Friday, December 28, 2012

India: To stop rape, start at the top

By choosing candidates facing rape charges, India's political parties have implicitly sanctioned the crime.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 28, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — As angry protesters marched on India's symbolic seat of power last week, the nation's august members of parliament raged against the government's failure to stop violence against women.

They blasted the Delhi police for incompetence and insensitivity. And they cried out for the death penalty for six men accused of brutally gang-raping a 23-year-old woman aboard a private bus on Dec. 16. The woman succumbed to her injuries on Friday in Singapore, where she was being treated at a hospital, according to media reports.
In the story of India's battle against sexual assault, the honorable members ignored one important footnote: Every major political party has fielded and continues to field candidates facing criminal charges for rape, harassment and other crimes against women.
“We found that all these parties had given tickets to people of dubious backgrounds, involved in crimes against women,” said Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of the watchdog group National Election Watch. “It's the highest order of hypocrisy.”
According to mandatory self-declarations filed by candidates with the Election Commission and tabulated by National Election Watch, India's leading political parties have offered tickets to 27 candidates accused of rape and a whopping 260 candidates facing charges for crimes against women ranging from assault to harassment over the past five years. As a result, two members of the current parliament and six members of the various state legislative assemblies are facing rape charges, while 36 others face charges for lesser crimes against women.
Not one of India's major parties is innocent of the charge, and by some measure the two largest, national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the worst offenders, according to National Election Watch. While most of the rape accused hail from smaller parties, or from the regional Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, both based in Uttar Pradesh, 11 out of 36 legislators facing charges for crimes against women hail from the Congress and BJP. And out of the 260 candidates offered tickets despite facing such charges, the Congress and BJP account for 50.
Even amid the ongoing furor, Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, was compelled to make a backhanded offer of resignation on Thursday after he made sexist remarks about women protesting India's failure to stop sexual assault. “If my party high command demands I will do that," he told a TV news channel.
And they're wondering why the people have taken to the streets.
“They don't treat violence against women as a serious issue,” said Rituparna, an activist affiliated with the Citizens' Collective Against Sexual Assault. “Any violence against women should be treated seriously, and not with callousness.”
The impact of that callousness goes far beyond discouraging women from bringing charges against their abusers, as it trickles down more readily than any economic growth. Between 2002 and 2010, as many as 45 women were raped by the police while in custody, according to the Asian Center for Human Rights — while Indian law, which requires prior sanction from the government before law enforcement personnel can be prosecuted, protected the officers responsible.
The same week as the Delhi gang rape, a woman in Uttar Pradesh claimed that a police officer who'd promised to help her prosecute her attacker had instead raped her himself.
A series of horrific stories, known in shorthand as “the Mathura case,” “the Rameezabee case” or “the Suman Rani” case, make it all too clear that Indian women are not safe from sexual assault in the country's police stations themselves. In the Mathura case, for instance, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly raped by two policemen in a Maharashtra police station while her unwitting parents waited patiently outside.
Where it comes to other security forces, such as the Indian army or paramilitary troops, the situation may be even worse. Women of Indian-administered Kashmir and Manipur — where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants the army untrammeled powers — have long complained that they are targeted for sexual assault. And in at least one notorious incident, at least 53 Kashmiri women were allegedly gang-raped by army personnel conducting interrogations related to the militant separatist struggle.
Protests against the decay of law and order and the callous treatment of victims of harassment and sexual assault continued this week in New Delhi, and across India. And though the protesters are now fewer in number, and have ceded contentious symbols such as India Gate and the house of the president to the police following a hamfisted crackdown over the weekend, the anger has not dissipated.
On Wednesday, for instance, a group of young women who had been part of protests at Jantar Mantar — a spot designated for expressions of civil disobedience — complained to the media that they had been detained and beaten up by the police the day before, according to theTimes of India. (Police confirmed they had detained 17 women but denied they had been mistreated).
From a spontaneous outpouring of rage — mostly characterized by calls for castration or the death penalty for the rapists — the protests have increasingly turned against the political establishment. After police turned water cannons, tear gas and canes on protesters over the weekend, a tardy and inarticulate statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was inadvertently sent to the media unedited, ending with him asking his minders, “Theek hai?” (“That OK?”).
The response, via Twitter and other social media, as well as the people shouting in the street, was a resounding "No."
But the anger is not so much directed at the Congress Party government currently responsible for law and order in the capital, as well as the nation. It's aimed at the corrupt, incompetent and hypocritical political class as a whole — exactly as it should be.
"People are being given a small space in Jantar Mantar that is barricaded on both sides,” a merchant seaman participating in the protest told the Times of India.
“The protest has clearly been hijacked by political groups such as [the BJP's student wing] Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, [the Congress' student wing] National Students Union of India, [the newly formed] Aam Aadmi Party and [yoga guru turned would-be kingmaker] Baba Ramdev.”
The trouble with that kind of hijacking, however, is it's almost certain to backfire.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India: Music's new ambassadors

With the death of Ravi Shankar, Indian music lost its most famous ambassador. Here's who will carry the torch.

