Mumbai Attack's Success Could Spawn Copycats

NW DELHI // Wednesday’s night-time assault in Mumbai is just the latest and loudest in a steady drumbeat of mayhem across India.

Since September 11, the number of terror attacks in India has steadily increased, slowly at first but all in a rush of late: from 2002 to 2005, two attacks each year; in 2006, three attacks; in 2007, four attacks; and this year, at least seven major attacks since May, resulting in more than 300 killed and about 1,500 injured.

With the latest attack, two aspects stand out. The first is that a handful of young, presumably inexperienced men – in some of the grainy photos the attackers look like teenagers – were capable of executing such a sophisticated attack. Such brazenness underscores the lack of security in Mumbai and across much of India.

More worrisome still is the tactical shift the attacks suggest. Traditionally, Indian terror attacks spring from long-standing Hindu-Muslim tensions, which have been simmering and occasionally boiling over since before partition. Terrorism in India has for decades been little more than an increasingly deadly game of communal tit-for-tat. But this assault was aimed at foreigners.

American and British foreigners were targeted in particular, according to witnesses – and this may mark a reorientation away from religious animosity and towards a more diffuse, al Qa’eda-style anti-westernism.

Just look at the targets. The 137-year-old Leopold’s is one of Mumbai’s longest-running restaurants, and deservedly popular. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is the city’s largest train station and is frequented not just by locals but also foreign travellers who come to gaze in awe at the stunning Gothic exterior that has made the former Victoria Terminus a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Oberoi Trident hotel at Nariman Point is often filled with foreign business travellers. Senior executives from personal goods behemoth Unilever and members of European Parliament were among those holed up there on Wednesday night. Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, finally, is not only a world-class hotel popular with high-end tourists and businessmen, it is also an iconic landmark.

Considering the success of the attack – at least 101 killed, nearly 300 hurt, the Mumbai stock exchange shutdown, the city stopped in its tracks – it is likely to inspire more. Hundreds of locals, tourists and foreign businessmen have already begun recounting the horrors of what they assumed would be a pleasant night out.

As word spreads and the message sinks in, foreigners are sure to raise questions about visiting or doing business in India. What precautions should I take? Will I be safe? Are Indian authorities capable of protecting all of their monuments, lodgings and transport and business hubs?

So the pressure is on Delhi, where terrorism has become a political football, tossed back and forth depending on the latest news. New, harsher legislation is tabled but rarely passed, as blame is laid at the feet of one among a clutch of shadowy, acronym-bearing terror groups. The names hardly matter as little is ever revealed about their infrastructure and not a single conviction has been handed down.

After Wednesday, however, the concern might become less political and more sincere; India’s international reputation – among this budding power’s most prized possessions – is at stake. Despite a wealth of experience dealing with terrorism – after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, India has suffered the most terrorist attacks in the world over the past two years – Indian authorities do not appear up to the task.

At 126 per 100,000 inhabitants, India’s police-to-population ratio is less than half that of most developed nations.

They respond slowly to attacks and do nothing to prevent them. Note how the Mumbai attackers, armed to the teeth with machine guns and hand grenades, were comfortable enough to calmly stroll around undisguised, controlling some of the most high-profile sites in the country for more than a dozen excruciating hours.

Further, these attacks came months after a known terrorist organisation had warned of a major attack on Mumbai. Even with ample time and motivated by clear intent, India’s intelligence personnel were unable to find any warning signs.

This may be the result of a severe shortage of information-gathering personnel, as found by a government-sponsored intelligence assessment in 2001 – the recommendations of which have yet to be implemented. But it is more than a matter of numbers. India’s police and intelligence forces suffer from inadequate training, equipment and technological support and a misguided mandate.

To combat the Maoist insurgency raging across the Indian heartland – which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has repeatedly called India’s “greatest internal security threat” – the best and the brightest are often steeped in guerrilla warfare. Thus they remain unfamiliar with the slow, methodical cat-and-mouse of counter-terrorism.

Ajai Sahni, the director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a security think tank, think that combating India’s growing terror menace, “demands a transformation, a virtual reinvention, of how we look at and practise policing in this country”.

For the time being, India has little chance of preventing any future attacks, thus endangering its 1.2 billion citizens and millions of foreign guests – along with its rising international profile.

-- ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 28.


