Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Andaman's human zoo

When I was younger, one of the places I visited with much interest was the local zoo. It was always fascinating to see birds and animals of a kind that I would normally never come across in my day to day life. The zoo was full of many children and it was common to see large crowds near the monkey cages with people milling around with monkey nuts and bananas. All around were signs advising people not to feed the monkeys which pranced around like the exhibits that they after all were for the fun and amusement of kids and adults.

Recently while on a visit to the Andaman Islands and more specifically the Middle Andaman islands, I passed through a portion of forest land titled the Jarawa Reserve where the ambience is not unlike the tiger reserves, reserve forests and the like with innumerable restrictions and barricades with the idea of keeping the Jarawas as far removed as possible from the mainland population- not just the visitors from main land India but even the mainlanders settled on the Andaman Islands itself.

At the gateway to the reserve itself, there is a police check post and notice boards proclaiming that interaction with the tribal people is prohibited, that they are not to be given food and drink and that no contact with the tribals in any way is permitted. To enter the reserve itself, vehicles have to assemble as a convoy and are escorted through the reserve land by police constables, much as you would find in an insurgency prone area. Passing through the reserve, one occasionally comes across the Jarawa – a tribal community of the Negroid race, but mindful of the stern police notices, one just speeds past with the Jarawas receding into the horizon like elusive wild life.

On the face of it, the whole spectacle looks bizarre, the Jarawas looking no better than specimens in a human zoo. But below the surface is a raging question – which kind of life is better--- the close to nature , primitive but pristine life of the Jarawas , practically bereft of any human contact outside their own tribe or the melting pot culture of the mainlanders with all its ills ? And who is it to decide?

The main threat to the Jarawa was the building of a road through their lands and forest in 1970. Survival - a worldwide organisation supporting tribal peoples - focused on trying to get the road through Jarawa land closed and the settlers removed. In May 2002, the Indian Supreme Court in a landmark decision ordered the road closed, the settlers be removed from Jarawa land, and banned all logging. Survival is now trying to ensure the implementation of the court order.
At one level, the government of India and the Supreme Court are doing the right thing by protecting one of the few indigenous cultures in the land which is still relatively uncontaminated. I remember a few years ago when the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s ships sailing in to the Americas happened, the biggest analysis that took place was a reassessment of his place in history on the ground that by eliminating the indigenous people of South America and destroying their culture, he and his crew and others who followed in his wake had actually committed genocide.

Given this interpretation of events and much subsequent criticism of the “civilizing mission” of the imperialist powers that subsequently happened, who can blame the government of India , if it chooses to preserve the unspoilt tribal culture of the Jarawas by keeping them isolated and in protected reserves. On the other hand, it is also true that due to their isolation and consequent inbreeding among an already diminished population, the numbers of the Jarawas are decreasing by the day and the day may not be far off when the tribe will in any case be extinct. So, is it right to keep the Jarawas like specimens in a zoo for visitors to gawk at because they supposedly need to be kept pure and spoilt….. Or should they be given a chance to choose “modern” life as we understand it, mix and inter mingle and inter marry with others and in the process, perhaps preserve their tribe, albeit with some dilution in their way of life. The choice to be made it would seem is a Hobson’s choice.

Hard to be a Muslim these days

In another two days time, it will be the time for school children to practice their vocal cords and sing the Vande Mataram. The Muslim community is divided on whether to sing or not to sing. Javed Akhtar has been quoted as saying that if a mullah asks him not to , he would sing the whole big song and not the first two stanzas which constitute the national song—but on the other hand if the RSS types ask him to sing , he would clam up his lips. Hidden in all the hype about the Vande Mataram is the news of another fatwa from Deoband – the Vatican of the Indian Muslims that life insurance is impermissible for Muslims as it involves the transaction involving interest and usury is forbidden in any form in Islam.Some times I think it must be hard being a Muslim these days. Hemmed in from outside with all this ethnic and religious profiling, it must be a heart wrenching experience to be always under suspicion, under a cloud , to be presumed to be guilty by association till proved otherwise. And the community leaders don’t make it life easier.

Instead of working to improve the image and perception of the community, they pick on issues like which song to sing or not to sing, where not to invest their money.Imagine this. The Muslim community in India is among the most backward on all human indices- education, wealth, health, political representation and a host of other such indicators. The Muslim population in pockets of Western U.P is said to be responsible for India having the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest number of polio cases and the even worse distinction of exporting them to countries which were thus far polio free.

Muslim women are similarly more backward, less educated and less likely to be working, not just because of educational backwardness but also because conservative social norms discourage this.In such a time and circumstance, an enlightened Muslim man (or may be a woman, though this is less likely) decides to buy life insurance, so that his family – particularly his and wife and children are provided for, that they do not add to the considerably high numbers of the Muslim poor.

Does the community hail him for setting a socially progressive and progressive norm? Well no.If in Islamic world view, buying life insurance is bad in its current form; does it prescribe any alternative means of investment or savings? Oh, no. all it tells you is that this can not be done, that is Un Islamic, if you do this, you are doing some thing that is haraam, if you do that, you are doing some thing, najayyaz. No solutions are forthcoming, only problems, spanners and spokes. With such leaders as the Muslims in India have these days, which need enemies ? The community is all set on the path of annihilation – Arjun and Mulayam Singh and their efforts not withstanding. Oh, it is hard to be a Muslim these days in India!

