Friday, April 21, 2017

Turning Ataturk’s Turkey Upside Down, Powerful Erdogan Arrives In Delhi

Turning Ataturk’s Turkey Upside Down, Powerful Erdogan Arrives In Delhi
                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi
When Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in New Delhi on April 30, he will find in his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, something of a kindred spirit. Both aspire for absolute power.

The April 16 referendum has removed constraints Erdogan was uncomfortable with. He will now be an executive President, a position from where he can manipulate whatever checks and balances may still be theoretically in place.

What Erdogan has achieved is unparalleled in Turkish history. He is well on the way to completely overhauling what the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had diligently put together.

When Mahatma Gandhi held Maulana Mohammad Ali’s hand in support of the Caliphate (Khilafat Movement) in Istanbul, the founder of modern Turkey was embarked on exactly the opposite: he was abolishing the Caliphate. It was an anachronism.

St. Sophia, the great Byzantine Church, in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) had been transformed into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan. Ataturk reversed the decision. Christendom’s most magnificent Church would, were it to be retained as a Mosque, hurt Europe in perpetuity. It is today a great Byzantine museum.

Ataturk saw modern Turkey’s future in Europe. The Fez cap was banned. Turki script gave way to Roman letters. No head scarf for women except as a statement of fashion. Raki, distilled from aniseed (same as Ouzo in Greece, Pastisse in France and Arrack in Lebanon) became the unofficial national drink. It was Ataturk’s favourite.

Ataturk’s inspirational steps towards Europeanism notwithstanding, Ottoman Turkey’s civic and social backwardness remained an obstacle in the way of its union with Europe. Diligently the nation set about improving its infrastructure, environment, laws to make it clubbable with Europe.

What Turkish leaders had not taken into account was European prejudice about the “Turk” from medieval times. Its desire to join the European Union was dodged and spurned. President Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France was the most blunt: “European civilization is Christian civilization.” This became something of a muted European chorus.

On the Aegean Sea or Cyprus, Europe would singly or unitedly thwart any movement in Ankara’s preferred direction. Even the most Kemalist of all Prime Ministers, Bulent Ecevit, was exasperated. Ecevit, Modi may like to know, was almost a self taught Indologist. His translation of Tagore’s Geetanjali is something of a Turkish masterpiece.

The modernism that Ataturk imposed on Turkey was not as shallow as the one in North Tehran under the Shah and Kabul during King Amanullah. But it had not radiated out of Istanbul and Ankara. Had Europe been sensitive enough, the modernism from the top would have taken root across all of Anatolia – such was the momentum Ataturk had imparted to the “Turkey-in-Europe” project.

It was western insensitivity to Muslim societies in general, the rampaging Islamophobia, which  began to shake the secular citadels even in Muslim societies. Turkey under leaders like Ecevit, Suleyman Demirel, Turgut Ozal, and most certainly Army Generals like Kenen Everen jealously guarded its secular constitution despite being a Muslim country, indeed, a deeply Muslim country until the West crossed some Red lines.

The televised occupation of Iraq, the two Intefadas, the manner in which post 9/11 anti terror wars were fought from Afghanistan to each and every Muslim country began to affect public opinion even in a country which retained warm relations with Israel.

An anti western groundswell became unstoppable in Turkey when brutalities against Muslims in the Bosnian war, the four year long siege of Sarajevo were brought into every Turkish home live, mornings and evenings. The West forgot that Bosnia was once an Ottoman province. Sarajevo came from the word “Sarai”, a resting place.

Little wonder the Refah Party under Necmettin Erbakan came to power. Erbakan was a diehard though closet Muslim Brotherhood member. The army dismissed the government – Turkey’s constitution would not tolerate even a trace of religiosity in public life.

Erbakan’s principal disciples, Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, reinvented the Refah as the Justice and Development (AK) party, taking great care to abide by the constitution.

Anti westernism was cleverly promoted without invoking Islam. For instance when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought permission to ferry US troops to Iraq through Turkish territory, Prime Minister Erdogan tossed the issue to the Parliament which blocked permission. Israeli high handedness against a Turkish humanitarian ship carrying succor for Palestinians led to a rupture with Tel Aviv – an outcome hugely popular with the electorate.

