Friday, March 27, 2015

Hindu fringe attacks churches
Protesting Christians

The other day as one opened the newspapers one found that one essential difference between India and Pakistan had been obliterated by events in the two countries. While two of the Lahore churches were subjected to suicide bombing killing as many as 70 church-goers and injuring a like number (some of them critically), an up and coming church in Hissar district of Haryana was demolished. While the Pakistani attacks on the churches were clear cases of terrorist attacks and were even owned by such an outfit, the one in India was the act of rabid Hindus who not only seemed to have razed the under-construction church but also vandalized it, hoisting a flag at the site with “Shri Ram” written on it. This was a clear indication of the reprehensible handiwork of fringe elements of certain Hindu groups, who seemingly tore and shredded our claims of being a secular polity.

Surendra Jain, a spokesperson  of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right wing organization, (claiming to represent all Hindus) aggressively defended the demolition, issuing threats that such cases would happen in future if Christians did not stop conversions. Ill-informed as he seemed to be, he appeared unaware that the right to practice and prosylatise a religion (without inducements) is sanctioned by the Indian Constitution. He also erroneously claimed that the First War of Independence of 1857 was fought as a religious war and asserted such wars would continue to be fought until the Christians mended their ways. Alluding to the razed church, he asked whether Christians would allow construction of a Hanuman temple in Vatican – as if the village where the church was demolished could be equated with Vatican.

The foot soldiers of the Hindu fringe organizations are increasingly taking the law in their hands under the mistaken notion that they would be protected by saffron governments at the Centre and in some of the states. Firstly, they are mostly unaware of what Hinduism or Hindutwa stands for and, secondly they forget that people in general are aware of their rights and they would not allow any willful infringement of laws to go unnoticed and, possibly, unpunished. Regardless of the colour of the governments, people and the electronic media are far too active for the comfort of any religious miscreant. Nonetheless, the onus of all such inconsequential acts is placed on the Prime Minister Modi as most of these have occurred in quick succession after his assumption of power.

The demolition of the church, coming as it did after the unfortunate incident of rape of an elderly nun in Ranaghat, West Bengal, attracted keener attention of everyone, including parliamentarians and the Vatican Christians are getting greater attention from the Hindu fringe elements as they probably find them a softer target. Besides, most of the religious activities of the Christians are carried out in backward and rural areas and there they are open to attacks by crude and ill-informed Hindu activists in the general absence of effective policing. However, later a church in Delhi, another in Navi Mumbai and yet another in Jabalpur in Central India were victims of stone pelting by masked men.

Unfortunately, these misguided people do not realise that Hinduism, despite erosion of its secular power over the centuries, survived for thousands of years because of its own intrinsic strength. Buddhism and Jainism, the two breakaway religions, remained as small islands surrounded by the ocean of Hinduism in India. Its spirit backed up by its ancient philosophical base gathered worldwide appreciation. It had been imbibed in many parts of the world and its cultural remnants can be seen and felt in largely Buddhist and Muslim South-East Asia. Besides, even more than one thousand years of Islamic and 300 years of British rules could not subdue it in this country where it is followed by the majority till this day. What is more, with all its warts, India with its mostly Hindu population, continues to be preferred place for residence by numerous foreigners of different religions. After all, it had historically been the haven for the tormented and tortured peoples of the Middle-East and the Far East. Hindu India embraced them all. Known for its “open-arms” and welcoming attitudes, the country, down the ages, allowed people of various religions – Christians, Jews, Parsees, Baha’is Buddhists, Jains and several Islamic sects – to come and find sanctuary here, enriching its culture as also endowing it with a fair name in the world.

 Why shatter this fantastic image by narrowness of mind as displayed by Islamic countries? Do these rabid Hindus wish to behave like Pakistanis who slowly but surely ejected Hindus and Sikhs from West and East Pakistan and also tormented the small
Another view of the protests
minority of Christians? No, we are far better than them. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi had said, ”The lawlessness of communalism is a monster with many faces. It hurts all in the end including those who are primarily responsible for it”. None should, therefore, be swayed off the feet by what the narrow-minded and mean protagonists of Hinduism preach. Ours is a far more enlightened civilization of which we are proud. We cannot allow our fair name to become spotty because of a few misguided ignorant, uncivilised
and uncultured philistines.

