BBTalks: Middle East, India and our apathy, with Madhuvanti Srinivasan

What is actually happening in the Middle East and how far is the truth from what people think is actually happening?

Across times, the middle east has been a game of great action – very complex social diversity, monarchy, oil, of course. Allegations with the west are precisely why this region has encountered a whirlwind past and present too. Now when it comes to complex social diversity, we as Indian’s kind of relate to this concept of diversity the most as against anybody else from any other part of the world. The Middle East(ME) is also home to a very very diverse, buzzing and energetic social  composition and if you go and try exploring a Syrian or Lebanese society we kind of sit with this whole idea that they are all Muslim societies, like Islam is the only religion that survives in these kinds of societies. Islam is prevalent, the predominant religion, but you also have Christians, Syrians, Kurds, Druze and the fact being that they are very very complex when it comes to social diversity. Monarchy, of course goes without saying. Oil, of course – they are filled with oil. And relations with the west. And these are reasons why ME has always been in the news and a region of great action.


I’ll try going country by country, so lets start with Iran, considering they are closest from home, so Iran is dealing under possible sanctions from the US because of its possible missile testing and has apparently been put on a notice by the Trump administration. The travel ban has also not gone down very well with Iran because of the large Iranian-American diaspora and the continued migration of people from Iran to US. To be honest, I was a part of that world who genuinely hoped for tensions to settle between these two countries but sadly that is not the case anymore and it is very very clear. The Iraqi army is now battling their might out against ISIL or ISIS to safeguard and liberate the country’s largest city, Mosul with the help of the Americans. Now this is ironical, or maybe they were left with no choice. So, Mosul has been under the siege by the ISIS for the past two years. Internal displacement has cost this nation a lot because there have been a lot of major Iraqi cities that the Iraqi army have rescued from the hand ISIS and during the time the ISIS was ruling them you had the public with his these fleeing and going to other places which were under the Iraqi government. Internal displacement has caused this nation a lot and sectarian crisis seems to have got all the more worse in Iraq. It is not good news but that is what has been sadly happening.Now the reason why I am stating sectarian crisis here is, the composition of Iraq is very very significant and it is very crucial for people to understand that the politics and way of living of the people of Iraq kind of depends on the sect, the community they come from. Now when you look at Iraq are by the Kurds, central Iraq is more of Sunnis and souther Iraq is more of Shias. The government which is power right now, the Federal govt, is a Shia dominant govt. Now the Sunni Community of course did not like this. In fact it is said that when two years later ISIL took over Iraq from the Mosul govt, they were very happy there because they felt they have escaped the hands of the Shia oppressor. They had the feeling ki apna hi koi raaj kar raha hai, but as time passed and once they started realising how things were functioning, it didn’t go down well. Even right now you have a lot of Shia militia which is helping the Iraqi Army to take over Mosul, where 1 million people are still stuck in the city. So you can’t just go and bomb buildings because there are like 100 families living in the building and ISIL is also very smart because they are using these people as human shields to escape to Syria.


The next is Syria. To be honest, this is a war History never taught me because everything is right in front of our eyes. From 2011 till now, we have seen what is happening, but what made me the most angry was what happened with Aleppo. It was a beautiful city, which has been at the forefront, it has been known for its history from the ottoman times and here you go, a handful of rebels literally destroying and tarnishing a city to such an extent – like there have been days when I have watched the news and cried. No other city should suffer as Aleppo has suffered. Again, very complex – the Syrian Civil War – after a point you wont understand who is supporting whom. So right now, when you look at what is happening in Syria, there is this place called Albab, which is and ISIL stronghold and you have rebels backed by Turkey who are fighting them there. You also have the official National Syrian Army. Now the problem here is that ISIL ke saath lade bina yeh rebel group, backed by Turkey aur Syrian Army apne mei ladne lagenge. Because the rebel group backed by Turkey is against the President. So there will be a time when there will be a clash. Secondly, there were reports of mass execution by the regime which is slowly resurfacing and we cannot say if it is true or no because everybody functions with their own deal of propaganda and bias. I wouldn’t be surprised but the President is capable of doing this, but I am not going to give away by believing this.


