Morning walk

geese

Did they stop here to oil their wings?

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Press spokesperson, what’s that?

When I work on a story and it turns out I have to contact someone in Germany for that, I’m always happy. This is not because then I can ask my questions in German, but also because I can be quite sure there’s actually someone who answers them.

In Germany, journalists deal with spokesmen and spokeswomen most of the time. They speak for a court, for the local police, for a ministry, for a company, for an association, for a celebrity, you name it. As it is their job to speak, they are normally reachable, reliable, fast, and willing to say something (well, the answers might be evasive, but they do talk).

That very concept is not popular in India. At all. In fact, till now I know exactly one spokesperson – the guy in the Foreign Ministry – to whom this applies to.

spokespersonPolice stations for example, even the headquarters, just don’t have spokespeople. So you either have to convince someone of lower rank to read out the file for you. But then you can never quote him. That’s why Indian media so often use phrases like: “He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.”

Or you have to get the police chief of the district/state on the phone. Or at least his deputy. But when you call from a number they do not know, they hardly ever pick up the phone. So you can either try dozens of times, or write a message. The police chief of Goa for example gave me the most important details for a case of rape in this way.

If you want to know something about a company, it gets really difficult. Your chances are best if you know someone inside, who can help you with the numbers of the director or managing director or chief executive officer. Or you know someone who knows someone. (In fact, this concept is applicable to get anything done in India.) If you call the general number instead, chances are high you get connected to new people over and over and over again, until you speak to someone you have spoken before and the circle is closed.

In the rare case an organisation does have a spokesperson, and the person actually knows something, it can’t be taken for granted you can then quote them. It happened we called the official spokesperson of a ministry – and the guy said we had to attribute it to “sources”. And this wasn’t a very hot or controversial issue.

Having said all of that, I want to close with a positive note: Once you acquire the mobile phone number of a person, you can call him or her anytime (well, nearly). Indians still pick up the phone when they get a phone call from a journalist at 10pm, even if they sit at home for dinner, and are in fact answering the questions.

Is Delhi the most polluted city in the world?

air quality boardEvery morning, I ride my bicycle along the digital display in front of Mausam Bhawan, the Meteorological Department at Lodhi Road. In the winter month, I very often only see one colour there: red. Which means that the air quality is very, very bad, unhealthy, and, in fact, beyond measurement.

So far, not many people are concerned about that in Delhi. In fact, the choking hazyness is mostly referred to as “fog” instead of “smog”, which it actually is.

After the Hindustan Times ran a front-page report , which said Delhi is now the most polluted city in the world, and had actually surpassed Bejing, that previously was regarded to hold this doubious honour, the Indian media finally woke up.

But: Only the media. I haven’t heard of anybody buying a mask now or purchasing an air purifier (well, I might buy one pretty soon for me as well as the office). And the official reaction was – instead of banning cars from the road or slashing out fines on polluting industries or trying to step up electricity supply, so that the poor don’t have to burn waste in the streets to warm themselves and the rich don’t use their diesel generators – so instead of thinking of any logic measure, politics is in a status of denial.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences issued a statement, saying that “unusual meteorological conditions are playing a pivotal role in increased frequency of extreme pollution events dominated by fine particulates”. So, basically, “cooler temperatures” and “calm winds” are to blame.

Then the ministry goes on talking about the “fact” that levels of the very dangerous pollutants with less than 2.5 microns in diameter — scientifically called PM 2.5 — are much lower in Delhi than in Beijing. (These tiny beasts are able to get into the blood and are therefore considered being especially harmful and causing cancer.)

But are the levels really lower?

When I looked up the measurements of the US embassy in Beijing and compared them to the ones from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee at Punjabi Bagh, I found there were more days with a PM2.5 level above 301 (“hazardous”, according to the US embassy) in the Indian capital than in the Chinese city.

By the way, the embassy’s advise at this level is: “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” Well, I ride my bicycle…

For that I got scolded by researcher and activist Kamal Meattle, who grows his own fresh air. Really. After being told by his doctors that Delhi’s air will kill him some 20 years ago, he started experimenting. And found out that a combination of three common plants in a house or office building lead to measurably cleaner indoor air.

Nowadays, at his Paharpur Business Centre, all air is sucked in at the top, then water filtered, enriched by the plants, further cleaned, and then pumped into the different levels of the building – which is under permanent overpressure, so that no bad Delhi air is coming in through small gaps.

