Round-up of regional news

"Mr & Mrs Ten Percent"

"Mr & Mrs Ten Percent" on 9 January 1998, The New York Times outdid itself in its South Asia coverage. The newspaper whose motto is "All the News That´s Fit to Print" thought it fit to print an expose of massive corruption within the Bhutto clan.

South Asia correspondent John F. Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was allowed front-page treatment and (rather incongruously, actually) two full pages on the inside, following the shenanigans of Asif Ali Zardari from Pakistan to Dubai, Geneva, Channel Islands and the British Virgin Islands. In doing so, Burns compiles in one story and confirms much of what had been widely known of Benazir Bhutto´s husband Asif Ali Zardari. It also provides some new angles.

Burns reports on the financial deals which got Benazir Bhutto´s husband the sobriquet "Mr Ten Percent", including millions made off gold bullion trade into Pakistan, customs scams, licensing scams, etc. Besides these, according to officials interviewed, Zardari exploited "defence contracts; power plant projects; the privatisation of state-owned industries; the awarding of broadcast licences; the granting of an export monopoly for the country´s huge rice harvest; the purchase of planes for Pakistan International Airlines; the granting of oil and gas permits; authorisations to build sugar mills; and the sale of government lands."

The NYT correspondent also studied property records to show that Zardari did indeed purchase Rockwood, the opulent nine-bedroom estate in the Surrey countryside, through the intermediary of offshore companies based in the Isle of Man. He paid USD 4 million, not including a complete renovation of the 1930s mansion at a cost of USD 1.5 million.

Burns quotes Pakistani officials as saying that the USD 100 million they have identified so far is only a small part of a windfall from corrupt activities: "They maintain that (Ms Bhutto) and her family and associates generated more than $1.5 billion in illicit profits through kickbacks in virtually every sphere of government activity -from rice deals to the sell-off of state land, even rake-offs from state welfare schemes."

But what of Benazir, whose entry into politics so mesmerised Pakistanis "as the daughter who had avenged her father and the politician who had restored democracy"? She described the investigations as persecution, and was "alternately tearful and defiant" during the interview, reports Burns. Asked about her wealth, she said her family had inherited wealth, although not to the scale implied in the charges. She continued:

I mean, what is poor and what is rich? If you mean, am 1 rich by European standards, do 1 have a billion dollars, or even a hundred million dollars, even half that, no, I do not. But if you mean that I´m ordinary rich, yes, my father had three children studying at Harvard as undergraduates at the same time. But this wealth never meant anything to my brothers or me.

Bhutto said she knew nothing about the purchase of the luxury estate is Surrey, and even suggested that her husband may have bought the property "for some other woman". "I don´t know whether my husband had an affair or not… He tells me he didn´t. I don´t know if he bought Rockwood, or did not."

Then, reports Burns, Bhutto paused and added, with tears in her eyes, "But I think it´s absolutely cruel to take people´s personal lives and turn them into methods of psychological warfare against a female political opponent."

At another point, Bhutto said that "irreparable damage had been done to my standing in the world".

That, at least, would be true. Who could have been a shining beacon to the intelligentsia and to feminists, reduced to this…  

Pop nationalism
Despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif´s thundering tirade against what he calls the "jean-jacket culture" in the land of the Quaid-e-Azam, and despite the fears of the "new media policy", pop songs are still aired on ptv and male-female newscasters still share the same screen. Perhaps in today´s global village, where the issue of economic advancement seems to be tied inextricably to the issue of liberal social values, it could not be otherwise. Even so, the dozens of rock bands that have sprung up over the last decade in Pakistan invariably feel duty bound to churn out at least one patriotic song in order to prove their credentials as "Proud Pakistanis" (the title of one number).

The most recent example of nationalistic fervour in the pop genre was the concoction of a group calling itself Contraband. On 25 December, the Quaid´s birthday, Pakistan Television viewers were assaulted with the sight of three jeans-clad young men (one of them wearing a kurta on top), strumming guitars, and jiving to the beat of a song titled "Father of Our Land".

