This appeared in the Pioneer of 28th May at

Here is my original copy:

Thrice betrayed: how Maya Nand was executed by an American prison company

Rajeev Srinivasan on human rights violations by Homeland Security in the US

Maya Nand had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of history three times: and so he died, shackled, untreated for diabetes, in a prison cell in Arizona. (“Family struggled in vain to help suffering detainee”, International Herald Tribune, May 5, 2008 He, a legal immigrant or Green Card holder, made the mistake of applying for US citizenship. This was rejected on a technicality (a misdemeanor charge about domestic violence), and he fell into a Twilight Zone of the penal system. Without recourse to due process, he was incarcerated and essentially subjected to judicial murder in a privately-run prison.

This is startling because it seems like a huge miscarriage of justice, which legal immigrants to the most open and free society in the world should not be subject to. But there are three other aspects that stand out: that poor Maya Nand must have been especially cursed to be so violated by history, three times over; that on the fringes of the legal system of the US there are so many dark corners where people can become non-persons, to be brutalized at will; and that, yet again, the Indian State pays no attention to the oppressed amongst its diaspora.

For, Maya Nand’s ancestors were indentured laborers from India taken to work as near-slaves in the sugar-plantations of Fiji by the British. Nand himself must have suffered from serious discrimination from the indigenous Fijians and therefore moved to the US as a refugee. Finally, with no opportunity to defend himself, he was killed. This is an outrage.

But more alarmingly, it appears legal protections US citizens take for granted are not available to legal immigrant and residents. There are gray areas in the US judicial system that take away the fundamental rights of the individual, including habeas corpus, the right to a fair hearing in court. And the famous ‘Miranda’ rules available to even hardened criminals: “You have the right to remain silent, to an attorney, etc.”

The story of Maya Nand, and a related story about European visitors (“Italian’s Detention Illustrates Dangers Foreign Visitors Face”, New York Times, May 15th, 2008 ), show there are constructs that put non-citizens into a Kafkaesque No-Man’s Land where they are legally not on US soil even though they physically are; and therefore normal US laws do not apply to them, even those that apply to illegal immigrants! Therefore, they can be held indefinitely without being charged, and there is no way that anxious relatives can even get reliable information about them.

In a strange way, this is the mirror-image of the rationale for the post-9/11 terrorist holding facility in the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That is another fiction where the base is not quite considered to be on US soil, and detainees are not considered either enemy combatants or prisoners of war, whereby the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to them (let me hasten to add that I make no assumptions about the innocence or otherwise of those detained in Gitmo, I am merely observing the legal loophole used).

I must admit being shocked when I first read these stories. Accustomed as most of us are to the frequent proclamations about the US being the “home of the free and the land of the brave”, I could not believe such things could happen to holders of the coveted Green Card. (Although, in passing, I know some people who lied about their existing Communist Party affiliations – a big no-no – in their Green Card applications. I am sure they worry someone will bring this little subterfuge to the attention of those grim Homeland Security types. Green Cards, and citizenship, can, and have been, revoked – ask the Indian immigrants who were stripped of citizenship in the early 1900s for being Caucasian but not white).

To some extent these excesses may be over-reactions to 9/11 and the real threat to America from terrorists abroad. But there is a totalitarian streak in the country, which explains how Japanese-Americans were put into concentration camps during World War II. There is also a tendency to apply the harshest methods to non-whites. But then, America has a violent history, including the genocide and cultural extermination of the Native American.

Why does India does not stand up for the rights of its diaspora and demand that the record be set right on historical wrongs? Four years ago, Indian-origin Sikh priest Khem Singh, 72 years old and crippled, was starved to death in another American prison in Fresno, Calif. Before that, there was Charanjit Singh Aujla, shot to dead by plainclothes policemen in Jefferson, Miss. And Navroze Mody, beaten to death in Hoboken, NJ, by racists chanting “dot-head”, an epithet against Indians.

Then there have been the many incidents of oppression, religious and economic, against Indian-origin people in Fiji; they have had no option but to flee. There was violence against Indians in Uganda, Kenya etc. in East Africa, again turning many into refugees; and even before that, Indians were ejected from Burma.

The Indian government has never raised its voice in support of its diaspora in any of these cases. Perhaps that was acceptable when India was a starving banana republic, holding out a begging bowl. But this is not acceptable when India aspires to be a major power.

Then there was the event that showed Indians that the British imperialists were truly evil: April 13th, 1919, Jallianwallah Bagh. The Indian government has never demanded reparations or even an apology from the British for this crime against humanity: 1650 bullets, 1579 casualties.

The Canadians recently decided to make a belated apology for the shameful Komagata Maru incident of 1914 when they denied Indian refugees succor (“Canada to apologize for Komagata Maru”, The Times of India, 13 May 2008, ). More such apologies must be demanded.

India deserves a government that is proud of the nation and leaves no stone unturned in protecting its citizens and its diaspora.