NEW DELHI, India — When sitar master Ravi Shankar finally succumbed to time last week, Indian music lost its first and most famous ambassador. But a healthy crop of musicians are carrying the torch — straddling pop, indie, Bollywood and classical genres. Here are some names to follow.
Classical music
Zakir Hussain — a former child prodigy who first toured the US in 1970 — has done for the tabla what Shankar did for the sitar. In 1992 and 2009, he collaborated with Mickey Hart, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo on the Grammy-winning “Planet Drum” and “Global Drum Project” albums to introduce the world to Indian classical's curiously melodious drum. In earlier years, Hussain played with John McLaughlin's Shakti — one of the first efforts to fuse the rhythms and melodies of classical Indian ragas with the improvisations of western jazz — touring extensively in the late 1970s. He worked on the soundtracks of Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” and Bernardo Bertolucci's “Little Buddha.” And he's capitalized on the growing crossover audience for Indian films, and films made by the Indian diaspora, with acting cameos and soundtrack work for movies such as Aparna Sen's “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” and Ismail Merchant's “The Mystic Masseur.”
“Aside from the fact that [Hussain] works magic on the tabla, I think it's his ability to align himself to various styles, various vocabularies of music [that has made him an important ambassador for Indian music],” said Chennai-based cultural critic Nandini Krishnan.
Other heirs to Shankar's legacy include slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, whose “Calcutta Chronicles” was nominated for a Grammy in 2009; classical pianist Anil Srinivasan; and Uppalapu “Mandolin” Srinivas, who plays the mandolin (natch). In addition to “Calcutta Chronicles,” Bhattacharya won over Western fans with “Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Vol. 3.” (2005) and “Mahima” (2003) in collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman — both of which made Billboard's World Music Top Ten. Srinivas, who dueled with Miles Davis at the West Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983, has in recent years brought South India's Carnatic music to the global audience by collaborating with McLaughlin's Shakti and artists as wide-ranging as King Crimson's Trey Gunn and Chinese yangqin master Liu Yuening. And Srinivasan has brought his unique merger of classical piano and South Indian Carnatic music to audiences at New York's Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House and the National Center for the Traditional Performing Arts in Korea.
In other words, Shankar may be gone, but his legacy is bigger than ever.
“Most of us now are getting an opportunity to perform at mainstream venues as part of festivals,” said Srinivasan. “To a large extent this is something that Uday Shankar and Ravi Shankar created for Indian music.”
“[Second], you have Indian music inveigling itself into many different global music forms, starting with AR Rahman and going all the way down to myriad composers and choreographers and other people,” Srinivasan said.
“Rather than one person or group of people who are ambassadors, you have a lot of different influences and influencers. It's a certain philosophy towards composition that has changed worldwide.”
That brings us to Bollywood, where Grammy-winner A.R. Rahman and music directors like Amit Trivedi have introduced sounds from Indian folk and classical music into love songs and dance tracks and taken advantage of Indian film's growing global popularity to gain a wider audience.
“A music director like Amit Trivedi is different from the genius music directors from the '50s, who created a gorgeous sound but also brought in many of the nuances of Indian classical and light classical music, as it's called in India, into their compositions,” said novelist (and classical Hindustani vocalist) Amit Chaudhuri — whose own “This Is Not Fusion” project has created a minor internet sensation since he began it in 2003.
Trivedi's pathbreaking soundtrack to 2010's “Dev. D” in some ways redefined what Bollywood music could be — albeit in one of a new crop of independent films. Songs like "Emosanal Attyachar,” for instance, blend the raucous music of the brass bands that play Indian weddings with western-style rock influences and wordplay worthy of Bob Dylan.
“The singer used to be central for those older music director,” Chaudhuri said. “Now it seems the singer is just one element in a soundscape that these directors are creating.”
Beyond the Grammy-winning soundtrack to “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Jai Ho,” Rahman has won crossover fans with some of modern Bollywood's most memorable songs (think “Chaiya Chaiya”):
He's also collaborated with artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Vanessa Mae — making him the top-of-mind choice for Indian music's new ambassador.
“What Rahman is basing his music on is a few [elements] picked up from Indian folk music, a few picked up from classical and a few picked up from Western music,” said Delhi University music professor Deepti Bhalla. “You cannot say it has a classical base or a folk base. It is a mix of everything.”
Still, not everybody is convinced that Bollywood's role as ambassador of Indian music is a good thing.
“The biggest influence on the West, or what the West understands as Indian music, is the sound of Bollywood,” said Krishnan.
“This amuses me, because several Bollywood composers have stolen popular Western tracks. Try 'Dil Mera Churaya Kyon' from Akele Hum Akele Tum and George Michael's 'Last Christmas', or 'Haseena Gori Gori' and Shaggy's 'In the Summertime.'”
Pop, indie and “new” fusion
The post-Shankar era is also bristling with Indian and Indian-origin pop, indie and fusion artists, who transcend borders and boundaries in ways that the sitar master couldn't have dreamed possible when he was teaching George Harrison to play.
In India, artists like singer-songwriter Raghu Dixit of the Raghu Dixit Project are starting to gain an international audience for Indian “indie” music:
while non-Bollywood popstars like Daler Mehndi have caught the ear of international artists such as the UK's Rajinder Singh Rai (aka Panjabi MC) and Jay-Z — making so-called “bhangra nights” a fixture at clubs in London, New York and beyond.
In the UK, indie artists like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney have in recent years popularized a sub-genre of electronica known as “Asian Underground” that incorporates Indian instruments and melodies, whileCornershop's Tjinder and Avtar Singh brought Indian instruments and sampling to Britpop in songs like “Brimful of Asha.”
And the late-blooming US diaspora is now getting into the game, with Brooklyn-based Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist bringing an Indian vibe to hip hop and Brooklyn-based Rudresh Mahan Thapar and Vijay Iyer combining Indian sounds with Western jazz.
“[The UK's] Arun Ghosh, Vijay Iyer, and Rudresh Mahan Thapar all started out as western-style jazz players and they began to explore their cultural origins,” said Chaudhuri, who counts his own “This Is Not Fusion” as part of the same musical movement.
“It's a move away from the kind of Shakti-idea of fusion, where you had western harmonies and Indian instruments and raga and you brought the two together,” Chaudhuri explained. “This new music was done by people who were not looking at either Western or Eastern music from the outside.”
In other words: Maybe Indian music doesn't really need “ambassadors” any more.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

