I was introduced to the holy month of Ramzaan rather early in life.
I was 11-12 years old when I met Uncle Nafeez. He was a short, stocky man and was a carpenter by trade. My father had engaged his services as a few items of furniture in the household had to be repaired and a few new ones made. He arrived early every morning and worked diligently until sunset for the two weeks or so that it took him to finish his work. The only break he would take was to ride off on his bicycle to pray at a nearby mosque late in the afternoon. Ramzaan coincided with June (usually the hottest month in North India) that year and, being the pious Muslim that he was, he was fasting. All that we could do to help was to ensure that he always worked in the shade and not in the hot sun.
By the time he completed his assignment and left, he had become very friendly with my younger brother, who was 3-4 years of age then, and even gifted him a little replica of a dining chair carved out of a left-over block of wood. My parents were also quite impressed with the quality of his work. We lost touch with him, however, after we left town because of my father having changed jobs.
Many years later, I saw three of my batch-mates at the post-graduate programme in management that I pursued also observeroza religiously, even during the semester examinations, while they studied as well as any of the other students and neither demanded nor got any special concessions from the college authorities. All of them, like me and many others, were boarders and yet fasted regularly for the whole month. They used to put aside some food at dinner time and re-heat and eat it early in the morning for sehri.
Subsequently, I had two colleagues who were just as fastidious about the whole exercise, without letting their work schedules suffer in any way. It has been long since we stopped working together, but I remain in touch with one of them, though not so often as before.
All of the six men that I have mentioned above may not be described as perfect human beings for each had his own faults, including, in at least two cases, egotism, and a tendency to succumb to the charms of women with malicious intentions (such as to use their womanhood to hide their incompetencies at work and to further their careers) in one. Five out of the six were (and, presumably, are) smokers, though none consumed alchohol or other intoxicants.
A commonality that I noticed, though, was that all were respectful towards adherents of religious faiths other than Islam and tolerant of others’ religious practices and beliefs, in addition to, obviously, going about following their own without much fanfare.
The controversy caused by The Indian Express’ report on the movement of two key army units towards the capital city of Delhion the intervening night of January 16-17 (without notification to the central government and the panic reaction triggered as a result) has nearly died down. It had to, for not only did the mass media side, almost en bloc, with those who dismissed the report as ‘baseless’, but also raised questions regarding the logic of the insinuation that such movement might have been aimed at achieving a coup d’etat, instead of looking for answers for the questions raised in the report. The reasons, perhaps, are not far to seek in a country where any unfavourable comparisons with a certain neighbouring state, where civilian governments have been toppled by the army more than once, can often lead to mass hysteria.
Let us examine, first, one of the questions raised by the report, i.e., why did the paratrooper unit choose to drive through the traffic jams of Delhi (compounded by severe fog) to reach Hindon, instead of crossing the Yamuna river at Agra itself and driving through Uttar Pradesh, parallel to the Grand Trunk Road, in addition to the mechanised infantry unit driving all the way to the outskirts of the national capital to check its preparedness?
The only conclusion that a possible answer lends itself to, besides the one that the army’s top brass and most of the mass media would perhaps not want us to draw, points towards gross incompetence on the part of the commanders. As the then chief of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Leon Panetta, had said about the Pakistani authorities after Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan by the CIA and killed by American troops, they were either “complicit or incompetent”. Despite that, however, no one seems to be asking how such men have managed to reach such high positions in Indian army’s command structure, if we assume that they have been incompetent and not complicit, and why they have been allowed to remain there, especially in view of the likely consequences of that in a war-like situation.
Then, let us look at a query raised by the ‘other side’, i.e., why would a general who wished to stage a coup (if he did indeed have such intentions) bother to bring in troops from outside when sufficient numbers of them already were present in the Delhi cantonment?
Although we do not know whether a coup was meant to be staged and perhaps never will, there are certain aspects that may be attributed only to co-incidence but make the whole episode very curious. For instance, if I were a general intent on taking over Raisina Hill, a unit each of paratroopers and mechanised infantry would be my first choice to accomplish the task. That would be because the only resistance expected, if at all, would be from police or paramilitary personnel equipped with small firearms and the light armour of the armoured personnel carriers, along with the machine guns mounted atop these, of the mechanised infantry unit would be sufficient to overcome that and carry out an ‘area domination exercise’ within a fairly short period of time (before even Delhi cantonment could get a whiff of the plot) with few or no casualties among the soldiers. Subsequently, the paratroopers, trained to be ‘dropped’ into an unfamiliar area (even behind enemy lines) and secure it quickly, could move into the buildings and compounds and ‘secure’ those as well as their occupants.