The video song is interspersed with archival clips of Jinnah in the elegant three-piece suit he favoured, as well as in the shervani, addressing crowds and the Constituent Assembly, and suchlike historic footage. Contraband makes use of the Quaid´s famous slogan of "unity, faith and discipline" in its lyrics: Through unity, faith and discipline You led your people And you made your stand You are the father of our… Other lines: …When the poor and homeless people realised their dream… ye-e-a-a-ah…

Led by a singer in dark glasses, black jeans and T-shirt, the group runs a victory lap around a cricket stadium, waving a Pakistani flag. And as they end their song they vroom down Islamabad´s Constitution Avenue (wags call it the "Amended Constitution Avenue") on motorbikes past the Supreme Court, National Assembly and Presidency, flashing victory signs and advocating: …Peace and har…moneee

If nouveau riche teenybopper anglo pop could bring peace and harmony to the fractured land that is Pakistan, Contraband may just be able to smuggle it in.  

Independent art at Independence
As Sri Lanka celebrates 50 years of independence from British rule, its art community is divided over who best represents the country´s artistic ethos. In fact, an "alternative art exhibition" is planned by some rebel artists to go up against an official exhibition that is being organised by the Art Council of Sri Lanka.

On behalf of the Ministry´ of Cultural and Religious Affairs, the Art Council is opening its exhibition of paintings and sculptures on 4 February, which is Independence Day. To begin with, the response of the younger painters and sculptors has been lukewarm. They did not like the idea of the state suddenly playing benefactor, when, as they claim, it had done precious little to help the art scene over the decades.

These artists also question the credentials of the exhibition´s curator and President of the Art Council, Ven Mapalagama Vipulasara. He is a Buddhist monk living in a plush temple south of Colombo who is better known for his mass-production of shining fibre-glass Buddhas.

The ´dissident´ artists say that some of the Council´s other members do not know much about contemporary visual arts, as seen in the way they went about selecting works for the exhibition and in sending out participation invitations. "We don´t want ugly modern paintings for this exhibition," one of them was quoted as saying. The disenchantment is such that many artists have rebuffed the invitations.

The artists´ ire is further fuelled by the government´s neglect of art institutions. Says one of them: "Look at the state of the so-called National Art Gallery. It reflects the mind-frame and the ideological position of the Art Council. Can you believe it, they have funerals there, they might as well turn it into a funeral parlour." All seem to be agreed that the Gallery displays its permanent collection of paintings and sculptures in appalling fashion, untouched by curatorial expertise.

Parallel art
The alternative exhibition is being put up by artists involved in the recent revival of Sri Lankan painting, sculpture and installations. These are people who have been experimenting with and challenging the boundaries of conventional art in the island, stand ideologically apart and deviate from the much more prevalent, and stagnant, established conventions.

Their works are to go on display from 9-12 February at Colombo´s Lionel Wendt Art Gallery, under the curatorship of Chandragupta Thenuwara, Director of Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition will feature well-known artists like Kingsley Goonathileka (whose latest show was "Displaced Bodies"), Mohammed Carder, Jagath Weerasinghe, Dhruvinka and Balbir Bodh. Curator Thenuwara himself will be a big draw with his installations which use barrels with camouflage paint, as he investigates and critiques the present war situation.

The parallel exhibition has already caught the imagination of the country´s art community. It has even spawned another show at around the same time, "Generation Z", organised by students and graduates of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies.

Controversies apart, in the country´s 50th year of independence, art is competing with itself. Even as the state celebrations unfold in recently bomb-blasted Kandy the last kingdom in the island to fall to British rule, the country´s independent-minded artists will be making their own statements.

Neither the planned international limited-overs cricket tourney, nor the visit of Prince Charles can hold a mirror to Sri Lankan life at 50 years. Art can.

