Saturday, August 28, 2010

Whimpering India, assertive China

While New Delhi has floundered for 63 years on Jammu & Kashmir, Beijing has deftly made Tibet an integral part of China

On August 11, His Holiness the Dalai Lama met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ostensibly to thank him for “the good care India has taken of him and his followers living in exile for the past 50 years”. The Dalai Lama’s meeting with Mr Singh followed Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Dharamsala last month where she met the Tibetan spiritual leader and his senior aides. What transpired at that meeting is not known, but we can presume it was a routine discussion between the senior-most official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and India’s guests who would rather describe themselves as members of the ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ which is based in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi, Kalon Tempa Tsering, says too much should not be read into who called on whom where and when: “What’s so unusual about the meeting? It is part of the Dalai Lama’s regular interaction with Indian leaders … He keeps meeting Indian leaders… He met Vice-President Hamid Ansari a year ago.”

Mr Ansari no doubt holds an exalted office; if the President’s job were to fall vacant due to unforeseeable circumstances before Ms Pratibha Patil’s tenure comes to an end, he would become the head of state, if only as a stop-gap measure. That apart, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, he is not really important enough for the Government of the world’s second largest economy to get into a lather over his meeting with the “splittist” Dalai Lama. New Delhi’s pecking order is as well-known in the Gymkhana as in Washington, DC or Beijing: The Prime Minister matters, the Vice-President doesn’t.

So, it’s not surprising that China should have taken offence, and made it clear that it feels offended, when the Prime Minister agreed to meet the Dalai Lama. Beijing views this as granting legitimacy to the Dalai Lama’s claimed status as the undisputed leader of all Tibetans, whether living in exile or in their homeland, vested with both spiritual and temporal authority by “his people” of “his Tibet”. Beijing’s position is clear, unambiguous and asserted without any sense of either self-doubt or hint of apology: Tibet belongs to China, the people belong to both Tibet and China, and the Dalai Lama has no business to poke his nose into temporal affairs — for all practical purposes he is a persona non grata and the “splittist clique” he heads comprises anti-national elements.

We need not agree with that position. Indeed, history can be cited to contest China’s claim on Tibet. But if we are to take a moral position, if we are to contest China’s version of history, then we should have the courage and the wherewithal to stand by our conviction and be prepared to face the consequences. The Chinese have responded predictably by upping the ante on Jammu & Kashmir and denying a visa to Lt Gen BS Jaswal who heads the Northern Command. Whether the Chinese tit followed the Indian tat or it was the other way round is not quite clear because the visa is believed to have been denied in July while the Prime Minister met the Dalai Lama in August. But irrespective of the sequence, it is abundantly clear that Beijing has considerably lowered its threshold of tolerance and New Delhi has not exactly planned for a showdown.

To merely insist that “Jammu & Kashmir concerns our sovereignty and is as sensitive to us as Tibet is to them” is neither here nor there. That we are still reluctant to call a spade-a-spade, which China does without bothering about bruised egos — the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman said Lt Gen Jaswal could not visit China for a scheduled defence-related programme “due to certain reasons” although those reasons are no secret — is indicative of our inherent weakness. Diplomacy in the 21st century is not about maudlin sentiments and polite niceties; it’s about aggressively, unapologetically promoting, and securing, self-interest. China does that with great élan; we talk about “sensitivity to each other’s concerns”, a principle we tend to follow in the breach.

Since the Government of India has chosen to compare Jammu & Kashmir with Tibet — a needless comparison really because accession and annexation aren’t one and the same — it would be in order to elaborate upon the comparison. What New Delhi has failed to achieve in 63 years, Beijing has achieved in 50 years. Jammu & Kashmir, more so the Valley, remains a running sore for India, threatening to turn septic every now and then, a cesspit teeming with avaricious politicians and corrupt officials where hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees in ‘development aid’ have disappeared over the decades with little or nothing to show by way of either development or securing India’s strategic interests. In sharp contrast, as I witnessed during my visit to Lhasa earlier this month, Beijing has converted Tibet truly into an integral part of China. The Chinese Central Government has spent more than 100 billion yuan on just developing Tibet’s infrastructure over the past five decades and every yuan has been well spent. It’s not just roads and houses and hospitals and schools, or for that matter the Beijing-Lhasa rail link which is an engineering marvel, but the assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the Tibetan Autonomous Region which is at once impressive and instructive, especially for us in India.

Sixty-three years after Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, we are still debating the constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir. A succession of Prime Ministers, despairing at Kashmiri separatism, have offered ‘autonomy’ ranging from “anything short of azadi” to “azadi short of separation”. Article 370 stands as a psychological and legal barrier between India and a State the Government of India claims to integral to India. China dealt with the issue of autonomy for Tibet by restricting it to protecting Tibetan culture (for instance, polyandry is allowed but not encouraged; the one-child norm is relaxed but there are incentives for those who shun the relaxation; lamas are left alone but monasteries are guarded by the PLA) and allowing participation in what we call the political process “under the leadership of the Central Government”.

Most important of all, China does not restrict Chinese from settling in China’s Tibet, unlike India restricting Indians from settling in India’s Jammu & Kashmir. No, the Hans have not flooded Tibet, as is often alleged by the “splittist clique”, but they are free to seek jobs, set up businesses, acquire and develop property, and invest in Tibet’s economy, adding to the region’s prosperity. While New Delhi has squandered time and opportunity talking about ‘Kashmiriyat’ and ‘Insaniyat’ and other such bunkum, Beijing has firmly established its supremacy over Tibet: Every signboard in Lhasa is in Tibetan, but superscribed in Mandarin. Every address ends with China. And nobody shouts — alright, make that nobody dares shout — “Go China, go back!”

[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on August 29, 2010.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Donor fatigue? Or Pakistan fatigue?

It may sound insensitive to say so millions are displaced by unprecedented floods, but possibly aid has been barely trickling in as Governments and people around the world feel indifferent to the plight of Pakistanis not because they are undeserving of charity but because of the Pakistani state which is seen as undeserving of sympathy. Over the years, more so in recent times, the Pakistani state has come to be seen as a criminal enterprise run by its jihad-promoting military-ISI complex, its political leaders corrupt and given to speaking with a forked tongue.

