Sunday, November 25, 2007

Marxists and Mullahs in West Bengal

For freedom, stand by Taslima Nasreen
Kanchan Gupta
Dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen arriving in Delhi on Friday night
Those acquainted with contemporary Bengali literature could argue that dissident Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen is not a talented writer. But there are few who would disagree that she is an extremely courageous woman who has struck out at Islamic fanatics and mullahs whose sole passion in life is to come up with the most perverse interpretations of the Quran so that they can live out their dark fantasies born of obscurantism and twisted notions of patriarchy. Ms Nasreen gave up her profession as a qualified physician to take on radical Islamists who had begun to gather strength under the tutelage of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Dhaka cantonment queen Begum Khaleda Zia, as well as Awami League, headed by a fork-tongued Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Her newspaper columns were hugely popular, especially among Bangladeshi women, although the Jamaat-e-Islami was none too pleased that someone should dare question the mullahs’ diktats.
Ms Nasreen became a celebrity of sorts in Kolkata after the publication of Nirbachito Column, a collection of her newspaper columns, which won her a prestigious literary award. Back in Dhaka, her success raised the hackles of those discomfited by the fact that rather than disappear behind a burqa and meekly accept the oppressive ways of the clergy, a Bangladeshi woman had begun to inspire others to emulate her defiance. They began to sharpen their knives for the kill; in the meanwhile, they turned on Bangladesh’s minuscule and disinherited, disempowered Hindu community, committing horrendous atrocities. After the demolition of the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, they let loose a reign of terror, killing Hindu men, raping Hindu women and destroying Hindu temples. Lest all this be denied by Islamic fanatics on both sides of Padma — including those who fly the banners of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, All-India Milli Council and assorted organisations like All-India Minority Forum that make up the Brotherhood in Green — and their ‘secular’ patrons, the most casual scan of newspapers of those days will reveal the extent of the crimes committed against Hindus in Bangladesh in the guise of protesting the demolition of the disputed Babri structure.
It is a tribute to Ms Nasreen’s courage that rather than silently watch the persecution of Bangladeshi Hindus, she recorded those crimes in a slim volume, Lajja. Within days of the publication of the novel — it was ‘fiction’ based on incontrovertible facts — it was slammed by the Government of Bangladesh, which had clearly colluded with the fanatics by allowing them a free run, and the mullahs who, typically, were outraged that a Muslim (although Ms Nasreen says she is a ‘humanist’) should have dared put their misdeeds on record. The book was banned and a mullah issued a fatwa, calling for her execution as she had committed ‘blasphemy’! During Friday prayers in mosques across Bangladesh, believers were urged to murder Ms Nasreen if the Government failed to carry out the death sentence. Another mullah offered a reward of $ 2,000, which was really more a reflection of his cash flow problems than his desire to see her head brought to him on an aluminium platter borrowed from his kitchen.
But all this did not dampen the demand for Lajja. Pirated copies of the book sold in thousands even as fanatics took to the streets, clamouring that Ms Nasreen be executed to uphold shari’ah. Overnight, Ms Nasreen became a household name, here and abroad. In those days The Pioneer had a fiesty correspondent in Dhaka. I recall asking him for a copy of the book. He got hold of a pirated copy and sent it to us by courier. Since everybody was curious about what Ms Nasreen had written that had so angered the mullahs, The Pioneer published the relevant extracts. Later, the book was published in both Bengali and English in India; thankfully, the Government did not ban Lajja. That was the beginning of Ms Nasreen’s woes. Hounded by Islamists baying for her blood (in the hope of pocketing the promised $ 2,000), she fled her beloved country in 1995 and sought shelter in Sweden. Two decades earlier, another Bangladeshi writer, Daud Haider, had to similarly flee Bangladesh after fanatics declared him a heretic. We shall return to Daud’s story later.
Feted by Kolkata’s intellectuals, Ms Nasreen decided to shift to West Bengal and was granted a one-year visa in September 2005. But before that, she had run into trouble with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who, despite his pretensions of being a writer and a Marxist, gave in without a fight and banned her autobiographical book, Dwikhondito, in November 2003 because it had references to the perversion of Islam by those who use religion to perpetuate their twisted notions of a Muslim woman’s place in society. Another book, Aamar Meyebela, also ran into trouble and was promptly banned in Bangladesh. The publishers of Dwikhondito went to court and appealed against the ban. The Calcutta High Court declared the ban was “untenable” and “unjustifiable” in September 2005. Dwikhondito reappeared in bookshops and became an instant bestseller, not least because it rips off many a ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ mask.
On August 10 this year, when Ms Nasreen visited Hyderabad for the launch of her translated works, she was set upon by leaders of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen who insisted that she should be handed over to them so that they could punish her for her ‘sins’. She escaped the lynching but the incident showed that fanatics had put in motion a plan to hound her out of India. Last Wednesday’s riots in central Kolkata when murderous mobs owing allegiance to All-India Minority Forum, headed by Mr Idris Ali, a Congress leader, demanded that she be thrown out of the country, are part of this devious plan whose ultimate goal is to demonstrate the might of radical Islamism in ‘secular’ India. Mr Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front and a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau who loves to be portrayed in media as a remorseless, cold-blooded commissar, wilted in the face of Muslim fury and ensured Ms Nasreen’s eviction from Kolkata and West Bengal. Since then, she has been on the run, first seeking shelter in Jaipur and then in Rajasthan House in Delhi.
It is anybody’s guess as to whether the UPA Government will be able to summon the courage to stand up to fanatics and insist that Ms Nasreen shall remain in India. On another occasion, Mrs Indira Gandhi had succumbed to Muslim pressure and was on the verge of deporting Daud Haider to face death in Bangladesh when the dissident poet was rescued by German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass. If Ms Nasreen is forced to leave India, make no mistake that a time will come when anybody who doesn’t subscribe to the twisted worldview of Islamic fanatics will be similarly hounded in this wondrous secular democracy of ours.

{This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break on November 25, 2007.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Muslims riot in Marxist Kolkata

A plague on all their houses
Kanchan Gupta

For all his bravado, Mr Idris Ali, who heads a little-known Muslim organisation that operates under the name of ‘All-India Minorities Forum’, panicked when he saw his followers run riot in those parts of central Kolkata where there’s dancing in the streets every time Pakistan wins a cricket match against India. Hence his sly attempt to distance himself from the rioters who set upon innocent people, torched cars and police vehicles, attacked school buses and held petrified children hostage in their schools till the Army was called in on Wednesday late afternoon.
“They (Marxist cadre) have infiltrated our ranks and sparked the violence. We wanted to protest peacefully, but the Marxists are trying to discredit us,” he told newspersons on Wednesday evening, obviously hoping to be spared the punishment that he justly deserves but is eager to escape. To paint himself and his murderous mobs as innocent victims of ‘state repression’, he claimed that “the disturbances broke out after the police, without reason, arrested 200 protesters owing allegiance to the AIMF and Furfurasharif Muzaddedia Anath Foundation at Park Circus”.
Without reason? Mr Ali’s foot soldiers were armed with swords and an assortment of weapons, including Molotov cocktails, which they used generously to terrorise people and attack the police. The high casualties reported by Kolkata Police — two Deputy Commissioners were among those grievously injured — and the widespread destruction of public and private property bear witness to the ferocity of those whom Mr Ali has sought to defend. But he is not alone in being indulgent; the anchor of a Delhi-based 24x7 news channel described the rampaging mobs as “civil society in ferment”. So much for media integrity.
The issue, however, is not Mr Ali’s too-clever-by-half defence of his criminal deed. Thankfully, the marauders were forced to back off before lives were lost; but the ‘peace’ that has been enforced with the help of the Army and night curfew is at best tenuous: Only the naïve and those who subscribe to Communist calumny will believe that Wednesday’s communal violence was an aberration and that Kolkata is back to being a ‘city of joy’. Nor should we get distracted by the suggestion that Kolkata’s Muslims are up in arms against the CPI(M)’s thuggery in Nandigram where many of the victims are their co-religionists.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether Mr Ali is truly concerned about the plight of the maimed, the raped and the homeless of Nandigram. Had this not been the case, he would have mobilised political opposition to the CPI(M)’s atrocities in Nandigram and elsewhere. After all, Mr Ali, apart from being the chief of All-India Minorities Forum, is also a Congress leader, or at least is known for being close to certain individuals in the party who have defended his action.
By seeking to convert Nandigram’s mind-numbing tale of human misery into a ‘Muslim issue’, he has tried to add to the list of the community’s imagined grievances. For, the CPI(M)’s ‘Harmad Vahini’ was, and remains, indiscriminate while letting loose its reign of terror in Nandigram. Among the thousands of villagers who have lost their near and dear ones, or have been forced to flee their home and hearth and take shelter in ‘refugee camps’, are a large number of Hindus. Two men whose names have become synonymous with pillage, murder and rape in Nandigram, and who led the CPI(M)’s bloody campaign, are Shahjahan Laskar and Selim Laskar.
The real objective of Mr Ali and his friends — Maulana Toha Siddiqui of Furfurasharif Muzaddedia Anath Foundation, Mr Roshan Ali of Qaumi Awaz Welfare Society and leading lights of Milli Ittehad Parishad — who organised Wednesday’s violent shutdown was to inflame Muslim passion by raising the bogey of Muslim sentiments being hurt by the Left Front Government. Hence the attempt to convert the atrocities in Nandigram into atrocities on Muslims; hence, also, the demand that the visa given to Bangladeshi dissident writer Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in Kolkata for the past couple of years, should be cancelled.
In fact, the second underscores the real purpose behind Wednesday’s violence: Of taking the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s shameful attack on Ms Nasreen in Hyderabad to its logical conclusion. Mr Ali and his friends allege that Ms Nasreen has “abused Islam and denigrated the Prophet”, and hence must not be provided with refuge from those who want to kill her, as ordained by Shari’ah, for ‘blasphemy’. If their reference is to Lajja, whose publication led to her first clash with Islamists, then it is rather late in the day. If they are referring to Dwikhondito, then we can only presume that neither Mr Ali nor his ilk has any regard for the law of the land which, they believe, does not apply to India’s Muslims.
Here we must digress to understand why the CPI(M) is as guilty as those who ran amok in Kolkata on Wednesday. Ms Nasreen’s autobiographical book, Dwikhondito, was banned by the West Bengal Government on November 28, 2003, soon after its publication. The initiative to proscribe the book because “it contains very derogatory and provocative references that go against the grain of the tenets of Islam and of Islamic beliefs” was taken by West Bengal’s ‘intellectual’ Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the behest of fellow travellers, many of them Bengali writers who take perverse pleasure in denigrating Hindus and Hinduism. One of them, Mr Sunil Gangopadhyay, has waxed eloquent in Thursday’s Anandabazar Patrika on how India is “not a theocracy and we cannot accept fatwas”. He did not display such tolerance while pushing for the ban on Dwikhondito.
The ban was declared illegal by the Calcutta High Court on September 22, 2005. Since then, Ms Nasreen has neither said nor written anything that can be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘derogatory’ of Islam. Two years later, Mr Ali has raised the issue of Ms Nasreen and her controversial book, skilfully avoiding any reference to the court order, taking a cue from the MIM and using Nandigram as a cover.
This is calculated mischief — as calculated as the mass hysteria that was unleashed by bogus propaganda on the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, allegedly lampooning Mohammed, or the equally bogus breast-beating over the execution of Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. On those occasions, the CPI(M) was vocal in its support of the ‘Muslim cause’ and rallied its forces behind a convoluted worldview that has now come to haunt West Bengal.
Wednesday’s communal violence in Kolkata is only the beginning. Having sown the proverbial dragon’s teeth, the CPI(M) must now prepare to harvest its poison yield. The first signs of West Bengal’s Marxist Government cravenly giving in to Muslim violence are already visible. Even before calm was restored in the riot-hit areas of Kolkata, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Left Front chairman Biman Bose sought to placate Mr Ali and his goons by offering to expel Ms Nasreen from West Bengal “to maintain peace”. On Thursday, Ms Nasreen was flown out of Kolkata to Jaipur. Her visa expires on February 17 next year. It is entirely possible that the Marxists will now force their obliging friends in the UPA Government to either not extend Ms Nasreen’s visa any further or cancel it right away.
But this is unlikely to serve any purpose in containing ‘Muslim anger’ and preventing incidents similar to what was witnessed on Wednesday. For, Mr Ali and his friends will come up with other grievances that have nothing to do with the genuine problems of India’s Muslims. Make no mistake of that.
November 23, 2007.
© CMYK Printech Ltd. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Israel Diary V

