BY M.R. JOSSE
GAITHERSBURG, MD: Here in suburban Maryland one is subjected to such a deluge of news, insights, and opinions it is virtually impossible not to be overwhelmed. Attempting a weekly column that seeks to offer a sense, or flavor, of the past week is, thus, not the easiest task; arbitrary cherry-picking is inevitable, guided by what one believes may be of interest to the column’s readership, including that back home.
The ballpark shooting outside Washington DC, resulting in injuries to four, including Majority Whip Steve Scaliest (R), and the killing of shooter James T. Hodgkinson III, grabbed public attention.
This was not merely because it involved an attempted, pre-meditated political bloodbath that could have been far more appalling, sans the quick, heroic action of the police security detail, but because it again revived the age-old debate of gun-control/gun-violence and chillingly underlined how toxic political debate has become in today’s America.
Incidentally, for once, President Donald Trump’s knee-jerk reaction won praise; a Washington Post editorial on what it termed was “an assault on democracy”, in fact, conceded he struck exactly the right tone.”
Beyond the predictable expressions of outrage, I thought Fareed Zakaria in his Post column offered some rather thoughtful insights. Among them are those excerpted below. Calling the shooting at a congressional baseball practice “a ghastly example of the political polarization that is ripping the country apart”, Zakaria argues that political partisanship today is about identity, not policy.
Supporting American scholars who have argued that, in the past few decades, people have begun to define themselves politically less by traditional economic issues than by identity – gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – he says he would add to that mix “social class, something rarely spoken of in the United States but a powerful determinant of how we see ourselves.”
“Last year’s election had a lot to do with social class, with non-college-educated rural voters reacting against a professional, urban elite.” He laments, rather dramatically, that “American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no political middle ground between Sunni or Shiite.”
The horrifying mistreatment by North Korea of 22-year old American economics major, Otto Warmbier, and his repatriation home to Cincinnati, gravely ill and reportedly in a coma, has naturally ignited a fire-storm of indignation and protest here against the Pyongyang authorities. Many have urged Washington not to let its harm to a U.S. citizen go unpunished.
At the time of writing, Warmbier’s health status is unclear. (His sad passing was reported after receipt of this column-Editor). While people the world over would pray that he pulls through his awful ordeal, the ugly episode is note-worthy for other reasons.
That is because, as it turns out, Warmbier’s repatriation was the end result of backchannel dealings between the United States and North Korea initiated, as per the Post, by Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, who persuaded his boss, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, “to bless the rare, face-to-face dialogue with senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials after assuring him that the agenda would focus on the status of four American citizens imprisoned by the Kim regime.”
Yun, reportedly, scored a breakthrough when the North Korean delegation agreed to allow Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who handle U.S. affairs there, to visit the American prisoners, including Warmbier.
What is now being speculated is whether the backchannel diplomacy will lead to broader talks with North Korea – which, in turn, could depend on Warmbier’s health condition.
As one State Department official put it, a secondary intent of his release “could be the form of diplomatic signaling, the functional equivalent to a lady dropping her handkerchief to see if the gentleman picks it up.” The primary intention, he believes, hinges around the fact that Kim Jong Un “really does not want an American citizen to perish under his custody.”
Our part of the woods, incidentally, seems to be in the grip of nagging uncertainty – whether one refers to the political mayhem in Nepal or to the goings-on in neighbouring Darjeeling, in the Indian state of West Bengal, now seething with fury as a full-blown separatist movement for Gorkhaland has apparently been rekindled, thanks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s hare-brained move to make Bengali a compulsory subject in all schools.
Among the thoughts that come to mind is not merely the Gorkhaland movement of yore, spearheaded by Subash Ghising – when ‘Jyoti da’ ruled the roost in Writers Building and Mrs. G. called the shots in Luyten’s city – but also the familiar allegations of a ‘conspiracy’ between the local hill chief and the powers that be in the national capital.
From news stories culled on the Internet, one is informed of the Army being called out; of police firing cutting down protestors; of bandhs and tourists fleeing the picture-postcard hill station helter-skelter; even of Chief Minister Banerjee’s dark unsubstantiated accusations of a “terrorist connection” to the current agitation for Gorkaland, coupled with a public call for the Centre “not to encourage” the agitators.
More recently, there have been reports claiming that Banerjee is not merely cooking up a strategy of dividing the hill groups jointly calling for a separate state but also of imposing a blockade using the agitation as an excuse.
There are at least two things that puzzle me: one, why, when there has been a blizzard of state carve-ups in recent times on the basis of language and identity – Telengana, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Uttarakhanda – the Gorkhaland demand should not be considered kosher; and two, why Sikkim should not/cannot be considered a legit component of Gorkhaland, as it is overwhelmingly Nepali/Gorkhali speaking?
Which, finally, brings me to the dystopia that is today’s Nepal, where PM Deuba is apparently prepared to flout all democratic/constitutional norms in order to hang on to power amidst the storm of identity politics encouraged by an India which is getting a taste of the same in Darjeeling.