Saturday, 31 January 2009

Fires That Won’t Burn or Scorch!

Does that sound like an oxymoron – a fire that won’t burn or scorch? What do you know, such fires do exist. They are pale fires, the sort of fires that children can play with and won’t do any harm. Mind you, I didn’t know such fires existed until I read this piece by the inimitable Francois Gautier!
These are fires the lads of the Sri Ram Sene indulge in when they have nothing much to do on a boring Saturday evening in Mangalore or serving colonels of the Indian army start when they feel chilly on a cold Nagpur morning

Should Mental Illnesses Be Disclosed To Employers?

It was widely reported in various British newspapers two days ago that the Cheltenham Borough Council is to sue its former Managing Director Christine Laird for having “misrepresented and misstated” her fitness for employment on an application form. Cheltenham Borough Council’s suit for a million pounds accuses Christine Laird of "fraudulent or negligent misrepresentation" in concealing her depressive illness in her job application and the fact she had been taking anti-depressants for several years. Part of the job application involved filling up a medical questionnaire and (I’m guessing here) most probably Christine failed to tick the box for mental illness.

Christine Laird started to work for the Cheltenham borough council in February 2002. She held her job until 2005. Four months after Christine started her new job, the Liberal Democrats captured power. Andrew McKinlay, a Liberal Democrat became the Head of the Council. Apparently Christine and Andrew never got along. Christine’s tenure was marked by a series of bitter disputes with the Council and Andrew McKinlay, with allegations and counter-allegations of inappropriate, unhelpful, obstructive and bullying conduct. While employed by the Council, Christine Laird filed 25 official complaints with the Standards Board for England , of which only one was upheld. From June 2004 until the time she left the job in 2005, Christine was absent on full pay on account of ‘stress’.

Now the Council is seeking over a million pounds in damages from Christine for not having disclosed her medical details. The damages claimed includes a projected cost of £450,000 to the Council on account of Laird's ill-health pension entitlement, £96,000 towards legal costs on account of previous court proceedings, and £175,000 for cover while she was off sick.

The issue which interests me greatly is this: Should job applicants be forced to disclose details of their mental illnesses on job application forms? Let’s assume that Christine Laird is being sued solely because the Council woke up one morning (after she had quit) and found out that she was suffering from depression while working for the Council and even earlier. Let’s suppose that the animosity between Christine and Andrew McKinlay has not influenced the Council’s decision to sue her and claim a million pounds in damages.

It is accepted that lying on one’s CV is a ground for termination if discovered. However, do applicants also have a duty to disclose every detail that an employer may want to know? If one were to say that job applicants who are facing a broken marriage should disclose it on their resumes, one would be met with howls of laughter, notwithstanding the fact that a broken marriage can be as much disruptive to doing one’s job as depression is.

I do believe there is some merit in the argument that applicants should disclose all details that may have an impact on their job performance. The flip side on this is that, anyone who discloses an existing mental ailment is very unlikely to be hired, irrespective of whether the illness is serious or not.

Depression apparently affects approximately 19 million Americans, or 9.5% of the US population in any given one-year period. Depression is called the ‘common cold’ of mental illness since so many people suffer from it. Various famous personalities such as Abraham Lincoln have suffered from depression, though to be honest, most of the famous ones who suffered from depression have been writers and artists, callings where a mental imbalance may not cause as much harm as it would to a bureaucrat or a doctor or an engineer. Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is another mental illness that is very common. Apparently it is the fourth most common mental disorder and 2% of the world’s population suffers from it.

I would argue that until society starts to accept mental illness as just another ailment, the mentally ill should be allowed to conceal their illness provided they have been advised by a qualified doctor that they are capable for holding a regular job. If not, so many mentally ill people with minor ailments will be at risk of not getting suitable employment if they are honest in their applications. If they are dishonest and things don’t work out for them at work (for reasons which may not be linked to their illness) and their employer gets to know of the employee’s illness, the employer will be able to claim damages from them.

If an employee is unable to do his job, s/he can be and should be fired. The reason why s/he can't do his job may be because s/he has a mental illness or because his/her marriage is breaking down or because s/he is incompetent. I would never argue that a mentally ill employee should be kept in employment. However, an employer should not be able to claim damages from an employee or ex-employee on the ground that the employee or ex-employee did not disclose details of his/her mental illness when applying for the job. However, if an employer or ex-employer can prove that the employee had been advised by a qualified doctor to not take up that job, it should be possible for the employer to claim damages. I don't think the law is settled in this area. I am only suggesting what the law ought to be.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Short Story: The New Arrival

Sangeeta and I decided to break the news to Ruchi a day after receiving the test results. Most of our friends already knew. Sangeeta’s parents were extremely delighted and if mine were alive, they too would have been.

‘Honey, we’ve got some news for you,’ I told Ruchi hoping to excite her with my high octane pitch.

‘Some wonderful news, we have,’ Sangeeta added patting her tummy as if it would give Ruchi a clue to what was in store for her.

Ruchi stared at us for a second, before a hint of happiness crept into her doleful seven year old eyes and she asked, ‘what’s the news?’

‘Darling, you’re getting a new playmate!’ I told her.

‘That’s right. Someone for you to play with,’ Sangeeta dutifully chimed.

Realisation slowly dawned on Ruchi. She discarded the PlayStation console and jumped out of her chair, a small smile on her lips.

‘Mummy is going to have a baby!’ I announced in stentorian tones. Sangeeta continued to pat and rub her tummy as if this action would convey to Ruchi more than anything she could possibly say. Maybe she guessed I wanted her to say something because she soon told Ruchi, ‘you’re going to have a baby sister!’

‘Oh!’ Ruchi said in a voice which could have been chirpier.

‘It could be a baby brother,’ I warned her. ‘We’ll know in a couple of months if it’s going to be a baby brother or a baby sister. But it doesn’t matter, does it honey?’

Ruchi shrugged her shoulders. ‘Aren’t you happy? I asked her, quickly glancing at Sangeeta who looked a trifle disappointed. I wished Ruchi would jump into Sangeeta’s arms and hug her, but Ruchi stayed where she was.

‘I’m happy,’ Ruchi said, speaking slowly in a way which meant she was thinking. I could almost hear the wheels turning in her small head.

‘The baby … It’ll be my half-sister, won’t it?’ Ruchi asked.

Sangeeta and I were silent. ‘Yes, it’ll be your half-sister,’ I conceded after a second.

‘Or my half-brother,’ Ruchi said, giving us both a reassuring smile as she went back to her PlayStation.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Fast, Cheap and Good

When buying any service, you can have two of the above three. You will almost never get all three: Cheap, Good and Fast.

 

If it's cheap and good, it won't be fast;

If it's fast and good, it won't be cheap;

If it's cheap and fast, it won't be good;

 

If someone offers you all there, do remember to say "Thank you Santa Claus".

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Obama will interfere in Kashmir very soon

Pakistan is a problem for Obama, a big problem, much bigger than even Palestine. This is not only because Pakistan is a frontline ally in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also because Pakistan is under the grip of Islamic fundamentalists who control vast swathes of the country. As Pakistan officially cooperates (in varying degrees) with the American government in its fight against the Taliban, its population turns more and more anti-American. Pakistan's military-intelligence apparatus has very close links with the Taliban and Pakistani Islamists. The US has no chance in hell of dismantling the army-ISI-Islamists link unless the Kashmir problem is resolved to the satisfaction of the common Pakistani. In the eyes of the average Pakistani, the Kashmir dispute necessitates a strong Pakistani army, strategic depth in Afghanistan and links with insurgents willing to become martyrs in Kashmir.  If the Kashmir dispute is resolved, Pakistan's rulers (Zardari or anyone else in power) will find it easy to crush Islamic militancy in Pakistan and divert Pakistan's resources to Afghanistan.

For that reason, Obama will find it irresistible to try and persuade India to solve the Kashmir dispute.  When I say resolve, I mean a resolution that is to the satisfaction of the common Pakistani. India has already had a taste of such interference when a couple of weeks ago, British foreign minister David Miliband wrote in a British newspaper (the Guardian) that "resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders".  Miliband got a lot of flak for saying what he said, both in India and even from British journalists. It is very much possible that Miliband's article was in anticipation of Obama changing the US policy on Kashmir.  

India has always taken the stand that Kashmir is an internal issue and that it will not permit third party mediation.  I wouldn't say that India should change its stand if Obama were to request India to do so.  Over twenty years of militancy have vitiated the atmosphere so much in the valley. Kashmir is no longer a territorial dispute, but is a part of the global fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Also, the only resolution that will be acceptable to Pakistan is accession to Pakistan.  India should continue to resist any outside interference in Kashmir. However, India must also prepare to withstand pressure from the United States and the adorable Mr. Obama.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Do Indians Care Enough About India's Poor?

