The Killing of Juliano Mer Khamis

On 4 April 2011, the Israeli-Arab actor, director and film maker Juliano Mer Khamis was shot dead in Jenin, Palestine.

This was not an unexpected attack. The Freedom Theatre that he had established had been attacked with Molotov cocktails in the past, its door torched, and Mer Khamis himself had received threats. ‘But what choice do I have? To run? I am not a fleeing man,’ he said in an interview. ‘I am an [Israeli] elite force man, formerly of the paratroopers. The only two things I gained from Israeli culture are Shlonsky’s translations of Shakespeare and adequate field training. Now I need it.’[1] In the end, even the field training given to Israeli elite troops proved inadequate to save Mer Khamis.

In his death, the world lost a brave and imaginative artist.

Juliano Mer Khamis was 52 years old. He was an actor and a director. He had acted in several films, including opposite Diane Keaton in the adaptation of John Le Carre’s thriller, The Little Drummer Girl, and in Amos Gitai’s Kippur. He got offers from Hollywood, where they wanted to make him the next Antonio Banderas. He certainly had the looks. But he preferred to stay in Israel/Palestine, and work at the Freedom Theatre he had set up in 2006. And once he signed the letter of boycott of Palestinian artists refusing to work in Israeli institutions, he gave up his acting career altogether.

The Freedom Theatre itself has a fascinating history. The precursor to the theatre was the Care and Learning Project set up by Juliano’s mother Arna Mer in 1989 during the first Intifada. Arna was an Israeli Jew, and had taken part in the Arab-Israel war of 1948. Subsequently, she joined the Communist Party of Israel and there she met, and later married, Saliba Khamis, a Christian Arab and Secretary of the Party. Juliano was named after Salvatore Guiliano, a handsome Italian bandit who led a revolt of landless peasants against landlords in Italy.

A man with a hyphenated identity, Juliano, then, was an Israeli-Arab-Christian-Jew. Or, as he famously put it, ‘I am 100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish’.

Arna worked in the Jenin refugee camp, possibly the worst of all camps in Palestine. This was in the late 1980s and early 90s, during the first Intifada. She drew the children into the theatre. These were children for whom destruction of homes and livelihood was a fact of life. For whom death was a fact of life.

‘We’re not good Christians’

Juliano’s 2003 award-winning documentary, Arna’s Children, asks the question, what became of the children as they grew up? This film is a most remarkable document of our times – it gives an insight into life under occupation, and even more remarkably, it showed the world, for the first time, the faces and biographies of the young men who fought and resisted during the second Intifada. These were pre-adolescent children when Arna worked with them in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1993, she was awarded the ‘Alternate Nobel Prize’, the money from which went into the theatre. By the time the second Intifada began in September 2000, the children had grown up to be young men. Many took to arms. Many fell to arms.

In the film, we see young Ala sitting listlessly on the rubble of his home. Arna talks about it to the children. Why did Ala sleep in his aunt’s home last night, she asks. They tell her. Sitting next to Ala is Ashraf, with an angelic face. His house was next door to Ala’s. It got destroyed when they destroyed Ala’s house. Who did that, asks Arna. The Israeli army, says Ashraf. What will you do to the army, asks Arna? I’ll kill them, says Ashraf. Show me, says Arna, I’m the army. Ashraf gets up, and starts hitting Arna playfully. She then gives the children paper, which they tear to shreds. All right, says Arna, this is anger. And when we get angry, we have to express it. She then gives them paint and paper, and asks them to express their anger in a painting.

Years later, when Ashraf is already dead and Ala has become a fighter, Juliano meets him and asks if he remembers the painting he had done as a child in Arna’s workshop. Yes, says Ala. It was a house with a Palestinian flag on it. At the end of the film, Ala is dead too.

One of the critiques of the film has been that Arna’s work did not prevent the children from taking up arms in later life. Such a critique misses the point of the work that Arna – and Juliano – were doing.  It would have been so nice had Arna been a simple do-gooder, who healed tormented children by drawing them into the world of art. But Arna was not a do-gooder. She was a militant. In a 2006 interview, Juliano spoke about his mother’s work:

The Cost of Cheap Medicines: Antibiotic Pollution in Patancheru

(Note: The following story is the result of a series of interviews done with affected villagers, environmental activists, lawyers and other stakeholders along with visits to the affected areas by Anil Cherukupalli and Tushar Dhara in June 2009 as a follow up to news reports referring to a Swedish study that found extremely high concentrations of many drugs in local water sources in the Patancheru area of Hyderabad.)