The stories of misery, hunger and helplessness are truly heart-rending. Millions of men, women and children have sought shelter in makeshift camps after abandoning their homes, often no more than hovels, in northern and southern Pakistan where rain-gorged rivers have breached their banks and floodwaters have inundated vast stretches of fertile land. These are supposed to be the worst floods to hit Pakistan in living memory; some say in 80 years, but there was no Pakistan then.

The tragedy began unfolding in late-July in north-western Pakistan after rivers, swollen with heavy monsoon rains, started swamping Punjab and Sindh provinces. Since then there has been no respite from the floods. Each day fetches further bad news about more places being inundated, more deaths, more people being rendered homeless. On Saturday, Dawn, in a report filed from Sukkur, reported 1,50,000 people were forced to move to higher ground as floodwaters from a freshly swollen Indus submerged dozens more towns and villages in the south.

Escaping the swirling floodwaters is no guarantee of survival. The real struggle to stay alive begins in crowded relief camps where food is in short supply, children are succumbing to diarrhoea, and the weak and the old are being left to fend for themselves. “I am a widow, and my children are too young to get food because of the chaos and rush,” Parveen Roshan told Dawn, “How can weak women win a fight with men to get food?”

Hunger and despair can do strange things to otherwise normal human beings, turning them into heartless monsters. As the Dawn report says, “Nearby, a doctor treated a boy whose back was injured after someone pushed him during a scramble for food at a truck.” The Pioneer last week published a photograph which showed a young girl, perhaps no more than 12 years old, who was shoved off a relief truck by men much older than her. The photo showed her lying on the road as the truck sped away.

According to reports in the Pakistani media, the terrible floods have affected about a fifth of that country’s territory. By the time the floodwaters begin receding, a quarter of Pakistan could be laid to waste. As with the rest of the Indian sub-continent, official statistics issued by the Government in Islamabad are unlikely to reflect the true scale of the devastation. The authorities say the floods have so far left at least six million people homeless and affected another 20 million people. The real numbers could be many times more.

Most of Pakistan’s poor and impoverished masses live in the flood-hit areas of Punjab and Sindh. When the poor lose their wherewithal, poverty becomes that much more stark and takes longer to deal with. It will take a long time, maybe years, to cope with the widespread death and destruction; the victims will have to start all over from a scratch, rebuilding their lives on the debris of nature’s fury. That’s the human cost.

Roads, bridges, railway lines, power transmission towers, public buildings have been washed away. All these need to be replaced. Modest estimates of the economic cost of the disaster run into billions of dollars. At such moments of crisis, the world should ideally step forward with a helping hand and an open purse. That’s called global responsibility. The UN has issued an appeal for contributions to a $460 million emergency assistance programme; the US has promised $150 million.

There are primarily two reasons why the global community should help Pakistanis in their hour of grief and need. First, as the experience of the 2005 earthquake has shown, unless there is prompt secular institutional intervention with adequate money and material, Islamist organisations and their terrorist fronts will step into the breach and use the human tragedy to their jihadi advantage. They will provoke anger against the state, hate against the world and recruit rageboys to their ranks.

More importantly, the vile ideology of Islamism will gain legitimacy among millions who till now never even thought of them and their organisations as an alternative to the system and the state. Islamists have successfully used such situations to promote their agenda and expand their organisational network. It’s in the world’s interest to prevent this from happening. We can do without Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and assorted jihadi organisations from becoming stronger than what they are at present.

Second, there is a moral dimension. The world cannot be at peace with itself when millions are suffering for no fault of theirs. It could be argued that millions go hungry around the world every day, so what’s new? But just because we have become inure to images of hunger, disease and death does not mean we should remain indifferent during a catastrophe. The human tragedy we are witnessing in Pakistan is as much a test for humanity as the earthquake that flattened Haiti earlier this years or the 2004 tsunami that left a trail of destruction from South-East Asia to Africa. India has done the morally right thing to contribute $ 5 million towards relief work.

Having said this, we must also acknowledge certain bitter facts. There has been a less-than-enthusiastic response from the international community and most countries have been reluctant to come to Pakistan’s aid. Despite repeated exhortations by the UN and the US, even cash-rich Islamic countries have been reluctant to step up to the plate that is being passed around.

Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani strategic affairs analyst, laments, “Nearly three weeks since the floods began, aid is trickling in slowly and reluctantly to the United Nations, NGOs, and the Pakistani Government... After the Haiti earthquake, about 3.1 million Americans using mobile phones donated $10 each to the Red Cross, raising about $31 million. A similar campaign to raise contributions for Pakistan produced only about $10,000. The amount of funding donated per person affected by the 2004 tsunami was $1,249.80, and for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, $1,087.33. Even for the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, funding per affected person was $388.33. Thus far, for those affected by the 2010 floods, it is $16.36 per person.”

So what’s gone wrong? Is it simply donor fatigue? Or is it Pakistan specific? It may sound insensitive to say so at this point of time, but possibly Governments and people feel indifferent to the plight of Pakistanis not because they are undeserving of charity but because of the Pakistani state which is seen as undeserving of sympathy. Over the years, more so in recent times, the Pakistani state has come to be seen as a criminal enterprise run by its jihad-promoting military-ISI complex, its political leaders corrupt and given to speaking with a forked tongue.

Here is a country that has no ceiling on the money it spends on acquiring guns, figher aircraft, frigates and missiles to keep the Generals of Rawalpindi in good humour. Here is a country which has fooled the world into believing that it is in the frontline of the war on terror while all the while sheltering leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Here is a country which protects mass murderers and exports terrorism to countries far and wide.

Can such a country be trusted with billions of dollars in aid? Indeed, is Pakistan deserving of the sympathy it constantly demands of others, playing the victimhood card, while refusing to reciprocate with the smallest of gestures that would suggest it can still distinguish between that which is morally right and wrong?

