Sunday, October 30, 2005

Natural disaster politics - V

The earthquake in Kashmir is off the front page (or at least front screen) of the Guardian and Hindu - in the case of the latter, displaced by the Delhi bombs. This is unfortunate because until a few days ago, the funding situation was dire and it is difficult to believe that much has improved. As of 4 days ago, the UN appeal for $312 million was more than two-thirds away from its target. That appeal has now been scaled up to $550 million. So far, donor conferences have only pledged loose change for the relief effort - Oxfam has just published a league table putting in perspective the amounts of money that have been pledged. As you can see, only 4 countries have pledged their fair share (estimated on the basis of the size of their economy as a proportion of the OECD total) and a fifth is close to doing so.

In comparison, the tsunami appeal was 80% fulfilled within the first 10 days. We might speculate endlessly about why this happened [timing - a day after Christmas, the number of countries affected, the presence of western tourists in those affected areas - and conversely (a factor working against the earthquake appeal) the compassion fatigue that appears to be setting in, in the wake of the tsunami itself and hurricane Katrina]. Whatever the operative causes, the earthquake will be more difficult to deal with than the tsunami for at least a couple of additional reasons.

- My aunt, who works for ActionAid and has been overseeing relief work in Tamil Nadu for several months, says that tsunami recovery has been pretty remarkable, partly because although a vast length of coastline and many thousands of people were affected, the damage was never more than a few kilometres deep. This means that no place is very far away from a functional community that can assist with relief work. In the case of the earthquake this is simply not the case - an entire region has been devastated.

- The survivors of the earthquake have a much harsher climate to deal with. There is no way that people will be able to survive the harsh winter months without at least some rudimentary housing.

Although 79,000 people have been killed, we are looking at another 2-3 million lives being under threat. 'Threat' here means things like limbs having to be amputated - limbs that could have been saved if people had been evacuated more quickly - something that could have happened if more helicopters were available, for example - something that would have happened if more money was forthcoming.

Meanwhile, things are moving on the interstate diplomatic front: India and Pakistan have just concluded a landmark pact, enabling people on both sides to take part in relief work in the earthquake-affected areas. The LoC can now be crossed at 5 points in Kashmir for this purpose, and the parameters and procedures for doing so will be the same as those agreed upon for the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. What is interesting about this is that what appears to have been an initial, off the cuff, emotional remark by Musharraf ('let us make the LoC irrelevant') has effectively forced the foreign policy bureaucracy on both sides to thrash out the modalities of doing so (albeit in restricted and carefully circumscribed manner) at the risk of being seen to be heartless, I suppose. Now, after much rhetoric and 23 days later, we have an agreement. Because it is meant to cover the phases of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, it can be expected to last a few years.

Here are some more specific comparative links on the possible impacts of natural disasters on conflict:

- Indonesia: Earlier this week, the Guardian carried a highly optimistic report on the state of relations between the Indonesian government and the GAM rebels in Banda Aceh. It seems that the halfway point has been reached in the decommisioning of GAM weapons and the withdrawal of the Indonesian military. Although a number of factors are responsible for the improved situation, it is certainly the case that tsunami-induced destruction and the imperatives of reconstruction have focused the minds of parties on both sides in the direction of cooperation and conflict resolution.

- Sri Lanka: Philip Gourevitch's piece on Sri Lanka after the tsunami, in the August 2005 issue of the New Yorker, gives less cause for optimism. The sub-heading says it all: 'after the tsunami, the fighting continues'.

- Greece/Turkey: verbalprivilege provides an excellent account of the impact of the August 1999 earthquake in Izmir (Turkey) and the September 1999 earthquake in Athens on relations between those two countries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Natural disaster politics IV - material but not engineers, aid and other problems

Glitches galore as fine words founder on the hard ground of disputed territory. Now India offers material, but dismisses the probability of its engineers going over to the other side as 'romanticism'. In a way this is understandable from the perspective of both countries - some of the key infrastructure that has been destroyed on the LoC has been in the nature of military structures, bunkers, etc., which India can hardly assist Pakistan with rebuilding.

Three of the five proposed points on the LoC for relief centres have been agreed upon, but the expectation is that people who need assistance will come to those centres to get treated. The problem, as the Pakistani Director-General of Military Operations pointed out, was that as communications infrastructure was devastated, not many people can come to the relief centres. To which Pranab Mukherjee's reaction is: 'So let us see'.

An earlier report says that the proposal to open meeting points at the LoC was agreed upon in principle in April, several months before the earthquake. They were intended to allow divided families to cross the LoC at designated points to meet their relatives.

Meanwhile, Oxfam reports that promised state aid is grossly inadequate. The UN appeal for $312 million is more than two-thirds away from its target.

Rosa Parks

Black activist, feminist, militant - not a little old lady who was too tired to stand up.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Natural disaster politics III - helicopters, but not pilots

yikes! I've been asked to give a talk on natural disaster politics in the wake of the Kashmir earthquake, so that is going to be the focus of blogging for the next few days. Please leave comments, links or anything else that might be helpful, particularly from the Pakistan press, which I havn't been following closely enough.

Yesterday's Hindu carried a story about Musharraf having promised to throw open the LoC: 'We will allow any number of people coming across the Line of Control to meet their relatives and assist with reconstruction', he said, and then appealed to India to accept the proposal. Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesman Navtej Sarna replied: 'We have seen news reports. If indeed this is what has been said, India welcomes the remarks. It is in line with India's advocacy of greater movement across the LoC.'

So far so good, but 'India's advocacy of greater movement' is part of its larger project of seeking to diversify ties with Pakistan (trade, electricity, ONG pipelines, etc.) and enhance the porosity of the LoC (or 'normalise' it - make it the international border, even) obviously in a careful and selective way, to make such activities possible across the line, in advance of dealing with the Kashmir dispute. The logic of this appears to be that the resolution of easier issues builds confidence and helps deal with more difficult ones. (This may in fact be borne out by the experience of other countries. Post WW2, France and Germany put aside the most difficult security-related questions - or more accurately, had these taken care of by the US - and commenced cooperation on trade and other economic 'low politics' issues, returning to the difficult security questions only several decades later.) Pakistan, on the other hand, insists on the centrality of Kashmir to relations between the two countries. It worries (I think) that diversified (even if improved) links with India will lead to a situation of asymmetric inter-dependence, in which having become dependent on India for various things (markets most especially), it will be placed in a weaker bargaining position vis-a-vis Kashmir.

Given this background, if India sees (and talks about) the opening of the LoC as part of its broader agenda, Pakistan is going to regret having made this proposal in the first place, and may even back down. That in turn would almost certainly impede earthquake relief. So in the interests of effective relief, both sides should confine their discussions very narrowly to the question of how best to provide relief immediately, making clear that nothing they say or do should be taken as setting a precedent, creating an expectation or otherwise changing the situation on the ground in a way that could affect future negotiations. Without this assurance, both states will hold back from doing what is in the immediate interests of survivors.

Of course all this is easier said than done, and the devil will be in the practicalities. Mobile phone companies from both sides are already being allowed to operate in the earthquake-affected areas. But on the question of military involvement, Musharraf has made clear that he will accept helicopters but not pilots. (It's a good thing that when that little girl (name?) needed a heart operation, he didnt say 'your ECG machine but not your Devi Shetty' - but of course that was a different situation.)

(But already I am having second thoughts about the 'no precedents' line of argument. Today's paper reports that BSNL has just set up toll-free ISD booths in Jammu, Srinagar, Tangdhar and Uri, thereby facilitating the first calls from IoK (lol, no one on this side calls it that!) to PoK in 15 years. This has enabled divided families to check on each other. They say this will be in place for only a fortnight, and even the Union Home Secretary isn't sure this will continue. But it would be a pity if facilities such as these were dismantled after the relief phase of operations. In some ways, earthquake diplomacy can - and should - be used to improve relations permanently, no?)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Activist Academics and Iraq

The International Association of Contemporary Iraq Studies held its inaugural conference at the University of East London in September. Al-Ahram carries a report summarising the conference proceedings.

One of the organisation's founding members - Eric Herring of Bristol University (who is also convenor of NASPIR) - rejects the idea that academics should shy away from politics: academics cannot be politically neutral in that what they choose to study reflects their values and has political consequences. Academic activists acknowledge this rather than pretending that they have a purely objective approach, a view from nowhere.

