Listen Without Prejudice

I’m no pundit; I’m a person and this post is personal. Many of the themes I touch on are contested and my personal perspective may not sit well with some. That is fine, but before an attempt is made to attack what follows, ask a single question, is this personal for you? I didn’t intend to write this for many reasons, but mainly because I can do without quite possibly having to defend my personal perspective, which isn’t something one should have do. Nevertheless, it’s been written and posted now, so any and all rights except anonymity have been waived. 

I decided to write this post on what has happened, is happening and may happen in Hong Kong in response to a tweet from Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee with a link to a piece authored by a former Financial Times Hong Kong bureau chief Rahul Jacob on the events unfolding in Hong Kong. Mr. Mukherjee has a significant number of readers from India and the rest of South Asia. His tweet read that the piece was “the only thing you need to read today” asserting to his followers it was definitive. I did read it in full and that was enough to provoke a response. 

I’ve been reading Mr. Mukherjee since the turn of the millennium and am aware of his background as a first-generation expat or migrant and his career as a financial journalist both in print and on television. Mr. Jacob’s background I am less familiar with but having read his definitive piece it became clear to me the assertion was misleading if not downright suspect.

The realisation occurred when the author repeated what has been said many times by many protestors, journalists and academics. That there should be sympathy for Hong Kong Chinese, who are unique and distinct from their mainland brothers and sisters, are the children and grandchildren of refugees, who fled from oppression, not poverty.  

This claim of unique identity and more importantly injury to that identity is incendiary for reasons I will elaborate on later. However, once it was made and without context, it was obvious the piece was not definitive and the author could not be credible. Having read it, I saw Mr. Jacob was unwilling or unable to tell the whole story. Instead it was yet another retelling of parts of the story that are convenient to the narrative. One constructed by a fawning international media, whose fickle attention appears bent on manufacturing the consent of domestic audiences for what appears to be inevitable future policy. 

I want to be clear; I am not a Beijing apologist and my sympathies do not lie with the Party. What little wealth I have was built on the back of the rule of law, personal freedoms and political stability. All three are what made Hong Kong an attractive destination for international companies to establish their base over rivals and for mainland companies to raise capital. I may have benefitted from unprecedented growth in China, the product of an authoritarian political system, but that has been underpinned by the three key principles without which life would have been possible but not as pleasant. All three were critical to Hong Kong’s rise as an international finance centre but only two were necessary and remain so for its continued prosperity. 

The key sentence in this post is the last one, that, in essence is the basis of my view, and if you have read my soliloquy this far and are bored already, that really is all you need to know.  Some may be surprised perhaps angry at the suggestion universal rights are not necessary for continued prosperity and I will attend to those concerns in due course with examples. The short version of my argument is that Hong Kong’s future is at risk if political stability never returns and the rule of law is undermined. Governments in Beijing and Hong Kong as well as the protestors themselves are compromising both and at this stage playing the blame game is no longer relevant. 

Continue reading “Listen Without Prejudice”

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Xinjiang and Kashmir, China and India

This post isn’t really to state something unequivocal…it’s just to observe that Kashmir and Xinjiang are not that far apart geographically.  The great translator of Buddhist works into Chinese, Kumārajīva, may have been the son of a princess from Kucha (on the southern fringe of the Tarim basin) and a Kashmiri.

What is happening to the Uyghurs is being extensively covered in the Western media. But from what I can tell Kashmir has become a major cause on the Left in the West, while Xinjiang is far less. “Solidarity with Xinjiang” returns 300,000 results for me on Google, while “Solidarity with Kashmir” returns 6,000,000.

There are major differences of course. The magnitude of what’s happening Xinjiang seems to be far greater than what’s happening in Kashmir. And, India is a democratic nation, while China is most definitely not.

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Film Review: What Will People Say?

