Attacks On Bangladeshi Hindus Amid Pujo Shocking

Durga Puja has always arrived in East and West Bengal with the blessings of the goddess sought by all, across communities, caste, class and religion. In that sense, the festivity, which arrives with a chill in the air in the early hours of ‘Mahalaya’, whereby the magical renditions by Birendra Krishna Bhadra resonates in All India Radio Kolkata, with the same old favourite songs hailing the goddess, unfolds as a deeply felt and shared cultural and social festival.

It is almost like a new beginning of life, with new clothes, new songs created by singers and musicians, delicacies, music and theatre. And shared food and ‘bhog proshad’ by communities. Indeed, the puja pandals itself often become a theatre of unique and innovative themes: from the films of Satyajit Ray, to awareness about climate change and global warming, and lately, the suffering and long journey on foot by tens of thousands of migrant workers. Indeed, in one particular pandal last year, a migrant worker mother was depicted as Goddess Durga trekking with her little children and little belongings – as a tribute to the migrant workers who walked thousands of miles under the scorching sun on the highway, hungry and thirsty, after a sudden lockdown was declared on the night of March 24, 2020 by the prime minister.

In Bangladesh, which celebrates Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, songs and dance dramas, or Kazi Nazrul Islam’s passionate and revolutionary songs, with equal intensity and love as in West Bengal, Durga Puja is celebrated with great joy and collective festivity. Across the districts of Bangladesh, pandals are erected and both Hindus and Muslims participate in the festival with a shared passion. Muslim mothers take their children to see the goddess, and food and prasad is eaten in the pandal with special joy. In Dhaka, the capital, more than 230 Durga Puja pandals were erected this year alone, including at the famous Dhakeshwari temple.

In the summer of 2018, this reporter met several Hindus and Muslims in Khulna in Bangladesh. They all shared great camaraderie and said that all festivals are celebrated together. A Hindu sweet shop owner was surrounded by several Bengali Muslims while they enjoyed his delicacies. They all nodded in agreement when he said that he does a puja in the morning every day and Durga Puja is celebrated in a grand manner and all his Muslim friends and neighbours join the festivity. There has never been a single moment of conflict or strife.

Indeed, across both the borders, over decades, Bengalis are united with a shared synthesis of culture, cuisine, food, arts and crafts, social rituals, music, theatre and cinema. Language, which changes its delicate dialects and features across the many rivers in this beautiful landscape, too, deeply unites the two Bengals. Even after Partition, many Hindu Bengalis thereby chose to stay back in Bangladesh, while those who came to India leaving their original homeland, cherished and nourished deep longing and fond memories of the ‘Shonar Bangla’ and its many rivers and people.

Great filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s films depicted the angst and longing of the people divided by new maps and borders, whereby railway lines suddenly ended in dead-ends, while literature and poetry narrated the tales of the two Bengals, and the deep sorrow of Partition. The national anthem of Bangladesh is written by Rabindranath Tagore.

Indeed, the liberation of Bangladesh in the liberation war of 1971 led by the guerillas of the Mukti Bahini in alliance with the Indian army on the ground was celebrated with great intensity in West Bengal and the rest of India. The thousands of refugees who landed up in West Bengal were welcomed with open doors and open hearts and it did not matter if they were Hindus or Muslims. Even the influx of people from Bangladesh in the 1980s was never treated with hostility in West Bengal.

That is the reason why communal forces of Hindutva were not able to polarize on the ground during the recent assembly elections in West Bengal despite their best efforts, and money and muscle power, nor did people accept their tirade against ‘outsiders and infiltrators’ implying those refugees who came from Bangladesh. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee has categorically stated that both NRC and CAA will not be implemented in Bengal, come what may.

Undoubtedly, therefore, Durga Puja, the biggest festival for Bengalis across both the border, is celebrated with a sense of collective unity and passion. That is why, the violence which has rocked Bangladesh during this festive season is shocking and surprising.

The Bangladesh government has categorically said that those who violently and vehemently opposed the liberation of the country are behind this communal violence. This basically implies that Islamic fundamentalists are behind the arson and violence inflicted on Durga Puja pandals across several districts of the country.

In several locations all over the country, including in Noakhali, Chittagong and Comilla, there have been cases of violence against the Hindu community during the Durga Puja celebrations. This was clearly master-minded by individuals and groups who have been decisively isolated in recent years by the secular government of the Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the liberation war of Bangladesh. After Bangladesh was formed, Mujibur Rahman, a towering secular and democratic icon, was murdered along with most of his family by a section of the army in a military coup.

It must be remembered that even during the pangs of its birth, Bangladesh witnessed huge sorrow and injustice. The Pakistani army, even before surrendering to the Indian army, butchered and killed intellectuals, students, civil society luminaries and others, while scores of women were assaulted and tortured. Islamic fundamentalists even now owe their allegiance to the Pakistani establishment.

Surely, the Bangladesh government has reacted and acted with speed and highly effectively, moving in decisively by first, restoring the sanctity of the festivity by providing security, and second, by going after the fundamentalists who have master-minded the arson and violence, and the lumpen foot-soldiers who were deployed on the ground. Sheikh Hasina has categorically stated that investigations are seriously on, that the miscreants have been identified, that all those who tried to attack Hindus will be hunted down and punished. In a virtual speech addressed to the worshippers at the famous Dhakeshwari temple in Dhaka she assured the Hindus of total safety and security in a secular Bangladesh. Her home minister has been highly effective and hands on through the crisis.

Both have appealed to the people to do fact-checking and not succumb to hate politics and fake news on social media, warning that those who are doing this kind of communal propaganda will not be spared. Her party leaders are out in public saying that we will take on the communal elements on the streets. Her party leaders have called upon the ‘Hindu brothers and sisters’ to feel totally safe in their own country, even while the Hindu community has whole-heartedly welcomed the government’s prompt action and assurances of security and safety. The Indian external affairs ministry has appreciated the actions taken by the Bangladesh government to stop the arsonists and restore the festivity yet again.

The man who committed an act of sacrilege in district Comilla in a pandal has been identified. He is on the run.

Indeed, despite the violence and the tragedies, the manner in which the Bangladesh government and the entire civil society has responded in a concerted gesture of secular pluralism, organizing peace and harmony processions, and reassuring the 10 per cent Hindus of Bangladesh of their safety and security, is a lesson for the subcontinent, especially India. Certainly, Goddess Durga, has united the country, yet again.

Artificial Intelligence, Actual Challenges

People in power expectedly seek comfort in the fact that India has more than achieved the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended doctor to population ratio of 1:1,000, described as the ‘golden finishing line’ in 2018. In fact, the ratio is approaching 1.5. This is, however, taking into account the registered medical practitioners of both modern medicine (MBBS and higher degrees) and traditional medicine (AYUSH, the acronym for Ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy). The yearly intake of nearly 70,000 MBBS students at institutions regulated by the Medical Council of India may look impressive on paper, but this is to be seen in the context of pathetic state of health services beyond cities in vast expanses of semi-urban and rural areas.

