Friday, April 27, 2012

NAYA DAUR (1957)

During the first national elections in the early fifties as crowds cheered Nehru  with Pandit Nehru Zindabad, he would stop them and urge them to say Naya Hindustan Zindabad instead. In tune with the times, it is this Naya Hindustan that formed the backdrop of many of the 50s and 60s films. The Nehruvian march toward modernity, with mega iron-steel plants and huge dams would come at a huge human cost as the new technology temples of modern India came up on agricultural lands and replaced the labor force with machines. Indian cinema reflected these trends; while Do Bigha Zamin showed the plight of those dispossessed of their agricultural land, Naya Daur's premise was the struggle of human labor against the onslaught of mechanization.

And yet Naya Daur does not pit man against machine or the haves against the have-nots. Indeed, it does not pit anyone against the other (at least ideologically it doesn't). As the protagonist Shankar (played by Dilip Kumar) says to the mill owner "garib ko to bus do waqat ki roti chahiye" and "apki jeb bhi bharti rahe aur gareebon ka pet bhi." And later "humko machine se koi bair nehi."  In short, take the middle path. Keep both man and machine. Above all don't upset the apple cart.

That is not to say that the struggle that forms the plot of the film is irrelevant. Far from it. Naya Daur was probably one of the earliest films that juxtaposed class struggle with mechanization and modernization. That in the march toward progress, benefits from technology would be reaped by the few who could afford it in the first place. The mill owner of Naya Daur for instance.

Over the decades this theme would be taken up by Indian filmmakers, but the best works generally emerged from the world of parallel cinema. A classic film of this genre is Jahnu Barua's Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (it's a long way to the sea) where an old boatman loses his livelihood when a bridge is built over the river on which he ferries passengers. The talented Barua tackled the subject with immense sensitivity. In the real world many ways of life do go extinct, and Barua did not falter to show the poignancy of the situation.

But Bollywood caters to a more varied taste!

Back to Naya Daur. The film is set in a basti where folks are in complete harmony with the benign landlord, a bespectacled bearded Nasir Hussain in dhoti and chadar, who doubles as a father figure to his subjects. These men are either employed in benign patriarch's mill or drive tongas for a living. No biradaris, unch-nich or jaat-paat. The people eat together, play together, even pray together. The basti thus becomes the microcosm for the Naya Hindustan.

In celebration of the pan Indian ethos running throughout the film, Vyjayanthimala can wear a half saree or thaavani and dance the bhangra. The dress code is a bit strict in the men's apparel section as the rural folks wear dhoti irrespective of their position and wealth, and the city bred are suited booted. But pro-progress suited booted is not necessarily anti-people. So as a foil to the patriarch's son Kundan (played by Jeevan) who swears by progress-via-machines, there is the city journalist Johnnie Walker. If Mr. Journo's appearance and English khitpit does not bother the bastiwalas it is because his dedication to their cause comes as a part of the package.  

The idyllic life in the basti gets a jolt as the landlord's city bred son takes over the reins of the fiefdom. Obsessed with making more profits, he mechanizes his mills and fires his workers. He even gets a bus to drive passengers around, thus putting the tongas out of business. Challenged to a bus vs tonga race from the station to the temple, Shankar, the leader of the tongawalahs accepts and together with his people builds a short road with a bridge to the temple to win the race. Through all this he has the support of his lady love Vyjayanthimala, who not only lifts the first pail of mud on her head but also puts her own life on line and throws away the stick of dynamite that was intended to destroy the bridge.

But it was funny to see the lady's delicate hands (manicured nails, beautifully designed bangles et al) pick a bucket of shoveled earth and balance it on her dainty head.   