The hawk who turned dove
Kanchan Gupta
The writer with Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Israel's President Shimon Peres does not have to exert himself to be in the news; the news chases him. This past week he featured in possibly every newspaper in West Asia for "making history as the first Israeli President to address the Turkish Parliament". To thunderous applause, Peres expressed gratitude to Turkey for providing refuge to Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.
What made the event important -- apart from an Israeli addressing Prime Minister Abdullah Gul's Islamist party-dominated Parliament -- was the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yesterday's foes could not have come closer today; nor would an Israeli head of state have dreamt of asserting with any conviction that "peace is possible with the Palestinians and other neighbouring Arab countries ... in the entire region, from Syria to Yemen".
Yet there was a time when Peres would be counted among Israeli hardliners like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan who wouldn't countenance the very thought of accommodation with Palestinians, leave alone the Arab countries, and actively propagated the concept of settlements in Gaza and West Bank to push Israel's frontiers to its biblical past.
That was many decades ago; the hawk has now turned into a dove. He doesn't tire talking of peace in our time.
Few would recall today, including in Israel, that Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski in eastern Poland in 1923. He arrived in the British mandate of Palestine in 1934 and seven years later entered politics as an elected official of the Labour Zionist Youth Movement. Later, he joined the Hagannah, procuring arms to defend Israel from its Arab neighbours. It's been a long time in politics and an eventful public life.
Peres was elected to Knesset in 1959, and since then has been a member of Israel's Parliament till his election as President in June this year -- easily a record of sorts for any politician in any country. Travelling across the political spectrum, from Mapai (which he left along with Dayan and Ben-Gurion after the 'Lavon Affair') to Kadima (which he joined convinced that Ariel Sharon alone could deliver peace), he now plays the role of senior statesman and peace-maker, having served as Prime Minister thrice and as Minister in 12 Cabinets.
Along the road to the highest (though largely ceremonial) office in Israel, he has picked up the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for his role in the negotiations leading to the Oslo Agreements. Of the troika who reached the cusp of peace but didn't quite succeed in securing it, Rabin and Arafat are dead; the former was assassinated by an Israeli extremist for conceding too much.
Standing outside the President's residence in Jerusalem, waiting for security clearance as a young woman scrupulously checked my palms and fingernails for traces of explosives with a high-tech gadget, I wondered what would Peres be like in real life. A ponderous old man? A pompous politician? A cynical manipulator? As we were shown into his rather modest book-lined office (lesser 'leaders' in India have far more opulent offices), Peres, easily more than a couple of inches taller than me, lumbered over from his desk, exuding grandfatherly warmth and an easy charm. Over the next 45 minutes he held forth, effortlessly, on the coming Annapolis peace talks, the prospects of a lasting agreement on Palestine and Israel's alarm over Iran's nuclear programme.
Despite Cassandras both at home and abroad predicting that Annapolis will be another stillborn affair, Peres is confident that Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers will keep their date. "Diplomacy is the art of the possible. Annapolis will not be an end by itself, it will lead to a sort of beginning," he says. Like many other optimists in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington, he believes a declaration of intent will be issued and the "real negotiations will start".
Looking back at the wasted years spent hunting for an elusive deal acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, Peres recalls how King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1987 and offered his help to form a Palestinian confederation. "The Israelis torpedoed it ... I believe we shouldn't have taken on the job of managing Gaza and West Bank," he adds. Twenty years ago Peres wouldn't have said this.
But Israel wasn't to blame entirely. Referring to the talks preceding Oslo, he recalls, "Yasser Arafat agreed to the 1967 border." This is not what is popularly known of the Oslo talks -- Arafat would never agree to specifics, not at Oslo, nor later, including at Tabah. Then came the rider, "Without him we couldn't have started (talking), with him we couldn't finish." Then came Rabin's assassination and the suicide bombings which made "things difficult". That's putting it rather mildly.
He recalls how he was informed, while on his way to office in 1996, of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which 50 Israelis were killed. "The square was full of blood ... Next day there was a blast in Tel Aviv." Peres, who by then had begun to push for a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, was branded a "traitor" at home. "Extremism took over the centre," he says impassively.
That 'extremism' has now yielded space to pragmatism -- both in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Mahmoud Abbas realises that this could be the moment in history which Palestinians have been waiting for; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feels Israel couldn't have a better opportunity to strike a deal and cut its losses. "We are closer to peace than ever before. Everything is negotiable ... prejudices, differences and obstacles," explains Peres.
But there can't be any compromise on Israel's position against conceding the Palestinians' demand for the refugees' 'right to return'. "They can return to the Palestinian state," he says. The steel in his voice can't be missed -- shades of the hawk? He pauses for a moment, and then adds with a flourish, "You don't look for the most popular but the most promising (deal)."
In 1994, Peres had famously declared, "History is one long misunderstanding." Does he still subscribe to that view? "These days I recommend young people not to read history," he says with a chuckle, rubbing his hands. Tea is served by two elderly ladies who fuss over Mr President. He has a sip, thinks for a while, and then picks up the thread of the conversation, really a long monologue, but not boring at all. "There was a time when people made a living from land, so they annexed territory ... Today, existence does not come from land but science. So, there's no reason for war. Intellectual energy will fuel the future," Peres says.
If only the real world had been so easily persuaded, it would have been a happier, peaceful place. As the meeting comes to an end, Peres remembers to mention that he continues to be "fascinated by India" and how he connects Jawaharlal Nehru with 'wisdom', MK Gandhi with 'moral strength' and Rabindranath Tagore with 'love'. It's a vastly different India today, one which would find such views quaint. I wish Peres could see it for himself.

November 18, 2007.

