Thursday, July 29, 2010

Descent into Radical Islamism

(My first Op Ed published in The Pioneer)

Kashmir and Kerala. One, paradise on earth, and the other, in its much-touted words, god’s own country. One defining the northern frontier of the Indian state, the other its southern end. Both identified strongly with their culture.

Kashmir stands defined by its Kashmiriyat and Kerala by virtue of its unique language and culture regardless of religion. Both, in their own respects, are among the oldest outposts of Islam. Sufism in Kashmir was as syncretic as Islam could get. And in Kerala, Hindus on pilgrimage to this day pay homage to Vavar at Erumeli before they embark for Sabarimala. Islam in both these States was anything but similar to its original West Asian version. That is as far as history goes.

Nobody would have ever thought that a similar tale could potentially weave together these two distant States. Until the fateful day when a handful of Malayali-speaking persons were apprehended trying to cross the border into Pakistan to wage jihad against the Indian republic.

Kashmir’s descent into fundamentalist oblivion is well known. Somewhere in the 90s, Pakistan-sponsored ideologues wrecked the idea of Kashmiriyat after driving the Kashmiri Pandits out of the Valley. Slowly but surely, Kashmir Valley was converted into an outpost of their degraded idea of Islam. Shrines began to be wrecked, houses of those driven out occupied and, slowly but surely, Kashmiriyat was replaced by ‘Islamiyat’.

The Amarnath pilgrimage - an important pilgrimage for the Hindu community — was stopped for a few years in the 1990s and started again in 1996 after the militants assured the Government that the yatris would not be targeted. Today stone-pelters and separatist ideologues rule the roost. One would barely recognise the Kashmir romanticised in many movies. (Much of this is due to the inaction of both the State and the Union Governments as much as due to external influence and interference.)

Today the idea of studying the trajectory of one and trying to predict that of the other might seem absurd, but it is worth taking a look at what Kerala might become 50 years down the line.

The history of the two States is anything but the same. Kerala was ruled by Communists (who got into bed with monotheistic religions). It had a highly educated population. It sent workers to Dubai and other West Asian countries and came to be known as the famed Gulf economy. As we saw a few weeks ago, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Many of those who returned came back with more than just money. They came back with a renewed zeal for imposing the version of Islam they learned back in the Gulf on their fellow citizens. And the cycle of events that has followed cannot be recounted in a single feature. A few weeks ago, a professor had his hand chopped off by a couple of fanatics for a question in an exam paper that allegedly insulted the Prophet. This is a small example of the radicalisation that has taken place. From here to destroying the idea of Kerala that one has today may seem far-fetched, but in 50 years, it is entirely possible that it may not exist.

The transition will not be sudden: It will have its cycles of violence, driving out of non-believers and the creation of Hindu and Christian enclaves much like the State of Jammu & Kashmir with its nearly three distinct regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. And then a day will dawn when the Sabarimala pilgrimage will have to be conducted under heavy security cover thanks to the looming threat of militants.

Between Kerala today and the coming true of this grim prediction stand the State and Union Governments and the steps that they take to prevent the latter from taking place. Otherwise, at the current rate of degradation, the day our fears become reality is not far away.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Railways, going going gone

Indian Railways operates an insidious quota system over the internet. Over the past one year odd, I have observed that internet bookings are now relegated to the worst coaches and seats. Heres my bet. When you book your tickets, the chances that you will be banished to either end of the coach is extraordinarily high. Even if the train has about 300 odd vacant seats, you, the internet booker - who takes the load off the various counters launched across the country will be penalised and presented with a seat that is very near the toilet. Perhaps they think that those who have less bladder control book over the net - it takes lots of bladder control to stand in a railway queue and book your tickets. And for this, you have to pay a service charge as well - for not burdening the system.

The rate at which railways is offering jobs to the next of kin of those who get killed in the Indian railways journey of probability, they will need all these pseudo subsidies to stay afloat. They will indeed become the largesse employer in the world (slightly different from largest).

I just do not get this. First of all why have a quota system? Earlier, the internet bookers got the choice of seats - the center seats in coaches. Either of them is wrong. Why not offer them the choice of seats? Heck, even airlines and bus online reservations let you do it.

Why not railways? And charge us 25 bucks or 50 or 100 bucks for the privilege? In any case, they are charging us, why not offer a service and charge?