**Caution: Spoilers Ahead**

Image result for what will people say film

I was watching the film ‘What will people say’ (courtesy, Kanopy), an official selection at the Toronto film festival in 2018. It is a story familiar to anyone who grew up in Pakistan or in a desi family abroad. A young, second-generation Pakistani teenage girl (Nisha) in Norway wants to live her life like any other teenager in her peer group but is restricted by her parents. Like most rebellious teenagers anywhere in the world, she finds ways to do what she wants to do (go out partying with a friend in the middle of the night) but stops just shy of having physical relations with one of her guy friends. One such day, she gets caught by her father who finds one of her male Norwegian friends in her room and starts beating him and then turns his fury on her. A neighbor calls the police and Nisha is escorted to a safe place by Norway’s version of the CPS.

After spending a night at CPS, Nisha’s mother calls her to tell her that everything will be okay and that her father will pick her up from CPS in a few minutes. Nisha, being a teenager, falls for this trap. She ends up on a flight to Pakistan with her father. Her father leaves her at his sister’s house and returns to Norway the next day. Nisha tries to contact someone in Norway but she has no access to international calling or internet. Her first night, she tries to run away in the streets but comes back to find her aunt at the door telling her that the nearest airports in 350 Kilometers away. At another instance, she tries to send a message to one of her Norwegian friends via facebook through a net cafe but is caught and her Norwegian passport is burned. She spends eight months at that place. While she is there, she falls for one of her male cousins living in the same house.

One night, they are caught kissing at night by local police who beat him mercilessly and ask her to strip at gunpoint. The police then ask the guy to fondle her in front of them, all while taking photos of them. The couple is then dragged to their house and police demand money in exchange for deleting those photos. Nisha’s father is summoned from Norway by the Pakistani relatives and she is sent back. While Nisha’s father is in Pakistan, he spits at her face and then takes her in a taxi to the top of a mountain and orders her to jump from there. She tries to plead with him while he throttles her and tries to push her. He is unable to, and they end up back in Norway.

There is a family meal and her mother tells her that they are giving her a final chance. The prospect of her becoming a doctor is brought up and that it would be one way in which the honor of family can be redeemed. Some of the dialogues used by her mother upon her return are,

People don’t even invite is to weddings anymore.
I wish you were stillborn”.

Within a few days of her return, she comes back from school to find that there is a ‘match’ ready to happen. The boy (Adnan) is a doctor in Canada and from a Pakistani family. Adnan’s aunt is visiting Nisha’s house and he is present via Skype.

Her father muses out loud that she can study and later work once she is in Canada. The boy’s aunt says ‘No, there is no need for studies or work. Adnan earns plenty of money. She’ll later be busy enough with children and the house”.

Nisha’s mother agrees with this statement.

After a brief chat, the ‘match’ is finalized and they are officially “engaged”. Sweets are consumed by everybody present (they are Pakistani, after all). The boy’s aunt then says, “Nisha, we are doing it only for your wellbeing”. The following night, Nisha, who had been rooming with her younger sister, decides to run away from the house again. It is snowing outside and before she leaves, her younger sister (who is about 6-9 years old) wakes up and sees her leave but doesn’t say a word. Once she has climbed down from her third story apartment, she walks towards the street outside their apartment complex and looks back. Her father is standing in the window, looking at her. Their eyes meet for a few moments and then Nisha takes off in the snow, running far away from the house. The End.

I thought the movie was generally well-made. There is some exoticization of Pakistan, as one expects in most films for a primarily western audience. The narrow streets, old houses, mountains in the background and a dilapidated bus, with Khawaja-siras (transgender people) selling boiled eggs to passengers, the old school vegetable and fruit market, classrooms without whiteboards and households without domestic servants. I read later that the story is loosely based on the life of its director, Iram Haq.

