Saturday, 11 May 2013

Raghead: Making a Killing

(Reader discretion is strongly advised for today's strip)

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Spy vs Why: Sarabjit Singh

One of the more interesting things that happened during my recent break was the story of Sarabjit Singh.

Who is (or rather was) Sarabjit Singh?

A while back, I wrote about the execution of two people in India – Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab and alleged Indian terrorist Afzal Guru. At that time, Pakistan also had an Indian prisoner on death row –convicted as a spy and terrorist by the Pakistani courts and sentence upheld on appeal. That was Sarabjit Singh.[1]

According to Sarabjit Singh’s family – more especially according to his sister, Dalbir Kaur – Sarabjit Singh was merely an innocent who wandered across to Pakistan while drunk and was arrested on trumped up charges by the Pakistanis. This also happens to be the version most Indians prefer to believe, because of course India never, ever, uses saboteurs and terrorists of its own to foment trouble elsewhere.

Oh, wait – it totally does.

In fact, the Indian spy agency (the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW) is known for several things, chief among which is a mind-numbing incompetence. It’s so incompetent that when its own chief defected to the US a few years ago, nobody had a clue. It’s so incompetent that it can’t even run its own dedicated spy networks inside Pakistan – which has, you know, ethnically and linguistically the exact same people as most of North-West India.

Instead, it recruits poor villagers as spies.

They dot the border area between the countries – villages full of poor people, usually of the lower castes, completely economically deprived and willing to take any risks whatever to make ends meet. A lot of them are already criminals, often running alcohol into Pakistan and smuggling back heroin from Afghanistan. RAW recruits them, often by arm-twisting them by threatening to run them into jail for their criminal activities. After a modicum of training, they’re thrust into Pakistan, often with a Muslim fake name, and paid a pittance for their efforts.

It isn’t surprising that, usually, they don’t last that long. Pakistani jails are full of Indian spies.

And what happens when these Indian recruits of RAW, who at least notionally are working for the country in a hostile land, are caught? Does the Indian government make any attempt to recover them? Does – like the Cold War CIA and KGB – RAW arrange prisoner swaps for Pakistanis held in Indian jails, of whom there are a not inconsiderable number?

Of course not.

Let me quote what a RAW official said about them –

“As soon as he is caught, he ceases to exist for us. They go into this dirty business with their eyes open and generally an undertaking is taken from them that if they are caught, they are on their own.” [2]

Not only does that happen. If, by some chance, any of these spies are released by Pakistan and deported back to India, they aren’t welcomed with open arms. Instead, false cases are immediately registered against them in order to intimidate them into silence. As long as they keep their heads down, the cases stay dormant. If they become uppity and demand some compensation for their sufferings, the cases are revived and their lives put on hold.

“Dirty business” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

A couple of years ago there was a case of an Indian prisoner released from Pakistani imprisonment after over thirty years, one Surjeet Singh [3].  All these years the Pakistanis claimed he was a spy, and he steadfastly denied it. After he was sent across the border crossing at Wagah in a blaze of publicity, he crowed to the cameras that he had been a spy after all, RAW whisked him away immediately after that and he must have been made to regret the day he was freed. Certainly, his fellow spies in Pakistani jails would have been happy to see him suffer.

So, there’s no particular reason to believe Dalbir Kaur’s assertion that Sarabjit Singh wasn’t a spy. But we don’t even have to rely on circumstantial evidence. RAW itself, speaking informally, admitted it[4] :

"Sarabjit was an Indian spy in Pakistan. He managed to accomplish the task given to him but was caught while trying to flee... Some of the operations executed by the R&AW during the period were totally mindless...Sometimes, the agency officials executed operations out of personal bravado that they can get 'something' done in Pakistan.”

The anonymous official refused to state just what this “operation” was, except that it was “mindless” – and the Pakistani accusation against Sarabjit Singh was that he was a terrorist responsible for bombings which killed fourteen civilians in 1990. That qualifies as “mindless” enough in my book.

