“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34
AUTHOR: MANINI CHATTERJEE
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1999

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This Child Will Be Great

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first woman president and this book is her memoir. She recounts how she came to power in her native Liberia and the tremendous odds she had to overcome to get there. Sworn in as President in January 2006 at the end of a fourteen year long civil war, she remained at the helm for 12 years and oversaw a peaceful transition. Liberia went to the polls in October 2017 to elect a new leader.

The book reveals the complexities of Liberia’s links with the New World and its long and painful history. While the slave trade saw Africans shipped from West Africa to the Americas to undergo forced labour, there was a reverse flow of freed slaves to these shores in the early 19th century. Monrovia, the capital of Liberia is named after US President James Munroe and the country’s flag resembles the American flag. The settlers thought they were somehow superior to the indigenous peoples and the seeds of conflict were sown. Liberia’s first President was a man born in Virginia.

Ellen’s paternal grandfather has eight wives and god knows how many children. Her maternal grandfather, a German trader, had married a local woman and the couple had one daughter. At the start of World War I, Liberia expelled all Germans, to demonstrate its loyalty to the US. The grandfather returned to Germany and was never heard of again.
Ellen’s father was the first indigenous man to be elected to the legislature. He suffered a paralytic stroke while in his early forties and soon the family fortunes nose-dived.

At 17, Ellen fell in love and married James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from college in Alabama. They both found jobs and had four children in quick succession. When James moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study further, Ellen went too, leaving the grandmothers to care for the little ones. She studied at the Madison Business college, and worked part time, sweeping floors and waiting tables.

“In Madison I was so cold I sometimes feared my tears would freeze.” James was alcoholic and abusive and Ellen had to learn to cope. “Doc always did enough to hurt but not enough to maim or kill. Just enough to keep me in a state of fear.” Twice he put a gun to her head but did not shoot. She knew that if she walked away, or even if her husband did, she would lose custody of the children. When they returned to Liberia, James did, in fact, take away the children from her. Following their divorce, he remarried and moved to Florida with the youngest child.

Ellen had a government job and soon she had an opportunity to study at Boulder, Colorado and Harvard. She had already created ripples in government circles by criticizing the powers that be. Her American education, work experience and contacts stood her in good stead as she returned to Liberia and slowly but surely worked her way up the political ladder. When the President of Liberia died in 1971 and a new President came to power, Ellen was offered a new job- that of Deputy Minister of Finance. Eight years later there was a coup. Ellen left the country and took up a position with the World Bank.

Liberia had enjoyed political stability for century but glaring economic disparities threatened the delicate equilibrium and the insensitivity of the men in power brought things to ahead. The Rice Riots saw police fire upon a crowd of demonstrators killing at least 41. Soon thereafter at a conference of the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now African Union) in July 1979, President Tolbert remarked that the most pressing problem of the continent was apartheid in South Africa. The following month Ellen was made the first female Finance Minister in the nation’s history. A year later there was a coup and president Tolbert was killed. Only four ministers were spared – and Ellen was one of them.

The United States bolstered the new government and Liberia soon became the CIA’s main station in Africa. Ellen went back to the World Bank and later worked for Citibank. By then three of her sons were studying in the US.

Ellen never ceased political activity. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for speaking out against the government. But she was offered clemency due to intense pressure from Citibank and elsewhere. One of the messages passed to her in prison had read, “We’d rather have a live ant than a dead elephant.” Of her subsequent flight from her homeland Ellen writes, “As much as I wanted to stay in Liberia, I wanted even more to stay alive. It was time to go.”

In 1990 civil war erupted and there were massacres in Monrovia followed by a massive exodus to neighbouring countries and total internal displacement of indigenous peoples. A Boston Globe reporter was told by a local, “The dogs ate the dead, and we ate the dogs.”

The book is one long politico-historical story that almost eclipses the personal. But there are interesting insights too, not entirely about Africa. For instance, the Confederate general Robert E Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia. Wow! Do you think his statues ought to stay?

Overall assessment: Good read.