He claims, and I believe him after inhaling the good air in the building, that people inside have less eye irritations, breathing problems, headachse and in fact actually work more efficiently. (Here is his TED video.)

But back to the pollution levels outside.

Smog over Ring Road

In a study by Yale university India lands on rank 174 of 178 countries in terms of air quality. Looking more into detail, in the category “Air Pollution – Average Exposure to PM2.5”, India slips to rank 177. Guess who is 178? Right: China.

The new government under the “common man party” doesn’t seem to be looking into the problem. And so there might be more denial to come. Last year’s infamous words of the then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit still ring in my ears, when she told “The Hindu” the real reason for the smog: “And we discovered that much of the smoke which is hanging over Delhi is actually due to burning of rice stalks in the paddy fields in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. It is as if it is deliberately being done to choke Delhi.’’

The tea country

You want to drink proper coffee in India? Well, good luck. Even though Starbucks entered the market about a year ago and India has it’s own coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, the subcontinent remains a country of tea drinkers (fair enough, it’s also the world’s largest tea-producing country).

And by tea, I mean this oversweet, strong, milky fluid that is poured from aluminium pots into small plastic cups at every filthy street corner.

The coffeehouse experience on the other hand is possible at more than 1500 places in India, mostly limited to shopping malls, upscale promenades, main tourist attractions (I found one inside the walls of 400 year old Amber Fort!) and airports.

Ah, and talking about “experience”: Don’t expect 1) to get your takeaway coffee in less than 10 minutes, 2) to have any of the many staff members to pay attention to you as a customer, if you are not shouting at them, 3) the cashier to have any change at all. But, expect 1) your brownie/muffin/cake to be heated up in a microwave, 2) get everything packed and wrapped three times and placed in huge boxes or bags for takeaway, with plenty of ketchup/mustard/sauce/, 3) have someone sweeping the floor around you all the time.

coffee loungeSo, if Indians talk about coffee, they mean instant coffee. Always. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, I found a set-up coffee “lounge”, complete with a wooden bar, fancy quotes on the wall, real chairs (no plastic!), and a menu, titled “Enjoy the world’s best coffees”, that listed five different varieties. It turned out: All coffee served there was instant coffee.

Things to know about Republic Day parade

Republic Day rocket launcher

Republic Day is when India shows all it’s military might on the widest road Delhi has to offer, and when the nation can boast about it’s achievements. (Originally though it was the day the constitution came into force back in 1950.)

Republic Day, camels

It’s also the day when people applaud stuntmen on motorbikes and soldiers with big funny hats marching in step, swinging their arms simultaneously, resembling rows of jumping-jacks.It might be the only day of the year when the public can listen to marching bands that’s musicians – other than at weddings – actually know how to play – even the clarinet and the bagpipe (the amount british influence is simply unbelievable; I didn’t see any Indian instruments at this day). Another treat for the audience: They can admire at the cultural heritage of the country, jammed on a couple of floats.

Republic Day, culture

But to be allowed to the spectacle at Rajpath in the heart of Delih, one is “requested not to bring” (meaning: DON’T YOU DARE) the following items: bags, brief cases, food (actually, the wrote “eatable”), radios, tape recorders (do they still exist?), palm-top computers (whats’s that? and what about other computers?), remote controlled car lock keys (and how shall we lock the car then?), arms and ammunition, daggers, explosives (oh, really!), water bottles (but no water was available inside, and everybody was sitting there for hours), cigarettes, bidi (as if this weren’t a cigarette), perfume, handicams (???), wires, and so on, and so forth.

Republic Day, pencils rocket launcher But: to “establish the identity”, everybody needs an identity card, like a passport – or a weapon licence. No joke.

Well, anyway, Nikoleta and I got in, with our mobile phones tucked away in the underwear. Unfortunately the big camera had to be left behind, as even all my waving around with my press identity card didn’t help (often it does, as it has a very impressive government stamp, but this time the security guys were unrelenting… well I didn’t try to bribe them).

So after seeing a lot of mitary uniforms and more uniforms and even more uniforms I went back to where my bicycle was standing – but it wasn’t there anymore. With all my Hindi scraped together I asked the policemen who were standing around, and found out they took it away – because someone could have placed a bomb inside! (The frame has diameter of not even 3cm, and it weights less than 8kg, but what to do.)

