The ‘Blood Telegram’ – a review

The book, ‘Blood Telegram’ by Gary Bass came out in 2013. Three years later, I began reading it towards the end of my summer break in the US and finished it on the return flight to Chennai. It was, no doubt, an interesting book. Of course, one could not escape the thought that had the author dropped the swear words used by Henry Kissinger and his President Richard Nixon on India, Indians and to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the book’s size would have considerably shrunk. The pair had nothing but contempt for India, its people and the Prime Minister. After a meeting with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the White House, President Nixon told Henry Kissinger that they ‘really slobbered over the old witch’.

Archer Blood was the Consul General of the United States Government in Dacca and the telegram in which he labelled the killings in Bangladesh genocide made him famous and infamous. In one of those bizarre coincidences, the cables from the Consulate-General’s office would be drafted by Scott Butcher, approved by Killgore and signed by Blood.

When Nelson Rockefeller asked Mrs. Indira Gandhi as to why she was putting all her eggs in the ‘Soviet Union’ basket, she said that she would not if there was another basket. That much comes through very clearly in the book. Shankkar Aiyar, in his book, ‘The Accidental India’ had referred to how Mrs. Indira Gandhi slammed the phone after one of her phone calls to Lyndon Johnson to ‘beg’ him literally not to keep the PL-480 shipment on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ basis for India. That was humiliating. She found the phone call so humiliating that she swore, ‘Never again’ and so was born the Green Revolution. If that is a bit dramatic, well, it played no small role, no doubt.

The NSA (Kissinger) and the President had, for some strange reason, total admiration and love for Yahya Khan. Well, not so strange. They used him as a conduit to begin their relationship with China. Hence, he was too important to them. But, Americans, over the years, have always had a reason to prefer to keep Pakistan warm. Sometimes, one wonders if the reasons were merely ‘after-the-fact’ explanations for their inexplicable love for Pakistan. Over the years, in my conversation with many ex-diplomats, none of them felt that they had found an ‘Aha’ explanation for it.

What was incredible was that Kissinger made a trip to India and the Indians thought that they had extracted a promise that America would support India if China turned aggressive against India. Despite his promise, he went back to Washington, D.C and was urging China to get aggressive with India!

That America was unwilling to lift a finger and use its leverage with Pakistan to stop the genocide in East Pakistan must go down as one of the biggest failure of the Nixon-Kissinger leadership. Yet, Peter Kann, who apparently won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Indo-Pakistan war for the Wall Street Journal, and was Chairman of Dow Jones & Co., until 2007, thinks that Kissinger and Nixon ‘behaved like leaders of a great power’. Read his review of the book here.

The book repeatedly mentions that the Pakistani Army systematically targeted Hindus in East Bengal. The Blood telegrams to the State Department made that quite clear. Mr. Kann, in his review, takes no note of the ethnic cleansing and genocide engaged in by the Pakistan Army and that America did not try even moral suasion on its ally.

Of course, it appears that Henry Kissinger was nothing, if not consistent. Apparently, some recently declassified documents show that he was as supportive of the Argentine military junta as he was of Pakistan.

While it would be easy for Indians reading the book to form an instinctive anti-American view, based on the behaviour of the Nixon-Kissinger duo at that time, should also remember the rousing welcome that Edward Kennedy got in India, at the height of the refugee crisis.

Today, so much is being written about the ‘magnanimity’ shown by Mrs. Angela Merkel of Germany towards refugees from Arabia. In fact, a friend of mine wondered why she did not think that something was amiss when all these young men swam and ran and made their way into Europe, leaving behind their wives, sisters, mothers and children. Mrs. Merkel is not popular in her own country for what she is doing. Clearly, instance of misbehaviour and dangerous behaviour in Germany by the refugees are proliferating.

Yet, forty-five years ago, India accepted ten to twelve times more refugees than Germany had done. Forty five years ago, India was too poor and yet, had to bear the brunt of the inflow of millions of refugees from East Bengal.

