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Many layers of linguistic prejudice July 30, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Si, Aung , comments closed

Aung Si

Contact between speakers of two languages possessed with different levels of prestige and/or international recognition almost invariably has but one outcome: the speakers of the smaller, lower prestige language end up learning the language of their more powerful neighbours. This is, of course, most famously illustrated by the case of English: people the world over either want to learn English, or speak it already, while an embarrassingly small number of native English speakers have ever learnt a ‘foreign’ language to any useful level of proficiency. Imagine, then, the extreme levels of linguistic imbalance that could exist in a country like India, with its more than 300 endemic languages, and its bewilderingly complex social hierarchy.

Members of the Solga community. Photo courtesy of Aung Si.

Members of the Solega community. Photo courtesy of Aung Si.

As can be expected, English is very much the language of choice at the top levels of government, industry and education. A Union Minister issuing instructions to his or her personal assistant, the local branch manager of a multinational company conducting a job interview, questions for the highly competitive medical and engineering entrance exams, discussions around dinner tables at Delhi’s super-exclusive Gymkhana Club, or parents scolding disobedient children while shopping at a new mall – it could all be done in English. What is often easy to forget, however, is that individuals who have a high level of English proficiency, and are required to use it every day in their personal and professional lives, make up a very small proportion of the Indian population – only 4%, according to some estimates. The vast majority of Indians who are not fluent in English are effectively denied many of the opportunities available to members of the English-speaking elite, effectively making this language not only an identity marker, but also a class barrier. (more…)

Opportunistic crimes or racist attacks? July 29, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Patil, Tejaswini , comments closed

Tejaswini Patil, PhD student, University of South Australia

The recent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne that left at least two students seriously injured caused widespread outrage among various sections of the Indian community. The media frenzy that ensued, with headlines such as “Australia, land of racism” and “Down under and Down right racist”, further inflamed the outrage. The Indian Government’s reaction was equally strong, with Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna describing the attacks as “appalling” and ordering the Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Sujatha Singh, to visit Melbourne and assess the situation. Even Bollywood actor Amir Khan weighed in, arguing, “It was most disturbing to hear about racist attacks on Indians living in Australia.” The Australian Federal Government and the Victorian Police were quick to condemn the attacks and dispel the notion that they were racially motivated. The reaction to these attacks by state and non-state actors, in terms of managing, controlling and sustaining the post-production discourses raises two important issues:

  1. Does setting up the discursive context of the debate in the language of ‘race attacks’ and ‘racism’ contribute to the understanding of these attacks?
  2. How does the debate reflect on the troublesome aspects of identity and nationalism within the Indian and the Australian contexts?

The responses of the Indian Government, the Victorian Police and the print and electronic media demonstrate clearly how discursive boundaries were established in the wake of the Melbourne assaults. The stance taken by Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland was one that strongly condemned the attacks and denied any suggestion of (more…)

Indo-US nuclear deal: caught in a web of bilateral ties? July 27, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Weigold, Auriol , comments closed

Auriol Weigold

There has been a perceptible shift in the US policy approach to India since the election of the Obama Government, bringing with it a raft of discussions still to be had on issues from the grey area created by the Nuclear Suppliers Group draft rules and consequent provisions for the sale of enrichment and reprocessing items (ENR), to a requirement that India sign the IAEA’s liability convention to start up American nuclear business with India. Reprocessing discussions are due to start in late July.

And that’s not all. Foreign Minister Krishna and Secretary of State Clinton have agreed to a Conference on Disarmament to move towards a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), although the Indian envoy at a Disarmament Convention in Geneva in early July made it clear that India would not accept terms that hindered its research and development or placed unacceptable limits on its military’s non-proscribed plans.

Nonetheless, a new US-India Defence Pact was signed in New Delhi on 20 July, during Clinton’s visit. The agreement will set in place “end-use monitoring” allowing the US to conduct assessments of India’s military policies to ensure that weapons systems are not misused – required before American companies can be licensed to sell weapons to India (or any nation). India has recently designated two nuclear power reactor sites dedicated to US investment.  Any reversal by India will lose American companies potentially vast income streams. The US has compromised before to keep its nuclear deal with India on the table. (more…)

South Asia roundup July 25, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan, South Asia - General, Sri Lanka , comments closed

Sandy Gordon


As the lone surviving 26/11 gunman confesses and asks to be hanged, India and Pakistan continue their delicate dance around the renewal of the ‘composite dialogue’, broken off after the 26/11 attacks. 

Prime Minister Sigh has reportedly been accused by the opposition and even some in the Congress as having gone too far in the upbeat joint statement he issued with Pakistani PM Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh.  

Pakistan would clearly like to resume the talks and the US has been twisting the arms of both sides to do so.  But is India willing to come back to the table?  That would depend, says New Delhi, on progress with the prosecution and trial of the five accused by Pakistan of complicity in the 26/11 attacks and the others yet to be arrested.  

Meanwhile, India is wary and does not want to put down its cards on the issue too soon – certainly not before it gets what it wants. Some think this is what Singh did in the joint statement.  

