Sunday, December 30, 2007

Striding Forward

Trainee Assistant Police Super (ASP) Eliza Sharmeen has become the first woman in the country to command a passing out parade

In the 25th Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS; Police) cadre there were 193 trainee ASPs, of them 163 were men. Eliza has been one of the 30 women in the group, in a force that is predominantly male. Not only that, the attitude of the police in the country, as recent history suggests, has been anti-women. It is indeed surprising that Eliza, a Rajshahi University graduate, who has already got a government job by passing the 23rd BCS, would prefer to re-sit for the exams two years later to join the Police. She, however, thinks more and more women like her should join to change the notions that prevail in the society. “After my first BCS exams I joined Rajshahi College as a lecturer. My father has also been a teacher; I was a student of the college myself. I was thrilled. But the thrill of doing something new, something adventurous, something challenging, has always fascinated me.”

That opportunity opened before her when after winning the 25th BCS she opted for a life in the Police. Everyone, including Eliza's husband MA Yusuf Sarker, was surprised. “At first I thought she would not be able to go through the training, which, I heard, was rigorous,” Yusuf, who works with the ICDDR, B says. But at the same time he had an enduring faith in what he calls “Eliza's amazing capability to cope with any adverse situation”; he says, “Once she took the decision to join the police, I knew that nothing would be able to deter her from being successful. As a person Eliza is very sincere, whenever she takes up any responsibility she does it with diligence, and she does it well.”

Eliza remembers how her friends and family members had become divided in their opinions upon hearing the news. "Some of my friends were dead-against the idea, but my parents, my husband and his family have always encouraged me," says Eliza. The sad part in this otherwise happy story has been Eliza's students in the college, who cried at the farewell of their brilliant teacher. “My students and I were crying, I will not be able to forget that day,” she recalls, “But they wished me well, saying that they would be really happy to see me successful in my new profession.”
Eliza Sharmeen--changing stereotypes.

Life at the Bangladesh Police Academy (BPA) has been tough. From equitation (horseriding) to physical training, Eliza has mastered every form of policing. “It was never in our mind that we were making 'a woman' the parade commander, it was not out of pity or some sense of patronisation that we did it; Eliza is very disciplined, and in this world of women-empowerment she will remain an example for every woman in the police and for those who want to join the force,” Mokhlesur Rahman, commandant of the BPA, told the Prothom Alo. Eliza, too, agrees. “Of the stories that we hear about the Police, some are true, some are preconceived or ill-conceived ideas. If more and more women come to policing I do believe that it will change the face of policing in our country for good. A woman, for natural reasons, feels more comfortable if she comes across a policewoman. And as half our population are women, it is high time that more women should be inducted into the police,” she says.

And when on the bright green morning of 2nd September eight smartly turned out contingents of the newly graduated policewomen and men marched past under Eliza's command it ushered in a new era in the empowerment of women in the country. Eliza's stride forward will remain an example to the women of this country, she has proven that given enough opportunity, the women of our country can attain success, however difficult that may look like to the apathetic male members of the society. Eliza's story is also entwined with the story of Bangladesh's long march towards progress. Eliza represents a changing face of Bangladesh, a Bangladesh that our founding fathers have dreamt of but could not achieve. More and more Elizas are needed in our civil service. The sooner it happens the better.
© Ahmede Hussain

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lost in Living

Rising price of essentials is robbing people of their real income

In the last few months the prices of essentials have increased by 20-30 per cent; this, along with an ever-increasing inflation, have hit the lower and middle income groups really hard. The worst affected people belong to the lower and middle income groups, for most of whom life means a daily struggle to make ends meet. Spiralling prices of rice and baby food, which have become a major issue at the fag end of Khaleda Zia's last term in office, have not been handled properly by the current caretaker government. Though during Khaleda's time several syndicates run by the then Prime Minister's elder son was blamed, the current government has not been able to nab anyone for manipulating the market. What is disappointing is the shoddy manner in which different advisers have come up with their own explanations about an upward curve in the market prices. While an adviser has accused the Indian commodity market for influencing its Bangladeshi counterpart, another has found the necessity to call for the service of the Rapid Action Battalion to 'fix the market'. The strangest comment has come from the Finance Minister, according to whom prices have increased because people's income has also seen a remarkable rise in the last few years. The idea is preposterous; it would have made much sense if it had been meant to be a joke, but A.B.Mirza Md. Azizul Islam, our Chancellor of Exchequer really thought his statement true. Islam's comment is eerily similar to accented statements that former Finance Minister Saifur Rahman (like Islam, a World Bank man) used to make. Saifur once advised citizens to have aubergine only during the month of Ramadan, on another occasion he said that people must tailor their food habit in line with the rising prices of essentials. Islam, before making the situation worse for his fledgling administration, must remember the soaring inflation, which is about to hit the benchmark 10 percent. Islam must not forget that this is for the first time in the last 12 years that the country is experiencing the menace.
The inflation may as well turn worse because of the deluge, which has caused major disruptions to the supply of goods. Though the government's war on corruption has been commendable and a much-awaited popular drive to free the country of the depraved elements, there is no denying the fact that the crackdown has shooed many good businessmen away. What is scary is hyperinflation, a dangerous trend in the economy when inflation feeds itself. Instead of talking big and delivering a-little, Islam and his ministry must put its priorities right to set the kitchen market in order, before Ramadan makes market-prices unbearable for the ordinary citizens. Bangladesh Rifles' Operation Dal-Bhat has to be widened, the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh should be involved more into the market so that the market price comes down to a tolerable level, businessmen must be encouraged to open letter of credit; at the same time the government must take immediate anti-inflationary measures. The job is indeed tricky as the country has faced one of the worst deluges in the last 10 years, and a huge post-flood rehabilitation plan has been expected the government. More government expenditure may fuel further inflation, putting the prices far beyond the means of the masses. This is indeed alarming, as a famine-like situation has been feared in the country if seeds are not sown within the next one month. The inflation that is said to have been at 10 percent a year, is unofficially as high as 15 percent, and if immediate food-safety measures have not been taken it is predicted to double within a few months. An increase in the price of oil on the market, the flood and a volatile international market are primarily to be blamed for the spiralling prices of essentials. And on top of it all, different infamous syndicates are at work too, nothing can otherwise be explained by a 100 percent price gap between the retail and wholesale market.