Close on the heels of Slumdog Millionaire, Dean Nelson, the Telegraph’s South Asia editor who is based in Delhi, asks a very pertinent question: Why doesn’t India care more for its poor? Dean’s question assumes that Indians don’t care for India’s poor as much as they ought to. I think that there is a great deal of truth in this question. I believe that Indians are as much charitable as people anywhere else in the world, which is not saying much. However, considering the enormous rich-poor divide that exists in India and the number of people who live in absolute poverty, Indians ought to do a lot more if they are to make a difference to India’s poor.

For a moment, let’s imagine that Indians have decided they want to do a lot more for the poor than they do now. What do you think they should/could do? I have listed below the top three things that came to my mind.

No more tax evasion: I believe that private or personal charity is no substitute for institutionalised welfare measures by the government. The biggest obstacle to alleviation of poverty is the lack of resources. One may dispute Dean Nelson’s claim that Indians don’t do enough for India’s poor, but one cannot deny that Indians are among the biggest tax evaders in the world. It is not only individuals who evade taxes, but also Indian corporates. In this respect, I think that MNCs in India have a better track record for paying taxes incident on them than our home-bred businesspeople. To cite a reported example, in June 2007, the BBC carried a news item which said that a single McDonald's restaurant in Ludhiana was paying INR. 1crore (10 million) in value-added tax, which amounted to 90% of the VAT collected from all VAT paying restaurants in Ludhiana district, even though it had only 10% of sales in that district.

Land Reforms: If we are to stop poor villagers from migrating in such large numbers to our cities, we need to make our villages relatively attractive places for people to live. I mean, they must be attractive relative to the fetid, rotting slums one finds in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai etc. I have often wondered, what would motivate a farmer who is used to free, open spaces, clean air and an outdoor lifestyle to migrate to a city like Mumbai and live in a slum where he either lives on the pavement or shares a stinking room in a shanty? In all probability, the answer lies in one word: starvation. The slums of Mumbai and Kolkata may stink, but people don’t die of starvation out there. Surely, all we need to do to make villagers stay in their villages rather than migrate to cities is to make sure they have enough to eat. I am no expert on Indian villages and the myriad problems they face, but I do know that the biggest obstacle to helping our farmers is the lack of land reforms. We need to redistribute the land in our villages so that every Indian farmer has a piece of land to cultivate and feed himself and his family.

Till recently, it was accepted that larger farms led to greater productivity. We were constantly told that small and fragmented landholdings led to inefficiencies in production. The West, we believed, was able to produce more because it had large farms which could use automated farming technology. Recent studies have shown that this is not so. Economies of scale don’t apply to farming as they do in other sectors.

Beggars and Street Children: For every few beggars on our streets, there is a beggar-master behind them, a beggar-master who pays a bribe to the police. Every child living on our streets is under the control of an adult who pays a bribe to the police. A part of these bribes finds its way to the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians. It’s easy to say that corruption in India is so widespread that it can’t be made to disappear. However, Indian policemen are perfectly capable of getting things done if they are given the right kind of orders. Have you noticed how efficiently slums are being demolished in Delhi in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games? If Delhi is not clean and tidy enough for the 2010 Games, middle class India will demand an answer. There will be hell to pay in the next elections. Our politicians have told the cops that the slums must go. The cops have regretfully told the slumlords that they must move on, that they can’t be bribed anymore. The same can be done for beggars and street children throughout India if the middleclass demands it.

Book Review: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg


Jonah Goldberg is a conservative columnist and an editor at National Review. In his book Liberal Facism, Goldberg makes a very interesting case for the proposition that liberals are a lot more fascist than conservatives, though they constantly use the F word to besmirch conservatives and right-wingers.

The Italian word ‘fascismo’ is derived from the Italian word ‘fascio’ and the Latin word ‘fasces’. Fascio means ‘bundle’ or ‘union.’ In ancient Rome, ‘fasces’ was a bundle of rods tied together and was a symbolic of a magistrate’s authority. It denoted strength through unity since a bundle of rods can’t be broken up as easily as a single rod. Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher who described as the Philosopher of Fascism wrote an essay called ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’ which was signed by Benito Mussolini and attributed to Mussolini. Fascism, as propounded by Gentile and Mussolini, propagated a nationalist ideology, that gave the ruler total authority to solve the nation’s economic, political and social problems. The main difference between fascism in its initial stages in Italy and communism is that communism preaches global brotherhood of workers and is not nationalist. Both idelogoies relegate the individual to the background and give importance to collective rights. It is worth noting that in its initial stages, Italian fascism was not inherently racist. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini adopted Hitler’s antipathy to the Jews and expelled many Italian Jews from his party. After World War II started, fascism began to be associated with Nazism, totalitarianism and racism.

Goldberg examines the ‘fascist’ streaks in US presidents ranging from Wilson to Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson to Kennedy and says that liberal fascism in the United States predates Italian fascism. Hillary Clinton is also labelled ‘fascist.’ In simple terms, Goldberg labels any form of authoritarianism and suppression of a dissenting view as fascism and he says that liberals are much more guilty of such ‘fascism’ than so called conservatives and right wingers. Goldberg gives various examples of how so called left-wing liberals have used ‘fascist’ methods to promote their ideologies, be it abortion rights or higher taxes or greater welfare measures. Goldberg’s grievance is that liberals have been so successful in linking fascism with right-wing ideology and conservatism that most Americans tend to make that association.

I do agree with Goldberg that liberals may be as much guilty of using authoritarian measures to promote their goals as anybody else. To give a recent example, animal rights activists in the UK carried out a protracted campaign of intimidating employees and suppliers of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company which carries out testing of medicines and other pharmaceutical products. Some of those activists were sentenced to long prison terms very recently.

Goldberg’s arguments are not necessarily water-tight. For example, he says that the Klu-Klux-Klan disliked Mussolini and hence are not fascist. Further, Goldberg does not even mention or try to explain the existence of right-wing fanatics such as Aryan Nations or the British National Party. The Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by a right-wing fanatic. None of these find a mention in Goldberg’s book.

Further, I don’t agree with Goldberg when he traces the ‘common’ roots of fascism and liberalism and tries to show them to be the same. It is true that Mussolini and Hitler were socialists. Liberals in the USA and elsewhere did like Mussolini and supported him till he became a German ally. It is also true that Communism as practised in the Soviet Union and the China of the 1950s and 1960s had a few things in common with fascism. However, trying to say that welfare socialism promoted by the some US Democrats and the Labour Party in the UK is fascism is downright silly.

At the end of the day, you may not agree with Goldberg. Nevertheless I would recommend that you read this book, if only to understand how a conservative American’s mind works.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Short Story: Beyond Innocence

I met Reepa's parents outside Roseberry Hall as they parked their car by the road. 'I don't have any change,' Reepa's father Nilesh said as he fumbled in his jacket for some change to pay the parking charge. In a sense I was relieved that Nilesh was able to focus on something like that. I gave Nilesh some change, took them to my room and sat them both down on my bed. They had a look of disbelief, as if they were waiting for me to tell them that the whole thing was a big joke Reepa was playing on them and that they could go home. But I couldn't tell them that. No way. Not after I had seen Reepa in the mortuary and identified her to the cops. The four inch gash across her throat had been too real. The police had questioned me and would have made me stay longer if I hadn’t managed to convince them that I had no plans to run away and that it was vital for me to meet Reepa's parents when they arrived.

'Do you want to use the loo?' I asked them.

'Yes, I do. But you go first,' Nilesh told Pallavi.

'No, I don't want to,' Pallavi said woodenly.

'Nonsense. We were in the car for almost three and a half hours.' He then turned to me. 'We didn't stop anywhere you know.'

Pallavi hesitantly got up. I opened the door pointed her towards the toilet at the end of the corridor.

'Must be a record, to drive from Manchester to London in under three and a half hours.'

'There was not much traffic, Sunday morning, and well, I drove like mad. Now tell me what really happened. Are you sure Reepa is dead?'

I sighed. 'Yes she is.'

Tears came to Nilesh's eyes and his shoulders trembled. 'She had everything going for her. She wanted to go to the LSE ever since she was fourteen. And now this … Life is so cruel.'

I was silent.

'I hope they catch the men who did this. Do you have any idea why they had to kill her? Why didn't they just take what she had and let her live?'

