t really notice how the years roll by.

What I hated most about this book is that Suresh doesn’t tell us which city or town AIU College is located in. I know that this may not be a big deal for many, but for me, the inability to tie the story to a location ruined the tale. On top of that, there are a number of faux pas which are bound to be made when the author is a non-lawyer. For example, after telling us that AIU College is fully residential, even for those students who stayed a stone’s throw away, we find one student leaving college for personal reasons and hoping to complete ‘his final year through correspondence’. One hears a professor remind the students of a law firm which has achieved a certain certification, ‘so that they could start taking things seriously since they were in the final year’. I doubt if there is any law school in India where the teachers (have to) prod students into taking their search for a corporate law job seriously. Students are usually much more clued into corporate law firms than their teachers.

Now don’t let my peeves dissuade you from buying this book. It’s well written and if you like chik-lits, you might well enjoy When A Lawyer Falls In Love.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat – Book Review

Chetan Bhagat goes to GangaTech, a private engineering college in Varanasi to give a motivational lecture and meets its Director, the very young and very lonely Gopal Mishra. Gopal has an obvious drinking problem as well as an urge to tell his ‘story’, something which turns out to be very convenient, since Gopal’s story forms the rest of this novel. Since Gopal is lonely, it’s obvious that he didn’t ‘get’ the girl, the girl being the very pretty Aarti. However, Bhagat is such a good story teller that he keeps his reader on tenterhooks till the end of the book, open to a number of possibilities, wondering how exactly the story would reach the end already revealed at the beginning of the story.

Revolution 2020 has all the usual Bhagat ingredients. It has clichés, a half-decent plot which creaks just a little bit, parts of which could have come from a Harold Robbins or Jeffrey Archer novel, politically incorrect characters who shoot from the hip and could belong to any town in India, drama and a large dose of reality. I just can’t emphasise the last bit sufficiently enough. Clichés notwithstanding, Revolution 2020 takes the reader into the dark underbelly of India’s private education sector, where almost everything involves a bribe or something equally unsavoury. At times, I felt that Bhagat went overboard with this depiction of how bad things can be with private unaided colleges structured as trusts, which which are in reality full-fledged business enterprises. However, a friend did confirm that HR managers at certain large companies do ask for kick-backs from private colleges, ones that are at nowhere at the top of the rankings, to hire from those campuses.

Bhagat’s characters date, kiss, party and sleep around (furtively). Atleast some of them do so. Though this novel is set in small-town India, I did not find this to be unrealistic, given the genuineness of Bhagat’s narration and the changes that are sweeping across India's social landscape.

Bhagat’s language is not spectacular and I did notice at least one grammatical mistake, but on the whole, the English is good enough to convey the story. If you are not too snobbish to watch and enjoy a Bollywood movie, or any other Indian language movie for that matter, you could enjoy Revolution 2020.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol II: 1839-2004 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

The second volume of Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs picks up the story where it was left off at the end of the first volume – the death and funeral of Ranjit Singh. The sad notes continue. The regicides amongst Ranjit Singh’s seven sons which followed demise demonstrated how far the Sikh community and its rulers had moved away from the ideals preached by Guru Nanak. Power mattered and nothing else. Kharak Singh, Ranjit Singh’s eldest son and Kharak Singh’s son Nao Nihal Singh had to be cremated within hours of each other, their consorts performing sati. Ranjit Singh’s second son Sher Singh and his young son Pratap Singh were slain by Ajit Singh Sandhawalia and his uncle, the Sandhawalias being distant relatives within the royal family. The only gallant notes at that point in time come from the brave General Zorawar Singh who served the Dogras and led successful campaigns to Ladakh and Tibet. I had no idea till I read this book that Indian rulers had clashed with Royal Chinese troops in Tibet. And won most of their battles!

The Sikh army saw repeated mutinies, but performed excellently against the British during the first and second Anglo-Sikh wars. In fact, it performed so well during the Battle of Ferozeshahr during the first Anglo-Sikh war that the British Indian army took such a beating and ‘the fate of India trembled in the balance.’ However, the Sikh army had its share of traitors and Tej Singh who arrived with fresh troops and guns did not deliver the coup de grace. Instead, he silenced his guns and gave the British a reprieve. The next battle at Sabraon turned out to be India’s Waterloo, mainly on account of the role played by traitor Lal Singh. The Second Anglo-Sikh war also saw the Sikhs achieve a grand victory at Chillianwala, but they failed to follow up with decisive action.

After the British took over the Sikh Kingdom, a miracle took place. Enemies were converted into friends within a very short period, mainly on account of the excellent administration by the British backed by a sense of fair play. Canals were dug and deserts made to bloom. Wealth increased and the Sikhs became loyal foot soldiers of the empire. So much so that when India erupted in mutiny in 1857, the Sikhs were loyal to the Brits and practically saved the Empire. The opportunity of paying back the Mughals for the religious persecution they had suffered, especially the murder of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Emperor Aurangzeb, was only an added bonus. It was hardly surprising when after the mutiny the Sikhs were designated as a martial race and given special treatment while races such as the Bengalis who had helped the British defeat the Sikhs in the two Anglo-Sikh wars, were considered non-martial. Punjab became even more prosperous and loyal to the crown.

