Round-up of regional news

Canada Chalo

"Go West, young man!" advised someone once. It wasn't meant for them, but Pakistanis, young and old alike, seem to have taken this counsel to heart as they move west, west and further west.

Earlier, they went in droves to "London" (meaning anywhere in the UK) – the young and the affluent for "higher studies" and the young and the old able-bodied as skilled and unskilled labour. The next wave of labourers and job-seekers streamed to the Gulf countries, a phenomenon captured in the catchy title of a 1970s Lollywood (Pakistan's Lahore-based film industry) film called Dubai Chalo – Let's go to Dubai.

Then it was Lady Liberty that drew migrants to try their luck in the land of the free and home of the brave. And now, although the numbers of applicants for the US "green card" have not exactly dwindled, the rush is on for Canada. For students "it's half the cost of studying in the US," as one parent points out. "And the education is just as good."

For job-seekers, Canada's relatively more open-door policy makes it an attractive option. "Canada has been inviting applicants from migrants of all categories, skilled and unskilled labour and white-collar workers, because they want the land to be abad (populated) right now, they have too few people and too much land," explains one potential migrant, who is thinking of re-locating along with his wife and four children.

Another "populate Canada" scheme that has got people thinking is the country's policy of granting citizenship to anyone who can invest 250,000 Canadian dollars there – an amount that is not too difficult to muster up for someone with a relatively affluent background in Pakistan.

"It's cold out there, but at least our children will have a secure future," says the clerk in a government department who is planning a "rekky" trip over to the Rockies. Like many others, he plans to accept the 'golden handshake' that is being offered by the Pakistan government using funds loaned by the World Bank in an effort to "downsize" monolithic government departments.

Canada, admits the successful advertising executive, is the destination of his young musician son. "He (the son) is totally disgusted with the (Nawaz Sharif) government's attacks on culture and their decision to ban pop music programmes from both state-controlled television channels."

Consulting agencies advertise their specialty in newspapers and on the Internet, with promises of successful transfer to Canada. To take advantage of the advertising revenue, newspapers have taken out supplements titled, for instance, "Canada: A Guide to Immigration".

Meanwhile, far away and down under, Australia also beckons. Because of growing interest, the Australian High Commission in Islamabad has felt it necessary to issue warnings against false information regarding immigration application procedures. When Canada is peopled with Pakistanis, there is no doubt, the next call will be "Australia chalo".

East Asia over South Asia

Mahbub ul Haq, the Human Development Druid who now holes up in Islamabad running a Human Development Institute, in recent pronouncements has decried the state of education in South Asia.

He writes in The News, "It is time that we face up to the blunt truth that nearly one half of the world's illiterate adults live in three countries of South Asia, namely, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh." The Subcontinent, he says, has emerged by now as the most illiterate region in the world, falling behind even Sub-Saharan Africa after starting ahead 40 years ago.

Comparing South Asia to East Asia, Haq says that more than the volume of investment, it is the strategies that are important in education. East Asian countries, he says, spend more on basic education, as much as 70 percent, and believe firmly that higher education must be financed by the private sector. "The role of the state is to provide basic education to all, not higher education to a privileged few." In stark contrast, South Asia has built an inverse pyramid in education, spending less than 50 percent on primary education.

East Asia realised early the importance of technical education, which the Subcontinent did not. Around 20 percent of secondary school pupils in East Asia go on to technical schools, whereas in the Subcontinent the figure is, shockingly, less than two percent. While East Asian countries forged alliances between government-run schools and private and non-governmental institutions, South Asian governments have hurt private initiatives by nationalising schools and colleges, says Haq.

"There is simply no doubt that spread of basic education at a rapid pace is the most critical issue for South Asian development," writes the development guru. "The recipe for a major educational breakthrough is fairly established by now: universal primary education plus widespread technical education." But how? Wait for the 1998 Report on Human Development in South Asia, says Haq, which will be "devoted exclusively to analysing the current educational profile of South Asia and presenting a concrete plan of action to universalise primary education within a decade." The good professor believes that the financial requirements of such an ambitious goal can be met.

Fishermen as Prisoners of War

humari jaat machimaar
humari naat machimaar
hum sab machimaar ek

(Our caste is fishing, our occupation is fishing, we all fishermen are one.)

So goes a sentiment of the fisherfolk of Varanwada village, in the Union Territory of Diu in western India. This would be as true for the fishermen from Pakistan's Sindh province further up the Arabian Sea coast. For these thousands of fishermen, the ocean is their shop floor. They have been workers of the sea for generations and fishing is their sole occupation.