Murder in Communist Bengal

CPM proves it’s a party of fascists
Kanchan Gupta

Real face of Buddhadeb: A rally to protest CPM atrocities in Nandigram

Bengalis have this fascination for bhadralok Marxists, which is really a contradiction in terms but has stood the CPI(M) in good stead in West Bengal. As Deputy Chief Minister in the fumbling, bumbling United Front Governments, Mr Jyoti Basu presided over the lumpenisation of West Bengal politics and began the process of destroying West Bengal’s industrial infrastructure, which in the 1960s was not to be scoffed at. He made gherao into an instrument of state policy and lawlessness the hallmark of Marxist politics. When harried industrialists petitioned the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court and the judge sought an explanation, Mr Basu deployed thousands of his party’s hoodlum brigade to gherao the court. The Chief Justice saw merit in the dictum that discretion is the better part of valour.
As Chief Minister after the Left Front came to power in 1977, Mr Basu vigorously pursued his reckless agenda, denuding West Bengal of whatever little remained of its once thriving industry, while making it a point to holiday in London every year, ostensibly to seduce investors. From the Marichjhanpi massacre to the Bantala gangrape, his tenure as Chief Minister was one long saga of atrocities committed by either Marxist goons or the police, which he had swiftly converted into an extension counter of the CPI(M). Yet, people were easily persuaded to vote for him and the CPI(M)-led Left Front, election after election, because whatever his faults, he was a “bhadralok”. Never mind the fact that behind the spotless dhuti-panjabi façade lurked an evil man with a malevolent mind, a modern day Mephistopheles who derived perverse pleasure from West Bengal’s impoverishment.
His successor, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was seen and feted as a “bhadralok” twice over. His lineage was impeccable — graduate of Presidency College, nephew of Sukanto Bhattacharjee whose darkly haunting poetry is replete with metaphors of human bondage and struggle against hunger and poverty, translator of Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, poet and playwright of sorts at one with Kolkata’s intellectuals for whom Nandan is their second home, high on Marxist dialectics and suitably preachy. Bengalis could not have asked for more. What added to his appeal is Bhattacharjee’s ‘reformist’ zeal. He borrowed Nike’s slogan and came up with his (in retrospect, rather corny) one-liner: “Do it now.” Buddhijeebis, who have amazing power to influence opinion in West Bengal, overnight became ‘Buddhajeebis’ and wore their new identity on their sleeves. Mr Basu would let his mask slip once in a while and indulge in crudity; Mr Bhattacharjee, who claims to be a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would never do that.
But all this must now belong to the past. Mr Bhattacharjee’s bhadralok image has taken a severe beating and today he stands exposed as a charlatan who doesn’t deserve the office he holds. For all his pretensions of being a man of culture and integrity, he is no less Mephistophelean than Mr Basu. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Mr Bhattacharjee has proved himself an accomplished flatterer by aping his party general secretary, Mr Prakash Karat, in justifying murder, rape and pillage by Marxist criminals. There is not even the faintest hint of regret that Nandigram should have become the leitmotif of the CPI(M)’s unrestrained thuggery. There is no belated acceptance of moral responsibility, leave alone assertion of authority, even at this stage when his friends have begun spitting at him. The Pioneer was not exaggerating when it suggested to its readers that for a lesson in fascism, they should read Mr Bhattacharjee’s shocking comments at a Press conference where he praised his party’s black shirts and poured scorn and ridicule on the hapless victims of their crimes. Among the victims, it needs to be noted, are a Muslim woman and her two teenaged daughters who were gangraped by the Marxist marauders. The two girls are missing; for all we know, they may have been killed or are being held captive to satiate the animal desires of those about whom Mr Karat and Mr Bhattacharjee speak so admiringly.
Compare this with the CPI(M)’s clamorous and vile protest against the alleged custodial killing of a wanted criminal and his moll in Gujarat. Recall also how 24x7 television channels, notably those headquartered in Delhi, went berserk, trying to pin the guilt of that alleged crime on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Contrast the timid, almost cowardly, media response to Mr Bhattacharjee’s appalling comments and Mr Karat’s chilling defence of the Marxist killers and rapists who have let loose a reign of terror and whose victims are largely Muslims, to the epithets and worse hurled by our newspapers and 24x7 channels at Mr Modi who has at no stage justified the 2002 violence in Gujarat or the alleged custodial killing of a mafia don and his moll. Is it because there is an ‘ideological’ affinity between the fascists of AK Gopalan Bhawan and mediapersons? Or is it because Mr Modi is a soft target and, unlike Mr Karat or Mr Bhattacharjee, whose storm troopers have been intimidating journalists and threatening dire consequences if they report the truth, will not retaliate? Or are there ‘linkages’ that influence our media, more so 24x7 channels, to black out Marxist crimes and invent scurrilous stories to demean others? If our media bravehearts wish to shame and shun Mr Modi, it’s their choice. But must they so shamelessly admire those who prescribe “Dum Dum dawai” — thuggery of the sort witnessed in Nandigram — as Ms Brinda Karat did at a rally in Kolkata? And support Mr Sitaram Yechury who has the temerity to insist that Nandigram can’t be discussed in Parliament because law and order is a State subject?
Mr Bhattacharjee has no doubt sold his soul to the likes of Indonesia’s Salem Group and, closer home, Ambuja Cement and ‘industrialists’ who were no more than small time Burrabazar traders till the CPI(M) came to power and facilitated their rags-to-riches journey. Mr Karat genuflects at Stalin’s altar and listens to the Internationale to relax, so we shouldn’t expect him to be touched by the plight of those maimed, killed and raped by his cadre. But what about mediapersons who tirelessly preach moral and ethical rectitude to others from their high perch in ‘national’ newspapers and ‘national’ news channels? By not admonishing those responsible for the ghastly events in Nandigram, they have legitimised the indefensible and paved the path for similar crimes elsewhere. Amen.

November 18, 2007.

On March 21, 2007, I had written the following article for The Pioneer's opeditorial page, contesting Mr Jyoti Basu's glycering tears for the victims of the police firing in Nandigram on March 14 in which at least 14 villagers were shot dead and scores injured:

Pot calls the kettle black

Kanchan Gupta

When in power, veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, who presided over West Bengal's decline and death, was as ruthless and callous as Buddhadeb BhattacharjeeEven before West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's critics, both within and outside the CPI(M) and the Left Front it leads, could articulate their opposition to the ghastly atrocities that were committed by the police and Marxist cadre at Nandigram on March 14, one man had set himself to the task of cranking up criticism with remarkable energy and alacrity for his age.
Veteran Marxist and former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu did not lose any time in making public his disagreement with the "anti-people action" of his successor at Writers' Building. And, if stories emanating from Kolkata are to be believed, he promptly contacted leaders of the CPI(M)'s partners in the Left Front, notably those of the RSP and the Forward Bloc, and urged them to lash out at Mr Bhattacharjee.
At an informal meeting among the Left Front partners on March 15 in Kolkata, Mr Basu, having worked himself into a right royal rage, is believed to have pitilessly castigated Mr Bhattacharjee, demanding to know, with all the pomposity that he could command, as to who had ordered the police action. As a sullen Chief Minister decided against converting the meeting into a slanging match, Mr Basu continued with his fulminations: Why did the police resort to firing? Why were protesters shot in their bellies and their heads? In the end, he accused Mr Bhattacharjee of being "arrogant" and "uncaring".
In Delhi, Mr Basu's criticism found resonance in the timid response of the CPI(M)'s tele-friendly leaders, Mr Prakash Karat and Mr Sitaram Yechury. Both let it be known that had Mr Basu been at the helm of affairs in West Bengal, they would have been spared the ignominy of having to justify such barbarity. Almost taking a cue from them, the feisty Trinamool Congress chairperson, Ms Mamata Banerjee, told newspersons that "even a respected person like Jytoibabu has condemned the police firing".
Suddenly, it would seem, Mr Basu has emerged as a better Chief Minister, a more humane administrator and a farsighted leader compared to Mr Bhattacharjee. Many of those who are spitting venom at West Bengal's accidental Chief Minister - had it not been for Promode Dasgupta, Mr Bhattacharjee would have been penning poetry overladen with darkly haunting metaphors much like his uncle Sukanto Bhattacharjee who died at the young age of 21 raging against hunger and poverty or his favourite Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky who committed suicide - it would appear, are yearning for the good old days when Mr Basu held the 'Red Fort'.
The truth, however, is that there are no good old days to recall. If anything, Mr Basu's record in office, first as Deputy Chief Minister in two successive United Front Governments beginning 1967 (for all practical purposes he was the de facto Chief Minister with a hapless Ajoy Mukherjee reduced to indulging in Gandhiana) and later as Chief Minister for nearly a quarter of a century at the head of the Left Front Government which has been in power for three decades now, the "longest elected Communist Government" as party commissars untiringly point out to the naive and the novitiate, is a terrible tale of calculated destruction of a State in the name of ideology.
It was Mr Basu, whose feigned outrage over the police going berserk at the behest of their political masters at Nandigram is now being cited to paint him in bright colours, who actively politicised West Bengal Police. It was he who instructed them, as Deputy Chief Minister during the disastrous UF regime, to play the role of foot soldiers of the CPI(M), first by not acting against party cadre on the rampage, and then by playing an unabashedly partisan role in industrial and agrarian disputes.
The 'humane administrator' and the 'farsighted leader', few would recall today, presided over the destruction and death of industry in West Bengal, denuding the State of its wealth and disinheriting future generations of Bengalis. Within the first seven months of the United Front coming to power, he ensured 43,947 workers were laid off because of strikes and gheraoes and 4,314 rendered unemployed after their factories were shut down. Flight of capital in those initial days of emergent Marxist power amounted to Rs 2,500 million. In 1967, there were 438 'industrial disputes' involving 165,000 workers and resulting in the loss of five million man hours. By 1969, there were 710 'industrial disputes' involving 645,000 workers and a loss of 8.5 million man hours.
That was a taste of things to come in the following decades. By the time Mr Basu demitted office, West Bengal had been reduced to a vast industrial wasteland. The only beneficiaries of the policies and programmes actively promoted by Mr Basu were a clutch of Marwari asset-strippers and promoters who moved in to convert industrial wasteland into housing projects. Mr Basu remains loyal to both; even in retirement he ensures promoters violating environment and other laws have their way while those who feathered their nests thanks to 'industrial disputes' instigated by Marxist trade unionists swear by him and his able tutelage.
Mr Basu is aghast that the blood of innocent men and women should be spilled in so callous a manner by the Government headed by Mr Bhattacharjee. Yet, Mr Basu, while in office, did not brook any criticism of the Marich Jhapi massacre by his police in 1979 when refugees were shot dead in cold blood. Till date, nobody knows for sure how many died in that slaughter for Mr Basu never allowed an independent inquiry. Neither did the man whose heart bleeds so profusely for the lost souls of Nandigram hesitate to justify the butchery of April 30, 1982 when 16 monks and a nun of the Ananda Marg order were beaten to death and then set ablaze in south Kolkata by a mob of Marxist goons. The man who led that murderous lot was known for his proximity to Mr Basu, a fact that the CPI(M) would now hasten to deny. Nor did Mr Basu wince when his police shot dead 13 Congress activists a short distance from Writers' Building on July 21, 1993; on the contrary, he continues to justify that incident.
Mr Bhattacharjee's initial reaction to the horrifying killings of March 14 was no doubt that of a cynical politician not unduly perturbed by the loss of a few lives. His subsequent "regret", which party apparatchiks insist does not amount to an apology, is not becoming of a man with pretentious claims to being a poet and a playwright. But was Mr Basu any more sensitive to the plight of those who suffered at the hands of his party's thugs? Did his heart cry out when women health workers were gang-raped and then two of them murdered by thugs with Marxist affiliation on May 17, 1990 at Bantala on the eastern margins of Kolkata? Or when office-bearers of the Kolkata Police Association patronised by the CPI(M) raped Nehar Banu, a poor pavement dweller, at Phulbagan police station in 1992? If we were to recall his response to such gross abuse of power by party cadre and party-affiliated policemen - "Emon to hoyei thaakey" (Such things happen), much like former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comment, "Stuff happens" - and his sly insinuations that the victims of such barbarity deserved what they got, Mr Basu would neither shine in comparison to Mr Bhattacharjee nor come across as an angel in red.
It's amusing to watch the name-calling in the wake of the violence in Nandigram. It brings to mind an old idiom fallen into disuse, that of the pot calling the kettle black. The Bengali version, popular in north Kolkata, is too risque to be repeated here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Middle East Affairs

