Sunday, 31 May 2009

Short Story: Maternity Leave

Rajeev wanted to sit down for a while and get some rest, but Kiyan didn’t give him a chance. To be honest, Carla had been running after little Kiyan since morning and he had no right to complain.

‘Kiyan, don’t go there. You’ll fall into the water.’ Rajeev picked up Kiyan and carried him back to the top of the steps of the beautiful Santa Maria della Salute where Carla was sitting. The moment he put him down next to Carla, Kiyan started to slowly and carefully climb down the steps. Rajeev watched with wry amusement. Kiyan took a while to get to the bottom, after which he ran towards to the pier.

‘Don’t go near the water!’ Rajeev pointlessly admonished Kiyan as he ran after him. It was so easy for that boy to fall into the water, or if he didn’t jump in, that is. And there was no getting away from the water in Venice. It was everywhere.

‘Shall we head back?’ he shouted to Carla from below as he dragged Kiyan away from the water’s edge once more.

Carla looked at her watch and said, ‘No. We have plenty of time.’ The she added with a laugh, ‘don’t be so restless.’

She was right. It was only nine thirty. The vaporetto would take them from Salute to Rialto in less than fifteen minutes. The walk to their hotel on the Calle de la Fava was less than five minutes. Unless Kiyan insisted on walking rather than be carried, in which event, it would take them ten or fifteen minutes. The return trip from their hotel to Rialto would be painful with their big suitcases since there was a small bridge to cross and carrying the big suitcase up those steps would take time. The vaporetto ride from the Rialto to Ferrovia was only another ten minutes and the Santa Lucia train station was right across the Ferrovia pier. Their train to Rome was at quarter past twelve. He couldn’t help being restless. He was always restless. Not that his restlessness was a bad thing. He wouldn’t have set up Chipmunks and made such a success of it if he was the type to sit on a fat arse and watch the world go by.

Rajeev relaxed his grip on Kiyan’s shoulders a bit. Instantly Kiyan tried to break free. Rajeev reluctantly carried him back to the bottom of the steps saying, ‘When Kiyan grows up, Kiyan will learn to swim and then Daddy will let Kiyan play close to the water.’

‘Why don’t you go inside and take a look?’ Rajeev encouraged Carla. Ultimately she would want to see the inside of the church, even though they had seen half a dozen churches in the three days they had been in Venice. Might as well get over the viewing so that they could go back to the hotel, Rajeev thought. Carla got up to go inside.

‘Kiyan, do you want to go inside the church with Mummy?’

‘No, he doesn’t. He hates the indoors, even that of a beautiful church,’ Carla brushed aside a few strands of hair from her freckled face as she spoke. It was very warm and Carla had her sweater off and tied around her waist, which made her look plumper than she actually was.

Rajeev did not press the argument. Carla was right, though it wouldn’t have hurt Kiyan to see the inside of a church.

At that moment, Rajeev’s mobile rang. Or rather it vibrated inside his pocket. As he fished it out, he yelled, ‘Carla, hold on. I need to take this call. It’s the office. Kiyan, here, go to Mummy, Daddy needs to talk to someone’

Carla’s face puffed up in annoyance, but Rajeev ignored it. If he worked for the bloody NHS, he too would keep his mobile switched off while he was on holiday.

As he suspected, it was the office.

‘Hello!’ He bellowed into his phone as Carla came down the steps and took hold of Kiyan.

It turned out to be Linda. ‘Raj, I’m sorry to trouble you when you are on holiday. Do you have a couple of minutes?’’

Yes, of course. He definitely had a couple of minutes. He owned the business, didn’t he?’

‘Today morning Jessie interviewed all three candidates Charlie had short-listed. She says she is fine with them all.’

‘Good. Let Charlie take the call. He’s going to be the direct supervisor, isn’t he? Have you asked him whom he wants to hire?’

‘Yes, I did.’ Linda paused for a second.

‘That’s brilliant! Good.’ Rajeev never hesitated in lavishing praise, which didn’t cost him a penny.

‘And what did Charlie have to say?’ Rajeev prompted Linda who was actually the office administrator. She doubled as the HR manager when situations like this one arose. Which wasn’t very often. With a staff of less than twenty, it didn’t really make sense to have a HR manager in addition to the administrator.

Charlie said he likes Toni the most. That’s Toni with an ‘i' and not a ‘y.’

‘Hmmm. If he has made up his mind, then I have nothing further to add.’

‘Raj, I think you should interview those three candidates before we make an offer. You are the best judge of people I’ve ever known.’

Linda, the born flatterer! However, he was definitely a better judge of people than either Jessie or Charlie. Jessie was strictly a hard-nosed accountant with an unbelievable inability to look beyond numbers, whilst Charlie was a statistician who was determined to miss the woods for the trees.

‘No, no. There’s no need for me to interview anyone. I don’t want to poke my finger in every pie. Charlie is perfectly capable of deciding on his own. In any event, I’m not back for another 4 days.

‘Hmmm. Aaaaah. Well….’

‘Have I missed something?’

‘Well….’

‘Go on, I’m all ears.’ `Since Linda could not see his face, Rajeev did not have to smile.

Linda seemed to sense that Rajeev was getting impatient and her tone became crisper. ‘This is actually none of my business, but ….’

‘It doesn’t matter. I’d still like to know what you have to say.’ If it was none of her business, Linda ought to shut up. At times like this, Rajeev did think he had taken employee empowerment too far. In addition to giving all employees stock options, Rajeev had decentralised decision making to a remarkable extent. Everyone was encouraged to speak his or her mind. All of which helped in keeping employee turnover low though the pay at Chipmunks wasn’t anything great.

‘I met Toni briefly when she came for her first interview. She’s very pleasant and she comes across as a very energetic person with a positive outlook. In fact I liked her a lot.’

‘So what’s the problem?’ Rajeev was getting irritated with Linda. He looked around and realised that Carla and Kiyan were not to be seen. Carla must have gone inside the church with Kiyan in tow. Which wasn’t a bad thing, Rajeev thought as he smiled to himself.

‘Toni said she hasn’t ever been on sick leave exceeding a day at a time. And she has been working for almost six years from the time she graduated.’

‘That’s good for us, isn’t it? Too many people take sickies these days.’

‘Toni hasn’t even taken any long leave.’

‘What long leave?’

‘Like maternity leave.’

‘That’s good as well, isn’t it? Oh….. I didn’t realise…’

‘She has been married for 2 years now. She’s almost thirty. She’s bound to start thinking of … you know.’

‘Ha! I see! So, she’s married?’

‘Yes she is. Her husband is a journalist. He works for …’

‘Did you discuss this with Jessie or Charlie?’

‘With Jessie yes. The moment she said she liked all three, I asked her and ..’

‘What did she say?’ Rajeev needlessly prompted Linda.

‘She agrees with me. It’s just a matter of time before Toni goes on ML.’

‘Why is she leaving her current job? From what I know, you aren’t eligible for Maternity Leave until you complete a year at your job.’

‘She was made redundant two months ago. She used to work for Jeremys. They’ve been having huge layoffs at Jeremys you know…’

‘Yes I know Linda.’ Jeremys was the biggest player in market research and Rajeev knew as much about Jeremys as he knew about his own business. ‘I didn’t know Toni was from Jeremys.’

‘Yes she is and ……………..’

‘Why don’t you ask Jessie to have a word with Charlie?’

‘Jessie wants to, but she wanted me to check with you first.’ So it was Jessie’s idea after all. Trust Linda to make it sound as if it was hers. Jessie would know if a woman was planning to get pregnant, wouldn’t she? She had two teenagers, one doing his A levels and the other tackling her GCSE.

‘And please ask Jessie to call me this evening after she’s had a word with Charlie.’ Charlie would have to be handled with caution Rajeev thought as he walked up the steps to the church to join Carla and Kiyan. Though it was almost two years since he persuaded Charlie to leave his job with one of the largest market research firms and join Chipmunks, Charlie had yet to come to terms with the fact that he was now with a very small outfit. One that could not afford to have an employee on Maternity Leave for a year.

Carla and Rajeev had one of their routine arguments on the train to Rome, which was almost empty.

‘You needn’t have booked a ticket for Kiyan,’ Rajeev mildly suggested.

‘What if the train was full and we had to have him on our laps for the entire five hours?’

‘On a weekday? Come on Carla! You know better than that!’

‘It’s only fifty Euros.’

‘It’s not a question of money.’

‘Next time we travel, you should do the bookings.’

‘When I was here last year, it was exactly the same. Charlie was with me and we had a whole coach to ourselves.’

‘I’m sure you had fun,’ Carla remarked sarcastically.

‘With Charlie? Yeah, from the time we got on the train at Milan till we got to Rome, he talked non-stop about work. Such riveting stuff it was.’

‘You could have come here with Charlie once again. You both could have kept your mobiles on Loud and discussed work non-stop.’

‘Honey, I didn’t mean to…………….’ They kissed and made up. Things would have become even better if Kiyan who was skipping up and down the aisles till then hadn’t stopped and come over to sit between them.

‘Let’s take a taxi to the hotel,’ Rajeev said when they reached Rome.

‘No, let’s take the Metro to Cornelia. We can take a taxi from there.’

‘Why didn’t you book a hotel close to a metro station?’ Rajeev asked mildly before adding, ‘it doesn’t matter. You know Rome better than I do.’

‘No, I think you know it better. You come here so often on business. My last visit was four years ago!’

‘But you spent three months here during your gap year!’ Rajeev said as he picked up a struggling Kiyan. ‘Kiyan, I’ll have to carry you buddy. If you are to walk, we’ll never get to the Metro platform.’

Carla inhaled heavily and said, ‘I hope it hasn’t changed. Each time I come back here, I am scared that it has changed and each time it has been the same.’

‘You had fun here, didn’t you?’

‘Yes I did,’ Carla said with a sparkle in her eyes that hinted at a world into which Rajeev would never have access.

‘Kiyan, do you like Roma?’ Rajeev asked Kiyan who resolutely ignored the question and continued to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt.

As they stood on an escalator that took them underground to the Metro, Rajeev asked Carla, ‘is it Line A or B?’

‘Line A, towards Battistini. It’s the stop just before Battistini.’

Rajeev’s mobile shuddered once and was still. ‘Damn,’ Rajeev said as he took his mobile out of his pocket and looked at it. ‘Out of range.’

‘Do you want to go back and return the call?’ Carla asked with extra sweetness.

‘No, of course not. Whoever it is can wait.’

‘Was it the office?’ Carla wanted to know.

‘Yes, it was,’ Rajeev conceded with a wry smile. ‘Must be Jessie. There is something slightly important going on. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so concerned.’ Might as well explain to Carla, Rajeev thought. Otherwise, there was a very good chance of Carla sulking and ruining their holiday.