I started to lift my shoulders in a shrug, but didn’t. I continued to be silent. Reepa’s father was making a reasonable inference given the circumstances, though he was dead wrong. How could I tell them about Jimmy? I ought to have told them at least six months ago, as soon as Reepa started to spend all her free time with Jimmy. But I hadn't. It was none of my business I had told myself. I didn't subscribe to the Indian values which my parents and Reepa's folks carried across continents and oceans when they came to the UK to work for the NHS. If Reepa wanted to date Jimmy, that was strictly her business. And now, thanks to Jimmy, Reepa was dead.

'Do you think she resisted them when they tried to mug her? She could be stupid at times!'

This time I shrugged my shoulders and wondered how Jimmy was reacting to Reepa's murder. Did he really care? In his own way? Was he planning to retaliate against the murderers? For some reason, I hoped that Jimmy would be able to kill the people who killed Reepa. My thoughts then turned to more immediate matters. Was Jimmy likely to turn up at Roseberry Hall and remove any incriminating evidence from Reepa's room? Should I try and stop him if he did? I might not survive such an attempt since Jimmy was a six feet four inch tall man with a build to match and most probably carried a gun.

As soon as Pallavi came back into the room, Nilesh got up and went out. You could have gone with her, I almost told Nilesh. The toilets at Roseberry Hall can take more than one person at a time. Didn’t they know that? They had been here many times before. But it was too late to remind them. Too late for not just the toilets. For a second I wanted to laugh hysterically. I'm so sorry Nilesh, I wanted to tell him. I had let both Nilesh and Pallavi down. I keep saying Pallavi and Nilesh instead of Pallavi aunty and Nilesh uncle. That's because I think of them as Pallavi and Nilesh, even though I address them as Pallavi aunty and Nilesh uncle.

'Can’t we go to the mortuary right away and see her?' Nilesh asked in a choking voice when he came back. On hearing that, Pallavi burst into tears. 'Is she really, really dead? My poor baby! Why did they kill her?'

'The police told me that they want you to identify the body. I’ve done that already, but I’m not a close relative. But before you do that, they want to ask you some questions. They will give me a call once they are ready to talk to you. I've given them my mobile number. They'll call me and then we go down to the police station. From there they’ll take you to the mortuary.'

'I don’t want to identify her body. I just want to see here. Why can’t we go to the mortuary right now? Why should we go to the police station first?' Nilesh asked, his voice breaking once more.

'That’s what the police told me. They want to talk to you first, maybe take a statement in the police station and then take you to the mortuary to see Reepa. There will be a post-mortem in a day or so. And a coroner’s inquest in a week or so to determine the cause of death. Only after that will they release the body to you.' I was not playing square with Nilesh. I knew that the police were planning to do some serious questioning before they allowed Nilesh and Pallavi to see Reepa. Her body I mean. But Nilesh had stopped paying attention to me. I guess he knew pretty well the procedure for holding a post-mortem and the coroner’s inquest. He was a doctor after all, as was his wife who didn’t pay attention to a single word I spoke. We were all silent for a while. I desperately wanted to tell them everything, but I could not bring myself to do it. I had been woken up by the resident warden at three in the morning telling me that Reepa had been, well…, murdered and asking me if I could go to the Lewisham Public Mortuary with him to identify the body. After I identified the body, the police asked me to call Reepa’s folks and tell them. The policeman in charge had asked me if I could answer some questions. Did I know anything of Reepa's drug habits? Did I know how long she had been involved with gangs? They had made up their minds that the murder was drugs related. I had denied knowledge of everything, other than tell them that she had a boy-friend named Jimmy. The police knew all about Jimmy. They apparently had a very thick dossier on him, with a couple of pages in it devoted to his girl-friend Reepa.

'Ranjit will be here soon. I called him before we started our journey.' Ranjit was Reepa's elder brother. He was following his parents' footsteps, studying medicine at Newcastle.

'Why don't we go down and get some breakfast?' I asked them.

'Are you sure we cannot go to the mortuary right away?'

'No, we can’t. Unless the investigating officer authorises you to see the body, they won’t let you. You know that, don’t you Nilesh? I think you should eat some food before the police call me and we go to the police station. Once the police call me, we won’t have any time for food.'

'Okay. Where do we go?

I took them out to a nearby place where they served All Day Breakfasts. We placed our orders – An All Day Breakfast for me and just coffee and toast for Nilesh and Pallavi - and waited to be served.

My mind drifted back to the day Reepa and I started as undergraduates at the LSE. We knew each other vaguely since my father was also a doctor with the NHS and he had worked in the same hospital as Reepa's father when they were both very young. I remember seeing her and Ranjit at one of those Indian doctors-dos at Warrington when I was ten or eleven. We had both chosen Roseberry Hall – it was reasonably close to the LSE, closer than Butler’s Wharf, and not as pricey as High Holborn, which was the closest - and had moved into it at about the same time. Reepa's parents were naturally anxious about their daughter and they were very happy to see that I was around. In their eyes, I was an Indian boy who would be a friend to their daughter. I didn't really mind. One look at Reepa and I knew that she didn't want an Indian friend to take care of her. She was ready to spread her wings. You know, she had the sort of look which girls from protected backgrounds have, the ardent desire to go their way, do their thing, make their mistakes and live their lives. But there was no hint of any stupidity. No Sir, if someone had told me then that Reepa would soon start dating a drug dealer, I would have laughed aloud.

Reepa's parents came to see her every month or so during term time. Mine never did, because I was a guy and was supposed to be able to look after myself. Reepa and I did become friends despite the fact that her parents expected us to become good friends. We had a few common friends and once in a while went out together as a group. I remember going for a play at Saddler's Wells with a group of people which had Reepa in it. Whenever Nilesh and Pallavi came to meet Reepa, they would also call on me. How's our Reepa doing? they would ask me. She's fine Nilesh uncle. She's doing just fine, Pallavi aunty, I would say. As you can see for yourselves, I never added. Keep an eye on her, won't you? Nilesh or Pallavi would tell me as they left. I will do that Nilesh uncle, I would dutifully reply.

My All Day Breakfast arrived warm and enticing, but I didn't feel like eating. I wished I had just ordered coffee and toast like Nilesh and Pallavi. Nilesh nibbled at his toast, while Pallavi started straight ahead.

By the end of the first year, I started to see less and less of Reepa. I knew that she was dating a post-graduate with long hair, I think a French guy, but it was one of those casual things which no one expects to last very long. I'm pretty sure her parents didn't know about that French boy-friend. No, Reepa never asked me not to tell her parents, but that was because she knew I would not tell them. I didn't have a steady girlfriend, but I did have my share of friends, many of whom were women. I think I saw Reepa with Jimmy for the first time after we started our second year. I knew that something was wrong since Jimmy was obviously not a student at the LSE or at any other university for that matter. He was a toughie, a man who used his fists without hesitation. But I had no idea then that he was a dealer.

My thoughts were interrupted as Nilesh's mobile rang. It was Ranjit asking for directions. 'Roseberry Avenue,' Nilesh said as he gave directions to Ranjit. 'After you reach Mount Pleasant, you should …………..'

'Is Reepa's room locked?' Pallavi asked me.

'I think so. The police have recovered Reepa's handbag which had her room keys in it. They have it with them.' They had also recovered her wallet with all the money intact. The police told me that Jimmy's turf rivals had most probably killed Reepa as a way of hitting back at Jimmy. I was going to leave it to the police to tell this to Nilesh and Pallavi. There was no way I could explain it all to them. They could understand their golden daughter being killed by muggers. But they would not understand Reepa dating a drug dealer from the Caribbean and getting killed in south London as part of a turf war.

Soon Ranjit stormed into the restaurant. 'How did this happen? Why was she out so late at night?' I had no answers to Ranjit's questions.

'What time did the murder take place?'

'According to the police, at around one a.m.'

'What was she doing so late at night? Was she with someone?' Ranjit demanded of me. I kept silent.

'Was this normal for her? To stay out very late?' This was my chance, to tell them that she was dating a guy, almost living in with him and that she did keep very late nights. But no, I didn't say that. 'Reepa and I are friends.' Wrong tense, I realised, but it was too late. 'But I didn't keep tabs on her. I have no idea if she went out often and how late she stayed back.' Wonderful, I thought as my guts tightened. Once the police tell them the whole story, Nilesh and Ranjit were bound to ask me how long I had known about Jimmy.

'Let's go the mortuary,' Ranjit said. Pallavi had drunk half a glass of coffee and Nilesh had eaten a toast. My breakfast was untouched.