However, Gary Bass does not come across as someone sympathetic to India’s cause and situation. He seems to go out of his way to appear to be even-handed by not sparing India from the blame for how the situation evolved.

Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India was solidly behind India and Joseph Farland, the Ambassador in Pakistan was solidly behind his host nation. Kissinger was furious that all Ambassadors who end up in India went local! But, it escaped them that Joseph Farland was doing the same too. He had famously told Nixon that Hindus worshipped the cow and that Muslims ate it. It was as simple as that.

The book describes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto well. Despite (or, because of?) his education in Berkeley, he was very anti-American. Nixon did not like him. But, Kissinger thought that he was’ violently anti-Indian and pro-Chinese’. Blood simply called him ‘malevolent’.

Like with many (why ‘only’ many? – all, in fact) things in life, had there not been a devastating cyclone in East Bengal, things might have turned out different. Who knows? The cyclone, the devastation and the failure (ineptness) of the Pakistani administration to in providing rescue, relief and rehabilitation fomented and cemented the disaffection of the people of East Pakistan for the rulers in Islamabad. That is why when the elections happened, they voted overwhelmingly against the Pakistani ruling party and backed the Awami League. That is when the troubles started. West Pakistan did not accept the result and kept blocking the formation of the government precipitating the civil war.

The lack of trust meant that no compromise solution such as devolution – two Prime Ministers – one for East Pakistan and one for the West with a common President – would work. The people of East Pakistan wanted a ‘Bangla-desh’.

So, it was not human but it was a divine intervention in the form of the cyclone that set the ball rolling on the events that culminated in the vivisection of Pakistan into two nations. Nixon, with all his bluster and anti-India venom, could not prevent that from happening. For all their vanity and hubris, the hand of destiny uses humans to move things along a path that it has chosen for them!

Archer Blood died in 2004, at the age of 81.

Shekhar’s silver

Shekhar Gupta (former editor at ‘Indian Express’) now writes a weekly column for ‘Business Standard’. He has written a good one (behind paywall) on the Indian hand-wringing over the absence of medals in the Rio Olympics. He deserves at least a silver medal for the article. He could have easily won the gold but for the (mischievous?) reference to Gujarat. He could have used any other State for comparison. But, that is too minor to quibble about.

Besides incomes, training (depends on incomes too), diet and nutrition (latter is an outcome of diet), the hot and humid climate too disadvantages athletes from the developing world. Diet and heat do affect stamina, endurance and strength quite a bit.

His article provides a very good perspective. India is making progress in the international sporting arena.

The Magsaysay Masterstroke

The Ramon Magsaysay Foundation announced its 58th set of awards, probably on July 27. The function is on August 31. An artist by name T.M. Krishna who initially made a name for himself singing a style of music known as the Traditional South Indian Classical or Carnatic Music – was also named as one of the recipients. That raised eyebrows. Some eyebrows not only went up much more than that of others but other parts of their anatomy too joined the eyebrows in protesting the award to him.

The causes for which he has been given the award, as mentioned in the citation, are already being addressed, partly by technology and partly by the initiatives of some musicians who are busy doing something about the issues that the citation mentions. Here is a line from the citation on Thodur Madabusi Krishna:

An ancient vocal and instrumental musical system, Carnatic music started centuries ago in temples and courts but was subsequently ‘classicized’ to become the almost exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste – performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have access to it. [Link]

Now, as to the much vilified ‘Sabhas’ that are allegedly at the heart of the ‘conspiracy’ to make it the exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste, there is a very simple fact that has not been mentioned:

During the Chennai Music and Dance Festival that commences in December and goes on until mid-January, most of the lecture-demonstrations and concerts up to 4 PM are not ticketed. Concerts from 4 to 9 PM are ticketed. Well, the ‘Sabha’s do have to sustain themselves and they do pay artists. But, I think they are doing a good balancing act between ‘free entry’ and ‘ticketed entry’.

Besides, with music festivals being organised around the year now, many festivals are open to all fans and lovers of music. They are also available on YouTube which India’s ubiquitous mobile phone users can download and listen to.

