Jan 182015

I write for the DNA, 13th of January

Amidst all the international attention on the Paris shootings, and Charlie Hebdo – much of the world missed out the increasingly violent conflict between Boko Haram, the Nigerian extreme Islamist group, and the Nigerian Government. Last week, the Nigerian town of Baga, that lies in the North of the country, saw an armed attack by the Boko Haram on civilians that led to an estimated 2000 plus people killed. It is currently difficult to be precise about the number of killings simply because Boko Haram is still in control of the town, and getting information about the atrocities committed is difficult.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald

Villagers from Baga, a network of 16 fishing communities on the southern shores of Lake Chad, have told of hundreds, and perhaps as many as 2000 locals, being gunned down by militias who arrived on trucks – from which they offloaded motorcycles, to give chase to those who fled on foot, most of whom were children, women and the elderly who were not capable of running.

More than 1000 of 20,000 who are estimated to have fled the villages are reportedly stuck on an island on Lake Chad – with no food and inadequate shelter.

However, the Nigerian Government has disputed the number, and has said this:

“From all available evidences, the number of people who lost their lives during that attack has so far not exceeded about 150 in the interim. This figure includes many of the terrorists who were bearing arms and got killed in the course of their attack and battle with troops.

“It should be noted that Baga and the neighbouring towns have been under a series of attacks and harassment by the terrorists. In the course of this, many residents have left, leaving the population in the town almost seriously depleted. Many were also able to escape while the terrorists’ battle with troops lasted.

“The figure given by sources who claim to be eyewitnesses must be an extremely exaggerated estimate. Unfortunately, this figure is now being bandied about in a section of the media as if it has been authenticated. It cannot be true,” he said

Whatever the figure maybe – the fact remains that Boko Haram is a threat that is taken seriously by both the Nigerian government and the world at large. Boko Haram is on theUnited States’ list of terror organisations

Who or What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram, literally translated means ‘westernisation forbidden’, is one of the most extreme Islamist groups that operates in Africa, and has, as it’s stated mandate, the establishment of a ‘pure’ Islamic State that is governed by their interpretation of the Sharia. According to the BBC:

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

Set up at the turn of the millennium by Mohammed Yusuf, the organisation has been spreading its tentacles slowly across Northern Nigeria. The group attracted followers

“….under its roof by offering welfare handouts, food, and shelter. Many of the people the group attracted were refugees from the wars over the border in Chad and jobless Nigerian youths. The source of the group’s money at this stage of its existence is not clear. Members of the Borno religious establishment say that Yusuf received funds from Salafist contacts in Saudi Arabia following two hajj trips that Yusuf made during this time”

Boko Haram Tactics

Boko Haram has been primarily terrorising other Muslims in the northern part of Nigeria. They believe that they, and they alone, have the right to decide what variant of Islam should be taught. They have been at the forefront of bombing mosques, attacking Friday prayers, killing preachers and murdering the devout. Their intention, one could say, was to become the sole voice of Muslims in the area, and they killed those (especially other Muslims) who stood in their way. Termed the Nigerian Taliban, the group came into the limelight when Mohammed Yunus got killed in a pitched gun battle between his supporters and the army.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the Boko Haram has been escalatingviolence and terror in Nigeria in the last 4 years. And now it has spread its terror further to try and intimidate other communities in Nigeria.

Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.

It hit the international headlines once again in April 2014 when it kidnapped around 300 school girls, many of whom were converted to Islam and married off to Boko Haram fighters.

A video message from the leader of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. 

Boko Haram and the Islamic State

As Boko Haram grows stronger in Nigeria, partly fuelled by its own success and partly because the Government has abandoned large swathes of Northern Nigeria to the terror groups, there is genuine concern that they may join hands with the other bunch of brutal, neo fascist Islamist groups such as Islamic State, to cut a swathe across the region.

ISIS, like Boko Haram seems to be interested in conquering territory rather than launching an al-Qaeda-style global jihad. Boko Haram is taking advantage of the lawlessness and lack of border control in the Nigerian borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, like ISIS which uses the Syrian-Iraqi region as its safe ground. Nevertheless, there is an important difference. Boko Haram operates within Nigeria which faces state failure signs in its Northern region, ISIS on other hand operates in the absence of any state authority.

Both ISIS and Boko Haram have taken advantage of the political and strong state vacuum in the regions to establish their authority.

Going forward, restoring Government and the power of the State will be an important step in rebuilding legitimate political authority that will restore power back to the people. It is neither going to be easy nor is it going to be quick. It will be a long hard journey, and an already afflicted people are going to be beggared even more. For the sake of future generations in the region, it is imperative that a regional solution is found that checks the advance of these organisations and decimates their foundation. It will be a Herculean task, one filled with human right violations, dead people and shattered societies.

