One of the great joys of being a BBC correspondent (and even a former correspondent) is the opportunity to write and broadcast for 'From Our Own Correspondent'. The radio programme is universally known within the BBC by the inelegant acronym of FOOC. It's been described (by me, actually) as the jazz solo of news broadcasting. A shout-out to the two long-standing editors who made FOOC such a success - Mike Popham at the World Service and Tony Grant at Radio 4.
I have assembled here as many of my FOOC scripts as I have been able to find - there's quite a few that I haven't been able to retrieve. I initially broadcast mainly on the World Service edition of FOOC, which rather wonderfully - for a then Westminster-based Political Correspondent - took pieces about the UK as well as 'abroad'. I haven't sought to update these scripts, even though a few of the expressions and arguments in them now make me wince. Most have stood the passage of time well, though of course they offer a window on a place and a moment - and time moves on.
The dates given are at times that of submission of the script rather than broadcast. Some of the scripts may be based on drafts rather than the final, revised and edited, item - but broadly my pieces weren't mangled too much before transmission. Broadly ...
You can scroll down to see all the pieces, or click on the links below and get taken to a bespoke page (often with additional photos).
I've taken all the photos posted - apart, fairly obviously, from those of me! Oh, and a significant other creeps into shot now and again.
Among the pieces I can't find scripts for are these eight FOOCs:
1993: RSS ban overruled; 'Big Bull' Harshad Mehta; Eve Teasing; Communists, Cameras and Kathmandu; NTR remarries
1994: John Smith and Labour's misfortunes
1995: Budweiser: brewed in India
1997: How India saw Diana
WORKING AT WESTMINSTER - July 1990
At the end of July British Members of Parliament embarked on the long summer break, not to return until mid-October. At the end of the Parliamentary year, Andrew Whitehead gives a flavour of what it is like to work at Westminster:
I work in a place called The Dungeon. A small room with latticed windows down a narrow stone spiral staircase. As Commons offices go, it is a little on the small side. Perhaps ten feet by eight. Two of us work there. And there's radio equipment, two tape machines and three computer terminals.
When I tell Members of Parliament how cramped the place is, I don't get a lot of sympathy. Honoured are the MPs who have an office to themselves. Some are squeezed three to a room in temporary buildings installed on the roof. Even less fortunate are those in the 'Cloisters', a bit like a dingy teacher's common room. Rows of desks, with little space and no privacy.
It's not just the office facilities which are a little antiquated. In the Members' cloakroom there's a ribbon on every coat-hook. That's where you hang your sword. The House of Commons doesn't actually get going until half-past-two in the afternoon. It's assumed that most MPs have outside jobs The main evening vote usually gomes at ten or after. And yes, most MPs are expected to stay. Not in the Commons listening to the debate. By mid-evening there are rarely more than thirty MPs in their places. Perhaps they're in their offices - if they have one - answering constituents' letters, or in one of the bars or restaurants whiling away the time until the division bell rings. The voting is not some sophisticated press-button system. MPs have to be counted through the "ayes" lobby or the "noes" lobby. It can take up to a quarter of an hour.
All this hanging around encourages what is the main pastime at Westminster: gossip. In the alcoves, the corridors, the tea rooms, the lifts - anywhere two people can pass on news of others' indiscretions. The whole place buzzes with intrigue. And there's no place quite so intriguing as the Members' Lobby. This is the area where MPs congregate as they enter and leave the Commons chamber. And here that privileged beast among Parliamentary journalists, the lobby correspondent, can loiter, accumulating gobbets of information and opinion.
Any conversation here is on 'lobby ' terms. You can report what was said, but not who said it. No finger prints. "The Cardinal rule of the Lobby", says the rule- book, "is never to identify the informant." As for briefings of the Lobby, the next page asserts: "Members are under an obligation to keep secret the fact that such meetings are held." And below in block capitals, we're warned: "Don't talk about lobby meetings before or after they're held."
That was written back in 1982, and since then things have relaxed a bit. I don't think I'll be excommunicated for telling you that twice a day - in the morning at Downing Street, and in the afternoon in a room high in the Commons tower - the Prime Minister's Press Secretary or his deputy gives off-the-record lobby briefings. Here we get the Prime Minister's eye view of the political landscape. "A crutch for crippled journalists", says the political editor of one of three national newspapers which have withdrawn from the lobby system. It's not quite so sinister as is sometimes made out. But it can be uncomfortably cosy
The other side of working at Westminster is sitting in the Press Gallery, looking down on the bear pit below, reporting what transpires. There's a great deal of theatre in the Commons. And now the television cameras are there, it's not just a matter of learning lines, but wardrobe and make-up as well.
The Commons, like the British court system, is adversarial. It's about combat not consensus. Government and opposition benches face each other. At Prime Minister's Question Time twice a week, Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock are eyeball to eyeball. The front benches are two swords' length apart. It makes for great drama, great tension, great excitement. But great government? I'll leave that for you to judge.
ULSTER'S TALKING SHOP - June 1991
History was made in Northern Ireland in June when leaders of the main constitutional parties sat down together to talk about the future of the province for the first time since the mid-seventies. The venue was Stormont, on the outskirts of Belfast, where our political correspondent Andrew Whitehead positioned himself to watch the comings and goings:
Stormont Parliament building exercises a brooding a not altogether benevolent presence. It's an imposing edifice. Squat, colonnaded, positively colonial in appearance. The big house on the hill. Approached along a broad tree-lined avenue, and up an enormous flight of steps. A shimmering white on those rare occasions when the sun comes out; when I commiserated with a policeman stationed outside, he smiled and described the steady drizzle as Irish sunshine.
Stormont was opened as recently as 1932 - with a political purpose in mind. It has been described as "the corporate expression of embattled Unionism". When, in the early Twenties, Northern Ireland successfully resisted incorporation into the newly independent Irish Republic - or the Irish Free State as it was then known - it was granted its own devolved Assembly. "A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people", as James Craig described Stormont in 1932. Which goes a long way to explaining why Roman Catholics, who make up over a third of the province's population, never felt comfortable with the institution.
It's almost twenty years since the Stormont Parliament was pro-rogued and direct rule from London imposed on the province. The chamber is ready and waiting, it could be taken out of mothballs at a few days' notice, should Northern Ireland's politicians agree on restoring devolved government. That's what they were talking about round an oval-shaped table in a Stormont conference room. The four main constitutional parties gathered together for the first time since the mid-Seventies.
Not that the auguries were good. The leaders of both Unionist parties came to prominence as opponents of the power-sharing executive so briefly installed back in 1994, each outbidding the other in intransigence. On the other side, the main nationalist party, the SDLP, admits it has no great appetite for devolution, valuing, above all, an Ireland-wide dimension in the government of the province.
The procedural rows which delayed the talks for six weeks - over items of such arcane perplexity that few local people even attempted to understand what it was all about - spilled over again into the opening session. Just two hours after party leaders trooped into Stormont, the considerable figure of Ian Paisley - leader of the Democratic Unionist party - walked out. He was still refusing to give his blessing to the choice of a former Australian Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, as an independent chairman for the second stage. Each party had its own office, phones, and fax machine inside Stormont. But no, Mr Paisley had to make personal enquiries. An hour later he was back, satisfied, and the talks finally got underway. A piece of political theatre: intended to demonstrate that nothing happens unless the Reverend Paisley says o.
Suspicion runs deep in Northern Ireland. The next day the Belfast evening newspaper bore the headline: 'Sir Ninian in a new shock'. It seemed that the inoffensive Sir Ninian had, a few years ago as part of his official duties, met the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, Charles Haughey. Not only that,. Sir Ninian confided to the Belfast Telegraph, they had got on well. To some Northern Protestants, who regard Mr Haughey with even less affection that they do the Pope, this seemed sinister indeed. Yet if these talks continue as planned, then Protestant politicians will have to sit down at Stormont - the citadel of Northern Unionism - with Mr Haughey, the man who once described Northern Ireland as "a failed political entity". But there is little as yet to demonstrate that the politicians are willing, not simply to talk to each other, but to make the sort of concessions from which a settlement could be fashioned.
HOUSE RULES AT WESTMINSTER - June 1992 In Britain a new Parliament traditionally begins its work after the Queen has delivered what's known as her 'gracious speech', outlining the government's proposed legislation for the session. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition then resume their ritual exchanges across the floor of the House of Commons. But for new Members of Parliament the Palace of Westminster is - as Andrew Whitehead reflects - a bewildering place in which to work:
'Medals may not be worn in the Chamber' - just one of the helpful hints for new Members prepared by the Clerk of the Commons. For those with a forceful debating style, he warns that 'a Member ... must not ... advance on the "enemy" across the red line in the carpet.' And in case you've been wondering - and perhaps a few of the 140 new MPs have been: 'a male Member must be hatless when addressing the Speaker'. Except of course during a vote when, and I quote agian: ' a Member of either gender must be seated and wearing a hat. A proper hat must be worn' - the Clerk insists - 'not an Order paper or other substitute; and he adds 'two opera hats, one for each side of the House, are available on demand for this purpose'.
However, the rules of procedure are as nothing compared with the complexities of the building itself. The New Members' Guide lists seventeen restaurants, cafes and bars, all within the Palace of Westminster, all with their own opening hours and rules of admission. The Members' Smoking Room is strictly for MPs and those peers who were once MPs. Run-of-the-mill peers are allowed into the members' cafeteria, should they so wish; and MPs may invite up to three guests; indeed, officers are also allowed in, but only when Parliament is not sitting.
It's altogether more relaxed in the Strangers' Dining Room: where strangers - members of the public - are not allowed in unaccompanied, but members of the Commons staff with over seven years service can dine there - though only on Fridays, when it's not open for dinner, just for lunch. There is reform in the air: plans to scrap some of the absurdities of Commons procedure, to streamline sitting hours, and - already well advanced - to build more parliamentary offices so that MPs can operate with a modicum of efficiency.
This new Parliament has already seen some changes. Betty Boothroyd is not only the first woman Speaker, she can be expected to bring a bit of joyful irreverence to the Chamber. Celebrated for her teenage career as a dancing girl, she is - in the words of one Parliamentary sketch-writer, which, as a Yorkshireman myself I am happy to endorse - blessed with a 'Yorkshire-born cross of wit and practicality, blending discipline with jocularity'. And just about her first act as Speaker was to dispense with the time-honoured horse-hair wig which gave some of her predecessors the air more of a pantomime dame than the chair of a modern parliament.
Once in place, Madam Speaker's first task was to swear in MPs, beginning with the longest-serving member, Sir Edward Heath, newly honoured with the Order of the Garter. This is the highest order of chivalry and surely one of the few British institutions which pre-dates Parliament itself. How he must delight in outlasting as an MP his successor as Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, on whom he continues to heap calumny and contempt.
This swearing-in, over several days, is part of the ceremonial, and it throws up a few surprises. The new Health Secretary took the oath as, I and I must take a deep breath here, Virginia Hilda Brunette Maxwell Mrs Bottomley, while the new MP for Devizes swore allegiance as 'Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr, esquire, commonly called Earl of Ancram and known as Michael Ancram'. Not in the least common, by the sound of it.
But all the flummery of parliamentary life has failed to make amends for the sense of shok suffered by so many new MPs. Here they are, still preening themselves on their election success, on the advent of the Parliamentary career which they have sought for so long. And what do they find at Westminster? A dusty, dingy building, hidebound by its history; so short of space that many newcomers - for the time being at least - are working out of a locker room or in a corridor; and little to look forward to but long hours, late nights, and lots of letters from aggrieved constituents.
The Commons can be an unforgiving forum for the unaccomplished rator. The maiden speech, new MPs will be relieved to hear, is usually heard in polite silence. Not so subsequent contributions from the floor - greeted occasionally by displays of disagreement, or, more common and more dreadful, by the chatter of an uninterested chamber. The novice will find little solace for this in the Clerk's notes of welcome. He recalls the opinion of a predecessor two centuries ago who remarked that 'the House were very seldom inattentive to a Member who says anything worth hearing'.
INDIA'S RED FORT STATE - June 1992
Orthodox communists have led the government of the Indian state of West Bengal for the past fifteen years - and in free elections they have built up such a strong electoral based that West Bengal is now known as India's Red Fort state. Our political correspondent, Andrew Whitehead, has been to Calcutta to try to find out the secret of their success:
Lenin's statue still enjoys pride of pace in downtown Calcutta. Testament to the unbending ideological rigour of West Bengal's dominant party - the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Go along to its imposing headquarters in Alimuddin Street - red flag flying high - and Stalin's portrait is prominently on display. Some party officials admit they wish last year's attempted coup by Soviet hardliners had succeeded. But in West Bengal, old-style communist orthodoxy marches hand-in-hand with unashamed political expediency.
The state of Lenin, an advocate of state control, looks down on free enterprise in full swing as Calcutta's private bus operators noisily ply for trade. After fifteen years of Left Front government, Calcutta is one of the few Indian cities whose power supply remains in private hands. Multinationals are not simply tolerated in West Bengal, they are positively encouraged. Wealthy industrialists proclaim: "he's a good man, that Jyoti Basu" - the state's long-serving Communist chief minister.
Jyoti Basu is a thoughtful, mild-mannered man in his late seventies, not at all charismatic, who was - he told me - entirely non-political until he went to London in the late thirties to train as a barrister and was recruited by the Communist Party of Great Britain. The land reform minister, Benoy Chowdhury, learnt his Marxism in jail after taking part in the salt tax protests. Another veteran - the West Bengal party secretary, Sailen Dasgupta - was a dacoit, a terrorist as he puts it, in one of the revolutionary nationalist movements so strong in Bengal in the closing decades of British rule, before abandoning banditry for scientific socialism.
Committed communists all. So why has the West Bengal state government been so cautious? Well, in part because the Left Front - ever since taking power here in 1977 - has been determined to avoid the adventures in insurrection and ultra-leftism which had come close to destroying Indian communism.
The communists looked to the rural areas for support; that's where most of West Bengal's sixty million or more people live. An ambitious policy of land reform giving labourers their own small plots and share-croppers security of tenure has been complimented by a devolution of power to elected local panchayats or councils, giving villagers their first real share in decision making.
While Calcutta's opinion formers rail against autocratic and out-of-date communism, the party has built up a formidable organisation and power base in the countryside. And it has tapped into what could be called Bengali nationalism. The state government's achievements are its own; its failures are all the fault of the central government. The free market economic policy, state ministers say, has been dictated by Delhi. The decay and squalor of Calcutta, where even the hollows in a railway platform are somebody's home, is put down to a shortfall in central government finance.
But the CPI(M) is also suffering from its own success. Once a small, highly disciplined party, it now has almost 200,000 members in West Bengal. Most have joined since the Left Front came to power. For some at least, the attraction was not Marxism but money and status.
While West Bengal's state government is probably more honest than most, opposition parties are increasingly complaining of vote-rigging, intimidation and systematic corruption. I spoke to supporters of the opposition Congress who had been attacked, raped and had their hands cut off - allegedly by communists.
The party hierarchy is, it seems, anxious to clean up its reputation. There are suggestions that as many as one-in-six party members will be lapsed this year in an attempt to weed out the thugs and opportunists. But the question now widely asked in West Bengal is: when Jyoti Basu goes, will his successor be able to stop the 'Red Fort' from crumbling?
KEEPING KOSHER IN CUBA- August 1992
Among the constitutional reforms approved by Cuba's National Assembly last month was a guarantee of religious freedom and the forbidding of discrimination on religious grounds. The Communist government has been making efforts to improve relations with organised religion. When our political correspondent, Andrew Whitehead, visited Cuba last month he made contact with one of the smaller religious groups on this Caribbean island. He tells the story of Cuba's Jewish community:
The rabbi was among the first to go. He was an American. He left Havana not long after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The Jewish community in Cuba hasn't had a full-time rabbi since.
Not that Jews were hostile to Fidel. Most supported his revolution, as did almost all Cubans. At the time.
Many Jews came to Cuba on their way from central Europe to the United States - biding their time until they got permission to go to New York. Inevitably some chose to stay. It's not hard to see why. Havana must have been a splendid city in the days when the colonial architecture was kept spick and span. And it's on the biggest - and arguably most beautiful - of the Caribbean islands.
The community traces its origins to the early years of this century. Many Jews became prominent in business and commerce. One - Fabio Grobart - was a founder member in 1925 of the original Cuban Communist Party, representing the Hebrew working men of Havana. In the 1950s, the Great Synagogue was opened in central Havana, along with offices, meeting rooms and a library serving a Jewish community of some 15,000.
The synagogue still stands. But it's much too big for the meagre Saturday congregation. The thirty-or-so-worshippers gather in a side room. The library survives in the basement. But the rooms upstairs, which once included a big meeting hall and a kosher restaurant, were long ago sold to the Ministry of Culture.
Fidel Castro's increasing antipathy towards private enterprise impelled many Jews to leave revolutionary Cuba. Adele Dworin's father was born in Pinsk, then in Poland, and arrived in Cuba at the age of eighteen. He worked first as a pedlar, then set up his own store, and was modestly prosperous by the time Castro nationalised his business in 1961. Most Jews who lost their busnesses moved out. Adele - then an enthusiast for the revolution - persuaded her parents to stay.
The closing of the last Jewish schools, though, hastened the exodus. At first the Cuban government allowed Jewish students to learn Hebrew in the state schools, and even provided a bus to pick up pupils. But that ended in the early seventies. And the community abandoned its own Hebrew lessons in 1980 when the teacher left to live in Israel.
Community leaders insist they have always enjoyed good relations with the Castro government. But emigration, integration and official disapproval of organised religion - only now being relaxed - ate away at the Jewish community. It now numbers little more than a thousand.
Adele Dworin, who speaks Yiddish as well as Spanish and English, confides that a few years ago, she didn't believe the Jewish community would see 1990. But the story of Cuban jewry is one of revival not decay. Last year, the community was able to conduct a circumcision service for thr first time in years - for fifteen young Jews, aged between two and twenty-five; those aged thirteen and over celebrated their barmitzvah immediately afterwards.
The community still gets kosher meat - though the ration is as meagre as for other Cubans. And passover food comes from Mexico. The small communities out of Havana, in Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, still have no centre or synagogue. But in all there are four synagogues in the capital, two of then for Sephardic, or oriental, Jews. The Hebrew classes have started again. And of late, an Argentine rabbi based in Mexico has begun regular visits.
The community is now actively seeking new members. Jose Miller - an oral surgeon and president of the main congregation - says that with ninety per-cent inter-marriage, the community has to seek converts to survive. The rabbi's classes attract the questing and the curious, who want to know more about the religion they were born to, or the faith their spouse professes, or the community a parent one belonged to. I saw for myself a group of twenty or more, almost all young, eager to learn about Judaism.
The future for Cuban jewry is far from secure - but for the first time in many years, there's an air of optimism.
ITALY'S GOURMAND COMMUNISTS - September 1992
Italy's Communist Party, the country's second biggest political party, may have changed its name - it's now known as the Party of the Democratic Let - but it's maintained its tradition of hosting annual open-air festivals. Dozens were held throughout Italy this summer. Our Political Correspondent, Andrew Whitehead, went to one of the biggest - in Bologna, a city which has been under Communist control since 1945:
It was one of the best meals I've ever had. The people of Bologna are rightly renowned for their cuisine. These dishes did them proud - pates, delicately-filled tortellini, duck in a delicious sauce, Catalan custard, washed down with four fine wines. An open-air setting; a balmy September evening; the deputy head of police at the next table; and the Communist Party was picking up the bill.
It's not actually called the Communist Party any more. It's now the Party of the Democratic Let; it no longer espouses Leninism; it's joining the Socialist International, alongside the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats and the French and Spanish Socialists. But the party still enjoys political pre-eminence in Bologna - the showcase of Italian municipal Communi. And the Festa dell'Unita survives as its annual celebration.
There's never been anything austere about Communism Bologna-style. This is one of the most prosperous cities in Italy; architecturally and academically distinguished. With stylish shops. Just next door to the party headquarters in Via Barberia is a store selling very expensive furs. Indeed, at the Bologna Festa, there were no less than three stalls selling fur coats. I looked at the price tag on one. Eight-million lira. That's almost four-thousand Pounds.
Not that politics has been abandoned. There are plenty of propaganda stalls, and well- attended talks and debates - many involving political rivals. But as one ex-Communist commented, this is not a party festival but a people's festival. And people have been turning up, every night for three weeks or so, in their tens of thousands. There are dozens of bars and restaurants, most staffed by volunteers - though not all quite as exclusive as the one I was taken to. There are stalls selling everything from sweets to fitted kitchens; all the fun of the fair; an open-air disco. concerts and poetry readings as well.
The proprietor of the restaurant - a party member and head of a party-dominated agricultural collective - explained to me how communism had become so strong in Bologna. First, because the communists were the most militant against Mussolini, the most organised among the partisans. After the war, the communists came to embody efficiency and integrity. There wasn't too much ideology. Indeed the party was the means of promoting social mobility, The agricultural co-ops brought prosperity to the countryside; in the towns, the party helped workers set up their own businesses. Here in Bologna, he said, the Communist Party turned proletarians into proprietors.
The me, the Bologna Festa dell'Unita looked a wild success. Crowds everywhere. But I was told attendance was down on previous years. The festival was being extended by a few days to try to recoup losses.
The storm clouds are gathering over the party. The Democratic Left's share of the vote in Bologna is down to 37%; party membership is down too; the average age of the card-carrying ex-Communist is up to fifty-three. The party's reputation for clean hands has been compromised by the corruption scandal in nearby Milan. Young people see the Democratic Left as part of a failed political establishment - many are turning to regional and extreme right-wing parties.