India: Cash for the poor, no strings attached

India aims to convert its massive welfare system from subsidies to cash. Here's why that isn't all good news.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 23, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — India wants to overhaul its massive, creaking welfare system, replacing subsidies with cash. The idea is to circumvent corruption, streamline the process, and ultimately provide 720 million welfare-recipients with more of the benefit they were originally intended.
At least that's the idea.
Critics from across the political spectrum have voiced their concern. They worry the government is underestimating the challenges involved. Or, worse, simply floating a feel-good policy that promises to please both reform-minded economists and the massive voting block represented by the poor.
“It's made out to be a magic bullet to control corruption, because the money will go directly into bank accounts,” said Reetika Khera, a development economist from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi).
Currently, most recipients get a reduced price on goods like rice or kerosene if they have a ration card proving their income puts them below the poverty line. And they receive monetary benefits like scholarships and pensions through universities or local government offices, rather than direct payments.
“But there are problems associated with cash,” Khera added.
The stakes are high.
India spends up to 14 percent of its gross domestic product on various welfare programs. As of now, much of that money is wasted on administrative costs or stolen by corrupt officials. Rich and poor alike frequently complain that only one cent out of every dollar that India spends on its poor reaches the target. Though that is an exaggeration, it's not so far off the mark.
“Direct cash transfers, which are now becoming possible through the innovative use of technology and the spread of modern banking across the country, open the doors for eliminating waste, cutting down leakages and targeting beneficiaries better,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the end of November.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram clarified recently that the government will convert 34 out of 42 welfare schemes to cash transfers across 43 districts starting Jan. 1.
That said, India's most costly welfare program, and the one where economists and activists are most concerned or excited about the conversion to cash, is the food subsidy – where new “right to food” legislation promises to expand coverage to more than 60 percent of the population. But the only programs that have been mentioned by name for conversion to cash transfers are scholarships, pensions and subsidized cooking gas. And leaders have reportedly decided to hold off on the most important programs — food, fertilizer and kerosene — according to India's Business Standard newspaper.
“I don't think anyone knows what is going on, or what is intended to go on,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think-tank.
The power of cash
The experts may be wary, but at least one below-poverty-line couple, Ramesh Kumar and his wife, Amarthi Bhen, is watching the calendar in anticipation.
In 2011, when a nonprofit offered 55-year-old Amarti Bhen and her husband the chance to receive about $20 in cash every month instead of their usual rations of food and kerosene, the couple leapt at the chance.
Slum dwellers who eke out a perilous existence collecting, repairing and then selling second-hand clothes, Bhen and her husband had actually been receiving their allotment of 15 kilograms of wheat, 5 kilograms of sugar and 6 kilograms of rice — unlike millions of destitute families.
But there was no telling when the supplies would arrive, so they wasted hours tramping to the shop to see if the sugar or wheat had come in. And the quality of the grain was so poor that they practically had to thresh it themselves — wasting valuable hours they could otherwise have spent sewing.
Once they began receiving their benefits in cash — as part of a pilot program set up by the nonprofit Self-Employed Women's Association and the Indian government — they saved time by buying their supplies at the local market. They also were able to use part of the money to buy nutrient-rich foods, such as chickpeas and lentils, instead of only wheat and rice.
“When we were getting cash, we got all the money at once and could buy all our supplies at the same time,” said Kumar. “We could also buy other things we needed more than rice and wheat, like daland tea and detergent [which they use for washing the clothes they sell].”
Conditional vs. unconditional
It is that proposal to allow the poor to decide how to spend their welfare benefits that makes the Indian scheme particularly bold — and controversial.
Until now, the largest cash transfer schemes, implemented with dramatic success in Brazil and Mexico, among other countries, were based on so-called conditional payments, issued to encourage the poor to take advantage of government services, rather than grants allowing them to shop on the open market. (Under Brazil's Bolsa Família or “family allowance” program, for instance, poor families receive payments from the government in exchange for enrolling their children in school or getting them vaccinated against contagious diseases).
In contrast, India appears poised to give the poor cash with no strings attached. Many in the development sector — and many of the poor themselves — fear that freedom of choice will allow men to take cash intended for food, cooking gas or school fees from their wives and spend it on liquor.
“Last year we did a survey in nine states where we asked what the people would prefer and why,” said Khera. Two-thirds of the poor opposed the changeover, citing worries about inflation, concerns about the distance to banks and markets, and fears about how they themselves might manage the money.
“Those who argue for cash say we shouldn't be patronizing, we should let the people decide,” Khera said. “But when we went and asked these 1,200 households, they all said they want food ... The men we were talking to [about getting cash instead of rations] said, 'No, no. We'll drink it up.'”
Some say the new scheme only addresses part of the problem.
Consider the food grain program. The government buys massive amounts of rice and wheat from farmers at a minimum support price (usually higher than market rates) to protect them from market fluctuations. Then it sells grain at below-market rates to the poor. So giving the poor cash instead of vouchers could change the dynamics of supply and demand — as happened in one pilot program in which residents of rural Rajasthan were given cash instead of kerosene.
It's also possible that cash transfers could accelerate a tilt toward the idea, already popular with a section of the elite, that privatization is the panacea for all of India's problems. Paying the poor instead of guaranteeing them services, for instance, might speed the wholesale abandonment of public education and health care that is already underway. (The public education system is already so terrible that the state is now compelling private institutions to provide scholarships to the poor — who are fighting desegregation-era-style impediments to entry, seemingly on a daily basis).
“In Brazil, they had public health centers, they had public schools, and people were not using them, so this was a way to get them to come,” said Khera. “Here, they want to say we'll give you money, and you just go and find your own [schools and hospitals].”
Don't believe the hype?
The prime minister may be right about technology opening doors. But walking through them will be easier said than done.
Despite a massive, ongoing government effort, only around 13 percent of rural households are connected to the banking system. A huge project to provide every Indian with a biometric-based ID number, called Aadhar, is progressing at a snail's pace. And the government has made no attempt whatsoever to cross-reference its paltry list of ID numbers with an income survey that would identify those living near or below the poverty line. (Currently, the list is in such a shambles that development economists like Delhi University's Jean Dreze argue that subsidized grain should be made available to anyone who wants it).
“I think they've just got their facts wrong — even on what linking with Aadhar can do and cannot do,” said Khera. “They've been told again and again about the sorts of issues that biometrics can and cannot deal with, and yet somehow the penny doesn't seem to drop.”
For all the hype, nobody has endeavored to figure out how much of the so-called “leakage” from welfare systems stems from fictitious recipients on the below-poverty-line rolls — the area where biometric identification could have an impact. But experts like Khera suspect that accounts for a small part of the losses.
That isn't the only reasons for skepticism. The announcement at the end of November that a sea change in policy will begin in January suggests a plan concocted in the world of fantasy, rather than messy old India. And the vagueness of the scheme — with only three out of a proposed 29 programs announced to the public — give it the distinct whiff of campaign rhetoric or a populist bid for voters' allegiance in 2014.
"The scheme reflects sympathy of [United Progressive Alliance] (UPA), Congress and the Delhi government for the poorest section of people on the issue of food security," Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi said last week.
Meanwhile, her son, Rahul Gandhi, likely candidate for prime minister in the next election, laid out the stakes for Congress Party workers.
“If we get this program right, we will win the next two general elections," Rahul reportedly told a meeting of Congress Party leaders from the districts where benefits are slated to be converted to cash in the first phase.
Booze and blankets have long been a staple of India's get-out-the-vote drives, after all. Direct deposits of cash money, facilitated by the miracle of technology, would save everybody a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

