Round-up of regional news

Virtual sovereignty
Amidst news of renewed fighting among real-life combatants, the struggle for Afghanistan's virtual sovereignty has been quietly concluded. In late February, in a concrete government office building in Kabul, the first post-Taliban email with a .af suffix leapt from the keyboard of a UNDP technician to the computer screen of the country's minister of communications, Muhammad Masoom Stanakzai. The transmission marked the end of a struggle launched in 2001 after the Taliban departed Kabul to put the .af back in Afghanistan, where it rightfully belongs.

While the Taliban administration was not generally known for technophilia, in 1997, Abdul Razeeq of Kabul registered .af with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). But after three years of protecting Afghanistan's virtual territory, Razeeq dropped out of contact with the IANA, and disappeared leaving little more than a forwarding email address supported by a server in Peshawar, Pakistan. When the UN set out to reclaim Afghanistan's Internet terrain, Razeeq's disappearance caused delays until the IANA could be persuaded to award .af to Hamid Karzai's young government on the grounds that Razeeq had defaulted on his duty to protect and serve the national suffix. The last hurdle to Afghanistan becoming virtually self-sufficient is the transfer of .af hardware to Kabul from its present residence at UN headquarters in New York, now scheduled for 2004.

Bhutan, owner of the .bt suffix, joined the nation-state Internet club in 1999. After years of dragging its feet, Thimpu accepted a UNDP offer to put the Druk kingdom online for the 25th anniversary of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's coronation. Rather than an Internet absconder, Thimpu first had to face off with a major multinational – British Telecommunications PLC – for control of .bt, a brief confrontation that reportedly ended with minimal trouble.

The approach of Nepal to its own online sovereignty is unique in that a private company administers the .np territory. In 1994, just as regional techie behemoth India was coming online, Mercantile Communications in Kathmandu registered the .np suffix through an Australian-based server. To facilitate Internet growth and prevent cyber-squatting, Mercantile allowed any .np domain name to be registered on the condition that the site name would correspond to the service provided. Thus, for example, would only be awarded to someone providing information on Nepal's handful of golf links (Himalayan golfers be advised, the site is under construction), and will only be awarded if the country suffers the misfortune of colonisation by the golden arches. According to Mercantile, the Nepali government is fine with a private company regulating the nation's cyberspace and has no interest in taking over control. And why should it? It is making use of for free.

Comrades for the market!
The guns have been silent in Nepal since the ceasefire between the Maoist and the government forces on 29 January 2003. But, after the initial buzz, there has been mostly silence at the talks-table. Business had been so slow, in fact, that the king took off on a trip visiting holy sites in India (for the second time in nine months). Meanwhile, finding themselves with all this free time, the Maoists have busied themselves with an unlikely deity, and to the surprise of all, have become ardent votaries of the free-market.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a member of the Maoist negotiating team, has been making the rounds of party offices, civil society groups, the bar association, and on 19 March was at the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, where he was greeted with bouquets by the doyens of Nepali capitalism. Exceeding their wildest expectations with what he had to say, the designated emissary took the podium sounding virtually like the resident head of the World Bank.

With the zeal of the newly converted, Mr Mahara said in Nepali, "Let no one doubt that we are seeking an open economy. We have in mind an economic system where there is healthy competition in industry, run with private investment". Adding that the Maobaadi's economic policy and programmes were different from those of the Soviet Union and China, he said, "We are not copying models from other countries, but instead developing an economic strategy that is based on Nepal's ground realities, economic possibilities, the agricultural sector, potential for industrial growth and the labour market".

This public relations exercise of the Maoist leadership seems to be in considerable dissonance with earlier declarations and documents, which expectedly demanded a rejection of market forces and state control of all means of production. The real need to build a constituency in Kathmandu has obviously imposed its logic. Having come over-ground into the blinding light of media scrutiny, the Maoist leaders find that they are required to play a game that they have not touched in seven years.

With time, perhaps they will learn above-ground rhetoric, and even become proficient at obfuscation. As the leadership tries to be everything to everyone, some of the rank and file may be forgiven if they are wondering just what on earth is going on. 
Cricket nationalism
Those doubting the power of cricket nationalism should consider a front-page headline from the 2 March edition of The Hindu: "India overwhelms Pakistan". As close-readers of the sports page know, not unlike others, cricket teams too are customarily referred to in the plural, not in the singular. In these charged times though, the victory was won by the (singular) nation of India.

