Round-up of regional news

Buddha Brouhaha

It was a classic case of much ado about nothing.

An exhibition of Buddha´s relics preserved in India was jointly organised by New Delhi´s National Museum and Thailand´s Department of Fine Arts in Bangkok earlier this year. Everything went smoothly, including the opening of the event by S.R. Bommai, India´s Human Resources Development Minister. Everyone went home satisfied with the bilateral cultural exercise. But in nearby Nepal, there were angry voices. It began when the Nepali embassy in Bangkok saw a brochure produced for the exhibition. In a letter sent to the Foreign Ministry in Kathmandu, the embassy expressed concern that the brochure associated Siddhartha Gautam with Piprahawa in Uttar Pradesh, India. "This shows India´s unwillingness to acknowledge Lumbini as Buddha´s birthplace," the letter stated.

Now, if there is one thing Nepalis are really proud of, it is the fact that the Sakyamuni was born in Nepal. Therefore the ensuing brouhaha that has still not quite subsided. First came a news report that quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying: "It´s a sordid attempt to drag a non-controversial subject into ugly controversies. [Nepal´s] Lumbini is Buddha´s birthplace. It´s an established fact."

The rest of the Nepali press quickly took up the issue and before long, the Dharmodaya Sabha, a leading Buddhist organisation, was expressing regret and strongly condemning "the mention that Buddha was born in India". The government daily The Rising Nepal editorialised: "Stating India as Lord Buddha´s birthplace is most regrettable. The reason behind such blunder…can only be ignorance."

Another daily, The Kathmandu Post, wrote in its own editorial: "By asserting India to be the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the Thai – obviously sponsored by India -has blatantly tried to distort and tamper with centuries-old historical facts… The motive behind this…is not difficult to seek. India has always claimed that Buddha was born there."

In the rush to nationalistic posturing, no one seems to have bothered to read the brochure properly, the first sentence of which reads: "The birth of Siddhartha, who was born to king Suddhodana, the ruler of Kapilvastu (identified with Piprahawa, Distt. Basti, Uttar Pradesh) and Mayadevi in about 566 B.C. was a significant event in the history of mankind." The brochure goes on to say that Buddha was born in Lumbini. (Queen Mayadevi gave birth to him sometime between 623 BC and 543 BC in Lumbini while travelling between Kapilvastu and her parents´ home at Devdaha.)

Although it does not say where Lumbini is, the brochure does not claim that it is in India either. In fact, India has never laid official claim to Buddha´s birthplace. To cool the needlessly frayed Nepali tempers
the Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, K.V. Rajan, took the unprecedented step of announcing at the celebrations to mark the 2541st birth anniversary of the Sakyamuni, that "Buddha was born in Nepal and there should be no ill-feeling between the peoples of India and Nepal over this issue."

Not that there exists no controversy between India and Nepal regarding Buddha´s heritage. It does, but that has to do not with Lumbini but with the location of Kapilvastu (see Himal Nov/Dec 1995), where Suddhodhana´s palace was located and where Siddhartha Gautam spent the first 29 years of his life. Since its discovery in 1899, Tilaurakot, which lies in present-day Nepal, had generally been understood to be the site of Kapilvastu. Until, that is, the mid-70s, when Indian archaeologists began claiming that the palace site was in Piprahawa, across the "open" border in India. Claims and counter-claims have been issued by both sides and there seems no end to it.

The distinction between Lumbini and Kapilvastu is what eluded the media in Nepal. Mere mention of Lumbini has many press folks foaming at the mouth expressing anger at New Delhi´s "hegemonistic" tendencies. Says Kosh Prasad Acharya, Chief Archaeological Officer of Nepal´s Department of Archaeology, "The newspapers, out of ignorance, have missed the issue and blown the whole thing out of proportion." He then hastens to add, "But at the same time we have to be aware of India´s highhandedness in not mentioning Nepal being Buddha´s birthplace."

To repeat, then: the differences that do exist between some Nepali and Indian archaeologists is over Kapilvastu, Buddha´s hometown, and not Lumbini, the place he was born. And the brochure distributed in Bangkok simply reflected what Indian experts have held for some time now. But then, if that had been clear to the indignant journalists, it might have made no story at all.