If the rowdy foot soldiers of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) think that by their violent and destructive activities they would be able to protect Hindu religion they are sadly mistaken. What they should do instead is to try and get rid of the ills of Hinduism. Its caste system constitutes one of its great and inherent weaknesses and yet it is practiced with vehemence, particularly in rural areas. The so-called Dalits, the former untouchables, are generally at the receiving end of the atrocities. The incidence of rural caste violence is increasing despite the efforts of the state. Almost every day there are reports in national dailies of maltreatment of dalits and rape of their girls. It is these miserable people who prefer to switch their religion even though it might not be of great help to them. In changing over to Islam or Christianity they find light after living through a long dark tunnel of humiliation, atrocities and a miserable survival. In most cases, attempts to damage a churches are made by those who would be the very first to maltreat dalits and discriminate against them.

  This is what hurts Hinduism the most and this is what needs to be addressed by the self-proclaimed protectors of Hinduism. They should try and smash this inequity before thinking of smashing churches, for it is the Church which provides succor to the harassed, persecuted and tortured low caste Hindu.

Photo: from the internet

Monday, March 16, 2015

Vulnerable Indian rhinos

Whether in South Africa or in India poaching of rhinos has assumed alarming levels. In South Africa, which has the largest population of rhinos and which is an important country for their conservation, poaching has reached a crisis point so much so that if the killings continue at the current rate, it is estimated, the species could be pushed close to extinction. In 2014 as many as 1215 rhinos were killed and the South African Department of Environment calculated that that amounted to poaching of one rhino every 8 hours.

In the African Continent poaching of what are known as Black Rhinos is not confined only to South Africa. Smaller populations in other African countries such as Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland and Botswana are constantly under threat from poachers. The White Rhinos found in Republic of South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and Uganda are by far the most numerous (around 20,000 individuals) and yet they are under threat. And so, indeed, they are in Asia. While Jawan and Sumatran rhinos are in the list of critically endangered, in our Subcontinent, i.e in India and Nepal, rhino poaching is rampant. It was recently a cause for a spat between the Governor and Chief Minister of Assam, the state which has the largest number of Indian one-horned rhinos. The Governor was shouted down in the local legislative assembly when he read his speech prepared by the government indicating that “firm steps had been taken (by the government) for protection of wildlife”.

This was, however, not the view of the Governor.  He was so worked up about the constant reports of poaching of rhinos at the 860 square-kilometre Kaziranga National Park in the state that he asked the government to change the agency that has been engaged for their protection if it was not able to prevent poaching. Obviously, the figures of increase in the rhino numbers from 2201 in 2009 to 2544 in 2013 did not satisfy the Governor in the face of frequent reports of of poaching. He said that a small number of criminals are killing a rare and threatened animal and surprisingly the government is neither able to catch them nor protect the beasts. Soon enough five people were nabbed from a neighbouring district, one of whom was a member of the forest protection force. Clearly, poaching of rhinos or, for that matter high-value wildlife, including tigers, is largely an inside job and the forest employees’ assistance is generally extended to poachers for substantial monetary considerations.

Rhinos have been rendered vulnerable for their horns. Every time a poacher kills a rhino he decamps from the site with its horn after cruelly hacking it away. Recently a gruesome video was put up on the YouTube of a rhino that was left to bleed to death after its horn was hacked away. The horns are something which fetch very high price in the international market, supposedly, for their basically mythical curative properties. Wildlife experts have clarified that a rhino’s horn is nothing but a cluster of hair with no curative attributes. Nonetheless, the animal is being hunted down for the supposed qualities of its horn to cure anything from dandruff to cancer. The roots of the myth can be found in the guidelines of traditional Chinese Medicine which suggest that the rhino horn is a potent fever reducer, body detoxifier, a cure for hangover, an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. This has astronomically raised the price of the horn as the demand for it has been soaring in the international market, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam where a kilogram of the horn could fetch Rupees 3 to 4 million (around USD 50000). Mercifully, its demand in the Middle-East has since tapered off where the rich Arab Sheikhs used to have handles made of it for their fashionable daggers.

