Wednesday, November 30, 2005

What In God's Name?!


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that when he delivered his speech at the UN General Assembly in September, he felt there was a light around him and that the attention of the world leaders in the audience was unblinkingly focused upon him. The claim has caused a stir in Iran, as a transcript and video recording of Ahmadinejad's comments have been published on the Iranian website,

"He said when you began with the words “in the name of God”, I saw that you became surrounded by a light until the end [of the speech]", Ahmadinejad appears to say in the video. "I felt it myself, too. I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for 27-28 minutes all the leaders did not blink."

Via The New Yorker, Staying the Course

Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that “God put me here” to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that “he’s the man,” the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reĆ«lection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

Golden Moment!

Via Chicago Tribune, Gold closes above $500. Great news for Indian balance-sheets!

(Photo Courtesy: Metro Toronto)

Iran Reconsidered

The military intervention of the United States in Iraq may well back fire. It appears to have transformed Iraq from a secular Arab republic, albeit authoritarian, to a state that increasingly reflects the ideological inclinations of its Shi'ite majority. 60% of Iraq's population is Shi'ite Muslim. 20% is Kurdish, a Sunni ethnic group that speaks an Indo-Iranian language. The psychological affinity to Iran can not be under-estimated in such a context. The rising influence of Shi'a clerics in Iraq is all too visible as witnessed in the constitutional deliberations a few months ago. The issue of women's rights is a case in point.

Iraq can come under increasing Iranian influence. The Iraqi Minister of Defence visited Iran in early July. The Iraqi Prime Minister and his team of 10 senior ministers traveled to Teheran a week later. The Iraqi President visited Iran this month. These high level contacts were a first in four decades. When the United States-led coalition leaves Iraq sometime in 2006 or 2007, one may witness a Shi'a dominated security edifice in the Persian gulf that overshadows the traditional Sunni monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, many with restive Shi'ite minorities of their own. Iran would be transformed into a regional power that threatens Israel and Sa'udi Arabia.

Iran under its current administration is unlikely to ally with the United States despite repeated American overtures. The United States provided arms to Iran under the Iran-Contra Affair in the mid-1980s. This failed to soften the anti-American policy of Iran. Newsweek now reports that the United States Ambassador to Iraq has been authorized to initiate a diplomatic dialogue with Iran. Iran continues to invest in a nuclear, missile and space technology program that threatens western geo-strategic interests. It resumed the enrichment of uranium in August as part of reported efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran has the ability to impede shipping through the Straits of Hormuz - an action that could reduce American GDP by 7% after thirty days.

Iran continues to fund Hezbollah to the tune of between US$ 100 million to US$ 200 million a year. The Canadian Secret Intelligence Service estimates that Iran transfers up to US$ 18 million a year to Hamas. Other reports give higher numbers. Iran provides logistical support and military training to Hamas. It finances Islamic Jihad as well. These Islamist groups have repeatedly attacked Israeli and American interests. The British have alleged that Iran sponsors Shi'ite radicalism in southern Iraq. And Iran is not likely to shift policy gears in the near future.

Iran's anti-American obsession will continue under its hard-line Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamene'i and its fundamentalist President Mahmood Ahmadinejad. The Iranian President, an arch-conservative, had described Israel as a "disgraceful blot" that had to be "wiped off the map". The United States purportedly invaded Iraq to counter that country's alleged weapons of mass destruction program. These weapons were never found. The United States lost valuable political capital in doing so and is now unable to contain a far more serious Iranian challenge.The Bush administration might be in for a nasty surprise or two in the coming years unless it takes immediate corrective action.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Blog Mela

Amit hosts a typically sumptuous Blog Mela this week -- each linked post defies our prediction last week of The Death Of Blogging!


If one read Jonathan Gregson's excellent book Massacre at the Palace: The Doomed Royal Dynasty of Nepal, one would learn that the present King has long been prophesized to be the last in the Shah dynasty.

Political events in contemporary Nepal are seemingly in conspiracy with ancient prophecy.

Having overturned democracy, the King has not only alienated his own people but also India, UK, and the US (the troika). Fighting for his survival, per Indian Express, he's now turned to China for arms.

There will be some Indians who'll see this as a threat to our influence in Kathmandu. Consequently, they might argue India dilute its adamant pro-democracy stance and re-engage militarily with the King.

In our judgment, this would be a myopic mistake. The King is increasingly irrelevant to Nepal's affairs. Betting on him, as China is, is betting against his people. Such a bet is not only bogus on principle, it lacks pragmatism too.

Our key focus ought to be on the attitude of Nepal's army to its King. Yes, the army -- long-time ally of India's own -- is waging a vicious war on the Maoists, and probably feels vulnerable without Indian and British support. On the other hand, their loyalty to the King over the people is not clear. If the King were to be somehow removed from the scene in favor of a troika-supported democratic order, we suspect the army would go along.

If we were the King, this would make us very nervous. His overtures to China should likely be seen in this context. It's hard for us to believe that China is ready to commit troops to Nepal (if it came to that) for propping up an unpopular King. Given its economic arc and the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, China surely does not need a bellicose confrontation with the leading democracies of the world.

If China were to be foolish enough to get involved here, it'll tie down a great many of its troops in a Hindu land that doesn't really like invaders too much. This ain't going to be Tibet, but more like Afghanistan was for USSR. We might even see Beijing boycotted in 2008 like Moscow was in 1980. Is the Shah dynasty really worth such a high price for China?

The King probably knows this too. All he's got left, therefore, are desperate threats that everyone knows are empty. Too bad he overplayed his cards against democracy, and by construction, India. Gorakhnath's 18th century prophesy might well come true now in very short order.

Pope Benedict XVI and the Challenge Ahead

The Roman Catholic Church faces an unprecedented challenge. It confronts a multi-faith, secular and a post-Christian Europe. Earlier this year, the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals had designated conservative Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the 1,000 million strong Roman Catholic community. He assumed the title Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope had previously headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful, formerly known as the Inquisition. He had disapproved of liberal Asian priests who viewed non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity. He deemed other Christian churches as deficient, and censured feminism, birth control and premarital sex. The Pope had links to Opus Dei, the enigmatic Catholic group known for its zeal.

The Church is confronted with the dilemma of declining membership in Europe. Several studies report that only 15% of Britain would consider itself practicing Christian (albeit largely Protestant) and just 20% of France practicing Christian. The proportion of observant Christians declines to 5% in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Only 30% of Spain and 20% of Italy regularly attended church as per religious requirement in the 1990s. Much of West Europe is post-Christian now. This includes Northern Germany, much of the Netherlands and Belgium.

Moslem immigration to West Europe has altered the face of several cities there. Many European cities have significant Moslem populations i.e. Bradford in Britain, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Lyon, Marseilles and Nice in France, not to mention several urban centers in Germany. Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The number of individuals who pray at a mosque might well equal the number of the faithful who visit church in any given week in Britain and France. This has led to issues of integration and racism as the recent riots in France and the earlier race riots in Bradford, England amply demonstrated. The possible entry of Turkey into the European Union will irrevocably change the demographic equation in Europe even further. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had expressed fears of Turkey's entry into the European Union arguing that such a step would challenge that continent's Christian inheritance.