The evil nexus between the syndicates and suppliers has to be broken. At the same time the government should not view different businesses as enemies. Sheer unemployment (in which the government has made some contributions by closing down the jute mills), coupled with a climate of apprehension has given way to this stagnation that economists in the country are thinking we are at. The scariest prospect is a hyperinflation, a market where rice or atta is too pricy even for the middle class. We are in a situation where ordinary people have started to flirt with the idea of hoarding for the rainy day, and this is where an artificial increase in the demand fuel further price-hike. There are risks that things become too expensive during the Ramadan when prices of essentials naturally increase.
We have put much hope and trust in the current caretaker government. So far the government has delivered well. The war on corruption has witnessed the arrests of almost all the major graft suspects, the separation of judiciary has been completed, a right to information act is in the offing, and a flawless voter list and a national identity card project are in full swing. But with a sunken heart we see the government not doing enough to tackle the crisis on the market, which is eating at the real income of the masses. When it comes to fixing the ills with rice and baby food, the government has floundered, and it has floundered badly. It should take immediate steps to regulate the market, and everything related to the national economy must be handled with more care.

© Ahmede Hussain

Booklovers' Paradise

The idea of launching a website dedicated to Bangladeshi books first came to the mind of Farid Uddin Md. Akbar when he was studying at the University of Pune. An ardent bookworm himself, he saw in the Internet a new opportunity to sell Bangla books, especially old out of print ones like Kazi Anwar Hossain's 'Kuasha Series' or the first or second volume of Masud Rana.
“After I finished my graduation in late 2004 I was looking into different options to pursue my next years. Reading books had been my personal passion since very early years of my life. So the condition of Bangladeshi book information over the web or rather lack of information on fingertips had been my personal agony for a very long time,” Akbar says. Some of his friends had started already working on a book website earlier in 2002. “But unfortunately,” he says, “because of other career commitments it was not possible for them to complete and execute the project. When I was informed of it, I was very interested in working on it and over time had to take over the responsibility for the whole project. Ever since, we are improving information for Bangladeshi books online.”
Over the years, the site has evolved and become the largest to sell Bangladeshi books on the Internet. Selling books online, as many may have been thinking, is not at all a complicated process. The site is extremely user-friendly. The visitors can look for books by their favourite authors, category, publisher, and price range. They make a selection of the books they like to buy and can make the payment via popular payment website paypal. Sometimes for a customer who does not hold an online payment account, boi-mela allows them to pay to our bank account straightaway.
Once an order is confirmed, the site procures the books and ships them to the customer. “Although slow,” Akbar says, “we use the Book Post option of GPO to keep the cost low from our end and as well as customers. They need to pay only the money, which is needed to post the book to their destination on top of the cost of the books. So if a book sells for 90 taka in Dhaka we keep the same price in the website as well. Being customer friendly has paid off over the years.”
From collecting and updating information about books to procuring and shipping them, the task is huge. The site has four individuals dedicated to this, which also includes customer query management and technical maintenance.
In a country where the culture of reading books is waning, boi-mela is getting positive response from its clients. “The number of books we sell is quite a variant number. There are examples when we sold few hundred books a month and there are quieter periods when there have been less than fifty books sold in the whole month. Times like February when the actual book fair takes place, we get a higher frequency of queries in general,” Akbar says.
For a company that is still in infancy, Akbar has an ambitious plan: “As our project was one of the pioneering ones, there is plenty of room to grow. The size of first, second and third generation of Bangladeshi residents worldwide is quite large. So to satisfy their needs making it more familiar is our first priority. Also we intend to add content for the visitors to read as well, not only to buy. For that we are pursuing the publishers to make available a few books every year for online reading as well. Thus the number of visitors who will be interested in buying will increase as well. Also that will put a stop to the rampant piracy that is going on for the popular books over the Internet at the moment. Also we are hoping to make our service popular to the libraries and international Bangladeshi shops as well to use.”
The government's indecision regarding e-commerce remains a major obstacle between reality and Akbar's dream. “The government of Bangladesh is yet to take necessary steps to clear the obstacles for electronic commerce. Formation and Permission to form online money transfer processors will be a great help. Also making credit/debit cards easier to afford will empower more people with tools to operate online,” he says.
There is no site for those who live abroad and have a thirst for Bangla books. Throughout the world local languages, faced with globalisation, have been facing a stiff challenge from English, French and Spanish. Boi-mela, if given ample opportunities, can play a vital role in rejuvenation of our culture and heritage in places as far away as North America or Western Europe. The government should come forward to give short and long term loans to internet-based companies like boi-mela. And it must make online transactions legal, and it should allow and welcome third party money transaction authorities.

© Ahmede Hussain

Tale of the 'Yaba Babes'

Some newspapers in our country thrive on sleaze. The more the merrier, it seems.

