Saturday, May 31, 2008

Indo-US relations, Casablanca figure at EWC Day

Indo-US relations, Casablanca figure at EWC Day
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Chennai: The annual day of the East West Center (Hawaii) alumni association in Chennai celebrated its annual day on Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at the Madras Boat Club (founded in 1886).

The guests gathered at the StrokeSide hall of the Boat club were treated with a talk on the Indo- US nuclear deal, screening of the classic movie Casablanca, Cocktail and a very sumptuous dinner hosted by Mr PM Belliapa, the president and the alumni of the EWCA Chennai Chapter.

Frederick J. Kaplan, Consul, Public Affairs, Consulate General of the United States of America in Chennai, was the chief guest of the evening. Professor Gopalji Malaviya, Head of the Department Defence and Strategic Studies University of Madras and Randor Guy, the celebrated cinema critique were also the guest of honor of the evening.

Two glittering mementos that the EWCA Chennai Chapter received at the Hanoi conference for being the “outstanding chapter” among the entire EWC chapters spread over the Asia-Pacific region, were prominently displayed at the venue.

P M Belliappa, the president of the Chennai Chapter of EWCA, welcomed the guests and spoke about the importance of the EWC and the activities of the EWCA Chennai Chapter.

Professor Gopalji Malaviya presided over the talk “Indo-US nuclear deal a retrospect, and outlined the Indo- US relationship from the independence of the country. He especially mentioned about the Indo-US relationship that’s witnessed in 1960 and 70s and told that a sea change has taken place from then and now.

Delivering his keynote address Mr. Fred Kaplan said that United States and India are marching ahead in cooperation in various fields and future growth and development of relations between the two countries is very promising. Leaving aside, the energy issue which is just one aspect of it, the US Consul, said, there are positive indicators of cooperation in many areas like higher education, health, and security. He talked about the people-to-people cooperation and said that the two countries have an extraordinarily close relationship.

During the interactive session, Dr H K L Rao, and Fathima Muzaffer made their comments and observations. After that on behalf of the EWCA Chennai Chapter, souvenirs as token of appreciation were presented to Fred Kaplan, Gopalji Malaviya and Randor Guy.

This followed by cocktail to recharge the energy and after that Mr Randor Guy took over the floor to explain the off screen anecdotes of the movie Casablanca. He said even though he had seen Casablanca for the 45th time he was still excited to see it once again.

Mr K.B. Sankaran, a EWC member complimented Mr Randor Guy for his wonderful introduction of the movie. “There could be no other guy like Rador Guy. He is an encyclopedia on Hollywood movies,” Sankaran, said.

The EWC Alumni, Dr Syed Ali Mujtaba, Dr Rajamani, Dr H K L Rao, Mr K. B Sankaran Mrs Roopa Nagrajan, Mrs Vsanthai Rnganathan, and Fathima Muzaffer were present on the occasion. Many of them accompanied their spouse, relatives and friends. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and every one thanked Mr PM Belliapa, the president and the alumni of the EWCA Chennai Chapter for keep the banner of the EWC Hawaii fly high in Chennai.

The East West Center, Hawaii, is an internationally recognized education and research organization established by the US Congress in 1960 to strengthen understanding and relations between the United States and countries of the Asia-Pacific.

Through its programmes of cooperative study, training, seminars and research, the center works to promote a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific community. In the mandate of EWC to build a healthy society in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States government is its leading and valued partner.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He was a Jefferson Fellow in fall 2003, at EWC Hawaii He can be contacted at

Friday, May 30, 2008

Fingers Crossed at Nepal’s Republican Utopia

Fingers Crossed at Nepal’s Republican Utopia
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Nepal is at the crossroads. The 239-year-old Hindu monarchy has been consigned into the dustbin of history. A constituent assembly meeting on May 28, 2008 in the capital, Kathmandu, overwhelmingly voted to make Nepal "an independent, indivisible, sovereign, and secular and an inclusive democratic republic nation." Thousands of people came out on the streets nationwide to celebrate the declaration of republic. The government announced a two-day public holiday in celebration of the republic.