When Greece, the mother of western civilization, was on its knees, in every sense of the term, every Turkish indicator placed the country favourably with every member of the European Union.

By the time of his third election victory Erdogan had performed the impossible: his popularity exceeded even Ataturk’s at his height.

The Arab Spring provided the West with a carrot to dangle before him: he could become the democratic model for the Arab world. Some Turks began to nurse fanciful dreams. If there could be a commonwealth group of nations freed from Britain, why can’t there be an Ottoman grouping? This raised Arab hackles.

During a meal at one of the world’s fanciest restaurants on the Bosporus, the late Mehmet Birand, one of Turkey’s most distinguished journalists summed up the situation succinctly:
“We were a docile ally of the West, swallowing our Turkish pride.” But under Erdogan, “we are a proud dissident nation in the western alliance.”

The war in Syria brought out into the open the closet Muslim Brotherhood in Erdogan. He pleaded with Bashar al Assad to accommodate the Syrian Brothers into the Baath dominated power structure. Assad’s difficulties whetted appetites in Riyadh, Doha, Jerusalem, Ankara, Washington, Paris and London. This is the bubbling, overflowing cauldron – the Syrian Civil war.

The attempted coup last summer by a section of the army and allegedly backed by the hugely influential, US based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, brought out the fighter in Erdogan. He was going to obviate all threats to his rule by ensuring an all powerful Presidential system for himself. There is symbolism in the fact that this most powerful of leaders, not concealing his Brotherhood affiliations, has chosen Modi as an early interlocutor.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

US Fireworks: Awaiting Details From Afghanistan, A Look At Syrian Outrage

US Fireworks: Awaiting Details From Afghanistan, A Look At Syrian Outrage
                                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

President Trump has furnished proof that the leader of the Free World, which dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, remains true to form: it has dropped an even bigger Mother Of All Bombs (non nuclear, we are being persistently reminded) on Nangahar province in east Afghanistan on what are being described as IS tunnels. Since details are not known, let us first sort out the Syrian outrage.
The alleged Sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykhun, a small town in Idlib province where the Jabhat al Nusra’s militant offshoots are now fighting with their backs to the wall, invited a massive US retaliation: 59 cruise missiles were fired on the nearby Shurayat air strip to teach Bashar al Assad a lesson.

Analysts under pressure to meet deadlines, hurriedly suggested the strikes made Trump look virile in his meeting with Xi Jinping in Florida, that Rex Tillerson looked strong in his meeting with Sergei Lavrov and that the North Koreans will think twice before their next menacing launch. All of this is fanciful because the big players know the truth. Yes, the opposition to the Syrian army, mostly al Nusra and IS wearing other labels, and their regional sponsors, now know that the Trump, brow beaten at home, can be dragged into the Syrian fight. The civil war can be prolonged.

To make sense of the air strikes, it would be useful to visit a similar incident in August 2013. Then also a Sarin gas attack was allegedly mounted on an even bigger scale on Ghouta township, on the outskirts of Damascus. Two US missiles took off from a US base in Spain – a retaliation, ofcourse. On this occasion, the Russian anti missile paraphernalia at their base in Tartus, brought down the missiles in the Mediterranean sea. Apparently, a sizeable number of missiles fell in the sea this time too. So the Russian S400 and S300 are indeed operational.

President Obama would have met President Vladimir Putin at the September, 2013, G20 summit in St. Petersburg from what the US “Deep State” had designed to be a position of strength once the two missiles have been launched. Instead his face was in the lower mould during his bilateral aside with the Russian leader. If the Russian intercepts had caused a loss of face, subsequent face saving for the Obama administration in 2013 was also provided by the Russians. They suggested that Syria sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and surrender its chemical weapons.

On September 11, 2013, Putin wrote in the New York Times: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with fundamentalists.”

Putin then points to something even more sinister. “Reports that militants are preparing another attack, this time against Israel, cannot be ignored.”

In other words, the opposition were checked in their tracks by timely Russian intervention. Air attacks in retaliation for the false flag at Ghouta were prevented. The desperate opposition was now about to play its trump card: launch a poison gas attack on Israel.