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President
Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

Reminiscences_of_the_Cuban_Revolutionary_War

This is a book about the Cuban Revolution by one of its legendary heroes. It was compiled in 1963, four years after the triumph of the guerrilla war that brought Fidel Castro to power on 1st January 1959. Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla fighter Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had fought shoulder to shoulder with his Cuban comrades to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A universal symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice, Che believed that revolutionary uprising was the only path to liberation of oppressed peoples.

Talking of his harrowing experiences in the first few days after the small band of warriors landed in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, and all but 20 of the 82 men died in combat, Che writes, “I immediately began to think of the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind.”

The innocence of youth is striking. “As a trophy from the Battle of La Plata, I had taken a helmet from one of Batista’s corporals, and I wore it with great pride.” The helplessness of the invalid is apparent. “My asthma was somewhat aggravated and the lack of medicine meant I was almost as immobile as the wounded.”

The mind of the quintessential revolutionary is evident. “The people in the Sierra Maestra grow like wild flowers, untended and without care, and they wear themselves out rapidly, working without reward. We began to feel in our bones the need for a definitive change in the life of the people.”

The sensitive humanist also surfaces from time to time. “Blind and unrewarded sacrifices also made the revolution. Those of us who today see its achievements have the responsibility to remember those who fell along the way, and to work for a future where there will be fewer stragglers.”

Che describes his efforts at dentistry with characteristic humour. “Besides the meagerness of my skill, we had no anaesthetic, so I frequently used ‘psychological anaesthesia’ – a few harsh epithets when my patients complained too much about the work going on in their mouths.” When Batista’s forces leave behind a trail of destruction after failing to find the guerrillas, Che observes: “In the midst of the smoking ruins we found nothing but some cats and a pig; they had escaped the destructive fury of the invaders only to fall into our gullets.”

Che recounts his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, tells us how they both landed in jail, how they bribed their way out and how they made the dangerous sea crossing to land on Cuban shores after running out of food, water and fuel. “It was a shipwreck rather than a landing,” he writes. He describes how they ate raw crabs, horse meat and anything they could lay their hands on, how they drew water from holes in the rocks using hollowed out sticks, and how they dealt ruthlessly with traitors and informers.

There is deep pathos in his references to fallen comrades. “We must make time to weep for our fallen companeros while we sharpen our machetes.”

If Che Guevara hadn’t become a guerrilla commander he could have been a best-selling author. He was such a prolific writer – and he had so much to say.

Overall Assessment: Must read.

REMINISCENCES OF THE CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR
AUTHOR: ERNESTO ‘CHE’ GUEVARA
PUBLISHER: OCEAN PRESS
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006 (first published in Spanish in 1963)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Heretic

Somalian born Ayaan Hirsi Ali is undoubtedly one of the most powerful liberal voices of the present century. She puts forth powerful arguments in order to prove that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. As the Muslim world struggles to come to terms with the challenges of modernity, believers have no option but to reconsider their stance on crucial concepts such as jihad, polygamy, talaq, inheritance rights, and a host of other issues. The attempt to adapt 7th century teachings to 21st century aspirations is causing much heartburn. The Arab Spring and Islamic State are manifestations of the soul-searching that is happening within the Muslim world.

“The UN estimated in November 2014 that some 15000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have travelled to Syria to join the radical jihadists,” she points out. The threat posed by terrorist groups is very real and the need to tackle the root causes is urgent.

“The call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam,” the author opines. Her reasoning is not unsound. Demonstrating the power of indoctrination, she writes of her own intolerant past self, “When Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran called for the writer Salman Rushdie to die after he published The Satanic Verses, I didn’t ask if this was right…….Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die; after all he has insulted the Prophet. My friends said it, my religious teachers said it, the Qur’an said it, and I said it and believed it, too.”

Ayaan focuses on five areas that need re-thinking: (1) Muhammad’s infallible status (2) the Sharia (3) the glorification of the afterlife (4) the call to wage holy war (5) the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law. “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” The author notes that today the Shahada is not merely the Muslim profession of faith but the banner of IS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. She says, “We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ‘racist’”.