India confronts its own brazen and spectacular violence

As Americans cope with Sandy Hook, Indians soul-search over a gang rape on a public bus, among other horrific crimes.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 19, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — As America mourns children and teachers killed by a gunman at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary, India is confronting brazen and horrific acts of violence, too — though the problems here are not as directly tied to guns or mental illness.
Perhaps the most brutal such incident happened Sunday — even as America's tragedy still occupied television stations here — with the horrifying gangrape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in a New Delhi bus. The victim is now fighting for her life.
As the curtained bus floated ominously through the city, the victim, currently in critical condition, was raped repeatedly and sliced with a knife by her seven attackers before being beaten with an iron rod and finally dumped on the roadside. The young man with her, a 28-year-old software engineer, was also beaten within an inch of his life.
The brutality of the assault prompted doctors at New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital to describe it as “probably the most grievous” rape case they had ever encountered — noting severe injuries to the woman's head, and abdominal wounds so vicious that while they attempted intestine repair surgery, “there was not much that could be done.”
Ostensibly committed to teaching the couple a lesson after the young man objected to comments that “only prostitutes choose to travel with men at night,” the crime prompted street protests and a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.
“The reason it's become such an emotive issue is that the expression of violence, particularly gender violence, is in a way a public event,” said Delhi University sociologist Radhika Chopra. “This is not secret violence. This is not happening in a dark corner of a street or shady corner of a park. It's on a bus. It's in broad daylight. It's on flyovers. It's in the most public spaces of all. And there are always people there.”
But the spectacular act of violence is only the latest in an obscene string of blatant crimes, committed almost casually, apparently without shame or fear of prosecution, that have prompted soul-searching here in India, similar to the kind that is under way in the US.
Last week, a gang of thugs beat up two men with whom they had a dispute over property outside a Haryana courthouse. Then, in broad daylight, the gang stormed the Gurgaon hospital where their victims had been admitted and shot them in their beds — paying no mind to the hospital staff and other witnesses.
Last month, liquor baron Ponty Chadha and his brother were killed in a Scarface-style hail of bullets on the outskirts of Delhi.
In September, a jilted lover in New Delhi went on a shooting spree, killing four people, including his ex-girlfriend, before putting a bullet in himself, while another woman was gunned down by men on a motorcycle after what witnesses described as a heated argument.
Incidents in which a Good Samaritan attempting to stop goons from harassing a woman gets stabbed or beaten to a pulp — as happened to a journalist with India's NDTV network last week — seem too numerous to count.
And rapes and other violence against women (and children) — often in plain sight — are reported at a rate of two per day in the nation's capital.
“Trials take almost eight to nine to 10 years, depending on the situation. Trials don't go to complete fulfilment and the conviction rate itself is fairly low,” said Pinky Anand, a New Delhi lawyer who works frequently on cases involving such violence.
“Given all these factors, the accused feel they can get away with this in society and will not be brought to book.”
The difference between India's tragedies and America's, of course, is that India has some of the world's strictest gun control laws, and these crimes don't have as direct a connection with mental illness.
Though civilians here are prohibited from owning all but the most rudimentary revolvers and shotguns — and licenses for even those weapons are very difficult to obtain — guns feature regularly in India's daylight crimes.
But it is rape, not shootings, that has prompted India's soul-searching. India is not known for quality mental health care, but it is radical socioeconomic change, rather than a public health failure, that underlies India's violence problem, experts say.
More from GlobalPost: Gun culture in India
Sociologists argue that the vicious rapes and other public acts plaguing India's National Capital Region — which includes New Delhi as well as neighboring areas of Haryana and Uttar Praesh — reflect a subconscious struggle for power.
On one hand, globalization and urbanization have brought new opportunities for women and the lower castes, putting pressure on traditional hierarchies. On the other, rampant corruption and the growing nexus between crime and politics — where both money and muscle are needed to win elections — have turned the “goonda” (hired thug) into a figure to cower before, rather than report to the police.
“The goon is, if you will, a very iconic figure of the fear, the anxiety, and the fact of power which cannot be controled, which has a nexus you have no sense of,” said Delhi University's Chopra.