‘What’s going on? An unhappy client?’

‘I’ll explain once we are inside the Metro,’ Rajeev said as they walked towards the platform wading through a bunch of office-goers returning home. The Metro was crowded and they had to push themselves in. A young girl got up and offered her seat to Rajeev seeing that he had Kiyan in his arms. Rajeev smiled his thanks and nodded towards Carla who took Kiyan from him and sat down on the proffered seat. Rajeev pushed himself to where Carla had been standing and placed his arm with an air of proprietorship on the large suitcase that Carla had been dragging behind her. It was only at Baldo degli Ubaldi that Rajeev got a place to sit, a good three seats away from Carla and Kiyan. Within a few minutes, they were at Cornelia and they got off the Metro.

They found a taxi and the taxi driver agreed that he would only charge them by the meter for the trip to their hotel at the Aurelia Antica. However, within a minute of the taxi moving off, he shook his head and said ‘Signore, this place. Very far. Fifteen Euros.’

Rajeev looked at Carla who shrugged her shoulders. `Si, Si’ Rajeev told the driver who gave Rajeev an approving nod and stepped on the accelerator.

Carla turned to him and asked, ‘tell me, what’s going on in the office?’

‘It’s a bit complicated. I would like to know what you think as well. Why don’t I tell you what it is over dinner?’

‘So that you can call back your office now?’ Carla did not seem to be angry, only resigned.

‘Well, once Jessie leaves office it is tough to talk to her. She has two kids you know.’

Carla was silent and Rajeev took it as consent. He quickly dialled Jessie on her mobile.

‘Jessie? Some one called me from office. I thought it might be you.’

‘Yes, it was me,’ Jessie said. ‘I had a word with Charlie.’

‘And?’

‘He was under the impression that if we hire Toni and Toni goes on ML, we will hire a temp to provide maternity cover!’

‘I hope you disabused him of that fantastic notion. Did you remind him that if we were to spend 20K on maternity cover, his bonus would take a hit?’

‘I did actually. It took me a while, but he finally saw sense.’

‘Thank God. I am sure that of the three he short-listed, at least one is unlikely to go on Maternity Leave in the near future.’

‘The other two are men.’

‘Did he tell you which of the two he likes?’

‘Yes, he did. It’s …’

‘Please ask him to email the name to Linda copying us both. His email should explain that his chosen candidate is better than Toni and the other chap for X, Y, Z reasons. And please ask Linda to prepare the offer letter.’

Jessie was silent for a few seconds. Then she said, ‘Charlie actually wanted to know why we didn’t weed Toni out at the initial stages! Can you believe that?’

‘Charlie is really wet behind the ears. If the Equal Opportunities Commission gets to know that we don’t interview married women likely to take ML, we’ll be in shit. I guess Charlie has never heard of the Equal Opportunities Commission.’

‘He can’t see beyond his data and various ways of analysing it!’

‘It’s not that I have anything against hiring women or giving them maternity benefits, it’s just that Chipmunks is just a start-up and we can’t afford to have employees go on ML.’

‘I know Raj! I know! For God’s sake, I am a woman.’

‘Once we are bigger, and I know that we are destined to become bigger and bigger, once we cross critical mass, we will stop doing things like this. We’ll be as generous with benefits as any of the big players.’

‘Raj, you don’t have to feel so guilty. Even the big players do their best to avoid hiring women who are likely to go on ML. I remember after I announced that I was planning to take Maternity Leave for the second time, and at that time I used to work for _______________, my boss made my life so miserable. He would have fired me if he could have done it. And after I came back from ML, he kept giving me such crappy work, I was forced to quit and go to ______________.’

‘Chipmunks will be different, once it is bigger,‘ Raj declared fervently. ‘Listen Jessie, thanks for this. You take care. Okay?’

‘Bye Raj. You have fun. Give Kiyan a hug from me. And please say Hello to Carla’

Rajeev quickly dumped the mobile into his pocket and looked at Carla’s face to see if she was annoyed with him. Carla was staring out of the window with a blank face.

‘We ought to do a Super Duper dinner today. When in Roma, eat like a Roman.’

‘They don’t have vomitoriams these days.’

‘Carla!’

‘I was just joking. The restaurants here are so much better than in London.’

‘Where should we go? You are the Rome expert.’

‘Do you remember the restaurant we went to at Ottaviano? Shall we go there?’

There was no time to say more since the taxi slowed down and they realised that they had arrived at their hotel.

As the taxi driver helped Rajeev take the suitcase out of the boot, he said with a smile, ‘three Euros for luggage.’

Rajeev looked at Carla who was busy preventing Kiyan from running away. Not a single hotel employee could be seen outside the hotel who might have helped Rajeev. With a smile and a shrug, Rajeev said, ‘okay. Si.’

They had a good room with a view of the hotel’s swimming pool. As they changed out of their travel stained clothes, Rajeev told Carla, ‘we were on the verge of making a job offer to someone. That’s for Charlie’s team. Then we decided not to.’

‘Why?’

Because she’s around thirty, has been married for two years and is likely to start thinking of a family.’

‘You don’t want to hire someone who might go on maternity leave within a year of being hired?’

‘Yes,’ Rajeev said simply and waited for Carla to explode. She didn’t. Instead she smiled and said, ‘I’m so glad I work for the NHS. If I were in the private sector, we might not have had Kiyan.’

‘That’s ridiculous. Even if you had to quit your job, we would have managed on my income!’

‘I don’t have the energy to go to Ottaviano for dinner? Can’t we find something close by?’ Rajeev was relieved at the change of topic. Carla did look tired.

They ended up going to a restaurant that was just outside the hotel. As they ordered starters and their main course, Rajeev said, ‘I’m famished. I will go for a secondi after this.’

‘Raj, don’t get carried away. You need to lose weight.’ Which was a bit rich coming from Carla, Rajeev thought. She was still good looking, though. Rajeev looked at Carla for a second time for reassurance. Yes, she wasn’t bad looking.

The waiter brought them the Frascati wine Rajeev had chosen along with a plate of Panini. He opened the bottle and poured a little wine into Rajeev’s glass. Rajeev drank it slowly with a serious look on his face and nodded at the waiter who quickly filled his glass and then Carla’s.

‘What happens if you say you don’t like the wine you ordered?’ Carla asked and laughed.

‘We need to keep up appearances honey. What’s life without a bit of charade? Do you like it?’

Carla sipped her wine and said ‘it’s good, though I would have preferred a Chianti any day.’

‘Come on now! We can’t order a Tuscan wine in Rome! When we go to Florence, you can have a Chianti! Frascati is supposed to be the best among Latium wines.’

‘Fine! Let’s keep up the charade. This wine is amazing. Splendid! Are you happy now?’ Carla laughed at her own joke.

Rajeev looked around and said, ‘look at these Italians. They spend two or three hours over dinner almost every day. An entire bottle of wine, starters, two main courses and a dessert. How do they manage to look so fit?’

‘I don’t think they eat much breakfast or lunch. They exercise a lot and they eat their dinner slowly. A siesta in the afternoon, a slow dinner over two or three hours.’

‘You are not angry with me, are you darling?’ Raj asked. ‘About what I told you?’

‘No honey. Of course not. I understand perfectly well. You can’t afford to have people on maternity! Not when Chipmunks is just taking off!’

They drank the wine in silence. Out of the blue, Carla asked, ‘do you think we’ll have another child?’

Rajeev looked at Kiyan who was strapped into a child seat and was busy playing with the plastic baby cutlery placed in front of him.

‘We should, shouldn’t we? I’m sure the NHS will survive even if you go on maternity leave once more.’

‘Kiyan, would you like to have a brother or sister to play with?’ Carla asked Kiyan who carefully considered the question and went back to playing with his red plastic spoon and fork.

Before Carla could repeat her question, the waiter re-appeared with their starters.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Should the Nepalese Government honour Joanna Lumley?

Actress Joanna Lumley was the main and most visible force behind the Gurkha Justice Campaign which successfully fought for all ex-Gurkhas who served in the British army to have the right to settle in the UK. Until very recently, only Gurkhas who had served in the army after 1997 (when the Gurkhas began to be stationed in the UK rather than in Hong Kong) could apply for settlement in the UK.

Those Gurkhas who retired prior to this date could not settle in the UK, since they were deemed to have no ‘ties to the UK. I have explained this in greater detail in my earlier post here.

After British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced in the House of commons that all ex-Gurkhas who have served more than 4 years in the British Army will have the right to settle in the UK, Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, made a statement to the effect that the Nepalese government ought to honour Joanna Lumley with the highest civilian award for winning the ex-Gurkhas their residency rights. You can find full details of Zed’s demand in this report.

Zed’s statement has me flummoxed. Let’s take another look at the Gurkha Justice Campaign and Lumley’s achievement. The Gurkhas are Nepalese nationals who opt to serve (and even die for) a foreign country. Notwithstanding the historic ties between Gurkhas and UK, it must be admitted that the Gurkhas choose to join the British army mainly because of the lack of opportunities in Nepal. On retirement, many of them would like to settle in the country they have served, for reasons which can only be described as a mix of sentiment and convenience.

It cannot be denied that the UK offers ex-Gurkhas a better standard of living and social welfare benefits than Nepal. Lumley has performed yeoman service for the Gurkhas cause by embarrassing the British government into changing its original stance and giving settlement rights to all ex-Gurkhas. However, it must be admitted that the ex-Gurkhas are not doing Nepal any service by settling in the UK after their retirement from the British armed forces.

If the ex-Gurkhas were to spend their retirement in Nepal, they will draw their British army pensions in Nepal and contribute to the Nepalese economy. Why then should the Nepalese government honour Lumley? If it were to do so, it would in effect be admitting that it is unable to provide adequate opportunities to its citizens, and that due to the lack of infrastructure and social welfare benefits in Nepal, Nepalese citizens prefer to settle in the UK. All of which are true, but no sovereign government can be or should be asked to admit the same.

Zed’s demand brings to my mind the Indian government’s behaviour when trying to obtain compensation for the victims of the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal.

Instead of moving the courts in India for compensation, the Indian government filed a claim in the courts of New York. In order to justify the filing of the claim in New York, the Indian government got an affidavit from renowned academic Marc Gallanter to the effect that Indian courts are inefficient and slow and that only the courts of New York could provide an adequate and fair remedy to the gas leak victims.

