The north-west, once the market garden of Calcutta, will be able to send its produce to the great cities of Bangladesh. Those wanting to travel quickly from east to west have an alternative to tedious queues at airports. An important link in the Asian Highway and Railway has been put in place.
What pleases me particularly is that Bangladesh Railways have been preserved from disaster. If they had not convinced the donor agencies who thought railways had no future that they were wrong, Bangladesh Railways would not have been given a berth on the bridge. That would have meant the final surrender to roads.
As it is I travelled on the first train from the Bangabandhu West to Bangabandhu East and on that train I was given a colourful magazine which explained how the railways planned to use the bridge as the spearhead of their campaign to rationalise the gauges in Bangladesh and take broad gauge to Dhaka and Chittagong.
As the train proceeded over the bridge, I asked my friend Prof Sahajahan of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, a member of the expert panel which has been advising the bridge builders, why we were going so slow. He replied we had to go carefully as we were the first fully loaded train to cross the bridge. We crossed safely enough.
The bridge is a real achievement for Bangladesh. First of all Bangladesh had to persuade the donors it was economically justified. Then the government, Bangladesh contractors and Bangladesh engineers had to collaborate at all stages with the companies building the bridge. All these could have gone badly wrong, but they didn't and the Bridge's Engineer Dick Tappin described the opening of the bridge to me as a triumph for Bangladesh.
I was only saddened that the opening ceremony seemed to be confined to the good and the great and to us journalists, who always manage to gate-crash parties like these. But I needn't have worried. After the Prime Minister's helicopter took off and the lorry loads of securitymen drove away, the bridge was claimed by its rightful owners, the people of Bangladesh. They brought the returning train to a halt rushing the track to clamber on to the engine and the carriages. They leapt into lorries and climbed on the roofs of the buses. Many were content just to walk. One young student from Tangail was crossing the bridge bare-footed in its honour. An old man had come from Dhaka "just to see our new bridge". Two students from Rajshahi were bowled over by the engineers' achievement. "Its magnificent," they said.
But I have only one doubt. Some autorickshaws and cars were already proceeding westward down the eastward lanes. The pedestrians were impeding the free flow of traffic. The engineers believe they have taken all the possible vagaries of the Jamuna into account. But have they taken into account the enthusiasm of Bangladeshis for their new bridge and the strange ways of Bangladeshi drivers?
South by Southwest
Geo-Politics is often guilty of imposing macro-regional divisions where the small fish choke anonymously in the bellies of the big ones.The rescue act must involve, among other things, baptismal rites in the form of new regional labels for the neglected lot So how about "Southwest Asia"?
Not so long ago (April 1997), this magazine, quoting a Maldman diplomat, had suggested the term "South South Asia" to define the areas of Kamataka, Andhra Pradesh. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The idea was to salvage the south of the Subcontinent from the overbearing shadows of the north.
Lending another fresh angle to regional labelling is the Netherlands-based International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), which, in its Newsletter, has carved out a new identity for the scattered Indian Ocean archipelago of Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius. Reunion and Seychelles.This is your Insular Southwest Asia.
The origin of the term, as explained by editor Sandra Evers, has much to do with the fact that both Asian and African studies have neglected this part of the world as it did not fit conveniently into their sense of regional divisions. Thus the term was coined in an attempt to stimulate "expanded and better coordinated research programmes on the Southwest Indian Ocean'. This linkage, Evers avers, would also throw new light on Southwest Asia's bordering areas – Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabo-Penian world, as well as the African continent – as the archipelago's inhabitants have ancestors from all over the world, making it a "juxtaposition of civilisations".
But then, if the archipelago's citizens own up to a pan-continental culture, why should they be seen as Asians? Even says the Southwest Indian Ocean should be seen as an integral part of Asia "because the Asian linguistic, social and cultural influences obviously reached further man the South Asian region". One thing comes to mind though. If it is to be Southwest Asia, could it not just as easily be Southeast Africa? Maybe both.
Another Kashmiri avatar
The Kashmir pot is overflowing. After the grandstanding by the nuclear greats of South Asia, words of war between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory have recorded new decibel figures. Sanity would seem an extinct entity on both sides. But in Kashmir itself, there still struggle a few voices of sobriety. Like Shabir Shah's.