The mantra that drives India today is development through industrialisation. Having missed the first wave of industrialisation India latched on to the emerging industries of the new millennium: Information Technology and Biotechnology. The precursor to biotechnology was the pharmaceutical industry which took root in Hyderabad from the late 1970s onwards. The succeeding decades saw Hyderabad emerge as one of the world’s largest centres for bulk drug production. The drugs were exported to major markets around the world including Europe and the USA and in lesser developed markets in Africa.

The rise of the Indian generics industry was made possible by a host of institutional and non-institutional factors: availability of a large pool of scientists; the Patents Act of 1970 that made a distinction between product and process patents which removed the legal constraints for manufacturing generics. In particular, the establishment of Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL) in 1961 by the government in Hyderabad led to the concentration of the generics drug industry in the southern Indian city.

The pharmaceutical manufacturing units are concentrated in the Patancheru industrial area, which lies 25 kilometres to the northwest of the city. Although a separate municipality before 2007 Patancheru became part of the newly constituted Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation that year. The newly constituted GHMC made it possible for the erstwhile suburban municipalities to access more funds for civic amenities and provided an integrated development plan for the Greater Hyderabad conurbation.

Though Hyderabad has become an important node in the global pharma industry, the environmental, human, economic and social costs have been overlooked. Although the benefits of providing cheap generic drugs are not in question the environmental cost is being borne by communities located in the vicinity of the drug manufacturing units in Patancheru. Since the early 1980s, when the pharma industry took off, these communities have had their water and soil polluted by the untreated industrial effluents. This has affected their livelihoods in the form of decreased agricultural yields. On the health front, although the evidence is anecdotal, abortion rates have increased; stunted growth has been reported in children, and increased incidence of skin diseases. The communities lack of the means to make their voice heard and along with willful disregard of existing environment laws and their monitoring by the regulatory authorities makes Patancheru a typical case of environmental neglect in a developing country.

A Swedish research team led by Joakim Larsson from the University of Gothenburg conducted a study on the levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the water discharged from a common effluent treatment plant in the Patancheru area of Hyderabad. The shocking results of the study, which was published in January and April 2009 in peer reviewed scientific journals, revealed the presence of very high levels of antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin (up to 6.5 mg/L) and the anti-histamine drug Cetirizine (up to 1.2 mg/L). In one place, the levels were found to exceed human therapeutic blood plasma concentrations!

Moreover, it was not just Ciprofloxacin or Cetirizine that were found in the treated effluent. According to an Associated Press report, the supposedly cleaned water contained 21 different active pharmaceutical ingredients, used in generics for treatment of hypertension, heart disease, chronic liver ailments, depression, gonorrhea, ulcers and other ailments. Half of the drugs measured at the highest levels of pharmaceuticals ever detected in the environment!

The BJP Wakes Up To India’s Poverty

(This is a post by Jacob Kuncheria. Cheri, as he is known to friends, works for Reuters in Delhi and is interested in development issues, Satyajit Ray films and Hindustani music.)

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has suddenly woken up to the gross underestimation of poverty in India. In Rajya Sabha on Thursday Murli Manohar Joshi asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if the current definition of poverty in India was not a joke on the poor and whether this was not a means to mask the extent of poverty. A noble sentiment indeed, but let the record also show the BJP made no effort to improve upon the faulty schema of identifying the poor when it ruled between 1999 and 2004.Worse, that government, of which Joshi was a cabinet minister, presided over a major fudging of poverty measurement, tweaking the process of data collection to falsely show poverty had fallen under its regime.

It is certainly true that the official poverty estimates in India do not indicate the true extent of deprivation in the country. The poverty line is the cost of the cheapest foods that can supply the barest minimum of energy a person needs. Currently, if a villager earns over 12.26 rupees a day, or an urban citizen earns over 18.36 rupees daily, she is above the poverty line. That sum would not buy a McDonald’s burger even at their happy price menu, to make a rather cruel comparison.

