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.”

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The man hundreds of Indian children call Papa

American Paul Wilkes has transformed poorly funded orphanages into “Homes of Hope.”
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - November 4, 2012)

HYDERABAD, India — Blinded in one eye by the so-called “beggar mafia” so she'd be a better earner, 6-year-old Reena was used to wearing sunglasses. 
But when American Paul Wilkes and his wife, Tracy, came to visit Reena in the Home of Hope orphanage in Kerala, India, she took off her shades and smiled up at them beatifically.
Wilkes, a contemplative Catholic and author of several books on religious faith, knew then and there that it was time to stop writing about faith and start doing something about it.
He had his work cut out for him.
Across the country, as many as 400,000 Indian children live on the streets. Some of them have no families. Others are the victims of traffickers who buy and sell them for sex or slavery. Some ran away from drunk and abusive fathers. Others were cast out or fled because their families had nothing for them to eat.
They all have one thing in common: They are grave and imminent danger living on the streets, as Reena's missing eye attests.
The local chapter of the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco — a Catholic order of nuns that has been offering refuge to street children since the 19th Century — took Reena in off the streets and provided refuge at the Home of Hope orphanage.
“If they are left on the street, by the age of 10 they are already raped,” said Sister Annakutty, mother superior at the Maria Ausilatrice orphanage in Hyderabad's Mahendra Hills. “They will be misused by someone. At that early stage itself they'll have one or two babies. ... And those children will go on to the same life.”
Since 2006, Wilkes, who used to regularly contribute to the New Yorker magazine, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the orphanages and schools run by the Salesian Sisters in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.
At a cost of around $300,000 apiece, his charity “Homes of Hope” has built two orphanages from the ground up in Kochi and Maradiyur (in Karnataka) — and laid the foundation stone for a third one in Hyderabad.
By supplementing the Salesian Sisters' dedication with new ideas and added funds, they've dug wells, bought jeeps, and provided books, computers and other educational materials for 20,000 students — as well as provided safe, caring homes for more than 400 orphans and neglected girls.
On a recent afternoon at the Navajeevana Home for Street Girl Children in Hyderabad, some 50 girls, ranging from 5 to 15 years old, crowded the driveway to greet Wilkes when his jeep arrived from a neighboring school.
“Good afternoon, Papa!” “Hi, Papa!” “Good afternoon, Uncle!” their piping voices called out. Joy, and a kind of heartbreaking desperation, was plain to see on their faces.
“The children really care for him,” said Sister Crocetta Thomas, mother superior at the Navajeevana orphanage. “Since they have no parents, they call him Papa.”
Wilkes has done his best to play father to hundreds.
“We don't run anything,” said Wilkes, walking through the Auxilium school in Hyderabad. “We're the add-on. We're the pure water. We're the generator that's going to go right there.”
Tapping funds from local US Rotary clubs, for instance, Homes of Hope has supplied 15 schools and orphanages with solar-powered water purification systems — addressing one of the leading causes of disease in India. The charity has provided 18 library-deprived schools with more than 250,000 books.
“We don't open the doors every day,” Wilkes added. “But I can come and see what's going on and see what they need.”
When a dentist from Wilkes' native North Carolina announced that he was retiring, they packed up the entire office and shipped it to India, where it now operates as a free clinic inBangalore. When a group of North Carolina surfers offered to pitch in, the charity pioneered “surfing safaris” on the Indian Ocean as a confidence builder for orphan girls — and nuns (how's that for a mental image?) 
And in the charity's latest venture, Wilkes is working with Dr. David Paige, an assistant professor of education at Louisville, Ky.-based Bellarmine University, to design a training program for teachers to help transform India's rote learning oriented schools to encourage creative and analytical thinking.
“I consider our little organization very entrepreneurial,” Wilkes said. “It isn't just buying a bag of rice. You really want to push the envelope.”
Before and after pictures attest to the impact the Salesian Sisters and Homes of Hope has had on the children rescued from the streets. "Graduates" are constantly calling the mother superior at one of the orphanages to report that their marriages are going well — perhaps a new baby was born, or their family has moved into a larger home.
The success stories never get old. Take Pinky, who came to the Homes of Hope after she was cast out by her family. The oldest of three daughters, she was taught early how well India values women, when her mother suffocated her fourth daughter shortly after birth and forced Pinky to help her bury the body.
This May, Pinky will graduate with a degree in nursing, ensuring that she'll never face poverty, or question how much she's worth, ever again.