Union Carbide in turn got affidavits from two eminent Supreme Court lawyers who said that though Indian courts are normally slow and inefficient, they are capable of speedy action in special cases. The New York court decided in favour of Union Carbide and (rightly in my opinion) threw out the Indian government’s claim saying that the claims ought to be decided by Indian courts.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Short Story: Down The Ski Slopes In Switzerland

As soon as Rashmi and I finalised our plans to tour Europe, I thought of Manjunath. However, when I told Rashmi that I planned to contact Manjunath, or Manja as we friends called him, and ask him for advice, I was greeted with stony silence. Rashmi has a habit of forming strong likes and dislikes with regard to all my friends after meeting them just once. I think Rashmi had met Manja twice before and thought he was pompous and irritating. I however had little choice since unfortunately Manja is the only friend I have who is extremely familiar with Europe. And so I emailed Manja and told him of our plans to visit England, France and Switzerland. I had a long list of questions. What was the best airline to travel to London, which hotels should we stay in, what places should we visit, what should we do while over etc.

If all of this gives you the impression that Manja lives in Europe, you are dead wrong. Manja lives in Delhi. We both went to St. Joseph’s in Bangalore, after which our paths diverged. Manja went to Delhi for his higher studies, while I never left Bangalore. And Manja continues to live in Delhi, indulging in a business which he describes to all and sundry as “import-export”. I’ve never really understood what Manja’s “import-export” means, except that it allows Manja to travel overseas, mainly to Europe, as often as he wants and, if his letters and emails are to be believed, lead a very luxurious lifestyle.

Manja replied to my email after a week’s delay. He was currently in Germany attending the Hanover trade fair. During the time we planned to be in Europe, he would be in Switzerland at a place called Interlaken. If during our time in Switzerland we happened to pass through Interlaken, which he was sure we would, we could meet up, he told me in his reply.

‘I don’t particularly want to meet Manja,’ Rashmi declared after reading Manja’s email. The travel advice Manja emailed me was so much in keeping with Manja’s character. Travel on a European Airline if you want to eat genuine European food in the air. Stay in Hotels ABC and XYZ and MNO if you want a comfortable stay. Manja must have guessed what we were planning to do for he added, in any event, and for God’s sake, don’t try to save a few francs or pence by staying in some third rate B&B – you’ll find so many of them on the internet. And finally avoid those Indian package tours which promise you Pooris in Paris and Indian company wherever you go. What’s the point of travelling to Europe if you want to eat Indian food and spend time with other Indians?

I saw the point which Manja was making, but Rashmi didn’t. Both Rashmi and I are vegetarians and from our limited experience know that western vegetarian food is the most tasteless thing in the world. Usually consisting of just boiled or steamed vegetables, bland and lacking even salt, there was no way we could survive on something like that for two weeks. What was the guarantee that Swiss Air’s or British Airways’ vegetarian option would not be bland and tasteless? Rashmi wanted to know. As for staying in Hotels ABC and XYZ and MNO, I soon found out that they were exorbitantly expensive. If I too were in the ‘export-import’ business like Manja, I might have been able to stay in those hotels. In any event, there was no guarantee that those posh hotels offered decent Indian food, if not good Kannanda ootta. No, we did not expect to get bissi belle bath in Bournemouth, and Bern, but we did want edible vegetarian food wherever we went.

To cut a long story short, we travelled by Jet Airways to London and spent a week in England and Scotland. The Eurostar took us from St. Pancras station to Paris and we spent a week in France, after which a cheap Easyjet flight took us to Geneva. After two days in Geneva and Laussanne, we made our way to Interlaken where Manja had told us we could find him.

Interlaken has two train stations, Manja had warned me in his email. Manja’s hotel, the Beau Rivage, was very close to Interlaken Ost. However, we got off at Interlaken West, the next stop, which was closer to the Oberland Chalet, where we were booked into. In the evening sunlight, the snow clad Alps dominated the skyline whichever direction we looked. A five minute walk along the main thoroughfare took us to the Oberland Chalet. We checked into our room, which was comfortable, but not luxurious, and took a short nap. It was totally dark when we woke up and made our way in the bitter winter cold to the Beau Rivage.

As soon as we entered the lobby of the Beau Rivage, Rashmi cribbed yet again, ‘why do we have to come here to see him? Why couldn’t he come to our hotel?’

’Aw! Come on! Don’t be petty,’ I told Rashmi. ‘Manja knows Switzerland like the back of his hand. He might tell us something useful.’

‘Just because he has more money and stays in a hotel that is more expensive, doesn’t mean we ought to …’

‘Drop it Rashmi,’ I said. There was hardly any time to say more as we got off the lift and reached Manja’s room. Manja looked as if he was getting ready to go out somewhere.

‘Srikanth! You son of a gun! You finally made it here,’ he said shaking me warmly by the hand. Rashmi got a polite smile. He then sat us down in his opulent room and made us recount our experiences in the last two weeks.

‘So, did you manage to find decent Oota in France?’

‘Not really,’ I admitted. ‘France is very beautiful and Paris even more so, but French food is not really suitable for vegetarians.’

‘They don’t seem to understand that vegetarians would not want to eat eggs or fish,’ Rashmi complained. ‘We could not find an Indian restaurant a couple of times and we had so much trouble eating at the French restaurant we went to.’

Manja laughed aloud. ‘When in Rome, live as the Romans do. That’s what I do,’ he told us patronisingly. ‘The Schnitzels here are worth dying for. Never mind, you’ll find the Shalimar on the other side of the road serving decent Indian food.’

‘Tell me, why did you decide to travel during winter?’

Rashmi and I looked at each other sheepishly. ‘We wanted to see some snow,’ I admitted. We had seen some snow in Scotland and in France, but not enough. Even in Geneva, there wasn’t much snow.

‘There hasn’t been much show this winter,’ Manja told us. ‘There was a fair amount of snow in December, but January and February have been devoid of flurries.’

I noticed a pair of large shiny boots in a corner of Manja’s room. ‘What are they?’ I asked Manja.

‘My ski boots,’ he told me with a smug smile. ‘Do you plan to do any skiing?’ he asked us.

‘I won’t mind giving it a try,’ I told him.

‘Neither would I,’ Rashmi said gaily.

‘How many days have you budgeted for Interlaken?’ he asked us.

‘Two days. But we need a day for the Jungfraujoch. That’s leaves another day for skiing. Can we ski here at Interlaken?’

‘No, you need to go to either Grundenwald or Murren for that. Go to one of these places, find a ski school, get a good instructor, hire the equipment – don’t buy it, and you are all set.’

‘How much will it cost?’ I asked.

‘Around seventy five francs per hour for an instructor. Around sixty francs a day for the ski boots and poles. Add fifteen francs if you haven’t got any waterproof trousers.’

And then Manja added, ‘since you are beginners, make sure you find a good instructor. There is more ice than snow on the ground. The chances of slipping and falling are very high.’ I had a feeling that maybe we wouldn’t do much skiing.

We decided that we would all go to the Shalimar for dinner. I was a little upset that Manja did not offer us the use of his skiing equipment. Over dinner I asked him, ‘are you skiing tomorrow?’

‘I am. Two of my business associates from Brazil are going to be around and I am planning to take them skiing. The rules are the same everywhere old chap! One needs to entertain and make friends to stay afloat in business! If they weren’t coming over, I could have taken you both with me to Grundenwald and shown you the ropes.’

I gave a wistful smile and opened the menu.

‘Something to drink sir?’ the South Asian waiter asked me. I think he was Pakistani, but I didn’t ask.

‘You should have some Feldschlösschen,’ Manja advised us. ‘That’s the local brew.’

‘I don’t drink,’ Rashmi told him upfront. I decided to have a pint of Feldschlösschen. It was the least I could do after the long lecture Manja gave us about trying the local cuisine.

‘Two pints of Feldschlösschen,’ Manja ordered.

‘A diet coke for me, Rashmi said.

‘Any starters?’ the waiter asked when he got us the drinks after five minutes.

‘No,’ I said. Rashmi shook her head. But Manja had other plans.

‘Let’s have some samosas,’ he suggested.

‘Why not? Let’s have some samosas,’ I concurred.

‘A plate of poppadams and samosas,’ Manja told the waiter.

‘Would you like to order the main course as well?’

Manja ordered a lamb madras, a chicken rogan josh and some salad to go with his rice.

‘The prawns here are very nice. You ought to try them,’ he told us.

‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ Rashmi replied.

‘I think I’ll have them. A plate of prawns. They are tiger prawns, aren’t they?’

Of course they were tiger prawns. I fumed a bit internally. If only Manja had ordered some vegetarian food, we could have shared it with him. One look at Rashmi’s face and I knew that she was also angry. But I knew Manja. He was not selfish, only thoughtless, though many people would not see much difference between the two.

I sipped the Feldschlösschen, which was quite nice. ‘I usually drink Fosters,’ I told Manja in case he thought I had never drunk foreign beer. ‘That’s an Australian beer,’ I added.

‘My dear chap, Fosters is marketed as an Australian beer. But nobody drinks it in Australia.’ You had to hand it to Manja for his ability to deflate a person.

Once we started to eat, things became fun. Manja regaled us with stories of his exploits. He worked hard and played even harder.

‘Do you know what the Englishman said on the twenty first of December?’

Rashmi and I looked at each other. No, we did not know. Then I asked, ‘isn’t that the winter solstice?’

‘Yes, but what did the Englishman say? He said, Ah! The shortest day in the year. And what did the Frenchie dude have to say?’

No, we did not know the answer.

‘The longest night in the year!’

Rashmi and I chuckled politely.

‘There’s this Belgian partnership I do business with. The people who run it are all Flemish, but most of their customers are Walloons in Brussels. You should see the contempt they have for the Walloons. It’s so funny.’

‘Who are Walloons?’ Rashmi wanted to know.

‘They are French speakers living in Belgium. You’ll find them in Brussels and in the southern part. The northern part, Flanders, is composed of Flemish speakers.’

‘I didn’t know there was a language called Flemish,’ I said.

‘It’s actually a dialect of Dutch.’

‘I see.’

‘And Dutch is actually a dialect of German.’

‘Seriously? I didn’t know that.’

‘It’s true, but don’t ever say that to the Dutch!’

We laughed a lot and even Rashmi enjoyed herself. There’s no substitute for a good friend when you are in a faraway land, I thought to myself.

After we had dessert, Manja called for the bill. It came to eighty five francs. If only Manja didn’t order so many meat dishes, I wouldn’t have to pay forty francs for dinner, I angrily thought as I picked up the bill. I waited for Manja to ask me how much the bill was for, but Manja gave me the sort of beaming look a proud father would give a son, when the son takes the father out after receiving his first pay check. I was shocked. I was trapped. I held the bill in my hand and could not put it down. I slowly fished out my wallet and took out my credit card. Until the waiter arrived with the device that took my pin number, I kept hoping that Manja would offer to chip in.

