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5/25/02

STRAPPADO WRACK

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Certain persons have and are now threatening the peace of the city... life and property will be insecure on the day of the election... it is the duty of the Council to preserve order at all times within the city limits - Corpus Christi Ranchero, February, 1863

Standoff Over Disputed Territory

Political feuds are normal in the real world. But when it spills over into threat for open warfare, bystanders start to take notice. Lessons of history have value for even the most obstinate defender of turf. Intractable disputes increases the avoidance of internal errors. But when the intensity of stubborn behavior spills over into the public sector, it ceases to be private business and risks becoming a civic nightmare.

So what does a Texan election riot have to do with an impending run-up elections in Jammu and Kashmir? Both are worlds apart, but the similarities of each bear a striking resemblance of rigid inflexibility.

Elections have often been a challenge to establish consensus and acceptance. But in the lonely border town of Laredo, Texas a run in between the Guaraches and the Botas, became violent. Yes, it was a day of Warm Weather & Bad Whiskey.

Laredo had a venerable tradition of fraudulent democracy solidly in place by the end of the 1800s. In an effort to stuff the ballot boxes and ensure a tidy election, unseemly politicians illegally imported Mexicans across town and across the border for an afternoon of free beer and clandestine voting. A kind of Have Gun, Will Vote mentality. Not happy with the results of past elections, the Benavides clan, decided to have weekly 'voter's meetings' where they sampled and passed the beverage of choice and educated on political matters. This group called itself los Guaraches, meaning "the sandals", and they met, drank, and got agitated. In the finest tradition of  'grass roots' democracy, loyalty was acquired with each empty bottle.

Not to be out done an incumbent mayor started his own party, named los Botas, meaning "the boots". He too won favor by fiery speech and free-flowing liquor.

The "boot and sandals" political rivalry reached its sanguinary peak on April 7, 1886, during a victorious political parade when the Guaraches fired on the Botas with a cannon - certainly the only example of feuding with artillery in the history of the Old West. More importantly, the violence between the two partidos - the Guaraches and the Botas - gave rise to the all-powerful Independent Club, the Partido Viejo as it came to be known in Laredo. This political party, like a phoenix risen from the ashes of political violence, dominated Laredo politics for over eighty years and had a major influence on regional, state and even national politics.

The rumors of impending war between Pakistan and India are not new. Reported in the Hindustan Times May 24, India is considering holding off an attack on Pakistan until July. The paper cited sources familiar with government and military discussions that determined that, if Pakistan can control Kashmiri militants and ensure they do not interfere in the run-up to elections in Jammu and Kashmir later this year, India's war plans would be shelved.

But how many American read, know or even care about a conflict that might just trigger the first exchange of nuclear weapons? No doubt that prevailing winds might render the fall out less than terminal, but can we arrive at this same conclusion about the underlying reason why such feuds carry on for centuries? The parallel of Laredo is not that much removed from that of the apparent Kashmir dispute over territory. But is it really that simple?

Consider the conclusion on that feud by the author of Warm Weather & Bad Whiskey: "[It] was not sheepmen against cattlemen, homesteaders against ranchers, the unscrupulous against the righteous, or the powerful against the weak. It was a feud between several closely related and powerful families with shifting and often confusing allegiances that cut across racial, religious and class lines. It was an economic and political struggle for power and money, a struggle to determine whether an existing political machine under the banner of reform, would dominate Laredo and border politics."

The perspective towards the cow may vary from the Texas plains to the Hindu backroads. Few of us can say we know as much as we should about the subcontinent. Sites like the Information TimesThe Times of India  and Dawn  are a start on understanding the nature of this tinder box, ready to erupt.

When the Botas' won that fateful Laredo election by the mere margin of 629 to 618 and 122 to112 in two districts, the Guaraches' retreated behind their cannon. After someone winced, Botas shot Guaraches and Guaraches shot Botas. When the dust cleared, newspapers reported the death toll at nine and the wounded twenty, but no doubt the numbers didn't include the dead sent floating down the river.

Will we be as lucky after the Jammu and Kashmir elections? The absence of whiskey is more than made up with the heat of the temperature. Hot heads need not drink spirits to produce drunkenness. This example is a worthy lesson for all to heed, especially pundits. When disputes arise, our dirty laundry is often offered up for public scrutiny. On a public level the significance of the quarrel goes unseen, while the fall out can contaminate the general population. But when the controversy moves from a brawl to slaughter, our own problems are placed in their true diminished significance. Politics is the pursuit of resolving varied interests. When the good town folks of Laredo resort to open warfare, how can we expect two adverse and opposing distant cultures, to dine at the same table? Guess that leaves it up to the critic to inject reason and balance! It's better to build your community around the address of the preacher, than the wake of a saloon. But what is a person to do when the parson's message is part of the dispute? Finally; we found the answer for the merit of elections . . .

SARTRE - May 25, 2002

No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.
 - Martin Luther

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