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Pigeons have done so much for ungrateful humans

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I like pigeons. Their voices are soft and rhythmic. I have put up baskets for them in the front verandah and they live there quietly. They don’t ask for food – probably because they are fed at the roundabout near my house by compassionate people who come from far to drop grains for them every day. I have a bird table of rice and fruit so they can feed there whenever they want.

The Mumbai Municipal Commissioner has made it the feature of his (hopefully brief) tenure that he will get rid of the pigeons from Mumbai. Those who go looking for something to hate and often pick on pigeons should know what they have done for us humans over the years.

The first airmail using pigeons was established in 1896 in New Zealand and was known as the Pigeon-Gram Service. Their speed averaged 77.6 mph, only 40% slower than a modern aircraft. Each pigeon carried five messages and special Pigeon-Gram stamps were sold for each message carried.

In the First World War, pigeons were used extensively for carrying messages. German marksmen were deployed to shoot the birds down. Pigeons were carried in tanks and released through tiny portholes in the side. Mine-sweeping boats carried pigeons so that in the event of an attack by a U-boat, a pigeon could be released with a message confirming the exact location of the sinking boat, often resulting in the crew being saved. Seaplanes carried pigeons to relay urgent information about enemy movements. In the Second World War, pigeons were used in active service in Europe, India and Burma.

The last pigeon messaging service in the world was in Odisha called Orissa Police Carrier Pigeon Service and it disbanded in 2006 after 60 years of active service and 800 birds. Carrier pigeons had provided daily communications between Orissa’s 400 police stations across the state. They carried essential messages during two natural disasters: the massive cyclone in 1971 and the unprecedented floods in 1982. Their ability to fly in adverse weather conditions saved many human lives.

In the 5th century BC, the first network of pigeon messengers is thought to have been established in Assyria and Persia by Cyrus the Great. In 2000 BC, they were carrying messages to warring groups in Mesopotamia. In 53 BC, they carried Hannibal’s dispatches. Julius Caesar used pigeons during the conquest of Gaul from 58 to 51 BC. Indian and Arab merchants used carrier pigeons when visiting China. At the first Olympic Games held, in 776 BC, every athlete had a homing pigeon from his village. If he won his event, his would be the bird that carried the news home.

Between 63 BC – AD 21, the Greek geographer Strabo noted that pigeons flew between certain points along the Mediterranean coastline to carry messages of the arrival of fish shoals for waiting fishermen.

The news agency Reuters originally used pigeons to disseminate news in the 1840s. Paul Julius Reuter’s pigeons only stopped when the telegram was invented. In 1870 they carried messages throughout France during the siege of Paris.

In 1915, at the start of the First Great War, two Pigeon Corps were established on the Western Front, consisting of 15 pigeon stations each with 4 birds and a handler. The Pigeon Corps was so successful that further birds were recruited, and the service expanded considerably. By the end of the war the Pigeon Corps consisted of 400 men and 22,000 pigeons in 150 mobile lofts. Messages would be put into a small canister and then attached to the pigeon’s leg. The bird would be released and would return to its loft behind allied lines, sounding a bell to confirm that it had landed. Each airfield along the coast of England had its own loft so that pigeons could be dispatched with messages in the event of invasion. Bomber crews usually carried a pair of pigeons so that in the event that the plane was shot down, the birds could be released with details of the crash site.

These birds played a major role in the Intelligence Service in the First World War. They were sent to maintain contact with resistance movements across Europe. Fewer than 10% survived the shell fire, small arms fire, poison gas.

In 1940, 300 crates of pigeons were dropped into Enemy-occupied areas of Europe, each bird being packed into a box with food for 10 days. Instructions and a questionnaire were put in the box. If found by an ally, information about enemy movement could be put inside the container on the bird’s leg and the bird released to fly back. About 16,544 pigeons were parachuted into occupied Europe during the Second Great War. Only 1,842 returned.

Over 100,000 British pigeons lost their lives in military service. Red Cock flew back from a torpedoed trawler carrying the grid reference of the sinking boat and saving the crew. In October 1918, 500 men of the 77th Infantry were trapped in Argonne, France with no food or ammunition and being bombarded by their own side. The major sent the pigeon Cher Ami with a message for rescue. The bird was shot through the breast by enemy fire and fell to the ground. She got back into the air and flew 25 miles back to Division Headquarters in 25 minutes. The men were saved. Cher Ami had delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and with a leg hanging by only a tendon. The Dickin medal is awarded to any animal that has distinguished itself through an act of bravery in wartime. Of the 55 medals awarded to date, pigeons have been recognised 32 times- much less than they deserve because they saved the lives of lakhs of people. The American and Australian Services also used pigeons extensively and had their own pigeon units operating indifferent countries. So did Burma (Myanmar) and India.

