Friday, August 29, 2014

Great Cacophony: Liquor Prohibition; A Comparison between Nagaland and Kerala

As a Journalist and northeast watcher my first piece on Prohibition in Nagaland was published in 1990. Prohibition was a failed attempt in Nagaland and my apprehension that the misguided and outdated idea could boomerang also in Kerala.

 My father often ridicules me saying, I think like a Naga!
Nagas and Malaylis have been my weaknesses for varied reasons. While Nagas are a different lot and have unique virtue of their valiant tradition, respect for women, warmth and friendship, Malaylis (people from Kerala) to me have unique similarity with my own linguistic group, Bengalis, the Bongs, and often the follies. 

The uniqueness of Marxism mannerism, readiness to do anything in the name of job in ‘Gulfee’ – the pressure is deliberate – and the typical way of dealing with certain situation make me a familiar person among them. I call it crab-syndrome; we Bongs and Malaylis have tendency to run down our own people most!

Thus, this blog piece of mine on prohibition moves in Kerala by Oomen Chandy regime and drawing a similar campaign graph in far-off Nagaland in 1989-90 comes amid a number of contradictory dogmas. 

Firstly, I am reminded of a tale where in an author had once sent his first manuscript to the legendary, Dr. Samuel Johnson for his comments. Upon reading it, Dr. Johnson had remarked that it contained some good things and some new things. But he also added in his own trademark style: that the good things in the article were not new and the new things were not good.

To pass a most predictable verdict: that liquor prohibition could fail and possibly boomerang to a society in more ways than one, I would be saying something already spoken out and there’s hardly any ‘good’ in that argument.   
 Decades back, another legendary, this time an Indian, Sri Aurobindo had said: “The most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge”.

To me as a practicing Hindu with a soft-corner for ideological belief that for long Hindus have been discriminated in this sub-continent one way or the other, I must say, Christianity enviously offers a unique synthesis between the two materialistic pragmatism and an utopian dreams.

The demand for Prohibition either in Nagaland or in Kerala, to me, represents that conflict of a materialistic mind or pragmatism and the enlightened and an idealistic utopian situation.
I have been living witness to the campaign for Total Prohibition in Nagaland and as the law was enacted during the tenure of Congress (I) chief minister S C Jamir, now Odhisa Governor, I also saw how things had backfired.
The sale of India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) simply flourished. You could name the brand and get it in an hour – only for an under the table payment!!
There is also a twist in the tale of enforcement of Prohibition laws in Nagaland. A revenue-starved state generally banking on generous funding from the centre lost its own share of revenue and that too in good amount.
Secondly, in Nagaland, the country liquor or rice beer popularly called ‘Madhu (meaning Honey in local lingua-franca Nagamese in the absence of any unified Naga language) could not be banned as it is a traditional drink. In fact, offering Madhu is part of Naga custom and a visitor is offered the booze any time in the day even as early as 8 am in the morning with a characteristic pastoral query: ‘madhu khabo (Why don’t you take a sip of our rice beer?).
Kerala or for that matter Malaylis (nicknamed Mallus) do not have such custom or tradition --- not that as a friend of Mallus I know about it.
But in terms of impact from revenue loss from liquor sale, it’s huge.
“Alcohol helps in giving Kerala's economy a good high - shockingly, more than 40% of revenues for its annual budget come from booze,” says a write up in BBC news website.

“Is Kerala Shooting Its Cash Cow?” ran a headline in Business Standard. In 2012-13, Kerala consumed 2.44 crore cases of Indian-made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and one crore cases of beer, by far, the largest in the country.

The state’s total revenue receipts in 2013-14 was Rs 54,966 crore. It still ran a deficit of Rs 6,208 crore. To lose another Rs 10,000 crore could mean a hangover of a different kind, says a media report.
Again as it has been a booming industry with perhaps minimum investment, now a pragmatic question that needs to be asked is: how much closing the liquour industry would result in unemployment or other related problems.
In Nagaland, it did affect employment sector especially a large number of younger lot and women. 
My contention therefore has been that prohibition is an outdated idea, too idealistic and bound to fail and boomerang at some stages.
Mere prohibitory laws would not be good enough to eradicate the problem and it would rather require personal motivation to curb deep rooted addiction. Moreover, the hooch tragedies often reported from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat could visit God’s own country as well.  My contention therefore has been that prohibition is an outdated idea, too idealistic and bound to fail and boomerang at some stages.
Mere prohibitory laws would not be good enough to eradicate the problem and it would rather require personal motivation to curb deep rooted addiction. Moreover, the hooch tragedies often reported from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat could visit God’s own country as well.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Indo-Pak relations: Modi reverts to hawkish stance

Peace efforts with Pakistan have again fallen flat. The goodwill generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gesture of inviting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in in May have been lost. 