Towards Splendid Isolation

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pursuing a two-point foreign policy agenda of sucking up to America and appeasing Pakistan on American terms, the ‘strategic depth’ that India had once enjoyed in its neighbourhood has been lost even as China strategically encircles India

In the past, any discussion on India-Nepal relations with friends in the political establishment and the bureaucracy and professional colleagues in Kathmandu would elicit animated reaction. There were those who would gush over India and emphatically argue in support of enhanced bilateral cooperation, and there were others who would be equally vehement in criticising India for what they called its “bullying tactics”. There were moments when these differences would disappear and there would be unanimous support for India: For instance, when India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998 — the mood in Nepal was no less celebratory than in India. The journalists from Nepal who were in Colombo for that year’s SAARC summit were furious that there should be criticism of Pokhran II. One of them went to the extent of getting into a scrap with a Pakistani journalist, insisting that it was his right to defend India’s nuclear tests.

That was in the past. The present poses an entirely different picture whose colours are extremely bleak. During a recent visit to Kathmandu, there was no animated discussion, no vehement denunciation nor measured criticism of India. Instead, there was sullen indifference. India’s attempt to influence the voting in the Constituent Assembly to elect a Prime Minister has, for all practical purposes, come a cropper. New Delhi’s hold is now weakened to the extent that it cannot even ensure that the Madhesi factions remain united. The move to isolate the Maoists and ensure that Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, does not come to occupy the Prime Minister’s office once again has not yielded any results. Four rounds of inconclusive voting point to the dismal failure of any initiatives that New Delhi may have made to break the political deadlock that has paralysed both governance and the main task of the Constituent Assembly — framing a Constitution for a democratic Nepal.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran was in Nepal a fortnight ago to try and cobble together a consensus against Prachanda and in support of the Nepali Congress candidate for the Prime Minister’s job, Ram Chandra Poudel. Although his various meetings in Kathmandu have been described as “fruitful”, the reality is far removed from this official claim. The Madhesis may have temporarily set aside their differences, but they remain a deeply divided lot and not too sure of sustained support from New Delhi. The CPN(UML) is disdainful of what its leaders derisively refer to as “Indian interventionism” in Nepal’s internal affairs. The Maoists, of course, nurse a deep grudge and, with 40 per cent seats in the Constituent Assembly, are loath to be goaded by India in any direction.

In brief, the ‘strategic depth’ that India had in Nepal has been lost. Or so it would seem from the prevailing mood in Kathmandu.

But it is not Nepal alone where Indian diplomacy has begun to fetch diminishing returns. The huge advantage India had to regain space in Bangladesh, from where it had been squeezed out during the BNP-Jamaat years when Begum Khaleda Zia was in power, has been virtually squandered. The interim Government that followed was well-disposed towards India but New Delhi did precious little to reach out to Dhaka. Subsequently, after she was swept to power, Sheikh Hasina enthusiastically sought to turn the clock back to the days when the proximity between India and Bangladesh was the envy of both neighbours and distant superpowers. Her visit to New Delhi in January this year generated a tide of goodwill and a host of agreements. Half-a-year later, the goodwill has begun to rapidly evaporate in Dhaka; the agreements remain unfulfilled, shelved along with files pending political and bureaucratic attention in South Block in New Delhi.

Nobody talks of the joint communiqué that was issued after Sheikh Hasina’s visit and which was described as the beginning of a “paradigm shift” in India-Bangladesh relations. That ‘paradigm shift’ is still awaited. Bangladesh is miffed, and rightly so, that the promised removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade is yet to happen. India had promised to give Bangladesh 250 MW of power. But nothing has moved on the ground, not even technical work on connecting the national grids of the two countries with a 100 km transmission line which will take two years to build after the technical and tendering processes are over. By then Sheikh Hasina’s Government would be nearing the end of its tenure and there would be little to show by way of her securing effective assistance from India. Similarly, not a scrap of paper has moved on the agreement to share Teesta waters or resolve the Tipaimukh dam dispute. Bangladeshi media, which was effusive over the outcome of Sheikh Hasina’s visit, has now begun to voice doubts about India’s intentions.

Deep south, in Sri Lanka, there is increasing wariness about India. New Delhi’s engagement with Colombo has become a bit of a farce, episodic rather than sustained. South Block periodically raises the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of Tamils displaced during Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The assistance offered by India for this purpose by way of constructing houses is really inconsequential. Security-related dialogue has come to a grinding halt, although neither side will admit this: New Delhi for reasons that are embarrassing; Colombo because this is to its strategic advantage.

In Afghanistan, the future of any meaningful role to be played by India is extremely doubtful. The humanitarian missions New Delhi had launched are at best limping along. Once the Americans up and leave the country, India’s presence will be determined by the successor regime that may not include President Hamid Karzai and is more than likely to be aligned with Pakistan. The West has made it abundantly clear, notwithstanding polite statements to the contrary, that India can at best play a peripheral role in Afghanistan; the future belongs to Pakistan. A crafty politician and a seasoned survivor, Karzai has wasted no time in electing to go with “my brother Pakistan”.

Frankly, what India is left with by way of ‘strategic depth’ is Bhutan. There too a question mark looms large as democratic Bhutan has begun to cast its net wider, seeking cooperation with countries other than India. It does not see happiness as confined to relations with India.

Yet, during the six years when the NDA was in power and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was determining the thrust of India’s foreign policy, India’s bilateral relations with its neighbours were on an upswing. The advantages that then accrued to India have now been all but lost. If these countries were partnering with India then, they are partnering with China now. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opting for a unifocal foreign policy solely directed at improving relations with Pakistan and choosing to ignore other countries in the neighbourhood, this deterioration was bound to happen. A charitable explanation would be that this is by default and not design. A realistic assessment would be that with all attention, political and bureaucratic, focussed on Pakistan, albeit without any movement forward, we have lost the initiative in the rest of the neighbourhood.