990 words, 15 May 2008

This was published in the New Indian Express on May 7th at

Here’s my original copy, as it was very slightly edited by them:

Air travel as metaphor

By Rajeev Srinivasan

Something odd is happening in the friendly skies these days: It may well be more pleasant now to take a flight in India than in the US! That would sound like sacrilege to those accustomed to the customer-friendliness, so to speak, of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, but a little de-regulation has gone a long way in India. Airlines are actually competing on the basis of providing value to passengers, not ‘rationing’ scarce seats.

On the other hand, high fuel costs, excessive competition, a lax regulatory environment, and the burden of aged equipment and high health-care and pension obligations are forcing American airlines to cut back on customer amenities. Not to mention on required aircraft maintenance. The result is delays, inconvenience, and general passenger frustration. The annual Airline Quality Survey this year gave a minus 2.16 score to the airlines, the worst in two decades.

This, in a way, is a repeat of what has happened in telecommunications. Arguably, cellular telephony is better, cheaper and more leading-edge than in America: Once again, in India, a little deregulation has removed the dead hand of socialist central planning, enabling entrepreneurs to provide a real service and make some money.

Airlines in the US have been cutting corners; this led to the cancellation of 3,000 American Airlines flights in April citing safety concerns. Several airlines have folded, including Aloha, Skybus and ATA, thus reducing flights to Hawaaii.

The actual experience of air travel in the US is made worse by the ordeals in the airports themselves. The security check is a nightmare, as you are forced to take off your shoes (even those worn by infants), your belt, every other item containing any metal, your jacket, your laptop from your carry-on bag, and put all these in plastic bins.

This would be half-tolerable if it weren’t for the thugs, also known as Transportation Safety Administration employees or contractors, who chivvy you along and bully you with barely-concealed disdain. In Newark airport, I was in line behind an old Indian woman and her daughter, who were shouted at and forced to take off every item of gold jewelry, including thin gold chains, bangles and rings, which obviously startled them.

Indian customs officials are infamous for being obnoxious, but these security people are a cut above. There was an infamous prison experiment at Stanford by Professor Zimbardo, wherein he randomly assigned a few students to be prison guards and others to be prisoners. Surprisingly soon, they took to their roles with gusto, and the guards became totalitarian bullies. This psychology may be in action here too.

Once you get on the plane, the torment does not end. I have sat on the tarmac in a tiny Embraer for two hours for a one-hour flight from Washington, DC to Newark. Congestion, the lack of well-trained air-traffic controllers, all this takes a toll. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t one of those who sat for ten hours on some tarmac last year on a Jetblue flight after a winter storm played havoc with their schedules.

The in-flight experience, too, is nothing to write home about. Leg-room is minimal; and if you are unfortunate enough to be wedged next to a large person, you (and they) can hardly breathe. I had a colleague who was forced by an airline to buy a second seat because he was grossly fat. He went to court, and the court agreed with the airline, no doubt pitying the passenger forced to sit next to him.

In-flight service on American airlines (United, Continental, American, Delta) has been pathetic for a long time. The food (including some kind of mystery meat not found anywhere else on earth) is deplorable; if you opt for vegetarian, you get singularly unappetizing boiled vegetables and quantities of cardboard-like lettuce. Fortunately, most airlines have now dispensed with food altogether. The only problem is that people bring on board large salads and sandwiches which they consume throughout the five-hour coast-to-coast flight.

The less said about the flight attendants the better. I once had a neighbor who was senior cabin crew on the San Francisco-Tokyo route for United. She was a battle-axe, and I dread to think of the poor passengers she was supposed to be helping. A lot of it has to do with age, and she was in her late forties. Without being age-ist, it is obvious that the body cannot take the wear-and-tear of being constantly on one’s feet, endemic jet-lag, and being professionally nice, unless one is about twenty-three.

Realizing this, Southeast Asian and East Asian airlines (Singapore, Thai, Korean, Japan) have long competed on in-flight service using young, attentive cabin crew. The Arabs are emulating this: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad hire Asian girls. And finally, India’s airlines have gotten the idea as well. Kingfisher and Jet seem to have found large numbers of attractive and smart young women as cabin crew. Jet has already created a reputation for good service on its international routes. I do hope they keep it up.

The decline in the standards of air travel in the US and the corresponding rise in India is a metaphor for the shifting fortunes of the two nations, and their trajectories. Civil engineering, once America’s pride and joy, is now under-funded. The great highways are neglected (a bridge in Minnesota collapsed recently), and the airports are tired and obsolete.

India’s advantage, once again in parallel with telecommunications, is that it is not saddled with old infrastructure. If India builds better airports (and, remembering Bangalore Airport, proper roads to reach them), the increasing numbers of air travelers will help the airlines grow. That story is true in many other fields: Banking and financial services, retail, real estate. India’s “demographic dividend” of an increasing number of young, working, upwardly-mobile people will drive internal demand for some years to come. The Asian Century is well on its way; and this is only as it should be, because up until 200 years ago, Asia dominated the world, as it will in future.

The Pioneer has published this on May 3rd as

They edited my copy slightly. Here’s my original:

The Obama Campaign Implodes?