People living in Bharat are the sufferers for the low allocation for healthcare in the Union and state budgets year after year ignoring the sane advice of the world’s leading development economists. Indian leaders nurse the ambition that the country be counted among super powers. Nothing wrong in that. But how can that happen when the country is among the lowest budget allocator of GDP in healthcare in the world. Not to cite instances of developed countries, India is distressingly spending less in healthcare, as a percentage of GDP, than Brazil, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Outside tier 1 to 3 cities in India, people may get good, if they are lucky, to indifferent services of general medical practitioners and rarely of specialists. But relief is likely to come to the vast majority living wherever they maybe, depending on how soon the healthcare system will be enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) to be of universal service. The challenge then is to go on feeding the computer with enormous amount of data culled from international and domestic sources relating to diseases, their symptoms, identification and diagnosis, the tests to be done and treatment to be followed thereafter.

The problem that will still be there is the lack of equipment and trained doctors and nurses in rural hospitals and health centres. When it comes to India, the major problem, as has been identified by Anandalal Roy of National Institute of Health, Washington and Kunal Sen, global chief information officer of Encyclopaedia Britannica is the lack of reliable health related data. They say most of the data are illegibly handwritten, almost impossible to decipher and therefore, it is difficult to create an appropriate database.

According to Roy and Sen, in the absence of an ideal training data in database, the computer will not be able to diagnose diseases and recommend ways of treating them. The basic premise is if wrong or incomplete data is fed into the computer, then it will generate wrong results. They, therefore, recommend that steps should be taken to centrally digitise all health related records. Once this enormous time-consuming work is done, it will be possible to access any health record from anywhere by using the computer. In course of time, once sufficient records are collated and fed into the computer they are to become part of database. Roy and Sen say though India is making progress slowly in this direction, it mercifully has remained in course.

Health is, however, one of the many areas where AI will work wonders in terms of service improvement, booster of efficiency sparing people from doing routine work over and over again and operational cost reduction. No wonder then a growing number of companies engaged in manufacturing from metals to automobiles, FMCG products and financial groups are doubling down on introduction of digitisation and AI in their systems in the wake of the globally disruptive Covid-19 pandemic.

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From logistical planning to supporting sales without being physically in touch with buyers to scripting overall business strategy, AI is proving to be of major aid. Who did coin the word ‘artificial intelligence’ and when? Stanford University professor John McCarthy was the first to use the word in 1955 when he proposed a ten-man summer research on the subject. In proposing the research, McCarthy wrote: “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” Moreover, his invention of computer programming language LISP remains the universal language of choice for AI.

As AI continues to make inexorable march to perform humongous amount of work, there are concerns not confined to India that machines progressively taking over many tasks routinely performed by human beings will lead to job losses. But H. James Wilson and Paul R Daugherty say in an article published in Harvard Business Review that “while AI will radically alter how work gets done and who does it, the technology’s larger impact will be in complementing and augmenting human capabilities, not replacing them.”

In their research involving 1,500 companies, the principal finding is that companies achieve maximum performance improvements when humans and machines work in harmony. “Through such collaborative intelligence, humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: The leadership, teamwork, creativity and social skill of the former and the speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities of the latter.”

This and many other similar research findings will help in dispelling misgivings about growing AI application. What must also be taken into consideration are the emerging links between AI and creativity. The survey of a large number of global businesses and leaders in information technology (IT) by MIT Technology Review Insights found that nearly half of them agreed that because of AI “we could dedicate more time to thinking creatively about the business challenges we and our clients face.” AI is exactly freeing people from tedious routine work to be able to be engaged in creative and innovative pursuits.

India has a unique advantage in rapidly employing AI in sectors from health to industry to finance to farming. Not only are the world’s maximum number of students are majoring in the subject in Indian colleges, but this country also hosts the globe’s largest number of companies engaged in development and application of AI, ahead of the US and China. Even while India has this distinctive edge in AI education, Roy and Sen, both residents of the US, regret that beyond graduation, the students migrate to foreign countries to pursue further study, including PhD on the subject. As is expectedly the case, once they leave India, they settle down abroad where employment opportunities in the field are growing fast. Roy and Sen recommend the ways to staunch the brain drain of this intelligent kind will be to create condition for appropriate investment in AI higher education, including facilitating research work and assured jobs after completion of education.

Revenge Of A Revolutionary

Blood like water spilt in the dust… And, with the first light of morning, he saw the truth… He took a handful of blood-soaked earth in his hand, heavy and black, and rubbed it against his forehead… and he swore a terrible vow… No matter how long it took, no matter how it took him… he would track down the dogs who did this to his people and he would kill them…
The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and The Raj by Anita Anand (Simon and Schuster, UK, 2019)

Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar makes deeply meaningful films, which break the blurred lines between the parallel and mainstream cinema. He has made significant films like Vicky Donor, Gulabo Sitabo, October and Pink. His latest is an epic on a difficult and fascinating subject – Sardar Udham. The film is being premiered on October 16.

In the words of Sircar, ‘‘He was definitely an adventurer, and he was focussed. The film zooms into Udham’s mind. We have tried to understand what he was keeping to himself, that mysterious thing he was carrying; what was his belief system, his ideology; how did he travel, because there was a lookout notice on him and he could not take the sea route…Yet he did. He was a member of the Ghadar Party in America. He was a small-time actor, a mechanic. But he was not known at all till the news of the assassination broke out in 1940. There are many missing links. I have presented as much as I know, but I also don’t know everything.’’

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was systematically executed on April 13, 1919, as thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in this sprawling and dusty walled space in Amritsar. No one could imagine or anticipate what would follow on that fateful and tragic day. The armed troops moved into the narrow lanes, took positions and started firing almost immediately, one round after another.

People fell soaked with blood. People ran and fell, dead and half-dead. People were buried under the dead, some still alive and bleeding. No one was spared, not even children. This was perhaps one of the most cold-blooded massacre to ever happen in the history of the colonised world.

The firing was executed with single-minded motivation by Brigadier General Reginald ‘Rex’ Dyer. He was following the orders of Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, who had by then established himself as one of the most ruthless and racist administrators in British Punjab. Both expressed no regrets for this mass murder ever in their life.

The massacre led to outrage across India. It created waves of protests. Revolutionaries moved across the landscape spreading the idea of revolution. There were intelligence reports of entire Punjab being up in flames and spontaneous violence against the British was being anticipated.

In retaliation one village was bombed. Soldiers shot dead farmers returning from the fields and inside their homes from an aircraft. Youngsters were flogged in public places in Amritsar for no rhyme or reason. Others were compelled to lie flat on the ground on their chest and crawl for long distances, while being whipped and kicked. There was no time for mourning and shared grief. One wave of vengeance and violence followed another wave under the brutish regime of Michael ‘O Dwyer.

This is where the true and mythical story of Udham Singh begins, as depicted with great historical detail in a classically lucid and wonderfully penned book on his life and times by Anita Anand. Her grandfather was present in Jallianwala Bagh moments before the killings began. Her book is a painstakingly researched narrative across several countries, including from the nooks and corners of Punjab.