In any case, railways are the last resort of travel for most of those who can afford any other means. And the way it is being run into the ground, it wont last for too long. Antiquated rolling stock, signalling systems, speeds that even old steam locos would not be proud of - well, any romance left in railway journeys is now gone. Thanks, Minster!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Take the bus

A new public transport campaign launched in Bangalore, exhorts Bangaloreans to take the bus. See this link for picture (The Hindu). Effectively, it says, 1 bus is equal to 40 cars.

Overall this is a nice campaign and it will perhaps even get some converts from cars to buses. But, unless you have some streak of eco-friendliness in you, it wont register.

So, for those of you who have that eco-friendliness in you, do try the bus once in a while - perhaps on weekends, or while visiting crowded areas or if you have a service near your workplace. And hopefully the government will build those cycling tracks as it says in that article - (see link above) - because without cycle tracks, it is a little tough to take the cycle out on Bangalore roads. And, hopefully, pedestrian walkways as well so that one can enjoy Bangalores glorious weather!

And then we all got swindled

Once upon a time in Bangalore, the real estate market went bonkers. This blog had noted that when the market goes bonkers, the product is sidelined and the freebies are put in focus. Thus it was that Orange properties, was offering among other things, a car free with every apartment/plot booked. Somehow, much water flowed under the real estate bridge and I forgot about it. I even thought that they had all got their Mercs and BMWs delivered and lived happily ever after in all those apartments they had advertised.

But in a conversation today, I realised that Orange properties was, well, a lemon. And thanks to my limited exposure to TV - I had missed this story completely. And, it looks it was a well oiled scam machine to which many people fell prey too and are now running pillar to post for their money.  Complaints board is filled with its complaines. See here.

Nobody is yet in jail or into chakki peesing...not yet, atleast. All the best guys. Scams in India rarely have happy endings for the victims - the proponents continue to lead a good life by and large. Here is the story of South Indian Cooperative banks.

Micromax, Apple, Nokia

Micromax is to Nokia at the lower end what Apple is to Nokia at the higher end. Alright, thats a bit of a stretch, but this company is fast emerging as a threat to Nokias dominance of Indias telecom market. Forbes has a nice profile of them.

The key, apparently is their dual sim phones - which lets one have two active connections at the same time. And Nokia does not have a single phone in their stable which lets people have two connections at the same time. One could wonder why the hell would anybody need two connections at the same time - but I guess a country which barely had phones now has a demand of a few connections per person - whatever!

As they rightly say, competing with Nokia or the others on price would not get them anywhere - and this is a classic strategy lesson - they had to create a new category. And they have. Whoever thought that anybody could give Nokia a run for their money with phones cheaper than theirs, with more features.

And, btw, I picked up my first Micromax out of sheer curiosity for about the same cost as a dinner  actually slightly lower - at a mid scale restaurant - will blog more about it in the coming days.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Of Wishes, Horses and Beggars

A nice piece on the changing geopolitics in the Afghan region in Foreign Policy magazine - must read. (via Rajeev Srinivasan)

The author makes a beautiful case of the changing geopolitics in the region and how that could end up tying Pkstn into knots, not because of anybody else, but because of its own overreach. Dont know if things will pan out as the author postulates - I sure hope it does. Should be a fun movie to watch while it happens - but as it happens, there will be desperate attempts to take everybody down alongwith it. For now it is wishful thinking as we prepare for the Af-packing up and its imminent side effects in India.

And yes, as I have often postulated the moment China enters the picture - all gloves and bets are off. The European and American world have been handling Pkstn with kid gloves - China wont. Remarkably brazen and brutally direct, China wont care about who they are holding by those round things that often swing in a cricket match. Throw in a huge army, military might and the balls to use it - China is a country that nobody can trifle with.

And India being India, we will be a beggar on the sidelines getting hurt every now and then while the players slug it out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Road widening and the environmentalists

Curious article in the DNA yesterday. The current government in Karnataka is trying its best to ease traffic woes in Bangalore. Alongwith the Metro construction going on in full swing, there is increased on better public transport and some means to alleviate traffic jams in Bangalore. Needless to say, this means road widening is imperative. The roads of Bangalore are choked or narrow or both and there is no way that the present roads can handle the ever increasing traffic.

