Saturday, March 31


The Indian Supreme Court has suspended the implementation of the 27% quota for 'other backward classes' (OBC) students for the coming academic session. The Indian parliament had passed the law unanimously last December, upping the OBC quota from 22.5% to 27%, and seeking to extend these quotas into India’s most prized institutions: the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). (In addtion, there is a 15% quota for 'backward' scheduled castes , and a 7% quota for 'scheduled' Tribes. Previously, the Court had ruled that quotas could not be used to fill more than 50% of available seats. The 27+15+7% numbers were designed to fit under that limit.)

The court criticized the government for basing its quota system on a 1931 caste-based census data, saying what may have been valid data then could never be a determinative factor now to accord reservation. Some see the Court as a desperate rearguard of Brahminical privilege. Others more cynically see in the ruling an attempt by the Congress+Communist government of the day to get some leverage on the OBC electorate, who have been abandoning them for regional political parties; a convenient court ruling shows promise in making them come to Papa.

Since polls are coming up in several states, talk has now turned towards a constitutional amendment to get around judicial activism. The 'upper' castes are predicting the quality of India's education institutions will drop; those who can are in flight, not only the US but Australia, Canada, even China are witnessing a boom in Indian students. In Beijing I talked to two customary tired, over-sized-satchel-hauling 19-year-olds from Ludhiana enrolled in a Chinese language course in the hope they'd make it to a professional course of study later.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Center For Policy Research had a more charitable take than most, some months ago in Yale Global:

India has become a net consumer of foreign education – spending to the tune of $3 billion a year to train students abroad ... However, the Indian education system is not able to mobilize funds from its students at home. By some accounts, Indian students, whose fees are paid by their parents, have become a net subsidizer of British higher education; the largest number of foreign students in the US come from India, some 80,000; and there are even an estimated 5,000 Indian medical students in China. Many of the best students go abroad ... Devesh Kapur of the University of Texas has calculated that for every patent held by an Indian, Indians abroad hold 28,000 patents ... Only three Indian institutions rank among the top 500 in the world, and significantly none of them are full-fledged universities. Beyond a small group of elite institutions, few Indian institutions are globally accredited or recognized. Thus, the competition for a handful of elite institutions is severe.

The cost to business is increased by the fact that firms must do much of their training in-house, since they cannot count on the supply of talent. The mismatch of education to the economy is also evidenced in this paradox: While there is a severe shortage of skilled manpower, a third of unemployed youth are science graduates... Ironically, India met some demands of the IT sector, because a large number of private institutions managed to dodge the regulatory system by offering diplomas rather than degrees – which can only be conferred by government-regulated institutions.

The Indian education system is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. The government regulates who you can teach, what you can teach them and what you can charge them. It also has huge regulatory bottlenecks. Over-regulation has produced the crisis of higher education that is the context of the current agitation. The shortage of quality institutions is a product of India’s regulatory structures. Increased public investment that the government has promised is absolutely necessary to increase access. But this investment will not yield much if India’s regulatory regime remains rigid. There was agitation over quotas not because the students oppose increased access or even affirmative action. Quotas became a symbol of the state’s power over Indian education: its propensity to hoist its own purposes upon academic institutions regardless of their impact on the quality of these institutions. Globalization requires two contradictory transformations in the state: On the one hand, successful globalization requires that the state invest heavily in increasing access to education. But in higher education, globalization also requires the state to respect the autonomy of institutions so that a diversity of experiments can find expression, so that institutions have the flexibility to do what it takes to retain talent in a globalized world and, above all, respond quickly to growing demand. Globalization demands a paradigm shift in the regulation of higher education. In India the debate has only just begun.

If this court judgement cannot deliver the OBCs of UP to the Congress+Communist alliance, the next stop is sure to be quotas for jobs in the private sector. A friend who heads up HR for an IT firm in Bangalore reports being quietly told to start lowering the hiring bars for 'locals' and OBCs. In urban Bihar, that state unfailingly at the forefront of social change, there is a great preponderence of 'quota-pass doctors', usually identified by their caste-based last names. No patient who has a choice likes to go to one; the 'upper' caste Dr. X, who presumably made it through his medical education on merit, has his chambers overflowing with patients of all castes, while 'quota-pass' Dr. Y sits twiddling his thumbs, gnashing his teeth, and no doubt dreaming up a constitutional amendment to guarantee him 27% of the ill.

