Narayanan Krishnan (source: CNN)

One of the top 10 CNN Heroes 2010, Narayanan Krishnan is an inspiration for human compassion and love. He has dedicated himself to feeding the destitute and homeless left to die on the streets of Madurai. He is doing this with not much of a financial backing but with a heart as big as the Indian Ocean.

Krishnan’s day begins at 4 a.m. He and his team cover nearly 125 miles in a donated van, routinely working in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

He seeks out the homeless under bridges and in the nooks and crannies between the city’s temples. The hot meals he delivers are simple, tasty vegetarian fare he personally prepares, packs and often hand-feeds to nearly 400 clients each day.

Krishnan carries a comb, scissors and razor and is trained in eight haircut styles that, along with a fresh shave, provide extra dignity to those he serves.

He says many of the homeless seldom know their names or origins, and none has the capacity to beg, ask for help or offer thanks. They may be paranoid and hostile because of their conditions, but Krishnan says this only steadies his resolve to offer help.

What to help? Visit Krishnan’s Akshaya Trust here.


"Nikki" Haley(SC Gov.) & "Bobby" Jindal (LA Gov.)

I was heartened to see increased candidate participation of Indian Americans in the recent US mid-term elections, regardless of the results. After all, as a growing minotiry, the best way to carve a presence and forge an identity in a representative democracy is by representation. As many as 8 Indian Americans ran for the Congress or for one of the State offices. Of course, it was a wide-spread Republican victory indicating a voter perception of a lack of focus from Obama on the struggling economy holding him responsible for the excruciatingly slow recovery. Nevermind the fact that studies have shown time and again that the party wielding power has little influence on the national economic fluctuations. It must be sweet irony for the Republicans who watched Obama’s landslide victory coincide with the economy going to the crapper towards the end of Dubya’s regime, even if Bush personally had little to do with a global economic downturn. But voters don’t care about these facts. They want their leaders to control things they don’t always have the power to influence. So, it was no surprise to see that the only winner among these desis was a Republican cadidate, a Nikki Haley, who ran for the governship of South Carolina.

Nikki Haley was once a Nimrata Randhawa, born in South Carolina to Indian Punjabi immigrants. Following the footsteps of a fellow Republican governor from Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, a.k.a, Piyush Amrit Jindal, she converted to Christianity about seven years ago. Just like the Lousiana governor, Nikki had to defend her “faith” vigorously as people questioned her Sikh background. Nikki has chosen to run without trying to acknowledge her Indian background focusing primarily on her American-ness. Both Bobby and Nikki might have truly been touched by their experiences with Christianity. Speaking about his faith, Jindal said “after watching a short black-and-white film on the crucifixion of Christ, realized that if the Gospel stories were true, if Christ really was the son of God, it was arrogant of me to reject Him and question the gift of salvation.” For all I know, that might be true for Nikki too, even if the cynic in me wonders about the coincidence of her conversion with her political apsirations.

As political campaigns go, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and a skill for galvanizing people to buy into what you stand for and win. But the fact is, while Obama’s victory proved how Americans can rise above the racial prejudices, they still feel very strongly about their religious affiliations. If Nikki Haley was a muslim and went by Nisreen Hussain or if she remained a sikh by the name of Nimrata Randhawa, and ran these elections standing for the same things she stood for now, she wouldn’t have won. Religion should have no say whatsoever on the policies or regulations they might pursue in power. From that perspective, it shouldn’t bother me if their “transformations in faith” are acts of higer political aspirations. But if it is an act of manipulating the voters’ perspective, it does speak to a person’s character and self belief or lack thereof, and how they feel they can’t stand for fundamentally who they are to pursue public service. Never affirming her Indian background, she ran and won as a South Carolina native riding the Republican wave. There’s really nothing wrong with that. I know of a couple of desi acquaintances of mine who go by different anglicized names now. If they feel more assimilated or more integrated by doing that, that’s their prerogative.