Republic Day, jet

I was told to wait, so I waited, but then other policemen came running towards me, telling me to get out of the roundabout where I was sitting. When I refused to go, as I was told to wait, they pushed me with their guns. We argued back and forth, and finally they made me sit down together with another bunch of people. The armed men guarded us, weapon at the ready, like we were criminals – until the motorcade with the president had passed by, and all the tension suddenly vanished. They very friendly even apologised. “We are only doing out job, madam,” one said. Note: Never come in the way of the VVIPs.

Republic Day, sealOne police guy who spoke some English and made it a point to help me, told me to walk over to Tuqlaq Road Police Station. So I walked there, passing dozens or even hundreds of very bright seals on gutters, locks, lampposts, doors… you name it. The whole area was secured, square kilometer for square kilometer.

At the police station, I was told to go to the “women’s help desk” – mine was not a women’s issue, but well, it helped anyways as the policewomen spoke some English. But first, I had to drink some tea. Then once I had relaxed, she had talked to ten other people, I told her the story of my bicycle again. Her problem was, what held her from filing some papers: I didn’t know the number of the bike frame. It didn’t matter I told her ten times the bike is very colourful and unique in Delhi and I have the key to the lock.

I was lucky once more as a guy walked in who overheard my story and knew about the bike. The traffic police on the spot hat brought it back to the roundabout – and the information to go to Tuqlaq Police Station was actually wrong, I was supposed to stay. Well, now the prpblem was solved. A very senior and gentle policeman, accompanied by a young policewomen (you can’t let a woman alone with a man in India) drove me back in a police car. And I was reunited with my bicycle.

Republic Day, horsesAfter that we lived happily ever after. And the police never demanded a fine from me, even though I parked the bicycle in the security zone. Nor was someone angry about my being so stupid and leaving it there. In fact, I found the police to be very nice (apart from the incident when the men secured the ground for the president – but hey: nothing is more important in India than the VVIPs).

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the elections

Many conversations at the Jaipur Literature Festival circeled around the upcoming general elections. The talks had titles like “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the rest” or “Why India votes” or “India at the crossroads” or “Conquering the chaos: empowering the future”.

India's elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

India’s elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

Mukulika Banerjee,  Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, for example asked: “Can a larger vision for basic needs like health and education come from within the current system, from the elected citizen elite?”

Yes, answered Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But for that it is of utmost importance that leaders have a vision, an utopia. Governments like the one from Basque region first invested in health and education, and the once backward region became one of the shiniest parts in Europa in a matter of 20 years, Gupta said. “Unless you take that risk ask a leader, you cannot make democracy happen. You cannot play sick.”

Lily Wangchuk, president of a the political party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa in Bhutan, believes in the wisdom of society as a whole. “Good people are out there. They need to be given a chance.” Gupta adds, that sometimes only a handful of poeple can bring the change. “A small number of poeple put the others in action. Once they come togethter, the magic starts working, and goes out from there.”

Where are the people who can shape India's future?

Where are the people who can shape India’s future?

Gupta also believes that bribing the people into the elections doesn’t work anymore. “You give them rum and rupees, but that doesn’t mean the people are voting for you. They have a very clear vision of who they want.”

Banerjee, author of “Why India votes” pointed out that “the Lok Sabha election is the largest humanly organized event in the world“. It’s a festival, with noise and visual pollution, and a huge voter turnout. People go to the polls because of the peer pressure that the inked finger incites, she thinks. The index fingers of those who have voted in India are marked with indelible ink.

On another panel, she talked about her research village in West Bengal, and stated that issues which are discussed on the national or international level are often not known in the villages and not important for their decision for whom to vote. “For them it’s what has materially changed, like if there is water or electricity.” And: “India’s growth rates mean nearly nothing to the common man, if it doesn’t make a material change.”

Political scientist Louise Tillin sees a decline of the Congress-dominated politics, which was seen as a constant. “1985 was the last time there was a democratic single party government,” she said, then the regional parties surged. Now people are longing for a strong leader, instead of looking into good coalition building.

“The record of regional parties contributing positively to the central government is rare, if not non-existent,” backs her journalist and author John Elliott. All they want are positions so that they can get money through that.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, believes “India is a functioning democracy“. If a tea seller can become a prime-ministerial candidate, the “majesty of the Indian democracy” shows itself, he said. He seemed absolutely confident that India would overcome the current problems and march ahead of the countries that now are heading.