True, the dispute with Pakistan became a major preoccupation of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and also the foreign policy engine room, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). 
Now, that occupational hazard has caught up with Narendra Modi, and he needs to walk the talk – either ways. India has cancelled the Foreign Secretary level talks scheduled for August 25 after Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit openly called Kashmiri separatist leaders like Shabbir Shah for consultations ahead of scheduled talks.
Peace with Pakistan has been among the top cherished wishes of Indian diplomatic leadership. In fact, New Delhi has never hesitated from taking the first step or running the important extra mile in its efforts to establish peace with that country braving several hurdles and domestic politics.

It was this spirit which saw in the 1990s, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee making a bus trip across the border to Lahore. The similar gesture was shown more than once when Dr Manmohan Singh described his the then Pakistani counterpart Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani as a ‘man of peace’.

With the latest developments, the South Asian brotherhood juggernaut created by Prime Minister Modi when he invited all SAARC nation heads to his swearing in has also been defeated.

Close on the heels of envoy Basit’s meeting with separatist leaders as Congress and other opposition parties mounted pressure on Prime Minister Modi, India's foreign secretary Sujatha Singh on Monday summoned the Pakistani envoy and said "that Pakistan's continued efforts to interfere in India's internal affairs were unacceptable". 

"Under the present circumstances, it is felt that no useful purpose will be served" by a meeting between the two sides.

Predictably Pakistan has termed the episode unfortunate while Kashmiri separatists perhaps stunned by Ministry of External Affairs hawkish stance have been stating that even during Vajpayee regime such parleys between them (separatists) and Pakistani envoy had taken place in the past. But India has changed over last 14-15 years and especially under him, Modi would like to give the impression he will continue to call shots.

The pro-Modi government plea is powers within Pakistan did not approve of talks making progress between two Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi. None other than Modi’s trusted lieutenant and country’s Defence Minister Arun Jaitley himself has said that “powers within” Pakistan disapproved of normal ties with India.

Snapping of Secretary level talks has brought doubts whether two Prime Ministers would meet on the sidelines of any other international meet.
Doubts have also surfaced over the trade ties and thus two prominent Indian business chambers CII and FICCI have urged both the countries to allow normal trade relations continue.

When India and Pakistan signed a liberalised visa agreement on September 8, 2012, in many quarters it was seen as a fructification of efforts of the lawmakers in both sides. The new pact replaces a 38-year-old restrictive visa agreement and will pave the way for greater people to people contacts and boost trade.
 Having said so, one must take note of the fact that the sudden hardliner stance from the Modi regime did not come all of a sudden.
In fact, during his recent visit to the trouble-torn Jammu and Kashmir, PM Modi himself raised the ‘proxy war’ bogey only to embarrass the Pakistani dispensation who termed it baseless rhetoric.

Was it deliberate on the part of Modi? His detractors are linking his proxy-war rhetoric and cancellation of formal parleys to by-elections in a number of states. Well, who would know the importance of elections better other than Modi?
It goes without saying that the relations between India and Pakistan, also a close ally of neighboring China, have a major impact on regional stability and thus developments like these – cancellation of talks – generate immense international interest.
In 2002, Modi had used his rhetoric against Pakistan and ‘Mia Musharraf’ as an electoral virtue; but in 2014 he is not a mofusil leader of ‘six crore (60million) Gujratis’.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Indo-Nepal relationship and Modi


Insurgency in northeast also owes its support base to South Asian neighbours. Narendra Modi’s recent Nepal visit appears as a typical synthesis of Nehurvian vision and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s confident sparkle in the Indian Prime Minister, and thus could a go a long way in helping curb insurgency.  