Some years ago, the Indian army captured a pigeon carrying a message from the Pakistan army.

Pigeons were used for aerial photography. A miniature camera was mounted to the bird’s breast via a canvass harness and the pigeon sent to areas of strategic importance to capture images. The films provided information about enemy troop movements and air bases. Information relating to exact positions of the V1 flying bomb site in Peenemunde in Germany was conveyed by pigeons – information that turned the tide of the war.

In 2004, an impressive memorial to commemorate all the animals and birds killed during wartime was erected in Hyde Park. Pigeons have been given pride of place in the sculpture with two pack mules in the foreground weighed down with munitions and cannon parts.

Pigeons more than any other animal have been man’s best friend in times of crisis. They give of themselves for a just a handful of grain. You need to repay your debt every day.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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Sat Mag

George Floyd, African-Americans, and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part I)

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By Uditha Devapriya

Over two weeks, the George Floyd protests spread practically everywhere. From Kansas to Kenya, from Baltimore to Berlin, they turned into symbols of dissent against not just the racism, but also the xenophobia, of White America.

One of the most haunting images to emerge from the demonstrations was that of a young Sri Lankan girl, draped in the flag of her country, posing defiantly on the streets of an American city. The image and the girl in it attracted both support and opposition, the latter coming from militant Sinhala nationalists who felt she dishonoured a national symbol by using it as a sign of civil disobedience involving a domestic issue of another country.

The response of the nationalists to the George Floyd uprisings was, if at all, amusing. One section of this crowd took to social media to condemn White America for exhibiting its racist, chauvinist face yet again. Another section – no less big or significant – took the opposite stance, censuring those protesting against the murder of a black civilian because, to them at least, Floyd’s murder did not warrant the rampaging and the pillaging of public property. To the latter group, these protests seemed disproportionate to what they regarded as an instance of police authority enforcing the law over a minority community.

The few within the nationalist crowd who did support the raging protests were, even more amusingly, taken to task on social media by another group, this one ideologically opposed to nationalism. The latter crowd seemed to think, not without justification, that the nationalists sharing posts and posting comments against White America were myopic: they seemed to sympathise with George Floyd, but not with the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka, whom the anti-nationalists alleged are as discriminated against over here as George Floyd’s community is over there. Thus both nationalists opposed to the protests AND anti-nationalists critiquing the selectivity of those supporting the protests persisted in comparing African-Americans to the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In that sense the protests taught us two important lessons. Though they don’t form the subject of this essay, they are relevant to it, and hence need to be examined.

Firstly, the inability of many Sinhala nationalists to take their struggle against neo-colonialism and Western hegemony forward. Resistance to colonialism has historically formed the bedrock of the Sinhala nationalist lobby, yet their denunciations of this uprising betrayed a failure to think beyond geographic borders. This came out quite despairingly in their reaction to the only local political party that saw it fit to organise a protest in front of the US Embassy. The government’s crackdown on the demonstration didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers, nor did the point that the demonstrators were making.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the inability of local left-liberal outfits to come up with a proper front, in Sri Lanka, against the George Floyd murder. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) organised the protest against the US Embassy, while the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) organised a discussion on it online. But neither of these belongs to what is traditionally labelled as “civil society.” The point can be made that the issue at the centre of these protests was not Sri Lankan and that is why civil society ignored it, but that excuse pales away when one considers that the moment sections of the nationalist crowd let out their anger at the US’s handling of the protests, certain social media civil society activists focused their energies more on pointing out the hypocrisy of the nationalists.

Despite the hostile exchanges between the two factions, one particular point brought them together: their comparison of African-Americans to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. They underscored this comparison from two different vantage points.

Thus the nationalists who critiqued the protests seemed to believe that, like extremist Tamils and Muslims, African-Americans and other minorities in the US were unfairly questioning the legitimacy of rule by an ethnic majority. Those opposed to the nationalists, on the other hand, inadvertently, by their critique of the nationalists’ sidelining of Tamils and Muslims, equated the latter two with the community which Floyd hailed from. The question to be asked here is whether such an analogy is, if not plausible, then at least tenable.