While it is true that we have a Foreign Minister heading the Ministry of External Affairs, it is equally true that neither the Minister nor his Ministry feels sufficiently enthused to carry forward policy decisions, leave alone re-craft policy to suit the constantly changing dynamics of the region’s geopolitics and geostrategy. The Prime Minister’s Office is obsessed with pursuing a two-fold policy: Cosying up to the US on America’s terms and engaging Pakistan in dialogue — also on American terms. Everything else can wait, and if it can’t wait, tough luck. This has resulted in a strange lassitude taking over South Block, with some of the best minds in the Foreign Service just idling away, marking time. As for Foreign Minister SM Krishna, he is blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the neighbourhood; even if he is notionally aware, he is happy to be left out of the loop and do nothing to correct the situation. His competence, or the lack of it, was on display during his recent visit to Islamabad and reconfirmed by his astonishing utterances after what was a hugely disastrous tour of duty.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of India’s wilful, some would say stunningly callous, disengagement with its neighbours, China has been stealthily stepping into the breach with spectacular results. In Kathmandu, there is a palpable shift in public opinion towards Beijing, and this is not necessarily on account of the Maoists. Even those who are opposed to Prachanda are favourably disposed towards China. With work on to connect the landlocked country with China by rail and road, there is an increasing realisation that Nepal does not need to depend on India for its essential supplies, including oil. China has effectively posited itself as an alternative, and one which can fetch far more benefits to the country and its people. Trade with Tibet is a lucrative option and the fact that China has allowed Nepal to open a Consulate in Lhasa has not gone unnoticed: It’s seen as a rare privilege, which it is. The children of Nepal’s opinion-makers are being offered scholarships to study in Beijing University. The media is being supported in more ways than one. China is now seen as a ‘benign’ neighbour, which suits Beijing fine, providing it with crucial ‘strategic depth’ at India’s expense. It’s a telling comment that in sharp contrast to the strident criticism that follows any perceived “pro-India” move by the Government of Nepal — Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has had to retreat and withdraw his decisions on several occasions — there is popular praise for any deal that is agreed upon with China.

In Sri Lanka, too, China’s presence and influence continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Hambantota Port is now a ‘pearl’ in the Chinese ‘necklace’ encircling India. But that is only one of the many achievements scored by China. Its continued military assistance to Sri Lanka, which would have been India’s prerogative had the UPA Government not discontinued the supply of defence hardware under pressure from the DMK, has helped forge a strong relationship that will not be easily shaken. What remains unquantified and unknown is the extent of influence Pakistan has come to wield over Sri Lanka by riding on the coat-tails of China. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is too astute a politician to rub India on the wrong side and takes extraordinary care to say the right things in the right place, but he has silently, quietly forged a special relationship with Beijing which, in turn, has helped him strengthen ties with China’s ‘friends’, most notably Iran.

It is only a matter of time before China makes decisive inroads into Bangladesh. Beijing has not been idle and there are reports of increased interactions and enhanced talks with Dhaka. For all we know, China could be negotiating the purchase of Bangladeshi gas and securing port facilities in that country. With Burma in its pocket, Bangladesh is the natural next stop for China. Beijing is determined to increase its sphere of influence beyond the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

As for Pakistan, China is already deeply entrenched in that country, in many ways much more than the US is. From ballistic missiles to JF-17 fighter aircraft, from nuclear power plants to infrastructure, China continues to shower its ‘all-weather’ friend with every conceivable military and civilian assistance. The Gwadar Port will service China’s oil and gas transhipment requirements, apart from providing Beijing with a strategic outpost in Arabian Sea off the Persian Gulf. Once the proposed Karakoram rail link between Kashgar in Xinjiang province and Havelian near Rawalpindi becomes operational, there will be a tectonic shift in the region's geopolitics.

The strategy is obvious – to contain India to its territorial borders — and the tactics to achieve that objective are ruthlessly selfish, as they should be. India’s hocus-pocus policy of ‘enlightened self-interest’ cannot but founder on the rock of China’s aggressive expansionism.

Ironically, it is only now that there seems to be creeping realisation in South Block of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. A meeting of India’s Ambassadors to SAARC countries, chaired by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, was held in Rangoon last week to take stock of the situation and try and refix India’s priorities. Interestingly, the meeting was attended by India’s Ambassador to China, which makes eminent sense. But this is at best a bureaucratic exercise which cannot be carried forward unless there is matching political backing. Mere tinkering with policy won’t do anymore; India needs a whole new set of initiatives to reclaim the space it has ceded — or at least as much of it as is possible in the given circumstances.

That, however, remains uncertain. As of now, there is nothing to suggest that Manmohan Singh is willing to give up his obsession with Pakistan (and the US) and refocus attention on the greater neighbourhood. It is suggested by his admirers that Manmohan Singh is driven by the desire to go down in history as the Indian Prime Minister who brokered peace with Pakistan. That’s a noble desire. But shouldn’t he rather want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who expanded India’s sphere of influence in its immediate neighbourhood? Or must national interest suffer on account of an individual’s myopic vision?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Taliban's barbarism in name of Islam

What awaits Afghanistan

The August 9 issue of Time featured a cover story on the plight of women in those parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban enforce their barbaric interpretation of sharia’h. The magazine had a shocking picture on the cover: That of 18-year-old Aisha whose nose and ears were sliced off on the instructions of the local Taliban commander. Aisha was punished for running away from an abusive husband and parents-in-law.
The Taliban publicly flogged and then executed a pregnant Afghan widow by emptying three shots into her head for alleged adultery. Bibi Sanubar, 35, was kept in captivity for three days before she was shot dead in a public trial on Sunday by a local Taliban commander in the Qadis district of the rural western province Badghis. The Taliban accused Sanubar of having an "illicit affair" that left her pregnant.

Aisha’s story is symbolic of persecution of girls and women by the Taliban in the name of Islam. There are innumerable examples of young girls, some just past their puberty, being forced into marriage with members of the Taliban militia to serve as no more than sex slaves for the adherents of Deobandi Islam. Woe betide those girls who try to escape from their life of forced misery.