In India, where the national team is always projected as a leading contender for the crown, a 15 February league match drubbing by Australia provoked national mourning and revulsion. Laments were offered in parliament, and the corporate sponsor, Sahara, issued "an emotional appeal" to drum up support even as one player's house was attacked by an incensed crowd, and effigies and posters were burning in the streets. One might have suspected that a war had been lost rather than 10 wickets.

For the Subcon, the biggest day came on 1 March when the Indian and Pakistani squad squared off in Centurion, the site of the Indian humiliation two weeks earlier. The result led to long faces in Pakistan, while in India the finance minister, Jaswant Singh, declared the prize money earned by the players as exempt from tax. All for the sake of the nation, of course.

And so thought many Indians with no constructive pursuits on Sunday. The day after the match, an estimated 5000 Indians assembled near the Hussainiwala border post in Indian Punjab to taunt the their neighbours across the border. "We beat you, down with Pakistan!" the crowded chanted, which attracted a volley of stones that injured five people. In Gujarat, home to much sadness already, cricket-related violence in the hours after the Indian victory reportedly claimed the life of one Muslim.

The hooliganism surrounding the India-Pakistan cricket battles has failed to make a dent on the opinions of many diehard cricket nationalists, some of whom view their respective teams as embodying national virtues. Writing in the The Wall Street Journal, a publication better known for its views on currency trading than bowling styles, Indian team booster Tunku Varadarajan argued inelegantly, "The Indian team, sociologically a more middle-class, college-educated lot, has tended to view games against Pakistan as little more than games. Bowl, bat, win a few, lose a few. The Pakistanis, fervently eager to make a triumphal case – which new nation is not? – treat their encounters with India as mini-jihads".

Pakistani team loyalists countered that in suffering defeat with grace, their team displayed a collegiate cool foreign to the fans of certain rival teams. Besides, some said, the Pakistani team could claim a kind of paternalism over its Indian competitors: Wasim bhai, the Pakistani paceman, was acknowledged to have served as a role model for several youthful players on the Indian squad, in particular by Ashish Nehra.

Sometimes, however, nationalism of the nation-state variety prevents the match of ball and bat. On 29 March, the Board of Cricket Control of India announced that it was calling off a scheduled April tour of Pakistan. In 1999, in the wake of the Kargil war, the Indian government banned cricket meetings between the two sides. Not unexpectedly, Islamabad retaliated by announcing that the Pakistani team would not visit India in 2004 as scheduled.

Cricket cold war, we are in the middle of it.

Woman, train, aging
Small bogeys with narrow doors. Little square windows and cramped bathrooms. Everything is scaled down on the hill train at Pathankot. Then there are the rucksack, water bottle, book and myself. Some, struggling to fit on the slim luggage rack above, the rest trying to not totally occupy the slender slatted seats. The assorted possessions of a woman travelling single on an Indian train.

Ever so slowly, the train starts rolling out over Himachal Pradesh's stunning Kangra valley. My heartbeat slows to the rhythm of the old steam engine. I have no desire for conversation, preferring instead to devour nature's bounty with my eyes. Even so, my body is under strict self-control. Just a quiet glance here, a controlled look there, but not because the gorges and rivers beneath the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains are not stunning. Rather, because I follow the code of the female Indian solo traveller, keeping to myself.

The code involves little devices to avoid conversations and to appear occupied. In this instance, my eyes remain fixed on the printed words that lie on my lap. Dick Francis rules the Kangra Valley Railway. The book is not terribly engaging, just the yarn of a steeple-chasing ex-jockey trying to solve some murders on the marquee. But it could be any book, just something to rest in my lap and keep me eyes on, even a Mills & Boon – minus the romantic cover, of course.

On this rail trip, I am a woman travelling on her own. Not just that, an Indian woman travelling on her own (co-passengers have yet to discover that I am a married Indian woman travelling alone). Not necessarily the subject of unwanted attention or objectionable interest, but certainly the object of unending curiosity.

Where could she be from? Why is she alone? Yes, she does seem to be alone. Oh, is that a map she just opened? Wonder what she is reading. Hey, she is eating chana and smacking the masala off her fingers. Was that really Hindi she spoke? Such unspoken questions abound. Some only a product of my imagination, I am sure. Many more I catch in the inquiring eyes I am trying not to lock gaze with.

The landscape through which the train passes still engages me, offering another reason for avoiding human contact on the train. I turn inwards, lips purse and shoulders tighten, hands minimising their movements. By lowering my own physical consciousness, I hope to diminish curiosity. And my eyes? They are back with Mr Francis' ex-jockey. My book is my purdah, my ghunghat, my burqa.