The association's very existence underscores the importance of free communication amongst academics. IACIS is intended, among other things, to serve as a bridge between Iraqi academics and their colleagues around the world. Iraqi academics were cut off from the international community by Saddam's regime - as isolation that was reinforced by the international political community through sanctions. Scholars in other parts of the world were likewise cut off from their Iraqi counterparts and from the empirical reality unfolding on the ground. The resulting vacuum was filled by spin doctors on both sides, with consequences that we are all too familiar with.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

75%, 25% - where's the story?

P. Sainath, critiquing media coverage of the Mumbai and Delhi rains, makes a larger point: 'The media have locked themselves into this mode. And it is in part due to the narrow gene pool they're trying to cover. If you decide that 75 per cent of the country does not make news, you're shrinking your potential zone of coverage. And if you decree that only a small section of the other 25 per cent does, you've painted yourself into a corner. It's like an overgrown adult swimming in a child's tub. It looks about as stupid, too. If we could accept that the 75 per cent too could make news — and not just when they die in large numbers — things could be better.'

This makes me think of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram - a spell-binding 936 page tome that I am currently reading, that deals - in large part - with the 75% that does not generally make it into the hallowed precincts of Indian writing in English. If you don't know what the book is about, the blurb will tell you enough to make you want to pick it up:

In the early '80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan...Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions...'

The inside bio continues -

After surviving the events dealt with in Shantaram, he was captured in Germany in 1990 and eventually extradited to Australia. On completing his prison sentence, he established a small multi-media company and is now a full-time writer. He lives in Melbourne.

I can't fully explain what this book is doing for me - it is a gigantic, jagged work, raw and powerful with the most uncannily matter-of-fact, even placid narrative style. There's almost a disjunction between what he is describing and the tone of voice with which he is doing it. His account of life in the slum will stay with me forever. I feel more than a little self-loathing that the first written account of life in a slum that I have read comes from the pen of this gora. Much of that account is deeply sentimental, but he can't be accused of romanticising the lives of the poor because he lived that life and is simply describing his lived and felt reality. The contrast with the cantankerous VS Naipaul who travels and describes fantastically and makes you smell the shit but remains tragically incapable of empathy, of putting himself in the shoes of another, of imaging alternative rationalities, of connecting or communicating with the objects he describes - the contrast could not be greater. Roberts doesn't describe, he just lives and he tells you how he lived. And this account of slum life by an insider in English - no translation - this is as unmediated - for the English-speaking world - as it can possibly get.

Roberts inhabits so many different worlds that seem to intersect effortlessly in his person - not just the usual expat circuit in Bombay that meets in Leopold's and Mondegar and goes to art exhibitions in Jehangir, but the slum, the mafia, Arthur Road jail, Bollywood. This is Hari Kunzru's Impressionist - only much much better because the transitions from one persona to another aren't contrived or accidental (or like Kunzru's protagonist, too easy to be credible), but a product of Roberts' own personality - his need for disguise, his survival instinct, his openness to learning and new experiences, his compassion and ability to see humanity in everything - no matter how shit-encrusted.

And many of these worlds that he inhabits are of precarious - or downright dubious - legality, perhaps even morality. These are transgressive, sometimes subaltern worlds (this book should be the literary companion to Sarai's Reader '05: Bare Acts), and Roberts is endowed with the sort of X-ray vision and multiple personality that enables him to be part of all these worlds at once. I mean the guy sits in Cafe Leopold - Leopold's for god's sake! - and sees more than I ever will. He makes me feel like I have only scratched the surface of life.

And watch your moral compass spin out of control as you read about these worlds and their characters - often engaged in the sorts of activities that would make a serial rapist look angelic, but moved by love, honour, generosity, respect, learning, sacrifice and everything else that 'decent' people would want to teach their children.

Read Shantaram.

Natural disaster politics - II

Previous surmises re: the politics of relief in Kashmir appear, depressingly, to be borne out. A report in today's Observer notes that 'As a result of the Pakistani government's failure to get aid to the most remote areas, Kashmiris living in towns like Bagh are turning for help to well-organised Islamic militant groups, officially banned by President Musharraf. In the mosques of Kashmir they are talking of a new jihad. Pakistan-based Islamic militants, who spent the past decade fighting Indian rule in the region, have announced a 'holy war' to help victims of the earthquake.'

