Why In God’s Name…?

Immortality is commonplace, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, but human vanity, megalomania and narcissism has an eternally infinite quality in its self-obsession of historical greatness. In life and in death, and beyond death, thy name shall be remembered, if not in the hearts of grateful citizens and fellow human beings, then in gigantic monuments – this has been the doctrine of both dictators and democrats alike. That is why, their names adorn architecture wonders, towering buildings and institutions, railways stations, airports, universities, hospitals, streets and squares. Do they deserve it? That is the question which history must answer.

Most dictators suffer from this epidemic of immortality, though many democrats too are not far off. In other cases, their devoted followers, for vested or political reasons, choose to immortalise the names of their leaders, much after they are dead and lost in public memory. ‘Aspiring India’ is now in the midst of this ‘inspiring’ churning.

Take for instance the case of Kazakhstan, which became ‘independent’ soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and its eternally infinite ‘former’ president and leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 80.  After three decades of unilateral rule, he suddenly and surprisingly ‘resigned’ as president in March 2019. But, then, as is the case with many post-Soviet Central Asian countries, there is, predictably, a catch.

Soon after, his elder daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was appointed to the number two position in the upper house of a one-dimensional Parliament with its sticky lollypop of democracy. Effectively, she, thereby, became the most powerful person in the country, even while ‘Papa’ called the shots. Inevitably, a loyalist, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was sworn in as president, who quickly not only promised to abide by his leader before taking all key and strategic decisions, but instantly proposed that the capital, Astana, meaning Kazakh, should be named after the Great Leader himself. Hence, Astana, since then, is called Nur-sultan – the ‘Light of the King’!

This luminescent light has been shining across many nations all over the globe. Saddam Hussein built a gymnasium in his name, why, only he knows. The ‘Great Helmsman and Dear Leader’ of North Korea, rebuilt a stadium destroyed during the Korean War in Pyongyang and renamed it in his own name: Kim Il-Sung Stadium. His illustrious son, with an infectious laughter and miscellaneous fictitious missiles targeted at various mythical cities in America, perhaps, is still not in a mood to name anything in his name, so immortal he has already become in his own lifetime!

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Among others, Adolf Hitler was modest enough to name only one stadium in his name: Adolf Hitler Kampfbahn, Stuttgart. Why only one stadium, on a world-conquest project, remains an enigma! Perhaps, he was too busy with the Holocaust, the gas chambers and the concentration camps. And, surely, he could not name all these death camps where he killed millions of Jews across Europe in his name!

Same was the case with his best fascist buddy in Italy. Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino in Turin, constructed as a sign of the great power of the emerging supremacist races in the 1930s, was originally named Stadio Municipals Benito Mussolini, while he was in power. Stadiums apart, both Hitler and Mussolini, could never predict their unremarkable end.

In mid-Sixties India, the then education minister MC Chagla proposed to Jawaharlal Nehru that Delhi needs another university, and that it should be named after the first prime minister of India. Nehru reportedly “flared up”. He apparently said that his views about raising memorials to living persons is well-known, that it is entirely wrong and no statues or institutions should be thus named after any living person. Nehru reportedly said that Delhi has a great history and there could be many names – why not Raisina?

Years later, Chagla did what he wanted. Named JNU after Nehru. Plus, there is a statue out there now near the administrative block of a man who never really wanted it in the first instance.

One can understand unauthorised slums of the poorest and homeless migrant labourers named after politicians, like Sonia Vihar in Delhi. It gives the most impoverished and powerless living in sub-human conditions some sense of protection from the bulldozers and cops. But why parks for the happy middle and upper classes on their morning walks?

Take for instance the Sanjay Gandhi parks in Delhi. Why, for god’s sake, should parks be named after an upstart bully, a tinpot dictator and the notorious son of a dictatorial prime minister who ran amok during the Emergency? 

Or, why should the Delhi airport be named after Indira Gandhi; why not, in the name of Mahatma Gandhi, or Frontier Gandhi, or, Sardar Patel and Bhagat Singh, even Ghalib, for instance? Indeed, it’s a puzzle as to why should the Hyderabad airport be called the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport! Surely, Hyderabad, Andhra and now Telangana can boast of illustrious figures of brilliant greatness from their indigenous terrain and history on whose name the airport could be named, with due respect to the late prime minister.