In the last few weeks the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) has made some significant breakthroughs in arresting some of the alleged top Yaba dealers of the country, some of whom have made this deadly drug readily available to the youth of our country. Their claw has been long; while most of their victims belong to the upper class of the society, the revelation that this vile trade has been going on for the last ten/fifteen years, under the very eyes of the police, is indeed alarming. The Rab deserves kudos for doing such a courageous and timely job.
Having said that, the way some of the Bangladeshi newspapers have covered the Yaba news is deplorable. Two women's names have kept turning up in the front pages and almost in every instance they are referred to as 'yaba sundaris' (Yaba babes). Some newspapers have gone a little too overboard, a vivid and gruesome description of what used to take place in the dens of the traders have been described. It is as though the concerned reporter (or a bunch of them), undercover, was hiding under the bed when these Yaba-infested men and women indulged themselves in a world of degeneration. Calling a woman Yaba Shundori, when it is printed in the headlines of newspaper, stinks of bad taste. No male arrestee, some of whom are quite good looking, has not been described as Yaba shundor (Yaba Hunks). Any journalist with a shred of respect for women and law will not allow these words to make their way to the paper. Moreover, the concerned women have not been proven guilty by the law of the land, this practise, besides demeaning women also undermines the rule of law, which some of these papers blame our politicians not to uphold. According to the law of the land one is presumed to be innocent until and unless one is proven guilty by a court. In fact a certain law is at work here: According to an Indian act titled the Indecent Representation of Women Act 1986 (Indian laws are considered to be 'persuasive' in Bangladesh, British law being the Mother Law.) representation of women in an indecent manner or in a way that may harm her image is a cognisable offence. In the civilised world names and photos of juvenile offenders are never printed. This is because of the stigmatisation attached to such a practice. This should be applicable to women offenders too. When a woman commits a crime, the kind that sex workers allegedly commit, and is exposed in the way we do before the world does not only destroy her image, her family, specially her children bear the brunt of it too. Women in the traditional media are always victims, either of rape or of a brutal marriage. Their success, their achievements take a back seat. And if she commits a crime she becomes an object of gossip, fun, ridicule. The woman's story is never told, she becomes yet another Yaba Shundari, or Jalshagher Nachnewali. It is absolutely different for men, as the country and its society are fundamentally male dominated.
Poet, writer and dramatist Anisul Haq once wrote that if a bull slammed its horns into a woman and killed her, some certain newspapers would describe the young girl's red sari and her breasts, the place where she took the blow, to titillate their male readers. Haq wrote this about 16 years ago, and it has not changed since then, whenever a woman commits a crime she goes through this media trial, this humiliation of her private life being exposed to the world. Even though the number of paramours the woman in context has had nothing to do with her crime, it will inevitably be mentioned in different reports. This practise of punishing an alleged offender long before the judge has handed down his or her verdict is deplorable. These are instances of irresponsible journalism; this practise should be immediately dropped. History has taught us that sensationalist journalism does not work in the long run. In the civilised world the newspaper industry has evolved over the years, neo-journalists like Tom Wolf, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Robert Christgau have changed the face of reporting long ago. Journalists in Bangladesh cannot afford to remain a bunch of male chauvinists calling sex workers 'gay girls' or unnecessarily blowing-up certain parts of women's body in photographs just to add a little magic to the circulation of their papers.
We must not forget that with independence comes responsibility, which demands of us more stringent editorial ethics. Pen has proven to be mightier than the gun long ago, but pen can also be used as a gun. We must be reminded of our job to use it for the right cause.

© Ahmede Hussain

In Conversation with Radha Chakravarty

Ahmede: How do you see English in South Asia, a place where the language has once been forced upon its people?

Radha Chakravarty: English may today be counted as one of the South Asian languages. It was indeed extraneous to our culture once, and introduced for political reasons, but today it has been appropriated and adapted to our contemporary needs in ways that have given it a new character and I think a new lease of life.
The relationship between English and other South Asian languages was not a one-way street. It was transactional, and remains so to this date. The influence of English language and literature challenged but also gave a great impetus to the modernization of our indigenous languages. In turn, these languages also enriched English with a vocabulary and range of expression that continues to grow, as recent versions of the OED acknowledge. Today the best writing in English comes from regions where English is not the people’s mothertongue. And we have reshaped the language in creative ways. To borrow the title of a well-known book, “The Empire Writes back,” as it were!
So English has now acquired these extraordinary regional flavours, but it also remains an international language, and in some important ways, our link with the non-South Asian world. In a multilingual society such as India where I belong, English, and translation into English, also provides an important common platform for people of diverse languages to know and understand each other better.
The politics of language are of course linked to larger issues and it may be argued that the privileging of English perpetuates the colonial mindset. The solution I believe is not to do away with English, but to treat it on par with other languages in our region, as one more facet of our multilingualism. That calls for a change of attitude for which many South Asians don’t seem ready yet.
Whether English is perceived as an asset or a stumbling block depends on how we make it instrumental to our specific regional needs. If it is merely a matter of aping “the West” and losing our cultural independence, which is what upholders of “pure” identity seem to fear, the language and the culture it is taken to purvey may indeed continue to enslave us. But if it empowers us to be effective citizens of the world without surrendering our distinctiveness as South Asians, English is a language to be embraced without embarrassment.

Ahmede: Does South Asian fiction really exist as a genre or is it merely the place and people one is writing about that defines it?

Radha Chakravarty: Genres and their definitions are not fixed. They change according to context and consensus. “South Asia” itself is not an obvious or absolute category. It is an idea, a concept collectively imagined into being, that needs to be constantly re-invented according to shifting contemporary realities. When we speak of the places and the people of South Asia, aren’t we also taking history, geography, myth, lifestyles and politics into account? And aren’t these factors changeable, varying not only with time and circumstance but also according to the perspective or viewpoint from with “South Asia” is perceived? A Bangladeshi or Nepali idea of “South Asia” for instance may not coincide with the way an Indian may perceive the same geopolitical/sociocultural configuration, because of the asymmetries in our respective contexts.
The same holds true for the literature of this loose-knit region. Imagining a “South Asian” literature involves some gains and some losses. It entails a sacrifice of some local nuances, to accomplish the formation of transnational linkages and alliances. It takes us beyond the local and national, yet remains potentially outside those versions of internationalism that privilege “western” models in the name of the “global.” A difficult yet valuable manouevre, and literature is an important arena for such endeavours.
To reinvent a genre then, we must consciously recognize overlaps and shared concerns that would justify an overarching label like “South Asian literature”, even while remaining conscious of our differences. To ignore the heterogeneity and internal contradictions implicit in the term “South Asian fiction” is to risk oversimplification and erasure of the diversity that remains so vital a characteristic of South Asia.

Ahmede: Do you think the way female writers handle narratives or a particular theme is different from the way a male author would?

Radha Chakravarty: It is hard to generalize about women’w writing when the field is so vast and varied. I can’t think of any strategy a woman writer would use that we may not also find in a male writer’s work. It is more pertinent I think to speak of feminist writing, which is easier to identify, even though that too is context-specific and therefore diverse. Feminism is not based on the biological fact of being a woman, but an attitude of resistance. It is a position from which gender imbalances in society may be interrogated, and seen in this way, may be a stance adopted by men and women alike.
Such writing questions the subjection of women and is premised upon the idea that gender roles are not inborn but man-made and therefore open to change. In this lies the emancipatory potential of feminism. In feminist narratives we do often find certain shared tendencies, for instance, treating the personal as the political, seeking indirection where direct assertion doesn’t work, affirming the importance of female identity by resorting to confessional or autobiographical modes, and combining a critique of existing social conditions with a visionary conception of altered possibilities. Feminism after all looks ahead to an ideal world of gender equity where feminism itself will no longer be necessary, where writers can go beyond anger and write without being aware of being a man or woman. The best writing, Virginia Woolf said, is androgynous.

Ahmede: Do you feel comfortable being associated with the term Post-colonialism?