Next is the Gulf Cooperation Council. Those nations are pretty chill. You have Bahrain which was recently in the news for a lot of executions that took place. UAE seems to be doing very good in all fronts. Qatar, TBH, I don’t know. Kuwait, the last I heard that after Trump banned people from 7 countries, Kuwait also banned people from 5 nationalities from entering their territories. Saudi, again no clue. I think they are probably busy dropping a few bombs in Yemen. Yemen, unfortunately, is a war that the world forgot. I wouldn’t say unintentionally, but very very conveniently – completely destroyed, like there is nothing. Children are dying, civilians are dying, the military is dying, but they are all ok. Yemen has also had a tough history. There was a time when they wanted to break it into Northern and Southern Yemen only because of the societal composition of the Shias and Sunnis but that didn’t really happen. They are sustaining with the risk of losing a generation completely but the world is okay with it. We are concerned about what Trump is saying, what La Pen is saying and things like that but we aren’t really concerned about children which are dying without food or a country which is perishing.

Egypt is going through a very difficult phase after the revolution (2011) when you had the Arabs spring in a lot of places, after which they are struggling in terms of economy, diplomacy, democratic ideals, etc. Very difficult to imagine that this was Nasser’s Egypt. I wouldn’t say he was democratic, but he did a lot of good for Egypt. He kind of looked at Arab nationalism back then. When he died and his funeral took place in Cairo, you had 2 million people on the roads. Western publications went down to write that never in the world’s history will you see 2 million people cry together. No body after him has done so much good for the country.


Turkey! (laughs) I can write a thesis on Turkey but again, considering that they are a regional powerhouse, somebody who is being looked upon as somebody who should shoulder the responsibility of the region with 3 million refugees and counting, I wouldn’t say that I was a bias there. Turkey and India are very similar, even socially because they are too very diverse. So for a developing country to take in so many refugees is not a joke. They are doing it at a cost and other countries fail to understand that. To be precise to the question, there is a referendum which is scheduled somewhere in April (probably 16th) where the country is going to choose if they wish to move from a Parliamentary to Presidential form of governance. They have an on going conflict with the PKK, basically a Kurdish organisation which is at war with the Turkish govt because they feel that the Kurds have been suppressed and oppressed in the Turkish society. And Turkey is reeling with supremely fragile borders because of Syria and they have attacks from ISIL as well. Secondly, diplomacy wise they have been going much much closer to Russia. Their relationships with the US have gone for a toss and there was a time when Turkey wanted to enter the EU.


Finally, Lebanon and Jordon. Lebanon recently got their president after a two year long wait and it is more of a Presidential form of govt. The capital Beirut was going through a super garbage situation where there was garbage all around and then there was the refugee and anti refugee problem. Jordan is also on a war with ISIL because one of their pilots was on a flight to bomb them but his flight crashed and the ISIL caught him and burnt him to death. So after that they haven’t been going well.

Can you explain your love for Middle East and your sympathy towards them?