Man cannot live on calories alone, he needs proteins and vitamins and minerals too, but the standard does not see the need to incorporate that. If a person sold her cow, her pots and pans or her land to make buy food, the income increase would actually push her above the poverty line. To add pain, the norm does not concern itself with the question of whether the supposedly un-poor actually eat the food supposedly purchasable at that income.

Studies have shown that the lack of state-provided health care, housing and education lead poor households to spend an increasing amount of their income on private providers. This reduces food consumption, and invariably, the deprivation is pronounced in women, girls and children. It is no wonder India is home to 40 percent of malnourished children, and its record is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. The amount of anaemic women and girls and the ensuing high rate of maternal mortalities, among other damning health statistics clearly point to the inadequacy of the measure. Hence, the poverty line is not just a line under which one is poor. Rather, it is an indicator which says: if you earn below this, it’s a miracle you’re alive.


Now to the BJP and poverty. The estimation of how many people are poor is done by measuring household income, which is the subject of a survey conducted every five years. Households are quizzed on their spending in the month, and a rise in this indicates increased income. If more households spend more, it means the number of the poor as a percentage of the total population has fallen.

In the 59th round of this survey in 2003, when the BJP was in power and painting rosy images of India Shining, an additional question on weekly spending was asked of households. A minor change, but when posed right before the question on monthly spending, led the respondent to quadruple the weekly answer to give the monthly figure. This number was clearly incorrect, for there are weekly variations in income and consumption, given the fact most of India’s poor have no fixed jobs or wages.The data that emerged gave an inflated consumption number, indicating incomes had risen under the BJP’s rule and the government had been successful in fighting poverty.

The easiest way of ending famine, it seems, is expunging the word from the language itself! And the poor have no idea of their great fortune, they know not how many tears are being shed in their name.

Hotel Taj : icon of whose India ?

Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another
during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of
another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with
cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have
been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called – Hotel Taj
the icon of India.

Whose India, Whose Icon ?

It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not
bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from
terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station.
CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station
hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal
and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming
themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with
the Marathis and Kolis

But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise
the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No
Barkha dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to
show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards.
And the TV cameras did not go to the government run JJ hospital to
find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were
again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the
dead bodies of the page 3 celebrities.

In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers
from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at
CST without cell phones and pan cards to identify them. Even after 60
hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in
detail what transpired there.

The channels conveniently failed to acknowledge that the Aam Aadmis of
India surviving in Mumbai were not affected by Taj, Oberoi and Trident
closing down for a couple of weeks or months. What mattered to them
was the stoppage of BEST buses and suburban trains even for one hour.
But the channels were not covering that aspect of the terror attack.
Such information at best merited a scroll line, while the cameras have
to be dedicated for real time thriller unfolding at Taj or Nariman

The so called justification for the hype the channels built around
heritage site Taj falling down (CST is also a heritage site), is that
Hotel Taj is where the rich and the powerful of India and the globe
congregate. It is a symbol or icon of power of money and politics, not
India. It is the icon of the financiers and swindlers of India. The
Mumbai and India were built by the Aam Aadmis who passed through CST
and Taj was the oasis of peace and privacy for those who wielded power
over these mass of labouring classes. Leopold club and Taj were the
haunts of rich spoilt kids who would drive their vehicles over
sleeping Aam Aadmis on the pavement, the Mafiosi of Mumbai forever
financing the glitterati of Bollywood (and also the terrorists) ,
Political brokers and industrialists.

It is precisely because Taj is the icon of power and not people, that
the terrorists chose to strike.

The terrorists have understood after several efforts that the Aam
Aadmi will never break down even if you bomb her markets and trains.
He/she was resilient because that is the only way he/she can even

Resilience was another word that annoyed the pundits of news channels
and their patrons this time. What resilience, enough is enough, said
Pranoy Roy\\\’s channel on the left side of the channel spectrum. Same
sentiments were echoed by Arnab Goswami representing the right wing of
the broadcast media whose time is now. Can Rajdeep be far behind in
this game of one upmanship over TRPs ? They all attacked resilience
this time. They wanted firm action from the government in tackling


The guns have finally fallen silent. The staccato bursts of gunfire have died down. The intermittent explosions have stopped. The pigeons which flew away after every explosion have settled down. But something does not feel right. This was not like one of those bomb blasts we have been seeing with such regularity in India over the past few years. The blasts, even though extremely tragic, had a neat closure to them. But this siege was not neat. It was brutal, ugly, bloody and drawn out. To think that a dozen terrorists made the city, the country, nay even the world stand still speaks volumes both of their meticulous planning as well as of the utter failure of our security apparatus.