‘We can’t. The police are going to call me and then we go to the police station first and they will take us to the mortuary.’

‘Why’s that? Ranjit asked me.

I did not reply. I didn’t have the energy. I just shrugged my shoulders. I also stopped worrying about Jimmy turning up. Most probably he was keeping a low profile. Shouldn't the police post someone in front of Reepa's room to make sure Jimmy didn't remove anything from there? I wondered. Granted it was not possible to enter Roseberry Hall without an access key and the police had Reepa's keys, but lack of keys was unlikely to deter Jimmy. Maybe they had posted a plainclothes man there already. Never mind. None of my business, I told myself. There was nothing I could do about it. Actually I stopped caring.

‘What was she doing south of the river?’ Ranjit asked me. I ignored him once again.

My mobile rang. It was the police. 'Yes, Reepa's parents are here with me. Shall we come to police station now?'

I turned to them. ‘Yes, they have asked you to come to the police station. It’s a thirty minute drive to Lewisham.'

Pallavi started to weep loudly. Nilesh was sobbing quietly. There were tears in Ranjit's eyes as well. Where were Reepa's other friends? I wondered. There was no reason why I should have to face all this on my own. But Reepa had very few other friends. After she started dating Jimmy, she started losing friends one by one. Some of her friends drooped out because they disapproved of her new friend. Some, because Reepa was no longer the old Reepa. I remember once running into Reepa and Jimmy at a pub on Kingsway, both of them stoned out of their minds. Nilesh and Pallavi had continued to visit Reepa every month. Why didn't they suspect anything, I wondered? There was that other time when I saw Reepa looking totally zonked, her face buried under layers of makeup, waiting to meet her parents. When was that? Not more than two months ago. I was sure that Pallavi, if not Nilesh, would sense that something was wrong. But nothing had happened. Nothing! Why didn't someone do something? Why didn't I do something?

'Shall we leave?' Nilesh asked. Ranjit had settled the bill while I was lost in my thoughts. I led them out of the restaurant and we walked back to Roseberry Hall in a single file.


**A special note of thanks to the London Metropolitan Police’s press office for assisting me with the technical aspects of this story. Any mistake in this story, however, is entirely mine.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A Case Of Fragging Or An Act of Revenge?

Late in the evening on 21 January 2009, a rifleman of the Assam Rifles shot dead a colleague after an argument. When surrounded by five other colleagues, he killed all of them and escaped. Various newspapers and other media have reported it as a simple case of fragging. However, closer examination shows that there could be something more to this incident.

The rifleman’s name is T.S. Tangkhul. Those interested in India’s North-East will know that the Tangkhuls are a Naga tribe living in the Ukhrul district of Manipur. Some Tangkhuls are also found across the border in the Somra Tangkhul hills in Myanmar. The Naga struggle for a Greater Nagaland started right after independence and though a ceasefire has been in place for many years, the Nagas have not given up their demand for incorporating Naga dominated areas of other North-Eastern states into Nagaland. One of the areas sought to be added to Nagaland is the Ukhrul district of Manipur. The fragging incident mentioned above took place at a checkpost on a road at Awang Kasom Khullen in Manipur’s Ukhrul district. News reports also say that the soldier T.S. Tangkhul is a native of the area where the shooting happened.

The Tangkhuls have a community website.

On 22 January 2009, a totally different incident was reported on this website:

Imphal, January 22 2009: OPENING OF a camp of the NSCN (IM) at Siroy in Ukhrul and reported eruption of tension between the outfit and Assam Rifles in the last few days has clearly show that the cease fire extend in the state of Manipur even as GOI has said withdrawn the word "without territorial limit" from the ceasefire pact, said a statement of the United Committee Manipur today.

On 23 January 2009 it was reported that:

The NSCN (Isak-Muivah) militants holed up at Siroy in Manipur’s Ukhrul district are “preparing” to vacate the camp after the Assam Rifles gave them 72 hours to return to their designated camps. Troops of the 17 Assam Rifles, who cordoned off the makeshift camp on January 18, are preparing to withdraw as soon as the NSCN (I-M) cadres leave.

Naga militants have been fighting among themselves for many years and continue to do so despite a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government. The ceasefire is without territorial limits. Of late, Naga militants have started to provide sanctuary to other militants such as the ULFA and ANLA (Adivasi National Liberation Army) and DHD(J) (Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel Garlossa faction) in their camps. The Indian government has been furious but helpless since its ceasefire agreement with both the main Naga militant groups is without territorial limits and extends outside Nagaland.

The Isak-Muivah faction is one of the most prominent of the Naga militants. Apparently they set up a camp in Manipur’s Ukhrul district and the Assam Rifles asked them to vacate their camp. Is it possible that Rifleman Tangkhul was aggrieved by this decision and the shooting of six colleagues was more an act of revenge than a mere stress related incident? The Tankhul website says as much. It reported on 23 January 2009 that “‘Community sense’ could have led the Naga jawan to pick up the gun and kill six of his colleagues.


The Assam Rifles are an elite force composed primarily of local recruits and claim to be a ‘Friends of Hill People’ and ‘Sentinels of North East’. It has been in existence since 1835 and has served the nation so well, especially during the 1962 war with China. However, in light of this incident, the authorities ought to re-examine the policy of deploying the Assam Rifles in the North-East. Wouldn’t it be better if soldiers or paramilitary forces from outside the North-East are posted in troubled spots such in Manipur and other parts of the North-East?

Is the Modi Story True?

The late Dhirubhai is supposed to have called Modi “lambi race ka ghoda”, or a horse meant for the long distance race, meaning a politician destined for the highest post in the country. Ratan Tata has said that investors not yet in Gujarat are “stupid”. Anil Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal want to see Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, as India ’s prime minister. Modi is created with making Gujarat a top investment destination. But is this true? No, it is not, according to Salil Tripathi.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Should women be forced to take minimum maternity leave?

Different countries have different standards for maternity benefits. Western Europe has some of the highest standards in the world with working women eligible for at least full year’s maternity leave. In the UK , women are entitled to 52 weeks’ statutory maternity leave. Most women are also entitled to receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks of their leave. Statutory maternity pay amounts to 90% of the average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, then up to £117.18 per week for the remaining 33 weeks. Many employers offer maternity pay that is substantially higher than the statutory maternity pay. I know of British employers who give their employees full pay for up to 6 months when they are on maternity leave.

In France, the maternity benefits are even better. Women are entitled to up to three years maternity leave after having a baby. During this period, they receive 84%of the minimum daily wage for 16 weeks. In the case of a 3rd or 4th child, the benefits increase. The idea is to encourage women to have more children!

In comparison, employers in the USA are only required to offer 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, though many employers do provide paid maternity leave to their employees.

Therefore, when Rachida Dati, the French Justice Minister, returned to work only five days after giving birth to a girl, she caused a hue and cry. Born in a poor immigrant Muslim family and the first person of North-African origin to hold a top position in the French government, Dati has always hogged the limelight with her abrasive ways and fashionable clothes. Some said that Dati was forced to return to work since she feared the loss of her job. Job security during the post delivery period does not obviously apply to politicians and ministers.

Other women who went back to work immediately after delivering a baby wrote articles supporting Dati.

The issue here is, if employers can be forced by the government to offer minimum benefits to their employees who have babies, for the welfare of the employee and the newly born baby, can new mothers be forced to stay at home on maternity leave for a minimum period so that their babies don’t suffer? In my opinion, I don’t think a woman can be forced to take the maternity leave she is entitled to if she wants to get back to work immediately after delivery. It is possible for a grandmother or aunt or a nanny to care for a newly born baby when the mother returns to work. If the baby is not adequately provided for when the mother is at work, the parents can be taken to task by the social services, but no mother should be forced to stay at home on maternity leave if she does not want to.

At the end of it all, despite Dati rushing back to work, she lost her job.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

No to Dowry, Yes to a Fair Property Share

According to this news report, 1,500 young men and women in a Kerala village have taken a pledge to not ask for or give any dowry.
 
The giving of dowry is not a practice restricted to India . Royalty all over the world has given dowries. For example, in 1662 when Charles II, the English King married Infanta Catherine Braganza, a Portuguese princess, Bombay was given as dowry. In modern times, as women began to be treated on par with men and started to inherit property the custom of dowry slowly died down.
 
In India however, though dowry is now a reviled term, the practise of giving dowry is very much alive. It is very common for a bridegroom's family to demand a fat sum in cash, a scooter or a car, lots of jewellery, clothes for various members of the groom's family etc.  Many women remain unmarried because their parents can't cough up a dowry that prospective grooms demand.  Families go into deep debt in order to marry their daughters off.