The author expresses the hope that the movement for reform is already under way. She recounts certain events that give room for hope. On New Year’s Day 2015, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave an astonishing speech at Al-Azhar University. He asked, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” He went on to say: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…..because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood once said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

I can’t help thinking Ayaan ought to have visited India, especially Kerala, where peace-loving Muslims are in a massive majority. Or Indonesia. Or Malaysia. Perhaps she might modify some of the harsher postulates based on her own experience of militant Islam in Africa and Arabia. Moreover, she would realize that Hindus comprise only 15% of the world population, and they too indulge in honour killings and inhuman punishments.

Overall Assessment: To describe this book as thought-provoking and path-breaking would be an understatement. But I suggest you read “Infidel” first.

TITLE: HERETIC: WHY ISLAM NEEDS A REFORMATION NOW
AUTHOR: AYAAN HIRSI ALI
PUBLISHER: HARPER COLLINS
PUBLICATION DATE: 2015

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of Che Guevara” by Lucia Álvarez de Toledo

The Story of Che Guevara

Among the innumerable authorized and unauthorized biographies of the legendary Che, this one – by an Argentine author – surely stands out.

Che Guevara is the ultimate symbol of rebellion and idealism. He rejected the trappings of power and embraced the hard life of the guerrilla fighter. He was born in Argentina and had Cuban citizenship conferred on him, but his outlook was global and his spirit truly Latin American. He condemned the United States at the UN General Assembly in 1964. The following year he criticized the Soviet Union at an international conference in Algeria. He was not one to toe anybody’s line. Even Fidel Castro let him do as he pleased.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a chronic asthmatic, decided early in life that he would overcome. He practised swimming, sports, riding, and shooting and enjoyed the outdoors. In 1947 he evaded military service by having a cold shower before turning up at the barracks for his medical examination, knowing full well that it would trigger a severe asthmatic attack. As a consequence, he was declared medically unfit. He qualified as a doctor in 1953.

Ernesto’s paternal grandmother Ana Lynch was born in San Francisco and came to Argentina at the age of 12. His parents were unconventional people.

In 1950 Ernesto’s 4700 km bicycle trip was featured on the cover of a sports magazine. Besides, he met Chinchina Ferreyra and fell in love. In 1951 he worked as a male nurse on a merchant ship that took him to Brazil, Trinidad, Curacao, British Guyana and Venezuela. En route he wrote a short story titled ‘Anguish – the only Certainty’ wherein he interspersed his own philosophical musings with quotes from Sartre, Nehru and others. Realizing that sailing was not his destiny, he returned home and sought out Chinchina. The immensely rich Ferreyra family did not favour Ernesto’s marriage-plus-travel proposal.

Then began the famed motorcycle trip with Alberto Granada in December 1951. In July 1952, their paths diverged, Alberto landing a job in Venezuela and Ernesto ending up in Miami with one dollar in his pocket. A month later Ernesto returned home in a cargo plane, and in July 1953 set off again, this time with Calica (Carlos Ferrer). They meant to go to Venezuela but ended up in Bolivia. One day, while having coffee at a cafe in La Paz, they noticed a family seated alongside them and eating sandwiches. Their Indian maid was sitting on the floor beside them and the children were throwing crumbs to her as if she were a dog. Calica’s diary recounts how this incident shocked them to the core.

Ernesto then made his way to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and eventually Guatemala, where he meet Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary who would later become his wife. Guatemala had plenty of left-wing exiles from right-wing Latin American dictatorships. Che met some Cuban exiles who had been part of the Moncada Barracks attack in July 1953 and were biding their time until Fidel Castro would be freed from prison. Nico Lopez became his first Cuban friend- and nicknamed him Che.

Che was in Guatemala when the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a US-backed coup. He took refuge in the Argentine embassy and obtained safe passage to Mexico. In mid 1955 in Mexico City Che and Hilda became a couple. Che met Raul Castro in June and Fidel Castro in July. The bonding was instantaneous. Soon they established a guerrilla training hideout and ended up spending two months in jail when it was discovered. In a letter to his mother in September Che expressed his thoughts about the fall of the Peron government and informed her of his marriage to Hilda. In February 1956 his daughter Hilda Beatriz was born. In November he sailed to Cuba to fight a long drawn out guerrilla war to oust Fulgencio Batista. In the Sierra Maestra during the long campaign Che picked up the habit of smoking Havana cigars, which soon became his trademark.

