Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sri Lanka: India's asinine efforts Vs European Efforts

(Photo Courtesy New York Times)

The photo above published in today's NYT is telling. It is very reminiscent of Auschwitz and Dachau. If one looks closely one can see that it is mostly children standing there. They will carry their scars for decades if at all they can return to any normalcy.

The tragedy of Lankan Tamils is getting worse by the day between two supposed liberators. Both the Lankan Government and LTTE are claiming to prolong this tragedy in the name of the people. Rajapakse claims he is liberating "hostages" , LTTE claims they are fighting for a homeland and that the people are staying back of their own free will.

What struck me as curious about the humanitarian mission by, David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary and Bernard Kouchner, Foreign minister of France is that they visited the refugee camps. Pranab Mukherjee on the other hand visited only Rajapaksa, shook his hands, shared a smile in front of flashing bulbs and returned home empty handed. The European ministers on the other hand were extremely critical of Rajapakse, yes they could not achieve more but at least they did not just pose for photographs and were moer explicitly vocal in their criticisms.

The gesture of visiting refugee camp is significant. If Pranab, accompanied by a Tamil Nadu minister, did the same it would have meant something for the poor souls seeing their brethren visit them. But alas what Pranab did was more due to compulsion of electoral politics than out of genuine concern.

Also ominously absent from all these international reports is what India is doing. India is doing nothing and that is reflected in the news stories pouring out in international media.

"Mr. Kouchner, who has spent four decades in conflict zones and is a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, said in an interview before his departure that he did not entirely trust the Sri Lankan government’s assurances.“Do I believe them? No, not completely,” he said. But he said he discounted claims by the rebels even more."

India and the International community are yet to prick the soft underbelly of Sri Lanka's economy. I do not understand why the EU could not impose an embargo on exports from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on garment exports and is very vulnerable if that spigot is turned off. Here is an idea for MNC's, why not picket department stores that stock clothing from Sri Lanka.

Another painful truth is there exists no legitimate avenue to channelise financial aid. Any donor is immediately worried about money being funneled to LTTE, a proscribed organization in USA and would constitute a crime unless it was proven that the donor did not know that the recipient was a front for LTTE. There are no NGO's operating in Lanka who can tap into global diaspora. In the absence of those what the diaspora does is just marching up and down avenues in front of consulates. There is almost total absence of concrete efforts to help the refugees.

The onus to stop the war is on Mr Prabakaran as he is the only pretext for the war. If he had any love for his people he should abdicate without delay. Without him on the scene the international community will bear down on Rajapakse unequivocally unlike today when they still have to excuse the war and voice concern about civilians in a restrained manner.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sri Lanka: An orphaned Race Vs A Tyrannical government

The Sri Lankan tragedy is now garnering the attention of news outlets across the world. NYT, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Washington Post etc have been publishing regular stories. Increasingly the focus is turned on the Rajapakse led government, its arrogance, blatant violation of all international laws, unbridled tyranny, war crimes are all being brought to world attention, sadly with little effect though.

"In victory, magnanimity" said Churchill. Rajapakse, his government and the Sinhalese public, in general are gloating over their victory in an unseemly sight. Rejecting the offer of truce by LTTE, Gothabaya Rajapakse and another minister, showed arrogance that sends a chill down the soul of anyone who had glimmers of hope in reconciliation amongst Tamils and Sinhalese. The attitude of revenge, especially indiscriminate revenge is chilling. The concentration camps, they are not refugee camps, is a travesty of all international laws. In the guise of screening thousands are held in concentration camp like set ups. This is no way to treat a people. This is no road to reconciliation.

Sri Lanka is today rated as the worst spot for journalistic reporting. Every news agency draws attention to the fact that no objective reporting can be done because reporters are denied access to war zone. What is worse is the naked tyrannical atmosphere where unfriendly journalists are murdered or disappear without trace.