The promise of a republican utopia has generated a great deal of expectations in Nepal. The people of Nepal have entrusted their faith in the Maoist leadership that they would quickly address the issues of their country that’s long been neglected due to feudalistic nature of the Nepalese political system. The Maoist in turn has made the people believe that the worst is over and Nepal and the republican utopia is the correct path for the recovery and reconstruction of the Himalayan nation.

However,the skeptics cast doubts over the Maoist claim and say to keep the fingers crossed and watch whether the Maoist would live up to the expectations. Their reasons are obvious. Nepal ranks among the poorest countries of the world, with a per capita income of just USD 260 per annum, and 42 per cent of the population below the poverty line. Poor connectivity afflicts much of the country, with isolated and dispersed populations in the hill areas largely unconnected by roads. A large proportion of the cultivable land and of the rural population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. GDP growth has tended to lag behind population growth – with a consequent decline in per capita incomes, and a rising population in poverty. Worse, Nepal has one of the most rapid rates of population growth in the region, adding 11.25 million to its year 2000 population of 24.43 million by 2020, to realize a 46 per cent augmentation at 35.68 million. The current population is already estimated to have exceeded 29.5 million). This will push up population densities from 166 in 2000 to 242 in 2020, creating unbearable burdens on the country's resources, which are already stretched to a limit.

Given the magnitude of the problems, the agenda of national transformation that the Maoist has taken on their shoulders looks to be a Herculean task. They could only accomplish this either in engagement with democracy or end up resorting to totalitarianism. Under democracy it would be really a hard task to take drastic action against those who actually control power, influence and wealth in Nepal. The stratified social order there makes the task much more difficult. In such case, if they fail to deliver at least some economic relief to the people they would be testing their patience once again. That means Nepal has moving towards totalitarianism if wants to address its problems. At this stage it’s really hard to say which side the pendulum would rest but suffice would be to say that the worst is not yet over.

The only high point about the change in Nepal is that an insurgent group that has been waging an armed rebellion against a state is able to capture power through the democratic process. This is something remarkable feat in the annals of the insurgent movements. The Maoist leadership has to be saluted for the timing of the judgment to jump into the democratic bandwagon. They should also be appreciated for the realization that the power necessarily do not flow from the barrel of the guns. The Maoist of Nepal defiantly provides lessons to many similar groups waging similar ideological war in South Asia.

However, South Asia has some unofficial rules that’s never been preached but masterly practiced to capture power. The various groups that operate here have one point agenda to acquire power by manipulating democracy, to suit their ends. And after having doing so, the commitments and promises vanishes into the blue and priorities to self aggrandizements. This is true about Nepal as well.

Nepal’s struggle for democracy began after monarchy took over the reins of power in the early 1960s. It’s more than 30 years hard struggle that a multi party democracy system was restored in Nepal in 1990. High hopes were pinned on the democratic forces but they failed to change the lives of the ordinary people. What they did was to keep fighting among each other as who would loot the country. In a span of 10 years Nepal saw more than 12 governments. When the so called democratic forces made a mess of the governance, the monarchy had to assert. Thus began the third phase of struggle for democracy in Nepal and the rise of the Maoist.

The rise of the Maoist was more due to the inefficiency of the democratic forces rather than the ills of the Monarchy. But the Maoist did not choose to attack the democratic forces, because if they demonized them, their quest to capture power may have eluded them forever. They knew if they said they would establish a Chinese, Russian or Cuban model of governance, they may not have any takers. So they engaged themselves with the democratic forces, but at the same time differentiated by raising the bogey against the monarchical order. This was a tactical move to gain legitimacy, through popular means.

As far the Maoist is concerned so far they had a dream run in Nepal. The classical theorist and the text books Marxist would relish at the feat of the Maoists leadership. They have translated the Marxian-Hegelian theories into practice and shown it to the world. However, how they would reorganize the country, is another story that is yet to unfold?

The popular perception is the Maoist commitment to pluralism and parliamentary democracy is unquestioned. However given the plethora of the problems that Nepal faces, it would be really unrealistic to fix them under the present framework of governance. This means after five years the Maoist leadership would be asking for another term and then another term. Can they tackle all the ills of the country in 10-15 years of time frame? What’s the guarantee they would not fall prey to the endemic corruption and ineptitude that has afflicted Nepal's other political formations?