Manesh Shrestha

Population Scorecard

Family planning services in South Asia have seen uneven progress. Sri Lanka gets the best grades, India and Bangladesh get high pass, Nepal barely scrapes through while Pakistan has failed.

And in each of these cases, the factors are clear: family planning has worked best in parts of South Asia where female literacy and the status of women is highest, says United Nations Population Fund´s (UNFPA) Executive Director Nafis Sadik, in a recent interview with Himal South Asia.

The difference is most glaring when Bangladesh and Pakistan are compared -especially since they were one country till 25 years ago. "Bangladesh with all its poor economic indicators and infrastructure has had the strongest political support for family planning, it´s been consistent no matter which government has been in power," Ms Sadik noted. "And in the end it seems to have paid off, with contraceptive prevalence level as high as 48 per cent, and with the growth rate declined to 2.2 or 2.1 and, in some areas, even lower."

The average size of the Bangladeshi family has fallen to about 3.5, while in Pakistan it is still between 5-6. In Pakistan, despite potential 30 percent or so contraceptive use, lack of access to contraceptives has strangled efforts to curb growth. "It´s a question of political commitment, providing information and access to services, creating an enabling environment with education and improving the status of women," said Ms Sadik, herself a Pakistani.

"It´s a health approach, not a demographic approach," she explained. East Asian countries have progressed because they have consistently provided services and information rather than sanctions.

Across the border in India, progress on population management has been uneven. While growth rates had fallen in the south and this trend showed signs of moving northwards, family planning programmes have had very little impact in Uttar Pradesh the most populous state, Bihar and, surprisingly, Punjab.

In Punjab, despite relative economic wealth, the status of women was low. "This corresponds to what has been happening in Pakistan," she said. "In Pakistan there are lots of factors, including the lack of political commitment to social investment in general, so all social services have languished. In addition to that, these societies are very feudalistic, women have no status, they don´t make decisions for themselves, their role is seen as one of service, and as producers of children. And there is a bias towards sons in both India and Pakistan."

"Leaving the choice to individuals is the key. That has not happened in South Asia," said Ms Sadik, attributing this to political and cultural factors.

Nirmal Ghosh

PNG Fatwa

In May, Sri Lankan expatriates were fleeing Papua New Guinea, victims of an extraordinary coincidence of ancient rules of blood feuds and international migration.

The trigger was the murder in downtown Colombo of Joel Pera, a PNG national and international rugby coach, in which the son of Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte is linked.

Suddenly, the hundreds of Sri Lankans who have made a cosy life for themselves in PNG as engineers, doctors and teachers were the target of taunts and threats by members of a clan from PNG´s central highlands of which Mr Pera was a member. The people from this region known as Tari, and Papua New Guineans in general, have a "blood for blood" tradition; a fellow clan member (called "wantoks" – from the pidgin for "one talk") can exact reciprocal revenge on a rival clan.

As one Sri Lankan educator who fled told the press: "The Papua New Guineans are amiable people, but when a crime is committed, action must be quick and retribution must follow. They do not think, they act."

Apparently, those most in jeopardy were Sri Lankans of Joel Pera´s age group, as well as the age group of his grandfather, as the old man, too, died of shock upon hearing of Mr Pera´s killing.

"Unless compensation is paid for the number of years the victim would have lived, they chop. After the dead person is buried, they plant a tree, usually a banana tree, at the grave. Before the tree bears fruit, they chop to death five or more (the number is not specified) members of the clan believed to be responsible for the death."

Right or wrong, the scare has affected not only Sri Lankans but all others who look South Asian, including Indians and Malaysians. At the moment of going to press, however, no murders have been reported in Papua New Guinea, and the hope is that in time the anger will die out.

Zee Is Zee Right Choice, Maybe?