In a 1958 radio interview to Jorge Ricardo Masetti, Che was asked why he was fighting for Cuba. He replied, “In the first place I consider my country not only Argentina, but the whole of America. When asked whether Castro was a communist, he said, “Fidel is not a communist. Politically one can call him a revolutionary nationalist.”

When the Revolution triumphed Che became head of the National Bank of Cuba. There is an amusing story relating to his appointment. During a core group meeting Castro enquired whether any of the attendees were economists. Che raised his hand. Castro remarked, “I didn’t know were an economist.” Che replied, “Oh, I thought you said ‘communist.’” And that’s how he landed the job. Later he became Minister for Industry.

Aleida March had joined Che’s group towards the end of 1958. On 2nd June 1959 he divorced his first wife and married Aleida on the same day. They had four children together.

Che did a lot of diplomatic networking, leading Cuban delegations to Europe, Africa and Asia. He visited the Taj Mahal and Hiroshima. In 1965 Che went on a secret mission to the Congo with 150 black Cuban volunteers to foment revolution. Seven months later he had to beat a retreat. When Che wrote about his Congo campaign he began with the words, “This is the story of a failure…”

Che’s Bolivian mission in 1966-67 was doomed from the start. The Bolivian communists failed to support and the peasants did not enlist, so the rag-tag band of outsiders didn’t stand a chance. Che was wounded and captured on 8th October 1967 and executed the following day, presumably under orders from Washington.

Che Guevara had all the qualities of a true revolutionary – fearlessness, intelligence, ideology, passion and ruthlessness. To say that the story of his life is fascinating would be a gross understatement.

Overall assessment: Meticulously researched. Must read.

The Story of Che Guevara
AUTHOR: Lucia Alvarez de Toledo
PUBLISHER: Quercus
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” by Swati Chaturvedi

troll

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “the leader of the world’s largest democracy follows and felicitates trolls.” Shocked? Well no, not really. Everyone knows he’s the most Twitter-friendly person on the planet. I’ve no idea whether journalist Swati Chaturvedi is lying or telling the truth, but what she has to say in this book is definitely worth serious consideration. At least some of the information she passes on can be easily verified by a tech savvy person. While many of us do suspect that trolling is not a random harmless activity of stray individuals but a targeted intervention by well organized groups having a definite (often political) agenda, we rarely have evidence to back our beliefs. This book makes an attempt to bring out certain home-truths about trolling, fake news and false propaganda.

Describing internet trolls as “the goons of the online world,” the author goes on to share her own experiences of online stalking and sexual harassment and her disappointment at the inaction of the Delhi Police (which incidentally is controlled by the BJP-led Central Government). Referring to the “use of lies by verified Twitter users to generate communal hatred” she states that, “It’s akin to giving them the equivalent of a megaphone and a primetime TV slot.”

The book is full of revelations. “In a Right to Information petition, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said that the PM’s handles, @Narendramodi and @PMO, are run by the PM himself.” Modi follows 1375 people on Twitter, and his own followers number 21.6 million. (The numbers have since risen to 1640 and 26.3 million. I checked!) Of the people he follows, “twenty-six accounts routinely sexually harass, make death threats and abuse politicians from other parties and journalists, with special attention being given to women, minorities and Dalits.” The author names many of them and provides screen-shots of some of their most offensive tweets. Honestly, I wonder how Twitter puts up with the stuff!

Pictures of Burhan Wani’s funeral procession in Kashmir were tweeted by @ggiittiikkaa with the crude comment, “20k attended funeral of terrorist Burhan. Should have dropped a bomb and given permanent Azadi to these 20k pigs.” The author points out that this was retweeted 1184 times and liked 1086 times. Priti Gandhi (@MrsGandhi), self proclaimed ‘huge fan of Nathuram Godse’, who was “thrown out of the BJP when she tweeted a fake endorsement of Mr. Modi by Julian Assange of Wikileaks before the 2014 general election,” is currently a national executive member of the BJP Mahila Morcha. Tinu Jain, who is ‘followed by the PM’, was arrested in Gwalior in September 2106 for running a sex racket.

