Please Don’t ‘Pope’ your nose

Good ol’ Pope Benedict XVI seems to have a special affinity for things that stoke controversies. So unlike the more ‘saintly’ Pope John Paul II earlier, he is not really known to mince his words when it comes to things that should be better left unsaid. Some years back he had derided the Prophet Muhammad in his speech; later he had hinted on how Jews should return to the real fold by urging them to convert to Catholicism; supposedly when he was a cardinal in 1997, he had termed the Buddhist fate as form of ‘spiritually self-indulgent eroticism’. He has taken a tough stance on issues like birth control, HIV, homosexuality, etc. The list just goes on and on.

India also got a taste of Pope’s indiscretion recently, when he poked his nose in what can be termed as internal affairs of our nation. Pope Benedict has reportedly condemned the violence that has taken place in the state of Orissa and appealed to “religious leaders and civil authorities to work together to restore among members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and harmony which have always been the distinguishing mark of Indian society’. This seemingly harmless comment gains notoriety if viewed in complete context of the communal clashes that are going on in the state of Orissa.

The eastern state of Orissa has been a flashpoint for clashes between Hindus and Catholics for the past few years. The reason has been the changing demographics of the region. But first a brief outline of the state; the nine largest and the eleventh largest state of the Indian union also happens to be one of the poorest. This poverty has encouraged a lot of Christian missionary organizations to set up base and start preaching their faith to the tribal population.

To be honest, if a person is dying from poverty being a Hindu or is ostracized against due to the caste-based discrimination; there is nothing bad if by changing his religion he can attain a better life or stature. But when he or she is being unduly influenced and his naiveté is taken advantage of, that’s just not right.

These missionary organizations have been able to carry on their religious agenda without much hindrance as the administration has turned a blind eye to it. They are easily able to influence the poverty stricken into their folds through monetary emoluments. The people who convert to the new faith are provided with food and shelter and the ones that don’t are left to suffer.

Thus right in the midst of the tribal land in Orissa, once can find churches and other such religious paraphernalia. The activity has increased in the past few years and this almost sudden change of demographics has resulted in lot of heightened tensions. The have-nots who continue to suffer are immensely jealous of the new haves. The whole issue came out in the open during the ghastly murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young kids some years back by Hindu fundamentalists. Post this event the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has increased steadily. And often nowadays one comes across such sectarian clashes in news reports from the region.

The latest flare up happened when some henchmen shot and killed a Hindu leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati. This murder resulted in mobs of Hindus torching missionary offices and churches in the region, leading to death of over a dozen people in the Kandamal region in Orissa. Pope Benedict expressed his solidarity with his ‘Christian brothers and sisters’ who have borne the brunt. Almost immediately, the Catholic Bishop Council of India, called for a day long closure of catholic schools and institutions across India as a mark of solidarity to the victims of violence.

All this is fine and can could be understood. But what the Pope should have known (and respected) is that this is completely an internal affair of a sovereign nation that has millions of Catholics residing peacefully with the Hindu populations. Every day scores of Indian lives are lost due to violence and terrorism, but never before was the Pope saddened like the way he was now. Never before did he express his solidarity with the people who suffered at the hands of such ghastly incidents. Indeed, does he feel as saddened for the millions in Gaza who suffer at the hands of the Jewish administration in Tel Aviv? Or the millions that died due to Iraqi invasion by a Catholic country?

The killings in Orissa have been a result of communal frenzy, but the perpetrators are criminals and cannot be branded as some religious individuals. Don’t we Indians hate it when after some minor clashes between the Hindus and Muslims, suddenly the Islamic countries start expressing their solidarity for their fellow Muslims in India. National identity is and must supersede religious identity. By expressing his grief for Catholic victims, the Pope is insulting millions of countrymen like me, who are equally appalled by the incidents.

The Pope should have respected the sentiments of Indian citizens and should have avoided talking about the whole incident at the moment. But then, Pope Benedict wouldn’t have been his natural self, if he hadn’t spoken out. After all, he isn’t like the earlier Pope, who though a religious leader, was a human first and a Christian later. How I wish, Pope Benedict could be likewise. But if not, the least he can do is not poke his nose in domestic affairs of our nation. Can you not, Pope?

63 seconds!!

Evening time, Andheri Station, the atmosphere is sheer chaos. Thousands rushing in, a few more thousands rushing out and a couple of hundred thousand individuals passing through the 6 railway tracks. Each train rake is filled to the very brim, people hanging out of the doors like ragged dolls, shrieking, shouting, cursing and more importantly shoving with their lower torsos. As these trains keep moving from one end of the city to another, so many of these ragged men lose their grips and slid down in between the wheels. If they are indeed lucky, death comes instantly else a few limbs are lost and life turns into a living hell.

