Sunday, May 31, 2009

Australia's image takes a beating

The attack against Indian students in Australia has caused a lot of concern among back at home here in India. Parents are worried, families, too. Suddenly, people are asking whether Australia is a safe place for Indians anymore. The Indian government led by the Prime Minister has made it a big issue and the Australian administration must be feeling the heat. Amitabh Bachchan has refused an honorary doctorate from a university in Australia, saying he cannot accept it when his countrymen are being attacked. I heard the Australian ambassador to India speaking on television last night and he didn’t seem very convincing.

Swaraaj Chauhan, international columnist for The Moderate Voice, based in Australia, says that the Kevin Rudd government is trying to make Australia a multi-cultural country. Australian government, he adds, is known for its generosity in funding diverse cultural institutions and there are a number of such institutions in every Australian city. These should be encouraged to organise regular counselling sessions for students, Chauhan suggests.

What he further says is interesting: “Last year during my six months stay in Adelaide, South Australia, I found that several young people had nowhere to go to sort out their basic problems. Even the reach of the local Indian associations was rather limited. The universities and teaching institutions should open/strengthen cells to provide counselling to students. I taught journalism for a while at the University of South Australia, Magill campus. But I never heard of any racist attack (maybe Adelaide is a different place).”

The Obamas' night out

Well, the most powerful man in the world needs a break, too, doesn’t he? President Obama took First Lady Michelle out for dinner and a show on Broadway on Saturday night, according to The Moderate Voice.

Jazz Shaw, assistant editor, TMV, writes: The trip still involved three Gulfstream Jets, a large staff and press corps following, blocking off traffic for hours across several blocks in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon and evening and a total taxpayer bill which the White House couldn’t even estimate for us. And it took place not only in the midst of two hot wars, but on the eve of GM likely going bankrupt and a rising unemployment rate where millions of Americans are wondering if they’ll be able to afford all their groceries next month. Could the optics of this Broadway fiasco possibly be any worse?”

Shaw adds: “I told my wife during our first year of marriage that we were going to take a trip to Ireland together. She’s still waiting for that trip, and the way things are going it may have to remain on hold until we retire. Thankfully she hasn’t taken that as a reason to dump my belongings on the front lawn and send me packing… at least not yet. Somehow I think Michelle Obama would have forgiven the President if their evening on Broadway had to wait for a while. This was a dumb move by the White House all the way around.”

Brilliant stuff, and this is exactly what we should tell our politicians, too.

No tobacco... and no Nadal

It’s No Tobacco Day today. And effective from today, all tobacco products packages in India will have to carry pictorial warnings of the harmful effects of tobacco. It’s mandatory, and violations will land manufacturers in trouble (Rs 5,000 fine or imprisonment of two years) as well as retailers (Rs 1,000 fine and imprisonment of two years). So, it’s getting more difficult for smokers. A good thing, too, considering that tobacco is one of the biggest causes of cancer and death. However, to the government’s credit, it must be said that, through publicity campaigns and rules and their enforcement, a lot has happened in the past few years to reduce cigarette smoking in public places. Smoking inside trains, for instance, has almost stopped, remarkable for a country of India’s size.

Today also marks the end of Rafael Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at the Roland Garros clay courts. Nadal was looking for his fifth consecutive French Open title and breaking Borg’s record. But that didn’t happen. Nadal will have to come back and win three more to beat the legendary Swede’s record of six French titles. Interestingly, it was a Swede who got rid of him today – Robin Soderling, the 23rd seed, who many would not even have heard of. The Swede’s huge forehand and serve sent Nadal packing. Does this mean good news for Federer? It does. If Federer can keep his wits about him and play his natural game, he could just add a Grand Slam title that has been eluding him for months now.

Sticking with tennis, the New York Times reports that three-time Wimbledon and four-time United States Open champion John McEnroe is keen on starting a youth academy for tennis and is in touch with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which already has a training facility, the Evert Tennis Academy. The good news for McEnroe is that USTA is establishing a new facility near the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, and McEnroe could use that space. His brother Patrick, the NYT says, is general manager of the elite player development programme. That should be an added bonus.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

An SOS for help in the Sunderbans

Rajashree Khalap, an animal lover in Mumbai, has sent me an SOS email from Prerna Singh Bindra, a journalist, appealing for help for the people in the Sundarbans. This is what he says:

Cyclone Aila has devastated life in Sundarbans. It has claimed the lives of about 200 people in Bangladesh and India along with leaving thousands homeless or displaced. There is an urgent need for provision of water (all sweet water ponds there have been swamped with salt water, and there is simply no provision of drinking water), besides basic necessities such as rice, oil and clothes. The cyclone has also devastated wildlife ...swamping the captive crocodile breeding centre, killing deer, other prey species...and tiger. Their sweet water sources are lost too...

This is an SOS. Contribute, please, in any way you can.

Relief work is being done by the Institute of Nature Lovers and Climbers, an environmental organisation which has been working in the Sundarbans since 1989 and runs Project Lifeline in the Project Tiger Area. They are operating a basic hospital in the remote Satjelia island and provide for a mobile ambulance, essentially putting their boat into service in times of medical emergencies in remote islands. They also work on the man-tiger conflict in the Sundarbans.

For more details please get in touch with their Project Director Mrinal Chatterjee on 9339830280, or email me on bindra.prerna@gmail.com


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dr Binayak Sen walks out, a free man

On May 11, a meeting was held at CMC-Vellore to mark the second anniversary of rights activist Dr Binayak Sen's incarceration. There have been several campaigns for his release across India, even in Chennai, spearheaded by activists here like A Narayanan. Today, Sen walked out of jail, a free man. The Supreme Court granted him bail. However, he says he fears for his life, and that is not good news at all.

