A Bitter City

My cousin Faizy, who lives in Kanpur’s infamous Chamanganj neighbourhood describes the city’s residents as “kadwe log” (bitter people). By this he is not referring to the cynical and nihilistic bitterness that is supposed to set in with age and misfortune, rather using local slang for a mixture of hardiness, street smartness and chicanery. Bitter as opposed to the sweet people who live in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

When we came to Delhi after a very hectic two months production schedule in Kanpur last month, there was a sense of relief. Our time in Kanpur was intense; with the crew working feverishly to turn a shoot that was in jeopardy on day zero into a success. We are far from the end still; but at the end of the two months, we felt like the groaning old mills of the city: present but barely functioning.

We were shooting with the-katiyabaaz- electricity thieves in Kanpur, the bitterest of bitter Kanpur stock. They put their lives at risk everyday climbing up electricity poles to attach naked wires in order to provide electricity to households and factories in their areas. Their work is fraught with risk, hearing of a katiyabaaz who got ‘stuck’, due to the strong magnetic pull of high volatage lines is not rare.

The most interesting amongst them was Loha Singh. Loha has been ripping at electricity lines ever since he was 14: cutting electricity carrying cables with his teeth, attaching katiyas to high voltage cables with his bare hands. And he has got the marks to prove it: a number of deep gashes on each of his fingers, and on his back, are reminders of the times that he had got ‘stuck’ to a wire or a transformer.

Two Shootings

Two random acts of violence against public figures in two corners of the globe took place withing four days of each other. Jared Loughner shot and critically injured Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri killed Salman Taseer, whom he was assigned to protect.  Both killers  acted on their own, both have become public figures of fascination, and both raised concerns about the nature of divisive public debate in their countries.

Here I would like to share a couple of reactions to the shootings that came my way this morning.

First is this excellently written post, which transcends the polarising debate that ensued the Tucson shootings, and which I recommend reading entirely.

Jared Loughner came from one of those northwestern houses. His high school is in a part of Tucson that, when I was growing up, was nothing but empty gullies and creosote. Jared Loughner is frightened like Arizona is frightened, and so we ask: what radio stations did he listen do, what websites did he visit, who got him started on his syllogisms about the gold standard. These are questions about causality, and we are in a realm where causality founders. I would suggest that instead we talk homology, or metaphor—admitting frankly that we are doing this—because it is already the fate of Jared Loughner to have become a metaphor and a symptom.

And here is an angry reaction from Taseer’s estranged son:

Even before his body was cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals. I should say too that on Friday last every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the Punjab CM, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.And so, though I believe that my father joins that sad procession of martyrs standing between him and his country’s descent into fear and nihilism, I also know that unless Pakistan finds a way to turn its back on Islam in the public sphere, the memory of the late governor of Punjab will fade. And where one day there might have been a street named after him, there will be one named after Malik Mumtaz Qadir, my father’s boy-assassin.

While the debate has centered around the role of political vitriol preceding these shootings,  the reactions that came after the shootings  that are perhaps more shocking.  The US media and political establishment went into a surprising and crazy spree of finger pointing and name calling.  In Pakistan, while the crowds celebrated the shooter, the ‘sanctity of prophethood’  seemed to dominate public thought.

In this context, I found both these texts refreshing. Aatish Taseer, the deceased Pakistani leader’s son, angrily grieves his father, laying the blame on Islam, yet not losing sight of what his father, a Muslim politician, would have thought. The Tucson blogger evocatively describes American paranoia in a manner that journalism would not be able to match. Both are personal, cutting through, and prompting a re-examination of politics in the wake of the shootings .

And We’re Back!

Globalistan Party@Palmenhaus, Burggarten. More pics soon.

A long hiatus, forced by circumstances, comes to an end and Globalistan looks to start another turn at the crease.