Saturday, March 24

Chal Khusrau Ghar Apna

Young India had geared up for this Cricket World Cup as never before. From Joga-style splash-printed t-shirts to live feeds at all the conference rooms -- it had been an eat-cricket sleep-cricket kind of fortnight at work. Now as India crash out following first-round defeats to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, there is only silence. The players' cutouts are being taken down, headed no doubt for a bonfire in some parking lot. Some cubes away, a sweet-voiced office wag is singing:

Gori suwe sej par, mukh par darey kes,
Chal Khusrau ghar apna, saanjh bhau chahu des

The fair one sleeps on the couch, black tresses cover her face,
O Khusrau, let's go home now, it's twilight all over the world

(Lines written in the 1300s at the death of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. Above: An aul inside the sanctuary of the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi. Khusrau, and coincidentally Mirza Ghalib too, are buried close by.)

Tuesday, March 20

Amar Gram, Tomar Gram, Nandigram

"Bands of CPM goons aided by platoons of Eastern Frontier Rifles and Commando forces were entering every village and paras [mahallas]. They brought the men out of home, they took no prisoners, no witnesses, they shot them, bayoneted them, ripped apart their stomachs and then laid them down the canal to the sea and confluence. They then brought out the young girls, gathered them in open space, raped them multiple times till the girls collapsed, they then tore their limbs, in some cases cut them to pieces and let them down the Haldi river and/or Talpati canal. They made sure that there were no witnesses. And even if there were some, they know that the young girls in traditional Medinipur would never come out to say what really happened and who will believe. Nobody will corroborate and those who will speak out will be killed and tortured again. CPM and police then wrapped the entire village with their red banners showing that the area was secured and their writ will run. Those who fled the villages were mostly apprehended on the outskirts or on the boundaries and no one knows what happened to those poor souls. We could hear these facts only from those who could crawl the whole way out through fields and forests. Even that is difficult now as the fields are all dried up and the crops have already been reaped. Anyone running is easily visible.

Even though innumerable, official count of rape could be obtained as six, because these are the ones who survived to tell their tales and they are around middle aged women who somehow were spared from being butchered and minced to pieces. The process followed in villages after villages and to our utter astonishment the process continued till next morning. All the correspondents were removed. Sukumar Mitra, a journalist from Dainik Statesman ran his way out amidst flurries of bullets. He was specifically hunted and somehow could manage to sneak out. The ferocity of this attack was so grizzly that the residents of that area was simply not believing anyone to open their gab. Fear is made a weapon for a social-censorship.

Haripur is a nearby subdivision. This area is earmarked for nuclear power plant. People of that region has also come up in protest. Most of them are fishermen. They have stopped going to the confluence and the sea. They feel that human bodies are everywhere in the confluence and the worst is that the crocodiles, gharials and sharks are now rushing towards that spot from far away Sunderbans. These animals rush for fresh blood. The fishes will be eaten away by these reptiles and there is a high possibility of these getting netted instead of fishes. The Haripur will be out of livelihood for at least a week or so, and this was premeditated by the CPM administration to teach Haripur a lesson. Haripur is the place which shooed out even Central teams and even bigger police forces. This was a lesson to teach both Nandigram and Haripur together. No sign of any dead bodies would ever be found, no proof of rape will be there. The real number of casualties can only be revealed at least three months after, and that too if peace comes into stay, and if the residents could come back and then count the missing. But after CPM has "secured" and "liberated" those areas, the evicted will not be allowed to come back and these properties will be given to the CPM goons from Keshpur and Garbeta and neighbouring places. The permanency of mopping up strategy is how CPM will ensure that Nandigram and Haripur will be secured for electoral battles in the future."

(From Calcuttaweb.)

West Bengal is often lauded for its land redistribution programmes of the 70s and 80s. In a society that has relentlessly added surplus labor since the 1800s, in the 3 decades since the last redistribution a new generation of landless cultivators has emerged, renting land from those who had received the original redistributed titles.

As part of a particularly opaque deal with the Indonesian Selim Group, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in power in West Bengal, tried to acquire 14000 to 22000 acres -- about the size of Chandigarh -- in a Midnapore seaside village called Nandigram to build a Special Economic Zone. After many years in power, the CPI(M) has attracted many rapacious carpetbaggers; its appetites have grown and it must routinely create new avenues of loot and income for its leaders and cadres. Its philosophy now is brutally Chinese -- good old-fashioned Tienanmen Chinese, not the present namby-pamby property-rights-espousing Hu-istas -- flavored with a sullen Indian inefficiency.