Paradoxically, Pakistan has both accused India’s Research and Analysis Wing of Cabinet (RAW) of interference in Baluchistan and also apparently offered talks between the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and RAW.  New Delhi, however, sees the offer as insincere, coming as it did just prior to the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting and on top of Islamabad’s back-down on an earlier offer of ISI talks following the 26/11 attacks.  (more…)

‘Hearts and minds in Afghanistan’ July 24, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Maley, William , comments closed

William Maley

The death of another young Australian soldier in Afghanistan has triggered a fresh bout of reflection on what the purposes of Australia’s Afghanistan campaign might be. Comments have ranged from the measured to the bathetic, with one letter-writer (in The Age on 21 July 2009) proclaiming ‘Who cares if the Taliban controls Afghanistan? I do not. What right have we to dictate to any country who will lead it or how it should be run? We should withdraw immediately. It is time we thought about peace.’

At one level, such comments show how much the public still has to learn about the complexities of Afghanistan. No one should feel sanguine about Taliban control of Afghanistan, since the radicalisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan could well follow. And the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan would likely see it revert to the bloodstained mess of the early 1990s, when regional powers promoted Afghan proxies in the hope of securing a regime compatible with their perceived interests. There wouldn’t be much ‘peace’, and large-scale outflows of desperate refugees would almost certainly take place.

But at another level, these comments also show how easily the opinions and attitudes of ordinary Afghans are overlooked. The letter-writer’s assumption that ‘we’ are dictating to Afghanistan ‘who will lead it or how it should be run’ deserves some attention. It is an assumption that lurks just below the surface of a lot of discussion of Afghanistan, but is actually at odds with a considerable amount of evidence.

A carefully-designed June-July 2008 Asia Foundation survey found that 67 per cent of respondents gave a positive assessment of the central authorities and 78 per cent regarded democracy as the best form of government. It is also the case that Afghans greatly prefer the current situation to an alternative that might give some space to the Taliban, as a January 2009 BBC/ABC poll conducted in all Afghan provinces showed. Some 82 per cent of respondents stated that they would rather have the current government rule the country (compared with 4 per cent preferring the Taliban); 58 per cent named the Taliban as the biggest danger to the country. A striking 69 per cent concluded that it was good that US forces had come in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban, and 63 per cent supported the presence of US forces now (with 59 per cent supporting the presence of NATO/ISAF forces). Some 64 per cent added that  the Taliban remained the same as when they ruled before 2001. In other words, ordinary Afghans care very much who controls Afghanistan, For them it is a matter of life and death. (more…)

Face-veiling: a ‘conversation’ between Islam and the West July 24, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Hussein, Shakira, Pakistan , comments closed

Shakira Hussein

In the wake of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech, in which he foreshadowed a possible ban on face-veiling in public places, I’ve been reflecting on encounters with various forms of veil in Pakistan. ‘Veil debates’ have become an obsession in many Western societies, often as a coded way for both Muslims and non-Muslims to discuss more general issues of migration and settlement. But veiling has become more of a preoccupation in Pakistan as well.

Pakistan is the only location where I’ve had very extended interaction with women who veil their faces, since it is vanishingly rare among Muslims in Australia. In Pakistan, too, very few women are ‘full-time’ face-veilers. But the boundary between the veiled and unveiled is more fluid in Pakistan (and in much of South Asia) than it is here.

Most women wear a dupatta (a long scarf) across their shoulders, which may be drawn over their hair or faces. Even women who wear the “shuttlecock burqua” – the tent-like robe with the netting grill over the eyes – sometimes fling it back to reveal their faces in public. But other women adopt the hijab styles familiar on the streets of Sydney or Cairo, with headscarf styles filtering across borders like any other fashion. This contemporary style of covering is still uncommon in Pakistan, but with increased flows between (more…)

Dalit muscle power in UP: Mayawati-Bahuguna clash July 23, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Ganguly, Debjani, India , comments closed

Debjani Ganguly

Mayawati’s triumph as the most powerful dalit leader in the country has come under a cloud with her recent misuse of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) 1989 Act (SC and ST Act) against UP Congress Committee Chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi. It is not a pleasant story.

On 15 July, Bahuguna Joshi taunted Mayawati for the paltry sum paid as compensation to dalit rape victims. “What is Rupees 25,000”, she asked, “when the state police chief was spending lakhs on the helicopter rides [he undertook to hand over that sum to the victims]?” Her shrill rhetoric took an unfortunate turn when she went on to claim that if Mayawati were a rape victim under a Congress government, she would be paid Rupees one crore.

The Bahajun Samaj Party (BSP) retaliation to this slur on their leader was swift and brutal. Rita Bahuguna Joshi was arrested for her incendiary language against a revered dalit figure under the SC & ST Act and will spend 14 days in judicial custody under a non-bailable charge. Her house in the high security zone close to the UP Secretariat was ransacked by BSP workers and part of it torched.

Mayawati denied that the BSP had anything to do with the arson, and transferred the blame to the Congress. She defended her government’s action against the Congress leader, claiming that the amount of compensation was actually determined during the reign of the Congress in UP, and that the Congress should take full responsibility for Bahuguna Joshi’s “objectionable, reprehensible and highly condemnable” personal attack.

The BSP is bent on making political capital by treating this incident as yet another upper caste denigration of the dalits and pressuring Sonia Gandhi to apologise to Mayawati, the BSP and India’s dalits in Parliament. This, despite Sonia Gandhi’s public expression of regret at her party member’s thoughtless remarks. (more…)

Deconstructing Bollywood July 22, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Chemboli, Srinivas, India , comments closed

Srinivas Chemboli

Colourful dances, swirling chiffons and over the top emotions – images conjured up at the mere mention of Bollywood, India’s entertainment capital in ‘maximum city’ Mumbai. But it’s not all song and play in the land of dreams and aspirations. Filmmaking in Bollywood is a serious and often heart-breaking affair, replete with drama and high jinks. What every producer ultimately seeks is the holy grail of the local film industry: the recipe for a Bollywood Blockbuster.

Bollywood Business


Making sense of the madcap mayhem of the Hindi movie industry is no mean feat. The year 2008 saw the release of around 209 films of a sizable budget (one in the range of 100 to 500 million INR), pegging a conservative minimum estimate of Bollywood investment at a staggering 20 billion INR. A gargantuan figure, if we consider that the average per-capita income in India for 2008-09 is estimated to be around 38,000 INR .


Costs and benefits of ‘staying the distance’ in Afghanistan July 21, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy , comments closed

Sandy Gordon

Hugh White’s brave call (Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 20 July) to the effect that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable” and that Australia should withdraw is significant, coming as it does from a senior and respected analyst.

The truth is we don’t know what is likely to eventuate should Australia and the rest of the foreign forces hold firm in Afghanistan.  We don’t know what it means to ‘win’ in Afghanistan and we won’t know until we actually go the distance and see.  It is all too easy in the Afghanistan context to commit the sin of ‘historicism’ and to argue that no great power has ever been able to subjugate that people – if indeed, that is what we are attempting to do, which we are not.  But each set of circumstances is entirely different, and this one is no exception.

What we can assess, however, is what could occur should Australia and other foreign forces withdraw prematurely. 

Most commentary has analysed this set of consequences in terms of Western interests in relation to the ‘war on terrorism’.  These arguments have been well canvassed and I won’t repeat them here. 

But there are regional consequences that go well beyond the natural concern in Western capitals of bombings in their public places and killing and maiming of their people.

Afghanistan is located at the fulcrum of three important regions – Central Asia, with its wealth in oil and gas; the Gulf-Middle East, with its major strategic imperatives and massive oil and gas reserves; and South Asia, home to 1.5 billion people and one of the longest-standing strategic rifts in the modern world – one moreover with nuclear overtones. 

Assuming premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is more than likely that Afghans would ‘sniff the wind’ and create favourable circumstances for a comeback for Taliban in wide areas of the country.  We don’t know for sure what that Taliban would look like, but our expectation would be it would be no more compromising than its predecessor government in Kabul.  On the contrary, it would likely be triumphalist. (more…)

Hindi-Chini bye bye? July 20, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , comments closed

Sandy Gordon

As Australia grapples with the strategic and economic implications of the Stern Hu affair, Canberra should spare a thought for India. New Delhi’s recent decision to move a squadron of its most advanced fighters, the Su-30 MK1, to Assam suggests a cruel irony. Eastern Assam was the jumping off point for the ‘the hump’ air-route over the Himalayas, the route by which China was sustained in its war against imperial Japan. In this case, however, the fighters are clearly intended to contain, not support, China.  

Reports state that four fighters of an eventual 20 have now been located at Tezpur. The fighters will be part of a growing Indian Air Force presence in the region designed to maintain aerial dominance over China in the adjacent areas of Tibet. The Indian activity is reported also to involve substantial upgrades for a number of Assamese airfields, which suggests an additional Su-30 squadron could be moved to the region. 

But why bother, given the high opportunity costs of the move, which represents on the basis of the transfer of one squadron a quarter of India’s current Su-30 MK1 holdings and half of those holdings for two squadrons?

The answer lies in the contested Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal has a population of about one million. China claims it on the basis that Beijing never agreed to the McMahon Line (see map), a border drawn up by the British but subsequently ratified by Tibet. 

The McMahon line is represented by thenorthern boundary of the area in red.  The southern boundary is approximately the one claimed by China today.  From a British map in the public domain.

The McMahon line is represented by the northern boundary of the area in red.

After the ground rules had been set for border negotiations between India and China in 2005, India assumed Arunachal was relatively secure. The ground rules stated that “in reaching the boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Given this formulation, and given China had relinquished its claim to neighbouring Sikkim, India was of the view that China’s claim related simply to Tawang, politically sensitive in Tibet as the birth-place of the Sixth Dalai Lama, and not to the whole of Arunachal. (more…)