Kaziranga National Park, a more than a century old park, and a World Heritage Site to boot, is the largest of the Assam national parks among Manas, Pobitora and Orang parks which hosts Great One-horned rhinos in larger numbers and hence feels the pressure of poaching. It is easily accessible from the North through the River Brahmaputra as well as from the South from the Karbi Anglong hills (formerly Mikir Hills). Nepal has been somewhat successful in clamping down on poaching; hence the pressure on Kaziranga has increased manifold. Besides, it is easier to smuggle out the harvested horns from here to the markets of South-East Asia through Nagaland via Myanmar and through Arunachal Pradesh to China. While it is the Nagas who are largely the people behind poaching engaging locals, the carriers, especially to China, are women who naturally are subjected to a perfunctory border checks.

Many solutions have been and are under consideration in order to save the rhinos from being killed for their horns.  One is legalising the international rhino horn trade. There is a stockpile of horns in Africa which could be sold off to feed the current high demand which, with adequate supplies, could taper off. But then it would not be long before the demand built up again and poachers start killing rhinos. Besides, one could draw a lesson from the partially legalised ivory trade that has not been successful. In fact, more illegal ivory is passed on as legal with no strict controls for legal ivory in place. China had won approval of the Convention on Illegal Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and yet being the biggest importer of ivory it never demonstrated adequate commitment towards ending illegal ivory trade. China is the largest importer of illegal rhino horns as well and is likely to show the same lack of commitment for controlling their illegal imports once the trade is legalised. While opinions are polarised about legalising the trade, the overwhelming view is that the step was unlikely to work.

While de-horning of rhinos is not considered the ultimate solution, the Assam government recently constituted an expert committee to consider its feasibility for checking rampant poaching of rhino. According to Sanctuary Asia, more rhinos were killed after being de-horned in Africa as even after de-horning 10% of it remains and the animal could be killed for even that. Besides, poaching in Kaziranga being a nocturnal activity, none would ever be keen to check whether the target is horned or dehorned.

Apparently, there is no solution for the problem except taking good old measures that are conventional. And that would mean intensive human checks by a substantially larger security establishment, especially for extensive and widespread parks like Kaziranga. The Assam government has already decided to raise a 1200-strong specialised Rhino Protection Force for Kaziranga. For once displaying great political will the chief minister declared the force will be aided by modern arms and fighting gear, and other modern equipment like night-vision devices, thermal scanners, surveillance cameras, GPS etc. Even use of drones for tracking poachers is being considered. While incentivising protection from poaching of rhinos and other wildlife, he announced he would persuade the National Investigation Agency to investigate cases of poaching.

If the announced measures materialise the government, perhaps, would not need to try and experiment with Black Mambas, an all female unarmed protection force engaged within the Kruger National Park for preventing poaching – as eyes and ears working like a British Bobby. Their mere presence has brought down the incidence of poaching. That, however, may not happen in India.

 Across the border the rhinos seem to be thriving in West Bengal. In Jaldapara National Park, the second biggest habitat for rhinos after Kaziranga, their number has risen to 186 - a rise of 25%. A similar trend is likely to be shown by the Gorumara National Park – a much smaller habitat – when counting takes place there. The authorities of the two parks have claimed that they had not come across any case of poaching of rhinos. Apart from the other measures that the Assam government is taking, perhaps, it needs to look at the reasons for this somewhat strange phenomenon in West Bengal.
Photo: taken by self one foggy morning in 1989 in Kaziranga National Park, Assam

Thursday, March 5, 2015


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Meadows of Gulamarg
We had heard of Gulmarg much before we ever saw it. The name suggested “meadows of flowers”. A visit to it was, therefore, obligatory. As it was only about 30 miles away it could be done in a day. The bus took us only up to Tangmarg (meaning a place of pears), then a small town and now a revenue sub-division. Though known for its pears the place has now strongly come in to grow strawberries. It is from here the climb for Gulmarg commences. The road to Gulmarg was not till then motor-able, not even jeep-able. Hence, one had to make it on ponies or horses. Horses were organized for our parents and we, two brothers, decided to trek it up to Gulmarg. It was only around 6 or 7 miles away but at an elevation of more than 9000 ft. We, however, took the short cut and went up the steep slopes on the tracks that were used by pedestrians – mostly locals.