Pope Benedict XVI had earlier expressed concerns on Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. Age old Christian communities have suffered precipitious demographic declines in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey due to a steady out-migration since the 1960s. Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah used to be Christian majority cities in Palestine. Baghdad once had a thriving age-old Chaldean Christian community. There are now more Chaldean Christians in Detroit than in Iraq itself. Lebanon which was 70% Christian in the 1930s is now perhaps only 40% Christian. There has been no religious census in that country since the 1930s. Christians have likewise suffered attacks in Indonesia, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, Southern Philippines and Southern Sudan. There were violent demonstrations directed at Egypt's ancient 10% Coptic Christian minority last month.

The more robust American Catholic church itself faces a crisis of faith with a shortage of priests. 55% of Christians in the United States are regular church goers unlike in Europe. President Bush made it a point to publicly participate in Sunday Service in Beijing. However, a significant percentage of the Catholic priesthood in that country is suspected to be homosexual given the church's ban on married clergy. The incidence of child abuse cases directed at the Church and the litigation involved has dogged the church in the United States in recent years. The Vatican introduced a policy last week to henceforth ban homosexuals from entering the clergy. This is likely to pose further strains on an already declining priesthood.

Roman Catholics constituted 90% of Latin America when Pope John Paul II assumed the papacy in the late 1970s. This dropped to 70% in the early 2000s with many Catholics leaving the Church to become born-again Protestants. As it is, many below the age of 40 in Brazil, Chile and Venezuela are nominal in their faith. Mexico until the 1990s had a political history of anti-clericalism. This changed with the revolt in Chiapas when the Church positioned itself as mediator between the native Indian rebels and the state. Mexico subsequently witnessed the return of a right wing and pro-Church administration under Vincent Fox for the first time in 70 years in the mid 1990s.

Africa however has been the saving grace with the proportion of Roman Catholics rising there exponentially. There has been the rich harvest of conversions since the 1980s under Pope John Paul II. The continent witnessed a rapid Christianization, a process that inadvertently coincided with the complete unraveling of the continent on all other fronts i.e. economic, social, public health, famine, governance and HIV/AIDS. The increase in church numbers in Africa was offset by the decline in Latin America, not to mention the drop in religious observance in West Europe.

The challenge confronted by the church is real and will need attention. Fortunately, Pope Benedict XVI had reached out to other Christian denominations since assuming the papacy. He then extended a healing gesture to Jews and Moslems reversing his earlier hard-line stance. Let's pray he now reaches out to the world's Buddhists and Hindus in the interests of inter-religious concord. Buddhist and Hindu relations with the Catholic church were strained under Pope John Paul II. Buddhist and Hindu groups had accused the Catholic church of fraudulent predatory conversions of the impoverished. Christian human rights groups in turn accused Buddhist and Hindu organizations of a wave of arson attacks directed at churches in Sri Lanka and India. The time has arrived for inter-religious reconciliation. This would necessitate magnanimity on all sides.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Harbinger Of China's Future

Stratfor comments on the Benzene spill in Songhua River near the Chinese city of Harbin:

It is clear once again that the Chinese government bureaucracy remains incapable of making rapid decisions for dealing with unexpected problems. This inability to decide what to do for more than 10 days created panic in Harbin and further undermined trust in the local and national governments and Communist Party. In 1989, it was indecisiveness that contributed to the violent end to student protests in Tiananmen Square. And indecisiveness led first to the delay and then to the draconian crackdown on the Falun Gong after its members gathered for a silent protest outside central government housing in 1999.

As the central government prepares to enact the latest five-year economic plan, it will undoubtedly face many new and frequently unexpected challenges. A concerted effort to shift the balance of wealth in the country, to urge (if not require) "sacrifice" from the already well-off to bring up the other 900 million rural Chinese will bring massive social changes and threaten the political and economic interests and power of many. But, as the Harbin case shows, China's leadership, on the local and national levels, is still far from capable of making rapid decisions and acting quickly to pre-empt -- or at least mitigate -- problems as they arise, rather than simply trying to ignore them and make up for it later. Trouble is brewing just beneath the surface, and while a watched pot may not boil, ignoring a pressure cooker can be disastrous.

Sri Lanka

Via BBC, Sri Lanka leader urges truce review

Sri Lanka's new President Mahinda Rajapakse has demanded a review of a ceasefire deal with Tamil Tiger rebels.

He said the country needed a new peace process that would not tolerate "terrorism" - but added that he was ready for talks.

Mr Rajapakse said a solution to the long-running conflict would be found in a unitary state, rejecting Tigers' demand for an independent homeland

The Tamil dream of secession -- or absent that, a federal autonomy -- is dying. The reason for this is one man and his terrorist machine.

As long as Pirbhakaran runs Killinochi, India will have little sympathy for the underlying cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Without Indian support, the latter are unlikely to make any political advance. They are deluding themselves if they think Indians will ever make peace with the murderer of Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, in this singular act, he alienated Indians in general, and Indian Tamils in particular.

Pirbhakaran is like Arafat -- destroying the welfare of his own people to pursue his megalomania. We reiterate our call for Sri Lanka's brave Tamil people to overturn his terrorist tyranny and hand him over in order for justice to be meted out to him. Absent this revolutionary step, Sri Lanka's Tamils will increasingly be seen as South Asia's Palestinians -- a people with enormous potential but trapped in their self-constructed political wilderness.

If Pirbhakaran wanted further war, he's now engineered himself a new rationale for it. Hopefully, this will be the final bloody chapter in this third-rate terrorist's life.

Khushboo, Safe Sex and HIV/AIDS

Khushboo's advocacy of safe sex is relevant given the situation where India faces a significant HIV/AIDS challenge. National trends appear to indicate that there is no explosive HIV epidemic in India as yet. However, sub-national epidemics in parts of the country have the potential to spiral out of control. Hackneyed and cliched as this may sound, the widespread use of condoms alone will help prevent the spread of AIDS.

The UNAIDS Annual Report for 2005 makes interesting reading. 40.3 million people live with the HIV virus in the world today. 25.8 million reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. 5.1 million of the HIV-infected live in India. South Africa and India have the largest number of HIV infections in the world. South Africa has an HIV-prevalence of 21.5%. Fortunately, India is a low prevalence country given its huge population of 1.1 billion. The national prevalence rate is 0.91%. And yet, there is no room to be complacent. India reported 520,000 new infections in 2003 alone.

Over 35% of all reported HIV-infections in India occur among those aged between 15 and 24 years, 86% of whom got infected due to unprotected casual sex. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are at a real risk of an epidemic given a HIV-prevalence that exceeds the 1% danger mark. The number of districts in India that had a HIV-prevalence which exceeded 1% of the population rose from 47 in 2002 to 111 in 2004.

India will need to do more to fight AIDS. A nation-wide epidemic will overwhelm the public health system and pose huge fiscal burdens. It is obvious that heightened prevention efforts are needed to manage the emerging risk. Widespread condom use is crucial in this context. Improved epidemiological surveillance is needed as well. A more vigorous program of public awareness and health education is a third element in the prevention strategy. Khushboo's comments should be viewed in this light. The loud campaign in Tamil Nadu directed at her is therefore ill-informed and serves to detract from the real challenge ahead i.e. the need to contain a looming public health disaster. The issue she raised had nothing to do with the dignity of Tamil women. It was about safety and prudence.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Fear And Loathing In India

The Indian blogopshere has been outraged by the murder of a young IOC official -- an IIM MBA -- brutally killed for doing his job with probity.

Needless to say, one feels anguish for his family left behind.

It's important to note here that he is hardly an exception. India has fallen into a criminal abyss where most people are afraid of criminals and, even worse, of the police. Corruption, assault, kidnapping, rape, murder, and even genocide are just as valid descriptors of India as its much-acclaimed economic, scientific, and military progress.