I’ve never liked Mumbai as a city. I’ve never lived there but while I was in college I visited it every year for four years. And every time I came away irritated by its insane (to me) rush to get somewhere, its ugly contrasts, mixed with a little envy too perhaps that Mumbai was so much more cosmopolitan than Hyderabad. I’ve always thought people made a lot of unnecessary fuss about Mumbai, its so called spirit, character and every other clichéd adjective you can think of. But this time, unlike the many tragic events before, my heart went out to Mumbai and its people. As I followed the breathless TV reporters fall over themselves to bring the rest of the world as many live images as possible of the ‘unfolding situation’ I was filled with a curious mixture of emotions. There was sadness at the needless and immense loss of life. There was multi-directional rage too, at the politicians who seem to mumble the same platitudes every time something like this happens but are soon back to their ways, of dividing this beautifully complex country to suit their narrow needs.

There was rage too at the terrorists, a helpless and hopeless sort of rage mixed with some despair. I’ve tried but I still cannot understand how someone of roughly my age can take a machine gun, walk into a hotel, into a railway station and start shooting indiscriminately. How can he look into the eyes of a woman trying to go home after visiting her relatives and shoot her in the throat? How can he separate people based on their nationality and gun them down? Try as I might I just cannot comprehend this inhumanity, this utter, deep dark hate that someone has inculcated in him. After all, he was not born with it. He was somebody’s son. He must have experienced some love. How do you go from being a human being to someone who does not blink twice before pressing the trigger and pumping bullets into fellow human beings, irrespective of whether that human being is an old man, a woman or a child? This hatred is beyond me.

And that fills me with a certain hopelessness. How do you guard against such unfathomable hatred? How do you tackle it? Will a more proactive intelligence help? Will upgrading our archaic police force into something more modern and efficient help? Perhaps those measures will help in the short term. But in the long run we have to reach out to the source of such hatred and wipe it out. Not with guns or smart bombs as so many have now begun to advocate, the ‘Israeli way’ they call it. For that will only lead to a never ending cycle of violence. But by understanding the roots of such terror and turning people away from this futile murderous orgy; through education, through alleviation of poverty, through better job prospects and through respect. For nothing blunts hatred more than happiness and peace.

Today I am Angry and Ashamed!

Today, I am angry and ashamed.

Angry about hypocritical ‘hindu’ politicians, the uncaring society we live in, the heartless middle class that inhabits this country and the fate that awaits India if the above three continue on this trajectory.

Ashamed about hypocritical ‘hindu’ politicians, the uncaring society we live in, the heartless middle class that inhabits this country and the confluence of the above three.

Yes folks…welcome to the new Hindu rashtra!!! How long will we continue to sit silent while those Muslim behenc__ds rape, pillage and explode bombs? Of course, we too are proud Hindus. We cannot sit silent. The blood of the Aryans, Europeans, Rajputs, and Huns flows in our veins. We are the descendents of Shivaji, who held the might of the Mughal empire at bay. Hindu samaj is the possessor of all the worldy truths and all the knowledge that has been invented by western science. Our sages discovered the airplane, the atom bomb, fusion and fission technology and plastic surgery long before the white man.

Our seers invented 0, chess, algebra, arithmetic, geology, psychology, philosophy and zoology thousands of years ago.

Our ancestors dabbled into the depths of ontology and the heights of epistemology. Our Vedas, Shastras, Purans, Gita and Upanishads contain all the knowledge that is needed for this world.

We were the masters of dance, drama, art, literature, erotics, and aesthetics when the barbarians of Europe and the Middle east were foraging around in bear skins and loin cloths.

We are the inheritors of the proud Hindu culture….

How can we produce TERRORISTS?

Impossible, incredulous, lies, conspiracy, out to malign Hindus.

Of course, what ‘Sadhvi’ Pragya Singh and Armyman Purohit did is not retaliation or Hindu terrorism (gasp!!!)

They were just reacting to those vile Muslim terrorists. So what if a few explosions kill some people in Muslim ghettos? So what if some more explosions kill some random other people? SO WHAT

Hindus cannot be terrorists, That’s only for Muslims.