Every day the BJP’s IT cell sets the tweet agenda for the day. Synchronized tweeting, trending hastags, bots (algorithms acting in social networks to appear as real users), the ‘hit list’ of leading journos – all activities are controlled and coordinated by 11 Ashoka Road, New Delhi. Sadhavi Khosla’s account of the modus operandi is very interesting. The book also profiles a few trolls whom the author met and interviewed. Tweeting and trolling are becoming paid occupations, the evidence suggests. And online hate often results in offline violence.

Ankit Lal, social media chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) informed the author that Twitter handles in remote locations in Thailand are regularly tweeting BJP-created Modi hastags. Has the BJP hired a marketing agency in Thailand to do their trolling? Or are they using virtual private networks (VPN) to hide their location and identity? Is their online support base diminishing? Ankit Lal’s report which forms part of the Appendix is worth scrutinizing.

The book attributes Modi’s spectacular 2014 election victory to the effectiveness of his social media campaign. Further, the author notes that the PM, in his 2016 Independence Day speech, lied about the electrification of a village in Uttar Pradesh and used the PMO twitter handle to tweet the speech. Power Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted pictures of Nagla Fatela villagers watching the PM’s speech on TV. The gram panchayat immediately contradicted the claim and maintained that they still had no electricity. The tweets were hastily withdrawn.

The author here is taking a major risk, considering the outpouring of hate messages and violent threats that customarily follow any attempts to malign any of the sacred cows in our political firmament. At the same time, one realizes that what she has exposed is barely the tip of the iceberg. The rest is yet to come – for not all voices can be silenced by online intimidation.

(I did some quick reality checks before publishing this review and found that some of named Twitter handles are definitely interconnected. Their tweets are vitriolic, hate-filled, and illogical, they encapsulate lies and half-truths rather than verified facts, and furiously tweeting and retweeting seems to be the main occupation of the persons involved. And yes, NaMo does follow them!)

Overall Assessment: The author has opened a Pandora’s box.

I am a Troll- Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army
AUTHOR: Swati Chaturvedi
PUBLISHER: Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India
DATE OF PUBLICATION: December 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep” by Siba Shakib

Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep

This book by an Iran-born author and documentary film-maker paints a grim picture of life in Afghanistan. The Russian invasion. The haphazard resistance. The growth of the Taliban. Violence, oppression, opium addiction and human helplessness are woven into the fine threads of this fascinating story. The characters are powerful and convincing. It is a sordid tale of suffering and endurance, hope and determination.

Shirin-Gol, the lead female character, is a woman of substance. Though unleterred, she taught herself to read ‘three and a half books.’ The plight of women in this war-ravaged country is deeply disturbing. Where girls cannot study, where women cannot work, where the veil is all-pervading, an Afghanistan that god and the world forgot. The reader feels a numbing pain that is beyond tears. Shock, disbelief, sorrow, and a train of inexplicable emotions.

The author has an uncanny knack of saying so much using so few words. “In all likelihood Shirin-Gol’s mother, like all mothers in the world, suffered terrible pains at the birth of her fourth daughter, her ninth child, and in all likelihood she wondered at that moment how she would feed another child with her already weakened body and her empty breasts. And she was probably glad when she pulled the child from her body and saw that it was only a girl, because if Shirin-Gol had been a boy, that boy would have needed even more milk, even more attention. His mother would have had to carry him more often in her arms, they would have had to give a party to celebrate his birth and slaughter a sheep, rustle up some money for his circumcision and send him to the mullah to learn the Koran.”

The cycle of poverty, repression and hopelessness is self-perpetuating — it moves across generations with a cold tenacity. Shirin-Gol goes through multiple deprivations in childhood, is married at a young age, has several children, and lives life at a sub-human subsistence level, yet her spirit soars high above the mundane level. She stands out without being spectacular, and her never-say-die attitude inspires respect.

The book informs, educates, enlightens. It also entertains and tugs at your heart-strings. Amidst the pathos, there is a dark humour. Don’t miss any page, not even the acknowledgments, gracefully titled, ‘Thanks’. There are gems even there. “I thank Malalai and her brother who saved my life. I thank Rahmat, who protected me from stepping on a mine.”