Meanwhile, Abdul Qayyum, a Bagh schoolteacher, is quoted as saying: 'We are desperate for heavy machinery: drills, backhoes, anything that can help remove the debris and perhaps save lives...The government should send heavy machinery so we can get bodies or save those who are still alive. If they can't help us, then let the Indian army over the border. They are only kilometres away. What is more important - politics or lives? We can hear the call to prayer from their mosques floating across the line of control. Their buildings are standing - they can help us.' But the high profile relief activities of groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (an outfit with past links to Lashkar-e-Taiba) have angered the Indian army, reducing the already slim chances of it intervening in the area, the report goes on to say. So the fundamental question remains: Is the question of who does the rescuing more important than the fact of rescue itself?

The Indian army has been assessing the impact of the earthquake on the activities of militant organisations, concluding that both Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba have lost several activists, with the former being particularly hard hit. The army has, apparently, been 'carrying out a happy balance of relief operations and are also not letting their guard down in anti-militancy operations', and has gunned down 29 militants since the quake struck. It obviously sees the earthquake as a 'hearts and minds' opportunity in which to demonstrate its contribution to welfare, while taking advantage of quake-induced disarray to crack down on militant organisations.

Some glimmers of Indo-Pak cooperation are in evidence: India has just agreed to a request from Pakistan to allow the flying of helicopters in the no-fly zone (1 km along the LoC) on a 'case-by-case' basis.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


My mother's book reviewed. Nice review, except for the following odd sentence: 'Most Indian parents have their sons/daughters studying/working abroad.' Most?

Natural disaster politics

First things first - a list of donation options from my friend Asif:


Kashmir International Relief Fund


Muslim Aid

Save the Children

Muslim Hands

Plan UK

British Red Cross


2 quick thoughts. There is a well observed link between earthquakes and social movement politics. In both the Mexico City (1985) and Iran (1978) earthquakes, government relief responses were slow and social movements quickly stepped into the breach. In both cases, the earthquake was, in hindsight, credited with triggering a mobilisation and revitalisation of civil society in a way that was to have lasting effects beyond the relief phase. In Iran, many of the same groups and networks that participated actively in the relief effort would go on to play a prominent role in the Revolution. Obviously one wants appropriate relief, wherever it is coming from, to reach the people who need it. But it will also be important to see who provides it and how doing so shores up the legitimacy of some actors vis-a-vis others.

The second thing is the much-talked about possibility of a peace dividend. Again, thinking about this too much at this stage is premature and, possibly, in bad taste, given that there are other pressing priorities. Nevertheless, the tragedy has demonstrated - if at all that were needed - that natural disasters know no boundaries. There have already been encouraging and generous statements from both sides (for all the damage on its side, a Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson went on record saying: 'We remain willing to help Indians if we are needed for any kind of assistance, like the Indians offered us.'), although the location of the worst damage in PoK/Azad Kashmir makes the possibility of Indian relief efforts there unlikely - it would be one of those tragic ironies. Nevertheless, we have seen natural disasters have a decisive impact on conflict - in Banda Aceh post-tsunami, GAM rebels and the Indonesian government agreed to quite significant levels of cooperation to facilitate the relief efforts; in Sri Lanka, there was much encouraging rhetoric in this direction, but the LTTE reportedly began interfering with aid flows depending on whether they were destined for its areas or government-controlled territory (sorry that's vague, but I can't find the link I'm looking for).

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Rules for the not-so-new world order

A revealing interview with the US Ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, in which he lists the criteria that the US has used to justify supporting India's civilian nuclear ambitions:

' have criteria that justify doing this. First of all we have a very close partnership. Secondly India is a country that needs for its development, civil nuclear energy. It is a democracy, it has a long and distinguished history as a non-proliferator. It has recently implemented non-proliferation legislation and it did so quite quickly under NSSP and is in the process now of implementing it. If you look at that and take the view that India is meeting the standards that major nuclear powers are meeting and therefore say that we need to regularise relationships and they need to assume the same duties and they need to have roughly the same benefits even though they are not signatories to the NPT. That does not apply in any way to North Korea, Iran, or even to Israel or Pakistan. You know Israel is an important country but it does not need nuclear power for its development. So, I think, India can truly be distinguished as a unique case and I say that because if you advance that unique case you can do so without violating or compromising your own commitment to non-proliferation.'

Look again at the first criterion.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Community, culture, killing

I have been yanked out of blog-o-bernation by a request from Uma to comment on a recent post of hers that has generated a flurry of reaction. You'll have to read that first and at least skim over comments made by Sandesh, Pankaj and Bimlesh, among others, to understand why I think this is worth responding to. So much has been said already that it's hard to respond point-for-point, but here are a few thoughts.

