Aftershocks trembled through nature, and human nature
By M J Akbar
29th April 2015

Aristotle's law on prose is compelling: everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. I was rearranging my brain cells to deal with the difficult middle of a column in the business centre of a Kathmandu hotel on Saturday morning when the earthquake upturned Nepal.

Touristy hotels don't invest much attention on a workplace. This business centre was at the far end of a corridor, stuck in anonymity, gloomy, with low ceilings and makeshift partitions. The manager, a young Tibetan lady, courteously indicated a computer.

Her scream, propelled by that horror which the living reserve for the approach of sudden death, rose at the same instant as a deep and sustained roar from the earth. The hotel began to lurch madly, across perhaps a foot of air or more, like a drunk who had lost touch with his feet.

Time turned into a whirlpool. Instinct and mind exchanged places. Both remained alert, but the balance shifted to instinct. I picked up my phone and a paperback from the clutter around the computer, and shouted at the lady to run. Instead, in hysterics, she clung to an attendant. Both looked frozen. I tried to drag them, then made for the door. Glass shattered. The door, like the world, had come unhinged, which was lucky. I ran. The lobby was empty. Every object had been thrown around. I rushed out of the gate. The lady and attendant, fortunately, were behind me. We looked at one another. There was of course nothing to say.

I jabbed the mobile to call a friend who had gone to laze in his room while I worked. The phone was as dead as the weather, now a chilled grey. My friend appeared, many long minutes later, his face ashen, his step a wobble. His sixth floor room had swayed crazily at the top of the building. He had given up. But the earth paused, and he joined the rush to the staircase.

It wasn't the past that flashed through my multi-tasking mind during those hundred seconds of eternity as much as the future, the myriad things left undone. Nothing is little or large. Each bit has its place in that incomplete jigsaw puzzle called life. One thought induced a wan smile. There just might have been a small headline the next day in some paper saying "Former editor leaves unfinished column".

The aftershocks tremble through nature as well as human nature. Some hit five on Richter on Saturdayafternoon; each set off darts of fear as we sat outside, as ordered, for the next six hours, cold but comparatively secure. Survivors are a bemused lot. Some take refuge in bursts of controlled reaction: loud voices, stretched jokes; others console themselves with the thought that the worst might be over. Might. A very few seek food, but in general trauma sates hunger.

A solid heritage building next to the hotel was evidence of what might have been. A huge crack split the edifice in the pattern of a lightning flash. Some relapsed into silence, others into prayer. I protected myself with the paperback. It was an Agatha Christie. Death is such a marvel when it is theoretical.

Spectrum is liberation. The mobile came alive, and brought chatter. Our Indian embassy began to contact those on its list. Cynicism may be our default position, but the best comes out in a crisis. Every Indian reached out to others, as word spread that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had moved with speed to put together a relief and rescue operation. Indians became the envy of other nationals as news came that our air force would land four transports that night.

There were many reasons for pride, but one fact above others made my heart swell. There were no VIPs in the rescue process. There was only one special category: mothers with small children. Everyone else took his and her place in a queue, on a first-come-first-served basis. Every Indian was an equal. Every Indian would find a place.

Our ambassador, Ranjit Rae, was at the airport: calm, collected, methodical. Every member of our diplomatic mission had become missionary. It is not easy to get things right in an environment soaked with dread, uncertainty and the strange pitfalls of national systems still controlled by those who live by the line of some archaic rule book. Our embassy got things right and the armed forces, who as ever placed service far above risk, made the perfect team.

Relief has so many meanings. But true relief comes the moment you step on your own land. People began to talk. There was just one point of focus: the Prime Minister. A thoughtful doctor from Punjab, standing in the airport bus next to me, put it all together with pithy common sense. "All my life," he said, "I have paid all my taxes. Today Narendra Modi has made every rupee I gave worth it."

Aristotle might have taken his cue from Destiny: life too has a mystery beginning, a troubled middle and an uncertain end. Prose can be reshaped, but when does the full stop appear in a life sentence? God knows.



A root problem needs a root answer
By M J Akbar
18th April 2015

Nearly seven decades of freedom have been frittered away by outsourcing the management of minority problems to middlemen who have enriched themselves.

Education comes in many forms when experience is your teacher. I recall the day when I was part of a delegation to some muscular regional satrap. There was only one point on our agenda: the extent, quality and depth of education among minorities, with a stress on how to do far more for the Muslim girl child. A worthy cause brought together a worthy lot: an assortment of editors, educationists, NGO heads, marginal do-gooders. We sat in the room adjacent to the satrap's office with beatific smiles on our faces. After the compulsory wait, we entered his sanctum in a solemn file.

The smiles became a trifle stretched in the presence of the Honoured Leader. A throat cleared. Something subdued was said. A paper was presented. The Great Man read it with a look of sincere attention, as if each sentence of our collective wisdom was leaving an indelible mark on his ideological compass. He nodded.

Then all heaven broke loose. Uncertain half-smiles were replaced with fawning by delegates that verged on froth, and managed to shock every cynical fibre in my very cynical nervous system. Everyone demanded, brazenly, something for himself. An editor-owner of a small newspaper wanted more advertising. Someone else wanted to fill a vacancy at the head of some institution. The passion and diligence with which they pursued their individual greed was worth a chapter in the book of trade.