The past few months have been ridiculously complicated and frustrating for me, leaving no time for Globalistan. To cut a long story short, I was denied travel documents by the Canadian Embassy in Vienna to visit my parents in Edmonton. I was finishing an internship here, and was holding a Canadian permanent resident card. My parents have been living in Canada since 2008, and I have visited them frequently while pursuing a masters degree here in Vienna. On the expiry of my card, I was told that I could not have travel documents of any sort (including tourist visas) to visit my parents. The reason was that I had not spent an obligatory two out of five years in Canada, which apparently leads to automatic loss of residence. This despite communications to the office that I was studying  here during the period that my parents moved to Canada.  At that time my Austrian visa, as well as my money, was running out, and my plan was to stay in Edmonton while looking for work.

However, since then things have been working out for the better. I could still not visit my parents, meaning that I am in Vienna at the moment, and am appealing the decision of the Embassy in an immigration court in Canada. In the meantime, a film project that I started here is working out well, more information about which shall be up soon.

Like other things in life, Globalistan too had to be put on a hold. However, with all that we are now looking to restore Globalistan as a platform for conversations on the theme of global living. We held a Globalistan party in Vienna this weekend, partially to restore interest in the website, taking over the Palmenhaus in the Burggarten for the event.

There are a number of foreseeable changes, which we shall elaborate upon as things progress. There is a need to do some more fund-raising for maintainance. However, our focus right now is, as it has been always, is to encourage submissions that elaborate on the basic theme of the website. So please keep writing in with your thoughts and ideas, as it is central to our aim to build a conversation that explores various aspects of life in the globalized world.

“It’s all about death in India these days…”

Life is a little complicated right now, and this means that blogging has been slow. This shall continue to be the case for the next few days. However, I will try and find sometime in between crisis to come back here and talk about a lot of things that I have been wanting to put out there.

First amongst these is my friend Shivam Vij’s take-down of the Indian media’s coverage of the killings in Kashmir of demonstrators when police and paramilitary forces opened fire on them. The dead were mostly Kahmiri youth between 9 and 22 years. Shivam points out how despite these extrajudicial executions, Kashmiri protesters  garnered a largely unsympathetic reaction from the Indian press:


And how does the press respond? The killing of a nine year old boy by the CRPF was frontpage in all the Delhi papers. Have a look at two copies of the same day’s Hindustan Times, Delhi edition, and spot the difference:

The early city edition’s headline read, “J&K burns, protests kill two more.” I couldn’t take my eyes off that headline for a while. It was, I thought, like saying ‘Protests Kill Hundreds in Jallianwala Bagh.’ Protest does not kill. Bullets do.

They must have realised how darn wicked that is, and changed it on the late city edition to, “J&K burns, 2 more killed”. While making the change, they didn’t say CRPF killed them. They just got killed.

That is not all. The day’s lead story was also about death – it’s all about death in India these days – death by accident. Death by accident on the Moolchand underpass, not far from where I live. The headline had a question: “5 dead in 5 days. Who’s to blame?” The stroy strongly attacked the Public Works Department of the Delhi state government for faulty road construction and for not putting a warning sign. In the late city edition they even got photographic evidence. In the Kashmir story, however, there were no questions, no blaming, no tone of outrage. Reporting the Sopre firing from Srinagar, the copy went:

The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday.

A day after the Jammu and Kashmir government called the CRPF “an uncontrolled force”, Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hasan Rather (9) died in firing by the force in Sopore and Baramulla, both 55 km north of Srinagar.

This brings the number of civilian deaths at the hands of troops to eight in 15 days, three of them in the past 24 hours.

Rather was part of a march to Sopore called by the separatist Hurriyat Conference to protest the deaths.


Now see the changed late city version:

The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday, with two more youths — one of them a nine year old — being killed in protest demonstrations, taking the total number of civilians killed this month to eight.

Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hassan Rather (9) died in firing by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Sopore and Baramulla, respectively, both towns north of Srinagar.

Bashir was part of a procession in Sopore that had gathered to mourn the death of Bilal Ahmed Wani (22), shot dead by the CRPF on Sunday.