Somali Pirates Provoke Rising Power

Pirates have captured the public imagination for centuries, from the exploits of Blackbeard to Hollywood's jaunty Jack Sparrow and the hijacking of the oil tanker Sirius Star just last week. Brisk adventure and jaw-dropping booty – high seas thievery has long been easy to romanticize and far more difficult to denounce for the serious criminal activity it is.

So it goes for the Somali pirates that have wreaked increasing havoc in the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia in recent months. Piracy in the region has tripled this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with over 120 attacks resulting in 40 hijackings, hundreds of hostages and at least seven dead crew. Estimates of Somali pirates' 2008 ransom income range from $30 million to $150 million.

A recent rash of brazen attacks has upped the ante. The Star hijacking took place a full 450 nautical miles from the coast of Kenya, meaning the pirates have put all area shipping routes at risk. Feeling the heat, major commercial shipping firms – including the world's largest carrier, Copenhagen-based AP Moller-Maersk – have begun diverting their liners away from the area, even though the alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope means millions in extra costs. Analysts estimate up to half a billion dollars lost shipping revenue this year.

Yet rapt news reports highlight the pirates' shiny mansions, advanced weaponry and high-tech gadgets. The international community appears baffled, responding with concern but minimal focus. Most agree that a long-term solution involving the establishment of a stable Somali government could take up to a decade. About short-term responses there has been no such consensus.

In a hastily arranged meeting with its neighbors, Egypt tried last week to forge a joint regional anti-piracy strategy, to no avail. The United Nations has authorized asset freezes and travel bans, despite the fact that Somali pirates live off cash ransoms dropped from helicopters. NATO has dispatched several warships, but like the US and the EU, points out that it has no jurisdiction to attack hijacked ships. The possibility of attacking pirate ships is rarely addressed.

The United States has been particularly feeble. Last week the US Navy told shipping companies to ensure their own security by hiring private contractors. Yet over three years ago Navy Admiral Michael Mullin, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested a global security partnership to tackle maritime piracy and terrorism. The only result is the US-run Global Fleet Station, a pilot version of which was launched last year in the Caribbean, suggesting the US is either living in the past or watching too many movies.

Contrast all this with the confident clarity coming from India. Ever since Indian shipowners and seafarers' unions outlined the pirate threat – tens of thousands of Indian sailors and more than a third of India's sea trade pass through the region every year – Delhi has moved with laser-like focus. The navy dispatched a warship to the region in mid-October, and its personnel have in recent weeks foiled three attempted hijackings and sunk a pirate mother ship – the only nation to do so. Last week the Indian government authorized hot pursuit of pirate vessels, announced the imminent dispatch of three more warships and a reconnaissance aircraft and urged the United Nations to orchestrate joint action. The International Maritime Bureau has praised India's response and urged the international community to follow it.

India has been facing down piracy since making maritime history with the rescue of a Japanese vessel from pirate hands in the Arabian Sea in 1999. Indian frigates escorted US warships headed to Afghanistan through the pirate-infested Malacca Straits in 2002. And after the devastating 2004 tsunami as well as after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar earlier this year, Indian ships were first to deliver aid and relief supplies.

Yet last week's missions marked a sea change – the first time the Indian Navy had fired shots in anger so far from home. The world's largest democracy has long sought to transform its economic growth into military and diplomatic might, and is in the process of acquiring the hallmarks of a naval power – aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. These recent maneuvers, 1800 miles from its shores, represent a more aggressive stance, an effort to exert control over the waters from Djibouti to Indonesia – a stretch of open and not-so-open sea through which 20,000 commercial vessels and crucial regional energy supplies pass each year.

Paired with a successful moon landing earlier this month and the recently completed civilian nuclear deal with the US, India's anti-pirate aggression is the act of a rising world power seizing the opportunity on a flood-lit stage. And this new regional sheriff may be inspiring its neighbors. South Korea is hinting it will soon send a warship to the Horn. Japan, too, is considering sending navy vessels. And just last week, Coast Guard officers from 10 countries – including Russia, China and Korea – received anti-piracy lessons from Indian officers in the waters off Chennai.

The most oft-told pirate tale is that of Caesar's bloody revenge: the confident 25-year-old nobleman persuaded the Cilicians to double their ransom demand, which was duly paid; months later, after raising a navy, Caesar returned to capture and crucify all of his captors. Less familiar is what followed, as Cilician pirates tormented the Roman Empire for nearly a decade, until Roman military leader Pompey waged a fierce, months-long campaign to eradicate them.