In 2011, a year before Barack Obama won election for a second term, Vinod Moonesinghe wrote a cogent reply to someone who in an article had wished for a Tamil or Muslim to be elected as this country’s leader. Vinod made two points there: considering Obama’s win as a win for all African-Americans failed to distinguish between his class origins and those of most African-Americans; and equating African-Americans with Tamils and Muslims was anachronistic, given the economically privileged status of the latter two groups.

Taking class and caste into consideration, then, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election win seemed closer to such a comparison than the potential coming to power of a member of a “minority.” Taking class, caste, AND ethnicity into consideration, the analogy would have to extend, not to Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, and Malays, or Borahs and Sindhis, but instead to a community that, like the blacks of the US, was imported as dirt cheap labour, cut off from the rest of the population, and supervised under a setup no different to the plantations of the southern US. In other words, the migrant Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Before making an analogy between these two groups, though, it would do well to reflect, very briefly, on the historical trajectory of slavery in the West.

Following the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, Europe turned inward. The eminent historian Fernand Braudel has written of a “second serfdom” that sprang up in parts of the continent where feudalism failed to give way to capitalism. The result was the growth of a kind of slavery, white slavery, across the East, in what is now Russia; it’s a testament to the legacy of the trade which emerged there that the word “slave” derived from the ethnicity of those marshalled into it from that region, Slav.

With the influence of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks after them waning after the fall of Granada in 1492 (the same year Columbus “discovered” the New World), a liberated Europe, discovering hitherto unchartered colonies in the Americas on one side and Australia on the other, gradually instituted a system of indentured white bondage.

It has been estimated that around 67% of all white immigrants to the new colonies arrived there as servants. These immigrants were bound to a contract that compelled them to work for an overseer, without pay, over a specified period of time. Most often such contracts were drawn for those who had a prior obligation to these overseers which they couldn’t meet, such as a debt. Since the government usually didn’t interfere with these contracts, extortion and kidnappings became common, as they would among Africans later on. The situation was such that even in as late as 1910 the US government was trying to put an end to white slavery: the White Slave Traffic Act (or the Mann Act) that year made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.”

Debt bondage, however, applied in the early period only to white immigrants to the white colonies, and the Irish; the difference between their situation and that of African slaves was that the latter were never recruited to pay off an obligation; most of them ended up as lifelong labourers, unpaid and treated as chattel or property. As Liam Stack once observed, “[u]nlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”

To put this in its proper perspective, the position of those shipped to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the southern United States fitted that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. The process of recruiting and transporting these Africans, in the long term, thus became, as Gordon K. Lewis put it, “quasi-militarised”, while once quartered in the plantations their owners did everything to isolate the unfortunate immigrants, prisoners really, from the world outside.

Revisionist historians, white and black, have tried to understate the full weight of black slavery, either by pointing at the involvement of African intermediaries in it or by showing that European Christians became as entangled in it as Africans.

Thus Robert Davis (Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters) argues that while the Atlantic slave trade was 12 times as large, more Christians than Africans were captured between 1500 and 1650, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“How Many Slaves Landed in the US?”) contends that of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the passage to the West, “only about 388,000” were shipped to the United States. What these “findings” fail to show is that black slavery was not geographically limited to the US, or for that matter to Western Europe, and that from 1530 to 1780, when more than five million Africans found themselves dispatched to Portugal and Brazil, only about a million Christians were forced into servitude in North Africa, along the Barbary Coast and into the Ottoman Empire.

The Abolitionist movement, no doubt representative of a progressive, enlightened wing in the Evangelical Revival, agitated for African slavery’s end. It did this as much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones; the rise in Britain of an industrial Whig bourgeoisie over a landed Tory gentry and the expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa had by then necessitated the rise of plantation colonialism. It is hence not a coincidence that African slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated by official proclamation in the same year (1833) that the most ambitious set of administrative proposals were tabled in Sri Lanka (Colebrooke-Cameron) to lay the foundation for the new colonial plantation economy.

Against this backdrop, black slavery soon receded to countries where a white settler class predominated, including Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. S. B. D. de Silva in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment refers to these as “settler states”, a distinction I will return to later. In any case, what we have here is the first of many differences between the plight of African-Americans and that of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

Plantation colonialism demolished and also made use of existing traditional political, cultural, social, and economic patterns in much of Asia and Africa. The most immediate result of that, of course, was the impoverishment of the peasantry; in Sri Lanka, as we know, the peasantry most directly affected by these policies remained the Kandyan Sinhalese.