Radha Chakravarty: Yes, if the term is used with care. If it is merely a chronological marker implying the demise of the colonial, then we ought to have moved beyond it long since, considering our region became Independent of colonial rule half a century ago. Also, if the term is taken to imply that colonialism and its aftermath constitute the only past or present we can refer to in our attempt to define ourselves, then of course it betrays a very narrow perspective, a deliberate blindness to other elements that determine our situation. I don’t think of “Post-colonialism” as an all-embracing concept that totally defines my identity and critical/creative practice. It remains one of the significant factors in my social and intellectual existence, but there are others.
But if “post-colonialism” signals a continued questioning of unequal power relations between nations and cultures, in ways that extend the meaning of the term beyond the narrow contours of territorial control – if it takes into account economic and cultural domination, and also acknowledges “internal colonization” where hierarchies and exclusions operate within a culture instead of being always imposed from without – then the term I think retains a certain value, until we invent a better one. “Postcolonial literature” is certainly a better term than “Commonwealth literature” for instance, for the latter covertly acknowledges the Commonwealth even as it ostensibly challenges the continued validity of the idea of the Commonwealth.

Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and a literary person?

Radha Chakravarty: Freedom is a complex word, for it goes hand in hand with responsibility. It is interesting you should ask me this question, for a book I am co-editing with Selina Hossain is titled “Writing Freedom: South Asian Voices.” It is a compilation of contemporary South Asian creative writings on diverse facets of freedom. While working on it, I developed fascinating insights on what freedom can mean in relation to issues of gender, nation, class, language, religion, culture, environment, politics and a host of other factors. It also brought home to me the fundamental principle of democracy: that my own freedom lies in recognizing also the freedom of others who may differ from me.
As a woman I have claimed my freedom socially, professionally, and in the private sphere. The process has empowered me and altered my self-image. Of course the world around me does not always recognize my claim, and that is where the struggle lies.
As an academic/translator/editor/teacher, I also assert the freedom – and thereby acknowledge my responsibility – to involve myself with what I consider to be of significance in Indian, Bangladeshi, South Asian writing and in women’s writing across cultures. This includes choices that may be potentially controversial because they sometimes entail the reinterpretation of well-entrenched ideas or established cultural icons. In this I have received immense support from my publishers who are liberal and progressive in their thinking, and also from my readers, whose response has been overwhelmingly encouraging. To be a woman and a scholar/translator/editor is not easy even in today’s world, but as my experience has shown, there is reason for optimism.
© Ahmede Hussain

Crimes We will never Forgive

The government must initiate the process of bringing war criminals to book

During our glorious war of liberation against the Pakistani occupation forces, when the country got united against the brutal regime of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan and took up arms to fight for freedom, a bunch of goons opposed our struggle for independence. Memories are still alive and bleeding, and a casual glance at the copies of newspapers of that time is enough to name the murderers and rapists who, along with the Pakistani army, unleashed a reign of terror against the unarmed civilian population of Bangladesh. The Daily Sangram, the mouthpiece of the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been full of such news; on September 15, 1971, the newspaper reported Motiur Rahman Nizami as saying, “In this hour of national crisis, it is the duty of every razakar to carry out his national duties to eliminate those who are engaged in war against Pakistan.” Not only had Nizami urged fellow Razakars to pick up arms in favour of a marauding Pakistani army who was butchering innocent men and women, the Al-Badr forces, which he headed, killed, tortured and kidnapped people, many could never be found again.

Nizami’s crony Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, then president of Dhaka unit of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Shangha, according to a "Fortnightly secret report on the situation in East Pakistan" (the political section of the then East Pakistan home ministry used to send to the head of the government General Yahya Khan), directed his party workers to build Al-Badr Bahini to resist freedom fighters.

It has come to us as shocking when on October 26 this year, Mojaheed, during a visit to the Election Commission, said anti-liberation forces never existed in the country and war crimes never took place in 1971. The comment, preposterous though it is, should have been taken as the ramblings of a degenerated evil mind, had not Shah A Hannan, a former civil servant and Nizami-Mojaheed’s crony, on record called Bangladesh’s war of liberation a mere civil war: “I know this much that in 1971 there was a civil war...Fine, it was also a Muktijuddha...From what I have read in foreign newspapers and encyclopaedia, it was a civil war and most people did not call it a ‘struggle for freedom’.”

These comments, coming from the war criminals and their sympathisers, have raged a storm of protests in the country. The Bangali collaborators have never been pardoned, in the aftermath of our victory against the occupation forces, Nizami-Mojaheed and co. went into hiding to save their skin from the wrath of the ordinary people. A couple of hundred Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams (mostly formed by the members of Jamaat, Nezam-e-Islam and Muslim League) were in jail, awaiting trial for war crimes. After the barbaric events of August 15, 1975, most of these murders and rapists were allowed to go scot-free and Nizami and co. were allowed to do politics again. In fact, in the general elections that were held under Gen Ziaur Rahman, these people did not participate as a political party. It is the apathy and narrow visions of the political parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL) that have given the rebirth of this menace. Gen Zia made a collaborator his prime minister and in his widow Khaleda Zia’s tenure, Nizami, who headed the Al Badr paramilitary force, became the Industry Minister. The AL, which led the nation towards independence, made pacts with these Razakars on and off. This has been primarily driven by an ever-pervasive culture of opportunism that has plagued the country for the last couple of decades, to the BNP and AL, the 6-7 per cent votes that Jamaat got in the elections mattered, and for this short-term gain they gave shelter to the criminals who only a few years ago killed people and raped women.

Mojaheed has opened a can of worms, and it is not surprising that he and his cronies’ war crimes are now haunting them. The whole country has condemned his statements, and this year also marks a rejuvenation of the spirit of ’71. The Sector Commanders of the war have formed a forum to bring home the trial of the war criminals, and every political party but Jamaat, has echoed the demand.