However, there is another aspect to the Indian dowry system. A dowry given to a woman at the time of her marriage is usually the only property given to her by her parents at any time. In most cases, Indian women rarely inherit any part of their parents' wealth when the parents die. It is almost taken for granted that all immovable properties – land and houses – will be inherited by the sons. In certain cases, the mother's jewellery will be inherited by the daughters and their children. If parents die intestate, that is without leaving behind a will, inheritance is decided in accordance with the law. If the Hindu Succession Act 1956 or the Indian Succession Act 1925 were to apply, a daughter would inherit her fair share of the family property. However, in reality (I know this from anecdotal evidence), whether parents leave behind a will or die intestate, daughters get very little of their parents property. One of the reasons for this is that the family would have given away a fair amount of wealth in the form of dowry at the time of the daughter's wedding.

Now, the million dollar question is, as the practice of giving dowry slowly dies down (hopefully), will Indian parents learn to pass on some of their wealth to their daughters at the end of their lifetimes?  There is no doubt that inheritance is far more preferable to a dowry. A dowry received at the time of a woman's marriage will not be under the woman's control. Part of the dowry may consist of gifts for the groom (a scooter or car) and in-laws. Therefore, just as the authorities rightly discourage the practice of giving dowry, they should also encourage parents to treat their sons and daughters equally when dividing up their properties.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Are All Your Prejudices True?

Daniel Hannan, a writer and journalist, is the Conservative Minister for European Parliament (MEP) for South East England since 1999. Hannan does not want the UK to adopt the Euro. Although a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Hannan would like to see the UK withdraw from the EU. I have blogged about Hannan before.

 

According to Hannan, the role of a conservative thinker is to reassure the people that their prejudices are true! I can't think of anything more disgusting or shocking.

 

Mind you, Hannan is not always so abhorrent. For example, I am in full agreement with his views on Israel's Gaza offensive.

When Girls Marry Frogs, Collective Fines Are In Order

Last week, a couple of young girls in Tamil Nadu married a frog each in separate ceremonies. Apparently the idea was to prevent the outbreak of mysterious diseases in the village. It looks like every one had fun, the villagers, the frogs, the international media and in all probability, even the poor girls who married the amphibians. Indians al over the world hang their heads in shame and embarrassment. This incident is not without precedent. Over a year ago, a man married a female dog, in order to atone for having stoned two dogs to death fifteen years ago. A few years ago, a couple of donkeys were married in Bangalore in the hope of bringing rain.

 

However, the main difference between the young girls marrying frogs and the other two weddings is that minor children are involved and they are in no position to have given their consent to their weddings. It is all well and good to say that ignorance is the cause of such ridiculous practices and education will ensure such events don't occur. If we are to wait till all Indians are educated, we will have to wait for a long time.

 

I feel that incidents such as the frog wedding call for the imposition of collective fines. Mind you, collective punishments are banned by the 1949 Geneva Convention. However, the Geneva Convention came into force after the Second World War during which entire villages or even towns were demolished by occupying forces as punishment for any resistance against them. In my opinion, collective fines don't amount to collective punishment as defined under the Geneva Convention. Currently various Indian state laws provide for collective fines in the case of offences involving the practice of untouchability. In my view, it would be very much appropriate to impose a collective fine on the villages where the frog weddings took place.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Predictions for Obama Raj

As the whole world waits with bated breath for Obama to take over from George W. Bush, one can't help but feel very happy that an African American is going to be the US President in a short while from now. The symbolism of the moment should not prevent us from realising that Obama has a very arduous task ahead of him, what with the crisis in the Gaza Strip and the global economic recession.

 

Obama will do reasonably well with the economic crisis because everyone realises that Obama had no role to play in the making of this crisis. The US and the rest of the world will emerge from this recession in a couple of years at the most. During this period, Obama will only have to make sure he does not do or say anything stupid and pump out the right sound bytes at regular intervals, something he is very good at.

 

Obama realises that the Palestinian dispute is poisoning the West's relations with the Islamic world at a global level. However, I doubt if he will be able to solve this since it would require a tremendous amount of pressure to be exerted on Israel, including the actual withholding of US aid, in order to force Israel to give up all control over not only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also over East Jerusalem, a pre-requisite for creating a viable Arab Palestinian State. The American public is still very much pro-Israel and politician that Obama is, he will not be able to exert the necessary pressure on Israel.

 

Kashmir is an issue which Obama will want to be solved during his Presidency. Though not as important to the Islamic world as Palestine, it is nevertheless one of the disputes where a large section of the Ummah is aggrieved. Since Obama cannot solve the Palestinian dispute, he might exert a tremendous amount of pressure on both India and Pakistan to force them to resolve the Kashmir issue. India should be prepared for some very strong arm twisting by the US. The main lever used against India is likely to be the threat to make it more difficult for US companies to outsource to India. Pakistan will be less vulnerable to US pressure than India since the US wants Pakistan's assistance in its fight against the Al Qaeda as much as Pakistan wants US financial aid.

 

Obama is a pragmatist when it comes to trade and economy. Though he is not a protectionist, in view of the recession, Obama will take a few concrete steps to curtail outsourcing by US companies. These will be in the form of financial disincentives to firms which outsource.

 

After a couple of years, the Obama magic will start to wear off, though this will be tempered if the economy starts to look up by them. However, I expect Obama's presidency to end on a lacklustre note, unless the economy does well.

 

One has to admire the Saudis for their amazing ability to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. After having (rightly) kept quiet during Israel's Gaza offensive, the Saudis have announced a US$1 billion donation to rebuild Gaza. Where will this money go I wonder? Will it go the people of Gaza or to Hamas? Israel and the US cannot complain since it is meant to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure. However, will it make Hamas happy? I doubt it and most probably the Saudis realise it as well. In all probability, this donation is meant to curry favour with the common Arab on the street who is, with each passing day, more and more disillusioned with the established Arab regimes which have done so little to advance the Arab Palestinian cause, especially when compared with organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

 

So far the Saudis have been good at having the cake and eating it too. They practice stringent Wahhabism at home, remain good US allies, donate money to the Palestinian cause and have their silent agreements with Israel. How long can they continue thus?

 

 

Monday, 19 January 2009

How does Bollywood always get it so spectacularly wrong?

Close upon the astounding success at the Golden Globes of Slumdog Millionaire, a movie with an Indian cast, Indian heart, Indian music director, Indian language dialogues and a BRITISH DIRECTOR, one if forced to ask why movies directed by Indians have never done so well outside India. India has had directors such as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan who have brought home international honours, but they never managed to mix commercial success with critical acclaim.

 

I don't think it has anything to do with 'realism' pure and simple. Many Hollywood productions are unrealistic. Gladiator won 5 awards in 2000, including the one for best picture. I wouldn't call Gladiator a realistic movie, though Hollywood's fantaises and fighting scenes are usually a lot more realistic than Bollywood's (of Tollywood's or Kollywood's for that matter). Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon is not particularly realistic, but it also won international acclaim.

 

Could it be the music in Indian movies that ruins them for western audiences? Indian movies have always been popular in the middle-east, Africa and the Soviet Union. However, they have never had the sort of popularity which Chinese movies have had. Go to any Indian movie screening in the UK or the USA and you will find that the audience is primarily desi.

 

Amitabh Bachchan has said that Slumdog Millionaire has done well solely because it "projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots". Bachchan adds that "a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations." I'm sure that Bachchan has a point, but movies such as American Beauty have probed the underbelly of the West. Also, I got the feeling that like many upper class Indians, Bachchan does not like the idea of India's warts (they are aplenty) being exposed outside India. Slumdog Millionaire is a realistic portrayal of a slice of India, an India ignored by most upper class Indians.

 

Why haven't Indian movies like Lagaan (one of the best Indian movies to date) done well outside India? Is it because they are made primarily with an Indian audience in mind while Chinese movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are created for an international audience? I have little doubt that Slumdog Millionaire was also made for an international audience.

To forget is dangerous

Around 6 years ago, I was waiting at Doha airport for a connecting flight to London. A security guard came up to me and asked me to go and sit elsewhere. When I asked why, the guard pointed to a sign above which said the place I was sitting in was reserved for women. I hadn't noticed the sign and nearly got into trouble. I am pretty sure that if the incident had taken place elsewhere in Doha, I would have been in some serious trouble. This incident came to my mind when I read about an Australian writer sentenced to three years in jail for insulting the Thai King. Most probably, the poor chap did know that Thailand has strict lese-majeste laws, but did not even imagine a situation where they would apply to him. When waiting at Doha Airport, I did know that Qatar segregates men and women in public spaces, but didn't really expect to be ticked off by a guard for sitting in a women-only part of the airport.