India’s huge size has truly able to secure for itself the respect and attention of global powers like the US or whether it was the Soviet Union or even smaller neighbours like Nepal. On its part for Nepal, the relationship with India has remained a pillar of its foreign policy. Thus, the love-hate relationship between two not misgotten neighbours has withstood the test of time. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nepal visit sought to achieve a few multi-dimensional goals for New Delhi. One primary aspect would be to regain some of the ground lost by India in recent years in pursuing the Indian diplomatic path especially in neighbourhood and guiding the national security policy. 
The favourable press that Modi got both within India and in the Himalayan nation has even left his detractors amused.

The Congress lawmaker in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury from West Bengal admitted in the floor of the House that Indian Prime Minister is ‘expert in mustering appreciation’. But as the Congress MP too asked, is the laudatory comments about his two-day visit all that well deserved?

In other words, it is time a real time and objective stock taking is done about
Modi’s two-day visit to a country that makes it a point to maintain equally cordial relationship with China.
Checkmating China need be his agenda, but, Modi is already being described as a visionary. He is also being compared with Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru, the father of foreign policy for post-1947 India.

One enthusiastic observer in Nepal wrote in no unambiguous words, “Modi’s dreams are big, centred around the idea of bringing back the Asian dominance of the 16th-17th centuries”.
This is little far-fetched and just being going overboard.

However, Modi’s focused South Asian approach is deservedly creditable.
The policy of ‘development and friendship offensive’ undertaken by the Modi regime in South Asia is seen as a game-changer and aimed at building a new emerging block.

Prime Minister Modi has made his intentions clear about working together with BRICS and also Japan and other Asian countries to redefine how the global economy will be shaped over the next 20 years. 
So what has Modi’s visit achieved?

The mere goodwill generated being seen on the face value is no mean achievement. Moreover, putting aside recent past skirmishes, even established anti-India players in Nepal like the Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai had lauded Modi’s visit and his address to the constituent assembly.  
In fact, Baburam Bhattarai, Maoist ideologue and former PM, tweeted Modi had won the ‘hearts and minds’ with his ‘magical address’. 
With Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda
Indian diplomats also said that Modi has appealed to both the hearts and minds, this is something that Nepalis would remember for a long time.
Besides the series of agreements reached between two sides about cooperation in power sector, granting of
one billion dollar line of credit by India to Nepal and construction of a motorable bridge over the Mahakali River, is Modi’s ability to fire the imagination of Nepali population that they too can dream about a change and that change will come with their own efforts.

Modi creditably lived up to his reputation of doing plain speaking and made it absolutely clear that New Delhi would prefer a friendly tie but ‘would not interfere in internal matters’ of Nepal. This would bring in a salutary impact as over the years the alleged ‘big brother’ approach had made India very unpopular with Nepali civil population and also the political class.

When Leaders of Madhesi parties, outfits of Indian origin people, asked Modi if he would support their proposals to create separate electorates based on ethnicity Prime Minister’s Modi categorical assertion that Nepal’s Constitution should bind Nepal’s people together was a masterstroke. 

It strongly hinted that India would favour electorates (in Nepal and India) divided by geography, not ethnicity.

Despite suggestions, Modi declined to meet up King Gyanendra – implying that the world’s largest democracy true to the sentiments of common Nepalis was not in favour of Nepal returning to monarchy either.
Nepal, importantly, also offered assistance in security measures and also assured Indian side Nepali soil will not be used for anything inimicable to Indian interests. This is a win-win pointer.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Agony of a Father -- a short story