South Asian couch potatoes, rejoice! Zee TV, the mother of all entertainment channels, plans to go South Asian. Already popular across the Subcontinent for its mix of Bollywood masala and dramatic soaps, the channel is now seeking programming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

High-ups in the Zee echelons are cagey about their plans, saying they would not like to hurt the sentiments of neighbours whose programmes are rejected. The private corporation that is part owned by the Hong Kong-based STAR television network proclaims that it is already a South Asian channel and the only difference will be in inviting programmes from other countries. Sniffing the heady ambience of the Gujral Doctrine, the Zee TV bosses aver that they also have to play the role of cultural ambassadors.

The channel´s CEO, Subhash Chandra, travelled to Pakistan in April, and received a host of proposals from producers in that country. Soaps, talk shows, cooking programmes, etc, are all under review by a special team set up by Zee. But, rumour has it that the primary interest is in Pakistani teledramas that are hugely popular across the border, in Bangladesh and in Nepal.

Proposals from Bangladesh and Nepal are also under review, says Zee Vice President P.C. Lahiri. Refusing to disclose   many  details,   Mr  Lahiri   says most  programmes  under  review  fall under the  parameters  of Wholesome Family Entertainment that the channel proclaims is its forte. News and issue-based programmes are not being considered, he adds.

As for the language, says Mr Lahin, Zee is primarily a Hindustani channel which is why only programmes in that language are under review. Asked how countries like Sri Lanka are supposed to participate in that case, Mr Lahiri optimistically says that Lankan producers will be drawn to submit proposals purely from a business point of view. Giving the example of Zee´s Indian producers making programmes in Bahasa Indonesia, Mr Lahiri says the vast audience potential would be sure to draw producers even from non-Hindustani regions.

The culture, ambience, setting and stories of all programmes would be local, that is of the country of origin, with only the language being Hindustani. The creative input, argues Mr Lahiri, would thus be provided from all over South Asia. He refuses to commit when the programmes will be aired, but is hopeful that they will lead to cultural integration of the region.

Even accepting that cultural integration is a good thing, it might take more than television programmes in Hindustani to do the trick. In any case, let´s wait and Zee!

Everest Mulaqat

When they evacuated Base Camp on 16 June, the Pakistan Everest Expedition 1997 were the last to come off the mountain. They had not been able to reach the top of the world, but it was not for want of trying. Three times they had climbed to over 8000 m, once within a tantalising 200 m from the top, and three times the weather had beaten them back. In the end, with the monsoon winds brewing up, the seasoned mountaineers decided to withdraw, to try another time.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani team was the strongest to have been climbing Everest from the northern Tibetan side this season. They were confident enough not to take any high-altitude guides with them, but then climbing depends so much on how the weather favours you, and after a certain point skills take the backseat.

"When we reached 8650 metres on our first attempt, it was such a beautiful day," recalled Lt Col Sher Khan, the deputy leader and commandant of the President´s Bodyguards. "But for the wind, which threatened to blow us off the mountain, we would have made it in about two hours. So close we were."

The Everest expedition, led by Nazir Sabir, a provincial minister, was part of Pakistan´s golden jubilee celebrations and received saturation press coverage. The Alpine Club of Pakistan, which had sent the expedition, released day-by-day accounts of the team´s progress which was enthusiastically carried by the media.

All the hype created needless pressure on the climbers on the mountain. After their first failed attempt, President Farooq Ahmed Leghari called up himself called via satellite phone. The Prime Minister´s office also showed interest.

"Of course we desperately wanted to succeed. That is why we made three separate attempts," explains Mr Sabir. "If it had not been for the monsoons, we would still be up on Everest trying some more."

Adds Mr Sabir, "People have said when climbers turn back after bad weather in May, Everest opens up her arms. Nothing of that sort happened."

Mr Sabir accepts the expedition´s failure with the equanimity of a veteran mountaineer. But he and his teammates resent the reaction of their countrymen who think the expedition had a duty to the nation to emerge victorious. The team got a taste of this mindset in Kathmandu when a Pakistani banker asked them: "How come you could not reach the top while others could?" (The others refer to the 27 who reached the top of Everest from the north this time.)

"That is the kind of question we will be asked back home," said Mr Sabir with obvious premonition. "Pakistanis do not know much about mountaineering. They do not know that a mountain which looks so friendly can change into something totally different in no time."