As we walked back to the Oberland Chalet, Rashmi turned towards me and asked me angrily, ‘are you happy now? If only we hadn’t gone to meet him, we could have saved at least fifty francs. If he has so much money, he could have paid for all three of us, couldn’t he?’

I did not dispute Rashmi’s logic. If Manja didn’t want to take us skiing, that was fine. But to order so many dishes which we could not share and make us pay for it all was … so disgusting.

‘Honey, I owe you one. This is my fault. I made an error in judgement,’ I told Rashmi not wanting to quarrel with her during our last week in Europe.

‘It’s not really your fault. I’m just angry with the situation.’ I wouldn’t want to say more other than that it took me two days of utmost charm and guile to get a smile back on Rashmi’s face. By that time we had spent a day at Jungfraujoch, covered Basel and reached Zurich. The next day we would take the train back to Geneva and catch an Easyjet flight to London, from where Jet Airways would fly us home. Rashmi and I had enjoyed our European tour a lot, but we were actually looking forward to being back in Bangalore. True, these days there are Indian restaurants all over the world, but these restaurants serve food which is tailored to the western palate. I guess it is as much authentic Indian as the food in my favourite Chinese joint on M.G.Road is authentic Chinese.

Rashmi and I bought tons of souvenirs for ourselves and gifts for our families and friends. We were deciding on a cuckoo clock at a shop in Zurich when Manja called up on my mobile phone. As usual, he came straight to the point.

‘Dude, I need your help. I’ve had an accident.’

I was immediately concerned. ‘What sort of accident?’ I asked.

‘A skiing accident.’

‘Are you alright?’ This made Rashmi curious and she pressed close to me so as to hear the conversation.

‘I’ve twisted my left ankle badly. Some bruises on my arms. Bedridden. But I’ll survive.’ Manja sounded like a martyr. I was irritated, but I could not hang up on a friend who just had an accident, even if I was paying through my nose for answering a call on my roaming Indian mobile.

‘Can you move about?’

‘No, I can’t. Listen, I need a favour.’

Tell me.’

‘Your train will pass through Interlaken when you travel to Geneva tomorrow, won’t it?’

‘I guess it will.’ Rashmi took a deep breath and waved her hand in front of my face before I could commit to anything.

‘Can you get off at Interlaken and …..’

‘And what?’

‘I am going back to London in a week’s time. And from there to India after a week in London. I have a lot of stuff to carry back. Can you please take some of my stuff with you? I will be coming to Bangalore in a couple of months’ time and I shall take it off you then. I just won’t be able to take it all back with me in my current state.’ A note of pleading had crept into Manja’s voice. I looked at Rashmi who shrugged her shoulders. I had no choice but to agree, after all the man had hurt himself skiing.

The thought of meeting Manja once again ruined the rest of the day for us. Neither of us wanted to meet him, but we couldn’t turn our backs on a wounded fellow-countryman. It was with an acute degree of discontent in our hearts that we broke our journey at Interlaken Ost and walked over to the Beau Rivage.

Manja was sitting on his bed, propped up with pillows.

‘How did it happen?’ I asked him.

Manja plunged into a detailed description of his accident. He had taken his Brazilian business associates to Grundenwald for what was supposed to be an idyllic day of skiing. They had taken the ski lifts to the top of the slope and started to come down. There had been no fresh snow for the past three weeks and the snow already on the ground had melted in the sun and then turned to ice. As they came down, Manja unfortunately happened to slide into a treacherous slab of ice which caused him to fly a few feet into the air and crash down.

Rashmi and I made appropriate noises of sympathy, but we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t spend too much time with Manja.

‘How did you get back to the hotel?’

‘Those Brazilians carried me to a taxi and brought me back!’

After a moment’s silence, I asked him. ‘So, what do you want us to carry to London for you?’

‘Not much,’ Manja said. ‘Just that bag with my ski boots,’ he pointed to the bag, ‘and that suitcase, which has a few clothes in it.’

I tried to lift the bag and the suitcase. They were both very heavy.

‘Manja, I doubt if Easyjet or Jet Airways will allow us to carry so much stuff with us,’ I protested. We have our own luggage.’

‘Of course, they will,’ Manja asserted, only to add, ‘I forgot, you must be travelling economy, right?’

I wanted to hit Manja on the face, but desisted. After all, he was hurt and unable to move.

‘Easyjet has only economy,’ Rashmi interjected.

‘Oh I don’t know. I never travel on such cheap airlines.’

I did not reply.

‘Tell you what. Take them with you. If either of those airlines makes a fuss, pay the excess charge. We can square up things when we meet next.’

Like hell I was going to do that. As if I hadn’t wasted money on account of Manja before!’

No, Manja. Sorry. I am not a stupid fool. You did me in once a few days ago and I will not let you do that again. I wish I could have said that, but I didn’t. Instead, I meekly nodded my head and avoided looking at Rashmi even though I could feel her eyes drilling into my back.

We picked up Manja’s stuff and walked out. As we came out of the lift into the lobby, the receptionist stopped us.

‘Do you stay in this hotel?’ she asked us in English which had a very heavy German accent. I don’t blame her for stopping us since Rashmi and I had walked into the hotel with three pieces of luggage between us and we were now walking out with five!

I explained. ‘No, we don’t stay here, but our friend Mr. Manjunath stays in Room 6112 on the sixth floor. We are carrying back some of Mr. Manjunath’s stuff back to India for him since he has had an accident and has twisted his ankle. He cannot …’

The receptionist started to dial a number.

‘Mr. Manjoonat?’

After checking my story with typical Swiss efficiency, she gave us a smile.

‘Mr. Manjoonat just confirmed what you said. I hope you have a pleasant journey.’

We walked on until the receptionist shouted a warning after us. ‘Please be very careful when you step out of the hotel. There may be ice on the steps and you may slip and fall. That’s how Mr. Manjoonat hurt himself the other day.’

Saturday, 23 May 2009

India’s Nepal Policy Needs an Urgent Course Correction

Nepal is in turmoil yet again. The current crisis started off when Nepalese Army Chief Gen. Katawal fiercely resisted the integration of Nepal’s Maoist rebels into the Nepalese Army and was sacked by the then Prime Minister, Pushpa Kumar Dahal, more popularly known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’. President Ram Baran Yadav overturned Prachanda’s decision and reinstated Gen. Katawal. This decision caused Prachanda to step down from the Prime Minister’s post.

The coalition government headed by Prachanda consisted of his own party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), the Communist Party of Nepal-United (CPN-U), the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party. After the 2008 elections, it had taken Prachanda almost four months to cobble together a functional coalition government. Currently Madhav Kumar Nepal who heads the UML (which has 103 seats) has come forward to form a similar coalition government. The Nepal Congress party (which has 110 seats) is to be the main partner in this coalition. However, even after Madhav Nepal assumes power, the current crisis will be far from over.

For those who aren’t entirely up to date with the violent power struggles that have been going on in Nepal since the mid-nineties, the facts in brief are as follows. Until 1990 Nepal was an absolute monarchy. It’s ruler Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Yadav was a popular leader though he consistently maintained that Nepal, the poorest country in South Asia, could not afford to be democratic. Educated at St. Joseph’s School, Darjeeling, Eton and Harvard, Birendra managed to keep Nepal on friendly terms with both India and China and got concessions from both, playing one against the other. A growing pro-democracy movement forced Birenda to switch Nepal to a constitutional monarchy in November 1990. Elections were held and a Parliament with limited powers came into being.

In 1996, Maoist rebels started a violent agitation for overthrow of the monarchy and social reform on socialist lines.

On 1 June 2001, Birendra and most of his family were murdered by Crown Prince Dipendra, who finally turned the gun on himself. Dipendra was comatose but alive for three days, during which time he was King. Dipendra was succeeded by his father’s younger brother Gyanendra. Neither charismatic, nor popular, Gyanendra made things easy for the Maoist rebels. Many Nepalese thought (and still think) that Gyanendra and his son Paras had a hand in the killing of Birendra and his family.

Gyanendra did not get along with the Parliament and between 2002 and 2005, he dismissed three Prime Ministers. Finally in February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the elected Parliament and assumed absolute power. This forced Nepal’s main moderate political parties, the Nepal Congress and the UML to start negotiating with the Maoists. Some of the negotiations took place in India with the Indian government’s approval. In November 2005, a coalition of seven political parties reached an understanding with the Maoists for overthrowing the King. In April 2006, King Gyanendra was forced to reinstate parliament and relinquish political power. A month later, the Parliament stripped the King of all powers, reducing his role to a ceremonial one. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in November 2006 between the Maoists and the Government of Nepal. One of the main terms of the CPA is that the Maoist forces will be integrated into the Nepalese army.

When elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in April 2008, the Nepal Congress and the UML, decided to not have a tie-up or alliance with the Maoists’ political party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M) since no one really expected the Maoists to do well. The CPN-M surprised everyone and ended up winning around 30% of the votes, which gave them 220 of the 575 elected seats, more seats than any other party. They were nominated for 9 additional seats by the Council of Ministers, giving them a total of 229 of the 601 seats overall. The leader of the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal, now poised to be Prime Minister, was defeated by an unknown CPN (M) candidate.

In Nepal, the principle of proportional representation is applied for many parliamentary seats. The CPN-M would have got even more seats than they actually did if the first-past-the-post rule was followed for all seats. However, the Maoists have only themselves to blame since they had insisted on proportional representation for many of the parliamentary seats since they did expect to garner so many votes.

On 28 May 2008, the Nepal’s Constituent Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy by an overwhelming majority of 560 out of 564. Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Yadav became a private citizen.

In January 2009, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) became the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) after merging with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre-Masal).

In the midst of all this, Indo-Nepal relations have been on a roller-coaster ride. When King Birendra held the reins of power, India and Nepal had good relations on the whole. Though Nepal did play India and China against each other, Nepal was closer to India than to China. In 1989, when Birendra was still an absolute monarch, Nepal sought to send a message to India by importing weapons from China. Until then, Nepal got all its arms supplies from India. In retaliation, India imposed an embargo on Indian goods entering Nepal which caused the Nepalese economy to almost grind to a halt. The embargo was lifted after Nepal promised to not to buy arms from China, India had taught Nepal a lesson, but it was the beginning of serious anti-India sentiment among Nepalese.

When the pro-democracy movement started off in Nepal in the late 1980s, the world’s largest democracy India stood by the King rather than with the pro-democracy activists. Until Gyanendra came to power and even for a while after that, India’s support for the monarchy remained rock solid. By that time, the Maoists were in full battle cry and the relatively peaceful pro-democracy movement led by the pro-India Nepal Congress and other moderate parties like the CPN-U and the UML was largely restricted to the big cities.