As a result of the SEZ, the landless tenants of Nandigram face displacement without compensation, which is only to be paid to the formal owners of the land. In a district with 960 people per sq km, all the surrounding areas are so chockful with landless peasants, if your land's 'owner' sells out to the government you have nowhere to go.

As the SEZ talk gained currency, Medha Patkar and other social activists visited Nandigram in December. Trouble in Nandigram began in earnest on Jan. 7, after the leak of government plans to build a petrochemical plant and shipyard on the newly acquired land. A hastily-formed Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh -- Land Acquisition Resistance -- Committee organized protests that quickly blockaded the villages. Police effectively abandoned Nandigram to the farmers, who turned their villages into bristling garrisons — digging trenches across roads and erecting barricades to keep outsiders out.

After 2 months of impasse, an increasingly incensed CPI(M) leadership finally sent in the cavalry last week. On Wednesday night the police stormed the village. CPI(M) cadres who have bought up all the land adjoining the SEZ in anticipation of making, well, a killing, fired from behind police lines at the Resistance committee, and also prevented any of the injured from getting out. By morning Nandigram gutters were running red. Independent media reports suggest a hundred 'shot while poor'.

The Business Standard (upset at the failure to acquire land for 'reasonable developmental objectives') writes in an opinion:

West Bengal has been at the centre of a persistent storm over the acquisition of land for supposedly reasonable developmental objectives. The confrontation between the police and residents of Nandigram, who have resisted the acquisition of their land, has brought sharply into focus the extreme sensitivity of land-related issues, on the one hand, and the heavy-handedness that the state has tended to bring to bear on them, on the other. But attention must focus also on the broader implications of the episode in West Bengal. In terms of the metrics currently in vogue, faster growth with greater inclusiveness, these may well be ominous.

Three critical links in the political and administrative chain appear to have broken down in precipitating last week’s confrontation. First, the CPI(M)’s internal intelligence system failed in bringing the depth of the anti-acquisition sentiment in Nandigram to the notice of its leaders. This is, after all, the most essential function of a political party in a democratic framework. Indian parties are often, and justifiably, criticised for having abandoned this function and allowed their grassroots to rot even as parties have become more leader-oriented and less bottom-up in their approach, but the Communists have generally been seen as the significant exception. Their well-organised cadres were seen as a reliable means of two-way communication between the people and the politburo, a key reason for their stranglehold on political office in West Bengal. But, as Nandigram demonstrates, this is not always the case. The priority that the chief minister put on the project was enough to energise the party cadres into pushing it forward, regardless of the resistance. They did not think it necessary to keep him informed of the growing significance of that resistance, which would have at least opened up the possibility of a mutually acceptable course correction.

Second, the working arrangement between the party and the government seems to have degenerated to a situation of total capture of the latter by the former. Even if the party cadres were painting a false picture of the situation on the ground in pursuit of their own interests, it was clearly the responsibility of the district administration to warn the state government about the precariousness of the stand-off. Whether they chose not to, or did and were ignored will come out in an objective process of inquiry, which is clearly warranted. It is extraordinary that the administration and police should have been prevented from entering Nandigram for two months, with no way of enforcing the civil administration’s writ over the area. Either way—tainted or ineffectual—the structure comes across as inadequate.

Liberal opinion in Calcutta is revulsed. The poet Shankha Ghosh writes (apparently targeting Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the CPI(M) boss and Chief Minister):

But I have kept my pledge
Letter by letter
Those who resist -- their lives
I have made hell
Our party will rampage
No one else will speak
In an iron-fisted governance
That is but natural.
The time for bullets is night
and all day, too
In an iron-fisted state
that's Law and Order.
Who dies, dies; or lives out his life
in bereavement
Today I have won, I have made
All their lives Hell.

Another perspective can be found in the history of surplus labour and deficit land -- see Netaji's grandnephew Sugata Bose's Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital -- Rural Bengal Since 1770, part of the New Cambridge History of India. Recommended.