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla pointed out that since the state was founded in 1947, there was always an orderly transition of power. “Elections were always held on time,” he said. “These are no mean achievements.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of BJPs prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, says Modi has very consciously shaped the religious identities. “There is a very, very dark side on Narendra Modi, which I feel very uncomfortable with.”

Modi was the first to realise the power of social media, Mukhopadhyay believes. But: “In most of India the niceties of the modern societies, which we in the urban areas use on a minute to minute basis, are not there.”

Jaipur Literature Festival – on Aam Aadmi Party

Hardly any political discussion at the Jaipur Literatur Festival went by without mentioning the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Men’s Party, whose members surprised everyone (maybe even themselves) when they managed to grab 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections, and are now even forming the government.

Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen was “inclined to cheer” at the Aam Aadmi party’s success. “It was wonderful to see that a party could appeal to the grievance that has gripped the country and sense that we need something different,” he said.

But, he added, some of the measures taken were not well thought of, clearer ideas were necessary. Cuts in prices for electricity for example are not reasonable, he argued, as one third of the people of Delhi doesn’t have power. “All you achieve is that the room temperature in hotels sinks from 17°C to 14°C.”

And the party really should ask itself: “Who are the ‘aam aadmi’?” Mr Sen advised. Are they the ones that need cheaper power and cooking gas and diesel, or the ones that don’t have access to these amenities at all?

Some of India's 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Some of India’s 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida, pointed out that the AAP “is still a movement, is in the movement phase even now”. So far they came out with just one or two goals – fight against corruption and cleanliness and accountability of governance – but for being a party they need more substance.

But, Gupta adds, the new party changed the political campaigning. “In the past, elections were always about cast, religion, language. This time it isn’t. This time the parties talk about delivery to the citizens, delivery of things they demanded – rightly so.”

Gupta sees similar movements like the anti corruption protests, from where the AAP comes from, all around the world. Simple slogans that seem to make a big difference have mobilised people, he says, like “I’m Anna”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “indignados”. “These people say: ‘We are the citizens, so listen to us'”, explains Gupta. The feel they have to do something, as the current politicians can’t deliver, their ideologies don’t work anymore.

AAP members also assembled at the festival and rose their voice there

Aam Aadmi party workers also assembled at the Literature Festival and rose their voice there

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, sees “great achievements”. The AAP has exercised great pressure on both the big parties to look into corruption, he states. Also both Congress and BJP now have to listen more to the common man. “That’s a huge shift, because in the last twenty to thirty years, politicians went away from the ordinary people.”

He also likes the fact that people now feel motivated to take action. “After Kejriwal asked the people to film corrupt bureaucrats, the sale of mobiles with video cameras went up – that’s great, people are taking it into their hands.”

Essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul thinks what the world, and India, needs, is not good management, but a revolution. “People are looking after new ways of becoming part of the system, they want to participate.”

Navin Chawla, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, said the AAP is putting two djinns back into the bottle: money power and muscle power.

Former Indian ambassador Neelam Deo sees a “broad frustration with the incumbent governments”. The AAP is challenging the system, as the campaign differently, got their financial support differently, are acting differently once elected, are expressing frustration differently (dharna). “Howsoever the saga of the AAP will go, it changed the discourse of the upcoming elections.”

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, felt like he had to defend himself and bragged that he didn’t come with police escort, supporters or driver, but “all on myself”. Back in the days, when he was an IAS (Indian administrative service) officer, he even went on the motorbike to work. “We all tend to set standards.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, in quotes

Festival director William Dalrymple: Diggi Palace is packed with people. This shows: Books still matter, authors still matter.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen: “Show, don’t tell,” I was tought in the 70s and 80s. “But it is story telling, not story showing, so I unlearned this idea.”

Franzen: “We are still post-modern, but don’t call ourselves post-modern anymore, we call it post-post-modern.”

Franzen: I don’t know how a book ends when I start it. And so I hope that if I am unsure where it’s going, maybe it feels like a mystery for the reader.

Franzen: “A novelist is a man who every morning goes to his own little world and meets the people he himself created.” Franzen adds that readers never feel alone as they connect to the people in their books.

audience at Jaipur LitFest

Question on the Bollywood Nation panel: “What happened to the angry young man?” Economist and politician Meghnad Desai: “He became Arvind Kejriwal.” He will also solve every problem in twelve hours.

Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan: Sometimes the investment in a film is there, then they get an actor, but there’s no story. The actor demands: I want five action scenes and three songs. And the movie is still a success!

