Monthly Archives: May 2010

Pune Bombing: Paying For The Sins Of The Father

Some strange goings-on in the attempt to track down those responsible for the Pune bombing in February. This week, there appeared to be a breakthrough when intelligence services apprehended Abdul Samad Siddi Bawa at Mangalore airport, where he had just arrived from Dubai. He is the brother of prime suspect and Indian Mujahideen operative Mohammad Zarar Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal.

However, when Home Minister P Chidambaram congratulated specialist anti-terrorist squad ATS on the arrest, it was Samad and not his brother who had suddenly become the main focus. He said in a statement on 25 May: “I compliment ATS Maharashtra, the Pune Police and Central agencies on apprehending the prime suspect within hundred days of the incident.”

According to The Hindu, the ATS had never included Samad’s name in their investigations and he has strenuously denied any involvement during questioning this week. The reason for his arrest seems to come down to the fact that an informant told investigators that it was Samad that planted the bomb in Pune, rather than his brother. Apparently they look rather similar. Strangely for a man who is supposed to have carried out a major terrorist attack, he decided to travel to Dubai openly, using his normal documentation.

The charges they have actually laid against him have nothing to do with Pune, and are actually related to supplying weapons to a Hindutva terrorist group, Abhinav Bharat, who are believed to be behind a series of bombings in Gujarat and Maharashtra in September 2008. It seems unlikely that a man who works for both Hindu and Muslim extremists would be the main figure in the Pune attack. The evidence that has so far emerged suggests that he is more opportunistic supplier than fundamentalist bomber. Having been picked up once before (and released) for questioning about his brother’s activities, it could be that Samad is just paying the price for a wayward black sheep in the family. In any case, it’s clearly another gaffe on the part of the Home Minister.


Man Tied To Tree For 27 Years

It would seem that the rural poor are not being given very good options when it comes to treating mentally ill family members. The best answer one Kashmiri woman could come up with after her husband went a bit loopy and started throwing stones at people was to tie him to a tree. He’s now been there for 27 years. They tried to build a shed for him but he smashed it up.

“My husband lost control over his senses 27 years ago and he started pelting stones on every passerby.We had no option but to tie him to a tree,” Vashnavi told Rising Kashmir.

Read the rest here…

Development vs Conservation

Here’s my article that was on The Guardian yesterday. It talks about the recent violence against protesters in Orissa and the difficulties of balancing development and conservation when there’s so much corruption around:

Is industrialisation the answer to reducing poverty in the developing world? Or should the priority be conservation of tribal communities and the environment? The debate around these questions is increasingly bitter and, for those on the frontline, increasingly violent.

In a rural corner of eastern India, in the state of Orissa, armed police have been moving in on demonstrators who refuse to make way for two controversial steel projects. Tribal villagers in Kalinga Nagar, protesting against a Tata Steel plant being built on their land, defended themselves with bows and arrows as the police advanced. An estimated 25 demonstrators were injured and one killed, in a grim replay of events in January 2006 when 12 villagers were shot dead by police.

Read the rest here…

My Moment of Bollywood Stardom In Housefull

A few months back, I got my first chance to prove my incredible acting skills as an extra on Bollywood smash Housefull, which came out a couple weeks ago and stars big hitters Akshay Kumar, Ritesh Deshmukh and Deepika Padukone. It was a nightmare and I’m pretty sure the movie is absolute garbage, although I haven’t had a chance to see my moment of stardom yet, which no doubt lasts all of three microseconds if it’s there at all. Here’s what I wrote about my experience back in December:

Western audiences might immediately think of the grit and grime of Slumdog Millionaire when they think of India on film, but it is glitz and glamour that remain the key ingredients for the country’s own film industry. Bollywood remains a big believer in bright colours, huge stars and dazzling dance routines – a formula that draws an estimated 14 million Indians to the cinema every day.

Many expect Housefull, released on 30 April, to be one of the biggest draws of the summer – a $30 million romcom studded with such Bollywood luminaries as Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone. As an extra on set in Mumbai last December, I got the chance to take a peek behind the curtain of the world’s most prolific movie industry, but if I had been hoping for a taste of that glitz and glamour, I was sorely disappointed.

As a westerner wandering the Colaba Causeway – Mumbai’s chaotic tourist artery – there Is a very good chance of being accosted by one of many “foreign talent scouts”. ‘Talent’ is something of a misnomer, of course; looks and experience are entirely secondary to the need for a western face and, as I soon discovered, its implied willingness to be brutally exploited for the sake of a good anecdote and 500 rupees (about £6.50) cash.

