May his tribe increase

I have always viewed Colin Powell with discomfort and mistrust for his role in the Bush administration’s war on Iraq. Yet this weekend, as he endorsed Obama, he redeemed himself to a great extent in my eyes; less for his endorsement – because I’m not sure how much that matters in terms of actual votes, though it is a significant nail in the Republican intellectual coffin – but much more for this statement:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”

Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.

Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?

Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old.

And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross; it didn’t have the Star of David; it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.

Over this troubling US Presidential process, one of the most troubling moments for me was when a supporter of McCain’s said to him at a rally that Obama was Arab, and his response was “No ma’am… he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Add to that the sleight of a campaign that conflates racism with Islamophobia and uses Hussein, Obama’s middle name, as shorthand for suspecting all his credentials.

Almost as problematic as the Republican campaign on this, has been the Democrats’ response, or lack thereof. Less appalling in degree from McCain’s instinctual ‘No, Ma’am, he’s a decent family man’ in his rebuttal to the Arab comment, it corrects the premise that Obama is Muslim, because his professed faith is Christian, but it never goes beyond to address this question: why should it matter if he was Arab and/or Muslim? Can’t Arabs be decent family men, and American Muslims aspire to be Presidents of the US? As Naomi Klein says:

What is disturbing about the campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire “Muslim smear”: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame.

Ditto being Arab. Obviously, it will take many geography and history lessons from Joe Biden to clarify that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are not necessarily the same identities.

So for an Indian sitting in America, struggling with anger over remarks of this kind, as well as struggling with anger and despair over what’s going on back home – the persecution of Christians in Orissa and Karnataka, the continued persecution of Muslims, a growing fundamentalism across communities and caste and class violence in general – I have to say Colin Powell’s comment gives some cheer in uncheerful times. It also reminds me that with all my despair over violence in India, at the time I left last year, it had a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President, and a Catholic and a Hindu as leaders of the two biggest political parties, besides an atheist as the Speaker of the House. We are not perfect in any way (very far from it), but there is a history of syncretism in the sub-continent that has been, and should continue to be, a strength we draw upon and expand, rather than abuse. Syncretic, plural cultures that have had some inspiration from the Arab world so vilified in certain American conversations today.

Like comfort food, I often return to simpler – and sometimes, more profound – truths of childhood. One particular poem I remember clearly encountering as a ten year old, was Leigh Hunt’s encomium to the sufi saint Ibrahim Bin Adham, or Abou Ben Adhem, in which ‘exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold’. Let’s hope that same exceeding peace prevails amongst others in the US like Colin Powell, who have the courage, if somewhat belatedly, to seek justice beyond popularity.

A message from Pakistan

187px-Benazir_Bhutto.jpgFarida Shaheed, one of the founders of Shirkat Gah (a women’s resource centre in Pakistan) and WLUML (the network for women living under Muslim laws), wrote in from Pakistan. With her consent, I share this. It seems clear that despite her shortcomings, Benazir represented a hope for Pakistan that has been horrifically snuffed out.

Dear friends thank you for all your notes of concern,

As a new year starts, I sit here still numbed by the events, paralysed by the events that seem to have shut down our ability to think and act, unable to concentrate (like many others).

Only after her assassination have we come to realize just how many of our hopes were pinned on Benazir, her presence and leadership of the only mainstream party that consistently speaks of the federation, of the poor, the peasants, the workers; spoke of equality for all, especially the minorities and women. The one party with supporters until now across a deeply divided and troubled country, who gave us hope that, maybe – just maybe we could turn this nightmare around, if elections were held and if they were not entirely rigged, and if we received some breathing space…so many if’s and still we dared to hope.

I met Asma [Jahangir] on the 29th and thanked her for having inviting Benazir that night last month as soon as they lifted the house arrest on Asma and Benazir both. Asma said ‘but no, I didn’t call the meeting. Perhaps she was meant to meet us all that last time because it was she who phoned and asked for a meeting with civil society’…A meeting we were pleasantly surprised at, that left us commenting on how much she had matured. She listened to all of us with great patience and grace, answered with patience and good cheer, even some of the sillier points made/questions asked. She reserved her fire for a short passionate intervention on how the fight with the extremists was our own fight not someone else’s agenda and on how precarious Pakistan’s situation was, and how it was time to act.

And yes, it was important that she was a woman, a woman of great courage of defiance and of passion who led from the front foot (as they say in cricket). I am old enough to remember the day she became Prime Minister in 1988 and how immediately – and I do mean immediately – after eleven years of brutal and increasing oppression of women (and others) under Zia, the atmosphere shifted the sense of oppression in the streets lifted and women felt the burden lighten. And if she didn’t always deliver (and often she didn’t), as peasants said of her father, at least she made us the promises, and gave us hope.

Right now, it is difficult to foresee the future, whether and when elections will take place – what will happen during Muharram and ashura, around the corner, when nerves are ragged anyway and the menace of potential violence lurks.

We can only hope that some sense prevails somewhere, that elections are held as quickly as possible and that we find a way out of this spiral descending to madness…


Image from the Wikipedia entry on Benazir Bhutto.

Emergency in Pakistan: another dark night

On Saturday, President Musharraf imposed emergency in Pakistan, claiming the ‘visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks’ as the immediate provocation.

An excerpt from Tariq Ali‘s response in Counter Punch and the Independent:

Global media coverage of Pakistan suggests a country consisting of Generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics. The struggle to reinstate the Chief Justice presented a different snapshot of the country. This movement for constitutional freedoms revived hope at a time when most people are alienated from the system and cynical about their rulers, whose ill-gotten wealth and withered faces consumed by vanity inspire nil confidence.