It is not that ‘Sabhas’ have snatched away concerts from Temples. Temples continue to host music and dance performances during festivals. They are free. The temple at Mylapore (Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple) and the temple in Adyar (Sri Anantha Padmanabhaswamy Temple) come to mind. There must be many other examples.

Further, with distances and traffic becoming an issue in all major urban centres, including Chennai, many localities and communities have started their own music festivals. They are accessible to all those who are interested. Over time, some of them will gain popularity. The temptation to ticket them will arise even as legitimate expenses would arise, with the need for proper concert halls with good acoustics, seating, food and toilet facilities. These commercial considerations will have nothing to do with ‘classicism’.

Many online and face-to-face courses have been started by musicians. They are not picky and choosy about their students. Non-Brah is No Bar.

Much before Krishna, ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy, Rasikamani T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliyar and Rajaji had also done their part to form a bridge between Tamil language and South Indian Classical Music.

Even now, the Raja Annamalai Mandram in Chennai near Fort St. George demands of its musicians to sing in Tamil and provides a great platform for musicians of all hues and classes. The so-called Brahmin musicians come and perform there.

Finally, before Krishna, there have been TV Channels that, with their music competitions, have taken music to all cities and to all communities and castes. For all their emphasis on filmy music, these channels are arguably doing more for enhancing the accessibility of Carnatic music to all and for the popularity of Carnatic music itself.

Tamil writer Jayamohan wrote a stinging post on the award. One can argue with writer Jeyamohan on his evaluation of TM Krishna’s music. But, the broad thrust of his post was correct. He received many letters – some in praise and some in criticism of his post. He chose to comment on one of them, explaining his original scathing criticism of the conferment of the award on Krishna.

These paragraphs (in Tamil) from his response to a reader are worth reiterating here:

வரலாற்றின் போக்கில் இருபெரும் இசை மரபுகளுக்கிடையே உருவான பெரிய இடைவெளியே பிரச்சினை. சபாவில் வந்து பாட்டுகேட்க குப்பத்து மக்களால் முடியவில்லை என்பதல்ல. அய்யரும் அய்யங்காரும் வந்து தெருவில் பாடவில்லை என்பதும் அல்ல. நுண்ணிய கள ஆய்வு மூலம், முழுமையான மரபுப்பயிற்சி மூலம், ஒட்டுமொத்தப் பண்பாட்டுப் பார்வைமூலம் சீர்செய்யவேண்டியது அது.

இதை எதையுமே உணராமல் ஒருவர் காலையில் எழுந்து சென்னை குப்பத்தில் ஒரு சாலையில் குந்தி தொடையில் தட்டி சபா சங்கீதத்தைப் பாடுகிறார். கர்நாடக இசையை மக்களிடம் கொண்டுசெல்கிறேன் என குடும்பநாளிதழில் ஆங்கிலக்கட்டுரை எழுதுகிறார். இசைமூலம் சமூகப்பிளவை இணைத்த சமூகப்பணிக்காக உலகப்புகழ்பெற்ற பரிசை ‘வென்றெடுக்கிறார்’. தமிழிலன்றி வேறெங்காவது இந்த அபத்தம் நிகழுமா என்ன?

உண்மையான பண்பாட்டு அக்கறை இருந்தால் சிலநாட்களிலேயே தெரிந்துகொள்ளக்கூடிய வரலாற்றுப்பின்னணி இது. களமிறங்கி ஏதேனும் செய்யத்தொடங்கினால் மிக எளிதில் கைகூடும் தெளிவு இது. அது ஏதுமில்லாமல் பிராமண உட்சாதி அரசியல், சுயமுன்னேற்ற உத்திகள் , ஊடகவெறி என சென்றுகொண்டிருக்கும் ஒருவரிடம் இதையெல்லாம் சொல்லிப்புரியவைக்க என்னைப்போன்ற ஒருவரால் முடியாதுதான். மேலும் டி.எம்.கிருஷ்ணா செல்லும்பாதை இந்தியாவில் மிகவெற்றிகரமானது என நிரூபிக்கப்பட்டது. அவருக்கு வானமே எல்லை. என்ன செய்யமுடியும்? [Link]

More than his original critique of the award to TMK, Jeyamohan provides a far more cogent and coherent critique in this response to a reader. Jeyamohan is on the money when he mentions in the last line that the path that Krishna has chosen for himself is likely highly rewarding, especially in India.