But this is a fact that does not impress either the Indian or the Pakistani government. Marine security agencies of each country routinely pick up fishermen of the other for violating maritime waters, despite the fact that the two countries have yet to agree on the demarcation of that sea boundary. Once captured, the unfortunate fishermen (and crew of captured boats) do not know when they will be released. Often, they are not set free even after completing their term of incarceration set by the courts in each country. Instead, they are kept waiting for an "exchange" – a periodic swap of imprisoned fishermen between the two countries that began in 1987-88, much like an exchange of prisoners-of-war.

The Suffering

Naushad Ali is one Pakistan citizen looking forward to the next exchange. He was caught along with eight others in Indian waters in October 1989. They have all gone through the tortuous process of captivity, police custody, court case and jail. And, now, even after completing their sentence, they languish in police custody in Porbandar. Naushad Ali's plaintive question, "Why should we bear this pain because of tensions between two powers?"

Sikander, Nizamuddin and Nissar are brothers, while Didaar, Ashiq Ali and Muhammad Azhar are their cousins and Muhammad Yakub their uncle. They are from Pakistan's Sindh, and were all arrested in 1994. They've all gone through imprisonment and they still do not know what wrong they have committed. Says Didaar, "Every one of us brothers has three, four children back home. All of them are now begging on the streets. They are dying of hunger."

The story is not much different for Indian fishermen caught by the other side. Dhanji Harji Rathod of Varanwada, wrote to his family from Landeo Jail in Karachi, "In our fate, there was only jail. Jail was our destiny… They caught us by force in the ocean. For five days we were kept in the boat itself. Then they took us to this jail. We got one cup of pulses and two pieces of bread to eat. Bread was baked only on one side. May even our enemy not have to suffer such imprisonment."

The worst sufferers from Varanwada must be the children who went with their fathers on the boat, and who are now serving time in Pakistani jails. Twelve-year-old Nanji Murji was one of the children released by the Pakistani government some months back (his father has yet to be repatriated). The 7th grader was captured in 1994 when during a school holiday he had gone to sea with his father for the first time. He spent five months in prison before being sent to the Idhi Centre. He recalls, "The centre had good eating-living facilities but there was no freedom, no friends. I felt like crying, and really missed my mother and sisters. And I used to write letters to my father in the other jail."

Pain, trauma and sorrow – this has been the share of the fisherfolk and their families on both sides of the border. They are victims of geopolitical hostilities and suspicions which are far removed from their own lives. As a fisherman of Varanwada put it eloquently: "We fisherfolk of India and Pakistan have no problem with each other. We have no conflict. We go there, they come here, we together catch fish. If we meet each other on the ocean, we greet each other and share our food. This is only a problem of power, of state, of coast guards, of navy."

– Mukul Sharma

Uncle Sam Renews Interest

US Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited the Subcontinent in November, making up for the fact that no Secretary of State has come by since George Shultz was here in 1983. Bill Clinton will travel to India and Pakistan in 1998 ("and perhaps one other country"), the first US President to make the trip after Jimmy Carter in 1978.

So what's going on, and why is South Asia suddenly such a hot destination for rulers of the only remaining World Power?

The person to ask is Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. On 22 October, he told the US House of Representatives International Relations Sub-committee on the Near East and South Asia that the changing US approach reflected new realities in the region.

According to Inderfurth (above), the Clinton Administration was taking a fresh, comprehensive look at the region, for "South Asia has entered the global mainstream, both economically and politically, as never before."

So the US is "boosting its engagement" in South Asia. But is it even a good thing?

Expecting the naysayers, Inderfurth added, "However, our new engagement in the region does not mean we intend to be interventionist. South Asia's problems must be solved by South Asia's people." In which case, all right!

Druk Fish Revere Monarch

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, former editor of The Statesman, Calcutta, is now a (doubtless well-paid) editorial consultant with Straits Times in faraway Singapore. He contributed an article to The International Herald Tribune on trout-fishing in Bhutan, full of unnecessary royalist sentimentalism and subservience to the man whose patronage he has enjoyed over the years.

The subject of Datta-Ray's unashamedly glowing eulogy was, of course, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, whose regime Datta-Ray consistently defended to the hilt when the former was in the thick of depopulating his country of its Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa peasantry.

But it seems Datta-Ray still feels the need to prove his loyalty to the Bhutanese ruler at every given opportunity. So, in an article on trout fishing, wherein King Jigme turns up over the years to be interviewed by Datta-Ray, to instruct Datta-Ray's child Deep in angling, and to ply father and son with cans of Coke, the one-time editor finds time to take a jab at the hapless Lhotshampa. "The rivers that Deep and I fish were the preserve of negligent royalty," writes Datta-Ray. "Nowadays, King Jigme has to watch out for more sinister fishing in the turbulent waters of ethnicity churned up by illegal immigration into Bhutan from Nepal…"

Continuing, Datta-Ray reports how the Bhutanese trout turn "coy and superior" when confronted with Datta-Ray's line. (Incidentally, he is author of Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim. So, Datta-Ray also knows how to be anti-establishment.)

