Saturday, August 24, 2019

Kashmir Catastrophe

It was 1987 and my sister had been offered a professorship at the University of Kashmir. I had just finished high school and had all the time in the world at my disposal. So off my mother and I went on a three day long train journey from Hyderabad in the south, all the way to Srinagar in the north.

Even at sixteen, Kashmir left a deep impression on me. It was the first time I touched snow and saw real mountains, inhaled fresh air and touched pristine cool waters.

The fourth Moghul Emporer Jehangir is credited with saying “Gar Firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin ast” meaning, “if there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”. Many also often refer to Kashmir as the Switzerland of the east. Having visited Switzerland once, I can say it falls pale in comparison to the beauty and majesty of Kashmir.

The formation of the India we know today, was achieved after a prolonged struggle against a colonial power. When they left, the semi-autonomous princely states that made up British India, were asked to accede to the new idea of India and Pakistan. Some did without resistance and others did not.

Kashmir and Hyderabad, were two regions that entertained the idea of going at it alone. They had aspirations of self determination. 

Hyderabad was invaded by an army in 1948 and Kashmir brokered a deal in exchange for protection, which was written into the constitution as Article 370 in 1954. Allowing it to have a separate constitution, a state flag and autonomy over the internal administration of the state.

For all its natural beauty, exquisite culture, language, music, food and its friendly mountain people, all Kashmir has known, since it was cut up by India’s partition in 1947, is violence, pain, suffering and sorrow, with periodic lulls and glimmers of hope. Kashmir is bestowed with a curse that has no intentions of lifting anytime soon.

I visited Kashmir during a time when things seemed normal.

India always had an interest in keeping Kashmir pristine and pure, as it was probably the biggest draw for tourists in the land. They hoped all Kashmiris would be houseboat owners and woodcarvers and maintain Kashmir the Disneyland it was meant to be. So to the tourist, which is what I was, the real world remained hidden.

I remember seeing groups of young men lining the streets idle, sitting on their Kangris (personal earthen heaters). Power cuts were routine and basic infrastructure was in deplorable condition. Kashmir had high unemployment and a youth ready for the taking.

In 1988 things began to shift. My sister was advised by her colleagues, for her own safety, to not wear a Bindi and abandon her jeans for more traditional clothing. The atmosphere was beginning to turn fearful.

This is when the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) separatist movement began. The JKLF was founded in 1977 as a political organization in Birmingham, England, by a Pakistani named Amanullah Khan. It operated as a militant organization in both Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir. Its goal was to liberate Kashmir from both Indian and Pakistani control and form an independent state.

The group began to target Kashmiri Pandits, who were a Hindu minority in the valley. Random assassinations and speeches at Mosques calling for their cleansing spread fear like fire. In 1990, a pro Pakistani militant group Hizb-Ul-Mujahedeen, issued a press release in the local newspaper asking all Hindus to leave the valley.

Before long the Pandits who had called Kashmir their home for centuries left enmasse out of fear. Out of the approximately 300,000 to 600,000 that inhabited the land in 1990, only a few thousand remain today. It was a deplorable failure on the part if of the Indian government to not be able to provide protection and allowing such a displacement to take place.

The JKLF disbanded its militancy in 1994, and declared an indefinite ceasefire and hoped to achieve its goal through political means. But grave damage had already been done and things would only get worse.

Over the years, peace in the valley has ebbed and flowed rarely reaching normalcy. Militancy sanctioned and supported from across the border caused mayhem on a regular basis. The Indian army and paramilitary under the pretext of maintaining law and order committed grave crimes, alienating the population. Kashmiris have disappeared in large numbers, probably murdered in extra judicial killings. Indian soldiers have paid a heavy toll as well. The conflict has left deep wounds, that to many are irreconcilable.

In this scenario, on August 5th, the Prime Minister and his chief strategist fulfilled a campaign promise. They suspended any and all autonomy Kashmir had bargained for at the time of partition under Article 370 of the constitution. By the barrel of a gun, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was dissolved and converted to a union territory with direct control relegated to the center in New Delhi. Ladakh was separated into its own region under federal control.

The ruling political party BJP, had come back to power earlier in the year with a resounding majority. Despite the rhetoric and optics of being beholden to the constitution, they felt they had the numbers and the will of the people to suspend all parliamentary processes and act unilaterally as a “majority dictator”.

And so, as once in India’s dark past an “Emergency” was declared by a decree of the president on behest of the prime minister, Kashmir was disbanded on paper. With an overwhelming military presence, the arrest of prominent Kashmiri leaders, suspension of the internet and mobile phones, a media black out and a curfew, the democratic rights of a few million people were revoked in practice.

In his customary speech on August 15th, India’s independence day, the prime minister declared his Kashmir strategy a success. He said soon the Kashmiris will become whole with India. As full citizens of the land they will soon be able to decide their destiny at the ballot box. Jammu and Kashmir will be restored to statehood in due course, and the floodgates to development and prosperity will be thrown open.