By Rajeev Srinivasan

That giant sucking sound you heard, with apologies to Ross Perot, was probably the sound of Barack Obama’s campaign going down the toilet. In the quaint phrase used by the Indian media, he was “hoist by his own petard”. His relationship with a dubious ‘spiritual advisor’, one Jeremiah Wright, whose church he has attended for many years, has seriously hurt Obama’s credibility and electability.

The Democratic nomination for the US Presidential election is now wide open, even though Obama leads Hillary Clinton by a substantial margin in delegate count. But Clinton, wife of the famous ‘Comeback Kid’ Bill Clinton, may have demonstrated that Obama’s major claim to fame, his ‘inclusiveness’, is a myth. Not only that, he looked decidedly un-Presidential in his handling of the Wright episode, to the extent that his honeymoon with the media may just have ended.

Wright has been an extreme advocate of black power, harboring anti-Jewish and anti-white sentiment, as well as colorful conspiracy theories. He contends, for instance, that America brought 9/11 upon itself by practicing terrorism abroad; and that the US government had infected blacks intentionally with the AIDS virus. None of this goes down well with the average American voter, so Obama was forced to distance himself from Wright.

But this issue will not go away. Obama suffered a major defeat in Pennsylvania in April, where working-class white voters showed a clear preference for Clinton. If he had managed to beat Clinton, her back-to-the-wall campaign would have ended then and there. And he did pour his resources into the fight, spending twice as much as Clinton. The take-away is that he does not resonate with lower-income whites, a large constituency.

Obama did not help himself with his naive remarks suggesting that small-town working-class voters, affected by job losses, were gun-toting, bitter racists obsessed with religion. His exact words were, “… they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Rather elitist for an ‘inclusive’ person, wouldn’t you say?

Given this string of negative news, the word that springs to mind is “greenhorn”. Obama is inexperienced, and it shows, and this puts a big question mark on his ability to be the Commander-in-Chief. The Wright episode is the biggest crisis in his short political life, and he has mishandled it rather badly.

The point is that Obama looks like a hypocrite. He has been associated with Wright’s church for twenty years, and for him to claim that he has never heard any of the incendiary, racist hate-speech that Wright has been infamous for, sounds disingenuous, a bit like Bill Clinton claiming he didn’t inhale marijuana. It appears as though Obama stuck with Wright’s church to be able to gain a political base among Chicago’s blacks.

Clearly, Obama had not found it opportune to distance himself from Wright in the past: The title of his second book and the theme of his entire campaign are taken from Wright. Wright baptized Obama’s children, helped kick off and participated in his campaign until aides warned Obama of the possible negative impact on white voters.

Thus Obama has begun to look like just another ordinary politician, one who lies and who has ‘marriages of convenience’. That should knock him off his pedestal, and dent the mythology of ‘change’. The whole ‘change’ chorus has been mostly make-believe, anyway, but lots of people had begun to believe in the rhetoric, and Obama has become a Messiah of sorts. Or, frighteningly, a Pied Piper.

What is the change he’s going to bring in? Is Obama going to immediately pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Is Obama going to bring in universal health care? Is Obama going to single-handedly rescue the recession-bound American economy? Is Obama going to change American foreign policy so that the US stops supporting dictators like Pakistan’s Musharraf? Is Obama going to immediately reverse the decline in American education and competitiveness?

Is Obama going to move away from depending on Saudi petro-dollars? Is Obama going to make the plight of oppressed racial minorities in America much better? How is Obama going to rein in rampaging China and resurgent Russia? Is Obama going to reduce global warming by America dramatically?

None of these are amenable to quick fixes. It is, therefore, not entirely clear exactly what Obama is going to change. Obama may be able to beat Clinton based on all this rhetoric, but McCain may not be quite so easy. Republicans are rather good at negative campaigning, remember Karl Rove?

All this means it is likely that Obama will not win against McCain. Recent polls show him losing to McCain (although Clinton wins against McCain). This is generally disastrous for the Democrats, who had the deck loaded in their favor to begin with: a deeply unpopular Republican President in a time of war, the economy in deep distress. Pundits had given the Republicans no chance whatsoever. But with the internecine battles between Clinton and Obama, and with Obama’s self-inflicted wounds, the prize may slip away. This will also affect many other Democratic candidates, as the Presidential coat-tails usually drag along candidates for local and national office.

It may well be “Bye-bye Obama, Hello McCain”, come November’s election. An Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket is still a theoretical possibility. But it’s not that that any of this makes much of a difference to Indian interests. None of the candidates is going to do much for India, except that Democrats tend to be worse non-proliferation ayatollahs than Republicans. And both Democrats are protectionists, too.

There is another distant possibility, though: the Democratic Convention may draft Al Gore. This has happened before, when an undeclared but electable non-candidate was drafted by the party bosses: examples include Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. A Gore-Obama candidacy may work, as I doubt Gore-Clinton would excite Al very much. This may also stand a better chance against McCain.

But there’s no question that Obama’s chances have been hurt, perhaps fatally, by his ex-mentor.

1000 words, May 1, 2008