The Kashmiri leader – perhaps the most popular one in the Valley – has been treading a difficult path, between the Indian state on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other. In late May, Shah again hit the headlines after he floated a brand new outfit called the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party. (He had earlier been expelled from the All Party Hurriyat Conference.)
Shah also surprised many by offering unconditional talks with the Indian government, and by agreeing to participate in Kashmir polls if they are conducted by non-government agencies. Shah displayed a philanthropic bent as well, donating INR 10 million to a newly formed trust towards the rehabilitation of families affected by the insurgency in the state.
Interestingly, Shah's announcement died in the press. With the Delhi-based journalists and columnists participating in the nuclear drama with weighty comments and reportage, Shah's significant announcement was neglected by the press. It also seemed that across the border, in Pakistan too, Shah's announcement got short shrift. What was clear, once again, was that the establishment in both countries prefer to ignore matters when Kashmiris talk about their own vision for the region, rather than Islamabad's or New Delhi's.
It was a daily from India's South, The Deccan Herald, which took the initiative to carry an interview with Shabir Shah in its 31 May magazine section. Excerpts of that interview:
Deccan Herald: Soon after forming the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, you announced that you would take part in elections provided they are conducted by non-government organisations of the country. Is it not a shift in your policy?
Shabir Shah: I want to make it clear that my party is not interested in forming any government in Jammu and Kashmir. We want polls only to elect true representatives of people, who can hold dialogue with the governments of India and Pakistan to solve the Kashmir issue. It is true that like the Hurriyat Conference leaders I was advocating elections under UN supervision till recently. But this is practically impossible. India is a great country with great people living in it. Why shouldn't we ask them to conduct the polls and see who really the representatives of the people are?
A wrong impression has been created outside the state that Dr Farooq Abdullah's National Conference is the true representative party of the people and that separatist leaders only preach violence and do not believe in peace and democracy. We have to remove this misconception… I feel that there is a serious need to review our course of action. There is no wisdom in binding oneself blindly to an emotional approach that gives nothing except distancing us from our logical objective.
DH: But other separatist leaders, particularly that of the Hurriyat Conference, have strongly criticised your willingness to take part in polls and describe it as a sell out? Shah: My conscience is clear. I do not need any certificate from Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Gani Lone or Yasin Malik. Geelani and Lone are former legislators. They contested elections and took oath under the Indian Constitution when I launched the movement and was in jail. Yasin Malik has also shown faith in Indian democracy when he was the polling agent of Syed Sallahu Din (now chief of Hizbul Mujahideen), during the 1987 Assembly polls. Had I to sell the movement to Government of India, I would have done it in 1994 when I was released from jail and my popularity graph was high.
DH: Since you have formed the new party, what is your basic programme? Shah: We believe that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed issue whose political future is yet to be decided by its own people. My party will work for a permanent, peaceful and lasting solution to this problem, safe return of migrant Kashmiri pandits, and stopping of human rights violations. But it is essential that the people be provided an atmosphere free from any kind of pressure, so that they can decide their political future. We believe that a meaningful dialogue can evolve a permanent, just and lasting solution to the Kashmir issue.
DH: If the Central government invites you for talks, will you accept the invitation?
Shah: Yes, provided they are unconditional. We cannot close our doors and expect a solution to the problem. A breakthrough was possible when the then prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral and Defence Minister George Fernandes offered unconditional dialogue. But, unfortunately, both of them backtracked for unknown reasons. The Government of India will have to give up its rigid stance and initiate an unconditional dialogue with the true representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir… Look, India and Pakistan have now become nuclear powers and made their people more vulnerable. In fact Kashmir issue forced both the countries to conduct the tests…This is very unfortunate.
Don’t buy the well-spun, well-doctored rhetoric of "enhancing regional cooperation" that has come from the SAARC Summit in Colombo. Instead, as an ordinary citizen of a member country, try getting a visa for another. The chances are you will not. That's the irony of it all – while South Asia's political and diplomatic elite show off the wonder umbrella that is SAARC, for the ordinary citizen, it leaks in the worst possible way.
The observation is not made out of cynicism, but compelled by recent events which saw a conference in Dhaka being cancelled, and some journalists failing to make it to Colombo – for the frustrating reason that (in each case) the host country dithered over issuing visas.
As far as the Colombo Summit was concerned, apparently an 'advisory' had gone out to Sri Lankan high commissions (and embassies) in the region not to issue visas, particularly to media. Those who wanted to go as tourists were asked if they might not want to go a week later. Seemingly, the hosts were responding to calls for extra security from the state delegations attending the party in Colombo.