For the prime minister’s faithful supporters this was seen as a decisive act. A move that many before him had only contemplated but were never were able to execute. It emboldened his strongman image and got his base energized. It was seen as a vindication of the four wars fought with Pakistan over Kashmir. It was also seen as a strong response to the Islamic radicalism that had run the Hindus out of the valley and was gaining permanent roots in the region. Now the Pandits could return and reclaim their land and get justice, was a dream that was being peddled between the lines.

To many across India who watch Kashmir from a distance and see the chaos filter through their television screens and social media, it is a thorn on the nation’s side whose resolution is long overdue. Probably an all out war and an invasion of the land seen as stolen from India by the other side is what is needed, is a common sentiment. This move by Modi, is the closest they seem to have come in satisfying that itch.

To those in Pakistan, they see it is as a land rightfully belonging to them just on the basis of all Kashmiris being Muslim.

Kashmiris who have families on both sides of the border, would love to reunite with their loved ones and live in peace. But those aspirations are seldom acknowledged due the Geo-political nature of where this piece of land sits.

And so everyone ignores the elephant in the room.

The catastrophe that Kashmir is and has been for decades since it was cut up, is another of Britain’s many ill-formed colonial legacies around the world.

Indians in their suspension of history and hatred for Pakistan and its dubious incursions, see Kashmir as an integral part of their territory that must be held at all costs. As does Pakistan. Emotions run high on both sides when it comes to the LOC (line of control) that runs through Kashmir.

The sad truth is, there will never be any sustainable peace in this part of the world unless Indian and Pakistan sit across a table and put the interest, well being, hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people front and center.

Given the present conditions and the deep mistrust between the leadership of the two nations, any rapprochement seems like a distant dream.

If Modi’s experiment can only hold with 40,000 troops on the ground and a blackout, then it has already failed. Force has never solved anything anywhere, it never will.

My sister passed away a few years after she returned from Kashmir. I have not returned to Srinagar since.

But on my visit to Mumbai last year, where I was showing my film at the Mumbai International Film Festival, I met some Kashmiri filmmakers and saw documentary films about the disturbing conditions they were living under on a daily basis. One such film, In The Shade of the Fallen Chinar, was abruptly pulled from the screening schedule by the organizers as they deemed its content controversial. The film was made available on youtube and gives you a glimpse of what life is like in this “heavenly place” from the perspective of the youth, who are its future.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Go Back To Where You Came From

The parking garage attendant across my street in Brooklyn, was cross with me as my car was protruding a few inches into his space. He approached me aggressively asking me to instantly remove my car. I asked him to calm down. He started verbally berating me. My temper got the better of me and I hurled back some epithets and the situation escalated. He then deliberately backed his car into mine and said he would "cut me up".

And then in anger he asked me to "go back to where I came from". And I responded with equal anger, "you go back to wherever the hell you came from". Things were getting a bit out of hand so I decided to stop and call the police. Just in case they would know who to suspect if physical harm were to come to me.

Being an African-American I guess it would be hard for him to find out where his ancestors were taken from. But he decided since my color was a shade lighter than his and since I had moved to the block after him, I was the foreigner and I needed to go back.

A few years ago while biking along a green manicured sidewalk in suburban Minneapolis, a car drove past me and someone stuck their neck out of the window and shouted, "go back to where you come from".

As a student in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the early nineties, while walking down a downtown street, my friends and I noticed eggs land at our feet. Some white kids shouted from their car "go back to where you came from".

If one were to follow this logic of sending people back to where they came from, the United States of America would have to be emptied and the land returned to the native people who inhabited it long before anyone. And from whom it was snatched on the heals of a genocide  this country still has trouble acknowledging.

There is no question the first Europeans who landed here were ingenious at navigating the seas. But "The Pilgrims" had no visas. They were not willfully granted entry. They just showed up and decided they would make this land their own and spread from coast to coast, usurping whatever they could find with violence and deceit.

There is no question the ingenuity of the early Europeans laid the foundation for the nation that we know today. But it was done on the backs of slaves and cheap migrant labor. Great wealth was generated through exploitation and continues to be created to this day on a global scale, following some of the same principles.

So when the president of this nation says to some congresswomen who got under his skin to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how....", he clearly has no understanding of history or reality and is an ignorant "negationist". A person who refuses to acknowledge history, or rather wishes to buy into a version that only glorifies his kind.

This attitude is nothing new to America. Through out history the natives and people of color have always been seen and shown in popular culture in a demeaning manner, as people "less than". 

Even though through struggle, many have risen to the highest reaches of power in industry and politics, they are seen as a threat. Many saw the election of President Obama as a wake up call. Which lead to the energizing of Fox News and its catering to the racist fears and apprehensions of a silent white majority, which translated into electing the president we have today.

So when the president engages in racial diatribes, he is merely speaking to all those who elected him, as they agree with what he believes, fears and says. As they feel that their time of supremacy is coming to an end as the demographics of this nation are shifting. Even though it is abundantly clear, that the concentration of wealth and real power will not change hands anytime soon.

When they see people of color running companies and entering government they see defeat and that is why they refuse to even censure the president. The Republicans banded together to oppose a symbolic motion on the floor to call out the president's racism. Some even made public statements in support of the president’s views, stating that they were misconstrued.