 

Do all countries have a duty to give extra publicity to their laws and regulations which foreigners might not be expected to know? Singapore and Malaysia make sure that all foreigners travelling there are aware that these countries punish drug traffickers with long prison terms or even death. Should Thailand put up posters at Bangkok airport bringing its  lese-majeste laws to the attention of all foreigners? In the absence of such extra-publicity, should they be so stringent with this Australian writer?

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Short Story: The Perfect Wife

Inderjit looked Cheryl squarely in the eye. 'Can you work under pressure? Can you deal with chaos? Will you run away if things get messy?'

Cheryl did not bat an eyelid. 'I guess that means everything is in a mess right now.' She gave Inderjit a grin. 'That's fine. I can deal with chaos.' Inderjit did not look convinced. Cheryl wearied of grinning and looked over Inderjit's shoulder. Nineteen storeys below, the traffic rushed past. None of the sounds or smells associated with traffic, blaring horns, screeching tyres or gut-searing smoke fumes, reached the air-conditioned comfort of the glass-paneled office at Nariman Point.

Inderjit ran his fingers through his hair. He could not afford yet another mistake. This would be his fourth secretary after he became the company's CEO three years ago. He had fired the third one after he discovered nine typos in a two page letter he had dictated. Each time a secretary left, things only got worse. Right now, there were mountains of unanswered letters, his personal accounts were in a mess and he had no clue if his membership fee for the Bagpiper's Club had been paid yet. Unlike his first and second secretaries, Cheryl was not a looker. However, she looked chic and smart, unlike his third secretary who was the sloppiest dresser he had ever met. A friend of his had come up with the theory that pretty secretaries were not good at their work. After two bad experiences with attractive secretaries, he had accepted that theory and stupidly assumed that his third secretary, a very average looking woman with atrocious dress sense, would be smart and efficient.

A week after Cheryl started work, things became noticeably better. Every day Cheryl stayed back and worked for an additional hour to get things in order. By the end of the month, Inderjit decided that he had won the lottery. Cheryl got a pay hike and Inderjit got back his piece of mind.

Inderjit worked long hours. He did not have any family in Mumbai. His parents lived in faraway Kolkata. His marriage had ended in a divorce many years ago and he had been living on his own since then. His ex-wife had been very beautiful and very messy – her clothes strewn all over the sofa and dining table most of the time.

A year after Cheryl starting working for him, an idea slowly entered Inderjit's head. Initially he dismissed it as silly, but it would not go away and after a few weeks he decided that it was not a bad plan after all. Once he made up his mind, he moved fast. 'What plans for the weekend? he asked Cheryl one Thursday evening. He took her to the Khyber where they ate Afghani kebabs and thin roomali rotis, interspersed with Kingfisher beer and thick mango lassi. Cheryl was pleasant and a good conversationalist. And she was not bad looking in her sober skirt and blouse. Unlike the time when Inderjit dated his first wife, his heart did not beat faster, nor did his palms get sweaty. But Inderjit knew where his priorities lay. A clean and orderly home run by an efficient wife was infinitely preferable to a beautiful wife and a messy home.

Cheryl accepted his proposal with alacrity and little fuss. They had dated for six weeks and reached a stage where Inderjit would kiss her deep and hard before she ran out of his car into her home. Cheryl's parents were not too happy with their forty-year old son-in-law, who was not only not a Goan catholic, but was also a divorcee. But they were progressive people and respected Cheryl's choice. In any event, Inderjit looked reliable, the sort of man who would take good care of their darling daughter. Cheryl found another secretary for Inderjit, a woman in her late forties, who she assured Inderjit was as good as her in terms of secretarial skills.

A few days after their honeymoon in Mauritius, Inderjit noticed that his flat in Cuffe Parade was getting messier by the day. Cheryl's clothes were strewn all over the sofa in the living room. The kitchen was a mess as well, even though a domestic help turned up everyday to wash the dishes and sweep the entire flat with a broom. Initial days, Inderjit told himself. Cheryl was a newly married bride. She would soon be her normal self and have everything under control. True, the flat hadn't been spick and span when he was on his own. However he had always kept it functionally tidy and it never took him more than a minute to locate something.

Things did not get better. Actually they got worse. And finally one weekend when Inderjit found that his music CDs were not being put back in the same order, his temper snapped.

'What the heck is wrong with you?' he screamed at Cheryl. 'Can't you make sure you put the CDs back in their proper place after you've listened to them?'

Cheryl gave him a stony look. 'Fine, I won't listen to your CDs. And I'll keep my collection separate from yours.'

'I don't care if it's your CD or mine. I want you to put back each CD in its cover once you've listened to it.'

'I'll try, but no promises.' Cheryl smiled indulgently at Inderjit.

'But, but, you were never like this at office.'

It was now Cheryl's turn to turn on the fury. 'Did you expect me to be a secretary at home? Did you want a wife or a housekeeper?'

'But I thought you were naturally clean and tidy. I thought …'

'No, I've always been a messy girl,' Cheryl said with a toss of her head. 'You should have seen my room when I was at my hostel.'

'Oh! I didn't know that.'

'Well, now you know.'

Cheryl walked over to the pile of CDs and DVDs kept on a shelf near the DVD player and picked up a CD. She ejected the CD inside the player and replaced it with the one she had taken out. She kept the ejected CD on top of the pile which had many empty covers and quite a few DVDs and CDs without their covers and walked over to the sofa. As she put her feet up and let the soothing music wash over her, Inderjit asked, ‘after all that I said, was it too much to have put that CD back in its cover?’

‘If it’s so important to you, why don’t you do it yourself?’ Cheryl asked Inderjit and closed her eyes, allowing the soothing music to wash over her once again.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Atheist Bus Campaign Revolts Bus Driver

The Atheist Bus Campaign in London about which I have blogged twice before continues to cause controversy. A bus driver about to board a bus refused to drive it when he found out about the disgusting message displayed on the bus.  

I wonder what will happen if atheists become disgusted and take offence each time they are faced with a religious display.

How much do you love us?

Britain's love affair with the Gurkhas is well-known. The Gurkhas have been a permanent fixture in the British army ever since 1815 and tales of their bravery are legion. However, Gurkha soldiers in the British army were always paid less than their British counterparts. On retirement, they were expected to retire in Nepal where they were paid a much lower pension than the average British soldier. After many court battles, Gurkhas got the right to settle in the UK and receive the same pension as other British soldiers. In doing so, have the Gurkhas made themselves unaffordable for the British army? Will the British army retain the Gurkhas even if it costs them a lot more?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Illegal Immigrants

One gets so used to tales of illegal immigrants to Western countries being treated harshly, put in detention camps and the like. However, it is not only Western countries that refuse to show a humane face, as this report from Thailand tells us. India too can be nasty, especially if the immigrants are from Bangladesh.

Delhi Wins International Acclaim for its Makeover Efforts

India wants Delhi to be sparkling clean and tidy for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. An international city which is on par with Western cities. The official website of the Games states that:

"Delhi 2010 shall be the best Commonwealth Games to date boasting impeccable standards of service to be provided to athletes, officials and the general public. The Games shall set up new benchmarks for other Host nations with regards to urban sustainable development by showcasing excellent infrastructure and facilities which could be used by the society and the general public for generations to come."

And how does Delhi set benchmarks in urban sustainable development? Like this.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Dyslexia is a myth

According to Labour MP Graham Stringer, dyslexia is a "cruel fiction" that should be consigned to the "dustbin of history".  According to Stringer, the British education department has invented dyslexia in order to cover up its failures!

Even though Stringer has been soundly criticised by mainstream British media, he is not without support.

Too English in Scotland?

I have always envied the ability of Western Europeans to keep their quarrels and animosities at a civilised keel. The Walloons and the Flemish have been at loggerheads in Belgium for a very long time without any physical violence. Even violent Northern Ireland has been very peaceful for many years now. I have known Scots people living in London publicly hold forth on the distinctiveness of their Scottish identity and even the merits of an independent Scotland without any fear of assault or victimisation. However, as this news report shows, things are not always so. I hope that this despicable incident is not repeated anywhere.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It must run in the family

Just after it emerged that Prince Harry refers to an army colleague of Pakistani origin as 'Paki', it has been reported that Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry affectionately refer to a family friend of Indian descent as 'Sooty'.  In case people have forgotten, Harry's grandfather Prince Philip has almost never been accused of being politically correct.