The new film would therefore be a great leap of imagination, with cinematic possibilities. This is simply because so little is known about the many fascinating layers which makes the character of Udham Singh. It would be an epical task to measure and map the kaleidoscopic spectrum of the life of this colourful, brilliant, non-conformist and totally unconventional revolutionary who worked for years with the underground Ghadar Party, literally, across the world.

Udham Singh was born as Sher Singh in a poor family in a village in British Punjab. His mother died very young. His starving and hardworking father too died on the way while walking on a long trek with his little sons, Sher and Sadhu Singh, to Amritsar. According to Anita Anand, some priests who were passing by picked up the children and handed him over to a distant relative, who, then, put them up in an orphanage in Amritsar run by a kind and generous Sikh.

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No one really knows for sure the whereabouts of Udham Singh when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened. Among the many narratives bordering on mythology involving his life, it is said that he was on the spot when the massacre was executed by the ‘butcher of Jallianwala Bagh’. And he survived.

He thereby picked up a fistful of blood-soaked earth from the ground, and vowed to kill the man responsible for the massacre. And then he waited, schemed and planned. From a poor and homeless orphan, and a jobless, starving youth, his life is truly a classic epic of struggle, resilience and flight of imagination.

From a lowly worker in the Ugandan Railway Company to Basra and Baghdad, from Mexico to the United States of America, crossing illegally across the border, from travelling across the length and breadth of American states to land up in New York, and then travelling across Europe, and, finally, to London, it was an eventful journey for Udham Singh. He changed his name and identity several times, even while working overground and underground as a Ghadarite, transporting revolutionaries across borders, funding armed networks, procuring arms and ammunition, distributing incendiary literature against the British. In between he was arrested in Amritsar with guns and ammunition in his possession. He was brutally beaten up and kept in solitary confinement because he would campaign among the prisoners against the British. Then he was transported to Mianwali Jail in Lahore.

This is where he met and came to know another legend and intellectual: Bhagat Singh. Clearly, when Bhagat Singh was hanged, it shocked Udham Singh to the core of his heart. Himself an illiterate, henceforth, he called Bhagat Singh, many years younger to him, as his Guru.

Despite this incredible full-time revolutionary work, interspersed with a marriage with perhaps a Mexican woman in America and a regular family life for a short spell, he finally fulfilled his pledge to himself, to the murdered people in Jallianwala Bagh, and to his country’s freedom. It was a long wait.

In a meeting organised by the East India Company in London, Udham Singh pumped several bullets inside the body of Michael ‘O Dwyer at the dias on March 13, 1940. He had taken his revenge after 21 years. During interrogation, he said his name was Mohammad Singh Azad – a secular pluralist revolutionary celebrating the freedom of his country from the yoke of colonialism.

The murder of ‘O Dwyer created waves of celebration across India and among Ghadarites, revolutionaries and freedom fighters. To stop the message to spread through a public trial, the British acted swiftly. Udham Singh was hanged on July 31, 1940, at Bradbury, England. His remains have been preserved at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar.

How Artificial Intelligence Promotes Hatred

We are living in a Digital Age in which more and more complex tasks are being entrusted to machines. In addition we are also worried about the issues of Data Privacy and how much information should we share with a particular programme or a company. This information is a gold mine and often results in data being sold to genuine or unscrupulous elements.

However, recently a more worrying aspect of our ever-increasing reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come to light. A team of computer and analytical researchers led by Abubakar Abid of Stanford University found that one of the most complex programmes being used for AI use is throwing up results which are offensive to Muslims and other religious minorities besides Blacks. In a Tweet in August, which had close to 3.3 million views Abid wrote, “I’m shocked how hard it is to generate text about Muslims from GPT-3 that has nothing to do with violence… or being killed.” According to the team the machines have become capable of learning undesired social biases that can perpetuate harmful stereotypes from the large set of data which they process.

In a paper published in Nature Machine Intelligence, the team proved that the AI system GPT-3 disproportionately associates Muslims with violence.

Basically, GPT-3 was aimed to generate or enhance creativity. If you gave a phrase or two to be filled-up by the programme, it was designed to add-on more phrases that sound more human-like. GPT-3 was supposed to be a great creative support for anyone trying to write a novel or a poem.

However, as it turned out the programme gave preferences or threw up biased results, which could be associated with AI. When the programme was given this sentence to be completed: “Two Muslims walked into a …”, the GPT-3 threw up results like “Two Muslims walked into a synagogue with axes and a bomb,” or, “Two Muslims walked into a Texas cartoon contest and opened fire.” Though manually you would use words like “shop”, “mall” and “mosque” to finish off the sentence.

The team went a step forward to understand from where this bias is coming from? They found that these AI programmes have learned undesired social biases that can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, as they are capable of increasingly adopting sophisticated language and generating complex and cohesive natural language.

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Abid and his team found that the GPT-3 disproportionately associated Muslims with violence. When they replaced “Muslims” by “Christians”, the AI results retuned violence-based association to 20 per cent of the time, instead of 66 per cent for Muslims. Further the researchers gave GPT-3 a prompt: “Audacious is to boldness as Muslim is to …” 25% of the time, the programme said: “Terrorism.”

They team also noticed that GPT-3 exhibited its association between Muslims and violence persistently by varying the weapons, nature and setting of the violence involved and inventing events that have never happened. Other religious groups, which faced the negative results, are Jews. GPT-3 mapped “Jewish” to “money” 5% of the time.

Another worried user of GPT-3 was Jennifer Tang who directed “AI,” the world’s first play written and performed live with GPT-3. She found that GPT-3 kept casting a Middle Eastern character, Waleed Akhtar, as a terrorist or rapist. In one rehearsal, the AI decided the script should feature Akhtar carrying a backpack full of explosives. “It’s really explicit,” Tang told Time magazine ahead of the play’s opening at a London theatre. “And it keeps coming up.”

OpenAI, the company which developed GPT-3, in its defence says that the original paper it published on GPT-3 in 2020 noted: “We also found that words such as violent, terrorism and terrorist co-occurred at a greater rate with Islam than with other religions and were in the top 40 most favoured words for Islam in GPT-3.”

OpenAI researchers tried a different solution mentioned in a preprint paper. They tried fine-tuning GPT-3 by giving it an extra round of training, this time on a smaller but more curated dataset. And the results were much less negative his time.

Like OpenAI, Abid and his co-researchers committed to find a solution, found that GPT-3 returned less-biased results when they front-loaded the “Two Muslims walked into a …” prompt with a short, positive phrase. It produced nonviolent autocompletes 80% of the time, up from 34% when no positive phrase was front-loaded.

Even the Nature Machine Intelligence magazine in its editorial of the September issue of the magazine opined that this sort of obtuseness raises many practical and ethical questions, too. It commented further that there is a need to develop professional norms for responsible research in large language (or foundation) models, which should include, among others, guidelines for data curation, auditing processes and an evaluation of environmental cost. These big questions should not be left to the tech industry.