The Economist, in an article titled "Dark Victory", writes, "In the east and elsewhere, especially Colombo, the country’s main city, it is alleged to have abducted and killed hundreds of young Tamils. Nor are Sinhalese entirely safe, especially journalists. Several have been mysteriously assassinated, and the rest terrorised. Reporters Without Borders, an NGO, considers Sri Lanka more hostile for journalists than any other democracy."

International agencies accuse the Sri Lankan government of the highest number of extra judicial killings or just plain disappearances. Tamils picked up for questioning routinely turn up dead or just not traceable.

Just today the Swedish foreign minister was denied visa, he was to undertake a humanitarian fact finding mission. This diplomatic slap is unprecedented. According to NYT, the pro-government Sinhalese newspaper, Daily News, today published an article titled ominously "“Get your humanitarian paws off my country.”

Sri Lanka has requested foreign aid to deal with the refugee crisis. It has already recieved one third of the $200 million it requested. But many aid agency staff are refused visas. NYT reports that Doctors-without-borders, says, “For us as a humanitarian organization, it’s extremely difficult for us to get permission to get staff in. It can take up to six weeks to get approval.” Another NYT report, cites Dr Pruchnic of Doctors-without-borders “there are kids here who have had amputations, their mother and father are gone — their whole family is missing,”. Yet they can still smile. I’m amazed at their resilience." Dr. Pruchnic said many of the patients, including children, arrived without their families.

It is the duty of world bodies NOT to release any further money without getting gaurantees from Sri Lankan government on access to refugees and stringent auditing of funds is required.

BBC reports that "The United Nations top humanitarian envoy, John Holmes, said on Monday that he had failed to secure agreement from the government on access to civilians."

Condemning Rajapakse is not a free pass for LTTE, the Economist notes bluntly, "Nor should Mr Prabhakaran and his crew be mourned. A well-organised and vicious terrorist group, expert in brainwashing and suicide-blasting, the LTTE has maintained its fief—which until late 2006 extended over almost a third of the country—by murder and fear. Moreover, having sabotaged a peace initiative of the previous government, and helped it lose an election by imposing a boycott on Tamil voters under its sway, Mr Prabhakaran has had the war he was asking for".

The onus on a government is because a government is necessarily judged on a different plane. America's use of napalm in Vietnam war and My Lai are still justifiably cited as some of the most shameful instances of a country with a proud army. Abhu Graib is the latest blot. India's role in Kashmir is no less repressive. Rajapakse's government has been singularly incapable of honoring any promise, they are absolutely duplicitous.

The world community with so many options is still feeble in its responses. A people have been brought to its knees and the victor is salivating with taste for blood and revenge.

Rwanda, the place of 20th century's most horrific genocide by Hutus against Tutsis has a Tutsi President. Million plus Tutsi's were killed by Hutus. This week's issue of New Yorker carries an extensive article on the reconciliation between Tutsis and Hutus, thought impossible 10 years ago.

The day Sri Lanka can elect a Tamil as Prime Minister or President is when Sri Lankans can truly be proud. Its a long road but its up to the Sinhalese to pave the road. There are good people amongst them too. I also hope that Tamils will be able to join the mainstream as equals and contribute to a prosperous Sri Lanka.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sri Lankan tragedy: Mourned by all , helped by none.

It is difficult not to voice an opinion on a great tragedy unfolding in our time. Seeing the images of a stricken population coming out of a sliver of land one cannot help being moved. The image of tens of thousands streaming out of a beseiged city brought to mind the image of defeated Jews leaving Jersusalem 2000 years ago. The Tamils of Sri Lanka could have learnt a lot from how Israel was created but then Prabakaran and the mediocre leadership are no match for the wisdom of Theodor Herzl or Chaim Weizman or Ben Gurion. I shall write seperately on that.

