Wednesday, November 19, 2008

India, The Navy and Aspirations of Regional Supremacy.

The Indian navy was successful in yet another anti-piracy operation yesterday. The INS Tabar spotted a pirate ship accompanied by speed boats at around 10pm during one of its patrols off the coast of Somalia. The pirate ship was challenged by the Talwar class stealth frigate, at which point the pirate ship tried to ram Tabar.

You have to give the pirates some credit for the sheer audacity of such a move. Maybe they did not really see what they were up against in the darkness. The result, surprise surprise, was that the INS Tabar opened fire and sunk the pirate vessel. Earlier this month, the very same INS Tabar had been instrumental in repelling two successive attacks on commercial ships plying off the territorial waters of Somalia.

So far this year, only the Indian Navy has had high-profile run-ins with pirates off the coast of Somalia. At a time when the Indian profile in world affairs has been markably ascendant, and when the Indian high command has started talking in public about force projection, these successes hold great value in furthering India's cause in regional and global diplomacy.

Over the past few years, many have expressed great concern about the direction India has been heading militarily. Apart from extensive defense spending in general, bilateral and multilateral military exercises such as the Malabar naval exercise in 2007 involving Indian and U.S. navies, along with those of Japan, Australia and Singapore have drawn a lot of flak. The direction in which Indo-American military ties have been heading has also been criticized. A report from 3-4 years back by the Information Assurance Technology Analysis Center (IATAC), quoted here, reads, "U.S. military seeks a competent military partner that can take on more responsibility for low-end operations in Asia, such as peace-keeping operations, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and high-value cargo escort, which will allow the U.S. military to concentrate its resource on high-end fighting missions." (emphasis added).

While the American conceit should not be overlooked, India needs to look at its options dispassionately. For sure, India should refrain being from allowing the U.S. to setup military bases in India similar to those in Turkey or Poland, or allow too much inter-operability to be established between the armed forces of the two countries (which could potentially allow the U.S. to remote-control maneouvres and operations of Indian forces should they wish to.) However, the low-end operations should not be looked at with too much disdain.

Low-end operations such as off-shore patrolling, and securing the high seas and busy shipping lanes from acts of piracy ought to be seen as confidence-building measures among regional countries. In geopolitics, a country is often only as powerful as other think it is. So far, a non-specific acknowledgement of Indian ascendancy is sometimes given in various parts of the world, but the Indian point of view has rarely been given due consideration. By winning over smaller powers by gestures of goodwill, India can develop its sphere of influence from the bottum-up and in an arguably more stable manner.

A landmark pact in defense cooperation was signed just earlier this month by Manmohan Singh and the Emir of Qatar, where India agreed to 'go to the rescue if the latter's interests are threatened '. Chief among Qatari concerns was piracy on the high seas, and the pact lays out 'a structure for joint maritime security and training '. India has also been deploying its navy for piracy patrol in the straits of Malacca since 2006, relieving U.S. naval ships and joining the Singaporean and Malayasian navies. When taken together with the Indian Navy's recent activities off the horn of Africa, one can comfortably make the claim that India now is a major player in securing three strategically important areas in South Asia: the strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden, and the Straits of Malacca. Over half the reported incidents of piracy in the world these last few years have taken place in the latter two.

If success continues over the next few years in similar ventures, India will also be in a much better position to get the U.S. to dismantle its military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, amongst others in south Asia.

All this needs to be given priority while setting the defence budget by whichever government that comes to power in 2009. Acquisition of 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft, T-90S Bhishma tanks, aircraft carriers such as the Admiral Gorshkov and nuclear submarines, though all vital for national defense and necessary to maintain a suitable deterrent against external threats of agression, by themselves they will not actively enhance India's importance in the region or the world. Instead, it would be the construction and deployment of lower-profile ships such as corvettes, frigates and offshore patrol vehicles that would truly make a difference.

It is assuring to learn though, that the current defense budgets and proposals are not ignoring such needs. 5 frigates, 8 corvettes and several patrol vehicles are either currently under construction or have been ordered, with many more planned for the near future. Whether these are enough, or whether there is a need for increased spending for such ships is hard to say.

Personally, I should admit that I am very impressed by the diplomatic and strategic overtures made by the current administration, more so over the past few months than before. Where there was a certain lack of will and apparent sycophancy among certain members of the current government, it seems to have been replaced almost entirely by a rational, considered and deliberate (even if a bit too deliberate) outlook in India's foreign affairs. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

May I have the next dance, Miss Ball?

