DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, May 30, 2014

DESTINATIONS: CHINA (1982): SHANGHAI

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A roadside shrine
We again took a train at Hangzhou to go to Shanghai. The distance was about 180 kilometres and the train took around two hours to cover the distance. As I recorded earlier, those days the Chinese trains were more or less like what we had then and perhaps continue to have even today. Hangzhou and Shanghai are today connected by high speed trains – a number of bullet trains run between the two covering the distance in around 45 minutes touching the speed of about 350 kilometres per hour.

At the massive Shanghai Railway Station we had to wait for our
International Industrial Exhibition building
baggage. These had to be retrieved from the baggage van. We, therefore, were taken to the waiting hall – an enormous hall that had numerous sofa sets, well-cushioned and well-upholstered, partially covered with covers of fine lace work and were arranged in clusters. The hall had wall-to-wall Chinese paintings of unimaginably massive proportions. As is their wont, they paint nature with great skill using their calligraphic technique. However, a few were thematic and were on workers and peasants. Today the decor surely would have changed as Shanghai station is now a massive one and should be a tourist site by itself.

As would be obvious, Shanghai in 1982 was not like what it is
Kitchen in living quarters in a Shanghai commune
today. It is now an example of urban renewal, expansion and modernisation. Aspirational cities desire to emulate its modernised civic amenities. Mumbai was one but never succeeded because of the greedy builders and venal politicians. A Hindi film named “Shanghai” exposed the sleaze and gore of the whole process that failed the well-intentioned proposal. 

 Even in 1982 Shanghai was the largest city of China but it appeared more like a colonial commercial and financial centre. In parts, especially on the Bund along the river, it looked like the Fort area of Mumbai – the buildings with more or less of similar architectural design, solidly built and of three stories or so. After all, it had that ubiquitous British influence for more than a hundred years, the British extracting concessions after the first Opium War
Buddha temple
that ended in 1842.

 Here, for the first time, we saw shop-signboards in English and many people, including local government officials, could speak fluent English. Elsewhere we had seen English being taught only on TV and yet, barring the interpreters and hotel receptionists, not many could speak the language with ease. The British legacy, it seems, had hung on in Shanghai. It was a bustling town but easily negotiable. Here, too, vehicles were not many but far greater in number than what we had seen elsewhere.  

The tallest building appeared to be that of International Industrial Exhibition Centre – of a neo-classical Russian architectural style. The high-rises of Pudong were still in the future. The Exhibition was probably intended to put out products that the country made at
Circus in Deptt. of Communications, Shanghai
that point of time for display to outsiders. The city was a commercial hub and was also the biggest port of China. What was most attractive at the Exhibition was the huge jade statue of Buddha. We were told it was made of one piece of rock. In that event, it must have been a massive rock that was cut and chiselled to fashion the statue.

One of the programmes included in our itinerary was a visit to a nearby commune. A few miles out of Shanghai it was a village community that lived by their cooperative effort. After all, everything belonged to the State and, as I understood, people only productively worked the prescribed system for the common good
Buddha in Abhay Mudra in downtown Shanghai
. Yet they lived in separate houses and had their respective establishments. We were shown how the people, though poor but in the usual tunic, lived. I happened to notice that even in their poverty they were aesthetes and had artistically decorated their living quarters.

On our way back I happened to notice a few Chinese men and women sitting on the ground in the open air praying at a shrine. The shrine was that of, I presume, laughing Buddha placed in a rock cut. Some were in deep meditation and remained un-distracted by the traffic of heavy vehicles passing by. Obviously, despite several years of communism people were still religiously inclined.  

This was also noticed in a temple which we were taken to in the what-would-now-be-called the downtown area. As we were getting
A Shanghai pagoda
into the temple I heard a guide talking in English about an Indian prince who left home to eventually obtain Enlightenment. She was giving her audience, a clutch of Western tourists, the lowdown on Buddhism. We went and saw the image of Buddha in “abhay mudra”. It was beautiful and the atmosphere around it was serene and peaceful. Again a large number of Chinese were seen going through the rituals.

The local Communications officials staged a circus for our benefit. As is well known, the Chinese are great athletes and acrobats. In a local office building they displayed to us their acumen in various acrobatic feats, jugglery, sway over well-trained animals like giant pandas and so on. It was quite fascinating.


Buddha in another pose in another temple
With Shanghai our 4-week sojourn in China came to an end but not before rounds of banquets with lots of Mao Tai – hard liquor that is distilled out of sorghum. We had a very pleasant time and though it was sort of a conducted tour, we saw much, learnt much, ate much and tasted different types of Chinese soft and hard liquor. We got a glimpse of the Chinese way of life that was still mostly traditional but governed by the basic tenets of the governing party. Discovering the Indian connection in temples and pagodas was heart-warming. That the country was making determined efforts to open up to the outsiders was palpable. We were all happy to be there and we were looked after exceedingly well. With somewhat of a heavy heart we left for Tokyo. 