Being part of mainstream cinema there is obviously no room to address the complexities and conflicts of class and modernization. It would be interestingly to see how these hierarchies intersect. Although the villagers are not the silent suffering types and do rise to the challenge, it is only inasmuch as their livelihood is at stake. Unfortunately an understanding of their collective power  dawning on them is never explored. I know this is no place for comparisons but one is reminded of the Naseer character in the last scene of Manthan, where he gleeful proclaims "sosoty aapni hai" (the cooperative society belongs to us); this after realizing that the cooperative society belonged to him and others and not to the shahari babus.
No such fate awaits the bastiwalahs here. Nowhere is their love for status quo more evident as when the statue of a goddess (Maa to the villagers) is found buried in the road construction path. For all the talk of a new order, the villagers fear a curse and change the course of the road. Shankar does protest but the elders prevail. So much for the Naya order!!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Religious fundamentalism and extreme nationalism are dangerous. Most of us know that. But perhaps more dangerous than these is our own collective ennui at social and political injustice that prevents our protests and voices as groups or nations. You are rocked by this feeling a thousand times over with the Human Rights Watch DVD Collection, showcasing documentary films that deal with abuse and violation throughout the world. The seven films in this collection span the globe to reveal glimpses of the provocative stories from far-flung lands: Tibetan refugees in exile in India, young workers in the silver mines of Bolivia, young men and women in the by-lanes of the Middle and Far East, and horrific killings of ordinary people by powerful regimes.

But first the story of the protesters. In 1971, a group of twenty-eight people called America's Conscience broke into a New Jersey draft board office to destroy government draft records that identified young men for military service. Arrested because of betrayal by one of their own, these people were labeled Camden 28 by the U.S. government. A court case followed in which judge and jury made a landmark decision and returned a verdict of not guilty. The Camden 28 is this story.

In Jihad for Love (Dangerous Living), gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels through the Islamic world to unveil the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Muslims, many of who have no choice but to leave their home and land for safer shores. Yet others choose to stay behind and fight for a life of dignity and social acceptance. Despite threats, imprisonment and castigation, they carry on, confident that things will eventually change.

From director Sabiha Samar of Pakistan comes Silent Waters, a film set in the days of dictator Zia-ul-Haq's rise to power. The lives of a mother and son living peacefully in a village become intertwined with fundamentalism, and long-forgotten events and scars from the past suddenly threaten the future. The film juxtaposes the events of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan with the Islamic fundamentalism in the '80s. With the rise of fundamentalism, the horrors of Partition are almost revisited.

Equally horrific are the scenes from S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Director Rithy Pahn takes us into the world of the Khmer and their murderous inhumanity through the eyes of a survivor who finally confronts his captors. This is a difficult film to watch: staring at the face of the men who killed millions in cold blood is never easy.

Dreaming Lhasa presents one face of a Tibetan world, that of exile in Dharamsala, India. Directors Ritu Sareen and Tenzing Sonam's film is the story of Karma, a Tibetan filmmaker in New York who travels to Dharamsala to make a movie about exile. While filming her subject, she meets a monk from Tibet who is searching for a particular man. His search symbolizes Karma's own journey to come to terms with her legacy. Through the monk and their trip to meet other Tibetans by traveling across India from Dharamsala to Delhi to Rajasthan, one sees through the prism of the exiled.

Another poignant film in this collection is The Devil's Miner, the story of young brothers Basilio and Bernardino, who work in the Bolivian silver mines of Cerro Rico. Living under the yoke of poverty and grave danger, these brothers follow in the footsteps of other miners who believe and pray to the Devil they believe watches over them. Statues of devils across the tunnels of the mines and offerings made to them are the only source of comfort for these boys. Yet, despite the poverty and danger to their lives, these children have hope for the future - a future where an education funded by their earnings from the mine will bring a new and better life.

Equally affecting is the story of Jean Donovan (Roses in December), a young American missionary who was brutally slain by El Salvador's military. The film chronicles her life, her upbringing in Connecticut, and her desire to join the Catholic Church and work amongst the poor El Salvadorians at a time when leftist rebels were fighting the military regime. The church became a target for the military junta because of its anti-poverty programs, and Jean and three American nuns paid for their idealism with their lives.

The films contained in the Human Rights Watch DVD Collection, most of them multiple award-winners from various film festivals and organizations, faithfully represent the partnership between Human Rights Watch and the socially conscious filmmaking from First Run Features in their partnered effort to open the eyes we try to keep shut tight against ongoing depravity and inhumanity in a world we share with too many unluckier than we.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Daniyal Mueenuddin
W.W. Norton
256 pages
February 2009

Pakistan is in the spotlight. The war against terror that rages on its terrain, to the accompaniment of political machinations and a gloomy economy, threatens to ravage this land wedged between the large India and the small violence-rocked Afghan state. Almost to coincide with this world attention, Pakistani Writing in English (PWE), or Pakistani Anglophone Writing (PAW) if you prefer, is suddenly gaining visibility as a deluge of authors such as Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Aamer Hussain, Shahbano Bilgrami, Azhar Abidi, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and many others make their mark on the international literary scene. Daniyal Mueenuddin is the latest addition to this star-studded gallery.

Mueenuddin’s unconventional life is the stuff of fiction. Born of a Pakistani father and American mother, he grew up in Wisconsin and Lahore, attended Yale and Dartmouth, then gave it all up to live at his ancestral farm in rural Pakistan. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, his debut collection of short stories, is a glimpse into this world where the trajectories of the old and the new, urban and rural, rich and the poor, landowner and tenant, intersect.

In an interview at a literary festival held at Jaipur in India, Mueenuddin pointed out that although it is necessary to highlight the diversity of Pakistan, he wasn’t keen on being political at all. Indeed, as the stories in this volume show, this world is much like any other, where people struggle for existence, recognition and acceptance. It is also hierarchical; like everyplace else, people jostle to reach the top where there is room only for a very few. And each person’s place and position in the ladder is unique. In the title story of the volume (all stories in this collection are interconnected), there is the rich and powerful K.K. Harouni thinking of Husna, a young women belonging to a distant branch of his family:

She behaved and spoke unlike the women he normally met, for she had always inhabited an indefinite space, neither rich nor poor, neither servant nor begum, in a city where the very concept of a middle class found expression only in a few households, managers of foreign banks and of the big industrial concerns, sugar and textiles and steel.

Husna, on the other hand knows that there are ways to improve her lot.

Seeing a girl her age stepping from a large new car in Liberty Market, among the expensive shops, or glittering in a pair of diamond drops, at a wedding, Husna’s mind would hang on these symbols of wealth, not letting go for hours. She sensed that all this might come to her through Harouni, if she became his mistress.

But there is a price to be paid for it. A price that is often very steep.

In the Old City where she grew up, the neighborhood pointed at shaming fingers at women from less than respectable families who were kept by merchants. The eyes of these creatures glided over the crowd as they rode on tongas, emerged untouched from dark streets where sewage flowed in the drain, prominent as targets in brightest red silk, lipstick, gold. Husna’s mother ground out remarks of the price that had to be paid, broken relations with family, broken old age.

Goodbye to the life she would never have, a life, economies that she would never make as she cooked and kept house for a clerking husband in the Old City, one of the boys who might have accepted her hand.

It is also a world where one is rooted. This comes at a price: when one wishes to shake off the shackles, they are too strong to come off. In “Our lady of Paris,” Sohail, a young Pakistani, introduces Helen, his American girlfriend, to his parents in Paris. Sohail’s father, when asked where he would like to be born, says

The only thing I’ve missed, I sometimes feel, is the sensation of being absolutely free, to do exactly what I like, to go where I like, to act as I like. I suspect that only an American ever feels that. You aren’t weighed down by your families, and you aren’t weighed down by history. If I ran away to the South Pole some Pakistani businessman would one day crawl into my igloo and ask if I was the cousin of K.K. Harouni.

Sohail’s mother, in her conversation with Helen, puts it in a roundabout way: You would hate Pakistan. You’re not built for it, you’re too straight and you don’t put enough value on decorative, superficial things-that is the only way to get by there.

In the last story of the volume, “The Spoiled Man,” old Rezak - homeless, penniless and without a family - finds employment at the farm house of Sohail Harouni. Sohail is now married to Sonya, an American lady who

has made Pakistan her home and who did fit in more than most foreign women, she studied Urdu, to the point where she could communicate quite effectively, made an effort to meet Pakistani’s outside the circuit in Islamabad. Even her husband’s catty aunts admitted that she was one of the few foreigners who wore Pakistani clothes without looking like either an Amazon or a Christmas tree.

The newly hired Rezak, paid and fed well, works in the gardens tending to the apple and peach trees that his master’s American wife has gotten from her country. When, during a picnic, Sonya greets Rezak, his heart, his soul melted, as if a queen had spoken to a foot soldier. It is a feudal world where the landowner’s largesse is matched by the intense loyalty of his minions.

Readers from South Asia will identify with many of the characters and incidents. The Ghulam Rasools and Rezaks and Nawabdins could easily have been a part of my own world. For others, too, Mueenuddin’s fiction opens the gateway to a dynamic place; it would be a pity to capture it within the twin stereotypes of oppression and terrorism.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Actors: Jack Lemmon, Eva Marie Saint, Charlton Heston, Eddie Albert, Laurence Olivier, Art Carney

Directors: Paul Nickell, Franklin Schaffner
Distributor: KOCH Vision
DVD release: 11 November 2008 Runtime: 982 minutes(6 discs)
Format: Box set, Black & White, Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC

What better way to bring back the yesteryear than black and white and sepia. Especially if these happen to be teleplays of a bygone era. And lest we forget the era, commercials for Westinghouse refrigerators and washing machines (ancient mammoth looking appliances) are inserted between the plays.

The Studio One Anthology showcases television dramas that are more than 50 years old. Seventeen of these plays, telecast between 1948-1958, are now available in this set of 6 DVDs. Several of these - Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar, 1984, etc. - are literary classics; others, like The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners and An Almanac of Liberty, are vignettes of happennings in ordinary life. Some, including Arena, are political plays. Still others (notable among them Twelve Angry Men) are plays that became inspiration for Hollywood.

The first offering of the collection is Medium, which originally aired in December 1948. Marie Powers' role as Madame Flora, who cheats her grieving clients by fake seances and her nemesis as she is driven to madness by a seemingly real presence, is beautifully portrayed. However, the technical limitations of the camera prevent many a powerful performance from reaching its zenith. Julius Caesar on the same disc suffers from the same problem. Theodore Bikel is Julius Caesar who, despite Calpurnia's (Maria Britneva) entreaties, arrives at the Senate on the Ides of March. Absent from the play are the huge canvas, theatrics and fluorish that a Shakespearean production of Caesar requires. Philip Bourneuf as Brutus does a reasonably good job, though I didn't care much for Alfred Ryder's Mark Antony. His piece de resistance - "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears" - is far too weak and stilted. Almost a damp squib.

The war plays fare much better. Notable is The Strike of the doomed patrol in Korea. The commanding officer realizes that he must give the go-ahead for an Air Force strike with the knowledge that his own men, sent there earlier, will face certain death. The poignant portrayal of his stoic stance despite his inner conflict is the highlight of the play. Another well-staged Korea-themed play, The Death of Life of Larry Benson, centers on homecoming after war.

There are several Reginald Rose and Gore Vidal plays in this collection. Perhaps most famous among them is Rose's Twelve Angry Men, which shows how after a murder trial, the conflicting opinions of the jury members can be dramatically reversed. The other Rose play, The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners, is also the story of a trial. Here the accused is a caretaker on trial for having murdered a child. The play ends with the father saying, "I forgive you. Please, someone forgive me." No other words could better capture the tragedy.

Gore Vidal's complex Dark Possession, the story of a woman's multiple personalities and the scene of a murder, is interesting, but Geraldine Fitzerald as Charlotte doesn't come across as convincing in the role. The other characters, too, lack depth. In contrast is Vidal's Summer Pavilion. That a daughter's struggle to extricate her life from her mother's (superbly played by Miriam Hopkins) hold can unleash such devastation is gripping to watch.

Charlton Heston makes a good impression in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's famous romantic novel. My personal favorite of the collection is Pontius Pilate. His one word may have changed the course of history, but in this play his own life portrays the fate of those who sacrifice their principles for smaller goals. Geraldine Fitzgerald gives a memorable performance as Procula, Pilate's wife, who joins the Christian order. As the play concludes, the narrator voices takes over the screen.
"For the crucifixion still goes on. Every hour of every day the agony is reenacted. This is the season of reminder to look to ourselves. The guilt or innocence is in our hearts. For anyone today, as then, who lives in fear. Anyone who could secure his own well-being by sacrificing his principles."
It is then that one realizes that the passage of time does not really change everything, and this collection bears further testimony to that.

The teleplays in the collection are:
The Medium
Julius Caesar
June Moon
Wuthering Heights
Pontius Pilate
The Storm
Confessions of a Nervous Man
The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners
Dark Possession
The Death and Life of Larry Benson
The Strike
Twelve Angry Men
An Almanac of Liberty
Summer Pavilion
The Arena

Friday, February 20, 2009


With Pakistan in the spotlight, the timing is just right for the deluge of writings from Pakistan that are making their mark on the international literary scene. Pakistani writing in English (PWE), often called PAW (Pakistani Anglophone writing) is making it possible for readers worldwide to gorge on fiction from this part of the subcontinent. The Bapsi Sidhwas and Kamila Shamsies have now been joined by a formidable array of writers like Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Shahbano Bilgrami, Moni Mohsin, Azhar Abidi and most recently Daniyal Mueenuddin.

And the world changed is a wonderful addition to the gems that are flooding the PAW bookshelves. Edited by Muneeza Shamsie, this collection of twenty five short stories showcases contemporary writings by Pakistan women. So that while the narratives abound with the obvious themes of violence, class conflict and hierarchy, the experience is exclusively through the eyes of women. Women writing in English are without exception the anglicized, upper class ones who by virtue of their education and social standing are anything but deprived and may not be the best spokespersons for the real Pakistan. And yet these are also the very people that inhabit a special world, one that allows a Pakistani experience within a global and often an immigrant and multicultural context. As Muneeza Shamsie says in her introduction to the volume:

Pakistani women who employ English as a creative language live between the East and West, literally and figuratively, have had to struggle to be heard. They write from the edge of both English and Pakistani literatures.
Although many of the writers included here are well known, the goal of this pioneering anthology is to reveal how Pakistani women writing in a global-albeit imperial-language, challenge stereotypes that patriarchal cultures in Pakistan and diaspora have imposed on them, both as women and as writers.

Diaspora and patriarchy also brush shoulders with war, displacement, immigrant woes and social hierarchy. Interestingly, marriage (and relations with men), the context within which women negotiate their own destiny plays second fiddle to violence and conflict. Interesting, too, is the fact that the violence that forms the leitmotif of the volume, is mostly in the context of partition and the wars with India. Indeed, the first story of this collection by Bapsi Sidhwa is about the horrors of partition. It is decades after partition in Houston, yet the wounds are still raw, as we can infer from Ammijee’s heart wrenching screams "I will never forgive your fathers! Or your grandfathers! Get out, shaitans! Sons and grandsons of shaitans! Never, never never!”

Roshni Rustomji’s Existing at the Center brings together incidents of violence across the continents where she has lived. Once again, there is the pain of partition,

“my friend Asha told me about how her favorite aunt had wept as the red tilak on her forehead and the red sindhur in the parting of her hair were rubbed off when she was widowed. All that red of marriage and of families joining together turned to blood across the land.”

which Rustomji weaves in with violence across other countries where she has lived, such as the blood and gore of Lebanon’s civil war. Lebanon, the land of heartbreaking beauty.

“where I saw a boy his face masked with blood, leap from a balcony moments after men in uniform had entered the building. The mother had screamed at the corpse of her son, not only for dying but also for having killed other mothers’ sons. Later I heard the same story during the Nicaragua war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, and during the Zapatista uprising for justice.”