Khan: Some stars basically say: Come to the cinema, get some action sequences, get some songs – and see me.

Desai on social change through films: “They reach out wider and deeper to the audience than any writer or author can.”

Khan: “These are changing times in Indian cinema and society. The audience is maturing, movies are changing.” But often the cinema doesn’t reflect society, it just wants to give you a good time. “Then cinema is like a sleeping pill: chill and relax.”

Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies and son of Tollywood star Jamuna: This cultural pastime (films) has so much power, that as a child I was often separated from my mother by a wall of fans.

Desai: Nowadays you only need to attach “Khan” to your name to get to the top in Bollywood.

Khan: Most of the stardom is about scaling down people, making them feel lesser.

Vamsee Juluri: Bollywood keeps Gandhi’s ideas alive, more than any politician.

Author Jerry Pinto: “When the government has nothing else to do than watch twitter and facebook these days, I would like to be the government. But shall the twitterati now built roads and run schools?”

Journalist Madhu Trehan: In India, “we don’t like irony, we don’t like the funnies. Just say it as it is, and if you can’t do that, then let it be.”

Director, actor and writer Mahesh Dattani: “One thing we all grew up with is hating woman: We see the man being privilegded and therefore supress the woman in us.” And if the Indians hate anything more than females, it’s the hijras (men in South Asia who adopt feminine gender roles and wear women’s clothing)., “as they defy every aspect of the masculartity we aspire”.

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Aditi Maheshwari, director at the publishing house Vani Prakashan: “India may dream in Hindi, speak in Hindi, but it aspires in English.”

Sir David Cannadine, professor of history at Princeton University: In 1910, the majority of the world was ruled by empires, lead by kings and queens, today we have more than 200 republics, most of them democracies, or claim to be. There is no assurance that this will remain to be like this. “The British ruled their empire more than a thousand years, in that light the republics are a very recent phenomenon.”

Another one by Cannadine: “If you asked the British why there are so many Indian restaurants in Britain, most people wouldn’t know the answer.” – “Whereas, if you asked Indians why cricket is the national sports, most knew the answer.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on partition

Mohinder Singh Sarna was a witness of what his son Navtej Sarna described as “immense scale of bloodshed and killings on both sides of what later became the border”. The son never heard his father speak of the partition between India and Pakistan, about the “absolute terror, absolute hatred, when innocent people were being massacred for no reason whatsoever”.

But his father handed down his stories. In order to let more people know about what happened in 1947, Navtej Sarna translated the harrowing accounts from Punjabi, and had them published. The result is “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”.

“In some stories the marginalised or even the animals are better than humans,” he explained. But a lot of the tales are also about deep friendship. When Sarna read out the shortest of the narratives the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the people fell dead silent and listened intensely of how a Moslem driver sacrificed himself to safe a Sikh family.

Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”

Gurudwaras (places of worship for Sikhs) were giving out little portions of poison, so when women were in fear of loosing their honour by rape, they could swallow it. Some groups of Punjabi Sikhs took a vow to kill all their wifes and daughters to keep them from abduction. These were two of the many terrible side stories that transpired from the conversation of Sarna with publisher Urvashi Butalia.

They also talked about the “reluctance to confront this bloody period of grief and despair” in the Indian history. “All life was destructed. The human instinct tells us to cling on, to rebuilt, to look forward. Only after a while we look back, we reflect, and pass it on to our children,” Sarna said. This is the time when books are written or translated.

He  experienced this in his own family. Nobody in the house would talk about partition – as his own sister was killed during the time. “Silence was a trick of survival.”

Butalia gave some further background information: 100 000 women were possibly raped, abducted and sold during partition, and many of them committed suicide, for example by throwing themselves into wells. The silence, she analysis, was also a way of cutting these women out of family history, because “the stigma of rape stays not only on the woman, but is also transferred to the family”.

So far, both the conversationalists concluded, not enough of retrospection, documenting and conviction is done. “That would help to heal,” Sarna said. But, for example, there are only two or three movies on partition. And: “In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we all have been really silent. If we would have spoken out more, we would be more tolerant, more understanding.”

Urvashi Butalia

Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia

Another panel of four talked about “Reimaging Partition”. It was lined out that the partition between India and Pakistan included the largest forced mass migration in history: twelve million people had to move in a matter of a few month.