Friday, March 16

Sheng Qi's Finger

The Great Chinese Firewall (see last year's post) is alive and well, still blocking What a bunch of maroons, as Bugs Bunny would say. Informal discussions with an acquaintance who is apparently related to The Firewall Mandarin -- China's current Director of Internet Security -- reveals That-Whose-Name-Must-Not-Be-Taken is not only a bunch of servers and routers, but also 500-odd schmucks who sit in a windowless concrete building and watch internet traffic all day. If chat-room gossip-du-jour is found to turn to the politburo-member's daughter overdosing during her decadent birthday party, then the schmucks have to try to put a lid on things by adding 'birthday party' to the list of harmony-disturbing terms. In consequence, you might to your surprise be blocked when looking up the latest goings-on of the Party, or indeed Deng's birthday; for while the sickles are not very sharp, their hammer is indeed heavy.

To see if a site is blocked in China, see here.

Interestingly, sometimes harmony-disturbing-content does get through, perhaps during a schmuck's bio-break. I managed to get to, a progressive Chinese art site hosted out of Canada, without problem a couple of times; and then it got blocked (and remains so at the time of this post.) The picture above, which I saved from inside China, is by one Sheng Qi, whose gallery blurb reads:

"Sheng Qi came to public attention in 1985 as a key member of China's "New Art Movement." This circle of artists organized a series of collective performance events under the title Concept 21. In 1989, after the Tian'anmen Square Incident, Sheng Qi left Beijing for Rome. Before leaving, he cut off the little finger from his left hand and buried it in a flowerpot.

From 1993 to 1998, Sheng Qi studied at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London for a Master's degree. During his stay in the West, he participated in exhibitions in Europe, Mexico and the United States, including the much-hyped (1998) Inside-Out exhibition in New York that showcased contemporary Chinese art. During his exile he gained invaluable cross-cultural experiences enriching his work.

Sheng Qi says he is not sensing a cultural equality in the 21st century, and aspires to find a "Third Space" outside the hybrid of nationalism and globalization.In his recent paintings, Sheng Qi mainly displays China’s political history. He indirectly touches some of China’s sensitive issues, by painting for example an Army Parade at Tian'anmen Square, without further referring to its political meaning. The painting becomes a silent witness only in the mind of the viewer."

Tuesday, March 13


I have never found that moment
when the mind was halved by a horizon --
for the goldsmith from Benares,
the stone-cutter from Canton,
as a fishline sinks, the horizon
sinks in the memory.

- Derek Walcott, Names.

From top:

Rangapanchami marks the end of the Holi festival period ...

... but the hopeful trader, his hair still bearing witness to recent festivity, displays the remaining stock.

Tribal mask, Brahmaputra valley.

The house-painter's mid-morning tea.

Thursday, March 8

Cat Theory

In 1962, when discussing a contract responsibility system for agricultural production, Deng Xiaoping at a meeting of the Chinese Central Committee Secretariat presented some homespun wisdom from his native Sichuan province -- "Not matter whether it is a yellow cat or a black cat, whatever method works ... we should use that method." Over the years, the yellow cat became a white one, and the canonical wording of Deng's Cat Theory became "It doesn't matter if it is a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice, it is a good cat." Later, it was often connected to another oft-quoted Dengism: "To get rich is glorious" to provide an ideological basis for China's jettisoning of economic isolationism for market capitalism.

Today, Chinese 'lawmakers' (the 2835 deputies of the National People's Congress) introduced a bill to protect private property. Ill-defined property rights have allowed local Communist Party goons to seize small businesses, houses and farmland for lucrative real-estate and commercial deals, and anger has spread among ordinary Chinese, alarming the top leadership who have less and less control over the depredations of their rank-and-file. Introducing the bill to the rubberstamp national legislature, Wang Zhaoguo, a Politburo member said: "As the reform and opening up of the economy develop, people's living standards have improved in general and they urgently require effective protection of their own lawful property accumulated through hard work."

From top:

'Wall Street English' language coaching center in a Beijing mall.

Tots learn to ice skate at the China World Shopping Center rink, at RMB 50 (USD 7, Rs 300) per hour per child.

Interchange in NW Beijing.

Fireworks celebrating the 15th day of the New Year don't quite manage to clear the highrises anymore.

Conference room name, offices of a tech company.

Wednesday, March 7

Pan Jia Yuan

If there is an antiqued trinket - howsoever tacky - to be found anywhere in China, rest assured you will also find it at the oft-demolished Panjiayuan 'dirt' market off the 3rd ring road in SE Beijing. From posters of the 'So Called Cultural Revolution' to Shang dynasty bronzes from 1700 BCE, from Yinxing teapots to military-surplus binoculars, Panjiayuan has everything; I saw several paintings by Tintoretto and Modigliani, Tibetan trunks, Ming pottery, Mikimoto pearls, bronze door knobs, papier-mache puppets, even Victorian claw-feet bathtubs.

