Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Itinerant Prime Minister Yet To Visit A Muslim Country



The Itinerant Prime Minister Yet To Visit A Muslim Country
                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

Measuring a government’s achievements in its first year has to be inherently speculative. But some things can be put down to Narendra Modi’s account with a degree of certainty. He has in his first year as Prime Minister, never worn a Muslim cap although it is difficult to identify a cap of that denominational description.

Time was when a dopalli topi or a white muslin cap was standard headgear among Hindus and Muslims alike. In winters, muslin gave way to wool. A variety of headgear was on exhibition at Prime Ministerial Iftar parties, a standard Congress fare, but which mushroomed in direct proportion to Congress decline.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, an equally eager Muslim vote hunter, went on an Iftar feeding spree too, wearing funny hats. But he also struck a high cultural note to accentuate his secular identity. So far political leaders had mobilized the clergy from Deoband, Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid and sundry Mullahs as potential vote gatherers. Mulayam Singh was persuaded that Muslims along with a religious identity, also had a cultural dimension. They were, in other words, amicable to charms of Urdu poetry as well.

It turns out that in UP there is an Urdu poet buried behind every culvert. In the contemporary era there have been some very famous poets. Someone mentioned the name of Josh Malihabadi. But he had blotted his copy by going over to Pakistan where Faiz Ahmad Faiz beat him hollow in the popularity stakes. Next in status would have been Firaq Gorakhpuri. But his full name was Raghupati Sahai. Mulayam asked shrewdly: how would that affect voters?

Jigar Moradabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Ali Sardar Jafri (Balrampur) and, the greatest of them all, Majaz Lucknowi, were all within hailing distance of Mulayam Singh. But they all suffered from one handicap: they had no lobbies to promote their candidature.

In this respect, Kaifi Azmi was doubly blessed. His daughter, the distinguished actor, Shabana Azmi and lyricist and poet, Javed Akhtar, worked on Mulayam’s aesthetic aspirations with great diligence. There is no Indian poet in any language who has a railway train named after him: Kaifi does. There is a Kaifiat Express to Azamgarh where in Mijwan village, a girl’s school and haveli have been resurrected in his name. This is not all. All India Kaifi Azmi Academy has been opened in Lucknow in service of Urdu, with generous cash replenishments from the state.

Mulayam Singh’s single minded patronage of Kaifi Azmi does serve the cause of Urdu, which must be welcome. But it surely cannot be anybody’s case that in Lucknow, the city of Urdu’s greatest masters, all iconography must be focused on Kaifi Azmi alone, a remarkable poet though he was.

Excepting a flair for sartorial colour combinations, Modi has in his first year not demonstrated a sensitivity to aesthetics. Muslims associated with him, Najma Heptullah, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Zafar Sareshwala, have all been assigned to maintain some kind of paddocks for Muslims. Heptullah and Naqvi are senior and junior ministers for Minority Affairs and Sareshwala a newly appointed Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.

Modi is giving out two signals: in my generous, “genuine” secularism I have three outlets for minorities. There is a second and more important message: away from the mainstream, there are separate watering holes for Muslims. Does it not smack of apartheid? A ministry for minorities is in any case a retrogressive idea in a secular state. And if you must have such a ministry, it would seem more wholesome in enlightened Hindu hands. That would have been more integrationist.

The conceptual framework in which Modi sees Muslims became clear in his very first speech in Parliament after being sworn in as Prime Minister: he talked of “1,200 years of ghulami” or servitude. In other words he sees the entire Muslim period as one of “ghulami”. This is direct, blunt and possibly hurtful but at a wide variance from the Nehruvian construct about only 200 years of British rule being foreign. The professional secularist ofcourse glosses over this one in tactful silence, which is another way of telling a lie. This is one of the unsettled questions of the Indian condition after Partition.

How this appraisal of history plays on Modi’s neighbourhood policy has yet to be seen. His very hectic foreign itinerary has some very revealing gaps.

For a Prime Minister who has undertaken more foreign travel than any in his first year, Modi probably holds an unnoticed record: he has not yet visited a Muslim country. He even refused to attend the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference on April 22 attended by statesmen like China’s Xi Jinping. Indonesian President Joko Widodo tried to contact Modi on the phone but could not. Whether he was avoiding Jakarta, Capital of world’s largest Muslim country or discarding a Nehru trail remains unclear.

An outstanding success story for India in foreign policy terms happens to be Sheikh Haseena in Bangladesh. Will Modi break his taboo on travel to Muslim countries by an early visit to Dhaka?