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All photos were taken by self

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No, Narendra Modi is not a fascist

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Narendra Modi’s resounding victory at the recent national polls has been generally received with euphoria, especially in the north of the country, although on the map the entire country would seem to be virtually saffronised. The opponents have been badly bashed up and some of the ministers in the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Indian National Congress have suffered humiliating defeats.

The overwhelming mandate, quite clearly, is not as much for the Bharatiya Janata Party as for Modi, its prime ministerial candidate. The enormous support for a veritable demagogue has, however, caused misgivings in certain quarters. They feel that this is the stuff of which fascist dictators are made, who rule not for the wellbeing of the people but for self-aggrandisement. Modi has been pronounced by the “pseudo-secular” brigade led by the Congress as the product of a fascist organisation – the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS). Over the years both have collected a reputation of being communal and intolerant of non-Hindus. 
The Congress, the bitter enemy of RSS, and its political face, the BJP, has been branding ­­­­­ Modi as fascist –  its accusations acquiring a stinging and more scornful character before the last General Elections.

The question, therefore, arises is whether Modi, his party and its parent organisation are really fascists. It would need to be critically examined from their current positions as expounded during the election campaigns in respect of various issues and not from the traditional views that have been propagated by their detractors. In order to do so one has to first see what exactly does fascism stand for.
Fascism has been defined variously by political philosophers but it is generally understood to be “radical authoritarian nationalism”. Coming into prominence during World War I it has been said that it, “Holds right wing positions with left wing politics”. It is opposed to liberalism, Marxism and traditional conservatism. Invoking primacy of the state, fascists seek to unify the nation through an authoritarian dispensation. Veneration of and devotion towards a strong leader, an extreme form of nationalism and even imperialism are its other features.

Although said to be a product of the 19th Century, fascism saw a revival in Italy during World War I. The Great War was cruel to many. It decimated three empires – German, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – and caused utter privations to most of the European people, especially the Germans and Italians. Widespread death and destruction took heavy toll of the countries that were at war. While Germany, under the weight of heavy war-reparations for waging an avoidable war suffered bankruptcy and destitution, Italy got nothing out of the War except poverty and misery. It was a war of the absolute monarchs and yet the people suffered the most, building a fertile soil for emergence of fascism. While in Germany fascism raised its head in the shape of Nazism led by Adolf Hitler a strong people’s leader, Benito Mussolini, exploited the discontent among people and promising pride and respect for Italians, mobilised support of the masses to become a dictator with absolute power.

If one analyses the BJP or its mother organisation, the RSS, one does not quite get the impression they are fascists as defined in the political textbooks. It is true that the RSS and the BJP have been talking of a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu Nation) and, later, Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) but these were always extreme positions that they took, perhaps, to protest against India’s partition. Over time, they have practically given them up, most probably, on realisation that these are unattainable objectives in the modern world of international politics where checks and balances generally prevent a country to act in a unilateral and self-willed manner – unless one has bulging financial and military muscles. Clearly, India is not such a country.

No wonder, the BJP has somehow been displaying its ambivalence on these issues. Both the organisations, however, foster among its adherents love and respect for India, which, to them, is like their “mother”. Fierce patriotism and intense love of one’s country and observance of its traditional cultural practices need not always be harmful for or impinge on other communities or nations. It is only the ill-advised fringe elements that sometimes move away from the mainstream and cause avoidable conflicts.  Such elements are not in the Hindu community alone; they are there in numerous other communities and indulge in such despicable acts.

Rise of Narendra Modi cannot be seen in terms of the fascist ideology of a strong leader mobilising masses to bind them into a cohesive entity to pursue authoritarian and expansionist goals. Modi has worked his way up in the democratic system of the country and has been elected four times into the Gujarat Legislative Assembly and later was elected as the chief minister of the state mostly for the good work done by him. Again, he led his party to an outright win in the national elections in 2014. His ‘winnability’ prompted BJP to declare him its prime ministerial candidate. If crowds in huge numbers collected at his election rallies it was because of reports of his performance in Gujarat. Besides, frustration and anger of the common man against the corrupt and incompetent outgoing government swung the people towards a leader who was perceived to be decisive and capable of delivering a better life to them.