A conference was planned for mid-July on "Regional Consultation on Minority Rights in South Asia" by the Kathmandu-based South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) and the Dhaka-based human rights body, odhikar. After giving the go-ahead to the conference, some unknown hand in the Government of Bangladesh went about sabotaging it.
In Colombo, the Sri Lankan delegates to the conference were given their visas in a jiffy, and even invited to tea with the High Commissioner. In New Delhi, the Indians also got theirs, after waiting for four days. Four Pakistanis had no problems, but when it came to the fifth one, Khaled Ahmed, an editor of some repute, the ink on the visa seals just dried up.
In Kathmandu, the three Nepali participants waited till the cows came home, but no visas. Three members of SAFHR, too, suffered the same fate, not having been given visas ("denied" would be the wrong term, for the Embassy was awaiting "word from Dhaka"). Says a SAFHR member, "They never said 'no', they just didn't give the visas."
Sufficiently suffused with the 'SAARC spirit', the minorities rights conference has been rescheduled for the third week of August, this time in Kathmandu. It is now up to Nepali officialdom to redefine the spirit of regional cooperation.
India and Pakistan may have hit the nadir in political ties, but in some realms friendship is budding. The vehicle of the bonhomie is that prodigious fount of aesthetic charms – Gandhara art, the sudden flowering of expressive culture at the beginning of the Christian era which has influenced much of the art that followed in the Subcontinent.
Today, of course, no discussion of the Buddhistic Gandhara art can proceed without the presence of art historians and archaeologists from the decidedly Muslim state of Pakistan. For, it was on the west bank of Indus, and in the valleys of Peshawar, Swat, Buner and Bejaur that this art form with all its Hellenistic and Roman influences, originated. It was here that Gandhara made its most important contribution – the creation of Buddha images inspired by the Yaksha figures of yore.
Thus, when India's Chandigarh recently hosted an exhibition-cum-colloquium on Gandhara art, the presence of Pakistani experts was but natural. At the meeting, there was a lot of welcome talk on the need for collaborative work between Pakistani and Indian artists. It was agreed that younger cultural scholars of both countries should get together to fashion fresh approaches to Gandhara art.
Listen to Professor Dar, director of the Lahore Museum: "Scholars from India and Pakistan have to work together. Pakistani scholars are fresh in ideas and materials and the Indian scholars have a deep background in indigenous literature, to which we do not have an easy access. There has to be synthesis at work."
So, while competitive nuclear detonations go off in desert and hill, elsewhere there is a reaching back to the Subcontinent's undivided heritage of art and archaeology. The Buddha would have smiled.
The king's new clothes
On 29 June, Bhutan's Tshongdu, the National Assembly, voted for itself the power to vote a king out of office to pave the way for the next in line for succession. The king, in the current instance, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, will henceforth have to seek a mandatory vote of confidence from the Tshongdu on a regular basis.
The resolution, pushed on an apparently reluctant house by King Jigme through a kasho (royal edict), paved the way for an elected cabinet with complete executive powers to hold office for a five-year term. "This is certainly a major benchmark for Bhutan," says long-time Hongkong-based Bhutan watcher Brian Shaw. "(It will) go a long way to take Bhutan towards a more representative form of government."
That is a point of view that fails to find favour with dissidents fighting for "genuine democracy" in Bhutan. According to Thinley Penjore, leader with the exile group United Front for Democracy, the seeds of reform were actually sown by the present king's father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Back in 1953, he had established the Tshongdu, and, 15 years later, given up the power of royal veto to empower the Assembly to force a royal abdication. It was his son King Jigme Singye who introduced "royal absolutism" upon ascending the throne, says the dissident.
According to Tshongdu secretary Tashi Phuntsho, the recent reforms do indeed follow from the process of decentralisation of decision-making started by King Jigme Dorji. The late king's suggestion that the Assembly should have the powers to vote out a sitting monarch by a two-third majority proposal could not be pushed through, recalls Phuntsho, because members thought it was "not safe to disturb the institution of monarchy".
The announced changes are an eyewash put forward by a wily administration to divert attention from the festering refugee situation and the need for genuine democracy within Bhutan, says the exile leadership. The king is merely seeking to bolster Bhutan's image in the eyes of the world, particularly with the donor community, says Penjore.