“The exercise of power requires a public display of it and a public acknowlegement of it. These spectacular forms of violence in highly public spaces is part of this notion of power that can be used without any stopgate.”
According to Prem Chowdhry, a sociologist who has worked extensively on the intersection of gender, violence and caste, women of traditionally conservative states like Haryana are now leaving the house for work, attending universities, and asserting their right to property. Meanwhile, in these same areas, the practice of aborting female children has led to a skewed sex ratio. So the number of bachelors and the quantum of sexual frustration and resentment is rivaled only by underemployment as a social force.
When that resentment boils over, “rape is taken as a form of revenge or control,” Chowdhry said.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Archaeologists confirm Indian civilization is 2000 years older than previously believed

Indian archaeologists now believe the ancient Indian civilization at Harappa dates back as far as 7500 BC.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - November 28, 2012)

NEW DEHLI, India — When archaeologist KN Dikshit was a fresh-faced undergraduate, in 1960, a remarkable discovery pushed back the origin of civilization in the Indus River Valley by some 500 years. Now, he claims to have proof that pushes India's origin back even further — making Indian civilization some 2,000 years older than previously believed.
“When Bhirrana [Rajasthan] was excavated, from 2003 to 2006, we [recovered artifacts that provided] 19 radiometric dates,” said Dikshit, who was until recently joint director general of the Archaeological Society of India. “Out of these 19 dates, six dates are from the early levels, and the time bracket is forming from 7500 BC to 6200 BC.”
Since the early excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, in what is today Pakistan, the Indus Civilization has been considered among the world's most ancient civilizations — along with Egypt and Mesopotamia (in what is today Iraq).
In recent times, archaeologists divided the Indus Civilization into the pre-Harappan, mature Harappan and late Harappan periods. The pre-Harappan period was characterized by a primitive, Stone Age culture, while the late Harappan period featured sophisticated brick cities built on a grid system, with granaries, toilets and an as-yet undeciphered written language.
But the six samples discovered at Bhirrana include relatively advanced pottery, known as “hakra ware,” that suggests the ancient Harappan civilization began much earlier than previously believed — and that its epicenter lies in the Indian states of Harayana and Rajasthan, rather than across the border.
As Dikshit and his colleague, BR Mani, current joint director general of the ASI, write in a recent note on their findings:
“The earliest levels at Bhirrana and Kunal yielded ceramics and antiquities ... suggesting a continuity in culture, right from the middle of the eighth millennium BCE onwards ... till about 1800 BCE.”
That suggests the Harappan civilization is nearly as old as sites from West Asia such as Jericho, where evidence of a neolithic city has been found to date from as early as 9000 BC. But it also means that Harappa, with new proof of hakra ware dating to 7500 BC, may have been more technologically advanced — bolstering India's claim to the title of the cradle of civilization.
“When [John] Marshall excavated the Indus Valley Civilization [in 1922], he gave it the date of about 3000 BC,” said Dikshit. “But when [Mortimer] Wheeler came in 1944, he gave a shorter chronology and put the Indus Civilization between 2450 BC and 1900 BC. Those dates were also supported when Carbon-14 dates started to come from other parts of the world.”
“In 1960, in Kalimanga, we were only able to push it back a few hundred years. But with these dates [from Bhirrana] things have entirely changed.”
Both Dikshit and Mani downplayed competition between India and Pakistan for bragging rights over the Indus civilization — where the best archaeological site for tourists is in Mohenjadaro, in Pakistan's Sindh province. But the ancient has a way of bleeding into the modern, as various controversies have shown over the years.
Most prominently, perhaps, the so-called “horse theory,” rooted in N.S. Rajaram's fraudulent claim that he had deciphered the Harappan script, introduced horses into a concocted history of the Harappan period in order to provide a missing link to the Vedic period in which the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were written.
Noted for his ties with the loonier side of Hindu nationalism, Rajaram pieced together a tale that suggested “Babylonian and Greek mathematics, all alphabetical scripts, and even Roman numerals flow out to the world from the Indus Valley’s infinitely fertile cultural womb,”according to Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel and comparative historian Steve Farmer.
But for Dikshit and Mani, manufactured controversies of that kind belong in the realm of politics, not archaeology.
“These things should not be raked up,” said Dikshit. “I just don't want to give any statement on this. People are talking. There was an Aryan invasion, then Aryan immigration, then horse theory — this theory, that theory. They are simply wasting their time.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