Marx was largely correct in his comparison of British domination of India to that of Ireland. He was more prescient in the implication that the British brought with them to the colonies their experience in subjugating the Irish peasantry. Two policies make it clear to what extent they were following the Irish example in India and Sri Lanka: the expropriation of peasant land, and the pursuit of divide and rule. I shall turn to these next week, and with them, the growth and evolution of Indian migrant labour.

To be continued next week…

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

Imagine yourself being fried and eaten bit by bit

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I cannot make up my mind: Is the meat eater, who eats dead animals killed in slaughterhouses, worse than the meat eater who kills the animal himself while eating it?

There is a certain type of person who goes to a restaurant, chooses a live fish, octopus shrimp or snake in a transparent aquarium tank, has it taken out of the glass and killed and cooked in front of him. His only reason for this to himself is that the meat should be “fresh”. In actual fact some people truly enjoy suffering. That, for them, is as important as the taste.

What can I say about people who enjoy eating these foods?

The Chinese Ying Yang fish is fried but kept alive. You can see videos of diners prodding at the face and eyes with their chopsticks while the fish struggles to breathe with its mouth and gills. It is prepared extremely quickly, with care not to damage the internal organs, so that the fish can remain alive for 30 minutes. Fish are the most sensitive of all to pain. Imagine yourself being fried and then eaten bit by bit.

In Japan, Sashimi, which means pierced body, is a common Japanese dish consisting of fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces and eaten with soy sauce. One kind of Sashimi is Ikizukuri (“prepared alive”) made with live sea beings. Fish and octopus are common ingredients that move on the plate as you eat them. Sashimi could also include live frogs. The frog is stripped of its skin while alive and stabbed delicately with a fork and eaten. One restaurant in Shinjuku serves the frog’s fresh, still beating heart, as starters. Lobsters are not always boiled alive and dead by the time they reach your plate. Restaurants in New York serve lobsters while they’re still alive. They are upturned and diners pick out “belly sashimi” from the lobster which flails in pain for all the time you take to slash and take out his stomach meat. Another common dish in Japan is swallowing live baby eels dipped in vinegar and saké.

In South Korea, Sannakji is a dish that involves hacking the tentacles off a baby octopus and serving them still wriggling. Sannakji connoisseurs enjoy the sensation of the still-active suction cups on the octopus’ arms as they stick to the mouth.

The Chinese cannot be bested for their addiction to cruelty. Live shrimp are put into a liquor called Baijiu and diners bite their heads off while drinking it. This can give you lung fluke disease, but what is more important than proving your manhood by killing a shrimp. In China there is a dish called “Three squeaks” in which live baby mice are dunked in sauce and eaten alive. The reason why it is called “Three Squeaks” is due to the sounds the mice make when grabbed with chopsticks, dunked in the sauce and bitten through.

Raw live baby monkey brain is a very expensive dish eaten by rich people in China and Hong Kong. The chef puts a live monkey beneath a table with its head poking up through a hole. The chef slices the top of the head off and the customers eat its brains while it screams. Fresh baby donkey, or Huo Jiao Lu. The animal has its legs tied and its body held down, while the chef cuts its body and serves the meat immediately to customers.

Live baby duck embryos, just a day from being hatched, are a famous Chinese specialty which is now common in the Philippines as well. In the latter country it is called Balut. The Filipinos eat the egg boiled. The Chinese eat it raw to get the full taste of the egg white, the little yolk left, and the live squirming chick. No wonder the Chinese make such dangerous enemies. They love violence and gore.

Odori ebi or “dancing shrimp” is a Japanese sashimi in which the baby pink shrimp is still moving its legs and antennae while being eaten. The shrimp only dies when chewed. Odori Don is a live cuttlefish whose tentacles twitch as you pour the soy and chew it.

Consuming the beating heart and blood of live snakes is common in Vietnam. You choose the live snake at roadside stalls and they cut it and serve it within a minute. I have seen this in Hong Kong. In China people eat live baby snakes.

Sea urchins are the porcupines of the sea; globular animals with long spines to defend themselves. They live on the seabed. But their spines cannot protect them from human greed. They are caught and served live. Their testicles are a delicacy across the world, specially Europe. The live animal is cut on the plate with scissors and its salty gonads are taken out and eaten raw.