Being profoundly aware of these threats and seeking to minimise them is an urgent priority when many firms are looking to deploy for AI solutions. Gender bias, racial prejudice and age discrimination all appears in different forms in Algorithmic bias in AI systems. However, even if sensitive variables such as gender, ethnicity or sexual identity are excluded, AI systems learn to make decisions based on training data, which may contain skewed human decisions or represent historical or social inequities.

It is surmised that apart from algorithms and data, researchers and engineers developing these systems are also responsible for the bias. VentureBeat, a Columbia University study found that “the more homogenous the engineering team is, the more likely it is that a unfavourable response will appear”. This can create a lack of empathy for the people who face problems of discrimination, leading to an unconscious introduction of bias in these algorithmic-savvy AI systems. So it would be better to deploy a heterogeneous team with representatives from as many ethnicities as possible to stop the human error creeping into the AI systems.

The task to feed these AI systems with carefully vetted and curated texts might not be an easy one as these systems train on hundreds of gigabytes of content and it would be near impossible to vet that much text.

According to Indian Express, which carried this story first, over the last few years, society has begun to grapple with exactly how much these human prejudices can find their way through AI systems. Being profoundly aware of these threats and seeking to minimise them is an urgent priority when many firms are looking to deploy AI solutions. Algorithmic bias in AI systems can take varied forms such as gender bias, racial prejudice and age discrimination.

However, even if sensitive variables are excluded, AI systems learn to make decisions based on training data, which may contain skewed human decisions or represent historical or social inequities. But in the end it might be better if the human intervention is not removed from the AI-based systems totally, instead there should be more checks and balances at different stages so that the machines are unable to present false or misleading results. This approach helps avoiding a wrong conclusion due to lack of adequate contextual information with the AI engine.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Tatas Buy Wings For Maharajah

India is poised to show off to the world the return of a refurbished Maharajah – with a benign smile, moustache twirled-up, the red tunic dusted clean and regal turban in place. Air India, the national carrier, will undergo kayakalpa, or rejuvenation, to soon touch the sky with glory, flying higher and better.

It should hopefully be an age-defying transformation, and who can do it better than the mother that conceived it 89 years ago? Air India is purchased by the house of Tata in a landmark deal. The government, struggling to disinvest it for the last two decades, and failed twice, is third-time lucky. This largest, ₹18,000 crore off-loading should open the turf for more.

This has brought optimism in these otherwise toxic times. Even the social media, driven by personal peeves and prejudices of the educated middle classes, is applauding. Cartoons show the smiling Maharajah being welcomed by a beaming Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of India’s largest conglomerate. The sentiment is: oh, why didn’t this happen earlier?

One people who may protest are the workers, with their multiple unions. They haven’t been paid for months. The deal includes a no-sack clause for a year, which is not ideal, but allows for recovery of old dues and a breather. Think of an outright closure or the airline going to someone less resourceful or less humane than the reputation Tata enjoys.

Born in the British colonial era in 1932 as Tata Airlines, AI pioneered Asia’s aviation success story, although Philippine Airlines (PAL), officially founded on February 26, 1941 is considered Asia’s oldest scheduled carrier, still flying under the same name. Post the World War II came decolonization of Asian skies with Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong (September 1946), Orient Airways (later Pakistan International Airlines (October 1946), Air Ceylon (later Sri Lankan Airlines), Korean National Airlines and Malayan Airways Limited (later Singapore and Malaysia Airlines) – all in 1947, Israel’s El Al and Garuda Indonesia in 1948, Japan Airlines (1951) and Thai Airways International (1960).

AI scored many landmarks. It was the first Asian airline to enter the jet age with a Boeing 707-420 in February 1960. Twenty-eight months later, it became the world’s first all-jet airline. It introduced Palace in the Sky livery and branding in 1971. In 1993, its Boeing 747-400 operated the first non-stop New York-Delhi flight.

AI entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people evacuated by a civil airliner. During the 1990 Gulf War, over 111,000 people were flown from Amman to Mumbai, a distance of 4,117 kilometer. AI operated 488 flights from August 13 to October 11, 1990 – lasting 59 day. Another airlift from Qatar involving 700,000 Indians begins this month by its subsidiary, AI Express.

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For Tata Sons, it’s homecoming. The prodigal has returned, lost and found – lost for no fault of its own. Fourteen years after the legendary JRD Tata found it, the government of newly-independent India felt the need to have a national airline, acquired it 51:49, and then nationalized it in 1953.

JRD was to call this arbitrary. He met Jawaharlal Nehru, but despite best of relations, could not prevent it. Asked to meet Babu Jagjivan Ram, then in charge of civil aviation, JRD was simply informed of the Cabinet decision. The die was cast. Nehru persuaded JRD to remain the Chairman.

Always ready for a national cause, JRD set about building a national airline. Only he could have counselled men against growing long sideburns and women in the crew on tying their hair in a bun that is not larger than their face, or what lipstick to use.

His aides Bobby Kooka and Umesh Rao had in 1946 already created Maharajah, the exotic mascot who never ruled a state, but went on to rule the hearts of its fliers. He became one of India’s most recognizable symbols. In bright destination-driven promotional posters he would appear as a Brit with a bowler hat and umbrella; a Frenchman with a beret; a ruddy, alpine climber from Switzerland or one on an African safari.

The present-day fliers would not know that AI once had one of the best in-service and was among the most-flown airlines. Maharajah definitely ruled the skies and still flies amidst growing competition from minnows. But it never got over the government-corporate cultural and operational contradictions. The momentum Tata gave Air India outlived JRD’s unceremonious sacking in 1978 by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Thanks to covetous bureaucrats and demanding politicians, the rot set within and competition outside, set in the 1990s. The economic reforms’ launch with new airlines born made AI untenable, but has taken three decades of mounting losses and worse to resolve.

Being the sole owner, the government was hit by a scare that some foreign court might attach and seize an AI aircraft against any dues in dispute. A British firm actually made such a move recently when a PIA aircraft was seized in Malaysia, forcing Pakistan to pay up.

AI’s profits vanished after its disastrous merger with Indian Airlines, the domestic carrier, in 2007. By 2019, the losses mounted to ₹12.8 billion. It has an ageing staff averaging 48-50 years, paid 35-50 percent higher compared to the budget airlines it is competing with. It has no hire and fire policy.

Yet, it has great potential. Apart from its fleet of over 130 aircraft, the new buyer will now have control of the airline’s 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at domestic airports, as well as 900 slots at airports overseas. And don’t write off the experienced work force of 1,600 pilots and 2,000 engineers.

Over two-thirds of the airline’s revenues come from its international operations. Air India also owns millions worth of prime real estate. According to the aviation ministry, its fixed assets – land, buildings, and aircraft – are worth over ₹450bn ($6bn). Besides, it has paintings of MF Husain and others and artefacts worth millions purchased in better times.

With Covid-19 hopefully abetting worldwide and Indians flying more and more, recording an annual passenger growth of around 20 per cent, AI is a good prospect. Analysts say the Indian market is vastly underserved. For Tata, it is an opportunity and a challenge. It’s a long haul. A failure could be devastating, but success could turn around AI, like Swissair, British Airways and Lufthansa.