The CRPF, however, claimed it had to fire because the procession turned violent.

It said the fracas began after a group of unarmed state policemen rushed into the CRPF camp to protect themselves from the protesters. “The mob attacked the CRPF post and forcibly tried to enter,“ said CRPF spokesman Ajay Chaturvedi in Delhi.

“The sentry had no option but to fire,“ he said.Similarly, nine-year-old Rather had joined a march called by the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference, from Srinagar to Sopore, to protest Wani’s killing. Though all top Hurriyat leaders were arrested following the call, a large crowd assembled and the march began.

Their numbers swelled fur- ther at Baramulla, breaking down barricades placed by the police and attacking police vehicles, following which they were fired upon.

The current round of escalating violence began after a Sopore youth Tufail Ahmed Matoo (17), during a routine protest on June 11, was hit by a tear gas shell on the head and succumbed to his injuries. Violent protests and fierce repression have been a regular feature since then.

With inputs from New Delhi

The early city report gave the impression that 9-year-old Rather’s participation in the protest march called by separatists – yes, separatists! – justified his killing. That is toned down in the second version. The tone of outrage used in the Delhi accident story is completely missing. The CRPF spokesperson is quoted by the dead boys’ parents, or eyewitnesses, are not to be bothered with.

What is most interesting is the phrase “vicious cycle” – it’s a phrase that explains away the spate of “violence”. Protest, stone-pelting, fake encounters, militant clashes, strikes and the quelling of protests by killing unarmed or stone-pelting protestors – this is reported in the Delhi media not just with a lot of obfuscation and dishonesty, but also with a deliberate sense of confusion. A lay reader gets a general, vague image of “violence” – it’s just a lot of random violence taking place in Kashmir. Then, in op-eds and special reports, TV debates and Arnab Goswami’s yelling all get together to assure the Indian middle class that it’s all about Pakistan-Geelani-militancy-Islamism. And so, kill we must.


Read the complete story on Kafila, where Shivam also writes about his impressions of Kashmir on traveling there for a month.

Arroz con Arroz

Visa troubles are (hopefully) safely out of the way, and that means I am able to finally update you on the Globalistan CD launch in Berlin the week before.

Johannes Heretsch, Berlin based DJ, got in touch with Globalistan in April to co-operate on a ‘world-music’ CD. Being huge fans of independent releases, we were only too happy to co-operate. ‘Sounds from Globalistan’ had its CD release in Berlin’s Admiralspalast, with live performances from artists like Cherif Hamiche, Nomad Soundsysem, Meriem Hassan Group and Mil Santos. All of these guys are featured on the CD, and are awesome performers.

Nomad Soundsystem- these guys were awesome. just check out the number of instruments they were improvising with
Nomad Soundsystem- these guys were awesome. just check out the number of instruments they were improvising with

Globalistan also had access to backstage artists lounge where we mooched with producers and artists, and got a short lecture on the merits and merging of tabla and djembe acoustics with ace percussionist Cherif Hamiche.

thats Cherif there, in the blue
thats Cherif there, in the blue

Our absolute favourite performance though was the Meriem Hassan Group. Meriem Hassan brought with her the flair of Western Sahara, and a hearty engaging personality that combined in a great performance.

...and what a performance it was; thats Meriem there on the drums.
...and what a performance it was; thats Meriem there on the drums.

And finally, there were Mil Santos whose ‘Arroz con Arroz’ we found ourselves humming through the next day…

Arroz con Arroz
Arroz con Arroz

Needless to say, Globalistanis had quite a party, and were pretty elated until visa problems hit home the next evening. But all that is sorted now. And the ‘Sounds from Globalistan’ music CD should soon be coming out. Shall keep you all posted…

The Joys of Mitfahrgelegenheit

Backpackers and students traveling across Europe would no doubt be aware of Mitfahrgelegenheit. The German based car-pooling service is one of the cheapest ways to travel around in the Schengen zone, and also one of the most entertaining.