The most common animal to be eaten alive is the oyster which is served alive. Its spine is broken, and its insides are slurped up raw. This was originally a French dish but is now eaten all over.

A famous chain of restaurants in Copenhagen serves salads crawling with live ants supposedly to add a zesty taste. These move slowly because they have been kept in the fridge previously. Wichetty grubs are chewed live in parts of Australia. They are said to taste like nutty fried eggs.

Casu Marzu is a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese eaten in Italy.  Its specialty is that it contains the live maggots of the cheese fly, which jump about in panic as you scrunch them. Casu Marzu has so much ammonia in it from its faeces that it scorches the tongue. Milk cheeses containing living insect larvae are produced in several Italian regions.

Television game shows that I have repeatedly complained about to the Ministry over the years is Fear Factor and Survivor where contestants eat live insects, spiders, cockroaches and worms. But by the time they take action, the series is already over. Then we start the cycle again with the next series. Man vs Wild is another show in which Bear Gryllis shows his manhood by eating live insects.

What is the word for people who demand food that is so full of pain? Monsters? Ugly terrifying evil beings that are probably a menace to human society as well. 

(To join the animal

welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.

peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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Sat Mag

The elephant and alli mankada

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By Ashley de Vos

In 1999, a proposal was made by the undersigned as President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, to document from the existing information in the Department of Wildlife Conservation, held in the archives of Mr. Wilson, an erudite Officer, and draw a map showing the original Alli Mankada, as they existed prior to 1977. Many ‘Experts’ objected, that they had all changed. They had all changed, yes, but we were after the Ayurveda solution to the problem, instead of the ampicillin solution of the western educated experts.

As a quick fix an ampicillin solution in the form of an electric fence was promoted and installed at enormous cost. This we all know has failed. These elephants for centuries have travelled from A to B along the Alli Mankada. Today this highway or the Mankada they travelled along has been blocked, and a detour has been introduced. Let’s apply the very same scenario to us humans. We are merrily travelling along the highway with our family trying to get to B. Half way we are confronted with a road block, we are not told why, but forced to take a detour. We have now to travel along narrow roads, not properly sign posted, across unfamiliar territory, meet new people, some friendly, some not, they are agitated, because of the sudden increase in traffic encroaching into their privacy and disrupting their life styles as well. Some put up boards requesting that the traffic should move slowly and hope the detour would be closed down and the highway opened up as soon as possible.

The poor elephant faces the very same scenario. They have travelled the highway, the Alli Mankada for centuries. Suddenly without any warning, due to a politically influenced decision and without a bird brain of thought the elephant highway, the Alli Mankada is closed. The disruption could be a badly located chicken farm belonging to a friend of the politician, an ill designed housing scheme, or the indiscriminate distribution of land usually for political expediency. Remember the people have a vote, the elephants don’t. The elephant journey from A to B, now for no real researched reason has been diverted through new areas. Through villagers have never seen the movement of the elephant herds in their village before. Some of the coconut trees destroyed are close to 10 years of more. They had been safe till the indiscriminate blocking of the Alli Mankada that diverted the herds, via electric fences in a new direction.

It is certainly not the fault of the elephant, but they are forced to suffer, they are shot, they are electrocuted, fed the insane Hakka Pattas. Those who indulge in this method, should lose any good karma that they may have accrued in the past, and be relegated to spend the rest of their million lives in the darkest hell hole. One cannot induce arbitory changes to the Alli Mankada, the fact is that these highways are engraved in the genes, is why we still see elephants climbing Koslanda on their way up to the highest landscapes like Poonagala.

Any good research has to commence from the base not from a contorted half way, leaving elephants on both sides of the electric fence. The cause has to be understood first, to arrive at the real solution. If people have been wrongly settled, if industries have been wrongly placed, if national parks have been compromised, now is the time to change, to get back. To look for permanent solutions, even if it means alternate lands. This would then constitute a permanent solution. To open up the Alli Mankada. We will not need the electric fences or the Hakka Pattas anymore, much to the disappointment of the suppliers. The politicians responsible for creating the illegal encroachments should be taken to task. If the map of the original Alli Mankada could be produced and forwarded to all authorities at least the Officers will understand the possible repercussions of their folly. No one can fane ignorance and say, THEY DID NOT KNOW.

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