Thursday, November 13, 2008

Kashmir – India’s Albatross

The Indian government finds itself in an impossible situation in Kashmir.  The largest demonstrations in two decades in the valley have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, calling for freedom.  This surprising turn of events is a stark contrast to the relative calm and optimism in the area following the much-lauded 2002 local elections, coinciding with President Musharraf's commitment to control jihadist elements across the border. The current situation only demonstrates New Delhi's flawed strategy to an untenable situation, inevitably bound to become more difficult given the dormant frustrations and tensions in the region.  

This past year was especially good for the valley, with record highs for tourism and economic activity.  There were no outward signs that a flare up of this magnitude was on the horizon, let alone enormous, unprecedented, mostly non-violent calls for independence that have caught the Indian security forces off guard.  Having been trained to fight an insurgency they now, quickly, are training for crowd control.    

The spark that set off the crisis was a transfer of 92 acres of land for a Hindu pilgrimage.  It is, of course, not the direct cause to the current conflict.  The roots are much deeper. About a half a million soldiers pursue a few thousand militants, making Kashmir the most militarized zone in the world.  Human rights violations have been rampant.  Nobody has figured out how to deal with insurgencies mixed with terrorism, and the Indian state often finds itself stuck between doing nothing and doing too much.  To make up for it, New Delhi - to their credit - focuses on appeasement through economic and political means.  

No state, per capita, has received as much economic aid as Kashmir has, but to no avail.  No state has experienced as much political autonomy either - in no small part due to a special constitutional provision dating back to Nehru.  Elections in the region are promising but prominent Kashmiri leaders focus not on improving governance but rather on independence and an emphasis on Islam as a guiding force.  Democracy has this illiberal underbelly, much like Hamas in Palestine and the Islamic parties of the northwestern frontier in Pakistan, which, though elected by the people, often work against the people's interest by promoting terrorism and repression.    

So force is not working, neither is money or democracy.  If Kashmiris had a right to self-determination they would very likely secede and/or join Pakistan.  There is little doubt about that.  But then again, so would other parts of India if given the choice.  Besides Kashmir, secessionist problems existed in Punjab and currently one can make the case that Assam and Nagaland would be motivated by any loss to Indian territory.  And these are just the overt cases.  Since independence, a dialectical balance has constantly been in play between the center and peripheries.  Concessions and compromises were always made; Hindi being a case in point, first being force taught to the South, to later being dropped after numerous protests.  All this has led to greater decentralization and the rise of regionalist parties and the creation of new states, allowing for India to stay integral and united amidst tremendous diversity. 

What has worked in other areas of India has not worked in Kashmir for a whole host of reasons none greater than the fact that Pakistan is right next door.  Since independence three official wars have been fought, not to mention numerous skirmishes, with the insurgency being directly aided by the ISI; Pakistan's notorious intelligence agency.  In fact, in the period 2002-2008, violence has gone down in no small part to Musharraf's commitment to control infiltration from jihadists.  With Musharraf gone and Pakistan slowly slipping into chaos, Kashmir will be as vulnerable as ever.  An independent Kashmir will bring Pakistan and its instability that much closer to India.  

With the recent unilateral actions by the U.S. in Pakistan's tribal areas, with a possible fall-out between the two governments likely, the situation is getting trickier.  India can be that missing piece that can add pressure from the LOC given Pakistan's current vulnerability.  Recent deployment of 6 of its most capable warplanes to Kashmir precisely sends this message.  

All this makes a Kashmiri state, or any redrawing of borders, extremely unviable.  An independent Kashmir, or worse a Kashmir as part of Pakistan is not a possibility as far as Indian strategic and security interests are concerned.  The implications for the region are too great.  The point is moot whether Kashmiris are freedom fighters or terrorists.  A supposed emerging super power will not be keen to show weakness and no secession or compromise will be made; already clear from Manmohan Singh's "no borders will be redrawn" statement.  Further agitation will only serve to challenge his authority and with time, if continues, will only provoke more violence and ruthlessness.    

That national elections are looming on the horizon doesn't help the situation.  The BJP has a history of riding the waves of religious controversy to power.  Further calls for freedom, or any threat of Kashmiri independence will make Kashmir be what Ayodha was in the 1995 elections: A rallying cry to unite Hindus against Muslims.  BJP's 2004 strategy emphasizing economic growth and "Shining India" failed.  They've wised up and know that people are motivated more by threats to security and more importantly threats to their identity.  Hindu agitation in Jammu, with their own protests and economic blockade of the valley, is evidence enough that the times ahead with only get worse.  