This delusional fear is nothing new. Through out American history, the white fear of the immigrant has always been very real. The Chinese Exclusion Act, a United States federal law signed by the president on May 6, 1882, prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. The very people who built the railroads of this nation connecting coast to coast were castigated out of fear. The law was the first of its kind to be implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating. This law was then widely applied to prevent many other groups from coming to America. The current administration's recent "Muslim ban" is a version of this same law, with a similar intent.

Those who use the phrase "go back to where you came from" or even think it, feel that this nation belongs to them by virtue of their skin color, status and the age of their ancestry. Even recent immigrants acquire this attitude, as soon as they become citizens and feel American enough to go to a sports bar and root for a favorite football team. 

America belongs to everyone. You may want it to belong to your tribe, but that does not make it so. The tribes who came before you, feel the same as you do, as they languish on  reservation land decimated by alcohol, drugs and casino cash. They contemplate an America that was taken from them and wish we all, white, black, brown and of every other shade, "went back to where ever we came from". 

The parking garage is now gone, waiting to be torn down to make room for condominiums. And with it is the parking attendant, as will Donald Trump. 

You can deny history all you want, it eventually catches up on you. 

It is what it is.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Water Woes

The new Netflix series Leila, is a dystopian tale set in India, against the backdrop of an environmental and social crisis. Cities have been divided between the haves and the have nots and a quasi-religious cult is hell bent on transforming society through a diabolical social engineering scheme. Much like the classic The Handmaids Tale, Leila is a dark vision of society collapsing under its own wanton machinations.

The first episode begins with a violent home invasion of a wealthy family. As the husband is enjoying a dip with his daughter in his private pool, thugs break in from the glass ceiling. Accusing them of illegally acquiring water for their pool while millions thirst away, they kill him and kidnap the wife (the protagonist) who is later forcefully inducted into a cult.

For as long as I can remember, water has always been a precious commodity in India. As a child I recall my parents waking up early in the morning to fill storage tanks, as municipal water flowed unpredictably. Even now in their old age, they are still fixated to this routine. As a teenager, I remember waking up at the crack of dawn and walking a few blocks down the street from my sister's house in Bangalore, with empty buckets in hand, to stand in line at the only municipal faucet for the neighborhood. There would be a long row of buckets in every shape and color as I would add mine to the rainbow. Some would try to cut in line causing raucous quarrels to breakout. I would make several trips to fill up a large storage tank that would last a few days.

Even though she lives in a much bigger house in a better part of town, my sister even today does not have a municipal water connection. Ground water is pumped and supplied to homes in the neighborhood. This is common in urban India, where even luxurious high-rise apartments and gated communities purchase water in large tankers, which is then pumped to the residents.

Despite shortages and droughts, water management in India has always been deplorable. Leaky faucets, pipes, garden hoses and water tankers are a common sight. Poor infrastructure surrounding water treatment and transportation is endemic. People seldom drink water that comes through the faucet. Over the past two decades water in plastic bottles and sachets have become mainstay.

There is no national campaign that I know of, to promote and educate the public about water conservation. Some water saving measures have been deployed by introducing modern technologies to bathroom fixtures in public places, but they are expensive and few and far between.

A nation that largely depends on the monsoons for its freshwater, does very harvest rain water. Catchment areas are paved over by vast unplanned urban sprawl, preventing underwater aquifers from recharging. Lakes and ponds have all been polluted or engulfed by the pandemic of urbanization. Massive deforestation further exacerbates water retention. River damming and diversion stifles natural flow causing unintended ecological damage with widespread impact. Climate change has slowly but surely intensified the situation parching the land and bringing conditions to a brink. The water mafia in big cities like Mumbai, are out to make a profit as the government fails to deliver the basic necessities of life - clean air and water.

My city of birth Hyderabad, is depleting its ground water at the fastest rate in the world. There is a forecast, that by next year all of it will be gone. But this does not stop the massive urban encroachment that is underway.

Chennai, a neighboring city of about 10 million, is in the throws of a water crisis like never seen before. Images of people clamoring for water have been posted in newspapers and on television screens all around the world. With monsoon predicted to be weak yet again, people are putting their faith in the "rain gods" as the poor jostle for water at that single open public faucet and the rich buy tankers from nefarious sources. Everyone is feeling the pain and are looking to blame someone for the situation. But the reality is, everyone is to blame.

Water covers about 71% of the earth's surface. 97% of which is found in the oceans. 3% of the earth's water is fresh of which 2.5% is locked up in glaciers, ice caps, the atmosphere and soil, or is highly polluted or far too deep inside the earth's surface to access. 0.5% is available as potable water, upon which the survival of the human race depends. This amounts to an average of 8.4 million liters for every person on earth. The fragility of the situation comes into focus when one comprehends these numbers as climate change alters the planet in ways we have barely begun to fathom.

As the world heats up in temperature, it will also heat up in conflict. When something as necessary as water becomes a scarce commodity, the very fabric of society will begin to collapse. Already in the streets of Chennai, people are on edge with no relief in sight.

In India, where the density of humanity, taxes every resource, effective management becomes key. Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, and those in power still continue to push the world along established norms.

In the recent election that brought Narendra Modi and his party back to power in India, the environment was not on the agenda. No one campaigned bringing to the fore the scarcities facing the nation and the dire state of the ecology. It was appalling to see an ugly display of communal politics day in and day out, while the prime minster and the members of parliament inhaled the worst air in the world.

While the television show Liela maybe a work of fiction, it is not that far removed from reality. If we are to reclaim the future we need to act decisively in the present. We currently seem to give power to people who do not have the best interest of the planet at heart. While we wage ideological battles and re-litigate history, spewing hate and falsifying reality, the planet is working towards shaking us off like a bad case of the cold.

It is what it is.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Modi Mania

When Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India in 2014, there was a headline that populated television screens across the nation. It said “India Modi-fied”. I thought it was premature to say this then. Five years later, these elections have proven, that India has indeed been "Modi-fied". His carefully crafted cult of personality had transformed the way a large portion of the country saw him and in some cases worshipped him.

Not since the founding fathers and the first female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had so many followed a leader with such blind adulation. India is known to be a nation where movie stars and politicians are deified. So on one level this was something not out of the ordinary.

There was never a doubt in my mind or in any other reasonable person watching politics in India keenly, that Modi would not return to power. With no national opposition candidate of equal measure or appeal, his win was all but certain.

I thought there was enough disenchantment in the country from his policies, that people would be swayed to give him a softer shoe in as opposed to a resounding victory that his party got.

His two signature policies of demonetization and tax reform had hurt people on the lower rung of society and the small business class whose livelihood was based on cash transactions. Modi's reasoning for demonetization was to wipe out the parallel black money economy and rampant corruption costing the nation tax revenue. There was an insignificant dent made on that front and many are still reeling from its swift and abrupt implementation. I thought this would have caused some collateral damage.

The agriculture sector has been under stress for a very long time and in the last five years had not seen any relief in any significant manner.

The unemployment rate at 6% was high and there was widespread agreement among economists that this number was not accurate. Many believed the government was not maintaining accurate data on this vital economic parameter. 

By bringing inflation under check, opening bank accounts for the underclass and digitizing the financial transaction system, Modi made major strides, which benefited many across the nation.

Big businesses as expected did well. Foreign investment continued to flow in. The stock market was stable and the rich got richer. The pro-business Modi agenda was very much in vogue and those who benefited once again came to his support. This gave his party deep coffers to out spend everyone in the field.

On the social front Modi's agenda was far more successful than those who disagree with him would like to believe. While he had spoken out against those who were going around lynching Muslims for supposedly consuming or selling beef, it was never loud and decisive. This gave extremist factions within his party and his supporters, tacit approval to go after those they thought were against building an India proud of its Hindu beliefs and heritage.

His signature social campaign called "Swach Bharat" (clean India) was bold. The expansive media campaign reached every corner of the country. Toilets around the country were built in large numbers to prevent open defecation and a call was made to keep India litter free. But what impact it truly had on a nation the size of India was open for debate. 

Air pollution levels in India are among the worst in the world. The river Ganges continues on its trajectory of becoming a sewer bringing huge volumes of plastic to the ocean. India still lags behind in the use of renewable energy. The nation has no clear environmental policy and no party in this election articulated one.

The situation in Kashmir has deteriorated rapidly over the five years. The bombing in Pulwana that killed Indian security personnel was an indication of how desperate things were in this most heavily militarized zone in the world. When thousands poured into the streets to mourn the death of a militant killed by Indian forces, it was clear where the allegiance of many Kashmiris lay. Much like his predecessors, it was apparent Modi had been unsuccessful in bringing peace to the valley and probably will only choose a hardline approach to a festering humanitarian crisis, in his new term.

There were many issues plaguing the nation and Modi's report card was less than perfect. The opposition had enough fuel on their hands to launch a robust attack. Modi to his credit had enough to show to ask for another term as well. But instead he succumbed to the most predictable populist route in the rulebook to win an election. The kind that has been sweeping many nations around the world bringing right wing leaders to power and decimating the left. 

Evoking a sense of nationalism and stoking fear by saying the nation's security was paramount and was under threat, he projected himself as a decisive leader who had carried out strikes against the enemy state across the border. As expected this struck an emotional chord among voters who were already primed by the rising anti-Pakistan media frenzy.

By draping the flag and blinding the people from real issues, there was enough Modi mania whipped up via crass speeches and mud slinging of the most vile nature. Everyone from Donald Trump to Duterte had used this tactic to win an election and Modi successfully followed in their footsteps.

The Indian election is a complex and complicated one. The diversity of the country is daunting and the average voter is not as well informed on issues and there is very little done to educate the public. There are no televised debates, just vile shouting matches on television. While in a parliamentary system the voters choose a member of parliament and not the prime minister, not many are aware of this process. People have very little knowledge of the track record of their MP. They vote along party lines driven and influenced by whoever is the loudest. Perception is key and emotions run high.

Nationalism and religion are two effective tools that can speak to voters clearly on an emotional level. Modi has mastered this by knowing his audience better than any leader India has ever seen. By making sure cameras are pointing at him while he visits temples and god-men, lights lamps, meditates in caves and launches into evocative sloganeering with phrases from Hindu mythology and Sanskrit texts, Modi is always campaigning and speaking to the heartland.

All politics in India has turned communal. By turning Muslims into Pakistan sympathizers, invaders, barbaric erstwhile rulers or converts, the BJP has effectively churned the Hindu pride among many middle class citizens, into a secure voting block. This has also energized the foreign Indian population to back Modi with sizable campaign donations and supportive op-eds.

The notion that Muslims in India are a real threat, despite being a minority, is something now ingrained in the population. In a living room conversation to make an argument that Muslims in India do not have any political power, I posed a question. "Do you think a Muslim can ever become the PM of India like Obama became the president of America?" The first response was well what is the urgency in that. And the second was that Muslims are having too many children and can one day become a majority in India if not careful. This sentiment might sound familiar to Americans from the last election. 14.2% of the Indian population is Muslim; speaking for them today is considered a liberal, left wing, apologetic, misguided exercise by many.

In a speech to his victorious party members, Modi asked them to work for the nation with humility without expecting special treatment. Modi has cultivated an image of a workaholic, whose only goal is to serve the nation and not his party or his family, which is non existent. He expected his ministers to follow suit. A tall order considering 50% of the candidates his party fielded had criminal records and some really dubious characters actually won and will be sitting in parliament making laws.

Politics in India is dirty business. In campaign mode Modi and his chief strategist Amit Shah are acutely aware of this and have now written the rulebook on how it should be played to secure a decisive victory. As Prime Minister, Narendra Modi projects an image of humility, piety and gratitude, bowing in front of the constitution as if to send an image that he holds it sacrosanct. This irks many who feel he is not decisive enough in the Hindu cause, beholden to a document that espouses secularism. Probably they might have their wish come true as Amit Shah becomes the second most powerful person in the land as Home Minister.

Modi's persona has garnered him a following that is faithful and obedient. The culture of sycophancy, which was emblematic of the Congress party, is now part of the BJP. The overt Hindu pedigree he projects attracts intellectuals and god-men alike to his defense. The dislike the western and the Indian liberal media projects towards him, brings him more and more supporters making him a rock star with a twitter following only topped by Donald Trump.

A democracy that does not have checks and balances is nothing but an autocracy. Today with no opposition to speak of, Indian democracy is at a dangerous precipice. Prime Minister Modi is the most powerful leader that has ever ruled the nation since Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi has pledged his allegiance to the constitution. 45% of the population casted a vote in his favor. Now he has to govern for the 100%. Even though he does not need to, he has said he would take the advise of the opposition as he leads. He even coined a new slogan "Sabka Saath", "Sabka Vikas", "Sabka Vishwas"(Together, Everyone's Progress and Everyone's Trust). Only actions and deeds will show whether he truly means this.

It is what it is.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tryst with Richard Dawkins

A week ago I happen to be in the picturesque and warm medieval town of Olomouc (pronounced Olomoots). A two hour train ride away from Prague in the Czech Republic, Olomouc is a quaint little town of about 100,000 inhabitants. Its narrow cobble stone lanes, ornate pastel buildings, majestic cathedrals and meandering Soviet era trams, take you back in time in an instant. Its history is rich and tragic, but today Olomouc is a vibrant sleepy European city with coffee shops, restaurants, monuments and open plazas attracting a healthy stock of tourists each year.

I was here to screen my new film Salam, at a film festival called AFO, organized by the university and industry partners. In its 54th year, AFO has become a premiere film festival for films devoted to science, history and the human condition. The festival is completely organized by the young students and their energy is palpable and refreshing to experience.

As most European countries, Czech society is fairly homogeneous. The only non-Czech you see are tourists, medical students and some immigrants from the middle east running Shwarma restaurants. Despite an old church on every corner, this nation has the unique distinction of being one of the most non-religious countries in the world. The students I spoke to, were very proud of this fact. But on the same note they were also fearful and skeptical of the right wing government that had come to power and the rising racism, Islamophobia and Antisemitism gripping the country, as a result. The older generation they said had very deep rooted xenophobic views towards "outsiders".

Having gathered an insight into the country, we were not very optimistic about getting a sizable audience to our screenings. The story of Salam, is the story of the Pakistani Nobel Laurette physicist Abdus Salam and the intersection of science, politics and Islam in relation to his life. It is also a story of intolerance and bigotry.

As expected we did not get the audience we were hoping, but we were pleasantly surprised when the world renowned evolutionary biologist and Atheist Richard Dawkins walked in and sat in the first row. Religion and science are two of his favorite topics and our film fit the bill. After the screening he walked up to me and my producer and congratulated us on making a "beautiful and sensitive" film.

Abdus Salam was a devout Muslim. What fascinated me about his story and got me interested in making this film, was how he reconciled his belief in Islam and god, all the while working in an area of physics that was attempting to understand the universe in purely scientific terms. As an avowed Atheist, Richard Dawkins has spent a lifetime writing books and giving talks, making the argument that the two are not compatible.

Richard Dawkins was in Olomouc to give a talk at the festival. He was the main attraction and it was quickly proven right when I saw a long line of people meandering down the block waiting to get into the auditorium. As filmmakers at the festival we got front row seats. As the audience gradually brimmed the 500 seat auditorium to capacity, it became clear how popular he was in this little town. I spotted only one protester outside asking people to not attend and be saved by Jesus.

Without any pleasantries Dawkins walked to the podium and began his talk. With images projected on a big screen behind him to illustrate the contradictions he found in religion and dogma, he made a strong and precise case for science. Eviscerating religious doctrine mostly in Islam and Christianity he lambasted the arrogance of religion's claim of knowing things, when it clearly did not. Listing the astounding discoveries science had made all the way from Darwin's theories on natural selection to current cutting edge work in genetics, he made the argument that unlike religion, when science does not know something, it shows humility, and gets back to inquiry.

Religion on the other hand, without evidence, but with unwavering arrogance and gall, says it has the answers to everything, as god the "master architect" is at work in mysterious and miraculous ways.
And has been so since the dawn of time. For many the dawn of time began only a few thousand years ago.

With lucidity and a glib Oxford demeanor, Richard Dawkins showed the great mind that he is. The response and applause from the audience to his sharp humor, was an indication of where most people stood on matters of religion and god.

He ended the talk by saying, that there is only one life we get and that is all there is. He was fortunate that he was given the one he has, and there was nothing more to it than that.

After a short but terse talk, Dawkins took questions from the audience. One audience member retorted that he had met a priest who had said to him that no one knows what god is. Anyone who says they know who or what god is, is but fooling you or lying. He then went on accuse Dawkins of using religion and the idea of god as a "straw man" to further his own agenda, claiming that there are religious people out there who are progressive and less dogmatic than those he sites.

To which Dawkins replied, it is inconsequential what the priest said he did not know. What is consequential is what he claims to know using his religion as the foundation for knowing.

What we truly know today is vastly different from what we knew a century ago. Through scientific inquiry, with absolute certainty, we not only understand what the universe is made of and how it came to be, but we also know the fundamental building blocks and processes of life in all its complexity.

In contrast, there are numerous facets in nature that are still a quandary. We still do not have a clear understanding on how consciousness works and how the myriad species that form life on earth perceive the world in such different ways. What we do know, is that the size of the human brain dramatically increased in size over thousands of years of evolution. Maybe that has something to do with why humans can look in a mirror and with absolute certainty know they are looking at themselves, and other animals cannot. The quest to unlock more puzzles keeps relentlessly advancing, in line with the human spirit. Some at humanity's own peril and others in absolute wonder.

Richard Dawkins famously said "One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all". There are many who are satisfied with non-answers that gratify their immediate need for comfort and contentment and a desire to have it all. In a chaotic world, that promises to get even more turbulent on a global scale, the enduring institution of religion will always prevail, feeding on humanity's frailty.

The idea of god, the cosmic pilot, the supreme architect, the all knowing, the divine healer and forgiver, the punisher and the purifier, fills a void for many. "God delusion" is real no matter what we truly know, this even Richard Dawkins knows.

It is what it is.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The "Witch Hunt" Report

After almost two years, the Special Counsel's report was submitted to the Justice Department on March 22, 2019. The investigation which the president incessantly called a "witch hunt", submitted  a 380 page document to the department. The Attorney General then summarized it over a weekend into four pages, concluding that the president and his associates had not colluded or coordinated with the Russians to manipulate the 2016 elections.

On the matter of obstruction of justice, the conclusion was less certain. The Attorney General quoted "while the report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him". The indeterminate nature of this statement left a lot to be explained. As a result, a call to make the entire report public, has since gone louder and louder.

Spearheaded by Robert Mueller, the investigation launched eight days after President Trump abruptly dismissed FBI director James Comey. The FBI director at that time was investigating possible links between Trump associates and Russian officials. Following Comey's firing a slew of Democrats called for a special independent probe to ascertain if the president had engaged in the obstruction of justice. The special counsel's office that was formed as a result, took over both the investigations from the FBI.

As soon as the investigation began, speculations ran amok. As Robert Mueller along with his band of assistants methodically went about his business, the media went into a frenzy. As dubious men associated with the Trump organization began to be thwarted and prosecuted, everyone began to theorize that the noose around the president was tightening. Late night comedians began to have a field day by conjuring images of a president in handcuffs. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and their ilk, were all forecasting a doom and gloom scenario for the president. And the president himself was helping along by lashing out on Twitter against Robert Mueller and his own Justice Department, and calling the whole affair repeatedly a "witch hunt". His propaganda network, Fox News, was helping him develop a false narrative, that the "deep state" was out to stymie his presidency.

While the investigation proceeded under the threat of being shut down anytime, the Justice Department was in turmoil. The hand picked loyalist Jeff Sessions was jettisoned for being at odds with the president. The deputy attorney general was seen as disloyal and was constantly publicly berated by the president. The person who temporarily stepped in as acting attorney general was inept and unqualified. By the time the new attorney general was appointed the investigation was reaching its end. And when William Barr received the report, he had only been in command for a few weeks and his decision to summarize the massive document into four pages and not willingly submit it to congress, was perceived suspect.

In June 2018, William Barr had sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department, asserting that Mueller’s investigation of Trump for alleged obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived.” In the memo, Barr made an argument — that presidents cannot be investigated for actions they are permitted to take, such as firing officials who work for them, based on their subjective state of mind.This was an argument consistently made by the president's lawyers.

Even though the summarized report was not entirely decisive, the president and his propaganda machinery declared total and complete vindication. While there are many parallel investigations still on going, and probably more will be launched, the president rightfully decided to gloat in his usual manner by again calling it all a massive witch hunt and a waste of precious federal dollars. The public had pretty much lost all interest in the proceedings and a certain apathy had set in which was palpable.

The election of Donald Trump was a shock to many on the left and the right. His administration has been a disaster from the get go. His association with dubious characters should not have come as a surprise to anyone, as it was all in the open in plain sight, to anyone who was paying attention. Despite all his deplorable uncivil antics and untrustworthy behavior, he was elected president. Many hoped his tenure would be cut short by other means. The media also hoped that reporting on all his unsavory dealings, would result in an impeachment or resignation. Many were openly making jokes about the president and his family in orange jumpsuits. All based on a wishful assumption that there was a "smoking gun".

Now that Robert Mueller has completed his task, the manner in which it is being revealed, is still causing many to believe that there is a smoking gun. The House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a democrat, will authorize a subpoena this week to obtain the full, un-redacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller, starting a showdown between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. There is talk of even summoning Robert Mueller to testify in front of a committee. The long partisan confrontation in this matter, displaying the acute polarized state of affairs, has barely begun.

The last time a special counsel's office was established in America, was to investigate if President Bill Clinton had had an affair with his intern Monica Lewinsky and if he had then asked her to lie about it. Known as the Starr Report, it was released directly to the House of Representatives on September 11, 1998. Within hours of receiving the report the House voted to release it to the public online.

A year after the report was published, the Ethics in Government Act, which required special counsels to submit reports directly to Congress, expired. The act was replaced by the Department of Justice regulations currently governing the Mueller report.

Whether the full un-redacted report will ever be released to the public is up for debate. But having spent so much of the public's time and resources, they are entitled to know what the president did or did not do in every possible detail. Since doubt has been cast, the citizens of this nation have every right to know in earnest, if the person they have put in charge is actually working for them or not.

It is what it is.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hyderabad Supplanted

A visitor happened to be in my living room on my recent visit to the city of my birth. In the conversation that ensued he mentioned that at a new real estate development in his city, after the land was leveled and apartments were built, non-native trees were planted for the purpose of landscaping and beautification. The birds of the neighborhood stopped perching on the trees that did not belong. I cannot confirm whether this is true, but this much I can see. Once my backyard used to be noisy with sparrows. Now you would be hard pressed to find even a single one anywhere in the city. No one can explain with certainty, what happened to them.

This is a perfect allegory for what is happening in urban India, where cities have been spreading at an alarming rate, under the pretext of an economic boom. 

In the pursuit of massive development and impressive growth, India seems to have forgotten or has laid to waste all that makes it precious. It feels like urban India is being supplanted much like the rejected trees.

Every time I return, I am appalled at the rate at which cities are expanding and the clamoring that is only intensifying. The destiny of Hyderabad began to transform when American tech companies decided to set up shop to serve their growing need for cheap labor. From Microsoft and Accenture to Amazon and Google, today have massive office complexes stretching across the new parts of the city, which were once green and rocky. Areas that were once considered distant and rural are now prime land and have been so for a while. A network of highways and tollbooths, help transport people to these mega buildings at all hours of the day and night causing traffic jams at unearthly hours. More and more ancient rocks and native trees are torn down to make room for residential towers and mansions, to house the people serving America. The city I once knew is no longer the city of today. I often feel lost and disoriented at times, as a result.

Those who are benefiting from this massive expansion and growth see no problem in how its being done. Its business as usual for many and from the chauffeur to the CEO, all want in on the money to be made from land deals.

There is also money to be made in the service sector up and down the chain. IKEA opened its only outlet in Hyderabad to serve this burgeoning market. Hoards lined up to get in the door the day it opened bringing traffic to a grinding halt. High-end furnishing, bathroom, gadgetry and appliance stores have all opened showrooms to cater to the desires of the upwardly mobile. While driving down a congested and clogged inner road, I saw a Ferrari trying to stay unscratched. Schools with fancy western names advertise on huge hoardings, offering air-conditioned class rooms and courses in French, while keeping a dose of Indian just to feel rooted. Today there is nothing money cannot buy in India, and therefore a hybrid nation is being supplanted driven by unabashed consumerism.