I used to ‘mitfahr’ pretty often a couple of years ago, but since then short trips to Germany have been few, and for longer distances airlines are anyway more convenient. However, this week finding myself low on cash and needing to go to Berlin, I decided to look up for a carpool on a convenient time. This is how I landed up with ‘Mario’, an Austrian-Berliner (what does this mean? I tried asking him, but he just repeated that he was an AUSTRIAN-Berliner), driving in a car that, according to him, was previously owned by the Chinese embassy in Brussels. Along the way we picked up an occupational therapist from Vienna, going to meet family in Berlin, and two Catholic priests from Bangladesh, traveling Europe on a holiday.

This promised to be an entertaining trip, however prospects of conversation were cut short by a nerve-wrecking traffic jam that had us stalled for two hours, barely outside Vienna. When we finally left Vienna for Berlin at 9pm, there was the wearisome prospect of driving for at least 8 hours, and the logistics of finding our friends/hotels in Berlin when we arrive in the dead of night.

I was nevertheless very interested in the Bangladeshi catholics. They photographed everything, empty fields of grass by the highway, or even the drab gas station near Brno where we stopped to re-tank on LPG (the car ran on LPG).  I asked them if these places were really that exciting and picture-worthy? They replied that although it was nothing spectacular, we were passing through the Czech republic and they would be able to show these pictures to their friends and claim that they had been there as well.

I also asked them if it was dangerous or difficult being Catholic priests in Bangladesh? I was a little surprised when they replied that being a Catholic in Bangladesh has a lot of advantages. They said that they were associated with the Notre Dame college in Dhaka, an elite educational institution established by the Catholic church, which produces a lot of the country’s higher ranked civil servants. The alumna network makes sure that wherever they go, the state, far from being discriminatory, takes good care of their well-being. Having attended a similar institution in Delhi myself, I could well imagine that this would indeed work, although for a privileged few.

Mario, in the meanwhile, was driving at 220 kph, eager to make it to Berlin, and I think all of us were happy in some way that there were god-men in the car. He was a member of the reputable ADAC, the German Automobile club, which he said got him more passengers as people felt safer that he was ‘recognized’. The occupational therapist, who was on passengers side, made sure that Mario stayed awake by finding peppy numbers on the radio, and urging him to sing along.

It was 4am when we reached Berlin Ost. My friend Manuela had stayed up waiting for me, and was so nice to come and get me all the way from Wedding. The Bangladeshi priests had alighted close to Berghain, a cathedral, in its own right, to techno music, leaving the rest in the car chuckling. On the train to Wedding, I came across a Ghanian electronics technician and we together helped a very badly drunk South Asian guy figure out the route to his hotel.

Although the trip hitherto had been fascinating, I decided that mitfahr-ing back the next day would not be something I could handle. So I chose the next cheapest option-taking a bus. After spending a day at the Globalistan Music Album release party with Johannes Heretsch, and the next bargain-hunting at the Mauermarkt, I boarded the bus just in time to catch Germany pummel Australia, over the radio.

It was here at a random (i had assumed non-existent) check that I realized how soon my visa was running out. This has been the cause of much stress, and also for the slow blogging, over the past week. Hopefully, things will return to normal very soon, and I would have more time to spend in Globalistan. Stay Tuned.

Democracy, Torture and Zhou Zuohai

On 31st May, the Chinese government released guidelines that banned the admissibility of evidence obtained under torture in criminal convictions. This came a few weeks after the revelation of the seemingly bizarre, yet not completely uncommon, case of Zhou Zuohai.  Zhuo was released after being imprisoned for 11 years in Shanqqi, on charges of murder, when his alleged victim was found alive in his village. He was imprisoned on the basis of his confession of the crime.  A couple of days after he was released the authorities admitted that the confession was obtained under torture. Zhuo described his beatings: the pouring of chilli water in his eyes, the bursting of firecrackers over his head, and how he thought he would not survive. When he said what he was expected to say, the torture stopped, and he was convicted.

