Wednesday, November 29

Impressions II

Fall is a pretty season. Not just because it paints a beautiful landscape. It also provides wholesome bird-watching opportunity! And no girl would disagree.

The weather in fall is moderately cold (nights can get really bad, but then acche bacche don’t stay out late nights!), and warm clothing is essential. And that’s where the fun begins. Back home in Pune, I don’t remember having bought multiple sweaters or having worn them for more than 20 days of the entire winter season. Unless you are traveling early morning or late night, you hardly need a sweater. In school, which was an afternoon session, I didn’t even have a sweater! It would be pleasant. ‘Gulabi thandi’ for those who know what I mean.

The cold weather that I have experienced here is different and currently restricted only to Fall. And I am looking forward to winter. Snow is a major attraction. But an even greater attraction is winter fashion! Over the last two months since temperatures started dropping, every day has been a treat to my fashion buds. Girls here know how to look pretty even in minus temperatures! The range of winter fashion that I have experienced here, and tempted to buy is awesome. The variety of overcoats, jackets, sweaters, scarves, caps, gloves, shoes….. magnificent! I remember wearing either regular black front-open sweater or pullovers back home. I hardly knew anything else beyond that. A denim jacket or a windcheater at the most. But then winters were never so cold. Here I see girls in all hues and shades, dressed up in lovely sweaters, overcoats, boots, scarves and caps. They look both cozy and stylish. On any given day at the 7.00AM bus, a girl so dressed up would enter, carefully remove her overcoat and gloves and wear them again as her stop comes closer. And all this without disturbing her hair, makeup, or getting conscious about people watching. I could never have imagined taking off my sweater without spoiling my hairdo. This means it stayed there no matter how warm, or I removed it without bothering about the hair.

Probably it is the moderation of Fall that allows them to do that. Perhaps winters would be different. Perhaps they only look warm. Perhaps someday I would have the entire range of winter clothes and look as composed and elegant even in snow! {Hint* Hint* ;) }

Tuesday, November 21


There are so many I-did-not-expect-that things that you encounter when you are in a new place. After more than three months in the US I can say there are n number of things that I did not expect and experienced here. But what happened over the last couple of days takes the crown. We had power failure! Na, not the Bush one. Power failure as in 'batti gul'!

Of course there are power failures everywhere. But here! And twice in a row!! No way!!! I definitely did not expect that. The entire University of Maryland, College Park campus had a power failure for almost an hour today morning. Reason: some transformer somewhere. (no one I knew, knew what had happened:( ) Result: Statistically significant increase in levels of happiness on campus. Classes canceled for the hour, student disapparations, irritated professors, marginal increase in coffee sales, extended lunch hours, excited shopping plans, have-a-happy-thanksgivings.

The other power failure was at the place I live. I was in the bathroom getting ready for a lakeside walk. Looked into the mirror. Soaped face. Closed eyes. Bent down. Washed face. Looked up. Darkness. SOS!! And then suddenly the lights started flickering. It went dark again. Flicker. Dark. The sequence continued for more than half an hour. Rental office: Reason unknown. Electrical friends: Reason: some transformer somewhere.

Sunday, November 12

The missing green

(Pix: Bala)

I am in love! The weather is awesome. I can feel the wind through my hair tickling the nerve endings. The ripples in the lake carry fall colors to the banks. The ducks slide along smiling. The bench amidst trees makes me skip a heartbeat. I trod over fallen leaves. They miss you.

Friday, November 10

A different perspective

The first thing that comes to our mind when we hear the word radical Islam, is terrorism. It brings to mind the picture of an AK47 sporting Muslim guy who kills for religious reasons. The media has fed us with so much of ‘jihad' that it is difficult to think of radical groups as anything but driven by and killing for a religion. However, today I heard a talk by Eli Berman that gave me an economic and sociological perspective into the motives behind the formation and development of a radical group.

Berman’s mainly argued that ‘God’ or ‘religion’ is not the central motive of a member of a radical* group**. Instead the motives are altruistic. Ariel Morari, an Israeli psychiatrist studied suicide bombers and their families to conclude that they do not mention religion and heaven/afterlife as their motives. Neither is the primary motive seeking revenge for a personal attack nor economic deprivation. These people do not show any suicidal tendencies and are not depressed. Instead they have altruistic motives along with delusions about self-importance. They generally aim to change the status-quo or the current government they are unhappy with.

According to Berman every person tries to be a part of that group which provides him resources and benefits to run his family. Generally it is the government. But it could also be the radical group. These groups are involved in providing basic services like schools (even if in the form of mercenary schools), hospitals or health services, loan facilities and the like. The person will be a part of whichever of the two he thinks provides him better facilities. This to me has two implications. One, a country with a weak and inefficient government has a greater risk of strong radical groups. Two, a country/region afflicted by presence of violent radical groups can be treated by creating a strong government that efficiently provides the social services. However creating a strong government is difficult and external intervention for the same can be disastrous as seen in the Afghanistan and Iraq cases.