UN's favourite terrorist
Kanchan Gupta
This weekend marked the third death anniversary of Yasser Arafat, lionised in life and in death as a ‘revolutionary’ who fought for Palestinian rights. But Arafat was not half the man he was made out to be by his Arab admirers and supporters across the world, notably in India where the lib-left intelligentsia hero-worshipped this false god. Here’s what I wrote after Arafat died – it’s as valid today as it was three years ago.
New York, United Nations: Supreme leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, this morning strode into the hallowed United Nations General Assembly Hall, waving at the assembled gathering of representatives of 191 member states with one hand and holding aloft his trademark AK-56 rifle with the other.
As he took the podium, there was thunderous applause: The entire General Assembly was on its feet, giving a justly deserved standing ovation to the man fittingly described by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “the courageous symbol of pan-Islamic nationalism”.
An impossible scenario?
Not if you consider a similar despatch filed by news agencies (this was before the days and nights of 24x7 live television) that made waves around the world on November 13, 1974. On that day, the United Nations shamelessly opened its doors to a certain Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, alias Abu Ammar, aka Yasser Arafat. Sporting his pistol-in-holster trademark, he was allowed to enter the UN's premises armed, and address the General Assembly which was only to happy to anoint the progenitor of modern day Islamic terrorism as its ‘favourite and favoured terrorist’.
It took Arafat a decade-and-a-half spent masterminding the hijacking and blowing up of civilian aircraft, the massacre of pilgrims at Lod Airport, targeted assassination of diplomats (including one American ambassador), shooting down school children at Ma’alot (an event that played no insignificant role in inspiring the killers of Beslan) and killing Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics, apart from gifting the world with a unique weapon of civilian destruction, the human bomb, and unleashing terror in a myriad forms, to secure legitimacy for his evil deeds from that high institution of low scruples, the United Nations.
A decade from now, that honour could be Osama bin Laden's. If Arafat, who spent his entire life leading a campaign of terror, sowing dragon’s teeth of hatred and fanning religious bigotry in the guise of ‘national resistance’ can be described as 'the courageous symbol of Palestinian nationalism' by Kofi Annan, there is no reason why similar accolades cannot be showered on an unrepentant Osama bin Laden.
After all, the inspirational force behind the ritual beheadings of ‘non-believers’ that are conducted with sickening glee by masked Islamists for Al Jazeera's prime time evening news bulletins is as much Osama bin Laden as Yasser Arafat. It was the undisputed leader of al Fateh, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the president of the Palestinian Authority who made ruthless violence fashionable, even romantic, during the decades of the Cold War; it was he who made terrorism chic among those manning the barricades and in the vanguard of proletarian revolution around the world.
Ironically, notwithstanding his status as the UN’s favourite terrorist and the EU’s favourite despot on whom the latter showered billions of dollars in aid, at the fag end of his life, Yasser Arafat had become irrelevant – in Palestine, in Arabia and in Israel, the country he was determined to obliterate but which reduced him to a pathetic shadow of his past, holding him prisoner in his decrepit and bombed out headquarters in Ramallah.
In the Arab street he was the object of contemptuous ridicule, and not without reason: He was seen as a charlatan who stole from the very people whose interests he claimed to protect. In 2003, when Forbes published its list of the world's richest people in a new category reserved for kings, queens, and despots, President Yasser Arafat ranked sixth, bracketed with Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. According to Forbes, Arafat “feasted on all sorts of funds flowing into the Palestinian Authority”. Even as Palestinians were pushed into increasing impoverishment, desperate to eke out a living, Arafat lavished $100,000 a month on his wife, Suha, safely ensconced in luxury in Paris.
Few remember today that Arafat was not a product of the original Palestinian struggle for nationhood. Licking their wounds after their disastrous campaign against Israel following the birth of the Jewish state, Egypt, Syria and Trans-Jordan hit upon the idea of floating a Palestinian body that would be the Arabs' proverbial cat's paw. Thus was born the Palestine Liberation Organisation, headed by Syria’s nominee, Ahmed Shuqueri, in 1964. Following Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Palestinian National Conference met in Cairo and the radicals, led by Arafat, whose al Fateh had by then emerged as the dominant group, took charge.
Similarly, few remember that Arafat was not a Palestinian by birth. He was born in Egypt and moved to Jerusalem to live with an uncle after his mother's death. He returned to Cairo for studies, spent his early adult years in Egypt and then moved on to Kuwait. A popular Arab street story has it that he changed his formal name from Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat not as part of his effort to radicalise his image (that was done with army fatigues, a chequered kafiyeh, dark glasses and a loaded pistol in a hip holster, immortalised by Time) but to erase his kinship with the infamous mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini whose claim to fame was his collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
After becoming chairman of the PLO in February 1969, Arafat never looked back. Like his fellow despots who rule over their fiefdoms, kingdoms and sheikhdoms in Arabia with an iron fist, he ruthlessly established himself as the sole spokesman, the sole leader and the sole public face of Palestinian nationalism, mastering the art of media spectacle and political timing that contributed in no small measure to his gaining an iconic status among liberals and leftists.
In a post-colonial world looking for symbols of national resistance, Arafat emerged trumps: unlike Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh, he was the romantic face of revolution. So much so, he is perhaps the only resistance leader in modern times who was able to convincingly justify recourse to violence against civilians, even make it acceptable as a legitimate instrument of struggle against occupation.
But that does not minimise the fact that it was Arafat who fashioned political terrorism and never in his life apologised for the bloodletting that his Al Fatah is responsible for; on the contrary, even in his dying days, holed up in Ramallah, he continued to sanction repeated assaults by al Fateh’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade on Israeli civilian targets. After being feted with the Nobel for peace, he unabashedly justified suicide bombings – after a young suicide bomber had blown up Jewish civilians, Arafat consoled the boy’s parents by telling them the “young man who turned his body into a bomb is the model of statehood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland”.
After becoming chairman of the PLO in February 1969, Arafat never looked back. Like his fellow despots who rule over their fiefdoms, kingdoms and sheikhdoms in Arabia with an iron fist, he ruthlessly established himself as the sole spokesman, the sole leader and the sole public face of Palestinian nationalism, mastering the art of media spectacle and political timing that contributed in no small measure to his gaining an iconic status among liberals and leftists.
In his lifetime, Arafat proved to be obdurate and intransigent in the face of the most reasoned logic of peace-making. If the Israelis and the Americans learned it the hard way – from Camp David to Oslo to Taba to Aqaba, Arafat moved one step forward only to take a giant leap backward – the Saudis had to rue coming up with their famous proposal that offered Israel full recognition in return of Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. Arafat merely laughed up his sleeve.
In a sense, Arafat managed to maintain his stranglehold over Palestinian affairs by taking a maximalist position on peace-making. He rejected each and every offer on the specious plea that it did not offer the Palestinians the maximum he desired. By unswervingly insisting on Palestine of pre-1948 vintage, he was able to convince Palestinians that history could be rolled back and Israel wiped out from the map of Middle-East. That, or nothing else, was his consistent stand. Now that he is dead, Palestine is a possible reality.
Arafat saw himself as a modern day Saladin; he preached the language of hate and militated against reconciliation and accommodation. Through a skilful mix of Arab nationalism and radical Islamism, which he had picked up during his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he inspired generations to march to death and disaster. His was a life spent on fighting for Palestinian land, not for Palestinian lives.
In the end, he failed to drive the Jews out of Jerusalem, but has left behind a legacy of hatred that continues to drive Arabs against Jews, Palestinians against Israelis. It is a pity that India, and a large number of Indians, should honour such a wasted, and wasteful, life.