And, the question that everyone needs to ask and answer is this, how do you deal with a bunch of nihilists who think nothing of strapping a bomb to a 10-year-old and turning her into a suicide bomber. How do you deal with an organisation whose members think of death as the ultimate goal? How do you check their advance without becoming all those things yourself? And, finally, how do you rehabilitate a traumatised populace and bring them back to modernity. To win the war on terror, these are questions that need to be answered.

Jan 182015

My blog on Charlie Hebdo shootings, in DNA on 8th January 2015

Is the price of offending nutcases, death? How far do you hold your silence? Who all are you supposed to be scared of? Can you really blaspheme against a religion you don’t follow?  If you don’t believe in God, or you don’t believe in the story of the origin of the universe in terms of religious reference points, if you don’t believe in a ‘One God’ theory and are joyfully polytheistic, if you like beef, if you laugh at idols, if you question the Virgin Birth, if you don’t believe that Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet— are you committing blasphemy or going against religious beliefs?  What if they are not your religious beliefs? Are you supposed to follow the religious dogma of religions you don’t follow? And why?

There is this extreme religious fundamentalist arrogance that looks at the world and expects it to be reordered as per the dictates of someone’s interpretation of a ‘holy book’. And the reason the term holy book is in quotes is that there is no one holy book for all the people, and there never will. Every time, we give in to any section of population whose sentiments are ‘hurt’ by some depiction or the other, we are not just giving up on the essence of religion, but the essence of a Secular Democratic Republic. The job of the State is not to assuage offended egos, and self appointed guardians of morality, religion and God, but to protect the rights of the individual whose right to express and expression is threatened.



Some of the illustrations in Charlie Hebdo

The ruling against the representation of the Prophet was to prevent idolatry (which is considered to be taboo in Islam).  However, when people, who are neither followers ofIslam nor of any religion, are killed by terrorists for physically depicting the Prophet, this is the most primitive form of idolatry behaviour possible. A human sacrifice to an angry God.  No God, no religion asked for this. Self appointed guardians of religion, who are possibly borderline psychopaths, are setting the agenda and expect the rest of the universe to follow out of fear.

Expecting people who do not follow a faith to follow the taboos of a faith is not just nonsensical, it also interferes with other people’s freedom to religion of their choice. I have been hearing voices on social media, op-ed pieces in respected newspapers on how restraint is needed in expression. This piece from the Financial Times especially hit hard–

Financial Times later changed this to a version that did not include the word stupid. Actually, Charlie Hebdo is not being stupid. They are exercising their freedoms.

There was an inexplicable quote by a woman I really admired as a school girl, Kiran Bedi –

Why provoke is a good question but maybe a better question is why do some people get provoked while most of the world doesn’t. And, why are we supposed to give up our freedoms for these whiny, attention grabbing types? And how long do we live in fear, and for what all?

We live in a world where anything can cause offense. The fact that you eat meat can cause offense to a vegetarian; the fact that you as a woman demand control on your body may cause offense to an orthodox religious type; the fact that you interpret the scriptures can cause offense to those who believe in a comic book version of the religion. There is no end to those who get offended and throw a hissy fit that says ‘pay attention to me and my views, I am important’.

Every time we give in to buy peace, we forget one thing – peace cannot be purchased. And peace purchased to assuage the anger of a psychopath carrying a gun, is temporary fragile peace. You will do something else tomorrow to offend him and cause him to raise the gun again. This is not about religion. This is about domination of all spaces in society and making them comply with a twisted vision of reality.

It needs to stop now. Peshawar and Paris are the clarion calls to stop appeasing bigots of all shades.  And, finally I will end with a quote attributed to Charab – the cartoonist who was murdered yesterday by terrorists-

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”

Jan 182015

My column in the DNA on the 29th of December,

It is that time of the year when publicity hungry groups go chasing movies they want to ban. Two years ago, it was those who wanted Vishwaroopam to be bannedbecause it affected their sensibility and hurt their sentiments, now it is another set of groups who want PK to be banned because it hurts their sensibility and sentiments. At a very fundamental level, the two sets of groups, despite their affiliations, are similar. What do they want – they want the world to be re-imagined in their own narrow, humourless, intolerant, uniform, black and white view of what is acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, there is this deep rooted arrogance that they are God’s spokespeople and God, for some unknown reason, requires their intervention. If anyone even remotely believes that this is linked to faith or devotion, they would be mistaken. This is linked to piggy backing on a more famous brand name (God, Religion, Stardom) for interested parties to make a name for themselves and establish themselves as a source of unelected power and influence.