'Jumping Into Wells' - When I saw the title, I instinctively thought of Jallianwala Bagh. When Dyer's troops started firing, there was no place to run and many people jumped into the well in the middle of the garden to escape being mowed down by gunfire. We are still jumping into wells in the postcolonial state, and now we are doing it to escape from each other, with the state (our beloved independent superpower-wannabe state) occupying the role of active facilitator (supplying lists of residents, failing to register FIRs, mucking up prosecutions, not offering witness protection of any sort so that the few brave ones inevitably turn hostile, etc.), or passive bystander on the most charitable reading of what is going on.

Do we know what secularism is, as Uma suggests? Listening to her recount the litany of communal pogroms that have scarred our 58 year existence, you would wonder how she can assert this with such confidence. And yet she's right. Because at some level, we have known about secularism for centuries. I'm not talking about Anglophilic Nehruvian secularism; I'm referring to the matter-of-fact, implicit, unacknowledged secularism of places like Cochin with its Jewtown and Dutch fort and Christian churches, of Hyderabad with its Urdu-inflected Telugu, of Punjab in the time when one son in every Hindu family converted to Sikhism. I'm referring to Sufi saints venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike, to Bombay apartment buildings where bawas and banias and bohras jostle for space. The remarkable thing about all of this is its taken-for-grantedness, so that if you stopped to point it out or make a big deal of it, people would think you were a little bit strange. Secularism isn't even the right word for this. I'm talking here about cultural eclecticism, miscegenation, the blurring of boundaries in daily life. We know how to live like this, and this everyday secularism is far more vital, more culturally rooted and will nourish and sustain a civilised public life far more effectively than the most high-minded and progressive laws.

Much of this flows inevitably from the constraints of living in a crowded country that has received waves of visitors over the centuries (the aryans 'migrated', the muslims 'invaded'), most of whom stayed. What happened when 'they' stayed? Did 'they' change 'us' more than 'we' changed 'them'? Would 'we' be able to recognise 'ourselves' without 'them'? If you're an upper-caste, Hindu, North Indian, Hindi-speaking supporter of the Sangh Parivar, one simple thought experiment you might perform is to strip Hindi of every single word derived from Arabic or Persian (do you even know which ones these are?), remove every vestige of Mughlai cooking from the food you eat and refrain from all invocations of that 18th century Euro-American idea that came to be known as nationalism, much less that 20th century set of beliefs that would be called fascism. Then see if you recognise yourself. (Oh, and if you're 'Aryan', go back. Go back to wherever you came from - and no, I'm not carrying a brief for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.) And before you begin protesting at my having singled you out, know that I'm doing this because you are at the top of every single hierarchy that is relevant in contemporary Indian public life. That is not to say that you are responsible for all its ills - rather, that you wield the most power and, therefore, that your deployments of victimisation narratives ('Hinduism is dying out') are the least credible.

This is also why responses to Uma's article that demand a recognition of minority-inflicted violence are missing the point. No one is denying that members of both communities have committed abuses. And I am certainly not arguing that one sort of killing is more justified than another. But when both sides in this conflagration use victimisation narratives, the fears and concerns of an 11% minority whose levels of socio-economic attainment are demonstrably below those of the majority, appear much more persuasive than the rhetoric of self-proclaimed leaders of the much larger, more powerful 85%, who claim that their community is disadvantaged.

Finally, I'm not interested in engaging in some nostalgic reading of history here ('we lived in harmony until the British came and started their divide and rule heraferi...'). And I have no intention of overplaying the depth of our peaceful co-existence. The sort of co-existence I have been talking about has often been superficially civil or only part of the story: the instances of progressive and heartwarming co-existence I mentioned at the beginning of this post have always sat alongside strict and deep-rooted communal rules about purity and pollution - rules that dictate whom we can eat with, marry, or let into our temples. What I'm trying to say is that running through these fossilised communal prejudices are equally 'authentic' indigenous veins of peaceful co-existence, which we have to tap into in order to recover a more civilised public life.

In any case, Uma's piece is really about the unjustifiability of killing. Her critics have raised various arguments that seek to contextualise majoritarian anger, but does any of that morally justify killing? Is this even something we should be debating?

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