Commuters, hanging on to the doors, have become immune to such incidences and barely would bat an eye-lid on seeing a bleeding dismembered corpse lying on the side of the tracks. There is barely room for humans on these trains, let alone humanity. Day after day, millions travelling on these trains are dehumanised steadily; etiquette, civility and propriety are ritually shred from the insides. Death, accident, blood, tragedy, pain, trauma; all of these things lose their significance till it doesn’t happen to oneself. This steeling process is repeated twice a day, once in the morning from Virar to Churchgate and in the evening from Churchgate to Virar. In some strange way, this is one of the secrets behind the famous and resilient ‘Mumbai spirit’ that so many of our news channels keep harping about.

It was on one such evening that I found myself standing on Platform 1 at Andheri. Myself and my friend Abhijit Deb had a meeting fixed in the suburb of Goregaon (a mere two stops from Andheri), and much as we would have liked to take the road, the two tiny hands on our wristwatches made us decide otherwise. Now Abhijit is a gritty person hailing from mountainous paradise of Meghalaya, who though cribs about the unruly millions of Mumbai, but has made his peace with them.

Whereas, I don’t really know on which ground I stand; I hate the crowds and this sea of humanity every passing day and fantasise constantly of the day I will not be counted as one of these. Yet, I lack the courage and gumption to break free. Thus these crowded trains truly scare me. Also, another factor that works against me, is my BMI or body mass index, with the weighing scale pointer dancing around the 100 kgs mark, I am hardly athletic or even fit. And if that wasn’t enough, I had both my hand in bandages on that day, sign of a stupid me (but that is another story).

The clock made the decision for us and compelled us to join the thronging multitudes that shift with each passing train. Thus with the 7:09 Borivali approaching, visible from the bright circular yellow halo in the near distance, we geared ourselves as best we could; stiffen the muscles and tried to move as close to the edge as possible. Now, trying to board a train at a major junction like Andheri is a very tricky and dexterous business. While there are 50 shoving to board the train, some 20 are frantically pushing from inside trying to come out and a couple of them are standing on the door unwilling to give up on their advantageous positions. The key is to get in the train even before it comes to a complete halt. If you are unable to do so, then you will have to grapple and labour at the door trying your luck. All this, getting in-getting out-staying put business, needs to be accomplished within 30 odd seconds that the train halts for. And though the frequency of the trains are high during the peak hours, every 5-10 minutes, yet nothing can be gained by waiting for the next one as it will be as bad as the previous one.

Now as the 7:09 Borivali Slow came to a halt, both of us were unable to board the train, we were pushing and shoving the person in front of us. It was kind of odd, as the train wasn’t as badly packed as we had imagined. In the sense, 2-3 people were able to shove their way even when it was stationary; this was making a lot us who were pushing from the outside quite optimistic. But even when it isn’t usually crowded, it is still unusually crowded. Hence, after some customary shoving, I gave up and decided to try my luck in the next train. But gritty Abhijit wouldn’t, and would not let me either. Even with his blithe build, he managed to push a person standing on the door and asked me to do the same, i.e. push him inside.

With bandages on my hand, clutching a small valise, I caught hold of the rod that is bang in the centre between the two compartment doors. Now, I have my honest doubts as to why the rod has been put, where it has been put. I believe on seeing so many people slipping out day after day, the Railways in their generosity installed the rods, so that it can support at least a few more as they hang on to their dear lives. Thus, in no real mood to continue on, I was clutching at the life-saving rod when the train started moving towards its destination.

Hanging outside the door of a crowded compartment is infinitely better than smelling armpits and saving your toes inside. But certainly not, when you are hanging as precariously as I was. I had the valise between both the arms, and barely had my toes on the footboard. To the credit of the commuters, every time a crowded train moves out of the station, it tries to attain equilibrium, and in the process the whole mass expands and contracts rhythmically. And as this equilibrium state was being sort by the hundreds inside, I was getting the jitters. With the train gathering speed, I was being subjected by the external forces, termed as centrifugal in Physics textbooks. The person next to me, standing rather comfortably, was cribbing rather obscenely about my valise poking him in the arms and then there was huge wall of bodies that was pushing at me.

