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An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 1

Chrestomather | November 4, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (2)



Pallavi Aiyar’s new book, Punjabi Parmesan (Penguin India, December 2013) is an account of contemporary Europe seen through Asian eyes. The project is ambitious, timely and important, and I cannot think of anyone who is better equipped to undertake it than Pallavi Aiyar.

Born, raised and schooled in India, Pallavi also has a degree from Oxford. She lived in China for many years, reporting for the Hindu, and speaks Mandarin. Her first book Smoke and Mirrors was about her time in that country. A fine blend of memoir and straightforward reporting, the book is woven around an account of the time Pallavi spent living in a hutong in Beijing, with her Spanish husband, Julio Arias. It is to my mind among the best of the slew of recent books about China – a  compelling blend of autobiography, social history and journalism.

I should add here that my personal acquaintance with Pallavi is very brief. I met her at a book event some years years ago, soon after I’d read Smoke and Mirrors. I told her how much I had liked the book, which is why, I suppose, she sent me the proofs of Punjabi Parmesan



Pallavi Aiyar in Spain

Pallavi Aiyar in Spain


(later, when I decided to write about it, I asked for some pictures and she sent the photographs that are posted here).












Punjabi Parmesan (and I must note here that the title is one of the few things I didn’t like about the book) could be described as the second volume of Pallavi’s ongoing journalistic autobiography. In this book we follow her from Beijing to Brussels where her husband Julio has taken a job in the offices of the European Commission.

The move, undertaken for family reasons, brings about a sea change in Pallavi’s journalistic career: ‘For years I’d had front row seats to the volcanic awakening of this Asian colossus [China], the consequences of which were leading to an epochal inversion of world power… Indian newspapers had developed a Chinese obsession, alternatively adulating and vilifying the country. This had worked to my advantage as a journalist, as almost every story I filed from Beijing was prominently showcased. Europe, on the other hand, barely registered a bleep on the Indian media’s radar… I was resigned to the fact that I’d be lucky if my dispatches from Brussels made it to the newspaper at all. … I consoled myself with philosophical reflections on my stage of life. I was, after all, no longer a footloose youngster, guzzling sea slugs with ne’er a care. I had a baby now, and planned on more. Adventure for me had become equated with the contents of a diaper. Perhaps pretty, stable, pleasant Europe was exactly what I needed.’

But of course nothing ever works out as expected. ‘The ‘story’ found a way of chasing me. The timing of my move, in 2009, was such that before long I was once again in the eye of a news maelstrom. From the “Rise of China,” I now found myself with front row seats to the “Decline of Europe”. In some ways, of course, the two were the flip side of the same coin.’

The way Pallavi frames her project is characteristic, both in its modesty and its sly subversiveness. Her family and her children are placed at the very centre of the narrative and she makes no bones about subordinating her career to her husband’s: but far from constraining her, these choices lead to the discovery of an exciting new project, one that becomes all the richer because she approaches it not just as a journalist and writer but also as a mother and spouse.

The confounding of expectations is a recurrent and refreshing theme in Pallavi’s narrative. Europe turns out to be rather different from the ‘pretty, stable, pleasant’  place that she had expected. Arriving in Brussels airport is a bureaucratic disaster; within minutes of stepping out of the airport the family is robbed of a large part of their possessions.

Expectations of ease and comfort in Europe are confounded in other ways too: ‘Efficiency, reliability, quality, cleanliness: these words had echoed in my head, taking on an almost hallucinatory allure as our plane prepared for landing in Brussels on a late April’s day.’ But, in the event: ‘It took me a day to get a phone connection installed in Beijing, but several weeks to get one in Brussels. It took me five days to get my residence card in China when I moved there back in 2002, compared to nine weeks for the equivalent in Brussels.’

The plot thickens as Pallavi and her family learn to cope with the Great European Vacation. ‘We began our European lives just as continental Europe was gearing up for what the Belgians (or at least the French-speaking amongst them) called ‘Les Grand Vacances. This was a staggeringly long period between July and August when large parts of the continent, and certainly Brussels, came to a halt, with everyone from EU civil servants to primary school teachers heading off on a grand vacation, clasping suntan lotion and beach towels. (11) ‘I was increasingly convinced of the religious overtones to vacations in Belgium, where many seemed to hold holidays as the raison d’être for work, and even life itself.’ (12)

Imagine, then, my disorientation in having landed from China in Brussels, a city that not only shut shop for les grand vacances but every Sunday as well. When I tried to impress people by telling them how China was pretty much open for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they would shake their head sadly, exclaiming,  ‘Yes, isn’t it terrible?!’ Not quite the reaction I was hoping for. (13)

This leads Pallavi to ask some searching questions about the contemporary European work ethic. She seeks out Baron Dilip Mehta, a hugely successful Gujarati diamond merchant, now based in Antwerp. The Baron minces no words; according to him the key ingredient in the success of Indians in the diamond industry is ‘a willingness to work harder and longer hours than the competition.’


Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world

Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world


This, he says, is how Gujaratis came to displace the Jews who had previously dominated this industry.










‘‘[They] just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,’ he said with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. ‘We are married to our businesses. We will work at night. We will work on the weekends. We will do whatever it takes to get a client. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.’

The baron sighed.Of course, sometimes I feel guilty that I’m such a company-driven person. My family always comes second to the business. But that’s just the way it is.’ (29)



Diamond Street in Antwerp

Diamond Street in Antwerp

Pallavi then interviews a Jewish diamond merchant, who essentially confirms the Baron’s diagnosis:










The Indians work too hard,’  he spat. It was the first time I’d ever heard ‘work’ made to sound like a dirty word.That’s all they talk about, “diamonds”. It’s their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers. Even if it means selling at a loss.’ (32)

The irony, as Pallavi points out is that ‘[These] allegations … against the Indians—the ‘unfair’ competition they posed because of their willingness to work too hard and their desire to ‘grab’ business at any cost—are charges that have been levelled time and again, over centuries, against the Jews themselves.’ (34)





Sikhs at the Gurudwara in Sabaudia in central Italy


Pallavi hears a similar story in Italy where ‘Punjabi agricultural immigrants … constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the UK’.








‘‘Italians don’t like to work too much,’ said Sartaj Singh,



Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy



a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. ‘They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.








He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi, and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. ‘He never gets to work before 10 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.’




Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy


‘Before we (Punjabis) got here, the fields were barren,’ chipped in Harbhajan.








There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,’ he beamed.’


















Pallavi goes to Rome to interview a First Secretary in the Indian embassy.

He tells her: ‘‘You know, Italians don’t like to work in the fields … Italy needed labour and since the late 1980s Indians have been providing it. It’s worked well because they [the Italians] see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile. They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others . . . the First Secretary left the rest of the sentence dangling complicitly between us.

The words ‘docile’ and ‘reliable’ leapt out at me: it was astonishing to see this 21st century Indian diplomat using the exact words that British colonial officials liked to use to describe Indian indentured workers in the 19th century.

I was reminded also of another set of words that occurs often in European writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘the lazy native’. Colonial officials of that period concocted all kinds of theories about what they saw as the laziness and profligacy of Asians and Africans.  These notions were of course bitterly resented and the Malaysian politician and thinker, Syed Hussein Alatas, even devoted a whole book to the subject:  The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Can we soon expect a screed with a title like The Myth of the Lazy European /First Worlder? To judge by the furore that greeted Ratan Tata’s comments on the British workforce, it would certainly seem so.

Sometimes the wheel of history turns very fast.



All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar





Letter from a reader

Chrestomather | November 3, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)


Dear Amitav,

I just finished reading The Glass Palace. It was such an amazing read. I had no idea about Burma; that it was an egalitarian society, that it was a rich country, that it had no caste system and many other things. I think The Glass Palace will remain in my head for those scenes of Burmese jungle with timber and elephants and local and other asian men working under 18-20 year old British officers. It is so interesting to read that in some other time in history 18 year olds did things which 30 year olds don’t do now. And knowing life could be so uncertain then at 18, when most 18 year olds I know today are having burger and watching Hollywood films :) . Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that things can be so different.
I was so glued to the book during that scene when cow elephant kills British officer and in turn gets shot. Somebody had freed her of those chains in night, there were foot-marks on soil. But, it was written as if we are reading a dream. I was just thinking it would make such a great scene on a screen.
That part on Arjun fighting as a rebel (rebel from British perspective) and shooting when he could have surrendered was so troubling and yet touching.
I’ve been a bit pissed with India and your book seemed to generate interest in subcontinent’s history. I thought I would ask you for few suggestions of books, which are similar in terms of weaving stories, which throw light on subcontinent’s history.
Great writing and I am looking forward to reading Sea of Poppies.