Although it was supposed to make the distance shorter (I do not have any idea by how much) it was tough negotiating it. The track ran up the steep hill through thick pine forests and, using as we did ordinary leather footwear with leather soles, the fallen pine needles made it tough for us for climbing. Pine needles are highly slippery and we had to make that extra effort to get traction on those steep slopes.

Occasionally the track opened up on to the road as it came winding up the hill where we would also meet on the road others who too were legging it up. But what stood out were the fantastically beautiful landscapes that met us every time we came out of the
The Pir Panjaals
deep woods - the green hills, the deep valleys and above them the snow-white Pir Panjaal. There were young Westerners who would hang on for minutes to take in Nature at its best and murmur to themselves “lovely country”. We would take the road for some distance and again get back to the track when we found it to be able to reach Gulmarg more or less around the time our parents reached it on horseback.

Huffing and puffing we kept pushing ourselves up and up and a while later we hit what seemed like an opening in the woods, And, lo and behold, at a little lower elevation than ours was an incredibly beautiful sight. Huge expanses of rolling greens on which a few horses happened to be grazing and all around there seemed to be thick forests of pines. It was an amazingly pastoral sight that was so fetching. There were hardly any structures around; it was unqualified Nature, uncluttered by human interference barring a few what looked like gravel paths, some low wooden fences and a few tiny wooden bridges. Up in the distance was the majestic range of Pir Panjaal, its whites glistening in the sun a magnificent sight, in fact idyllic, that is etched in my mind till this day even after more than fifty years! That is why when I visited Gulmarg again in 2011 I was terribly disappointed. With the road becoming motor-able, the place was chockablock with hotels, SUVs and thousands of tourists and, worse, the greens that had since become patchy. Unrestricted tourism has played havoc with the place.

Soon we were down on the greens and met up with the parents who were taken by the men who hired out the horses to a hotel. If my memory serves me right, it was Neadous, a branch of the one in Srinagar. It was till then a small outfit given the small number of tourists who would stay overnight at Gulmarg. We all had tea and then went out for a stroll on the pathways between expanses of
Nradous as it was then or a little later
beautiful green. Very few people were around, some of them being Westerners who were camping in the huts that were unobtrusive and away from the greens and, perhaps, were built before independence. One elderly English lady struck up a conversation with my father. She was delighted to know that he was a teacher, a professor teaching English. As was the wont of English people, she, apparently, was going to be there for some time in nature’s lap, perhaps reminding her of home. It was she who told us that we would be able to see Nanga Parbat if we were lucky. We were not lucky as it was shrouded in clouds.

We could not attempt a trip to Khilanmarg either. It is at more than 11000 ft and we just did not have time as we had to catch the bus back home. On our way back we stuck to the road, giving a wide berth to the foot tracks infested with those infernal pine needles.

Photos: from the Internet

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


The Mughal Road
Around the time we were in Srinagar two artists from Gwalior also happened to be there.  Both of them were reputed artists. One of them, who used to be a friend of my brother, decided to visit Shopian, probably, to take in the Pir Panjaals from closer quarters. We all decided to go in a group.

Shopian is a small town, now a district headquarters, situated south-west of Srinagar only 50-odd kilometres away. It is supposed to be an ancient town and was better known for its location on the old imperial road known as the Mughal Road connecting Kashmir Valley with Lahore. Emperor Akbar used it to conquer Kashmir in late 16th Century and his son Jehangir died on this road near Rajouri while returning from Kashmir. The road is being rebuilt by
The Pir Panjaal range
India as an alternative route to the Valley via Poonch in Jammu & Kashmir crossing over the Pir Panjaals at an elevation of higher than the Banihal Pass that is at more than 11000 ft. It will drastically cut the distance between Srinagar and Poonch, two towns in the same state but currently separated by as many as 500-odd kilometres.

