Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why I liked Tare Zameen Par

Tare Zameen Par poster
Yes, it's a tear-jerker, and yes, there are a few loose or slow areas that could be usefully cut, but "Tare Zameen Par" (Little stars on Earth) is a fun movie that makes you laugh and cry.
Westerners may not understand how difficult it is in India to pay attention to learning disabilities, and of how little awareness there is of this problem. The whole story, by Amole Gupte, will jar as unbelievable. But people who have lived in India know that it's very realistic, and the film shows how parents and teachers can tragically miss the signs.
This kind of "message" film can be very tricky to pull off without sounding preachy, earnest, and boring, but director Aamir Khan has managed it by holding the melodrama and not talking down to his audience. The Bollywood format of two-and-a-half hours is way too long for this slight story, and the first half is taken up entirely by the many humiliations heaped on a spirited 9 year old boy (Darsheel Safary) by his increasingly frustrated teachers and parents. But Boston Brahmin found that the film works perfectly if you skip the entire first half and just watch the portion after the intermission! (There is one spectacular animation scene about half an hour before the intermission, where the letters from the child's notebook float clean off the page in a jumble. Don't miss that.)
The little Brahmins enjoyed scenes of the boarding school in Panchgani and its cartoonish teachers. There was not a dry eye in the living room in the end, when the little boy gets a little help and finds his groove. Highly recommended!

A thumpin' from Obama, in Strom's backyard

The MSNBC blog "first thoughts" says about Barack Obama's convincing primary win in South Carolina:
Obama’s victory last night in South Carolina was by the biggest margin we’ve seen so far in a contested race this primary season. Obama did it by winning about 80% of the African-American vote, as well as about a quarter of the white vote. Sure, his share of the white vote there dropped some 10-plus points compared to other states. But remember, this is the South, and the white vote was always going to be a little more difficult for Obama to capture southern whites.

Plenty of blame has been aired for such a convincing failure of the Clinton machine: their mud-slinging, Bill Clinton's over-the-top criticism, and general negativity. Despite these, or as some say, because of these tactics, Barack Obama has done very well indeed. In Strom Thurmond's backyard, too!
There may be many reasons for Barack Obama's popularity, but the simplest, most obvious one was summarized by JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy in her Op-ed in the New York Times today:
Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.

And this is why so many people are drawn to Obama. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pants on fire

A nonprofit organization called the Center for Public Integrity has documented 935 instances of post-9/11 lies told publicly by the Bush administration, either claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or that Saddam had links with Al Qaeda.
They have composed an online database that analyzes each of these statements for the truth as known at the time the statement was uttered.
Here are some choice words from their report:
[T]he Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.

It concludes:

Bush and the top officials of his administration have so far largely avoided the harsh, sustained glare of formal scrutiny about their personal responsibility for the litany of repeated, false statements in the run-up to the war in Iraq. There has been no congressional investigation, for example, into what exactly was going on inside the Bush White House in that period. Congressional oversight has focused almost entirely on the quality of the U.S. government's pre-war intelligence — not the judgment, public statements, or public accountability of its highest officials.
Short of such review, this project provides a heretofore unavailable framework for examining how the U.S. war in Iraq came to pass. Clearly, it calls into question the repeated assertions of Bush administration officials that they were the unwitting victims of bad intelligence.

Boston Brahmin is still waiting for the Bush administration to pay for their deeds. But not holding his breath.

Friday, January 18, 2008

They are at the gates

The barbarians are at the gates, or perhaps they have already entered. Peshawar is now intimidated by militant threats (the usual -- wear burqas, don't watch Bollywood movies, etc.).
Today's New York Times has an article by Jane Perlez, Frontier Insurgency Spills Into a Pakistani City.
The Taliban and their militant sympathizers now hold strategic pockets on the city’s outskirts, the police say, from where they strike at the military and the police, order schoolgirls to wear the burqa and blow up stores selling DVDs, among other acts of violence.
Suicide bombings, bomb explosions and missile attacks occurred an average of once a week here in 2007, according to a tally by the city’s police department. In 2006, while there were occasional grenade attacks and explosions, the authorities did not record a single suicide bombing or rocket attack inside the city.
The proximity of Peshawar to the tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the past two years makes the city a feasible prize for the militants in Pakistan’s quickly escalating internal strife that pits the Islamic extremists against the American-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf.