The other option before them is to assert that the power could certainly be secured under the shadows of the gun. In such case Nepal would to turn to another totalitarian state as it is the case with most of communist ruled states. However, that would be another story for another day to tell.

Right now in Nepal the bees are fighting for honey; all are struggling to reach the beehive. In the bandwagon the Maoist are also there. Will they deliver the promises after they start sucking the juices of power. All this will be known only after a considerable time have lapsed. Right now as an optimist, one must welcome the change in Nepal but at the same time keep the fingers crossed and watch the drama unfolding at the Himalayas.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

Monday, May 26, 2008

The other side of Jeffrey Archer you must know

The other side of Jeffrey Archer you must know
Syed Ali Mujtaba

On Saturday the May 24, 2008, a man who calls himself the greatest story teller on this planet was in Chennai. The celebrated author was none other than Jeffrey Archer, who was in the city to promote his latest book 'A Prisoner of Birth.'

It was packed crowed at the leading book store of Chennai called Landmark. The master story teller really got a huge attention over here. I presume more than 1000 copies of his book must have been sold that evening. I saw more than 500 people queuing up with two books in their hands to get the authors autograph, perhaps one for him and other for the aunt who lives down the lane. The enthusiasm of the crowd undoubtedly demonstrated that Archer is the top man in this business of story telling today.

The author was at his best when he made the concluding remarks of his speech. He said, ‘ladies and gentleman I am coming to India again this winters when the English cricket team tours this country.’ He received a thunderous applause for saying that. The crowd loved him, as he goes on; ‘I want to see the English team demolish Indian team on their home turf.’ Every one becomes silent as his monologue continues.

“India has won the toss and elected to bat first. Shewag and Tendulkar open the innings. Shewag out for zero, Tendulkar back into pavilion for 3, Ganguly spoons up a catch at silly point for 9, Lxaman and Dravid could add only another 25 runs. How much was all that, he asks, have you counted the score? I guess India is on taters at 37 for seven and its time for lunch! The crowed gets unnerved. Jeffery Archer has brought them down from ecstasy to gloom. He then delivers the punch line. Well folks don’t frown at me; I am just a story teller, Its Jeffrey Archer saying you goodbye.

Jeffery Archer spoke for about thirty minutes and then he interacted with the crowd for probably another thirty minutes. This was to develop a personal rapport with his readers but those who observed him silently, he exposed the wicked side of his personality to the core.

After hearing him I was not impressed, he left a poor impression on me and sounded an arrogant character with very inflated ego. His remarks that after Margaret Mitchell's “Gone with the Wind,” he is the most salable author in this world and while JK Rowling’s Harry Potter had 14 rejections, his first book, ‘Not a Penny less, Not a Penny More’ was rejected by 18 publishers, were all attempts to blow his own trumpet.

It was really appalling, when during the Q&A session he hurled personal innuendos at least on three occasions. The most atrocious was when he rebuked at the guy who perhaps escorted him from the hotel. This person was supposed to moderate the Q & A session, but since the crowed was overwhelming; he could no way control them. Jeffery loathed at him, ‘you fool, you cannot handle this,’ just leave it alone, he said and told the audience, you know this guy in the car was teaching cricket to this Englishman! The boy's face was red. I felt sorry for him.

The second instance was when a person was trying to tell him that he had read his latest book but was unable to clearly express himself about the characters of his book. “You little twig, don't open your mouth again you are spoiling the party,” Jeffery said.

He repeated himself again, when at the end of the session one person who was desperate to ask him a question. This man shouted; ' Sir, let me be the last one.’ “Who the hell you are to decide that, you got to be Jeffery Archer and stand over here, to do so,” Jeffery Archer shot back.

During the course of his speech, Archer took a dig at the Indian press with a much concocted view. He asserted that the front page of the Indian newspapers have Bollywood news and gossips, who is sleeping with whom types and the Obama- Hilary story figures on the 36th page. Every Indian knows that dailies here have a maximum of 16 or 24 broadsheets and all of them have political news on the front pages. It seems Jeffry Archer was talking about the British press calling them as Indians.