He adds, "This is a rubber stamp National Assembly, the new cabinet ministers are also handpicked by the King Jigme Dorji the Reformer.
King. If Wangchuk is serious about democracy, he should dissolve the Assembly and the Royal Advisory Council and hold fresh elections to them in a fair manner."
Bhutan cannot be expected to get into fast forward towards multi-party democracy all of a sudden, says Shaw, who has been writing sympathetically about the Bhutanese government over the years. Having attended many Tshongdu sessions, he sees a "distinct change" in the approach of its members. Says Shaw, "Those who.would hide behind pillars now attack ministers for lapses and even disagree with the king on crucial issues."
Ratan Gazmere, chief of the Appeal Movement Coordination Council, another leading Bhutanese dissident group, expects the so-called reforms to be harbingers of an intensified reign of terror in the south and the east of the country, where the restive Lhotshampa (Nepali-speakers) and Sarchop communities are concentrated. Gazmere points out that the new cabinet does not have a single Lhotshampa, indicating clear bias against a significant population group.
Indeed, it seems clear from the makeup of the new cabinet (containing two Sarchop members) that King Jigme and his advisers are trying to placate the Sarchop while settling for a hard line against the Lhotshampas. Indeed, a Tshongdu resolution advocating a tough stand on the so-called ngolops (anti-nationals) matter suggests a crackdown in the offing.
Such is the suspicion with which the dissidents regard the government that the announcement that King Jigme would not attend the SAARC Summit in late July, too, was taken with a pinch of salt. The king is said to have stayed home to usher in the changes recently announced, and preferred to -send his "head of government", the former diplomat Jigme Thinley, to represent Bhutan among the leaders at Colombo.
To the dissident leaders, this was merely further proof of the Thimphu regime's public relations acumen, drawing attention to the announced changes while at the same time avoiding uncomfortable discussions of the Lhotshampa refugee matter with the Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
For the moment, in the war of words between the exiles and the Drukpa government, it does seem advantage King Jigme.
Beware of men
Zeenat Aman, the Indian screen's glamour queen of the 1970s recently called a press conference to reveal how she was beaten up by relatives of her ex-husband, whom she divorced some months ago. Among those involved in the attack was her own 11-year-old son, who, she said, had been abducted and brainwashed by her former husband, the ailing bit actor Mazhar Khan.
The actress' experience, in her own words, served to focus some attention on the wide prevalence of violence against women. Said Zeenat Aman: "This has happened to me despite the fact that I belong to the privileged society. I am now realising the fate of women and children not belonging to such a well-off background who have undergone similar experiences."
According to the World Health Organisation, on a worldwide scale, one in five women has been physically or sexually abused by a man at some time in her life. Most abusers are husbands, fathers, neighbours and colleagues rather than strangers. Gender violence causes more death and disability among women aged between 16 and 44 years than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or even war.
It is well acknowledged that violence against women in urban India is endemic, with beatings and molestations of spouses, household help, and even relatives. Zeenat Aman's case reveals how social and economic barriers account for nothing in such instances.
The breaking down of traditional gender roles due to the changing economic patterns of society is said to trigger violence in many instances. Its source lies in the husband's inability to fit into the "provider" role. Women's groups are also discovering a definite link between male impotence and violence against women. For example, the Mahila Samakhya project in Rajasthan found that a large number of battered women they worked with were subjected to violence because their husbands were impotent.
As a state, Rajasthan is notorious for its ill-treatment of women and its low female-to-male ratio. The tiny desert state has one of the highest rate of atrocities committed against women. There, in 1996, the registered cases of crime against women amounted to 10,603. Child marriage, female infanticide and foeticide are common. And it was in this state where the infamous sati incident took place 10 years ago.
Rajasthan is presently embroiled in one particularly shocking instance of multiple rape carried out over several years, in which the fact that the people involved are related to an influential legislator has kept the case from being tried. The case took a complex turn when the victim retracted her statement, embarrassing the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Mandal, a forum of 40 women's groups in Rajasthan, which had taken up the cause.
However, an activist involved with the group, Kavita Srivastava, says that the retraction cannot erase the brutal reality of the victim's gangrape, nor the fact that this reality is repeated many times over daily in her state and in the rest of India. Between the celluloid siren and a Rajasthani belle, are the hundreds of thousands of women in India who daily suffer abuse, quietly.