(This article originally appeared on on November 19, 2004. See my Rediff homepage at )

Hunger in Communist Bengal

The distant thunder
Kanchan Gupta

In Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) Satyajit Ray brought alive, with great sensitivity, the misery inflicted by the Bengal famine of 1943. The film was made three decades after that harrowing experience which returned to haunt Bengalis during the mid-1960s and became the leitmotif of the Communist movement in West Bengal. Based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's novel, Ray's award-winning film suggested, without recourse to crudity, how hunger stalked people amidst plentiful food stocks. Neither Bandyopadhyay nor Ray was treading new ground in making this point. After all, the famine of 1943 was a man-made disaster that claimed four million lives as the colonial Government chose to ignore its horrendous consequences.
The Bengal famine of 1943 - there were famines earlier, too, but none so devastating - has been evocatively described as the 'forgotten holocaust', a crime not recognised by history and now no more than a fading memory in the Bengali conscience. Hence the need to recall the sequence of events that led to hunger, disease and death on an unimaginable scale in rural Bengal where people pleaded for a fistful of rice but were spurned by a callous administration and corrupt hoarders; both joined hands to zealously guard overflowing godowns.
The distant thunder in Ashani Sanket referred to Japanese bombers. In real life, it was the killer cyclone of October 1942 which destroyed paddy fields along the east coast stretching from Bengal to Orissa. With no autumnal harvest, farmers, most of them landless or marginal, had no other option but to dip into emergency stocks at home which ran out by the summer of 1943. Meanwhile, sensing a scarcity, traders began to hoard whatever they could lay their hands on.
But the cyclone was only one of the contributing factors and its impact could have been mitigated if the colonial administration had not acted in the most selfish manner. Huge quantities of rice were stockpiled for British soldiers by seizing stocks meant for civilian consumption. Worse, even as the stark contours of the famine were emerging, rice was being exported to Sri Lanka for British soldiers garrisoned there.
Later, much after vultures had feasted on the dead and the dying, Britain tried to explain the crippling shortage by citing the suspension of rice imports from Burma, then occupied by Japanese forces. But Burmese rice, at best, accounted for not more than 15 per cent of Bengal's requirement. In any event, every effort was made to mop up all available rice from rural Bengal and either store it for soldiers or ship it out to what was then Ceylon. The little that escaped British appropriation was picked up by traders, nearly all of them collaborators of the civil administration, and sold at exorbitant prices. Wartime Kolkata, flush with money, did not experience the hunger of rural Bengal; tragically, Bengalis who could afford to buy rice at black market rates were deaf to the pitiful cries of starving fellow Bengalis. Latter day economists would say that market forces decided the price of rice. It would, therefore, be incorrect to blame the colonial Government alone for the colossal loss of lives.
Winston Churchill, who refused to acknowledge the famine till it became an embarrassment for the Empire, was to later slyly pretend it never happened by glossing over this dark chapter of British rule in India in his six-volume History of the Second World War. On the contrary, disdainful of natives and remorselessly untouched by their suffering, he claimed, "No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the people of Hindustan. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island." The four million people who died in the made-in-Britain famine of 1943 were inconsequential for the Empire's last standard-bearer.
It is unthinkable that so many lives would be lost today even in the worst possible circumstances. In food surplus India, Government often claims, there are enough provisions to ensure that nobody dies of starvation. No matter how scary the distant thunder may be, rest assured you shall not go hungry. Yet, in rural Bengal we are witnessing food riots: People are demanding their rightful share of supplies through the public distribution system but dealers are reluctant to meet their demand.
It is not that there are no supplies, but these are being diverted to the 'open market' to reap windfall profits. For instance, wheat which is sold at Rs 6.75 a kg through the public distribution system, fetches as much as Rs 13 in the 'open market'. Modern day economists will insist that there is nothing wrong with market forces deciding the price of foodgrains in rural Bengal. But that is as facetious as Churchill's claim of protecting Hindustan "from the horrors and perils of the World War".
If traders hoarded rice during the famine of 1943, accentuating the shortage and fuelling the famine, under the benign gaze of an uncaring civil administration controlled by Britain's equally unfeeling wartime Government, public distribution system dealers in districts across West Bengal - Bankura, Burdwan, Nadia, Murshidabad and Birbhum are witnessing food riots every day - have either hoarded rice and wheat or diverted supplies to the 'open market' with more than a little help from CPI(M) leaders and the hugely corrupt administration they run.
There is a difference, though: In 1943, famished men, women and children meekly surrendered to their fate, as the accompanying photograph of a peasant and his two sons shows. There was no struggle for survival: Godowns were not raided by hungry masses, traders were not attacked, administration offices were not set on fire. Today, there is no such meek surrender. Ration shop dealers, who are also card-carrying members of the CPI(M), are being beaten up and their shops and godowns are being ransacked. Local Marxist chieftains who dare intervene on behalf of the dealers-turned-hoarders are being chased, in some cases out of villages.
The Left Front Government of West Bengal claims the agitation is being stage-managed by Maoists and Jamaatis. To prove that there is no shortage of food, it points to well-fed, well-nourished Kolkata, forgetting to mention that the city was untouched by the famine of 1943 too. Such pathetic efforts to discredit the impoverished, hungry masses would convince only those who sit in the airconditioned confines of AK Gopalan Bhawan, agonising over the India-US nuclear deal even as the distant thunder rolls nearer from West Bengal.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Coffee Break

Blame America, not Musharraf
Kanchan Gupta

Ever since last Saturday, when Gen Pervez Musharraf declared a state of Emergency in Pakistan, the world appears to have woken up to the absence of democracy in that benighted country. The European Union, which ardently believes that its primary responsibility is to promote the European way of life, such as it is, has been in the forefront of expressing distress and demanding that democracy be restored in the ‘Land of the Pure’. Reluctant to be seen as not pushing its totally discredited — and thoroughly impractical — democracy agenda, the Bush Administration has also been growling at Gen Musharraf. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took time off from hectic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to issue a stern message: The General must discard his uniform and get back to the task of holding elections to the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies. President George W Bush, not given to eloquence, has issued a similar statement. Other lesser Presidents, Prime Ministers and self-appointed guardians of freedom have added their tuppence worth views on how to save Pakistan from dictatorship and ensure constitutional rule.
But the flood of reactions has apparently had little effect on the man in the eye of the storm. Gen Musharraf remains undeterred, or at least appears to be unruffled. Pakistan’s image has never ever been worse than what it is today; Newsweek may have suddenly discovered that it is the “most dangerous country” in the world, but we need not be influenced by such realisation, not least because American media is as fickle as those who manage American affairs. If it suits Washington, American media will see nothing but virtue in the devil and mock at those who dare question its ‘wisdom’. When an individual is no longer seen as serving American interest, he or she is denounced in an inquisitorial manner. Hence, The Washington Post and The New York Times, which would routinely trash India’s evidence of Pakistani perfidy in promoting cross-border terrorism much after 9/11 had happened simply because Gen Musharraf was America’s blue-eyed boy, have now begun to berate him for not keeping the many promises he had made to his masters in the White House, the State Department and to the Pentagon. In its usual sly manner, American media has chosen to gloss over the fact that the situation which prevails in Pakistan today is really a reflection of the abysmal failure of US policy which has favoured the Army over the political class in that country ever since its wretched birth 60 years ago.
If elected representatives of the people have ruled Pakistan for less than two decades of its existence, it is primarily because the US, looking for a strategic perch in South Asia, has actively promoted military rulers who would be loyal and not question American intentions. Gen Ayub Khan would not have come to power in October 1958 if the US had not decided to deny Pakistan an elected Government simply because it believed — perhaps with good reason — politicians would not meekly agree to do Washington’s bidding. Gen Ayub Khan, trained at Sandhurst and with a pronounced preference for the good things of life that are frowned upon by Islam, was a perfect ally for Governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The American media feted him, even when he pompously declared, “Democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy, we must have a cold climate like Britain.” The New York Times thought he was talking about placing Pakistan on the road to democracy! Strangely, American media, like the American Government, did not bother about Gen Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime — the Pakistani Press was muzzled, dissidents were thrown into jail and tortured (Abu Ghraib came much later) and bogus elections were held to create the illusion of civilian rule.
When Gen Yahya Khan seized power, he had the full backing of the US which by then had decided that Gen Ayub Khan was a charlatan who could not deliver on his promises. Eager to please his masters, Gen Yahya Khan held elections in January 1970 and then decided not to hand over power to the Awami League which had won a clear majority. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for a liberation struggle and Bangladesh was born, but not before Gen Yahya Khan’s troops had indulged in every possible atrocity, including massacre and mass rape. Legend has it that during those terrible days when the world wept over the plight of East Pakistanis, Gen Yahya Khan was closeted with his favourite harlot, known in Pakistani garrisons as ‘General Rani’; one evening, he was seen dancing on the streets of Peshawar, minus his uniform and innerwear, with that woman in his arms.
And what was Washington’s response to Gen Yahya Khan’s outrageous campaign to bludgeon East Pakistan into submission? The US refused to acknowledge the atrocities, snubbed India for seeking to influence world opinion and, in a grand show of solidarity with their favourite Pakistani dictator, sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal. Funnily enough, the man who was then crafting American policy, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would now want us to believe that his heart beats for India!
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto provided an interlude but his corrupt Government was so hated by the masses that there were celebrations when Gen Zia-ul Haq hanged him in 1979, with the Supreme Court acting as an accomplice, after seizing power in 1977. Gen Zia, like the other two Generals who had ruled Pakistan before him, was also blessed by the US which looked on admiringly as he went about demolishing the little that was left of democratic institutions and politics in Pakistan with the zeal of a bigot. He handed over the Ministries of Information and Education to the Jamat-e-Islami, introduced Islamic rule and made public flogging into popular entertainment. The Americans, including the American media, loved him because he was a “valuable ally” in the US-financed and armed jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Gen Zia was to later die when the plane in which he was flying blew up. The death of US Ambassador Arnold Raphael in that ‘accident’ was collateral damage.
Gen Musharraf too is America’s protege. He is in power because the US wants him to rule Pakistan. He has the added task of cleaning up the mess which is largely America’s doing. If the US is hated in Pakistan today, the reasons are not unknown to those who are now chanting the democracy mantra in Washington.