Human Rights to Minority Rights : Making the connection

India’s National Commission for Minorities has chosen Cedric Prakash, director of the Jesuit-run ‘Prashant Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace’ as the 2006 recipient of its “Minorities Rights Award” for his work in favour of human rights in the country.The Jesuit priest was also honoured this year with France’s Legion of Honour for his action on behalf of victims of the 2002 Gujarat massacre. Father Prakash dedicated this prize “to Aminaben Rasool, a Muslim mother who saw her son murdered during the 2002 massacre and has not been able to find his body. In his acceptance speech, he talked not just about the plight of the Muslims in Gujarat but also that of the Kashmiri Pandits, displaced in their own land due to internal strife.

At a time when society is increasingly polarized and caste, language, religious and ethnic groups fight for their own rights even under the minority grab; it is gratifying to see some one more concerned about the rights of other communities than own. Undoubtedly, Fr. Cedric Prakash is involved the issues of religious persecution of his Christian community in Gujarat but he did not get stuck there as many would possibly would have done. He acted and intervened as a humanist, not just as a priest of the Catholic Church just shepherding his own flock.

We need more such examples of people who subsuming their own identity, look beyond the confines of the narrow domestic walls and see the scene beyond and react and respond appropriately. It is particularly helpful that he can switch from being a defender of Muslims in Gujarat to being a spokesperson for the cause of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. It's unfortunate that the issue is not regarded as rights violation but rather, has been pushed to the realm of Hindu-Muslim subject, as pointed out by some rights watchers. Interactions with intellectuals and activists reveal that in actual fact neither the government nor the social organizations are sincerely trying to restore the dignity of the Pandits who are living as refugees in their own country.

Many years ago, 06 Dec, 1992 when the Babri Masjid structure was demolished, I came across a quote for the first time that I have seen many times since. It was the experience of the Rev. Martin Niemoller in 1945 when living in Nazi Germany.

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

Rev. Martin Niemoller was protected until 1937 by both the foreign press and influential friends in the up-scale Berlin suburb where he preached. Eventually, he was arrested for treason. Perhaps due to foreign pressure, he was found guilty, but initially given only a suspended sentence. He was however then almost immediately re-arrested on Hitler’s direct orders. From then on until the end of WW II, he was held at the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Near the end of the war, he narrowly escaped execution. [from Charles Colson’s Kingdoms in Conflict].

The example of Fr. Cedric Prakash is one that teaches us to reach out and protect every man and woman as one made in the image of God – be they Hindus, Muslims, Christians or any of the others
ALTHOUGH IN THE midst of a military coup, the military junta in Fiji has set an interesting precedent by advertising cabinet posts in the press and inviting applications. The qualifications — moral, economic and professional — have been laid down and once the applications are received, they will be screened by a screening committee and after an interview, the cabinet will be appointed. This is the military regime’s way of trying to ensure that the government they provide to the Fijians is free from the taint of corruption as well as the taint of having overthrown a democratically elected legitimate government. “Applicants must be of outstanding character and without any criminal records,” the ad says. “Each must not have been declared bankrupt,” it warns, adding applications must be submitted to military headquarters by Tuesday.

In the United States system, the process of senate confirmation ensures some checks and balances in the process by which key administrative appointments are filled, and the processing can be grueling on the extreme. It is not unknown for the media to reach deep into a candidate’s past to dig out unsavory details that could disqualify one from holding a post. The scrutiny is very intense, probing political, professional and personal suitability. The confirmation process is so tough that usually any administration would do its own background checks to ensure that there are no embarrassments in the offing. Even so, there are no guarantees as the episode of John Bolton, the Bush administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, reveals. The hapless Bolton, after serving as a lame duck ambassador for more than a year, had to resign when he found that his extremely right wing views were unlikely to be endorsed by the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

India, struggling with the issue of the tainted ministers issue for a long time now, needs to adopt some such system instead of constant bickering and walkouts of Parliament, which disrupt business but keep the corrupt ministers where they are. The recent Supreme Court judgment allowing ministers and public servants to be persecuted without the government’s sanction in cases of possible corruption may help in dealing with corruption; it won’t help deal with the issues of merit.

To get a petty clerk’s job in the government, one has to appear for examinations and interviews. And, of course, the civil servants are recruited after passing the state civil service or the UPSC exam and grueling interviews. But their political masters, the actual CEOs of the states or the even the Union Cabinet have only to get votes and win elections event though popularity is no indicator of efficiency. For instance, the TRS leader, K Chandra Sekhar Rao, recently won by a convincing margin, the Karimnagar Lok Sabha by-election demonstrating his clout over the Telengana movement. Which is fine. But unfortunately, the same worthy was also the Minister for Labour in the Union cabinet for more than a year and hardly attended office. He was more occupied consolidating his base in the Telengana area for his future political ambitions.

Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while talking to civil servants, had the following questions to ask: “The civil service has to reorient itself and be trained to deliver better services to the people. To make the government more efficient, we need a new public service orientation, in the thinking of civil servants. You cannot view yourself as mere administrators. You are also managers. You have to manage change and manage efficient delivery of public services. This new orientation must begin at the very beginning. The questions that require addressing are:
Are the civil services adequately equipped to address these emerging challenges?
If not, what must we do to address these challenges?

Is the present method of recruitment appropriate for inducting the right kind of persons in to government? manmohan so

Are the performance-assessment and appraisal methods appropriate for preparing the civil services for the emerging demands on them and the government?
Should not the same questions be asked of their political masters? Maybe, the Fijian junta is playing out the theatre of the absurd by advertising out cabinet posts in the local newspapers. But the absurd is the only possible answer in our own constrained circumstances!