I don’t begrudge their actions one bit, but as someone proud of my own heritage and background, I could care less for anyone who all but disowns their identity. When they aren’t secure in their own self, how can they be looked upon to establishing a presence for their own? Back when Mohammed Ali fought Joe Frazier in those epic heavy weight battles, Ali was the champion of his people. African Americans looked up to him for what he stood for and gleaned a pride they all felt inside from his refusal to appease to the establishment based on his personal beliefs even at the cost of exile at the height of his boxing career. And rightfully or wrongfully, they had little sympathy for Joe Frazier, not because he did anything wrong, but because he didn’t stand for anything they could relate to and worse yet, he was in the way of their champion. So, along with Nikki, among those 8 Indian American candidates, there were a few Democratic candidates who ran for the congress with an open affirmation of their Indian background and culture, without choosing a faith of convenience.. Raj Goyle (Kansas), Manan Trivedi(Pennsylvania), and Ami Bera(California) among them.. and they all lost.

Raj Goyle, Manan Trivedi, Ami Bera

I have a hell of a lot more respect for these losers.

Arundhati Roy - A rebel in need of a cause

The debate rages on in India about whether or not Arundhati Roy deserves to be thrown in jail on charges of Sedition due to her alleged subversive statements about the Kashmir territory.  With the current state of affairs in Kashmir, if she is charged of Sedition, the implication here would be that she is stirring up a rebellion against a democratic goverment in power.  Not the same as treason which is joining hands with the enemy to conspire against your country, but a notch below that.  The notion of charging someone for Sedition in this day and age is really archaic.  Whether she deserves it or not is now a matter of opinion.  I am of the opinion that it is unwarranted, not because I have much of a sympathy for Roy or her activism, but because it is somewhat silly for the government to fixate on a single writer’s remarks while parts of the country are going up in flames, even if the perception is that she is adding fuel to that fire.  Perhaps after winning a Booker prize, and receiving an almost universal critical acclaim for her subsequent publications of prose, the only greater thing to do in her mind was to become a constant pain in the butt of the establishment, but that is her prerogative in a democractic setup.  She shouldn’t be banished for that.  She might not be centered in her opinions, and from my perspective she isn’t, but India is not a monarchy like the UAE where there is no freedom of speech.  It is not an utterly chaotic and unruly country of warlords like Afghanistan.  It is not a communist state like China, even if Roy is a great sympathizer of its followers in her country and neither is it a completely shambolic pseudo-democracy run by religious extremists like Pakistan.  Even with all its flaws and failings, India is the largest freaking democracy in the world, and a dubiously stable one at that.  It should be able to put up with controversial statements from its own, because after all, it is wry irony that Roy herself is a product of a young, growing nation thrown to the wolves, still trying to survive its way through the jungle.

Arudhati Roy with Narmada Bachao Andolan

Is the essence of activism now to scream blue murder against establishment on everything?  Seriously, how difficult is it for you to find flaws in India?  With widespread poverty, uneducation and corruption at every level, do we need a Booker-prize-winning, rather painfully dubbed, “conscience of the nation” to point them out?  If you are that insightful, how about presenting a viable solution for your causes to add to your outcries that might lend more credence to your attempted campaigns.  Roy spoke up against both the Pokhran-II nuclear tests and against building the Sardar Sarovar dam across Narmada river in Gujarat aiding the Narmada Bachao Andolan around the turn of the century.  A noble cause for the environment and its habitats, but what of modernization?  Don’t young, aspiring writers who want to grow up and be just like Arundhati Roy deserve a light in their rooms to hone their skills of verbosity?  The words ring hollow even if they read beautiful when there is a lack of balance and insight.   They end up sounding like juvenile rantings without a steady perspective.