It took me a few seconds for my confidence to get shattered and I started to panic. I started to plead with all around, imploring them to shift sufficient enough for me to squeeze in somehow. The train was moving real fast by now, and I was sure that life, if it remained, would never be the same again if my hands slipped. The wind was bellowing at me, trying to unsettle my ungainly form. In a few more seconds and now I was completely shaken and stirred, my pleas to the wall became rather frantic and I was asking a person who was looking at me strangely through his spectacles to at least hold my hands. Probably, he was waiting to see me fall, so that he could talk about a ‘fat fool’ meeting death in front of his eyes, while discussing Mumbai with his folks and friends. Or probably, he was just benumbed by it all. Finally, he caught my hands, but not strong enough to reassure me.

The train was moving at top speed now, and I was still hanging the same way like I had, when we started from Andheri. Meanwhile, Abhijit had got into full action mode, roused by my frantic please he was pushing wildly at the crowd in front, and when it wouldn’t move an inch he was spewing cuss words on them trying to wake them from the comma they were in. Somehow, every time he pushed at them, the whole mass would budge like a big lard of fat on an enormous beast and then fall back again. My both hands had stiffened by now, and I could feel my feet were shivering. It was as if, my arms didn’t want to carry on the burden of my body anymore and had asked their friends (the feet) to end the trauma by letting go.

Panic was replaced by complete desperation, and sweat forming on my brow, I was doing everything I could, pushing with my torso, begging the crowd in front. Abhijeet was also desperately pushing at the people in front. And probably, my pleas and his push worked, as a little room was made and now, while I was hanging still, it wasn’t as precarious as earlier. Finding a bit more space, I could concentrate and push with my weight now, and I wasn’t as pitiless state as earlier. Abhijeet grabbed my arms and with my full force, I pushed at the lard of weight and finally managed to make some space and squeeze myself.

The train takes close to 3 minutes from Andheri to Jogeshwari, the next stop. So, all I had to do was to hang on for some 3 odd minutes, but that seemed impossible to me. I must have hung for some 63 seconds or more at max. And in that minute, my whole existence was completely shaken. I was sweating profusely, heart beating like a drum in my chest, shivering over self. Standing on my feet inside, I was unable to believe the trauma that I had just undergone. There was such a relief at being alive, to have escaped death by a few inches and a few more seconds because had I hung on for a few more, my hands would have given up.

The people inside the compartment were not exactly sympathetic to my state, holding me responsible for the situation I was in. A few people, like the bespectacled fellow who held my hands, were indeed moved by my cries and were trying to make some way and egging me to push more strongly. But, except for those few, no one else seemed to bother. I remember, there were times in the past when I was inside the compartment being forced to smell armpits, I had heard a few frantic pleas like the ones I was making today. And how I wasn’t moved by those pleas, as I blamed the person for trying to board an overcrowded train and then imploring people to save his life. But, here I was on the other side, with people staring at me in a weird odd disdainful manner.

Jogeshwari came and the train came to a halt, a few people got out and I was comfortably inside. Abhijeet had moved to the door, probably trying to shield me from the trauma or just wanting to feel the rush of air against his face. One middle aged person, who had timidly managed to squeeze in earlier, was talking about how difficult it was for him and how bravely he had faced the situation. I stood there, with my face down, thinking about those 63 seconds and how everything would have changed in those few very moments. 32 odd years dissolved in the chaos and frenzy of 63 seconds.

To be honest, when the train had started from Andheri at that very moment, I had thought of getting out, but that would have been a catastrophe as well, since the way I was hanging, I would have surely tumbled rather painfully had I done the same. By now, my arms were hurting, and I didn’t know whether to thank them or curse them.

A few minutes passed like that and our destination Goregaon came and we disembarked. I was never happier to have firm ground beneath my feet, and a thought passed, how fortunate I was to have survived those 63 seconds and how a few like me today and a few hundreds every year did not and would not survive those 63 seconds. A lifetime was nipped by a few seconds every day. My antipathy towards our animal-like existence only increases and how I wish no one would ever have to go through this trauma. The best thing about this tale is that I lived to tell it. And thank god for that. Without a doubt, those 63 seconds were the longest 63 seconds of my life.

Are you paying attention, Dr. Singh?

Last Thursday, just a day before the magical start to the Beijing Olympics, the populace in South Ossetia in Georgia woke up to a different kind of pyrotechnic display. A barrage of rockets fired at the behest of President Saakashvili of Georgia.  Presumably, the separatists operating out of the region had much upset the Georgian president.  He was also much perturbed by the role played by Russia and probably wished to set the record straight once and for all, through the barrel of gun.