Probably many of my friends reading this would say, there he goes criticizing our happiness, while he lives in New York enjoying the very amenities we crave. What a hypocrite. I have now lived as many years in Brooklyn, as I did in India as a young man. I often wonder, if I had never left would I be seeing all of this from a different lens? Would I be a part of this system that devours without pause?

Since India liberalized its economy and opened the floodgates to foreign investment, allowing the tech revolution sweeping the globe to take root, many have transformed their lives. And this is a commendable feat. Many have risen out of poverty just for being able to speak English and acquire some basic software skills. Many of my peers have seen tremendous success in their professional lives. Some like me have gotten an education abroad and have become CEOs of companies. Others stayed pouncing on the opportunities growth and liberalization offered and built empires and have enjoyed a lifestyle which when I was growing up was a distant dream and still is, even in the west.

There is no question the growth India has seen over a mere two decades has been meteoric. But it has come at a great cost, a tremendous environmental reckoning.

On this visit I happened to have dinner with a Member of the State Legislative Assembly. A powerful man, he had been a successful politician for almost two decades and in many ways had overseen the expansion of the city. He told me that in a few years Hyderabad would become a world-class city. I could not fathom what he meant by that.

After a great deal of pain to the public and endless delays, Hyderabad  launched its overhead rail system connecting large sections of the city with affordable public transport. But the traffic congestion below only seems to had gotten worse. Many more shiny five star hotels had opened since my last visit. The airport was under expansion and countless office buildings and apartment blocks were on the rise along the outskirts of the city. But better air quality and the stability of potable water supply was still far from being certain for many.

India is a vast and diverse country. At more than a billion strong and growing, it stresses on all its resources by its sheer size. It is commendable though that despite these challenges it keeps growing and setting lofty goals for its people. While it has allowed people to amass wealth to buy a Ferrari it often fails to provide the basic necessities of life for many. The Prime Minister launched a cleanliness and personal hygiene campaign called “Swach Bharat” (clean India), which seems to be on everyone’s lips and mind from its effective messaging. How successful it is in realty in changing habits and social behavior, is yet to be seen in any concrete terms. Many NGOs fill in where the government fails, doing commendable work. Many of them feel under attack these days for accepting foreign funding.

When one arrives in any part of urban India, things seem chaotic. The urban landscape is ugly, the streets are congested, the air is dusty and dense, the sheer numbers of its people are in your face the moment you enter its streets. If you are not from here it could be overwhelming and exciting at the same time. But behind all that chaos, things do work. People are helpful, and the hospitality you get is unsurpassed. The cultural creativity and ingenuity of its people is extraordinary.

The politician said to me in blatant terms “In India, you have respect, only if you have money”. Often how people treat you is measured by how much money you carry in your wallet and how you look. Indians are insidiously obsessed with fair skin. Overwhelmingly Indian cinema, television and advertising cast people with fair skin, while most Indians are of darker complexion. Casual comment about one's complexion without much thought is common social behavior. Other refined forms of racism still run deep.

I was in Hyderabad this time to screen my film “Salam”. After screening it at almost twenty cities around the world I was eager to share it with the people of my city. The Hyderabad Film Club graciously invited me to host the screening. And then a bomb went off in Kashmir killing almost fifty soldiers. A terrorist from across the border claimed responsibility. The nation went into a jingoistic frenzy calling for blood. Bollywood immediately responded by banning Pakistani artists from being part of their fraternity. And since my film is about a Pakistani scientist, and the word “Pakistan” had suddenly become more potent than it normally is, fearing a possible mob attack, the screening was cancelled.

I was dejected and disappointed. The decision was made without a review of my film. For a nation and a city that wants to be world-class, from my perspective, it was a sad day. A nation can only be world-class, when it can have total unhindered freedom of speech, with out fear. Many disturbing events over the past few years have shown, that India is far from reaching that status. Films and artists are routinely harassed and censored. Journalists have been killed. And this notion that “you are with us or against us” is peddled as a statement for patriotism and religious nationalism.

My film exposes how Pakistan had come to become infected by militancy, bigotry and religious intolerance. From my perspective it was the perfect film to show at a time when people's loyalties to their motherland were being called into question based on their religion. But unfortunately my city failed me by showing that it was not bigger and better than its proclaimed “enemy state”.

The great American writer and thinker James Baldwin famously said “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I love the city of my birth and the land that still inhabits my dreams, and therefore I choose to criticize it with pride. From a vantage point of being both an outsider and an insider I can see it for what it is and what it is becoming. 

While I pine for the city of my youth, which is long gone, I am acutely aware it is an unreasonable expectation to aspire. I know there is still beauty left in the city. There are lakes and rocks that can still be saved and salvaged. There is exquisite beauty in its ancient monuments that need to be preserved for future generations. The sunsets over Tank Bund are still breathtaking. 

Even though climate change will wreak havoc, with hotter summers, droughts and aquifer depletion, the need for clean air and water outside of a plastic bottle is a basic human right. And if that cannot be awarded to every citizen with certainty, rich or poor, then India would have failed miserably and Hyderabad can never be a world-class city, no matter the wealth it is able to generate.
It is what it is.