It is true that the constitutionally mandated interim government has an agenda of free and fair elections in hand. While it may not be their agenda, but considering the public support behind this demand, they may at least consider initiating the process by starting to bring together the various documents that exist in this regard. Our movement towards a free independent future will be flawed if justice is not handed down to the criminals who threatened to destroy our nascent republic and whose recent statements make it obvious that they will repeat history if they are allowed to do it. The issue of trying war criminals should not be confused with the question of banning religion-based political parties; in 1971, members of the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams killed hundreds and thousands of people, most of whom were Muslims, the rest were Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. The war criminals, after 36 years, might try to muddle the scenario by claiming that all this is directed against religion. On the contrary, the movement is directed at those who committed acts of genocide and rape against the unarmed population of this country. These are crimes against humanity, reprehensible under any law. Every religion, be it Islam, Hinduism or Christianity, which considers human life sacred, abhors killing and raping. To begin with, those who have made seditious comments against our liberation war must be brought to book. Along with holding an election, one of the prime responsibilities of this government is to safeguard the sanctity of the constitution and establish rule of law.
It is welcome to see the Chief Adviser and the Chief of Army, like the rest of the country, standing in favour of the spirit of our great war of liberation, but mere lip service is not good enough at a time when the whole nation, like it did in 1971, has become united against the war criminals. In a country dangerously divided along the lines of petty political interests, this can be the beginning of the idea of national consensus. This opportunity to move forward should not be wasted. The government must take the first steps of gathering evidence of rape and murder, initiating the process of trying those who butchered people during the war of independence. There are existing laws under which war criminals can be tried and there is no point in saying that aggrieved individuals should file cases as we all know that war crimes were committed in different circumstances and there are separate laws to try those who commit such crimes.
So, the option lies clearly before the government: It can say that it is not their job; the other choice is to initiate the process of gathering evidence so that ultimately an elected government can try the war criminals. The political parties, in their turn, must incorporate the issue of trying the war criminals into their election manifesto, and make a vow to materialise the demands if they are elected. They should keep this in mind that they can ignore the demand that the whole country has made only at their own peril. The souls of three million shaheeds and two lakhs Biranganas are crying for justice, and it is high time to answer to their pleas.

© Ahmede Hussain

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Last Jet Engine Laugh

Ahmede: Do you believe in epiphanic moments? How does your muse come to you?

Ruchir Joshi: I do believe in epiphanic moments, in the sense that something often strikes you under a certain light, at some twist of the day, and then you store it away to examine later. You bring it out and mull over it, and to that first idea or inspiration you add something else and then something else again, and this then starts a process that leads – hopefully – to some finished work.
As to muses, I have never found the European idea of a `muse’ useful for my own work. For instance, the idea that a beautiful woman or man can be the inspiration for anything other than something addressed to that particular human object of desire is one I find absurd. I can’t, for example, imagine being inspired to write about an act of violence or a brutal natural disaster by a `muse’. But perhaps I take the concept too literally.

Ahmede: How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

Ruchir Joshi: I do need to have an imaginary reader or viewer in mind when I write or when I make a film. It can be a very diffuse group of people that stretches across different countries and cultures, or it can be a very specific bunch of friends in the city where I’m living, but I do need to have that sense of an `addresee’.

Simultaneously, though, there does need to be an avoidance of anything remotely resembling what advertising people call a `target audience’. If you aim too specifically at a group while doing something then it risks becoming an ad, a propaganda work or a political manifesto, and it usually diminishes its power as a work of art. Not always, but usually.

Ahmede: The English that we speak in South Asia, do you think we have transformed it enough to call it ours?

Ruchir Joshi: Oh god, yes. When I was a student in the United States, I used to get very irritated whenever someone expressed surprise or praise at the fluency of my English. `You speak really good English!’ they would say, to which my reply, invariably, and with a mirroring tone of surprise, was: `Thanks! So do you!’ And this was nearly thirty years ago.

The thing is, like many people of my class and background, English was not a first language – in childhood it came a limping third behind Gujarati and Hindi and it was neck to neck with a very circumscribed Kolkataiya Bangla. But like hundreds and thousands of others across the sub-continent, I grew into the language as it grew into me. This meant that it became the first instrument for communication, expression and even dreaming; certainly, I cannot imagine writing in any other language with the freedom I have while writing in English.

The `normal’, daily English that lives in us is not what is spoken elsewhere in the world. In fact, now one can even talk of plural, sub-continental, Englishes: the language undergoes a very varied daily sculpting in different parts of the sub-continent, some of it pretty inelegant, even ugly, and some of it beautiful beyond the scansion-cosnciousness of any British or Yankee `correct English’ pedant.

Of course we have transformed it, are still transforming it, and will continue to change it. We have to – it’s our main linguistic bridge, not only to the rest of the world but also between ourselves.

Ahmede: Many argue that novel itself is a western form of expression. We had epic. Is it not so that the history of novel is also the history of the so-called modern man, his crises?

Ruchir Joshi: It’s like saying the train is a western form of transport; yes, of course it is, but so what? It’s a brilliant form of transport, so thank you, great inventors of 19th century England! And thank you, Swift and Richardson and Austen etc for the novel! But now that we have said our thank you’s, can we get on with sitting on a train, vaccinated against polio and typhoid, reading and writing our own novels and dreaming our own dreams? The answer is obvious, no?

If I was to choose one thing that parallels and records modern human existence and its crises, it would be photography more than the novel, simply because so many more people can `read’ a photograph than the printed word. But yes, the mutation of the book-bound narrative across the last two hundred years is certainly fascinating, even more so because it seems to be holding its own against the newcomers of cinema, television and the Net.

And precisely because we have such varied and rich narrative traditions ourselves, we should not get trapped in some archaic notion of the novel as a form that founds its apogee in the late 19th century in Western Europe and Russia, a form to which we must faithfully adhere. There are many of us who are trying to work with breaking open the old forms of the novel, and in this we follow in the footsteps of the great Indian, especially Bangla, novelists of the mid-20th century.

Ahmede: VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like that for you?

Ruchir Joshi: I am not familiar with this particular argument of Naipaul’s, but I’ve learnt it’s generally a good idea to be suspicious of whatever the man says. His grasp of the changing world (and his own place in it) has been very tenuous since 1965 or so; his language has got more and more clumsy and ugly the further he has come from his very early triumphs; his insecurities and self-created isolation have brought out the poisonously reactionary dna of his intellect.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is what he’s talking about is the kind of quite banal truism you find in a statement like `so-and-so was very bad to his wife and family but he was a great painter.’ Of course, this is true up to a point: the fact that an artist was or is, say, a jingoist, or a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, should not cloud our judgement when appraising their work; but it’s hard to find examples of people who’ve crossed extreme thresholds of inhumanity and depravity and still produced worthwhile art.

For example, in arguing this, V.S Naipaul may want us to separate Naipaul `The Writer’ from Naipaul the praise-hungry, sycophant-loving man who accepted felicitations from the Hindu Fascist VHP two days before the Gujarat killings began in `02, but I see no reason to oblige him. Sure, it would be unfair to compare Naipaul to a Yahya Khan or a Niazi or a Narendra Modi, because he hasn’t actually ordered the killing or raping of anyone; but it’s only accurate to say that the man’s early works do not balance out the rapid and complete evaporation of humility, humanity and sense of justice in this ex-artist.