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Consider the fact that revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Batukeshwar Dutt, Durga Bhabi, Kalpana Dutt, among hosts of other greats in the freedom struggle, have found no place in public memory in terms of naming or renaming architectural spaces. Why only revolutionaries, Munshi Premchand, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Sahir Ludhianvi, Mohammad Rafi, Guru Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Ismat Chugtai, among other greats, have all been ignored or dumped, suggesting a country where the powerful care two hoots about its great cultural and aesthetic legacy. The Kaifiyat Express in Uttar Pradesh is perhaps a rare departure, a tribute to Kaifi Azmi from Azamgarh in UP, among such truly rare, sensitive and precious departures in modern Indian history.

Among other states, West Bengal has named all its metro stations in Kolkata remembering the inheritance of its cultural icons, from poets and writers to actors. The state has names of its cultural icons etched across its landscape, much like Moscow or Berlin, for instance, where, despite their changing history in contemporary times, you can move from the memory of Lermentov to Tolstoy to Marx to Brecht, across its beautiful lanes and squares.

In Gwangju, South Korea, the democratic upsurge against the military dictatorship in the 1980s, is etched in the graveyard nearby remembering the dead who fought and died for freedom and democracy. It has been designed with aesthetic refinement and great sensitivity. There is a photograph, and a small epitaph. Plus, the living opera in the backdrop which is sung in a choir during the anniversary of the uprising, with tears flowing among the audience, in memory and grief, and in deep, authentic homage. Indeed, those who remember the sacrifices of their dead for a better, democratic and humane society, are always trying to create a better, democratic and humane society, despite all odds.

That is why, the current public spectacle at the Motera Stadium in Ahemdabad appears straight out of the warped text books of Nursultan, Hitler, Kim Il Sung and Mussolini. Barring Mayawati who built her own statues, and that is considered by many as a reassertion of Dalit identity submerged and oppressed by upper caste history, agree or disagree, no living politician has ever created or endorsed his own pubic monument in post-independence India.

With the two big stands in the cricket stadium named after two profiteering Gujarati industrialists, known to be the best buddies of the Dear Leader currently ruling from Delhi, the theatre of the absurd is now turning sincerely bizarre.

Hum do, Hamare do? Well, it could very well be the love, self-love, in the time of Corona!

Domestic Brownie Points For Trump & Modi

India gave President Donald Trump exactly what he asked for. Massive crowds in Ahmedabad, the Taj Mahal in Agra and energy & defence deals in Delhi. A deal worth $3 billion for the purchase of Apache and MH-60 helicopters was finalized before the US President landed in India.

The show and spectacle in Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium, where President Trump and First Lady Melanie were greeted by colorfully dressed enthusiastic crowds set the mood for the visit on Monday, soon after the US leader landed. He was accompanied by daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, besides a host of senior officials.

It is well known that Donald Trump loves to be feted. Prime Minister Modi and his government ensured that President Trump would have exactly what he wanted. His ego got a massive boost and the visiting dignitary was clearly delighted. He showered praise on Prime Minister Modi and declared that America loved India and Washington would be a loyal friend.

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Though violence has wracked north east Delhi during the Trump visit, the President has refused to comment on that or the Citizenship Amendment Act. On Kashmir, while he again offered mediation, he made it clear that he was willing to help only if asked. Though he spoke of fighting Islamic terror, he was not really aiming at rebuking Pakistan. For Trump Islamic terror is ISIS or Al Qaeda and not groups operating against India. Nevertheless he assured India that Pakistan is being urged to clamp down on these groups and Prime Minister Imran Khan is getting there. Trump also spoke of religious freedom and mentioned not just minority Muslims but Christians as well. The Christian right in the US is part of Trump’s support base.