The premise, as I said earlier, is familiar to a Pakistani or a Pakistani-origin person. The rank hypocrisy of Pakistani society, the guilt-trapping (Pakistani parents’ favorite sport), violence in the name of honor and efforts to ‘save face’ in the community are daily realities of a desi household. While honor killings get splashed as headlines (deservedly), there is a lot of ‘micro-violence’ that happens every day in a middle-class Pakistani household with young girls (I’m talking about a representative sample). Some of the statements that I have bolded and put in quotation marks in the synopsis are familiar tropes of Pakistani parents, once they find out that the human being they created is not a robot that they can program. The situation, however, is much more dire for girls than it is for boys. Particularly when it happens abroad. One of my mentors used to say that Pakistanis in the diaspora tend to be normal people until their daughters start growing up. If it were up to Pakistani parents, they would bottle up puberty of their children and throw it away in the trash, instead of dealing with it like people everywhere else.

I write this not just as a commentator but as a witness. Both of my sisters, at different times in their lives, were ‘disciplined’ when they developed an interest in men that my parents had not chosen for them to marry. Sister number one was a teenager and had a crush on one of her teachers (which is the most teenager thing that I can think of). The guy in question used to visit our house for coaching (a normal occurrence for our household, to be clear) and he belonged to a lower-middle-class background. Once the ‘crush’ was discovered, he was banished from our house and my sister was warned never to mention his name again, or there would be dire consequences. She was 16 at the time. Around the time that she turned 17, she was engaged to a cousin who was studying abroad at the time. She got married at 18 and has lived abroad ever since. She has always been an obedient and slightly-passive child and has done okay in life, despite the obvious disadvantage.

Sister number 2 has always been a more outwardly emotional and strong character. Her first ‘issue’ arose during teenage years when she was found talking too many times with one of the male cousins. She would also ‘dress up’ (as much as one could in a provincial Punjabi town) when she went to coaching centers in the city during her high school years. Later, when she was in college, she needed some help with coursework and an acquaintance who worked in that profession was asked to help. The acquaintance deputed one of his juniors to help my sister. Fast forwards a few years and they were romantically involved. My parents were having none of that. They tried to ‘arrange’ her marriage at different places but she would stage some sort of stunt (act cold/be sarcastic/or just being rude) to get out of it. She tried to kill herself at least twice during this period. She was probably physically beaten more than once as well (I was at boarding school between 2000-2006 and in med school for 5 years after that so I only heard these things second-hand). I had met the dude in question and found him to be okay, nothing too spectacular or bad. As the firstborn male, I held a certain role in the family so I first cajoled my mother (who hated the guy partially because he was 10-12 years older than my sister and partially because he came from a lower-middle-class family and my sister has always had ‘high’ ambitions) and later my father (who felt guilty for having introduced the couple in the first place) and sister number 2 finally got married to him.

Were my parents monsters or merely representing the middle class, small-town, religious morality that they themselves grew up in? I don’t know the answer to that question. They are otherwise very decent, educated, ‘honorable’, pious people and a neutral observer meeting them for the first time won’t be able to see anything wrong outwardly. The pathos inflicting my parents is not restricted to them, it is shared by everyone around them, most of the society is rotten. And it’s not getting any better with time.

P.S A book that deals with issues of ‘honor’ in the Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Britain, is ‘Maps for lost lovers’ by Nadeem Aslam. One can also glean some knowledge about this from certain portions of the movie ‘Blinded by the Light’.

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Indian Twitter shows why a “universal translator” wouldn’t work

India is one of the top countries on Twitter. And, since many Indians have some command of English, they interact somewhat with the English-speaking Twitter crowd which is mostly based in the USA and UK.

But, the differences in style, idiom, and cultural references, make conversations often very difficult and totally incomprehensible. Despite the fact that two interlocutors may speak the same language, with only minor syntactical and semantic differences. The difference exists between British and Americans as well, but the cultural gap here is much smaller, and some of the confusions I see with conversations with Indian Twitter happen far less.