Today's crisis in the Horn is not dissimilar, and will require much more than a single battle.

“The only solution I see is a coordinated effort by various naval forces,” said Fred Burton, analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based risk assessment agency. “The problem is that no single country wants to take the lead.”

In the past couple weeks India has done just that, but its Caesar-like, lone-wolf aggression will not end the threat. A UN Security Council draft resolution that calls upon capable navies to dispatch armed vessels and combat the menace would be a good first step. But whether the international community is ready to follow India's lead and take on Somali piracy with the seriousness it deserves remains to be seen.

-- edited version of this op-ed ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 24.


Indian Muslim Leaders Gather to Denounce Terrorism

Hyderabad// Fed up with being blamed for bomb blasts throughout the country, thousands of Indian Muslim leaders descended on this south Indian city to denounce terrorism and ban violence against innocents in the name of Islam.

“There is no relation whatsoever between Islam and terrorism; the two are poles apart,” reads the landmark fatwa signed by 6,000 clerics from across India. “Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence … and does not allow it in any form.”

Organised by Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, which has more than 10 million members and a strong bond with the conservative Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, the two-day conference culminated on Sunday evening with an open-air gathering of nearly 100,000 devotees. Among a clutch of strongly worded resolutions were calls for better integration of Muslims into Indian society, a law against religious violence, an end to the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the creation of a Palestinian state.

But the focus was on putting terrorism in its place.

“By coming here we are extending our fight against terrorism,” said Maulana Mahmood Madani, leader of Jamiat and a member of the Indian parliament. “Because these terrorists are making a sustained effort to destabilise this country, we also have to make our effort in a sustained manner to contain this problem.”

Besides the failed and failing states of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, over the past two years no country has experienced more terror-related incidents than India. Since May, a rash of co-ordinated bombings have killed more than 200 and injured nearly 1,000, with radical Muslim groups claiming responsibility for most of the attacks.

Indian Muslim organisations have begun a counter-offensive. Deoband issued an anti-terror fatwa in February, signed by three leading clerics. This weekend’s ratification of a similar resolution represents a near-consensus across the Indian ulama.

“This fatwa will slow down the terrorist activities,” said Dr N Ali Mandal, a signee and a cleric from the village of Rol in West Bengal. “It will also mean better understanding, better treatment of Muslims in India and hopefully beyond.”

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a Delhi-based security think tank, believed the resolution would hamper recruitment.

“The fatwa will have a great impact, but not a direct and immediate impact in terms of stopping the attacks,” Mr Sahni said. “When you have an alternative interpretation from the seat of authority, this automatically creates doubt – young, fringe radicals who still regard these muftis as their spiritual guides, those people will be forced to rethink their ideologies.”

Mr Sahni believed the fatwa would influence Pakistani Muslims as well. Others wonder whether it might reach further west, to Afghanistan, where the Taliban claim descendance from Deobandi religious thought.

“Afghanistan is a different country, a different political state – it is to the people there to accept or reject our resolutions,” said Mr Madani, acknowledging different interpretations of Islam. Yet he added: “Jihad is a fight against destructive aggression. Terrorism is itself aggression, destruction, so terrorism can never be jihad.”

Such pronouncements are of a piece with a new regional outspokenness against terrorism. For the past year, Saudi Arabia has been rehabilitating terrorists with lessons on proper and improper jihad. Jamiat is organising an anti-terror gathering of Muslim leaders from across South Asia for early 2009. This month, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, another Indian Muslim organisation, will lead two simultaneous peace caravans across India to counter terrorism and religious animosity. And last month in Lahore, clerics from a handful of leading Pakistani Muslim groups issued their own fatwa, against suicide bombing and free interpretations of jihad.

“This is done at grave personal risk, as they make themselves potential targets,” Mr Sahni said. “Terrorists have usually been more unforgiving of Muslims who speak out against them.”

Indian Muslims – the world’s third largest Muslim population at 150 million – argue that they are often unfairly targeted.

“The perception of Islam and Muslims is the core issue,” Mr Madani, a charismatic speaker who brought the clerics to their feet, said later. “If we could deliver the message that Islam and Muslims have no relationship with terrorism, we believe this will have an impact on people, law agencies and the media.”