India: 'Scarface'-style shootout showcases gangland democracy

Uttar Pradesh liquor baron's death shakes the shadowy corridors of power.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - November 23, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — A hail of bullets cut down one of India's most powerful businessmen last weekend, turning the country's rough-and-tumble liquor trade upside down and bringing new scrutiny to one of the oldest ties binding crime and politics.
Liquor baron Gurdeep Singh Chadha, known as “Ponty” Chadha, was killed in New Delhi in a “Scarface”-style shootout involving his brother and the two tycoons' security personnel.
The best touchstone for outsiders to use to understand the carnage may be Showtime's prohibition-era gangster series “Boardwalk Empire.” India's own Nucky Thompson — the fictional character, based on New Jersey political boss Enoch Johnson, played by Steve Buscemi — Chadha had built a vast fortune.
His billion-dollar business empire spanned real estate, film production and electricity generation, but his power remained firmly rooted in the liquor business, where political manuevering won him a monopoly over distribution in India's most populous and arguably most lawless state, Uttar Pradesh.
“Before Ponty Chadha got all these big contracts, they were distributed district-wise in each state,” said Rajinder Singh, a Delhi high court lawyer who represents several large clients in the liquor business.
“Ponty Chadha changed the entire scenario. He somehow managed to bag the contract for the entire state of Uttar Pradesh. And earlier Punjab also.”
Chadha — who was riddled by 12 shots to the back, abdomen and chest — was killed as part of a family dispute with his brother Hardeep, who was also killed. His death highlights the deep roots of India's gangland democracy, as graft, “black money” and the so-called criminalization of politics emerge as the biggest talking points for the upcoming national election in 2014. 
The inner workings of the liquor trade that built his empire illustrate how systemic flaws, rather than a simple lack of policing, have created and entrenched corruption in the world's largest democracy.
“A liquor baron has power over politicians, he has power over industry, he has power over many things. It's the power of loose cash,” said Harish Damodaran, author of “India's New Capitalists,” a book about India's new entrepreneurs.
Recent, high-profile corruption cases in the allotment of telecom licenses and coal mining blocks, together with the hammer-and-tongs campaign against graft led by activist Arvind Kejriwal, have created the impression that India has never been so crooked. But that is not really the case — even though the dollar amounts involved are much larger due to the growth of India's economy.
In a sense, Chadha's liquor empire represents a throwback to the days before India's economic liberalization in 1991, when the so-called “License-Permit Raj” gave the nation's politicians and bureaucrats a free hand to extort bribes from any business that wanted to do something as innocuous as step up production.
Economic reforms dismantled most of those regulations, making Indian business, though still flawed, fairer than it has ever been. But not in areas like mining or telecommunications, where the government is responsible for allotting a public resource. And not in the liquor business, thanks to a hangover of the temperance movement and the grim reality of alcoholism — especially among the destitute.
Championing a prudishness about alcohol to avoid awkward questions from the public, political parties of every hue use arcane excise laws to limit the sale of alcohol to a handful of licensed shops. The artificial scarcity guarantees that the business remains profitable. And the doling out of licenses as patronage ensures that politicians have a ready source of money and muscle power when it comes time to campaign.
“Liquor is a highly controlled industry, and that itself [creates these conditions],” said Damodaran. By its very nature, since everything is controlled or prohibited, it suits the political class. When you declare something as sinful, everybody takes their eyes from it, and everybody can earn something on the side.”
But as the weekend shootout suggests, India's prohibition-like restrictions have spawned prohibition-like thuggery in the booze business.
“This level of violence is very rare. In the liquor business you have gang wars between various factions to control the liquor vends or for getting the licenses for selling the liquor,” said Singh.
Chadha's influence on policy was extraordinary, to say the least. Prior to his death, Chadha enjoyed a monopoly over Uttar Pradesh's $2.5 billion liquor trade, controlling nearly every warehouse and booze shop in the state, thanks to a 2008 government ruling that created a special excise zone on his behalf.
In the past, he'd held a similar stranglehold over liquor distribution in Punjab. And he'd ruled the trade in the so-called “millennium city” of Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi in the state of Haryana, for eight years before the state began allotting liquor licenses through a lottery system in 2006.
The liquor baron was no stranger to the legal system. In 2011, for instance, opposition parties called for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into his purchase of five state-owned sugar mills, alleging that then-Chief Minister Mayawati had sold them to him for one-tenth of their nearly $400 million worth.
Tax authorities accused Chadha of squirreling away some $32 million in unrecorded income after a raid on one of his cinema complexes earlier this year. And in 2009 rival firms accused him of rigging the bid system to ensure that one of his firms received a lucrative government contract for a supplementary nutrition program for the poor — a bid he secured once again this year in a deal worth $1.85 billion. 
Though the situation may be particularly bad in Uttar Pradesh, which grows most of India's sugar cane, self-serving policies govern the trade across the country, Singh argues. In the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, the government has itself taken over liquor distribution, and imposes a stiff luxury tax, in the name of curbing alcoholism.
But in the state capital of Chennai, the filthy government-owned shops allow patrons to drink on the pavement outside — sometimes from bargain-priced plastic bags of off-brand hooch — so there is nearly always a derelict passed out in the gutter with his pants around his ankles. Meanwhile, even in Delhi, where the taxes on liquor are among India's lowest, anybody with the slightest social status has a bootlegger on speed dial.
“The problem is the excise laws in India are very tough,” said Singh. “Some states have now been changing their policies to avoid these kind of people getting into the trade, but most of the states have the same kind of policy.”
The reason is that the politicians who make the laws have a vested interest in maintaining control over the liquor trade — as well as the rough characters who run it.
“Whatever you're selling is all cash ... that makes it more amenable to fund elections and those kind of things,” said Damodaran. “That is what attracts politicians to this. Cash is easier to spend in elections. It doesn't leave any trail.”
“If you want to have a political rally and get people, you have to pay people in cash. That's why politics and the liquor business go together very well, and not politics and say, software.”
As Delhi state police continue to investigate the circumstances of the shootout — which occurred Nov. 17 at Chadha's sprawling estate on the outskirts of the capital — the exact number and type of weapons used in the gun battle remains a mystery, according to the Times of India. Investigators have allegedly recovered spent shells and bullets from banned weapons and confirmed that the entourages of both Chadha and his brother included serving members of the Punjab state police — information that hints at a disturbing blurring of official and unofficial power.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Just outside India's Camelot: Character assassination by gossip