Clearly, regardless of what one thinks of T. M. Krishna’s music (which is, for the most part, praiseworthy) and his social commitment (I do not think much of it at all – well, I do not waste time thinking about it at all), the award was a surprise. It is usually given to those who have had a lifetime of demonstrated work and results. Even Krishna’s admirers would be hard pressed to come up with a tangible list of what he has done to deserve the award. The citation mentions his ’emergent’ leadership and acknowledges that much of his work lies ahead of him. Both are give-aways. So, what is the hurry to confer this award on him?  The broader agenda is deeper.

That is the masterstroke that many are missing. The award is meant to lock him in his current path; it is meant to prevent the return of the ‘prodigal’ to the Brahminical fold from where he emerged and won his popularity, acclaim and stature. It is to ensure that the split and division within the community – between Krishna and those who support him and others who don’t – continue to fester. Well, ‘divide and rule’ is not that original but it has been put to good use here.

Krishna would, forever, be in gratitude and debt to those who conferred the award on him prematurely and the network behind them – in India and elsewhere. Finally, by conferring the award on someone who has not earned it, those who confer the award are expressing the reasonable hope that he would redouble his efforts and prove worthy of the award in the years to come. Mission accomplished.

Failing to see these aspects of the award and focusing on the very aspects that the citation mentions ends up vindicating the citation. They have neatly created a ‘win-win’ situation for themselves and ‘lose-lose’ for Krishna’s critics. For the most part, Krishna is a pawn in a larger game that is played in the Indian society. Sometimes, many pawns – and Krishna is not alone in this – think that they are the ones who are making the move.

Those who are railing on about Krishna and his undeserved award are missing the wood for the trees.

Just thinking Über

On Tuesday, in my regular weekly MINT column, I had asked whether the world could do without financial markets. I had argued that humans’ cognitive limitations meant that we were incapable of pricing long-term returns and risks. Mispricing of debt has led to excessive debt accumulation and mispricing of stocks had led to asset bubbles with all unpleasant consequences when they burst. A good friend had forwarded it to another friend who had said that political economy problems could not be solved with technical fixes. He has a point but I was not convinced. I was thinking about it as I walked from my home to a shopping mall that is not very close.

On the way back, I saw that the road had been boarded up quite extensively. An overhead walking bridge had been pulled down. I thought that some major work must be underway. I was right. I looked at the board and it said that the project was about building the new Marine Parade Metro Train Station (MRT – Mass Rapid Transit) and underground tunnels for the Thomson – East Coast line. That got me thinking about the issue even further.

I recalled that I had read earlier in the morning that the CEO of the ‘taxi ‘ company Uber had said that his driver’s license had expired and he had a BMW in his garage with an alternator broken and hence not in a driving condition. He was driving home a point, I guess. One did not have to own some of the things we used to, to avail of their services. I hope he was not lying about not renewing his driver’s license.

So, a major change in ownership culture and the prestige attached to brand name cars might be underway somewhat quietly. My friend had formed a company to rent DIY tools rather than having to buy them. We might be on our way to becoming a service economy from an ownership economy. Of course, it is not assured and nor is it likely to be quick. But, there is no doubt that a disruptive change is underway. If ownership mindset were considerably eroded (it is a big IF), then it would strike at the heart of capitalism. That  change would have happened due to a technological disruption that brought about a cultural and psychological mindset shift and not due to a political economy revolution.

Singapore, after laying tracks to all parts of the island, and after having allowed all new car-ride companies to offer their services, can clearly make it (more) difficult, expensive and ultimately unnecessary to own cars. Expensive real estate – at least large parts of it – can be released from parking space to residential and other spaces.

