Mittwoch, 14. Januar 2009

The Terror Within

Shortly after the terror attacks in Bombay, the writer Altaf Tyrewala wrote a piece in the tabloid 'Mumbai Mirror' (Dec.7, 2008). He recounted an experience when going to the local RTO (the office of the 'Road Transport Organisation'). What he saw there is so familiar to most of us in India that we hardly take notice anymore. Tyrewala stood in a long queue in front of a window, waiting to authenticate a document he needed for his car. The clerk at the window greeted each client with an open demand for a bribe. If you didn't pay he would find a reason to turn you away, but if you did, "there was nothing he wouldn't do. No car owner's signature on the document? No problem. Registration card barely legible? Will do. Every flaw in your papers, however grave, could be overlooked, for a price".
Tyrewala called his piece "We, the terrorists", because, he argued, "even the massacre of 26/11 had its roots in corruption, the culmination of countless acts of dereliction of duty by the countless faceless people who exist around us, and are often one of us. Those ten monsters managed to get in with fake ID and SIM cards, sailing unhindered into Mumbai's coast, because enough people along the way chose the convenience of a quick buck over the righteous path of restraint and vigilance". He wondered how many people would have died at the railway station when they fled the bullets and slipped on other people's paan gunk. "Our spitting, littering, thieving, bribing, shirking, polluting, insensitive and illegal ways can, depending on the situation, switch from innocuous to lethal in a second". The same goes with the countless bribe-takers among the functionaries of the State. Like the customs officer in 1993 who allowed a crate of smuggled alcohol to be landed on the beach south of Bombay. It contained the RDX which, weeks later, caused the death of 253 people.
I was reminded of Tyrewala's piece while reading the flood of articles about the scandal at Satyam Computers. All of them expressed shock that this billion dollar fraud was perpetrated by people who enjoyed the highest respect as corporate citizens and who managed a highly respected company from a sector known for its high standards of business ethics. But most commentators also said that, while the controls needed to be strengthened, this was basically an 'aberration', the work of a few greedy persons. It did not represent a systemic weakness in India's corporate culture, wich was sound.
I beg to differ. I would dispute the capability of virtually every Indian company to remain spotless in a country and a political system where you have to pay bribes at virtually every step of the way. After the Satyam story broke, local papers in Hyderabad wrote darkly about the 'heavy penalty' which Ramalinga Raju had to pay when, in 2004, the government in Andhra Pradesh changed. Raju, a confidant of the previous Chief Minister, had to ingratiate himself to the new one, in order to 'make amends' and to make sure Satyam would continue to get access to land banks so as to locate its new office space. It may be that this was even more true for its sister concern Maytas, an infrastructure company. But all IT companies are 'land hungry', due to their rapid growth and the constant demand for new offices.
In India, Government is by far the biggest landlord and closely regulates every land transaction. There is no way even IT companies can escape rubbing shoulders with politicians, which is the kiss of death for clean deals. In order to stay clear many companies outsource these services to land brokers - but does that absolve them? Whether outsourced or pushed down the corporate ladder, it is impossible for a company in India not to be tainted by the stench of corruption. There is this pretty image of the lotus flower spreading its purity in a pool of dirty water. It is not an apt metaphor of corporate reality in India.
Admittedly, it is not unique to India. In the USA alone, the rotten eggs of the last years - from Enron to Bernard Madoff - are too many to enumerate. For a long time, Europe thought that it resided on a higher moral platform than the capitalist Yankees or the street-smart Asians, not to speak of the Russian oligarchs. The bribery scandal at Siemens, bluest of blue chips, told us another story. The same goes with the inbuilt checks which are supposed to sound the alarm when 'creative accounting' takes over. Price, Waterhouse&Cooper's, one of the Big Four accountants worldwide, have been Satyam's auditors since 2001. Satyam's internal auditors have received an American award for 'best practices' in 2006, and respectable Ernst&Young made Mr.Raju its 'Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2007.
But it would be wrong to brush all the countries with the same brush. Clearly, in a country like India where bribery is a way of life, where politicians and political parties depend on slush funds to survive, things are much worse than in most other economies. A report by the British Investment Bank Noble Group, published on January 12, 2009, puts it politely when it says that in at least one hundred among the five hundred largest companies at the Bombay Stock Exchange there are "accounting problems". And it states that in India each of the three basic checks on a pomoter's power - auditors, independent directors, regulators - "is either conflicted or enfeebled by political interference. Our experience suggests that manipulative accounting and aggressive promoter practices are more common in India than is generally believed".
More than is generally believed? Well, not in India, for sure. Ask any businessman and he will tell you that the 'RTO clerk' is omnipresent in the system, and that hardly any company can avoid lining up outside his window. Satyam is, as I suggested, different only insofar as the bribing and defrauding did not end at the top, but started and stayed there. This is uncommon and must have to do with the extraordinary greed - 'land hunger' - which took possession of the Raju family, hoarding over ten thousand acres of land in the family kitty of Satyam and Maytas. Normally, the dirty work is being done way down, by clerks and accountants, or it is exported to 'dalals', so that the chairmen and board members can sun themselves in the warm glow of good corporate governance.
One symptom of how the terror of corruption has taken hold of us can be seen in the letter in which Raju confesses to his misdeeds. Misdeeds? The letter doesn't say so. Raju makes it sound as if all he cared for was the welfare of his company. He had to doctor the accounts and invent new revenues and cash reserves so as to ensure the attractiveness of his company. There is admission of error, but the bleeding heart doesn't go as far as admit guilt, or express an awareness of the immorality of his acts. All Raju wanted to do was save his 53'000 'Satyamites' from falling into the abyss. Never mind that it was him who had brought them to its edge.
But let's end the finger-pointing. The greedy RTO clerk and the sanctimonious Ramalinga Raju are not 'them', but 'us'. They are not windows into a dark reality but just ... mirrors. Law-breaking is a way of life here, and I don't exclude myself from it. I tested myself the other day, when I drove to the Post Office in the morning. On a two-kilometres stretch of road, with very little traffic, I violated the traffic rules no less than four times - turning left where I wasn't allowed, burning a red light, going up a 'no entry' street, parking in a 'no parking' zone - all with the excuse that it was early morning, and traffic was thin. I was aware of it on that day, but I would not have been otherwise, inured by the fact that 'everyone does it'. Not least the police: at the red light, I followed a police car who took the absence of any cars at the crossing as an invitation to proceed.
Let me end with Altaf Tyrewala's conclusion: "I was exaggerating when I termed that RTO clerk a terrorist. I have no reason to doubt that he is as patriotic and peace-loving as the rest of us. But if it ever turns out that he'd illegally okayed the documents of a car that was eventually used for anti-national activities, I would hope that RTO clerk is arrested and tried like the very worst of them".

Samstag, 13. Dezember 2008

Will there be War?

No, not yet.

Last Wednesday, people in Bombay formed a human chain. It was two weeks since the bombs had gone off, and from Virar to Colaba people congregated for a few minutes to form a chain of a hundred kilometres. It was to remember the victims of 26/11, and to remind each other that the soldarity among the survivors still held.

But there were many gaps in that chain. After the saturation bombings of TV images, there was little live reporting. And the next morning, the newspapers buried the event in the inside pages.

The front pages, instead, were full of Pakistan. How Pakistan needed to be taught a lesson, how that country was in denial by blaming India for the attacks rather than taking a look at itself, how India needed to free Pakistan from its own demons . The shouts for war are growing louder. I was startled by the voice of a man whom I know well, a reasonable and warm-hearted human being. He said: "We have to finally show the Pakistanis that we mean business".

The statement of Arun Shourie, member of parliament for the BJP, in the debate on the terror attacks, got wide coverage. Who wants to listen to Gandhi, he seemed to ask, who wants the Mahatma's bland admonition, that 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind': "Not an eye for an eye, but an eye for two eyes!", he shouted in Parliament. "Not a tooth for a tooth, but a tooth for a whole jaw!" - the broken tooth being Bombay, and the jaw to be broken being Pakistan.

But there are also sane voices, authoritative ones.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said quite clearly that war is not an option, and numerous commentators explained why. In the 'Indian Express Shekhar Gupta warned that it would be a short war, with no permanent strategic gains for India. The US and the world community would do their best to stop the two nuclear States from spinning out of control. In fact a war would hurt India's interests, because it would bring down the civilian government in Pakistan, and with it its fledgling democracy, by restoring Army rule. Kashmir would be back on the front-burner, and with it the legitimacy of all these terrorist outfits in Pakistan. A war would reduce the pressure on them along the Afghan border. In short, it would strengthen the network which had brought havoc to Bombay rather than weaken it.

Finally, there was the voice of the electorate. Six States voted in regional elections, and from the villages of central India to the borders with Burma in the East and with Pakistan in the West, the verdict seemed unanimous: terrorism is bad, but so is the terrorism of poverty. Give us not only police security, but also food security, and we will (re-)elect you. (As I write, the results from Jammu&Kashmir are not yet in).

Yet, among the classes that count when it comes to military war - the urban electorate, the political class, the social and economic elites - there is no doubt that nerves are badly frayed, that frustration over Pakistan is at a high, that teeth are clenched. One more spark, and war could explode.

I remember a similar moment in 2002, after the attack against the Indian Parliament by the 'Lashkar-e-Toyba', among others. The Indian Army mobilised, Pakistan followed suit, and both moved their tank regiments to the border, staring at each other within shooting distance. For months, there was a delicate balance between war and no-war. Then, in May 2002, a three-man commando stormed into an Indian Army camp in Kaluchak near Jammu and killed 34 people, most of them wives and children of soldiers. Not only the politicians were furious, even the Army was bristling, rearing to strike back. For a moment it seemed that this had been the last straw, that an inflection point had been crossed. It took the whole weight of Western diplomacy - and Prime Minister Vajpayee's dithering - to stop India from crossing the border.

What will it be this time? What will happen if the next Indian city is attacked? Because make no mistake about it: the next attack will come. Internal security is in shambles, and to build it up will take five years, according to experts. And, as Shourie said in the same speech (rightly this time): The security apparatus will be preparing for yesterday's attack - yesterday's targets, yesterday's tactics - and not tomorrow's. And when it comes, the political masters will probably buckle under the pressure from an angry public and from their own frustration.


But then, isn't traditional war old-fashioned and deja-vu, almost as old as a medieval clash of swords and lances, of horses and war elephants?

Earlier this week, when I took a train into town, I passed the Office of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the Mantralaya, the Police Headquarters, the Gateway of India on my way to the Alibagh ferry. It reminded me of Kabul.

My earliest recollection of the Afghan capital is of a town with wide boulevards, with bustling bazaars and lawns in front of Government buildings, where people sat in groups and chatted. When I last visited, Kabul was in a state of siege, with police controls and security checks everywhere, the gardens full of sandbags instead of almond trees.

What I see in Mumbai today are the same signposts of war: police everywhere, X-Ray frames, even sandbags. And, in the last two weeks, the sound of helicopter rotors overhead. Of course, there still are the traffic jams, the beauty of 'Queen's Necklace', Rajabhai Tower and the Oval, the hawkers and the party-goers, the beggars and the tiffinwallahs. But by clinging to these securing images, aren't we screening out, unconsciously, all the tell-tale signs of a state of siege?

We are in a new kind of war, in which the concept of a frontline with trenches and bunkers seems like a romantic idea. Maybe our conscious mind refuses to accept that the new global warfare, like global trade, has no fixed borders anymore. We still cling to our old-fashioned concept of war so that we can create our comfortable private spaces, so that (at least in our heads) there is still the wide expanse of an open and friendly city.