I don’t really have something specific. I wouldn’t say that I have been garnering my love for ME since I was a kid. In fact, when i was a kid i used to be very scared because for me Arabic looked like a language that looked very dangerous and unconventional. I feel that the natural interaction in that language is very harsh sounding than other languages. So that is one. Secondly there has always been a sense of fear with the ME. I wouldn’t exactly say fear but more of mystery. I was not very interested in the ME to start with but then, to be particular, my interest in the ME began when i was in the 11th grade. That was the time when you had the revolutions, the Syrian Civil War and stuff. Of course I didn’t jump into it directly, but me being a news enthusiast, I would see them a lot in news and thats when I took a lot of interest into it and I kept reading and reading. So my fascination is very recent but it is just that all I have garnered has been more with respect to volume and over the years but the period is very very less. When you ask sympathy, I wouldn’t say sympathy, but I don’t really not another word to put for it, but back in 2003-04 when Iraq was being invaded by the USA, I was a kid, I didn’t know anything apart from Saddam Hussain. We don’t really have ripple effects of what happens in the ME, right, so I kind of didn’t really know much, but now when i read about it all I’ve realised that the west has played a lot in this region. Now the reason why they have played around so much – yaar khelna tha toh humare saath bhi khel lete, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, hum bhi toh hai – was oil. They wanted the oil wells, thats all. They said stuff against Saddam Hussain but all they wanted was oil. I am not supporting Saddam Hussain. He was a dictator and his stories from those days suggest that he was despotic too. But the people there weren’t really left with a choice. And it is kind of appalling how the West treats the ME. I wouldn’t say thats the reason why I have a certain sympathy, but that is why i feel bad for them. They are also developing countries and have never been giving a chance to prove themselves. They are always under the fear ki ab kya hoga, kon apne ko aake marega. Also, democracy wise, the ME las lacked a lot. Im not speaking of UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, etc, they have had fantastic monarchies. When it comes to presidents like Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussain, there comes a problem. So there has remained an unhappiness and unrest and the West has taken this advantage to take over the people. So, I am not really sympathetic, but they have never been given a chance as much as an India or a Turkey has been given or even a South Korea for that matter. We have not been oppressed as they have been oppressed. So it is that and the Syrian Civil War and I want to be a medium to at least let people know what is happening there.

I know you know many people from different Islamic countries. Have you ever spoken to them about how Islam is treated as a whole? What do they have to say or what are your discussions like?

A couple of countries I would know people from would be Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan and TBH we have never spoken about religion because they refrain from talking about it. We have never had an opportunity to talk about religion or rather we never wanted to considering that we are a part of a generation where religion is not the most important thing and its a sensitive topic too. We have lunatics like Trump being in power so it is scary and we wouldn’t want it to be a part of our discussion and we talk about other things. We talk A LOT about politics. I tried initiation a conversation about the Turkish referendum but they are all playing safe and saying lets see. Else it is a very general friendly conversations – food, games, work, future plans, love lives, though mine is inexistent, when are you coming to Turkey, when are YOU coming to India? So it is not very serious. It is probably a conversation I would have with you. The way I discussed OK Kanmani with you, I will probably discuss Turkish movies and music with them or who is your favourite actor and actress? Oh he is so handsome or oh she is so pretty! So basically, religion has never been in the radar. Our only conversation pertaining to religion would be wishing each other on festivals or when I talk about cultural diversity.
What do they think of Mumbai or India?

I don’t think a lot of my friends knew a lot about India or Mumbai before we got talking. But, India, of course, land of colours, Bollywood – Slumdog Millionaire, Aamir Khan and I think thats about it. Oh! And the cow, I cant forget the cow. For them its always a matter of great amusement ki bhai you are a part of a country that worships cows and I am like yeah. I mean i don’t, but i am supposed to, we are supposed to. And when we talk about caste systems they ask me how does it even work! Else, not much.


Do you think somewhere, India is also responsible for the crisis? Not the government alone, but the common man’s apathy to the situation?

This can be very subjective. Though we do have a lot of strategic and historical ties with the ME, and we wouldn’t say we are very far proximity wise, we have never had the ripple effects in India. The ripple effects would be maximum like the oil prices falling down, but we have never had a political or social effect of the circumstances in the ME, though we do have a large diaspora of people living there. I wouldn’t say we are responsible for the crisis in any way because we are not the ones who fuelled the crisis. The ones who did that are chilling. The govt of course cant do beyond a point because we ourselves are a developing country. But the common mans apathy is something that has really appalled me. Syria is not very far and I am not here to tell that you need to know all the nuances of what is happening there but the least that you can know is that something is happening there. I have known people who are completely indifferent of the situation there. Syria mei kya ho raha hai, pata nahi. Egypt mei kya ho raha hai, pata nai, Turkey mei kya ho raha hai, pata nahi.  See, Turkey for me is a very different story. When people come to me to discuss fashion, I will be like fuck off, not happening. So it dwells down to personal choices, but things like these are very very crucial and it becomes very important for people to know what is happening because the kind of world you are living in is so dynamic that you just never know. I am not asking you to take a stand and say what is right or wrong, but just know what is happening. Of course it is not affecting you. Consider yourself lucky, because people are suffering.  When I try to make a conversation about the same with certain people, they say apne ko kya farak padta hai? India ko kuch nahi hoga so how does it make a difference? And then they will be like oh I love travelling. So if you want to travel the world, you will also have to embrace the weaknesses of the world with similar spirit in what you decide to embrace the beauty of the world. If you go to Paris, apart from the beauty of the Eiffel Tower, you also need to acknowledge the severe racism crisis that is going on in France. So you cant just take what you want to and leave the other end. I think the concept of YOLO or that there is just one life and hence take all the good inside of you is a very convenient way to wash your hands off the responsibility. But as somebody who is educated, I think it is crucial to stand up for humans from the other part of the world.I am not asking you to go to Syria and volunteer for them, but at least acknowledge.