Stephen Colbert, in his inimitable style, talks of Jane Austen and Baseball.
A Wag of my Finger to British Author Julian Norridge, who claimed that Baseball originated in Britain, just because the word 'baseball' first appeared in the Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, forty years before the sport was played here.
That doesn't mean that baseball is British! Austen wasn't writing about American baseball, it was a Jane Austen version, where the ball is not hurled about rudely, but introduced to the bat through proper channels at a society function. And one does not steal bases like a commoner, one sends word to the next base ahead by messenger, requesting to approach at the base's leisure. Of course, what the bat cannot reveal is that though he loves the ball desperately, he's sworn an oath of loyalty to the glove, to whom the ball was promised. So the bat must pretend that he hates the ball, swatting at it though he wishes nothing more than to profess his undying affection. But he can't, he musn't, he shan't
And so... the bad must retreat to the gardens of his estate and pine. 
The point is... the point is, Jane Austen, stay away from baseball. Stick to what you're good at, making your readers believe some debonair stranger will ride his horse through the rain over your father's fields. 
[Cut to Stephen behind an old window, with rain in front.] Oh, where are you, Mr. Darcy? Keep your promise!
*is rolling on the floor*

(It comes somewhere near the middle of that video. Enjoy! And you can go here in case the video doesn't work on my page.)
And to hell with Palin. Colbert for 2012!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A World Lost.

It is with disbelief and sadness that I am writing here today, that Michael Crichton, author extraordinaire, died on Tuesday after a private battle with cancer. 
From the shores of Isla Nublar to the lost city of Zinj, from mediaeval Dordogne to the Nordic lands of yore, he will be missed. The sadness is in part quite selfish, I will admit, that I will never get to read another Crichton novel for the first time. 
A generation of authors seem to be breathing their last. Robert Jordan, Arthur C. Clarke, and now Michael Crichton. Is there anyone capable enough of stepping into their shoes? One can but hope. 
Michael Crichton
October 23, 1942 - November 4, 2008
"Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way." -- Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park. 
If I had to pick five people who were responsible for my interest in science and a scientific career, Crichton would undoubtably be among them. 
You could find his excellent opinion piece about the death of mass media here. You should note that he wrote this in 1993, fifteen years ago. And he was vindicated 11 years later, in 2004. I should also mention that along with Al Gore, he has had a great influence on my views on global warming. (The last link seems to be temporarily down perhaps due to excessive traffic.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sirigannadam gelge!

On the eve of the fifty-second anniversary of the formation of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the central government gave the two states a most coveted prize: the granting of classical status to the two languages Kannada and Telugu.
A status enjoyed only by Tamil and Sanskrit so far, the Union cultural minister Ambika Soni announced today that two languages had been allowed to join this elite group. A nine member committee of linguistic experts had been formed for this purpose after four years of intense lobbying by the respective state governments and an assortment of political and civil entities from the two states. 
Is this but a cheap political trick on the part of the Congress government which is soon to face nation-wide elections and the expected anti-incumbent factors? Or will the parties currently in power in the two states tout this as a victory and try to score some political points? Did the committee have to lower prior standards for this classical language status in order to award it to Kannada and Telugu? All this even if one forgets to consider the validity of those prior standards and the ulterior motive behind awarding the classical language status to Sanskrit and Tamil four years ago. 
Yes, the worse the idea, greater the chances that it's true. But. None of that matters. Kannada finally got the classical language tag that it so rightly deserves! The Halmidi inscription, the earliest known use of full-length Kannada, dates back to circa 450 CE. 1500 known years of continuous use surely deserves something. The kingdoms and dynasties which ruled over ancient Karnataka all switched their loyalties from literary Sanskrit to the common man's Kannada, slowly developing the literature of the language. Over the centuries it has enjoyed the royal patronage of the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas, the Gangas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagara empire and the Wodeyars of Mysore after them. It is the language of kavirajamarga, it is the language of Pampa and Ranna and Ponna. It is the language in which Purandara Dasa sang of Vittala, it is the language in which Carnatic music as we know it today was systematized and stylized. 
Modern Kannada has been living up to its glory days in courts of Amoghavarsha I, Veera Ballala II, and Krishnadevaraya. With the likes of Kuvempu, Gorur and Maasti, since independence Kannada literature has managed to bag seven Jnanpith and fifty one Sahitya Akademi awards, more than any other language in the country. It is in our times that Bhimsen Joshi introduced many non-Kannada speakers to the language with his sublime rendition of Bhagyada Lakshmi Baaramma. 
So sit back, relax, forget all politics for a while and bask in the glow inherent to being a Kannadiga
Sirigannadam gelge!
Top right. A Hoysala stone inscription from a Lakshmi temple at Doddagaddavalli, Hassan district, circa 12th century CE.
Bottom. Dated circa 700 CE, the Kappe Arabhatta inscription at Badami, Bagalkot district is the earliest known example of Kannada poetry. It is written in what appears to be an early form of the tripadi meter, ubiquitous in early Kannada verse. 
PS. It is with regret that the author of this post refuse to claim having any significant reading or writing skills in the language he so identifies with, as a prime component of his cultural heritage even.
PPS. As corny as it may sound, I offer the heartiest of congratulations to Telugu and Telugu speakers as well. As the language of Tyagaraja's music, its positive impact on me hasn't been insignificant.