As for myself, I try and be aware of my many limitations as a human being; I try and not let those limitations get in the way when I work, but invariably they do, from surprising angles, many of which I can only see afterwards, once the film or writing has been released to the world. So, I note those angles and begin again.
© Ahmede Hussain

The Geometry of God

Ahmede: You once told me that "for prose I turn to English but verse to
Urdu. (Sort of like music -- I don't like classical western, but love classical eastern.)" Will you tell me more about it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I’ll try. When I was seven, my father bought a second-hand piano, and enrolled me in piano lessons. I believe that ever since his childhood, he had this dream: ‘When I grow up and have girls (he never wanted boys, nor had them) they will play piano for me and it will be very sweet.’ So off I went to this horrible English person who hit my knuckles with a ruler – she was a parody of the mean music instructor. But it was sweet to come home and play for my father, even if I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Afterwards, our house would ring with classical eastern music: the rich voices of Mehdi Hassan and Amanat Ali Khan, or Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan on sitar. It would also ring with western pop: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
Later in life, I kept trying to improve at piano. My third try was with a Japanese-American instructor. He was brilliant. The first day, he complimented my fingers instead of hitting them, then told me my problem was with rhythm. He must have also grown up listening to both eastern and western music, and understood that I’d internalised a very different beat, which I tried to play on an instrument that rejected it. Recently, I’ve started tabla lessons. Though my fingers don’t move as fast as I wish, I hear the beats. I know what I should be doing. If only the tabla had fallen in my hands when I was seven!
This is a long way of saying that like music, poetry answers to an inherent rhythm, and my appreciation of poetry in English, with a few exceptions (Seamus Heaney, Theodore Roethke), lacks the immediacy with which I appreciate poetry in Urdu. But in prose, both when I read and write, I adapt to many rhythms, I yearn for a new music. Somehow, Urdu prose doesn’t fulfill this hunger any more than the piano fit my fingers when I was a child.

Ahmede: Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I don’t know because I’ve never been a man. But I know that my access to material, and hence, to the development of my themes, is severely hampered because I’m a woman. I learned this especially while writing my newest book, The Geometry of God.
When I first began, I wanted to set the entire story outdoors. You know, I’m so tired of reading books written by Asian diaspora authors who depict Asian women in Asia as passive, pathetic creatures. Inevitably, their books begin with a woman in the kitchen chopping onions or having a baby or both at the same time. My novel’s in part about a girl, Amal, who, while on a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab with her grandfather, accidentally makes an astonishing discovery about whales. I wanted the complete story to unfold in these mountains. But my mobility was restricted, both because the area is army-run and because it’s difficult for an ‘unaccompanied’ woman to explore freely. My restrictions became Amal’s, I wove them into the story, much of which is now set in Lahore.

Ahmede: Can you say more about The Geometry of God?

Uzma Aslam Khan: On the same day that Amal makes her discovery about whales, her baby sister Mehwish is blinded in an accident, and it falls on Amal to look after her. Amal grows up to become Pakistan’s only woman paleontologist, but is prevented, by country and family, from seeking the sort of knowledge that can fuel her infinite curiosity. But in teaching Mehwish how to ‘read’ with her fingertips, she helps Mehwish develop her own language in a way that allows her to negotiate the limits of the practical world that thrills and frustrates Amal. Enter Noman, who unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that lead to an arrest, and bloody judgement.
You’re with these three characters as they grow up during General Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ campaign, when history and science books were rewritten (teaching Darwin was banned), artistic expression was stifled, and the right to theological debate was completely eradicated. So the book deals with the pain of intellectual repression, and with the culture wars of Pakistan brought about by a dictatorship that reduced faith to something that had to be proven. But it’s also, by some miracle, the funniest thing I’ve ever written. Possibly because I wrote all three characters in the first person (my two previous books are told by a third person narrator), the telling is intimate and playful.

Ahmede: What do you gain and lose by living in Pakistan as a novelist, and not
writing from the diaspora?

Uzma Aslam Khan: First, what I gain. I think of writing as a sedimentation process. By living in Pakistan, I feel the place every day, at the conscious and unconcious level. When I write, I tap into these layers. Because The Geometry of God is in part about ‘digging’, this is the metaphor I’m reaching for, but I could also talk about writing fiction as ‘fishing’. You drop the hook, wait for years for that eel that lurks somewhere to take the bait, and at last show itself. By living here, I build a fecund internal field to ply.
However, I’m not always able to tap the external field. As I said earlier, as a woman my mobility is frustratingly limited. My family background isn’t feudal or military, so I can’t drop big names to open doors.
I also lose out on publicity. Writers who live in the UK or US build a network of associates that help them get noticed. Without this buzz, the book dies. That’s the brutal truth. There’s more pressure on writers today to schmooze well than to write well. Though living here has helped me develop my aesthetic, I sail a very lonely boat, and I’m not sure I’d recommend the path.

Ahmede: In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee's protagonist says the following about novelists in Africa writing in English, which may as well be true for South Asia: "Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" You are not a diasporic writer, but how do you view this issue?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Fact is, South Asia is now being written about in fiction almost entirely by writers who’ve never, or barely, lived here, and they typically write about characters like themselves: immigrants, or descendents of immigrants. There’s often a ‘back there in Fanaticstan’ thread to contrast with the ‘over here in Freeland’ thread. Writing about a family from Bangladesh or Pakistan who don’t immigrate is old-fashioned, as it is for the author to live ‘back there’. The hyphen (Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) is what confers credibility. Diaspora writers who fit this description (not all do) are fulfilling the role of interpreter, no differently from the way white colonial writers played the part in the previous centuries. This is the New Orientalism. It has a ‘West saves the East’ undercurrent, and there are always passages of explanation about ‘native’ tribes and customs – so that it reads more like an anthropology study than a novel.
Now, am I also fulfilling this role, even though I live here, just because I write in English? Some would say so, though I’ve fought hard to resist editorial suggestions aimed at tailoring my books to the diaspora taste. With my previous book, Trespassing, this battle with an editor went on for nearly a year. I’ve also fought to keep certain covers off my books – covers that signal orientalism. They inevitably feature eyes behind a veil of soft purple or extreme black. One edition of Trespassing used such a cover, and my protests cost me heavily.
But as long as you write in English, these acts of resistance go unnoticed in Pakistan. In fact, ironically, the frustration I feel about certain kinds of diaspora writing is sometimes aimed at me, instead of at the diaspora writers themselves, who live safely out of target! I’ve had Urdu writers tell me ‘If you write in English, you’re on the other side of the fence.’ The fence doesn’t have to exist. What matters is how you use the language, not the language you use. It needn’t be used to interpret life here for the west. But as long as there’s hostility toward English-language writers within South Asia, local tastes and talents won’t develop, and the diaspora interpreters will continue to set the trend.