This is not a function of how much similar British English is to American English. It is a function of the uniqueness of Indian culture and expectations, and particular idioms and frames. The usage of English allows for Americans to be exposed to this, but there is a level of opacity that is novel and surprising.

To me, my engagement with Indian Twitter is more a matter of anthropological curiosity than dialogue. Twitter lacks the nuance and density to puncture the incommensurable aspects easily.

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A tale of two Pakistans

Bangladesh to clock highest growth in Asia this year.

Pakistan’s growth to be lowest in South Asia in current fiscal.

8% vs. 3%. From a geopolitical perspective at current rates of relative stagnation India’s Pakistani problem will “solve” itself as the Islamic Republic is turning into a macroeconomic midget. All of the geopolitical posturing will be irrelevant if the Pakistani polity doesn’t get its structural house in order (e.g., shift away from the oligarchy).

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Review: The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

I had earlier posted a short version of this review, to which many people objected that it was not really a review, just a short rant. Major Amin has now sent a longer version. I hope this will satisfy some of the critics…

The Anarchy-
William Dalrymple

Book Review

By Major Agha H Amin

Dalrymple is not a serious historian but a highly skilled jester who plays to the gallery. He makes many factual errors in his book and frequently gets carried away by emotions. promiscuously mixing facts with fiction.

On page 12 there is a small typing error placing third mysore war victory of Cornwallis in 1782 rather than 1792:

In describing Aurangzeb on page 13 Dalrymple misses the most essential fact that it was the Hindu Maratha Insurgency that laid the foundation of the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire. In this regard, other groups such as the Rajputs etc were mickey mouse players; the real hero of Hindu resurgence was Sivaji.

Dalrymple describes Mohammad Shah in very derogatory terms,  but fails to
note that under his shaky tenure the Mughals still defeated Ahmad Shah Abdali at Sirhind in 1748.

The battle of Buxar took place in 1764 and not in 1765 as Mr Dalrymple states on page-16.

On page 60 Dalrymple fallaciously states that Bhonsle was incharge of Orrissa whereas the Bhonsla citadel was many hundred miles from Orrissa to the west in  Nagpur.

Dalrymple is addicted to fantasies (playing to the gallery), thus he projects the Mughals as the height of civilization while these so called civilized Mughals in 1719 publicly tortured Banda Bahadur’s five year old son, gouging out his heart while the child was alive and shoving it in his fathers mouth !

Nadir Shah did not invade Afghanistan in 1739 but in 1738 via Helmand, a long way from Delhi, but our brilliant and careless writer states he did so in 1739.

Dalyrmple totally misses one of the great  betrayals in Indian history at Karnal, where Nadir Shah of Persia on the prompting of Nawab of Avadh Saadat Khan decided to pillage and plunder Delhi after an initial agreement to return to Persia after being paid a relatively small fine.

Dalrymple spents great energy on vilifying the company for the famine of Bengal of 1770, but fails to reconcile the fact that a far greater famine broke out in Bengal under the British crown. In general, jis treatment of events reeks
of extreme polemics and subjectivism.

Even worse is his treatment of military events, for example in describing the First Anglo Mysore war he glorifies Hyder Ali but fails to note that he lost in several pitched battles against Colonel Smith and won the war only because of lack of cavalry by the company as well as the extreme corruption of  various company officials.

Dalrymples treatment of military history in general  is atrocious. For example,  in discussing the Second Anglo Mysore War he only discusses one battle (Pollilore) but totally ignores the fact that Hyder Ali was repeatedly defeated
at Porto Novo , Sholingur etc by Sir Eyre Coote.

Dalrymple totally ignores the fact that while the company lost one battle in 1780, the war continued till 1784 and was inconclusive in spite of Hyder Ali’s superior cavalry and the company’s corruption.

Dalyrmples use of historical facts is generally one sided and extremely biased. This is not a one-off, but a pattern. He cherry picks and higlights what fits his narrative, ignoring or downplaying what does not.