The tribal areas are practically ruled by the jihadis already. On Wednesday, they attacked a fort in South Waziristan, killed 27 members of the Frontier Corps paramilitary units, and occupied it.
But this is a "settled area", like the Swat valley, which the Pakistan Army thinks it controls. As we say in the subcontinent, are they wearing bangles? And there is disturbing news about junior officers and other ranks refusing to fight, instead surrendering to the jihadis.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

They still don't get it

A scoop on the destruction of the CIA tapes is in today's Washington Post.

How did the director of clandestine operations Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., decide to order them to be destroyed?
[...] senior CIA and White House officials advised against destroying the tapes, but without expressly prohibiting it, leaving an odd vacuum of specific instructions on a such a politically sensitive matter. They said that Rodriguez then interpreted this silence -- the absence of a decision to order the tapes' preservation -- as a tacit approval of their destruction.

"Jose could not get any specific direction out of his leadership" in 2005, one senior official said. Word of the resulting destruction, one former official said, was greeted by widespread relief among clandestine officers, and Rodriguez was neither penalized nor reprimanded, publicly or privately, by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss, according to two officials briefed on exchanges between the two men.

See the pattern here? The administration makes public statements like "we need to get tough" and "forward-leaning", directly calls public officials from the Vice President's office to exert pressure for quick results, and when the officials ask for explicit direction, gives only legalese and leaves ambiguity. See full article by Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus here.

And here's the upside-down priority list again: as to why Rodriguez's boss Porter Goss didn't reprimand him for destroying the tapes,
"Frankly, there were more important issues that needed to be focused on, such as trying to preserve a critical [interrogation] program and salvage relationships that had been damaged because of the leaks" about the existence of the secret prisons, said a former agency official familiar with Goss's position at the time.

So, relationships had been damaged because of the leaks about the existence of the secret prisons. What about the damage caused to the country because of the secret prisons?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Surprising candor

A surprisingly frank article on Pakistan's ISI appeared in the New York Times today.

"Militants escape control of Pakistan," says the headline, above a nice shot of Musharraf and Kayani.
Obvious and hardly news, certainly, but these things are usually not talked about so directly in the U.S. press. Here are some more bald statements, attributed to "former ISI officials" and "officials close to the agency":
  • In the 1990s, the ISI supported the militants as a proxy force to contest Indian-controlled Kashmir.
  • In the 1980s, the United States supported militants, too, funneling billions of dollars to Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan through the ISI, vastly increasing the agency’s size and power.
As to whether Musharraf was playing a "double game", as is commonly believed:
  • [F]ormer Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that Mr. Musharraf had ordered [after 9/11] a crackdown on all militants. It was never fully carried out, however, because of opposition within his government and within ISI, they said.
  • Some senior ministers and officials in Mr. Musharraf’s government sympathized with the militants and protected them, former intelligence officials said. Still others advised a go-slow approach, fearing a backlash against the government from the militants.
  • Inside the ISI, there was division as well. One part of the ISI hunted down militants, the officials said, while another continued to work with them.
See entire NYT article here.

These facts have been available for many months; some of them for years. Why come out with them now?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Our planet, but not yours

Tata Motors's plan to produce a $2,500 car (see article in Forbes magazine) has launched many op-eds. The most comprehensive of these is probably Mira Kamdar's in today's Washington Post. After many paragraphs of predictable hand-wringing about how, if millions of Indians and Chinese start to own cars, the planet is doomed, she ends with:
As one college student told me last year: "Just when we can finally start to enjoy the things you people have had for decades -- cars, air conditioners -- you tell us, 'Sorry, too late, you can't now.' I mean, you created this mess. You won't reduce your consumption, but you tell us we can't increase ours."

She has a point.
Sure, she does. (See Mira Kamdar's entire op-ed in the Washington Post.) The question is, what are we going to do about it? Mira Kamdar says,
We can only hope that India and other Asian countries emulate our good new habits rather than our bad old ones.
What "good" habits would these be? She mentions that New York city is planning to tax cars and make bicycles more convenient, but maybe we should wait until these plans are converted to reality, before prescribing them for India. In fact, all of the environmental problems of the globe are here already, whereas India's billion cars aren't going to be here until years from now and are a marginally relevant distraction from what we need to do today.