Today I hang my head in shame and stew in my own anger.

because yesterday I asked liberal Muslims to stand up and take a stand against terrorism, because the day before that I did believe that all the bomb blasts in this country were caused by ‘Muslim’ terrorist organisations.

because today my ‘Hindu’ neighbours tell me callously, so what? so what if ‘our people’ exploded a few bombs. After all, we are paying them back in the same coin..

Where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah…Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said that about shooting innocent people in Nandigram.

Narendra Modi said that about the Gujarat genocide.

Raj Thackeray is saying that about ‘bhayyas’.

So what’s wrong if we say it. After all, they are only *!*@*%# Muslims…

(fill in your own abuses in the space provided)

Looking back at Amarnath

At a time when commentators were talking of the end of the insurgency and life was returning to normal in the Kashmir valley, the Amarnath crisis and the associated violence this summer of 2008, came as a rude shock to many. The separatist tone of the protests in the valley created a furore in Indian media. If we were to put the facts of the crisis itself aside, the accompanying protests provided a fascinating opportunity to observe the change sweeping the Kashmir valley. Indeed, the Amarnath crisis may have inadvertently acted as a window of opportunity to bring peace back to Kashmir. Policymakers in Delhi cannot therefore afford to miss the positive outcomes generated by the crisis.

Firstly, it is worth analyzing why the protests in the valley against the government’s decision about transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board started with pro-independence overtones, then acquired religious hues and thereafter a pro-Pakistani tint. The ISI hand if any, was seemingly minimal in these protests. Officials in Islamabad were apparently as surprised as New Delhi to see the pro-Pakistani tenor. In fact, it is entirely possible that the Pakistani flags placed by some elements at Lal chowk in Srinagar on India’s Independence Day were only a ploy to keep the nation’s attention riveted on Kashmir. To get the attention of the Indian mainstream, nothing works better than a Pakistani flag. One only needs to look at how interest in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam in early October rapidly rose after some Pakistani flags were sighted. The Pakistan card is a bogey that separatists have used in the past as well to put pressure on New Delhi. While some Pro-Pakistani groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba tried to piggy-back on the protests and gain propaganda mileage with motorcycle riders shouting anti-India slogans, they were soon drowned out by the pro-independence voices.

Therefore, whatever mix of aspirations drove the Kashmiris, one thing became clear from the protests. There is definitely an indigenous opinion within the valley about the future of Kashmir, one that is not driven by external entities like Pakistan. In that sense, these protests were reminiscent of the protests of 1963-64 after the theft of the Hazratbal relic, which were entirely indigenously spurred (before Pakistan began its decades-long covert intervention in the valley with Operation Gibraltar of 1965).

At the same time, the protests in the valley do not signify a boost for the armed separatist movement. In fact, the Amarnath crisis represents a decisive shift in the nature of political protest the valley – from one of armed violence to one of non-violent protests. It will take some time before the valley rediscovers completely the power of non-violent dissent, but the process has begun. Yasin Malik, the former Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militant turned separatist leader, was quoted by The Economist recently as saying: “[today’s Kashmiri youngsters] are even more angry than my generation, yet committed to non-violence”. Why this shift has happened amongst the youth is worthy of an entire sociological treatise. In short, the collective failure of insurgency to achieve political goals, the progressive marginalization of Kashmiris in Pakistan-backed militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the emergence of regional parties other than the National Conference, could have all contributed to it. The latter is particularly noteworthy. Although non- National Conference forces have been active in the valley before, never were they able to influence decision making at the Center as they did during the Amarnath crisis. The triangular struggle to win over public opinion between the National Conference, People Democratic Party and All Party Hurriyat Conference during the crisis represents the coming of age of Kashmiri politics and the end of political monopoly.

Another positive outcome of the protest was that they triggered a debate in the Indian hinterland about the future of Kashmir, something that 18 years of insurgency was unable to do. The Times of India actually ran a poll during the crisis asking if Indians want Kashmir to be retained at all costs. To most Indians, such a question would not have arisen even a year ago.

Even at the Centre, the protests saw a departure in the way New Delhi has handled the Valley at times in the past. The Central government neither enforced a media blackout nor denied the content of the protests as Pakistani propaganda, seeking instead a negotiated settlement. While this is in part due to the realities of coalition politics at the Centre, it is nonetheless significant.