Arundhati Roy with Maoists

She went on to support Naxalism and her Maoist “comrades” because she believes they are there to support the cause of the poor and downtrodden.  I know she has written many a scathing essay highlighting the dark side of democracy and resultant marginalization of religious and tribal minotiries.  There is a need for someone to provide this transparency and awareness for a nation to mature and fix its wrongs.  It took more than 40 years for the US government to officially apologize for the Japanese Internment Camps during World World II.  Even that wouldn’t have happened if not for the media highlighting the wrongdoing and forcing the government to act.  Roy deserves all the accolades she gets for her writing, but I don’t know what her core beliefs for a governmental structure in the country are?  No one including Roy herself can clearly identify what she believes in?   She can and should highlight her country’s flaws, but ideologically, does she even believe in a Democratic setup for the country?   Does she think it is not a good fit for India?  Or does she prefer the communist principles of economic and political governance? Is she all for forcing an agrarian communism by backing these comrades preaching “Maoist revolution.” If this was a totalitarian regime, does she think she can enjoy the privilege of making such scathing remarks of promoting secession and sitting back and observing an intellectual debate in the media?  Her most recent statement was along the lines of “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds.” She is right, but what does she think the goal of gun trotting militants that call themselves “Maoists” are – to promote democracy and free speech after they take over the country?  Where is her sympathy for the thousands of innocents killed by these comrades of her and a systematic cleansing of the minority Kashmiri Pundits from Kashmir in the past two decades?  Are her ideals and outcries only convenient for the next cause she decides to pick up?
The fact is, the message she sends behind her activism is one of contradcition of the privileges of freedom, liberty and free speech that she ejoys currently. Anyone can sit there and rip the status quo, but it seems to have lost on her that in her grandiose quest to be India’s Joan of Arc, she is latching onto causes that would put an end to the same freedom that allows her to be a clueless rebel currently. That still doesn’t make her a traitor or a treasonist or a seditionist or any such silly accusations she is facing now, just another good writer whose core values behind her activism are confused, nebulous and unsound. She still deserves to speak her mind freely and not feel persecuted.  Whether you believe that she is factually wrong with her statements or whether you just disagree with her opinions, merely tolerating her unruly ramblings can reveal what she either fails to realize or takes for granted. The worst thing that the government can do is to bury her with charges of Sedition under this wave of patriotic populism triggered by her actions.  That would be such a shame at so many levels.

still counting the dead bodies from the insurgent train derailment

India - Naxal Territory

The disturbing news of more casualties from insurgency in India continues to lead its headlines. The huge toll from the train derailment, the continuing death toll from the landmines and the ambushes against the counter-insurgency corps – it is a full-fledged war in the heart of the country. The fact is the gravity of this situation should have been garnering the headlines well before this. These Naxalites or Maoists or whatever name they go by now-a-days are spread all over the country in staggering proportions in more than 20 states. They virtually rule the country-side in more than 10 states, establishing a quasi-government and ruling the land by the fear of the gun. The urban elite chose to ignore the uprising, living in their deceptive little cocoons within the cities and never truly feeling the impact of this until now. They grew apathetic to the news of daily murders with innocent people being shot to death by these communists and the news of the constant police encounters with naxalites. Sadly, they are de-sensitized to the resulting pictures of strewn dead bodies on their tv screens in their evening news, while the government never truly made an effort to snuff it out early. Until now, your average educated, young, ambitious adult in India has all but tuned this unpleasantness out just as they had managed to concede the dirty politics and corruption as an accepted way of life.

Livelihood for an average villager

For decades the Central government ignored the brewing mutiny in various parts of the country, brushing it off as insignificant to the overall national growth and calling it the jurisdiction of individual States to handle the headache.  Once free economy led to middle class prosperity, as long as the big cities seemed secure from it and the educated grads remained enticing to the multi-nationals to support the continuous urban growth, they looked the other way.  The plights of the poor and uneducated was lost in this heady rise of urban India.  The Naxalites meanwhile not just established a foothold in the remote corners of the neglected and poor rural parts of the country, but steadily grew in strength and numbers and have been running a quasi-government of their own in many parts of remote and not so remote India.  For majority of the poor, uneducated and under-privileged villagers, their livelihood for decades was based on working for their village landlords.  They worked on the fields and the crops on the land owned by these landlords all year round, and toiled hard for the meager remuneration they received from them.