One of the important characteristic of a radical group is the restrictions it places on its members’ behavior. They have to follow a certain dress code, refrain from certain foods, pray according to schedules, etc. These restrictions leave the member with nothing better to do with his time but do that what the group wants. They are pulled away from the mainstream and the bonding gets stronger. The restrictions make them better participants by concentrating their energies and time on the goals of the group. However this raises the question why at a time when the overall consumption power of individuals is increasing would someone want to opt for the restrictions? Berman says that these groups are like close knit communities that have their own system of mutual aid and insurance where everyone’s needs are fulfilled. When the market in a region grows, benefits of better education, employment and other alternatives increase the fear of selective attrition of the talented young. The members fear that these young earning members would leave their community, country, or group and decrease the supply for mutual aid and insurance. In an effort to keep them within the community they become a part of such radical groups that limit their outside options. By restricting options the radical groups make the members into workers with contained desires and demands. This further makes them stay back in the group and not stray out attracted by the alternatives available. As the available alternatives grow, the restrictions become stricter.

Along with a strong mutual aid system, these groups are also good at coordinate violence. The aid system, restriction, and bonding lead to mutual trust amongst members. A terrorist organization builds upon this trust that it builds up through its benign activities of providing social services. A terrorist organization is, according to Berman, structurally same as the benign organization of a radical group mentioned earlier. The mutual trust helps them carry out terrorist acts, as the leaders are assured of the loyalty of the members they entrust to carry out the activities. As they are cut off from the mainstream, wish to change the status quo, are comfortable within the services and opportunities provided by the group and completely dependent and loyal upon the group they see it as their task to carry out the terrorist acts that they are asked to.

This theory is appealing. But it seems too simplistic an explanation of the existence of terrorist and radical groups. It does not explain exactly when a radical group turns into a terrorist group. There are numerous radical groups in the world (churches, Jewish groups, RSS) which are not terrorist groups. Why are they not violent (terrorists) and why are the ones in the Middle East that he was talking about violent? It creates a lot of questions, but also provides a different perspective into the motives of a radical group, which could help in dealing with terrorist organizations and afflicted regions.

*Used such as to mean away from the mainstream.

**He was talking mostly about radical Islamic groups in the Middle East.

Sunday, November 5

V for...

The Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad on Sunday, November 5 sentenced Saddam Hussein to be hanged. This was the verdict of the first trial against Saddam for the execution of 148 men and boys from the town of Dujail, after a purported assassination attack on him on July 8, 1982. The trial which began on October 19, 2005 concluded on Sunday with the total verdict including,
1. death sentence for willful killings,
2. 10 years for forcible deportation, and
3. 10 years for torture.
Others convicted in the same case include,
1. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half brother and head of his Domestic Intelligence Agency – death sentence;
2. Awad al-Bandar, President of his Revolutionary Court – death sentence;
3. Taha Yasim Ramadan, former Vice President - life imprisonment;
4. 3 local Baath Party officials - 15 years of imprisonment for willful murder and another 7 years for torture.
Only one Baath party official was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Saddam’s lawyers have argued that he was justified in ordering a crackdown on the would-be-assassins as they were Iranian backed Shiite militants and Iraq and Iran were at war at that time.

Under the Iraqi judicial system the case now directly goes to the appellate chamber of the trial court on Monday. Though the chamber does not have to follow any specific deadlines, it is being predicted that Saddam could be hanged next spring after the chamber’s verdict. A second trial on charges of genocide during the 1986-89 Anfal campaign against the Kurds is also underway since August 21, 2006. Six other co-defendants are also being tried for the same.

The Saddam Hussein trial had been marked by delays, violence and courtroom drama. Three defense lawyers were killed during the trial and the original judge, Rizkar Mohammed Amin resigned in protest of governmental interference. Rauf Rashid Abdel Rahman, a Kurd was later appointed in his place. Human rights organizations like the Amnesty International, and international legal experts have questioned the impartiality of the verdict. According to them there were serious shortcomings in the fairness of the proceedings that undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the trial.

Some critics view the timing of the verdict to have been manipulated to come just before the midterm elections in the US on November 7. Failure in Iraq has been an important election campaign issue and surveys have predicted a loss for the Republicans due to it. The Bush administration had come under severe domestic and international criticism over the Iraq war and its failure in finding the purported WMDs, and restoring democracy and peace to the country. The issue of massive American causalities has been prominent in the election campaign. The verdict thus assumes political significance and could be used by the Republicans as a ‘victory’ point to gain some last minute votes. However, White House spokesman Tony Snow has rubbished such claims as being too farfetched and said that the judiciary in Iraq is working independently.

The verdict could also be a political blessing for the current Iraqi government. It symbolizes the victory of good over evil; for a democratically elected government over the tyrannical rule of a dictatorial Saddam Hussein. It can create a sense of the ‘government working for the masses’, as it is the Iraqi judiciary that has passed the verdict. It can lead to a trust in the present government. However, it is also true that bloodshed and misery continue to be a part of Iraqi life even today with regular clashes between the Shias and Sunnis, and the American military presence. The divide between the Shias and Sunni Arabs in Iraq could also increase further as the Sunni Arabs view the verdict as a political charade that satisfies the political agenda of the Shiite led government and the Bush administration.

Whether the verdict actually translates into a Republican majority in the Congress would be clear in a couple of days. Whether it translates into peace and fortune for the Iraqis is the real question.