‘Ode to the Ibis’

Chrestomather | October 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



On Oct 13 I received a message from Prof. Meg Samuelson of the Dept of English, University of Cape Town.


Dear Amitav Ghosh,

Excuse me writing to you out of the blue … I’ve been teaching your novel, Sea of Poppies, and gave my students the choice of responding analytically or in creative forms. One wrote this “Ode to the Ibis” that I couldn’t resist sharing with you (which I’m doing with her permission – Laura-Anne Wilson). I hope you enjoy it!

Warm regards,



I enjoyed the poem very much: it is posted here with the permission of Laura-Anne Wilson.


Ode to the Ibis


Once a blackbirder with a belly of slaves

The Ibis would sail across seas,

Riddled with peepholes made by poor souls

While those above them were deaf to their pleas.


With sparkling white sails and a billed figurehead

She glided like a great bird in flight,

Now carrying a cargo not of slaves this time

But migrants with a comparable plight.


Mr. Chillingworth was the captain aboard

But not all was what it seemed you see,

For the one who truly commanded the vessel

Was head of the lascars Serang Ali.


It was he who aided one Zachary Reid

A mere carpenter from the shipyards of Baltimore,

To become a gentleman refined and so well attired

That his past was foreseeable no more.


For Zachary was the son of a Maryland freedwoman

If we were to trace his past back,

And it would never be thought that this second in command

Could be marked on the crew’s list as “black”.


Far different from he was the Lascari crew

Who were arabs, malays, and Chinese,

Bengalis and goans, tamils and east Africans,

And even those termed Arakanese.


Up the tall masts like two nesting cranes

Were the tindals Babloo and Mamdoo,

Who at sea were the brothers they could not be on land

One being Muslim and the other Hindu.


Mamdoo-tindal was a tall lithe man

But occasionally he would assume,

The kohl-eyed, earringed, silver-heeled dancer

And female Ghaseeti-begum.


True females there were, eight women on board

Who left their pasts on Indian soil,

Braving a journey across the Black Water

To Mareech where there only was toil.


Munia the young, husbandless girl

Whose morals Deeti found to be swaying,

Since despite having a secret past of assault

Could not keep her coy eyes from straying.


Sarju, the oldest, once a valued midwife

Was driven from her village in shame,

The seeds she gave Deeti of the Best Benares poppy

Was the only worth she had to her name.


That Deeti once wife of a high-caste Rajut

Became Aditi the simple Chamar,

But the same are her eyes, piercing and grey

Even noticed by those from afar.


Was it this steeling gaze that earned her a place

As the Bhauji of those coolies packed below?

Or did they have an idea of her prior premonition,

Could they sense her great gift, could they know?


Though the tale of their past was not one that was true

It was easy for Aditi to say,

That she and Kalua had been married since twelve,

So naturally suited were they.


While her strength was her power to command the crowd,

His was the muscles his long limbs displayed

Which were as dark as a whetstone recently oiled,

And unusual for a man of his trade.


From the leather-workers caste he once did come,

So gentle and simple was he,

That one would have never expected the change to Madhu

Who would kill the evil Bhyro Singh at sea.


Fearing mutiny of the armed silahdars

Mr. Crowle acted as first mate of the ship,

Terrifying many-a-person on board

By giving Kalua sixty strikes of his whip.


One of those quaking souls was Jodu the topas

Who was once a fresh-water Jack,

But the Ibis crushed his dinghy of hollowed out logs

Forcing his life path to completely change track.


Nevertheless the Ibis offered, as it did for all,

A new life far from India’s monsoons,

Where even a lowly lascar who scoured deck

Could be thought a baka-bihari in pantaloons.