Naxalite Rule

Were these villagers exploited by these landlords?  Of course, they were!  The government failed them, the village heads and the sarpanches were none other than their employers, and they couldn’t dare put up a resistance against the system.  With a heavy Communist influence from the East, once the Naxalites swooped in with the message of liberation and the promise to provide them land of their own and riches without hardship, they became their automatic allies.  Whatever the ideology of Naxalism during its inception, once they took to arms and started killing people ruthlessly under the facade of an increasingly fuzzy cause and started ruling the rural country-side by the fear of the gun, they lost any credibility they might have had at one time.  For the most part, they just degenerated into gun-slinging outlaws who found an easy way out to yield power and control without contributing much to the society.  The poverty stricken villagers were easy pickings to be brainwashed to join their “armies”.  All they had to do was follow these armed men and women who called themselves their friends and whom everyone else seemed to fear, and they’d be taken care of.  It was hard to resist.  Sustained poverty with no education made it an easy choice for these villagers.

Rule of the gun

These same Naxalites call themselves Maoists now, but if they were truly interested in the welfare of these people, instead of recruiting the young to plant bombs to blow up buses and derail trains, and instead of leading them to a point of no return by turning them into killers and murderers to run some rural mafia in the name of a so-called “Moist” revolution, they would have focused on ways to provide them an education and an intellectual growth to open up new worlds.  For years now, they have been extorting the businessmen, the landlords, the politicians, and anyone who has any money by “taxing” them and sparing their lives instead, killing them if they resisted or even remotely suspected to not be “on board” with their ways.  They have been continuously terrorizing these remote regions for decades and all along the central government shockingly looked the other way.  The newspapers went soft on the Naxals and the journos piled on the government and called it a tragedy without focusing much on their extortionist activities for fear of risking their lives.  The politicians were busy filling their coffers; they saw no reason to invite a Naxal retribution either, until the insurgents got braver and stronger and started flexing their muscle and expanding their territories, started killing some MLAs and moved closer and closer to the cities.  Steadily, it regressed to the point that the State CMs were targeted and the uneasiness spread to the business community which has been under a false illusion that they were living in this cozy, isolated, and secure world within the cities.  Only after the potential threat to the economic growth grew quite palpable with the news of the expansion of the Naxal network into the cities  (it was only a matter of time), the Central government pulled its head out of the sand and started addressing the issue.

Corrupt politicians have no credibility

This is not to say that the Indian government is in the clear here.  Years of corruption and utter disregard for the welfare of the people have left them with zero credibility, but you have to pick your poison.  Do you continue to tolerate and try and clean up a pseudo-democratic system full of corrupt politicians or allow a collection of communist “rebels” to end democracy and rule the roost at gunpoint and live under fear?  The States didn’t have the wherewithal to handle them, the Center was mostly disinterested in addressing the issue and together they have allowed a monster to grow out of control and it started threatening the very existence of democracy in the country.  It is not a stretch to say Indian democracy is a sham, because for a long time now, it has remained a democracy that can be rigged and manipulated and mocked and abused and coerced and even plundered, but in spite of all this, it still remains somewhat intact and regardless of its utter misuse  it is still something worth protecting.

Gun trotting children - not that far away from becoming another Congo

The result now is this bloody and most likely prolonged battle with the insurgents.  It is no surprise that it has already turned into a bloodbath, because aided by arms supplied from China and years of building a “kingdom of outlaws” in most of the remote corners of these regions, these insurgents are potent and powerful, and they have terrorized the people in these places long enough that no native will dare help the government and risk losing their lives at their hands.  It is an uphill battle for the central forces, but if this isn’t taken to its logical conclusion now, there is no end to this tragedy.  Just look at the mass murders in Central Africa, mostly conducted by children.  These are children brainwashed by truly evil warlords into committing unspeakable, ruthless carnage.  If you think that is too far-fetched, think again.  Poverty – only a few degrees of separation of it, from poor to destitute, is all that distinguishes these regions.  It is always difficult to climb back up, but once you plunge into the depths of darkness, it doesn’t take that long to reach the abyss.  These children  in these regions are on their way there, thanks to the world they live in – one of guns and violence and  communists and their propaganda fueled by ingrained corruption and dirty politics.