And there are those on the left who cannot come to terms with the changes in what was the Communist Party. Just two or three miles from the Festa dell'Unita, the hardliners - proud of their Communist past - have been holding a rival Festa. Here all the old Communist symbolism, renounced by the Party of the Democratic Left, has been disinterred and put on display; portraits of Lenin, hammer and sickle symbols, red flags in profusion.
I ate there as well. Not really a memorable experience. Though as an organiser said, the portions were bigger. And the prices were lower. Just as well, because this time the BBC was paying.
As Delhi correspondent in the BBC office at 1 Nizamuddin East ...
and in my barsati home at A-22 Nizamuddin East
SCOUNDREL POLITICIANS - June 1993
Andrew Whitehead has just taken up a post reporting for the World Service from India after five years as our London-based Political Correspondent. He offers now some thoughts on the contrasting style of politics in Britain and India:
Just before I came out to Delhi, a diplomat friend gave me some common sense advice. "You know", he said, "politicians are the same the world over, whether they wear a suit or a dhoti." Then with a mischievous twinkle he added: "And let me tell you this, they are all scoundrels!"
I spent five years cheek-by-jowl with the scoundrels of Westminster. I came across plenty of scheming and skullduggery. But also, I have to say, quite a few MPs of all parties whom I came to like and admire. Though my natural inclination was, and is, to vie all politicians and political statements with deep cynicism.
And there is something perhaps rather narrow about British politics these days. A creeping blandness. The Conservatives are moving towards the centre just as Labour is abandoning the last shreds of ideology. Close your eyes and sometimes you can't tell the difference.
No-one would describe Indian politics as bland. Nor is the breadth of political debate diminishing. That's, for me at least, one of India's attractions. The main opposition party here is routinely described, a little unfairly, as neo-fascist. While in the state of West Bengal - in population terms much bigger than Britain - the ruling party cleaves to a form of Communism which confounds rational analysis. Look around its Calcutta headquarters and you see portraits of Stalin still prominently on display.
If that's an invigorating if rather alarming contrast with British politics, there is a much more depressing point of difference. There is still a tradition of honesty and probity in British public life. In India - so people tell me- it's all but disappeared. Some state governments indulge in what can only be described as legalised looting. Many politicians have close contact with organised crime. A journalist colleague got a phone installed quickly some years ago because the minister responsible had decided to sell off extra lines. And no, the money didn't go into the government's coffers; it went into the minister's back pocket.
But curiously it was my recent visit to that Communist citadel of Calcutta which convinced me that the similarities considerably outweigh the differences. You see, one of the speeches I most remember from my spell as British political correspondent was by a prominent, left-wing trade union leader. He was complaining about what were called the modernisers in the British Labour party, with their filofaxes and cordless telephones.
And there I was at party offices in a poor area of Calcutta - a city where poor means very poor - and what should the proud local official pull out of his desk, a cordless telephone. I didn't see a filofax, but I'm sure it will have been there somewhere. Whatever the ideological climate, the vanities of politicians are the same the world over.
What though - some colleagues said to me before I came out - about the three curses of Indian politics: caste, communalism and charismatic leaders. There is this assumption in the west that politics elsewhere is somehow primitive and debased.
Yet those who complain about caste in India were also venting outrage about the way the British Conservative party had been taken over by state agents. Those who tut-tutted about communalism also professed themselves quite at a loss on Northern Ireland. And let's remember the two communities there share the same basic religion and speak the same language - the difference is merely denominational and cultural. Would that it were so simple in India.
And then the charisma factor: it's certainly true that there has been a strong dynastic tendency in Indian politics, and that loyalties have often been to personalities more than to parties or policies. But coming from the country which kept Margaret Thatcher in power for eleven years, I don't think I'll cast the first stone.
I have no great sympathy for casteism, communalism or personality-based politics. The point I'm making is that these are universal phenomena. For caste read class; for Bombay read Belfast; and don't I recall that Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher got on rather well together.
I found the press gallery of the House of Commons a little wearying after a while. There was real drama and passion. But we were often force-fed synthetic indignation. There's plenty of that in Delhi - and Calcutta - as well. I will try to treat Indian politics with the same respect, the same gravity - in other words, the same measured cynicism - that I leant in London.
And if any politician should deign to complain. Well, it just shows that they're all scoundrels, doesn't it?
KASHMIR'S NEW PURITANS - August 1993
Indian-administered Kashmir, high in the Himalayan foothills, has been the scene of four years of fighting between Kashmiri secessionists and Indian security forces. Indian troops are in control of the streets of Srinagar, the state capital, but Kashmir's Muslim militants are a force to be reckoned with. They have imposed an austere lifestyle on what used to be an enticing tourist spot, as Andrew Whitehead discovered:
Don't go to Srinagar for the nightlife. Even if you're willing to risk the military patrols, you might be just a little disappointed. The guide to Kashmir still on sale at Srinagar airport lists twenty-three category 'A' hotel. The choice has narrowed a little of late. There's just one hotel still open. Ahdoos. Homely enough; eager to please; and with a better than average restaurant. Not that it's got a lot of competition. Thinking of dining out in Srinagar? Think again! The cinema? Sorry, all closed. A nightcap? Not a chance. There is a notice in every bedroom in Ahdoos hotel. Alcohol is not permitted - anyone drinking in their room does so at their own risk.
This is the new political correctness, Kashmir-style. It's not rotting livers Ahdoos is warning you against, but the new puritans of Kashmiri nationalism. The people who closed down the cinemas, burnt out the clubs, turned the beer stores into sweet shops and told Kashmiri women to dress with due modesty.
It has to be said that the young men and women of Srinagar do not bridle all that much at this asceticism. The streets are deserted after dark, not imply because there's nowhere to go. The Kashmir Valley is awash with Indian troops. Go where you will, there they are. Lolling by the roadside; searching passengers on a minibus; settling in to roadside bunkers. Given the persistent allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, even custodial killings levelled against Indian forces in Kashmir, going without an evening out is only common sense.
Friday prayers at Srinagar's main mosque - and it feels more like a meeting of the resistance. The devotional duties over, the chief priest leads the worshippers in chants of "azaadi", freedom. Then a leader of a local mujahideen takes the microphone. He issues a call to arms. No-one takes it amiss.
"Kashmir is not at peace", the hotel valet told me as I checked in. It's one of the world's unreported wars. Four years of guerilla insurgency have taken thousands of lives, without shaking Delhi's determination to hold on. The casualties are considerable - it's not quite Bosnia but a lot more bloody than Northern Ireland. The mutual animosity between the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley and the Indian security forces all around them is all too evident.
Kashmir is the only Indian state where Muslims are in a majority. But this is not, at root, a communal conflict, however much neighbouring Pakistan has tried to portray it as one. Islamabad arms and trains some of the guerilla outfits. Kalashnikov-toting veterans of Afghanistan have moved south in search of a new jihad. But the best known, and probably best supported, of the Kashmiri groups says it wants only independence. Kashmir has been fighting for freedom for 400 years, a leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front insisted. We fought the Moghuls and we fought the Afghans - and they were Muslims. So why should we now want to be part of Pakistan?
But even the secular-minded JKLF operates within earshot of Kashmir's muezzins. My clandestine meeting with the JKLF was within the grounds of a mosque. It was the JKLF which ordered Srinagar's cinemas to close down and boarded up the beer shops. They say now it was to deprive the Indian government of tax revenue rather than to impose moral censorship. But Islam and Kashmiri nationalism are so closely entwined, neither will do anything to offend the other.
So what do young Kashmiris do of an evening? Well, they stay in. Sometimes watching videos - of Hindi films, from the country they are fighting to escape. And some of course have an evening job - lobbing grenades at Indian sentry posts, taking pot shots at paramilitary patrols, that sort of thing.
Srinagar was once a tourist centre. One day, surely, it will be again. The beauty of Kashmir defies the conventional cliches. In the foothills of the Himalayas, adorned with the most magical lakes, and a climate all the rest of India envies. But it's difficult to conceive of more polarised enemies. And while this stand-off continues, young Kashmiris and young Indian soldiers will carry on getting killed; Srinagar's hotels will stay boarded up; and the zealots among Kashmir's Muslims will continue to call the shots.
A chai stop in Bihar ...
and travelling round Patna with Laloo
THE RAJAH OF BIHAR - October 1993
Of all the chief ministers of India's twenty-five states, Laloo Prasad Yadav is the most remarkable, A leader of the opposition Janata Dal, he's the chief minister of Bihar, a populous but desperately poor state in North India. And he's launched a campaign in his own brash manner to help those - like himself - on the wrong side of the caste divide. Our Delhi correspondent, Andrew Whitehead, paid a call on him:
In India's increasingly bland political landscape, Laloo Prasad Yadav stands out. Not always for the best of reasons. He presides over a state government of seventy ministers - to make the most of his political patronage. He encourages his officials to write sycophantic biographies, He surrounds himself with courtiers, covers his wall with icon-like portraits and treats his retainers with almost imperial disdain.
But then as Laloo told me: "Mein Bihar ha Rajah hoon" - "I am the King of Bihar". He was not born to rule. Laloo Prasad Yadav is the low caste chief minister of perhaps India's most caste-ridden state. He has turned the political establishment of his state upside-down. He's a political showman, a populist, brash and basic. Setting up our television cameras on the lawn outside his home, a crowd of curious civil servants gathered. Laloo turned on them. "What are you doing, staring like that! Have you no work to do? Now go to your offies or I'll have you all thrashed."
Laloo is a Yadav, the cattle herders' caste. He keeps twelve cows at the chief minister's residence. It's not rustic nostalgia, nor hankering after the simple life. Laloo's a wily politician. Keeping his cows round the corner, being photographed with them, reminds everyone where he comes from. It helps keep his power base alive.
But Laloo is most in his element out on the streets. He is very popular. Unlike so many low caste politicians, who hide every trace of their upbringing, he still has the common touch. Some passers-by are obviously in awe of him; others feel able to make complaints face-to-face. His means of redressing social injustice are at times rudimentary. Once he decided that Patna's street children needed a good wash, so he turned the fire hoses on them. On another occasion he said they looked unkempt, summoned a brigade of barbers and astonished his own retinue by picking up a pair of scissors and giving one young boy a short back and sides.
My guided tour with the chief minister was a little more prosaic. A convoy of white Morris Oxfords - the battle-tank of the Indian automobile industry - whirled us through the streets of Patna. Every so often, the cavalcade would come up to a sudden stop. One of the entourage would come up and say: the chief minister would like you to see this - or the chief minister requests you inspect that - or the chief minister wants you to know this is his personal project.
Out we'd all get, Laloo Prasad Yadav looking a bit like Napoleon - hands behind back, chin proudly out, claiming all the credit. Most of the projects, it transpires, were funded by the central government, not the state; many had a half-finished look; quite a few were not very well thought out.
Take the new homes for the musahars - people Laloo delighted in calling the lowest of the low. They are harijans, untouchables, whose name means mouse eaters. They catch rats and eat them. They live in mud and thatch hovels four feet high. Laloo's pulled down a lot of them and built instead small blocks of flats. It's not been a wild success. The musahars were quite fond of their old houses. They had rudimentary room partitions and local water supply. The flats consist of unfinished, unplastered boxes of rooms - one per family. "Can you imagine it", one woman complained. "Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law expected to sleep in the same room!"
It's easy to sneer, however. And Laloo Prasad Yadav has been able to help the disadvantaged. Harijan children in Patna attend street schools, and happily trill out the English alphabet. In some poorer villages, the authorities are helping local people build their own homes. They provide the money; the villagers arrange the supplies and do the work. "There are no middle-men making money from the poor", Laloo proudly declares.
Above all, there's the symbolism of having a low caste chief minister. In much of Bihar, feudalism survives unfettered. There are still occasional caste killings.- low caste slaughtered because they refuse to stand up when the landlord passes by. In a state of approaching ninety-million people, most are consigned by birth to a life of penury. Laloo Prasad Yadav - for all his failings - has helped redress the balance. He's helped Bihar's dispossessed to walk just a little taller.
Aizawl, the state capital of Mizoram
BRINGING THE GOSPEL TO MIZORAM - December 1993
The remote state of Mizoram in north-east India is preparing to celebrate a landmark in its history - the centenary of the coming of Christianity to what is now the most devoutly Christian region of South Asia. Andrew Whitehead travelled to Mizoram recently, and now looks at the ways in which the Christian missionaries have moulded the life of the Mizos:
On 11th January 1894, two British Protestant missionaries - Messrs Lorrain and Savidge - reached what is now Mizoram. Within half-a-century, the Mizos had been converted, almost to the last man and woman, by Baptists or Welsh Presbyterians. Why such dour and puritan religions appealed to such an outgoing people, with a well developed taste for rice beer and raucous drum-accompanied singing, remains a mystery - at least to me. But the Mizos remain resolutely, cheerfully, enthusiastically Christian. It's one of the most enduring achievements of the pioneer missionaries. Though with hindsight, perhaps the greatest achievement of Savidge and Lorrain was in reaching Mizoram at all.
It still isn't that easy. No other Indian state is quite so inaccessible. There's a daily flight from Calcutta. But the landing strip can't cope with anything bigger than an eighteen-seat Dornier. It isn't the most reliable of services. And potential passengers may find themselves bumped off by VIPs or even VVIPs.
We got on the flight OK. But the airline hadn't been expecting the bulky television equipment. Ever obliging, they made room - and left a little cargo behind. That was the day Mizoram didn't get any national newspapers.
Flying into Aizawl is an entrancing experience. From Calcutta, east across the breadth of Bangladesh, over the estuary of the Ganges, then up into the mountains beyond. Mizoram consists of steep jungle-clad hills. Range upon range of them. All the way to the border with Burma.
All the settlements are on hilltops. Aizawl, a city by any standards, is spread out along ridges on slopes so steep the houses are built on wooden stilts. From the air, the villages seem to be perching precariously on top of dense forest. And every now and again, a stout wooden church towers above the woven bamboo houses.
For the Mizos, Christianity serves to reinforce their identity. Like many of the tribal people of north-east India, they are of Mongoloid origin. They have their own language, their own culture and traditions. When they head to Assam or Calcutta, they talk of travelling to India. And the Indian cameraman who accompanied me, on his first trip to the area, couldn't get over how unIndian the whole place was.
It's a touchy issue in Mizoram. Separatist guerillas fought for twenty years in a vain attempt to secure independence. The Mizo National Front has now laid down its arms, and operates as a mainstream political party. But it still hankers after a separate nation state. Inherently unlikely, perhaps. The Mizoram state government relies on Delhi for almost all its spending money. Oil and other essential supplies are trucked over hundreds of miles of perilous mountain roads. The Mizos have marvellous oranges, the biggest bananas I've ever seen, pineapples and an exotic array of vegetables - but no easy means of getting them to international markets. The one export which is economical is heroin. One of the main trading routes from the opium-growing Golden Triangle runs through Mizoram. And in a state which at first appears to be without vices - the churches have certainly kept alcohol at bay - there are the first stirrings of concern about drug abuse.
The Mizos seem quite happy as they are. They are insulated from outside influence by their remoteness, and generations-old regulations limiting settlement by non-locals. At the same time, the Mizos have one of the highest literacy rates in India. The prejudice still widely held in metropolitan India that tribals are feckless, drunken and ignorant certainly doesn't hold for Mizoram.
The Mizos regard their pre-Christian past with a curious detachment. Almost disavowal. As if they were a nation born again. The Christian gospel - said the state's chief minister - brought the Mizos from darkness to light. The moderator of the Presbyterian church asserted that before the missionaries came the Mizos had been very low and heathen, An official hand-out for the centenary celebrations rejoices that Christianity took root 'among hitherto simple and ignorant tribals'.
And then there's the theocratic side of life in Mizoram. In a state where all the leading politicians are professing Christians, the churches hold enormous influence. And the Young Mizos' Association - a loosely church-affiliated organisation - has something of the influence and demeanour of a Young Communist League in the old Soviet-bloc. But straying into the Gospel centenary hall in Aizawl, and sitting-in on an enthusiastic women's choir practice for the anniversary celebrations, an inspiring rendition of familiar Welsh hymns, it's impossible to avoid being swept away by a sense of anticipation. After all, it will soon be a century since Mizoram was saved.
Netaji wall painting in Calcutta, Feb 1996
INA Association office in Quilon, Dec 1993
NETAJI: INDIA'S LOST LEADER - January 1994
Across India this weekend, there will be celebrations to make the anniversary of the birth of the most controversial of all Indian nationalists. Subhas Chandra Bose, better known as Netaji or revered leader, set up his own Indian National Army to force the British out of India. During the Second World War, he fought alongside the Japanese. According to the official account, he died in a plane crash in 1945. But as Andrew Whitehead in Delhi discovered, he remains widely admired, and some of his followers believe he may still be alive:
Look where you will in India, Subhas Chandra Bose will not be far away. His life-size statue looks down on the bustling trading town of Silchar in Assam in the north-east. Fifteen-hundred miles away in the southern tip of India, anyone disembarking from the ferry in Quilon will walk slap into the local office of the Indian National Army - the force Subhas Chandra Bose set up during the Second World War In his home state of West Bengal, there are hundreds of roadside busts of the local hero. Even in the heart of the Indian establishment, in Delhi, his portrait isn't hard to find.
When veterans of India's independence struggle get together, many bear Netaji's badge on their lapel. If Gandhi is the man universally associated with Indian nationalism, a lot of those involved in the movement hold Subhas Chandra Bose in higher esteem.
Bald and bespectacled, Netaji was not what you'd call a matinee idol. And there was an obsessive and quixotic side to is character. Still, he unfurled the banner of uncompromising nationalism. When Gandhi argued for dominion status, Netaji insisted on complete independence. While the nationalist mainstream called for peaceful protests against British rule, Netaji slipped out of the country and raised an army of expatriate Indians to forcibly evict the colonial masters.
Subhas Chandra Bose made some curious alliances. An admirer of the Soviet Union, he nevertheless shook hands with Hitler and fought alongside imperial Japan. He sought - with some success - to subvert the British Indian army. He wanted India to be an undivided socialist republic. If he'd been the first leader of independent India - say his followers - the tragedy of Partition would never have happened.
Sheel Bhadra Yajee remembers Subhas Chandra Bose as charming - and determined. He first met Netaji in Calcutta in 1928. "From that day", he says, "I was his follower." On the cluttered walls of his cramped living room in Delhi's Jantar Mantar Road, a faded sepia photograph of Netaji stands out. Garlanded, in the traditional Indian token of reverence and respect.
Yajee was ten times interred in Indian colonial jails. He was court martialled by the British but survived. He travelled six days each way on a Japanese submarine, from the east coast of India to Singapore,just for a three-hour meeting with Netaji.
But it's not just Netaji's old associates who keep his memory alive. He's become a symbol of all those who feel that independent India has not fulfilled its potential. A patriot unsullied by compromise or collaboration. And also a champion of Bengal against India's Hindi-speaking establishment.
Netaji has become a legend - and the myth is now more important than the man. A myth so compelling that for decades many refused to believe that he was dead. The official account is that Netaji died in a plane crash in Taiwan in August 1945. There are still many people in public life - including Members of Parliament - who do not believe that. Some say Netaji reached his destination, the Soviet Union, and remained there in a kind of political cold storage awaiting the right moment to return.
Netaji would now be 97. The nation said to be harbouring him no longer exists. Only a few people seriously imagine that he will still reappear. But looking round the Indian political landscape - now so lacking in leaders who inspire loyalty, so devoid of vision or direction - it's easy to see why the legend of the lost leader is so enticing.
Irudayaraj and Visalatchi with K. Veeramani
A SELF-RESPECT WEDDING IN MADRAS - March 1994
Marrying across caste barriers in India is no easy matter. Parents are often irreconcilably opposed. For the couple to persevere takes courage and a generous measure of encouragement. In Madras in South India, a rationalist institute committed to breaking down centuries-old caste divisions helps young people from different communities to marry. Andrew Whitehead winessed what the local rationalists call a "self-respect" wedding:
The bride, Visalatchi, was a high caste Hindu; the groom, Irudayaraj, a low caste Christian. A few days ago in Madras, I had the privilege of attending their wedding.
In contrast to the traditional, elaborate, Hindu marriage ceremony, it was a simple, almost perfunctory, affair. An officiant, a few friends and well-wishers, an exchange of garlands, and the couple - looking a little ill-at-ease - were declared man and wife.
They were both trainee teachers. Not any more. They have abandoned their studies, left their home city and are now starting a new life on the other side of India. I better not say where. All because in parts of India, caste barriers remain almost impermeable.
Perhaps the parents will come round in time. But often the social disgrace is too much to bear. Better to disown a child than admit that he or she has married out of caste.
If the circumstances of the wedding were rather sad, the institution which conducted it is positively inspiring. It was a self-respect wedding service, legally validated, organised by the Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution. A rationalist wedding amid India's encircling religious creeds.
It's three generations since Gandhi rechristened the untouchables at the bottom of the caste system 'harijans' or children of God. For the vast majority of high caste Hindus, the thought of a marriage alliance with a harijan is still too awful to contemplate.
Old caste barriers have eased. India now has poor brahmins and half-prosperous harijans. In a few states, the lower castes have exerted their political muscle. But by-and-large, the old prejudices are still observed.
Periyar, a founding father of the Dravidian movement in southern India, rebelled against the caste system. And he took that two stages further. If it's wrong to discriminate because of the caste you're born into, it's equally wrong to discriminate on gender. And if religious belief buttresses caste and sex divisions, then let's not merely repudiate the symptoms but banish the condition that caused them.