India’s pro-monarchy stand was to a great extent motivated by concerns about the Maoists’ alliances with Indian Naxalities and other insurgents. Further, certain sections of India’s political elite wanted Nepal to continue as the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. In April 2006, India sent an envoy, Karan Singh, to Kathmandu on a mission to persuade the moderate political parties like the UML and the Nepal Congress to retain the monarchy. This was a big mistake. Not only was the mission unsuccessful, it also earned India the ire of Nepal’s Maoists and their supporters.

From the time of their inception, no one has accused the Maoists of being too friendly towards India. Declaring India to be as much an enemy as King Gyanendra, the Maoists attacked Indian businesses as part of their campaign to capture power. During the days of their insurgency, the Maoists demanded the abrogation of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. They wanted to put an end to the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas by India and the UK. They wanted to close down the open border between India and Nepal and regulate it. Most importantly they wanted to cancel the 1996 Mahakali agreement between India and Nepal for the sharing of water and developing the Mahakali/Sarda river.

However, after the Maoists came to power in 2008, they did not carry out any of their threats. Nevertheless, Nepal grew closer to China though it did take pains to not offend India. Prachanda’s first official trip was to China, just a day after he assumed power. The first official visit to India took place only three months later. There was no doubt that with the Maoists in power, China would get priority over India. As if to dispel any doubts, Prachanda’s government has consistently crushed all anti-Chinese protests by Tibetans living in Nepal.

There is no love lost between the 60,000 strong Nepalese Army and the Maoists. Having fought each other for over ten years, both forces were confined to the barracks after the CPA was signed. Most Nepalese army officers, including its chief Gen Katawal were trained in Indian military academies and are staunchly pro-monarchy. As mentioned earlier, integrating the Maoist forces, said to number around 20,000, into the Nepalese army is one of the cornerstones of the CPA. However, Nepalese army officers are understandably uncomfortable with this idea. Gen. Katawal has always been dead set against the idea though his number two in the army, Lt Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka, is not against it.

It must be said to the Maoists credit that even after the CPN-M came to power, there has been no witch hunt against the army officers who led the fight against the Maoists. Even though Gen. Katawal had publicly opposed the CPN-M’s integration plan, Prachanda had not tried to remove him. However, the Nepalese army started a recruitment drive which irked the Maoists. Gen. Katawal also reinstated eight retired Brigadier Generals and ignored a few specific instructions given by the cabinet for integrating the Maoists into the Nepalese army.

On 3 May 2009 Prachanda’s cabinet exercised its prerogative and fired Gen. Katawal even though Gen. Katawal was only three months away from his retirement. One reason advanced for the dismissal is that Gen. Katawal’s second-in-command in the army, Lt Gen. Khadka, who does not oppose integration, has only a few weeks to retire and would, in the normal course, retire prior to Gen. Katawal. By removing Gen. Katawal, the Maoists could put Lt General Khadka at the helm of affairs and later extend his tenure. If Gen. Katawal was not removed, Lt General Khadka would retire before Gen. Katawal did and Lt. Gen. Chhatra Man Singh Gurung would have succeeded Gen. Katawal. Lt. Gen. Gurung is an officer in the traditional mould and opposes integration with the Maoists.

After Gen. Katawal was fired, India interceded on his behalf, a fact that hasn’t gone down well with Nepalese in general and the Maoists in particular. To use an analogy, in 1998, India’s Naval chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked by the Vajpayee government for reasons that can be argued to be unfair and unjust. Could the then Indian President K. R. Narayanan have reinstated Admiral Bhagwat on the ground that Admiral Bhagwat was unjustly sacked? After all, K. R. Narayanan was technically the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian armed forces. The answer is a resounding ‘No!’ In a parliamentary form of government, the cabinet has the prerogative to sack the head of the any of the wings of the armed forces. The President’s powers are very much nominal and in my opinion, the Nepal’s President Ram Baran Yadav did not have the right or authority to reinstate Gen. Katawal. However, reinstate he did and Prachanda stepped down as Prime Minister.

Is the integration of the Maoists into the Nepalese army something to be feared by democratic Nepalese? Is it likely to turn the army into a Maoist force? Will an integrated Nepalese army function as a tool of the Maoists and help them secure even more power?

In my opinion, the answer to all these questions is another ‘No!’. The Nepalese army is sixty thousand strong and the Maoists number only around twenty thousand. It is also possible that the number of Maoist fighters is less than twenty thousand since Prachanda may have inflated the number of men under his command to twenty thousand at the time the CPA was signed (in order to enhance his negotiating power). In any event, when twenty thousand (at the most) Maoists merge into a force that is sixty thousand strong, the chances are that the Maoists lose some of their Maoism rather than the other way around.

Further, keeping twenty thousand Maoist fighters confined to their barracks for more than two years is not a very good idea. The Maoist fighters were promised integration into the Nepalese army when the CPA was signed. If the Nepalese government and army are unwilling to fulfil their part of the bargain, why should the Maoists do their bit? At the end of the day, the Maoist fighters are young men who want to get on with life. Most of them are incapable of anything other than soldiering having spent a big part of their young lives fighting the Nepalese army. Giving them a uniform, a weapon and a monthly salary is much more likely to keep them out of trouble than keeping them disgruntled and confined to their barracks with nothing much to do.

The Maoists have repeatedly stated that they do no intend to return to violence. At no stage has Prachanda or the CPN(M) threatened to take up arms once again. It must be said that the Maoists do not have the support of the entire population of Nepal. There are still many Nepalese who would like the King to return and Nepal to be a Hindu kingdom. However, such people are in a minority. To a neutral observer, it would seem that the majority of the people would like a peaceful democracy.

It is not entirely clear if and to what extend Madhav Kumar Nepal will push for integrating the Maoists into the Nepalese army. Even though Nepalese political parties made their peace with the Maoists many years ago, they have not wholeheartedly welcomed integration. It is very unlikely that the new government will push for integration half as vehemently as Prachanda’s CPN (M) led coalition did. It is also unclear as to what stance the UML and Nepal Congress will take towards Gen, Katawal, a man who defied civil authority once and got away with it.

India, which has its own Maoist/Naxalite problem and has been worried about links which Nepal’s Maoists might have with India’s Naxals and other insurgents, has a vested interest in getting the Maoists in Nepal to settle down for good in peace. In my opinion, the best way would be to ensure that Nepal’s Maoists are peacefully integrated into the Nepalese army. Blindly supporting Nepal’s army brass and non-Maoist parties as they oppose integration would be yet another foreign policy mistake for India vis-à-vis Nepal.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

How did Prabhakaran and his family really die?

Please read this article dated 19 March 2012 for an update.

The bodies of Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathani Erambu, his daughter Duwaraka and second son Balachandran have been recovered from near the Nandikadal lagoon. This is the same place where the Sri Lankan government displayed Prabhakaran’s body. The Sri Lankan government has claimed that Prabhakaran’s body was also recovered from near there.

After these developments, it looks very unlikely that Prabhakaran was killed by government soldiers as he tried to flee in an ambulance. Most probably he committed suicide by consuming cyanide, as theorised by DBS Jeyaraj on 16 May 2009 and as mentioned in my first post on this topic. How did he sustain the bullet wound to his head? Was he accidentally shot by nervous soldiers who first stumbled upon his body? Is the Sri Lankan government trying to make it look as if Prabhakaran was trying to flee for his live rather than commit suicide?

Did Prabhakaran kill his wife and children in order to prevent them from being captured by government soldiers and paraded in front of cameras? Or did they voluntarily commit suicide? It was thought that Prabhakaran’s family was overseas. It is well-known that Mathivathani Erambu, Duwaraka and Balachandran were in a European country for some time. When did they return? Why didn’t Prabhakaran try and send them away when things got bad for the LTTE? Was he unable to get them out because of the tight naval blockade? Or didn’t he want to send them away?

It is even possible to argue that the body recovered is that of Prabhakaran’s double and that Prabhakaran is alive and well, as is being claimed by Tamilnet and Tamil Vision, a Canadian Tamil TV Channel. I don’t think these questions will be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, let along that of Eelam supporters. Certain Sri Lankan Tamil blogs talk of a high-level traitor within Prabhakaran’s close inner-most circle.

The only thing certain is that these conspiracy theories will keep floating around for a long time to come.

Please read this article dated 19 March 2012 for an update.

The Great Game Goes On

Imtiaz Gul is a reputed Pakistani journalist and the author of a book "The Unholy Nexus; Pak-Afghan relations under the Taliban.” In an interesting article published in the Dawn, Gul discusses the Pakistani establishment’s outlook towards the threat from Islamic fundamentalists and compares it with the threat from the east, from India. Gul speaks for the Pakistani establishment when he says that the bulk of Pakistan’s army is deployed on the Indian border because half of India’s strike corps is deployed close to the Pakistani border. Pakistan believes that India is pumping money into Balochistan, partly as pay back for past Pakistani interference in India. India is also ramping up its activities in Afghanistan, with whom its ties are getting stronger. For Pakistan’s officialdom, India is a mortal threat; the Islamic fundamentalists are not. For this reason, Pakistan is tempted to hang on to a few Islamic outfits, though Gul strongly argues that Pakistan should not do so since it makes Pakistan look volatile and weak.

Gul feels that Barack Obama and Gordon Brown overlook how India’s superiority over Pakistan shapes Pakistan’s threat perception. He argues that the West ought to allay the possibility of an Afghan-US-India alliance encircling Pakistan and ‘neutralise’ the threat to Pakistan from India if it expects Pakistan to throw its full might against the Taliban.

You can read Gul’s article here:

I believe Gul when he says that even at this stage, when the battle against Islamic fundamentalists is in full swing, Pakistan treats India as the bigger threat. As explained in this Time article two generations of Pakistanis have been weaned on a mix of hatred for India and the supremacy of Islam. The Islam practised in Pakistan used to be a lot more liberal than the austere version that has crept in of late. However, the Wahhabi version of Islam is Islam nevertheless and it is not easy for the average Pakistani to denounce it totally.

There is no doubt that Western countries will be very happy if India were to bend over backwards to make Pakistan feel secure. The million dollar question is whether India should indulge Pakistan. In realpolitik terms, what’s in it for India?

At present India seems to be in an enviable position. If India were to assist or continue assisting insurgents in Balochistan (I am only conjecturing, I have no way of knowing if India is actually doing this), Pakistan has two options. The first option would be to get an Islamic fundamentalist group to attack India. This would require Pakistan to provide weapons and training or at least a safe haven to a bunch of people who at present most probably hate the Pakistani government more than they hate India. The weapons are very likely to be used against Pakistan than against India. Also, if news of such activities were to become known, Pakistan would look mighty daft. The second option would be to assist a non-Islamic insurgent group fighting India. There are still a few left, mainly in India’s north-east. Since the first option doesn’t make sense, I assume Pakistan would go for the second option. However, the second option is not going to be particularly effective since Indian insurgents have a variety of sources to get weapons from and Pakistan is just one of them. Aid from Pakistan is unlikely to make a significant difference to the messy situation in India’s north-east.