Another side effect of the British patronage of the Sikhs was that it prevented many Sikhs from reverting to Hinduism. Great care was taken to ensure that Sikh religious sentiments were not hurt, especially for those serving in the army. In fact, once enlisted, Sikhs could not cut their hair short or give up the outwards characteristics of Sikhism!

Most Indians would have heard of the Akalis and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, but how many of us know how control of Gurudwaras used to be with Udasi mahants and the Akalis had to fight to gain control of their holy places? Do read this book to find out more. It’s worth it.

When the First World War erupted, the cream of Sikh youth went off to fight for the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia and various other fronts. The British were grateful, but also cautious since the Ghadr movement was also on. Migrant Sikhs shocked by the racist treatment they received in Canada and the USA, returned to Punjab to fight for its independence. The Punjabis were however not ready for an independence struggle and many of the Ghadr activists were turned over to the police.

One good thing about Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs is the little snippets of information which are slipped in, which totally distort one’s understanding of a particular subject. For example, one gets to know that Kaiser’s Germany had plans to send large shipments of arms to support the Ghadr movement. However, the internecine quarrels between Indians dampened that enthusiasm. One Dr. Chandra Kant Chakravarty misappropriating a large amount of money provided by the Germans and sending them fictitious reports of his achievements dampened it even more.

During the Second World War, the Japanese initially treated defecting Indian soldiers poorly and with contempt. So much so that Captain Mohan Singh was forced to dissolve the INA. It was later revived when Subhas Chandra Bose arrived on the scene. By that time, the Allies had knocked the stuffing out of the Nipponese who had lost some of their swagger. However, the INA’s performance was poor on the whole, Khushwant Singh tells us.

Partition affected the Sikh community adversely, much more than the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab. The labour government partitioned Punjab on the basis of population and not property ownership. ‘The Radcliff award was as fair as it could be to the Muslims and the Hindus. The one community to which no boundary award could have done justice without doing injustice to others were the Sikhs. Their richest lands, over 150 historical shrines, and half their population were left on the Pakistan side on the dividing line.

The best bit about the second volume is Khushwant Singh’s description of how the movement for Khalistan gained momentum and secessionism gained ground. The demand for a sovereign Sikh state had always existed. Some of those agitating for a Punjabi Suba from the time of India’s independence, which ultimately resulted in the creation of three states, Punjab, Haryana and Himchal Pradesh, did have an independent Sikh state in mind. However, it was the appeasement of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale by Indira Gandhi and her man in Punjab, India’s future President Giani Zail Singh, which fanned the flames of secessionism and led to Operation Blue Star and calamity. Khushwant Singh’s description of Operation Blue Star does not tally with the popular understanding of how Operation Blue Star unfolded. No, the Indian army did not rush into the Golden Temple without preparation and suffer huge casualties. Far from it, we are told that ‘many months earlier, the army had been instructed to keep itself in readiness to move to the Golden Temple whenever ordered to do so. A replica of the Temple complex had been prepared at Chakrata (near Mussoorie) to familiarize besiegers with its layout, entrances and fortified positions. Information of the strength of Bhindranwale’s fighters, their dispositions and the kind of weapons they possessed had been gathered by the intelligence agencies of the police and the army.’ I won’t divulge more except to say that when Sikh peasantry around Amritsar started to converge towards the Temple carrying whatever rustic weapons they could find, army commanders decided to finish off the task during the night of 5-6 June. ‘They threw in all they had: their commandos, frogmen, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tanks.’ Khushwant Singh tries to sound neutral and unconcerned, but his anger at the turn of events is evident. Do please read this book for a blow by blow account of how this attack unfolded and ended.

Khushwant Singh does not tell us about army casualties, though he does say that in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Temple, around 4000 Sikh solders deserted their cantonments in various parts of India, slew their officers and fled towards Amritsar. Many were arrested. Some were killed. Just as riveting as the build-up to Operation Blue Star is the description of how Khalistani terrorism took deep roots in Punjab, till KPS Gill uprooted and destroyed it.

The only bit I didn’t like about A History Of The Sikhs is that Khushwant Singh’s description of the various battles fought by Sikh soldiers could have been better. The descriptions are detailed and good, but one misses the thunder of hoofs, the clash of steel, the euphoric scream of the victor or the knotty feeling of defeat in the tummy. I guess good history telling can do without all this and each of the two volumes of A History Of The Sikhs is excellent reading despite the lack of drama depicted from an infantry-man’s shoulder, the sort of stuff one finds in world-class history books such as Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy At The Gate which revolves around the Battle of Vienna (1682) where the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna by a coalition of European powers. But still......

Khushwant Singh ends the book on a positive note commenting that in 2004, two Sikhs were at the helm of affairs in India, with Manmohan Singh holding fort as the Prime Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwali serving as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a notional fulfilment of the prophecy - Raj Karega Khalsa – the Khalsa shall rule.