Tuesday, March 6

Facebook Beijing

Monday, March 5

Winter, Beijing

A bitter wind is blowing in from Mongolia. It is -8 centrigrades in Beijing (less with wind chill) and falling. I wake up to gusts of snow, by mid-morning even the matrix cranes -- that were working round-the-clock to beat the end-of-year construction moratorium for the Olympics -- are stilled. Beijing is looking like a Russian city, except for new year lanterns swinging from the trees.

Sunday, March 4


Flying over Alaska on route to Asia, the Kuskokwim river appears far below.

The Kuskokwim is about 750-miles long, and drains into the Kuskokwim Bay at about 59°30'N 162°30'W. Kuskokwim is derived from the Yupi'ik word Kusquvak, whose compound means 'big slow moving thing'. The Kuskokwim forms Alaska's second largest drainage system after the mighty Yukon.

Saturday, March 3

Go Daddy

Being an immigrant is "a perpetual wait, a constant burden ... a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding." -- Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.

Mississippi Masala, the earlier movie by Mira Nair which charts the inheritance of loss (or is it a loss of inheritance?), benefits from a piece of autobiographical detail -- her husband Mahmoud Mamdani is a third-generation Ugandan of Indian 'extraction', deracinated by Idi Amin and thereafter a foreigner in America writing analyses of identity. Mamdani is a decade older than Nair, and that may have made it easier for her to project the expatriation experience onto the father's character (played delicately by Roshan Seth) in Mississippi Masala.

In a brief introduction to the screening I attended, Mira Nair talked about first reading Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake on a plane just after the funeral of her parent. She said she planned the movie "in a fever", dropping various other projects already committed to. While the autobiographical intensity of Roshan and Sharmila's lives in Mississippi Masala was due in great part to it being Mahmoud and Mira's story too, in the case of The Namesake the visiting of the director's own life on the movie has not been as beneficial. Mira's mourning for her parent threatens to overwhelm the other threads of the story, and move the fulcrum of the narrative away from Gogol Ganguli towards his dad and mom, Ashoke and Ashima (played by Irfan Khan and the gorgeous Tabu.) Since most of the melodrama is to be extracted from Ashok's demise, the first third of the movie jerkily presents vignettes from his past life while we wait for him to hurry up and die. Once he has become a photo on the wall and there is not a dry eye in the house, we only have 20 minutes left for Gogol's own story.

Indian audiences used to seeing Irfan Khan as a wag in Hutch ads selling airtime will expect him to spring out of his morgue cooler with the latest model of cellphone -- Be-fiqar reh puttar, socha main aise-hi khallas? No, no, no, no, darrling, abhi to main zinda hoon. (Didn't Gogol's Akakii Akayievich come back to haunt the officials after he died of exposure from losing his overcoat? ) Between cringes at Irfan and Tabu's atrocious accents, Bengali audiences will be suprised to realize Gogol is Feluda's grandson. Calcutta audiences will no doubt be flattered by Nair's contention that it is really a sibling of New York, with brighter colors but a similar bridge. Music lovers will admire Nair's cleverness in strategically positioning soulfully yodeling Baul singers on boats everytime someone's ashes have to be scattered in Ma Ganga. The broad-minded will admire the syncretism of Tabu sporting Rajasthani tribal foot-decorations and a matching heaving choli (to say nothing of Zuleikha's Bengali fishnet legs), wondering where these two were when Mirabai was casting Kama Sutra? Calligraphers will admire the Bangla kana in the credits, as well as the Engo-Bongo titles designed to bring out cultural fusion.

Oh, it has its moments; every expartiate will recognize the aspect of being in that obtuse place where no one can pronounce your name, where you find your past is considered threadbare and your present depends on how you kit yourself out with a new overcoat of belonging, where your descendants have no use for their inheritance.

At last poor Akakii Akakievich breathed his last. They sealed up neither his room nor his effects, because, in the first place, there were no heirs, and, in the second, there was very little inheritance; namely, a bunch of goose-quills, a quire of white official paper, three pairs of socks, two or three buttons which had burst off his trousers, and the “mantle” already known to the reader. To whom all this fell, God knows. I confess that the person who told this tale took no interest in the matter. They carried Akakii Akakievich out, and buried him. And Petersburg was left without Akakii Akakievich, as though he had never lived there. -- Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat.