Quotulatiousness

July 28, 2015

Like a bad monster movie cliché, the INSAS rifle rises again

Filed under: India,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

India spent a lot of time and money to develop an arms industry that could supply the Indian army with Indian-made weapons. One of these weapons is the INSAS rifle. Unfortunately. Strategy Page reports on the resurrection of the INSAS despite its many failings in combat conditions:

INSAS rifle (via Wikipedia)

INSAS rifle (via Wikipedia)

In early 2015 India seemed to be finally responding to complaints from soldiers and other security personnel fed up with the poor performance of the locally made INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) 5.56mm assault rifle. The government recently reneged on that promise and announced that the despised INSAS would be replaced, in two years, by the MIR (Modified INSAS Rifle). On paper there are some improvements, like full auto-fire (INSAS can only do single shot or three round bursts), folding butt stock, Picatinny rail (for all manner of accessories), more reliable and effective magazines and more ergonomic design (making MIR easier to handle, clean and use). The government also revealed that recent firing tests have shown only two jams after 24,000 rounds fired by MIRs. There will also be a MIR 2 that is chambered to fire the AK-47 (7.62×39) round. Despite all that, to the current unhappy INSAS users the promise of the MIR comes as a huge disappointment. The government weapons design capability has a long and consistent history of failure and disappointing promises. Few INSAS users believe MIR will be much of an improvement over INSAS and will serve more as another source of cash for corrupt officials. While buying foreign weapons uses a lot of valuable foreign exchange it is more closely monitored and has proven to be less corrupt. In 2010 the government had agreed to allow the military to get a rifle that works and that meant a foreign rifle. The leading candidate was Israeli. But now that competition has been cancelled and many troops believe it is all about corruption, not getting the best weapons for the military.

This sad situation began in the 1980s when there was growing clamor for India to design and build its own weapons. This included something as basic as the standard infantry rifle. At that time soldiers and paramilitary-police units were equipped with a mixture of old British Lee-Enfield bolt action (but still quite effective) rifles and newer Belgian FALs (sort of a semi-automatic Lee-Enfield) plus a growing number of Russian AK-47s. The rugged, easy to use and reliable Russian assault rifle was most popular with its users.

In the late 1980s India began developing a family of 5.56mm infantry weapons (rifle, light machine-gun and carbine). Called the INSAS, the state owned factories were unable to produce the quantities required (and agreed to). Worse, the rifles proved fragile and unreliable. The design was poorly thought out and it was believed corruption played a part because the INSAS had more parts than it needed and cost over twice as much to produce as the AK-47.

July 22, 2015

Tea

Filed under: India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

I was not aware that there were quite so many grades of tea: David Warren explains the rankings (and why you won’t find any in the Tea and Coffee aisle of your local Sobey’s or Metro):

There are six grades of Darjeeling, and the highest, Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP), will never reach the Greater Parkdale Area. One will need not only money, but contacts to obtain it. Perhaps, fly there, and start networking among the estate managers. You can’t buy it at Harrod’s, because they don’t sell to Harrod’s: it would be beneath them. The Queen might obtain some, but then, she has a staff.

Each grade lower drops a letter off the front, so that my fine tea is of the fourth grade, just short of “tippy,” which refers to the abundance of flowering buds. “Golden” means that in the process of oxidation, these tips will turn a gold colour. “Flowery” is the term for high floral aroma. “Orange” has nothing to do with fruit, but refers to the Nassau family of Holland, whose most creditable accomplishment was pioneering the importation of tea into Europe, four centuries ago. The term insinuates, “good enough for Dutch royalty,” perhaps. “Pekoe,” or more correctly pak-ho, refers to the white down that gathers at the base of the bottom bud, an indication of the plant’s mood, its susceptibility to plucking. (Tea picking is an art; one does not strip the tree bare, but selects each leaf as it is ready.)

Now, survey your local supermarket shelf — let us suppose it is an “upmarket” emporium — and you will find in the tea section nothing but sludge. The teas will all be “blended” — which I esteem as blended whisky, or blended wine, delivered in tanker trucks. This will be especially true of the expensive boxes with whimsical names for the blends — that say nothing of date, terroir, or the specific variety. The tea inside the boxes will be packed in irritating little bags, probably with the absurd claim that they are “organic.” Once cut open, they reveal that the tea was ground by a Rotorvane, even before being stirred in a diesel-electric mixer. Various chain tea stores have sprung up, posing as effete, to separate fools from their money. Their pretensions are risible, and they annoy me very much.