It has become a fashion in Tamil Nadu to organize some protest rally, shriek unprintable illogical nonsense againt MK, Sonia, India. I've no sympathy for MK. He is cornered fair and square by the lumpen Frankenstein that he, Annathurai, Ramasamy Naicker and other charlatan fascists had unleashed 60 years ago. Looking at all this one would think that Sri Lankan refugees would be patronised with love and care far exceeding their imagination but as it often happens reality is otherwise.

"Rose" a transgender woman hosts a show in Vijay TV. I stumbled upon a a show of hers posted in youtube dealing with Sri Lankan Refugee travails. In that she interviews, at great length several refugees. From a purely journalistic angle it is not a great interview but compared to vernacular and local media it is certainly above par. In the section I've provided the link for a man who narrates his travails. This is unique because no where else do we get to hear from the victims themselves, often we only hear colored political commentary, here they are without filters. Its a six part interview, this section is part 4.

Apart from a very shameful aspect of being cheated out of his last penny by a police officer, the narration highlights the true difficulties of refugees. The biggest difficulty is becoming part of mainstream population, getting a job. A gut instinct is to sympathise with him on being discriminated against but let us put ourselves in the shoes of employers. Who would dare risk employing an unknown Sri Lankan, the first question is "is he LTTE", "if not can we trust for sure", "what troubles would he bring". THAT is the nub of the mess.

Successive governments have all used the Sri Lankan tragedy for their own ends. When convenient they would shout from rooftops about supporting and when inconvenient they would slither away.

The film fraternity led by Bharathiraja is shouting at the most shrill pitch. The greatest tragedy of Tamilians is that by and large people like Satyaraj, Thamarai etc have become ideologues freely dispensing political ideologies. When Sean Penn, two Academy Awards, opines on Iraq War he mostly gets sniggers. But then for 60 years Tamil Nadu, or the Tamil speaking part of Madras Presidency, has been subjected to a mass hypnosis that would put to shame Stalin or Hitler.

Not one, except Mani Ratnam, amongst this Tamil filmdom, Kollywood, had espoused these causes when they were each at the top. Bharathiraja was busy making love crazy films, busy on promoting his good for nothing son, Thamarai never uttered anything in public or through her works on this, Satyaraj had the worst reputation as womaniser (though an actor capable of some good acting) and he too is now busy promoting his equally useless son, the list goes on.

Even if one were to accept, well at least now they are voicing concern, I'd like to ask "to what end". How many have done anything "concrete" for the refugees. Do they even know what the concerns are? How many have even talked to refugees or visited a refugee camp? Do they know the genuine issues of managing such a steady influx of refugees? How do we screen the refugees for terrorists, or for pure criminal elements? how do we control law and order or crime rate with such influx? (Crime rate shot up in Tanjore / Trichy areas during the last such mass influx of refugees).

So many simple acts of generosity could be done. The children could be rehabilitated in good schools (no Tamil Medium please), given psychological support with psychological evaluations, women could be integrated in so many walks of life, the refugees themselves could be used to streamline the steady influx, if only some mind is applied to find sincere solutions.

Instead of fanciful demands of asking India to tell Sri Lanka to stop the war the Indian government could be pressured to send several red-cross aid teams, good rehabilitation NGO's could be asked for help. Kollywood with its immense financial clout can help in many ways. Instead of wasteful Bandh they could have one extra screening of a Rajni/Kamal movie and donate the proceedings. Why stike work thus depriving people in Tamil Nadu of livelihood, do the opposte, work more and donate to charity. Can anything be more Gandhian? But I guess its easy to shout from a dais half baked ideas on racism and question national integrity than to do something really useful.