Overall Assessment: Mind-blowing. Siba Shakib is undoubtedly a writer of substance. BTW, ‘Samira and Samir’ is another interesting book.

Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep
AUTHOR: Siba Shakib
PUBLISHER: CENTURY
Date of Publication: 2002

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and The Sino-Indian War” by Bruce Riedel

JFK's Forgotten Crisis

In 1950, Mao claimed he had ‘liberated’ Tibet. The monks at Lhasa were powerless, the Dalai Lama was 15 years old, and the world ignored the event. Nehru, at the time, had friendly relations with China. The US was understandably nervous about China. Moreover, a subtle power struggle had commenced between Russia and China leaving everyone confused.

The CIA sprang into action, setting up a surveillance operation near Dhaka (in the erstwhile East Pakistan) and flying U2 spy planes over Tibet in the late fifties. They had been doing this from Lahore and Peshawar earlier – until one of their planes was shot down by the Russians. Soon they discovered the Lop Nor nuclear testing facility – and Mao found out about the spy planes. Perhaps he suspected Nehru of complicity as the planes had to cross Indian air space.

The Dalai Lama’s escape in 1959 and the Tibetan resistance were masterminded by the CIA. India gave him asylum and accommodated him at Dharamsala. Meanwhile in Pakistan Ayub Khan came to power in a military coup. India soon discovered that China had built a major highway across the Aksai Chin region which was a part of Kashmir. Nehru demanded China’s withdrawal but Mao stood his ground. From then on, relations between the two countries deteriorated. Nehru’s Forward Policy of pushing forward military outposts in disputed territories in Aksai Chin and the northeast sparked off violent incidents.

In January 1961, John F Kennedy assumed office as President of the United States. He chose John Kenneth Galbraith as Ambassador to India. In time, both men would prove themselves to be true friends of India in her hour of need.

On 17th August 1962, the USSR and India signed a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. China invaded India on 20th October 1962. At that precise moment, JFK was grappling with the Cuban missile crisis as the world came to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev was too busy to worry about India. Mao reportedly told him about his plans to attack India and the Russian didn’t bother to warn Nehru. (The treaty and his personal rapport with Nehru mattered little.) Khrushchev played a game with Fidel Castro as well, assuring Kennedy he would withdraw the nuclear warheads from Cuba, without consulting or informing Castro. It’s almost certain that Khrushchev had not told Mao about the nuclear missiles he had positioned in Cuba. Looks like he managed to fool everyone – except Kennedy.

Well, China grabbed Aksai Chin. And on 27th October, the hostilities ceased. The following day Khrushchev made a deal with Kennedy agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba. The world breathed a sigh of relief. Nehru, however, had to eat humble pie, abandon his policy of nonalignment and send an SOS to Kennedy.

Washington’s response was swift and decisive. Besides Galbraith, the British and Canadian ambassadors in New Delhi appealed to their respective governments to join the effort to defend India. On 1st November, the USAF and RAF began airlifting arms and ammunition. Kennedy dispatched a high-level delegation to India. Ayub Khan demanded a slice of Kashmir as an inducement for staying out of the conflict. Kennedy, egged on by Galbraith, told him ‘don’t you dare’.

China attacked again on 16th November. The Indian army was completely routed on the north-eastern front and the narrow Siliguri corridor linking Assam, Nagaland Manipur and Tripura with the rest of India was on the verge of capture. India suffered heavy casualties. Thousands were taken prisoner, including Brigadier J P Dalvi who later wrote “Himalayan Blunder” castigating Nehru, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and Army Chief B M Kaul for their multiple follies. Indian politicians stayed away from the war zone. Indira Gandhi visited Tezpur near the Chinese frontline on 19th and 20th November. On 1st December China unilaterally withdrew from the occupied territories in India’s north-eastern sector. However, the Chinese held on to Aksai Chin. The war ended as abruptly as it had started.