The protests in Jammu were equally worthy of attention. While a section of the media sought to cast the protests purely in religious terms, the participation of Gujjars and Dogri Muslims indicates there was a “regional” factor also involved. This in turn may have forced Kashmiri separatist leaders to rethink the costs of secession from India. The Jammu protests hastened the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway for trade. Not only will this move help build better ties between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and J & K, the resultant economic prosperity could transform opinions about the future of Kashmir. This has happened before. Peace returned to Northern Ireland essentially after Britain promoted private sector investment and trade in the province, and paved the way for the Good Friday accord. In the case of Kashmir, Article 370 and the law and order situation have prohibited private investment in the past. The alternative therefore, clearly lies in promoting trade across the border. This also creates the possibility of exposing people in PoK to the possibilities of democratic, non-violent solutions to the Kashmir dispute.

One cannot say that the Amarnath crisis was the best thing that ever happened for Kashmir. In fact, one of the most worrisome fallouts of the crisis is the potential of it being exploited by radical groups in the hinterland. (The Indian Mujahideen had cited the blockade of the valley during the Jammu protests as one of their justifications for the Delhi blasts in September.) But the Amarnath crisis has certainly served to put Kashmir as one of the key issues on the 2009 election agenda. Given the importance of the Kashmir dispute to national security concerns, this would not be an unwelcome development.

(This article was originally published in The Indian National Interest Review, Nov 2008 issue)

US and Indo-Pak relations: the Obama view

While Pakistan came up all too frequently during the recently concluded US Presidential campaign, South Asia watchers sat up when Barack Obama spoke of working with India to deal with Pakistan’s concerns about its security, a prerequisite to bring peace to Afghanistan. This triangular dynamic seems common sense in the subcontinent but attracts only peripheral attention in Washington where Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are seen only from the angle of bilateral relations.

Obama’s statement made many wonder if it implied US was going to step into the role of mediator between India and Pakistan. Although this suggestion was dismissed by both Presidential candidates in the light of the progress of the Indo-Pak peace process, some of the commentary that went with suggestions of mediation hinted at it as being necessary to resolve the schism between the two neighbors.

At least one of the problems with a suggestion of US mediation is that it presumes that the conflicting parties are not rational actors – a notion that subcontinentals find repelling. Of course the US has a long and fairly successful history of conflict mediation from the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel to the Good Friday process that brought peace to Ireland, and the Dayton accords that negotiated peace settlement in Yugoslavia.

However unlike in all these cases, the conflicting parties in South Asia are not inviting the US for mediation. This has to do less with issues of sovereignty and more to do with self-identity. India and Pakistan perceive themselves as rational actors who can resolve disputes bilaterally.

The United States has thus far acted sensibly and even pressed upon by Pakistan and Kashmiri expat groups to intervene, has chosen to say that it supports the Indian stand on the issue, that disputes can be adequately resolved through Indo-Pak bilateral dialog.

But should the US choose to change this policy and attempt mediation, it would have to first start by addressing the South Asians as mature, rational actors. Unfortunately this is easier said than done going by rhetoric in Washington both about Pakistan during the current debates and about India during the ratification of the nuclear deal. India and Pakistan are seen as two trigger-happy children who’ve got hold of dangerous nuclear toys.

I remember a former official in the US’ national security apparatus once mentioning that during one of the post-nuclearisation crises in South Asia, he asked an Indian official whether the nuclear option was being considered. The Indian official said that “Yes, a limited nuclear engagement is possible”. Whether or not the official meant it, the American was stunned…and told the Indian, “You have no idea what you are talking about”.

This is one of the general perceptions that clouds the less seasoned among American diplomats. While this has some roots in the American self-image and exceptionalism, it reminds subcontinentals of Kiplingesque “white man’s burden”.

For instance, doves in Washington often point out how unlike the USSR and the US, India and Pakistan are so close that there would be almost no warning time in case of a missile launch restricting any attempt at protection. Anyone who’s worked in missile defense would tell you that even for ICBMs during the cold war, neither the US nor the USSR had any means to stop or divert a missile once it was launched. Ballistic missile defense systems can hardly shoot down an incoming missile in its boost phase even with the best of technology like the still-born Star Wars program. Hence, the nuclear threat between the US and USSR was comparable and in no way more than the threat faced in the subcontinent. In fact, the Cold war arms race spawned tactical nukes like Davy Crockets and artillery shells which were more lethal than any weapon that has emerged on the subcontinent. Therefore, if the US and USSR could work over their differences without mediation during the Cold war, then so can India and Pakistan.