Anyway, unlike India, which has recently developed a nasty tendency to hurriedly and secretly execute people without even letting their families know till after the fact, Pakistan didn’t expedite the hanging of Sarabjit Singh. In effect, he became a political pawn, with the two sides using him as a foreign policy bargaining chip, with Bollywood actors seeking cred by petitioning for his release, while India’s parliament passed resolutions demanding it – the usual tokenism so beloved of this country.

After the hanging of Kasab and Guru, Pakistanis began demanding the immediate hanging of Singh as a retaliatory move – and a lot of us expected that it would be carried out. However, the Pakistani government showed a commendable level of restraint. Sarabjit Singh remained on death row, but wasn’t, apparently, in immediate danger of dancing at the end of a rope.

Then, on 26 April 2013, Sarabjit Singh was – according to the official accounts – beaten into a coma by other prisoners in the Lahore prison. Just how a death row convict can be put into a situation where he can be assaulted by other prisoners I’m sure I couldn’t tell you, but then neither Indian nor Pakistani jails are exactly models of penitentiary administration. Admitted to hospital with critical injuries, Singh finally died on 2 May[5] and was given a state funeral in India after his corpse was flown back. I am absolutely convinced his sister will attempt to parlay his “sacrifice” into a political career for herself – if she hasn’t already.

Even in death, Sarabjit Singh’s utility as a political token was too great for anybody to resist.


As another, Pakistani, prisoner in an Indian jail was beaten into a coma, possibly in retaliation, and subsequently died[6], the Indian government demanded increased security for Indian prisoners in Pakistani prisons – you know, in case this turns into a tit-for-tat thing, all too common in the India-Pakistan context.   Also, the current mess in Pakistan – and Pakistan is in a mess so extreme it makes India look good – is far too tempting for the meddlers of RAW to leave alone.

You can be absolutely assured that more Sarabjit Singhs are being recruited even as we speak – and that they will be abandoned in their turn when things turn sour, unless they become politically convenient.

And so it goes.


Left Ahead

A few days ago I saw someone writing with her left hand and had a sudden thought – “What a lucky woman!”


Let me explain.

I am a left hander, though you’d probably not know it if you were to watch me doing anything. That’s because I am one of the very, very large number of Indians who were forced by their parents to use their right hands in childhood.

The figures are clear: while about 10-12% of Westerners are left-handed, the figures in India are somewhere below 5% - and even that, I am convinced, is an exaggeration. Now, there is no significant reason why – genetically speaking – Indians should have a third the number of lefties as, say, Americans. But there are other reasons, and they have everything to do with systematic and pervasive anti-left hander discrimination.

I am, as it happens, completely right-brained. I’ve never been able to see the famous spinning woman figure turn anticlockwise, which is how a left-brained (and hence right-handed) person sees her. I’m psychologically right-brained too. I’m (as you all know) creative. I see, as my Significant Other can attest, the Big Picture. I have no mechanical aptitude. And I’m clumsy.

I am clumsy, of course, because my subordinate left brain is being compelled to control my body, which it isn’t suited for. I’m functionally crippled in that respect, and all because my parents felt that having a left-handed child would be a social embarrassment. (They weren’t shy about telling me about this; they were proud. It was an achievement.)

Something they had in common with a lot of other Indian parents.

The anti-leftie attitude in India is as baffling as it’s extreme; and though weakening slowly in recent days, it’s still pervasive. That’s even more ridiculous when you realise that left handers are more creative and more imaginative than right-handers – a natural consequence of our right-brain dominance. And compelling us to use our right hands doesn’t turn out brains around, either.

Some years ago, I read an article which detailed some of the horror stories many other Indians went through at the hands of their parents. I remember one woman who said she had been forced to sit on her left hand while writing so she’d be forced to use her right; To this day, she said, and she was in her forties, she could only write if she sat on her left hand. Another person was burned on his left hand whenever his parents caught him using it – burned with a hot iron. What kind of barbarity is this?

Can you understand now why I thought that woman allowed to grow up as a leftie was lucky?

Actually, it’s never completely possible to convert a left-handed person into a right-hander. I used to shoot left-handed; I do a lot of things the way a left-hander would do them, and instinctively. That was until fairly recently.

Recently, I decided to reclaim my left-handed birthright. In other words, I decided to train myself to be left-handed again.

It’s a work in progress.

