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Archives for August 2010

Kashmir's cry for 'freedom'

Soutik Biswas | 17:15 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

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Curfew in SrinagarIt is yesterday once more in Kashmir. From the time I have flown into the valley on Monday, Srinagar has resembled a ghost town, bringing back memories of a visit two years ago. The only signs of life are tetchy security forces manning checkpoints or idly fiddling with their mobile phones, the odd chemist or a cigarette shop that is open, an occasional car with a flashing red beacon or an ambulance hurtling down its empty roads, a "ration truck" bringing in supplies to its besieged residents.

The interminable day and night curfews have drained all life out of Srinagar. People have retreated into their homes leaving back graffiti on the walls screaming Go Back India! In the restive old city, surly young men sit outside shuttered homes and shops and glare at the troops peering out of sandbagged bunkers and manning the razor wire checkpoints. People wake up at the crack of dawn to store up on supplies when the grocers open for a few minutes. At night, an eerie silence descends over the city as the moon plays hide and seek with the clouds.

It is another summer of unrest in what is possibly the most scenic valley in the world. Two months of cyclical violence between stone pelting protesters and heavily armed security forces have left more than 50 dead - mostly teenagers. Things are looking grimmer than ever before. It's a summer that could turn out to be another defining point in the valley's tortured history. A whole generation of children of the conflict - Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer evocatively calls it their "war of adolescence" - who grew up in the days of militancy and violence in the early 1990s are driving the protests today. (Seven out of 10 Kashmiris are below 25.)

Growing up in the shadow of the gun and what they say is "perpetual humiliation" by the security forces, they are angry, alienated and distrustful of the state. As prominent opposition leader Mehbooba Mufti tells me when I visit her at her heavily secured home overlooking the stunning Dal lake: "If these young men are not given something to look forward to, God help Kashmir." The valley, most residents say, is in the early stages of an intifada.A pro-freedom protestor in Kashmir

Mainstream politicians admit that they have lost confidence of the people. "We can only wait and watch how the situation develops," says Ms Mufti. The hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani appears to be only leader with a modicum of legitimacy, however precarious. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's "give peace a chance " appeal to Kashmiris in a televised speech on Tuesday appears to have left them cold. When politics and the state withers away, it creates a dangerous vacuum. One senses an early beginning of this in Kashmir today.

In the labyrinthine heart of the old city of cone-roofed cheek by jowl brick homes and shops, old "heritage" houses in elegant decrepitude, overflowing sewers and potholed roads, India has receded further from the collective consciousness of its residents. In their homes, mothers are stocking memories of their dead children in trunks, suitcases, cupboards and school bags. Most have died in the firing by security forces.

One mother emptied a cupboard and a suitcase full of of her 14 yr-old boy's belongings for me. Wamiq Farooq had gone to play in the neighbourhood when a tear gas shell fired by the troops exploded on his head. Doctors tried to revive him for an hour at the hospital before declaring him dead.

Now, sitting on a brown rug in a modest family home, his mother brings out Wamiq's red tie, red belt, white cap, fraying blue uniform, half a dozen school trophies, report cards, school certificates and then his pithy death certificate. "He is sure to be a face in the crowd," writes his school principal on one certificate praising Wamiq, the Tom and Jerry cartoons and science-loving teenaged son of a street vendor father. Then she slowly puts back Wamiq - his life and death - back into the suitcase and the cupboard and tells me, her eyes welling up: "I never understood why Kashmiri people demand freedom. After Wamiq's death, I do. I want freedom too. So that my children can return home unharmed and in peace."

Commonwealth Games: Where's the sports?

Soutik Biswas | 13:48 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010

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Debris outside a Commonwealth Games stadium in DelhiDo the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi have anything to do with sports? It doesn't appear so. With barely 60 days to go for the country's showiest sporting event ever, I have not read or seen anything in the papers and TV on how its athletes are preparing for the games, and what their prospects are. Not one story in the papers or on the networks. Nobody seems to know who is playing for whom. Nobody seems to even care.

Instead, every day brings newer allegations of bribery, leaky stadiums, a runaway budget (18 times over its original 2003 estimate), shadowy contractors, dodgy money transfers, forged certification, inferior equipment and sweetheart deals. (The curiously silent government only says it is investigating the complaints, but it may be too late.)

Over 40 workers, by the government's own admission, have died at Games construction sites. Then there is the unedifying sight of roads caving in and the city drowning in its own detritus as Delhi struggles to undergo a frenzied makeover which makes little sense - sandstone-tiled sidewalks! - to its harassed denizens.

The Games have already become the worst advert for a "resurgent, confident" India. Most of the people I know are planning to flee the capital with family - schools will be shut - during the event. They expect massive gridlock with lanes being allotted to Games traffic on its already congested roads. The poor are completely alienated - they have been at the receiving end of eviction drives to clean up the city for the event. People, in general, are calling it a "total waste of money." On the blogosphere, people are calling it "Common Wealth Gains", among other unkind things.

"This is getting dirtier than the Yamuna!" screamed one recent newspaper headline, alluding to the filth-choked river that runs through Delhi. The rising tide of allegations about corruption has fed the perception that politicians and officials have lined their pockets (once again), using the Games as an excuse. Delhi is easily India's most corrupt city, and the perception sticks easily.

So what are the Games really about?

"The Games were never about sports," says MJ Akbar, editor of The Sunday Guardian newspaper. "They were a fortuitous opportunity for Delhi's ruling class to divert a vast fortune from the national exchequer in the name of national prestige, and spend it on just those few parts of India's capital where the elite live. As patriotism, despite its many virtues, is also the last refuge of the scoundrel, a healthy part of the money was siphoned off, evidence of which has begun to move towards the front page."

What is baffling is the collective silence of the participating countries. In the early days, some raised questions about the speed of work; they were quickly assured by organisers that all was well. Now the chief executive of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association, Perry Crosswhite, suspects political motives. "It looks like the parties and the government there are having a go at each other, and no doubt everybody has got their little axe to grind. These things tend to happen before these type of events - the blame game begins," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Crosswhite is only partly correct. Many believe that between the phony patriotism of the organisers and the doomsday predictions of the cynics, sports will be the biggest loser. They say at its best the Games will be a lackadaisical event; and at its worst, it could end up tarnishing the country's much vaunted reputation.

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