Recent events have aided their case: many security analysts are questioning the authenticity of an August shoot-out between police and alleged terrorists in Jamia Nagar, a Muslim Delhi neighbourhood; and the accused in the September bomb blasts in Malegoan, a city in the state of Maharashtra, are Hindu nationalists.

The Sunday evening finale of the largest Muslim conclave in India in nearly four years offered an Islam that was open-minded and peace-loving. Sitting cross-legged on mats under a cool, cloudless sky, reverent attendees shot videos, snapped photos and recorded speeches with mobile phones held aloft as banks of black loudspeakers boomed the words of various leaders – Muslim, Hindu and political – deep into the night.

“Islam and terrorism have been mixed together, and we have to de-link them,” said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Hindu spiritual leader and founding director of the Art of Living. “In order to do that there must be unity, between Muslims and between all religious faiths.”

Mohammed Sharif, a Quran teacher from Nizamabad, felt the enormity of the moment. “This terror fatwa is for each and everyone’s benefit – it will help everyone if people stop doing such things,” he said. Mr Sharif rode seven hours on a bus with his 12-year-old son, Majed, to attend the gathering.

“He wanted to come see Hyderabad,” Mr Sharif said of his son. “With all of the great scholars here, I hope he learns something, too."

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 11.

India's Divisive, Dark Ages Politics

A small independent film was banned from Mumbai theatres this week. Unremarkable in another place and time, “Deshdrohi” just happened to hit on the incendiary issue of Mumbai society today: migrant workers. Thus the release of this tale of a north Indian laborer trying to make it in the big city has been delayed for 60 days. “Some of the scenes in the film are such that they can provoke a law-and-order situation,” a police spokesperson said.

A roiling wave of xenophobia first welled here in February, when rising right-wing politician Raj Thackeray bashed workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – two poor, north Indian states – for taking all of Mumbai's taxi and auto-rickshaw driver jobs. Such work is for “sons of the soil,” he said, referring to speakers of Marathi, the local tongue. In the days that followed, local youths attacked immigrant drivers viciously, injuring dozens and killing two.

Thackeray continued his anti-outsider campaign and the wave swelled, cresting in late October when goons from his political party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, attacked north Indians as they were taking exams for local positions with the Indian railways. The next day police arrested Thackeray for inciting violence, which touched off widespread riots and acts of arson by MNS members and brought Mumbai to a near standstill.

By the time he was released the following day on bail, Thackeray had struck fear into outsiders and captured the hearts of millions of dissatisfied locals. When a week later Bihari immigrant Rahul Raj was shot dead by police after commandeering a bus with a pistol and threatening to kill Thackeray, few were surprised.

Mumbai is India's commercial heart and most cosmopolitan city, and immigrants have long been integral to its evolution. Indo-Iranians first settled this stretch of Arabian Sea coast in the third century BC. Marathi speakers arrived en masse only after the collapse of the Maratha empire in the early 19th century. In recent decades, as the Indian economy has boomed, skilled and unskilled workers have poured into the city to seek their fortune. Today, Marathi speakers represent less than 50 percent of Mumbai's 17 million population, and migrant workers – the majority from north Indian states – snatch up the low-paying jobs disdained by suddenly middle class Maharashtrians. They keep banks and businesses secure, build homes and office buildings, clean streets and pick up trash, drive locals from place and place and deliver Hinduism's most revered consumable – milk. Without them, the city would grind to halt.

To combat their progress, Raj has followed in the anti-outsider footsteps of his uncle Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 with the stated goal of securing jobs for Maharashtrians in the face of steady north Indian immigration. A local political icon partially retired at 82 years old, Bal claims to admire Adolf Hitler and hates without prejudice: outsiders, foreigners, Muslims, Christians, you name it. He is alleged to have coordinated the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims during Mumbai's religious riots in 1993 and, a few months ago, called for Hindu suicide bombers in response to a recent rash of bomb attacks in Indian cities.

Following that line, Raj's aggressively hate-filled, pro-Marathi stance has touched a vein of disenchantment and stirred an angry young army of committed indoctrinates. With each unchecked incident, each arrest, his power has grown. “Far too much latitude had been shown to Raj Thackeray and the MNS,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote in a recent letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. “We need to dispel any impression that people from one part of the country are not welcome in another, and cannot live in peace anywhere they choose.”