He did made fun of the traffic system in India and told the audience he had harrowing experience traveling on the Indian roads. “I want to be the transport minister here to fix things right” he said for which he received huge applause.

What I could gather from Jeffery Archer was he is an English gentleman of the Victorian era age, to whom India is still a colony of the British Empire. During his talk he hurt many but none took objections to him. Every one seemed to be overwhelmed by the aura of his presence. He got away with all his innuendos because people here were unable to understand him clearly. Indians worship their heroes to the extremes and can sallow any insult hurled at them. Had he been speaking to an audience London, I am sure shoes and slippers must have been flying at him. The problem with the Indians is, they are not exposed to such talk shops. Once they hear many such characters like Jeffrey Archer, they may be able to judge themselves.

My report on Jeffery Archers function in Chennai, received an interesting reaction from friend Matthew Maycock, who wrote to me from London. Matt writes; “It is interesting to see the response to Jeffrey Archer got in India. In the UK he is quite broadly reviled for his many recorded indiscretions. These include: being sent to prison for perjury, fraudulent investments, dodgy share deals, various 'pays vice-girl' stories, potentially robbing Kurdish refugees of significant amounts of money, while also being implicated (with Mrs. Thatcher's son amongst others) as being involved in the failed coup of Equatorial Guinea. The Conservative party, of which he was once President, has long ago thrown him out. This is a man who should not be receiving any acclaim.”

However, in spite of all this all this I think Jeffery Archer tour was a huge success in India. He toured six cities in the country and each of them drew packed house. Indians are mad about him. The market survey says more than in Americans, Japanese or Australians, Indians read Jeffery Archer. His pirated copies are sold on the Indian traffic light signals.

“I got to say this back home,” says Jeffery “if you are not sold on traffic lights, you have not arrived in India.”

Jeffery was saying, “some one asked me, why I am doing all this, you have made enough money, you got a villa in Cambridge, a penthouse in London, an apartment in New York, what more you want Jeffery? Archer replies; “the crowd that gathers to listen me, they jostle to have my view; they queue up to get my autograph, all his motivates me to keep on going. I want all this to go on forever and I am going to keep on writing for next thirty years,” he said.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

Friday, May 23, 2008

“Charming You!” - A Date with Mona Gill

“Charming You!” - A Date with Mona Gill
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Well I am not a soldier, some of my friends are, I had nursed that desire to be a soldier at certain point of time in life but as it moved on the idea vanished into the blue. However, this again brushed my heart yesterday (May 23, 2008) when I heard Mr S. Muthiah, speaking about Inder Gill, one of the doyens of Indian army.

It was a story telling session at the British council Chennai, organized by the Association of British scholars, of which I am a member.

Mr Muthiah a living legend, a madras historian, was at his class when he was narrating the World War campaign from his book “Born to Dare” that chronicle Inder Gills life.
Since I did some reading and research on the British policy during the World War II, I could feel the punch in Mr Muthiah’s narration.

His talk was essentially centered on Inder Gill’s heroics in the Greece campaign; the blowing up of Gorgopotamos Bridge, the training of the resistance movement in Greece and other details.

Frankly, I had no clue about Inder Gill, so every word from his chronicler seemed amazing. Mr Muthiah was on a song describing Inder Gills life and times.

Inder Gill was born to a Sikh father and a Scottish mother and grew up in England. He had major part of is career in the British army, and participated in the Greece and Italy campaign during the Word War II.

When the war was drawing to close, he moved to India and became the first Indian trainer at the IMA academy, Dehradun. During the pre Partition days, he was chum of Pakistani General Tikka Khan and along with him supervised the division of the British Army’s assets between India and Pakistan.

Inder was in the thick of action during the Jammu and Kashmir raid in 1948. He was there in action in 1965 and 1971 wars. Inder was described as the architect of the 1971 operation as he used his experience of trainer during the WWII, to train the Mukthi Bahni troops to lead guerilla warfare in East Pakistan.