Sen’s movement was against the Chattisgarh government and its violence, and, according to a PTI report, he said his movement against state violence would continue. And, of course, he felt happy to be a free man once again. Who doesn’t value freedom?

Sen is vice president of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and was in jail since May 14, 2007 on charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of acting as a courier for an alleged Naxalite leader lodged in a Chattisgarh jail while on a visit as a doctor.

The PTI report quotes Sen as saying that he has been condemning all forms of violence whether by Maoists or police or in the forceful displacement of people from their land.

To quote Sen from the PTI report: "The PUCL and my personal voice continues to be raised against the Salwa Judum. We will work for political engagement instead of military engagement. I would say military engagement should be stopped and a peace formula should be restored. People should not be killed and political problems should be sorted out by discussions and talks."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Roxana Saberi is lucky; Laura Ling and Euna Lee?

Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi returning to the United States seems almost incredible. The BBC reports her saying after her arrival: "I am so happy to be back home, in the land of the free." Originally sentenced to eight years, on appeal, the term was reduced to two. Eventually, Saberi served about 100 days in prison. Although the Iranian government released her, it also indirectly served a tough message to the United States – that it is better not to mess with us.

Saberi has worked as a freelance journalist for news organisations, including the BBC and National Public Radio (NPR). The BBC report adds that she arrived in Washington with her parents after taking time off to recover in Vienna.

While Saberi’s release is great news for journalists all over the world, for all those who believe in and value freedom of expression and the freedom to live, there is no news yet about two American journalists - Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based online media outlet Current TV – who have been taken into custody in North Korea near the country’s border with China. They are likely to be tried, but not clear for what.

With the United States having no direct relation with North Korea, the situation could pose a problem for the two journalists. The two were reportedly in the border areas to interview North Koreans who had escaped from that country, after having already met and spoken to several such North Koreans. It is possible that a guide of some sort could have duped them. The incident happened at the time (in April) of a satellite launch from Pyongyang. It appears that the two are being detained separately in a boarding house outside Pyongyang.

We can only wish that they are released unharmed very soon. Let us also hope that journalists in Sri Lanka, now that the ‘civil war’ is over, are given the respect and the freedom they deserve.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Jaffna Tamils

B. Raman, director, Institute for Topical Studies (former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat), has written a wonderful piece on the Jaffna Tamils. This is what he writes:

As I watched TV visuals of the death of V.Prabakaran, the head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and read and heard accounts of the way his dead body was disfigured and rolled in dirt by the Sri Lankan Army, my mind went back to the years 1951-55 when I was a student of the Loyola College of Chennai, run by the Society of Jesus.

Every class, including mine, had four or five Tamils from the Northern Province of Ceylon as Sri Lanka used to be known before 1972. Even in those days, they never considered themselves part of Ceylon. They would introduce themselves as Jaffna Tamils and not as Ceylonese Tamils.

Every middle class family in Jaffna would save whatever money it could and send its offspring to Tamil Nadu for higher education. The most popular colleges among the Jaffna Tamils was the Loyola and the Christian Colleges of Chennai and the St. Joseph's of Tiruchi. They were intelligent, hard-working and with a keen sense of humour. During off-class hours, they would keep to themselves, not mixing much with other students.

Every Jaffna Tamil, like a Tamil from Tamil Nadu, wanted to become a Government servant. The other popular profession was as lawyers. When they went back to Ceylon after completing their college education in India, they would join the Government service in Colombo. In the first few years after Ceylon became independent, the Jaffna Tamils dominated the Ceylonese bureaucracy. They dominated the buraucracy even in the then Malaya and Singapore. The British preferred employing the Jaffna Tamils as bureaucrats in many of their Asian colonies. Apart from their intelligence, command of the English language and capacity for hard work, the Jaffna Tamils also had a good reputation for their integrity and honesty.

In my younger days, the Jaffna Tamils had a reputation for being meek and mild. We used to make fun of them by saying that if a policeman or a soldier pointed a gun at them they would tie their lungi above the knees and run. It is remarkable how Prabakaran made them shed their meek demeanour and stand up and fight for their rights. They fought ferociously because they felt degraded and humiliated by the Sinhalese majority after the British left Ceylon in 1948.

They put up with all the humiliation and indignity heaped upon them for 35 years. Then, they could no longer. They took to terrorism and insurgency to give vent to their anger. Their revolt against the Sinhalese might have been crushed by the Sri Lankan Army, but their anger remains -- in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka itself as well as in the diaspora. Since the LTTE-led revolt broke out in 1983 nearly one million Sri Lankan Tamils are estimated to have fled abroad. You find them all over West Europe, North America and Australia.

In response to my articles on the LTTE and Sri Lanka, I get a large number of personal messages from the members of the diaspora. Some are angry, but polite. Some downright abusive and threatening. Some curse India for allegedly letting down the Tamils and pray to God to punish India and the Indians for not helping the Tamils. "Just because Prabakaran killed Rajeev, you are punishing the entire Tamil community,” complains one message. “Your Prime Minister has not uttered a word of condemnation of the cruelties inflicted on the Tamil civilians by the SL Army. I pray to God that all of you must suffer one day the same way we are suffering."
The Tamil diaspora is yet to come to terms with the consequences of the death of Prabakaran to the future of their struggle for dignity and equality. They are studying how the Jewish diaspora conducted itself in its darkest days in the 1940s. The message that is being tom-tomed across the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is: "Let us emulate the Jewish diaspora. We will prevail just as the Jewish people prevailed."