Not fooled for a second was Paulette down below,

Whose pale skin she did not let be seen,

With veiled face, hennaed arms and the name of Pugli

No one would think her white and seventeen.


Disguised as the niece of Baboo Nob Kissin

With an arranged marriage as her fictional plan,

She could sail away from Bethel to the Mauritius Isles

Helped by that strange looking man.


Odd because while Baboo was clearly a male

There was within him a feminine side,

The soul of his uncle’s saintly widow Taramony,

Who after death would in his heart reside.


Thus with a womanly gait and hair worn long

He squeezed into robes bursting at their seems,

Believing Zachary to be Krishna incarnate

Leading him to the temple of his dreams.


But no one was more changed on board that great schooner

Than the man who was locked up below,

Shut in the chokey with fellow convict Ah Fatt

Neel had a past that nobody could possibly know.


Zemindar of Raskhali who would have guessed

That Raja Neel Rattan Halder he had been,

Now a scorned criminal destined to exile

Where not a single familiar face would be seen.


The disparity of his single humble cloth bundle

Compared to the many goods of his lavish estate,

From being named after the most noblest of winds

To being inked forgerer alipore 1838.


Together this array of individuals would sail

Trying to survive to see Mareech’s shore,

Their fate in the hands of the great white Ibis

Where nothing was as it had been before.


Laura-Anne Wilson




Penguin India’s Special Collector’s Edition to mark the 25th anniversary of ‘The Shadow Lines’

Chrestomather | August 29, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



The Shadow Lines slipcase (417x640)

Penguin India is issuing a special collectors’ edition of ‘The Shadow Lines’ to mark the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication.









The edition will have a print run of 500 numbered copies. It is to be published on high quality paper, and will come with a ribbon book mark and a slip cover.



The Shadow Lines cover (365x640)


I will sign every copy and add a personalized note.



More on this at this link. And the book can be ordered here.







Correspondence with a reader

Chrestomather | August 28, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



I just finished reading River of Smoke, and I felt compelled to tell you what a wonderful, delightful book it is. I am a Parsi myself, and truly enjoyed the story of Behram Moddie, the Anahita, and the numerous characters who inhabited that world. You have truly brought another era to life. It is very rare to read about us Parsis in such an authentic manner. The way Behram spoke, the food he ate, his religion. rituals and life-story are so fantastically portrayed. The other characters of the book are equally engrossing, but this one really stood out, and cannot be easily forgotten.
I have read almost all your books, and my favourites would be River of Smoke and The Glass Palace. I eagerly await your third book.

Best regards,

Countdown Interviews- General V. P. Malik: 3

Chrestomather | June 28, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[I interviewed General Ved Prakash Malik in New Delhi in August 1998, a few months after India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran. Gen. Malik, who was born in Dera Ismail Khan, in what is now Pakistan, was the 19th Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. The room I interviewed him in had also been used by the Commanders-in-Chief of the pre-Independence Indian Army. The board in the picture below includes the names of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Gen. Claude Auchinleck and Gen. Sir George Stewart White, who commanded a sepoy brigade in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which led to the deposition of King Thebaw, the last king of Burma (as described in The Glass Palace.)  It was odd to see this name there, because I was then still working on the book: it was a reminder of the continuities and ruptures of India's military history,  which was actually one of the central themes of the novel.]


AG.     What sort of strategy can help prevent the many wars that are going on in Central Asia—Tajikistan and Afghanistan for example – from spilling over?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  It’s true that the soldier’s job has become more difficult, given the whole spectrum from Low Intensity Conflicts right up to nuclear threats. And in between comes conventional war – and  instability around your country is always a cause of concern.

Gen V.P. Malik

Gen V.P. Malik

And today what is happening in Afghanistan is not merely a concern for India, but for many neighbouring countries too. So we have to take those into account in our future strategies.













AG.     Could nuclear weapons lead to force reductions?

Gen. V.P. Malik. Yes, it could happen because when the threshold comes down naturally then the requirement of forces will come down.

AG.     It has been said that these nuclear weapons have really decreased India’s security by reducing its enormous conventional advantage over Pakistan. Would you agree?