November 11, 2007.

To get an idea of the current state of affairs in Pakistan, read Tariq Ali's scintillating article, 'Pakistan at Sixty' in the London Review of Books.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Communalism in India -I

Half-truths don't help Muslims
Kanchan Gupta

A Kashmiri Hindu grieves over his children slaughtered by Islamic terrorists

Recently Tehelka released what it claimed to be sensational, never-before details of the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. These were based on sting operations aimed at trapping those accused of participating in the riots. Little purpose is served by the 'startling revelations' because they do not add to the bulk of what has been alleged for long; the individuals are already facing trial. Three points come to mind after watching television's theatrical presentation of Tehelka's latest 'expose' and reading Friday morning's newspapers.
First, the timing of the 'revelation', which has curiously come within days of the Prime Minister describing the violence as Gujarat's "Holocaust", raises an uncomfortable question: Why did Tehelka wait till a month before Assembly election in Gujarat since it has had the 'information' for some months? Second, the wisdom of resuscitating the ghosts of a communal violence people would rather forget and move on with their lives, more so in Gujarat, defies logic. Third, the ease with which our 'secularists' gloss over other more horrendous killings -- I am not referring to the slaughter of Pandits and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Kashmir Valley -- while insisting that the 2002 violence in Gujarat is the worst India has seen in its 'modern history' is truly astonishing.
Once again we hear the cacophony of 'secularist' clamour insisting that "thousands of Muslims" were killed in Gujarat. Specific details inevitably fall victim to such sweeping statements. So, let me recall for you what Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Sri Prakash Jaiswal, whose credentials as a Congress loyalist are impeccable, told Parliament while replying to a Rajya Sabha MP's question on the 2002 violence in Gujarat. The details provided by Mr Jaiswal in his reply are in total variance to the outrageous claims of the 'secularists' to which we continue to be subjected ever so often, courtesy news channels and newspapers that can no longer distinguish between information and disinformation. Since the Minister's reply provides some interesting facts that deserve to be placed in the public domain, it would be in order to reproduce the salient portions. Lest I be accused of tampering with the Minister's reply, I have decided to quote the excerpts verbatim from a PTI report. You can't get more kosher than that.
The Central Government informed the Rajya Sabha that 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed in the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Sri Prakash Jaiswal said a total of 223 people were reported missing and 2,548 sustained injuries during the riots in 2002.
He said the Government paid Rs 1.5 lakh to the next of kin of each person killed and Rs 5,000, Rs 15,000, Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000 for the injured. The amount for the injured was based on the extent of injury, the Minister added.
According to this reply in Parliament, the Minister of State for Home Affairs in the Congress-led UPA Government has pegged the death toll of the 2002 riots at 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. Yet, these figures are not reflected in the propagandist pronouncements of those who claim to champion the cause of India's Muslims. More often than not we come across claims of 'thousands of Muslims butchered by Hindu fanatics in Narendra Modi's Gujarat.' This is a lie that has been repeated ad nauseam since that terrible day when Hindus travelling by Sabarmati Express were roasted alive after their coach was set ablaze by Muslim fanatics.
It has been repeated the most by India's Marxists who subscribe to the Goebbelsian tactic of repeating a lie till in the popular perception it comes to be identified as the truth. And, it is on the strength of such contrived truth that the Marxists make preposterous claims. For instance, the claim that the communal violence in Gujarat was 'the worst in modern Indian history.' In one grand sweep, our 'secularists' brush aside the far more horrendous riots that have resulted in far more gruesome blood-letting. We do not have to go too far back in 'modern Indian history' to locate some of these riots.
The massacre in Malliana has been conveniently forgotten; brutal memories of the riots in Meerut have been obliterated. The nightlong massacre of Muslims at Nellie in Assam, which witnessed suckling infants being snatched from their mothers' arms and being speared to death, has been erased from the secularists' record of 'modern Indian history.' Stomach-churning details of the Bhagalpur riots -- Muslims were killed, buried in fields and cauliflower and other winter vegetables planted over the rotting cadavers -- no longer feature in the secularists' collective conscience. The anti-Sikh pogrom that followed Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination is not even talked about any more: More than 4,000 Sikhs were murdered, many of them by placing burning tyres around their necks. Each of these massacres of innocent men, women and children took place when the Congress was in power and did nothing more than twiddle its thumbs as marauders went about their pillaging secure in the belief that they would not be punished.
Yet, the Congress and its 'secular' allies, more so the Marxists, have the gumption to claim that the riots in Gujarat were 'the worst in modern Indian history.' Perhaps they are referring to history after it has been purged of uncomfortable facts by the detox army led by Union Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh. Crass minorityism comes easily to the Congress and its cheer leaders. That is the reason why propaganda disguised as campaign to promote 'secularism' is deployed with such ease, regardless of the truth. And appeasement of the worst variety is projected as 'secular' policy.
Whose interest is served by such Goebbelsian propaganda? Clearly, neither that of India 's Muslims nor that of our nation. It serves the purpose of vote-bank politics, which has become the bane of our democracy. Worse, it perpetuates hate, polarises communities and divides society. There is more: It provides fodder to those who gain the most from gaping, festering wounds -- bigots, zealots and extremists for whom religion is a convenient cover and imagined grievances justification enough to wreak vengeance by killing innocent men, women and children.
It's a pity and a shame that media has now become an instrument of political manipulation. Instead of empowering people, it has elected to disempower them by peddling half-truths and outright lies.