That this is the case can be seen in the heroic decision taken by the Supreme Court in a special session yesterday declaring the new dispensation ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. The hurriedly sworn in new Chief Justice will be seen for what he is: a stooge of the men in uniform. If the constitution remains in suspension for more than three months then Musharraf himself might be pushed aside by the Army and a new strongman put in place. Or it could be that the aim of the operation was limited to a cleansing of the Supreme Court and controlling the media. That is what Musharraf indicated in his broadcast to the nation. In which case a totally rigged election becomes a certainty next January. Whatever the case Pakistan’s long journey to the end of the night continues.

India’s official response, so far, has been cautious, merely asking for a ‘restoration of democracy’, without criticising Musharraf.

My Indian of the Six Years

irom sharmilaCNN-IBN is ratcheting up its focus on the ‘Indian of the Year’ award. My vote is for someone who isn’t even nominated. Irom Sharmila Chanu, the poet, the activist, the Menghaobi (what those in Manipur call her; ‘the fair one’). The woman who has been on a protest fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for the past six years. The woman who has been under arrest and force fed through a nasal tube for almost as long. Perhaps I should call her My Indian of the Six Years.

I’ve written about her before, but two days ago, I found another appeal from a friend and colleague, Monisha Behal, of the North East Network (a women’s rights organisation) in my inbox:

We all know about Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast since 2000 against the Armed Forces Special Power Act. There are small movements in different parts of this country demanding the Centre to repeal this Act. Signature campaigns in favour of Sharmila are going on as well, especially from women’s organizations. I realized that news channels which publicized Jessica Lal’s case were unbelievably successful. NDTV conducted opinion polls through SMS on mobile phones. I never thought this new technique would work so well.

I visited Sharmila at a New Delhi hospital last evening. I conveyed to her messages of goodwill and support from friends and colleagues. And yet I knew that most do not know about her the way people know about Jessica. Just then Sharmila’s brother showed me an article about her in the Femina February 14, 2007.

I read the piece and saw a small message in the end of the final page. It says: DO YOU SUPPORT IROM’S WAY OF FIGHTING THE AUTHORITIES? SMS us your replies at 3636 (type FE [space] F0038 then your response, name and city).

I hope very much that this new technique of the media will do some magic to a woman who wants to live, see and enjoy the beauty of this world. Please, do SMS your support to young Sharmila.

Ambassadors of Conscience

In today’s Times of India, an article on an innocent man who spent 11 years in jail for allegedly raping and murdering a six year old girl.

Kounder was released from the Yerawada prison on the directives of the Bombay High Court which took cognisance of a suicide note left by police inspector Iqbal Bargir in 2000 who said that Kounder was not guilty of the crime he was charged with.

The court order said that Kounder, who at the time of his arrest in 1995 was employed as an illiterate sweeper with the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation, was suspected to have been wrongly implicated in the crime.

And what if Kounder had been given capital punishment? Surely raping and murdering a six year old girl justifies it (after all, the last time a Manila rope was made at Buxar jail was in 2004, for Dhananjay Chatterjee)? The next time I rise in righteous anger against rapists and murderers and shout ‘off with their heads’ in a grotesque imitation of the Red Queen, I will have to remember Armogam Munnaswami Kounder. A poor man, from a family of casual labourers in Tamil Nadu. A family he had lost all contact with in the past eleven years. As I write this, he is on a train – somewhere between Pune and Vellore – wondering whether his wife and son will recognise him.

In the midst of the on/off line (in more ways than one) debate around the death penalty, I think Shivam said it simply and effectively. Dilip quotes Nandita Haksar, the civil rights activist representing Mohammed Afzal Guru:

Can the collective conscience of our people be satisfied if a fellow citizen is hanged without having a chance to defend himself? We have not even had a chance to hear Afzal’s story. Hanging Mohammad Afzal will only be a blot on our democracy.

However, Rahul Mahajan gets into the act, saying he will sit on dharna to register his protest against those seeking pardon for Afzal. Perhaps he feels the Delhi police will then help him get elected.

Collective conscience? I leave you with an excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary poem, that asks from us the greatest and deepest responsibility of all time: to be an ambassador of conscience, beyond the platitudes, beyond the politics of expedience. Please read the whole poem on the Art for Amnesty site.

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared


I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved

Support Sharmila, repeal the AFSPA

Irom Sharmila has been on a protest fast for the past six years; since 2nd November 2000, when security forces killed innocent villagers in Malom, Manipur. About three weeks later, she was arrested and charged with attempted suicide: the authorities in Manipur have since been force-feeding her through a nasal tube. Sharmila was released on October 3rd from judicial custody, and on Friday, October 4th (last Friday), she was smuggled out of Imphal, and began her protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi.

On Friday night, she was moved to AIIMS by the police. This morning, The Hindu carried a report by Siddharth Varadarajan, that the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, tasked with reviewing the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), feels that it should be repealed. The report quotes the Commission as saying:

The Act is too sketchy, too bald and quite inadequate in several particulars.[…]the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.[…]It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal the Act altogether, without, of course, losing sight of the overwhelming desire of an overwhelming majority of the [North-East] region that the Army should remain (though the Act should go).

* Announcement: There is to be a peaceful protest in Bangalore, in solidarity with Sharmila, urging the state to repeal the AFSPA. 2nd of November, 2006, at 5pm, at the Gandhi statue, MG Road.