So, it is not road widening that is the problem as the article makes it out to be. The problem is the ever increasing number of vehicles. So, road widening does not cause ill health as choked roads do. Given that there is no real way to reduce the number of vehicles, what is more polluting? A choked road with gridlocked vehicles and idling engines or traffic moving at a decent pace? Surely, you know it.

Yes, road widening will result in trees being cut. So, if these environmentalists could work on positive activism rather than opposing existing projects that might be of some help. See Bangalore from the air, as I often argue. There are no trees near houses - all the trees are in parks, roadsides, old campuses or in the cantonment. Why? To maintain a tree in the plot given the cost of real estate is impossible. So, it is not only road widening that results in the loss of green cover. Every house, apartment being built results in the same thing. And take any house, including the environmentalists - the result will be the same. No trees. And no rainwater harvesting too - this has been made compulsory in a recent law. Bangalore, seriously, needs a dose of environmentalism, but not this kind. We need positive activism rather than negative.

Environmentalists would do well to work with the government in improving public transport, increasing taxes on vehicles, increasing parking fees and coming up with other sustainable solutions instead of protesting and stopping existing development like our old son of the oil.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kerala, once there was

So, @nikhilnarayanan posted a link that makes for interesting reading. Guess which state is at the microscope of the NIA? With a lions share of  6 out of 14 cases investigated? The title was a giveaway, but clearly Kerala aint gonne be gods own country anymore soon. If it is not already, it will soon cease to be.

The once green state now takes on a slightly different hue. The state was once touted as a model for other states, indeed other countries to emulate. The 100% educated Keralites - who barely found jobs in their state farmed off to the Middle East - returned money to their state and developed it (mostly by building palatial houses and little else and I will stop at that). The state still lags in development - be it roads, electricity or even jobs. The good communists ensured that the state remained in the developmental backwaters - though the backwaters by themselves attracted tourists. And so the state prospered, one way or other.

But then truly TANSTAAFL, and hence some of those who sent money back to their hometowns also came back with a religious zeal and sought to inculcate some of it in their fellow "statesmen" resulting in the sorry state of this state.

A few months ago, some Keralites were killed in Kashmir, trying to cross the border (Financial newspapers give amazing twists to ironical news). Frederick Forsyth correctly identified Kerala in one of his novels - The Afghan. So, the writing was always on the wall. Did anybody read it? Or is anybody taking a close look at it?

Money is the only ideology

Pick any movement, any ideology, anybody shilling for anything - it comes at a price. Yes, yes, go on - take any movement - the top leaders of any movement are only into making money. Below the paid leadership, there are the useful idiots.

And so it happens in Kashmir. The intercepted telephonic chat (quick Terror Right wallahs, clearly such invasion of privacy by intercepting telephone messages is a disrespect to the respected leaders of the movement) between two paid lackeys is some very useful reading for all those who can think of spontaneous stone pelting.

Now, can we figure out who is making the payment enough to create an entire stone pelting industry? Entry level stone pelting jobs seem to be available for about 500 bucks. (see report). Perform well and then who knows you can get a career path upwards. (Heres a transcript at Kanchan Guptas blog). Very soon we will see the story of someone who progressed from a stone pelter to the owner of a stone mansion.

Follow the money trail - soon enough you will see where the bucks are coming from - they wont be coming from very far.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Branded saloons

My last post was about branded clinics, this one is about branded saloons. With some difference. Back in the 80s, we had two options - the dhoop chaaon barber to the barber in a shop. If you were very well off like the Premier Padmini owner, you treated yourself to a haircut in a shop that an airconditioner  - regardless of whether they turned it on or an occassional haircut at the Taj.

Today, the local barber exists, but atleast in Bangalore there are a million other "branded saloons". They are jazzy inside and outside and airconditioned, but the usefulness ends there. My experience with a few of them have been abysmal to say the least. Some of them have uniformed barbers or some new Chinese equipment, but very few of them can do anything different from your local barber. And all of them uniformaly charge a bomb - thats a dud on your head!

There are so many these days that it makes me wonder how they survive. To run a saloon on reasonably prime property means that you need a decent clientele - number and quality. And the last time I checked property rates were quite high. So the possibility is that the owners offer lower rentals to show occupancy or promote such "brands" partly from their own pocket to "showcase" the property as occupied and then hand it over to the next lucrative occupant. Either of these could explain their high turnover - many of these branded saloons do not survive more than a few seasons - and the local barber (who by now has upgraded with an aircon and some gadgets himself) has the last laugh....