Gen. V.P. Malik.   I don’t think so. On the other hand I believe that now, things are more transparent, and transparency should introduce greater stability. Transparent in the sense that earlier we knew that people had something in the closet—now everything is out is visible. As far as our advantage in conventional weapons is concerned I think that stays because in the higher level, things have now equalized—so whatever advantage we have is still there, but the threshold, we are also conscious, will come down.

AG.     So is there a possibility that a conflict willy-nilly will escalate into nuclear conflict?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  No, I don’t foresee that— but I can say that we will not be threatening each other with these bombs. No professional will.

AG.     But how can you be sure of that?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  Nobody can be sure of that—Unless all countries do away with these weapons.


Ladakh, below Siachen, 1998

Ladakh, below Siachen, 1998

AG.     Do you think the Siachen question can be resolved soon?









Gen. V.P. Malik.   Everything can be resolved if you start talking to each other. If you refuse to talk, if you have only a one-point agenda and refuse to listens to others’ point of view it cannot be resolved. We have a task in hand and we shall do it.

AG.     So you feel that there is no possibility of an accidental escalation into nuclear war?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  I don’t think so. I think the professionals on both sides have been very responsible, in the ’65 war in the ’71 war. Both sides have avoided collateral damage as much as possible. So from the professional point of view there are no chances—

there are a great deal of responsibilities in the hands of professionals.




AG.     But as you said they are not in hands of professionals always.

Gen. V.P. Malik.  Yes, professionals are also instruments of the political authorities.









Countdown Interviews- General V. P. Malik: 2

Chrestomather | June 24, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)


[I interviewed General Ved Prakash Malik in New Delhi in August 1998, a few months after India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran. Gen. Malik, who was born in Dera Ismail Khan, in what is now Pakistan, was the 19th Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. The room I interviewed him in had also been used by the Commanders-in-Chief of the pre-Independence Indian Army. The board in the picture below includes the names of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Gen. Claude Auchinleck and Gen. Sir George Stewart White, who commanded a sepoy brigade in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which led to the deposition of King Thebaw, the last king of Burma (as described in The Glass Palace.)  It was odd to see this name there, because I was then still working on the book: it was a reminder of the continuities and ruptures of India's military history,  which was actually one of the central themes of the novel.]


AG.     Do you feel that it was an increased sense of security threat inside India that led to these tests?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  No there is no immediate threat. This has been debated over a long time. To go back to history, a country in our neighbourhood tested its first weapon in 1964 there after they have carried out 45-46 tests. If we are talking of a regional environment then there is another country –  although they had not tested overtly there were very credible statements made by their Prime Minister, ex-PMs and chiefs and ex-chiefs saying ‘that we have it’. I can quote those statements—starting from ’90, ’92, ’94. Not only in theirown country, but even when they have gone abroad they have made those statements.


Gen V.P. Malik

Gen V.P. Malik

Then there has been the pressure that we shall have people who have it and we shall have others who will not have it. So a lot of these factors came into play when the decision was taken—but if you’re asking whether there was any military threat, immediately, no. Our threat today primarily is in terms of terrorism, militancy, a proxy war as we call it—sponsored by a neighbour—which has got nothing to do with the nuclear tests.










AG.     You must be aware that some military theorists believe that a nation that acquires nuclear weapons only increases its vulnerability. After these explosions there have been many more skirmishes along the border: do you think there is any connection?

Gen. V.P. Malik. No, I don’t think there is any connection whatsoever. Although we heard these voices in our neighbourhood that we have it, now of course they say we heightened it. As I said please do not connect nuclear weapons with militancy or terrorism. In the last few years the intensity of proxy war has gone up, it has been going up for quite sometime. If so many massacres are taking place now—that has got nothing to do with nuclear weapons. [It is] because they think Jammu and Kashmir is their problem and because they want to internationalise that problem and put more and more pressure on us.

I don’t think any sane military man would look at nuclear weapons for a thing like this. I haven’t seen any such statement from any professional on either side of the border. Some other people might have said it, but no military professional has connected these 2 issues.

AG.   There is a point of view that says that conventional armies increasingly find it difficult to deal with low-intensity warfare: their tactics and strategies are such that conventional armies find it impossible to respond. Is this the case?