Ahmad Shah Abdali never went to Delhi in 1762 so Dalrymples claim that he ousted Imad ul Mulk in 1762 is incorrect (page-259 ).

By and large the book is a repetition of well known facts of British Indian history, framed tendentiously to fit his narrative. Basically Dalrymple has wasted a book in vain as it brings out nothing new. His whole conclusion about the company and the title of the book “Anarchy” is extremely questionable and
debatable. Firstly the English East India Company did not cause anarchy in India as Dalrymple repeatedly tries to prove. India was already in a state of complete anarchy when the British company became a serious player. They took advantage of this anarchy, they did not cause it.

Delhi was sacked more than 40 times between 1737 and 1800 by non British  forces, but Dalrymple is blind to this as it does not fit the narrative he wants to project. All the bad things he sees are only to be found in English East India Company. This will no doubt delight his nationalistic (or guilt-ridden English) readers, but it is a very questionable framing of 18the century Indian history.

His military knowledge is myopic and he constantly distorts military history and uses bits and pieces to prove or disprove as he wills at whim.

As a matter of fact the company restored order in India .The first three universities in Indian history were founded at Calcutta ,Madras and Bombay in 1856-57 by the Company. Outmoded customs such as widow burning , infanticide etc were abolished by the company. A hereditary class of feudal lords was created by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 as a result of which political
stability was introduced and strengthened in India. The company had many reformers, philanthropists and utilitarians but Dalrymple in his irrational hatred is blind to all these people.To Dalrymple all that British East India Company did
was bad and he has an extremely jaundiced and twisted vision, not an objective view of history.

Dalrymple gives no weightage to the fact that British parliament and system prosecuted Clive and Warren Hastings and tried to regulate company rule in India. They were not angels, but they were not the uniquely villainous source of all evils in India. Above all Dalrymple forgets that without the driving spirit of corporate enterprise of the company the British would never have conquered India. While personal interest has constantly dominated human conduct in history , whether it was a company or a state , Dalrymple wears coloured glasses and his perception is cloudy as well as confused.

Finally, my most serious issue with Dalrymple is his overly simplistic sweeping judgements. The Mughals for example were as big opportunists and greedy rulers as the company.They were a small group of adventurers, kicked out of central Asia, who captured India or north India just like the British company because of superior military tactics. If you look at Mughal contributions you find a few grand monuments such as the Taj Mahal or Shalimar Bagh in Lahore! Whereas the British company gave India , irrigation , universities, a
sound military system , a system of governance and  a class of  hereditary feudals who made the system more stable, relative to the times.

Another point that Dalrymple totally misses is that the company saved the Indian Muslim elite from total political extinction . The Muslims were practically nobodies by 1800. Delhi was ruled by the Marathas, Badshahi mosque of Lahore was a horse stable and a powder magazine! The Marathas
and Sikhs totally dominated north India! But a knight in shining armour comes and saves the Indian Muslim elite. It was Lake who saved the Muslims of Delhi from extinction! Hugh Gough saved the Muslims of Lahore and Peshawar! But Dalrymple misses out all these things.

Dalrymples most serious failure is that greed and avarice is not a British company failing but a human failing and all Indian rulers were guilty of this just as much as the EIC. Dalrymple fails to appreciate that Indians gladly
fought against Indians under the company because the company paid salaries in time !

Dalyrmple fails to note that British company]s triumphs were triumphs of organization, such as when Lieutenant Flint repeatedly defeated Tipu Sultan with a 100 % Indian force at Wandewash.Dalrymple fails to appreciate that
India was conquered by an organizationally superior company using 80 % Indian manpower! Why Indians followed them if they were as plainly evil as Dalrymple believes or wants us to believe !

And finally, Dalrymple fails to relate this past to what happened after the British left. Pakistan, where I live, is one of the most corrupt states in the
world .Pakistans tax officials of the so called FBR are 1 billion times more corrupt than the English East India Company could be in their wildest dreams. Parochialism is such that in todays Pakistan the entire ruling establishment consists of few districts and few castes of North Punjab and small parts of Sindh!