My day began outside the infamous Leopold’s Cafe at 7am where a group  of tired-looking travellers were all wondering whether this was some sort of scam. Suddenly, we were bundled into the back of a dilapidated minivan and hurtled out of town by a driver who somehow managed to out-crazy even the fatally insane Mumbai commuters.

In a blur of white-knuckle terror, we were deposited at Film City on Mumbai’s outskirts. This sprawling campus of movie sets is home to dozens of big-budget shoots at any one time, and yet it looks like the scene of a recent urban war – crumbling buildings and shattered windows, men sleeping in doorways and peasant women huddled around small stoves. Perhaps they are extras, I thought, but no cameras were rolling.

Our dreams of stardom were immediately knocked down a few pegs as we were ushered into our “dressing room”, a tiny hovel replete with a few plastic chairs and a filthy spring mattress that looked more like a place where kidnap victims are tortured than somewhere to prep for impending fame. The men were handed disposable razors and a bar of soap and instructed to shave.

Bleeding from our necks, we then discovered that we would not be playing FBI agents as the scout had promised the previous day (conjuring schoolyard fantasies of sharp suits, cool shades, talking earnestly into walkie-talkies). Instead, I found myself kitted out as a Buckingham Palace guard. This meant a tightly buttoned woollen coat, gloves and a ludicrous, plumed helmet. Even with the cool early morning breeze, the implications were becoming horribly apparent. By noon, it was over 35 degrees.

How can I do justice to the heat that my body experienced over the next thousand (eight) hours? Stood motionless in the Bombay sun for long endlessly repeated takes, sweat streaming down back and front, black shoes like individual ovens for my feet. We would  scurry for shade at every interval, looking jealously over at the makeshift awnings and outdoor fans given to the stars, who included Akshay and Ritesh Deshmukh, although unfortunately none of us knew who they were at the time.

Oh dear, Akshay

It might have lessened the agony if the handful of scenes we were forced to witness on repeat did not present such a dispiriting image of our debut film. Set at a shoddily assembled worker’s entrance to Buckingham Palace, they involved two portly Sikh jokers – apparently India’s answer to the Chuckle Brothers – delivering some laughing gas which would no doubt result in all manner of hilarious mishaps.

“More ham!” barked director Sajid Khan on take number 755, which sounded like a highly unreasonable, even impossible, request. And yet somehow the heroes delved deep inside and found hitherto unexplored reserves of ham that left the director doubled up in laughter and the gaggle of melting extras all the more perplexed.

Speaking with the crew at lunch, it is clear they are on to a winning formula. “This film has nine principal characters and some huge stars so it’s bound to be successful,” said assistant director Avni Bathija. “We Indians are always eagerly awaiting the next Friday’s releases. Supply can hardly keep up with demand.” When I bring up the fact that actors’ unions went on strike in 2008 over the use of cheap, non-union foreign extras, she glosses over it: “The industry is becoming increasingly professional, so there are less problems than in the past.” However, when I tell her how much I’m being paid, she struggles to suppress a laugh.

As we talk, the light blue Bentley of famed executive producer Sajid Nadiadwala, the boss of bosses, pulls up beside us and Avni leaps to attention. The reek of wealth he exudes seems to confirm Avni’s confidence. Just like Hollywood, the top end of this market is nothing if not a finely honed business.

Our day finally ends at about 6pm and we are rocketed back to Leopolds to spend our 500 rupees. Although I lost a lot of fluids, it was still a fascinating look at the resolutely un-glitzy reality behind Bollywood’s polished veneer and I can’t wait to see my few nanoseconds of screentime. You’ll be able to spot me – I’m the English guard who looks like he is about to die of heat exhaustion.

Civilians Killed In Latest Naxal Attack

Another major attack by the Maoists in Chhattisgarh, just six weeks after the massacre of 76 police officers in the same district. The figures are not certain, but an estimated 35 people died when the Maoists blew up a private passenger bus on a highway in the Dantewada district. Initial reports say that over a dozen special police officers (SPOs) were among the civilians on the bus when it was blown 20 feet in the air. Around 15 more people are in critical condition in hospital. The SPOs are believed to be part of the Koya Commando unit, specialising in anti-Maoist operations.