Amidst all these Machiavellian calculations, is it possible to argue that India should go out of its way to assuage Pakistani concerns? For one, it would get India brownie points from the West. However, in these days when everyone talks of rising macho Asian powers, a pat on the back from the USA or UK alone cannot justify such an extremely vulgar display of altruism. Is it possible to argue that a strong Pakistan will serve India between better than a weak Pakistan and for that reason alone, India should go out of its way to help make Pakistan feel secure enough that it is able to devote all its resources to fight the Taliban?

Unfortunately, as explained by the well-known Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi in this article a strong Pakistan is no guarantor of peace. Sanghvi has argued that India should go out of its way to keep Pakistan weak, that the traditional argument that a strong and prosperous Pakistan is vital for India’s security and prosperity has been proved wrong. Sanghvi wants India to support resume clandestine operations in Pakistan and hit back every time India is attacked. Sanghvi says that Pakistan did not harm India for twenty years after the 1971 war which created Bangladesh and weakened Pakistan.

I agree with Sanghvi that a strong Pakistan is unlikely to be friendly towards India. However, in my opinion, a weak Pakistan is equally dangerous and a splintered Pakistan even more so. If for some reason Pakistan were to break up, wont it be so much easier for the Taliban to gobble up such pieces one by one? If India has supplied weapons to insurgents in Balochistan, such weapons will find their way to the hands of Islamic insurgents to be trained on India at some future date. The American experience with the Afghan Mujahiddin and India’s experience with the LTTE show how easy it is for terrorist chickens to come home to roost.

On balance I feel that India ought to take all steps possible to make Pakistan feel secure. Withdrawing the Indian army’s strike corps from India’s western borders would be a good start. Desisting from aggressive overtures through Afghan proxies and not aiding Balochi insurgents would be another. Of course, having done all that, once Pakistan settles the Taliban threat, India may be back to square one, with Pakistan resuming full-fledged support to Islamic fundamentalists who wish to target India or to Kashmiri separatists. Such a scenario would be, in my opinion, be preferable to having a slew of Taliban controlled states to India’s west, some of which will have nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Velupillai Prabhakaran’s Missing Middle Finger

Conspiracy theories are flying thick and fast regarding the photographs of Prabhakaran’s dead body released by the Sri Lankan army. Is it really Prabhakaran’s body or that of his double? Why does the body not have burn marks if Prabhakaran died after his armour plated ambulance was hit with a rocket propelled grenade? Why are Prabahkaran’s eyes open? Was Prabhakaran betrayed by an insider, captured alive and shot dead, execution style?

The Sri Lankan army’s website has these pictures of Prabhakaran’s body.

A commentator on one of the various websites I visit has pointed out these pictures have a basic problem. Apparently Prabhakaran does NOT have his middle finger in his left arm. He lost it long time ago. But in the pictures it is NOT missing.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Velupillai Prabhakaran is Dead

A long, sad and tragic chapter has come to an end in Sri Lanka. Velupillai Prabhakaran has been confirmed to have been shot dead by the Sri Lankan army as he and senior leaders Soosai and Pottu Amman sought to flee from the encircling Sri Lankan army in an armour plated ambulance. Velupillai Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony has also been killed and pictures of his dead body have been released by the Sri Lankan government.

Prabhakaran is survived by his wife Mathivathani Erambu, his daughter Duwaraka and second son Balachandran. Their whereabouts are not known.

Now if only the Rajapaksa government can be magnanimous and offer a half-decent devolution package for the north and north-eastern provinces, Sri Lanka will be able to look forward to a bright new tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Velupillai Prabhakaran Is Dead

Canada based veteran Sri Lankan Tamil journalist , DBS Jeyaraj, has reported that Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is in all probability dead. For the last few weeks, a few hundred LTTE fighters (Prabhakaran and his deputies among them) had been cornered in a small sliver of land in the Mullaitheevu jungles of North Eastern Sri Lanka. A couple of days ago, their access to sea had been cut off. In all probability, Prabhakaran was already severely wounded in the fighting. According to DBS Jeyaraj, Prabhakaran and many of his associates consumed cyanide and also triggered off a huge explosion that destroyed their bodies. DBS Jeyaraj is in my opinion, one of the finest journalists in the world and the best among those covering Sri Lanka. Though Jeyaraj has in the past said that he empathises with the LTTE’s struggle, he has never shied away from criticising the LTTE, an action which once got him severely beaten up by LTTE supporters in Canada. You can read DBS Jeyaraj’s report here.

I believe that there is a very good chance of bringing peace to Sri Lanka at this stage. There are enough moderate Tamil leaders like Douglas Devananda (real name Kathiravelu Nithyananda Devananda) in Sri Lanka who can negotiate on behalf of the Tamil community and obtain a decent deal for them from the Sri Lankan government. Even the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance may be able to play a useful role now that Prabhakaran is no more.

Many of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora are active and vocal supporters of the LTTE. In an attempt to prevent the Sri Lankan government from decimating the LTTE, they had in the past few weeks, blocked roads, highways and squares and waved Tiger flags in London, Toronto and elsewhere. I assume these supporters will soon make their way home, since their hero is no more. Many LTTE fundraisers in the west have collected large amounts of money (using force at times) from the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. It would be wonderful if this money could be either returned to the people from whom it was collected or if it could be sent to Northern Sri Lanka for the benefit of Sri Lankan Tamils displaced from their homes as a result of the current round of fighting.

Tamilnet, the unofficial mouthpiece of the Tigers has put out a statement from Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the head of LTTE’s International Diplomatic Relations to the effect that the LTTE will stop fighting in order to save the lives of civilians living in areas under its control. If only the LTTE could have let those civilians leave much earlier, it could have saved a lot more lives!

A Redundant Banker’s Wife

A banker has just been made redundant. He takes his young and pretty wife (whom he married at a time when big bonuses were taken for granted) to a cheap pizza joint for dinner and asks her, ‘honey, you still love me, don't you?’

‘Of course, I do. I will always love you. And I will miss you too.’

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Short Story: Happy Birthday

Unlike most other people on this planet, Charu’s birthday occurs only once every four years. That’s right, Charu is one of those few mortals whose birthdays fall on the twenty ninth of February. Charu grew up in a chawl in Lower Parel, right next to Phoenix Mills where her father worked. As for many other chawl-dwellers, Charu’s birthday was not a day of joyous abandon rounded off with drinking and dancing at the neighbourhood discotheque.

However Charu’s father was very fond of his eldest daughter and on her birthday, he would bring back a box of laddoos or jelebis when he came home from work. Charu’s mother would prepare something nice, may be some puran polis and some aamti which they would distribute among their neighbours. They say it’s the thought that counts and this was perfectly true in Charu’s household. Without spending too much money, Charu’s parents made a big fuss when Charu or any of her three other siblings had their birthdays. In Charu’s case, if it was not a leap year, the first of March was celebrated as her birthday.

‘Why don’t we celebrate it on the twenty eighth instead of the first?’ an impatient Charu once asked her parents.

‘Because my sweet little girl, you were not yet born on the twenty eighth,’ Charu’s mother sensibly told her. ‘So, it’s better to celebrate your birthday on the first of March, a day after you were born.’

Things did not change as Charu grew older, until she was married off to Paresh, a lowly clerk in Mantralaya. Paresh did not share Charu’s parents’ attitude to birthdays.

‘I don’t believe in celebrating birthdays,’ Paresh told her within a few days of getting married. He did not add ‘do you?’ to the end of his sentence. Charu did not have the guts to contradict him, which to him was confirmation that she too hated the decadent habit of celebrating birthdays.

‘I think the last time I celebrated my birthday was when I was ten years old and Papa bought me a Five Star bar for the occasion. What’s the point of celebrating an addition to one’s age?’ he asked Charu even though they were both very young and the addition of a year would not have aged them greatly. That conversation set the tone for the rest of their married life.

A few months after their wedding, Paresh’s birthday arrived. Charu gently reminded him of the event the previous day. Before she could even suggest a celebration, he turned on her ferociously and asked her, ‘so what if it’s my birthday?’

It took three whole years after their wedding for a leap year to arrive. By that time, Charu knew that Paresh would not even remember that it was her birthday. She turned out to be wrong.

‘Today is your birthday, isn’t it?’ Paresh asked her while she served him breakfast and lapsed into his habitual silence. Charu dumbly nodded her head and bit her lower lip. As soon as Paresh went off to work, she locked herself in the toilet and burst into tears. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Paresh had forgotten her birthday. But to remember it, to mention it and to not even wish her a happy birthday! He might as well have stabbed her and then rubbed salt into the wound. If only she were still with her parents, they would have …. Oh! What was the point?

Except for his attitude to birthdays, Paresh was a good husband. He did not talk much, believing it to be a waste of energy, when a frown, a smile or a hand gesture would suffice. Charu had never been a talkative girl, but after her marriage, she became even less so. Paresh continued to take note of Charu’s birthday whenever it actually arrived every leap year, though he never wished her, let alone get her a gift. Charu soon taught herself to not feel hurt, succeeding every alternate leap year.

This lifestyle continued even after Charu and Paresh moved out of Paresh’s parents’ house in Girgaum and bought a small flat at Virar. By that time Paresh had experienced twelve more birthdays, and Charu three more, but none of the fifteen birthdays had been celebrated.

They had two children, a boy and a girl. Initially their birthdays were also ignored and the children were too young to object, but after they started school, Paresh and Charu had no choice but to do something, albeit on a small scale. They would buy some sweets and the birthday boy or birthday girl would distribute them among their neighbours and school friends. As the children became older, their birthday festivities became more expensive. New clothes were demanded for birthdays, even though they always bought clothes for Diwali. Paresh would turn up his nose at the cakes, sweets and clothes, but still do the children’s bidding with a grumble.

The children did well at school and fulfilled their parent’s dreams, the son growing up to be an engineer and the daughter, a doctor. After the daughter got married and went off to Madras, she started celebrating her birthday and her husband’s in style. Two years later, Charu’s son got married and birthday celebrations became much bigger. The son blindly obeyed his wife, who came from a rich family that believed birthday celebrations ought to be lavish. The son and daughter-in-law lived in a posh modern flat at Kandivli and Paresh and Charu would go over for the birthday parties.