In its inherent ignorance and incitement to violence, Thackeray's stance brings to mind a darker age, in which fearful citizens of fortified city-states were protected from the mysterious, dangerous other by warlords who unleashed their minions on invaders. Such divisive, Dark Ages politics remain effective in India partially because they offer such great spectacle. Images of desperate, blood-splattered outsiders, flaming taxis and carnage in the streets, marauding gangs of angry young defenders and inflammatory remarks are played repeatedly on dozens of news channels and displayed prominently in local, regional and national newspapers. For ratcheting up the fear and subtly validating defense of the homeland in its sensationalist, non-stop coverage, the media must accept a portion of the blame for Thackeray's rise.

And he is not alone. Taking its lead from the Raj era British policy of divide and rule, politicians across India – in Andhra Pradesh and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam – have begun to exploit the uneducated lower classes, appealing to local fears and highlighting regional divides in order to blame the other for the sad state of the majority – when in fact it is the politicians themselves who have failed to serve the people.

The trend is particularly worrisome as India has long been both strung together and pushed apart by its astonishing diversity. One of the Upanishads, a series of ancient and influential Hindu scriptures, claimed “the whole world is my family,” more than 2500 years ago.“The roots of this culture go back to ancient times and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples,” south Indian intellectual Kota Shivarama Karanth wrote more recently. “Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force.” And sixty years after his death Gandhi remains the world's defining symbol of non-violence.

Yet even he was assassinated, and the country he fathered was born in one of the last century's great orgies of violence, Partition, which has been followed by lesser if also horrifying spasms: against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and during a recent anti-Christian pogrom in Orissa, to name a few. Historically, such disputes have hinged on religion, but politicians have shown few qualms with shifting their focus to linguistic and regional divisions. Now the hate that dare speak its name threatens, according to Singh, to “undermine the unity and integrity of the country.”

A world away, another, almost equally diverse democracy recently made history by electing a dark-skinned minority to its highest office. Around the time Barack Obama began his campaign on a message of unity and change, an upstart Maharashtrian politician began his own political career with a call for inclusiveness.“I am seeking a chance, with a clean slate, to show you that change is possible,” Raj Thackeray told a Mumbai crowd in January 2007.

That Thackeray's embrace of Dark Ages divisiveness over the past year has garnered him much greater support is a sad commentary on the state of Indian politics. One that suggests it may have been unreasonable to hope that “Deshdrohi,” with its simple depiction of a migrant laborer tossed about and finally killed by an unwelcoming metropolis, might spark a little understanding.

-- an edited version ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 16.

In new India, age-old festival losing ground

Sonepur, India // Krishna Kanhai Singh sat on his front porch in this rural Bihar village last weekend watching the kick-off of the Sonepur Mela, an age-old religious festival and animal market that suddenly seemed unfamiliar.

“It’s sad, our festival is shrinking and changing,” said Mr Singh, 53, whose family has lived for a century in a rickety wooden house on the grounds of the event, long known as Asia’s largest cattle fair. “The government is not funding the animal market and the people don’t care.”

A series of conditions – new federal laws on animal trade, shifting societal and governmental interests, rampant lawlessness and the impact of a summer flood – have conspired to stifle the animal market and transform a revered, centuries-old festival into something more foreign to locals.

As lowing cows, bathing elephants and straggly bearded holy men have in recent years given way to sleek advertisements, tractor display rooms and high-end gadgets, Mr Singh’s stoop has served as a front-row seat to the changing face of India.

“All these changes are bad for the fair and bad for Biharis,” said Mr Singh, surrounded by a dozen children and grandchildren. “I don’t know if it will die, but I almost wish it would.”

For aeons, Hindu pilgrims have gravitated to Sonepur on the first full moon of November for a visit to the Vishnu temple and an auspicious bath at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges, Hinduism’s holiest river. Animal traders, meanwhile, trace the festival’s market back to the ancient king Chandragupta Maurya, who is said to have bought horses and elephants here.

Historically the festival stretched across more than a dozen villages, but by the mid-20th century it had settled into a grassy expanse at the meeting of the two rivers.

Earlier this week barkers droned into microphones as Hindi tunes blared across muddy, meandering bazaars lined with kitchenware, noodle stands, sweetmeats and a dizzying selection of knick-knacks, like a shrivelled plant, dubbed “the one that brings dead to life”, that blossomed in water.

A family of gypsy musicians roamed the animal stalls, plopping down in the dirt to play traditional songs amid gathering crowds. And a warren of caged parrots and parakeets, white rabbits, Dobermans, dachshunds and a lone Rhesus monkey watched the passing human circus.