The last point takes us to the vexing issue of Prabakharan. The local media, invariably Cho and N.Ram, get excoriated as "Brahminical" when they are critical of Prabakaran but who can answer to New York Times or BBC which equally call Prabakaran "dictatorial, terrorist etc". It sickens me to the stomach to see each rally for Sri Lankan Tamils degenerate into unqualified support for Prabakaran and most importantly some phantasmal adulation like he is redeemer. Whether it is Bharathi Raaja or Mahendran (two people who recently were sought out and given audience by Prabakaran) these charlatans cannot answer what kind of life will Tamils have under Prabakaran. Prabakaran has made no bones. He wants to be a dictator, as MK himself now quotes. Looking at his blood stained history of killing all his competitors and dissenters one need not doubt. Ask the families of Amirthalingam, Siri Sabaratnam, Padmanabha etc.

A great human tragedy has become all more tragic due to the mindless circus around this.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Killing fields of Soviet Russia

The term holocaust has come to signify only the Nazi killings of Jews. Very little is known widely about how Jews were killed for centuries across countries in Europe. Can Soviet Russia, the most murderous of all regimes, be left out of such depravities? Soviet Russia was long known, by those who read history, as a relentless oppressor of Jews. The 1905 pogrom is the worst recorded. Today, April 20th marks rememberance of Holocaust, New York Times carried an article on the Killing Fields of Soviet Russia, this is not for the faint hearted:

"In the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, Jewish women were forced to swim across a wide river until they drowned. In Telsiai, Lithuania, children were thrown alive into pits filled with their murdered parents. In Liozno, Belarus, Jews were herded into a locked barn where many froze to death.
Holocaust deniers aside, the world is not ignorant of the systematic Nazi slaughter of some six million Jews in World War II. People know of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; many have heard of the tens of thousands shot dead in the Ukrainian ravine of Babi Yar. But little has been known about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller killing fields across the former Soviet Union where some 1.5 million Jews met their deaths. ....

“At first, they had to line up in a row, before they were chased toward the trench. This was done by SS and Latvian home guardsmen. Then the Jews were forced to jump into the trench and to run along inside it until the end. They had to stand with their back to the firing squad. At that time, the moment they saw the trench, they probably knew what would happen to them. They must have felt it, because underneath there was already a layer of corpses, over which was spread a thin layer of sand.”
Ms. Prais said one of the discoveries that had most surprised her was the way in which Soviet Jews who survived the war made an effort to commemorate those who had perished. In distant fields and village squares they often placed a Star of David or some other memorial, despite fears of overt Jewish expression in the Soviet era.
“The silent Jews of the Soviet Union were not so silent,” she said.
The slaughter that some of them had escaped defies the imagination. One case Ms. Prais and her colleagues have cross-referenced involves what happened in the town of Krupki, Belarus, where the entire Jewish community of at least 1,000 was eliminated on Sept. 18, 1941.
A German soldier who took part in the mass killing kept a diary that was found on his body by the Allies, she said. In it, he wrote of having volunteered as one of “15 men with strong nerves” asked to eliminate the Jews of Krupki. “All these had to be shot today,” he wrote. The weather was gray and rainy, he observed.
The Jews had been told they were to be deported to work in Germany, but as they were forced into a ditch, the reality of their fate became evident. Panic ensued. The soldier wrote that the guards had a hard time controlling the crowd.
“Ten shots rang out, 10 Jews popped off,” he wrote. “This continued until all were dispatched. Only a few of them kept their countenances. The children clung to their mothers, wives to their husbands. I won’t forget this spectacle in a hurry....”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why I love Israel - Part1

I had been intending to write this series for sometimes. The more and more I read and learn of Israel's history I am amazed and spellbound by the qualities of the Jewish race. Its a politically incorrect thing to say these days. Its easy to get sucked in by the controversies around Palestine, easy to be anti-Israel cloaked in love for supposedly oppressed Palestinians. The Palestine issue is way beyond my present scope. Suffice it to say its an imbroglio in which no party is a saint, Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs of neighboring countries, America, Europe have all in almost equal measure contributed to the mess.

Today I picked up a book on sale, "Israel: A History" by Martin Gilbert. Gilbert is a British historian known for his many books on Churchill. Flipping the pages I was struck by a passage on discrimination against Jews in Russian educational institutions.