The arrival of one grandchild after another meant Charu got to attend at least one birthday party every two months. When the daughter and her husband moved back to Mumbai from Chennai with their two daughters, the parties only got bigger.

Despite all this, neither Paresh not Charu celebrated their birthdays. The son and daughter implicitly believed that, just like their father, their mother did not want to celebrate her birthday. Charu was tempted to tell her children that she too wanted a birthday party. Yes, she would like to cut one of those huge birthday cakes with white sugar on top, when people around her clapped. Or buy new clothes for her birthday. But Charu was too shy to tell anyone all that.

One day when Paresh and Charu were visiting their son and daughter-in-law, the daughter-in-law remarked, ‘I have a friend whose birthday falls on the twenty ninth of February.’

‘Mother’s birthday is on the twenty ninth,’ Charu’s son said.

‘Maaji, I know you hate celebrating your birthday. But I do wish you’d agree to celebrate it just once,’ the daughter-in-law said.

Paresh smirked. There was silence.

‘And this year, I will be sixty,’ Charu softly said. Indeed, not only was it a leap year, it was also to be her sixtieth birthday.

‘Why don’t we celebrate your birthday this year?’ Charu’s daughter-in-law asked.

Charu hesitated and said ‘No, don’t bother’ in a faltering voice, that was almost a sob. Her daughter-in-law gave her a strange look, but said nothing more.

On her birthday, Charu woke up as usual and went about her chores. She sighed once. She was now sixty. Soon she would be dead. If only she could muster the courage to ask for a birthday party before she left this world!

At around ten in the morning, as she was chopping vegetables in the kitchen, the bell rang.

‘Birthday girl, answer the door,’ Paresh told her, looking up from his newspaper for a second.

It was as if a storm had been unleashed. If Paresh had forgotten her birthday, it wouldn’t have mattered. But to remember it and not even wish her a Happy Birthday! The sheer cruelty of it all! At that moment Charu hated Paresh more than anything else in the world. She wanted to hurt him as he had hurt her all those years. With tear filled angry eyes, Charu looked at Paresh and then at the sharp kitchen knife in her right hand. Without further ado, she stabbed Paresh in his neck with the knife. Since she was standing to his side, she managed to sever his carotid artery. A jet of blood spurted out. Paresh grunted once and dropped his head to the table. It was obvious that he was dead. Charu put the knife down on the table next to Paresh and sat down on a chair. Her body was trembling, but there was no regret. What should she do now? As Charu tried to compose herself, she realised that whoever was at the door was ringing the bell furiously. Who could it be? Nobody was expected at this hour. Charu wiped the blood off her arms and saree, went to the door and opened it.

“Happy Birthday To You”, her children and grandchildren sang in a chorus. They came crowding into the hall. Her daughter-in-law had a huge cake in her hands. Her son-in-law carried a brown bag from Bombay Stores with a nine-yard long Paithani saree in it.

‘Where’s Papa?’ her son demanded? ‘When we suggested to him that you might like to celebrate your birthday, he said he was sure you did. He said he had been a complete fool .. and he’s just realised and …. He regrets it so much and …. Never mind, never mind. He’s planning to apologise for not celebrating your birthday all these years.’ He walked over to the kitchen to look for his father as his wife set the cake on the table.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Short Story: Eyes and Ears Lie

Paula was irritated with her interpreter. Given a choice, she would have fired her hours ago and found someone else – someone who had a better sense of the situation and could get her the correct answers that were eluding her. She was almost sure that the interpreter was lying to her. Yes, intentionally lying to her! She must be in the government’s pay.

All around her, the crowds swarmed past, Paula and her photographer the only icons of honesty and truth in what was obviously a false setting. Paula was prepared for a lot of squalor and poverty, for intense resentment and seething anger. However, the yellow blocks of flats, each ten storeys tall, were not particularly grimy or dirty or even filled with frustrated and unemployed people, if one went by third world standards. The whole thing was a scam, Paula was sure, and it was just a matter of tapping the right vein and uncovering it.

‘Is there anything else you want to ask this woman?’ the interpreter asked Paula. It seemed the interpreter, a woman in her late thirties, sensed Paula’s frustration with her, since she kept increasing her distance from Paula. When they had started out in the morning, Paula could smell her deo-spray. As the day wore on and Paula became more and more frustrated, the interpreter increased the distance between them, till Paula could no longer smell the cheap scent, unless she intentionally moved close to the interpreter.

‘Yes. I don’t believe you’ve translated her right. Can you please repeat what she just said?’

The interpreter took a deep breath. ‘This woman says that she is happier after she moved to Navayuga. Her eldest son has been given a job at the factory, her second son takes the shuttle bus to the Big City everyday and her youngest son and daughter go to school.’

‘Did her son and daughter go to school when they lived in the slum?’

‘No they didn’t.’

‘Please ask her the question. I don’t want you to answer me.’ Paula flared at the interpreter.

The interpreter’s eyes glared for a moment, after which she grit her teeth and spoke to the woman who now had a puzzled look on her face.

‘She says they didn’t go to school when they lived in the slum.’

‘And what does her husband do?’

The question was translated. ‘He used to operate a lathe and make leather soles. He has set up his lathe on the terrace of the building they live in. Every resident is allotted a space on the terrace of their flat and electricity is supplied there.’

John took another picture of the woman in her faded red saree, her lips and teeth stained with betel juice, as she stood on the footpath in the bright sunshine.

Paula wanted to tell John to stop taking pictures of the woman. Why couldn’t John show some more sense?

‘How long did her family live in the slum?’

The question was put to the woman. Oh! She was born there. So was her husband. Ever since she could remember, she had lived in that slum. And now she has a spanking new five hundred square feet flat to live in. Paula was convinced the woman was lying. Most probably her family was well-to-do and they managed to have that flat allotted to them with a hefty bribe. Everyone knew how governments dispensed favours in this country.

‘Let’s move on,’ Paula announced and trudged forward slowly without bothering to find out if John and the interpreter were keeping pace with her. In the distance, she espied a smartly dressed girl crossing the road. Paula increased her pace, pausing only to turn around and look at John and the interpreter for a second. John had worked with her for many years and he immediately start to walk faster. It took the interpreter a few seconds to get the cue and then she too started to walk fast. Paula managed to waylay the smart girl who had a very expensive handbag with her. This was obviously not a person who had relocated from that slum!

‘Do you have a few minutes? Can I ask you a question? I am a journalist from the Globe Trotter.’ With luck the girl would respond in English and give the game away. The girl didn’t seem to understand and Paula repeated her question.

‘Yes of course,’ she responded. Paula’s heart beat faster. By that time the useless interpreter caught up with her.

‘Whereabouts do you live? Close by?’

The girl gave her a blank look and Paula had to repeat her question. She didn’t really mind. Many Indians found her Australian accent difficult to understand.

‘No, I don’t live here. I live within the Big City.’

Paula was disappointed.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I work for the company which built these buildings. I’m doing a survey here.’ Paula perked up. This could turn out to be useful.

‘Are the people happy after the government moved them here?’ Paula asked. Dumped them here was more like it. Paula had reported on poverty and various poverty alleviation schemes all over the world. She had seen poverty in all its multi-coloured hues and dimensions, from starving children in Ethiopia to illegal immigrants living off the streets in Los Angeles. Paula knew what was likely to work and what wouldn’t. She had declared the state government’s scheme to be harebrained immediately after it was announced. To improve one of Asia’s biggest slums, you don’t demolish it and hand over the land to property developers, even if it is prime real estate. Which was what the state government had done.

If you want to improve the slum, give power and water to its residents! Give the slum dwellers ownership of the land they occupy! Paula had demanded in her column. What will the people do once they are put in their new hygienic surroundings? Starve? The slum provides the people with their livelihood. It houses thousands of small workshops and factories and other commercial enterprises. Take away the people from their slum and they will starve in their clean new surroundings!

‘Yes, they are. Very happy. Everyone said the government would never implement its plans. But for once, the state government managed to do it.’

‘I see. Thank you very much.’ Paula moved on. The girl was obviously someone with a vested interest. If only she could find a slum dweller who was cheated of his flat and forced to live on the pavements! However, the idiotic interpreter seemed to be incapable of understanding what Paula wanted.

Paula wondered if she should explain her dilemma to John. No, she decided against it. John was a wonderful photographer and very good at his job. But nobody had accused John of having a reporter’s instincts. This was Paula’s first visit to the Big City and Navayuga after the people had been moved here. Should she go to the cement factory? The state government had persuaded a private business group to build a cement factory near Navayuga. Five thousand jobs had been created.

The government claimed that ninety five percent of the factory jobs had been given to the residents of Navayuga. If she went to the factory she might find that the workers there were not necessarily people who had been moved from the slum, or even lived in Navayuga. Paula looked at her watch. It was three in the afternoon. There was so little time left. This was supposed to be a very brief trip, a stopover actually as she travelled back to Geneva from Colombo. She had to be at the airport by ten in the night for her flight back to Geneva.

There were so many things she could do to expose the government’s charade. A fleet of thirty new buses were supposed to provide a round-the-clock shuttle bus service between Navayuga and Big City so that those who wanted to, could travel to the Big City and work there. She could go to the Navayuga bus station and find out how efficient the service was. No, there was no need to do that. It was unlikely to be any better than the public transport in any Indian city. The government had claimed that Navayuga would be a spanking new township on the outskirts of Big City with schools, parks, libraries and playgrounds. Paula smiled to herself. She had seen the unfinished library and the mound of dirt which was to become a park.

A lot of money must have been invested in getting favourable media reviews. This time the government has done a good job, the relocation of the slum dwellers from the slum in the heart of Big City to Navayuga has been a big success, the reports claimed with alarming regularity. They ought to know better! It was so funny. The people were bound to see through such stories!

They found a man hurrying somewhere and asked him the same questions. ‘Can’t you see for yourself?’ the man told their interpreter. ‘This time the government managed to get it right.’ It seemed to be an Orwellian nightmare, with everyone seeming to have bought the government’s story.

‘I know what we should do,’ Paula told John and the interpreter. Actually she was speaking to herself. ‘We should go back to Big City and talk to people living on the pavements. I’m sure many of those evicted from the slum can be found on those pavements.’

‘But this time the government did it right,’ the interpreter objected. ‘Every one who lived in the slum has been moved here. And nobody else could get a flat at Navayuga, even if they were willing to pay a bribe. Everyone is surprised at how well things have been done.’

Paula lost her temper. ‘Why don’t you go back to the agency and tell them I do not require your services anymore? They can send an invoice to the Globe Trotter for the whole day, but I don’t need you to be with me any more. Please go.’

The interpreter hesitated for a second and then walked away.