Do people have the right to protest – indeed they do. Can people protest about a film that they dislike? Of course. But do people or groups have the right to prevent others from watching a film – a very emphatic no.  A film bothers you – don’t watch it. A book bothers you, don’t read it. A piece of music offends you, don’t hear it. There is nothing and no one forcing someone to consume any artistic product. On the other hand, the groups that protest, try and force the State to ban a film; or prevent an author from a public gathering; or prevent the performance of a play; or ask for a book ban; thereby depriving others of consumption, by threat of creating a law and order situation – do try and force the rest of the world to accede to their wishes. This is intrinsically undemocratic and also goes against a civilizational ethos of not just pluralism, but also dissent. People have the right to express their creativity and their point of view, without threat from outraged hordes.

Protest against PK in Jammu. PTI

Last year, while writing about the outrage over multiple things (including Vishwaroopam), I had written this:

Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

The government must send out a stern message to all those who are protesting against the film (or any other work of expression). You have the right to protest and the government will defend it. But break the law, and you will go to jail. Vandalism, threats, and trying to shout down the rest of the population will not be tolerated. The message needs to go out loud and clear, for the more these groups are emboldened by inaction, the more they will thrive.

Dec 292014

First published in the @DNA
296559-congress-leadersThe Indian National Congress celebrated Foundation Day on Sunday. 130 years ago, the first session of the party was held in Mumbai. In these 130 years, the Congress has fought many battles – lost some, won some others.

But never in its history has it been so bereft of focus and leadership as it is in its current situation. Today, it is less a matter of 44 seats, and more the fact that the party seems adrift, waiting for someone to come by and save them. That is not going to happen. The transformation has to happen from within, and it is not going to be simple. So here are 5 things that the INC needs to do to revive itself (if it so wishes).

Democratise: There was a time that the party attracted the brightest and the best. The most idealistic. It was at its most glorious and its most effective when people from all walks of life associated themselves with the party and worked with it to achieve a certain common objective. The party was home to Jaiprakash Narayan an ardent socialist, and Rajaji– who was not; to Gandhi who believed in the village economy, and Nehru who believed in industrialisation; to Gokhale and Tilak whose ideological clash was legendary; to Patel who believed in a strong Centre and an Ambedkar who believed in a Federal State. It was people from different ideological standpoints who were secure enough in their beliefs and ideals to work with others with differencing ideologies for a larger goal. The party could bring together different strands and weave them to a greater goal. The modern Congress, since the early 1970’s has been failing in achieving this. Pluralism is not just a word. It is a practice.

Get rid of hereditary rule: Republicanism is a higher form of evolution. Hereditary rule is two versions earlier. As a party the Congress has moved from Republican mode to a monarchy. And, it is showing. In video technology there is a simple technical rule – you cannot move from a higher form of anything to a lower form of that something without perceptible loss in quality – ironically it is called ‘gen loss’ or generational loss. With each subsequent transfer, the gen loss is higher – sounds familiar? Look at point one again. The party needs to throw its doors open, and let meritocracy be the governing mantra. While this still does not mean that the best will get to the top, the most adept at survival may. The problem with the principle of dynastic succession is that your leaders have no survival instinct – they never had to fight to get to the top or fight to stay there. It is all too easy for them.

Get rid of High Command culture: If you follow one and two, then this is natural progression. The state units cannot be subservient to the central party. Not if you want the state units to thrive. And if you don’t have healthy state units, it will be very difficult for them to command respect amongst the people, and without respect you cannot win. It is actually quite simple. With the passage of years, the top down mode of leadership no longer works, especially in a dynamic environment. If you need to build strong units – you need to decentralise, and empower your cadre and local level leadership. If you don’t empower your own party workers, how do you propose to empower the people?

Buy a calendar, take a crash course in colloquial language: It is almost 2015. Stop talking like you belong in the 1980’s. People have moved on. Their aspirations have scaled up. They are no longer looking at being saved by you (or any other party). People are looking for service delivery. We are looking for professionalism. Ask yourself one question – if you weren’t the Congress Party, and all other things being equal, would you vote for yourself? Then ask yourself what do you need to do to change that?

Apologise to your supporters: People like my parents have voted for the party all their lives. The party has let them down. Terribly so. Many of their lifelong supporters did not vote last time – they were too angry with the party to vote for you, them, but loved it enough not to vote for others. So they abstained. The party needs to talk to its base to find out how it has erred in its direction.

This is not an easy route, nor is it a guarantee for success. However, if as a party they want to survive they need to try. To build back credibility is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be a cakewalk in rebuilding an organisation ground up. But, if the party needs to celebrate its next decadal anniversary, it definitely needs to heed the wake up call that it has got from the people of India.

Dec 292014

The Amnesty US report on the IS’ war crimes – for the DNA on 27th December


The Amnesty USA Report on “Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State captivity in Iraq” makes for difficult and brutal reading. Amnesty spoke to some of the 300 women and girls, from the Yazidi community who had managed to escape the IS, and the accounts of systematic brutality, torture and rape of girls and women are laid out in a matter of fact manner, that makes it even more impactful.