Indian & Pakistani soldiers at the Wagah border crossing, 1998

Indian & Pakistani soldiers at the Wagah border crossing, 1998

Gen. V.P. Malik. Well, its not easy—because lately the number of low-intensity conflicts that are happening in the world has risen, especially after the end of the Cold War.There must be around 35 or 36 places where such conflicts are going on.








So far as terrorists are concerned, they have no accountability, they can win or they can lose. As far as armies are concerned, they are accountable for a lot of things including human rights. Also since they are last instrument of the nation, they have to win, they cannot afford to lose, so there is a pressure on the armies. But let me also say that the Indian army hasn’t done too badly—we had a problem in Punjab which we managed to overcome…..But the peculiar situation in Jammu and Kashmir is that it is very heavily sponsored from outside. So it might take time, but I’m an optimist. In a way we’ve gained quite a lot because elections were held, first the state assembly and thereafter the Parliamentary elections, and in J and K today you have an elected Chief Minister, and  representatives in the Lok Sabha. In the whole of the state it is the writ of the civil authority which runs—barring these incidents created by the militants and the situation even as far as tourism is concerned in the state, this year I believe we have had the largest number of tourists in many years. So today the situation there is that the locals are less interested in carrying on with those who were brainwashed.



Countdown Interviews- General V. P. Malik: 1

Chrestomather | June 20, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)



[I interviewed General Ved Prakash Malik in New Delhi in August 1998, a few months after India conducted nuclear tests at Pokharan. Gen. Malik, who was born in Dera Ismail Khan, in what is now Pakistan, was the 19th Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. The room I interviewed him in had also been used by the Commanders-in-Chief of the pre-Independence Indian Army. The board in the picture below includes the names of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Gen. Claude Auchinleck and Gen. Sir George Stewart White, who commanded a sepoy brigade in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which led to the deposition of King Thebaw, the last king of Burma (as described in The Glass Palace.)  It was odd to see this name there, because I was then still working on the book: it was a reminder of the continuities and ruptures of India's military history,  which was actually one of the central themes of the novel.]


AG.:  What was exactly the military logic behind the testing at this time. Are there any pressing security reasons?

Gen. V.P. Malik.: Nuclear weapons are not military weapons. So the first thing I’d like you to notice is that these are political weapons and they must be viewed as such, they are today weapons to deter others from using this weapon—those who have it.



Gen. V.P. Malik, 1998

So firstly it is not a military weapon so far as we are concerned. Secondly it is a weapon to deter others so that we do not become a victim. It is to prevent or safeguard, to ensure that no one who has it should use it on us.











AG.: There has been a lot of talk recently about command and control systems and whether there are any in place at the moment. Can you comment on this?

Gen. V.P. Malik.:  Well, it’s being discussed. All I can tell you is that whatever command and control that can be put, the whole thing would be put totally under the control of a political authority.

AG.     So it will essentially be under civilian control.

Gen. V.P. Malik.:  Yes.

AG.:  So in effect you’re saying that army will have no control over those weapons? Is there going to be a separate strategic force just for nuclear weapons—as there were in Russia and the USA?

Gen. V.P. Malik.: Lot of people go back to those days of the Cold War—but there are a few ways in which our policies are clearly different. For instance we believe in no first use, so its not the same environment in which the USA or the erstwhile Soviet Union looked at each other during the Cold War.we will have minimum deterrence and the ultimate authority shall lie with civilian authorities. At the lower level, if and when the advice is sought, naturally it’s only then that the military will come in — but I wouldn’t like to comment on that now.

AG. If some day we do have nuclear weapons we will require procedures that would require marrying of nuclear warheads to delivery systems. Would that be under civilian control as well?

Gen. V.P. Malik.: Well, we are working on all those things where civilians, military, scientists all will be involved.

AG.     What about tactical nuclear weapons?

Gen. V.P. Malik.: I don’t think we are thinking on those lines—the scientists, the technologists say they have the capability, but when we are talking about minimum deterrence, you’ll agree with me—we are not thinking about large numbers.

AG.:  As far as control of nuclear weapons are concerned, you say that the army will be conceding a large part of its authority to civilian authorities. Is this something that the army welcomes?