Many think that Jews suffered only during holocaust and that too only from Germans. The word "pogrom" comes from Russia, it denotes the genocide of Jews by Russians. The word "ghetto" comes from Venice where Jews had to live secluded from the city. Shakespeare portrays the antisemitism in Venice very vividly in his "Merchant of Venice".

Russia, in an attempt to prevent Jews from gaining any outsize dominance relative to their population, decreed that Jews should not exceed 10% in each department, not just out of the total student body. Thus Jews were artificially limited to 10% in each department. Gilbert writes "one cruel form of discrimination was the exclusion of Jewish children and students from the full rights of education". Now USA was no different either, see my earlier blog .

Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, recognized that educating Jews is the foremost duty in establishing Palestine. To that end in the first zionist congress a resolution was adopted to create a "Hebrew University", it was spear headed by Chaim Weizman (later first President of Israel).

Herzl spelled out the aim of the university, "The Jewish university should bring together all the scholarly qualities of the best universities, technical schools and schools of agriculture. The institution will offer nothing unless its of the very first rank. Only then can it render real service to scholarship, to the students and to the country". What nobility of thought, what perspicacity, what a visionary. Well maybe he took a leaf out of Thomas Jefferson who in turn thought that American students must have their own world class University so they do not have to go to Europe and lose their souls in European ideologies. Jefferson, who wrote his own epitaph, wanted to be remembered first as founder of University of Virginia, only second as President of US. One also remembers Nehru who created the IIT's, with Homi Bhaba, modeled after Harvard and Yale. [The destruction of IIT's is well under way with the implementation of Mandal now]

Denial of educational oppurtuities has often been wielded as a sadistic weapon to push away the deserved in the garb of social justice. Social justice thus stood in opposition to just plain natural justice. Ambedkar is the first rate sadistic and Machiavellian schemer in this regard. He is somebody who is appreciated, like most of his ilk, beyond his achievement and what he truly deserves. The constitution he created, a mish-mash of American and British constitutions is basically useless after being amended 100+ times in less than 60 years.

Check out the history of Hebrew University .

I doubt if any other race that fought for its very survival for centuries across continents had shown such vision. A friend of mine recently bemoaned the dominance of Jews in Nobel Prizes, mostly in the science category. When Einstein was presented a petition signed by a hundred scientists denying relativity he replied "If I am wrong it does not take 100 people to disprove just one would suffice".

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Turkey and the EU : To admit or deny

The EU is wise not to admit Turkey yet. When Mr Obama suggested that Turkey should be admitted into the EU he was deservedly snubbed by France and Germany that the EU will decide whom to admit into the EU. The chief contention of EU is that Turkey is not a liberal democracy like the western counterparts. The EU is very duly concerned about freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The flashpoint was the Danish cartoon controversy when the Islamic world erupted in unseemly violent protests that crossed all lines of legitimate protest.

The Islamic world simply could not understand that freedom of expression involves freedom to offend, especially ethnic and religious sensibilities. New Yorkers are used to seeing art galleries show casing a portrait of a crucifix in a jar of urine or Mary splashed with dung. A telling example was the double standards of Time-Warner group. When the Pope protested against a certain depiction of the cross, Time printed it duly, no disclaimers etc. They took for granted that Time readers, especially the Christian ones, should understand that they are just showing the photo in the context of news. When the Dutch cartoon story broke and half a world burned CNN piously declared "out of respect for Islam we are not showing the cartoon". I am sure their respect was borne more out of fear than out of theology.

Turkey did not want to agree to Danish PM become chairman of the EU for what one of his citizenry did.

That apart, the issue of Turkey's intransigence on recognizing the Armenian genocide is another instance. Germany, is no saint on race relations as anybody would know. It is easier to deny Holocaust in US or Australia but in Germany its a punishable crime. That is their atonement for the horrendous crime they inflicted on man kind. In Turkey its the exact opposite, its a punishable crime to ackowledge the Armenian genocide. They do not even accept that it is "genocide". Even a much respected Nobel Laureate like Orhan Pamuk had to face a national wrath for calling the massacre of millions of Armenians as genocide.