There obviously is a new, secretive style being enunciated in South Block of which itineraries are only a glaring part. It would therefore be premature to arrive at conclusions even on the basis of Modi’s travels and the Sangh Parivar’s known stance on minority issues. Who knows what script has been thought through on the BJP-PDP arrangement in Jammu and Kashmir which has been managed with skillful patience and care so far. All these are salient features in his first year.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

The Centrality Of Lucknow In The World’s Shia Culture



The Centrality Of Lucknow In The World’s Shia Culture
                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

How important was Lucknow in the Shia world?

Last year, addressing a group of foreign policy analysts in New Delhi’s Leela hotel, Ambassador of Iran to India, Gholamreza Ansari, made an important admission.

He admitted that Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, came from an important family of divines from Kuntoor, in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh, not far from Lucknow.

It was an important admission because this very fact had been denied at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 by the Ayatullah’s office in Gumran, outside Tehran. In fact “denial” is too emphatic a term. The fact was not denied, but Ayatullah Khomeini expressed great anger that this connection had been raised so soon after the revolution succeeded.

At the receiving end of this angry outburst was a goodwill delegation, hurriedly put together by Atal Behari Vajpayee, then Foreign Minister in the Janata government led by Morarji Desai. His Foreign Secretary, Jagat Mehta, was even more enthusiastic to establish contacts with the new regime in Tehran.

The delegation was led by the former Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission, Ashoke Mehta. The impressive Shia persona of former ICS Badruddin Tayabji, with his distinctive headgear, was mobilized too. But the pièce de résistance in the group was something else: a young Shia cleric, Agha Ruhi Abaqati, scion of the family of Saiyyid Nasir Hussain Qibla, a theological scholar of great distinction. He was enlisted as the guide for the delegation.

Before returning to Iran, leading the revolution, Ayatullah Khomeini had spent years in exile, among other places, at Neauphle-le-Chateau, outside Paris. Among those who attended on him in France, was Maulana Agha Ruhi. The families of Khomeini and Abaqati are, in fact, linked by relationships.

This fact alone qualified the cleric from Lucknow to be a key player in the Vajpayee-Jagat Mehta initiative to establish links with the new regime in Tehran.

A bright Indian Foreign Service officer, First Secretary in the embassy, Kuldip Sahdev, escorted the delegation to the Gumran headquarters. But before they could be ushered into the Supreme Leader’s presence, they were halted by the leader himself, with a wave of his hand. He then gestured to Abaqati to come closer. Just when it appeared Khomeini might share a confidence with Abaqati, it dawned on everyone that the cleric from Lucknow was being given an earfull by the leader of the Islamic revolution.

He was angry that not only had Abaqati claimed a relationship with the Iranian leader, he had in fact encouraged the government of India to take a diplomatic initiative on that basis. The poor man was not guilty at all. Government of India had contacted him on a tip off.

During a conversation in Qom a year later, ayatollah Montazari, nominated as deputy to Khomeini in the earlier days of the revolution, explained to me the secret of the diplomatic debacle.

“It was a young, insecure revolution; we were afraid ultra nationalists might snipe at the India link.”

The Ambassador’s admission was important because it demonstrated how secure the Islamic revolution now was.

The second, and more important message was one which the audience, typically, did not register. Even by the admission of the Iranian Ambassador, Lucknow and Awadh have always been at the very heart of world’s Shia culture.

True, the Moghul Empire is believed to be Sunni, but that label can lead to misleading conclusions. Ayaz Amir in a recent article reminded us of something interesting: that the great Moghuls were not funless bores like the Maulanas, that some of the seminaries subsequently churned out. They were passionate, pleasure loving, large hearted men with a delicate sense of aesthetics.

Babar barely had time to settle down but all the others leaned on Shia Saiyyids in their courts for administration and advice. The second Moghul, Humayun, had been chased out of the country by the Pathan Sher Shah Suri. Humayun, found refuge in the court of the Safavid King in Isfahan and returned with an entourage of Persian craftsmen and intellectuals.

This considerable Shia influence was augmented when Emperor Jehangir increased his dependence on his Queen, Noorjehan, a strict Shia. The period he spent in Kara Manikpur in Awadh as a fugitive from his father, Akbar’s justice, he dispensed favours and land grants to Shia Saiyyid settlements in the vicinity, increasing their cultural hold on Awadh. Shia power reached its peak with the ascent of Nawabs of Awadh in the 18th century.

There is an incredible amnesia about Bahmani Sultanate, Sharqis, Berar, Bidar, Qutub Shahis, Adil Shahis, Najafi Nawabs of Awadh, Murshidabad and most recently Rampur.