There's a statue of Periyar outside the rationalist centre in Madras. It bears his most famous incantation: 'He who invented God is a fool. He who propagates God is a scoundrel. He who worships God is a barbarian.'
India has a proud tradition of intellectual tolerance Still, for Visalatchi and Irudayaraj, it as any port in a storm. Anxious to marry at next-to-no notice, the rationalists were the only people in a position to oblige.
Perhaps Visalatchi had spent years dreaming about a traditional wedding. Perhaps she would have liked nothing more than to wear a wedding sari, and to walk seven times around the fire. Perhaps Irudayaraj resented the high caste rationalists preaching as he exchanged his marriage vows. Perhaps he'd hoped for a more auspicious venue than an upstairs lecture room at an atheist institute.
Yet even here old patterns of deference persist. At the end of the service, the groom bent down to touch the feet of the man who married him. A traditional token of esteem. But of immense embarrassment to the assembled rationalists. What an awesome task they face in combating caste and ritual, and enjoining all Indians to have some self-respect.
[POSTSCRIPT: India's scheduled castes would nowadays wish to be known not as harijans but as dalits.]
The town of Moirang
THE MISERIES OF MANIPUR - April 1994
The remote state of Manipur in north-east India is one of the most beautiful areas of South Asia - set amid gentle hills and tranquil lakes close to the border with Burma. But it's no Arcadian idyll. The people of Manipur are at war with each other, in conflict with their Indian rulers, and falling prone to cascades of heroin flowing into the state from the nearby Golden Triangle. Manipur is normally closed to foreigners, but our Delhi correspondent Andrew Whitehead has just been there and offers his reflections on an Indian paradise lost:
Manipur's police chief has a rather haggard look. He admits that the past fifteen months have not been easy. It might seem like a comfortable posting. Looking after law and order in a state of a little under two-million, a sleepy hollow on the Burmese border, well away from the political push-and-pull of Delhi or Calcutta. The climate is temperate, the scenery stunning, the pace of life relaxed.
But last year, Manipur saw Hindu-Muslim clashes in which at least one-hundred people were killed. In the hills the Kuki and Naga tribes indulged in an orgy of destruction little short of civil war. The Meitei community turned back towards armed militancy in impatience with India's dismissive attitude towards the area. And more and more young Manipuris fell prey to the torrent of heroin being smuggled through the state.
It not only has the worst drug problem in India. It also has the highest AIDS rate. Routine blood tests on pregnant women reveal that one-in-fifty is HIV-positive.
The miseries of Manipur are so extensive, it's difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the root problem is a conflicting sense of identity. This princely state was among the last corners of the Raj to be conquered by the British, in 1891. It's always been a place apart.
Yet unlike almost all the rest of India's north-east, the majority community in Manipur, the Meitei, converted to Hinduism several centuries ago. And older Meiteis tend to have a close cultural affinity with India.
Not so the young. They blame India for all their ills. As one Manipuri social activist put it: "we're not a border state here, we're a marginal state - Delhi just doesn't care". In the streets of the state capital, Imphal, many of those pedalling cycle rickshaws mask all but their eyes. It's not to keep out the dust. There isn't that much traffic. They are educated Manipuris ashamed to be seen at such a menial job but unable to find anything better.
According to the official figures, more than a quarter of adult Manipuris are unemployed. Almost all the top government jobs go to outsiders. As always, there are good and bad. But to Manipuris, it feels as if they're not trustetd to run their own state. They feel that many officials are on a plundering mission - a three year get-rich-quick posting to India's outer limits.
So young Meitei are tuning back towards their martial traditions. They have agan started fighting for their freedom. There are several armed Meitei separtist groups - originally Marxist-Leninist in inspiration, but now nationalist and almost puritan. Targetting the drink and drugs trades as much as emblems of Indian authority.
The Meitei live in the Imphal valley. The hills beyond are home to the tribal Kukis and Nagas. They've lived cheek-by-jowl for a century and more, and never been terribly comfortable with each other. But over the past few years - egged on, it seems, by grotesquely irresponsible political leaders - they have fought the most terrible feud. Village after village has been set alight; dozens have been butchered.
Interlacing all these different tensions is the drugs trade. Increasingly the opium grown in the Golden Triangle is traveling not east, but west across Burma, into Manipur at the border town of Moreh, through to Bangladesh and out to the world beyond.
One conservative estimate is that six kilos of heroin is smuggled into Manipur every day. And four kilos is smuggled out. Heroin number four, as it's known, is cheap - just $3,ooo a kilo in Imphal - and easily available. The head of the Manipur prison service says there are roadside stalls within sight of his central jail which sell heroin under the counter. They catch plenty of small-time drug peddlers but the opium barons have proved elusive. Some local people say that's because the Indian security forces are on the side of the smugglers.
No one knows how many heroin users there are in Manipur. Perhaps 100,000. A haunting 70% are HIV-positive. And the virus is now spreading as much through sexual contact as from shared needles. Manipur is on the edge of an apocalypse. A medical research officer says the state is destined for an AIDS epidemic on a scale similar to Uganda's.
It all seems too much for one small state to bear. It's sad to see such proud peoples humbled and even sadder that no easing of their sorrows is in sight.
VILLAGE BANGLADESH - May 1994
There's been a spate of stories from Bangladesh about local Islamic clergy taking sanctions against women who have taken jobs or loans from development agencies. It's often presented as a battle between traditionalist, intolerant mullahs, and village women willing to stand up for their rights after generations of oppression. But the story isn't that simple, as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he went to one of the remoter regions of Bangladesh:
There are some stories that become more elusive the closer you get to them; that at close quarters confound the headline-style certainties of at-a-distance journalism. Stories that demonstrate the desire of communities for consensus not conflict, the determination to heal wounds rather than allowing them to fester.
A visit to north-west Bangladesh brought all this to mind. A remote area, eight hours travel from the capital, Dhaka - including two full hours on a ferry across the Jamuna river. It's a lush, fertile, vivid green. One of the few parts of Bangladesh which has a food surplus. But it's still desperately poor. Power here resides with an unholy trinity - landowners, money-lenders and local mullahs.
But this old, neo-feudal, deeply conservative society is facing a challenge. Local development agencies, helped by overseas aid money, are encouraging village women to become more self-reliant. They are providing some with employment; many more are getting loans to help them develop some village enterprise. Girls are going to school; women have opportunities for adult education.
It need hardly be said that the local powers-that-be do not like it. The landowners' monopoly of power is being imperilled; the village usurers are no longer the only people offering loans; the mullahs face a more assertive and independent womenfolk no longer bound to the household.
The view from Dhaka is that an ugly conflict is developing. In what's tended to be one of the more tolerant Islamic nations, traditionalists are gathering strength. Mosques across the country have been the venues for sermons denouncing the development agencies as unIslamic. There are tales of schools being burnt down; mulberry trees planted to give women an income being uprooted; women accepting help from the agencies being declared religious outcasts.
That's why I went to the villages around Bogra in the north-west. It's where traditionalist-minded clergy are particularly strong. As we drove along the dirt road, with the storm clouds gathering, my companion pointed out the mulberry saplings at the roadside - apparently scythed down by the mullahs and their supporters. It was difficult to tell whether they had been cut, or were just stunted. We stopped. Asked a local labourer. No, these saplings haven't been cut down, he said. Some others have elsewhere. But not these here.
Onto a nearby village to meet a remarkable woman - Lusiman - who is paid ninety kilos of wheat a month to help mind the mulberry trees at night. I was told that her husband had been ordered to divorce her by the mullahs because she was taking paid work. Lusiman explained it wasn't quite like that. It was her husband who took against her work. Gave her an ultimatum. Then pronounced 'talaq' three times - the traditional form of divorce - and walked off.
Another woman. Asma, had taken a loan to make her more self-reliant. No, the mullahs hadn't tried to stop her. No, they didn't seek to prevent women working outside the home. If they ever did, she would object - but for the time being, she regarded them as friends.
Time and again, the same story. Yes, there had been tension, disagreements. But the specific instances of injustice were not borne out. I was shown a school recently burnt out - apparently by traditionalist Muslims. But there was little sign of damage, and local people seemed to be genuinely uncertain who had carried out the attack.
Finally, a visit to the local mosque. It didn't have a full-time imam. But the muezzin - the man who makes the call to prayer - declared himself quite happy with the work of the development agencies - though anxious that it shouldn't conflict with religious law. The gap-toothed teacher at the madrasa, the religious school, was more outspoken. The development agencies were helping make families more self-sufficient, he said. And that was good.
Conservative communities seem to be the most cohesive. Yet when faced with change, they adapt rather than risk being cleaved apart. That seems to be what's happening in north-west Bangladesh. The villagers there are rather more tolerant than the Dhaka onlookers would like to believe.
INDIAN BEAUTY - January 1995
Beauty competitions have a tarnished reputation. Many view them as contrived and demeaning. But India's recent success in international beauty contests has thrilled many who would not generally take an interest in such events. The pageants are seen not as a form of sexual stereotyping, but as a challenge to the traditional constraints on Indian womanhood. Our correspondent Andrew Whitehead got caught up in the excitement at the weekend - when he was invited to Bombay, to be a judge in the annual Miss India contest:
You might not care much for beauty competitions. Millions in India do. The live broadcast of the Miss India contest on state-run television - stretched out over more than four hours - attracted the sort of viewing figures which other broadcasters can only dream about.
It's not that Indians are particularly lascivious. Though there is still a certain novelty in seeing Indian women besport themselves in beachwear. It's more a reflection of the enormous burst of adrenalin injected into Indian national life last year by the country's two top heroines - Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai.
Sushmita - last year's Miss India- went on to win the Miss Universe competition. A bubbly Bengali woman still in her teens, her triumph did for India's self-esteem what the World Cup victory did to pep-up Brazil's pride. Then Aishwarya - the Miss India runner-up - took the Miss World title. No sporting analogy can adequately express the boost to national morale from such a formidable double.
I remember one battle-hardened woman journalist here - who I was sure would dismiss such triumphs as mere froth - beaming with delight, and boasting that Indian women had proved themselves a match for anyone in the world. Sushmita and Aishwarya made triumphal returns home. There were courtesy calls on Sonia Gandhi - Rajiv Gandhi's widow and the closes India has to royalty. Then tea with the president. And a photo-call with the prime minister.
I say this by way of extenuating my presence - alongside nine other judges, whose claim to celebrity status is rather more secure - at the Andheri sports stadium in Bombay last Saturday night. Twenty-nine contestants, bearing such titles as Miss Beautiful Eyes and Miss Congeniality, were battle for Sushmita's crown.
All the girls were above average - we were told - so no marks less than six. There was, perhaps, a certain uniformity among the finalists. Indeed, the top five were within two inches on every measurement the organisers saw fit to make public. [Indian cinema has tended to promote a fuller version of the female form than customary in the west. But the waif-like look is now well established, courtesy - no doubt - of the evil so widely blamed for India's travails, satellite TV.]
The contestants' skin tone was also pretty uniform. They were what would be described in the matrimonial columns here as wheatish in colour. There's still an enormous premium on having a fair skin. Mothers will openly lament that their daughters are just a little too dark - how difficult it will be to marry them off.
This distateful form of discrimination was no doubt buttressed during the colonial era. But it dates back thousands of years. When the Aryans invaded northern India, they chose the term 'wheatish' to describe their skin colour, in contrast to the 'dasa', the dark-skinned, whose once great culture they overthrew. To this day - in north India in particular - the higher Hindu castes are notably fairer than those from lower castes who live alongside.
It can't be pretended that the contestants represented every aspect of India. For one thing, all answered the obligatory questions in English. That straight away excludes all of village India. And four-fifths of urban India as well. Sushmita and Aishwarya - and now Manpreet as well, the new Miss India - are very much mascots of the middle class.
All three are also strikingly self-confident and articulate. Bimbos don't win Indian beauty contests these days - if they ever did. The ingrained conservatism which for generations has constrained Indian women to home and field is starting to shatter. Among middle class women in particular, there's been a revolution in attitudes. And India's beauty queens are encouraging a generation of young women to be more ambitious and determined, to challenge their parents' expectations, to see more to life than marriage, meals, and clothes for the kids.
At the Andheri stadium very late on Saturday, the outgoing Miss India addressed the crowd. After gushing expressions of love and gratitude to all, Sushmita Sen ended her brief peroration with the rallying cry of the Indian nationalist movement - the Hindi words which mean: "hail India". Almost as if she sees herself as some latter-day freedom fighter. Jai Hind.
CALCUTTA'S COMMUNISTS DISCOVER CAPITALISM - February 1995
While most of the world has turned its back on Marxism, the Indian state of West Bengal remains a Communist stronghold. But even here changes are afoot. The Communist Party Marxist, which has been in power in Calcutta for the past eighteen years, has not only come to terms with capitalism. It's gone to great lengths to attract multinationals and other investors into West Bengal. Andrew Whitehead has been to Calcutta to report on the coming of age of Bengali Communism:
In New York, Singapore or even Bombay, it wouldn't seem out of place. Just another smart corporate suite with expensive modern art on the walls, thick pile carpet, leafy green plants and the latest in office decor. But it's not what you expect of a Communist bureaucrat in Calcutta.
Somnath Chatterjee gives every impression of being thoroughly at home in his new offices on the first floor of Calcutta's Council House Street. He shows visitors around with avuncular delight. It took just fifty-two days, he boasts, from commissioning to completion. In India, that's whirlwind speed. In Calcutta - where the work ethic is not always evident and everything takes three times longer than anyone could possibly imagine - it's almost beyond belief.
Mr Chatterjee fits the corporate bill quite well. He's an upper-class Bengali who qualified as a barrister at the Middle Temple in London, and came back to make a career in Indian politics. In the Communist Party to be precise. He's now the leader of the main Communist party in the lower house of the Indian Parliament.
That's not a sinecure. India's politics has remained stubbornly resistant to all the about-turns occasioned elsewhere by the end of the cold war. The Communist Party Marxist is the third biggest Parliamentary party.
But Somnath Chatterjee's now got a second, rather more challenging, job. The Communists who have ruled West Bengal for the past eighteen years have summoned him home - to win over new investors. A politician who has spent most of his life fighting the capitalist system - who's made hundreds of speeches denouncing the iniquities of an economic system based on private profit - now spends most of his day shaking hands with the entrepreneurs he once reviled, and encouraging them to come and invest their money in Calcutta.
The need is pressing. West Bengal used to account for 15% of India's industrial production. Now, the figure's 5%. Old staples such as jute are no longer profitable. Much of the plant is obsolete. The industry's being kept alive by public money the state government can ill afford. There's nothing left to spend on new public sector industry. And in India's rapidly liberalising economy, where states are jostling with each other to attract multinationals, establish joint ventures and look after entrepreneurs, Calcutta's Communist rulers know that unless they too put out the welcome mat, their state will become an industrial wasteland.
Last month, the Confederation of Indian Industry descended on Calcutta for its centenary gathering. An opportunity not lost on the state government. Calcutta put its best foot forward. Streets were swept, gutters cleaned, and cows herded off to the suburbs. Buildings were given a new lick of paint, weeds plucked from window sills, potholes filled, sewers hastily concealed. All cosmetic, of course. How could it be otherwise in Kipling's city of dreadful night, a by-word around the world - not entirely justly - for squalour and decay.
But Calcutta has solved its power supply problems. There used to be regular power cuts. Now it sells electricity to other parts of the country. It's extending the city's metro. There's a splendid new bridge over the Hooghly river - even if the roads either side are a bit of a let-down.
At Somnath Chatterjee's sumptuous new offices, every corner of the state bureaucracy has a booth. if you want to buy land for a factory, check on power supply, get some phones installed, find out about pollution control, one stop should do the lot. The new venture is called "shilpa bandhu", friend of industry. A curious choice of name for a state government which has built its fortunes befriending labour.
So keen are Calcutta's Communists to woo new investors, they have told their trades unions - once renowned for their militancy - to behave. Somnath Chatterjee delights in recounting how, just a few days ago, he had a call from a big industrialist about a labour problem. Within half-an-hour, he told me, it was all sorted out - and the company was very happy.
Bengali leftists have always combined Stalinist orthodoxy in ideology and icons with a fairly unscrupulous pragmatism over policy. They are now trying to outdo the free marketeers in seducing new investment. When it comes to a battle between Marx and mammon, Calcutta's Communists will take the money every time.
LOCALISM IN LADAKH - May 1995
The people of one the most remote and inhospitable corners of India have won their longstanding campaign for a measure of self-government. The mountain fastness of Ladakh, close to the Chinese border, is to have its own elected regional council. Local people say it's the only way of making sure that development projects suit local conditions and of keeping the area's distinct Buddhist culture alive. Andrew Whitehead has been to the main Ladakhi town, Leh, where the campaign for autonomy has sometimes taken a curious form:
With his amiable manner and ambling gait, Chering Dorjay appears a model of good humour and tolerance. He earns his living in adventure tourism - organising treks in one of the world's most memorable landscapes. Taking groups across this arid high altitude desert, 11,000 feet up in the Himalayas, which in climate, culture, language and religion, has more in common with Tibet than anywhere else.
Yet it was Chering Dorjay who led Ladakh's Young Buddhist Association in a house-by-house search for electric heaters, which were seized, piled on a street corner in the main town of Leh, and then publicly destroyed. An act of petty despotism in anyone's books. But in Ladakh, where the winter is so severe that roads to the rest of India are cut off for seven months of the year, it seems an unpardonable sin.
The problem is that Ladakh s chronically short of power. In winter there's so little, local people are supposed to do no more than use a few low watt light bulbs. The Buddhist Association argued that those improperly resorting to plug-in heaters - rather than the traditional wood and dung fuelled stoves - were causing power cuts which made it impossible for youngsters to study.
The reasons for Ladakh's electricity famine explains why so many local people have been determined to gain a measure of self-government. There's a hydroelectric plant at Stakna, about thirty kilometres from Leh - sited on the river Indus as it makes its way through the austere Ladakhi moonscape. But like most development projects in the region, it was designed from afar. And it doesn't work.
For a start, the Indus freezes over for four months of the year. And then, when the thaw comes, so much silt is swept from the mountain-sides that the turbines can't cope. So the plant produces power for little more than half the year - problems which could have been avoided with a bit more foresight.
That's not the only way Ladakh has been neglected. Running water is rare. Leh, a town swelling to twenty-thousand during the brief tourist season, has no proper sewage system. Life revolves around shortages. One day the hotel had no eggs; the next, no bread. The tea stall at the airstrip was closed - it had tea, but no water.
All this - Ladakhis say - is the result of being administered by people who don't understand the area's problems. Not just the central government in Delhi. But the local state government of Jammu and Kashmir, which is understandably preoccupied by putting down the Muslim separatist insurgency in the Kashmir Valley.
There is something bewitchingly different about Ladakh. Its geographic isolation and unyielding climate have bred a robustly independent outlook. Village people proudly wear traditional dress. The man in long maroon frock coats. The women with their hair in long plaits, meeting at the end, and tucked into caps which look more like tea cosies.
Farming is a generous term for the desperate efforts of local people to extract a living from the soil. Few crops can survive the dry, stony earth and high altitude. Goats and other livestock fall prey to snow leopards. Wolves are sometimes sighted in the streets of Leh. Almost all forms of economic activity - agriculture, construction and road freight - have to be squeezed into the five months of summer.
Clinging to the hill-sides are ancient monasteries where boys, some as young as six or seven, recite Buddhist scriptures and sip yak butter salt tea. The tradition that every family should devote one son to celibacy and religious study still persists in some areas. Portraits of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, adorn the walls.
Chering Dorjay of the Ladakh Buddhist Association went with me to one of the more renowned monasteries at Thiksay, founded 600 years ago. With the prayer wheels spinning, and the discordant chanting of the novitiates seeping in from the courtyard, I asked him whether he would like his home area one day to be part of an independent Tibet. "No", he said; "Ladakhis once ruled over part of Tibet, but they never ruled over us. We're happy with autonomy within India."
Now Ladakhis have got what their wanted. The Indian government is setting up an elected council to give the 170,000 Ladakhis a real say in how their area is run. Democracy sometimes disappoints. But the proud and resilient people of Ladakh deserve a helping hand in their quest for development in tune with their culture and lifestyle. And for their desire to keep the appendages of the modern world - even electric heaters - under strict control.
BHUTAN: NOT QUITE PARADISE - May 1995
The mountain kingdom of Bhutan, nestling high in the Himalayas, has tried to achieve a difficult balancing act. One of the world's most isolated countries, it's seeking to open up gradually to the outside world, without losing its distinctive Buddhist culture and values. For the few tourists fortunate enough to get there, Bhutan often seems a magical place - but there's also another side to the country, as Andrew Whitehead discovered:
No paradise, I suppose, can be quite as idyllic as it's painted. Bhutan likes to present itself as a sort of Shangri-La - a far-away Himalayan fastness where the spiritual is placed above the material, where the air is clean and the water pure, where people are happy, farm their own land, love their king, and don't hanker after all the high technology trappings of life in the west. That's not the complete story.
Bhutan does have an awful lot going for it, The scenery is spectacular - deep, densely forested valleys in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, with snow-covered peaks never all that far away. Cannabis grows like chick-weed and is fed to the pigs to keep them quiet.
There's no pressure on land. Two-thirds of a million Bhutanese live in a country a little bigger than Switzerland. Forests are not being chopped down for firewood; mountain sides are not being cleared in the quest for more cultivable land.
Its isolation protected Bhutan from most potential invaders. The Tibetans sometimes stirred south through the mountain passes, bringing with them a form of Buddhism which still shapes Bhutanese culture. The mountain dzongs, ancient monastic fortresses, remain the most dramatic examples of traditional Bhutanese architecture.
The first proper road into the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, was constructed in the 1960s. It wasn't so much that Bhutan kept the world at bay, rather that until recent times the world simply couldn't get there. It's still not easy. The government is very choosy. Tourists can come, but only a few thousand a year and at premium rates which exclude all but the very rich.
The king has helped engineer Bhutan's policy of gradual engagement with the world beyond the mountains. He has four wives, seems genuinely popular and is very much the man that matters. I was a little alarmed when, just as a convoy of cars was approaching on one of Bhutan's twisting mountain roads, my driver dived out of view into the leg space of the front passenger seat. The convoy was escorting the king. The driver was not some fugitive from justice, just showing due respect.
Political pluralism has not reached as far as Bhutan. Some would describe the country as deferential - feudal might perhaps be a better word. There are no political parties. Traditional dress is just about compulsory.
Most Bhutanese seem quite happy with the things the way they are. Living standards are rather better than the bald statistics suggest. The country attracts aid from several of the smaller European donors. India, Bhutan's giant neighbour, provides both money and a market for Bhutanese exports - from apple jam to the most lucrative, hydroelectric power.
Health provision and education standards are impressive. The ingenious Bhutanese have even managed to get computer programming in the main local language, Dzonghka. The initial request to Japanese computer giants was met by a query - how many computers are you going to buy? The Bhutanese authorities did a bit of totting up and replied: seven. That was the end of that. Until an enterprising Bhutanese official discovered that one top computer programmer was a devout Buddhist. The programming in Dzonghka was designed in return for an all expenses paid holiday to Bhutan, with privileged access to monasteries and temples.
Computers are OK; television is not. Satellite dishes are not allowed and there's no terrestrial service. It's part of the attempt to keep American soaps and all they represent at arm's length. There is a loophole, however. Bhutan has no TV, but lots of TV sets. All linked to VCRs. Video rental shops are the latest addition to Bhutan's high streets.
If that takes some of the shine off the Shangri-La image, the treatment of Bhutan's biggest minority - Nepali-speaking Hindus - robs it of a lot more. The Buddhist elite are desperately alarmed by the prospect of being eventually outnumbered. Nepali-speakers are no longer allowed to settle in Bhutan; quite a lot have fled complaining of harassment. Thimpu - the capital of a country where Hindus make up a quarter of the population - has not one Hindu temple.
There's just a touch of intolerance about Bhutan's attempts to cling on to its culture. Life is a little over-regimented. Bhutan has a lot to boast about - but paradise on earth? That's just too good to be true.
CRIME AND INDIAN POLITICS - July 1995
The murder in India of the wife of an up-and-coming politician has not only dominated the newspaper headlines but prompted a national debate about the apparent links between crime and politics. The details of what's become known as the Tandoori murder are particularly grotesque. But it's the political connections of the principal suspect which have aroused most controversy, as Andrew Whitehead in Delhi explains:
Just occasionally, a particularly gruesome crime arouses more than simply a wave of public revulsion and prurient reporting, and touches a deep underlying concern about the way a country is government. Delhi's Tandoori murder has sparked-off exactly such anguished soul-searching. India's most talked about murder for at least a generation has unleashed a fierce debate about the way in which criminals appear to be knocking at the portals of political power.
Before saying more, it's important to emphasise that the chief suspect, Sushil Sharma, has publicly proclaimed his innocence. indeed, he says he's been framed by a political rival from within his own party, the ruling Congress party. Indian justice accepts the principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty - a dictum which even the most sober and serious-minded Delhi newspapers have chose to overlook in their frenzied news coverage of the case.
The murder victim was Sushil Sharma's twenty-nine year old wife, Naina Sahni. One evening, at the beginning of the month, an alert policeman spotted a small fire at a smart open-air Tandoori restaurant in central Delhi. The customers had all been ushered out at short notice; the staff paid off for the evening. Beyond the shuttered gates, smoke was billowing from a big Tandoori oven. Inside was the charred and dismembered remains of Naina Sahni.
Sushil Sharma and some friends had, it seems, secured the concession for the government-owned restaurant through political connections. Mr Sharma was extremely well connected. He was for five years the president of the local Delhi branch of the Youth Congress - and made himself indispensable to a series of very senior politicians in India's governing party. He was one of those happy to pay court and provide favours, in return - it seems - for help in his business career and, one assumes, the hope of political advancement. The newspapers have suggested that Naina Sahni herself bestowed favours on ministers and others. Sushil Sharma was apparently recommended, unsuccessfully, by his ministerial friends for a seat in Parliament.
The Youth Congress has always had a rather unsavoury reputation. Youth political movements, you might imagine, are the home of young, energetic idealists. Many of those who have risen to the top of the youth wing of India's ruling party have a fairly crude approach to politics. I remember going to a Delhi discotheque in the company of a Youth Congress leader. When he became embroiled in a row with a stranger about a seat, he pulled out a pistol.
Even after the murder, Sushil Sharma was able to summon help from his high-placed friends. A lawyer in Madras, at the other end of India, was asked by an unnamed politician to help this missing Mr Sharma. He approached a local judge and secured anticipatory bail for the fugitive, who did not appear in person and gave as his address a centre for astrology. That gave him immunity from arrest for two weeks. The bail was revoked following public outrage - and Mr Sharma, his head shaved after having visited a Hindu pilgrimage site, was arrested the same day.
Government ministers have since been queueing up to declare that they've only had the slightest acquaintance with Sushil Sharma, and no intimacy at all with his late wife. It all has the makings of a messy political scandal. With a general election less than a year away, the timing for the Congress party could not be much worse.
But as the Times of India reflected in a front-page editorial: 'it's not the Congress party alone which is afflicted by the presence in its ranks of a large number of functionaries who are not fully conversant with the norms of civilised life. Almost every party, regional and national, has thugs and goons ever ready to settle scores violently.'
India's always had its ample share of corrupt politicians and ministers on the make. Criminals have often been able to shelter behind very well-placed political friends. But increasingly those criminals have not been content with indirect access to power - more and more are securing election and achieving office themselves.
India's home minister recently remarked that there were plenty of state-level ministers who police were compelled to salute but should be putting behind bars. One noted political commentator recently described India as the most daring and difficult experiment in democracy in the modern world. He lamented that an experiment can easily fail when the politicians who are supposed to lead it turn out to be its saboteurs.
Sonia Gandhi ...
... addressing a rally in Amethi
SONIA GANDHI - August 1995
The Gandhi family appears poised to re-enter Indian politics, four years after the assassination of the last of the country's three Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers. Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, broke her political purdah this week and addressed a rally in her late husband's old constituency. That's increased speculation that their children will soon opt for a career in politics. Andrew Whitehead looks at India's continuing affection for its most famous political dynasty:
She spoke for just seven minutes. Her well-rehearsed Hindi had little in common with the local dialect. If it had been anyone else, the peasant farmers and landless labourers - who made their way to the rally by bus, truck and bullock cart - would have returned home feeling cheated.
Sonia Gandhi's brief speech has demonstrated the political resilience of India's most illustrious dynasty. Three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family have served as prime minister - Jawaharlal Nehru; his daughter, Indira Gandhi; and her son, Rajiv Gandhi. They governed India for thirty-eight of its first forty-two years as an independent country. Now it seems a new generation of Gandhis is intent on entering the shifting sands of Indian politics. It sounds like the political feudalism all too common in South Asia. And in part it is. But India is a democracy not just in name. Its electorate is experienced at chucking-out the corrupt and incompetent.
The rally was the first Sonia Gandhi has addressed since her husband Rajiv's assassination four years ago. In that time, she's become the closest India has these days to royalty. Most visiting dignitaries - from heads of state, to triumphant beauty queens - pay a courtesy call to the Gandhis' downtown Delhi bungalow. Quite a transformation for the middle class Italian girl who Rajiv Gandhi courted while studying in England.
The marriage was, by all accounts, a strong one. Sonia became an Indian national, took to wearing saris and studied Hindi. She is still all too obviously grieving her husband's death. Ever since the assassination, she's been a powerful force behind the scenes in India's ruling Congress party. But she turned down all invitations to accept party office. Until this week, she had never spoken out publicly on political issues, and never openly taken sides in the party's bitter infighting.
It's difficult to say what's prompted Sonia to change her stance One Gandhi loyalist recounts how he spent half-an-hour advising her on political strategy to be confronted by stone-faced silence. Sonia Gandhi - he says - has the very unItalian virtue of inscrutability.
Judging by her rally address, she seems to feel that Rajiv Gandhi's political legacy is being squandered by his successors within the Congress party. Travelling to Amethi, the heart of her husband's old Parliamentary constituency, attracting an enthusiastic and aggressively loyal audience and making a headline-capturing speech, is not a bad way of demonstrating political muscle.
The people of Amethi have good reason to be grateful to the Gandhis. Rajiv was an assiduous constituency MP and his wife was always at his side. He's remembered for building roads, opening schools, expanding hospitals and bringing in power lines. Having a prime minister for your local MP can be a big asset. Since his death, development in Amethi has come to a shuddering halt. The local legend of a Rajiv Gandhi golden age has helped the family maintain its popularity.
Amethi would be only too pleased to have another Gandhi represent it in Parliament. The present Congress party incumbent has already said he's just keeping the seat warm. Sonia would certainly win if she stood. She has charisma - and there's no doubting her commitment to her adopted country. But there's the problem. A foreigner, however well connected, will never be able to get far in Indian politics.
Her children do not suffer that liability. Neither has yet given any firm indication of political ambitions - but most believe that's just a matter of time. Priyanka, who's 23, accompanied her mother to Amethi. She's personable and confident, and her likeness to her grandmother, Indira, has encouraged speculation about a political career. But it's her elder brother, Rahul - less well-known to the Indian public - who may well take on his father's old constituency. In the words of one local party worker: the tradition here is that the first-born son inherits, and that's why we want Rahul.
The political weaning of a new set of Gandhis wouldn't matter so much if India had powerful personalities at its helm. But none are in sight. The government has been so desperate to demonstrate that it has the Gandhi hallmark, it's just renamed Connaught Place, the commercial hub of Delhi, in honour of the Gandhis. The Gandhi name has lost elections in the past as well as won them. But the political tremors prompted by Sonia Gandhi's speech suggest that the family may still have the power to reshape Indian politics.
The bridge north of Vavuniya into Tamil Tiger-held territory, Nov 1995
SRI LANKA'S MISSING LEADERS - November 1995
The battle for the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna has again focussed world attention on the long history of tension between the island's majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities, That and other conflicts within Sri Lanka have cost the lives of many of the country's leaders, and tens of thousands of its citizens. This was brought home to our correspondent now in Colombo, Andrew Whitehead, when he reflected on the fate of those he'd met and interviewed on his previous visit.
Coming back to Sri Lanka after nine years has brought a curious cocktail of emotions. My last time here was my first overseas assignment for the BBC. Three weeks covering peace talks which conspicuously failed to solve the island's complex, and appallingly savage, ethnic conflict.
Colombo is a marvellous city. Alongside the ocean. Prosperous by South Asian standards. Relaxed and friendly. I have good reason to look kindly on the place. Covering Sri Lanka's misery was a good career move.
Yet so many of the people I met last time round are dead. Assassinated. Surely no other nation can match Sri Lanka's record for losing its political leaders to bombings and bullets.
And not only the politicians. Richard de Zoysa was a news reader on Rupavahini, the state-run television network. A young and talented journalist from a well-connected family.
He appeared at my hotel door one day to complain that I'd got my geography all wrong. I'd reported that the rail track had been blown up at a spot well beyond the reach of even the most adventurous Sri Lankan train. Discomforted perhaps by my profound embarrassment, he took me out for a drink one evening. I returned to the hotel as the pillion passenger on his motorbike.
Four years later, Richard de Zoysa was abducted, apparently by men with connections to Sri Lanka's security forces. It was at a time when a left-wing Sinhalese group was staging what almost amounted to an armed rebellion. There's little to suggest that he was in any way connected. But in Colombo in the darker days, just being a liberal was dangerous.
At least his body was recovered - washed ashore on a beach north of the capital. Thousands of others who went missing at the same time remain missing.
Last time here, I arrived at the office of Lalith Athulathmudali, then Sri Lanka's minister for national security, with an introduction from one of his contemporaries at his Oxford college. Everyone said he was one of the hawks in a very hawksih government. But I got the briefing I wanted.
Lalith Athulathmudali was blown up, probably by the Tamil Tigers, a couple of years back.
The main purpose of my initial assignment was to report the visit to Colombo of leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front - moderate representatives of the island's Tamil minority who even then were being comprehensively outflanked by the separatist Tamil Tigers. Their head was a gentle, avuncular man called Appapillai Amirthalingam. I interviewed him in his none-too-grand Colombo hotel room.
A few years later I read that he'd been shot dead in Colombo. He was, it seems, having talks with a Tamil Tiger delegation when one pulled out a gun and killed him.
Other rising stars of Sri Lanka's political firmament nine years ago have also been butchered: Ranasinghe Premadasa; Vijaya Kumaratunga; Gamini Dissanayake. These were not political lightweights. But Sri Lanka's leaders.
There are three women in the cabinet - including the president, and her mother, the prime minister. All three are political widows. Each widowed, as best we can tell, by different political forces.
I remember a Tamil MP calling on my on my last visit. He turned up unannounced and I invited him to tea in the hotel lounge. Over biscuits, he announced that sixty-seven of his constituents had just been massacred by the mainly Sinhalese Sri Lankan army. When I expressed incredulity, he produced a list of the names of those slaughtered. There's little reason to believe he was exaggerating.
The massacres continue to this day. Thought latterly the ruthless Tamil Tigers have more blood on their hands than the Sr Lankan military.
Looking across the political landscape, only two key players remain alive and active from 1986. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the near-legendary leader of the Tamil Tigers, and his deputy, Anton Balasingam. The organisation responsible for much of Sri Lanka's relentless carnage, and which has lost thousands of its own members, has been the most successful in protecting its own top ranks.
Censorship is now in force in Sri Lanka. Which is why hotel receptionists and switchboard operators have been pestering me with requests for the real news of what's happening in the north.
There are no independent accounts of the conflict. No war reporters, no prying cameras. Yet the people the government denounce as bloodthirsty terrorists have been getting in touch with me here in Colombo from various European capitals. By fax and by phone.
The tales each side tells - casualties, clashes, atrocities - have a very familiar ring. Just what I was filing nine years ago. Sadly for Sri Lanka, the story remains the same. Only the cast list has changed.
INDIA VOTES - May 1996
The world's biggest ever exercise in democracy is almost complete. Already two-thirds of the lectorate have voted in India's general election. By Tuesday evening, almost 600 million Indians will have had the chance to cast their ballots. It's not simply the scale of the contest which is remarkable - with 5 million scrutineers, one-and-a-half million police on election duty and 850,000 polling stations - but also the starkness of the choice confronting the electorate. Andrew Whitehead has been out with election candidates in various parts of the country, and assesses what's been a gruelling campaign:
There's one promise that India's prime minister has failed to keep. A broken pledge for which the country's politicians and reporters will not lightly forgive him.
It must be almost two years ago that Mr Narasimha Rao told a rally at Delhi's imposing Red Fort that the general election would be advanced a little. Polling would be held, he said, before the scorching heat of summer.
Well, here we are in May - North India is sweltering in temperatures above forty degrees. And more than a third of the country has still to vote.
In the folklore of Indian politics, candidates trying to impress how hard they have been campaigning around their giant-size constituencies boast of mouthfuls of dust they've swallowed. In this election, everyone on the campaign trail has been gulping down dust by the dishfull.
Laloo Prasad Yadav has been churning up vast plumes of dust with his campaign helicopter. He began life - as he proudly recounts - herding buffalo. He's one of India's new breed of leaders - from the poor, of the poor, for the poor. He's a peasant politician - India's answer to Nikita Khruschev. He chews tobacco, keeps cows at the back of his official residence, and spices his speeches with earthy rural metaphors.
A couple of years ago, people laughed at Laloo. The Delhi establishment, English speaking and western oriented, wouldn't take this rural upstart seriously. They have learnt their lesson. Laloo is now the national president of a major party, the Janata Dal. He's the chief minister of India's second most populous state, Bihar. What's more, he's well into his second term in office - quite an achievement, given India's demanding and quixotic electorate.
For generations, India's champions of the low caste and underprivileged have themselves been well-heeled and well dressed. Take the country's Communist parties - several politburo members and similar are British-trained barristers, or from upper crust brahmin families.
Now new leaders like Laloo are succeeding in tapping the electoral potential of their own people, those from low castes. The basic demographic fact of life in India is this - the poor are in the majority.
Those from what are called backward castes, who for centuries have been restricted to the menial jobs, make up 52% of the population. Even more wretched are the scheduled castes, the one-time untouchables, who still do most of India's dirty work -they account for another 16%.
Then there are two other hard-done-by groups: the 70 million or so tribal people, and well over a hundred million Muslims. Add all that up - and there's not a lot left. Yet the 12% of the population from the top Hindu castes - the brahmin elite and the trading and landowning castes - has provided India with every prime minister it's ever had.
Slowly but surely, a revolution is being wrought in the world's largest democracy. The poor and the dispossessed are advancing towards power in Delhi. It may not happen this time - but it's the way the wind is blowing.
Yet there are other breezes billowing across the Indian political landscape. The Hindu nationalists of the BJP are almost certain to secure more seats than ever before - indeed, several opinion polls have suggested that they will emerge as the largest party in Parliament.
That would indeed mark a seismic shift in Indian politics. The BJP says, with some justification, that India has had one party government for almost half-a-century. Even during the two brief interregnums in Congress party rule, the men in power were by-and-large Congress defectors.
The BJP represents a different political tradition. Where the Congress has sought consensus, and argued that a country with such religious diversity must remain secular, the main opposition party stands for an assertively, aggressively Hindu national identity. Whatever anyone's religious affiliation, says the BJP, when it comes to culture, all true Indians are Hindus. The sort of language which, understandably, makes the Muslim minority feel insecure.
So while populists and the left are trying to use caste to excite passions and attract votes, the right-wing BJP is relying on religion. It believes an avowedly Hindu political agenda should be able to win support from Hindus of whatever caste.
The curious thing is, in this election, no party has managed to cause much of a stir. It's not simply that election rules and spending limits are being enforced more strictly than ever before. Somehow this election campaign has not excited a lot of interest. Perhaps it's just too hot.
Comrade Biman Bose by a portrait of Muzaffar Ahmed - CPM HQ Calcutta, 1992
COMMUNISM REVISITED - July 1996
India's new coalition government has been welcoming on board some new members. For the first time since the country gained independence in 1947, Communists have taken ministerial office. Andrew Whitehead, our Delhi correspondent made a series of radio programmes a few years ago about the fate of Communist parties in different parts of the world. He looks now at the upturn in fortunes of parties which then seemed to be slipping into irrelevance:
Indrajit Gupta has always given the impression that he's fed up with the brawling and name-calling which too often passes for politics in India. He's in his late seventies and has been a Member of Parliament for half his life. Much admired for his oratory and integrity, he was a few years ago named India's Parliamentarian of the year.
The hound-dog expression and bags under his rather bleary eyes tell a story of long hours spent in dreary meetings, longer hours in unwinnable debates. A face reflecting, perhaps, aspirations unmet and dreams unrealised. After all, India's longest-serving MP has never been part of the winning team.
Until last Friday. That was the day when the Cambridge-educated Mr Gupta was sworn in as the new home affairs minister. Not simply a personal triumph. But a landmark for the world's biggest democracy. Indrajit Gupta is the first Communist ever to serve in an Indian cabinet.
His party, the CPI, didn't do too well in the recent general election. It won just thirteen seats. But it's emerged as one of the key constituents in India's left-of-centre governing alliance.
The country's bigger Communist party, the more dogmatic CPM, is supporting the coalition government, but not taking office. If that quintessentially Communist institution, the CPM's Central Committee, had displayed a little bit more political flexibility and agreed to enter government, then - without a doubt - one of its leaders, Jyoti Basu, would now be his country's prime minister.
India's Communists have managed to survive the end of the cold war, the collapse of Soviet Communism, and the discrediting of much of the ideology they have spent a political lifetime proclaiming. And they are not alone.
The radio series I made four years ago was entitled: 'What's Left of Communism'. "Not a lot" was the general view at that time. The programmes looked at four Communist parties - in Cuba, India, Italy and South Africa. Few imagined that Fidel Castro's Communist enclave in the Caribbean could survive long without its Soviet bloc patrons. But he's still there - as defiant as ever.
The other three Communist parties operate in pluralist democracies. All three had, back in 1992, big pockets of strength. All were in opposition at national level. And with the possible exception of the South African party, all appeared to be well past their prime.
Now - as of last Friday - Communist parties are in government in all four countries. The South Africans piggybacked to power with the help of the African National Congress - which would not have survived as such a formidable force through the wilderness years without its contingent of CP members. There are now four Communists in the Pretoria cabinet.
The Italian Communists had, four years ago, already unburdened themselves of much of their Marxist-Leninist baggage. They had changed their name - to the Party of the Democratic Lft. Now that party is the biggest force within the governing Olive Tree alliance. Giorgio Napolitano - for many years the most articulate spokesman of Eurocommunism, but representing a party that was always pipped at the post of Italian politics - is his country's interior minister.
Like Indrajit Gupta, Mr Napolitano has had to wait a long time to get a taste of power. Both men have had to come to terms with the demise and disgrace of many once cherished beliefs. Both consider that some remnants of the Communist experience have been worth saving.
After all, Communist influence was built on rather more than an imported ideology and Moscow gold. Most Communist parties have been able to adapt to a changing world - many of their leaders have been able to build on a reputation for being in politics for more than simply fame and fortune.
What has disappeared, really without trace, is the internationalism. The parties are no longer bound to Moscow or Beijing. The bogey of a Communist menace stalking fragile democracies, trying to overwhelm what was once curiously called the free world, is no longer remotely credible.
Once, Indrajit Gupta was a courier for an outlawed Communist Party. Carrying round instructions for a party which was, briefly, bent on armed insurrection. Now, not even the most establishment-minded of India's politicians and commentators view Mr Gupta as a threat to anything more than the cant and corruption with which so many of the country's leaders surround themselves.
NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN - July 1996
Pakistan's most renowned singer has been visiting India - where he made an impassioned appeal for improved cultural links between the two feuding regional powers. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan excels in a cultural form - qawwali signing - which is immensely popular in both countries. Andrew Whitehead met Mr Khan and attended his concert in Delhi, and reflects on the common cultural heritage which his music represents:
The moment I walked into the concert hall, I could sense the atmosphere. Not simply anticipation and excitement. There was a raw edge to the emotions of those gathered for a rare performance in the Indian capital by Pakistan's foremost singer. Nostalgia, and a whiff of wistfulness. If only we could have avoided all this enmity between our countries, said my Indian companion, then hearing this wonderful voice could be a regular event, not once in a lifetime.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has been just twice to India to perform in the past fifteen years. But when he does come, he feels very much at home. "I've toured the world as an ambassador of music for Pakistan", he declared in Delhi last week. "But it's only when I'm in India that I feel such peace and happiness."
He may hold a Pakistan passport, but the music Khan sings is part of a common culture - a cord which still binds India and Pakistan.
He's a qawwali singer. That doesn't really do justice to him. He's one of the most accomplished singers in the sub-continent, blessed with a powerful, spiritual, soaring voice. His family has, by all accounts, been singing Sufi Muslim devotional music for centuries - music which has always found an eager audience far beyond the ranks of the faithful.
Sufis are the mystics of the Islamic world. They have saints, shrines - the most revered being in India, at Ajmer. And in sharp contrast to most of their co-religionists, Sufis believe in music and song as a means of reaching God. Not the dirges which pass muster in some faiths as religious music. But powerful, highly-charged, sometimes frenetic songs, which give free rien to a most remarkable voice.
A voice much in demand - Khan has worked on the film scores of 'Dead Man Walking' and the 'Bandit Queen' and is now being sought for Hindi-language movies. Some of his best songs have been shamelessly plagiarised. In one case, what started off as a song of praise to God ended up accompanying a raunchy dance number in a popular Indian film. As a result, just about everyone in Hindi-speaking North India knows Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music - even if they don't know the name.
He's now consciously trying to overcome the decades of suspicion which have soured relations between South Asia's two regional powers. As a Pakistani singer, he braved the wrath of hardline Hindu groups to come to Bombay to record is latest album, made in collaboration with one of India's leading pets.
Music, says Khan, gives people an opportunity to come together. The more cultural interchange there is, he says, the better the relationship: it will diminish hatred.
Pakistani artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan can come to perform in India - not that many do. The traffic in the other direction is still more restricted. There's no ban on Indian singers or musicians visiting Pakistan. But thinly concealed official disapproval, and formidable bureaucratic obstacles, mean that few take the trouble to do so.
In front of a galaxy of Delhi's great and good, rich and influential, at the concert last week, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan delivered a few home truths to his government. "I get so much respect when I come here", he said. "Yet artists from here are not invited to Pakistan. I intend to advise our prime minister that she should let Indian performers travel there."
Pakistan's high commissioner - sitting in the front row alongside the American ambassador - smiled broadly, presumably to hide his embarrassment. The rest of the audience applauded enthusiastically.
Then the music began. A song in Punjabi delighted the large number of Sikhs in the audience. Khan is himself a Punjabi - a people cut in two by the partition of India. A rendition of a number now more famous for its bowdlerised movie score namesake turned an already excited audience to fever pitch.
The distinctly stocky Khan, his hair sticky with sweat, plied the bellows of his harmonium by hand, as his manager whispered in his ear the words of the next couplet. His retinue of musicians were quite as spellbinding. Particularly the player of the sarangi - a twenty-four stringed instrument played with a bow, and reputed to be one of the most fiendishly difficult to master. Whatever gyrations Khan's voice performed, the sarangi managed to shadow.
Many must have mused, as they were making their way home, how it has come to be that a man singing what many Indians would regard as their music in their language comes from another country. Forty-nine years after partition, trade and travel between India and Pakistan is minimal. Indian films can't be shown in Pakistani cinemas The two governments are not even on talking terms.
But as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan declared, and as his music so powerfully demonstrates, the cultures of the two countries cannot be separated.
Elias Josephai in his disused synagogue in Ernakulam, Dec 1993
... and meeting there again 25 years later!
KERALA'S JEWISH COMMUNITY - August 1996
One of the world's most ancient Jewish communities is on the verge of dying out. Half-a-century ago, there were several thousand Indian Jews living in the southern state of Kerala - dating their history back many centuries. Now, almost all have migrated to Israel. Fewer than a hundred Jews are left in Kerala - and some of them are now thinking of leaving, as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he visited the port city of Cochin:
Elias Josephai takes his religion seriously. Every Friday evening, his family gathers round the living room table - his wife, Ofera, young daughters, Leah and Avital, and brother, Sasson. Candles are lit. All cover their heads. Then Josephai recites from a Hebrew prayer book and offers round a cup of sabbath wine.
For Cochin's tiny Jewish community, keeping the faith is a struggle. Josephai has been taught how to slaughter chicken himself in the approved fashion. But kosher goat meat has to come from Bombay, hundreds of miles to the north.
In language, dress and appearance, Elias Josephai is Indian - indistinguishable from other Keralites. His forbears came to India's Malabar coast - well, no one knows exactly when. Certainly more than fifteen-hundred years ago. Quite, possibly a lot earlier. There was once a Jewish principality in Kerala. For centuries, Jews prospered in this the most cosmopolitan corner of India - where ancient trade links with the Middle East brought not only Judaism, but two other religions which still flourish here: Islam, and the Syrian form of Christianity.
When Indian gained independence in 1947, there were several thousand Jews living in Kerala. The following year came the creation of the state of Israel. Within a generation, almost all Kerala's Jews had emigrated. They did not experience anti-semitism. But for what was even then a dwindling community, the chance of starting afresh in a state with a Jewish identity, and with enormous economic opportunity, proved irresistible.
Scattered across Israel are small groups of Indian Jews speaking the language of Kerala, Malayalam. Elias Josephai has four sisters and one brother in Israel; all his wife's family have gone there.
Now the Eliases too are likely to make the move. Josephai is visiting Israel for the first time next year. If he likes it, they will settle. For his wife, it's not a question of if but when. The community is dying here, she says. We can't celebrate religious festivals. We can't have Jewish get-togethers. But above all, she wants to be able to find Jewish bridegrooms for her two girls.
The family has stayed on in Kerala only because they have a successful nursery and aquaculture business. It's just off Jew Street in the market area of Cochin. Baby carp and piles of compost are now stored in what was the Jewish community's religious school.
And when Josephai opens up the sturdy wooden doors at the back, suddenly you enter a lost world. An ancient synagogue - it's seen no service since 1972, but is still much as it was when the bulk of the congregation packed their bags and went off to the promised land.
Some of the brasswork and wooden panelling has been stolen. The religious scrolls have been given sanctuary in Israel. But the beauty of the building persists. The coloured glass lamps, bewitching chandeliers, ornate carved woodwork. And upstairs on the balcony are mouldering piles of ledgers and accounts, and a chest piled high with old Hebrew scriptures.
Elias Josephai showed me the chair on which he was publicly circumcised, aged eight days; the bench where he used to sit alongside his father. He had his barmitzvah here. His life has been entwined with the history of the building. When he goes, it will almost certainly fall into dereliction - the fate which has now befallen all Kerala's other synagogues, bar one.
There are forty Jews now in Cochin - divided into two camps. As Josephai says, ask five Jews their opinion and you'll get six answers. He and twenty-one others are Keralite Jews, fully integrate into local society.
Over in Mattancherry, the oldest part of Cochin, are eighteen "white" Jews, as they are known. They speak Malayalam, but their Mediterranean appearance mars them out from the dark-skinned Keralites. Their ancestors came from the Middle East a few hundred years ago and settled as spice traders in the area still known as Jewtown.
Almost all are elderly, and reluctant to talk about the impending fate of their community. Their exquisite synagogue, built in 1568 and the oldest in the Commonwealth, is open to visitors, Rarely does the Saturday congregation get into two figures. Soon the synagogue may well be a museum rather than a living place of worship.
The Jewish community in Kerala is already dead, Elias Josephai says with solemn emphasis. With no young people, how can it survive. In a maximum of ten years, he says, there will be no practising Jews left.
Some of the migrants to Israel dug up the bones of their ancestors and took their remains with them. Perhaps a wise move, Cochin's main Jewish cemetery is now being encroached upon by developers, Only the sturdiest of the graves are still standing.
An ancient and distinguished culture is about to disappear- and before long, there may be next-to-no sign that it ever existed.
There's been great soul-searching in India after a spate of corruption allegations, which have tainted the reputations of politicians of several parties. The latest was the seizure of vast amounts of cash from the homes of a former cabinet minister. But Andrew Whitehead in Delhi says there is a silver lining - there have always been crooked politicians in India, but they can no longer be sure of getting away with it:
Sukh Ram has a lot of explaining to do. In India; members of the government - as Sukh Ram was until the Congress party lost the general election in May - are not conspicuously well paid. They get about £300 a month. Plus perks, like free housing and travel.
So, it's quite difficult for a minister - however puritan his lifestyle - to amass the sum of thirty-six million rupees, more than £600,000. Yet this was the amount recovered recently by Indian police when they raided Sukh Ram's two houses. One a smart government bungalow in the centre of Delhi; the other, his home in the hills of Himachal Pradesh.
Thirty-six million rupees in bank notes. Stuffed, by all accounts, into briefcases, attache cases, and even rolled up in bed linen. Left lying around with only a cursory attempt at concealment. It was the biggest sum ever recovered in the course of an anti-corruption investigation in India. Sukh Ram may well have an entirely plausible explanation of how he managed to accumulate quite so much ready cash. But as yet, he hasn't shared it with the police, the press or the public. He's been spending his time fighting shy of the media and just about everybody else by the seaside, at Southend. He has, apparently, got relatives there.
The Congress party, in a belated damage control exercise, has suspended the former minister from party membership. Sukh Ram hasn't been charged, never mind convicted. In India, as elsewhere, the legal system assumes that all are innocent until proven guilty.
But Sukh Ram, communications minister in the former Congress party government, is no stranger to controversy. He was in charge of awarding contracts for the multi-billion pound expansion of India's telecom industry - the boldest move in the country's ambitious programme of economic reform. Opposition parties alleged at the time that he had improperly favoured certain companies - allegations that Sukh Ram and his party colleagues have always vigorously denied.
This wasn't the only allegation of impropriety against members of Mr Narasimha Rao's government. Indeed, there have been so many, it's difficult to know where to start.. There was the share rigging scandal; the sugar import scandal; the stockbroker who alleged he had delivered in person to the prime minister a suitcase crammed with rupee notes; the Chandraswami scandal; the vote-buying scandal - buying not ordinary voters but opposition MPs; and then what became known as the 'hawala' scandal, alleged illegal payments by a local businessman to top politicians of just about every party, which led to the resignation of seven ministers earlier this year. Again one has to say, no politician has admitted any wrongdoing, and none has been convicted.
The former prime minister himself has not done much for the reputation of Indian politics by trying every legal gambit possible to escape a summons to appear in a magistrate's court to give evidence.
It's not just a malaise affecting India's most distinguished and successful political party. The whole system is riddled with corruption. No politician, it's said, can easily survive in Bombay without reaching some form of accommodation with the underworld. If you cross them, they kill you. The ganglords, rich from property deals, are believed to have been behind several political assassinations.
In much of North India, the goondas - the men made rich by organised crime - are not simply patronising politicians Some have decided to run for elections themselves. There are MPs from several parties with long criminal records, or serious charges pending.
One newly-elected MP from the lawless state of Bihar has just given himself up to face charges including the murder of four members of a rival party and shooting at the police superintendent who tried to arrest him. The MP says the charges against him are politically motivated.
Almost as telling, former ministers and MPs have proved so reluctant to move out of their elegant government-provided Delhi bungalows on losing office, the courts have begun ordering their eviction.
But don't lose heart in the world's biggest democracy. There are honest politicians and brave police officers. The most remarkable aspect of the Sukh Ram case is that the homes of a politician who perhaps felt he was above the law were raided. A score of corruption cases are progressing, slowly, through the courts. The top ranks of India's judiciary are of unimpeachable integrity. Their message is clear: no politician however mighty, is untouchable. It's too soon to say that Indian politics is being cleansed - but some of the grime is beginning to lift.
Approaching Male by boat from the airport
THE MALDIVES' CROWDED CAPITAL - October 1996
Stretching over 800 kilometres of the Indian Ocean is one of the world's tiniest independent nations. The Maldives - once famous for only for corie shells and white coral sands - is now visited by a third-of-a-million tourists a year. But the Maldives the holidaymakers find so enchanting is only one part of the story - as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he spent a few days in the Maldivian capital, Male:
It would be difficult to find anywhere more remote. Male, the only settlement in the Maldives which could comfortably be called a town, lies in the middle of a chain of nineteen far-flung atolls, an hour's flying time west of Sri Lanka. As you approach by air, the tiny islands - altogether there are almost two-thousand of them - shimmer like specks of turquoise in the deep blue Indian Ocean. Beckoning from afar are the coral reefs which have made the Maldives one of the world's most up-market tourist destinations.
Male is the only capital in the world, it's said, which takes up an entire island. Albeit an island you can circumnavigate on foot in well under an hour. But don't get carried away by the idea that this is a sleepy tropical paradise, untouched by the modern world, where the locals while away their time snoozing under palm trees.
There's another side to this remarkable and paradoxical country. The Maldives has no political parties, no direct Presidential elections, no free press, no alcohol outside the tourist islands, no churches, no temples, no places of worship at all apart from mosques. It has no animals apart from cats, rats and bats - no dogs, no cows, and not many hens. And if any of the locals are allergic to tuna, well, they'd better emigrate - apart from coconuts, there's precious little else in the way of locally produced food.
But tuna and tourism have made the Maldives prosperous. The quarter-of-a-million Maldivians are a curious mix - part Sri Lankan, part Indian, part Arabic, with a dash of African and Indonesian. That heady brew has been left to ferment undisturbed for several centuries. The result: one of the most uniform cultures in the world, even though the islands stretch for hundreds of miles across the ocean. Every Maldivian, according to the government, is a Sunni Muslim. All speak Dhivehi, a little like Sri Lanka's main language, but written in a script akin to Arabic, from right to left.
The islands have always been an important trading post. But Male is now a boomtown. The island is concrete from one coast to another. Seventy-thousand people are crammed in to less than two square kilometres. Male's schools operate in shifts, and in some homes, people sleep in shifts. Ten storey office blocks are coming upon an island of compressed coral so flat that - buildings and palm trees apart - nowhere is more than a man's height above sea level.
Maldivians, some of them at least, are in the money. The shops are full of expensive foodstuffs imported from the Gulf or Singapore, computers, compact disc players, top brand cosmetics, and beautifully tailored children's clothes.
A puritanical censor board protects Maldivians from anything as shocking as an on-screen kiss. But it's not a sexually repressive society. Both men and women in Male dress well. A few women cover their heads in approved Islamic style. But the full Islamic veil is banned - the story goes that the President considers it a security week.
The President is elected not by the people, but by the assembly, the Majlis, which then puts one name forward for approval by referendum. Last time round, in 1993, the President's brother-in-law made clear that he coveted the top job. He was banished. A local journalist who criticised the conduct of the election is still said to be locked up in the Dhoonidhoo detention centre, on a microscopic island ten minutes by boat from Male.
Most people, however, believe that the government is doing its best: trying to make sure that the outlying atolls don't fall too far behind as Male lifestyles become increasingly lavish; seeking to ensure that educated but underemployed youngsters don't dabble in drugs; and endeavouring to absorb the thousands of Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis who fill the jobs the rather fastidious Maldivians can't or won't do.
INDIA'S POLLUTED CAPITAL - December 1996
For the residents of India's capital city, winter is a miserable time of year. In the colder months, Delhi is enveloped in a miasma of smog, much of it caused by vehicle exhaust fumes. Each year, it gets steadily worse - as Andrew Whitehead and his family discovered:
Every morning of late, my ten-month-old daughter has woken up with an appalling smokers' cough. Phlegmy and frankly rather disgusting. Not surprising though. Simply breathing in Delhi's smog-ridden air is equivalent to smoking between ten and twenty cigarettes a day.
In the heat of summer, the sun pierces through the grime-ridden atmosphere; in the monsoon, the rain washes much of it away. But in winter, when the air is still and dry, it just hangs like a blanket over India's capital. On the busier roads, a mist of exhaust fumes envelops the traffic by the evening rush-hour. Go to the top of the taller five-star hotels and what should be a panoramic view of the city reveals little more than a grey haze.
Everyone suffers. Without exception. Government ministers as much a slum dwellers. But the kids have the toughest time. My daughter's pediatrician says at least half the cases he deals with are children with chest or breathing problems brought on or aggravated by poor air. Delhi is said to be the world's third most polluted city. A quarter of the city's toddlers have respiratory problems. The World Bank - not the most alarmist of organisations - estimates that twenty Delhi-ites die prematurely every day because the air they breath is poisoning them.
At first glance, you wouldn't think it of Delhi. The British-built heart of the Imperial capital is spacious, elegant and green. It's never been a big industrial centre. It doesn't have massive manufacturing plants. The power plants are quite some distance away.
But the city has never had a proper transport network. There's nothing akin to Calcutta's splendid metro. No commuter rail network to match that in Bombay on which millions travel every day. If you want to get to work in Delhi, you travel by road.
An economist once explained to me that as developing countries become more prosperous, there was a stage where a 10% rise in real incomes produced a 50% jump in sales of motorbikes. That's where Delhi is at the moment. Lower middle class families in particular have the novelty of quite a lot of disposable income. Some has to be saved to pay for weddings or as insurance against expensive surgery later in life. A bit will be spent on a television, and perhaps an inexpensive music system or even a video player.
Then it's time to save for a scooter. In 1981, there were fewer than three-million motorbikes in the whole of India. Now there are probably more than twenty-million. Each spewing out up to six times more pollutants than the average car. Add to that the exhaust fumes emitted by the three-wheel auto-rickshaws - which sound, smell and feel a bit like motorised lawnmowers - and you can understand something of the scale of the problem.
Cars are relatively minor pollutants. And in Delhi, at least, attempts have been made to introduce safer petrol. All new cars are supposed to take only unleaded fuel. But since it's almost entirely unavailable outside the capital, most owners illegally doctor their engines so it will take whatever petrol can be bought.
Trucks and buses are the most visible polluters. Owners often bribe their way round the pollution control checks. Driving close to one of Delhi's blue line buses is doubly hazardous - they have an entirely deserved reputation for flattening everything that gets in their way, particularly pedestrians and cyclists, and they emit filthy black soot-ridden plumes of smoke from their exhaust pipes.
Still, the capital's buses are so packed with passengers that they emit per person just a twentieth of the pollutants of an ordinary car. But add up all the cocktail of half-burnt hydrocarbons, the suspended particular matter, all the rest of the grunge, and you get Delhi on a winter's day. And when you are trying to imagine what it's lkie - don't forget that quite a few petrol stations here adulterate the fuel with kerosene to make a bit more money. Which still further aggravates the air quality.
Everyone agrees that something must be done to save Delhi from asphyxiation. Plans have been devised for a special network of high-speed trams - but they remain just that. Plans. There's talk of restricting vehicle access to the centre of Delhi. But that would be political suicide for any state government.
There's one saving grace. Soon there will be no point in Delhi-ites trying to drive around the city. If the projected boom in car and scooter sales is borne out, then early in the next century, the average speed of traffic in the city will fall below walking pace. Not that pedestrians will be able to manage such a pace - because they won't be able to cross the gridlocked roads.
A top planner for the Delhi area told me bluntly there was only one real solution to the traffic blight. Wait until things get so bad that people start moving out. Surely there must be some better answer!
But whatever it may turn out to be, it won't be in time to save this generation of Delhi's kids. I asked my daughter's pediatrician what advice he gave to parents of children who develop bronchial asthma and chronic coughs. It's simple, he said. Get out of Delhi.
JINNAH: PAKISTAN'S QUAID-E-AZAM - January 1997
Later this year, India and Pakistan will be marking the fiftieth anniversary of independence - and many people in both countries will be reassessing the role of the founders of the two neighbouring nations. No figure is more controversial in South Asia than Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man who - as head of the Indian Muslim League - successfully held out for a separate Muslim nation. Andrew Whitehead has been talking to Jinnah's associates and descendants and offers this assessment of the man and his lasting legacy.
His gaunt, thin lipped, unsmiling face features in every Pakistani currency note; on postage stamps; his portrait hangs in government offices; in shops and businesses. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, is revered as Pakistan's founding father. The man who through his strength of will and legal tenacity delivered on his promise of founding a sovereign nation for India's Muslims.
Almost half-a-century after he achieved the independence of Pakistan - carved out of the bloodied entrails of British India - his role and achievements cannot be openly questioned in that country. He is sacrosanct; a secular saint. His white marble burial shrine in Karachi is a place of quiet pilgrimage.
By the time Pakistan was created, Jinnah - a chain smoker - was dying of lung disease. He lasted a little more than a year into the post-colonial era - though long enough to see the partition of British Indian he advocated cost the lives of between two- and six-hundred thousand Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and force one of the biggest migrations in history - ten-million people moved to and fro across the sub-continent within a matter of months.
He's a man of many contradictions. Kind, intelligent, indeed one of the best barristers of his day, he slowly came to believe that Muslims would never achieve full political and cultural equality as a minority within a Hindu-dominated united India. Yet the nation he created is now home to just one-in-three of South Asia's Muslims.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has not followed Jinnah's much more secular prescription. But the religious identity which was the country's foundation stone has eroded so greatly that even the muhajirs - the main champions of Pakistan, those who migrated from across North India to their new homeland - now place ethnic identity above religion.
Jinnah was one of the few nationalist leaders who never went to jail. He was not observant and indeed had a liking for sherry and pork sausages. He was a Muslim who married outside his religion - his glamorous, much younger wife was a Parsee. Yet when his daughter also married a Parsee, he made clear his deep disapproval. He lived much of his life in Bombay. When at partition he locked up his mansion on Bombay's Malabar Hill to head for Karachi and the post of Pakistan's first Governor-General, he asked that the house be kept ready for his return.
Curiously, not one of Jinnah's direct descendants has ever chosen to settle in the nation he founded. His daughter, an only child, is still living - in New York.His one grandson is in Bombay - the head of an India-based business empire.
That grandson has never seen Jinnah's burial place. Indeed, he's been to Pakistan just once. By accident. Flying out from Bombay back to school in Britain forty years ago, the plane he was on developed a technical fault, and made an unscheduled touchdown in Karachi.
When Pakistan celebrates fifty years of independence in August, it's unlikely that any of Jinnah's direct descendants will be at the ceremonies.
Jinnah's grandson says he's proud of his forbear and believes he has been unfairly maligned. If in Pakistan Jinnah is above criticism, in India he has been demonised.The government sponsored films looking back at the independence period paint Jinnah as at best intransigent and, at worst, evil. The man who undid Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for communal unity.
It's difficult to reconcile that with the accounts of Jinnah's friends and colleagues. They talk of a shy man with a formidable intellect, a sophisticate who enjoyed good food. Of a man whose life was marred by anxiety and ill-health, and overshadowed by an unsuccessful marriage and the early death of his wife.
He remains one of the most enigmatic personalities of this century. There will, in the course of this year, be much soul-searching about whether partition fifty years ago really was the best solution. Much apportioning of blame.
That's for others to do. What can be said with confidence is that Mohammed Ali Jinnah changed the map of the Indian sub-continent. And tens of millions of people are still living with the consequences of an independence settlement he helped shape.
MAURITIUS: AN INDIAN OCEAN MELTING POT - May 1998
The island of Mauritius = 1,500 kms east of the African mainland - is one of the very few nations outside South Asia where Hinduism is the majority religion. Indians began settling on the island in the last century when they were brought as indentured labourers to work on the sugar estates. But although Hindus now make up just over half the one-million or so population. Mauritius isn't at all like India - as Andrew Whitehead, normally based in Delhi, discovered recently:
The sugar village I stopped at near Belle Mere in the east of Mauritius looked, at first glance, like so many I've seen in India. The cane crop was five to six feet high, swaying in the sea breeze. In just a few weeks, the labourers will be starting work before dawn every day to harvest it. Just across the road from the sugar fields, an Indian family - all workers on the estate - were sunning themselves in their backyard. The older women, wearing saris, were sorting rice in preparation for a 'shaadi' - a wedding. They spoke among themselves in Bhojpuri, the north Indian dialect the indentured labourers from Bihar brought with them to Mauritius four or more generations ago.
But first appearances can be deceptive. Looking more closely at the well-built labourers' houses, the workers clearly lived much more comfortably than their counterparts in India. There were no Indian-style bullock carts, no rickshaws, no potholes in the road. And the children of the family were speaking not Bhojpuri, but creole - a language born of the collision of cultures at the time of slavery which is now the mother tongue of most Mauritians whatever their race or creed.
Te sugar workers told me they had no family now in India. They din't know which village in India their forbears came from - it was a long time ago, tey explained, and at that time labourers couldn't read or wwrite. In the more prosperous parts of the island - and sugar now counts for just a small part of ecport earning - the pace if change is still more evident. Mauritius has done well for itself over the past thirty years. Its leaders even speak f an economic miracle which has brought textiles, upmarket turism and offshore finance to the island.The sari is being replaced by fashionable dresses or designer label jeans. And that most populat of games in India, cricket, never caught on here - football is the craze.
But as the links with India fade, the keener many Mauritians of Indian origin have become to cleave to their religion. At the annual festival of Maha Shivrartree, up to a third of a million people - a quarter of the entire population - make their way up to a holy lake in the interior of Mauritius, one of the biggest Hindu pilgrimage spots outside India. It's a way of reaffirming their identity. And that has a political purpose too. Hindus make up just over half the population and if they put aside caste and regional differences and make common cause, they control the country. And that is what they have done. In the three decades since the end of British rule, Mauritius has had only Hindu prime ministers.
Yet the island takes pride not only in its prosperity, but in its political stability and successful mix of different cultures. If Hindus dominate politics, the civil service and the professions, then the tiny European community still controls the commanding heights of the economy; the Muslims - also mainly of Indian origin - and the Chinese run many of the small businesses. And then there's the creoles, the 'general population' as they are called in the curious local lexicon. These are the Mauritians of mixed race, who are in some part descendants of the African slaves who also came to work for the sugar planters and to provide muscle power during the colonial era. A remarkable mix of races, religions and languages for a nation so small - Mauritius Broadcasting puts out programmes in twelve languages to little more than a million potential listeners.
The African creoles in particular feel a little on the margins of power and prosperity. It's more of a gentle grievance than a burning sense of resentment. 'The Hindus take the biggest share of the cake'. one creole leader complained to me. And there's a sense of injustice that the main cultural asset the creoles have given to modern-day Mauritius - its common language, creole - has no official status. You can speak French or English in the National Assembly in Port Louis, but nothing else.
In some ways, Mauritius is still trying to work out its identity - politically its part of Africa, ethnically the Indians predominate, and in economic terms, when you look at the market for Mauritian sugar or textiles, it's really offshore Europe. It's a very small island to face three ways. But by and large, and helped by a booming economy, Mauritius has managed to keep political and ethnic tensions well under control. It's not quite the paradise of peaceful co-existence described in the tourist brochures, but compared to Rwanda or Sri Lanka, it's been a remarkable success.
And now Mauritius is finding a new role - taking advantage of its remote location in the middle of the Indian ocean. It's developed an impressive freeport, with ample warehousing facilities. This tiny island now believes it can become a trans-shipment centre serving all the countries of the Indian Ocean rim, from South Africa to Singapore, and including the country from which so many Mauritians hail - and with which they have so little in common: India.
THE HIJRAS' BLESSING - c August 1998
One of our Delhi correspondents, Andrew Whitehead, has become the proud father of a baby boy, and according to the Indian custom, eunuchs, known as hijras, came to bestow a blessing on the new-born child.
We knew that the hijras would come. They always do when a baby is born. To offer a blessing, and make away with as much money as they can.
They had been around once before, just after our daughter was born. That time, my wife had bartered with them for an hour or more. They sat on the steps of our flat and refused to leave. Eventually, she gave them 2150 rupees - then worth about $70, I suppose - and they had delivered their benediction and departed.
Now, we had had a son - a much more auspicious event in this deeply patriarchal society. Now your family is complete, we had been told repeatedly by family, neighbours and even the nurses at the maternity home. The hijras would certainly hear of the birth. They would be round to demand their cut in the family's good fortune.
So it was one Saturday morning that the bell rang, and I took a peep through the magic eye in the door to see two women in gaudily coloured saris, more muscular and much less graceful than most Indian women.
That is all I saw of the hijras. Our bargaining strategy had been worked out. Just a glimpse of white skin would have made them more determined to hold out for a high price. So I sat out the encounter out of vision, but within hearing range, while my Indian-born wife engaged in a good half-hour of banter and badinage.
The hijra who did most of the talking was Tulsi. She - and I say she because hijras always use the female gender when talking about themselves - was courteous and dignified, dressed in a mustard and red cotton sari and wearing rather showy metal jewellery. By her side was Babita, bedecked in a sequinned peacock blue sari which didn't say much for her dress sense.
They did not beat around the bush. Give us 11,000 rupees and a piece of gold, they demanded, and we will bless you and your baby boy.
How hijras manage to find out about new-born babies is something of a mystery. The nursing home where our son was born is in a different part of Delhi. We had never taken him to the park or even put him in a pram. Their intelligence network is impressive. Each household of hijras - and they live clannishly as social outcasts often do - watches over a certain locality, picks up on gossip in the market, and keeps in contact with domestic cooks and maids.
They are mocked and ridiculed by most Indians. In a status-conscious society, they are about as low as it is possible to be. But they are also feared. No-one wants to annoy a hijra. For a start, their curses are said to be as powerful as their blessings. For another thing, picking a row with a hijra means creating quite a scene - they have raucous voices, and a vulgar vocabulary.
They are reputed sometimes to strengthen their bargaining power by threatening to strip and expose their genitals. Not that Tulsi and Babita resorted to such crudeness. They simply insisted on getting their due.
"Why, my wife asked Tulsi, do you want so much more money to bless a boy than a girl?" "Because everyone in the world wants a boy and no one wants a girl," she replied. A particularly telling comment coming from a hijra - someone who has, after all, crossed the boundary between genders.
Some hijras are hermaphrodites, born with genital abnormalities. Most are brought within the fold as young boys - they are runaways, or simply are befriended by hijras, initiated into their lifestyle, and sometimes at least doctored, castrated, to make them eunuchs.
Hijras have no prospect of paid employment. The live on what their blessings, and their dancing, bring in. "This is our only livelihood, Tulsi pleaded. "I've got old hijras at home to feed. And we've got to demand a lot because we won't be getting any more money from your family until your son gets married in 20 years time."
Marriages are another auspicious event that attracts hijras - sometimes, indeed they are invited to sing and dance to bring good luck to the couple. Increasingly, hijras are also turning to prostitution to make a living. But Tulsi and Babita seemed, as hijras go, quite respectable.
They were not menacing, in manner. They knew they did not need to be. Turning away a hijra empty-handed is simply not an option. So it was just a matter of agreeing a price. And eventually, the deal was struck. Tulsi and Babita were handed 3150 rupees, and a new sari. A bit of a come down from their original asking price. But still more than a nanny or maid would earn in a month.
They delivered a blessing, and left happy. And if the truth be told, we are happy that they came - for an Indian birth would hardly be complete without the hijras.
MASSACRE AT BARAMULLA, KASHMIR - October 2003
Of all the world's trouble spots, Kashmir is one of the most enduring. It has bedevilled relations between India and Pakistan ever since the two countries gained independence in 1947. Within weeks of the end of the British Raj, Indian troops and pro-Pakistani forces were fighting in Kashmir. And as Andrew Whitehead reflects, they still are:
The white paint is peeling from the gravestones, the shingle needs weeding, and apart from the nuns, no one comes here any more to place flowers, to say a prayer or pay remembrance. Still, you couldn't want a more tranquil spot for a cemetery; around the small enclosure is an orchard, a few hens scratching away under the trees. Butterflies hover in the dappled morning sun. Bulbuls and hoopoes add a splash of colour. And the chorus of birdsong almost drowns out the brook that came to life just hours earlier carrying storm water down towards the River Jhelum.
Look up, and the hills rise steeply in front of you. This is where the Himalayan foothills start to crowd in on the Kashmir valley. They loom a little menacingly, fir trees silhouetted like saw's teeth against the mist. It was down those hills that the raiders came one Monday morning in October 1947. They laid waste to the convent, loted the mission hospital and shot dead the men and women who now lie in the grounds. Just six dead. Not many: neither by the shameful standards of the bloodshed which marred the end of the British Raj, the partition mayhem out of which emerged an independent india and a new Muslim nation of Pakistan; nor in comparison to the recent annals of Kashmir - more than 30,000 dead in fourteen unfinished years of separatist insurgency against Indian rule.
Yet if there was a moment when the Kashmir crisis first erupted, that was it; that autumn day when St Joseph's convent at Baramulla was desecrated. Sister Emilia from Verona, ruddy faced and resolutely cheerful, lived through it. Now on her late nineties, she still lives through it. Still at Baramulla, still having nightmares, still telling her tale of the convent's moment of tragedy and of glory, when the tribesmen attacked. She heard the shots fired; she saw a young Spanish nun bleed to death, her final words: "I offer myself for the people of Kashmir." She tended the three infant sons of the British military couple who were also killed. She was herself lined up to be shot, when providence intervened in the form of a convent-educated officer with some authority over the gunmen who ordered them to hold fire. The killing stopped, but for eleven days the survivors of the massacre, more than seventy nuns, priests, patients and refuge seekers, were trapped in a single hospital room.
The attackers were not local: big, black-bearded beasts, in the words of one of the missionary priests. They had come from the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan, close to the Afghan border; if not sent by Pakistan's government, then making their way there with official connivance to claim Kashmir for Pakistan. And also to liberate Kashmir's Muslim majority from the arbitrary rule of their Hindu maharaja, to seek revenge for the massacres of Muslims in other parts of the princely state. And more than anything else to pursue the age-old goal of tribal lashkars, or raiding parties, to carry away any item of value they came across, including, according to much first-hand testimony, Kashmiri women.
Baramulla was the first town of any size in the Kashmir valley the tribesmen came across. Their advance had panicked the maharaja into a belated decision to sign up with India rather than Pakistan - that was on the eve of the attack on the convent. At dawn the following day, the first airlift of Indian troops into Kashmir began. A few hours after the attack on the convent, at a hillock just a short distance away, troops of India's Sikh Regiment fought their first encounter with the pro-Pakistan tribal irregulars. The initial clash in a conflict that has never been close to resolution, which has frustrated ever attempt at friendship between India and Pakistan, which has propelled both countries into a nuclear arms race, which has helped the army to power on one side of the partition line and helped fire Hindu nationalism on the other, which has made Kashmir, in the eyes of policy makers in Washington and London, the most likely crucible of nuclear war.
Step away just fifty yards from the calm of the convent orchard at Baramulla and you are on the main road running through the Kashmir valley. It's one of the most militarised highways I've ever travelled along. There are any number of Indian bases along the road, jeep patrols with commandos at the control of mounted machine guns, foot patrols stalking along the side of the road, I saw one youngster hauled away from a roadside stall and, if the Indian security forces are still as ruthless as they certainly once were, his friends and family have cause for concern.
The convent remains caught up in a climate of violence. "There is a long way to go to attain real peace", said Sister Rosie, the softly-spoken South Indian who's now the Mother Superior. She spoke with anguish of a recent mine blast nearby which had claimed several lives. "We pray every day for peace in Kashmir", she told me. "We pray for the people of Kashmir and for other war-torn countries in the world."
There aren't many Catholics in Kashmir, but those there are regard the attack on St Joseph's mission back in October 1947 as martyrs. "The blood of the martyrs will not be spilt in vain", I was told. "Some good will come out of it. One day there will be a solution of the Kashmir problem." Well, it takes real faith to imagine that the Kashmir conflict could be resolved any time soon. The people of Kashmir, a people not given to fighting, remain caught up in the power politics of the region, just like those men and women whose bones lie beneath the convent orchard at Baramulla.
Photo by Ram Chand Mehta - courtesy of India Picture
AN OLD PHOTOGRAPH FROM KASHMIR - October 2007
Sixty years ago, the Kashmir valley in the foothills of the Himalayas fell victim to a conflict which remains unresolved. On October 27th 1947 – as Pakistani tribesmen invaded what was then still an independent princely state – the first ever Indian troops were airlifted in to the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar. They have been there ever since in what has become India’s most disaffected state. But the early days of the Kashmir crisis were remarkable also for the establishment of an armed women’s militia intent on defending Srinagar from the attackers – as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he sought to track down the story behind an old photograph:
The photo made me stop in my tracks. It was Kashmir – no doubt about that. The unmistakeable profile of Shankacharya hill in Srinagar pinpointed the location. But what was the moment? Who were those women? Lined up neatly and precisely in military formation, wearing the loose fitting trousers and tunics which are standard women’s wear in Kashmir – most with their heads covered – each with a rifle in her right hand. And inspecting them, a middle-aged man with a Nehru cap – no, it was Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India.
Anywhere in the world sixty years ago, it would be a curious sight – a prime minister in a conflict zone inspecting armed women fighters. In conservative, largely Muslim, Kashmir, it was startling. In the past eighteen years of conflict between separatist militants and Indian security forces, women simply haven’t been involved as combatants. So how could there have been Kashmiri women carrying rifles two generations ago?
The photo was from a cache of glass plate negatives found in the loft of what was once Srinagar’s leading photographers. A fantastic visual archive of mid-twentieth century Kashmir. Beguiling landscapes of this beautiful valley, portrait photographs of the local elite – almost all unlabelled – and a handful of remarkable news shots.
I had uncovered the broad contours of how the Kashmir crisis started largely by talking to those who had lived through it. Personal memories of how one of the world’s enduring geopolitical fault lines first fell prey to violence are a useful antidote to all the partisan histories.
I had heard old-timers speak ruefully of the invasion of the Kashmir valley late in October 1947 by tribesmen from Pakistan’s North West Frontier. The British had pulled out of the sub-continent ten weeks earlier. But mainly Muslim Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu maharaja – it was his decision whether to sign up to India or the new, Muslim nation of Pakistan. The unruly invasion by thousands of Pathan tribesmen, encouraged by some in Pakistan’s leadership, pushed the maharaja towards accession to India. Indian troops were airlifted into Kashmir – they have been there ever since.
And they had local allies. Kashmir’s commanding Muslim politician, Sheikh Abdullah, quickly became the real power there. I had heard tell of the people’s militia he set up to defend Srinagar. And prompted by the photo, I set out to track down veterans of that force.
In middle-class south Delhi, Pran Nath Jalali told me how as a student in Kashmir he had been jailed as a radical, released and then – in the heady days exactly sixty years ago, with an invasion underway and dramatic political change unfolding – he had been appointed the political officer of the new militia. He spoke of parading in a Srinagar park, and hastily organised lessons on using a rifle and throwing a grenade. I showed him the photo of the armed women – he showed me a still more splendid photo, carefully conserved in his wardrobe, of a bigger group with rifles on their shoulders. ‘That was our militia’s women’s contingent’, he explained.
A few days later I was in Faridabad, one of Delhi’s satellite towns, chatting with Krishna Misri. Her brother, Pushkar, had been a militia member, and lost his life serving alongside Indian troops. Her husband had also joined. And in those extraordinary times, women too had enrolled. Krishna had been taught how to drill; she had been trained how to fire a rifle – the first time she was so scared, she told me, that she ran away. But then, she was only thirteen at the time.
I showed her the photos – she could name many of the women, and there towards the front, tall, self-conscious, rifle awkwardly on her shoulder, was her younger sister, Indoo, then eleven. And that, she said, that’s Zuni Gujari, a poor Kashmiri Muslim, a milkseller’s daughter, wearing the traditional Kashmiri pheran or wrap. ‘We were excited, we were thrilled’ – she said. ‘And we were very very afraid’.
The women were armed to defend their homes – and their honour - in case the invaders entered Srinagar. It never got to that. The Pakistani tribesmen reached the perimeter of the city but not beyond. The women never saw active service. But for Krishna – and the three other women veterans I tracked down – this was the defining experience of their lives.
Then as the emergency receded, the men who had once encouraged their wives and daughters to sign up told them the women’s militia was no longer needed. The women largely retreated from public and political life. Every one of the women veterans I spoke to regretted that a window of opportunity had closed so quickly. For a few brief weeks, women’s voices were being heard – their participation valued – and then shaping Kashmir’s future once again became a male preserve. But the old photographs brought smiles, and tears, memories of friends, of solidarity, of empowerment – and quiet pride that when young and vulnerable, they had met crisis with courage.
PROSPERITY DRIVEN FROM DETROIT - October 2008
Detroit was once the heart of the US car industry. But, as Andrew Whitehead discovers, declining sales and rising unemployment means the city is facing difficult times:
Don was happy to meet - but I would have to head his way, and travel into Detroit. That sounded just fine. I was keen to touch base with Don, a regular radio listener with insights to share, and curious to get a chance to see a little of Michigan's biggest city.
It could not be too tough to get there from where I was staying at Ann Arbor - a leafy campus city just thirty-five miles out. But this is Motown, the heartland of a car culture so pervasive, that my quest to travel to Detroit by public transport marked me out as an English eccentric.
Don had no idea how to do it. I asked around. There is no bus service from Ann Arbor. The cach - fine for long haul if you really had to, but wildly unreliable for a short hop.
"Why not hire a car?" a friend asked, with just a hint of impatience. But that would be giving in.
The map puts Ann Arbor on the main rail line between Chicago and Detroit. A patient hotel receptionist pointed me towards Ann Arbor's Amtrak station: clean, modern and deserted, apart from a solitar ticket clerk.
"The day's first train into Detroit?" I ask. "A little after 2pm sir".
"The last train back?" "It leaves Detroit just before six".
"And are the trains usually on time?" "No sir. Engineering works in Indiana", he explained, before suggesting that a day trip to Detroit by train was not a good idea. With a sales pitch like that, I could see why there was not a queue at the ticket window. But I persisted and, an hour late, the train lumbered in, hooter sounding, on the only set of tracks.
The conductor got out his portable steps - all aboard. I had a comfortable seat. Indeed there were rather a lot of comfortable, empty seats. Then I sent a quick message to Don who was going to meet me at the Detroit end. Although he had spent his life in the city, he had asked me to tell him where the statin was. When we arrived I could see why. Serving a city of 900,000, it was smaller than a suburban halt back home in London.
Don's top-end convertible looked a little incongruous in the grimy station car park. So too did Don, a successful local businessman with sun-bleached blond hair and an easy smile. He was brought up in Detroit, he told me, and had stayed when so many white families had moved out. The city is now 80% black.
He was proud of Detroit, but conceded that it was not an easy place. The mayor was about to be sent to jail, he explained, and folks from out of town kept out of town, or if they came in for a ball game or concert, they stuck to the highways and headed straight home afterwards.
But he wanted to show off the positive side. And with the roof down to make the most of the autumn breeze, he drove me round the city centre. Past the Institute of Arts and other fine municipal buildings from the inter-war years, when the motor magnates wanted to be remembered as benefactors as well as business pioneers. Then to the new Tigers ball stadium - shiny and showy. And on to the towering, sparkling General Motors world headquarters.
Don shepherded me to a waterside cocktail bar and we sipped expensive white wine as we gazed across the Detroit River to Canada beyond.
But the talk quickly turned to Detroit's difficulties. The new downtown is just a few blocks wide and I had not spotted any smart shops. There is not an up-market retail centre in the heart of the city.
On the train in, I had seen what seemed like remnants of a lost era - inner city areas that were grassland, not park, but semi-derelict, and industrial buildings that were silent, sealed off.
The motor corporations which made Detroit, which attracted the workers and produced the wealth, are now facing hard times., though their lobbying power is still blamed, by some, for the stifling of public transport.
The city has lost half its peak population. Once with a claim to being the second city in the US, it is no longer in the top ten. Some of the districts burnt out in race riots forty years ago have never been redeveloped. Mainly white Michigan, a big state with ten million people, sometimes seems to have turned its back on its principal city.
We had to hurry the bar bill and Don dropped me at the station just in time for the last train out. A burly security guard gave the ticket office the feel of a prison waiting room. He unlocked the door to the platform as the carriages pulled in.
With the handful of trusty passengers on board, the train edged its way out of Motown through an urban landscape made and unmade by the motor car.
AN ATHEIST IN MARTIN LUTHER KING'S ATLANTA - November 2013
Fifty years ago, in the era of Martin Luther King, black-led Baptist churches were at the heart of the civil rights movement. They played a crucial part in reshaping the United States, and continue to attract millions of African-American adherents. On his first visit to the American south, Andrew Whitehead joined worshippers at what was once Martin Luther King’s church, in Atlanta:
‘Fried green tomatoes – it was a great film, not so great to eat. Catfish is edible only in really spicy breadcrumbs. Avoid grits for breakfast – though shrimp’n’grits is good for lunch. And go to a Baptist service: If you are courteous and friendly you'll be welcomed and it’s truly an astonishing experience.’
A friend’s emailed advice when he heard I was heading to Atlanta, my first experience of America’s deep south. He was right on the shrimp’n’grits – wrong on the fried green tomatoes – and I steered well clear of catfish however cooked.
And going to church? Well, I’m a non-believer, I don’t go to church. Not entirely true. My wife once said, a touch accusingly: for an atheist, you spend an awful lot of time in churches. They are often so magnificent. Their doors open. Such a good way of communing with the past.
More than that. Faith is so tied up with identity, community, you can’t be interested in today’s world and uninterested in the public expression and private meaning of religious practice.
There’s a personal back story too. In the north of England mill village where I grew up, the Baptist church once loomed large. It was where the mill owners worshipped. A squat Victorian edifice - still black with soot stains. Both my grandmothers went to church there; my uncle was a deacon; my father attended the Sunday School; my parents married there in the Coronation summer of 1953. There must be a bit of Baptist in me. Strange to say, though I grew up a short stroll away, I entered the church for the first time only a few years ago – as part of my personal communing with the past.
At the time Gildersome’s Baptist church was being built, in the mid-1860s, Atlanta was burned to the ground. The most emphatic aspect of the pro-slavery south’s defeat in the American civil war. Atlanta rose from those ashes. It is now the premier city of the southern states – home of Coca Cola and CNN. The site of the 1996 Olympics - and of the grave of America’s most renowned Baptist, Martin Luther King.
My first morning in Atlanta – jet-lagged and up much earlier than makes sense on a Sunday – I stumbled across the city to the district once known as ‘Sweet Auburn’. City guides say that in the 1930s, when Michael King - as he was born - was growing up here, this was the richest black locality in the world. Solid, respectable, and deeply religious.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was at the heart of the community. Its founding pastor had been born into slavery. The old church, the one where both King and his father preached, is now largely a tourist attraction. The new church across the road, opened fourteen years ago, is vast and impressive. Where the older churches were a touch dark and enclosed, this one has space and light.
As I walked in the lobby at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, it was full of activity. Outreach stalls. Mission stands. A service underway in the main auditorium. I craned through the glass doors. I hadn’t intended to go in – it feels an intrusion if you are not there for worship. But an usher - besuited, bow tied - opened the door and beckoned me in.
It was the early service, the church wasn’t full, though there would have been perhaps four- or five-hundred present. I didn’t spot another white face. The pastor was delivering his sermon – persuasive oratory about the church's new mental health ministry, tackling stigma and providing support.
The choir was magical, even for someone usually unmoved by gospel music. Twenty or so men, middle aged or older - in matching suits, and striking pale yellow ties - swaying as they sang. If I thought that sitting at the back I could be inconspicuous, that's not how this service works. I want you to turn to the person next to you, said the pastor, and say: have you welcomed Christ into your life? The woman to my right grabbed my wrist, smiled and asked just that. ‘I can’t honestly say I have’, I said, and posed the same question back. "Yes, I have", she replied.
The final hymn, the congregation all held hands, swaying to the rhythm, and in the final verse, we raised our arms aloft. There was an energy, a joyfulness, which I found moving, and humbling.
I can see why the church looms so large in the lives of the congregation. It has helped take them from darkness to a better place, it does that - after a fashion - every Sunday.
Part of my haul from Bolerium
SAN FRANCISCO'S 'CITY LIGHTS' - March 2014
The city of San Francisco is home to some of the world's best bookshops, including one which specialises in obscure political tracts and another which has become synonymous with the Beat literary movement. Andrew Whitehead has visited both:
"City Lights is not just a bookstore, it's a church," one literary San Franciscan tells me. Describing the spiritual headquarters of the Beat poets - more Godless than God-fearing - in religious terms is the sort of discordant note you might get in... well, Beat poetry perhaps. But the comment was intended as praise, recognition of the store as a public space as well as a place of reverence.
City Lights has a fair claim to be the world's best-known independent bookshop. t was set up more than 60 years ago close to San Francisco's lively, bohemian North Beach district by, among others, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Back then it was tiny, a beacon of the counter-culture, and made its name publishing Allen Ginsberg's long poem Howl - for which it was prosecuted for obscenity and acquitted - and championing the Beat movement also associated with Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs.
It has now taken over the entire block and is open until midnight every day of the week. It's the wonderful sort of bookshop that has easy chairs dotted around and signs inviting you to "sit and read". Its stock is catholic, as befits a good bookshop. And if it's now a church, then the small room upstairs is the shrine - the shelves devoted to the Beats and to the poetry City Lights itself has published.
And the Beats? Well, some would say that, alongside rock'n'roll, they were about the most inventive aspect of America in the 1950s and early 60s. Rebellious, distinctly, disconcertingly, masculine. Tinged with booze, jazz, pills and dope. Given to freewheeling prose, iconoclastic verse and road trips.
Kerouac's On the Road is the Beat generation's best-known work - a novel I read as a teenager, and which so captivated me I've never dared to revisit it in case I find the magic has faded. So for me, browsing at City Lights is - oh dear, another religious term - a bit of a pilgrimage.
While the store and its rigorously organised shelves still fly the standard, it's a measured, late-middle-aged radicalism rather than the red-hot rage of youth. So that fits, too. The Beats began as an East Coast phenomenon - Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were both from New York - and it found an enduring home on the other side of the country. San Francisco is America's "alternative" capital and it has been for decades. Following in the Beats' footsteps came Haight-Ashbury and the hippy era. As the song says: "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair." The hippy movement was more about music and performance than literature, more overtly political than the Beat movement, and left - as far as I can tell - a less pronounced cultural mark on the city. That 1967 summer of love embraced gay love. One consequence of the flower power influx was that San Francisco developed the liveliest gay scene in the country. Refugees from censorious parents and disapproving communities, those in search of anonymity or a new start, congregated here. The Castro, a former working class district, is a gay village which has become distinctly middle-aged.
This tolerant, laidback city has found its literary representation in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and its sequels - San Francisco not simply as venue but presiding genius. So one of the world's most digitally minded cities - where so many of the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley have made their homes - is also among the most literate. And it still offers sanctuary to the printed word. Printed not just in books, but on badges, leaflets, posters and pamphlets as well.
For collectors of old political pamphlets and ephemera - OK, so there aren't all that many of us, but this is a place for minorities of all sorts - San Francisco is paradise, in the shape of a cavernous upstairs second-hand bookshop in the almost-up-and-coming Mission district.
The shop, Bolerium, specialises in what it calls social movements - politics, civil rights, green issues, feminism, lifestyle. There are 60,000 items in all. The best selling lines, I asked? Gay pulp fiction, and American Trotskyism.
I assume there's not much overlap, but this being San Francisco you can't be sure. There are tracts and leaflets from all over the world. Regency radical squibs, high Tory manifestos, left-wing song sheets, right-wing election hand-outs.
It's amazing that such fragile items survive - amazing the prices the choicer items can now attract. You might wonder who'd pay enough for a slap-up meal and a good bottle of wine to buy a Spanish Civil War-era anarchist handbill from the streets of Barcelona. Well, here's the answer - some perfectly normal people... such as me.
KASHMIR REVISITED - May 2014
Indian-administered Kashmir, a mainly Muslim corner of a Hindu majority nation, was in the grip of a violent separatist insurgency when Andrew Whitehead first reported from there for the BBC in the 1990s. He’s gone back regularly, but his latest visit was his first for several years, and prompted him to reflect on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, over the period he’s known the Kashmir valley:
The flight into Kashmir was full – of Indian tourists. Every seat taken, and an air of holiday excitement. What a change from twenty years ago. Then, amid the separatist insurgency and equally brutal Indian army response, no one took the plane to Srinagar for pleasure. This time I came across scores of holiday makers strolling along Dal Lake and visiting the beauty spots. At a shop on Polo View, I queued behind a family from Delhi who spent seven-thousand rupees, a hundred dollars, on Kashmiri walnuts and almonds to take home with them. The number of Indian tourists, there are far fewer foreigners, has been edging up year-by-year as the violence has eased – so much so, I heard tell there’s been an appeal for Kashmiris to offer home stays, because of a shortage of rooms in hotels and on houseboats. In the nineties, even if there had been any Indian holiday makers, they would never have felt at ease in a Kashmiri home.
On my drive in from the airport, I spotted another sign of Kashmir’s bounce back – huge mansions being built on the outskirts of Srinagar. The place has always had more of an air of prosperity than many north Indian cities, and – while there’s certainly poverty and deprivation – some Kashmiris are now doing very well indeed. And not just in the city. At a saffron growing village just outside Srinagar, every house was lavishly appointed – sprawling, two or three storeys, not the sort of opulence I’d expected in rural Kashmir. And security? Well, what was once one of the most militarised spots on earth is now much more lightly guarded. There are bunkers and checkpoints, but many fewer than in the 90s – in Srinagar at least. I walked round the city at close of day with a colleague who has spent many years in Pakistan – we browsed at the paper stalls, said hello to the women selling fish on one of the bridges, and chatted to a teenager as we walked along the banks of the Jhelum river. He was astonished – Srinagar today, he said, felt safer than Islamabad or any other Pakistani city.
But it would be wrong to imagine that Kashmir has found peace. The numbers killed in the troubles amount to perhaps one-in-fifty of the valley’s adult population – a huge proportion when set aside, say, Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka. It’s still a society in trauma.
A Kashmiri who was a teenager when the armed separatism erupted said that in some areas, perhaps half the young men came to be embroiled in some manner in the militancy. A younger, upper class Kashmiri told me how his parents had sent him out of the valley to a boarding school, because it was safer. “The other kids there, Punjabis mainly, nicknamed me AK-47”, he said with a thin, resentful smile. He supports continued Indian rule. He’s in a minority. One Kashmiri intellectual whose opinion I respect ventured that for every Kashmiri who backs India there are three who favour Pakistan – and that both these camps are outnumbered by supporters of Kashmir’s independence.
Young Kashmiris may not be taking up guns, but the killing of scores of stone throwing but otherwise unarmed anti-India demonstrators by the security forces in the summer of 2010 reforged a burning sense of resentment. At a new university, the Islamic University of Science and Technology – both faculty and students told me there was nothing Islamic about it beyond the name – young men and women explained, in calm and considered tones, why the ebbing of the militancy doesn’t mean that Kashmiris feel any more Indian, why they remain unreconciled to Indian rule.
On my initial visits to Kashmir all those years ago, I used to see quite a bit of a bookish young man called Umar Farooq. He was then in his early twenties, and had recently assumed the role – on his father’s assassination - of Srinagar’s Muslim chief priest. He was a leading separatist. He still is. I called again at his home near Nageen lake. The years have been kind to him, more kind than they have been to the cause he champions. The reduced level of violence was no bad thing, he said. But if the armed militancy hadn’t worked, neither had India’s military presence. The young were even more alienated today, and the mood of resistance was still very strong.
So much has changed in Kashmir. So much remains the same.
On board the Yangon ferry - AW
BY FERRY IN BURMA - October 2014 CUE: Burma, now generally known as Myanmar, was once the arrival point for millions of migrants from India in particular – though after decades of economic and political isolation there are only occasional reminders of what a cosmopolitan city Rangoon, now Yangon, once was. Andrew Whitehead took to the water – a ferry across the Yangon river – to seek a sense of how the city has changed, and is changing once more:
The turning to the ferry jetty lies just opposite the Myanmar Port Authority’s imposing 1920s headquarters. The trackfunnels through food stalls, vegetable vendors, a tangle of cycle rickshaws, young men pushing bikes laden down with a live cargo of dazed upside-down chickens, and an endless press of pedestrians.
At first it feels like gridlock, but this is a well-rehearsed routine. You don’t have to wait too long, with two large boats perpetually plying to and fro on the fifteen-minute river crossing. The crowd quickly shuffles on board – and that’s when the bazaar really starts.
The ferry is a floating market. On both decks, vendors set up stalls on the floor, selling everything from cheap toys to cigarettes. Scores of peddlers, men and women, saunter between the packed benches – several bearing large wicker baskets full of tiny boiled eggs in speckled shells. Quails’ eggs, I discovered - a popular snack. ‘Those eggs make you fat’, my neighbour warned. ‘Too much fat.’ He worked in the tourist trade and clearly wanted to practise his English.
Shortly after the boat set off, another young man – confident, articulate, and to my untutored ears persuasive – stood up and began to orate. An itinerant preacher, perhaps, or a political activist. No, my neighbour whispered, he’s selling medicine - a cream to clear the complexion.
Heading back across the river, I glimpsed a view which millions must have seen down the decades – and at a life-changing moment. The colonial-era rooftops of downtown Yangon, with the church-like tower of the Port Authority building standing proud.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but this once was on one of the world’s busiest migration routes. In the century before the Second World War, almost thirty-million people moved by boat across the Bay of Bengal,between India, Myanmar and Malaysia – with Rangoon, as it then was,a principal destination.
As Asia’s rivers go, the Yangon doesn’t have the mightiest of reputations. Not a match for the Yangtze or the Ganges, the Mekong or the Indus. Overshadowed nearer to home by the Irrawaddy, whose vast delta is Myanmar’s– and historically the region’s – rice bowl. But on its banks lay one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities.
It had a Jewish mayor a century back. An Armenian family set up what is still the city’s grandest hotel. There’s a Chinatown dating back to the 1850s. And South Indians came over in huge numbers. At the outbreak of the Second World war, the Burmese were a minority in their own capital.
Then there was a rupture – a profound break with the past. Japan’s wartime occupation of the country pro – then, after Burma’s gaining of independence from Britain in 1948, a succession of military-led, isolationist governments – changed all that. Many of the moneyed classes, particularly those of migrant stock, moved out. Patterns of migration across borders were disrupted beyond repair.
In the heart of Yangon, an old Armenian church and a synagogue set up by Baghdadi Jews are testament to two all-but-disappeared trading communities. They are still going, in buildings which speak of the wealth and influence those communities once enjoyed, but with congregations in single figures.Other places of worship established by migrants – mosques, Hindu mandirs, Methodist churches – are better patronised. The Indian-origin community is still evident, but diminished in numbers and even more in influence.
Myanmar’s long years of isolation have had the incidental benefit of conserving the city’s colonial architecture – often as dilapidated as it is splendid. It doesn’t have the antiquity or inspire the awe of the Shwedagon pagoda and the city’s other rich Buddhist heritage.It’s not quite a match for Calcutta’s older, grander remnants of Empire. But it is a more complete colonial city centre than survives perhaps anywhere else in Asia.
And not a MacDonalds or Starbucks in sight. There are some Japanese and Korean brand names making their mark – and some malls where donut shops are starting to compete with the street food – but Yangon is a city which has largely kept the world at bay for half-a-century.
The pace of change is quickening, however. In the wake of both a political and an economic opening-up, a new bout of mercantilism, of globalisation,is starting to make its mark in Myanmar. A new type of migrant is moving in. The diplomats, the development agency bosses, the business executives are more in evidence.
Though these days, they don’t come by boat.
TOYAH'S GRAVE - April 2017
In the days of the British and Ottoman empires, Baghdadi Jews were one of the great trading communities across Asia. In the southern Indian port city of Chennai, Madras as it once was, Andrew Whitehead came across a last remnant of the Jewish presence there – and stumbled on a tragic love story:
I was told the place would be difficult to find – tucked away on a busy market street not far from Marina beach, with stalls obscuring the entrance. But I spotted the star of David standing proud; the gates had recently been painted sky blue; and over the entrance, the words ‘Beit Ha Haim’, Hebrew for ‘the house of life’ – in other words, a Jewish cemetery.
The gates were padlocked. One of the market women gestured to me to wait – she got out her phone – another woman found me a plastic chair and assured me ‘someone coming’. Half-an-hour later, Kumari appeared – a bustling, well set woman in a pink sari. She had a bunch of keys, and within a couple of minutes I was ushered into a tiny graveyard, little bigger than a badminton court. It was a touch forlorn looking, but clearly well-kept. And in case I hadn’t cottoned on who was responsible for the upkeep, Kumari wielded her broom energetically to clear leaves from the gravestones.
The synagogue in what was Madras was demolished decades ago. The city now has no Jewish community – though some say there are still a few individuals. The cemetery is just about all that’s left. And that’s moved, perhaps twice, down the years – only a handful of the older graves have survived. The most substantial – that of Abraham Salomons, a coral merchant, who died in 1745. There’s a handful of twentieth century graves. One caught my eye – a woman who died in 1943 in her early twenties, Victoria M. Sofaer. What was the story behind that early death? Well, there’s a family history website of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora. Victoria – I discovered - was known as Toyah, and born in Baghdad. But curiously, the family clearly didn’t know about the grave – or exactly when or where Toyah died.
Through that website, I made contact with Toyah’s niece – and indirectly with Toyah’s half-brother, Abraham, now 94 and living in a nursing home in Toronto. He’s two years younger than her and her the closest to her in the family. They were surprised to learn of Toyah’s grave, in turn they unsettled me with the troubling story of Toyah’s life and death – barely known within the family, and never rehearsed beyond its bounds.
Toyah’s father, Menashi, was the proprietor of the British General Supply Store in Baghdad in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. They imported Swiss cheese, French brandy, American cigarettes, Belgian chocolate – and had a grand shop on Rashid Street, Baghdad’s main street back then. In 1940 or thereabouts, Toyah fell in love with an Armenian man from the family that ran the ladies’ wear shop on the other side of the street. Her family found out. They were determined to put a stop to the romance. They tried to find a Jewish groom – she turned them all down. So they shipped Toyah out – to India.
Abraham, Toyah’s half-brother, was then living in Bombay to avoid service in the Iraqi army. Late in 1942, his parents turned up there with Toyah in tow. ‘She was in complete shock, silent – she never said a word to me’, he recalls. ‘It saddened me greatly.’
After a while Toyah and her parents moved on – he wasn’t told where. Then he heard that Toyah had died. And their parents returned to Baghdad. They didn’t talk about what happened. It was only later that Abraham found out from his grandmother about Toyah’s transgressive romance. ‘I believe my sister died from a broken heart’, he says.
I asked if there were any likenesses of Toyah. I was sent a family portrait photo – of three boys … Toyah would have been seven at the time … why wasn’t she included? She had been! When she died, her parents retouched the photo to remove her image. Done – says Toyah’s niece – so that there was no reminder of the scandal and the tragedy.