Taking our conversation off the Middle East for a bit, do you actually think India is progressing? I mean where do you see India, as a nation, going? Justify your answer. 

Very tricky question, but I am not very sure, because a lot of things we are doing really well, a lot of things I have my concerns about them. India as a country has been looked upon by a lot of other countries as an inspiration, because there are a lot of difficulties we face that others don’t. I wouldn’t say we have dealt with everything and are doing well. The thing is India is progressing  but we have concerns. Diplomacy wise, foreign policy wise, we are at our best. Like, it is amazing. When it comes to our relationship with the neighbours, apart from Pakistan, is an indication of how much respect they have for us. Our only friend on earth is Bhutan but the way we have garnered respect from all other nations is just because of our current foreign policy under the BJP government. Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, you name it and it is good. So when people like Rahul Gandhi come and say ki humare Pradhan Mantri duniya mei ghoomte rehte hai, I don’t even feel like defending Modi because I know what all has been done. So politically we are good to go. Corruption is a great concern though. Economically we are okay. I don’t know yet what demonetisation has done to us. So whether we are progressing or no is a 50-50.

There are so many social issues prevalent in India. There is gender inequality, poverty, unemployment and so on and so forth. Which do you feel for the most? Why? 

Of course, gender inequality. Not that I don’t feel for the others. Again, I am not here being a feminazi of sorts but I believe in equality at an extent where man and woman are at the same pedestal. A lot of age of traditions that have been anti-women need to be thrown out, a lot of chauvinism needs to be shown the door, also politicians need to be supremely gender sensitive, and moral policing is something I am not very fond of. A man can wear whatever he wants to, so why is a woman being deprived of that? Matlab aadmi Goa jaake sirf shorts mei ghoom sakta hai. Hum kya saree pehen ke ghoome? So when we talk about equality we should also talk about the same level of dignity and freedom of choice that a man is entitled to in India. As I speak, I don’t really think gender inequality is the biggest problem but the biggest problem is the society itself. So there have to be sweeping changes. I agree it is difficult, but the change has to be there. I speak, again, not as a feminazi, but as a woman, and say that its a shame how this society functions. I have been travelling by the train for the past 5 years and I am not saying that I get eve teased everyday, but even a man brushing by my body is pathetic and ‘I have to get used to it’. So I think a lot has to change. But at the same time, there are things that need to change with reference to the men as well. For example, the kind of rape complaints that go to policemen. There are cases where the man is generally not the culprit. So there has to be equality in both the senses. I don’t want women on a pedestal, but I don’t want the men up there either. Secondly, I also feel about how the physically challenged people are treated. There is no infrastructure to help them but we will make fun of them. So we come back to the main problem – the society, the way parents bring up their kids. That has to change.


Now because I started Bombay Balloon primarily as a cinema based platform, tell me the name of one film/documentary which outlines the Middle East crisis in the best possible way…

I cant really give an answer for this because I watch very select movies which are generally rom coms.

Finally, when do I see you flying off to Istanbul?

(Laughs) If I am given a choice, I can apply for a visa right now and leave. My love for this city is very different. It is something I cannot really explain. It is a dream that I have seen for myself, one that I have promised myself. S, very very soon. Hopefully, you’ll probably see a Madhu settled in Istanbul and you come and visit me and I show you around.


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