Equally, who remembers the grant by the Begums of Oudh to the Shia centres of learning in Najaf and Karbala? The British continued the stipend because it enabled them keep in touch with Shia theologians in those centres. Surely New Delhi too would have found value in the connection. But is it even familiar with the Shia profile in India?

The assimilation of Indian elements in music, poetry, dance, architecture was common in the Shia courts and Sufi shrines. Both are in the direct line of fire in Pakistan where the murder of 43 in a bus in Karachi the other day has boosted the number of Shias slaughtered in the past two years to 2,000. The great poet Iqbal described a similar situation as the shadow play of day and night.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Lets Commemorate 1857 And Search For Rani Of Jhansi’s Stolen Insignia

Lets Commemorate 1857 And Search For Rani Of Jhansi’s Stolen Insignia
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

On March 10, 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee, had promised a Citizens Group for 1857, that he would obtain from the government details on how India’s First War of Independence will be commemorated. A change of government may have delayed the inquiries Rashtrapati Bhavan intended to make.

Meanwhile, another anniversary will have gone unnoticed – tomorrow.

On May 11, 1857, soldiers of the British Indian Army reached Delhi after having captured Meerut Cantonment a day earlier. Most of the soldiers were Hindu. Their uprising had wide support among the peasantry. They identified Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Moghul Emperor, as the symbol of their struggle. They proclaimed him Emperor of Hindustan. This was the secularism of common aspirations and a united struggle.

The uprising had been building up. In a sense the British annexation of Awadh and arrest in 1856 of the popular King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah caused it to spread. The King was exiled to Matia Burj, outside Kolkata.

It is true that powers of Indian rulers had been greatly diminished once the British were ascendant after the battle of Plassey in 1757. About the same time, Ahmad Shah Abdali was menacing Delhi.

In the shadow of the Afghan and British threats the remarkable cultural activity in the courts of Delhi and Lucknow was quite extraordinary. In fact the esteem in which some of these kings were held by their subjects came in for laudatory mention by the then leader of opposition in the House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli. He was appalled that the British resolve on “divide and rule” had weakened. The uprising itself was proof enough. Hindus and Muslims joining hands against the British in 1857, he argued, was a dismal failure of His Majesty’s government in India.

This “joining of hands” in a common cause was seen by colonial authorities as a serious threat. Surely it is worthy of being commemorated on a national scale. Should 1857 be celebrated as a great national event, vistas would open up for many subsidiary commemorations.

Zafar was exiled to Yangon where he was incarcerated in the garage of a junior British officer where he died. His grave, in a secret location, was discovered much later.

The British ultimately crushed the Indian uprising, marvelously described in William Dalrymple’s, The Last Moghul. The first Indian Editor to face the cannon not far from Chandni Chowk was Maulana Baqar Ali. Delhi’s Press Fraternity might like to take up that theme.

Earlier in its innings, the United Progressive Alliance tossed up a plan to observe the 150 years of 1857 on a spectacular scale in 2007.

Towards this end, in 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called a meeting at his residence of all senior political leaders, artists, social workers, journalists, to chalk out a programme of action for the commemoration in 2007.

Sonia Gandhi, L.K. Advani, A.B. Bardhan, Prakash Karat, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Gandhian social worker, Nirmala Deshpande, Jawed Akhtar and host of others including yours truly, were present.

Several ideas were accepted. For instance the entire route from Meerut be decorated by setting up memorials. What would these memorials be? Details could be further discussed.

An idea which received unanimous approval was the one spelt out by Nirmala Deshpande – that Zafar’s remains be brought to India. It would be a lovely idea because the Poet king had marked out a burial place for himself near the shrine of his spiritual Guru, Sufi Saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli.

He had lamented in a famous verse:
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar
            Dafn ke liye
Do gaz zameen bhi na milee
            Kooye yaar mein.”
(Even in his death, Zafar is so unfortunate;
He could not find two yards of land in his beloved country)

It would be a stirring home coming for the poet-king, if Nirmala Deshpande’s wish were to be fulfilled. To help support her idea was a hint from the government of Myanmar three years ago. Just at the time that Zafar was transported to Yangon, the king of Mandalay was exiled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. There were newspaper reports that the Myanmar government may be interested in discussing a swap. It is a wonderful idea but probably cumbersome.

A more feasible proposition would be to bring a fist full of earth from Zafar’s grave and give it a symbolic burial in the grave in Mehrauli he had readied for himself.

