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Archive for January 2019

 

The pungent smell of herbal medicines hangs heavily in the air. Packets of adult diapers lie on the floor. A tall frail man sits on a bed, holding a book in his hands. He smiles with evident pleasure at the cover and fumbles with his glasses. An aide comes forward and places his spectacles firmly on his nose. Now he can see better — and his smile broadens as he looks at his photograph on the cover of the book.

It’s his own biography — written by Kannada writer J.B. Moras — that brings a smile to George Fernandes’s face. The politician, suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, has lost most of his memory. But he knows who he is.

“He is absolutely child-like now — but it seems that he still remembers himself as George Fernandes,” says Jayati Leila Kabir, the former defence minister’s separated wife who is now back in his life after 25 years.

It’s a reunion that has kicked up a furore. Fernandes’s brothers have accused Kabir of not allowing him to meet them. The 79-year-old MP’s long-time companion, politician Jaya Jaitley, too has been barred from interacting with him. But that doesn’t bother Kabir, who has taken her husband to healer Ramdev’s ashram near Hardwar for treatment. “I don’t care if someone dislikes the idea of my being with him. At this juncture, my only concern is his health,” says Leila Kabir, 73.

Some believe that at the crux of the feud over Fernandes is his property worth over Rs 26 crore. Jaitley’s camp says that his thumb impressions were forcibly affixed to documents by Leila and George’s son, Sushanto Kabir Fernandes, or Sean, as he is known. “We took the thumb impression because we want his money to be spent on his treatment,” Kabir retorts. And she, in turn, is scathing about the Fernandes brothers’ attempts to turn his property into a memorial trust. “It’s as if they are talking of him posthumously,” she says.

“For the past 25 years, I never interfered in his life, nor did I ever have any complaint against him. But now, when I know that he is suffering and there is no one to take care of him, I am here to be with him,” she says.

Kabir learnt about George’s illness in 2007 from Sean who’d just met his father in Canada. She called on him after that, and they met on a few occasions. “Despite his bad health, he came to my house in Panchsheel Park to wish me on my birthday in 2008,” says Kabir, who runs a school for underprivileged children in Delhi.

The estranged wife — out of the news for long years — made her presence felt in the run-up to the 2009 election when she made a public statement, urging that Fernandes be “protected” from the “coterie” that was pushing him to stand for elections. He had been persuaded to fight as an independent candidate from his old Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar after he was denied a ticket by the party that he helped found, the Janata Dal (United), on health grounds. Not surprisingly, he lost the seat.

“It was a sin to push him to elections,” says Kabir, who was once awed by the charisma of “giant killer” George — an appellate that he earned when he defeated Congress heavyweight S.K. Patil to make his parliamentary debut from Mumbai in 1967.

When the once firebrand socialist — one of the mainstays of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance — was given a Rajya Sabha seat last year by his party, he was already too ill to function as a parliamentarian. Kabir went with him to the oath-taking ceremony. “I had never attended any of these ceremonies earlier, but this time I wanted to be by his side,” says Kabir, who has spent only 13 years of her married life with her husband.

The two got married on July 22, 1971, barely three months after their first conversation on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. George, then the general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from what would be Bangladesh while Bengali Leila was on her way back home from the battlefront where she’d gone as an assistant director of the Red Cross. “He recognised me from our earlier meetings at (socialist) Ram Manohar Lohia’s house, and sat next to me. From literature to politics to music — we discussed everything. Before disembarking, he asked me if he could drop me home. A proposal which I politely refused,” says Kabir.

But she couldn’t refuse him for long. “We met frequently. A month later, he proposed marriage. I said: ‘I am a difficult person. Are you sure you want to marry me?’ He promptly replied: ‘Yes’. It was like a whirlwind,” she smiles.

Marrying a politician was not difficult for the daughter of Humayun Kabir who was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Her educationist father, she says, greatly influenced her life. “He taught me not to compromise ever.”

It was this that prompted her to walk out of Fernandes’s life in 1984 with Sean, then just one-and-a-half years old. The cracks in the relationship had started showing up much earlier. “We were holidaying in Gopalpur in Orissa when the Emergency was imposed. George immediately left saying he had to fight for democracy. I didn’t hear from him for the next 22 months,” Kabir recalls.

She went away to the United States with her son to stay with her brother. Later, when the Emergency was lifted, Fernandes called them back. But things had already changed by then, she says. “George was a completely different person. He was on the dizzy heights of power and position. I came back to give my son a father but the father never showed up. A lot of things had happened by then.”

Among them, she says, was the growing closeness between Fernandes and Jaitley. But despite the relationship that carried on for 25 years and more, he never divorced Leila. “When I sent the divorce papers to him, he sent me two gold bangles saying that they were his mother’s. I got the message that he wanted to convey,” Kabir says.

Her son, she adds, was “insecure” and “disturbed” about his parents’ break up. “When he saw his father engaged in another relationship, he would ask me if I planned to do the same. When I said no, he felt reassured.”