Raman can be contacted at: seventyone2@gmail.com

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tigers vanquished in their own lair

The tigers have been vanquished in their own den. It’s been 26 years and more since Velupillai Prabhakaran began his quest for an independent homeland for the Tamils, a minority, in Sri Lanka. Nobody here (Tamil Nadu particularly) or elsewhere would have quite imagined that Prabhakaran, the charismatic and handsome leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would be killed in the way he was – trying to escape from the Lankan special forces. Also killed were Prabhakaran’s son Charles Antony and leaders Soosai and Pottu Aman.

It was a sad end for a man who probably espoused the Tamil minority cause in Sri Lanka like no other. But Prabhakaran was also responsible for many suicide attacks, bloody fights and what history will always remember him for, his planned assassination of Indian Prime Minsiter Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. How life plays out, when you consider that Prabhakaran’s death occurred barely two days before the day Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated 18 years ago!

Prabhakaran will always be remembered not only as the founder of the LTTE, but as the person who moulded a rag-tag group of poorly armed men into one of the most dreaded insurgent groups in the world. He himself brooked no dissent and is said to have been ruthless and exceptionally daring.

In Colombo and elsewhere in the island nation, Sri Lankans celebrated, burning Prabhakran’s effigies. Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who backed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa proved too much for even Prabhakran to handle, declared: "We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism."

However, having known the LTTE and its powers of resurfacing, it may be too early to write the organisation off. Only time will tell. Right now, Colombo is on high alert, and so is Tamil Nadu.

At what cost victory?

Well, I will dwell on the elections one last time, now that it is all over and the results have surprised many – not only the Tamil Nadu results, but the results for India as a whole. Various reasons are being trotted out by experts on television news channels, columnists, reporters, politicians themselves and even voters. But who can really say what went right for the Congress and what went wrong for the BJP? Or how the DMK combine managed to prove pundits wrong by making the strong AIDMK-led combine irrelevant, at least for the short term? The one good thing that has come out of all this that we can look forward to some stability at the centre, unless the unpredictable happens. And in Tamil Nadu, for at least the next two years, we need not worry about the sound and fury of election campaigns.

Let me end by once again referring to N.S. Venkataraman, who stood from the South Chennai parliamentary constituency. I keep referring to him, not because I receive his emails (which is one small reason) but because he represents the ideal leader – somebody who is middle class, likes to be honest and straightforward, and who cannot tolerate corruption and nepotism. Sadly, people like him are almost like outsiders in today’s world. Indeed, it is about corruption and nepotism that he writes about, stressing that both aspects remain undefeated. This is what he says:

The parliamentary election has come and gone but corruption and nepotism in the country remain undefeated. Several hundred crores of rupees have been spent by political parties in the just concluded parliamentary elections. Obviously, such several crores of rupees have been collected by many political parties by corrupt and dishonest methods and such money has been used by them in conducting campaigns and bribing voters by several methods. What is very sad about this election is that corruption has not been an issue at all and both the political parties and the common man seems to have accepted corruption as an acceptable way of life.
In the earlier elections, corrupt money used to be spent and taken in discreet ways, fearing adverse public opinion or action by law enforcing agencies. In these elections, corruption has been practised openly with both the political parties and several people who accepted corrupt money for voting, shamelessly and openly. With many products of such corruption now entering the Parliament, to control the country's administration and fate, the future looks very gloomy. India is bound to go through a phase of dishonesty at many levels even in more intense ways that would ultimately do tremendous harm to the fibre and fabric of the society. The poor and deprived are bound to suffer much more.

Concerned right-thinking people who can understand the grim scenario should not accept defeat and remain silent. The battle for probity in public life should be waged strongly and relentlessly in the coming years for the sake of this great nation. It is obvious now that probity and honest way of life cannot be ushered into India through the electoral process as good people with great and lofty motives cannot win elections in such corrupt conditions. The Election Commission may be a good administrator of elections and framer of stringent regulations but is a very poor enforcer of the guidelines. Therefore, it is naïve to expect that Election Commission would be able to prevent corruption in the elections. Under the circumstances, the only alternative is to fight for Gandhian standards in national life and to restore truth and honesty in public sphere by waging battle in forums other than in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. As corrupt politicians and political parties cannot be defeated in the electoral process , the alternative is to defeat them by mass struggle and building very powerful public opinion against the corrupt elements.

The task is clearly cut out and the ball is in the court of the concerned Indians who swear by truth and honesty at any cost.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

He fought elections without money and muscle power

The polling is over and the results are awaited. Tomorrow is the Day and it will be interesting to see how things pan out.

Well, political leaders come to you when they want votes; after elections, they usually disappear and don’t come back to you again. But there are people who are different. One such is N.S.Venkataraman, the candidate for the South Chennai parliamentary constituency, who resides in Besant Nagar. I received his email and this is what he has to say (there are some pertinent points he raises) about "his election campaign without money power and muscle power":

I carried out the election campaign without money power and muscle power and with great dignity, scrupulously adhering to the guidelines provided by the Election Commission of India. My theme of campaign was to restore probity in public life and Gandhian standards in the national agenda. Whatever may be the outcome of the election, I am happy that the Gandhian principles was effectively highlighted in my election campaign as the need of the day and to my knowledge no other political party or candidate has done this anywhere in India.

Apart from others, a number of differently-abled persons and visually impaired persons belonging to lower income group campaigned for me without expecting any rewards and this is a highly satisfying aspect of my campaign.

At the outset, I desire to congratulate the Election Commission and the police for the exemplary manner in which they conducted themselves in organising this election under extremely tough conditions. I have absolutely no complaints and my respect for police and Election Commission have gone up several folds after completion of the campaign.

May I describe my experience below in the campaign.

I was allotted the election symbol only on 27th April and I could effectively start the campaign only on 29th April, with the handbills printed with election symbol. Therefore, the candidates of small parties like me and independents were left with hardly thirteen days for effective election campaign.

The Election Commission banned campaign through SMS which effectively prevented the low-cost election campaign method to reach individual voters. I do not understand the logic of banning SMS messages during the election campaign. The Election Commission could have exempted the cost towards SMS messages in the election expense statement of the candidates. While several candidates and political parties did send SMS messages in defiance of the directive of the Election Commission, I did not do so and might have lost some advantages due to my strict adherence to the directives of the Election Commission in this regard.

Door-to-door campaigning became extremely difficult for any candidate since the general public, particularly the middle and the upper income group, appear to be averse to receive the campaigners at their door step , which may be due to security reasons or the image associated with an average politician in the country today. The kalyana mandapams and several other meeting halls refused to provide the premises for election campaign for political parties, possibly due to the fear of any unpleasant happenings. The Election Commission also issued some sort of directives to kalyana mandapams not to allow the premises to hold political meetings. This effectively prevented space for holding campaign meetings where some sort of interactive discussions could have taken place.

Several housing complexes refused to allow small campaign meetings in their premises and insisted that the handbills should be delivered only at the gate, possibly due to the poor image of the politicians and political parties.There is no space to hold public meetings in many places due to traffic congestion. Police earmarked specific places for holding public meeting which might not have suited the political parties in several cases.

Many TV channels are owned by several political parties Smaller parties and independents who do not own such TV channels were at a great disadvantage.
The telecast facilities in Doordarshan and the broadcast facilities in AIR were not provided to the smaller parties and independents.

Under the circumstances, the options available for me were to spread message by word of mouth, by opening website, by emails, inserting pamphlets in newspapers and carrying out street campaign and holding small group meetings, wherever possible. Some of the newspapers also insisted that campaign handbills should not be inserted in their newspapers.

While a lot of noise are made in the street campaign by every political party including myself, some with special gimmicks to attract the attention of the passers by, I do not know as to how effective such street campaigns are in spreading the message, since large number of voters are not in the streets all the time and those on the streets often appear to be lost in their own thoughts.

I carried out my election campaign just spending around Rs. 2 lakh. My campaign style was to print 2.5 lakh handbills and distribute it across the constituency by inserting in newspapers and distributing with the help of supporters. In addition, a website was designed by several software professionals which became very popular. I addressed several small group meetings in addition to the street campaign for twelve days for a period of four hours on each day. I could not meet many many voters in person since the effective campaign time available for me was hardly thirteen days. I largely relied on spreading my campaign message through word of mouth and handbills. I relied on the power of truth , which is my election theme , to spread by itself.

On the whole, I am thoroughly satisfied with the style and quality of my campaign and I am awaiting for the results. This style of campaign may look much different from that of other candidates and political parties but this is how it should be.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

'Politics of the ethical'

She is well known as a classical dancer, an accomplished Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer, but she is an activist and social entrepreneur as well. An economist and manager with a degree from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, she runs the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. I am talking of Mallika Sarabhai here. It’s timely to think about her on polling day because she more than anybody else in this election exemplifies what the common person can do to try and make India a better place. Of course, Mallika comes from a privileged background but in many ways I’m sure she represents the common man and woman of India.

Mallika is contesting as an independent candidate from Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital. And her opponent is none other than the BJP prime ministerial candidate L. K. Advani. Writing in The Hindu Sunday Magazine about Mallika’s brave initiative, Harsh Mander, prominent human rights activist who quit the civil services after serving in it for 22 years, says that Mallika’s “battle has captured segments of the popular and intellectual imagination”. It’s “politics of the ethical” that Mallika is standing for and this will strike an immediate chord in voters because she, like Harsh, had spoken out against the 2002 Gujarat riots. Mallika, Harsh points out, wants to change the perception that people with integrity do not wish to enter politics because it is such a dirty word.

We need more Mallikas. Even is she were to lose, Mallika will bag a moral victory. She has shown others the way and I’m sure she will continue to serve the people she has met during her campaigns in Gujarat. She and people like N. S. Venkataraman in Chennai need the support of people like you and me. And we must also derive inspiration from them to stand up for what is right, take up civic issues and do our best to make society better. And if there is a leader somewhere in us, all the more reason to come forward and engage in “politics of the ethical”.

Channel 4 team expelled from Sri Lanka?

According to a Reporters Without Borders email, Channel 4’s Asian correspondent Nick Paton-Walsh, producer Bessie Du, and cameraman Matt Jasper were briefly detained by police in Trincomalee in the east of the country before their expulsion. They are now in Bangkok with their journalist visas cancelled and banned from further visits to Sri Lanka.

The report broadcast on 5 May showed both the atrocious living conditions for civilians and ill treatment they have suffered. ITN News, which produces news for Channel 4, said the report was the first independent proof of the gravity of the plight of civilians in displacement camps in an area in which access is tightly controlled. It showed bodies left lying in the open and revealed a shortage of food and water and cases of sexual abuse.

The expulsions are the latest incident in a long list of serious press freedom violations connected with reporting of the war, including murders of journalists, arbitrary or abusive imprisonment, torture, ill-treatment, censorship and expulsions.

If all this is true, it is a sad time for journalists in Sri Lanka. The only hope is that the government there will sooner than later see the futility of this exercise and acknowledge the important part the media plays in the robust health of a nation.

Vote, and see the difference

Today is polling day in Tamil Nadu as well as in some other states. It’s become a sort of ritual in our family – we get up early and reach the polling booth, a Corporation school nearby, by 7.30am or so. Today was no different. I was glad my octogenarian mom could come along as well. She has been an enthusiastic voter over the years and a keen follower of politics in our country. I sometimes wonder how the older generation had it all in them – discipline, honesty, energy for hard work, capability to raise large families, ensuring that children were given the best education, and a comprehensive understanding of local as well as national and international events. All this without the computer, mind you. At least most of them. My mother has never pressed the keys on the computer nor has she ever held a mouse. She doesn’t have a mobile phone of her own. But she makes up for all that with reading the newspapers (two of them) and keeping pace with television coverage. She has a broad understanding of events, a gut feel of her generation that is often difficult to explain, but which helps you decide one way or another – not about whom to vote for but about taking decisions in life.

Well, there seemed to be adequate security at the polling booth we went to. A police officer said that people had started arriving by 6.30am and that they had to be asked to come back later. Party symbols and the names of candidates were displayed and the policemen and women on duty were eager to help. I saw polling staff help an old man right up to the electronic voting machine (EVM) and when he requested for help, his daughter was called in. It was all nice and friendly. And that is the way it should be. As we were leaving, we spotted a father and daughter being refused admission because they did not carry the slips of paper that should have contained their names. Party representatives here visit homes distributing slips of paper that have names of voters, and the symbols of political parties as well. Many carry these slips with them to make it easier for polling staff to locate their names in the voting list.

The voting list, I saw, not only contained names but also pictures of voters, identical to the ones on the identity card. Remarkable indeed, and those who were part of the exercise must be lauded for all the hard work that I’m sure must have gone into it. I also received a call from a friend saying that she was not sure her name was on the voting list. There were reports in the media about film star Kamal Hassan’s name not being in the voting list. Good heavens!

If Mumbai saw 41% of voters turning up on polling day and Delhi 50%, Chennai, I feel, could register a larger percentage. It’s time the middle class went out to cast their votes. Enough of complaining – about leaders, issues and stuff. If we don’t come out and vote we forfeit our right to complain. Voting is our birthright, and it gives a good feeling, too. So, those of you who are undecided or who haven’t ever visited a polling booth, please vote. Your vote counts and will make a big difference to the future of our country.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Meeting at CMC Vellore for Dr Binayak Sen

Today, a meeting is being held at CMC-Vellore to mark the 2nd Anniversary of Dr Binayak Sen's incarceration. The meeting will be held in the Wheeler Hall, CMC Hospital campus, at 4:30pm. Dr Binayak Sen is an alumnus of CMC; he belonged to the batch of 1966. He is the winner of the Paul Harrison Award 2004 and Jonathan Mann Award 2008 for exemplary medical work.

Crocodile Tears for Sri Lankan Tamils

‘Electoral Crocodile Tears for Sri Lankan Tamils’ read the headline. It was an email I received from Mr S.R. Madhu, who had served distinguished stints with The Times of India, Span magazine and the Bay of Bengal Programme. Mr Madhu sends interesting emails to a few of his friends and the one I received this morning, with this headline, got me reading further.

The writer of article was B. Raman, additional secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi and presently the director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. It makes for compelling reading and I reproduce the article here:

The campaign in Tamil Nadu for the elections to the Lok Sabha, which comes to an end on May 11,2009, saw copious shedding of crocodile tears not only for the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, but also for the cause of a separate Tamil homeland as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of M. Karunanidhi put it or for the cause of an independent Tamil Eelam as the Anna DMK of J. ayalalitha and other Tamil parties put it.

Of the various parties contesting the elections, only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress (I) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), which are national and not regional parties, made a distinction between support for the plight of the Tamils and support for the cause of Tamil Eelam. They desisted from supporting the latter.

There has been a certain hypocrisy in the stand of both the DMK and the ADMK. The DMK, which in the past had made no secret of its sympathies for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its leader Prabakaran, had at the same time refrained from supporting the demand for a Tamil Eelam. It had always given the impression of supporting the stand of the Government of India of canvassing for the political and economic rights of the Tamils in a unified, but not unitary Sri Lanka.
The ADMK had in the past strongly opposed the LTTE and Prabakaran as well as their demand for an independent Tamil Eelam. Jayalalithaa’s abrupt volte face on this subject during the course of the election campaign and her support for the totally unwise move of sending the Indian Army to the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka to facilitate an independent Tamil Eelam came as a total surprise.

Taken aback by the change in her stand, Karunanidhi, who has shown a lack of consistency and lucidity on the Tamil issue for over a year now, came out with his own support for a Tamil homeland without explaining what he meant. The Sri Lankan Tamils already have a homeland in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. The question is what should be the constitutional status of this homeland. Should it become an independent Tamil Eelam as demanded by the LTTE or should it become a largely autonomous state of a federal Sri Lanka as demanded by other Sri Lankan Tamil parties and as supported by the Government of India since the days of Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister?

How can Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi come out in support of an independent Tamil Eelam or a homeland for the Tamils when none of the Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka except the LTTE has supported such a demand? Even the LTTE is now a party in its death rattle. The knee-jerk reactions on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue among the regional parties of Tamil Nadu and their vying with one another in showing whose heart bleeds more for the Sri Lankan Tamils and their cause show a calculation by all these parties that in the absence of any other major political issue of interest to the nation in general and to Tamil Nadu in particular during the just-ending election campaign the exploitation of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue might provide the magic wand to electrify the voters and get their support.