Hence, sometimes, it is not only feasible but may also be smarter to achieve social change and outcomes through seemingly innocuous technical interventions rather than through political economy battles. That may sound grand and intellectual but may not always work. Disruptive technical change may be both effective and smarter compared to destructive political economy battles.

(p.s: It is a delightful irony interesting that a ‘disruptive’ company like Uber chose to accept the investment from a change-resistant society like Saudi Arabia or, put differently, it is interesting that a change-resistant Saudi Arabia embraced a ‘disruptive’ company like Uber. What does it tell both about Saudi Arabia and about Uber? Nothing great, according to this columnist.)

What should our children study?

As I stood in the hot sun today in Singapore, at a car mechanic workshop, listening somewhat dumbstruck to his list of repairs that my 11-year old car needed, I could sense my education being completely inadequate to verify the veracity and authenticity of what he was saying.

Then, I thought of similar situations that we come across in our lives. We face many situations with our homes and apartments. We face them with our computers, television and other electronic equipment. Then, there is human body which reminds us, in small and big ways, of its existence periodically. When I mentioned this to a friend, she added that if one had pets, then we face situations with them too. We don’t have any in our home and hence did not think of it.

So, practically, we face problems on a very regular basis in these areas. So, families can and should aim to educate its children in any of these areas: civil and structural engineering, electronics, automobile and mechanical engineering, a good medical education and a vet.

History, Literature and Social Sciences seem to come far down the list in terms of their practical usefulness for our daily lives. Of course, it is a tongue-in-cheek post. They have their usefulness in other ways. Relationships, may be.

You kinda get the drift, I think.

Open minds for open societies

These are extracts of extracts of Michael Bloomberg’s speech to the graduating class of University of Michigan

Today, elected officials who decide to support a controversial policy don’t just get angry letters, phone calls and faxes. They also get millions of angry tweets and Facebook posts denouncing them in the harshest possible terms. This is democracy in action. But this kind of instant condemnation also makes elected officials afraid to do things that, in their heart of hearts, they know are right….

…. In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage. In 1960, most people would never have believed that interparty marriage would attract such resistance, while interracial and same-sex marriage would gain such acceptance. [Link]

Specifically about what colleges are for:

The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations — not run away from them. A microaggression is exactly that: micro. And one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space, because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.

We can’t do this, and we shouldn’t try — not in politics or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess. [Link]

Cross posted here.

A good result for Virat Kohli

It was the best result for Virat Kohli in the end. What? Have I lost it? No. Stay with me. I wrote, after his stunning performance against Australia, that his self-belief was staggering and that it was even frightening. On Thursday evening and in the build-up to the semi-finals match, the ‘frightening’ part had taken over. In an oft-seen and familiar story of media and the man making each other, taking turns, Kohli’s persona had taken on a much larger-than-life image. Against Australia, he was focused and he allowed himself the luxury of a pumped fist only after a six in the closing overs of the game that brought India closer to victory.

But, here, it was half substance and half show. No doubt that he batted brilliantly again in the final overs but there was the showmanship, unmistakably, which was missing in the ‘quarter-final’ match against Australia. There was no rudeness; unsportsmanlike behaviour or anything like that. But, the image appeared just a shade bigger than the man. I could have been imagining too.

So, when he came on to bowl – I must say that it was a good decision – and took a wicket, it appeared that he could do nothing wrong. Dhoni trusting the man of the moment to turn dust into gold seemed like a brilliant instinctive play. It was not to be. The winning runs were hit off Kohli.

Turn to Chris Gayle. This match was billed as the contest between Kohli and Gayle. Kohli had played his part. A circumspect Gayle did hit a boundary but his attempt to be too responsible made him miss a dipping full toss. Had he batted with his usual attitude, he might have whacked it for runs, if not a six.