But it was their son who asked her to take care of his father at the fag end of his life. “My son realised that George had been deprived of good care. So he wanted me to be with him,” she says.

Sean, an investment banker, lives in the US with his Japanese wife and 10-month old son. During his visit to India in December last year, he stayed with his father at the latter’s official residence at Krishna Menon Marg in central Delhi. In January this year, he filed a complaint, asking the police to provide security to his immediate family and instructing the guards not to let anyone enter the house without the immediate family’s authorisation. “My son did what he thought is right,” says the mother.

Kabir stresses that all that she is doing is for the sake of Fernandes too. Now, some 200 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, she spends her days with him — the way she did when they got married. “He enjoyed visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat in Hardwar on Basant Panchami,” says Kabir. “In the evenings, we listen to western classical music.”

But even in these moments of togetherness, the thought of Jaya Jaitley is never too far away. “Knowing well that he must be thinking of her, I told him that Jayaji was in Chennai, which was why she couldn’t come and see him. He nodded and smiled.”

It’s time for Fernandes to go for an evening walk — a part of the treatment prescribed by Ramdev. As Kabir prepares to leave with him, I ask her — “What if he doesn’t remember you one day?”

“I know this is going to happen but I don’t fear that day. All I am happy about is that he gives me a benign smile when he sees me,” she says. And then she walks down the corridor, making a conscious effort to match her steps with those of her ailing husband.

 

Published in The Telegraph, January 31, 2010 : https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/i-came-back-to-give-my-son-a-father-but-the-father-never-showed-up/cid/553821

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By Sonia Sarkar, DW

Mai Khoi (pictured above) is not afraid to push boundaries in her native Vietnam. The 35-year-old musician is known for criticizing the country’s communist government and has built a large following on social media. Her latest album “Dissent” features titles like “Cuffed In Freedom” and “Re-education Camp.”

Re-Education Camp highlights how the communist government forcibly puts people into jails and controls free speech. It also suggests that the people who created these camps should be in jail,” she said.

However, artistic protest is risky in Vietnam. In March 2018, Mai Khoi was detained for eight hours at Hanoi airport by Vietnam’s immigration authorities after returning from a tour in Europe where she promoted her album.

Look at this cat,” said Khoi pointing to the album cover. “She is alert and anxious, just as we are in this country because we never know who is snooping on us.”

And Khoi has a new reason to be anxious. On January 1, Vietnam enacted a new cybersecurity law that requires internet companies to remove content the government deems subversive, and bans users from posting “anti-government” content that could “cause harm to national security, social order and safety.”

A new wave of censorship?

 

According to the law, Vietnam’s government can force technology giants such as Google and Facebook to hand over personal information of account holders, store user data and to censor anti-government posts.

On January 9, Reuters news agency reported that Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication accused Facebook of violating the law by allowing users to post “slanderous” anti-government comments. Facebook reportedly has yet to respond to the ministry’s request that the posts be removed.

Hanoi keeps a close eye on its critics by tapping their phones, sending spies to private gatherings and intimidating artists who perform abroad.  Now social media, once a safe haven for artists to express their opinions and protest the government, is coming under state control.

 

 

Issues in Vietnam like the assault on free speech, arrests of human rights defenders and criticism of the government’s move to sell land to foreign investors, were formerly addressed by protesters on social media. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to protest online.

“Online space is a refuge in this repressive state,” Khoi told DW. “But this space is vanishing now.”

Last nail in the coffin’ 

Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai, who has been censored for his songs with “sexual overtones” and “anti-state” content, uses YouTube to release his music.  He thinks the new law is the worst form of state repression. “It was the last nail in the coffin,” he told DW.

Last year, 40-year-old poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn was detained by the police for half a day for protesting against the cybersecurity law.

“The space for free thinkers is shrinking further,” she told DW. Nguyen’s poetry is popular online for its harsh criticism of the state with prose that expresses contempt toward the “barbarous” who “steal and sell the motherland.”

A refuge on social media

 

 

For these artists, social media has allowed them to bypass vetting by authorities. In 2007, Mai Khoi couldn’t release her song, “Night Flower,” because of its language praising a woman’s body. In response, she stopped sending her songs to the Ministry of Culture for screening and released them directly on YouTube instead. Her most popular songs on YouTube include the 2014 “Selfie Orgasm.”

Similarly in 2013, Ngoc Dai released his album, “Thang Mo 1” (Village Herald 1), without the permission of the authorities because it suggested the state controls how people think. “We have to create a sense of freedom through our work,” he said.

Author Nguyen Vien, known for his criticism of the government through novels like “Dragon and Snake,” said it is important to talk about “forbidden” things. “It gives you a sense of liberation,” he told DW.

Last year, Vien used a Facebook campaign to protest a government move to sell land to Chinese investors.

The struggle continues 

 

 

Although social media has made it easier for artists to express themselves, it also exposes them to critics and trolls.

Poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn said pro-state teachers often appoint college students to harass dissidents in exchange for good marks. She fears the new cybersecurity law will only embolden trolls and state propagandists.

Dissenting artists could also face imprisonment. In December 2018, police issued an arrest warrant for Nguyen Van Trang, a member of the banned group, “Brotherhood for Democracy,” for posting articles, photos and videos on Facebook. According to the government, Trang had misrepresented government policy, and incited protest.

Nguyen Vien has a strategy to deal with censorship. He said he would probably use the encrypted network Minds.com if Facebook banned him. Many internet users in Vietnam are meanwhile accessing YouTube through proxy networks. Groups like “The League of Independent Writers of Vietnam” plan to hold more sessions at cafes and members’ houses.

Despite the imminent crackdown, Vietnam’s artists feel that more dissent is needed to challenge the system.

Published in DW, January 18, 2019

https://m.dw.com/en/vietnam-artists-seek-liberation-from-cybersecurity-law/a-47119106

 

Image : The man in red Tee is Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai. He is at his home at  Hồ Tây.

2. The woman in Black Tee and pair of black trousers is pop singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi at a Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.
3. The woman in white top is poetess Chieu Anh Nguyen. She is at a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.

4. The man in blue shirt is writer and activist Nguyen Vien.

(Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar)

 

 

Communism and Capitalism co-exist as the country makes a transition


By Sonia Sarkar

The morning sunlight pierces the windows of a glitzy skyscraper and falls on a colourful billboard featuring Uncle Ho — that’s how the people of Vietnam refer to the communist revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Both skyscraper and billboard are in the heart of Saigon city and reflect two contrasting realities of Vietnam today. One depicts the growing consumerism, the other is a reminder of the country’s communist legacy.

Vietnam has a single-party socialist republic framework. The general-secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam is the party leader and head of the politburo and holds the highest position in the one-party system. But here’s what’s happening — the communist regime is embracing corporatisation.

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Image: Sonia Sarkar 

There’s corporatisation in education, information and communications technology, infrastructure, oil and gas, railways, ports and healthcare. Foreign advertisement and PR firms have joined hands with local companies and entered the local market. Mid-market clothing brands such as H&M and Zara made an entry in 2017. Foreign F&B companies such as PastaMania, Chamichi, and Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and GS25 are hot favourites with locals now. Singapore realtors Maple Tree and Kepple Land, the Republic of Korea’s confectioners’ Lotte and Walmart equivalent, Emart, and Japan-based retailers Aeon and Takashimaya-VNA are making huge investments.

According to the manager of Pan-Asian financial services firm, Dezan Shira & Associates’ business intelligence department, Maxfield Brown, the Vietnamese government has prioritised divestment of state-owned enterprises and deregulation of restricted business lines across a wide range of industries over the last few years. It continues to simplify investment procedures, open up sectors to foreign investment, provide incentives for investors and integrate itself further into the global economy through a strong network of free trade agreements.

Brown says, “Recent legislative reforms such as Vietnam’s Law on Investment and Law on Enterprise helped to solidify Vietnam’s commitments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reassured investors in the European Union and the US that Vietnam is fully committed to supporting foreign investment.” Indeed, several US companies such as Intel and Microsoft have invested in Vietnam, though the overall investments are much less compared to the foreign direct investment or FDI from Asian countries.

In 2017, FDI reached $35.6 billion, while disbursed capital reached $17.5 billion, a 10-year high, according to Dezan Shira & Associates. The top three investors were all Asian countries — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Till September 2018, the total cumulative registered FDI in Vietnam reached $334 billion, with disbursement at $184 billion. As of October 2018, 57 per cent of the total FDI focused on the manufacturing industry, catering mainly to the export industry.

It seems a new class of young consumers has sprung up with the inflow of FDI. They work in advertising, PR, IT, education and retail sectors. Consumer spending has nearly doubled since 2010, leading to an explosion of local and foreign businesses targeting Vietnam’s emerging middle class. According to a 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre, almost all Vietnamese people — 95 per cent of them — now support capitalism.

Saigon-based advertising entrepreneur Do Kim Dzung says big economic changes have started changing their lifestyle. “Global giants such as Starbucks, McDonald and Burger King have started ruling our lives. English classes are on offer everywhere in the major cities, where speaking the language has become essential to grow professionally. The lifestyle of the urban Vietnamese today is no way less than anyone living in the West.”

The first time Vietman opened its markets to the outside world was in 1986 — that was the Doi Moi or economic reforms campaign. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1995 and five years later it signed a trade agreement with the US, enabling trade to take off. From 2000 onwards, Vietnam approved the sale of state-owned companies. By 2006, it became member of the WTO, thus reaping its initial crop of foreign investments.

Today, the red flag dots the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi as do giant advertisements for luxury goods, commercial banks, real estate companies and telecommunication firms. A kilometre away from the Independence Palace, which became the citadel of the Communist Party after it was overtaken by soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in 1975, stands the swanky Saigon Times Square.

A jewellery shop inside the premises of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


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