We were in Shopian in about an hour and a half passing through the saffron town of Pampore and the ancient crumbling settlement of Awantipora. The town is in one of the numerous ‘apple countries’ of Kashmir Valley. Nothing much to see except a good-looking Jama Masjid, we headed out of town towards the West in an elevated area where the local government had built a rest house. Shopian is around 2000 ft higher than Srinagar in elevation and gets a closer and unrestricted view of Pir Panjaals. The view al around was incredibly beautiful, Being a clear day, the visibility was very good and one could see the orchards in “apple country” with occasional poplars attempting to reach for the sky. In fact, it was the superb views that made our day.

The Pir Panjaal range was shining bright in the sunshine with the blue of the skies for the background making it look majestic. Our artist friend, Rudra Hanji, got to work immediately. A product of
Artist Nicholas Roerich's version of the Pir Panjaals
Kala Bhavan, Institution of Fine Arts, an institution built in Shantiniketan, West Bangal by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, it was interesting to watch him sketching away with his felt pen. I found it amazing to see him work on ordinary paper and within moments he had sketched the likeness of the landscape in front of him with light, deft strokes of the pen. Apparently it was rough work for him to be later finished with colour on canvas.  He worked feverishly taking in whatever he saw in almost all the directions. The natural beauty of Kashmir is, after all, fabled.

A beautiful town with picturesque surroundings, Shopian, unfortunately, later fell victim of intense terrorist attacks from across the Cease Fire Line. Infiltration from across the Pir Panjaals has been continuing and off and on, apart from members of the security forces, even locals have fallen victims of terrorist bullets. The place seems to have become unsafe. But, back in 1957 there was no militancy, no infiltration from across the borders and life was safe, peace reigning supreme.

All photos are from the Internet

Sunday, March 1, 2015


The Tourist Reception Centre on fire
From Qazigund it took around 2 hours to be in Srinagar. In doing so we travelled through some idyllic country in the Valley. The green fields were bathed in brilliant morning sunshine with distant blue hills in the background made the whole Valley very seductive. No wonder Kashmir became for many years the favourite location for Hindi film shoots. In Srinagar the bus took us to the new elegantly constructed Tourists Reception Centre. It served the tourists for more than forty years before it was burnt down in 2005 by terrorists. That was a day before the Friendship Bus was to be flagged off by Indian Premier Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005 for Muzaffarabad in Pak-Occupied Kashmir as a measure friendly gesture in the midst of the generally unfriendly environment between the two countries.

We made it to my brother’s place through attractive leafy
The Bund
avenues of what was the Residency area of the town. Brother's house was bang on the Bund - the embankment along the Jhelum River that flowed through the town. The Bund, as we learnt later, was one of the prime tourist spots where virtually every tourist would come in the evenings for a stroll by the side of the River. It had some fancy restaurants and fine shopping towards Amira Kadal, the first bridge. While strolling here my parents met and made friends with one other Bagchi who used to be the Principal of the Indian Forest College at Dehra Dun. They also became friendly with a Tagore family whose daughter, then a kid, became a famous film actress and eventually got married to the young Nawab of Pataudi.

The Bund was perhaps the life of the town which had nothing more touristy to offer barring the Mogul gardens. Sitting by the first floor window one would never tire of watching the Pir Panjals in the distance and the passing humanity down below on the Bund at any hour of the day. Men and women would saunter up and down dressed in their best. It was a veritable fashion parade in which both men and women took to the ramp, as it were. Having been brought up in the backwaters of the country we were not quite familiar with the ways of the fashionista and hence we found their displays interesting.