Yet from the millions-strong crowds in the mid-1990s, the fair, which continues into December, will welcome an estimated 150,000 visitors this year, most of whom arrived early and departed quickly. Two decades ago a visitor could contemplate the spectacle of 50,000 cattle, up to a thousand elephants and the same number of horses. This year there were less than 1,000 cattle, about 500 ponies and horses and no more than 50 elephants.

“Success is not in how many cattle came, that’s just one component, there are other things like markets, jeeps, and the religious aspect,” said Ashok Kumar Chouhan, the festival organiser and local government commissioner. He said the festival budget, at six million rupees (Dh442,700), had risen in recent years.

Ramjanam Diwari, 58, an elephant seller, had a different perspective. He swept his arm across a stretch of recently built homes and explained how the festival had in the past 20 years lost three-fourths of its acreage.

“The government has failed us,” said Mr Diwari. “They used to fix up the roads, add street lights, construct temporary roadside inns, but now there’s nothing, maybe five per cent of the facilities that were here. They are gradually and systematically killing the mela.”

Death may not be imminent, but the contraction of the animal market is likely to continue. Fewer animals are arriving from other states because of increasing transport costs and a recent law banning transport of for-sale cattle across state lines. Corrupt officials ask for increasingly large bribes, according to traders, both during transport and to secure a stall at the fair. And as the state government pushes development and industrialisation, Bihar’s younger generation seems more interested in iPod’s and Levis than traditional pastoral pursuits.

Hetukar Jha, a retired Patna University sociology professor who has studied regional animal husbandry, pointed out a few more reasons.

“Because of increased lawlessness in rural areas, people find it less safe to move around with lots of money or with valuable goods, like livestock,” he said. “Horses are not used for transport anymore, nor elephants or camels. And because so many people are moving to urban areas, they don’t have room to keep these big animals.”

The Indian government banned the sale of elephants in 2003 because of a rise in unauthorised sales that led to mistreatment and illegal ivory procurement.

But a loophole was quickly found: sellers now hand over the elephant as a “gift” and receive a large “donation” in return. Thus B B Singh, a wealthy landowner, donated nearly 2.5m rupees in return for the gift of two elephants.

“We have had an elephant in our family for 150 years,” said Mr Singh, as his mahout, chief negotiator, assistant and bodyguard looked on. “Other people have jeeps and SUV’s, I have an elephant; in Bihar it’s still a status symbol.”

It might not be for long. According to the fair organiser, the shift away from animals is by design.

“Last year I had to learn a few things,” said Mr Chouhan, the organising committee chairman for the past two years. “Now, instead of putting the focus on cattle we are trying to convert the mela, to rebrand it as a rural auto-expo and create a modern, industrialised fair.”

The latest edition presented more than a whiff of modernity, with ads for mobile phones and powdered cappuccino. Locals peered into shops hawking major appliances and large vehicles like John Deere tractors and Tata conversion vans but few stepped inside.

“I’m not sure how effective government implemented change can be,” said Mr Jha, the sociologist. “It was always the people’s mela, and that’s the way it will stay.”

For many people the outlook was grim. With declining attendance, merchant revenues have drooped. One samosa seller tried to charge two Dutch tourists 10,000 rupees (Dh 739) for four of the snacks, which typically cost three rupees each.

The cow dealer Mundrika Prasad Yadav, a 72-year-old from the state capital Patna, had been coming to the fair for 30 years and said the steep decline began around 2000. “My business is 10 per cent of what it was a decade ago,” he said.

Mr Diwari, the veteran elephant seller, was keeping close watch on his prized animals, which were co-operatively owned by members of his village. “Whatever I get in donations from these two will be distributed to all the villagers,” said Mr Diwari, from Taribara village in Uttar Pradesh. “But there’s not much interest this year.”

Jimhi Lal Rai, a 48-year-old cattle trader from nearby Hajipur, sold 20 cows last year, but this year had sold only two.

“Right now I’ve lost about 70,000 rupees on this festival,” he said. “If I don’t sell the rest of my cows I will have to start working as a labourer.”

Mr. Jha, however, sounded a hopeful note.

“Melas will change with the times, the items on offer will shift. But because the religious aspect will always be there, the festival will never die.”

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 20.