Jihad Watch provides a glimpse of what it calls “Unspeakable barbarism among the Taliban, the students of Islam.”
Time has raised a fundamental question: What happens if we leave Afghanistan?
That question has been posed from the American perspective, reflecting American concerns over US President Barack Hussein Obama’s plan to pull out troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. But it’s a question that should really bother democracies across the world. The issue raised by Time has several aspects involving the liberty, rights and dignity of Afghans, especially women.

If the Taliban were to regain power in Aghanistan, as it seems likely with the US preparing to hand over control over Kabul to the Generals of Pakistan, then all those who claim to stand for freedom, liberty and dignity would stand indicted of complicity in this crime.

The years when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan will be remembered for the contempt with which Mullah Omar and his men trampled upon women’s rights. Not only were young and old women made to disappear under burqas, they were virtually banished to the darkest corners of their homes. Girls were prohibited from attending school. In the joyless world of ‘pure Islam’, along with music and art, women’s rights disappeared to as they were deemed to be ‘un-Islamic’.

That period of terror came to be symbolised by the public execution of two women in Kabul’s football stadium.

That was in the past. As for the future, a glimpse of what awaits Afghanistan has been provided by AP in this news despatch from Kabul on August 16:
Taliban stone couple for adultery in Afghanistan


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban militants stoned a young couple to death for adultery after they ran away from their families in northern Afghanistan, officials said Monday. It was the first confirmed stoning in Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban rule in the 2001 US-led invasion.

When the Islamist extremists ruled Afghanistan, women were not allowed to leave their houses without a male guardian, and public killings for violations of their harsh interpretation of the Quran were common.

This weekend's stoning appeared to arise from an affair between a married man and a single woman in Kunduz province's Dasht-e-Archi district. The woman, Sadiqa, was 20 years old and engaged to another man, said the Kunduz provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raza Yaqoubi. Her lover, 28-year-old Qayum, left his wife to run away with her, and the two had holed up in a friend's house five days ago, said district Government head, Mohammad Ayub Aqyar.

They were discovered by Taliban operatives on Sunday and stoned to death in front a crowd of about 150 men, Aqyar said. First the woman was brought out and stoned, then the man a half an hour later, Aqyar said. He decried the punishment, which he said was ordered by two local Taliban commanders.

The ancient practice of death by stoning has been abandoned in all but a handful of countries. It is still a legal punishment in some countries, like Iran, which justify it under Sharia’h, or Islamic law.

Last month, Iran's religious authorities called off the planned stoning of a woman convicted of cheating on her husband. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's sentence -- which would have been Iran's first stoning since 2008 -- was lifted following a campaign around the world.
Two witnesses to the horrific double murder in the name of Islam told the BBC that the Taliban asked the villagers to attend the stoning through an announcement on loudspeakers in the mosque. "There was a big crowd of people... We were also asked to throw stones. After a while, the Taliban left. The woman was dead but the man was still alive... Some Taliban then came and shot him three times. The Taliban warned villagers if anyone does anything un-Islamic, this will be their fate.''

Anybody for ‘good’ Taliban?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Independence Day musings

For poor and rich,just another day!

There are fond memories that we cherish and nurse, often recalling them to relive memorable moments of our past. And there are bad memories that remind us of events we wish had never occurred, memories that we want to erase from our minds but more often than not are unable to do so. Then there are haunting memories, graphic audio-visual images that keep on surfacing every now and then, often at the most unexpected moments, disorienting us and leaving us feeling melancholic. No matter how hard we try to erase those images, those voices, from the past, they just don’t fade away. They recede, only to surface time and again.

There are many fond memories of summer holidays spent at my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Kolkata that I cherish and have lovingly nursed for nearly two score and ten years. But there’s one memory I would rather not carry in the crevices of my mind; yet, no matter how hard I try to erase it, the black-and-white image of a young woman in a tattered sari, carrying a rickety child, and a little girl with large eyes in a torn frock clutching to her mother’s rags with one hand and holding a battered and bruised aluminium bowl in another, remains indelible. It keeps on popping up just when I think I have been able to wipe it out forever, often when I am settling down for a meal at a table laden with food.

There was a dining table at my grandmother’s house which was kept in a sort of half open room next to the kitchen that led to the garden and the narrow, black-painted iron gate, which was closed and locked only after nightfall, and the lane into which it opened. If memory serves me right it was the summer of 1972 and my cousins and I had just sat down for lunch — a sumptuous meal of bhaat, daal, begun bhaaja and maachher jhol — with my grandmother hovering over us and my aunts piling our plates high with food. Children were supposed to eat till they couldn’t swallow another morsel without throwing up.

Suddenly there was this woman at the gate, with the starving child and the little girl with large eyes. “Ma, fan daao ma!” It was a pitiful cry, not for food but for the starchy water that is poured out after boiling rice and thrown away. Those were hard days of PL480 when food was rationed and there was never anything extra in the pot to be given away. The poor and the starving knew it was no use begging for food, so they asked for fan. All this I gathered much later, but on that afternoon I was stunned by the sight of such stark poverty. Back home in Jamshedpur, which was a small, very small, town those days, life was lived out in an orderly fashion; nobody was rich, but everybody lived well and hunger was unheard of, leave alone seen in such a stark manner.

My grandmother, a kind soul, I learned that afternoon, would keep the fan aside in a large brass bowl, to be given away to anybody who came asking for it. One of my aunts poured the fan into the aluminium bowl which the girl held out, clutching it with both hands so that it would not slip and fall. Another aunt asked the woman to come in and sit in the shade of the guava tree. I watched, strangely fascinated, unable to take my eyes away, as the woman fed the girl and the child, by turn, and then with great care wiped the bowl with her fingers and licked them hungrily. The remnants were her meal.

I couldn’t eat a morsel that day. Not at lunch, nor at dinner. At night, as I tossed and turned in the sweltering summer heat — power cuts in West Bengal of the 1970s stretched for hours together — my grandmother tried to calm me with one of her stories about the life she had left behind in East Bengal. It didn’t work.