Characters like Dalrymple thrive on emotional manipulation which is why Dalrymple needs to be questioned and refuted!

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“OBC” in West Bengal a social construct?

Recent population history inferred from more than 5,000 high-coverage South Asian genomes:

Next, we developed a novel method for estimating the genome-wide average divergence time between a single individual and a focal group. This method focuses on extremely rare variants, which should be the most informative about very recent demographic events, and is robust to demographic events affecting the particular individual studied. We focused this work on samples from Birbhum district, West Bengal due to the presence of additional metadata on caste and religion. We used 704 general-caste individuals from Birbhum as the focal group, and estimated divergence times for all other individuals. Mean divergence times ranged from ~2,600 years for the Santal, an Austro-Asiatic language speaking tribal group, to 850 years for “scheduled castes” (i.e., Dalits), 625 years for Bangladeshis and 225 years for “Other Backward Castes” (OBC) individuals. The recent divergence times for OBC individuals confirms that this category is more of a political construct than a long-lived social grouping, while the other divergence times suggest a substantial amount of gene flow between groups. Finally, we extended our approach to thousands of other genomes from around the world. We show how patterns of rare variation can be used to detect asymmetrical migration, and document evidence for more migration from East Asia into Bengal than the converse.

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Browncast Episode 68, Conversation with Pratik Chougule

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. I am toying with the idea of doing a patron Youtube Livestream chat, if people are interested, in the next few weeks.

Would appreciate more positive reviews!

This episode we talked to  Pratik Chougle, a conservative and a proud globalist. From being on Trump’s policy team, Chougle has become a critic and envisions a future conservatism sharply at odds with parochial nationalism.

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Book Review: The Anarchy (William Dalrymple)

A longer version of this review is now up at this link.

A short review from Major Amin. I have not yet read the book, but Dalrymple’s recent books have an increasing tendency to play to the gallery. I would not descirbe this as “irrational hatred” (see review below), it is entirely rational. He knows his audience and frames his books to pander to that audience. He is a good writer and is not ignorant, but his books are spoiled by his urge to frame his story in ways that will appeal to his audience (educated Indians who are happy to hear bad things about the EIC and Westerners who want to appear virtuous). Again, I have not read this book, but his other recent books and interviews all exhibit this tendency..

The Anarchy-Dalrymple– Book Review

The Anarchy-Dalrymple Book Review

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335881689_The_Anarchy-Dalrymple_Book_Review

Firstly English East India Company did not cause anarchy in India as Dalrymple repeatedly tries to prove.

India was in complete anarchy when the British company became a serious player.

Delhi was sacked more than 40 times between 1737 and 1800 by non British forcces, but Dalrymple is blind to this hard fact. All the bad things he sees are only to be found in English East India Company.

His military knowledge is myopic and he constantly distorts military history and uses bits and pieces to prove or disprove as he wills at whim.

As a matter of fact the company restored order in India .First three universities in Indian history were founded at Calcutta ,Madras and Bombay in 1856-57.

Outmoded customs like widow burning , infanticide etc were abolished by the company.

A hereditary class of feudal was created by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 as a result of which political stability was introduced and strengthened in India.

The company had many reformers, philanthropists and utilitarians but Dalrymple in his irrational hatred is blind to all these people.

To Dalrymple all that British East India Company did was bad and he has an extremely jaundiced and twisted vision.

Dalrymple gives no weightage to the fact that British parliament and system prosecuted Clive and Warren Hastings and tried to regulate India.

Above all Dalrymple forgets that without the driving spirit of corporate enterprise of the company the British would never have conquered India.

While personal interest has constantly dominated human conduct in history , whether it was a company or a state , Dalrymple wears coloured glasses and his perception is cloudy as well as confused.

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