Ships and shoes and sealing wax

On a lazy Wednesday, random clips in the midst of work:

1. A favorite blog completed five years this week. For lovers of books and movies, it’s a must-visit [as is this]. And if you are in the mood for fun, here’s a series of Jai Arjun posts on the perils pleasures of matrimony, dating back to 2008 when he got hitched: Separate toilets, a travelogue into the subterranean world of water tanks, short circuits, and finding love money in cyberspace.

2. On another regular pit stop on the browsing trail, Great Bong has some tips for the bloggers among you on how to increase traffic. To which I’d add just this codicil: the best way of building traffic is to write, often as you can, on the things that interest you. And ignore the traffic stats while you are at it — blogging can be huge fun if you quit worrying about whether anyone’s reading, and focus instead on what you want to say. More on those lines in an earlier post.

3. Amit Varma’s ongoing, and often hilarious, series on where our tax money goes continues — and not surprisingly, Mayawati stars again.

4. Another of my favorite bloggers, Nilanjana, was last seen last weekend on Burkha Dutt’s talk fest, almost single-handedly making the case against book bans — while on which, an earlier post on the Jinnah book ban. Jaswant, incidentally, is now seen as a hero in Pakistan thanks to his Jinnah book while Stanley Wolpert, who also wrote a book on Jinnah, was banned. Arising from which, both bans stem not from that oft-cited bogey, ‘public sentiment’, as from the desire of Zia in one case, and Narendra Modi in another, of wanting to block any ideas that conflict with a particular image they wish to preserve, for their own reasons.

In her latest column, Nila commemorates an anniversary: it is now 20 years since India banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses [it’s a different matter that you can buy copies at any traffic signal in Mumbai]. Is it time, Nila asks, to challenge the ban and have it overturned? Clips:

To state this even more bluntly, there is little doubt that Rushdie had caused offence. The question is whether it’s a crime— punishable by censorship, book banning, fatwas or other means— to cause offence. Publisher and writer Urvashi Butalia puts it very well when she says that writers are bound by the consequences of their writing and must expect dissent (though not death threats)— but that, if an ordinary citizen were to challenge the ban on Satanic Verses today, she would support that action.

Salil Tripathi, author of Offence: The Hindu Case, says: “If the aim of the ban was to prevent bloodshed, it failed: I was witness to riots in Bombay in February 1989, when a Muslim mob wanted to attack the British Council Library because it was believed the library had the book— which it didn’t. In the riots that followed, several people died. In the years since, the state has failed miserably in protecting the rights of artists or writers— ask M F Husain, Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasrin, and now Jaswant Singh. The consequence of that first original sin, when the State flinched and banned The Satanic Verses has been severely restricted, narrow discourse. This wasn’t what Tagore intended when he wanted his country to awake into that heaven of freedom.”….

But overturning the ban would be the first step to doing something we haven’t done so far, that is bigger than any one book or any one author— protecting our right as Indians to free speech. What happened 21 years ago pushed us in the direction of becoming more fearful, more regressive; and surely two decades is enough time for us to undo this old injustice.

Staying with books and bans for a beat longer, another anniversary: 20 years before Rushdie’s Verses, Philip Roth wrote a book that jolted my teen sensibilities. I didn’t get to read it the year it was published — a bootleg copy got to me only around 1973; many of us in MCC named our right hands ‘Portnoy’ around that time. Much later, I got to see the Richard Benjamin-Karen Black film version helmed by Ernest Lehmann and was terribly underwhelmed; here’s an NYT piece on why books by the likes of Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth make for indifferent movies. Back to Roth, and from my archives, a Spiegel Online interview and a two-part interview [1, 2] from Bookmarks. And here’s the man speaking to you direct:

One last link on the subject of books and bans: a favorite resource. [Too many links to take in all at once? Here’s one more apropos, from Harvard Business Review, on death by information overload :-)].

Amuse yourselves; more later, if I stumble on anything interesting in course of play work.

Jaswant redux

For news-starved TV anchors, Jaswant Singh is proving to be the gift that goes on giving — the latest offering being the charge of plagiarism being leveled against him. Those involved with the book have been ‘unavailable for comment’, so we’ll likely have to wait for the next news cycle for this story to progress.

What however is not getting the required amount of media attention is this petition challenging the decision of the Narendra Modi government to ban Jaswant’s book in Gujarat. The ban itself was ill-considered, knee-jerk, and unconstitutional in the extreme, and deserves to be struck down in court.

