Saturday, 29 October 2016

DELHI BELLY : THE TRAGEDY CONTINUES and THE SILVER LINING IN POLLUTION.

     The country appears to have forgotten the tragedy still playing out in Kashmir, the valley. Its been more than a hundred days now, and almost a hundred deaths, but we have moved on to Karan Johar, the Tatas and Amar Singh. The " surgical strikes" have served their purpose of moving the spotlight away from the internal dimensions of the problem; TV anchors and retired generals have ensured that we look at the valley only through the prism of war with Pakistan. It doesn't matter that these strikes have served little purpose: infiltration and cease-fire violations have only increased amongst the ceaseless and futile war mongering. The govt's strategy is clear: exhaust and starve the Kasmiris into acquiesence . It would be so much more humane to talk to them.
    The modern state is an awesome adversary, with its millions of troops and unlimited resources; a country of 1.2 billion can easily take a few hundred deaths in its stride ( the number of farmers committing suicide every year is many times this number, but do we bat an eyelid at that ?) The Kashmiris can't win and Mr. Modi knows this. But what he should also factor in is that they can cause a lot of damage to the fabric of the nation and the values it stands ( stood ?) for. Kashmir is headed for indefinite turmoil and prolonged destabilisation. Recent developments are a portent of this: the burning of 19 schools so far and attacks on siting MLAs indicate a plan to destroy the political and development processes; I have no doubt that the ambit of these attacks shall be enlarged in the coming days. All reports seem to indicate that the State has ceased to exist outside the urban areas, and even in the latter it is visible ( and felt) only through khaki uniforms and tear gas shells. According to press reports hundreds of young Kashmiris have disappeared, reportedly to join the militants. They will surface soon, I have no doubt, trained and armed with the dozens of looted weapons, and then Pakistan won't have to infiltrate foreign militants through the LOC- we will have plenty of our own by then. There is every possibility thereafter of the valley becoming a base for Al Quaeda and ISIS.
    Surely Mr. Modi and his advisors can see this unfolding scenario ? I totally discount  Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister: she is totally discredited in Kashmir, knows she cannot return to power, and is therefore hanging on to Mr. Modi's coat-tails in a desperate existentialist attempt. Coming back to Mr. Modi, who will talk to Pakistan but not to his own citizens in the embattled state: I had said in an earlier article that the BJP's anti minority DNA will never allow it to make peace with this Muslim state- events over the last three months are bearing this out. This unforthcoming ( obstructive, actually) attitude further establishes the BJP's majoritarian credentials and is needed to win elections that are looming. There is no contradiction between showing a steel fist to Pakistan and a velvet glove to Kashmiris, but it appears that elections are more important than the country's integrity.
   This is a zero sum game. The Kasmiris cannot win. Neither can Mr. Modi. But there WILL be a loser- yes, India.