“We have to remember partition so we can deal with the consequences and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Butalia said. And people should grow aware of the fact that there were no clearly good or bad guys, there were victims and aggressors in sikh, hindu and muslim communities,  the publisher said. People don’t recognise how deep it lies inside them and how it remains unresolved.

These days, Butalia thinks, we listened to many a story about Sikhs and Moslems. So it should be about time to go deeper and see the layers beyond: What happened to the Christianes, the Dalits and other minorities, the second generation, and so on.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of “This Side That Side”, a collection of stories about the partition

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a graphic novelist and artist based in Delhi, believes that the second generation is the biggest in denial, because they hear many stories from their parents, but stick to the thought: “I wasn’t born then, it doesn’t affect me.” They are also too busy re-building and setting up their own life.  But Ghosh reminded the audience that in West Bengal the refugee camps of 1947 still exist, as some people there still live on rented government land.

“We need more writers who tell in graphic novels or short stories or movies or write online,” Ghosh in order to communicate to different people. And anyway, every retelling of a story is a transition, he thinks.

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Pakistani environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam recounts how he had to go to another country to find literature on 1971, when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. “There is still an element of denial in the Pakistan establishment,” he said. But: the people should come to a point of acceptance.

Today with social media we have much more documents which can be fast and easily be shown around, Alam continues. But so far there is no museum on the partition in Pakistan, even though historians collected 15 000 interviews and 80 000 documents.

There is an urgent need to remember this part of history, but at Purana Qila in Delhi, where the biggest refugee camp was situated, there isn’t even a plaque, Butalia laments. But the good thing is, she continues, that the third generation can now deal with it, and there is more literature on partition coming at the moment.

Butalia recounted the story she heard so often in the villages of Punjab of the “Madman Radcliffe“. Sir Cyril Radcliffe apparently came to the subcontinent and couldn’t handle the task of finding the line on which to divide India and Pakistan. So all night long he got drunk, and in the morning got out a pen, and because he couldn’t draw a straight line anymore on the map, the border nowadays is ragged and totally random: this stone is in Pakistan, and that one in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Elephant in the room

“The elephant is a big, gentle creature, eating grass, eating bamboo, and fairly peaceful most of the times,” said diplomat Neelam Deo when she opened the discussion titled “Elephant in the room – India and it’s neighbours”.

Bangladeshi writer and columnist K. Anis Ahmed believed that even though India is a big elephant, it has not come to it’s own sense as a super power, as it always acts defensive in it’s relations with it’s neighbours. “India is diluting it’s potential by these defensive policies,” he said. In Bangladesh, relations with the big neighbour are by now less front page news than, trade with the EU and US.

the elephant in the roomBhutanese politician Lily Wangchhuk spoke about the connection to another small neighbour in the Northeast: “Until now, the relationship was considered sacred and unquestionable.” But when India interfered in the elections by withdrawing gas subsidies, there was criticism in quite some part of society, she said.

Speaking about his homeland Pakistan, columnist Ahmad Rafay added: “India remains engaged in the security establishment, but has yet to make inroad into society.”

How India perceives it’s own appearance in the region and what it really is, are two very different things, said Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal Southasian, the only regional magazine of Southasia (that, by itself, speaks volumes). Rafay lamented that a lot of conferences and other events, where South Asians could gather, had to be held in Dubai or London, because visas for all participants for these cities were easier to get than for the region.

He also deems it a huge deficiency that there is no legal treaty, or even initiative, between India and Pakistan on who is allowed to extract water on both sides of the border. There is only the Indus water treaty which deals mostly with the question if India is allowed to built damns. “This is the area where India and Pakistan have to start talking, and not again get into the gna gna gna, like children,” Rafay said. He also finds it strange that both sides have an army on the Siachen Glacier, “a region that is uninhabitable”. And because the soldiers are there, no scientific research is possible in that sensitive region. “But sense doesn’t go beyond 15 000 feet.”

All panelists concludes that it’s high time for India to promote good neighbouring, and change it’s present policy. “In recent years, India’s relationship with it’s neighbours was largely unfriendly,” Wangchhuk said.

Whereas some saw SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as a good platform for that, others disagreed. “I sometimes think SAARC was set up to bury the idea of South Asia,” Mojumdar said. Ahmed added for consideration, that strong regional cooperation like the EU and ASEAN are functioning because they started with similar sized and similar powerful countries. “Here India is just too big, and therefore thinks it’s interests are better served in bilateral treaties.”

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