The mountaineers feel the excessive publicity generated very high hopes. "Nazir and I have been climbing for 25 years. But never before has so much attention focused on us," said an indignant Col Khan. "There was just too much expectation."

"For a nation as ill-informed about mountaineering as Pakistan is, this will be a sobering experience," said Mr Sabir. "As for me, I am satisfied with what we were able to do. We did not lose a single climber although we took great risks by going up three times."

The Pakistanis hope to be back soon. They will, perhaps, find a mountain that is friendlier than their countrymen.

Man on the Spot

The personality and calibre of the person who sits as foreign secretary in South Block is extremely significant for all South Asia, for, in most respects having to do with foreign affairs, the buck stops there. While the Minister for Foreign Affairs (an office presently maintained by Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral) is the upfront face of Indian foreign policy, the detail is the turf of the foreign secretary.

The often huffy Salman Haider (see May/June 1997 Himal South Asia) retired at the end of June after leading the Indian team to Islamabad for bilateral talks. He has been replaced by P. Raghunath, who, it seems, was chosen by Mr Gujral specifically to complement his own worldview and agenda in foreign affairs. Going by Mr Raghunath´s calibre, personality and experience, as much as is clear from a distance, there is reason to believe that he is the appropriate man for the job of redefining South Asian geopolitics, inasmuch as South Block with its clout can redefine it.

These are times when South Block needs to show more than an ability to maintain status quo. Besides the perennially pesky questions of India´s international relations (including permanent membership in the Security Council, the nuclear option, liberalisation, Kashmir, etc), New Delhis´ policy makers are now required to look more closely at their own region. Much of the renewed emphasis on SAARC-related activities, from work on a regional free trade zone to a loosening-up of rigid border controls, were achieved during the past two years when India was chair of SAARC. These initiatives are innovative and untested, and the new foreign secretary, one hopes, will continue to give them deserving priority.

P. Raghunath belongs to the 1962 batch of the Indian Foreign Service and has experience of most parts of the world. He was ambassador in Bangladesh just before returning to New Delhi as Additional Secretary (his post before he was elevated to the top job at the end of June). He has also been high commissioner to Nigeria and the Philippines, was Consul-General in San Francisco, and served in the Indian Embassy in Moscow when Mr Gujral was the ambassador. Mr Gujral relied heavily on Mr Raghunath when he was foreign minister before he became Prime Minister, and among other things the latter visited Afghanistan and met Ahmed Shad Masood.

Mr Raghunath is said to be unassuming and low-key, but also accessible and engaged. He is less hierarchical than his predecessor, and is "regarded as intellectually far superior to most Indian Foreign Service officers", according to one South Block watcher journalist in Delhi. "An extremely erudite diplomat, Raghunathan is gentle in his manner, but this belies the fact that he has firm opinions and is capable of quick decisions," says S. Ranganathan, former Indian ambassador to China and Nepal.

The language Mr Raghunath was "allotted" at the beginning of his career was Chinese, and he served in China during the heyday of the cultural revolution. There, he even figured in an incident that attracted international attention. Mr Raghunath and another junior Indian diplomat (P. Vijay, who has since resigned and become a philosopher) were mobbed by the Red Guards during a visit to Guangdong, accused of spying, and asked to leave the country.

Mr Raghunath is a man of many interests, and once drove overland from Europe to India. His Sikkimese wife is an accomplished pianist, and both are into Western classical. The Foreign Secretary´s father was an ICS officer of the Bihar cadre, which has allowed him to master both the north Indian culture as well as his own (Tamil).

So, all pointers are that Mr Raghunath is up to his job, all other variables being equal! For the variable that Mr Raghunath himself represents to be effective, however, Mr Gujral will have to consider extending his term because he is due to retire barely within a year of taking up his new position.

Meanwhile, a disconcerting note from the 29 June Sunday of Calcutta while reporting on the Indo-Pak talks just concluded in Islamabad: "…If Raghunath had the choice of making India´s foreign policy, he would tirelessly work towards one objective: the sustained weakening and eventual disintegration of Pakistan."

We cannot bring ourselves to believe that this is true.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian