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The Michel gambit

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By Manini Chatterjee

Narendra Modi is the biggest vote catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its most indefatigable election campaigner. But in his zeal to perform these roles, he sometimes forgets that he is also the prime minister of India.

A particularly egregious instance of this memory lapse was on display last week. Addressing an election rally at Sumerpur in Rajasthan on December 5, Modi made headlines with his reference to the extradition from Dubai of Christian Michel — the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal.

 

In his trademark theatrical style, the prime minister said, “Brothers and sisters, you must have heard of the VVIP helicopter scam of thousands of crores… you must know about the letter, Madame Soniaji’s letter… After we came to power, we kept searching for it in the files and finally found a raazdar [keeper of secrets] who served powerful people. He was a dalal [middleman]… He was a citizen of England and lived in Dubai where he served the friends of the naamdar [dynast — Modi’s latest epithet for Rahul Gandhi]…”

The government of India had brought him from Dubai, Modi said, and added with a snigger: “Abhiraazdarraazkholega, patanahinbaatkahantakpahunchegi, kitni door takpahunchegi(Now the keeper of secrets will spill the beans and who knows how far it will reach).”

Political mud-slinging is par for the course during elections. But rarely, if ever, has the head of a government resorted to such a pastiche of lies, half-truths, innuendoes and insinuations on a complex matter with international ramifications which is still under investigation. His speech prompted many to suspect that the extradition — just before the final day of campaigning in Rajasthan and Telangana — was timed to suit the ruling party’s political agenda. Worse, it cast a shadow on the entire process of investigation and delivered a further blow to the already tattered credibility of agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI.

Modi may think that he managed to fool the villagers of Rajasthan (and the millions who saw the speech on their TVs or mobiles) into believing that he was the sole crusader against corruption who had unearthed a massive scam. But anyone who has even cursorily followed the chopper scam knows that it broke and was dealt with before Modi came to power.

It was in 1999, during the Vajpayee regime, that the Indian Air Force first made a proposal to buy 12 high-end helicopters for the use of the president, prime minister and other VVIPs. AgustaWestland, the British arm of the Italian firm, Finmeccanica, secured the deal for Rs 3,600 crores in 2010. Soon after, investigations in Italy led to the arrest of the chairman of the Finmeccanica group, Giuseppe Orsi, and the CEO of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnolini, on charges that they bribed middlemen to secure the deal.

The Manmohan Singh government put the deal on hold in February 2013 and cancelled it in 2014 on the grounds that it had violated the integrity pact. It also recovered most of the money that had been paid for the choppers. The CBI investigation into the deal also began in February 2013 — leading to the naming and eventual arrest of former IAF chief, S.P. Tyagi, his businessman cousin, Julie Tyagi, and Delhi based lawyer, GautamKhaitan, on charges of receiving bribes.

Apart from members of the Tyagi family, the FIR filed by the CBI in March 2013 also named three middlemen — Carlo Gerosa, Guido Haschke and Christian Michel. The Enforcement Directorate too started investigations to track the kickbacks that were allegedly paid through a network of companies floated by the middlemen. According to the Indian agencies, while Gerosa and Haschke dealt with the Tyagi family, Michel — an old India hand — dealt with bureaucrats and politicians.

During the trial in Italian courts, Haschke turned approver. It is Haschke’s dairies and notes — which he claimed to have written under the instructions of Michel — that form the basis of the allegations levelled at the Congress leadership by Narendra Modi. Haschke’s notes included a “Budget Sheet” in which abbreviations such as AP and FAM figure — referring, according to the BJP, to Ahmed Patel and the Gandhi “Family.”

In interviews to the Indian media from his Dubai residence, Michel has repeatedly dismissed the notes and papers as fake. Michel has said he never got along with Haschke and that is the reason why Haschke sought to falsely implicate him. Haschke, he has alleged, used the Tyagis as a front to siphon off most of the kickback money back to Italy. “The real problem lies in Italy,” Michel told an Indian TV channel in May 2016.

But it is not Italy but an Indian of Italian origin that has obsessed the Modi regime — and her name is Sonia Gandhi. In July this year, after Christian Michel was arrested in Dubai at India’s request, his lawyer, Rosemary Patrizi, and his sister, Sasha Ozeman, gave interviews to India Today alleging that Indian investigators wanted him to name the then Congress president in the chopper deal.

Michel, his lawyer said, was being coerced to make false claims that he knew Sonia Gandhi. “This year, they (investigators) went to Dubai to interview him. What they wanted really was a signature. They wanted that he corroborated telling things that were not true. He said no, I am not going to sign. After that the people went back to India and he was arrested.”

His sister said much the same thing. “They want him to admit that he knows Sonia Gandhi, but he doesn’t. They want him to admit that he is helping these people, these very big politicians, but he’s not. He is just trying to clear his own name,” she said.

Earlier, in 2016, Michel himself had alleged that the Modi government had offered to free the two Italian marines in Indian custody in exchange for evidence linking Sonia Gandhi to the chopper scam. Michel had made these allegations in letters to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague where India and Italy were arguing the marines issue. Michel’s claim that Modi had made this offer at a “brush by” meeting with his Italian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in September 2015 had been dismissed as ridiculous by the foreign ministry in India. But subsequent developments on the marines issue as well as the chopper scam case in Italy makes those claims seem less outlandish in retrospect.

In January this year, an Italian appeals court acquitted both Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini of all charges. The other two middlemen hold little interest for India. The focus has only been on Christian Michel. The Modi government has doggedly pursued his case — first with the Italian government and then with the UAE. In its eagerness to please the UAE leadership, India even helped “abduct” — according to a UN body — the princess, SheikhaLatifa, from a boat off the Goa coast and return her to Dubai. She was said to be fleeing from her repressive father who happens to be the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the UAE.

So important was the extradition of Michel that the National Security Adviser, AjitDoval, skipped the G 20 summit and went to Dubai instead — and triumphantly brought the fugitive to India just in time for Modi’s campaign-end flourish.

But Modi’s speech gave the game away. Everything Michel and his lawyer had alleged in the past, and which Indian authorities had vociferously denied, was vindicated by that speech. Modi, in fact, went much further than any CBI or ED charge sheet has by claiming the existence of “Madame Soniaji’s letter” and that Michel provided services to friends of the naamdar. Even before the CBI could begin its interrogation of Michel, Modi was already sure that many “secrets” would tumble out.

Yet regardless of the damage his speech has caused to the credibility of India’s investigators and diplomats, the prime minister is unlikely to retreat. Whatever be the “semi-final” results tomorrow, Modi is readying himself for an even more belligerent battle in 2019. The “confessions” of Christian Michel, he thinks, will provide him just the weapon he needs to tarnish the Congress again and make the people forget the debris of broken promises they are mired in today. There’s a hint of desperation in that hope…


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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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