Did Kennedy call up Mao and issue an ultimatum? Or was Mao dissuaded by the American response? It was revealed later had Mao had been making preparations for this assault for several years, building roads, infrastructure, and even POW camps along the border. Kennedy’s intervention undoubtedly saved India from dismemberment. His statesmanship during the Cuban missile crisis saved the world from Armageddon.

The following year the young president was assassinated in Dallas. Six months later Nehru died. In 1965 Pakistan attacked India and after 23 days of intense fighting, agreed to a ceasefire. Mao did not help Ayub Khan and his Defence Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who made several visits to China to seek help. During the 1971 Indo–Pak war that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh, China remained aloof, despite some prodding by Nixon and Kissinger. Senator Edward Kennedy on the other hand visited India in August 1971, toured the refugee camps in Bengal and deplored that American weapons had facilitated the massacre in East Pakistan. By the time the Kargil conflict erupted in 1999, India’s nuclear capability was no secret – and naturally China refused to get involved.

Bruce Reidel has done a decent job of analyzing data from various sources and drawing plausible conclusions. The book leaves us wondering if the fate of Asia would have been different if Kennedy had lived just a while longer.

Overall Assessment: Eminently readable – and historically valuable.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and The Sino-Indian War
AUTHOR: BRUCE RIEDEL
PUBLISHER: Bookings Institution Press.  (HarperCollins India in 2016)
PUBLICATION DATE: November 2015

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Castro’s Secrets- Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F Kennedy” by Brian Latell

Castro's Secrets

Did Fidel Castro mastermind the assassination of John F Kennedy? This book by a CIA veteran throws new light on the mystery. The author gives details about the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his adoration of Castro, his failed attempt to migrate to Cuba, his brief sojourn in the Soviet Union, and a host of other clues that serve to deepen the mystery rather than provide open-and-shut answers.

In June 1987 when Florentino Aspillaga Lombard sought asylum at the American embassy in Vienna, his spectacular revelations about Cuba’s clandestine operations sent shock waves through American intelligence circles. How terribly the CIA had underestimated this impoverished Caribbean island! Lombard was no ordinary spy. He had in July 1979 played a crucial role in ensuring of the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He had been in Angola where Castro had engineered a Marxist revolutionary takeover. He provided the CIA with a goldmine of information. Cuban intelligence had knowledge about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. No wonder it turned out to be such a disaster! It comes as no surprise that the head of Cuban intelligence was Fidel himself.

Through the book, we get a rare glimpse of Castro’s spectacular intelligence network. We also glean interesting details of the now well-known Armageddon Letter of 1963 where Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev to launch a nuclear attack on the USA, the role played by Cubans in fomenting revolution elsewhere in the Americas, and the impressive scale of training and indoctrination provided to wannabe revolutionaries. Latell opines that Che Guevara’s Bolivian venture was a suicidal mission. As he puts it, “Fidel always thought strategically, many moves ahead, like a grand master moving pieces on a giant chess board. Venezuela was an opponent’s queen, Bolivia a pawn. …..If by some fluke, Guevara were to win, he, Fidel, could take credit for sponsoring and masterminding the victory. And if the roving Argentine incendiary were to die in the quest, that would reverberate even more enduringly. Cuba would have a martyred patron saint.”

Latell also suggests the possibility that Hugo Chavez or his elder brother, Adan, could have been spotted and recruited by Cuban intelligence long before the former won power in Venezuela. How else could a career military officer become an adoring disciple of the leader of another country?

Overall Assessment: Must read! History, politics and intrigue make a deadly cocktail!

TITLE: Castro’s Secrets- Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F Kennedy
AUTHOR: Brian Latell
PUBLISHER: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2012

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The South African Gandhi – Stretcher Bearer of Empire” by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

The South African Gandhi

Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa practicing law. They called him the ‘coolie barrister.’ And he called the indigenous people ‘kaffirs.’ The scantily clad man Indians recognize as the ‘father of the nation’ had an image makeover on the eve of his departure from South Africa in 1914. Gone was the coat-suit ensemble. In came the oh-so-humble dhoti. This meticulously researched book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed (South African professors of Indian origin) unravels many facets of the saint-in-the-making. Quoting extensively from ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ as well as newspaper publications including ‘Indian Opinion’ of which Gandhi himself was co-founder, they paint an unfamiliar portrait of a familiar global icon, leaving the reader shocked and saddened.