Some are disappointed that no major deals were announced, though a mega trade deal is in the offing. Two MoUs were signed on mental health and safety of medical products. A letter of cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil India LNG was also signed. India is now looking to US to diversify its energy market. Energy imports from the US which stood at $7 billion in 2019 will rise to $9 billion in 2020

The significance of the Trump visit goes way beyond deals or the personal chemistry between Modi and the US President. “It reinforces the connect between people of the two countries and it will resonate on every aspect of the relationship, from the strategic global partnership, maritime security, to trade and energy cooperation, homeland security,” foreign secretary Shringla said at a news conference after the talks at Hyderabad House.  

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The fact that President Trump chose to come on a standalone visit to India, and on an election year, shows exactly how far relations between India and the US have improved. The people connect with 4 million Indian American’s playing a major part in this effort and contributing to the US economy, the sky is the limit for these two democracies. People in both countries endorse the ties. This is in sharp contrast with India’s relations with Russia, which are excellent at the governmental and political level, but poor on people to people contact. Getting private business off the ground between India and Russia is a major problem, despite the best efforts of New Delhi and Moscow. But there is no such difficulty when it comes to Indian investment in US. Business leaders are eager to do so.

The transformation of ties between the two countries, which were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, began with the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005. The strategic consideration underlying Washington’s decision was to checkmate China’s growing military and economic might in Asia. By building ties with democratic India, another large Asian country and helping modernize its defence capabilities.

US wants India to be a part of the Indo-Pacific defence architecture an area which now includes the Indian Ocean. This works for both India and America, though Delhi has so far resisted the idea of joint patrolling of the Pacific, near the South China Sea. This has to do with avoiding a confrontation with China.

Trump’s visit should be seen against this background. And if a few billions go into US coffers in the process of building up India’s defence capabilities, it is fine. So far New Delhi has stuck to its promise of buying the S 400 missile defence system from Russia, despite enormous US pressure. Washington must realise that a country like India cannot be coerced.

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It serves India for China to realise that Delhi has powerful backing in the international community. Though finally every country has to look after its own interests and not back on US or Europe to come to their help, developing India’s defence capabilities is important, more so as China has transformed its army, navy and air force.

Successive Indian prime ministers from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi know the importance of friendship with the US. Manmohan Singh risked his prime ministership to get the deal through, despite opposition from a large majority of his party men as well as the BJP and the Left parties. Singh realized more than any other leader that the civil nuclear deal would open many doors for India and help Delhi to finally be counted as a force in the world.  India’s nuclear apartheid ended with the signing of the pact for which former President George W Bush did some heavy lifting.

The need to counter authoritarian China with a democratic India is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. So it does not matter which party finally wins the November elections, India-US ties will remain strong. However a Democratic President, especially if Bernie Sanders is the winner, will certainly have much more to say about human rights, treatment of minorities and Kashmir. For Trump these are India’s internal problem and he trusts Prime Minister Modi to take care of them. But democratic values are important and even Trump cannot totally ignore them up to a point.

Both Modi and Trump have gained domestic brownie points from the visit. Modi’s image among his followers will get another major boost after Trump’s fulsome praise of him as a leader with a vision. For Trump the India trip so close to elections may help to garner Indian-American votes, though most have usually opted for Democrats. More important Trump can boast of the welcome he received by adoring crowds in India, a rarity for him on visits to other parts of the world. Critics here believe India may have erred in opting blatantly for Trump in the November elections. But that remains to be seen.

‘Taxpayers’ Money Blown To Impress President Trump’

Jalpa Bhatt, a clinical psychologist for children with special needs, says Ahmedabad came to a standstill on Feb 24 for a marketing gimmick which holds little value

Both my residence and workplace are in the Thaltej area of Ahmedabad. The 22 km long stretch between the airport and Motera Stadium had been witnessing increased security and multiple traffic diversions for the past many days, just so that American President Donald Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad could become memorable.

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While earlier it took 20-25 minutes to reach my workplace from my home, during the last few days it has been taking nearly double the time. Most people were expecting the 22 km long stretch between the airport and Motera Stadium to come to a standstill for a few hours on Monday (February 24) and it did. Many of my friends who had workplaces on the 22-km long stretch couldn’t make it to work on Monday.