But if we look closely, we will find that our unconscious selves have already internalised the fears of the new war. We worry when we send the children to school. When we take our morning stroll or drive to town, our eyes are alert instead of carefree or inward-looking. When I entered the train compartment yesterday, everyone looked at me intently, and observed my every movement - how I placed my shopping bag in the overhead compartment, how I took of my rucksack, and what I took out of it. Later, when I passed under the X ray frame at the Gateway and the beeper went off, the police asked what was in my bag. I said 'Laptop' and the officer, repeated loudly 'Computer' to his men, exchanging meaningful glances with them, as I unpacked it.

I was a bit angry, upset that I had passed through three checks on my way into town - MY town. But then I remembered the list of names and places which Mohammed Ansari had mentioned in his statement to the police. Ansari is the local Lashkar-e-Toyba accomplice who last February had reccied possible locations for the 'fedayeen' attack against Bombay. The list contained not only city landmarks and transport hubs, not only the Gateway and the famous hotels, the Government buildings and the Stock Exchange. There were also Temples and churches, suburban railway stations and picknick spots.

Among them was Mount Mary Church, not two hundred metres from where I live. Suddenly I realised, with a start, that war was not a distant thunder anymore, in far-away Kabul and Kandahar. Kandahar is also the name of a restaurant in the Oberoi Hotel in Bombay.

Will there be War? Aren't we in it already?

Freitag, 5. Dezember 2008

The Audacity of Hope?

The Audacity of Hope?

Dear Friends

Yesterday, one week after the terror attack in Bombay, I went to the Gateway of India, right next to the Taj Mahal Hotel.

I was not alone. A man called Suparn Verma had said on his blog last Saturday that he would stand in front of the Taj at six p.m. on December 3. What started as a one-man action became a tsunami. Thanks to blogs, Twittr, SMSes and E-Mails over 20’000 people descended on South Bombay, crowding not just the Gateway, but spilling over into the Regal Roundabout, and from there into the streets leading away from it, down the Colaba Causeway, past Leopold Café, right to the Nariman House lane.

There were no platforms, no official speakers, no public address system, no prepared agenda. People just walked along, stood around, assembled in small groups. From time to time slogans came up somewhere in the crowd, and died down, then someone started the National Anthem, making everyone stand still and join the singing, before the throng started again towards nowhere in particular, some with candles, some without.

Presumably, people had had the same reaction as we had, when the heard about it. They responded to the electronic messaging because they wanted to commemorate the dead, express their gratitude towards the soldiers, to the Hotel staffs. Or they wanted to express their disgust at the politicians and the State for having allowed terror to take over our life. The anger was palpabe. I saw an elderly Parsi gentleman standing in the middle of the road with others. A policeman nudged him gently aside, so that the cars stuck in the crowd could move again. He reacted sharply, brushed away the hand of the cop, and said something like ‘Leave me alone’.

Some people had come with placards, from small A4 sheets to large banners. They wore their agenda on their sleeves: ‘We the People’, said one, ‘Accountability and Anger’,’Enough of Gandhigiri. Now it’s tit-for-tat’. Some people cried ‘We want War’, ‘Ane eye for two eyes’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ – ‘Death to Pakistan’. But if the mood turned belligerent at times, it wasn’t so much against Pakistan as against the politicians. A poster read: ‘We would prefer a dog visit out house than a politician’, another: ‘There are a few more terrorists in India, and they are Politicians’.

But on the whole, it was a peaceful demonstration of Bombay’s citizens, yearning for peace, surprised and relieved that they suddenly found themselves not alone, without the agenda of political parties, without the hammering voices of politicians. Many had done some homework, came with ‘agendas for action’.They attracted volunteers, decided to stay connected, to get engaged, to stand up and be counted.