With a baggage of war heroics behind him, Inder became a legend and many interesting facts about him was brought out by Mr Muthia during hour long talk.

The most interesting part was Monoa Gill; wife of Inder Gill sat through the entire story telling session. Lady Gill must be in 70s still looks as gracious as ever. When Muthiah told the audience that she was an ace para-trooper, the youth in her frail face sparkled.

I was watched her with fascination, as she was listening to her husband’s heroics described by his chronicler.

After the talk I tried to pick up a conversation with her by wishing her Good Evening. She was quick to acknowledge, and asked me whether I knew these stories before. I feigned ignorance and she said nothing wrong, you are not an army guy. I told her it was quite an education to me to know some one as great as Mr Inder Gill.

Lady Gill said, she feels very nostalgic when such talks were organized and she misses her husband much who left her many years ago. You see I am growing old too; I am not keeping good health. For a moment I had to act pope to her. I tried to sermonize that every thing that’s born in this world has to die one day; no one can escape that fate.

However, there are certain individuals like Inder Gill for whom William Shakespeare has especially written these lines; “His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man’!” Hearing it, she exclaimed, “Charming You!” It’s a while now; those words still rings my ears.

Please check up the link to read the review of the book “Born to Dare” by S Muthiah.

http://www.newindpr sundayitems. asp?id=SEB200804 19041941&eTitle=Books+ %26+Literature&rLink=0

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Impressions of Growing up in India

Impressions of Growing up in India
Syed Ali Mujtaba

* When we were in grannies house every summer and loved flying kites and plucking and eating unripe mangoes and leeches ...

* When we always had friends to play aais-paais (I Spy), chhepan-chhepai and pitthoo anytime...

* When we remembered tens of jokes and enjoyed non-stop laughing...

* When gulli-danda and marbles were more popular than cricket...

* When we were exchanging comics and chacha-chaudaris and billus were our heroes...

* When the first rain meant getting drenched and playing in water and mud and making paper boats -'kaagaj ki kishtis’...

* When Math teachers were not worried of our parents in slapping us...

* When left over pages of last years notebooks were used for rough work or even fair work...

* When filling the ink pen from the ink bottle and after doing so cleaning our hands was an exercise…

* When 'chelpark' and 'natraaj' were encouraged against 'reynolds and family'...

* When there was just one TV in every five houses and …

* When one movie every Sunday evening on television was more than asked for and 'ek do teen chaar' and 'Rajni' inspired us ...

* When chitrahaar, vikram-baitaal, dada daadi ki kahaniyaan on TV were so fulfilling ...

* When we were going to bed by 9.00pm sharp except for the 'yeh jo hai jindagi' day on TV...

* When crackers on Shabe-barats and Diwalis and colors on Holis were not seen as air and noise polluting or allergic agents...

* When Idd and Bakrid meant wearing new cloths and eating home-made delicacies and sweets...

* When there were no cell phones to tell friends that we will be at their homes at six in the evening...

* When there were no E mails and 10 paise postcard, 25 paise envelop and with 5 paise wale stamps were used to send letters...

* When 50 paisa meant at least 10 toffees...

* When bisleris were not sold in the trains and we were worrying if papas will get back into the train in time or not when they were getting down at stations to fill up the water bottle...

* When life was a passenger trains sleeper compartment giving enough time and opportunity to enjoy the sceneries from its open and transparent glass windows instead of some superfast’s second AC with its curtained, closed and dark windows...

* The list can be endless...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tamil Nadu Shows the Way to Transgenders in India

Tamil Nadu Shows the Way to Transgenders in India
Syed Ali Mujtaba

"Ippadikku Rose" (Yours, Rose), the half-hour TV show on Star Vijay part of Star TV group owned by Rupert Murdock is drawing huge attention in Tamil Nadu. This is not because of its content but more due to its anchor Rose, who has become India's first transsexual celebrity to host a TV show.

The 28 years old anchor formerly known as Ramesh Venkatesan has masters in biomedical engineering from Louisiana Tech University, USA. He started wearing women's clothes full-time four years ago but still waiting for acceptance from the family and society at large. However, after hosting the show Rose has not only become a celebrity but also an unofficial ambassador for the transgenders in the country.