 

Marching contingents from RAW and IB for Republic Day

Suited contingents from the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau are to take part in the Republic Day march on 26 January for the first time in India’s history.

Okay I made that up, but this news report comes pretty close. In honour of services rendered during the Mumbai attacks, the black cat commandoes are to be represented at the Republic Day march past. Mind you, I am all for honouring those NSG commandoes who tackled the 26/11 terrorists. However, making the NSG march in formation along Rajpath seems to lower them in stature rather than honour them. I wonder how many weeks of practice the NSG needs to learn to march in step.

One way of honouring the NSG (in addition to pinning medals on them) would have been to relieve them of most VIP duties and letting them tackle terrorists in Kashmir and the North East.

Israel takes a leaf out of Sri Lanka’s book

I have always believed that the Sri Lankan government's war against the LTTE is fully justified. So is Israel's Gaza offensive, notwithstanding the horrible civilian suffering caused.

However, just as Sri Lanka stooped very low recently in the course of its just war, so has Israel. By  banning secular Arab nationalist parties like Balad, Israel seems to be repeating its earlier mistake of undermining the PLO/Fatah, which caused the rise of Hamas.

Married, Catholic and a Priest?

If you want to marry and also become a Catholic priest, don't worry, there is still hope for you.  Yes, Catholic priests are bound to remain celibate and unmarried for their entire lives, but there is a way around this rule. Owing to a number of Anglican priests who have been converting to Catholicism, the Catholic Church has now made a provision for such Anglican priests to remain in the clergy even if they are married.  Talk of having the cake and eating it too!

So, if you want to be a married Catholic priest, follow these easy steps:

1. Become a Anglican priest

2. Get married

(Steps 1 and 2 may be interchanged)

3. Become a Catholic

4. Carry on as a Catholic priest, with full assistance, love and support from your wife.

There's a minor catch though, not that you would mind. After converting to Catholicism, you would have to remain celibate!

 

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Four Letter P-Word

When Prince Harry was shown as calling an army colleague 'Paki' and all hell broke loose, I thought that those objecting were making a mountain out of a molehill. Until I read this very good article by Murad Ahmed which explains the historical baggage behind the word 'Paki'.

Whilst I fully empathise with Murad Ahmed and all other British Asians who felt offended by what Prince Harry said, I also think it is important to move away from the past. I haven't lived in the UK for long (just a little over 6 years) and cannot claim to understand the pain and trauma suffered by British Asians in the 70s and 80s when racism was commonplace and racist taunts a part of daily life. However, if an Australian can be called an Aussie and a Briton can be called a Brit, it should be acceptable to call a Pakistani (or by association any other South Asian) a Paki.

Satyam for the day

On December 16, 2008, after the markets closed, Satyam had announced a buyout of Maytas Properties and Maytas Infra. Satyam was planning to pay USD1.6 billion all together, USD1.3 billion for the entire equity of Maytas Properties and USD300 million for a 51% equity stake in Maytas Infra. The markets reacted very negatively and investors rebelled. The transaction was called off. Now if it turns out that Maytas Infra and Maytas Properties were both built using money siphoned off Satyam, the government may end up transferring the shares or assets of these companies to Satyam. If Satyam is to survive, it will do so as a Infrastructure/Realty company!

Don’t use the internet to save the environment

Apparently, google searches use up as much energy as is needed to boil water in a kettle for a cup of tea. This is because a great deal of energy is needed to run the servers from which data is mined and served to you. Applying the same logic, even sending an email must require energy since various servers are involved. Call it the demise of one of my last illusions, that the internet is eco-friendly. I wonder what’s less harmful to the environment – snail mail or email?

Sunday, 11 January 2009

No Ashura Processions in Dubai?

Last Thursday, the 8th of January, I had to talk to someone in Dubai. The day being the 10th day of the month of Muhurram  when Iman Hussein's martyrdom is commemorated, I assumed that Dubai would be shut. So, I called up my friend on his mobile I was surprised to find out that he was in office and working. My surprise was even greater when my friend told me that Dubai doesn't have a public holiday for this occasion. Silly me, but makes sense, doesn't it? Dubai's ruling house is Sunni, why on earth should they mark Hussein's martyrdom? As for the thousands of Shia immigrants working in Dubai, who cares?

Insulting the African National Congress

Naomi Klein  has called for Israel to be subjected to a boycott, on the lines of the global boycott of South Africa, which forced South Africa to give up  apartheid.

Whilst I think Naomi Klein is totally wrong, I also feel that she is insulting the African National Congress, the brave organisation which fought for an end to apartheid. To compare Israel to South Africa is akin to comparing the ANC to Hamas or Hezbollah, both of which are fundamentalist organisations that live by rules unacceptable to civilised people. Israel has it flaws, but anything that entrenches the Hamas in the Gaza Strip is so unfair to the Palestinians in the long run. Do we want a Palestinian Taliban to be in power in the Gaza Strip?


Short Story: THE SCHOLARSHIP

The economist travels all the way from New York. His wise and tired eyes have seen most parts of the world in many cruel dimensions. Though past retirement age, he continues to teach and write. His latest book on China is still on the bestsellers’ list. As the sun sinks into the Arabian Sea, the economist ignores his jet lag and goes for a long walk along the marine drive. His baggy trousers flap in the sea breeze and crowds jostle him. The rich are richer and the poor have become poorer. A prosperous couple with a very chubby toddler in tow walk past. Even after the orange rays give way to dusk, the glaring discrepancies in wealth distribution cannot be hidden. The economist sees a skinny young girl with a shy smile and tattered clothes selling peanuts. As he walks towards her, another peanut seller, a rough looking man in his thirties, blocks his path and thrusts a paper cone brimming with roasted peanuts towards him. The economist brushes him away and manages to buy a large cone full of peanuts from the young girl. He pays her with a fifty rupee note and walks away before she can find the change.

The next day, the trustees send a car to the hotel to collect the economist and take him to the trust’s offices.

‘Who was the interviewer last time?’ he asks one of the trustees.

‘Oh, last year it was the head of the economics department from ABCD college.’

‘And this year you decided to bring me here, all the way from New York?’

‘Just an excuse for us trustees to meet with a Nobel Prize winner.’

The economist lets it pass. He does not tell them that he had made a few discreet enquires before catching his flight. An Indian friend has told him that the previous year the trustees’ drew a lot of flak after the scholarship was awarded to a minister’s son.

The trustees have short-listed six candidates for the final interview. One of them will win the scholarship and spend two years at an ivy league institution of his or her choice. The economist spends around thirty minutes with each candidate. All the interviewees are very good, with degrees from some of the best colleges. Each of them has the potential to be a world famous economist.

The candidates are in awe of him. They have read most if not all his books. One candidate responds to his questions solely with quotations from his books. The economist has not experienced such adulation. Finally he is done. It’s actually a choice between two candidates: a boy and a girl. The boy is slightly older than the girl and he has an extra year’s work experience.

The trustees take him to a fancy restaurant, bustling with executives, most of whom are men. Over lunch he tells them, ‘it’s the candidate whom I interviewed fifth.’

They all go back to the trust’s offices and the results are announced. The girl is congratulated.

‘Either Harvard or the LSE,’ she tells the other candidates.

The candidates leave. A limousine with a chauffer waits outside. The girl gets inside the limousine and raises the shades. The boy starts walking towards VT. He pauses for a moment. His train leaves only at eight and he has almost five hours to kill. Enough time to catch a movie at Sterling. He counts the money in his wallet. Just enough money for the movie and the train ticket home. On second thoughts, he decides to skip the movie and keeps walking.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Believers are Offended

A few months ago, I had blogged about a proposal to run an advertising campaign on London buses declaring that there is probably no God. The word 'probably' was meant to ensure that the Advertising Standards Authority did not call the campaign into question. Despite all this, ever since the campaign took off, the advertising regulator has apparently received over 50 complaints.
In defence of this advertising campaign, all I can say is that believers offend non-believers in so many ways, all the time. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe only believers have the (God given) right to offend others.  Makes sense, doesn't it?

Friday, 9 January 2009

I Want My Kidney Back

Makes a lot of sense to me!

In the West, property owned by either couple in a marriage is considered to be jointly owned. When there is a divorce, the property gets divided almost equally.  Divorces usually result in a lot of acrimony, because, in addition to custody battles for children, one partner usually gets some money or property earned by the other, when the matrimonial pot is split. When there is so much bitterness, why should a divorcee be able to walk away with her ex's kidney?

 

Does Protectionism Work?

For Norway's farmers, it does.

A Second Cover-Up?