It was a moving display of ‘people’s power’. I had not seen anything like that for 37 years. In December 1971, almost to the day, thousands of people had marched from the Gateway to Kala Ghoda, from there to Flora Fountain, and on to MG Road and Victoria Terminus. It had been in support of the Bangladesh freedom fighters and the Indian Army which had taken on the Pakistan Army. But another year also came to mind, again almost to the day: December 1992. In comparison to 1971, the demonstrations, against the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, were a few lonely vigils at Flora Fountain and outside Mantralaya, and the exuberance of 1971 was replaced by fear and a deep sense of sadness.

This time, it was a mix of both. There was hope in the air, exhilaration that so many people came together, not only here, but also in Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad. There was a new-found sense of ‘yes, we can’. But, unlike that recent night at Grant Park, Chicago, it was tempered by grief, a sense of angry impotence, and a deep-felt concern for the survival of ‘the Idea of India’. But there was anger also, and it had a clear edge over the other feelings. There was a sense of ‘Yes, we can (throw you out)!’.

Is this, perhaps, India’s Obama moment? A few days before, I had written to a friend that in India ‘the Audacity of Hope’ had been overtaken by the ‘Audacity of Terrror’. Do I now have to revisit this pessimistic conclusion? Do the bombs and grenades and gunshots made us stand up, rather than silencing us? Will they provide a catharsis, a chance to clean up public life, politics, a ‘call to arms’ for Civil Society, to take responsibility, get engaged?

I don’t know, and doubts persist. How can a multitude of groups, people, friends, neighbours take responsibility beyond their personal lives? Who will give leadership, who will, as the ‘Times of India’ titled an article, provide ‘the face of Mumbai’, like Rudi Giuliani did after 9/11?

From the steps of Regal Cinema, as I looked at the multitude of people floating in all directions, not aggressively, vaguely focussed, waiting for nothing in particular to happen, I felt a deep void of leadership. In India today, all the leaders seem to be politicians, and they have perverted the very concept of leadership. The good men shy away from politics, and there is a huge empty space waiting to be filled. Because ultimately, there must be leadership, there is no alternative to it.

There must be a Gandhi somewhere around, a man, a woman who can give shape, focus, expression to that diffuse sense of revolt and hope. Nobody seems to believe that an Indian Obama could suddenly appear on the horizon.In the last few weeks, newspapaers have convincingly argued that in the political system of India, its size and and social complexity, its many faultlines and different aspirations, this just isn’t possible.

But that was before 26/11.

The attacks on Bombay have woken up the urban middle class, the upper-class elite, the businessmen and the media, like nothing has before, perhaps since 1947. Will it last, turn from anger and enthusiasm into action and transformation? I doubt it will, if there aren’t leaders rising from this movement, giving clarity, focus and organisational force to it.

And yet, I wonder. Maybe, just maybe, technology has changed the rules of the game. The networking capacities of the net and the mobile phone have perhaps done away with the old model of ‘a leader, a cadre, an organisation, a mass following’. Maybe we are at the threshold of ‘a million mutinies, now’ - grassroot mutinies, spontaneous, focussed around local, topical, burning issues, with the capacity to mobilise thousands of people within hours, keeping them networked, then letting them disperse again, coming together around another issue, another set of people.

Maybe this is an audacious hope. Maybe it is just a momentaneous reaction, a gut response to the ‘audacity of terror’ and the huge public insecurity.

But then, as Gandhi, as Barack Obama have shown, one has to ‘dare to dream’.

December 4, 2008

Freitag, 28. November 2008


For a while now, I have agonised whether I should start a blog. What can I add to the cyber chatter crowding the space? Are we not victims (and perpetrators) of too much information, to much gratuitous opinion, too much gossip? How can my soundbites make a difference? Should I not protect the space most in need of protection today - the private space, of oneself, of family and friends?
On the other hand: After I have left my job, many friends have (I believe honestly) told me that they miss my voice, my impressions on India, my stories. Would this be a way of re-connecting with them? Would my occasional blog give them a sense of perspective, a handle for understanding a reality which is getting more complex by the day?
I don't know, and so this first blog is a trial balloon, which I will send to some friends, asking you to respond (or not respond, if you feel indifferent about it).