Obama Renews This Expat's Pride

DELHI // A little more than 60 years ago a sharp-eyed, diminutive man with the tongue-twisting name of Jawaharlal brought the world’s most populous democracy into being with a stirring, landmark speech.

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,” began Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, speaking in August 1947. “Now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.”

Squeezed into a south Delhi cafe not far from where those words were spoken, a ragtag band of nearly 100 Barack Obama admirers – Indians as well as Americans and various other foreigners – watched the United States redeem not one but two pledges with Tuesday’s presidential election.

Subdued optimism gave way to unbridled glee when the results appeared on the big screen at 9.30am local time. People stood and cheered, hooted, hollered and whistled.

“Bush created a perception of what Americans are like – arrogant and unable to listen,” Rishi Jaitly said shortly after bear hugging anyone within reach. An American of Indian origin, he has been working in Delhi as a policy analyst for Google since early last year. “This reaffirms that we are an exceptional country; today I’m so proud to be an American.”

Whether the dream of Dr Martin Luther King Jr has come to pass – and African Americans can proclaim themselves “free at last” – is not yet clear. But never has the United States so boldly lived out its creed: that all men are created equal. Come Jan 20, Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American raised in near poverty by a single mother, will become the most powerful man on the planet. A more persuasive argument for American democracy is hard to imagine.

Of greater concern for the world’s six billion non-Americans are the values for which the US has long stood: fairness and morality, liberty and human dignity, values many believe George W Bush trashed with post -September 11 bullying.

“When Bush was elected for the second time – after the Iraq war and torture and that – America lost a lot of respect in the world,” said Miguel Alcalde, a 29-year-old Spaniard who has been in India for a year. “But this means that people have had enough. This is good for America.”

Working as a South Asia correspondent for the past few years, I have faced regular fallout from the Bush failures. The most cutting occurred this past May. I was walking towards the Red Mosque in Islamabad when I locked eyes with a gentle-looking, white-bearded man wearing a salwar kameez and a skullcap.

“What country are you from?” he asked, smiling and walking alongside me.

“I’m from the United States,” I said.

He winced as if in pain.

“Why are you coming here and killing us?” he asked.

“I’m not killing anyone, sir,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Well your president sure is, coming here, going to Iraq, killing Muslims,” he said, holding my arm for balance as we negotiated a series of awkward kerbs.

“Yeah, well, I think he’s trying to do something good but doesn’t know how to go about it,” I said sheepishly.

“He’s not doing anything good!” the man retorted, pausing as we reached his turning. “And I speak better English than he does.”

Such people as Mufti Omar see hope in Mr Obama.

In South Asia, Mr Bush is widely panned, and support for John McCain has been scarce. Mr Obama is seen as offering redemption, the possible renewal of those great American values. His tryst with the world is thus not just a historical precedent, but a crucial break from the recent past.

Still, the Indian government is already voicing concern that in an effort to shore up a still tense relationship with Pakistan, Mr Obama will force Delhi’s hand in Kashmir. Other countries are sure to have their own concerns and with Mr Obama’s record so slim, his career still in its infancy, it is impossible to predict how successful a president he will be.

Yet even before he settles into the Oval Office and makes his first decision, the progress is clear. His middle name, for instance, is gaining him fans in the Muslim world.

Henry Pedersen, 22, an American camel genetics researcher, recalls being asked when he visited Algeria this year: “You’re electing a Shia president?”

“They were absolutely shocked,” he said. “But they definitely dig it.”

Can Mr Obama’s skin colour and background offer hope for the world’s minorities and disadvantaged?

“This is about America opening up to the rest of the world,” said Himali Kapil, 32, a Delhi-based writer and filmmaker. “The identities that truly represent America are finding their voice – that’s what feels so positive about Obama.”

For those eager to see Mr Obama in office, nearly two years of campaigning has revealed a steady hand, a sharp mind and confident, deliberate leadership skills.

“The good thing about Obama is that he might talk to somebody before bombing the crap out of them,” said John Butler, a Briton doing voluntary work in India. “It’s nice to have hope in a politician again.”

Could it really be? That after eight years, there will be no more discomfort when talk turns to international politics? No more bullying, no more assaults on the English language from the leader of the free world? We shall see. For many Americans abroad, however, Nov 4 2008 will go down as the dawning of a bright, new morning for the US on the world stage.

-- published in The National (www.thenational.ae) on 6 Nov 2008.