I won’t comment on the “herbal teas” they also sell; except to recommend, to the women (including nominal males) who want herbal remedies for their malades imaginaires, that they take up smoking.

Rather, let us focus on the words, “Orange Pekoe.” They attach to most of the Subcontinent’s black tea supply, as to that of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the former paradise of Ceylon). I have explained what the words mean in a series — not much — but standing alone, they mean less. They guarantee that the purchaser will receive, at an inflated price, tea of a low, coarse, common quality, processed by the method called “CTC” (crush, tear, curl), introduced in the 1930s by a ravening industrialist named McKercher (“Sir William …”), and now spread around the planet.

The machinery was designed for volume at the expense of quality. It makes no sense to put good tea in, and what comes out might as well be bagged. This is tea for the masses, who have no prejudice or taste, and do not aspire to the humane. Like so much else in our fallen world, the best argument would be that tea of this sort is “better than nothing.”

July 18, 2015

Want to bone up on India’s armed forces?

Filed under: India,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

If so, you’ll want to read all of Shashank Joshi‘s recommendations (full disclosure … I haven’t actually read any of the linked sites myself):

Peter Mattis’ explanation of what one should read to be an expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made me wonder: What might a similar list look like for India-watchers? Western interest in India’s armed forces is considerably slighter, largely because India looms far smaller in U.S. strategic thinking and is viewed as a potential partner rather than probable military adversary. But there’s a large and growing volume of writing on Indian military affairs, almost all of it in English, with cutting-edge books or articles appearing every month. So where should one begin?

Each service has its own doctrine and/or strategy — most recently the army in 2004, the navy in 2009 (remarkably, it is not available online), and the air force in 2012 (the official link is — perhaps aptly — perpetually broken, but you can get it here) — but these are of limited use, not least because they’re not written in close coordination with other services or with a coherent national military strategy in mind. So most analyses depend on secondary texts, occasional statements by serving officers, and writing by retirees.

July 17, 2015

India’s wavering devotion to tolerance

Filed under: India,Liberty,Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Shikha Dalmia looks at India’s changing views on other religions:

If there were ever a religion readymade for liberal democracy — and its commitment to religious freedom — Hinduism would be it. Unlike Christianity (and other monotheistic faiths), Hinduism has no one true doctrine handed down by the one true God to be spread and enforced through the one true Church. It’s a loose, amorphous, and ecumenical faith that accepts that all religions are valid and it doesn’t matter which one you follow, as long as you are going to the same place. Hence, it made sense when Hindu-dominated India, after gaining independence from the British in 1947, enshrined secularism and religious pluralism in its constitution ­— rather than going through a three-century-long process from the Reformation through the Enlightenment that the West did to pry open space for religious tolerance in Christianity.

However, India’s commitment to religious freedom and toleration has been under serious challenge for a couple of decades with the rise of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. This ideology, that boasts Prime Minister Narendra Modi among its adherents, has always resented the special space that India’s constitution extends its minority religions — like letting Muslims use sharia in their civil matters. But now it has started openly attacking even their right to exist in India because, it maintains, India belongs only to those that can claim it as their fatherland and holy land — a rather hypocritical requirement given that the rapidly spreading Hindu diaspora enjoys strong religious protections in countries such as America and England that aren’t its “holy land and fatherland.”

That a historically tolerant faith could take such an intolerant turn suggests that a religion’s relationship to liberal values might have less to do with its own inner character and more to do with the existential insecurities of its adherents in a given time.

June 3, 2015

Re-examining the history of “the Raj”

Filed under: Britain,History,India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Diplomat, Nigel Collett reviews a new book by Ferdinand Mount called The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905:

It was the discovery of a book by his aunt, Ursula Low, published in 1936 and entitled Fifty Years with John Company, which opened Mount’s eyes to his family’s history and led to the writing of The Tears of the Rajas.

His aunt’s book, a work long ignored and derided as an eccentricity by her family, was a biography of her grandfather, General Sir John Low. What staggered Mount about his aunt’s account was her matter-of-fact recording of the massacres, mutinies and mayhem in which her grandfather and many of her relatives had been involved during their colonial careers. For General Sir John Low had, during a career in India that lasted from 1804 to 1858, seen the brutal suppression of the mutiny of his own regiment at Vellore a year after his arrival in India, the “White Mutiny” of European soldiers in the East India Company’s Forces in 1808 (which resulted in the massacre not of the European mutineers but of the Indian soldiers they led) and finally, in 1857, of the Indian Mutiny itself, which erupted at a time when Low was the Military Member of the Governor General’s Council.

More than this, Low, in a largely political career up until the outbreak of the Mutiny, had been intimately involved in policies which led directly to it, including the removal from power of three Indian potentates to whom he was attached as Resident (the Peshwa of Poona, the Raja of Nagpur and the King of Oudh) and the annexation of their lands. He was at one point, in yet another posting as Resident, personally involved in detaching a large chunk of Hyderabad from the lands of the Nizam.

During his service, Low had watched, and other members of his family had been involved in, the British annexations of Sind and the Punjab, the conquest of Gwalior and the disastrous attempt to depose Dost Mohammed, the Shah of Afghanistan, which led to the catastrophe of the 1st Afghan War. Mount’s title is well chosen: Low literally reduced several of his Rajas to tears.

[…]

Perhaps more stomach-turning than this, especially to a British reader, are Mount’s revelations of the dishonest policies followed by almost every Governor General of India towards India’s native princes, policies driven by pure greed, conducted with cold ruthlessness in utter disregard of treaties, promises or any code of honor, and hidden beneath layers of hypocritical cant. Much of this has not been made generally known. Few, for instance, in the Far East, will know that as the First Opium War in China ended in 1842, another began in India, for the British conquest of Gwalior was aimed at the control of the opium it grew independently of the East India Company.

The removal of misgovernment was all too frequently the fraudulent public excuse for the imposition of direct rule and the canard of the protection of the peasantry from their own rulers was little more than a front for taxing them more efficiently. Add to this noxious behavior insulting racial pride, ignorance of culture and tradition, and a religious evangelism that persuaded army officers that it made sense to tell their Hindu and Muslim soldiers that they would go to Hell if the wars into which they were leading them resulted in their unconverted deaths, and there seems little need for further explanation of why it all ended in disaster in 1857.

While I can’t claim to have read deeply in Indian history during this period, I still think the best introduction to the at-best-ambivalent legacy of British rule is the fictional exploits of Sir Harry Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (especially the original Flashman, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, and Flashman in the Great Game). How many other novels have extensive footnotes about all the historical characters and situations the fictional hero encounters? Oh, right … for the younger set: trigger warning in all the Flashman novels for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism, violence, and pretty much anything that would offend the ears of a young Victorian lady modern university student.

May 27, 2015

Sir Arthur Wellesley, before the fame and fortune

Filed under: Britain,History,India,Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Diplomat, Francis P. Sempa looks at the early commands of Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) as formative experiences:

Before Waterloo, Wellington had brilliantly commanded armies on the Iberian Peninsula, where they wore down and drained French forces, causing Napoleon to refer to it as “the Spanish ulcer.” But Wellington learned how to command, supply, and lead soldiers to victory not in Europe, where he is most remembered, but in India. Wellington in India, wrote biographer Elizabeth Longford, was “a great commander in embryo.”

Wellington, then Colonel Arthur Wesley (the last name was later changed to Wellesley) of the 33rd regiment, arrived in Calcutta at the age of 28 in February 1797, after a journey of more than three months. His most recent biographer, Rory Muir, described Colonel Wesley as “an unusually ambitious, intelligent and well-read officer who looked far beyond the horizons of his regiment … and who was already comfortable assembling his thoughts into coherent arguments …” In all, he spent eight years in India, where for much of the time his brother was Governor-General. Wellington’s time in India, writes Muir, “were crucial years in which he developed his skills as a commander of men, a tactician, a strategic planner and a civil governor.” It was in India that the future victor of Waterloo and future prime minister of Great Britain first dealt with questions of war and peace and civil government.

On March 26, 1799, troops under Wellington’s command came under attack by forces of Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. As the French-trained enemy forces approached, wrote Elizabeth Longford, Wellington’s men held their fire “with the utmost steadiness until the enemy were sixty yards away.” British infantry then decimated the columns of enemy attackers, spreading confusion, while cavalry forces scattered the remnants of the attacking force. Then, during April and May 1799, Wellington participated in the siege of Seringapatam in Mysore, and led an attack on the entrenchments of the fortress there. After Seringapatam was taken, Wellington was made civil governor and remained there until 1802.

During his time in Seringapatam, Wellington was ordered to suppress a rebellion in north Mysore led by Dhoondiah Waugh. For the first time, Wellington exercised independent command in battle. During this operation, Rory Muir explains, Wellington “displayed all the characteristics of his subsequent campaigns, …” which included attention to logistics and “unremitting aggression.” He fought a battle at Conaghul and won a complete victory. Muir writes that Wellington exhibited a remarkable flexibility on the field of battle. A British officer commented on Wellington’s “alacrity and determination” during battle.

April 13, 2015

QotD: The real man behind Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King

Filed under: Britain,History,India,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is quite possible that Kipling based Daniel Dravot, the hero of The Man Who Would Be King, on Dr Harlan. He would surely have heard of the American, and there is a strong echo, in Dravot’s fictional Kafiristan adventure (published in 1895), of Harlan’s aspirations first to the throne of Afghanistan, and later successfully to the kingship of Ghor. as described in Gardner’s Memoirs (published in 1890); whether Harlan’s story was true is beside the point. Like many passages in his astonishing career, it lacks corroboration; on the other hand it was accepted, along with the rest, by such authorities as Major Pearse, who was Gardner’s editor, and the celebrated Dr Wolff.

Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) was born in Newlin Township, Pennsylvania, the son of a merchant whose family came from County Durham. He studied medicine, sailed as a supercargo to China, and after being jilted by his American fiancée, returned to the East, serving as surgeon with the British Army in Burma. He then wandered to Afghanistan, where he embarked on that career as diplomat, spy, mercenary soldier, and double (sometimes treble) agent which so enraged Colonel Gardner. The details are confused, but it seems that Harlan, after trying to take Dost Mohammed’s throne, and capturing a fortress, fell into the hands of Runjeet Singh. The Sikh maharaja, recognising a rascal of genius when he saw one sent him as envoy to Dost Mohammed; Harlan, travelling disguised as a dervish was also working to subvert Dost’s throne on behalf of Shah Sujah, the exiled Afghan king; not content with this, he ingratiated himself with Dost and became his agent in the Punjab — in effect, serving three masters against each other. Although as one contemporary remarks with masterly understatement, Harlan’s life was now somewhat complicated, he satisfied at least two of his employers: Shah Sujah made him a Companion of the Imperial Stirrup, and Runjeet gave him the government of three provinces which he administered until, it is said, the maharaja discovered that he was running a coining plant on the pretence of studying chemistry. Even then, Runjeet continued to use him as an agent, and it was Harlan who successfully suborned the Governor of Peshawar to betray the province to the Sikhs. He then took service with Dost Mohammed (whom he had just betrayed), and was sent with an expedition against the Prince of Kunduz; it was in this campaign that the patriotic doctor “surmounted the Indian Caucasus, and unfurled my country’s banner to the breeze under a salute of 26 guns … the star-spangled banner waved gracefully among the icy peaks.” What this accomplished is unclear but soon afterwards Harlan managed to obtain the throne of Ghor from its hereditary prince. This was in 1838; a year later he was acting as Dost’s negotiator with the British invaders at Kabul; Dost subsequently fled, and Harlan was last seen having breakfast with “Sekundar Burnes”, the British political agent.

Thus far Harlan’s story rests largely on a biographical sketch by the missionary Dr Joseph Wolff; they met briefly during Harlan’s governorship of Gujerat, but Wolff (who of course never had the advantage of reading the present packet of the Flashman Papers confesses that he knows nothing of the American after 1839. In fact, Harlan returned to the U.S. in 1841, married in 1849, raised Harlan’s Light Horse for the Union in the Civil War, was invalided out, and ended his days practising medicine in San Francisco; obviously he must have revisited the Punjab in the 1840s, when Flashman knew him. Of his appearance and character other contemporaries tell us little; Dr Wolff describes “a fine tall gentleman” given to whistling Yankee Doodle”, and found him affable and engaging. Gardner mentions meeting him at Gujerat in the 1830s, but speaks no ill of him at that time.

His biographer, Dr Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL.D (1795-1862), was a scholar, traveller, and linguist whose adventures were even more eccentric than Harlan’s. Known as “the Christian Dervish”, and “the Protestant Xavier”, he was born in Germany, the son of a Jewish rabbi, and during his “extraordinary nomadic career” converted to Christianity, was expelled from Rome for questioning Papal infallibility, scoured the Middle and Far East in search of the Lost Tribes of Israel, preached Christianity in Jerusalem, was shipwrecked in Cephalonia, captured by Central Asian slave-traders (who priced him at only £2.50, much to his annoyance), and walked 600 miles through Afghanistan “in a state of nudity”, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. He made a daring return to Afghanistan in search of the missing British agents, Stoddart and Connolly, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of their executioner. At other times Dr Wolff preached to the U.S. Congress, was a deacon in New Jersey, an Anglican priest in Ireland, and finally became vicar of a parish in Somerset. As Flashman has remarked, there were some odd fellows about in the earlies. (See Gardner; The Travels and Adventures of Dr. Wolff (1860); Dictionary of American Biography; D.N.B.)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

April 2, 2015

QotD: Punjab and the Sikhs, 1845

Filed under: Britain,History,India,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

First of all, you must do as Sale bade me, and look at the map. In ’45 John Company held Bengal and the Carnatic and the east coast, more or less, and was lord of the land up to the Sutlej, the frontier beyond which lay the Five Rivers country of the Sikhs, the Punjab. But things weren’t settled then as they are now; we were still shoring up our borders, and that north-west frontier was the weak point, as it still is. That way invasion had always come, from Afghanistan, the vanguard of a Mohammedan tide, countless millions strong, stretching back as far as the Mediterranean. And Russia, We’d tried to sit down in Afghanistan, as you know, and got a bloody nose, and while that had been avenged since, we weren’t venturing that way again. So it remained a perpetual threat to India and ourselves — and all that lay between was Punjab and the Sikhs.

You know something of them: tall, splendid fellows with uncut hair and beards, proud and exclusive as Jews, and well disliked, as clannish, easily-recognised folk often are — the Muslims loathed them, the Hindoos distrusted then, and even today T. Atkins, while admiring them as stout fighters, would rather be brigaded with anyone else — excepting their cavalry, which you’d be glad of anywhere. For my money they were the most advanced people in India — well, they were only a sixth of the Punjab’s population, but they ruled the place, so there you are.

We’d made a treaty with these strong, clever, treacherous, civilised savages, respecting their independence north of the Sutlej while we ruled south of it. It was good business for both parties: they remained free and friends with John Company, and we had a tough, stable buffer between us and the wild tribes beyond the Khyber — let the Sikhs guard the passes, while we went about our business in India without the expense and trouble of having to deal with the Afghans ourselves. That’s worth bearing in mind when you hear talk of our “aggressive forward policy” in India: it simply wasn’t common sense for us to take over the Punjab — not while it was strong and united.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

March 23, 2015

QotD: Simla

Filed under: India,Media,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It was a glorious spot then, before Kipling’s vulgarians and yahoos had arrived, a little jewel of a hill station ringed in by snow-clad peaks and pine forests, with air you could almost drink, and lovely green valleys like the Scotch border country — one of ’em was absolutely called Annandale, where you could picnic and fête to heart’s content. Emily Eden had made it the resort in the ’30s, and already there were fine houses on the hillsides, and stone bungalows with log fires where you could draw the curtains back and think you were in England; they were building the church’s foundations then, on the ridges above the Bazaar, and laying out the cricket ground; even the fruits and flowers were like home — we had strawberries and cream, I remember that first afternoon at Lady Sale’s house.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

March 7, 2015

Indian government about to discover the Streisand Effect

Filed under: India,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The BBC made a film called India’s Daughter. The Indian government decided that the film made them look bad, so they banned the film in India and attempted to force the film out of worldwide circulation. In the internet age. It hasn’t been going well for the would-be censors so far:

The Indian government has remained defiant over its ban on a BBC documentary about the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi despite a groundswell of acclaim for the film from prominent Indians who watched it online.

After India’s Daughter broadcast in the UK on Wednesday night, the hour-long film surfaced on YouTube, where the Guardian was able to view it on Thursday afternoon despite reports in Indian media that the government had ordered it be taken down.

India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, has threatened to take action against the BBC, though did not elaborate on what form this may take, save that “all options are open”.

Police in Delhi continue to pursue the investigation against filmmaker Leslee Udwin, who has left the country, and her Indian crew. Officers visited the homes and offices of Indian crew members on Thursday in a bid to collect the entire footage of the film.