The same violent motif goes through Vietnam and Afghanistan and she rants

“Mad? As I see bombs falling from the sky and listen to the young men and women ready to unleash their terrifying technology onto those they dare not think of as being human, I am reminded of history of this particular war” I remember the words of Euripides “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Although class, hierarchy and multiculturalism often form the basis of the story, the backdrop is mostly violence and war. The title story by Sabyn Javeri-Jilliani is the multicultural world of Karachi just before the 1965 war with India. In a typical mohalla where people yearn for news outside of what is provided by the state radio, arrives the Voice of America broadcast provided by Uncle Bobby’s car radio. But these broadcasts also bring news of the Indo-Pak war and gradually tense relations between the Hindu and Muslim that had lived side by side for ages in these communities. Where violence is not a result of strife or war, it is rooted in the social order. Feryal Ali Gauhar’s Kucha Miran Shah is a horrific story of honor killing that occurred in the protagonist’s childhood. And yet amidst the violence that percolates through generations are also these islands of gentleness and decency as seen in the gentle romance of this young man with a mute woman.

That there were fewer stories on women’s negotiation of power within marriage and patriarchal structures came as an initial surprise to me. After all this is something that most of us have come to expect from women’s narratives. It escaped me that in the aftermath of violence, the havoc that is wreaked on women, their bodies, their families, their livelihood and their communities; all these have far greater ramifications on their survival than social negotiations within a marriage. Marital relations do feature in some stories. Bina Shah’s The Optimist is the portrait of an arranged marriage between a Pakistani man and an expatriate girl. Another view of the expatriate world is shown in A Pair of Jeans where jeans symbolize decadence in a young girl in the eyes of her future Pakistani parents-in-law in Britain. Tahira Naqvi’s A Fair Exchange, is a world where a woman’s devotion to her husband can come through sacrifices offered to God in return for favors granted in life. It is also a commentary on how the intersection of religion and hierarchy can often take on bizarre forms.

Patriarchy is South Asia has a wonderful legacy in the form of solidarity amongst women. This is poignantly depicted in Fehmida Riaz’s Daughters of Aai where rural women spearhead, in their own silent way, a revolution where solidarity intermixes with superstition in a tale of sexual exploitation. In Excellent things in Women, Sara Suleri Goodyear writes about her growing up in Pakistan in a household where her Welsh mother’s quiet nature acts as a foil to her Dadi or paternal grandmother’s strong personality. Together with her sisters Tillat and Iffat, this is a world of women and their affection, gentleness and understanding across the cacophony of generations and cultures.

The stories are chronologically arranged according to the authors’ ages, so that younger authors are toward the end of the volume. It is appropriate then that the last story of the volume, is on multiculturalism. Nayyara Rehman’s Clay Fissures deals with identity in an increasingly convergent world. Here we see through the eyes of a young Hindu Pakistani albino boy, who has never been at home in his country or elsewhere. Years later, he finds himself in Balochistan conducting research on a erupting volcano. Around him are foreigners, investors in Pakistan’s refineries.

But the discrimination also taught me that the only place where color really matters is in a rainbow.
We hugged and shook hands and cheered. Europeans, Chinese, and Baluchis; Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and a Hindu all brought together by circumstance.

A fine glimpse of what would be our future in the globalized world.
First published at sawnet website

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Barak Obama's upcoming inaugural address brings to mind some of the greatest speeches in history.



At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured. 1
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. 2
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." 3
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of Inida and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

The appointed day has come-the day appointed by destiny-and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!

We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrowstricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.

On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the Father of our Nation [Gandhi], who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us. We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message, but not only we but succeeding generations will remember this message and bear the imprint in their hearts of this great son of India, magnificent in his faith and strength and courage and humility. We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.

Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death.

We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom

that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good [or] ill fortune alike.

The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lasantha Wickramatunge

And Then They Came For Me

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader's 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing expos‚s we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President's House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I - and my family - have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am - and have always been - ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be - and will be - killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niem”ller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niem”ller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem”ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.
Lasantha Wickramatunge, the chief editor of the Sunday Leader, was shot and killed by hired gunmen in Colombo on 8 January. Sri Lanka has the notoriety of being the worst place in the world for murdering journalists who do not support the government. The Sri lanka Editors' Guild blames the Mahinda Rajapakse government. Rajapakshe had earlier threatened Lasantha with death.