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sonal Shah - A case of political naivete

Let's be clear:  Sonal Shah is not a Hindu Fundamentalist.  She is, however, politically naive and was unable to grasp what any association with the VHP, BJP and RSS would mean for her and her commendable social work.  This is either because she is out of touch with ground realities in India, or felt she didn't need to make serious efforts to distance herself from what she may have perceived as just exaggerated leftist smear campaigns.  But while Leftists are more alarmist, ridiculous and unconvincing with their rhetoric (fascist, Hitler, etc), the underlying assertions, of her troubling affiliations and collaborations, are valid.  And with her recent appointment to Obama's transition team, the issue has inevitably come to the spotlight.   

The only comments, thus far, from the Shah family have been Anand Shah's recent statements condemning the Gujarat riots.  Who doesn't?  But what about condemning VHP and specifically CM Narendra Modi for his documented role in the massacres?  Why does he choose not to condemn the Sangh?  Most probably, because he feels Indicorps' work would be compromised as a result.  Most of their social projects are based in Gujarat.  They need to be on Modi's good side and, also, when your father does (or did) have leadership roles within these organizations, you want to respect your elders.  But sometimes a clear stand is necessary, and one must break away from those you love.  Obama did it with reverend Jeremiah Wright.  He was forgiven the moment he dissociated himself.  The same would have been true, and is still true, if both Anand and Sonal dissociate themselves from their parents and their own former collaborations and activities with the Sangh.    

But that would take guts, and would politicize an organization focused on "Service for the Soul".  But Sonal Shah's and Indicorps current stand is not neutral.  What is best at this moment, if she wants to salvage her reputation and that of her work, is to admit she made a mistake.  That she wasn't careful, that she believes firmly in the secular founding principles of the country and not an India dominated by those who wish to impose a Hindu state.  These very curt and brief statements would go a long way in allowing her to make the many meaningful contributions she is, and will continue to make, in her ascending and bright future.  

We need Sonal Shah.  I am saddened by those who want to bring her down, hurt her work, and are calling for her resignation.  Her work, commitment, vision and dedication to public service are laudable and all efforts should be made to work and dialogue with her, instead of destroying her.  Take it from someone who has had many, many brilliant dialogues with the woman (see old posts on this blog).  Her openness, ideas and life, are  exemplary.  I firmly stand behind her, wish her the best in her new role as advisor and ask now - for the practical concern of moving on from this controversy now and forever - that she make her apology and make clear her dissociation from the Sangh.  Saying you have no links, when your father has had a leadership role with the Sangh, when you were a former national coordinator yourself for the VHP-A, when Narendra Modi has been a guest in your house, when you have received an award from the man himself, all come off as unconvincing.  I realize her dilemma in this.  Sonal does not want to jeopardize her relationship with Gujarat, but she can't have it both ways.  A clear stance is necessary and I look forward to some official statement in the forthcoming days.  

Thursday, November 06, 2008


It's here in New Delhi, of all places, that for the first time in my adult life, I am proud to be an American.  So much has gone wrong in these past eight years and, though its hard to say, its probably why I write this from abroad, in a state of self imposed exile.  But now I feel different.  I want to go back to what feels like, my people.  Being of Indian descent and growing up in New York City has always left me feeling cold to America, the mainland as I like to call it, with its weird and strange ways.  The beer pong, the football, the strip malls and driving.  I was done with it.  I never wanted to see it again.  

I tried to come to terms with it, back in 2000, when I worked on a presidential campaign, public interest and grassroots campaigns that took me throughout 40 states.  Many long nights riding in my car, listening to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, eating beef jerky, drinking black coffee and chewing bubble gum, looking for America.  Through the purple mountain mesa tops in Utah, the star filled mountain nights in Colorado, the Ozarks, Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Louisville, I realized how beautiful being American can be.  But I still felt out of place.  Though people came from all over to join us and fight against the numerous injustices in our society, I still felt a distant sense of alienation.  As if I was on Mars.  