In my mind's eye, I go back 15 years and see my younger self travelling alone in Kerala, the Andamans, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, learning the little tricks of the single woman traveller: feasting on an entire pastoral scene in a glance, muffling delight and masking elation under what I imagine is an impassive expression.

I realise that I am just waiting for some more time to pass, more grey hair, more wrinkles on my skin. Only then will I have full space, a licence for full exploration awarded by the transformation of my body. As an Indian woman ages, curiously, she is allowed greater space in the world, freed from stares and questions. For now, I am like the devotee waiting for menopause to be allowed to pay obeisance at the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimalai, Kerala. Yet unlike that devotee I have taken great pleasure in blasphemy. I have stolen many darshans.

Vani Subramanian, Delhi

A toxic legacy
On 18 March 2003, in a courtroom in New York City, the latest chapter in a humanitarian and legal odyssey spanning two decades and the two hemispheres came to a close when a US district judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Bhopal residents seeking damages from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), now owned by Dow Chemical. The dismissal of the lawsuit, which holds UCC responsible for health complications stemming from criminal neglect in properly cleaning up after a 1984 chemical leak, lent weight to fears that an equitable settlement for victims of the world's worst industrial disaster, and criminal prosecution of those responsible for it, would never be seen. Nonetheless, victims and activists are continuing efforts related to the US lawsuit, including pursuing claims in Indian courts, lobbying officials and mobilising public opinion.

On the night of 2-3 December 1984, a chemical leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, killed an estimated 2000 people within hours. Victims groups say that the death toll is as high as 15,000 (the official death toll is around 5000), and that the number of injured or sick, either by immediate exposure or by residual contamination, runs into the hundreds of thousands. The company insists that a still-unnamed disgruntled employee caused the accident. Critics, however, point to internal documents demonstrating that the company, known in India as Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), knew before the incident that the safety measures were inadequate. Held culpable is the then UCC chief Warren Anderson for his failure to address these problems.

Victims initially took their claims to the US, where Union Carbide was based, and within months of the disaster 200,000 Indian plaintiffs were involved in 145 separate lawsuits against the company. In 1986, a US court ordered the suits consolidated and moved to India, and in 1989 the Supreme Court of India imposed a USD 470 million compensation on UCC. After two years of appeals, the company agreed to pay the award, although compensation to survivors averaged between only USD 370 and USD 533, according to Greenpeace.

The lawsuit in New York City, filed in 1999, was only one of several efforts to hold UCC and its former corporate officers responsible. In 1991, Indian courts revoked the immunity from criminal prosecution offered to UCC executives two years earlier, and in 1992, after ignoring four summonses, Anderson was declared a fugitive under Indian law. On 28 August 2002, more than a decade later, the chief magistrate in Bhopal reaffirmed the charge of culpable homicide against Anderson and demanded his extradition to India to face trial. In December, the Central Bureau of Investigation formally requested the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to apply for Anderson's extradition from the United States, though the MEA has reportedly not done this yet.

Efforts to hold UCC and Dow responsible for further cleanup and compensatory damages have led to considerable agitation but few results. After closing down the factory, UCC sold its remaining assets in India to finance the construction of a hospital in Bhopal. Victims groups and activists say that the hospital is insufficient payment for the human and environmental damage caused by the company, although Judge John F Kennan, who adjudicated the recently concluded New York City trial, saw it differently. "Proving the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, plaintiffs are not satisfied by the hospital's existence", Judge Kennan wrote in his decision. "This contribution goes far to satisfying any further obligation defendants have to citizens of Bhopal".

Dow Chemical, which acquired UCC in 2001, claims that Union Carbide fulfilled its commitments to the Bhopal victims and that it is not liable for damages. Victims groups, however, point out that Dow settled a claim in another case against UCC with US-based litigants in January 2002. Consequently, in October 2002, the state of Madhya Pradesh announced that it would petition the Indian government to hold Dow Chemical responsible for further cleanup. Dow, for its part, has not proved passive. After protestors assembled outside its Bombay office in December on the 18th anniversary of the incident, Dow filed a lawsuit seeking INR 500,000 from them, citing loss of work. Protesters have consistently targeted Dow offices around the world, most recently Dow headquarters in Houston, USA, on 11 March, resulting in 12 activist arrests. The Bhopal gas leak, irrespective of judicial rulings or the passage of time, will not be laid to rest for some time yet.

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