Israel Diary - IV

Security fence for peace
Kanchan Gupta

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbours'.
-- (Mending Wall by Robert Frost)
There are pines and sycamores and olive orchards, but no apple trees along what Israelis refer to as geder ha'hafrada and those unwilling to concede that Israel has the right to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorists call the 'wall'. Geder ha'hafrada means the 'separation fence' or, given the purpose behind erecting it, the 'security fence'. The 'wall' could mean any one or all of these things: A racial barrier, an illegal separation, forced quarantine and, according to the more radical and therefore absurd voices, apartheid in practice. In reality, it is mostly a chain-link fence that escapes attention unless you look for it.
Driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you first encounter the security fence in its other avatar: Flat slabs of grey concrete strung together, providing a canvas for artists who are adventurous enough to brave the security cameras, the electronic sensors and the patrolling soldiers. The stretch of concrete wall, which has been built to prevent Palestinians from shooting at Israeli motorists on the highway that snakes along but has come to capture popular imagination beyond Israel as a symbol of "suppression" of Arab rights and "occupation" of Palestinian territory, comprises only three per cent of the planned 720-km security barrier; 97 per cent of it is a three-metre high chain-link fence that crawls along the pre-1967 line which separated Israel from West Bank. Gaza Strip was fenced off in 1994 along the 1949 armistice line, two years after Yitzhak Rabin, mourning the slaying of a teenaged Israeli girl by Hamas, promised that he would "take Gaza out of Tel Aviv".
The entire fence has not been erected -- there are yawning gaps and these are causing concern among both the security establishment and the people who live in fear of bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that were commonplace till the barrier began to take shape. "Construction on many of the fence's stretches has been halted and new building contracts aren't being signed. Work is proceeding only where old contracts are still in force, like around Gush Etzion, as distinct from some unfenced areas of western Samaria, Modi'in and the Arava," says a report in The Jerusalem Post. It goes on to add, "Considering the enormous financial and political investment -- from almost all across Israel's political spectrum -- in promoting the fence and the concomitant separation from Palestinians which it embodies, it is bizarre in the extreme that a Government which includes the most outspoken of fence advocates (like Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Vice-Premier Haim Ramon) cannot come up with the funds to efficiently complete the project."
There are valid reasons for this disquiet and simmering anger, an Israeli official tells me over dinner at Restobar, a happening place in Jerusalem's upmarket Rechavia neighbourhood, a stone's throw from the Prime Minister's official residence. More than 900 Israelis have died in terror attacks, including suicide bombings, carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. With Gaza Strip effectively cut-off by a security fence, terrorists would slip in from West Bank and effortlessly carry out their murderous mission.
Five years ago, Restobar was known as Moment Cafe. A suicide bomber walked in on March 9, 2002, and pulled the trigger, killing 11 people. A marble plaque at the entrance recalls that terrible night. All around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and, indeed, across Israel, similar memorials bear mute witness to the slaying of innocent Israelis, often school children, in the name of Palestine. At a bus stop, the twisted stubs of steel poles have been set in concrete as reminder of a suicide bombing; at Mahane Yehuda market, where two bombs killed 16 people and injured 178 others, memories are still fresh of that horrific bloodletting. Everybody has a grim story to tell. Eric Silver, veteran journalist and old Israel hand, shows me the spot outside his 19th century house on the Street of the Prophets where a suicide bomber's belt went off accidentally. The man's head landed in the adjacent convent.
There has been a dramatic reduction in such attacks -- barring the firing of Qassem rockets at Sderot, which is a different story by itself -- and for the past year there have been no bombings. This is largely attributed to three factors: Better intelligence-gathering, robust patrolling by soldiers and the security fence. There is considerable apprehension that with peace talks coming up next month and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas making the right noises, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may go easy on the fence. "That could be disastrous. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are waiting for us to lower our guard. Moreover, they will do anything to scuttle the Annapolis conference," a strategic affairs specialist with the Israeli Government tells me. Everybody is expecting a big bang that would force Mr Olmert to leave the negotiating table.
Israelis, therefore, believe that the only way to prevent the recurrence of terror bombings is to complete the construction of the fence which, apart from being a security barrier, is also a "key component in planned West Bank disengagement". Officials who highlight this point also take care to stress that the fence is neither aimed at annexing Palestinian land nor at establishing a border. There are a large number of crossings to allow Palestinians' free movement. Contrary to stories about long delays at these crossings, I drove into Ramallah without being asked for any documents. It is equally erroneous to claim that the fence is being built entirely on private Palestinian land; the portions that intrude on private land comprise a minuscule fraction of the fence. Full compensation is paid for private land over which Palestinian owners retain their right and if they do not wish to part with it, they can approach the courts, which are known to have ruled against requisitioning, as opposed to acquisition, of private land for erecting the fence.
All this apart, it is difficult to argue against the security fence because the Palestinian Authority has not been mindful of its obligations under the Oslo accords and subsequent agreements. Not only has it abjectly failed in preventing Hamas and Islamic Jihad from killing Israeli civilians but also done nothing to punish the perpetrators. Israel cannot be expected to abdicate its responsibility towards its citizens, nor does it make sense to demand that it should give up its right to self-defence. The fence can be dismantled; the dead cannot be brought back to life.
David Ben-Gurion had famously declared that "they (Arabs) will be there and we will be here". The security fence, which separates Israel from Palestinian territories in both Gaza Strip and West Bank, ensures this separation. It also proves Frost's neighbour right.

Israel Diary - III

Israel moves towards durable peace
Kanchan Gupta

Forty years after the 1967 war which gave Israel absolute control over West Bank and Gaza Strip, uniting Jerusalem but dividing the world between contesting groups aligned with or against Arabs, peace may descend in the land of prophets before 2007 draws to a close.
Across Israel, political differences have been set aside, at least for the moment, and there is a sense of quiet confidence in the Left and the Right that the moment to strike a deal with the Palestinian leadership has arrived. A similar upbeat mood prevails in the West Bank, more so in Ramallah.
With Hamas rapidly losing support -- Palestinians shocked by its reign of terror in Gaza are rallying behind President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fateh -- it finds itself squeezed out of the latest attempt to forge a durable peace in the theatre of the world's longest conflict. Mr Abbas is not complaining, neither are his interlocutors in Jerusalem.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Jerusalem last week, discussing the finer details of the Annapolis conference scheduled for November 26. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is believed to have shown her his cards, as has Mr Abbas. The sets don't clash violently, and that's a huge movement forward.
The key issues have been narrowed down to final demarcation of Palestinian territories, the status of East Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees. Senior officials in the Israeli Government, including those involved with the latest peace initiative, feel a deal can be struck on all three points of contention.
For instance, Israel has 'more or less' agreed to the 1967 border as the territorial demarcation for a future state of Palestine. There are some areas which it is reluctant to give up, including those of strategic importance. But it is willing to do a land-for-land swap to retain these areas, some of which have big settler communities.
A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah told The Pioneer that Mr Abbas and Fateh are not averse to the idea. This is a big leap forward from the time when Yasser Arafat walked out of the Camp David, Oslo and Tabah talks, refusing to settle for anything less than 100 per cent - he was being offered 97 per cent. For the first time, both sides agree there are no absolutes, that compromises have to be made if a deal is to be signed.
On East Jerusalem, there is an emerging consensus of sorts. Israel is willing to give up its control over this part of the city, which is dominated by Arabs, so that Palestine can have its desired capital. The sticking point is the walled city with its Jewish, Arab and Christian quarters and symbols of all three Judaic faiths.
For Palestinians, East Jerusalem makes sense only if it includes Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. But this is something that no Israeli Government will ever agree to, not least because the Temple Mount and the Western Wall have been non-negotiable ever since Jordanian troops were forced to retreat in 1967 and Jerusalem was 'unified'.
The right of return of Palestinian refugees was non-negotiable, too. But there has been a subtle shift in the Israeli position, as also in that of the Palestinians. Today, Israelis are willing to discuss the possibilities of arriving at a 'settlement', which includes compensation for those Palestinians claiming refugee status.
On their part, Mr Abbas and his aides accept that it is absurd to expect Israel to pave the way for a demographic shift that would rob the Jewish state of its raison d'être by granting the right of return to four-and-a-half million Palestinians who claim 'refugee status'; not all of them are in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Two ideas are being bandied about: First, Israel will agree to a certain number of 'refugees', possibly 10,000, exercising the right of return; and, second, it will offer monetary compensation to any 'refugee' who wishes to exercise this right. In Ramallah, both options are being considered with an open mind.
Does this mean Annapolis will see Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas signing on the dotted line? More important, will it be a deal or just a joint declaration of principles? Even the most optimist officials and politicians on both sides of the divide are not looking forward to a final settlement. But everybody is hopeful of a joint declaration of principles around which a final settlement could be crafted.
This would be a big breakthrough, provided Annapolis happens. Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, with a stake in Israel and Palestine arriving at some sort of an accord, are working behind the scenes, pushing both Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas.
With Shia Iran steadily grabbing space in the region and making its ambition of gaining control clear to all, Sunni Arabia has been quick to align with Israel. The Riyadh declaration of the Arab Leagur, calling for an end to hostilities between Arabs and Israel, is beginning to take tangible shape and form.
Which doesn't mean Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is worried. For him, the Annapolis conference is a "Zionist conspiracy" and a move by the "enemy to deceive Muslims". But his shrill cry does not resonate in the olive groves of Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives which overlook this city that has rarely known peace since the days of the First Temple, yet looks bewitchingly at peace with itself and the world.