Anoli Perera

Parrot patriotism
It is not easy to kick one´s old habits, and it´s a lot more difficult to get others to give up theirs. Ask the top brass of the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp). Now that election is in the air, and a real possibility of storming the Delhi durbar, BJP leaders want their cadre to play down their family ties with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its strident Hindu agenda.

But it is not proving so easy. Instead, the dyed-in-saffron middle-rung leadership of the party is improving upon and overdoing old habits.

In the heart of the cowbelt, Ravindra Shukla, the Minister for Primary Education in BjP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, is bent on implementing the VHP slogan, "Bharat Varsh Mein Rehna Hoga to Vande Mataram Kehna Hoga" (If you want to live in India, you have to recite the Sanskrit phrase which means "Hail Motherland").

Some time back, Shukla passed an order that required all primary school students to start their day by worshipping a portrait of the motherland and reciting Vande Mataram, the nationalist song of that title written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Completely carried away, the minister also directed that students henceforth say "Vande Mataram" instead of "Present" or "Yes Sir" during the roll call.

The sizeable Muslim community within the state was outraged. The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board said Islam prohibits idol worship and asked all community members within the state not to follow the order. The Board´s legal adviser, Zafaryab Jilani, told The Indian Express daily: "I know that the government might brand all of us Muslims as traitors after this decision. But we do not need a certificate for our patriotism from any political party or person."

Shukla claims that his directive was designed to inculcate patriotism among the youth: "Nobody should have objections to this order which asks them only to hail their motherland… Why are they raising such a brouhaha now while they remained silent when Vande Mataram was made into the national song?" However, the minister did withdraw the diktat on daily worship of the motherland´s portrait, but not before suggesting that it could still be done once or twice a year.

Jilani said the Board was toying with the idea of challenging the order in a court of law as it violates the right to religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. Back in 1973, a similar reaction from the Muslim community had forced the Government of Maharashtra to withdraw an order seeking the recitation of Vande Mataram in municipal schools.

The Vice-President of the Board, Kalbe Sadiq, says it is examining the connotations of Vande Mataram in the context of Islamic law. Until that´s through, they have instructed their students not to follow the order. The Board is also waiting to see what action Lucknow´s BJP government takes against Muslim students who refuse to follow Shukla´s order.

 …and the bjp wants to unfurl its newfangled secular credentials?

The great chill
Come to the Monsoons, and the floods in Bangladesh are a given. If the weather pattern of the past couple of winters are to continue, the cold months are going to prove equally hard on Bangladeshis. The cold wave that swept across the Ganga plain from Delhi to Dhaka this winter left hundreds, mostly elderly folk and children, dead, and countless domestic animals lost.

Weather officials say the absence of the sun for days on end due to thick fog which hugged the ground resulted in "a narrow maximum and minimum temperature band" which made the cold that much more unbearable. The fog was the result of increased humidity due to the high pressure systems moving into Bangladesh from Bihar and West Bengal. To make things worse, the cold winds from Siberia chose to pass through the deltaic region at the same time.

The drop in temperature grievously affected daily life. As it was, under normal circumstances very few would have ventured out after sunset during Ramadhan (which fell in January this year). But the cold wave kept even the brave-hearted indoors; the result of which was that Dhaka city was incongruously traffic-less. Shopkeepers closed up early evenings. In many localities, schools were closed as children were kept home. Labourers stayed away from work, and brick kiln workers suffered as the sun required to dry their bricks was blocked off.

Meanwhile, Rajshahi Medical College Hospital, in the extreme north-east of Bangladesh, reported a two-fold increase in patients complaining of respiratory tract infections.

The big news of the season, however, was reports of snowfall in the north-western part of Bangladesh, near the Duars plains of northern West Bengal. Residents of the frontier villages of Patgram and Burimari claimed that the snow began to fall at around 5 am and continued for half an hour. They reported seeing a white, cotton-like substance falling from the sky. A local NGO reported that temperatures in the area had dropped to 4.2 degrees Celsius. If confirmed, this would be the first-ever case of snowfall in Bangladesh.