Some things have come easy. Eating with my left hand is no problem. Nor is using my left hand for tasks like using my cell-phone. I suspect that writing will forever be beyond my left hand’s capabilities, but what with computer keyboards I don’t write that much anyway anymore.

This morning, I achieved a signal step forward. I managed to brush my teeth adequately with my left hand. This isn’t a small thing – proper brushing is a complex procedure. I’m coming along.

But to this day I come across parents scolding their children for using their left hands, and I hope for something.

I hope their children will never forgive them. I didn't forgive mine.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Why I've been away, and so on

First, let me assure you all that I am alive and well, and thank you for your concern.

Sometimes, I do take breaks from writing – but this wasn’t one of the usual breaks. Nor was I going through one of my periodic cycles of clinical depression. No, I wasn’t arrested and renditioned to some charming prison where I was waterboarded and stress-positioned, et cetera, either.

So why haven’t I been online?

Simply put – I was going through a personal identity crisis revolving around my life as a writer and cartoonist. And the trigger was a rejection slip.

A couple of years ago, I’d finally finished writing a novel called Fidayeen. This was my third completed novel, and in my opinion (and of a select circle of friends who read and commented on it) it was good. Certainly it was the best novel I’d written, much more streamlined than my first (Rainbow’s End) and more serious than my second (The Call of the Khokkosh).

Now, I’m no longer a beginner at the game of trying to be published. I know that it’s almost impossible to be published – no matter how good you are – unless

                1.     You have an inside link to the publishing industry – one reason why almost all Indian authors these days are media professionals, and/or

               2.     You have a story which “sells”.

Of course I’m no media professional, but I thought Fidayeen – which features jihadist terrorism in Kashmir – would sell. So I did send it off to some Indian publishers (the mainstream ones). I got rejection slips from all, except one – and that rejected it after a few months.

Then someone let me know about an agent. I sent it to him and he said it wasn’t saleable without rewriting. He’d be glad to tell me how to rewrite it – for a “reading and analysis fee”, of course.

Screw that. I’m not going to fall for these transparent attempts to rip me off.

Anyway, I then sent it to a New Zealand e-publisher. She sat on it for nine months and then – after repeated emails from me – informed me that she was rejecting it. I’m pretty sure she never got around to reading it – nor did anybody else.

So, I reached a point where I began questioning if anybody really cared.

Some time ago, I was a member of a website called Multiply where I had a hell of a lot of readers, and I used to get a lot of feedback. Some of it was favourable, some not – but it was always interesting. Well, Multiply folded for reasons which had absolutely everything to do with the owners’ greed, and left us bloggers stranded high and dry – bereft of the online network of friends we’d spent often many years developing. Suddenly, I found I had almost nobody willing to read anything I wrote.

I’ll just mention something here – to me, believe it or not, writing doesn’t come easy. In fact, writing is pretty goddamn hard, In order to write something, I generally have to give up reading, rest, sleep and exercise to sit pecking away at a keyboard – and half the time I’m not even satisfied with what I spend hours or days writing. And, then, you know, I don’t exactly react with joy when I get almost no views or comments.

So, I asked myself a question I’ve asked before: Do I really want to do this?

And my mind answered: No.

So I stopped writing. Completely and absolutely. I didn’t write, I didn’t go online, I didn’t do a damned thing along those lines. Instead, I slept. I read. I worked out. I went on a vacation with my girlfriend and slept some more and had a fairly good time. And I came back and went back to work – and I still had no desire to start writing again.

Then I began to get depressed.

There’s a thing they say – that writing isn’t something you can stop. If you do it, you’ve got to do it, whether you like it or not, because it’s a monster which has you by the throat and will never let you go. I resisted it for a while, but I think at the back of my mind I knew I’d have to start again someday. I am.

I actually started writing several days ago, and I’ve got two stories half-written; but they are on my laptop, and last night my laptop’s LCD screen went kaput. It’s in for repair but will take at least two days (and possibly five) before I get it back. So, in the meantime, I’m filling you in.

Let me just say something – anybody who has ever read me – I appreciate it. Thank you.

I hope you’ll continue.

And, let me repeat, I’m back.

Let’s get on with it, shall we?