You could well ask why am I recounting this apparently irrelevant incident that dates back to when I was 11 years old. There is no real reason to do so, but it’s an image from the past that I have seen again and again, and continue to do so as this wondrous land of ours celebrates its 64th Independence Day. Freedom is something we the privileged take for granted. But for many it means nothing: August 15 is just another day in their pathetic lives lived out in gut-wrenching poverty.

We who flaunt near double-digit GDP growth as evidence of India’s ‘progress’ and get excited by the findings of the National Council of Applied Economic Research that show the number of high-income households has exceeded the number of low-income households, can never quite imagine how the other half lives — and dies — because we have willed ourselves into disowning the poor and the wretched of the land. To talk of poverty is considered unfashionable in an India aglitter with chrome-and-glass shopping malls, a country which sees no shame in the continuous loot of public funds as is happening in Delhi at the moment where thousands of crores are being skimmed off in the guise of hosting this year’s Commonwealth Games, which, we are told, are a matter of ‘national pride’. Nor does our conscience bother us that thousands of tonnes of foodgrains are allowed to rot in Government godowns so that they can be sold at a pittance to liquor manufacturers while millions go to bed hungry.

Statistics culled by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggest 37.2 per cent (the Planning Commission insists it is 27.3 per cent) of India’s citizens, who are supposed to feel blessed and proud for being born in a free country, a democracy at that, live below the poverty line, which, incidentally, is variously defined and not without a purpose: The hazier the definition, the easier it is to disown discomfiting facts in ‘rising’ India. According to the Experts’ Group headed by Mr NC Saxena, which based its estimates on calorie intake, 50 per cent of rural households live below the poverty line. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, headed by Mr Arjun Sengupta, came to the conclusion that 77 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs 20 a day. It is now believed that the poor in eight of India’s States outnumber the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

The bold and the beautiful of the new India, the rising India, the shining India will no doubt turn up their pretty noses and snigger at the poor and the underprivileged, the hungry and the deprived, the dying and the diseased, and blame them for being a huge drain on public funds. Life is an un-ending party for the privileged, the haves cannot be expected to bother about the have-nots. That’s the way it has been throughout history. That’s the way it shall forever be.

That, however, should not stop us from sparing a thought for those who wistfully gaze at the fluttering Tricolour and wonder what life on the other side of the divide is like. The middle-classes could do without being selfish for a day and take a look around them, if only to convince themselves that they are far better off than they believe they deserve to be. As for the rich, the top eight per cent which stands to gain the most with eight per cent and more GDP growth, we really need not bother about them. Funnily enough, Independence Day means nothing for them either: It’s just another holiday.

Political instability haunts Nepal

Maoist menace takes its toll!

Kathmandu: The rain-drenched silver-green leaves of the birch outside my room shimmer in the late afternoon light which is rapidly fading as the slate grey sky turns inky black. The birch would have been in splendid isolation, squeezed between a ghastly apartment block and the refreshingly old world Shangri-La, but for the solitary weeping willow, its branches, lush with newly-sprung monsoon leaves, hanging low. Not much remains of the garden Desmond Doig, artist, story-teller and an editor much ahead of his times, had landscaped for the Shangri-La. That was some three decades ago after Junior Statesman was shut down and a heart-broken Desmond Doig moved to his beloved Kathmandu from Kolkata, the other love of his life.

Much of the open space in front of the Shangri-La has now been paved, a virtual parking lot for cars and SUVs. Maintaining a garden, that too one landscaped by Desmond Doig, is not cheap in these hard days as Nepal struggles to come to terms with political instability gnawing at the innards of an economy that was not healthy in the best of times which came to an end with the night of the long knives at Narayanhity Palace a decade ago. Desmond Doig did not live to see the decline and fall of the only Hindu kingdom of modern times, but his presence is felt at the Shangri-La in more ways than one. The coasters are imprinted with his pen-and-ink sketches of a Kathmandu that now exists in the nooks and corners of an over-crowded city; the stationery folder contains two picture postcards with his breath-taking watercolour painting of Shekha Narayan temple; and the lobby has huge framed drawings, possibly working sketches that he left behind in his studio at the hotel.

“No PM, no surprise, no shame!” runs the headline in The Himalayan, Kathmandu’s popular English language daily. The story is about the Constituent Assembly failing, for the fourth time, to elect a Prime Minister to head a coalition Government and steer the long-pending task of framing and adopting a Constitution for the Secular Democratic Republic of Nepal. After the storming of the Singha Darbar in 2006, the Maobadis, the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Nepali Congress were quick to dethrone the King and declare the birth of a ‘new’ Nepal. But the ‘new’ Nepal still awaits a constitutional structure to set it apart from the ‘old’ Nepal and put the country firmly on the path of multi-party democracy.

The Maobadis, who have been operating under the banner of the UCPN (Maoist) after giving up their armed insurgency and joining mainstream politics, have never quite allowed themselves to be reconciled with their till-now unsuccessful revolution. Mr Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his comrades, backed by their People’s Liberation Army, had hoped to capture power and convert the Himalayan kingdom into a Communist state modelled along the lines of China; critics say they had dreamt of establishing a Pol Pot-like regime. Instead, they have had to contest elections and conform to the norms of parliamentary politics. Maobadis, like conservative Communists, may make a show of ‘internal debate’ but have neither the time nor the inclination for decisions arrived at through discussion and deliberation with the other main players in Nepal’s politics, namely the Nepali Congress and the CPN (UML). Nor do they concede the fact that someone not from their ranks could head the Government.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Maobadis have done everything possible to hobble the Government of Nepal, such as it is, after Mr Dahal had to resign as Prime Minister following his unseemly spat with the President, Mr Ram Baran Yadav, over the Army chief refusing to allow the wholesale transformation of what used to be the Royal Nepal Army into the People’s Liberation Army by admitting to its ranks demobbed insurgents. Despite his best efforts, Mr Madhav Kumar Nepal, who succeeded Mr Dahal, found himself managing street agitations by the Maobadis instead of governing his country. The only decisive action he could take was to get the term of the Constituent Assembly, which was to expire this summer, extended for a year. A recalcitrant Prachanda has forced Mr Nepal to resign from office; for more than a month now he has been Nepal’s caretaker Prime Minister, waiting to hand over charge to a Prime Minister elected by the Constituent Assembly.

That wait has just got longer, with neither Mr Dahal, who wants to become Prime Minister again, nor Mr Ramchandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress, who believes that with the Maobadis and the CPN (UML) having failed to provide political stability, his party should now get a chance to lead the Government. On the face of it, Mr Paudel has a point: After all the Nepali Congress is far more experienced in dealing with political crisis and adept at the game of co-opting dissenters. It could succeed where both the Maobadis and the CPN (UML) have abysmally failed.

There’s a problem, though. The polls to elect a Constituent Assembly gave nobody a majority; the smaller parties, especially those representing Madhesi interests, are not easy to deal with; and, among the top three parties there’s virtually very little, if at all any, consensus on any issue of consequence, leave alone who should lead the Government. As much was evident last Friday when Mr Dahal polled 213 votes (of which 204 came from his party legislators) and Mr Paudel got 121 votes.

In the 601-member Constituent Assembly, this is way behind the halfway mark. From the votes cast against Mr Paudel it would seem the CNP (UML) is not on the same page with him. As the rule says the Constituent Assembly shall keep on voting till one of the contenders is able to secure a majority, the Speaker has called for a fresh election, the fifth, on August 18. A week is a long time in politics and much could change between my arrival in and exit from Kathmandu later this week. But those who should know are reluctant to hazard a guess.

Tail piece: The priests at Pashupatinath temple are not to be trifled with, as Kishen Thapa learned to his shock, pain and agony. Infuriated at Mr Thapa’s callous disregard of rites and rituals — he broke a coconut at the western gate of the hallowed shrine, which apparently is strictly not allowed — Harihar Bhandari, a temple priest, banged the puja thaali he was carrying on the pilgrim’s head. Mr Thapa is presently nursing a split scalp which required to be stitched up by doctors.

Kerala’s slide into radical Islamism

Junking Indian identity for Arab garb!

There’s nothing surprising about the rash-like emergence of violent Islamism in Kerala. God’s Own Country, as Kerala was known for its natural splendour and cultural heritage, is rapidly turning into the springboard of jihad in India. This hasn’t happened overnight, nor has Islamism spread its tentacles over the past few months to make its presence felt in the most shocking manner: The attack on a professor for allegedly denigrating Islam has served to highlight the seeping terror unleashed by homegrown jihadis.

The rain-gorged verdant plains and hills along the lush Malabar coast are fast turning into the billious green of radical Islam. Roadside brick-and-mortar glass-fronted shrines dedicated to Virgin Mary with flickering candles lit by the devout and ancient temples with amazing hand-crafted brassware and bell metal utensils that once celebrated the Hinduness of Kerala are overshadowed by spanking new mosques that seem to be mushrooming all over the place. Not only are they built with Arab money — donations by Muslim Malayalees working in Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, add up to only a fraction of the cost — but they also symbolise the increasing influence of Arab ‘culture’, which is largely about visible manifestations of Islam and Islamism, that threatens to stamp out Kerala’s rich indigenous culture rooted in India’s civilisational past.

Huge billboards, advertising ‘Arab Pardha’ in English and Arabic, now jostle for space along with those advertising jewellery, new apartment blocks and investment schemes. The ‘Arab Pardha’ billboards are illustrated with larger than life images of women clad in head-to-toe burqas: They look shapeless and formless, their identity smothered by black fabric and their eyes barely visible through slits. “Arab Pardha”, declares one billboard, “All pious women should wear it.” The copywriter has it all wrong; it should have read, “All pious women should disappear behind it.” For, that’s what the burqa is meant for — to make women disappear, make them invisible, deny them the right to exist as individuals. Any argument to the contrary is spurious and any religious edict cited in support of this grotesque suppression of individual liberty is specious.

But there is a larger purpose behind propagating the ‘Arab Pardha', or purdah, which is insidious and frightening for those who value freedom. This is one of the many instruments adopted by Islamists to push their agenda of radicalising Muslims and imposing their worldview on others without so much as even a token resistance by either civil society or the state. The darkness of the world in which they live is now being forced on us. Decades ago Nirad C Chaudhuri was to record in his celebrated essay, The Continent of Circe, “Whenever in the streets of Delhi I see a Muslim woman in a burqa, the Islamic veil, I apostrophise her mentally: ‘Sister! you are the symbol of your community in India.’ The entire body of Muslims are under a black veil.” The Continent of Circe was first published in 1966; forty-one years later, the community wants the black veil, the ‘Arab Pardha’, to envelope ‘secular’ India.

Kerala’s ‘Arab Pardha’ billboards are a taunting reminder that in ‘secular’ India we must remain mute witness to the communalisation of culture, politics and society by peddlers of Islamism and its offensive agenda that is rooted in the most obnoxious interpretation of what Mohammed preached millennia ago. Even the economy has not been spared: Islamic banking, Islamic investments and Islamic financial instruments have surreptitiously entered this country under the benign gaze of an indulgent UPA Government whose Prime Minister spends sleepless nights agonising over the plight of Islamic terrorists and demands that all Government initiatives must be anchored in his perverse ‘Muslims first’ policy. The Prime Minister’s admirers claim he is a “sensitive person” who is easily moved by the “plight of the helpless”. Had he been moved by the pathetic sight of a Muslim woman, as much an Indian as all of us, forced to wear an ‘Arab Pardha’, his claimed sensitivities would have carried conviction. But such expression of sympathy, if not resolve to combat the insidious gameplan of Islamists inspired by hate-mongers and preachers of intolerance who draw their sustenance from the fruit of the poison tree of Wahaabism that flourishes in the sterile sands of Arabia, would demand a great degree of intellectual integrity and moral courage. The Prime Minister may be an “accidental politician”, but he is a practitioner of politics of cynicism. For that, you neither need intellectual integrity nor moral courage.