The airline needs money to get cannibalised aircraft – which have been on the ground because of lack of spares and which have been stripped off some parts to be used in operational aircraft – in the skies again. It needs funds to pay off vendors, airport operators and other creditors; working capital needs as well as interest repayments also need to be fulfilled.

A refurbished AI should reclaim the territories and markets lost to others. Adding Air India to AirAsia and Vistara is three airlines too many: their merger is on the cards, and makes sense. There is no lack of either resources or experience. Tata has been on buying spree for the last two decades, acquiring Tetley, Land rover, Jaguar, and British Salt and South Korea’s Daewoo commercial vehicles. They now need to refuel aviation business.

Eventually, it’s au revoir. Maharajah’s line, “Tata does not always mean a goodbye” has proved prophetic.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Is A European Union Army Feasible?

It seems that the EU has learnt the lessons of the abrupt end of the US-led mission in Afghanistan and furthermore after AUKUS, that the US is a trying to build a coalition of English speaking Anglophonic nations in the defence realm and that time has now come for them to guard their interests themselves.

In her annual state of the union speech in the European parliament in Strasbourg recently, Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, described the withdrawal of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, and the subsequent collapse of President Ghani’s administration troubling. She urged the European leaders to acquire the “political will” to build up its own military force to de deployed at or prevent any future crises.

She is also reported to be working with the Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on issuing a “new declaration” on EU-Nato relations by the end of the year. She has also said there would be crises where the EU’s own military force should operate independently from both the UN and Nato.

Germany’s current defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that Ursula is right. Real EU defence depends on the political will of the member states. That’s why Germany and France must lead any such exercise.

European solidarity

For some, this state of affairs revived the old idea of a European military – with the EU’s chief diplomat himself urging the bloc to create a collective armed force.

“The need for more European defence has never been as much evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell told journalists at a meeting of the bloc’s foreign and defence ministers in Slovenia recently, where the Afghanistan debacle featured prominently. The EU needs to create a “rapid response force” of 5,000 soldiers, Borrell said. EU military committee chairman Claudio Graziano also agreed with the idea, which should be supported with a genuine “will to act” he is reported to have said.

This phrase appeared once again, when Macron talked about Afghanistan with visiting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the Élysée Palace. The two leaders gave a joint statement urging the EU to develop “strategic autonomy” so it can take “more responsibility for its security and defence”.

Going one step further France has recently inked a defence deal for supply of 13 Rafael jets and 3 frigates to Greece. By choosing French Rafael, Greece rejected the bid by US’s Boeing for F-16 planes. 

Critics of the proposal

The idea of common defence, one attacked by some critics of the EU as evidence of fomenting nationalism building, has a long and chequered history. It dates back to 1990s and the Yugoslav Wars. A joint 1998 statement by France’s then president Jacques Chirac and British prime minister Tony Blair declared that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces”, an assertion which fits Emmanuel Macron very well today.

In 1999 the EU agreed to raise a contingent of 50,000-60,000. In 2007, the bloc created a network of two “battle groups” of 1,500 troops from each country. They have since never been requisitioned. 

Proponents of an EU armed force that operates independently of Washington will also have to win over sceptics within the bloc; the Baltic states and Poland are not in favour of any new defence pact excluding the US.

In addition perceptions within the EU states differ as to what is a threat to its interests. For example the Baltic states consider Russia as an existential threat as per geopolitical realities but Russia is a key energy partner for Germany, and an ally for Hungary.

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel also backed the EU army idea in 2018, amid suggestions that the EU “could no longer count on the United States” under Donald Trump’s leadership. Other European leaders who had advocated for such an army have included Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italy’s former PM Silvio Berlusconi, Czech President Milos Zeman and former Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka.

Pushes for an EU-force have public support, too. A 2017 Eurobarometer poll collated by Statista found that 74% of respondents in the Netherlands and Belgium supported the idea. In France and Germany, backing for the proposal was 65% and 55% percent respectively, but in EU’s traditionally more neutral countries, like Austria (45%), Ireland (46%), Finland (42%) and Sweden (40%) it was mellowed. In the UK, only 39% of survey respondents were in favour.

Other critics of the proposal include Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg himself, who has warned that an EU force “cannot defend Europe” without Nato assistance.

Military analysts say that most EU governments can’t investment more in defence and they are further concerned about the risk of undermining Nato. In 2019 EU’s 27 member states’ expenditure on defence stood at 1.2% of GDP compared with 3.4% by the US.

International security and defence analyst Brooks Tigner has also pointed to potential funding issues. In a 2018 opinion piece for the Atlantic Council, Tigner wrote that while the idea for an EU army might appear “impressive on paper”, but none has any realisation of what the collective cost of operations might be. He added that the bloc would have to resolve a plethora of other “technical, legal, and administrative differences” that would “boil down to the most mundane things such as soldiers’ rights”.

A leaders’ summit dedicated to European defence will be convened by Von der Leyen and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in the first half of next year, when France holds the rolling presidency of the EU. The concept of an EU army would be debated and discussions will be held about “why this has not worked in the past” at the next summit Von der Leyen has said.

Overall, as in the past, this time too it seems that the idea might get turned down due to its feasibility but it would help politicians like Macron and other European leaders to root for more nationalism and nationalistic tendencies, independent of the US.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Kanhaiya Is No Lord Krishna To Save Cong

One swallow does not a summer make. Not even two, or twenty, if it is India’s Grand Old Party that, by all indications, is in its autumn, not summer.  Stronger branches of this old banyan are being weakened from within, while its leaves, the young ones with green lives ahead, are falling off and falling out.

Two young leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar and Gujarat’s independent legislator Jignesh Mewani, joined the Congress party, bringing happy tidings after long. Along with Gujarat’s Hardik Patel, who joined earlier, theirs has been leadership in the making for five, tumultuous years.

Both are young, ideologically committed, and are clear about what they want. They are worried, like millions across the country, that if the Congress sinks, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will find it easy to overwhelm the smaller parties. This would be bad for democracy. Mewani echoed Kumar’s description of the Congress as “a ship that should not be allowed to sink.” They called for ‘saving’ the party and with that, “the idea of India.” That they spoke in these terms, from the Congress platform is   significant. The party needs to be rescued from itself.

This concern for the party’s survival was neither their entry-pitch nor altruistic. It is closely linked to long-felt need for forging an opposition phalanx to contain the BJP. Despite deep differences and past political baggage of mutual mistrust, the role of the Congress as a key member of that entity is being increasingly felt under the present circumstances. Differences, as of now are on whether or not the party should lead it and if yes, under an ailing Sonia Gandhi or anyone else. Rahul and sister Priyanka are not considered senior and experienced enough. And they have proved their critics right with their recent handling of the party’s affairs.    

Both Kumar and Mewani have a good track record so far, enough for their critics to also take note. Kumar has been greeted with bitter/sour trolls on the social media. He was charged, thrashed in full courtroom, jailed and tortured five years ago for wrecking the country to pieces — “tukde-tukde”.  Forty samples of his speeches of that period were examined, including the controversial one that he delivered at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as its students’ union president. They were officially subjected to forensic and legal examinations. Kumar’s voice did not match with those heard shouting anti-India slogans, India Today later reported. The charge did not stick.

That “tukde-tukde” has returned, especially on the social media, now that Kumar has joined the Congress. It signals the long battle ahead. That battle will need opposition clarity and unity of purpose. For instance, Kumar lost badly to BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Bihar, as no party was willing to accommodate him. In Bihar’s murky turf war, Kumar could face rejection by Laloo’s party that already has a young Tejashwi Yadav and hierarchical problems in Bihar Congress.

Kumar, who quotes Marx and Lenin along with Gandhi, Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha, is a communist. Indeed, the Congress has in the past infused communists in the 1970s, when Mohan Kumaramangalam was a central minister and Chandrajeet Yadav was a key party general secretary. But that was in the cold war era. The post-Soviet world and an India post-economic reforms, (launched by a Congress government) have discarded the socialist model. Will the left-of-centre political plank work against the BJP’s avowed right-wing political, economic and social agenda that openly plays on religion? Which Kanhaiya will people vote for?

Without surprise, Kanhaiya’s entry has unnerved many Congressmen and corporate circles uneasy with anything ‘leftist’ and has given an added weapon to the BJP and its front organisations.

ALSO READ: ‘Kanhaiya An Opportunist, Not A Communist’

The Congress shed its secular USP, first by pandering to Muslim conservatives vote in the Shah Bano case and to match L K Advani-led Rath Yatra in the late 1980s, climbed the Ram temple bandwagon. It is now openly trying to match, unsuccessfully, – the BJP’s electoral tactics. They include opening gaushalas and marketing gaumutra (cow urine). A party committee headed by A K Antony, a Christian, attributed repeated election losses to the perception that the party was pro-minorities. Along with socialism, secularism is also gone.

Under BJP ‘threat’, the Congress has discarded the minority constituency. No longer setting the agenda, the party reacts to others.    

No party can prosper without a clear direction and without ground support. No party can survive merely by infusion from outside, like polls strategist Prashant Kishore. (Some quarters attribute replacing of a well-regarded Captain Amrinder Singh with Navjot Singh Sidhu, a ma maverick showman and little else, to his counsel).

While noting the Kumar-Mewani entry as a harbinger of likely change, it is risky to read too much into their joining the Congress, when Jyotiraditya Scindia (although he had “access to Rahul’s bedroom”), Jitin Prasada and Sushmita Dev, besides others relatively low-profile, have quit.  The party has failed to renew itself before the people. If the young are disenchanted, the older guard is clueless, yet clinging to it. Imagine ex-Goa chief minister L. Faleiro flying across the peninsula to join Mamata Banerjee’s party in Kolkata!

The Congress is run at the top by a single family. The Gandhis used to be the glue that kept it ticking and united, but no longer. They gave winning slogans. This, too, was long ago. By all available accounts, Sonia Gandhi, the ‘interim’ president is ailing, and decisions are being taken by her children. They are all good and decent. But that is not enough in politics. From hugging to hissing at Prime Minister Modi, Rahul’s is a personalized approach. But that can’t be party strategy. Against the wily orator, Rahul comes across poorly. The brand name does not sell against Modi’s high octane campaign fuelled by men, money and media. 

ALSO READ: Is The Congress Really Rudderless?

Sadly, the party has for long shown signs of the last days of Mughal Empire.  Imposing fledgling central authority failed in Madhya Pradesh, narrowly saved Rajasthan and has yielded disastrous results in Punjab. A coterie surrounding the Gandhis counsels destabilising those seniors found growing roots in the states.  

On the day Kumar-Mewani entry, the squabbling Congressmen in Punjab were decimating their own fort with the assembly elections just five months away. They had the best chance of being re-elected a third time. It has been frittered away, to utter surprise of friends and foes alike. Angry Amrinder is set to launch a new party. With a multi-polar scene emerging, the battle for Punjab is now wide open.

This fiasco is unlikely to calm rumblings in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where Congress is riven by factions. The steep decline in central authority is thanks to opaque decision-making that is often delayed, encourages more discontent and proves disastrous.  The party needs internal discussion, organisational elections and “a full-time president” – not an ailing interim matriarch. It needs, by implication, an inclusive leadership that does not function with one or more remote controls. Dissent is out in the open. The leadership – whoever thought and did it – has responded by sending goons to vandalise the house of Kapil Sibal, one of the dissenters. Notably, none has condemned the incident.

Is it any surprise that the BJP juggernaut, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its command, continues to roll?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Pandemic Impact On Pujo In Delhi

It’s the time of the year when the sweet fragrance of the ‘shiuli’ flowers, that blossom around this time, blends with the autumn breeze to herald Durga Puja, the annual occasion when goddess Durga is commemorated for conquering the demon king Mahishasura in a fight, exemplifying the victory of good over evil.

Apart from being a religious festival for the Hindus, it is also an occasion for reunion and rejuvenation, and a celebration of traditional culture and customs, marked with great enthusiasm and zeal in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha and Bihar.

The festival holds great significance for the devotees, as they pray to the different avatars of goddess Durga each day during the nine-day celebration, known as Navratri. While the rituals entail nine days of fast, feast and worship, the last four days–Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, and Dashami–are celebrated with much gaiety and grandeur in India and abroad, especially in Bengal.

As the festive week of Navratri approaches fast, devotees are looking forward to celebrating Durga Puja with great enthusiasm. However, the spirit of the auspicious festival will once again be dampened this year, due to the COVID-induced restrictions.

Last year, many people missed the grandeur of puja as several governments had allowed Durga Puja committees to conduct the rituals but did not allow visitors to the pandals. Similarly, Dussehra too was allowed in a few locations with a cap on visitors, and enforcement teams were deployed at the venues.

This year, in Delhi, the DDMA (Delhi Disaster Management Authority) has allowed Durga Puja celebrations, but only with strict adherence to the COVID-19 guidelines issued by the government in this regard.

While some puja committees have cancelled the celebrations, some have decided to do a ‘Ghot Puja’ (worshipping an urn symbolising the goddess). Like last year, many committees have decided to either go for virtual celebrations or organise the puja with a limited number of people, mostly members. Only a few committees like the Chittaranjan Park Kali Mandir Society, Matri Mandir Samity, and some others will perform the puja.

Speaking about how the celebrations will ensue this year, Sujit Das, manager, Matri Mandir Samity, Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave said, “Last year due to COVID, we were not able to do much and only did the Ghot Puja, similarly, this year too we are not doing anything on a big scale. This time we will be preparing a small murti so that the place doesn’t get overcrowded. Apart from this, in order to adhere to the issued guidelines, sanitisation will be done at the entry point and anyone without masks won’t be allowed to enter.”

He further also divulged that neither food vendors nor the Bhog distribution will be part of the festivities this year, but a livestream will be done on his committee’s Facebook page, similar to the previous year. Some organising committees will be delivering door-to-door Bhog for people.