Grabbing the opportunity offered by the General Elections the BJP, to garner greater acceptability, brought in unimaginable changes in its earlier positions on its core political issues, viz. repeal of Article 370 – a provision in the Constitution that bestows special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir, enactment of a uniform civil code (Muslims are currently governed by their Personal Laws) and construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site where the demolished Babri Masjid stood.. These have all been put on the backburner and the main issue before the next government, as declared by Modi, is nothing but development. His new slogan is “sabka saath, sabka vikas” which, roughly translated, means “together with everyone and development for all”. This is not indicative of dictatorial ambitions and takes away the communal tag attached to the BJP as its revised objectives are to work for progress of all, regardless of caste or creed.

Fascism is associated with radical right, i.e. it is ranged against Marxism and socialism. BJP, backed by the RSS, too held the same position. But, of late, there seems to have been an abrupt change. Modi has categorically declared that his government would work for the poor, the youth and security of women (regardless of caste and creed need hardly be emphasised). Surely, in doing so, one expects, he would not be unfriendly to business and industry.

In his inter-actions with the media, Modi has not indicated any expansionist tendencies. In fact he has clarified that he would pursue friendship and cooperation with all countries regardless of their size. This became evident soon enough. He sent invitations for his swearing-in ceremony to all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, including Pakistan. He overlooked objections of Indian Tamils and went ahead to invite even the Sri Lankan President.

Modi, therefore is not a fascist. Fascism is something which wouldn’t seem to be in the genes of Hindus; the question of their organisations – religious or secular – being fascist, therefore, wouldn’t quite arise. The term, has only been hurled pejoratively at the BJP by the paranoiac and insecure Congress, fearing all the time of all that that have since happened to it at the last elections at the hands of the former.

Photo: from the Internet 




Sunday, May 25, 2014

THE INEPT BHOPAL MUNICIPALITY

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A local newspaper recently reported that the reluctance o the Bhopal Municipal Corporation in carrying out the directions issued
Encroachments being removed in Varanasi
by the local bench of the National Green Tribunal was very evident in their submissions. It seems the Corporation official want the whole process of action against the owners of the so-called marriage gardens to be stretched for as long as possible.

For all one knows, the hunch is spot on. After all, the marriage gardens would not have been able to carry out their profitable illegal activities without the connivance and support of the Corporation officials concerned. And for the favor done to them by winking at their illegal activities money would have changed hands, and, perhaps, illegal gratification of the Corporation officials continues unabated till this day. Most probably, the payments have now become heftier as the matter is speedily coming to a crunch.


No civic irregularity can continue undetected for long. If any does so, there would be enough reason to suspect foul play on the part of the controlling or regulatory authorities. For instance, encroachments on government lands cannot continue for long unless connived at by the field level municipal authorities. The so-called "Harley Street" of Bhopal where numerous hospitals have illegally come up have been allowed to function by the municipal authorities despite a court order handed out in 2005 declaring them irregular. For nine years no action has been taken - certainly not without any consideration. The Corporation has been hedging and hawing and refusing to move against the encroachers. Now that the Green Tribunal has got into the act there is some movement. The area falls in the Heritage Sector of the town between two (of the three) cascading lakes which formed a unique Nawabi system for rainwater harvesting. 

The most laughable thing is that the municipal anti-encroachment authorities routinely  move around in vehicles with police protection removing small time encroachments but none has ever been held accountable for allowing unauthorized occupation of government or other lands. Once the Urban Administration Minister had a dhaba  (a roadside eatery)demolished functioning on encroached piece of land for as many as 20 years and the incident was given wide coverage in the press. Soon, thereafter some of us of the Citizens' Forum had to meet him at his residence. During the course of conversation I happened tell him what he had done was a great job and asked about the nature of action taken against those who allowed the illegalities for all those years. He categorically stated that in his government responsibility was never fixed. The upshot is that unscrupulous people would go on illegally occupying public property and the government or the Corporation would keep removing them all the time at great public cost repeatedly ad infinitum, on many occasions at the same site. This sort of theatrics keeps occurring in New Market every other month.


That the Municipal Corporation is incompetent and inept would be an understatement. What is, however, is worse is that’s officials and elected representatives are utterly corrupt. This is the story all over the country – whether in metros or two or three tier towns. Somehow the system of local government transplanted from England  has not worked in this country – not because of any systemic fault but because of the inept and corrupt men who happen to come and work the system. 



Sunday, May 11, 2014

DESTINATIONS: CHINA (1982): HANGZHOU

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Hangzhou, earlier Hangchhow, is only 100-odd kilometres away
Weeping willows of Hangzhou
from Suzhou and is another beautiful city in the Yangtze basin. It is also ancient and has been the capital of Southern Song Dynasty from the 12th Century until Mogul invasions of the 13th Century. Reckoned as one of the most beautiful cities of China, Hangzhou was probably included in our itinerary for its touristic interests. Its West Lake, a huge water body, has since been declared a World Heritage Site. Most of the touristy activities were restricted in and around it and, like Suzhou, numerous gardens were laid around it.