The larger point, however, is the total lack of public outrage at this growing tendency of states to ban books on specious grounds. During my hibernation of last week a friend, Nilanjana Roy, did an outstanding blog post on the issue that merits your attention. Nila’s takeaway:

The banning of a book, especially by a particular state, works wonderfully well in practice. It’s much easier to organise a statewide rather than a nationwide ban, and even if the courts overturn the ban a few years later, the political point has been made. It allows politicians to express their willingness to defend a national figure or a religious belief—ignoring the fact that in most cases, that figure or belief is being questioned by the author, not attacked. It keeps the cadres happy, offers fodder for a string of stirring speeches, and is a cheap, easy gesture. The only constituency that is upset is the very narrow band of readers, publishers, and authors. We don’t constitute a vote bank, so our “right” to free speech is effectively irrelevant.

What we do lose with each ban, though, is the right to examine our own history. The bans against Nasreen and Laine had scholars and writers re-examining their work, for fear that they might attract the next ban—or angry mob. Publishing houses should be above the fear of lawsuits, so long as they believe in the author’s honesty and integrity—but many will now avoid anything too controversial. This has a devastating impact on research into the freedom movement, where few will now write about leaders as if they were more than statues on pedestals. And, contrary to what politicians believe, few readers want to read about statues.

Read the post in full [and if you like reading, follow Nila on Twitter — it’s like having a reading guide with you at all times] then ask yourself this: how come such issues don’t seem to exercise the imagination, and the vocal chords, of the Rajdeeps and Arnabs of this world?

Speaking in tongues

Am I the only one who is getting a touch tired bored with Jaswant Singh’s recent epiphany?

Advani was present when the decision to free Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar was taken. Advani master-minded the July 22, 2008 episode where during the crucial vote of confidence in Parliament, a bunch of BJP MPs flashed wads of cash around and accused the Congress of bribery and worse. Advani ordered the BSF into Bangladesh while India was fighting the Kargil war. And so on, in an endless stream of ‘revelations’ that are keeping the more apoplectic of our TV anchors happily occupied.

Advani was being an idiot not thinking clearly when, in My Country, My Life, he succumbed to the Parivar’s penchant for rewriting history and attempted to whitewash his own role in the December 24, 1999 hijacking of IA Flight 814 and the subsequent release of Zargar, Sheikh and Azhar.

He could so easily have explained the decision in this fashion: The Cabinet committee considered the situation and, keeping in mind the potential loss of 160-plus Indian lives, collectively decided to free the three terrorists.

End of story. Sure, the Congress would during the election cycle continue to hammer away at the BJP and at Advani for that incident — but much of it was due to the fact that the BJP unwisely [‘unwisely’ given that its tenure in office saw several major terrorist attacks, none of which were handled with remarkable elan] decided to make the 2009 election about ‘soft on terror versus hard on terror’; in other words, to make political capital out of 26/11.

In a misguided attempt to try and dissociate himself from that collective decision by saying that he was neither in the know of, nor party to, the decision to free the hostages, Advani went way out on a limb. This is the man who was number two in the Vajpayee cabinet; the man who held the Home portfolio. The Kandahar hijack was among other things a clear security threat to India and its interests — so how tenable was it that the man in charge of internal security was completely out of the loop while lesser ministers were intimately involved in the decision-making?

In trying to burnish his tough-on-terror image, all Advani really managed to do was to project the image that he was a bit of a dummy in the Cabinet, excluded from the really tough decision making. Like I said, in choosing  to distance himself from Kandahar, LKA was being an idiot not thinking clearly.

What I don’t get though is, why is Jaswant suddenly the hero? Why is he not getting his fair share of hard questions [Oh I know — if you ask him hard questions, he will get miffed and won’t talk to you and then your stream of ‘revelations’ will die up, and what’s a 24 hour news channel to do when that happens]?

“I tried to cover it. I treated it as part of my continuing sense of commitment and loyalty,” was Jaswant Singh’s comment that also suggested that his sentiments had not been reciprocated by Advani. Jaswant Singh said he did not regret doing so as that was the step he had taken during the election campaign. “How should I put it? I was very conservative with the truth,” he said.

Thus spake Jaswant. ‘Conservative with the truth’?! Only he could have come up with a phrase that — here we get into Humpty Dumpty territory again — means the exact opposite of what he intends to imply. And only we would allow him to get away with it.

In his book Engaging India, his good friend Strobe Talbott has some insight into Jaswant’s modus operandi. A clip, from page 103:

He was a master of public statements that made up in panache what they lacked in content and sometimes even in discernible meaning. Two of my favorites were “The totally moral has become the realistically moral” and “if strategic deterrence is not on the negotiating table, how can you have a missile-development program on the table?”

The journalists duly scribbled down these oracular utterances, never asking for clarification or amplification, and then reported them to their readers as though they provided insight into what was going on in the talks.