"It often happens!" Datta-Ray's Bhutanese guide says in consolation, but the writer will have none of it. He writes: "I am sure it would not have if King Jigme had wielded the rod. The trout would then have bowed in gratitude and lain submissively at the royal feet."

How a Dam Is Done In

It must be a curiousity to many to see how a government will finally, say, cancels, a hydropower project when the pressure gets too much. What we have seen with mega-projects like Narmada or Tehri is the "government side" buying time, obfuscating, promising and not delivering (as in the case with Mr Deve Gowda as Prime Minister and Sunder Lal Bahuguna as person-on-fast on the banks of the Bhagirathi), and so on. But now a state government in India has actually pulled the plug on a project. And we were interested to know how it was done.

A strong monastery-backed lobby in Sikkim, identified with the Bhutia and Lepcha 'original population', has for a few years fought the Gangtok government's plans to dam the Rathong Chu, which flows through Sikkim from its source at the base of the Khangchendzonga massif. The catchment area is held in great reverence by the indigenous Sikkimese, who were greatly perturbed that the spiritual nature of the site would be disturbed by a dam-building exercise with its environmental, economic and demographic fallouts.

While a case was pending at the Supreme Court in Delhi, repeated representations were made to the government of Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, who has made it a point to show his sensitivity to the ethnic sentiments. The Gangtok officials tried the usual prevarication, but the opponents proved too tenacious and the 30 megawatt project had to die. And so, at a large gathering of lamas and lay people from all over Sikkim at the Paljor Stadium in Gangtok on 20 August, the Chief Minister announced: "To honour and uphold the sentiments, religion and culture of the Sikkimese people and to save the environment, the Rathong Chu Hydel Project is being scrapped."

Added Chamling, taking on a heroic posture, "We are willing to sacrifice for Sikkim and Sikkimese. Let our chair go. We will not continue staying in our chair doing bad things for the people."

But still, what is the mechanism to stop a project? Apparently, all it takes is a notification by a state's Chief Secretary (in this case, K. Sreedhar Rao), "by order and in the name of the Governor", with copies to various departments, stating that, "The State Government is hereby pleased to order the closure of the Rathong Chu Hydel Project, with effect from 20th August, 1997".

That's all there is to it.

Liberation Tigresses

Over the last half year, women rebels belonging to the 3000-strong Vituthalai Pulikal Makalir Munani (Women's Front of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) have increasingly been at the forefront of do-or-die battles between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army.

What is not clear is whether this is the result of "gender sensitivity" in the LTTE ranks, or whether there is a severe lack of fighting men in Jaffna. Either way, writes Sarita Subramaniam of Inter Press Service from Colombo, the LTTE has the dubious distinction of fielding women in the battlefield in a way that no other armed group in the world has in recent times.

To this extent, it can be said that the LTTE has a powerful "double-liberation ideology" – that of achieving a Tamil state and of promoting Tamil womanhood through initiation into battle. For the ideologues of the LTTE, its female cadres are the ultimate symbols of women's liberation. And in a society that continues to be fiercely male-dominated, use of feminist oratory seems to have acted as a powerful magnet for women to join the Women's Front since its founding in 1983.

As LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran said, speaking on the occasion of the International Women's Day in 1992, "Today, young women have taken up arms to liberate our land…women can succeed in their struggle for emancipation only by mobilising themselves behind a liberation organisation. This will give them confidence, courage, determination and transform them as revolutionaries…"

There are more of such ideas contained in Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers, a book by Adele Ann, the Australia-born wife of senior LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham and member of the Front. The decision of Tamil females to join the LTTE, she writes, "tells society that they are not satisfied with the social status quo; it means they are young women capable of defying authority; it means they are women with independent thoughts…"

Some observers, however, see the sudden prominence of women fighters in the LTTE ranks as evidence of shortage of male fighters and the scarcity of new recruits. This is true to a large extent, says Rajan Hoole of the University Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna, and is because of the large-scale migration of Tamil men to the West. However, the fact that many more girls, some of them barely into their teens, are joining the Tigers is also a result of the "general fatalism" in the population, he says.

"General fatalism" perhaps explains the spirit of this letter from a young recruit to her brother in Colombo: "Dear brother, This letter may upset and anger you but my decision (to join the Tigers) was correct… Even though you could have done something, you failed. But I want to do something. Staying at home and getting widowed at some stage or waiting to be sexually abused by Sinhalese soldiers is no life. I do not want any part of that kind of life."

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