Whether their calculation proves right or wrong, only the results will show on May 16,2009. But one has to note that outside the screeching headlines of the Tamil media, one has not seen any major outpouring of public support for any of the Tamil parties on the Tamil Eelam issue.

There are three aspects to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue:

(a) The plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians in the Northern and Eastern Provinces due to the ruthless use of air strikes by the Sri Lankan Air Force in the Tamil areas for the last three years and the use of multi-barrel rockets and artillery pieces given by Pakistan and due to the recent brutal use of the Tamil civilians by the LTTE as human shields in order to ward off its final collapse and maintain its political relevance after having lost its military capabilities.
The Government of Dr. Manmohan Singh and all political parties -- national or regional -- failed deplorably all these months to condemn the use of air strikes and heavy artillery of Pakistani make against the Tamil civilians. The humanitarian problem did not start yesterday. It started three years ago when the Sri Lankan Armed Forces brought their aircraft and Pakistani-origin artillery into action, but not a single political party in India thought it fit to condemn it. They have suddenly become aware of the humanitarian plight of the Tamils a few weeks before the elections. If this is not hypocrisy and political opportunism, what then is it?

(b) The cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils, who have always been the objective allies of India. The Sri Lankan Tamil cause, which has the support of all Tamil parties in Sri Lanka, relates to a modification of the present unitary state of Sri Lanka in order to make it a genuine federal State in which the equal rights and dignity of the Tamils in the federal State are guaranteed.
This cause had enjoyed the active support of Rajiv Gandhi when he was the Prime Minister. Many Tamils in Tamil Nadu, including this writer, had a legitimate grievance that as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh deviated from the traditional policy of Congress (I) and failed to articulate energetically the Government of India’s support for this. His silence and ambivalent comments -- if at all he spoke on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue -- were interpreted by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sinhalese extremists in the Sri Lankan Armed Forces as indicating that the Government of India no longer supported the Tamil cause as strongly as it did under Rajiv Gandhi and that it could ride rough-shod over the rights of the Tamils without having to worry about any adverse reactions from New Delhi.

(c) The cause of an independent Tamil Eelam. The LTTE is the only Tamil organization in Sri Lanka which supports it. Other Tamil parties don’t. Under Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister, the Congress (I) gave the impression of supporting it, but Rajiv Gandhi wisely removed this impression and came out against an independent Tamil Eelam and in favour of a federal Sri Lanka with the Tamils enjoying equal rights with the Sinhalese.

After the expected death of the LTTE, this would have been a dead issue in Sri Lanka, but attempts are being made in Tamil Nadu to give a fresh lease of life to this issue purely out of electoral calculations and not out of any genuine interest in the future of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Despite all that has happened till now, India still has many friends in Sri Lanka -- among the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils. There are many on both sides of the political spectrum in Sri Lanka who understand and do not misinterpret India’s interest in the future of the Tamils in view of the likely impact of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem on the Indian Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

Based on this, the Manmohan Sigh Government could have worked out a comprehensive strategy for the future which would have convinced the Sri Lankan Tamils that India continued to care for them and would have, at the same time, reassured the Sinhalese that India did not wish ill of them and Sri Lanka.

The Manmohan Singh Government failed to work out such a strategy. Nobody knows what exactly is his strategy on Sri Lanka

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The end of a campaign... time to vote

The countdown for the general elections in Tamil Nadu has begun. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have visited. A Narendra Modi visit could have gladdened the hearts of some, judging by the response he is drawing from several parts of India, but that visit hasn’t happened. Modi has already risen as the star and probably the BJP might now be regretting not having showcased him as its prime ministerial candidate. When an Express columnist told Modi that he could be Prime Minister in 2014, he replied that he lived for the day and five years ahead was too far even to think. A sign of some frustration, perhaps.

In any case, in the midst of all the brouhaha about the elections, how many people are really going to vote? Pamphlets are being distributed in neighbourhoods, speeches are being made and even telephone calls are being received, exhorting people to come out and vote on polling day. I was surprised to receive calls from M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. For a moment I was taken aback but then I realised that they were recorded voices. But nevertheless, a call was a call. The DMDK candidate cent me an email, asking me to vote for the party. There have been house visits by representatives of various political parties as well. All well and good, but the question remains: how many will come out and vote?

The Mumbai example is shocking – only 41% of eligible voters exercised their franchise this time. Mumbai where the terrorist attacks took place, a city known for its resilience and the civic consciousness of its citizens. So, what happened? 41%? Which means the majority did not bother to vote. So, why should we pass comments on our leaders if we don’t even bother to come out and choose who should represent us? We forfeit our right to complain then, don’t we?

And for all that, there is a feeling that these elections are not going to result in a sizeable win for any one party. Today was when Nitish Kmar shared the stage with Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh and Susham Swaraj in Chandigarh. The TRS or the Telengana Rashtra Samithi was also seen today cozying up to the BJP. When Sonia Gandhi arrived today in Chennai to share the stage with the DMK patriarch and TN chief minister, she spoke about a loyal partnership but was careful not to utter a single word about the AIADMK party or its leader. It’s all politics after all. You can switch sides when you want to, when you feel the time is right.

It’s been a long-drawn campaign, in the middle of summer in India’s hinterland. Sometimes when you think of it you wonder how on earth our leaders manage to do so much of travelling and still look fresh and clean. Almost like actors in a movie. Well, on the real world stage, our leaders are actors too, aren’t they?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

It's a feeling of angst that overrides all

It’s election time and Narayanan is not happy at all. In my previous blog, I provided the background to the man, to help you understand him better. Today, I received an email from him, which he has sent to several others as well. It made me realise how little we do as citizens and what a lot there is for all of us to do. I reproduce below his email. I have only edited for language errors and use of unnecessary words. Here goes:

Dear friends, Greetings. I am sorry I have to start like this.