Israel Diary-II

India can learn from Israel
Kanchan Gupta

Hidden in the mountains, the stark, grey concrete structure of Yad Vashem looms before you as you approach the Avenue of the Nations dedicated to brave individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Sycamore trees line the avenue, and crowd the rugged space around Yad Vashem, each planted in the memory of men and women who defied Adolph Hitler's 'Final Solution' programme. A gnarled tree recalls memories of Oscar Schindler's valiant efforts to save Jewish men, women and children, using every possible skill, including bribery and lies, often escaping detection by the skin of his teeth. Those who have seen or read Schindler's List would connect easily to the bravery of the few who stood up to the murderous majority in Hitler's Germany and the Third Reich.
It is only fitting that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, should look like the innards of a soulless concrete jail. Life in ghettoes and concentration camps could not be captured in a different setting. It is equally fitting that a visit to the memorial, which can be at once intensely personal and educative, should begin with an encounter with the first two dark deeds of the Nazis that paved the way for their subsequent brutality. The first was the burning of books which were perceived to be contrary to Hitler's supremacist theory that denied space to intellectual dissent and discounted the non-Aryan's right to flourish (later it would be the right to exist). The burning of books was to result in the burning of bodies -- the pathetic, decrepit remains of millions of Jews gassed to death. The second was the organised attack on Jewish property, business and synagogues on the night of November 9, 1938. The mass vandalism by Hitler's hoodlums was to be later known as Kristal Nacht: By dawn the next day, the streets were littered with shattered glass, charred shops and the burnt remains of any hopes that may have survived Hitler's coming to power.
The story of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished, the 'Final Solution' which nearly wiped out Europe's Jewry, is brought alive in the most telling, touching manner in the stone cold chambers of Yad Vashem. The evidence, painstakingly put together, largely stems from the Nazi obsession with documentation. The Nazis would photograph the horrific medical experiments, the wretched degradation, the mass executions, the cattle train rides to concentration camps, the stripping of Jews, the final journey to the gas chambers and the burning of bodies. Each detail would be documented and logged. Children's rag dolls, their shoes and the little things that symbolise life only serve to heighten the scale of the brutality that was perpetrated as the rest of the world slept. Till now, Yad Vashem has documented details, on the basis of testimonies that are bound and filed in alphabetical order, of three million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. These are stored in the last chamber where the only other display is a well which symbolises the dark void of life after the mass murder conducted by Hitler.
The numbing horror is further magnified in the memorial hall dedicated to children who perished in the Holocaust. Inside, in the pitch black darkness, a candle flickers, its image reflected and refracted a million times while a voice chants the names of those whose lives were snuffed out by a mad man and his criminal regime. Shades of that madness are visible in the rant of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. I am told that a very senior member of the CPI(M), a comrade we often see on prime time television, refused to visit Yad Vashem when he was in Jerusalem this summer to attend a conference of the Israeli Communist Party. He is believed to have told his local guide that he had no intentions of "legitimising Israeli propaganda about the Holocaust" by visiting Yad Vashem. Such concerns did not bother him when, accompanied by his wife, he visited Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock.
The most amazing thing about Israel is the country's sense of history. Apart from investing huge amounts of resources to restore and preserve antiquities that connect the modern state of Israel with its Biblical past, the Government also ensures that people do not forget their cultural and civilisational identity. At every historical site you can find soldiers and school children: They are taught about their past and encouraged to treasure it. The slogan 'Never Again', which is as much to do with the massacre at Massada as with the mass extermination at Auschwitz, gains significance with the inculcation of a sense of history. Children grow up proud of their heritage; soldiers defend not just Israel's territory but the very idea of a Jewish state. Across the political spectrum, people are resolute about doing whatever it takes to ensure the Jewish nation is not endangered again. No sacrifice is big enough, no contribution too small.
On Thursday night I visited the magnificent home of Frida and Arek Steinberger at a moshev. Frida is a ceramic artist, Arek a gentleman farmer. Their 21-year-old son Itay was killed in last year's war with Lebanon: He was hit by a missile on the battlefield while trying to rescue a fallen fellow soldier. He was among the 119 Israelis who did not return home from a battle that has caused tremendous political upheaval in Israel. What was his first reaction on hearing the news of his son's death, I asked Arek in the sprawling patio of their ranch. "I was stunned, I could not think. Later, I was consumed by anger. Now I have reconciled myself to this fact," he told me. There's a huge poster of Itay in uniform, the last photograph of him with his comrades-in-arms. But tragedy has not deterred either Frida or Arek, nor lessened their passion for Israel. Their daughter has just finished her stint with the Israeli Defence Forces. Their second son is in the Army. Their youngest son, a 16-year-old boy, will follow in the footsteps of his elder siblings.
A nation can be forged by tapping emotion. But for the nation to survive, you need determination and commitment to the national cause. There is more than a lesson here for us Indians.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Israel Diary - I

Israel Diary - I
Belligerent Iran changes West Asia alliances
Kanchan Gupta

If there is one topic of conversation that overshadows everything else in Israel today it is next month's US-sponsored peace talks at Annapolis. There is some amount of cynicism among intellectuals and right-of-centre politicians who believe that this will be another wasted effort because the Palestinians will not settle for anything less than what Yasser Arafat demanded and was refused. But the overwhelming mood is one of optimism. Friday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the former's residence in Jerusalem, during which they are believed to have discussed ways and means of ensuring Annapolis does not become just another marker along the tortuous road to a negotiated settlement, is an indication of how seriously both the Israelis and the Palestinians are taking the conference.
But for all his efforts to focus on a possible joint declaration of principles if not an agreement of sorts, Olmert is a distracted man -- not so much by the cases of alleged corruption piling up against him as by Iran's accelerated nuclear programme and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's relentless assault on Jews and his threats to exterminate Israel. Indeed, in Israel's security establishment, Hamas and Hizbullah have taken a back seat as strategists race against time to put together a plan to stymie Iran's soaring ambitions. There are apprehensions that the over-emphasis on Annapolis among the political class could deflect attention from Iran which would work to Tehran's advantage.
"The greatest danger is that Annapolis might be considered a substitute for, or become a distraction from, the overarching requirement for any peace process to have a chance: Forcing Iran to back down," the Jerusalem Post comments in its weekend edition, "without that, nothing achieved at Annapolis -- or in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, for that matter -- has a hope of sticking over the long term. By the same token, a turning back of the Iranian challenge could significantly increase the prospects for success on all of these fronts."
Shia Iran is being increasingly perceived as trying to dislodge the traditional Sunni Arab power base in West Asia, stretching from the Gulf states to the Suez Canal. This is bad news for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt; on the other hand, Shias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are delighted. A nuclear armed Iran, therefore, is as much a threat to Israel as its hitherto Arab foes. Strangely, together they now form a putative alliance: Israeli officials refer to Saudi Arabia as a "moderate Arab state" while Riyadh, Amman and Cairo put pressure on Abbas and his Fateh to cut a deal with the Jewish state so that there are no distractions while dealing with "Islamofascist" Iran.
Just how far opinion has shifted in Arab palaces, if not on Arab streets, can be gauged from the non-response to the Israeli air strike on a Syrian target on September 6. It is believed, though there has been no official statement, leave alone a confirmation, that Israeli bombers crossed into Syrian air space and flattened a nuclear "facility". There are various versions floating around in Jerusalem about the nature of this "facility" -- it may have been an upcoming nuclear reactor or a storage facility for Iranian nuclear material. There is some speculation that Iran had shifted some of its men and material to Syria to ensure a foreign military intervention does not entirely neutralise Tehran's nuclear capability. Israel decided not to take a chance and bombed the facility into oblivion.
"The Government of Israel has neither said anything, nor has it denied news reports about the September 6 strike. But we do know something happened on that day, as do the Arabs. What is surprising is the deafening silence of the Arab world," says Eran Lerman, director of the Israel office of American Jewish Committee (AJC). This is seen as an endorsement of the Israeli air strike by Sunni Arab states that have never quite been at ease with Syria since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser's disastrous experiment with a "United Arab Republic".
Those in the security establishment who advocate a tough line with Iran interpret the Arab silence over September 6 as indicative of Iran's isolation in the region. Ahmadinejad is seen as dreaming of "regional hegemony"; others have ganged up against him, displaying rare unity, more so against an Islamic nation. "The only protests we heard came from Syria's only friends ... which is less than half of Lebanon," Lerman adds, referring to the Shias of Lebanon.
Lerman brushes aside all suggestions of approaching Iran's claim -- that its nuclear programme has nothing to do with acquisition of nuclear warheads -- with a snort. "Iran's claim is a fantasy. Believing in Iran is like believing in the tooth fairy," he says. Apart from its ambition to emerge as the predominant regional power, Iran, Lerman adds, is driven by its "ideological commitment". In terms of technological abilities, defence posture and intelligence capability, Israel is far better placed than Iran. "But we have very little time," he says.
So, will Israel take the first step towards neutralising Iran's nuclear programme as it did in Osirak, destroying Iraq's nascent nuclear facility on June 7, 1981, a week before it was to go "live"? Was the bombing mission in Syria a dry run? Lerman avoids a direct answer. He only points out that Iran poses a threat to everybody and everybody should react. He has a point: A nuclear armed Iran is as alarming for India as for Israel, or, for that matter, the US and Europe.
Just how advanced is Iran's nuclear programme? A senior official at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, "We are not sure whether we know enough... it could be more advanced than we think." His assessment is alarming: Iran should be able to achieve complete enrichment and produce a device by the second half of 2009. This has made "pragmatic, moderate Arab regimes sit up and take notice of Tehran's ulterior motives". With Hizbullah on the ascendant in Lebanon, Syria fortifying itself with new weapons (of "Russian origin") and Hamas having established a line of communication with Tehran, not to mention Shias becoming more aggressive by the day in Iraq, "pragmatic", if not "moderate", Sunni Arab states have reason to feel as concerned as Israel, if not more.
It is this shared concern that has led to what Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, recently voted the most influential woman in her country, describes as "new camps and new alliances". Sitting in her office in downtown Tel Aviv, listening to her outline Israel's threat perception of Iran, I am mesmerised by her body language. It's not for nothing that she has been nominated the chief Israeli interlocutor for the latest peace dialogue. "We need to stop Iran. It is a threat to the region ... It can destabilise the region more than the Israel-Palestine conflict," she says in a matter-of-fact manner.
It's not a proposition, but a statement of intent. "Sanctions are effective but they take time to have an impact. And right now time is of essence," she says, and, after a pause, adds disdainfully, "the world lacks determination. It is unaware of the consequences, the domino effect (of Iran going nuclear)."
So, what are the options? The full import of Thursday's sanctions, imposed by the US on Iran, is yet to be known, but they have been welcomed by Israel. Once again, there is a deafening silence in the Arab world. But what if Russia and China refuse to play ball? Then who shall bell the cat? "At this point of time it's tempting to say we'll take care (of the problem)," says an ebullient Lerman. Which means a repeat of Operation Opera that put paid to Saddam Hussein's dreams of acquiring nuclear power.
But will the Israelis be audacious enough to bomb Natanz? Maybe yes if Annapolis goes well and the Arabs have something to show for their exertions. And if that doesn't happen, we can look forward to a dangerous West Asia destabilising global power equations and throwing the world economy into a tizzy. A breakthrough, no matter how small, at Annapolis could prevent this from happening. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice realises this, as does Livni.