You won't have to make a judgment just by reading this 'mission statement'. In fact, I have chosen this moment because it is a singular moment for the city we live in, and for us - a moment, therefore, to give vent to a few emotional reactions.

The attacks against South Bombay on November 26 is a watershed event. It is not the first, by far, but it does cut more deeply than earlier ones. Why? We may huff and haw, but we have to accept that we are part of the city's elite. The Taj and the Oberoi, Colaba Causeway and VT, Metro Cinema and the Gateway have been part of our social and psychological home, for a long time - in my case, for forty years. To see the flames leaping up towards the cupola of the Taj, to see the columns and arches turning black and shuddering under the impact of hand grenades, to see the water jets entering into rooms which were suffused with care and grace and luxury - all this was heartbreaking. It robbed me of a part of my own biography, my own history.

The Taj and VT and Cafe Leopold had provided, over the years and thorugh all the changes they witnessed, a quiet visual reassurance that life was a continuum, that some of the innocence we had felt in our youth, in the Sixties and Seventies, was still alive. We knew it unconsciously because the Towers were still standing there, the Sea Lounge was still looking the same, as was that magnificent staircase and all those paintings along the corridors.

For the last few days I have had hardly a chance to think about these things, since I was forced back into my old journalistic job. And I during one of the radio interviews I suddenly noticed that I was slipping back into using the name of 'Bombay' instead of 'Mumbai'. Was it a sign of nostalgia? Was it a sign of rebellion? I did it unconsciously, so I don't know. But what I do know is that the name 'Bombay' embodied some of those feelings which I have just described - a city of wide spaces, of beautiful old buildings, ramshackle or elegant, of tree-lined and deserted streets, laidback and also a bit lazy, casual even in the midst of furious haggling at Crawford Market.

This name has been officially replaced by 'Mumbai', and I have long resisted to using it. I have nothing against 'Mumbai', because it is the name given to the city by its non-English speakers, which is after all the majority. I also acknowledge it because it has this resonance of Mumba Devi, the local goddess of the Koli fisherfolk. But I object to the exclusiveness which Mumbai is now given, the obliteration of the old name, which after all was its birth name, given to it by the Portuguese and the Brits, when the islands from Mahim onwards started to be strung together.

But now another version of the name keeps getting into my head - Bomb-Bay. In the last few days the name took on a sinister ring, as bombs and bullets rained down on the people of Bombay, on ordinary travellers at CST, busineess tycoons at the Taj, on rich socialites at the Oberoi and nurses at Cama Hospital. And just as the facade of the Taj has lost its purety and innocence, the name of Bombay too has lost some of its charm, perhaps forever.

It has been stained before. Who could forget that other variation - 'Slumbay'? That is also part of the city, the Bombay of the shantytowns and the hovels along the footpaths and the railway lines, the Bombay of the poor. But 'Slumbay' never gained currency, perhaps for the shame it implied, perhaps because we refused to accept it as part of that proud city, because we felt that the slums too would one disappear and give its inhabitants some dignity of living.

Will it be the same with 'Bomb-bay'? Will we be able to erase this memory? Perhaps that is asking too much. Just as we cannot forget so much of what happens in the world, we can forgive the world. And so perhaps with Bombay: We will not forget those nights with flames billowing out of the windows, with the heavy curtains drawn on the third floor of Nariman House, with the furtive bodies appearing at the windows of the Oberoi. But we may forgive the city for what it has done to us, forgive its politicians and policemen, its fixers and babus - forgive ourselves. Maybe the bombs have woken us up to the war that is taking place, and the dangers it brings to all our lives - not from the AK-47s, but from the people who have sold this country to the highest bidders, and from us who have allowed them to run away with the loot.

As I write this I look sometimes at the TV screens - at the funerals of the police officers who have died under the bullets of the jihadis. One retired police officer had this to say: "Hemant Karkare has not been killed by the terrorists. He has been killed by our corrupt system". And we are part of it.