Gen. V.P. Malik.:  There has never been any dispute on that aspect. We are a democratic country, the army is an instrument for the services. And we are quite happy in giving  control to civilian authorities—I don’t think the question of ‘giving away’ arises at all. And it changes nothing.

AG.     I only meant that in a management sense—

Gen. V.P. Malik.: Well in any crisis situation, we have very close interaction with the departments and civil authorities. We have a system of the cabinet committee headed by the P.M. So when there are serious events taking place, we get our orders when we need to, either from the concerned minister or from the cabinet committee headed by the P.M..




Countdown Interviews – Asma Jahangir: 8

Chrestomather | June 17, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)




Asma Jahangir on her early life:“I went to school here [in Lahore] and then college – Kinnaird College [in Lahore] – and then I took my law here. I am completely indigenous. I was born in a household where my father was in politics and he was always in the opposition. And so I have seen him go in and out of jail. He was one of the few West Pakistanis who were from the Awami League – [which had most if its support in what was then East Pakistan].


Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

So one has seen that whole aspect of what is treason and what is a traitor as compared with people’s basic rights. During the [Bangladesh] war and before that he was in jail for many years. During Ayub Khan’s time he was in jail for many years.











When I was a teenager I used to look after a number of things when he was in jail – my mother couldn’t do everything and we didn’t have a political party to fall back on really here. It was at the end of Ayub Khan’s period that I got really motivated. I began as a campaigner when I organised a procession of women during Ayub Khan’s time -  that was my first public exposure as such. And then when my father went to jail during Yahya Khan’s period and then he was released and the first day Mr Bhutto came to power he arrested him again. I had just turned eighteen at that time and I filed a petition against his arrest which became a very celebrated case in India and Pakistan. It changed constitutional history because it was the first case that said that a military intervention is unconstitutional. The case started in 1970 but the judgement was in 1972. They declared Yahya Khan’s government illegal and consequently the martial law orders under which my father was arrested were also illegal. So they released him. This made me very interested in law because I was very much involved in that case as a petitioner. And the lawyers were very kind to me. I was all of eighteen but they used tell me what the arguments were. By this time my father was under house arrest and I had to go back and tell him what happened. And if I didn’t answer his questions properly he would get very frustrated because he wanted to know the arguments. So I really had to talk to the lawyers before I came home. It made me very interested. Plus, even before that, my father used to be in jails outside of Lahore and he never wanted us to come and meet him there for some odd reason. So every time he was called to court in Lahore was when we children used to see him. So for me the courts became a place where you met your father. I made up my mind to be a lawyer. At that time I thought it was a haven for justice. Where the rule of law was upheld. It was only after I became a lawyer that I realised how it was upheld.”

AG: “But it hasn’t diminished your idealism?”

Asma Jahangir:“Absolutely it has diminished my idealism to the extent that that was not idealism – I was misinformed. I don’t think there is any such thing as the rule of law that is being upheld by the courts of Pakistan. I have no misconception about that at all. But I still think and I’m a firm believer that these are institutions that are made with our money and we have to keep knocking. Every knock must be a knock at their conscience. And we must keep knocking and keep knocking until their conscience responds… I am not an idealist at all. I am a very practical person. You need [to choose] the right case. You need the right bench. You need the right timing. You [should have] groomed public opinion before [taking the case]. An activist must never be an idealist. They must be very practical and they must strategise each part of their actions. Particularly in the courts. Because once you get a judgment from the Supreme Court, it takes perhaps half a generation to get it overturned.”

Asma Jahangir On death threats: “I should make clear that I enjoy what I do and death threats are a part of the work. It’s not something you don’t foresee.”

AG: “And you had a death threat today?”

Asma Jahangir: “I’m told that the government has put out a circular about three people whose lives are in danger and I’m one of them. I’ve had attacks on [my person]; I’ve had people coming into my mother’s house to kill me, and they’ve taken my brother and his family hostage. I’ve had a man arrested from the courtroom with a gun; I’ve had my car broken by a mob [while defending a Christian] in a blasphemy case; I’ve had other death threats – like slogans written on buses, saying ‘kill her, we are your maut (death) Asma Jahangir’.”

AG: “Doesn’t it frighten you?”