Another photo has emerged – it may, just may, include Toyah. A serious looking young girl with tousled hair. No one’s quite sure if it’s her – and more than seventy years after her death, I guess we’ll never know.
Toyah’s brother is comforted to know she has a proper grave, and to be able to talk within the family about the fate his sister suffered. It’s offered him some closure and given his sister public acknowledgement of the wrong done to her. His daughter dropped me a line. ‘Bringing back memories of Toyah’, she said, ‘is incredibly moving for us.’ It is for me too.
[POSTSCRIPT: the interest aroused by this piece resulted in a confirmed likeness of Toyah being located - you can find it here]
Tibetans in Srinagar - AW
THE TIBETAN COLONY IN KASHMIR - November 2017
CUE: On his latest visit to Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, Andrew Whitehead came across a little-known community which has returned home after centuries away - but as so often with homecomings, it's not that simple:
Sometimes when you think you know a place, you come across a fresh aspect of it which reminds you how little you know.
I've been visiting Kashmir fairly regularly for more than twenty years. I've been to Hari Parbat fort, the magnificent Mughal-era monument which dominates the Srinagar skyline. But I'd never before come across the small, quiet, community that nestles in its shadow.
Yet its story says so much about the old trading links which once gave Kashmir its wealth - about the way these have been thrown out of joint by the rise of rival nation states - and about the complex issues of identity which ricochet across the Himalayas.
Two-thousand or more Tibetans have made their home in the Kashmiri capital. These are Tibetan Muslims. A few Muslim families remain in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa; some live in border hill towns; most of them have now settled in Indian Kashmir.
Because they are, or were, Kashmiris.
By chance, I heard mention of what locals call the Tibet-ian colony, close to the almond gardens and just within Srinagar's old city walls. I knew I was on the right track when I found a momo stall selling Tibetan-style dumplings. In a back street I came across groups of women gossiping - old men ambling along to the mosque - all distinctively Tibetan in appearance.
Round the corner stood the centrepiece of the community - the modern, imposing, Tibetan Public School. Nasir Qazi, a successful young businessman, showed me round. He's the head of the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation which oversees what's clearly a well-run school which reaches well beyond the community it was established to serve. "I feel proud", Qazi told me, "that this school is something we have offered to our Kashmiri brothers and sisters".
In the corridors, photos of the Dalai Lama's visit are on prominent display. Tibetan Muslims don't regard the Dalai Lama as their religious leader. "But we do honour and respect him", Qazi said, "and he loves us a lot" The community traces its origin to merchants who travelled along the old silk routes. They were Muslim traders from Kashmir and the adjoining area of Ladakh. Four-hundred or so years ago, the then Dalai Lama granted them land in the Tibetan capital. Over time, they married Tibetan women, mastered the Tibetan language and took up Tibetan cuisine. They became a distinct community in Lhasa, with their own mosque: prosperous; well-regarded;and noted practitioners of Tibetan music.
But they were never seen in Tibet as Tibetans. They were called Khache - meaning Kashmiris. A term that came to be a catch-all for Tibet's Muslims, wherever they hailed from.
When after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule, the Dalai Lama and thousands of his Buddhist devotees fled across the Himalayas in 1959, Tibet's Muslim community also felt restive. They were seen by some Tibetans as collaborators with the new Chinese rulers. After a lot of diplomatic push-and-pull, in which the Indian government took an interest, Muslims were allowed to leave Tibet. Most exercised that option.
Once on Indian soil, these Muslims were regarded not as stateless refugees, but as returning Indians. For once being a 'Khache' gave the community status. They were from Kashmir, they told the Indian authorities, and they were adamant about going back to their homeland.
Today, most work in Srinagar not as traders - the old routes are now sealed by impermeable modern borders - but in much less remunerative jobs, embroidering burqas and adding the finishing touches to the T-shirts sold to tourists.
Qazi told me that a few decades back, when tensions between India and China eased briefly, his mother had at last been able to make a return visit to Lhasa. Qazi has cousins there, but he's never been able to meet them, never set foot in the place which gives him his identity.
"We belong to this soil, Kashmir's soil", Nasir Qazi insisted. Yet the community's status is ambiguous. In Indian-administered Kashmir, only those who can demonstrate that their forbears are from the state can own land and have full rights. That's tricky for the Tibetans - their Kashmiri lineage is too distant for this purpose.
In a region where not belonging, being seen as outsiders, can be perilous, the community keeps a low profile. They seem content in Kashmir. But they are bound to reflect on a painful paradox. In Tibet, they are Kashmiris. In Kashmir, they are Tibetans. There's nowhere where they are simply themselves.
STARS OF TAMIL POLITICS - March 2018
CUE: To South India, where not one but two Tamil-language film stars are turning to politics – aiming to transform their huge fan base into support at the ballot box. And this in a region where more often than not in recent decades, the top political job has been taken by someone who has gained fame in the movie industry. Andrew Whitehead in Chennai has been watching the drama unfold:
Rajinikanth is at first glance an unlikely celebrity. He’s in his late sixties, bald, with a greying beard, round glasses – and the appearance more of a sage than a superstar. But in this film besotted corner of India, he’s about as big as you get: in terms of fame – and popularity - he outranks politicians, cricketers, singers, religious leaders, the lot.
His new movie is called ‘Kaala’ - black. It is, by some counts, his 155th film. There have been a few flops along the way. But this seems set to do well. A video teaser released on social media was – say the promoters - seen 12 million times in the first 24 hours.
‘Kaala’ is in Tamil, the first language of some seventy million South Indians. You will have heard of Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi language film industry. South India’s movie scene is, in proportionate terms, even bigger.
In this gangster movie Rajinikanth, sporting a full head of hair and dark glasses, is the ‘don’, the criminal mastermind. The film is being trawled for any sign of a political message. ‘Kaala’, black, the colour of the Dravidian movement, the assertion of Tamil pride and social equality which has reshaped politics here. Black, some critics have mused, because it’s a reminder of Rajinikanth’s dark complexion, his humble background, his association with the masses.
All this matters because Rajinikanth has declared that he intends to enter politics – indeed, to set up his own party. This has the potential to turn Tamil politics upside down. Not least because the movie industry has made more political impact in Tamil-speaking South India than anywhere else in the world. For 43 of the last 50 years, the state’s chief minister has either been a movie star or someone closely associated with the film industry.
M. Karunanidhi, an acclaimed Tamil screen writer, spent twenty years as chief minister.His rival - the biggest Tamil film star of them all, M.G. Ramachandran - established a breakaway party and was in power for a decade. MGR’s old home is now a museum, complete with his now stuffed pet lion, Raja. The eye-catching memorial at his grave looms over Chennai’s Marina beach. Thousands visit every day, some putting their ear to the marble slab to check out the tale that you can still hear the tick of his Rolex watch.
MGR’s political successor was his leading lady – probably in more ways than one: Jayalalithaa, a shrewd and effective politician who dominated the Tamil political scene for a quarter-of-a-century. She died in December 2016 – and now lies alongside her mentor. That appeared to bring down the curtain on the era of film star chief ministers. But since then, there has been a power vacuum, an absence of commanding political personalities.
So is the stage set for another movie star at the helm? Opinion is sharply divided. Rajinikanthhas left it rather late in life to venture into politics. No one’s yet sure quite what he stands for – beyond an assertion of the need for a more spiritual side to public life.
And while his vast network of fan clubs will provide quite a launch pad, those with political ambitions here need very deep pockets. More than anywhere else in India, vote buying has become a well organised industry. Voters expect lavish food and drink and pay offs often amounting to thousands of rupees before they pledge their support.
Rajinikanth faces another hurdle too. He’s not the only Tamil film star who is turning to politics. Kamal Haasan, also in his sixties and seen as a touch more sophisticated as an actor, has just launched his own party, [the Centre for People’s Justice].
In his breakthrough movie, back in 1975, Haasan played a young rebel who falls head-over-heels in love with an older woman. Also in the cast …Rajinikanth making his screen debut. Their careers have been closely entwined. But as Kamal Haasan recently acknowledged: they have been competitors - and their rival political ambitions are bound to sharpen that divide. [Though both seem to be hedging their bets – they are said to be still considering new film roles.]
There’s no room for two ageing thespians at the apex of Tamil politics. They could make common cause – though it’s difficult to see either ceding the leading role to the other. So, really, for one to thrive, the other has to fail. What a story we may have of deals and demagoguery, of backstabbing and betrayal.
It has all the makings of a marvellous Tamil movie.
Kimchi stew as served in a Korean restaurant near Chennai
KOREANS IN CHENNAI - June 2018
Andrew Whitehead [a former BBC India correspondent] spends time every year in Chennai, the port city once known as Madras. Recently he came across a newly-established community which now describes itself as the most numerous expatriate group in this corner of South India:
Sriperumbudur is not the sort of spot you expect to be served kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish which is a world away from the Tamil staples of dosas and iddlis. It’s a sleepy, non-descript town where cows and goats mosey among the vegetable stalls. If the rest of India has heard of the place, it’s because Sriperumbudur is where Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former prime minister, was blown-up by a woman suicide bomber. An impressive memorial park, whose main feature is an unsettling mural depicting the moment the explosives detonated, attracts a steady stream of visitors.
The town is an hour out of Chennai on the main road to Bengaluru - Madras and Bangalore, as South India’s principal cities were known when Rajiv Gandhi made his ill-fated campaign stop. Not many visitors to his memorial bother to come in to the town centre. Perhaps they should. Slightly hidden on a driveway off Gandhi Road is an elegant, newly-built hotel. “Can I have lunch here?” - I asked the receptionist. “Sorry”, he replied. “But you have a restaurant – isn’t it open?” “Yes, it’s open - but, you see, we only serve Korean food”.
Having reassured him that that would do just fine, I was shown into a small, functional eating room. Most of the tables were taken by clusters of blue-shirted young and middle aged men, interspersed – this was a Saturday – with a few family groups. A Korean TV channel was playing. As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Korean. I wasn’t familiar with the cuisine but the waitress, Korean of course, guided me through the menu and I ate splendidly.
The Kyung Joo hotel – Hotel Crystal Towers according to its English language signboard – has been open for seven years. Ninety per cent of the customersare Korean. Most work at or have links with the massive Hyundai car plant on the outskirts of town. This opened in 1999, eight years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; the South Korea-based multinational is now India’s second biggest car maker. One-in-six of all new cars sold in India are made here. Buoyed by Hyundai’s success, Samsung and many other Korean businesses have set up shop in South India.
The Korean presence is discrete. But if you look out carefully as you travel along the national highway, you can spots shops with signs in the distinctive Korean alphabet. In Chennai, the South Korean consulate takes up an entire floor in a high-rise office block in one of the smarter parts of the city. The consul-general says there are now five-thousand Koreans and three-hundred Korean firms in and around Chennai – the largest ex-patriate community in the area.From my city centre flat, a Korean restaurant, Korean hotel, Korean bakery and Korean café and gift shop are all within walking distance.
At first, I suspect, Koreans coming to work here for a year or two counted down the days until their return home. There’s still not a lot of mingling between Koreans and localMadrasis, but a centre has been established to encourage dialogue between the cultures. You can take lessons in the Korean language, join a Korean dance troupe – and if you are Korean, there are courses in Tamil cuisine and Indian spirituality as well as treks and fishing outings.
Once, the port of Madras was an important trading post with links to South-East and East Asia. Between the world wars, the sea lanes east across the Bay of Bengal were among the world’s busiest migration routes. If you look hard, you can still find an imprint of that – in Chennai’s ‘Burma’ market, in the small Chinese community, particularly prominent among the city’s private dentists. The Korean presence is, in a way, a rekindling of those ties.
But things aren’t always as they seem. Having decided I quite like Korean food, I called in on my local restaurant – take it from me, the soft-shell crab is wonderful. The Korean proprietor told me she’d been based in Chennai for eleven years – though she’s picked up little Tamil or indeed English. I asked the waiting staff how long they had been in India. They smiled awkwardly. They weren’t Korean at all, but from the remoter corners of India’s north-east –Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland - where many people look more East Asian than South Asian. And the kitchen staff – are they also from the north east? Oh no – not at all, I was told; they’re from Nepal. How’s that for cultural crossover.
At Violet Nicolson's grave
EPITAPH TO EMPIRE: LAURENCE HOPE / VIOLET NICOLSON - June 2019
IN: Some of the most extraordinary sights in India are the old, overgrown colonial graveyards where generations of Britons who went out to serve the Empire were laid to rest. In one such burial ground in the southern city of Chennai – Madras, as it was once known - Andrew Whitehead came across the grave of a woman whose story throws an unusual light on the lives of the British in India:
St Mary’s is proud to proclaim itself the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. It stands inside avast fort, built by the British three-hundred-and-seventy years ago to keep out marauders, among whom the most troublesome, as so often, were the French. In a remarkable thread of historical continuity, Fort St George remains the seat of government of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and its seventy million people. A couple of minutes stroll from St Mary’s and you’re at the chief minister’s office and the state assembly building.
The church still attracts a respectable Sunday congregation; its monuments and memorials delineate Britain’s first stumbling, not always gentle, encounter with India. The surrounding graveyard quickly became full – the lifespan of Britons in India back then was short. St Mary’s was allocated an overspill burial ground on a desolate spot a couple of miles away called the Island.
It’s there still, sprawling, unkempt, a blasted elegy for Empire – a caretaker does his best to keep the dereliction at bay, but it’s a losing battle. Obelisks, crosses and funeral statuary peep out from the dense undergrowth. Stray dogs howl with anger when disturbed. No one goes there except –tell-tale signs suggest – to gamble, defecate, drink … and have sex.
At the far end of the grounds, just as you wonder whether you dare venture any further, there are two neat, well-tended, fenced-offplots of Commonwealth war graves. And close by, in a no man’s land between the manicured rows of war dead and the tangled mayhemall around, I came across a grave I was looking out for – a small, modest plaque in memory of General Malcolm Nicolson and his wife Adela Florence, who both died in what was then Madras in 1904.
She was one of the most popular poets of the Edwardian era – she wrote of love, longing, suffering and death; and above all of India, with which she had a profound affinity. She at first made out that her poems were translations from Indian languages – and she used a man’s name, Laurence Hope. Some verses of hers, set to music, you may know: ‘Pale hands I loved, Beside the Shalimar’. I remember my father singing those lines to himself.It includes a couplet, addressed to those pale hands:
I would rather have felt you round my throat Crushing out life; than waving me farewell!
The poem is called ‘Kashmiri Song’ –Kashmiris are often described as fair-skinned. There is an ambiguity, perhaps deliberate, about the gender and racial identity of narrator and lover. Some of her poems are deeply transgressive: addressing not just gender and race, but betrayal, harm and the erotic, in ways which we rarely associate with that apparently strait-laced era. Whether this was fantasy, exotic fable, or based in part on experience, we just don’t know.
The story of her death is disturbing. Her husband was much older; he needed a prostate operation; it went wrong; the Madras nursing home had run out of oxygen. A few weeks later, his widow – thirty-nine years old and with a four year-old son in the care of relatives in England – took a corrosive poison and after several hours of agony she too died.
The word went out that this poet - so knowledgeable about Indian customs and lore – had committed sati … an ancient, and long outlawed, custom of a wife taking her own life when her husband loses his.
Her sister was also a writer – using the pen name Victoria Cross, she wrote racy novels; her most popular is said to have sold six-million copies. Set in India, it’s about a genteel young English woman who takes her Indian servant as her lover and won’t give him up even when engaged to an eligible, English, colonial administrator. Her lover dies, but she discovers she is expecting his child. She marries her English fiancé and they move away; when the baby is born, she realises that her husband can never abide this living reminder of her Indian lover, so … she suffocates the child.
It’s fiction of course. But it does make you pause. The writings of both sisters challenge some of the conventional assumptions about Empire - about the attitudes and experiences of those Britons who made their lives in India.Colonial graveyards such as St Mary’s are often among the most potent epitaphs of an enterprise which by-and-large history does not judge kindly. But delve under that dense matt of vegetation, and it’s extraordinary what you can find.
The priests and congregation at the Armenian church in Chennai, 2019 - including Kapilan (in the lilac shirt) and Ashkhen who is holding Suren
ARMENIANS IN INDIA - April 2019
CUE: In India there are still a few communities, much diminished in size, whose roots lie in the trading links which came with Empire. Andrew Whitehead has come across one such group in the southern city of Chennai which, for the first time in centuries, is growing in numbers again:
I didn't expect to see a baby in his mother's arms among the congregation. India's Armenian community - once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number - has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city's serene eighteenth-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It's the oldest church in what was once called Black Town - the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia's commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money - that's reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel (for WS: in London’s East End).
Two priests from Kolkata came over for the annual mass - a two-hour flight away, where the Armenian congregation can reach the heady heights of a hundred or more worshippers, at least at Christmas time. The clerics brought with them to Chennai the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious - and I suppose I fit both descriptions - the number attending just touched double figures.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby's name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through-and-through.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia that she won a study trip to India, and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan arrived in Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. "He asked me if Armenia is safe" - she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. "He's from India - and he asks if my country is safe!" When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai she was wary - "don't think I'm coming there to get married", she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by South India's ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn't sound - or smell - anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and - with admirable entrepreneurial flair - worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that sixty or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian Mum and an Indian Dad.
Not all the young Armenians in India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with a fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was - but Ashkhen is determined to – as she put it – make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. "If you want to find the bad things about India, you will", Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. "If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There’re plenty."
Then she checks herself - looks at her husband - and declares with a laugh in her voice: "I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don't I?"
It's difficult to disagree.
With Faizan inside Bradlaugh Hall
LAHORE'S BRADLAUGH HALL - February 2020
In the Pakistani city of Lahore, the 120-year-old hall where for decades nationalists staged protest rallies against British rule is slowly crumbling away. Local historians are campaigning to save theBradlaugh[pron Brad-Law] Hall, not so much for its distinctly offbeat architecture but for its place in the region’s history. Andrew Whitehead recently managed to make his way in to the decaying building – and caught an echo of Lahore’s tempestuous past and at times troubled present:
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, addressed rallies here – so too did the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru - and Bhagat Singh,a hero of India's independence movement, who in 1931 was hanged in the grounds of Lahore jail nearby.
The building is,I suppose you can say,imposing – more like a non-conformist tabernacle than a conventional public hall. The style is curious, mongrel even – a mix of solid colonial-era construction allied with rows of ornate, now largely rotted, wooden doors and window fittings with arched Indo-Gothic-style surrounds. In a city so replete with exquisite Mughal, Sikh and colonial architecture, Bradlaugh Hall is at best in the B-grade of Lahore’s public buildings.
Not that this excuses the dreadful dilapidation into which the hall has sunk. The structure seems sound – the floor, happily, is made of brick – but the rusting corrugated iron roof is quite unable to keep the rain at bay.
The hall is supposedly sealed shut – but Faizan, a Lahore history buff, is not the sort of guy to be put off by a few padlocks. A sliver of land behind the hall is used as the local rubbish dump. And if you are willing to wade through a miasma of slush and worse, you come to a doorway with no door any more.
‘It’s been like this for the last fifteen years – neglected and empty’, Faizan lamented as he helped me to secure a firm footing.
And there you are, inside this barn of a building, communing with the ghosts of Pakistan’s and India’s nationalist past – two nations which were one before independence in 1947.
Of course there’s no power in the halland in the semi-dark you can imagine the angry speeches railing against British rule – and the eager whoops and applause of the audience.
Yet this nationalist rallying place is named after a British politician: Charles Bradlaugh, a firebrand on the radical wing of Victorian Liberalism. Bradlaugh championed republicanism, atheism, birth control, rights for Ireland … and justice for India. And unusually for an MP of that era, he took the trouble to visit India –in Bombay in 1889,he addressed the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress, the organisation which later led India to independence.
When a few years after Bradlaugh’s death, nationalists in Lahore started raising money to build a hall where they wouldn’t need to seek permission to hold meetings, they invoked the name of the MP who was sometimes described as the ‘Member for India’.
In the 1930s, another English activist who championed India’s cause – Freda Bedi– took her first nervous step as a political orator here addressing a student rally.She was a Derby woman married to a Punjabi leftist. The audience was not always kind to the speakers. She witnessed those found wanting drowned out by the rhythmic stamping of sticks and feet - and was desperate to avoid such a humiliation.
‘I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution’, she recalled years later, ‘and I suddenly began speaking in a very loud voice. And I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking woman bellowed into the microphone.’.She survived – and made a name for herself as a white woman who took India’s side.
The day I paid homage at the hall there was a fierce storm and the clatter of rain on the roof sounded much like those feet stamping impatiently on the ground. It’s the historical resonances which,campaigners believe, makes Bradlaugh Hall so deserving of some tender loving care.
But for many in Lahore, the fate of an old meeting place however venerated, is hardly the most pressing of issues.The city, though much safer than a few years ago, is still under high security. Pakistan has an elected civilian government, but I heard many concerns about a stifling not simply of dissent but of reporting too. It’s almost like martial law, one journalist told me. There’s talk of threats to high profile journalists and concern too about the self-censorship that’s said to be increasingly prevalent.
Yet these conversations were held on the margins of Lahore’s ThinkFest, a well-established festival of ideas and literature, in which leading political, academic and cultural figures field questions from mainly young audiences, keen to hold power to account.
That ability to speak out, to challenge, to argue, to persuade, was something that Charles Bradlaugh – an incessant debater - personified in his own political career. It would be nice to think that the hall that takes his name could find a renewed public purpose as a space where competing ideas and visions of the future can find expression.
A pipedream, you might say – but that’s what people once said about India’s independence movement.