But today, in New Delhi, an elderly gentleman, got out his guitar during our victory party and sang "The times they are changin" and then "we shall over come" and I saw all those who had been there in the 50s and 60s, who lived through assassination after assassination, and riots and maddness, see the day they never dreamed was possible and in India!  Who knows what they were doing here, perhaps they were beatniks, or hippies, or in this day and age, software developers or social entrepreneurs.  But we were all together, in India, with everyone, singing and knowing a new day had arrived for the country we all loved at one time, in some way.  And now we're back, and it's a healthy and humble patriotism, one that acknowledges the tremendous responsibility and humility that comes with power.  For I agree with Obama, we are not great for our arms and wealth alone, it is our ideals, of democracy, and liberty and opportunity that truly make us shine and will make us shine on for years to come.  

We shall re-invent, we shall always change, we will always right our wrongs eventually, because we constantly surge towards a more perfect union.  There are miles to go before we sleep, but being awake has never felt better and never more sweeter.  I look forward to dealing with the likely perils of the future with courage and dignity.  Thank you Obama.  Thank you for taking the  tougher road instead of the easy, comfortable path of privilege and showing us what we can be in this great country of ours, America.  

I have decided from this day on, I will no longer be a hyphenated American.  In no disrespect to my motherland, or ancestry, but today I have become whole, I go from Indian-American to just American.  Not from the republic of New York, or New Yorker, today I embrace all of me through this great nation of ours, as imperfect and treacherous as it can be, I know it will consistently strive to perfect itself, if not in my lifetime, in the generations to come, we will get there, I know.  This is Gabo Arora, American, sending you his love from the motherland.        

Monday, November 03, 2008

Shoot The Piano Player - Truffaut

I have seen many Truffaut films, and always felt him to be less intellectually potent though more heart-felt in his film making than his contemporaries in the New Wave.  It was Godard that transcended the frontiers of the mind, body and soul through the power of his ideas.  But Truffaut acquiesced to emotions, more so than others.  Its as if he had less to prove and thus allowed for the camera to reveal his troubled childhood and prolonged adolescence through wayward images.  

Thats what 400 blows was about and every film after with Antoine Danoiel, his very on screen alter-ego.  But Shoot The Piano Player is something else entirely, again though, with an emotional feeling that is rare within the  hyper-logique and dialogue heavy tendencies of the French.  What turns out , on paper, to be a spoof on american gangster movies, in the end is more a reflection on love and losing your way in the world.

"I can't be in two places at once" is what the lead says to his brother, when asked why it is he is in a beat-up bar playing popular diddies for the masses when he is more deserving of the pomp and celebre his previous concerts received.  The expression and the dignity he leads his life is more important.  He may be down and out, but he plays the piano as the world moves around him meaninglessly, lost and searching he has found himself, with the piano, wherever he may be.  And that comes through.  In the end, after more tragedy, he is back at the piano, whenever things take a difficult turn, the piano, but eventually the piano is to him what the rock was for sisyphus :  a reminder of his own absurdity.   

The french are not as warm as the Italians, nor as cold as the Germans, but more innovative than both when it comes to culture.  But Truffuat does the unlikely, he is able to for fleeting moments, combine a warmth with his heady mindfulness.  
There is something to the kinetic energy of the film, a quickness, that doesn't give way to superficiality.  I don't know how he does it, but the film lingers, you are able to revel in the aesthetic while being moved by the content.  

Why?  After-all its just a film about love and love lost, and succeeding and failing in the world, but then again, isn't that what everything is really about?  But its how you play your tragedy and the humanity you allow in during the inevitable demise.  And your character, this film has that character.

The entire new wave started out as critics for Les Cahiers and what always astounds me is that they made films that are beyond criticism.  I can't imagine anyone saying anything bad about shoot the piano player.  

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I have taken up photography or rather stealing my loved ones pictures...some photos from some travels through the motherland. Don't you wish you were here? Wish you were here. I was thinking about India, I am always thinking about India. It was during a re-reading of thucydides, the part where T, says extreme situations bring out the extreme in people, when in the the athens - sparta war people take to sleeping in sacred temples and killing each other for food. The lesson being that our goodness is only a result of our circumstances. But India is an exception to this rule (as it is to many, many rules). It is a cruel place, with many hardships but somehow the people shine, shine on.

My love to you from here. I am starting to miss you.