Apparently, the Delhi cantonment has an infantry brigade and an artillery brigade stationed in it, of which the soldiers on foot would be far slower and exposed to small-arms fire, as against the mechanised infantry, and the artillery, with its large and heavy guns, would not really be required, in my opinion.
As for the number of troops needed, the 500-700 which would form the combined strength of the two units should be sufficient to take over the 25 square-kilometres or so that form the seat of Indian government.
Secrecy would obviously be paramount for such an operation, in order to retain the advantage of surprise, and I, for one, would not mind bringing in troops from outside, provided I could trust the commanders completely. It might be useful to mention here that the two senior officers controlling the movement of troops on the night between January 16 and 17 have been reported to be “staunch allies of the chief”, although their actions could very well have arisen, as mentioned before, from incompetence.
Last, but not the least, is the question of support from the the army’s six ‘regional commanders’. Could a coup have been successful without unstinting support from these officers?
If I were the leader of such a coup attempt, I would inform the regional commanders only after taking over Raisina Hill in one swift stroke and taking the prime minister and his council of ministers, as well as the president, into ‘protective custody’. Not being aware of whether any of the other five were on board, I would expect each of them to be too dazed to react or, at least, react fast enough. The cynicism prevalent among the public regarding the political class in general could only add to their reluctance to stick their respective necks out and whole-heartedly oppose a coup attempt.
Additionally, the factional feuds among the senior commanders, which have been played out rather publicly in the recent past, would form another impediment in the way of their coming together against a military take-over of the country.
Although, obviously, nothing can be stated with absolute certainty, with many of the generals hankering for longer tenures, by hook or by crook, one is inclined to think that it might have been possible to ‘persuade’ some to pledge their support in return for a few more years in office and/or promotions. For instance,the Western army commander then, who had secured a medical disability status that would have fetched him higher pension, was quick to reverse it when he discovered that he could be in the running for the top job in the army if the army chief was to resign well before the date of his retirement. He is supposed to have recovered from arthritis almost overnight. Unless he discovered a miracle cure, he can only be described as a man of doubtful integrity and, therefore, as far as I can see, likely to be a good candidate for ‘persuasion’. Incidentally, the Delhi cantonment also forms part of the Western command and he would have been the regional commander most closely placed and, therefore, in the best position to either act quickly against a coup attempt or to contribute to its success.
Having considered all of the above, I am of the opinion that the civilian administration’s reaction that resulted in slowing down the troop movement and, ultimately, in bringing it to a halt at Delhi’s outskirts, was neither unwarranted nor ill-advised, regardless of whether or not the movement was meant to be part of an actual coup attempt.
Note: This post, as all others on this weblog, is based on publicly available information and the author’s personal views/opinions.
Not far from where I live, is a place of worship. Every Thursday, the reigning deity grants special audience, apparently, and the long line of devotees inside is matched by one of beggars outside. The faithful stop to distribute alms before leaving the place, either out of a sense of charity or to curry greater favour with the deity, whom they expect to grant their wishes or, at least, wash away their sins.
More often than not, the distribution of largesse is far in excess of the beggars’ basic needs and they end up throwing away some of the food, much to the delight of stray cows and dogs, and spending some of the money on luxuries such as alchohol and tobacco. Clothes received, apart from those which can be worn or carried along, are generally sold off cheaply.
The spectacle takes on an entirely new dimension during winters, however, since the vagabonds as well as their benefactors are in attendance every day of the week. Word spreads far and wide that blankets are being distributed, in addition to food and money, and the throngs are to be seen to be believed. The woollens received each evening have to be disposed of by the next, in order to receive more. So, prices are negotiated accordingly. Those who are more enterprising even rent rooms in nearby localities to store the booty, so as to be able to maximise their earnings. Liberal use of intoxicants helps them brave the cold late into the night, since some donors arrive only after having finished the day’s business.
Others among the homeless, such as rickshaw pullers or construction workers, who are often unable to afford shelter or clothing warm enough to help them survive the coldest months of the year and who may actually be poorer than the beggars in material terms, are not given any blankets. That, as far as I can see, is because such acts of charity may not be noticed by the reigning deity because of lack of proximity to the temple and, therefore, may not lead to wish fulfilment. Whether his field of vision is actually so narrow or is only perceived as such by his followers is a moot point.
Soon after we moved into the house we live in at present, my mother put out a wide, shallow earthen bowl in the yard, to provide the birds in the vicinity with fresh water to drink. She also began to provide them with a regular supply of bajra seeds, along with left-over pieces of chapatti. The seeds had to be replenished every day, while the pieces of bread often did not have to be.
One day, I saw a crow pick up a rather dry piece of chapatti in its beak. However, instead of flying away with it thereafter, it hopped over to the bowl of water and dropped the piece in. After having turned it around in the water for a while, so as to soak it well, the crow took off. By the time it returned, the chapatti appeared to have softened quite a bit and the bird proceeded to consume it.