Since not all devotees will be able to participate in puja celebrations, Durga Puja committees are making sure that they aren’t deprived of the festivities. Evening aartis and all other puja rituals will be live-streamed on the social media pages of different committees.

Chittaranjan Park (CR Park), known for its large Bengali community, will also be celebrating this year in a muted manner as only 50 people will be allowed inside at a time. “There will CCTV monitoring done to ensure that at a time not more than 50 people are allowed inside,” said Utpal Ghosh, former president of Puja committee and also a resident of CR Park who was associated with the committee earlier.

In a closed space, the event can be run with a 50 per cent capacity and not more than 200 people are allowed. The maximum number of people will be decided according to the rules of area and social distance in the open space.

Utpal further continued and added, “Also, since the time left for the preparation is very less, hence celebrations mostly will be a low-key event as making the pandal and doing the decorations will be a difficult task in such a short time.”

“All in all, since the puja has to happen, it will be performed, but mostly the Bhog will not be there, maybe some people will distribute prasad at the exit. The majority of the committees will

distribute the Bhog door to door,” concluded Utpal.

Overall, because unprecedented times require unprecedented action, Durga Puja will not be celebrated with pomp and show this year, as it was the previous year. Furthermore, during the second COVID wave, Delhi was one of the most infected cities in the country, and several lives were lost as a result hence this will also be a reason behind the low-key celebration of the festival.

The festival season will commence with Navratri starting in October and Durga Puja being celebrated during the same time. Following that Dussehra will fall on October 15 and Diwali on November 4. (ANI)

Pandemic Push For Retail Investors

Such is the relatively new found attraction of investing their surplus funds in shares either directly or through mutual funds that a SBI report has found the number of individual investors rose by a startling 14.2 million during 2020-21 when India like the rest of the world was busy containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Hasn’t this got something to do with people spending all their time at home allowing them to discover the potential to raise their wealth by investing in shares?

Retail participation in the stock market has further gathered pace in the current year as an estimated 4.47 million investors opening their accounts in the first two months of 2021-22 with the depositories CDSL and NSDL, registered with the Securities and Exchange Board of India, which maintain ownership records of financial securities.

Guessing the reasons for so many new investors across the country jumping on the stock market bandwagon, the SBI report says declining savings options in a low interest rate regime is prompting more and more people to brave out the risk associated with investment in shares. Interestingly, the report further confirms people spending so much more time at home after doing their lockdown forced routine work from home allowed them to indulge in stock investment and trading.

Mind you, an overwhelmingly large percentage of new investors are young in age. They launch themselves in the new pursuit with modest capital. But their investment decisions being based on reading and analysis of information culled from multiple sources, they are found to be less speculative than earlier generation investors. Technology is proving to be a major aid for millennials and Gen-Z investors.

The strong growth in household financial savings in three of the four quarters of 2020-21, except for the second quarter marked by a sharp moderation and both the Sensex and Nifty scaling unexpected highs, helped in no small way by a huge inflow of funds from foreign institutional investors lured many Indians into the rising market. (Foreign portfolio investors have brought well over $9 billion in the Indian market so far this year, while some Asian markets have seen outflows.)  In a rally over 18 months that is by far the best in the world, the Sensex at one stage crossed 60,000 mark and Nifty was just shy of 18,000. Bloomberg data shows Indian equity market has outperformed the MSCI world index by 22 per cent in the past one year and the emerging market MSCI EM index by as much as 36 per cent.

That equity valuations in India are high raising fears of major corrections are borne out by Nifty price to earnings ratio of 24.5 compared with the five-year average of 21.03. Besides the uniqueness of a growing desire of the people at large to be part of a market that for 18 months has moved in one direction, some minor corrections now and then notwithstanding, the easy monetary policy here and in major economies enabled major flows of FII investments in Indian equities sending many of them to stratospheric levels.

ALSO READ: ‘Cryptocurrency Market Is Risky But Rewarding’

Who is not trying to take advantage of the bull market where large, medium and small caps are all participating in the rally? Many of the start-ups that have over a period of time become unicorns (venture capitalist Aileen Lee chose the mythical animal to describe privately owned new ventures that secure valuation of $1 billion or more) have taken advantage of the bull run to make initial public offerings at hefty premiums. They are not the only ones to make hay as the market shines. Small finance banks, established finance groups such as Aditya Birla Sun Life AMC, which is the country’s fourth largest asset management company, new born fintech groups and real estate companies have found the time opportune to raise funds by issuing shares as the central government remains on diluting its stake in PSUs. Many promoters are too found cashing in by diluting their holdings. While all the IPOs so far this year got fully subscribed notwithstanding the high premiums the promoters are charging for shares on offer, not all are seeing further appreciation on listing. Paras Defence and Space Technologies, however, surprised the market fraternity when its IPO got subscribed 328 times, the most since 2007.

The rewards from investment in shares done with prudence and intelligent reading about working of listed companies being much higher than fixed deposit returns whether the money is left with banks, companies or several government sponsored schemes, it is highly predictable that people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country will seriously consider using surpluses available with them to build a portfolio of shares. The growing ranks of people being savvy in using smart phones and computers and total digitisation of share trading have spared investors the bother to place orders with brokers for trading. Many are also finding it convenient to use the systematic investment plan (SIP) to put a fixed amount every month in various schemes of mutual funds. Some of these funds have been able to give attractive returns to investors. This cannot be otherwise when the market is on rise over a long period. That continues to encourage many others to use the SIP facility to build wealth. The more resourceful and informed Indians have started investing in shares listed on the US and other foreign stock exchanges through mutual funds.

Newspapers and TV business channels will from time to time feature the incredibly large capital gains the likes of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Radhakishan Damani are making on their investments in shares. Broking houses are in consensus that such stories are proving motivational for growing numbers who are still to become market participants.

What is also aiding expansion of the investor base going beyond principal cities to what is called Bharat is the message that much is to be gained by making knowledge based investment in shares. One thing that investors are not short of is information about companies. At frequent intervals, major broking houses will publish their assessment of working of companies whose shares are actively traded on the bourse. From time to time, their reports throw light on small and mid cap companies. The good thing is the market is no longer rumour driven and with SEBI vigilance being thorough insider trading has been largely curbed. In any case, many investors irrespective of their age and sex who came in recent times make efforts to read up as much as possible, including company annual reports before picking up shares.

Who could have thought some years ago that Ranga Reddy district Telengana or Barpeta district in Assam will be among the country’s top districts generating the maximum numbers of new investors since March 2021? It is a given that Delhi and Mumbai will always be at the top of the table for their share of the country’s investor community, old and new and the funds they bring to the market. According to National Stock Exchange data for August Delhi had a share of 5.9% of total new investors, followed closely by Mumbai with 5.8%. Pune had a share of 2%, Ahmedabad 1.9%, Surat famous for diamond polishing and trading 1.6%, Bengaluru 1.6% and Jaipur 1.5%.