The police in Australia had steadfastly and not surprisingly maintained until now that there is no proof that these attacks are racially motivated. They’ve been trying to point out that these are no different than your garden variety muggings for your wallet and money and the victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Obviously they are doing their bit of damage control in this increasingly PR driven world.  This news flare-up isn’t helping what is already a negative perception of Australia outside their borders when it comes to these matters.

From the Sydney Morning Herald

Australia’s high commissioner to India, John McCarthy, has been doing dozens of damage-control interviews, including appearances on popular panel debate shows such asThe Big Fight and We The People.

“Clearly the television coverage has altered some people’s perceptions of Australia,” he says. “I think the relationship is repairable, but it has been a rough patch … There was a huge reaction here. I don’t think we can kid ourselves that perceptions of Australia have not been affected.”

The actual concern of the Australian goverment is the potential damage to the $15 billion dollar “Student Market” which brings a steady stream of young Indians into Australia looking for greener pastures.

The Labor government’s initial response was one of damage-control. On June 1, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered assurances that “the more than 90,000 Indian students in Australia are welcome guests in our country”. The only thing “welcome” is the billions of dollars in fees paid by Indian students annually, part of the $15 billion dollars wrung from international students each year that the Rudd government fears losing.

Between 2005-08 the enrolment of overseas students in trade courses trebled to 173,432. Indians are the biggest group in this category.  It gave Australia a crucial advantage over rivals such as Britain and the US in the foreign student market, adding to advantages of cheapness and perceived safety.

While the Australian goverment is worried about their PR, the Indian students are concerned about the PR of their own, Permanent Residency, a common plight for any overseas student.  They are concerned that filing a complaint with the police when they are attacked might jeopardize their chances of getting clearance for their PR, which is just an awful situation to be in.

PR is a much used abbreviation in Harris Park, binding and isolating the community of Indian students there. It stands for permanent residency, the great goal of a migrant middle class, the reason many are studying here, and the reason they choose certain courses that are favoured for skilled migration. It is because of those ambitions that many students do not report crimes – they fear that in doing so they will prejudice their applications, a police clearance being needed before permanent residency is granted.

So, who are the perpetrators?  By all indications, at least some of these attacks were conducted by young men of Lebanese origin, confirmed by police.  The Lebanese were the majority ethnic group in that area, but have been outnumbered by the growing number of Indian students over the past few years.

In 1991 there were five times more Lebanese-born residents in Harris Park than there were Indian-born. At the last census, in 2006, Indians were Harris Park’s largest ethnic group, outnumbering the Lebanese two to one. Half of Harris Park’s residents are students.

Incensed by the police not even acknowledging that they are being targetted, the Indian strudent groups, who have been protesting daily for the past few days, are taking things into their own hands.

On Tuesday night a carload of young Middle Eastern men tore up Marion Street, chased by a hundred young Indians. “F—ing Lebs,” the group’s apparent leader yelled. “You want to kill me, kill me. You are f—ing racist.”  Later, a text message told the crowd there was a car of Lebanese men on neighbouring Weston Street. Twenty protesters broke away from the police cordon and ran up the street into a wall of white tracksuits. Two were beaten with poles, one was hit by a car. “Maybe tonight someone will be killed,” an Indian hospitality student said. “What will police do?”

As this issue gets divided along ethnic lines, and even as the world continues to shrink in the wake of this information revolution, especially within the melting pots of the global metroplises, I can’t help but wonder how  important it is to not let your identity defined by you, your family, your race, your religion and your origin to ever conflict with core human values of compassion, co-respect, tolerance, assimilation and co-existence independent of each other’s identities.  Sometimes, this appears like a thin distiction, but the difference is as wide as good and evil and as an individual, either you get it or you don’t.