Among the ancient cultural items the Six Harmonies Pagoda is
A Chines porcelain vase
important. Unfortunately we could not see it. Hangzhou is known as the “Porcelain Capital”. Chinese ceramics and porcelain are known the world over from ancient times. After all, the word “china” came into being because of Chinese exquisite ceramics. Their porcelain is of a fine variety, smooth to touch, translucent and delicate in looks. In a garden we came across ceramic furniture – stools, tables and things.

Colleagues taking in the beauty of a Hangzhou garden
Like in Suzhou, the gardens are beautifully maintained with lovely colourful pavilions. Beautifully designed and painted from inside each is a work of art. In one of them a shutterless and glassless window showed well-tended plants in natural setting. It appeared like a painting and but for the window frames one would have taken it as such.  Some of the pavilions were decorated with massive porcelain vessels of various colours, mostly blue and red overlaid by painted flowers. Those were things to be seen to be believed for our uninitiated eyes.

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All photos were taken by self


A shutter-less & glass-less window


 
Ceramic furniture

 
A showy boat on Hanzhou Lake

Saturday, May 3, 2014

DESTINATIONS:CHINA (1982):SUZHOU

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The green of Suzhou
We took a train from Nanking for Suzhou (earlier Souchhow) which was only around 200 kilometres away. It was not like the current Chinese trains, high-speed and streamlined. It was more or less like ours, a chair car. The car was built in East Germany (in those days Germany was divided between East and West, East Germany being a satellite of the now-dead Soviet Union and West Germany was a flourishing democracy).

While the cars were not much different but what appeared to be different was the attitude of the workers. I happened to observe
A picnic spot
from the time the train rolled in until we got off it in Suzhou the lone woman who was, in our terminology, the coach attendant. As soon as the train came to a halt she unfolded the steps for passengers to get off the train on to the platform which was at a lower level. Then she wiped with a cloth the handle bars of all the accumulated dust and stood by the side of the entrance. When we had all got in with only our hand baggage (they did not allow heavy baggage in the coach) she folded back the steps, closed the door and locked it. Then she helped stowing away our bags on overhead racks, swept the floor of the bogey and eventually served us hot coffee that she made for us. Her job included the ones across several lower level
A beautiful pavillion
hierarchies of Indian Railways and she seemed to be pretty happy about whatever she was supposed to do.

Suzhou is another ancient city of China with around 2500 years of history but, no, it never seemed to have had the privilege of being the capital in recent times. However, it was founded as the capital of Wu Kingdom in the 6th Century BCE. Its antiqueness is seen in the waterways and roads that run together forming, as they say, a “double chess board”. Being located in the
Pathway alongside a canal 
delta region of the Yangtze it is a watery place with lots of ponds, canals, streams and lakes. No wonder it is considered the “Venice of China”. Being wet with lots of water around it is one of the greenest cities I have ever seen.

A beautifully crafted boat
And, there are gardens and gardens – there are scores of them, beautifully laid out with paths and typically Chinese pavilions. According to an old saying, the gardens located south of Yangtze are the best. Some date back to the 6th Century BCE and attempt to, as UNESCO said, recreate natural landscape in miniature and depict the “profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture”. Several of them have since been declared by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. I recall having seen a huge garden of numerous bonsais beautifully tended and displayed. There cannot be two opinions about Chinese aesthetics; it seems to be embedded in their genes.

Yunyan Temple Pagoda
A landmark of the city, the Yunyan Temple Pagoda is more than a thousand years old. It is reckoned as the most exquisite pagoda built by the Song Dynasty rulers. At a height of around 50 metres the Pagoda is of 7 storeys octagonal in construct with balconies on each floor with eaves above them. Along the inner walls there is a winding corridor but one has to use a movable ladder to go up the storeys. From inside, the Pagoda is like a tube and the absence of stairs was ascribed to the much older method of construction of pagodas

Suzhou is also known for amazingly intricate and beautiful embroidery. The embroidered items that we came across in our hotel and elsewhere were mind-blowing. The effort and patience
Intricate embroidery in progress
that had gone into them was indeed unimaginable. And then, every item was a thing of beauty and are noe exported.


Suzhou is now an industrial city with industrial parks and export processing zones. I understand it is now a glittering city at night with bustling night life. China has moved on far ahead from its not too distant past and almost every region seems to have prospered. Its swanky new super-super fast trains clocking 300 kilometres an hour make several trips to its modernised railway station from Shanghai

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All photos were taken by self