But Kamdar is promoting her new book.

Ah, now it all becomes much clearer...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pakistan: what is to be done

Prof. Barnett R. Rubin of NYU has a totally incisive piece on the current situation and prospects for Pakistan. He makes a few minor mistakes, but overall this is the best analysis I have read in a while.

Rubin covers in one place, among other things:
  1. The motivations of Musharraf and the military.
  2. The forgotten supreme court that Musharraf has hijacked and Bush has abandoned.
  3. The ISI's systematic vote rigging, which Bhutto was about to expose when she was killed.
Here's the concluding paragraph of this long, highly recommended posting:
A genuine free election in Pakistan today could very well confront President Musharraf with a parliament that would not recognize him and that would openly challenge the power of the army. But the military no longer has the capacity or legitimacy to rule Pakistan. The time for a pacted transition is past. The choice before Pakistan is democracy or disintegration.
In this conclusion, he agrees with Ahmed Rashid's article in Yale Global, another recommended op-ed.

Also read the International Crisis Group's report published yesterday:
[...] the policy outcomes that need to happen over the next two months, and which should be strongly and consistently supported by the international community, and particularly those like the U.S. most capable of influencing them, are:
  • Musharraf’s resignation, with Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro taking over under the constitution as acting president and appointing neutral caretaker governments at the national and provincial levels with the consensus of the major political parties in all four federal units;
  • postponement of the polls, accompanied with the announcement of an early new election date. The Election Commission announced on 2 January a postponement until 18 February. This is reasonable in and of itself but it said nothing about the other crucial changes discussed in this Briefing and which are needed if this step is to contribute to restoration of democracy in Pakistan;
  • full restoration of the constitution, including an independent judiciary and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and safeguards against illegal arrest and detention;
  • reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan, with the consensus of all major political parties; and
  • the transfer of power and legitimate authority to elected civilian hands.
Hear, hear. Also, while we're at it, we'd also like the U.S. constitution to be reinstated, including the entire Bill of Rights.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

No security for Bhutto

Bhutto was denied proper security by the Pakistan government, according to Indian experts who provide similar security to ex-Prime Ministers and other VIPs.
The SPG official is of the firm opinion that the upgrades might have saved Ms Bhutto’s life. According to him, four cardinal principles of security for high-risk targets were violated in the course of Ms Bhutto’s campaign rally at the Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi [...]

Ms Bhutto’s vehicle should have been shielded from the crowd by the presence of other escort cars, which would have rendered it more difficult for an attacker to find a suitable line of fire. This was indeed one of the complaints listed in her e-mail [to American confidant Mark Siegel].
See full story by Praveen Swami in the Hindu newspaper. (SPG = Special Protection Group, a specialized protection force formed by India's interior ministry following a review after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. They are considered highly effective and conversant with the security requirements for VIPs in South Asia).

Some commentators in the West have written that Bhutto should have arranged for her own security. But these measures require permission from the authorities: permission which was not granted to Bhutto. And as an ex-Prime Minister, she was entitled to proper security; security that she repeatedly demanded but was never given.

In light of the clear danger to her, and the bombing of her homecoming rally in October, there is simply no excuse behind which the Musharraf government can hide. They killed the woman, as surely as pulling the trigger. And now they are trying to cover it up by intimidating the doctors who tended to her.

Doctors without orders

The doctors who tried to revive Benazir Bhutto in her final hours are now afraid for their lives.
Pakistani authorities have pressured the medical personnel who tried to save Benazir Bhutto's life to remain silent about what happened in her final hour and have removed records of her treatment from the facility, according to doctors.

In interviews, doctors who were at Bhutto's side at Rawalpindi General Hospital said they were under extreme pressure not to share details about the nature of the injuries that the opposition leader suffered in an attack here Dec. 27.

"The government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto's time of death was read out," said a visibly shaken doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity [...]
See full report by Emily Wax and Griff Witte in the Washington Post.

This entire report is so consistent with the Musharraf government's incompetent bungling, that it's totally believable. They are certainly hiding something.