Narrative after narrative focuses on the utter dehumanisation of prisoners and the treatment meted out to them.
A 15 year old girl Arwa, had this account :

“In Rambussi we were held in a house with five other girls. There they did to me what they did to many other girls. I was raped. My cousin was not molested; they wanted to take her to marry her to a man but in the end they left her with us and then we managed to escape. One of the girls said she was not raped but I don’t know if it is true; I hope it is true. Another did not talk about what happened to her. The others were raped. The men were all Iraqis. They said that if we killed ourselves they would kill our relatives.”

A 16 year old, Randa, had this account:

“I was taken to Mosul and kept there all the time. First in a building which they called the maqarr (headquarters). We were about 150 girls and five women. A man called Salwan took me from there to an abandoned house. He also took my cousin, who is 13 years old; we resisted and they beat us. He took me as his wife by force. I told him I did not want to and tried to resist but he beat me. My nose was bleeding, I could not do anything to stop him. I ran away as soon as I could. Luckily they did not do anything to my cousin, did not force her to marry, and she escaped with me. I went to a doctor here, who said that I was not pregnant and didn’t have any disease, but I can’t forget what happened to me.”

Girls were raped, sold into slavery, sold into ‘marriage’ – the report is unclear as to what happened to the men. It is estimated that hundreds of men were killed in the battle, or forced to convert under the threat of death. The 300 women and girls who escaped, are the lucky ones. It is estimated that 1000’s of women and girls are still being held by the Islamic State and most are facing brutality and violence on an ongoing basis.  Most of the women were taken captive in August 2014 when the IS invaded the Sinjar regions of North West Iraq. According to Amnesty, most of the families in this region have at least one family member missing.

The IS preferred women and girls who were ‘beautiful’, as they did girls who were virgins. One of the accounts by a girl who escaped : ““They kept bringing prospective buyers for us but luckily none of them took us because we are not beautiful and we were always crying and holding on to each other.”

Another escapee said,  “My sister and I told them we were married but they said they would bring a doctor to examine us and those who were virgins and had lied about being married would be punished, so we admitted that we were not married. If we had known that they were going to kill us we would have continued to lie but we were afraid that we would be raped….”

However, being married was no protection from being raped or sold:    “I had my little boy with me and my pregnancy was very visible already but one of the guards chose me to be his wife. He said that if I did not consent to marrying him he would sell me on to another man who would take me to Syria. I let him believe that I would marry him and managed to run away before he could carry out his threats ” is the testimony of 19-year-old Abla, who was pregnant when she was taken prisoner.   Many of the young women committed suicide rather than face a life of sexual slavery. The accounts of their death are chilling.

“Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful. I think she knew that she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.”
Not all suicide attempts were successful. Wafa, 27, talks about her unsuccessful attempt at suicide: “The man who was holding us said that either we marry him and his brother or he would sell us. At night we tried to strangle ourselves with our scarves. We tied the scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could, until I fainted. Two girls who were held with us woke up and stopped us and then stayed awake to watch over us. When they fell asleep at 5am we tried again, and again they woke up and stopped us. I could not speak for several days after that.”

The women who escaped are so traumatised by their experience that relatives fear that they may never heal, and watch over them in case they commit suicide. The men who ‘purchased’ Yazidi girls and women, were Iraqis and Syrians and from other Arab nations. They were not necessarily fighters. And, the ‘marriages’ were registered at a shariah court.  One of the escapees said of her husband’s family “His wife was very nice to us and felt sorry for us. She cried with us and wanted to help but she couldn’t.” This is a tragedy on so many levels that it is going to take generations of sustained work to restore some form of rights to women in the region.

While the world collectively wrings its hands and wonders what can be done, the IS is cutting a swathe through the region with tactics like this, that spread fear. And, if we believe that this is against just the Yazidi , we would be  wrong. As the Amnesty report points out, the IS  kills everyone who is not like it and doesn’t support the Islamic state – which means pretty much all sane people. IS “ carried out a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq. It forced hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic and religious minorities, who had lived in the region for centuries – including Shi’a (who are a minority in northern Iraq),Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Yazidis, Kakai, and Sabean Mandaeans – to abandon their homes and villages”.

The report makes for hard reading. But, read it, we must, because if nothing else we owe it those who died, who are still in captivity, who are slaves in a modern world. What the IS has committed, is war crimes. But, how do you deal with a force that refuses to recognise the basic rules of the modern world, and is hell bent on burning and destroying everything that is  not in the image of its own distorted view of the universe?  In a world where most modern Nation States are bound by basic rules, which they may bend but not break, how do you deal with an entity that follows none? The more one reads on this, the great fear is that, the rest of the world has to sink to the same brutal levels to put an end to this