I learnt, later, that quite a few of these requests were honoured. As for the community's education, nothing much changed. Perhaps we can take some satisfaction from the fact that if it did not get better, it did not get worse either.

It was most interesting, therefore, to learn that the group of Muslim clerics who called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi about a week ago discussed something quite outside the traditional box of engagement issues. They went to talk about a reality that has been building up for some time, but has acquired quiet momentum in the last few years: the rising influence of a well-funded Wahhabi movement in the daily life of Indian Muslims, as well as control of their symbolic institutions.

The extraordinary strength of India's inter-faith harmony lies in principles that are as old as faith: in sarva dharma sambhav and in verses of the Quran that say, with simple clarity, your faith for you and my faith for me. This was the inclusive message at the heart of our great struggle for an independent, modern India, in the famous speeches of faith-and-community leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, visionaries for whom a strong and united India was far more important than any partisan interest.

The British, who were certainly not fools, recognised very quickly that their rule could never be sustained against the power of a united India. They encouraged organisations, within all religions, that worked for separation rather than harmony, and nurtured the politics of division long before the concept of Pakistan came to the forefront. The partition of Bengal in 1905 is certainly not the sole example. This bred a reaction. What is remarkable is that the broad mass of Indians remained committed to co-existence despite pressure and periodic outbursts of violence that often peaked to vicious levels.

But advocates of social separatism have refused to accept defeat; they lurk in corners of our demographic and political framework, waiting to pounce upon a chink and turn it into a chasm. This remains the primary challenge for India's Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

Cultural and faith factors have contributed in keeping sections of the minority trapped in educational deprivation, inequity, indignity and horrendous poverty. Today’s young recognise the prospect of economic prosperity in an equal, shared and dynamic India.

It is conventional, in policy discourse, to use the term "socio-economic". This phrase has an extra resonance on our subcontinent, for cultural and faith factors have contributed more than their share in keeping sections of the people trapped in educational deprivation, inequity, indignity and horrendous poverty.

The problem is at the roots, the answers must also be found there. Nearly seven decades of freedom have been frittered away, as far as this dilemma is concerned, by outsourcing the management of minority problems to middlemen who have enriched themselves at the cost of the community. Their names are littered across the political horizon. Since their primary interest is personal welfare, these pseudo-leaders ally very readily with those who preach separatism, because their own shop finds customers only in the politics of bonded control.

Here is the good news. This old politics has a new enemy: the young of the 21st century. Today's young recognise something that was either unavailable, or obscured, to their parents: the prospect of economic prosperity in an equal, shared and dynamic India. Give the young a chance through that great instrument of hope, education, and an opportunity through that formidable source of empowerment, an expanding, job-rich economy, and India will grasp that destiny promised so long ago, and elusive ever after.


If: The chasm between dead and missing
by M J Akbar
11th April 2015

The British were implacably hostile to Bose. The Congress was amenable; Subhas Bose was not.

Intelligence agencies keep their secrets well because they are intelligent as well as secretive. Governments keep files classified for three or five decades because they wait till both the principal personae and the issues are dead. On a very, very few occasions, documents boomerang. They wake up the dead. Subhas Chandra Bose has become the ghost at Macbeth's banquet, a haunting reminder that power was once purchased at a price.

From the moment news filtered through the war haze that the plane carrying Bose, charismatic leader of the Indian National Army, had crashed in Taipei on 18 August 1945, his fate has been wrapped in alternative narratives best described in two words: "dead" and "disappeared". The first was the preferred conclusion of the establishment; the second was the view of the people of India. If we want to understand why there was such a dramatic conflict over interpretation of an event, we must appreciate what the establishment of 1945 represented.


What did Jawaharlal Nehru fear when he continued IB snooping?
By M J Akbar
April 11, 2015

Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were too similar to cooperate beyond a point, for there was only one place at the top and Gandhi had reserved it for Nehru.

Both came from privileged families. Both harvested an excellent education into intellectually stimulating public discourse and books: While Nehru was descriptive, perceptive and sometimes lyrical, Bose was analytical and strategic. Both could have been glamorous pillars of the Raj but chose a lifetime of sacrifice and struggle in the cause of freedom. Both leaned to the Left without toppling into communism. Both were heroes, whose private lives were also a testimony to their extraordinary charisma. Both were nationalists as well as internationalists.

It is not widely known that when Bose chose to enter the World War-II as an ally of the Axis powers, he told Japan that he had no desire to replace the British empire with a Japanese one. Both were fiercely independent.


A premature Prize matures
By M J Akbar
4th April 2015 

The nuclear deal with Iran that Barack Obama and John Kerry pushed through, will be a landmark achievement in the modern history of strategic negotiations.

ne of the minor mysteries of this teenage century is how a toddler American President managed to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2008 after just weeks in office. Barack Obama had done nothing more notable than defeat the era of George W. Bush, an incumbent burdened with voter fatigue. Obama was brilliant; his victory was sensational; but these are not criteria considered sufficient by Oslo to hand over a prestigious gong with large cheque attached.

Presidents are expected to get such supplementary benefits to their pension fund, but only after they have done pretty hefty lifting in some dark corner of this very rough neighbourhood called the world. For the large school of satirists, Bush was good enough as reason. As chief architect of the Iraq war in Iraq, Bush sat on top of the list of warmongers. Anyone who could remove his hawks from their nest in the White House was ipso facto a peacemaker. Ergo.

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