The murder of an IIM graduate appears shocking -- because he is kinda' like all of us Anglophone Indians, assumed safe in our ivory cocoons -- but in real fact, it's just one more data point in the loathsome deluge of criminality in our nation.

If we are to mourn, lets mourn the unknown Indian who lives a terrified life in the criminal Indian ether, then frequently loses it over astonishingly minor reasons in horrifyingly painful ways, and few even notice.

Women in Indian History

The views below are expressed in my individual capacity in my efforts to re-examine Indian history for appropriate precedents that might be relevant to life today. I have been selective in my read of the past and would confine myself to my own tradition in the interest of brevity. I would argue that women played a key leadership role in Indic history be it intellectual endeavor, politics or religion, one that needs to be revived to reinvigorate contemporary Indian civilization.

For instance, women helped define the Vedic tradition. Lopamudra took on the sage Vishwamitra to argue the cause of the marginalized. Apala Atreyi is one rishi or sage who refused to marry, authored segments of the Rig Veda and participated in the fire ritual. Ghosha too preferred a life of spinsterhood and composed hymns to the gods. Vishvavara, Romasha and Vach stand out as other Vedic women rishis. The Rig Veda in 1,000 BCE celebrated women who distinguished themselves in battle. These include Vadhrimati, Vishpala, Mudgalani and Shashiyasi. The Upanishads in 700 BCE refer to independent-minded thinkers such as Gargi Vachaknavi and Maitreyi who challenged key philosophic points and helped elucidate the central tenets of Vedanta. This is the earliest known instance of women's participation in established intellectual discourse in the world.

Panini, the Sanskrit linguist of the 5th century BCE coined a specific term, Upadhyayi, for women teachers of religion. He also refers to women students of the different branches of the Veda, i.e the Katha school, the Rig Veda school, the Taittiriya school etc. The Mahabharata asserts that Arundhati, wife of the great sage Vashishta, matched her husband in scholarship. The ancient custom of swayamvara where a woman chose her man, attests to a more liberal age. These examples illustrate the role of women in defining the Vedas, the intellectual node in the Hindu world.

Likewise, the concept of Stri Rajya implies women administrators. Women participated in public life although sidelined more often in the past. Prabhavati Gupta, the daughter of Chandragupta Vikramaditya, ruled as regent for 13 years in the 5th century CE. She issued a charter describing herself as a devotee of Vishnu. History is witness to the energetic statespersonship of Queen Didda of Kashmir in the 10th century. Inscriptions describe Akkadevi, the Chalukyan provincial governor of the 11th century, as fierce in battle where she commissioned the construction of temples and promoted education.

Sembiyan Mahadevi, the aunt of Rajaraja Chola and devotee of Siva, renovated and built Saivite temples in her own right. She initiated works of charity and bestowed land to several temples. She made endowments to support artisans, craftsmen and musicians attached to such religious institutions. Kundavai, her niece and stalwart of Saivism, established a free hospital at Tanjore and set aside extensive lands for its maintenance. She dedicated temples and conferred costly gifts on each. Rudramba Kakatiya, an Andhra ruler of the 13th century, promoted the welfare of her subjects. She constructed irrigation tanks and canals, granted concessions to merchants to promote trade and industry, built hospitals, provided for their maintenance and patronized several villages. She belonged to the Pasupata sect and expressed a deep faith in Siva. One witnesses herein the role of women in administering the land and supporting religious institutions.

Women made extensive and direct contributions to the wave of personal religious devotion that swept the Hindu world in the late classical and medieval ages. Bhakti often entailed a rejection of marriage in the quest for religious communion. Karaikkal Ammaiyar of Tiruvalangadu sang in praise of Siva in the 6th century CE while Andal of Sri Villiputtur composed hymns of Vaishnavite devotion, a century later. Akkamahadevi is known for her simple and practical aphorisms in the Kannada language in the 12th century CE. These reflect an intense devotion to Siva and are conspicuous in the development of literature in Karnataka. Molla, a potter's daughter from Nellore, created a Telugu Ramayanam using a simple, chaste and vigorous style. Lal Ded, a Saivite mendicant ascetic, is significant to Kashmiri literature. She defined a true saint as one who helps others and embodies compassion. Mirabhai, the medieval Rajput princess, stated her preference for personal piety over lifelong wedlock, rejected suttee and was seminal to Hindi literature. Women joined the bhakti movement and contributed to the Hindu understanding of godhood. Such participation empowered them in a society otherwise male dominated.

Most civilizations have not had such a feminist inheritance. Indic civilization stands out in this regard. Yet, it has also had a fair share of a harsh patriarchy, be it suttee, the skewed legal texts and societal bias. It is now time to reclaim this earlier inheritance to replace the stilted and obsolete patriarchy that has come to dominate our religion, our economy and our politics. Unless and until we reinvigorate this dormant feminist capital, we would be fated to continue playing second fiddle to the West.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sri Lanka

There's been little to no comment on the Sri Lanka election in the Indian blogosphere. Odd, since the outcome is clearly worth noting.

With nationalist hawks in power now, the ill-fated "peace" talks of the past few years are now silenced. At one level, India ought to be pleased -- these were talks aimed at power-sharing with a terrorist (who once had an Indian PM killed, hence can never be forgiven), and facilitated by Norway (what locus standi do they have in India's sphere of influence?).

But, a Tamil friend from Jaffna has a different take. He believes that while LTTE may not be geo-politically savvy, they know Sri Lankan politics quite well. Indeed, the hawks have come to power precisely because Tamils boycotted the polls (the underlying assumption is that this was LTTE's doing). This is the outcome because the LTTE wanted it so. Nitin agrees.

This leaves us somewhat perplexed. How can both India and LTTE seek the same outcome? Who among the two will regret our present joy at the election results?

In the meanwhile, Sri Lanka's stock market is in a free fall.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Death Of Blogging

Blogging is a fad, and like all others, it too will fade.

Many attribute the explosion in blogging to technology. We think that, while certainly technology-enabled, blogging is really a consequence of our intensely political moment. There is so much to observe, express, and understand that blogging becomes a powerful way to do it.

Such moments of ferment are, however, aberrations in human affairs. Nature may adore entropy, people yearn for stability. We may appreciate the roller-coaster highs from today's news, but the inevitable mean-reversion to boredom is right around the next apogee.

Our present lust for politics and adventure will subside, to be replaced by the cautious monotony of everyday routine. We will run out of things to say -- most already are there! -- then, numb to observation and expression, we will seek silence and a "leave me alone" state-of-mind.

The best expression follows a genius creating separation between him/herself and the subject. Such separation allows reflection and perspective. Blogging is anything but this. Besides, blogging is about the expression of multitudes and -- forgive our elitism! -- such expression may be democratic but, for most part, is hardly genius.

Thus, given its very nature, blogging is ephemeral and largely banal -- a consequence of our highly charged times, an expression of our very ordinary vanities, and a solace as we swing from political hope to despair back to hope again.

T S Eliot wrote of a moment that is the death of hope and despair, calling it the death of air. Don't know about air, but such a moment will surely imply the death of blogging.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Paradise Now

A terrific new film Paradise Now tackles the issue of Palestinian suicide bombing in a very thoughtful way.

New York Times has this to say:

Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), best friends from childhood, belong to a terrorist cell in Nablus on the West Bank that is about to undertake its first suicide mission in two years. The film, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, an Israeli-born Palestinian, from a screenplay he wrote with Bero Beyer, the film's Dutch producer, follows them over the two days leading up to the climactic deed. Beginning shortly before they are tapped by an unidentified Palestinian organization to carry out the mission, the movie culminates less than 48 hours later in a denouement whose outcome remains uncertain until the last second.

The movie carries off two tricky balancing acts. One is to give the story a political context without bogging it down in essayistic debate and laborious historical background. The other is to maintain a balanced political perspective given the one-sided views of these all-too-human terrorists.

It does this by shoehorning in a strong, alternative Palestinian point of view in the person of Suha (Lubna Azabal), an attractive young woman Said meets in the auto-repair depot where he and Khaled work.

In an emotional confrontation with both men, she articulates the arguments against suicide bombing. What happens to those left behind, she asks? Her question alludes not only to the grief of surviving loved ones but also to the political fallout from suicide bombing: the tragic pattern of revenge begetting revenge that will further oppress Palestinians. Her humane voice becomes the movie's moral and emotional grounding wire.

A must watch film.

Daring Mice

Via New York Times, Timid Mice Made Daring by Removing One Gene

Just one more example of how science addresses real compelling needs in our world today!!

What's Sex Got To Do With It

.. with honor, that is?

We've been distracted this past month and only now have a moment to surface and return to blogging.

The most interesting topic while we were away were comments by young Indian women on sex. Film star Khushboo & Tennis star Sania have stirred up a royal row with their honest views on "pre-marital sex".

There is much hypocrisy in India that masquerades as public prudery -- all the while, behind closed doors, reality is quite different.

It's time for Indians to face up to the post-modern existence of our urban youth. Given how complex people's lives are, it is absurd to impose on us social mores from a less hurried and a long-lapsed time.

Perhaps the new moral code is not eternal marriage, but serial monogamy. The former has long been about social consent and ceremony, the latter about individual happiness and a state of mind. We ourselves favor happiness!

Having said this, erosion of an institution as long-lived as marriage is not a trivial thing. The long-term implications of such erosion need careful weighing -- for the individuals involved, and for society as a whole. Afterall, we do not have collective and inherited wisdom on handling such a transition.

This is a discussion worth having. Shutting up Khushboo and Sania does little towards this end.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Quiet Anti-Oil Revolution - Part 2

In my previous post, I tried to establish the motive and the means for how the world breaks it's oil-addiction. If in fact, breaking that oil addiction is only a matter of time (10-20 years?), a number of interesting political outcomes present themselves. (I will not detail the resultant apocalypse-preventing environmental effects)

India will take a much harder line towards militancy, if it is energy-secure through means not critically dependent on the Middle-East or Iran (think civilian nuclear or clean coal power, hybrid or ethanol or CNG transportation). Even the pacifists and left-wingers should see no rational explanation for the continued appeasement of Middle-East royals sitting on their sea of oil. India will find common cause with Israel on several scores: strong democratic traditions, burgeoning military and civilian trade, and the threat of the Pak/Iran bombs. In a world without massive Saudi subsidies, Pakistan becomes much more dependent on India, and hence much more pliable.

The US will be much better off except for one giant problem. The Saudis hold US Treasury Bills and Bonds of close to a trillion dollars. The US will need a strategy for handling this elephant in the room. But, there should be no need for future middle-east military quagmires because oil will be plentiful, cheap, and available elsewhere.

As for the Middle-East - without a dire need for their oil, who cares! The world will have to deal with this fountain-head of disaffected folks for some time to come. Hopefully, with the oil-money spiggot turned off, they should not be nearly as menacing as they are today.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Iran and its Satellites

Iran is investing not only in nuclear and missile capability, but in satellite technology as well. In October 2005, Teheran commissioned the launch of a Russian manufactured rocket into outer space. This satellite, named Sina-1, gives Iran the ability to monitor developments in Israel in addition to the geological surveillance of earthquake prone Iranian plateau itself. Iran hopes to commission the launch of the part-Italian manufactured reconnaissance satellite Mesbah in January 2006 purportedly to monitor natural phenomena in Iran. The second satellite will be launched from Russia as well. Iran hopes to launch a telecommunications satellite named Zohreh in 2007. It signed a US$ 132 million agreement with a Russian firm in this regard. Zohreh is intended to boost communications outreach within Iran. Teheran hopes to commission four additional communications satellites between 2007 and 2010.

It is evident that Iran intends to join the exclusive nuclear and space club. As the United States gets bogged down in an increasingly futile hit and run war in Iraq, Iran appears to be surging ahead. Iran's Shahab-3 missile already has a range of 1,240 miles and is capable of hitting targets within Israel. It would be interesting to note the response of Israel in the coming months.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Quiet Anti-Oil Revolution - Part 1

This is a 2-part post. The first part outlines the essential oil problem with some numbers. The second part is an opinion on what happens in a world without an oil addiction.

The auto industry in the US is the reason we have an oil problem today. Consider the following data: US oil consumption now exceeds 20mm barrels a day. China and Japan come in next at approx. 6.6mm and 4.5mm barrels a day. (India currently consumes approx 3mm barrels a day) Further, 2/3 of oil consumed in the US is used for transportation. Which makes the US auto industry the biggest oil consumer in the world. Consider that US has the worst fuel economy by a long margin. Japan and Europe average over 40 mpg. The US languishes at approx. 27 mpg (no thanks to those trucks masquerading as "SUVs"). It's clear that if the US transportation breaks its oil addiction, the world will effectively break it's oil dependence.

Now for the good news. A combination of oil at $3 per gallon (Rs35 per liter), cratering SUV sales, zooming hybrid car sales, and some serious attention in the US Congress have the makings of a perfect anti-oil storm. Following is a brief overview of two of the most promising near-term auto technologies that could be used to get us to effective energy indepedence.

Hybrid Vehicles: Run like normal gas cars, but have an electrical battery that "assists" the gas engine and charges through regenerative braking. The success of the Prius (with its cool real-time fuel economy indicator) has every US auto-maker now touting mpg figures, rather than rough terrain handling and other testosterone hits. This is the first generation of hybrids - small electrical battery assisting an essentially gas-driven car. This concept has already been extended by a few intrepid folks to yield 80-100mpg (34-42.4 km/liter)! The future could be one with ever-larger, pluggable batteries with a gas assist. Or the whole concept could be turned upside-down, where the gas (or any liquid fuel really) engine is just a generator, disconnected from the drive-train, that charges a battery when it's charge falls below a certain level. Considering battery costs and cost of electricity today, a pluggable hybrid just about breaks even with a non-hybrid doing about 30 mpg with gas at $3 a gallon (Rs 35 per liter). That is likely to change with better battery technology (next 3-5 years) and expected economies of scale in battery manufacturing. Remember, that the distribution infrastructure needs no upgrade with the hybrid option.

Flex-fuel Vehicles: Virtually all vehicles can handle a gas-ethanol mix with ethanol less than 10%. However, there are 4 million vehicles on US roads roday that can handle (without modification) upto E85 i.e. upto 85% ethanol. This ethanol can be produced from corn in US, sugarcane in Brazil or India, or anywhere using cellulosic ethanol. At $3 a gallon (and with US subsidies on corn), ethanol is about 10% better than gas on a mpg basis. Widespread distribution can be addressed by subsidies and grants from the US government.

The current oil consumption by the US auto industry is about 13.7 mm barrels per day. If the average mpg is increased from 27 mpg to 45 mpg, that number becomes 8.2 mm barrels per day - a saving of 5.5 mm barrels a day! With oil prices where they are, and unlikely to fall much, this is all but inevitable. Just imagine what happens when the oil shackles have been broken ...

To The Old African Woman, In Her 30s

Following Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's welcome election as the President of Liberia, Helene Cooper writes of African women in the New York Times:

You can't get to Bukavu, Congo, from Monrovia, Liberia. Like just about everywhere else in Africa, the two places are separated by dense rain forests, interminable wars and impassable dirt roads that don't go anywhere.

Yet they might as well be the same place. "Oh, finally, now I'm home," I thought as I crawled out of the tiny single-engine plane and jumped onto the landing strip of what passes for Bukavu's airport.

What struck me most, though, in Bukavu were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I have known all of my life. There were old women - old in Africa means 35 or so - with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their back. In most cases, the burdens were larger than the backs carrying them as they trudged up one hill after another.

These were the women I grew up with in Liberia, the women all across Africa - the worst place there is to be a woman - who somehow manage to carry that entire continent on their backs.

These are the women who went to the polls in Liberia last week ... and made Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, the first woman elected to lead an African country.

No one can be sure what kind of president Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated banker who was imprisoned by one of the many men who ran Liberia into the ground over the last few decades, will be. There are plenty of African women who have brought us shame, from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in South Africa to Janet Museveni in Uganda. But after 25 years of war, genocide and anarchy, it's a good bet that she will smoke the men who preceded her in running the country. It's not going to be that hard to do; Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is following Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, both butchers of the first degree.

Ever since the voting results started coming in a few days ago, showing what the Liberian women had done, I've been unable to get one image from Bukavu out of my mind. It is of an old woman, in her 30's. It was almost twilight when I saw her, walking up the hill out of the city as I drove in. She carried so many logs that her chest almost seemed to touch the ground, so stooped was her back. Still, she trudged on, up the hill toward her home. Her husband was walking just in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hand, nothing on his shoulder, nothing on his back. He kept looking back at her, telling her to hurry up.

I want to go back to Bukavu to find that woman, and to tell her what just happened in Liberia. I want to tell her this: Your time will come, too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

India Aging?

Via Opinion Journal, Nicholas Eberstadt raises alarm about the aging of Asia.

On India, he writes:

The overall population profile will remain relatively youthful, with a median age projected at just over 30 in 2025. But this is an arithmetic expression averaging diverse components of a vast nation. Closer examination reveals two demographically distinct Indias: a North that stays remarkably young over the next 20 years, and a South already graying rapidly due to low fertility.

It may surprise some readers to learn that sub-replacement fertility already prevails in most of India's huge urban centers--New Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai (Madras) among them. Even more surprising, sub-replacement fertility prevails today throughout much of rural India, especially in the rural South. There, graying now proceeds apace. By 2025, South India's population structure will be aging unmistakably. In places like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, median age will be approaching a level comparable to Europe's in the late 1980s--and around 9% of population will be 65 or older (Japan's level in 1980).

A generation before Western Europe's median age reached 35 or Japan's 65-plus set accounted for 9% of national population, however, their average per-capita GDPs were $6,000-$8,000. By contrast, the exchange-rate-based GDP per capita in Kerala and Tamil Nadu today stands at under $500 per year. Even if India, like the Japan of an earlier day, could grow its GDP per capita at an annual rate of 5.5% over the coming generation, significant parts of India would be reaching the threshold of the "aged society" on income levels almost an order of magnitude lower than Japan and Western Europe in the mid-1980s.

Since 1991, India has averaged a highly respectable 4% GDP per-capita growth rate and has become a presence in the global IT economy through enclaves in places such as Bangalore. But Bangalore--like the rest of the Indian South--is part of what may soon be known as Old India: While its labor force is relatively skilled, it is also older, and absolute supplies of available manpower will peak and begin to shrink. Other parts of India, by contrast, will have abundant and growing supplies of labor, but a disproportionate share of that manpower will be entirely unschooled or barely literate. Educated and aging, or untutored and fertile: This looks to be the contradiction--and the constraint--for India's development in the decades immediately ahead.

Thoughts on Burma

Burma, or Myanmar, is of strategic importance to both China and India given its location between the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia, and its coastline of 1,600 miles. The country has an area of 261,000 square miles and a population of 50 million. It is led by a corrupt and authoritarian military dictatorship ostracized by the West. India's interests necessitate that it mediates between the military junta and the democracy movement. A policy of constructive engagement, and not blind support for western sanctions, is in the long term interest of Burma and India.

Burma's armed forces are the second largest in South East Asia after Vietnam. A military government has ruled that country since 1962. Burma's economy has been mismanaged by corrupt generals and poverty is endemic. The country is racked with 17 tribal insurgencies, five of which represent serious threats to its national unity. The writ of the center does not run in vast swathes of Burmese territory peopled by ethnic and religious minorities. The ethnic Burmese constitute only 65% of the population. The regime is forced to co-opt local war lords through offers of lucrative smuggling deals. The trade in narcotics is highly profitable in a country that is the world's second largest producer of opium. A sudden end to military rule might lead to further instability.

The country's only recent experience of elections was in 1990 which were convincingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The military proceeded to crush the democratic movement. The United States, Europe and Australia imposed economic sanctions which failed to weaken the military. China is Burma's biggest supplier of weapons. The long open border between the two countries enables the import of millions of dollars of Chinese weaponry and US$ 1 billion worth of Chinese consumer goods each year. The Chinese had sought a naval base in the Greater Coco islands off Burma to neutralize India's navy. Beijing envisions Burma as providing its landlocked province of Yunnan access to the sea. Meanwhile, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore retained vibrant trade links Burma while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan continued to invest in that country despite the sanctions. Russia, Ukraine and North Korea provided weaponry to the junta. While western sanctions hit the Burmese poor, it failed to dislodge the authoritarian military regime.

India realized that its initial stand off policy only ensured a growing Chinese clout in Rangoon that was not to its interests. India did a strategic rethink of its Burma policy in 1998. It began to cultivate generals in the ruling junta. It discussed plans to build a port in the Burmese province of Arakan. India proposed a highway between Shillong and Bangkok to open up India's north east. It explored ideas to link the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers, and to connect the landlocked Indian state of Mizoram with the sea. India clamped down on Burmese insurgent groups based in Mizoram. It successfully elicited Burmese cooperation to close down Naga and Meithei rebel bases in its territory. India followed China's interest in the development of Burmese off-shore petroleum resources.

Western sanctions have failed to weaken the military. India has no option but to continue engaging Burma's dictators to ensure that the Chinese do not monopolize that country's geostrategic assets. India to this end should endeavor to constructively mediate between the Burmese military and the leaders of the democratic movement. Any other policy would be to its own peril.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Dilemma in Sindh

Sindh, a province of 54,400 square miles and a population of 35 million, is relatively quiet today. However, a revival of the regionalist Jiye-Sindh movement can be a nuisance to Pakistan. Sindh is a ethnically heterogenous province today, which explains the failure of an ethnic Sindhi nationalism. This said, the inadvertent marginalization of the Sindhis and Mohajirs can backfire. Sindhis comprise 12% of Pakistan while the Mohajirs constitute 8%. Both dominate the province of Sindh.

Sindh, alone of the regions in Pakistan, has a history of political independence and a developed indigenous language. A Sindhi nationalist would claim that "Sindh is an eternal verity, Pakistan a transient super-imposition". Home to Mohenjo-daro the epicenter of the Indus valley civilization, Sindh marked the beginnings of urbanized civilization in the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas referred to the region as "Sindhu" which was home to Jayadratha of the Mahabharata. Sindh became the richest province of the Persian Achaemenid empire in the 6th century BC. The Arabs occupied it in the 8th century AD and a fusion of cultures developed, the direct precursor of contemporary Sindhi identity. There was then a succession of native dynasties in Sindh i.e. the Soomra, Arghun, Turkhan and Talpurs not to mention rule from Delhi. Sindh has a rich literature where Indic folk romances were reworked to convey a Sufi theme.

The Aga Khan helped the British annex Sindh in 1843. The British reinforced a distinctive Sindhi identity by appointing a committee in 1851 that developed the standardized 52 letter Arabic-Sindhi alphabet. They sponsored a print capitalism which led to a lively Sindhi publishing industry alone in what is now Pakistan. Sindh formed part of the Bombay Presidency but was carved out as a separate province in 1935 with its own elected assembly. It voted to join Pakistan in 1947.

Partition traumatized the province. The largely Hindu professional middle class that had formed 25% of pre-partition Sindh, fled the region. Urdu and Gujarati-speaking Mohajirs arrived in Sindh to take their place leading to demographic changes. The Sindhi-speaking population fell to a mere 55% of the province and Urdu became the lingua franca. This led to a sense of alienation in Sindh whose the indigenous population remained a majority only in the rural areas. There has since been an influx of Punjabis, Pathans and Afghan refugees into Karachi, a sprawling megalopolis. The official use of the Sindhi language declined with independence.

Independent Pakistan invested in irrigation to improve agricultural productivity in a rather arid land. This led to disputes over the allocation of Indus river waters between Punjab and Sindh. Sindhi nationalists alleged that the Tarbela, Mangla, Chashma and Rawal dams favored the Punjab. The irrigated lands in Sindh, moreover, were alienated to retired Punjabi military personnel or to Mohajir entrepreneurs.

Sindh did not pose a challenge to the concept of Pakistan in periods of civilian administration. The Bhuttos, the Junejos, the Legharis, the Jatois and other prominent Sindhis served in government. These elected leaders ensured that the Sindhi language, alone of the indigenous languages of Pakistan, was given some official status. Sindhi is the language of education in rural Sindh and is a provincial language of administration alongside Urdu. The elected heads of Government introduced a quota system to ensure that Sindhis were represented in the provincial government and the education system. Furthermore, the role of the Mohajirs as the standard bearers of Pakistani nationalism countered the concept of an independent Sindhu-desh.

Things were different under military rule. The Punjabi-Pathan dominated armed forces sidelined both the Sindhis and Mohajirs. The transfer of the capital from Karachi to Islamabad and the Punjabization of the bureaucracy added to the alienation. Mohajir-dominated Karachi and Hyderabad were hotbeds of ethnic unrest in the 1990s with many increasingly disenfranchised youth resorting to sporadic violence. Rural Sindh remained a violent agrarian backwater where autocratic feudal land lords were answerable to no one. Law and order deteriorated in the Sindh in the 1990s with the influx of arms and narcotics from Afghanistan, not to mention the military government's sponsorship of religious extremism.

A Sindhi linguistic nationalism is unlikely to succeed given the post-independence demographics in Sindh, not to mention the overwhelming military force that Islamabad has at its disposal. However, a territorial nationalism in Sindh that convenes the rural Sindhi and urban Mohajir on one platform, might still have nuisance value. Pakistan would face an ominous challenge should a broader alliance between the two disaffected ethnic groups develop. A territorial nationalism in Sindh can transform northern Pakistan into a beleaguered landlocked garrison caught between a hostile India and an unpredictable Afghanistan. While this is a remote prospect, Islamabad will need to reach out to the restive Sindhi and Mohajir minorities. The ethnic Sindhis are barely a majority in Sindh today. But inadvertently allied with the Mohajirs, the potential for trouble remains.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The President

The Daily Times published in Pakistan today revealed growing differences between Dr. Abdul Kalam, India's President, and the Congress Party. While I can not vouch for the accuracy of the report, it suggests that the President was unhappy at the dissolution of the Bihar legislature in light of the subsequent order of the Supreme Court that had described the move as "unconstitutional". The President had been uncomfortable with the Congress-appointed Governor of Bihar's advice to dissolve the assembly. The news item added that the Prime Minister's office had stopped forwarding minutes of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs and the Cabinet Committee on Security to the President. The Congress Party feared the rumored close links of the President with the opposition BJP. The Daily Times quoted Mrs. Ambika Soni, the Congress General Secretary and Sonia Gandhi loyalist, who is alleged to have stated that her party "would be happy if Kalam resigns" as "he was an appointee of the previous regime".

The editorial of the Indian Express today refers to the President's call for internal controls in the executive in line with the existing checks and balances in the Indian judiciary and the legislature. There is a larger issue at stake here. The Presidency can not be politicized and trivialized by partisan considerations. This institution represents the Indian Republic and transcends party politics. The President is the Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He symbolizes the Indian nation in its entirety. India's Chief Executive should not be subjected to narrow and short-term partisan pressures.

I have high regard for the President, who lived part of his boyhood years in Sri Lanka. Dr. Kalam's contributions to the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization and the Indian Space Research Organization were extensive. He helped design India's nuclear program, its missile program and space program. He played a key role in the development of the satellite launch vehicle, and the Agni and Prithvi missiles. Dr. Radhakrishnan and he have been two of India's most accomplished Presidents to date. Ambika Soni's alleged comments were uncalled for. She is unable to think beyond the confines of her narrow political interest and grasp the broader institutional issues at stake.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Random Thoughts

One is struck by the "clash of civilization" between the "West" and "Islamist radicalism". Iraq experiences terrorist attacks each day defying the writ of the world's most powerful military coalition. There are intermittent terrorist attacks in Egypt, a key American ally. Jordan, another ally of the west, reported three suicide bombings yesterday that claimed the lives of at least 56 people. There were earlier sporadic incidents on Jordanian territory. Australia barely pre-empted a wave of terrorist attacks this week with the sweeping arrest of 17 alleged Islamist fundamentalists. London had its Islamist suicide bombers in July 7 that killed 56. Madrid experienced a wave of Al-Qaeda inspired train bombs a while back. Indonesia has witnessed repeated attacks on western installations. Israel is not safe either. The upheaval in Iraq is set to continue. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated the ability to strike globally.

Meanwhile, Iran will remain defiant of the west and the violence in the Caucasus is not likely to end.

The civil unrest in France has continued for the past 14 days. While this is not Islamic fundamentalism at work, the divide between immigrant communities of Muslim origin and the French is evident. The French Minister of the Interior has taken a hard-line stance towards the rioters hoping to reap a rich dividend in the upcoming elections. There have been four days of intermittent street violence by Moroccan youth in Belgium. The far right in France and Belgium has called for the expulsion of all immigrants caught in arson attacks. The extreme right has increased its electoral strength in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland indicating a hardening of the European mind-set. The clash between Islamist radicalism and the West is apparent even if the liberal intellectual establishment were to deny that.

Can India insulate itself from all this? I believe it can and should. China offers a precedent here. Terrorist attacks in India sponsored by renegade groups in Pakistan will continue but can be limited in scope. India can and should tread a cautious middle path when it comes to the West's war on terror. Switzerland was caught in the middle of World War 2 but remained neutral. While India will need to insulate itself from Pakistan and ensure that the Islamist unrest in Kashmir is confined to the valley, it should be wary of the western coalition. This is not Asia's war.

Or have I got it wrong?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Indic Mercantilism

The history of India is one of a vibrant and dynamic mercantilism. I would highlight just one example out of several i.e. the international trade carried out by south Indian merchants from 650 to 1250 AD. I have simplified the narrative to keep it short and might have not done justice therefore to the complexity of the issue. The intent is to spotlight the mercantilist ethos, the delegation of royal authority to municipal-level bodies and the "privatization" of administrative tasks, such as policing and adjudication. Commerce was largely a private activity in early India unlike classical China. The mercantile communities in India were organized on a corporate basis and enjoyed administrative autonomy. The Hindu legal texts ensured that mercantile guilds had the freedom to frame their own laws and regulations. The maintenance of law and order, the collection of revenue and the mediation of disputes were delegated by royal charter to mercantile guilds. Such bodies were granted tax exemption and immunity from royal encroachment. The demarcation of responsibility between the royal, the mercantile and the religious facilitated an economic surplus.

Business syndicates convened separate artisan guilds, trading associations and military outfits under a single corporate identity in the Pallava and Chola periods. The "Ticai Ayirattu Ainnuruvar" or the 500 guilds of the 1,000 districts, the "pattinen-bhumi nattu-chettis" or the traders of the 18 lands, and the "vanik gramam" or merchant villages were just three examples. These consortiums, established under royal charter, were similar to the free cities of medieval Europe. They acted as bankers, fund managers and money lenders. They participated in the purchase, sale and insurance of merchandise across political boundaries. They took part in the wholesale and retail trade in textiles, metals, pearls, gems, ivory, elephants, horses and grain. Much of their overseas commerce was based on promissory notes, not the actual circulation of gold coins.

The Narada Dharma Sutra legitimized the association of merchants, money lenders, craftsmen and military personnel under an overarching corporate umbrella on the grounds that this ensured protection of property and the more effective discharge of trade. The federated Indian guilds had a president (pattana swami), an elected executive council (ubhaya nanadesi or lead multi-national) and branches in several countries as evidenced by early medieval inscriptions in Burma, China, Java, Sri Lanka, south India, Sumatra and Thailand. They recruited military outfits such as the "vira-kodis", the "velai-karar" and the "sreni bala" to defend their ships, caravans and overseas ports. The Tamil and Kannada kings hired the services of such corporate mercenaries as well.

The mercantile associations administered several ports and urban centers in South India. The king delegated prescriptive rights to these separate administrative units. An example that comes to mind is Nagapattinam. The elected "nagaram", an autonomous council in the Chola period, was responsible for the delivery of municipal services. Hindu temples acted as a center of capital accumulation and a banker in such cities, lending money at 12% interest, for commercial activity. The Hindu law books insisted that the private good had to be reconciled with public welfare. This explained the mercantile emphasis on charity, the maintenance of irrigation channels in the surrounding countryside, the upkeep of temples and the delivery of municipal services.

This commercial regime had its shortcomings. For one, it was an oligopoly based on control over the entire production chain by a few syndicates. Nonetheless, the complex system was remarkable in its emphasis on private initiative and maritime activity in years past.

Rajendra Chola decimated the Sumatran-based Srivijayan naval confederacy in the 11th century to ensure that these federated guilds had free access to China.The beginnings of the Tamilization of parts of Sri Lanka can be traced to this era. This south Indian mercantile regime, however, declined in the 14th century. The demise of the Chola kingdom meant the absence of a broader facilitating framework. The Delhi sultanate, under Alla'udin Khilji, momentarily annexed Madurai under Malik Khafur. Meanwhile, Arab seafarers had briefly taken over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade until their eviction by the Portuguese conquistadors in the 1500s. These factors notwithstanding, the rich history of private trade, commercial vigor and maritime shipping continues to inspire students of classical south Indian history.

For those interested in delving deeper into the subject, I recommend R.K. Mukherjee, "A History of Indian Shipping and Maritime Activity from the earliest times", London, 1912; T.V. Mahalingam, "South Indian Polity", Madras: 1955; Clarence Mahoney, "The Effect of Early Coastal Sea Traffic on the Development of Civilization in South India", University of Pennsylvania: 1968; K. Indrapala. "South Indian Mercantile Communities in Ceylon circa 950-1250" in Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, December, 1971; and N. Karashima, "Ancient and Medieval Commercial Activities in the Indian Ocean:Testimony of Inscriptions and Ceramic Sherds", Tokyo: Taisho University Press, 2002.

Monday, November 07, 2005


At a weekend party in Washington, this blogger was told by an Indian PhD student at a prestigious regional University that our hawkish views make us "more of an American than Indian" and that we "sound just like Bush"!! We think this was supposed to be an insult.

So, per this gent at least, unless one is part of the Indian group-think, one is not sufficiently Indian. We certainly hope most Indians don't feel this way!!!


Via BBC,

It is ironic that the leader of the most powerful among free nations has to assert this.

We are as hawkish as they come, but do not condone torture of prisoners. That such torture has occurred in the course of the valid war on terror (including Iraq) is beyond question. Bush administration's unwillingness to accept responsibility for this defies comprehension.

The US legislature (via Vietnam-era POW and now Senator John McCain) is now in the process of clearly outlawing torture. Disappointingly, the Bush administration (who we otherwise support) contends this will hurt the war on terror.

While there is some merit in the argument that taking away the fear a terrorist (e.g., Khalid Shaikh Mohammad) has of torture might be counter-productive, we feel that the Bush administration has not earned our trust that given this tool (the threat of torture, not torture itself) it will not abuse it.

The great thing about America is that such weighty issues are discussed quite in the open. In contrast, we are not sure at all what GOI or Indian army's position and practice is on the same topic. We fear that India has as murky a policy as the US on this subject.

Generals in Islamabad

Pakistan has been led by military dictators for 30 years, whereas India has had a parliamentary democracy for twice that long. Pakistan's generals have had their failures. General Ayub Khan presided over a revolt in Baluchistan in 1958, the humiliation of 1965 when Indian troops entered the outskirts of Lahore and its navy shelled Karachi, and the rise of separatism in East Pakistan. General Yahya Khan witnessed the birth of Bangladesh. General Zia-ul-Haq presided over the huge influx of arms and narcotics into the North West Frontier Province, the growth of Mohajir militancy in Karachi and the spectacular rise of Islamist radicalism. Pakistan was increasingly viewed as a rogue state. General Musharraf survived four attempts on his life. Should he be overthrown, it would be the turn of another General in fortress Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the four generals had one element in common i.e. they ensured that Pakistan profited from the United States. They tailored their foreign policy to leverage maximum international aid. Pakistan, on account of its strategic location, routinely provided services to the United States and was rewarded accordingly. The sole enemy was India and it was acceptable to do business with anyone else.

Ayub Khan, an ethnic Pukhtoon, governed Pakistan from 1958 to 1969. Pakistan played a key role in the United States sponsored Central Treaty Organization and the South East Asia Treaty Organization. Pakistani troops helped bolster pro-American regimes in the Middle East that included Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Sa'udi Arabia. The United States rewarded this with huge inflows of international aid.

His successor, Yahya Khan, an ethnic Persian, was caudillo from 1969 to 1971. His regime had one achievement, which was its facilitation of the Sino-American rapprochement through back channels and Nixon's ground breaking visit to Beijing in 1972. The US increased its financial support for Pakistan still further.