Lawyers, police, and governments in most countries, including China, understand that torture is counterproductive in extracting evidence. Indeed, China has issued several directives earlier to say that evidence under torture is unacceptable. As in the case of Zuohai, most confessions of this sort are false or misleading, and are given only to make the immediate suffering stop. Why then do police forces continue to use torture or the threat of it as a means to extract evidence?

Torture is a largely a systemic problem that has much to do with the nature of policing, and governance. In China, for example, the police operates heavily under the control of the government, and in a culture of impunity. This means that police are almost always more focused on satisfying the demands of politicians and party leaders, rather than serving the society. The attitude of the government that police are a means to control society leads to a derogation of individual and human rights of citizens in the eyes of the police officers, who are then wont to torture and degrade them, with impunity.

Further, the conditions under which police operates heavily influences their effectiveness and commitment. Underpaid and overworked police officers, as is common in China, are more willing to employ torture and ill-treatment to clear their workloads. Pressure to show results often leads to police resorting torture to extract confessions, rather than using forensic and detective skills to resolve a case. Indeed, a majority of convictions in China are on the basis of confessions, a lot of which could be presumed to have been extracted under torture or threat of the same.

India has also recently passed legislation to combat torture. In April, the cabinet approved of a bill that would enforce a ban on torture, and in the process ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture.  While this is a welcome move which would send a clear message from the government to law-enforcement personnel, the legislation itself reflects little progress in the mindset of the authorities.

Shortly before the bill was approved by the Lok Sabha, the Asian Council on Human Rights (ACHR), a human-rights NGO, released a report on torture in India. The group said that the Indian government had proposed a similar bill in 2008 which was highly unpopular with civil rights groups. According to the ACHR, no consultation with civil society or public debate went into the drafting of the present bill. Even after being approved by the cabinet in April, the Bill was not released for public scrutiny until much later, by which time it was already an Act.

The bill was released to public after it was passed by the Lok Sabha as the Prevention of Torture Act 2010, and is now pending in the Rajya Sabha. The Act defines torture as ‘grevious hurt’ or ‘danger to life limb or health (mental or physical)’, specifically bars the admissibility of evidence under torture, and prescribes a punishment of 10 years for offenders. However, it goes onto establish that any prosecution under this Act would require previous sanction of the government, entrenching the impunity provided by Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. It also raises the possibility that any action under this bill would target the lowest levels of law enforcement, whereas the superior officers who authorized such practices remain immune due to some contacts within the government.

Further, it offers no redressal mechanisms, investigation or monitoring bodies, or complaints procedures. Neither does it address the AFSPA areas, where torture is most widespread and systematic.

The current Act seems to be only lip service to international conventions, continuing to propagate impunity for torture.

Many of the factors that I mentioned with respect to China earlier, would also apply to India. Indian police has a reputation of being the handmaiden of politicians and bureaucrats. Officers are overworked, one police to every 1037 residents, according to a Human Rights Watch report, as opposed to one to every 333 residents, which is the global norm. Salaries remain static as workload rises, leading to demands for bribes and non-registration of FIRs. Occasionally, officers take the law into their own hands meting out beatings and abuse as immediate punishment for a crime.

Established by Indian Police Act of 1862, shortly after the 1857 uprising, Indian police were instruments with which the British controlled their subjects. The ethos of controlling the populace instead of serving them seems to have been retained, along with other aspects of organization. It is this ethos which serves as the biggest challenge in the fight against torture in India.

To successfully address systematic torture, India needs an overhaul of its police system. The judiciary and the central government have been attempting to implement such reforms for a number of years.  In 2006, the Supreme Court has issued several directives to state governments to set up independent oversight and complaints mechanisms. A committee had also been set up under Soli Sorabjee to investigate a new Model Police Act. However, with a few exceptions, these measures met from strong resistance from the State Governments, where politicians were unwilling to cede control of the police.