Since then, I have become quite convinced that the story about a thirsty crow must have been based more on fact than fiction.
By the by, the bird in question has become great friends with my mother and she now sets an entire chapatti aside for it every day, while preparing lunch for the family. If she forgets, the crow spots her whenever she steps outside, perches itself on an electrical wire overhead and protests loudly until fed. At times, it even sits on the boundary wall, facing the house, and crows until its daily quota of the unleavened bread is served. In fact, the menu has now been expanded to include biscuits, fruits, and pakoras.
Once, when it was raising such a ruckus, I stepped out to ask what was wrong, since there already was some ‘food on the table’. The crow picked up each piece, one by one, and threw it down as if to say, “Do you think I am going to eat this? Hurry along now and get us some fresh ones!”
Its sense of ‘ownership’ has become so strong that it admonishes us strongly if we try to feed a stray cow or dog, regardless of whether or not it has had lunch.
The question, however, is whether it is a python at all or any other kind of snake, as for that matter.
Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, New Delhi, photographed by yours truly on November 6. I had published another photograph earlier.
I had to catch the Kalka Shatabdi at 6:23 p.m. that evening and arrived about an hour earlier at the entrance on the side of the station facing Panchkula, since that was where I had been staying with a friend. He also accompanied me as he hoped to travel on the same train up to Ambala. Each of us carried a shoulder bag spacious enough to contain a bomb as large as any used in recent incidents of terrorist violence (or an assault rifle with a foldable butt and a few hundred rounds of live ammunition) and yet got in without any security checks, simply because the police seemed to have decided that any one with malicious intent would never come that way. So, we reached the platform unmolested.
We could very well have boarded the train without having to go through any sort of security procedure, but for the fact that my friend had to purchase a ticket. For that reason, we had to step out briefly and return through the entrance on the side facing Chandigarh and this time we did have to pass through a metal detector. However, the police man posted there appeared more interested in the newspaper he was reading than us and I suppose we could have smuggled in improvised explosive devices sans metal parts or shrapnel.
Later, as the two of us waited at the platform, a pair of sniffer dogs were brought in and traversed the entire length of the platform, even though neither came within three meters of where we stood, at any point of time. Whether the canines could still have detected explosives, had we been carrying any, remains debatable.
Once we were on board, we stacked our bags on the overhead racks provided for the purpose and since the railway police personnel who came to question passengers about ownership of various luggage items appeared well after the train had gone past Ambala, my friend could easily have left his behind, possibly with a bomb in it. On the other hand, if I had been a suicide bomber, I could have accomplished my grisly task without further ado as I was only asked to point my bag out, like every one else, before a “checked” sticker was affixed to it.
One can only hope that all loopholes in the security shall be plugged before a real terrorist chooses to take advantage of the situation.
Let us consider the following instances:
1. As my father and I await our turn to pay for our purchases at a local Mother Dairy outlet, a man arrives on a motorcycle and buys a few litres of milk. He proceeds to empty it into a number of canisters attached to his vehicle and then asks for a bucket full of water to dilute the milk with. He, apparently, is a milkman, off to his daily rounds to supply the liquid to several households, probably telling them tall tales of cows that he rears in a pen at home for good measure.
2. When my mother visits a friend’s house, the lady’s young grand-daughter runs up to greet her, gives her a tight hug and enquires whether she has brought along any sweets. Upon finding out that she has not, the child’s facial expression immediately changes to a rather rude one and she turns around and leaves. The same sequence is repeated on several subsequent occasions, until my mother relents and does take along some toffees.
3. The cashier at a local pathology lab tells me that she does not have the exact amount of change and tells me to collect the balance the next day, along with the report of the medical test for which I have just submitted a sample. When I do, she looks crestfallen, even though she does return the money. The same sequence is repeated a few months later.
4. As it continues to rain incessantly for several hours, a group of children from a nearby slum block the drains on the road that runs beside our house. Then, they offer to push any car that gets stalled due to water entering the exhaust pipe or another part, for a suitable fee. They do roaring ‘business’ until my mother realises what they are up to and decides to shoo them away. They are back a few days later, when it rains again.
5. A puncture repair-man scatters a pack of iron nails at a crossing, about a kilometre from where he has set up shop, to help bring in more clients.
6. A neighbour keeps his house centrally air-conditioned using free electricity supply obtained through greasing the palms of a few officials of the distribution company, which, incidentally, was privatised a few years ago.
I am sure that most Indians come across many such examples almost every day, i.e., when they are not the examples themselves, of course. The question that arises then, at least in my mind, is whether a Lokpal Bill or any other such piece of legislation can help eliminate corruption in a country where it is so deeply engrained in the culture now.