But, what he didn’t expect or anticipate was the swift and deadly reaction from Moscow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned the Georgian adventure and rallied to the support of separatists from South Ossetia. According to the Russians, the separatists are struggling for freedom, and deserve to choose their destiny. In reality though, the Russians are upset at Saakashvili’s western leanings and were raising the tempo of separation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to stop Georgia from joining the NATO.

The ball was set rolling, and almost immediately Russian tanks and artillery marched into the region backed by Sukhoi cover.  Putin termed it is a “humanitarian intervention”.  There was much debate and discussion in magazines like Time and BBC on how the situation would pan, after all Saakashvili might not have the numbers in terms of its armed forces, but he had invested heavily into modernization. But all that discussion was futile, because within a day or two, the Russian juggernaut had the Georgian forces on the knees. Not only were the Georgian forces pushed back from their positions in South Ossetia, but other places also came under attack. In fact there was a strong feeling that Russia would not stop till it would reach the capital Tbilisi.

Through all this, the stance taken by the world powers was rather interesting. While President George Bush came down heavily on Russia, asking it to stop “the invasion” and warning it of dire consequences. The old European powers like Germany and France, while condemning Russia, also seemed to chide Saakashvili for the corner he had pushed himself into. The rest of the world was ensconced in silence.

For the past many years, especially since the collapse of USSR; such invasions or rather “humanitarian interventions” have been the sole preserve of US and its allies, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Ethiopia, or wherever. The US has taken upon itself the job of world policing. Thus to have F16 flying over a state that has somehow antagonised the Americans and dropping cluster bombs, no longer comes as a surprise. As President Bush had famously remarked post 9/11, “you are either with us, or against us”.

It was a unilateral world that we lived in, till last Thursday. It all changed with this conflict. The message sent by Russia was simple and straight; love us or hate us, you can’t ignore us. For the past few years, thanks to it’s huge oil and gas fields, Russia has been gaining prominence and in the process starting to flex its new-found muscles. So be it putting its flag on the North Pole seabed or starting the fighter jets sorties over the Atlantic, reminiscent of the Cold War days.

So while the US has in some ways diminished in its strength thanks to its precarious position in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has been gaining strength.  And the Georgian crisis was litmus test, a indication of how thing will pan in the days to come.

Georgian President Saakashvili is a pro-western politician, who not only studied in the US but also admires it. He has been quite a trusted ally of Bush, sending a large contingent to Iraq and letting the oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to pass through its land. Between Russia and US, it was obvious whom Saakashvili had chosen. And from the way the whole event has turned, it is also obvious, as to who let him down.

Not only did Saakashvili underestimate Russia’s resolve, he also seemed to overestimate the US backup. He surely had bet for more than just harsh criticism, which was all that he got from the western world. Thus, while Condoleezza Rice and Bush did not mince any word in their criticism of Russia, they did precious little.

In fact, the tables have completely turned on Saakashvili. Georgia has as good as lost not only South Ossetia but also Abkhazia, where the rebels have started pushing out the government forces. Also, its hope of joining the NATO is now more or less a foregone conclusion. And not to mention the loss of face. The big question is: Did he really think that the Americans would shield and protect him from the mighty and wily Russians?

Now isn’t there a lesson in foreign politics for everyone here, including our economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singhji. One of the biggest argument for India signing the nuclear deal has been that we need to be on the good side of the Americans. According to people, in the current scenario, we cannot, not afford to have US as our ally. With US on our side, no one would dare rile us, fearing the cruise missiles that will rain from the heavens.

But this myth has been shattered in Georgia; while the US was making all the right noises, it was only making noises. So what is the guarantee that if we bind ourselves to the US, that we will be safer and no one will dare attack. If good friend Bush could let Saakashvili out in the wind, what the guarantee it won’t do so with India.

Imagine for a moment, that a mighty and resurgent China attacks us yet again, on the pretext of annexing Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims to be of its own. Though we might have the nuclear deterrent and the rest; we are yet no match for the Chinese might. In such a scenario, what would our friend, the Americans do?

Dr. Singh, to be honest, I am no expert in foreign policy. But there is one thing I am very sure of, never bind yourself with any power, no matter how powerful it might seem. Thus, with India joining the “I love US” club, might not be the best option available.

The Georgian crisis might not take us back to the good ol’ Cold war era, but it surely reminds us that we do not live in a unipolar world. Non aligned is a much maligned word, but in these circumstances, it just might be what the doctors would prescribe. Are you looking, Dr. Singh?