Combating systematic torture requires states to stand by values that reaffirm human rights and democratic principles, and reject a culture of impunity and non-accountability.  Theoretically, being a democracy, such measures ought to come easier to India than China, which has a history of brutal repression of human rights and civil society activists. However, as evidenced by the veil of secrecy and lack of public debate around the Prevention of Torture Bill, promoting accountability and transparency are still rather large challenges in India.

“It is more horrible to wait for your killers than to be killed”

Aslan and friends refused to be on camera, requesting to be photographer with their back towards it
Aslan and friends refused to be on camera, requesting to be photographed with their back towards it

(An edited version of this article appeared in Caravan India today)

When I met Aslan Daudov, a 30-year-old Chechen asylum seeker whose name has been changed here on his request, he was afraid that he would be deported within a couple of hours to Poland. He was not as concerned about Poland’s negligible acceptance rate of Chechen asylum seekers; but was terrified of a much worse fate: that he might be kidnapped by agents of the Chechen government, tortured and killed.

We met in a crowded café in Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station. Midway through our conversation Aslan indicated that we should leave. A couple of policemen had occupied a nearby table, and an ID check would have shortened the time that Aslan had left in Vienna. We regrouped outside the station, where Aslan laughed off our protests about him paying for our coffee.

For a man whose life could be in jeopardy in the coming days, Aslan seemed remarkably upbeat. When I asked how he managed to stay that way in face of such imminent threat, he replied that he was just trying to hide his fear. “Each time I see a policeman I lose one kilo of weight” he added, expressing the sort of gallows humour common amongst asylum seekers.

Aslan had arrived in Vienna in 2006 and has been living here ever since. He fled his village in Achkhoi-Martan district in Chechnya, where he had assisted rebels during the Second Chechen War.

Ever since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has seen seemingly unending conflict. A tiny republic in Southern Russia, Chechnya declared independence in 1991 which led to an invasion by Russian troops in 1994 to end the insurgency. The invasion proved abortive in the face of stubborn resistance from guerrilla fighters and the troops withdrew in 1996. The Second Chechen War started when Russian troops renewed their campaign in Chechnya, following a series of bombings in Moscow in 1999. Russia claimed victory in 2000 and established Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow cleric, as president. Akhmad was assasinated in 2004, shortly after which his son, Ramazan Kadyrov, became the de-facto ruler and, seeking to avenge his fathers death, launched a campaign a brutal campaign of repression. Since then the insurgency has waned, but allegations of kidnappings, assassination and brutality by Kadyrovs militia have increased.

Aslan was evasive about his exact role in the war, claiming that he only provided the rebels with clothing and ammunition from time to time. He also mentioned an uncle who was part of the rebel forces who was killed during the Russian invasion. He said that he and his family were under constant threats from the military ever since. When his younger brother disappeared without a trace, Aslan decided to leave Chechnya.

He crossed the border from the Russia into Belarus and from there into Poland, where he was arrested and put in a camp with other Chechen refugees. He says that he never felt secure there. “There were people asking about me”, he says, “I knew that there were some people involved in crimes in Chechnya there, and when I heard of some people that I knew disappearing, I decided to leave myself”. He went south, through Slovakia and entered Austria, where he was arrested again and asked to report to Traiskirchen refugee camp, a few miles south of Vienna.

On arrival in Austria, the first question he was asked was how he got here. When he indicated in his reply that he had crossed two member states of the European Union before arriving in Austria, Aslan was immediately marked as a ‘Dublin hit.’ His claim of asylum in Austria was rejected, and he was meant to be sent back to Poland. Aslan fled Traiskirchen, ‘worse than a prison’ according to him, and appealed his case in the courts several times. He got the last decision a few days before I met him in which the court indicated that it could not establish any reason for Aslan to be afraid of going to Poland, and that he ought to be sent back according to the Dublin procedure (contd).