An excerpt from Tavleen Singh's new book hammers Sonia Gandhi for being human, rakes up "foreign-born" charge with 40-year-old evidence

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - November 21, 2012)

An excerpt from columnist Tavleen Singh's new book, Durbar, in this week's Open reads exactly like what it is: Character assassination by gossip.
In a much-belated portrait of life just-outside India's Camelot, Singh rehashes ancient slams on Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi--depicting her as a frivolous and aloof socialite who was "as foreign as any foreigner I had ever met." (Note: Sonia was rejected as a potential prime minister, and subsequently bowed out of the contest, when the Congress Party won power in 2004).
According to Singh, who is sometimes called "the Saffron Sikh" for her apparent enthusiasm for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or its positions, as the young wife of Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sonia was both ignorant and "terrified of India in a deep, deep way." 
How so? She was so concerned that her babies would contract malaria that she burned mosquito coils under their cribs until a doctor advised her that the smoke was unhealthy. And she was shocked and appalled by the poverty and filth of an Indian village where she observed a baby playing with a piece of cow dung and giving it a few sample chews.
More serious, in Singh's transparent slam-piece, are the charges that India's Camelot was infested with "foreigners," whom the Indians treated with so much deference that even Sonia's inability to speak proper English -- after all, she was Italian -- was excused.  ("We were deeply impressed by all things foreign not just because we had been ruled by White men for so long but because secretly we believed that Western culture and civilization was superior to ours," Singh writes, in a transparent effort to make her charges more credible through the form of the confessional).
The trouble here is not that Sonia Gandhi is a great figure or sincere person, though some Indians would certainly argue that point. Rather, it's Singh's refusal to allow for the possibility of her personal development, and her implied insistence that what someone once was determines who she will always be. (That's leaving aside the implied suggestion that Sonia must have had some involvement in the Bofors defense scandal, because she and Rajiv seemed so cosy with arms dealer Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife, Maria).
On the one hand, Singh would have readers decry a past when "we were deeply impressed by all things foreign," while on the other hand she invests foreign-ness with undue importance -- as if India still has much to fear and simply by associating with foreigners one might lose one's way. Moreover, rather than laud Sonia for her subsequent embrace of the country -- whether founded in a sense of opportunity or a debt to her assassinated husband -- at least in this excerpt Singh chooses to rake up observations from a handful of 40-year-old parties to imply that her current avatar is some kind of false posture.
Clearly, that is not the case. Regardless of your views on Sonia's rights, as an Italian-born citizen of India, to the prime minister's chair, you can hardly deny her credit for her work in India since the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, in 1991. Not all of it was done out of a disinterested love for the country, of course: She was also fighting for her family's legacy and the personal power associated with heading India's oldest political party. And it's trivializing to home in on "foreignness" she displayed in the distant past.
Sonia was aloof, Singh concludes, essentially, because she and Singh herself didn't become fast friends, and Singh was unable to overhear many soul-bearing comments when she was lurking in the background at these socialites' parties. But surely one is aloof with people one hardly knows, when one's English is halting and Hindi non-existent, and when one's every utterance has implications for the serving prime minister.
The twofold argument seems to be obvious: Sonia is an Italian and the Gandhi family is a form of democratic royalty. But those are things nobody needed socialites' gossip to confirm.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