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    We all have our EUREKA ! moments. This week I stumbled upon the reason why no authority in this country- state or central- is serious about doing anything to protect the environment and curb the rising pollution levels---pollution is GOOD for the economy! Every industrial sector manufacturing anti-pollution gadgets is booming, and new products are being added every day. It began with simple candle type water filters in the 90's and moved on to electronic water purifiers and then RO's. Who had heard of air-filters fifteen years ago ? Now you can't live without them, what with the Air Quality Index having breached the 500 mark yesterday in Delhi. This industry is growing at 30% per annum, especially after the US embassy ordered 400 of them during Mr. Obama's visit. We are now being advised to put on face masks every time we go out, and my chemist can't stock enough of them. Vegetables being laced with dangerous chemicals, we now have a new fangled apparatus which washes them chemically( water won't do since it is also tainted) before cooking. Since oils are adulterated the alternative being offered now are Air- Fryers. Have difficulty breathing due to the smog ?- buy a nebulizer. Nobody uses mosquito nets any more because the mosquito enters one long before you do- and so the repellent industry is thriving. One company has just brought out a solution which, when applied to clothes, warns off the dengue and chikengunya critters. Sales are booming. The health insurance sector is galloping along nicely too, thank you, the worse things get. The bottled water industry is overflowing- forgive the bad pun- with profits because tap water everywhere has more E-coli than water molecules. Rising temperatures have ensured that air conditioners are now an essential appurtenance even in lower middle class homes, power demand has shot up as a consequence requiring more power stations, boosting this and related sectors, more pollution is released into the atmosphere. The pollution cycle is complete, and industry thrives.
    Economists will have you believe that pollution related deaths and ailments are costing the country billions of dollars in lost productivity and medical expenses. Don't believe a word of it. In fact the contrary is true: the medical and health care industry is booming BECAUSE of these ailments- every private hospital and nursing home is packed to capacity, and beyond, with victims of pollution related diseases. One just had to visit any hospital during Delhi's recent dengue epidemic to understand what I mean. All this has no additional impact on govt. finances, because our health care budget, at less than 2% of GDP, has remained at that level for many years whereas pollution related cases have gone up exponentially. Nobody goes to a govt. hospital if he can help it; my maid took a loan from me last month and spent a few thousands of her own money to treat her daughter at a private institution. It is the private health sector which is rolling in the moolah.
   Loss of productivity ? This has to be a joke. Productivity is an illusion in the govt. sector, because if half the number of govt. employees were to disappear tomorrow by some lucky stroke, nobody would even notice their absence! Private sector labour productivity in India is in any case abysmally low- about one fifth of China's- so health related absences don't make any difference, and in any case since only 2% of the labour force is in the organised sector and entitled to medical leave, the other 98% don't get paid if they fall ill. No cost to the economy, see.
   So, dear reader, see through the fine print: Pollution is the hidden trigger in Make In India. And as your lungs fill up with PM 2.5 and your liver starts to glow in the dark with all the metals inside, rest assured that the economy is growing at a healthy 8.5 %.   

Saturday, 22 October 2016

KHUSHWANT SINGH LITERARY FESTIVAL- A FEW TAKEAWAYS.

    The fifth KSLT was held in Kasauli from the 14th Oct. to 16th Oct. this year. Here are a few impressions that I left with.
    The audience/ attendees were the usual high brows at such gatherings, but the star performer was a simple, unassuming, Hindi speaking young man who goes by the name of Kanhaiya Kumar. Yes, the former President of the JNU Students' Union and currently being tried for " sedition " by a government and a system which have made a mockery of the law. Kanhaiya spoke on the 15th. on his idea of " Nationalism" with an eloquence which commanded a pin drop silence. His message was powerful but simple: in a country as diverse as India nationalism cannot be described in unitary or even binary terms; to define it in terms of one particular religion ( as is being currently sought to be done) is to misrepresent and demean it; it is equally obnoxious to define it in terms of support for the army- we respect and love our defense forces, but we have the right to question them without being called anti- nationalists; Indian nationalism cannot but be multi cultural, multi-religious and widely inclusive ; the current narrative on nationalism as framed by the ruling BJP exposes the face of fascism, not democracy, and has to be resisted by all right thinking people.
   [ Incidentally, I am in complete agreement with his views, especially where he spoke about an ersatz nationalism based on unquestioning support for the army. Any blind support is suspect. The pity is that senior officers of the army, unused to the wiles of the Indian politician, are being taken in by the BJP in its effort to coopt the defense services into its own narrative and give it a patina of respectability. The BJP is converting its religion based nationalism into a " religio-military " nationalism, which is even more dangerous for a democracy. In this it is being unwittingly assisted by a whole horde of retired Generals who have descended onto TV studios to proclaim that the army cannot be questioned. Why not ? A report in the Hindustan Times on the 18th. of this month shockingly reveals that it too can have feet of clay: a senior general, Lt. General B.K. Chopra, the Head of the Army Medical Corps. ( now retired) has exposed how the system of disability pensions is being widely misused by senior defense officers to fraudulently obtain hefty tax free disability pensions after retirement. Just yesterday Prashant Bhushan broke the story of defense officers being compromised in honey-traps in defense deals.These revelations prove why holy cows have no place in an open society. By stridently claiming a deified status these generals are just playing into the BJP's hands.]
    The logic and the passion in Kanhaiya's words were self-evident, but what was astonishing was the response of the audience. Remember, this was not the usual Kanhaiya crowd of leftists, activists, students and similar species for whom the government and TIMES NOW savants have nothing but contempt. The audience consisted of retired ( senior) military and civil service officers and their families, authors, journalists, academics and sundry socialites. Notwithstanding this, I was amazed at the response Kanhaiya manged to elicit from them- they were mesmerised, hanging onto his every word, every now and then breaking out into loud applause and clapping- he received more ovations at Kasauli than Mr. Modi did at the US Congress ! This is something the BJP should take note of: Kanhaiya's views are resonating with a much larger section of the country than the party thinks, and if even the privileged elite empathise with him then the BJP has cause to be worried. We have not heard the last of this idealistic and fiery nationalist, and I can't but help reflect on the irony of it: Kanhaiya is the creation of Mr. Modi himself- had the govt. not lost its head and sense of proportion over the JNU incident, Kanhaiya would probably still be sharing his ideas with a dozen students or so over aloo ka parathas in JNU's Ganga  dhaba instead of spreading his message throughout the country. Mr. Modi has unwittingly baptised him in the fire of police high-handedness and converted the raw ore into steel and made him a national rallying point- he may yet live to regret his mistake.
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   Given Mr. Khushwant Singh's love of the mountains and that the Festival was being held in Kasauli, his second home, one would have liked, and expected, that the organisers had spared some more time for discussions on environmental issues impacting Himachal. Only one session was scheduled on this topic, and that too was curtailed. Its a pity, because the Himachal that Khushwant Singh loved so much is plagued by devastation of  nature on a colossal scale by hydel projects, cement mining, unplanned urbanisation, unnecessary road construction and unregulated tourism run amock. The state's policy makers are now almost exclusively focused on politics and on feathering their nests in anticipation of an adverse result in the next elections, the senior bureaucracy, never known for any sensitivity to the environment, is too engrossed in managing promotions and postings, and the few NGOs who occasionally protest are ignored. Meanwhile climate change, impending earthquakes, rapidly expanding glacial lakes and disappearing rivers are becoming more real every day. I wish some of these issues had been discussed- surely they are as vital and relevant as the 1961 war, the state of the economy and the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan, all of which found more time ? Maybe next time.
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Kasauli is a disaster waiting to happen. I visited this once quaint town after many years and was appalled at its condition. I met many old residents of Kasauli who complained bitterly about the ruination of a once sylvan settlement. The main road from Dharampur looks like a bombed out stretch from Syria, Garkhal has become a choke point and desperately needs a by-pass, huge buildings ( with little or no parking), mainly hotels, are coming up all over the place, no thought has been paid either to the traffic issues or the carrying capacity before allowing these monstrosities, heritage buildings are being demolished ruthlessly ( I was informed by one lady that the old Rest-House, a British era structure, has just been demolished to make way for a multi-storey, cement and concrete hotel !) The less said about the four laning of the Parwanoo- Solan highway, the better. Its a highway to Hell, and I've already written about it earlier in these columns, so I won't repeat myself.   [ PARWANOO-SHIMLA FOUR LANING-- HIGHWAY TO DISASTER. 10th March 2015.] . Are we condemned to be ruled by philistines for ever ? 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

DELHI BELLY : THE CAVE MAN OF SAINJ VALLEY.

   Its difficult these days to agree with most of what Mr. Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister of Himachal, does or says, whether its playing ducks and drakes with the bureaucracy, or further despoiling the environment with hare-brained proposals like plundering 23 kanals of forest land on the Dhauladhars ( at 12500 FEET) to build dharamshalas  for the Himani Chamunda temple, or regularising thousands of building violations in Shimla, or attempting to bypass a High Court order to remove encroachments on forest lands. But it is even more difficult NOT to agree with him on a statement that he made on Teachers' Day on 2nd September this year. To paraphrase, he deplored the fact that awards were cornered by those teachers who had good connections at Shimla, and that those who served with greater dedication in the remote areas of the state were never even considered. I can't agree more with the Hon' Chief Minister, for once.
   This malaise is not limited only to teachers but to all categories of awards doled out by the central and state govts. Not service, not talent, not contributions but networking and proximity to power centers is the essential key to getting these awards. Teachers, of course, are a highly politicised class of govt. servants, and it therefore follows that their awards too would get politicised. But if you were to look even at the Army or Police awards you would find that seniority and rank are the chief determinants, not contribution of any notable quality. ( The exceptions, obviously, are the gallantry awards which probably are the only genuine citations). It would be rare indeed to find a senior Army or IPS officer who does not sport an award or two while the 98% ORs are generally ignored. If you serve long enough, and rise high enough in the ranks, then you will get some award or the other as surely as night follows day. But I digress.
  Coming back to teachers who render exceptional and selfless service, I can think of no one who deserved recognition more than Shastriji. This is not his real name but that is what we called him. He is a TGT and teaches in primary schools; I still remember the time I first met this humble but courageous man.
   I had gone on a foot inspection of the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu in 2002. We had trekked twenty kms. from the road head at Neulli in the Sainj valley and arrived by evening at the tiny hamlet of Shakti, one of only two villages still within the Park's boundaries. The other is Maror, eight kms further up the valley. They consist of about twenty houses each. Both are notorious for being launch- pads for illegal activities in the GHNP and Sainj WLS- poaching, extraction of medicinal plants and grazing of sheep, among others. Their residents are naturally wary of outsiders, especially govt. officials, and do not welcome them with open arms!
  We were sitting around the camp fire that evening when a man in a simple white kurta-pyjama and sleeveless woolen jacket, a jute bag slung over his shoulder, walked in and introduced himself as the primary school teacher in Shakti. He gifted us some delicious " siddhus" ( he had cooked them himself!) and invited us to visit his school next morning on our way to the GHNP. This was Shastriji. We went to the primary school the next day, and therein hangs an amazing tale of commitment and devotion.
   Shastriji belonged to Shensor village much further down the Sainj valley. One day he was ordered to be posted to the Govt. Primary School, Shakti, a new school opened under the govt's policy that wherever there was a cluster of twenty school- age children a primary school would be opened. A commendable policy, you would think, except for the fact that there was no school building there, as Shastriji discovered when he landed up at Shakti after the twenty km trek from Neulli ! He did have about twenty five prospective students ( Maror was also part of the catchment area) so it was imperative that he arrange a building for the school without delay. His superiors- the BEO and the DEO- naturally could not be bothered: in govt. the privileges and powers are usually centralised while the problems are delegated. Shastriji was told to make his own arrangements.
  He pleaded with the good burghers of Shakti to give him a couple of rooms in a house but they refused: they thought he was a plant of the Forest Department sent there to spy on them, that schools were a waste of time, that their children would do better in life by learning the jungle lore ( especially the illegal ones!).A month passed with no progress. Shastriji could have just given up and sought another posting. But ( he told us later) he was so taken up with the miserable plight ( and future) of the children of Shakti and Maror that he resolved that he WOULD teach them, building or no building. He found a location for his school ( which is what we visited the next day).
   The school was located in a cave ! About half a kilometer from the village and 200 meters above the river, the cave had a mesmerising view of the river and the rolling, pristine forests of the GHNP across it. It opened onto a fairly wide ledge where the students could sit on sunny days. The cave was about twenty feet deep and fifteen feet wide. Shastriji had hung a curtain across it in the middle: the front portion was the school and the rear was his spartan living quarters! There were about ten youngsters busily poring over their books, and Shastriji proudly informed us that the villagers had now accepted the school ( though not him!) and willingly sent their children to study. The school had been in existence for more than a year, and somehow he kept it going, the visit by an occasional bear or leopard notwithstanding. Once a month he shut down the school for three days to enable him to walk down to Neulli/ Siund to collect his salary, rations and teaching material. Life was difficult, he told us, especially the lonely evenings and nights in the cave, when the children had all gone back to their homes. He had no comforts, no company, no social life, but all this was out-weighed by the fact that he had managed to establish a school. I heard his narration with a sense of guilt: I thought I was doing public service from the comfortable environs of Shimla- it was nothing compared to Shastriji's labours in this remote village!
   The lessons we picked up that day at that humble primary school cannot be taught in any university. On returning to Shimla I met the Education Minister and apprised him about the cave-school, which, incidentally, happened to be in his constituency! He was oblivious of it. But he took immediate action and a regular building for the school was sanctioned immediately. I went back to Shakti a few years later, to find a brand new school building in the village! Shastriji, of course, had left by then. I was informed that he continued there till the new building was inaugurated and then requested for a transfer- his job was done. I have no idea where he is now.
   If ever a teacher deserved an award I can think of no one more suited than this simple, intrepid soul who lived in a cave for five years in the 21st century, just so that his pupils could go out into the wider world outside. Can you ?   
   

Sunday, 2 October 2016

DELHI BELLY ----THE MYTH OF NON - VIOLENCE

                  [ The 2nd. of October is the International Day of Non-Violence.]

    One of the lasting benefits of good writing, or literature, is that it holds up a mirror to society and nations, and provides a moral compass by which we can gauge the direction in which we are headed. And the truth it contains is eternal, not faded by time: in fact, these are the characteristics that distinguish great writing from ephemeral pen-pushing. This week I'd like to invite the reader to go back in time ( for the millenials, to a time before they were born) and look again at one such work.
   The book is THE CONTINENT OF CIRCE by the last " Englishman" to have left our shores, Nirad C. Choudhry, published in 1965 and winner of the Duff Cooper Prize the very next year. Too much of a thinker and straight shooter in a nation that was beginning to abandon both attributes, Nirad Babu subsequently emigrated to Oxford and thus almost certainly avoided the fate that awaited M.F.Hussain many years in the future. The title of the book is a dead giveaway of its contents. CIRCE is a goddess of Greek mythology who resided on the island of Aeaea. Skilled in the magic arts of sorcery and transmutation, she had the power to transform human beings into beasts. When the fabled Greek hero Odysseus landed on her island with his compatriots she turned all of them into animals. Nirad Choudhry's thesis of India centers on this power.
   The Indian sub-continent, he believes, is like CIRCE and makes beasts of human beings, it has a dehumanising influence on all who live, or have lived, here. Nirad babu brings all his formidable erudition and knowledge of the classics to bear on his theory. He debunks the conventional "pacifist" image of India and maintains that we have been steeped in a history of violence from the time of Asoka, through the Maurya and Gupta dynasties to the rule of the Mughals. Our culture too is a reflection of our violent genes, and he marshals the evidence to prove this, pointing to the curious fact that our greatest epics- the Ramayana, the Mahabharat, even the poems of Samundragupta- revel in the depiction of wars, betrayal, degradation of women, killings. fratricide, and so on. India has been, and is, a land of violence and beasts. Nirad Choudhry was of course roundly condemned for this formulation, this misinterpretation of our "glorious" past: but the 60's were gentler times and he was neither crucified nor sent to jail for sedition or " hurting the sentiments" of people. Half a century later, let us examine if he was right in his controversial conclusion, or was he simply mixing history and mythology, Greek and Indian ?
   From time immemorial we have laid claim to be a land of non-violence, pacifism and compassion, and have cited as evidence our spiritual traditions, saints, vegetarianism, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. The facts, however, appear to support Nirad Choudhry. Even if we forget our hoary past, the statistics of modern India ( post 1950) suggest that we are amongst the most violent nations on earth. Here are a few unnerving numbers:

* During the Partition between 2 million and 3 million people were slaughtered, and 83000 women were raped. These are probably under estimations.
* Since 1950 more than 10000 people have been killed in communal riots.
* 47000 people have been killed in Kashmir so far, including 13500 civilians.
* India has the second highest number of murders in the world, after Brazil. According to official UN-OECD figures there were 43000 murders in 2012.
*  The state is a big killer too. As per figures released by the govt. in response to an RTI query, between 1988 and 2013, an astounding 17064 people were killed in police firing and 33046 were injured. 2832 policemen were also killed during this period. According to figures released by NIPSA ( Network For Improved Policing In South Asia) in an article dated 3rd July 2015, two persons die in police firing in India EVERY DAY.
*  NCRB data reveals that there were 24923 rapes in 2013. In addition, there were 13766 instances of child rapes, according to a reply by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to a question in Parliament. The actual figures are certainly higher: almost an equal number of both crimes go either unreported or unregistered by the police. And this does not include marital rape, which is still legal.
* 500,000 girls are killed EVERY YEAR at the foetal stage-  it is estimated that the figure of "missing" girl children in India since 1990 alone is 10 million! Our deteriorating child sex ratio indicates that this figure is only going up. This is slaughter on a colossal scale- we don't even spare the unborn.
    In addition there are thousands of street agitations, dharnas, gheraos, destruction of public and private property. Just look back at the Jat agitation and the violence playing out in Karnataka as we speak.

   It appears we are not only an extremely violent society but also one that lacks compassion. The treatment of Dalits and women, the exploitation of the poor, the pain we inflict on animals ( these days we are on a dog killing spree in the South) are just some facets of this. Road rage is another. Refusal to help accident victims is now part of our national character. We are collectively immune to the sufferings of others, as long as our individual cocoons are not punctured. Just the other day in Delhi a woman was stabbed 26 TIMES by a jilted lover on a main road in full daylight, CCTV cameras record that at least twenty cars and one hundred pedestrians passed her while she was being slaughtered but not one person did anything to stop it. Before this, in the last month itself, Dana Manjhi, a poor tribal in Odisha was forced to carry the body of his dead wife for ten kms on his shoulders because the hospital would not spare an ambulance or hearse for him; a husband whose wife expired while on a bus was thrown out when the conductor discovered the wife was dead; in Kanpur a father with a seriously sick 11 year old son carried him in his arms from hospital to hospital begging for medical treatment; since he was a daily wage labourer he naturally couldn't get it, and his son died in his arms. Such stories don't even make news anymore, because they no longer shock : they have become the norm in a sick society. Nobody is ever punished- the administration and society takes it in its apathetic stride. CIRCE has done her job well.
   Why has a rapidly modernising India become a menagerie of brutal beasts ? While it would require the intellect of someone like Nirad Choudhry to even come close to an answer, there are three contributing factors that one could consider:
POLITICS--- Public behaviour, to a large extent, is influenced by the type of political ethics, conduct and discourse that people witness. In India today these have touched rock bottom. The type of politics we have today legitimises violence, discrimination, misogyny, elitism, factionalism and sheer lawlessness. Genuine leaders provide role models that society can aspire to; unfortunately we have no leaders today who can mould character or behaviour, they can only win votes. The conduct and statements of most so called " leaders" only promote hatred, intolerance and regressive attitudes. The Nehrus, Patels, Boses, Kriplanis, Jayprakash Narayans and Malviyas have vanished into the mists of time and have been replaced by moral and intellectual pygmies who are taking our society down into the abyss from which they themselves have emerged.
THE STATE-- In any civilised society it is the state which sets the bench mark and the bar for social values and public behaviour. It does this through enlightened legislation, their equitable enforcement and the setting of examples by practicing what it preaches. All are missing in the Indian state. Archaic laws allow husbands to rape their wives at will, LGBTs to be thrown into prison, the terminally ill to die a thousand deaths before their final release, the tribal to be dispossessed of his lands and natural resources so that someone in a city can install another AC or buy another car, a celebrity to mow down three pavement dwellers in his imported car and walk free- the list is endless. But it is these laws that are enforced strictly. The " good" laws are rarely enforced and loopholes in them exploited liberally: the endemic corruption and apathy in the machinery of the state ensure this; rarely is anyone held accountable. And the state backs up its callousness with violence on an unprecedented scale for a free society. The message is clear- the common citizen is an animal and will be treated like one- in hospitals, police stations, railway stations and bus stands, public offices, ration shops. Very soon he starts behaving like one.
RELIGION-- This has ceased to become a force that elevates or ennobles or unites; it now debases and divides. Under the supervision of zealots it no longer promotes love but preaches hatred. By segregating the Gods into mutually exclusive silos it has similarly segregated the people and encourages them to war against each other.Religion no longer guides, it commands compliance and terrorises. It has become the tool of politics of the basest kind. Let the poet put it into words:
             Religion's legal tender
             A plea to maim and rape,
             Priests are touts that render
             Tainted service to a shape
             Dark and breathing fire,
             Or clad in royal attire,
             Or an angle in a gyre
             That spins a mystic wake.
   We ceased to be a pacifist, compassionate, religious, sensitive and tolerant society long, long ago. 

   Nirad babu was a great admirer of Latin. Fifty years after he wrote his book, and looking down on what CIRCE has done to us, I can almost hear him whisper:
                   Homo Homini Lupus        Man is Wolf to Man.