Embracing Turkey just to set an example of the West embracing an Islamic country is nothing but appeasement. Let them earn their place at their table. If that sounds like snobbery its not bad. Better to live with a snob than a fundamentalist.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bach and Thyagraja : Two Worldviews

The lives of Bach and Thyagaraja are interesting in showing how their respective cultural backdrop and worldviews shaped the music they created. Religion formed the bedrock of the best of what they produced and both had testy relationships with patron-kings, that is where the similarities end.

Thyagaraja's, May 4, 1767 - January 6, 1847, biography,, is very sketchy and mostly mythical. He was, in the tradition of most religious nihilists in India, a wandering mendicant with no thought of tomorrow, just a soul lost in servicing the Lord with his musical talent (or genius!!). He would go through streets singing his verses, not really begging but nevertheless with a bag slung across to take in whatever alms that passers by drop in. Its called "unja viruthi". A westerner can relate the life style to something like that of St.Francis of Assissi.

Bach's, 31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750,, life is very well documented, his compositions are catalogued with historical accuracy and importantly we know with greater accuracy his moods for many of his compositions. While Bach wrote a huge body of compositions with religious themes he was at home with composing secular music too. Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" exemplifies Western Classical music at its best from the perspective of music being written "for" an instrument.

Analysed from chronlogical perspective its interesting to note that Thyagaraja follows Bach. In Thyagraja's time Indian music had its rich repertoire of musical instruments, by the 1790's violin too made its entry. Yet there is no role for instruments in Carnatic music. The composer does not write music in its entirety, the art of symphony remains unkown to Carnatic musicians to this day. Quite often the so called accompaniments are sheer experimentations with pathetic quality. Not having been exposed to what true "symphonic" quality in music is Carnatic musicians are totally unable to identify the "limits" of their music. MS Subbulakshmi in her UN performance made a caricature of herself trying to sing in English with a western compsition for Piano. The singer and the composer outdid each other in plumbing the depths of mediocrity. The evening was saved by the audience which maturely overlooked that attempt and appreciated the queen of melody when she explored the heights of melody.

Bach had to seek work, having had to seek work he had to time and again prove his mettle and his genius flowered through such vicissitudes. Thyagaraja, rejecting gainful employment churns out soulful songs. Having failed to engage with the world he is ignorant of anything beyond the provincial hamlet of Thiruvarur, the western impulse of exploring, crossing boundaries, creating new forms are yet unknown to the feeble Oriental mind. Thyagaraja lived and died in a small town. Bach goes hither and thither between Weimar, Leipzig, Kothen etc. He goes from conducting church music, to being music teacher, to meeting the challenge of a monarch. The fugues composed in response to a challenge by Frederick of Prussia remains one of the greatest compositions of western classical music and is considered the pinnacle of musical genius, man at his best. Biologist Lewis Thomas, when asked what signals can we send to outer space hoping aliens would pick it up, replied "lets send Bach's fugues but then that would be considered boasting".

The genius of writing a symphony or an opera is that the composer has to imagine the entire music in his mind, how would an Oboe sound when a violin plays in the foreground while a tympani sounds in the distance and the soprano reaches for a certain high note. That calls for the highest creativity possible by man. Thats why Bach remains a composer and Thyagaraja remains a lyricist, a revered one at that.

A related concluding note would be to ponder how come productions of musical instruments is extremely professional populated by geniuses in the western world but professionalism in producing an instrument is totally unheard of in India. The names Stradivarius, Amati, Steinway all conjure up immense respect for the genius in crafting the finest of musical instruments. Tanjore is the place for producing veena, one visit to a veena crafting place makes you feel like you stumbled into a pottery place, a pottery place for fine pottery if at all one can be charitable.