So, in a way, both the showmen came up short in their own ways, when it mattered. That might sound too harsh, in particular, as a judgement against Kohli. But, I suppose you get the drift. It is not a sporting judgement but a philosophical one. It matters for the game that it happened. Far more importantly, it matters to them that it happened. It is good to come down to the earth. It is more secure when the feet feel the ground beneath them. It is a different matter altogether that they may not see it this way. The system is organised in such a way as to prevent them from seeing it. But, if they can and do, they will stay and shine for long.

Kohli would have realised that there are limits to what he alone can do. Who would have thought that India would pick up two wickets off two no balls and a brilliant catch by Jadeja and Kohli would end up as a six! What a fantastic drama! Sure, most Indian fans would not have seen it that way. There was no place for fun and enjoyment amidst all the flag-waving, face paints and cupped faces. Pity.

The match, nay, this tournament, has been a victory for the Indian philosophy of Dvaita (loosely put, there is ‘us’ and there is God) over Advaita (God is intrinsic to humans). No, do not get me wrong. West Indies was not representing the Dvaita School and the Indian team the Advaita School. Hardly.

I just felt, after the match, that there had to be a God who not only had a wicked sense of humour, irony but also brilliant in story, screenplay and direction.

The memories of T-20 World Cup that preceded this one seem like a blur to me, perhaps, because I did not follow them that closely or I did and I had forgotten. That is something to remember as Indian fans fret over the defeat over the weekend. It ain’t going to last. Media and the marketing machineries will create the next mania and soon. They have to move on and so will we.

For now, however, for sheer drama, this T-20 World Cup ranks at the very top. Slow wickets, low scores and tense finishes. Batsmen not always dominating. Great sporting feats, reminders of mortality and the drama. India won when they did not appear to deserve it – against Bangladesh. Against Australia, India won when the match appeared all but truly lost. Here, India lost when they thought they had won! Humans and mortal, after all.

Such fantastic drama could not be spontaneous. It is the work of a brilliant story and scriptwriter and Director. There has to be a God – extrinsic to us – who keeps humans dancing at the end of the string, he manipulates so brilliantly.

Now, let us come to cricket. I could watch the match from the 13th over of the Indian innings. After hectic two days in Bangalore attending a Board meeting, I made it to the airport by 6 PM itself, anxious to catch the match from the beginning. My flight to Singapore was at 11 PM. I did not expect the Singapore Airline check-in counter to open before 7. They opened at around 7:35 PM. The departure hall in Bangalore airport has no TV. Immigration counters were thinly manned. By the time I made it to the lounge, 12 overs were gone. There was a bit of a lull in the Indian innings between overs 7 and 12. Those six overs yielded ‘only’ 43 runs. But, that is normal. It is hard to complain about the batting performance when the team puts up 192 on the board. I thought the score had at least a 10-run cushion for India.

Things went according to plan, for India, that is. Nehra bowled tight. Whenever he is hit for a four off the first ball, Ashish Nehra bends his back more and manages to produce a tight over despite that. He did that again in this match. Ashwin had been a disappointment against Australia and against West Indies. Perhaps, a spinner does not need to have such a big final delivery stride. Well, that is hindsight wisdom. Some have criticised Dhoni for not giving more than two overs to his star bowler. But, the man watching the bowler from behind the stumps knows his rhythm. I think Dhoni was right to ‘rest’ Ashwin after two overs, in both the games. One more ego downsized, at least for the moment. Around the 12th over of the West Indies innings, it dawned on me that they were very much in the game. So it turned out. I liked the way that they kept going. No matter there was dew and the ball was wet, it is not easy to chase 192 in the semi-final of a major tournament.

Whichever team won, I was inclined to bet on England winning the tournament. They appear a more complete unit compared to others. But, after this win for West Indies, the eventual winner has become that much more difficult to predict. For a sport-fan and a sporting fan, that is the best thing to happen.

As for India, there is no shame. Except for those two no balls, India did not do much wrong. They bowled eleven wides and won against Australia. Here, they did most things right and lost. Enjoy the irony of life. It was just a cricket match.

(Cross-posted here)