|All drawings by Sworup Nhasiju|
In a recent far-from-usual meeting with the press held in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complained that ‘at least 25 percent of Bangladeshis swear by Jamaat-e-Islami’ – Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party – ‘are very anti-Indian, and [are] in the clutches, many times, of the ISI.’ Now Chhetria Patrakar grants that Prime Minister Singh is a mere human, entitled to his opinions and free to voice them off the record – as in this case, reportedly. But if he is serious about rectifying the perception in the media that he is more than just a ‘lame duck’ leader, he had better make some heads roll in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Press Information Bureau. After all, we all know that politics isn’t about the tiny slips of passion, insight, truth or blatant opinionising, but about how well the spin doctors do their job. In this case, the public was unaware of these statements until the transcript of the meeting was posted on official websites for 30 hours without any omission of ‘off-the-record’ remarks.
Still, politics, bilateral relations and sober thinking be damned, right? Although unintentional, CP lauds this unobstructed flow of information, highlighted by the official made-a-mistake-by-mistake response: ‘We put it out by mistake.’ The prime minister’s Bangla-slip is no longer online. Thank goodness the official response from Bangladesh so far has been limited to one minister dismissing the statements as ‘irrelevant’, with Prime Minister Singh’s planned visit to Bangladesh in early September remaining on track. As for the response from the prime minister: it has been, well … silence. The press corps must maybe wait another several years for a similar chance to grill Manmohan Singh.
Speaking of official embarrassment, the Chinese government has another public-relations fiasco to adorn its already befeathered hat. In late June, the official website of Huili county, in the southwest, carried a picture of three local officials inspecting a newly constructed road. The problem: the men appeared busy posing while floating several inches above the paved street. The public gaped, but put the phenomenon down to the wonder that is the official process in China. As it turns out, the provenance was far less divine: a photographer dissatisfied with his original photos decided to do some quick editing, slapping images of the officials against a prettier background. Upon notification of the hilarity that ensued, the country’s PR department in Beijing apologised and withdrew the picture. Bloggers have since taken up the gauntlet and, perhaps while applying for a position as Official Kiss-Ass Photo Editor, placed the three officials in a range of different scenarios: on the moon behind an astronaut, with dinosaurs in the middle of a lake, on a battlefield examining prostrate soldiers, among others. CP’s favourite is one with US President Barack Obama laughingly sizing up one of the officials placed on a weighing machine while the others look on.
The press in Burma, meanwhile, remains ambivalent about the new media laws that the Press Scrutiny and Registrations Division (PSRD) finalised in mid-June. The ‘amendments’ now allow some of the types of media coverage or publishing – around 28 out of 178, such as children’s literature and sports – to bypass the Censor Board and hit the stands directly. The rest will have to strictly adhere to a 12-point set of regulations, forewarning the media to refrain from challenging Burma’s ‘sovereignty’ or ‘2008 constitution’, or referencing ‘government secrets’. (Such as, Pssst! There is no government!)
Hackneyed finger-wagging, really, but there is black ink to back up these dark waters (no ban on mixed metaphors – yet!). For media houses, every violation of these vague clauses will result in deductions from an initial deposit of USD 6600, which they are required to place as a guarantee of their compliance with the law. Here’s a suggestion: view this money as a relatively low price tag in the circumstances, limited freedom at bargain-basement prices, and see just how long it takes to drain the deposit.
After the British Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields appeared to show Sri Lankan Army personnel executing Tamil Tiger prisoners – subsequently authenticated by UN investigators – the Colombo government has taken to analysing the video itself. If no one else can do the job adequately, you might as well do it yourself, right? Right. The verdict: the footage is a forgery. The reason: because the government itself has the original! In the video that the government is now broadcasting as the true(r)(ish) one, the behind-the-scenes comments are in Tamil – proof that the real killers are in fact LTTE rebels in army outfits. CP must say that this Tom-and-Jerry game is getting a little tiresome. Can we just have the original truthy, please?
Speaking of which, most Southasian democracies (even the newborn ones) have censor boards. Recently, challenging Nepal’s censor board has landed the Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao-produced Delhi Belly on a short-but-growing list of films banned-for-a-while in the country. The movie, released simultaneously in India and Nepal on 1 July, was quickly taken out of Kathmandu theatres after the censors became aware that the sole distributor in Nepal had defied their recommendations and screened the movie unbowlderised. The Censor Board had wanted to delete some offensive scenes and mute some of the expletives.
After distributor Uddhav Poudel wrote a letter of apology, paid USD 70 as a fine, deleted an offensive scene of a brothel visit – and CP thought the bed scenes were in trouble – and silenced a few expletives here and there, the movie is now back on. Two days of brouhaha over nothing! The movie – designed more to shock than to engage its audience with a mishmash of trite scatological gags and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-esqe circumstances – is the only benefactor, receiving publicity for free. As for the censored scenes, there are always pirated DVDs and the Internet. Viewers just have to be mindful of the non-sequitur consequence: false rumours about actor-producer Khan calling Nepalis illiterate and orthodox. Yikes!
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has 292,245, and counting, fans on his official Facebook page! More than Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev! According to a press release by the Gujarat Information Bureau, it is his ability to ‘connect with people’ that has sent his ‘likes’ soaring. But with great popularity comes great responsibility. (Or should, anyway. How often does it, really?) Anyway, worrying news has recently been doing the rounds that official records related to the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots have been destroyed. Although the destruction of the documents was supposedly carried out as per state regulations, this is a startling discovery, more so because the Gujarat government has done precious little to bring the perpetrators of the 2002 riots to justice. Against this backdrop, it seems as though the chief minister is busy creating a new Facebook record while his government deletes history.
Being a former Bond girl could not save Michelle Yeoh from being deported from Burma during a recent visit. Neither could being one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World for 1997, or her fabulous role in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor! This time around, her crime was playing Aung San Sun Kyi in the lofty The Lady, slated to be released later this year. Although previously allowed to see the Nobel laureate in Rangoon, this time the actress could not make it past the airport – she was told she was on ‘the blacklist’. Now Yeoh can not only act like Suu Kyi, but feel like her too. Yay, yeoh!
After puppets from Sesame Street, brown superheroes are now poised to fight extremism in Pakistan. After Suleiman Bakhit’s comic books on Arab superheroes first became a huge hit in Jordan, and then their online game version ‘Happy Oasis’ on Facebook, the creator has now decided to take the venture to Pakistan. Will the burkha-clad Modesty Blaise (okay, James Bond) sell thousands of copies and keep extremists online in this new soil? You bet your sweet … !
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).