India's secret shame: Owl sacrifice mars Hinduism's biggest holiday

On Diwali, tantriks kill threatened species for the promise of future wealth.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - November 10, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — As the rest of India celebrates Hinduism's festival of lights on Tuesday, unscrupulous witch doctors known as “tantriks” will sneak into the country's dark corners to kill some of its rarest and most majestic birds of prey. 
It's India's secret shame — unknown even to most devout Hindus. But the religion's most important holiday, Diwali, marks a supposedly auspicious time for the sacrifices of threatened and even critically endangered owls — a rite that some believe can win favor from the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.
“You take the leading newspapers of today itself, there will be 50, 20, 30 ads from tantriks advertising remedies of almost all kinds,” said Abrar Ahmed, an expert on the trafficking of birds.
“When people can be milked out, these tantriks will prescribe something which is difficult to get — they'll say an owl of 5 kgs or a certain weight or certain size. There is where they make money.... They are the ones creating a demand.”
India is home to 32 species of owls, 13 of which Ahmed discovered being sold as part of the illegal trade in wild birds. Most, if not all, are included on International Union for Conservation of Nature's “Red List” of threatened species, while at least one, the forest owlet, is critically endangered, according to “Imperilled Custodians of the Night,” a report Abrar wrote for Traffic in 2010.
The most common species sold is the spotted owlet, which has adapted to living in cities and is therefore in little danger of dying out. But threatened species like the brown fish owl can also be found for sale, and the threatened rock eagle owl is the “most preferred” by witch doctors — a bad omen for its future survival.
According to Ahmed, trafficked owls and their body parts are primarily used for supposed black magic — which still claims several lives for human sacrifice each year, if newspaper reports from the hinterland are to be believed. There is a regular, organized trade in live owls. In tribal areas, where the majority of people believe that owls can ward off evil spirits, feathers and talons are placed in amulets, and owls can be found piled up for sale at local fairs. And in cities and towns, even the country's wealthiest industrialists and politicians visit tantriks — in the hope of having a son, curing illness or infertility, or amassing a magic-assisted fortune.
For most Hindus, Diwali is a joyous festival. Families festoon their homes with electric lights and burn small candles or oil lamps, called diyas, to commemorate the victory of the god Ram over the demon Ravana and Ram's return home with his stolen wife, Sita — a foundation myth told in the Ramayana, one of Hinduism's most important epics. Friends get together to gamble. The markets overflow with “Diwali hampers” filled with chocolates, nuts, and traditional Indian sweets — gifts to be exchanged, Christmas-style.
But even if the Diwali lights are meant to represent the victory of good over evil, as well as a welcoming beacon for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, the five day festival is the most deadly time of all for the owls.
The reason: The amavasya, or new moon night, of Diwali is claimed to be the most auspicious time for owl sacrifices, Ahmed found after nearly two years of research he conducted for Traffic — a joint body that monitors the illegal wildlife trade for the World Wildlife Fund and International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The practice happens throughout the year, but the kalratri [the eve of Diwali] is considered auspicious,” said Ahmed. “That makes the tantrik very rich in terms of hoodwinking people to pay their price. If they don't have a deadline, if they don't have a reason for the practice to happen at a particular moment of the year, people will be casual in their attitude.”
Indians who are free of superstition remain ignorant of the illegal trade. But the trafficking of thousands of species of wild birds — including owls intended for these sacrifices — happens just out of sight, even in the bird market of Old Delhi. Though the traders are smart enough not to display their owls alongside the hundreds of parakeets and wild song birds for sale, all it takes is a few whispered queries and a seller will offer not only to procure the owl but perhaps even to perform the sacrifice. A one-stop shop, poaching and black magic for as little as $150, according to a recent investigation by the Sunday Guardian's Abhimanyu Singh.
“People will say, we will deliver the owl on Thursday morning — whenever you need it for that matter — because it's a bird that has to be fed on a crow or a parrot,” said Ahmed. “It was made to be delivered on our doorstep.”
There are at least 50 hubs for the selling of wild birds, including owls, across India, according to Traffic. And 21 of them are major trafficking centers, with an estimated turnover of 20,000 to 50,000 wild birds per year.
Worse, the Diwali sacrifices are only the most visible part of the owl trade — at least for urban India.
Traveling through the tribal regions of states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — where indigenous peoples from the Damora, Bhil, Munda and countless other groups still live in the forest much as they have for thousands of years — Ahmed found piles of owl carcasses at local fairs. He witnessed local shamans performing rites with live owls. And he learned from tribal bird trappers how owls are captured and reared to catch other birds — which will “mob” the captured owl when the trapper mimics the desired species' distress call.
So, too, the superstitions surrounding owls go much beyond Diwali sacrifices.
In a survey of bookstores selling religious texts, Ahmed found prescriptions for telling the future using a live owl, hypnotizing an enemy by feeding him an owl's feather or blood, making yourself invisible using an owl's heart and other body parts, cursing an enemy's family with an owl's skull, and countless others.
But perhaps the darkest revelation of all was not the depth and prevalence of these superstitions among India's poor and illiterate, but their prominence even among the educated urban elite.
“Last week, a big horned owl was stolen from Chatbir Zoo [in Chandigarh, Punjab],” said Ahmed. “Do you see the correlation of the time? Even in a very big zoo — and this has happened in two other zoos also — the owl is not safe.”