‘But Paula, how on earth will you manage to talk to the people living on the pavements?’ John asked Paula.

‘Oh don’t worry. There are so many people in Big City who speak good English. I’ll find someone who can help. In any event, I know exactly what those people will have to say.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Will Pakistan go the Iranian Way?

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran was overthrown in 1979 by an Islamic revolution headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Until a few months before his overthrow, the USA and other western powers were optimistic that the Shah would stay in power. They propped him up with weapons and never asked any question when his ruthless secret service, the SAVAK, let loose a reign of terror in order to suppress dissent. Religion was not the main reason why the common Iranian on the street supported Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s popularity was more because the Shah’s regime was extremely corrupt and Iran’s oil wealth was not being shared with the poor. Western powers never addressed this basic flaw in the Shah’s rule.

Pakistan has a very similar flaw. Ever since the formation of Pakistan, there has been no attempt to redistribute wealth. Every politician who has held power has been from the landed gentry. Just as Ayatollah Khomeini captured power with a promise of an egalitarian Islamic rule, the Taliban are winning hearts and minds in Pakistan with their appeal to the poor and downtrodden. Islam has always been a powerful force in Pakistan, just as it was in Iran. When Islam is mixed with socialism and the promise to redistribute wealth, you get a potent mix that can’t be matched by the traditional political parties.

Pakistan is similar to Iran in another respect as well. In both countries, western powers have played the role of king maker in order to protect their interests, thereby propping up dictators and tyrants. In the case of Iran, it was initially the British who controlled the reins of power. In 1901, an English entrepreneur William Knox D’arcy obtained a 60 year oil search concession from the Shah of Persia. When oil was finally discovered, Persia got only 16% of the profits from the Anglo–Persian Oil Company (APOC). During the First World War, the British government took over APOC, which became the chief source of oil for the British. The Persians were unhappy with the state of affairs. Sensing the Persian dissatisfaction, the British supported a coup d’etat which brought Reza Shah Pahlavi to power.

Unfortunately, Reza Shah Pahlavi turned out to be pro-German and signed an oil concession with Nazi Germany. He also increased Persia’s share of the profits from the APOC. Persia was renamed as Iran and the APOC became AIOC (Anglo–Iranian Oil Company). So, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Britain and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran and deposed the pro-German Reza Shah Pahlavi. His son twenty-two year old son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was made the ruler.

After the Second World War, the Iranians started clamouring for a greater share of oil profits. Iran’s pro-western Prime Minister, Ali Razmara was assasinated. The Iranian Parliament nationalised AIOC. An M.P named Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq was the guiding force behind the nationalisation and soon the Shah named him the Prime Minister. Britain suggested that Iran and Britain share the oil revenues equally. Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq did not agree. Britain imposed an oil embargo on Iran. Technical know-how was denied.

The UK appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague against the nationalisation of AIOC by Iran. The ICJ ruled in favour of Iran.

President Harry Truman refused to buy the ridiculous British argument that Iran was in danger of a takeover by the Tudeh, the Iranian communist party. However President Eisenhower did and Operation Ajax was initiated. A disinformation campaign was launched against Dr. Mosaddeq. The Shah was bribed, cajoled, threatened and forced to dismiss Dr. Mosaddeq and place him under house arrest. Pro-Western General Fazlollah Zahedi was made the new Prime Minister. Soon riots erupted in Tehran and a petrified Shah fled to Italy. Mobs paid for by the CIA clashed with Dr. Mosaddeq’s supporters. A column of tanks led by General Zahedi took control of the house where Dr. Mossadeq was kept under house arrest. The Shah flew back from Italy. Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq was given a show trial and put in jail. The Shah became the absolute ruler once again. AIOC came under the control of a consortium of British and American oil companies.

Operation Ajax was considered a success and the Shah suppressed all dissent using SAVAK. Islamic organisations run by Shia clerics like Khomeini were largely left untouched, though Khomeini himself went to exile in France. This again has striking parallels with Musharaff’s Pakistan where religious clerics and their madrassahs were left unmolested while democratic dissent was suppressed. When anger against the Shah spilled over in 1979, Islamic fundamentalists under Khomeini were in the best possible position to seize power.

However, Pakistan is different from Iran in many respects. The main difference is that it has a Sunni majority whilst Iran is predominantly Shia. Most Indian Muslims are Sunni, including the militants in Jammu & Kashmir. So far Pakistani assistance to Islamic militants in India has been unofficial and covert. If the Taliban were to take over Pakistan, such support will become official.

The other big difference between Pakistan and Iran is that Pakistan is a lot poorer. Even though the Iranian government is not very efficient and corruption is rampant, Iran manages to get by thanks to its enormous oil wealth. Pakistan does not have that luxury. Mullahs are usually very bad at managing an economy and mismanaging a poor country usually has disastrous results. If the Mullahs were to redistribute wealth in Pakistan without creating any, they will make it poorer than ever.

Pakistan is dominated by the Punjabis, but the Balochis, Sindhis and Pashtuns are also sizerable minorities. Sunnis form 80% of Pakistan. The Shiites who form 20% of Pakistan are scattered all over the country. The North West Frontier Province has a sizeable number of Shias. Though all these groups were keen to break off from India and form Pakistan, there has been a lot of in-fighting ever since.

Just like Pakistan, Iran is ethnically and linguistically very diverse. 90% of Iranians are Shiite. However, only about 50% of Iranians are Persian speakers. Azeris form around 24% of Iran and most of them are Shia. The Iranian Azeris are ethnically identical to the people living in Azerbaijan, the neighbouring ex-Soviet republic. Kurds form around 7% of the population and are largely Sunni. Iran also has over a million or two Turkmens (who are ethnically the same as Turkmens in Turkmenistan, the ex-Soviet Republic, China and Iraq. Turkmens are mainly Sunnis, but some are Shia. Iran also has a Balochi community, who are mostly Sunni. Arabs form 3% of Iran and they are almost entirely Shiite Arabs. Iran also has ethnic groups like the Bakhtiaris and the Qashqais, most of whom are Shia. Even among Persian speakers, there are subgroups like the Mazandaranis, the Lurs and the Gilakis, who are also Shia.

The (Shia) Islamic fervour which swept Iran in the late 1970s was able to bury the abovementioned ethnic and linguistic differences in the desert sands and mountains of Iran. It is a moot point whether the Taliban will be able to do something similar in Pakistan. There is no love lost between the Taliban and the Shia. Even now, the Shia are continuously targeted by Taliban through bombing, random shootings and even suicide attacks. It seems unlikely that Pakistani Shias will at any stage form part of the Taliban’s vision for an Islamic utopia. I have a general theory that a Shia majority is capable of living with a Sunni minority. However, Sunnis consider the Shias to be heretics and a Sunni majority, as you have in Pakistan, will not let a Shia minority live in peace. Nevertheless, the Taliban may be able to unify the Sunnis of Pakistan through their message of social welfare and reform.

It may be possible (for the USA) to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if there is an imminent danger of a Taliban takeover. May be they already are under some form of secret US supervision as part of the US deal with Asif Zardari. However, even if the nuclear weapons are taken away, the know-how for making nuclear weapons will remain in Pakistan in the forms of its trained scientists and technicians. As Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan proved a few years ago, many Pakistani scientists have fundamentalist sympathies. As soon as the Taliban take over Pakistan, such scientists can be put to work, making nuclear weapons, if necessary from scratch.

If the Taliban do not manage to win the hearts and minds of poor Pakistanis, the danger of a Taliban take-over outside the Pashtun heartland is not very high. Even though Pakistani paramilitaries have been reluctant to fight the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATAs) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and have surrendered in their hundreds, the Pakistani army will put up a tough fight if there is a threat to other provinces. Crack Pakistani troops currently stationed on the Indian border are unlikely to sit by and watch if the fighting spreads beyond the FATAs and the NWFP. Unless, that is, the Taliban’s pro-poor message catches the imagination of the common Pakistani on the street as Khomeini’s message did a few decades ago in Iran. If it does, the situation will not be much different from that in the FATAs and NWFP. Pakistani soldiers will have to fight their own brothers and friends and as we all know, such a fight is morale sapping and can’t be won.

Highly respected Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi has argued in this article that a weakened Pakistan is often the best guarantor of peace. Sanghvi wants India should go out of its way to keep Pakistan weak. He says that the traditional argument that a strong and prosperous Pakistan is vital for India’s security and prosperity has been proved wrong. Most if not all Pakistanis are unwilling to speak out openly against Islamic fundamentalists. Sanghvi wants India to support resume clandestine operations in Pakistan and hit back every time India is attacked. Sanghvi says that Pakistan did not harm India for twenty years after the 1971 war which created Bangladesh and weakened Pakistan.

With great respect, I think that the approach suggested by Sanghvi is fraught with danger. For one, India will lose the moral high ground vis-à-vis Pakistan in the eyes of the global community. Even more importantly, if for some reason if India manages to weaken Pakistan by supplying weapons to separatists in Sindh and Balochistan, and Pakistan breaks up, the Taliban will easily gobble up such pieces one by one, a much easier task than capturing power in a unified Pakistan. Sanghvi is right in saying that after the 1971 defeat, Pakistan did India no harm for nearly two decades. But the Taliban didn’t exist in those days. If Pakistan splinters now, Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan will fall under the Taliban’s sway one by one like dominoes. Indian weapons will find their way to the hands of Islamic insurgents and will be trained on India without much delay. The American experience with the Afghan Mujahiddin and India’s experience with the LTTE show how easy it is for terrorist chickens to come home to roost.


Of course, India may succeed in keeping Pakistan weak without breaking up. However, a weak Pakistan will continue to harbour terrorists like those who attacked Mumbai in November 2008. Mind you, I can understand Sanghvi’s frustration and that of other Indians like him. Ever since Pakistan came into existence, there hasn’t ever been a period when Pakistan hasn’t wanted to harm India. To be very honest, I don’t see India and Pakistan becoming friends and existing side by side. It is possible that if both countries prosper economically, religion will take a backseat in the subcontinent and the levels of animosity will come down. If that happens, there will be no need for the Islamic nation of Pakistan and Hindu majority India to remain separate. This is a possibility in, may be, fifty years time. But friendly co-existence for India and Pakistan is in my opinion, impossible. Either they remain enemies or they will reunify.

In short, a weak or splintered Pakistan is likely to be just as hostile to India as a ‘strong’ Pakistan.

Right now, it is important for the Americans to arm-twist the Pakistani government into carrying out some Soviet style redistribution of wealth, especially in the villages. If the Pakistanis don’t do it, the Taliban will do it for them and turn Pakistan into a Sunni version of Iran. Albeit a much poorer one, with nuclear weapons, and hence a much more dangerous one.