This is not to dismiss the value a mediator can bring to the table. Conflicts often get exacerbated due to asymmetry of information and a respected mediator can play a vital role by acting as a channel of communication between the two parties. Thus, the United States’ value as a mediator cannot be dismissed. But what is pertinent is how the US dons this role and how it treats the two parties once it dons the role – as sovereign states or quarrelling juveniles.

The Dilemma of a Chain Smoking Gay

A nationwide ban on smoking in public places came into effect on October 2. Violators will be fined Rs 200 each. I can already hear the curses aimed at Ambumani Ramadoss. The Health Minister has been personally involved in the campaign to ban smoking since he became, er…the Health Minister.

Conspiracy theorists believe that the move to ban smoking was initiated to curb Rajnikanth, since the party he belongs to has to contend with Rajni mania in Tamil Nadu. Now, as all of you are doubtless aware, nobody smokes better than Rajni. The Stylemannan (king of style) has a wide repertoire of cigarette tricks and twirls. I find it cynical to believe that Ramadoss would have done this just to put style king in his place, especially since he has had to battle the influential tobacco lobby.

But Ramadoss, for all the accusations hurled at him (fascist, regressive, anti-choice) has proved to be liberal in a crucial matter: he wants to abolish article 377. This relic of the Indian Penal Code from Raj days outlaws homosexuality by describing it as against the law of nature.

Now this is the dilemma of a chain-smoking gay (or lesbian). Should they be pissed or pleased with Ramadoss?

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal – Pre-marital Discord?

The nuclear deal refuses to go off the news. Just when India thought that two of the three key hurdles – defense of the deal in the Indian Parliament, a clean waiver from NSG, and ratification of the deal by the US congress – had been accomplished, came word about the White house letter to a Congressional committee in Jan 2008, and Bush’s covering letter referring the deal for ratification to the Congress. The Bush letter shows, irrespective of its content, the extent to which the US government has gone to get the deal approved, as did the Indian government on its end. Why such hardsell? because the nuclear deal isnt about nuclear fuel supply etc anyways. Given that nuclear non-proliferation has been the biggest irritant in Indo-US ties since the 1990s, this deal was about removing the roadblock to building a strategic partnership with US. The Indian communists were right in what they say the deal entailed. They were wrong in opposing it. Because it’s time india moved out of shadows of the Cold War and took an interests-based approach to foreign policy rather than an ideology-based one.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the Bush letter’s content altogether. After the letter was revealed, people wondered if India had been naive in expecting the US to honor the 123 agreement’s guarantee of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. Under the cover of “interpretation” of the agreement, was the Bush administration trying to have its cake and eating it too?

Actually, both India and the US have displayed some naivete in estimating the other side in this deal. India thought it could get a clean waiver with no strings attached. The US thought India could both be made an ally and a confirmant to non-proliferation laws through the deal. Neither side has achieved much in terms of these expectations.
Trust has always been a difficult element in Indo-US ties. American critics think India’s self-righteous posturing cannot be effaced by strategic benefits from the US and that therefore, India will remain a pain. Witness India’s duplicitous dealings with Iran despite American protests. American diplomats believe in reciprocity – willing to give as long as there is something being given. Indian skeptics on the other hand, say that reciprocity difficult when the odds are so heavily in the Americans’ favor. They also feel that the US will never shed its one-sided, self-centered way of dealing and will walk away from any deal it feels uncomfortable with. Witness the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty with Russia. In other words, Americans sees Indians as Machiavellis while Indians see Americans as Vito Corleones.These perception defects would have to change if the real aim of the 123 agreement viz. strategic relationship, is to be fulfilled. And that can only happen through relentless dialog at all levels between the India and the US. But whether the relationship triumphs is something that only time can tell.

As one of the architects of India’s strategic doctrine put it to me recently, “We’ll have to wait and watch if the relationship works. The US has never had partners, only allies. And India’s never had neither partners nor allies”. In some ways, this deal is like a marriage between a male chauvinist and a feminist. Let’s hope it lasts.