Zia-ul-Haq, a Punjabi, administered Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. The Carter administration had initially spurned him for having overthrown a democratically elected government. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 provided the Zia regime with a unique opportunity to act as a base for United States-led efforts to undermine the Soviets. Huge amounts of American economic and military aid poured in after a gap of three years. The Pakistani army continued to back stop the Sa'udi monarchy. The Sa'udis in return footed Pakistan's weapon's procurement bill. George Bush (Snr) halted aid flows in 1990 with the Soviet disengagement from Afghanistan.

Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir, captured power in a coup d'etat in 1999. The Clinton administration had initially cold shouldered him. However, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Musharraf summersaulted to serve United States interests. Long standing Pakistani policy in Afghanistan was jettisoned and the Taleban swiftly disowned. The United States resumed huge amounts of economic aid to Pakistan after a gap of 11 years. It declared Australia, Japan and Pakistan to be "major non-NATO allies". Pakistan's dexterity has enabled continued American largess giving it a financial resilience that it might not have had otherwise. Indian decision-makers need to realize the fickle nature of American intentions in the region. The Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan years were particularly noteworthy.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

France Aflame

Marginalized immigrant communities, largely of North African descent, have been involved in 10 days of arson and rioting throughout France. This is likely to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment there and strengthen the European far right. The Islamist radicalism all too visible in Europe, the terror attacks in Madrid and London, and the ritual murder of artist Theo Van Gogh only compound the polarization. We are already witnessing a hardening of opinion in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The extreme right is likely to do well at the next elections.

Unemployment, poor housing, racial discrimination, crime and the lack of opportunity partly explain the simmering discontent that explodes in street riots and the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. However, the issue is broader and also relates to the inability of certain immigrant communities to move out of the poverty trap and meaningfully integrate in the countries they live in. 63% of British youth of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are considered poor. The contrast with British youth of Indian origin can not be more striking. French authorities estimate that 150 of the 1,600 mosques in France are under the control of extremist elements. Dutch intelligence officials speculate that 20 different hard-line Islamist groups operate in the Netherlands. British authorities allege that 3,000 veterans of the Al-Qaeda training camps were either born or based within its borders. These instances illustrate the failure of integration. I think that due sensitivity is owed to Europe's Muslim community. But the rise of the Wahhabi and Salafist groups, not to mention North African street gangs, in Europe needs to be tackled head-on regardless. Such groups only breed hostility towards immigrants.

We live in a multi-cultural and multi-faith world. This makes it imperative that the international media cover the ongoing riots in France in an open and frank manner. The stifling barriers of political correctness can not be an excuse to avoid discussing the ghettoized culture of insularity that contributed to the riots. While the mainstream press would be reluctant to address such issues for fear of being branded racist and intolerant, the lack of meaningful analysis and corrective action would only help Europe's far right. That in turn would make matters worse.

Here are two insightful articles, one from Time Magazine and the other courtesy Francis Fukuyama.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Natwar Singh and the Oil For Food Scam

The international media has highlighted the Independent Inquiry Committee Report led by Paul Volcker, former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, on corruption related to the United Nations Oil for Food Program in Iraq. The report named several "non-contractual beneficiaries" that included India's ruling Congress Party and its Minister of External Affairs, Mr. Natwar Singh. The charges are serious. Australia, Russia, South Africa and Switzerland had promptly launched commissions of inquiry to investigate the alleged financial indiscretion of companies and individuals domiciled in their countries. India will need to do likewise. The Government of India has called for the UN to fully disclose the materials upon which the Volcker report had based its conclusions. This is a fair request but not sufficient. Natwar Singh will need to step down until such time that his name is cleared.

A lot is at stake here. While Natwar Singh is innocent until proven guilty, he holds high office and is therefore held to higher standards than ordinary citizens. Accountability and national security are of essence here. The integrity of Indian foreign policy might well have been undermined by Saddam's "dirty money". As an opposition legislator and shadow foreign minister, Natwar had played a key role in the parliamentary resolution in New Delhi in 2003 that condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight, one now wonders whether Natwar Singh had India's best interests in mind or whether he had been bought over. As a possible recipient of Saddam's illicit largess, he might have compromised national interests and might have allowed himself to be used as a lobbyist for Iraq irrespective of whether this was in India's interest or not. Natwar Singh represents India on the world stage and if media reports stand true, might have once derived financial benefits from a foreign dictator. A person indicted in a United Nations report can not uphold India's interests in the international arena with credibility. India aspires to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This entails certain obligations. The least the Government can do is to transfer him out of his job until the issue is clarified.

Natwar Singh represents the politics of international appeasement. Media reports in 2004 suggested that he had pushed for India to accede to the Chinese annexation of Aksai Chin in 1957 in return for China's recognition that Arunachal Pradesh belonged to India. He denied the reports in the face of strident BJP criticism. In August, 2005, Natwar Singh had opposed western efforts to mobilize international opinion against Iran's nuclear program. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear technology, is not in India's interest given the links between Iran and international terrorism. In October, 2005, Natwar failed to take action against Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism in Kashmir. He instead went beyond the call of duty to initiate efforts to open the line of control in Kashmir to international relief efforts despite the escalation of terrorism with the Kashmir earthquake and to organize an unprecedented US$ 25 million relief package for Pakistan. Unconfirmed reports in 2004 had it that Natwar Singh had argued that India accept the line of control in Kashmir as the legal international border in exchange for a peace accord with Pakistan. The reported deal had allegedly entailed India moving its troops back a few miles in Kargil. While the Manmohan Singh administration denied the reports, the possibility that policy-makers might compromise national interest in return for financial benefit is indeed worrying.

Natwar had earlier vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq which I had assumed was on principle. I now have my doubts. I question his judgement and financial probity. The least the Government can do is to remove him from his position until the investigation is completed. India, a country of 1.25 million square miles, a population of 1,100 million and with one of the largest economies in the world, can not be represented on the world stage by an outdated ideologue whose policies now stand under the shadow of possible financial misdemeanor.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Bravo Chappell, Dravid

The Indian cricket team just made short work of supposed world #2 Sri Lanka. What a breath of fresh air after the stink that Mr. Ganguly created. It was heartening to see Chappell and Dravid experiment with Pathan, Dhoni and Yuvraj in the batting line-up. Two of those bets paid handsome dividends. Not so evident, but indicative of the mind-set, were some of the fielding arrangements: Dravid set a 7-2 field for Pathan/Agarkar vs. Jayasuriya/Sangakkara with 3 slips! This aggressive take-no-prisoners mind-set is what has yielded consistently superior results for the Australians. Further, Chappell's religion of fitness is a welcome change. Maybe Sania can join in too :-) . Watching the Indian cricket team is fun again!

What a difference some decisive leadership can make. It's hard to believe that Chappell had to deal with Ganguly's gutter behavior less than a month ago. The backbone shown by Chappell and the Selectors (as opposed to the disaster that is the BCCI) is commendable. And of course winning never hurts. It's a long road to the World Cup in 2007, but Team India's made some promising first steps.

ps. Jaffna, don't expect you to wax eloquent given that the victim is Sri Lanka ;-)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Chief Justice

Via BBC, New Indian chief justice sworn in

Do we know anything at all about this man? Who is he and why is he ascending to such a powerful position?

We'd even venture to suggest many Indians know more about the new US chief justice (given the public scrutiny he went through) than we do about our own.

Shouldn't this bother us?


Via AP, US Military Helicopter Takes Fire As It Brings Supplies To Pakistan Earthquake Victims

No comment necessary.


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