Though online viewing figures for the documentary about Jyoti Singh’s death remained in the low thousands, there was much acclaim from influential literary and Bollywood figures who questioned the necessity of the government’s ban.

“It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen – it’s moving and makes you think,” said the novelist Chetan Bhagat. “It’s bone-chilling, yet it shakes you up – it’s a must-watch film.”

H/T to Perry de Havilland for the link.

March 5, 2015

QotD: Shalamar and the Khalsa

Filed under: History,India,Media,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Between the Sutlej and Lahore lie fifty of the hottest, flattest, scrubbiest miles on earth, and I supposed we’d cover them in a long day’s ride, but Sardul said we should lie overnight at a serai a few miles from the city: there was something he wanted me to see. So we did, and after supper he took me through a copse to the loveliest place I ever saw in India — there, all unexpected after the heat and dust of the plain, was a great garden, with little palaces and pavilions among the trees, all hung with coloured lanterns in the warm dusk: streams meandered among the lawns and flower-beds, the air was fragrant with night-blooms, soft music sounded from some hidden place, and everywhere couples were strolling hand in hand or deep in lovers’ talk under the boughs. The Chinese Summer Palace, where I walked years later, was altogether grander, I suppose, but there was a magic about that Indian garden that I can’t describe — you could call it perfect peace, with its gentle airs rustling the leaves and the lights winking in the twilight; it was the kind of spot where Scheherazade might have told her unending stories; even its name sounds like a caress: Shalamar.

But this wasn’t the sight that Sardul wanted me to see — that was something unimaginably different, and we viewed it next morning. We left the serai at dawn, but instead of riding towards Lahore, which was in full view in the distance, we went a couple of miles out of our way towards the great plain of Maian Mir where, Sardul assured me mysteriously, the true wonder of the Punjab would be shown to me; knowing the Oriental mind. I could guess it was something designed strike awe in the visiting foreigner — well, it did all of that. We heard it long before we saw it, the flat crash of artillery at first, and then a great confused rumble of sound which resolved itself into the squealing of elephants, the high bray of trumpets, the rhythm of drums and martial music and the thunder of a thousand hooves making the ground tremble beneath us. I knew what it was before we rode out of the trees and halted on a bund to view it in breathtaking panorama: the pride of the Punjab and the dread of peaceful India: the famous Khalsa.

Now, I’ve taken note of a few heathen armies in my time. The Heavenly Host of Tai’ping was bigger, the black tide of Cetewayo’s legions sweeping into Little Hand was surely more terrifying, and there’s a special place in my nightmares for that vast forest of tipis, five miles wide, that I looked down on from the bluffs over Little Bighorn but for pure military might I’ve seen nothing outside Europe (and damned little inside) to match that great disciplined array of men and beasts and metal on Maian Mir. As far as you could see among the endless lines of tents and waving standards, the broad maidan was alive with foot battalions at drill, horse regiments at field exercise, and guns at practice — and they were all uniformed and in perfect order, that was the shocking thing. Black, brown, and yellow armies in those days, you see. might be as brave as any, but they didn’t have centuries of drill and tactical movement drummed into em, not even the Zulus, or Ranavalona’s Hova guardsmen. That was the thing about the Khalsa: it was Aldershot in turbans. It was an army.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

March 2, 2015

Food naming oddities

Filed under: Cancon,India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren on the oddly named “Digby Chicken” and “Bombay Duck” along with a paean to the joys of food shopping in Parkdale:

Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”

This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.

Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.

February 18, 2015

QotD: The Honourable East India Company

Filed under: Business,India,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

“John Company” — the Honourable East India Company, described by Macaulay as “the strangest of all governments … for the strangest of all empires”, was Britain’s presence in India, with its own armed forces, civil service, and judiciary, until after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when it was replaced by direct rule of the Crown. Flashman’s definition of its boundaries in 1845 is roughly correct, and although at this period it controlled less than half of the sub-continent, his expression ‘lord of the land” is well chosen: the Company was easily the strongest force in Asia, and at its height had a revenue greater than Britain’s and governed almost one-fifth of the world’s population. (See The East India Company by Brian Gardner (1971).)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

February 1, 2015

India’s experiment in improving how welfare services are delivered

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall looks at a recent book on an Indian experiment that investigated how to improve poverty relief programs:

In terms of the Indian experience one of the reasons that these trials worked well was because they were trials. Effort was put into making certain that those who were supposed to be receiving the cash were in fact receiving it. Such care and attention to people getting what they’re supposed to get is not an outstanding feature of the various welfare systems currently in use in India, as the book makes clear. So, just making sure that people were getting those modest amounts that they were supposed to get is going to be an advance. And it wouldn’t be possible to simply roll out such a scheme across the country, however beneficial, without a lot of preparatory work to make sure that the right people really would be getting the money.