Ahmede: The South-Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in religious intolerance. Where do you think the root of this problem lies?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Your question doesn’t specify any faith. As far as politically intolerant Islam goes, Pakistan’s slide began during the Afghan War, when CIA dollars promoted an armed Jihad to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen’s hardcore interpretation of Islam then was a boon, not a bane. What did it give Pakistan? General Zia introduced Sharia’a. Under him, a draconian version of the Blasphemy Law was passed. He introduced the infamous Hudood Laws that target women. These laws still exist.
Though the situation today is eerily similar – another war in Afghanistan, another US-backed military dictator in Pakistan – the roots of political Islam precede 9/11. But the ‘war on terror’ is certainly fattening this tree. In the ‘elections’ of 2002, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, religious parties gained control of two provinces. In our next ‘elections’, they’re likely to retain control, or worse. All over the world, political Islam is strengthening in countries where Muslims feel as crushed by their foreign-backed rulers as by colonial powers, present and past. Such as in Palestine, with the election of Hamas, or in Iran. The outcomes of these legitimate elections aren’t acceptable to western democracies, where political Christianity and political Judaism rule as surely as political Islam rules in parts of Asia. Our choices everywhere are terrifyingly limited. We’re stuck between puppet dictators and right-wing democrats.
But isn’t the root of the problem much older? After all, religion has always been the easiest political weapon in the book.

© Ahmede Hussain

The Editor's Choice

Ahmede: What are the ideas behind The Little Magazine?

Antara Dev Sen: We wanted a space for intelligent and informed dialogue focused on South Asia. A space that would reflect our pluralism, cultural diversity and social concerns through well argued analysis and quality art and literature. So we started The Little Magazine (TLM) in May 2000.

Since the mid-1990s, Indian media was decidedly focusing on aspirational, feel-good, market-driven news and views, at the cost of larger issues of development and human rights. It reflected the international trend of news as entertainment - dominated by sensationalism, trivia, personality cults and narrow politics. I called it the chatpataa phase - quick, spicy snacks and mouth-watering fast food becomes the staple, steadily nudging out nutritious but less exciting food. The consumer may love it, but chaats can't replace your daal-bhaat-sabzi for too long, it may starve the consumer of essential nourishment and endanger the nation's health in the long run. We need wholesome information that sustains reliable debate essential for a healthy democracy. So we decided to start an independent publication that would explore social issues through essays and the arts and present a comprehensive picture to the reader.

Here, we would explore news in context, not as daily reports but as part of our living history. Our social circumstance, values and traditions are best expressed through literature, film and the other arts. So in TLM, the arts provide the backdrop for news, bringing out nuances that even the best essays on social concerns cannot. And in an age of short attention spans, many may not wish to wade through an analytical paper but would happily read a short story on the same issue and be influenced by it. Literature is a soft power - it catches you unawares and gets you thinking. So TLM presents serious issues through a colourful mix of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, art and even filmscripts. We have a wealth of culture in South Asia - and it's a shame that we do not know each other's literature while waxing eloquent on writers from Europe and the Americas.

Also, to reflect our diversity of opinion and trends, we wanted a mix of established voices and new ones. So in TLM internationally acclaimed academics, writers and artists share space with emerging scholars, new artists and the first time poet.

Ahmede: While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?

Antara Dev Sen: First, excellence. Then relevance, and finally the inherent importance of the contribution. Since most of our contributions are invited - both for essays and translated fiction or poetry - we choose our contributors very carefully, seeking out credible scholars and mature, sensitive writers. We seek relevance and import and a diversity of angles that would bring out the various aspects of the issue we are dealing with. But there is always the basic requirement: excellence.

This becomes all the more important when dealing with contributions that come in on their own - and we are privileged to get hundreds every week. Some of these are from renowned writers or artists, sharing their new work. Excellence is usually not in doubt in these, but relevance may be, since TLM is theme-based. But the bulk of the voluntary contributions that pour in are from new writers and artists. In these we look for sheer excellence, followed by relevance to the theme we are working on. I also look at how important a contribution is (not the importance of the author or artist) whether it breaks new ground, throws up fresh ideas or succeeds as an experiment - through ideas, genre, form or content.

Ahmede: The Little Magazine puts an extra emphasis on works on translation.
Can you please tell us why it is so?

Antara Dev Sen: Literature is one of the core areas of TLM. And in South Asia, where we have a plethora of culturally rich languages, we also have that many language literatures. For example, in India alone there are 24 distinct languages with 24 corresponding literatures. So we may be prisoners confined to our language, unable to reach out to others, blocked from view of the rest of South Asia and the world. To be able to exchange thoughts with those belonging to other languages, we need translations. We need to tell our stories and hear the stories of others in order to know ourselves better, and to recognize our multicultural, pluralistic identities as South Asians.

So in TLM we translate South Asian language literatures into English, the only language spoken and read throughout the subcontinent, even if it is limited to certain social segments. It allows our literatures to spread beyond our national borders, to our neighbourhood, as well as to the rest of the English-speaking world. In a globalised age, it is not enough to know oneself, it is essential to reach out to the world in order to understand each other better.

And writers in English representing South Asian literatures to the world - whether Amit Chaudhuri or Monica Ali - offer a partial picture, however excellent. The main bulk of South Asia's rich literary heritage in several languages is left out. We need to rectify this imbalance of presentation. So we need to stop thinking of English as the coloniser's language and use it as a tool to bridge the gap both between our different languages, and between South Asia and the world. This is why TLM focuses so much on translations.

Ahmede: How important do you think democracy is for freedom of speech to thrive?

Antara Dev Sen: Freedom of speech can thrive only in a democracy, just as democracy can thrive only when there is real freedom of speech. When many voices are heard, people can choose between different points of view. And democratic freedoms help nurture freedom of speech and expression, which implies freedom of the press, of the creative arts, of academic pursuit.