While a record number of scoundrels, mass murderers, bigots, religious and communal fanatics, money launderers, blackmailers and criminals of similar hues are out on bail or parole and busy trying to become 'Honourable' Members of Parliament through staggered elections with a gun-totting army of security-men providing them protection in what is called the biggest democratic exercise (?) in the universe, we still find the real Honourable Good Samaritan Dr Binayak Sen ailing in a high-security prison in Raipur, Chattisgarh, for almost 2 years now (May 14 will mark the 2nd anniversary of his incarceration).

His fault was to have brought health to the doorsteps of the tribal in Chattisgarh, standing up to the most inhuman human rights violations by the state administration and those supposed to be in charge of law and order. There is neither law nor order in his arrest and incarnation. And justice continues to elude him even in the highest court of our great nation despite absence of even a shred of evidence.

Instead of what could have been a very simple commonsense direction by the Supreme Court to release him on bail if not to acquit him, the honourable court for no apparent reason is not arriving at even this simple decision. This is not only a reconfirmation of 'Justice delayed is Justice denied', it is also a warning to any right thinking Indian who wants to do something good and wants to stand up in future or who wants to make this world a just place.

While NSAs and Interpol red alerts could be slapped or revoked just like that by our political masters depending on their needs and exigencies, that Dr Binayak Sen continues to be in prison despite petitions and campaigns by all right-thinking people from across the world, including 22 Nobel Laureates, is utterly shameful.

When a protest demo was conducted in Chennai last year on May 14, close to the Madras Medical College & Hospital, not even dozen medical men were there in support of Dr Binayak Sen despite him being a member of their fraternity. Only a handful of NGOs participated. It is symptomatic of the indifference that has set in the consciousness of Indian civil society, now infamous for candlelight vigils after terrorist attacks, while not stepping out to vote.

In a knee-jerk reaction, Mr Chidambaram upped the defence budget to Rs1,50,000 crore after the Mumbai attacks. But where is the defence against state-sponsored terrorism on their own citizens?

The satellite media could spend hours and days when a 5-star hotel gets attacked but has no time or heart when such blatant violations take place on our soil or when genocide happens in our neighbouring state Sri Lanka.

In a recent speech, Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen said that India was the land which gave the word 'nyaya' and meant 'nyaya' has much more intrinsic meaning than that of 'justice'. In his concluding remarks, he rightly said, “We have to ask what should keep us awake at night. “

Dear friends, let us at least show our solidarity for Dr Sen by meeting and protesting on 10th May (Sunday) or May 14. If some of you could write back and also contact all right thinking friends and associates and network, we can make a decent show in Chennai. Please give your suggestions right away.

Thanks and regards
In solidarity
Narayanan. A
PAADAM

Those who wish to talk to Narayanan can call him at (0) 9840393581.

An activist with a public conscience

I have written about him before and here again I go… When you call him on his mobile phone, what you get to hear first are strains of Vande Mataram. It’s not surprising because A. Narayanan has been consumed by a love for the country and a willingness to serve the community ever since he started going to school in Tirunelveli. The Loyola College graduate who has a diploma from the Loyola Institute of Business Administration worked for a while in sales and marketing before turning entrepreneur 15 years ago – his firm manufactures scientific instruments. However, taking up social issues and advocating change remains Narayanan’s first love.

Narayanan believes in working for change. Through INFORSE (Innovative Network for School Education), Narayanan works for the setting up of libraries, laboratories and lavatories in schools. And through Paadam, he has been fighting against alcohol and drug abuse and against all forms of manual scavenging. He is also against admitting destitute children into orphanages, juvenile homes or dormitories. Adopting a child or encouraging a family to sponsor a child’s education, he feels, is the way forward.

Thinking out-of-the-box to enthuse underprivileged children in Chennai’s Corporation schools, Narayanan started a mobile library last year with his own funds, complete with a team of volunteers who would closely interact with children. The mobile library (in a Tempo Traveller) was launched with the local body’s help and now caters to children of 10 Corporation schools in North Chennai. The library has 3,000 Tamil books for children, audio-visuals, a laptop and an LCD projector. While Monday to Friday, the van visits the schools, during evenings and weekends it goes to community schools and tuition centres in slums. The response has been overwhelming.

It was Narayanan’s public interest litigation that led to the Madras High Court banning in November 2008 the entry of humans into sewers and septic tanks to clean them. Narayanan is convinced that alcohol is India’s No. 1 social enemy. “The WHO says that alcohol will be the third biggest contributor to death, disease and disability in India. Sixty percent of road accidents are caused due to drunken driving and government should bring stringent laws to control this. A person who drinks and drives is a killer on the road.” Running a spirited campaign the past two years, Narayanan has been sending public petitions to the office of the director-general of police seeking severe action against drunken driving and the prevention of employment of juveniles in bars and liquor shops in TN.

The next item on his next agenda is to file a PIL seeking a ban on the production and sale of plastic bags and cups in TN. “Ours is supposed to be a progressive state. Then why are plastics not banned? They block water bodies, drains and canals. The result is mosquitoes and malaria.”

Monday, May 04, 2009

Of 'kathri' and other stories

May 4 this year marks the beginning of what is called the 'kathri' period in Chennai. The period is also known as Agninakshatram - when Agni, the Hindu god of Fire, holds sway. Temperatures are usually 40 degree C and above. This year though, Chennai has not witnessed dog days yet, but indications are that it will soon. Temperatures are hovering around the 40-degree-mark and once that is broken, it could be anybody's guess as to how hot it will be.