The attack is notable for taking civilian lives. Although it is likely to have been specifically targeting the SPOs, the willingness to take collateral civilian lives underlines the ruthless turn the Maoists are taking in Chhattisgarh. They risk further alienating the local population if they move towards indiscriminate acts of terrorism. Their millenarian worldview allows them to justify such violence against civilians as an unfortunate by-product of the glorious revolution, but few outside the party will agree with them.

However, given the almost complete lack of governance in these remote areas, the Maoists have a distinct advantage in being able to coerce locals into supporting them, since they are the only effective form of authority around. They combine this with several carrots, such as more equitable land distribution, protection from police brutality and exploitation by state officials, and ensuring better prices for forest produce.

Add to this the geographical advantages of operating across 39,000 km2 region, 60% of which is dense jungle, and it is clear that further attacks along these lines are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The question is whether the Maoists are pushing their luck. By attacking civilians, they are forcing the government to start taking the problem seriously.

A workable model of counterinsurgency exists, which was applied in Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, which has contained the problem in that state to a much greater extent than in other areas. Here’s a breakdown of that strategy from the Deccan Chronicle:

* A ban was imposed on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and its front organisations like Radical Students’ Union and Progressive Democratic Students’ Union to check activities like bandhs and to stop fresh recruitment.

* A new legislation, Public Security Act, cut off the nexus between Naxals and their sympathisers in the affected villages.

* Intensive development of interior areas, particularly of roads and communications, was undertaken.

* A solution was sought to the various issues raised by extremists through a special cell functioning in the chief minister’s office.

* Employment was promoted in a big way. There was, in fact, a special focus on employing tribals in good numbers in all government departments, particularly the police, to give them a greater sense of participation in governance.

* Procurement of forest produce was taken away from forest contractors and entrusted with government corporations, thereby cutting off the flow of funds to extremists.

* A rehabilitation policy for those extremists wanting to leave the movement was put into action.

* Perception management, or counter-propaganda, through well-trained cultural troupes was undertaken.

The Chhattisgarh government is not yet in a position to apply a similar strategy effectively, but increased inter-state cooperation – including the use of the specialist anti-Naxal Greyhounds force from Andhra Pradesh in other areas – could start creating problems for the Maoists. Of course, the key consequence in the short term will be an increase in violent incidents and civilian casualties.

Violence At The Posco and Tata Sites in Orissa

Reports are coming in of police violence at the planned Tata steel plant site at Kalinga Nagar in Orissa. Around 24 people are thought to have been injured in clashes on 12 May between armed police and villagers who oppose being displaced for the plant. At least one person has died, Lakhsman Jamuda. His body has not been returned to the family.

Here’s a video that apparently shows the clashes:

This is an interview with the nephew of the man killed (both are courtesy of Radical Notes):

There has been violence here before. In January 2006, shortly after Tata started clearing the area, 12 villagers and one policeman were killed in clashes. There have been reports of low-level violence and intimidation over the past few months. The police say they are protecting those who have opted for displacement into new Tata-built villages. Many locals and activists say these operations are actually designed to destroy homes and forcibly evict those who oppose the steel plant’s construction. Amazingly, the state goverment denies the police were involved at all. 

Not far away in the same state, the ongoing protests against the £12 billion Posco steel plant, which I visited earlier this year, are also turning violent. The Hindu reports that over 100 people were injured when police charged the protesters who have been staging a sit-in on the edge of the site since January 26. Twenty-five platoons of armed police have apparently been moved into the area. Convincing local people to allow the steel project to go ahead is a major priority for the federal government after it promised South Korean Prime Minister Lee Myung Bak in January that local objections would be resolved in four to five months (Posco is a South Korean company). That means now.

The Most Interesting Thing I’ve Ever Read About Chess

… but admittedly also the only thing I’ve ever read about chess as far as I can remember. Anyway…

Indians are going cock-a-hoop over Viswanathan Anand who recently retained his World Chess Championship title after moving the little pieces around on the board in an extremely clever manner.

But the real story is what it took to get Viswanathan to this point in a country where sports are in the unfortunate hands of the government. In his excellent new blog, India Uncut, Amit Varda describes his own experiences as a teenage chess champ trying to overcome the ridiculous conditions in which he was supposed to develop:

When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.

The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.

With little or no decent training, championships that fell on the same day as final exams at school and training manuals that arrived several months after the Eastern Europeans got their hands on them, it is no surprise that India has not exactly scaled the heights of the chess mountain in the past.

Which only makes Viswanathan’s success all the more incredible:

His achievements … are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.

So well done him. Read the rest of the blog here….