Unfortunately, even today we often get confused between defending what one says and defending one's right to say that. Protecting someone's freedom of speech or expression doesn't necessarily mean that you agree with the content of that speech. It is very important to make this distinction. For the sake of press freedom, we may defend articles we disagree with. To secure freedom of literary expression, we may oppose the banning of a novel that we personally hate. If we defended only what we agreed with that would not be freedom - it would never allow contrary voices to be heard, harming democratic dialogue.

Democracy and free speech nurture each other, because a vibrant democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. But even in democracies, free speech is routinely threatened by intolerant groups. The government may allow your free speech, but will you thereafter be protected from the fanatical fundamentalists? It is easier to ban or withdraw a publication or censor a book or an art exhibit than protect the right to free speech.

Unfortunately, with the unnerving rise of fundamentalism around the world, freedom of speech and expression is diminishing even in flourishing democracies. Take M.F. Husain, 92 years old and one of South Asia's most celebrated artists. Religious fanatics hounded him out of India, he is now in exile, not daring to return, especially since the government cannot guarantee his safety. We have seen much unrest and a curtailing of freedom of speech and expression in South Asia recently - just take the curbs and attacks on mediapersons in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, democracy is suspended in all these countries right now, except Sri Lanka.

So democracy is very important for free speech, but ultimately it is liberal thought that nurtures it. And when fanatics get too powerful, within or outside the government, our freedom of speech and expression shrinks.

Ahmede: As your website says The Little Magazine is South Asia's only professionally produced, independent print magazine 'devoted to essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism'. We have seen a flurry of writers making their voices heard in English (a language once considered borrowed), but at the same it does not match with the number of literary magazines published in English in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh...

Antara Dev Sen: Yes, there is a lack of forums for new writers. Traditionally, emerging talent has been discovered in literary publications, mostly small or independent magazines. As I said earlier, one of TLM's aims was to offer a platform for promising writers and artists. And in these seven years we have discovered quite a few talented young authors and poets who have thereafter been picked up by big publishers and become recognised names. TLM provides an initial foothold - the first credible stamp of approval.

We have also started two awards for literature last year, one of which is for new writers. It aims to encourage first time fiction writers and playwrights. The Little Magazine New Writing Award honours a new writer for one short story or play in any South Asian language. The contributions we get are mostly written in English and some are translated into English from the original. Jayant Sankrityayana, an automobile designer from Pune, India, won last year's award for the English story, 'Tsunami'.

Our other award is The Little Magazine SALAM (South Asian Literary Award for the Masters) where we salute one stalwart each in fiction, poetry and drama from any of our languages. The first TLM SALAM went to Bangladesh's Shamsur Rahman for poetry (in Bengali), India's Vijay Tendulkar for drama (in Marathi) and Kamala Das for fiction (in Malayalam and English). It was a liberating experience, a celebration of literature without borders - with nominees and jury members from various parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We were particularly privileged to have Shamsur Rahman who was not well at all, come down to Delhi for the TLM SALAM. It was the last time he travelled out of Dhaka.

Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and an editor?

Antara Dev Sen: As an editor, as free as any editor responsible for a publication feels. The gender is irrelevant.

But as a woman it's more complex. I am lucky to be born in an educated, liberal family, privileged by class, caste and religious identities, in a secular, democratic country. Fortunately, I am empowered by education and freedom of choice. My partner in life, and in The Little Magazine, is a free-spirited, idealistic man with similar views. So I do feel free - as free as any responsible individual in troubled times does. Very free as an individual, but unfree as one belonging to a land tied up in knots of corruption, regressive social convention, religious brutality, caste discrimination, gender violence and other unnerving inequalities that don't allow us to break free. I feel less free as a citizen of a troubled world.

And every once in a while some woman around me - from my chattering maids to the shady politician's wife, women as rape statistics to women as victims of honour killings - reminds me of the very limited freedom I might have had if it wasn't for the accident of birth. In that sense, as a woman in South Asia, you can never feel completely free.

Ahmede: The South Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in bigotry and intolerance. What do you think are the main causes of this menace?

Antara Dev Sen: Bigotry and intolerance comes either from too much power or from too little. The more helpless you feel, the more desperate you are to be noticed, to establish your might. And this is largely a response to political circumstance. After 9/11, there has been a revival of religious fundamentalism, especially Muslim fundamentalism, around the world, not just in South Asia. I have never seen so many women in hijab in the US or the UK as now. Today, defiantly flaunting one's Muslim identity is a response to the West's appalling 'war against terror'.

For years, the US used Muslim extremism to fight its shadow wars with the USSR, for example in Afghanistan. It encouraged the fundamentalism snowballing through Central and South Asia in the 1990s. Suddenly, after 9/11/2001, this changed to sweeping suspicion and hostility towards Muslims, which polarised people further and cultivated more hatred. South Asia reflects this polarisation. Not surprising, since South Asia hosts half the world's Muslim population - the largest number of Muslims in the world.

But Muslim fundamentalism is just one part of our region's fanatical fury. In India, for example, there has been a revival of both Hindu and Muslim extremism. And one fanatic feeds another. Take the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It set off the Bombay riots. Which triggered the Bombay blasts. Hatred blossomed spectacularly on both sides of the religious divide. Hindu fanatics have been censoring art and academia, rewriting history, even killing Muslims like in Gujarat in 2002. Muslim terrorists have been orchestrating bomb blasts, and the moderate Indian Muslim society is being whipped into orthodoxy by fundamentalists wielding bizarre and inhuman fatwas.

Fundamentalism is often a grievance redressal system. So the more grievances you have, the more scope there is for such extremism. South Asia is home to half the world's poor, is notoriously corrupt, has a terrible track record in employment, health, education and other development indicators, routinely violates the human rights of women, the low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities and the less privileged. With low accountability and bad governance, there is so much discontent in the region that inciting people is relatively easy for energetic rebels. And for governments, it is easier to crack the whip of fundamentalism than to try and solve their myriad problems of governance.

In short, today's bigotry is primarily a response to social changes and political decisions that offend us. Whether it is the Hindu fanatic, Maoist militant, Muslim fundamentalist or ethnic separatist in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, they are responding to local, national or international issues that affront them. As long as there is this simmering discontent, there will be radicals or politicians who will use it to encourage violence, intolerance and suspension of freedoms.

© Ahmede Hussain