Every time there is criticism of the Islamic veil, which comes in various forms of indignity — the hijab, the niqab, the burqa, the chador — whether from within or outside the Muslim community, we hear the frayed argument: It’s a matter of personal choice; it’s an expression of religiosity; it’s culture-specific; it’s a minority community’s right, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. All that and more is balderdash, not least because there is no Quranic injunction that mandates a Muslim woman to wear an ‘Arab Pardha’. Given the nature of the community’s social hierarchy and the grip of the mullahs, rarely does a woman protest, leave alone rebel. Those who do, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian activist whose book The Caged Virgin provides a revealing insight into Islamism’s warped religio-political ideology, are hounded and live in perpetual fear of losing their lives. Blasphemy is not tolerated by those who live in a world darker than the darkest burqa, a world in which even Barbie wears the Islamic veil lest her plastic modesty be compromised.

But this is not only about the denial of an individual’s liberty, nor is it about the suppression of human rights in the name of faith. It is about the in-your-face declaration of Islamists that they can have their way without so much as lifting their little finger. It is a laughable sight to watch Malayalees trying to navigate crowded streets in Kochi wearing white Arab gelabayas, the loose kaftan like dress that along with the kafeyah — or ‘Arab rumal’ — has become a symbol of trans-national radical Islam, their ‘Arab Pardha’ clad wives and daughters in tow. But it is not a laughable matter.

Increasingly, we are witnessing a shifting of loyalties from Malabar to Manipur. Faith in India is being transplanted by belief in Arabia. This should alarm those who believe in the Indian nation as a secular entity.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

CWG loot is a national shame!

What pride in robbing India of its wealth?

On May 14, 2010, the Times of India, quoting an NGO audit, reported that the cost of this year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi had escalated by a whopping 1,575%. The report said:
In the case of Delhi's Commonwealth Games, official cost estimates have gone up by a whopping 525% since the city won the bid. Unofficial assessments put the escalation at a mindboggling 1575% -- that is more than 15 times the original estimate -- according to an independent report.
India's bid document for the Commonwealth Games in 2003 estimated the cost of hosting the event at Rs 1,899 crore. After several revisions the estimates now range from an official figure of Rs 10,000 crore to independent experts at an astounding Rs 30,000 crore.
By end-July officials associated with the Games were admitting that total costs would be upward of Rs 35,000 crore. If the cost of various infrastructure projects (including extension of Metro services, power plants, etc) meant to showcase Delhi as a ‘worldclass city’ were to be taken into account, the grand total would shoot up to nearly Rs 1,00,000 crore.

The construction and renovation work was undertaken by agencies of the Delhi Government, run by the Congress. The ‘preparations’ include relaying of perfectly good roads which are now sinking under cars and buses, paving pavements that were spanking new, digging up vast stretches of the city and then leaving things that way, giving Delhi a bombed-out look.

The various stadia where the Games are to be held are still in a shambles after extensive ‘renovation’. Roofs are leaking, walls are damp, toilets are non-functional and premises are littered with debris and uncovered power cables that are a death trap. Many of the venues have not been checked for fire safety.

A CVC report lists the lapses in detail. The Delhi Government has no credible response.

What began as the rape of Yamuna when the Delhi Government colluded with real estate firms to violate all environment norms to build the Sports Village on the river’s floodbanks (the apartments will be later sold at astronomical sums to those who can also grease palms) has turned into an open loot.

The Organising Committee is now found to have its snout in the trough too. Its budget alone is more than Rs 1,000 crore. Where’s this money going?
.A treadmill is being hired for 45 days for Rs 9.75 lakh. A cross trainer for Rs 8.8 lakh.
.Diesel power will be generated at Rs 80 per unit at some Commonwealth Games venues. .The market rate is less than a tenth of this.
.Umbrellas are being ‘hired’ at Rs 6,308 each.
.Chairs are being rented at Rs 8,378 for a month-and-a-half each.
.Tissue rolls are being purchased at Rs 4,138 each.

This is not all. An unknown London-based firm was hired, without any contract being signed and on the basis of what now transpires to be a forged e-mail, allegedly sent by a junior staff at the Indian High Commission in London, for services like the Queen’s Baton Relay for an astronomical sum. Curiously, the firm continues to be paid every month.
An IANS report informs us that the scandal surfaced with:
... British tax authorities wanting to know if there were any discrepancies in the payments made to AK Films by the Organising Committee for the services rendered.
Their attention was drawn to the payments when the OC approached them this March for a VAT refund of 14,000 pounds for the payments.
It is claimed that the firm and its sister concern, AM Car and Van Hire, were paid nearly 450,000 pounds by the OC. The British authorities apparently claimed that 25,000 pounds was continuing to be paid into the firm's account.
On his part, the firm's owner Ashish Patel denied receiving the monthly amounts and said the OC had paid him only 247,000 pounds and still owed him 147,000 pounds towards transport rental costs.

Similarly, the Organising Committee has signed a strange deal with a Singapore-based ‘marketing firm’ to secure sponsorships and revenue for the Delhi Games. A clause in the contract entitles the firm to a percentage of all sponsorship revenues. The firm till date has not secured any sponsorship for the Games, but it has made a huge amount by way of its commission from money given by PSUs, under instructions from parent Ministries in the UPA Government, as ‘sponsorship’.

There’s more to the shame and the scandal. The Delhi Government is now found to have diverted Rs 744 crore from Budget funds meant for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe welfare to the Commonwealth Games. Diversion of these funds are not allowed.

For further details, read It’s Common V/S Wealth, an excellent, well-documented report of an independent inquiry into the loot in the name of organising the Commonwealth Games.

All this amounts to no more than the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Easily this is the biggest ever scandal in independent India. People are being told not to talk about the loot of public money under the watch of the Congress Government of Delhi and the Congress-led UPA Government as the Commonwealth Games are a matter of “national pride”.

I see no ‘national pride’ in hosting a 12-day bogus sports event (even Asiad takes precedence over Commonwealth Games) which is a cover for looting India of thousands of crores of rupees. A country where 37 per cent of the people live in appalling poverty and millions barely keep body and soul together such criminal loot of taxpayer money is a matter of national shame.