Sajedur Rahman, of the meteorological office, dismissed the idea that snow had fallen, saying that atmospheric conditions in Bangladesh do not support such a phenomenon. "It will be another couple of centuries before temperatures go low enough to warrant snowfall," he added. The met office also refuted the claimed 4.2 degrees Celsius temperatures recorded, even though it admitted that it does not have observation points of its own near the area.

Snowfall or not, the winter was cold. And Bangladeshis could do nothing but bundle up and wait for the speedy arrival of the promised warmer air from the Bay of Bengal.

Talat Kamal

South Asianist to Southeast Asia
One of the last things that Inder Kumar Gujral did before he became ´caretaker´ prime minister in the runup to the forthcoming elections was to appoint S.D. Muni ambassador.

Perhaps it was a matter of pride for Indian academia that one of their kind had been thus honoured. But where was this South Asianist assigned? To the farther reaches of Southeast Asia, the Lao People´s Democratic Republic.

From his eyrie in Jawaharlal Nehru University´s School for International Studies, Muni has written on all South Asian countries, quite a lot on SAARC, and much on Indian policy vis-a-vis smaller neighbours. Said a Bangladesh scholar who asked not to be named, "A genuine, firm and sophisticated defender of India´s foreign policy, Mr Muni´s appointment as an Indian ambassador is a sort of reward for his position over the years. Those who followed his work, heard his views and noticed his equation with South Block would hardly be surprised with this appointment."

The scholar added, "But the fact that he eventually got Laos and not any South Asian country may have to do with, more than anything else, equations within the Foreign Ministry which is never too happy with appointments from outside the fold."

Muni himself, already off to Vientiene, could not be reached for comments, but it can be guessed that he would probably proffer his Southeast Asianist credentials as well, having spent time recently as a visiting scholar in Singapore. As the Bangladesh scholar said, "He would also probably take pride in speculating that his appointment to any South Asian capital would not be very popular with the receiving country."

Departure olam Kasem 1894-1998
It was in the foothills of the Himalaya that he was born, in a bullock cart amidst a freezing storm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh´s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, frail and shrunken with age, Bangladesh´s oldest photographer, Golam Kasem, known to one and all as Daddy, died at the tender age of 104.

 Born on 5 November 1894 in Jalpaiguri (West Bengal), Daddy lost his mother hours after his birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography for the same reason many young men do many things: to impress a girl. She had promised to cook a meal for him if he could develop the film that others had failed to. With the same zeal for disciplined research that he maintained till his death, Kasem went around the studios of Midnapore (now in West Bengal). He discovered the use of a hardener to prevent the emulsion from peeling off – and got his meal.

Later, he saved his bus fare to school to buy a quarter-size Ensign Box camera with which he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. Most importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, inside old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918: the harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many, many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used. Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses.

Kasem´s spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. "Her first dance" is a delicate photograph of a child at centre stage with her family as audience (see picture below). Strong portraits of his friend, a teacher, and one of his grandmothers in calm repose. Incredibly, for a man so photographically prolific for so long, he sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for the Dhaka-based Drik Picture Library´s 1993 calendar.

Light cameras, short stories
As founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his single-storey 73, Indira Road home where the club was housed. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club tended to be unusual events. Photographers who generally abstained from many local competitions would submit small 4" x 5" prints and they went away proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize-giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme and Daddy would always sing.

Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (bps), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he would keep his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor-driven models, he preferred a simple manual single-lens-reflex camera, "preferably not too heavy", he would add. This is not to say he shied away from technology as was evident from his fascination with email through which he used to correspond with his grandson in Canada.

Daddy was always loathe to talk of himself, and it was only in passing conversation with the late Nasiruddin, editor of the first Bengali magazine Shawgat, that this writer discovered that Daddy was considered the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter and short stories for general publication.

Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later, as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo exhibition in Dhaka, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. "My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins." On Friday, 9 January 1998, the body finally said no, and the mind took wing.

Shahidul Alam  

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