DAWN - Features; 08 November, 2004

08 Nov 2004

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Pakoras unlimited

By Karachian

By the time Ramazan ends, most people would not be able to look at another pakora. Why is it that menus have become so standardized and never change? Whether it is an iftar at a private home or a five-star hotel, it's the same fare all over again. Someone should come up with an innovative new menu.

The iftar at iftar parties is quite substantial, and then it is followed by dinner. The waste of food must be colossal. There was a time when if you were invited to iftar, you knew it was just that - iftar. There might be some shami kebabs or fired peas to add weight to the dates, chaat and - again - pakoras. But it was understood that there would be no dinner. Now, if you don't serve dinner after iftar, you stand in danger of being socially ostracized. Just another sign of the times and an indication of our increasingly ostentatious lifestyle.

Anyway, Ramazan is drawing to a close. Even those who are not very observing will miss it. There's something about the culture of Ramazan - the getting up at sahari, the urge to have another gulp of water or tea before the call of the muezzin, the sudden coming to life of the city at iftar, the family togetherness - that never fails to appeal.

Origin unknown

The Karachi Zoological Gardens recently obtained a couple of Balochistan black bears as donations. It was also gifted a few Sindh ibexes and urials. Some time back it had purchased black bears.

All these animals are extremely rare, facing extinction and are protected under the country's wildlife laws, which ban trapping, hunting, trading in and poaching of these animals. The provincial wildlife department has been tasked to ensure implementation of the Sindh Wildlife Protection Act so that rare wildlife species do not become extinct. The law prescribes long prison sentences as well as heavy fines for violators.

Zoo chief Mansoor Kazi refuses to explain from where these animals have been obtained. Nor does Sindh wildlife conservator Ghulam Rasool Channa appear interested in looking into the purchase of endangered species by the Karachi Zoo.

It is difficult to understand why an inquiry cannot be initiated against a government department which purchases or is given animals listed as endangered species from unknown people.

Garbage all around

If you take an early morning walk on Abdullah Haroon Road or even late morning walk on a holiday, you will be appalled to see the large quantities of garbage lying all over. From what used to be Rex Cinema to the Saddar Post Office you will find used plastic bags, not in their hundreds but in their thousands.

When you cross Sharae Liaquat, you'll discover to your horror that apart from shopping bags there are pieces of styrofoam all over the pavement and on the road. As a passing vehicle crushes a styrofoam piece, it splits into several smaller pieces, adding to pollution.

Nobody is bothered about the garbage. Shopkeepers throw the packing material on streets without realizing that they are polluting the very locality where their shops are located. Sweepers do their job half-heartedly and leave more than half of the garbage behind. Their supervisors are not interested in keeping a tab on their subordinates' performance.

On Beach Avenue, on the other hand, the sanitary staff swings into action early in the morning to pick the night's litter. The remains of food and paper bags are thrown by people coming from all over Karachi on the pavements, even though the Clifton Cantonment Board has put up garbage cans on the pavements at regular intervals.

Positive outlook on life

A friend with a positive outlook on life insists that most of us who rail against the phone utility for its supposed poor performance have forgotten how difficult it was in the past to first get a phone connection and then to keep it in order. She argues that the telephone service has improved vastly over the years.

Not too long ago, trying to phone a friend was at times more difficult than visiting him. Often telephones were out of order or "held up". Even if the lines were working, connecting to the desired number entailed dialling over and over again before getting through. People developed special ways of dialling that they swore helped to get through faster. Now we punch in the number and short of a busy signal (which in cases can be bypassed through call waiting) we find we are talking to the desired party without more ado.

Similarly, in the past, getting a new phone line was an exercise in patience. Telephone lines were at a premium and one knew of cases where the applicant of a new phone had long expired before the line was installed. Then came a time when, finally, the phone company made some progress. For Rs20,000 a new phone line was sanctioned in a matter of months. But this was when Rs20,000 were really Rs20,000. In contrast, last month PTCL was giving away free phone connections!

So, progress there has been, if of sorts and for those who can afford modern-day comforts.

Seeing red at signals

Instead of easing the flow of traffic, most traffic lights in the city have become a source of confusion as well as accidents because of their location as well as the fact that due care was not taken when setting the time for the signals to operate.

For example, traffic lights have been installed in front of the chief minister's house. The sole purpose of these lights is to function when the CM enters or leaves his office. The problem is that the traffic lights are activated 10 minutes before the CM's movement and keep on showing red 10 minutes after - with the result that commuters are left fuming while the police keep everyone at bay.

The road on which the CM's House is located has become much more congested after the restrictions imposed on traffic on Abdullah Haroon Road and Fatima Jinnah Road owing to the security concerns of the US consulate. That means hundreds of people are inconvenienced by these new lights whenever they are put to use.

email: karachi_notebook@hotmail.com

Outsourcing of the struggle against fascism

By Jawed Naqvi

TEESTA SETALVAD is a committed and brave social activist. She has been fighting for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, for their legal protection, for their security and honour against difficult odds. She runs an NGO called Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and publishes from Mumbai, the hub of Bal Thackeray's unruly Shiv Sena gang, an incisive journal called Combat Communalism that tracks and debates issues of religious and ethnic bigotry in India.

Teesta was betrayed recently by Zahira Sheikh, the woman who was supposed to be the star witness in what is known as the Best Bakery massacre in Vadodara in which 14 people were hacked to death. Zahira organized a press conference in Vadodara last week where she accused Teesta of using threats to force her to identify some of those accused in the massacre before a special court in Mumbai.

Zahira has refused to name the men, claiming that she was tutored to makes false claims about certain characters belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Not only that; Teesta was a threat to her life, according to the newly "awakened" Zahira who had once earlier retracted her charges and then claimed it was because she feared for her life.

It was thanks to Teesta's unflagging efforts that the Supreme Court of India had the trial shifted to Maharashtra.

Earlier in the week, deposing before the special court, 19-year old Raees Khan Pathan had identified five persons as members of the group that attacked the Best Bakery in Vadodara on March 1, 2002, and killed 14 people.

Pathan, who used to prepare biscuits at the bakery, walked up to the accused and identified Sanabhai Baria, Dinesh Rajbhar, Suresh Vasava, Pankaj Gosai and Shailesh Tadvi. The first witness, Toufel Ahmed, had earlier identified Baria, Rajbhar and Vasava and four others as the men who had attacked the bakery during the riots in Gujarat.

At that time defence lawyer Adhik Shirodkar alleged that someone was helping the witnesses with their testimonies. "Someone has been telling them to add things," he said. Zahira's claim appeared to vindicate the fears expressed by the defence.

The news of Zahira's recanting was flashed, discussed and chewed to pulp by the time it reached Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi. Ms Gandhi was attending an iftar party at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence when a journalist asked her if she was aware of what had happened with Teesta. A visibly shocked Ms Gandhi said that she was horrified by the news. However, a lawyer MP of the Congress Party, who acts as the party spokesman, advised her to keep a low profile on the issue till "all the facts were known", whatever that means.

In the meantime, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, ideology, had put up the news of Zahira Sheikh's press conference on its website within minutes of the event. It had also got Panun Kashmir, a Hindutva organization working in Kashmir, to demand punishment for Teesta, preferably with imprisonment. The next day Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, an RSS man, demanded a probe into the functioning of NGOs in Gujarat.

In Mumbai, meanwhile, another set of social activists has been assisting Bilkis Yakoob Rasool alias Bilkis Banu in her efforts to get justice. Fellow villagers in the state-sponsored orgy of violence had raped her when she was five months pregnant. In the violence, she lost 14 relatives, including her three-year-old child, mother and two sisters.

And there is Rehana Vora who has been adopted by yet another NGO. She too is a key witness to a massacre, this one in Ode village in the Anand district of Gujarat, in which 27 persons were killed on March 1, 2002.

According to an interview she gave in June, Rehana was threatened periodically with dire consequences by the accused, all of whom were out on bail at that time. She was even offered a bribe of Rs 2.5 million to keep her mouth shut, she said. But that has only strengthened her resolve to fight on. At least that is how it has looked so far.

With no witness protection programme worth the name or any political campaign to help the victims, NGOs represent the main hope for these helpless women and men. They provide psychological counselling and material succour to countless survivors, many of whom have lost most if not all their family members. Others have lost their meagre economic support system and are still trying to recover from the trauma of being abused by the state and its agencies.

Across India, NGOs are engaged in a wide range of difficult tasks - whether it is on the right to information, girl child rights, basic education, health or communal harmony or even fighting for the helpless poor who have been thrown out of their homes by the building of a dam or because of the clearing of forests.

But if the assumption is right that the RSS, the BJP and their other offshoots represent nascent forms of fascism, then the NGOs, no matter how well meaning, cannot carry on the fight by themselves.

As Teesta must have realized, her grit and determination to fight communalism cannot be a substitute for a political movement against fascism. And that political movement seems to have been outsourced for the moment to well-meaning, but eventually helpless NGOs.

The legal battle against Nazi Germany could begin only after Adolf Hitler's forces were overwhelmed with an all out-war against his ideology and muscle-power. To fight Indian fascism through tedious and uncertain court battles - be it in Ayodhya or in Gujarat, is to play on a turf on which the nefarious ideology thrives. Hitler, it must be remembered, made nearly 400 changes to the legal statues of the Third Reich before he targeted the Jews. That is the stark lesson of the Zahira episode for the secular parties of India.

* * * * *

THERE can be little more embarrassing for the newly-elected president of a country than to have no luggage to carry into his presidential palace.

Such a situation was faced by India's President A.P.J Abdul Kalam who is known for a mystical streak. And he revealed it when he was asked by a student at an interactive session at the Bishop Cotton Girls School in Bangalore last week.

"When I was elected to the top post, I was staying at the Asian Games Village in New Delhi. When the time came for me to move into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, I packed my things in a suitcase. But when officials came with a big van to my residence to shift my belongings, I felt very embarrassed," he confided to the girls.