Indeed. In recent times, Donald Rumsfeld has been enshrined as the modern master of the use of words to obscure meaning and, in some cases, to substitute for meaning. Remember Rumsfeld’s justly famous riff on the knowns and unknowns?

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Or his equally famous number on evidence?

“There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

I would submit — and Talbott clearly believes as I do — that Jaswant belongs in that league. From the archives, here’s one of my all time favorites [When I first read this line some eight years ago, I filed it away with the care you would give to a particularly interesting and exotic puzzle, because I saw considerable medicinal value in Jaswant’s statement. They say mind games help ward off Parkinson’s; on prevention-better-than-cure lines, I’d recommend that once a week you read the clip below, and try to figure out what the man is saying. It won’t become clearer, but hey, maybe it will help with the Parkinson’s thing. Also, keep in mind that this is not extempore — the clip is from a carefully prepared text written by the master himself]:

We wished to talk. But in the process of talking, and it is the impression of anybody that India agreed to talk because it was out of any weakness, India agreed to talk, it was out of any fatigue, we agreed to talk, as has been suggested by somebody, because of the call- to my mind, it is completely an unsustainable call – that the Jihadis have now pressurized on India that we are ready to have a talk.

So much for his obfuscatory utterances. Jaswant’s revelations in recent times can in precis form be rendered as below:

1. He knew Advani was bluffing when as part of his ‘tough on terror’ image-building exercise he said he was completely in the dark on Kandahar. Worse — when then NSA Brajesh Mishra first called Advani’s bluff, Jaswant didn’t just chose to stay silent — he actively defended Advani by being ‘conservative with the truth’.

2. Jaswant, as then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, stayed silent when proceedings in Parliament were cynically stage-managed by his party leader who, for political reasons, chose to create a tamasha out of a crucial debate.

3. Jaswant, as a man who has held high constitutional office as Defense and Foreign minister chose to ignore, even hide, what he believes is a crucial lapse in national security at the time of the Kargil war.

Today he says:

“I tried to cover it. I treated it as part of my continuing sense of commitment and loyalty”

Commitment and loyalty to whom/to what? All of this happened when Jaswant was a minister; when he had sworn a solemn oath to put the country and its interests first. Now he says he was motivated by a far narrower, more self-serving notion of commitment and loyalty.

So, again, I wonder: Why does Jaswant today get a free pass? Why is he the hero in the passion play currently unfolding? Why is he not being grilled on his own sins of omission and commission?

This is a demonstration of sycophancy. Misuse of the party. It’s sickening.

That’s Jaswant on Advani’s use of the party machinery to promote his book. And his own actions, in being ‘conservative with the truth’ as long as he had a stake in Advani’s, and the party’s, prospects were… what?

Top Secret

Okay, if there is anyone from Gujarat reading this, stop right now — I don’t need Narendra Modi on my case. For the rest of you, here goes — an excerpt from Jinnah, the book at the center of the ongoing fuss.

Exit Jaswant

This morning, Jaswant Singh told television channels, he received a call from BJP president Rajnath Singh asking that he absent himself from the morning session of the ongoing chintan baitak. “And then, around 1 o’clock, I was informed that I had been dismissed from even the primary membership of a party of which I was among the very first members — I was given no notice, no explanation, I was not even given the option of quitting on my own,” Singh said.

Any lingering optimism that the baitak, ostensibly to review the results of the recent elections and to suggest ways to revamp the party, would lead to something constructive can now be consigned to the dustbin. The ritual blood sacrifice has been carried out, and Rajnath Singh has demonstrated that notwithstanding a Vasundhara Raje or two, he is still the boss.

Talk of farce. Jaswant has been asking for the axe ever since he teed off on the party leadership, especially Arun Jaitley, with his famous ‘parinaam aur puraskar’ argument, where he publicly pointed out that Jaitley, the BJP’s chief poll manager, had been rewarded with the post of Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the post Singh himself had held till his recent election to the LS. “Such statements,” Rajnath said then, referring not just to Jaswant but to the larger dissident group of Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Sudheendra Kulkarni among others, “had created the impression that  the party was disunited. That is not true.”

Damn right — it isn’t disunited, merely truncated. Sinha quit as party vice president; now Jaswant has been axed; Vasundhara Raje is in the midst of a coup d’etat; and Shourie is a prime candidate for the next round of blood-letting. In all of this, damned if you hear of any quality analysis of the election defeat, and of any Plan B to move the party away from the outdated ‘Ram for votes’ plank and into a more contemporary avtaar.

The next few days will likely bring much more on the topic; meanwhile, a Karan Thapar interview with Jaswant on the book that provided Rajnath his excuse, and the BJP another opportunity to demonstrate that its collective mind is shut air-tight, and that it offers no space for independent thought and opinion.