It’s also true that the current systems fail badly in other ways. Purchasing grain to ship it around to special shops where it will be sold hugely under the market price is always going to be a leaky system. Some number of the middlemen will be sorely tempted to divert produce to sell onto the market and there’s considerable evidence that some succumb to that temptation. If people simply have money to buy on the standard market in the normal manner then it’s a lot easier to keep a control on that sort of thing.

However, the most important thing for the design of the American welfare system is the points they make about how the poor value being given goods as against being given money. $100 (far in excess of the amounts being discussed here) is worth more than $100 of food for example. Or $100 worth of medical care. There’s two reasons for this. One is simply that everyone values agency. The ability to decide things for oneself. And money does that. It’s possible to decide whether you want to purchase food, or to save a bit and buy a goat next week, or more fertiliser for the fields and so on. What the peasant on the ground would like to do with any increase in resources is most unlikely to accord with what some far away bureaucrat thinks said peasant ought to be doing. So, the choice itself increases value.

[…]

So, we could actually make poor people richer by abolishing food stamps. Assuming, of course, that we just gave them the same amount of money instead. The same would be true of Medicaid and housing vouchers of course. Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments against doing this. But it is still true: converting goods and services in kind into cash would make the poor richer at the same cost to the rest of us. So it is at least something we should consider, no?

And the main reason switching to cash from the current system is … paternalism. Governments really do think that they are better equipped than the recipients of aid in how to spend that money. And it’s quite true that some welfare recipients would blow the payments on booze or drugs or what-have-you, but the majority of peoples’ lives would improve if they got cash rather than food stamps or other in-kind assistance.

January 31, 2015

India and the INSAS rifle

Filed under: India,Military,Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Earlier this month, I linked to an article about the low reputation enjoyed by India’s first domestically designed and manufactured assault rifle. According to Strategy Page, there’s a potential change of heart by the Indian military on the INSAS rifle:

In response to the growing combat losses because of flaws in the locally made INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) 5.56mm assault rifle, the Indian government seems likely to capitulate and allow the military to get a rifle that works. Unfortunately for nationalist politicians, this will probably be a foreign rifle, and the leading candidate is Israeli.

This all began in the 1980s when there was growing clamor for India to design and build its own weapons. This included something as basic as the standard infantry rifle. At that time soldiers and paramilitary-police units were equipped with a mixture of old British Lee-Enfield bolt action (but still quite effective) rifles and newer Belgian FALs (sort of a semi-automatic Lee-Enfield) plus a growing number of Russian AK-47s. The rugged and reliable Russian assault rifle was most popular with its users.

In the late 1980s India began developing a family of 5.56mm infantry weapons (rifle, light machine-gun and carbine). Called the INSAS, the state owned factories were unable to produce the quantities required (and agreed to). Worse, the rifles proved fragile and unreliable. The design was poorly thought out and it is believed corruption played a part because the INSAS had more parts than it needed and cost over twice as much to produce as the AK-47.

The original plan was to equip all troops with INSAS weapons by 1998. Never happened, although troops began to receive the rifle in 1998. By 2000 half the required weapons ordered were still not manufactured. Moreover in 1999 the INSAS weapons got their first real combat workout in the Kargil campaign against Pakistan. While not a complete failure, the nasty weather that characterized that battle zone high in the frigid mountains saw many failures as metal parts sometimes cracked from the extreme cold. Troops complained that they were at a disadvantage because their Pakistani foes could fire on full automatic with their AK-47s while the INSAS rifles had only three bullet burst mode (which, fortunately, sometimes failed and fired more than three bullets for each trigger pull.) What was most irksome about this was that the INSAS rifles were the same weight, size and shape as the AK-47 but cost about $300 each, while AK-47s could be had for less than half that. The INSAS looked like the AK-47 because its design was based on that weapon.

Update: Added the link to Strategy Page.

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