He wiped his nose as his tears subsided. The pain was still in his heart. John Samuel’s feet burned from the unaccustomed walking in the sun. Perhaps he was trying to run away.. run away from his house, his family and perhaps the large mirror in his room. It was framed well in Italian marble or so as his son Vijay had told him.
Samuel’s face was stern as he walked into the house, now almost looked like a bungalow in the well to do urban-village. He should have been a happy person, nothing seemed to have changed in last 12 hours or so. But much has changed. 
The news of his cricketer son Vijay’s arrest was flashed on television. It was a bolt from the blue. The thought of it almost chilled him. 
Vijay has been arrested on the charge of match-fixing. It was just matter of hours that life of a celebrity cricketer has been doomed. There was some chirping of the birds around. 
To Samuel, as if the voices of unfamiliar birds began to rise from the trees. He walked inside and sat underneath the shower and unknowingly wept for a while. Perhaps he won’t be able to recognize himself again. Father of a ‘match fixer’, a greedy cricketer’s parents – the thought appeared dreadful.
Why Vijay had to do all these? Why? The details of the gory episode were still not clear. Is that girl, Vijay’s fiancĂ©e to be blamed? That girl’s family did not have good reputation. Her father was a middle level politician – better known as ‘middleman’ or go between among netas!
At last, he thought his son has fallen victim to this greed. A scheming father’s daughter, who wanted to make big as a politician, was in hurry also. Perhaps Vijay has been forced by that girl. Vijay perhaps saw money not as a goal in itself, but definitely as a by-product of his cricket; and hence the tragedy.
Cricket was known as a gentleman’s game. Samuels too are gentlemen. But alas!
Coming out of the bathroom as he toweled himself dry, all of a sudden Samuel thought of pulling the old family album. He saw his wife blinking at him in moist eyes. He told her to bring the old wooden box. She looked puzzled but walked away and returned in no time. She made an attempt to dust the box.
Seeing their son’s name and photograph on television screen in action and in newspapers gave them immense pleasure once ….. a sense of proud; but today everything has been washed away.

The sun had completed its day’s journey. Samuel’s wife switched on the light. Samuel dressed himself in traditional Malayali attire, walked towards the study table and picked up his glasses. The wooden box lay on his bed.
He saw his wife going away slowly. Life has almost come to a standstill. By now, his usual coffee would have come, but probably not today. His wife must have forgotten about it wondering what her son was doing inside the jail. Samuel too did not have the appetite.
In the neighbourhood, one young boy played music loud:
Life is old there Older than the trees Younger than the mountains ……
Samuel pulled the box and sat on his cot, opened it and pulled out the album. The brown album has all photographs of Vijay since childhood.
True to that song coming from the neighbour’s house: ’All my memories gathered 'round … Samuel thought the same about his son. Tears welled up momentarily yet again after long time. Suddenly his attention focused on a snap of high school going Vijay. They were in far off northeastern state of Mizoram then. Samuel was a civil servant and was posted for a while in Mizoram.

Vijay had one day come to his office to find out what his papa was doing - a normal curiosity of any young boy or girl of his age.

Samuel was lost in his ‘office work’. He was pleasantly surprised to see his son but had a tight schedule. He promptly telephoned Vijay’s mother and told her about Vijay’s visit so that she did not worry. 

Mizoram was still reeling under insurgency and on odd occasions children were being kidnapped by groups to demand either release of their fellow militant-cadres or ransom. 

Samuel was in a ‘good government department’ and thus that chance was not altogether ruled out.

 Having assured his wife, Samuel ordered for some ‘jalebis’ for his son from the office canteen and got engrossed into his work. He started clearing files.

And as jalebis came in, Vijay had dished out a genial smile…almost sage like – who knew what’s stored in for him.

The state of Kerala hardly knows the winter chill. So Samuel room’s window too was not shut. The soft moonlight seeped through widow and fell on the floor and bed. 

His attention from Mizoram days was distracted. He found the moonlight outside lovely though the pangs of pain in him did the usual churning. A few night birds were crowing. He stared outside and wondered what his son could be doing now.

His wife came in asking when will he have dinner. The coffee has been given a slip. During the day both Samuel and 

his wife could not relish lunch too. He simply blinked towards his wife rather helplessly. “This is all my fate,” said Samuel’s wife cursing herself for the folly and the punishment meted to her son. Samuel sat calm and after a pause simply remarked, “call me when its ready; I won’t have much”. 

There was a long pause in the room. His wife did not ask him even what he was doing with the old album. Of course, she knew the obvious.

Suddenly she was walking out of the room briskly, stopped for a while and then told him rather in terse manner, “you remember the story from Mahabharata .. the poetic journey of the Pandava brothers towards heaven and a dog accompanying them. Everything is in this life” – and she walked away faster.

Samuel stood in silence for a while and again sank himself onto the bed staring helplessly towards the wooden box and the old album.