Memories of 1857 can yet inspire in other ways too. Would not the empty canopy at India Gate provide just the pedestal for a well chiseled, marble statue of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi on her horse. We almost owe it to her because her embroidered Insignia, with an image of Hanuman dominating it, was stolen from the regimental centre of Rajputana Rifles, where it had been placed for safe keeping.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Friends And Foes Mixed Up: Arab Balance Of Power Being Shaped



Friends And Foes Mixed Up: Arab Balance Of Power Being Shaped
                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport.”
                                                                                                            King Lear

This could well be a powerful chorus, the primeval cry from the Arab street as the Americans erect a new balance of power in West Asia now that the Iranians have been brought into the game, creating dread, promise, uncertainty.

For allies, or clients, the US will always be around, up, above, guns ablaze when required, to keep everyone in line, to keep the balance. Also, regional powers, with the capacity to buy arms, must now be encouraged to use these arms more frequently. Kids must play with their toys otherwise how would the supply chain be kept busy.

The US would now like to focus much more on the bigger theme developing in the Pacific, or on the “dangers” of Germans and Russians cosying up.

This is the sort of conversion you might expect in Arab Deewaniye or drawing rooms.

In Washington, folks have grown accustomed to Arab rage. Their considered priorities are more in line with what is emerging as official policy. Myanmar, Cuba and Iran kept outside the ball park serves no American purpose any longer. Engagement does. But for regional players this is no minor alteration in American policy. This is a tectonic shift.

Look at the consequential changes afoot in Riyadh. Saudi Royalty which never conducted diplomacy above the sound of whispers are today hysterically in battle albeit from the air in Yemen. Syria was seen as Iran’s (and Russia’s) opening onto the Mediterranean, Yemen onto the Red Sea. They must block both. Atleast be seen to have checked Iran. Otherwise the GCC may bolt.

The US, playing umpire from the air, has reserved the right to intervene to correct the game against the Houthis in Yemen (never mind if Al Qaeda is thereby helped), against Iraqi Shias and Iran in Tikrit (not necessarily against ISIS), against Bashar al Assad and Iran in Idlib, for Turkey which helps ISIS on its border with Syria. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

These are extremely complex set of adjustments. Place one point of the compass on Riyadh and the rotating point will touch all the locations listed above – except the military regime in Cairo.

Gen. Abdel Fatttah el-Sisi is so beholden to Saudi money that he must appear in Riyadh’s camp. The US meanwhile watches Egypt with bifocals.

At the time of Sisi’s coup, the State Department was persisting with support for the Muslim Brotherhood government. It was the Pentagon which, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, tipped the scales for Sisi. He is a variation on the Hosni Mubarak theme. But Hosni Mubarak lasted 30 years as President when the United States was a 24X7 presence in West Asia. It provided a veneer to Mubarak’s otherwise excruciatingly unpopular rule.

For remote control of Cairo, the United States will require a more broadbased, popular structure in place. Something like the Muslim Brotherhood. This cannot but be a source of concern for Israel as well as Saudi Arabia.

Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt becomes a source of great strength to its resourceful ideological kin in Gaza – the Hamas.

As for the Saudis, they have gone to town about Iran and Shiasm being their sworn enemies. The truth of the matter is that much the greater danger to the monarchy comes from Political Islam reared in the ideology of the Akhwanul Muslimeen or the Muslim Brotherhood.

The existential crises the Saudi monarchy faced, was not the Iranian revolution. That was the Saudi trick to externalize an internal problem. This internal crisis was the siege of Mecca that year by Sunni muslims opposed to the notion of Monarchy. Mention the name Juhayman al Otaybi, leader of the uprising, to any Saudi official and he becomes pale.

Ofcourse, a great deal of propaganda against Otaybi was blamed on Iranian machinations. This found traction in the media because the fall of the Shah was an extremely demoralizing event for the West.

The air strikes on Yemen are being explained in like fashion: because Shia Iran is helping Shia Houthis.

Damascus, one would have thought, would have been angry against Saudi action in Yemen. This is not the mood in the Syrian Foreign office. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s advisers are instead livid with Iran.

This is something of a surprise. The anti Iran line picked up traction in Damascus for two reason:  village of Jisr ul Shughur near Idlib in Syria was captured by ISIS with support from Turkey. A 100 Syrian troops were encircled. This action took place after Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Tehran.

True, Tehran blasted Saudi action in Yemen, goes the line in Damascus. Fair enough. But its silence on Turkish action inside Syria is inexplicable in Damascus. Syrian pride is hurt. After all the Syrian army’s staying power against the Syrian opposition, helped from outside, added to Iran’s clout which came in handy in its nuclear negations in Geneva.

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