Here’s a sample of Gandhi’s pronouncements during his South African sojourn:

  • We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race. (1903)
  • We have never asked for political equality. We do not hope to get that…I have never asked for the vote. (1914)
  • About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population….(In a 1904 letter to the Medical Health Officer of Johannesburg, he demanded that Kaffirs be withdrawn from a residential area peopled predominantly by Indians.)
  • Should they (Indians) be assigned a permanent part in the Militia, there will remain no ground for the European complaint that Europeans alone have to bear the brunt of Colonial defence. (1906)

The saddest part is that Gandhi failed to acknowledge African suffering. During the Boer war, he served the Empire as stretcher bearer. In 1906 when the Zulus in Natal revolted he seized the opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the British Crown. He wrote in Indian Opinion on 14th April 1906, “It is not for me to say whether the revolt is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends upon it. It is therefore our duty to render help….” In stark contrast, the ‘arch-imperialist’ Winston Churchill condemned the ‘disgusting butchery’ and referred to ‘this wretched colony’ as ‘the hooligan of the British Empire.”

Gandhi’s associates from outside the Indian community were all whites. He remained aloof from the blacks. The authors suggest that “Gandhi’s Anglophilia possibly played a role in developing his theory of satyagraha.” They point out that he conveniently forgot the principles of non-violence and satyagraha whenever the Empire was at risk. His strategy was one of whining, petitioning, lobbying, negotiating, compromising and surrendering. At the same time he was a great publicity agent. He had Joseph J Doke write his biography in 1909. It was published with the assistance of N M Cooper in England. Gandhi purchased all 600 copies and had them distributed in Britain, Rangoon, Madras and South Africa. Ironically, the Introduction to the book was written by Lord Ampthill who sat in the House of Lords from 1909 to 1935 and opposed every move in the direction of Indian self-governance.

In 1906, Gandhi announced his vow of celibacy. Authors such as Kathryn Tidrick have suggested that it was possibly in South Africa that Gandhi commenced the practice of sleeping with nubile nymphs ostensibly to ‘test’ his self control. Gandhi hailed as his ‘soul-mate’ a German Jew, Hermann Kallenbach. They met in 1903, shared a house from 1907/1908 to 1910 and wrote inexplicably intimate letters to each other ever after. (The letters were purchased for $1.3million by the Government of India in 2012 and the contents remain under wraps.) In May 1910 Kallenbach purchased an 1100 acre farm near Johannesburg for Gandhi’s use. It was named Tolstoy Farm. Residents were compelled to practice celibacy and vegetarianism.

Gandhi’s Indian benefactors financed his activities in South Africa. Among them were the Maharajas of Bikaner and Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s mentor, visited South Africa in 1912 and helped revive his sagging political fortunes. In October 1913, Gandhi failed to get majority support within the Natal Indian Congress and he formed another outfit called Natal Indian Association. The 1913 strike by Indians workers across the mining and plantation sectors underlined the futility of passive resistance. In a letter to Marshall Campbell on 23rd December 1913, the future Mahatma wrote: “We were endeavouring to confine the strike area to the collieries only. Whilst I was in Newcastle I was asked by my co-workers in Durban what answer to give the coastal Indians who wanted to join the movement, and I emphatically told them that the time was not ripe for them to do so….(but) after my arrest….the movement became not only spontaneous but it assumed gigantic proportions.”

On 20th December 1913, following his release from prison, Gandhi appeared at a public meeting at Durban wearing dhoti and kurta. He no longer had a moustache. In July 1914, he announced he was returning to India for good.

Historians and history buffs are wondering what to make of the book. It is too compelling to be wished away.

Overall Assessment: Deeply disturbing. A must read for every Indian.

THE SOUTH AFRICAN GANDHI – STRETCHER BEARER OF EMPIRE
AUTHORS: ASHWIN DESAI AND GOOLAM VAHED
PUBLISHER: NAVAYANA PUBLISHING & STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
PUBLICATION DATE: 2015


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.