It’s the inspirational aspect of people like her that has moved the Tamil Nadu government to take the bold step to recognize transgenders as a separate gender for the first time in the country.

The Tamil Nadu government on the floor of the assembly announced to constitute a welfare board for the transgenders in the state and allocated $ 275, 000 for the year 2008-09. The welfare board that comprises of eight members is empowered to look into the various problems, difficulties and inconveniences faced by the transgenders and based on these inputs, formulate and execute welfare schemes for their betterment.

The government also announced to create a special database of transgenders that would help deal with their problems and demands. The database would be created by a non-governmental organization and would map the population of transgender in the state and find out their detailed demands such as ration cards, voter identity cards and health facilities etc.

The Tamil Nadu government has also issued a Government Order for the admission of transgenders into government run school and colleges. This is the first instance when a third gender category is created for giving admission to transgenders in government run institutions.

The government’s announcement was welcomed by to AJ Hariharan Founder Secretary, ICWO, a non-governmental organization. According to him transgendrs are in need of equality and security. They are being shunned by the society, suffer offences and crimes and are deprived of basic housing facilities. They are forced to take up unpleasant professions such as prostitution.

Hariharan, who is one of the members of the transgender welfare board, said the Tamil Nadu has taken a lead in the country in this direction and it high time the other states too follow suit and humanly look at their problems.

The transgender population in Tamil Nadu could be roughly about 60,000 but its only after a comprehensive database their actual figure would known. Hariharan said that once the data base is completed then it would be easier for the welfare board to look into their issues suggest the best way to resolve them.

The sorry state of transgender is not an age old phenomena. In ancient and medieval times they had some respect in the society. Recorded history says that transgenders were used as palace guards. They were entrusted with the responsibility to look after the security of the female chamber of the royal palace. However, with the advent of Victorian sense of morality imposed by the British rule the transgenders fell out of the mainstream in India. The Indian society now sees them as evil and immoral.

A peek at the Hindi movies would tell the tale of the status of transgenders in India. Mughl –e- Azam (1965) show them as palace guards during Emperor Akbar rule. Some movies based on ancient mythology portray them in positive roles. However, the recent films depict them as an object of ridicule to provide comic relief to the audience. In Kunwaara Baap (1974) the transgenders are seen in a song and dance sequence that tells the story of an abandoned child. In Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) they are part of the chorus singing. In Tamanna (1997) actor Paresh Rawal plays a positive role of Tiku hijra who raises a young orphan girl. Transgender are also seen in the films like ‘Water’ (2005) and Bride & Prejudice. The movie 'Shabnam Mausi' (2005) is about the life of a eunuch politician of the same name.

Most transsexuals are born male but see themselves as women. Those detected very early are discarded by the family and are picked up by the transsexuals who raise them as their own. It’s because of the social stigma attached to them that prohibits transgenders to get any conventional jobs. The most common sight is to see them clapping their hands and begging in streets, trains and buses. They may swoon on the house that has a new born and would go only after they take money from the parents of the child. Some even indulge into sex work and petty crimes.

The road for acceptance as a transgender for persons like Rose has been horrendous. In the hustling streets of Chennai she has been always stared at, and sometimes even abused. She remains isolated from college friends and neighbors to avoid rejection. Her middle-class parents threw her out from the house when she refused to agree for a suitable bride for her. She started working as an American-accent trainer in a call center, but her contract was not renewed when she started dressing as a woman.

However, Rose’s sheer determination and courage made her climb the ladders stardom. Her show ‘Yours Rose,’ that has a viewership of over 64 million is a hit programme. Rose's immense screen presence and confidence has added glamour to it. With great composer she discusses all those subjects that are considered to be brushed under the carpet. It’s her style of presentation to fight prejudice against the transgenders that moved the hearts of those walking in the corridors of power in Tamil Nadu and mooted the idea of their welfare.

However, in a country where the boundaries of sexual tolerance are shifting daily, there is much uncertainty in the line between acceptability and offense as far as the transgenders is concerned.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at