Having cooked up balance sheet numbers for many years, Satyam's big boss does not seem to have any plans to stop lying. According to Ramalinga Raju's confessional letter to the Satyam board, the numbers were beefed up to show profits that weren't there. But I'd rather believe this brilliant article which suggests that most probably money was siphoned off Satyam to pay for Raju's other business interests

A Severe Shortage of Enemies

Not content with taking on the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Government also fights journalists who have a bad habit of speaking the truth.

Independent TV stations are fair game as well, especially if they are Tamil owned.

When the Silent Majority is Held Captive

It happens again and again. A small, vocal, fanatic and determined minority wants change. The fanatics are willing to take extreme measures. The silent majority is not organised. A few who dare to speak out are killed. All this is happening right now in Swat, Pakistan.

Why isn't the world involved in backing the law abiding majority? Soon we will be at a stage where the only way to fight the fanatics is to turn equally fanatic, adopt a few draconian laws and ignore human rights for a while. Is this the only way to fight fundamentalism?

Israel’s Gaza Offensive is Fully Justified and Totally Pointless

I believe that the air attacks being carried out by Israel on various targets in the Gaza Strip and the incursion by the Israeli army into the Gaza Strip are justified. I also believe that these air attacks and land offensive will serve no purpose at all, other than help Ehud Barak and the Labour Party in the forthcoming Israeli elections.

Ever since the cease fire between Hamas and Israel came to an end on 19 December 2008, Israel has been targeted by Hamas which started to fire around 80 rockets per day into Israel. Most of the rockets did not cause much damage and so far, only a handful of Israelis have died as a result. However, the number of people killed in Gaza has exceeded five hundred. Clearly the Israeli response to the rocket attacks is not proportionate. Why then do I say that Israeli is justified in its actions?

Imagine for a moment that you own a fertile piece of land in a desolate part of the world. You land adjoins a barren piece of land. A tall barbed wire fence separates your land and the barren land. The people who own the barren land don’t like your presence in the neighbourhood. They have a nasty habit of throwing stones into your land, a few stones every day. Mostly they don’t do any damage, but once a month or so, a worker in your land gets hit by a stone. Once in a while, your neighbours cut through the barbed wire fence and creep into your land at night and uproot a few fruit trees before returning to their barren land, all this in order to make you abandon your fertile property. How should you respond? If your response has to be strictly proportionate, you can only throw stones into your neighbour’s barren land, something which will distress your neighbour a lot less than you are distressed by the stones thrown into your land. You can also creep into your neighbour’s land at night and uproot his fruit trees, except that your neighbour does not have any fruit trees! So, you post guards on the periphery of your land, mount powerful search lights at certain vantage points and instruct your guards to shoot dead anyone caught in the act of throwing stones into your land. Intruders who enter your fertile land are also to be locked up for a year before they are released. Once this new policy comes into effect, your guards do manage to kill a few stone throwers and catch a few intruders, but the stone throwing and intrusions don’t cease. This is mainly because there is a total difference in values between you and your neighbour and your neighbour is willing to sacrifice the lives of his people in order to cause trouble for you. He just does not want you in the neighbourhood, though you have every right to be there. Soon the number of fruit trees you lose to your neighbour’s men goes up. Your workers start to quit. You start making a loss. Unless you manage to stop the stone throwing and the uprooting of fruit trees, you will have to vacate the neighbourhood. What do you do then? There is no police force worth the name in your part of the world. You have no choice but to send a team of armed men into your neighbour’s land and capture or kill everyone who has thrown stones or intruded into your land and teach your neighbour such a lesson that he does not try to harm your property ever again.

Now imagine for a moment that you acquired your fertile piece of land after a prolonged litigation. You won the legal dispute and the loser was your neighbour who owns the adjacent barren piece of land. They are many in your town who say that the court ruling was unfair, though the bulk of the local residents support the judicial ruling and are happy for you to occupy your piece of land. Does this additional piece of information make you change your mind? Do you now think that the neighbour has the right to throw stones into your land or intrude into your land and uproot your fruit trees? The answer is a clear No. Instead, what your neighbour ought to do if unhappy with the court ruling is appeal to a higher court. If further appeal is not possible, your neighbour ought to get public opinion on his side and in the meantime, try and make his barren piece of land as fertile as possible.

Israel is in the position of the owner of the fertile land. Its neighbour is Hamas, an organisation whose charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian Islamic State. I have always believed that the creation of Israel through an UN resolution was absolutely fair. If you believe that the creation of Israel by the UN in 1948 was correct, it naturally follows that Israel has the right to defend its territory and pre-empt any possible attack that may pose an existential threat to Israel. I have many good friends who ardently believe that the creation of Israel was unfair. All those friends tell me that Israel’s Gaza offensive is totally unjustified.

It must be admitted, most of what followed after the fair and legal creation of Israel was neither fair nor legal. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its Arab minority has almost always been very, very unjust. In particular, I don’t think that Israel was justified in placing an economic blockade on the Gaza Strip in reaction to Hamas’s election victory. Though no one likes the idea of fundamentalists of the Hamas variety on their door step, Israel had no right to make life unbearable for the people in the Gaza Strip. Also, it must not be forgotten that Hamas is largely a creation of Israel. If Israel were not so desperate to undermine the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Fatah, fundamentalist Hamas would not have come into existence.

The Gaza Strip is not a sovereign state, but Hamas runs it as if it is. As per the UN resolution which created Israel, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem ought to form an independent Palestinian state. However, East Jerusalem is illegally occupied by Israel and the West Bank is under the control of the Fatah. Hamas won the Palestinian Parliamentary Elections in January 2006 and came to power. After infighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas was evicted from the West Bank in mid 2007. For good measure, the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas declared Hamas to be an illegal force. I don’t think Mahmud Abbas was right in doing so and I do think that Hamas got a raw deal in being evicted from the West Bank, considering the fact that they won 74 seats to the ruling-Fatah's 45 in the Parliamentary elections in January 2006. Most probably Israel played a key behind-the-scenes role in all this.

However, despite all these drawbacks on the part of Israel, the random launching of rockets into Israel with the intention of killing civilians cannot be justified. Hamas’s attacks on Israel are not just a reaction to the economic blockade. Instead, it arises out of Hamas’s determination that Israel should not exist as a state. The range of Hamas’s rockets has been increasing in range and accuracy by the month and soon there may be a day when Hamas is able to target any part of Israel at its will. When faced with such a situation, Israel is perfectly entitled to defend itself against such attacks and do all that is necessary to prevent such attacks in future.

The forthcoming elections in Israel and the need for the ruling Labour Party to show itself to be as tough on Hamas as the Likud Party, has definitely influenced Israel’s decision to attack the Hamas in Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel’s right to defend itself is so fundamental that it is entitled to do so even on election’s eve.

All of what I have stated above begs the question whether India is entitled to respond against Pakistan in a similar fashion in response to the Mumbai attacks. The answer is yes, though, considering the fact that Pakistan is not the Gaza Strip and it possesses nuclear weapons, India would be foolhardy to do so.

Israeli air strikes have led to heavy civilian casualties. It is not easy to watch visuals of civilians, including young children being killed, and say with a straight face the Israel’s actions are justified. However, Israel’s actions are indeed justified. Hamas has intentionally mixed up its military infrastructure with civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Hamas seems to enjoy a high degree of civilian support in Gaza. If a near-sovereign state supported by its population launches attacks on another sovereign state using equipment and men who are mixed up with civilians, the ensuing retribution will cause civilian causalities. Hamas is as much to blame for the civilians killed in the air strikes as are the people of Gaza who voted for an organisation whole sole objective is to remove Israel from the face of this earth.

Will Israel succeed in its objective? In 2006, Israel launched an offensive against the Hezbollah in Lebanon and was fought to a standstill. Hezbollah’s survival made it a lot more popular and Israel’s aura of invincibility was badly dented. Hamas is no Hezbollah. It is not as tough or as capable as Hassan Nazarallah’s organisation. Also, unlike in 2006, this time Israel seems to be successfully avoiding battles in dense population centres where die-hard Hamas fighters could take a heavy toll of its fighters. If Israel’s only objective is to stop the rocket attacks altogether, it will not succeed. If its aim is to only make Hamas pay a price for the rocket attacks, it may succeed. However, Hamas will continue to exist as an organisation even after this offensive is over. It will also retain its ability to launch attacks on Israel, as before. Its popularity in Gaza Strip and the rest of the Arab world may even go up. In short, the Israeli offensive will most probably do nothing other than help the Labour Party and Ehud Barak win the next elections.