The roads were all decked up with lighting and decorations and some people were excited as if a festival was going on in Ahmedabad, but I’m personally amused by the whole situation. Last year, India was one of the countries on the US’ watchlist for Intellectual Property (IP) violations and now it seems as if nothing happened between the twi countries.

I feel this visit was a marketing ploy on Trump’s part. Every smart businessperson around the world is tapping into the Indian market, because that’s where the maximum number of audiences are. Nobody is concerned about the citizens of either country or even democracy. People here in Ahmedabad have mixed emotions regarding Trump and his politics.

It had been mentioned in reports that Sabarmati Aashram is going to be the first stop on Trump’s visit, where both the popular leaders would be paying homage to Gandhiji. But I feel this is merely lip service, for both the leaders don’t actually believe in Gandhiji’s principles deep down.

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As about the wall that built around the slum on Trump’s route, I don’t think it was a good idea at all. Even though Ahmedabad is the hub of trade and business in India and people from many faiths and cultures live here, yet people are getting divided more and more. Everyone is keeping to their corner and thus I feel this wall will create more divisions between the rich and the poor.

Also, I wonder why the people aren’t bothered now about taxpayers’ money being spent on impressing Trump rather than actually building a city where no one has to live in slum-like conditions. Where is all this money coming from, especially when it’s a one-off visit from Trump? It’s not like he has been invited to the Republic Day parade.

No official holiday was declared on February 24, but many people were keen to see Trump and how he actually interacts with people. In fact some people are openly excited and are calling it a historic visit. Even though I feel Trump is in India only to access its soft power and create a soft corner in people’s hearts, I don’t think it will lead to some concrete developments, yet I am curious to see both him as well as people’s reactions to him.

I was planning to go out on the 24th, but couldn’t go because I couldn’t take time off work. However, I still feel that the government should invest its time and money to make the lives of people living in India by creating jobs, rather than spend so much on visits by world leaders.

‘I Would Be Excited If Obama Were Coming To Ahmedabad’

Sahista Memon, a homeopathy practitioner in Ahmedabad, says instead of creating walls to hide poor households, governments should ensure that nobody needs to live in slums

I live in the Ellis Bridge area of Ahmedabad and run a homeopathic clinic in the same area. My house is around 10 km away from the airport and even though traffic diversions are there for American President, Donald Trump’s visit, since I don’t have to travel much for work, I am fine.

However, my house helps, driver etc. live near the airport and are finding it difficult to commute easily because of the traffic diversions. Also, it is taking them longer to reach our house for work. They are apprehensive about how it will all turn out on Monday, February 24, the day Trump comes visiting. They have told me, “Ma’am Monday ko subah ghar se bahut jaldi nikalna padega” (We will have to leave home really early on Monday to reach work due to Namaste Trump event).

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Unko takleef me dekh ke mujhe bhi thodi takleef hoti hai. Theleaders don’t know how their itineraries impact the lives and livelihoods of the common man when the whole city is brought to a standstill. In my part of town, which is at the centre of Ahmedabad, there isn’t much buzz regarding Trump’s visit, but on the outskirts which is where his travel route is (from the airport to Motera Stadium), people are quite excited.

I would have been excited if Barack Obama was coming. He is a leader I hugely admire. He was so popular with everyone without even having to try hard. To me Trump seems like a power- lover who is more concerned about his image. Modiji is also trying to show the world India’s new improved image where even the President of the most powerful country in the world feels happy to visit.

The wall built to cover one of the slums falling on Trump’s route isn’t a great idea to be honest. Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border has shown us, why walls anywhere aren’t a great idea, especially when they are built with the purpose of hiding something uncomfortable or built from a place of fear. If the wall is built to protect the residents of a particular area or country, isn’t it better to take everyone into account and tell them how a new structure is beneficial to them? All stakeholders should be consulted. Everyone’s point of view should be taken into account.

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Moreover, I would like to say such structures should be temporary. If there is a real threat to people, just building a wall won’t work; ‘concrete’ work needs to go like intelligence gathering. If the wall is built to hide slums, shouldn’t we be working on policies that ensure nobody needs to live in slums?

So, no I won’t be going out to watch Trump or see the public’s reaction to him. I will be busy with my work and that is what is required in nation building, an honest day’s work.