On such a day, the heartening news was that 97 candidates from Tamil Nadu cleared the UPSC examinations, an excellent success rate by any standards. A student from Andhra Pradesh scored as well, topping the Vellore Institute of Technology entrance exam.

IIT Madras is organising a three-week programme for school students interested in basic sciences, with a good mixture of theory and practice. That should keep some of the brilliant minds occupied during 'kathri'.

On the other hand, there are several students struggling to pay fees to continue their studies. Many of them belong to the underprivileged strata of society. Heeding a newspaper report, a few philanthropists came forward to help, so did a nationalised bank, but there are still students who are looking out for support.

And what can you say to this, except perhaps "He deserved it"? Well, a Class 12 student in Chennai finally got some justice when a case was registered, of her alleged molestation by her own schoolteacher, and moved to the crime branch of the CID. This after police refused for long to register a case against the teacher, under pressure from school authorities. Thanks to the Madras High Court, the case will now be pursued by the CB-CID. Small mercies indeed.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Captain comes calling






The MGR Nagar-KK Nagar junction in Chennai is popular for political meetings. For years, it has been a venue for all kinds of meetings. Since yesterday evening, there has been a lot of activity here. Preparations on for today’s arrival of 57-year-old Vijayakanth, founder of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and a member of the Legislative Assembly representing Virudhachalam. During the 1980s-90s, he was considered the third most popular actor here, after Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan. He is now fondly referred to as Captain, after his popular film Captain Prabhakharan.

It was a long, long wait for those at MGR Nagar who wanted to catch a glimpse of the Captain and hear him speak. There was music and fireworks as the scheduled time of his arrival, 7.30 pm, came up. There were regular announcements asking people to maintain calm; the Captain was on his way the announcer kept saying. When Vijayakanth finally arrived to the sound of deafening firecrackers, it was close to 10 pm, the outer time limit for elections campaigns.

It was evident the Captain had grown in stature as a politician. People in the hundreds listened in rapt attention as he spoke. He took digs at the present chief minister as well as the AIADMK supremo. He was not at all for any kind of drama, he said, the kind that was being conducted by his opponents – his reference was to the Sri Lankan Tamils issue. He was for helping the masses, ensuring that they got food and jobs. He said he was alarmed at the way other political parties engaged rowdy elements.

I managed to take a few shots, but against the glare of lights (the whole place was so well lit with all kinds of bulbs that I wondered whether the state has a power problem at all!) they were not quite the kind of pictures I would have liked.

Pictures here show shots of the Captain speaking, standing up in his van, asking people to vote for his party candidate; of the heads of people before me watching the Captain; a local resident lapping up every word; and passersby soaking in the atmosphere.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A call to free journalists

According to Reporters Without Borders, 60 journalists were killed and 929 were physically attacked or threatened in 2008. That means five journalists were killed, on average, in a month - an alarming figure at any rate.

On May 3, members of Reporters Without Borders USA will start a hunger strike in New York to call for the release of Roxana Saberi, Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

And here's also hoping that the fluid situation in Sri Lanka would soon change for the better and that a lasting peaceful solution would be found, paving the way for the complete restoration of press freedom.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day is on May 3. An organisation called Reporters Without Borders (RWB) is campaigning for the release of three women journalists who have been “taken hostage” by governments. Four members of RWB have been on a hunger strike since 28 April in support of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on a charge of spying for the United States.
Saberi has herself been on hunger strike since 21 April in protest against her conviction on a trumped-up charge. According to an email I received from RWB, the latter is taking over her hunger strike so that she does not have to continue it herself. Beginning May3, similar protests will be staged in Canada, the United States, Britain, Belgium and Spain.

RWB is also seeking the release of two American journalists employed by California-based Current TV, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who have been held in Pyongyang since March 17. The detention of Saberi, Lee and Ling on arbitrary charges demonstrates more than ever the importance of World Press Freedom Day, says the RWB email. RWB has appealed to Iranian and North Korean authorities to free the three women without delay.
If you wish to learn more about the RWB protests on behalf of Roxana Saberi, log on to http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30949

In the same email, RWB mentions about the Sri Lankan government’s “brutal campaign against the press and dissident voices”. The extract presents an alarming picture: Sri Lanka, the email says, of all the countries with an elected democratic government, is the least respectful of media freedom. Press access has been restricted to the north of the country and also to the Jaffna peninsula, it added. The situation stated is alarming because Sri Lankan media, known for its high quality standards and investigative skills, now seems gagged. The email also refers to Tamil separatists trying to gag journalists through threats and propaganda, on the subject of their defeat and crimes against civilians. The following extract from the email raises concern about press freedom in Sri Lanka:

“Violence against the press that was for a long time restricted to the Tamil media, now affects journalists working in Sinhalese and English. Armed men attacked the popular TV station Sirasa of the MTV group, apparently because it was not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. Editor of the highly independent Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was assassinated in Colombo, in January 2009. Police have proved incapable of arresting the suspects, as in every case of murder and assaults against journalists in the past three years.” The email also mentions the imprisonment of three journalists, including “two of the most independent, J. S. Tissainayagam of the Sunday Times and N. Vithyatharan of the Uthayan press group. They have all being arrested without any evidence against them.”

As a writer and editor in a country known for its press freedom (except during the dark days of the Emergency), I, like most journalists throughout the world, am saddened by such reports. I would like to believe that a lot of which is mentioned in the email is not true. Even if it is, I do hope that Sri Lankan authorities will give the media the freedom that is its due.