Asma Jahangir: “To be very honest when my mother’s house was attacked and my brother and his wife and my nephew were taken hostage it really did frighten me. I met those who came to kill me subsequently in the police station and the kind of venom they had against me…

AG: “What was this based on?”

Asma Jahangir: “They actually believed that I was some kind of demon. They believed that by defending a case of blasphemy I was encouraging blasphemy against the Holy Prophet. That I stood against all decent norms. That I was a kind of devil incarnated that wd wreck the whole social fabric of Pakistan.”

AG: “What was it like to meet them?”

Asma Jahangir: “It was strange. First of all they had a very different impression of [what I was like], even visually. And slowly and gradually as the ice was broken [it became clear] that this perception had been given to them by some mullahs, preaching in the mosque, by two or three lawyers, by one newspaper. They said that when one [particular] militant group met they would vow to kill me. [They thought] I wanted women to become behaya [licentious] and once this happened they would have no control over their sisters and mothers. [But after the meeting] they got bail and turned up at my office with some sweetmeats and wanted me to have them. I couldn’t because here were men who wanted not only to kill me, but to kill my sister and my children as well. And [that they should] want me to have sweets after they got bail was, I think, a bit crude on their part… A few months ago I was in court and this young man comes up to me and complains to me, you are a human rights person but our case is not getting anywhere and can’t you do anything about it. And suddenly I saw that this was one of the men who came to kill me. And he was complaining to me about his own trial where I was the complainant. I was quite taken aback and I said to him casually, in Punjabi, na le chot to na le chattar: ja apna case aap kar [go and fight your own case].”





Countdown Interviews – Asma Jahangir: 7

Chrestomather | June 14, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)



AG:What can be done about human rights?

Asma Jahangir:“A lack of institutions, and an institutional response.


Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

At some point you have to depend on state institutions for relief. You can take a movement that far but not beyond; beyond that is a wall if you’re not getting discussion in parliament; if you’re not getting relief from the courts. That is one. The second is a mind-set. And that I have no doubt cannot change that quickly. And that mind-set when you change it, you have to then marginalise more reactionary forces. There are [such reactionary forces] in every society, whether in Scandinavia or Germany or Australia.








But by bringing in a politics of tolerance in government and outside of government, in institutions, you marginalise those sections. And this is what the West does. It’s not that the West does not have prejudices or that it does not have biases, or that they don’t want to kill a black person or a Muslim or whatever. But the people [who think like that] are marginalised. Nobody will get up – no political leader – and say, let’s just get these Muslims. They may even think that, but they just can’t say it. But here you have outright demands for things like that, because it is accepted, it is welcomed and nobody will speak against it.”

AG:“Do you see any possibility of a Taliban-type movement spreading to Pakistan?”

Asma Jahangir:“Well I think that if the Taliban win we are in trouble; if the Taliban lose we are in trouble. If they win and they are in control of Afghanistan, our policies will have to be influenced because we are trying to get to the Central Asian republics and we will have to have that interaction with the government [in Afghanistan]. Plus the fact that the Taliban are Pakhtoons and they are sitting in the North West Frontier Province. Already you can see the influence in the North West Frontier Province and Peshawar. And we have a porous border with them. Their interest is to keep it porous. So you will have that influce. If they lose the war – a large number of the Taliban come from Pakistan as you’ve seen in the people who have died [in the recent American bombings of Bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan]. Now they will obviously come back and they will bring back the comrades who have fought with them .These are going to be unemployed, desperate people [with] an agenda [of their own]. How are they going to amalgamate in this society? It is difficult for me to see. When you begin to convince yourself that you’re doing this for your religion and for God, it becomes even more dangerous, because then you are a desperado. Will the government of Pakistan be able to contain these people? The government of Pakistan will be very dependant on the army, which is the only organised force that cd contain the Taliban. [The Taliban] are very well armed and trained. [They have] ideology on their minds and [they are] used to power. No jobs, no future. Now when a government in Pakistan starts depending so heavily on the army, they are not overpowering the army, the army will overpower politics. I don’t know how long it wd be before the army started having friction [within itself] about how they would like to deal with the Taliban. This is something I cannot predict. This is a problem that shd be discussed now by our political leadership. The sad part is that our political leadership addresses a problem after it has happened.”