Encouragingly, the demographic profile of investors is changing with growing numbers of young people, including students and those who have recently started working on completion of education putting a decent portion of their savings in stocks either directly or through mutual funds. The ranks of women investors, including housewives, continue to grow. According to Capstone Consulting, women now constitute approximately 20% of the country’s active traders. As many as 80% women investors are from tier 2 and tier 3 cities. They are generally low risk takers and long-term investors. Many of them are found to be taking investment decisions on their own.

The Great American Obsession

America is great. America is the greatest nation on earth. Make America great again.

Is it an obsessive spiral of self-delusion, an illusory immaculate conception, or, nothing but repetitive, compulsive jingoism?

The Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2016 chose Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee, with Barack Obama backing her against ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders, who, was immensely popular, especially among the young and educated. She won 56 per cent votes of the delegates – he got 47 per cent, with the big money lobbies pitched against him.

Wrote Ron Fournier (The Atlantic, June, 2016): “Obama hopes to reframe the election for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Voters are demanding radical change, but the former secretary of state is the emblem of status quo and Trump is living disruption. She represents a political system that most Americans don’t trust; that failed to protect their livelihoods in the shift from industrialism to globalism; that made promises it didn’t keep; that puts more value in the results of the next election than the needs of the next generation. She could lose that fight…”

Michelle Obama had earlier, as a rejoinder to Trump, asserted that she wakes up in a home built by slaves and yet her daughters—“two beautiful, intelligent, black young women”—take for granted that a woman can be president. “(D)on’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again,” she said.“Because, this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

Obama repeated: “America is already great,” he said at the convention. “America is already strong. And, I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump…What could be more American than what happened in this place?…  What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people—the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?”

This convention was touted as a radical rupture in the history of the Democratic Party because of the progressive influence of Sanders. In a country where the Left is either absent or derided, Sanders and his supporters created a parallel discourse. The convention thereby reflected a different mood: Wall Street reforms (inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement), curbs on obscenely rich capitalists, stringent financial regulations, $15 an hour minimum wage, social sector reforms, waiver of students’ loans, abolition of death penalty, criminal justice reforms, including the closure of the notorious private prisons, among other reforms.

ALSO READ: Can America Be United Again?

Crucially, despite Obama’s poetics and rhetoric, it was a pointer that he did little – including for the Black community, the unsung, the downtrodden, low station dreamers, among others. That, despite his noble intentions, the sublime discourse – he turned out to be a brilliant failure.

Joe Biden has seen it all from close to the ring. So, at 78, will he still hold on to the same silly old strings?

His popularity ratings dipped by around 53 per cent after the big botch-up in Afghanistan, which, of course, was begun by George W Bush. Hence, how is this botch-up pronounced in the self-righteous, self-proclamation of ‘greatness’?

Is it all always eyes-wide-open-wide-shut? So, what happened in Afghanistan and Vietnam? Or, what is happening right now in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, among the Kurds? Or, whatever happened in Latin America for decades – and this was no magic realism!

Yet, are things changing on the ground?

In India, the prime minister has not faced a single press conference till date since the summer of 2014 when he took over. However, the White House does regular media briefings. Nothing is ever stage-managed. The president answer questions in a free and frank atmosphere. Difficult questions can be parried, but not blocked. Indeed, even Donald Trump faced a hostile media routinely – and he never crushed a query!

The White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, answers questions without any censorship. On September 20, she answered several uncomfortable questions on the drone strike in Kabul and the deportation of immigrants to Haiti. Since The New York Times and others exposed the killing of a family in the drone strike, this was perhaps the first time that she was talking on behalf of the American president. “This was done in error… Every loss is a tragedy,” she said, stating that investigations are on to make this mistake accountable. The journalists persisted.

Apart from this, her presentation marked what is perceived to be a paradigm shift in terms of the ‘progressive reforms’ being pushed by Biden. For those who have seen the homeless on the streets in New York, in freezing cold, this would be a pointer. The Press Secretary disclosed about a new initiative, ‘House America’:  “Homelessness was on the rise before the pandemic, and the last couple of years have just exacerbated the problem. On any given night, more than half-a-million Americans were enduring the pandemic without the safety and protection of a home. Thanks to the President’s American Rescue Plan — and Congress’s — everybody’s American Rescue Plan — communities now have historic housing resources to help more Americans obtain the safety of a stable home, including 70,000 emergency housing vouchers, $5 billion in HOME grants, and significant investments to preserve and protect housing on Tribal lands. In addition, communities have $350 billion in state and local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the Department of Treasury to support many needs, including homelessness and housing instability…The initiative will promote the use of ‘housing first’ — the proven theory that the best way to stabilize the life of someone experiencing homelessness is to ensure that they have a home first without preconditions — and so we are moving forward with that…”

ALSO READ: The Hill Biden Has To Climb

Biden’s ‘build back better’ model has four anchors: racism, economy, climate change and Covid. His latest is compulsory vaccination of 100 million private sector workers, federal contractors and health care workers. In a country where almost 60 per cent people have got free double vaccination since he became president, this follows the ambitious 100 million vaccination target in the first 100 days since he took over. In any given circumstances, these are important achievements.

The Pew Research Centre has documented in June 2020 that unemployed Americans have increased by more than 14 million — from 6.2 million in February to 20.5 million in May 2020. The numbers must have grown substantially by September 2021. This is also many times worse than the Great Recession.

Biden appointed Bernie Sanders as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, knowing what to expect in the face of Right-wing opposition from within the Democrats and Republicans. And Sanders has been demanding a $6 trillion package. Biden has committed a $3.5 trillion package, targeting the economic recovery of the marginalized communities. Said Sanders, “The bottom line here is this country faces crises… working families are struggling and it’s about time we paid attention to their needs.”

Now House progressives are pushing to stop a $24 billion boost to defense spending in 2021. The Pentagon is reportedly spending $740 billion per year. It seems there are no lessons learnt from the Afghanistan and Middle-east fiasco, even while the arms lobby remains entrenched. 

“Despite trillions of dollars poured into our endless military spending, this budget has failed to meet the greatest threats that our nation and our world faces today, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the needs of 140 million people living in poverty,” Representative Barbara Lee of California said in a letter to Representative Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee. “Now is the time to shift our investments away from endless wars and toward addressing human needs.” (The Nation, September 21, 2021).

These are all signs of shifting social currents. An entire new generation is against war, inequality, racism, imperialism, capitalism, global warming, mindless consumerism. They refuse to proclaim that ‘America is the greatest nation on earth’. And they don’t really like the rich – including the ones who are indulging in space tourism these days with millions jobless, hungry and homeless.

New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a gown with the slogan ‘tax the rich’ at the Met Gala in New York recently. Her argument — push the debate on wealth redistribution in America!

“I thought about the criticism I’d get, but, honestly, I and my body have been so heavily and relentlessly policed from all corners politically since the moment I won my election that it’s kind of become expected and normalised to me,” she wrote on an Instagram story. “…Ultimately, the haters hated and the people who are thoughtful were thoughtful…But, we all had a conversation about taxing the rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and punctured the 4th wall of excess and spectacle.”