Created to save Srinagar from floods the Bund was once nature trail. As the influx of British tourists increased and as they preferred to stay on boats on the Jhelum slowly the shopping developed and eventually it became of tourists. It was indeed very pleasant o walk up and down the Bund. The Bund had several Ghats on both banks. These were landing points for
Shikaras on the Dal
shikaras – flat-bottomed boats colorfully furnished with lots of cushions - that carried tourists on their sight-seeing trips or the locals on their errands. Apart from assorted shikaras other boats conveying goods and commodities or even shikaras hawking fruits and vegetables were seen on the Jhelum. Even some houseboats were parked along its two banks one of which happened to be a showboat with a queer name of "Suffering Moses". It was a show-boat, kind of an emporium of high-end Kashmiri arts and crafts. It was there even around 11 years later when I was posted in Kashmir and then again in 2011 when my wife and I saw it, but this time we found it had discarded the boat and was located on a firmer base by the side of the River - close to the place where the boat used to be tethered. The name “Suffering Moses” remained a mystery until I happened to find a website in which the owner seemed to have explained that since his shop contained products of excellence that could be produced only after a great deal of “suffering” hence the word was prefixed to his own name which was Moses.

Srinagar in the 1950s was a small town and till then not much of development had taken place. My father and I would walk down along the Bund towards the inner city and found it smelly and filthy. We would go down up to the fourth bridge - Srinagar happened to be a city of seven old wooden bridges and another,
One of the Srinagar old bridges
the Zero Bridge, was added later - looking for the stuff that we needed but would come back disappointed. We, however, had no apprehensions or fear although it was just about a decade after the Pakistani attack. Militancy had not raised its ugly head till then. People were friendly and we saw no signs of animosity. Of course, on an occasional wall one found anti-India slogans. These were said to be the handiwork of those who had opposed the state’s merge with India and were still against the ruling dispensation

The best parts of the town were the areas known as the Civil Lines dominated by the Residency that was the residence of one-time British Agent for the princely state of Kashmir. Residency had been converted into a museum that had fantastic carpets one of which was supposed to be wall-to-wall type for its massive hall. Apart from fabulous textiles of the Afghan era and some exquisite locally excavated archaeological artifacts it also had colourful papier machie stuff and some intricately carved walnut wood furniture. Its grounds had a well- laid out garden presided over by a huge chinar tree. Sitting under it having tea served by the immaculately white-clad bearers of the Museum restaurant was a real pleasure.

While visiting Srinagar if one didn't do that obligatory pilgrimage to the Mogul gardens one would be reckoned to have seen nothing. Hence, we dutifully piled into a shikara one Sunday morning for our visit to the gardens. Jhelum was linked to the Dal Lake through numerous crystal-clear streams with weeping willow trees bending down on them as if to seek and touch the waters. On these narrow streams a large number of "doongas" were parked. These were mobile houses for numerous families who spent their lives on the River and its tributaries. I had seen quite a lot of them in the town near its several bridges.

Ours was a leisurely trip down the Jhelum, its picturesque tributaries and Dal Lake, that massive body of water which had still-developing Promenade on one side and a bank of colourfully decked up houseboats with fancy English names
Fountains at play in Shalimar garden
and on the other. The houseboats here and the ones on the Nagin Lake were reckoned as high-end type and were mostly patronised by Western tourists. One by one we did all the three gardens. Among the three, the most impressive was Shalimar with some massive chinar trees and large open spaces where Kashmiri families had come out to picnic. Kashmiris are supposedly great picnickers and on bright summer holidays they would not remain in their stuffy houses or “doongas”. More than 50 years later they have added below the Chashme Shai garden another garden of only tulips in acres of acres of land which is billed as the largest tulip garden in Asia.

On our way back we came up against a powerful storm giving us a fright. The shikara was already slightly overloaded and it could tip over in strong breeze. Eventually, however, the skies cleared up and we were home a little after sundown after a daylong outing. We saw some fabulous gardens, a few overwhelming chinar trees, successors of those that, we were told, were native of Persia.

We stayed through May and June but never felt the need of a fan – the weather was so pleasant. In fact, inside the first floor house we would be using covers during our afternoon snooze. I mention this since I saw in 2011 that fans had become a standard fixture in houses. And, hotels had air-conditioners, which were unthinkable in 1957 or 1968. How sharply the weather has change in just 50-odd years!

Photos: From the Internet

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