In his weekly address to the nation, Obama said:
“Until recently, the Assad regime would not admit that it possessed chemical weapons. Today Syria has signaled a willingness to join with 189 other nations, representing 98 percent of humanity, in abiding by an international agreement that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” There was fulsome praise for Russia. “Russia has staked its own credibility in supporting this outcome”, Obama said.

It was clear even then that this Washington-Moscow entente over Syria would set the cat among the pigeons in Tel Aviv and Riyadh. All their huge investments in arms, money, mercenaries and years of planning was liable to be wasted in Obama’s second term when John Kerry because his Secretary of State.

On the issue of Russia and Syria, the Deep State, with the media as amplifier, was not going to give up. No wonder it pitched its tent behind Hillary Clinton’s platform for the 2016 Presidential elections. The spider in the Deep State web, weaving the Syrian yarn is one Robert Stephen Ford, US ambassador to Damascus in 2011 when the “insurgency” was first initiated.

The most accurate narrative of Ford, in cahoots with this French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, and how they stoked the fires in Syria should be available with New Delhi’s ministry of External affairs. Of the entire diplomatic corps in the Syrian capital that this reporter met, the sharpest eye was that of Ambassador V.P. Haran.

The grinding of the US, Israeli, Saudi propaganda machine in Syria never stopped.

Every now and then the White Helmets in Syria would produce a heart wrenching story of “Assad’s brutality”. The photograph of a four year old Syrian boy, his face burnt by “Assad’s” attack on civilians in Aleppo, found its way to the final Trump-Clinton debate in Las Vegas on October 19, 2016. Clinton simulated a lump in her throat describing the child with burns as evidence of indiscriminate Russian (not just Syrian) bombing of civilians.

Exactly on cue, Christiane Amanpour of the CNN, in her high profile interview with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, produced the very same picture for Lavrov to see. “This is a crime against humanity” Amanpour thundered. Lavrov looked at the photograph. “Very tragic” he said. He then made a bold assertion: the US was probably supporting the Jabhat al Nusra.

Meanwhile, NGOs in the field furnished video recordings of the “burnt boy” being diligently filmed to be presented to the world media: propaganda of the macabre genre.

If the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is to be believed, the West is itself implicated in all the Sarin gas scandal. His outstanding piece in the London Review of Books after Ghouta, quite incontrovertibly establishes that “the Sarin that was used didn’t come from Assad’s stockpiles.” He quotes British Intelligence for this detail. He adds:
“A secret agreement in 2012 was reached between the Obama administration and the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to set up a Sarin gas attack and blame it on Assad so that the US could invade and overthrow Assad.”

Sarin gas has been in the news earlier when Bill Clinton’s Defence Secretary William Cohen caused journalists as senior at Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw to be sacked for having pointed to US stockpiles or nerve gas which were used on a village in Laos to hunt down US army defectors. It became notorious as Operation Tailwind. The official version then was that the gas was not dropped on Americans. That which was dropped, on whoever, was not Sarin but “but garden variety CS tear gas.” The reporters stuck to their guns.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Kishori Amonkar Soared Despite Media Neglect Of Classical Music

Kishori Amonkar Soared Despite Media Neglect Of Classical Music
                                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

As soon as I read that Kishori Amonkar was no more, I called up Raghu Rai, the pioneering photographer. Raghu had, with me in tow, done a remarkable photo feature on Kishori. Here was an occasion to republish the photographs of our greatest classical singer. Connoisseurs would place Ustad Amir Khan on the same pedestal, but I have my own very subjective preferences.

Raghu’s response was something of a shock: “Where is there any space for the arts in the Indian media?”  

I had momentarily deluded myself that a singer of such brilliance, would, in her passing away, generate fierce competition between media houses to show the best of Kishori. I had forgotten that, by and large, there is no hospitality accorded to culture in either print or our burgeoning TV channels. And this is not a new phenomenon.

True, by the time of Kishori Amonkar’s death, classical music had reclaimed sufficient audiences to warrant front page coverage and reasonable obituary notices in the past 25 years. Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Hirabai Barodekar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee did not go into the sunset unnoticed. The last three or four names were towering banyan trees in whose shadow comparable talents Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, for instance were dwarfed. The Hindu’s Friday Review did have Kishori on the cover.

What has never existed is a tradition of knowledgeable music critics. During a seminar organized by the late Dr. Narayana Menon, then Director General of All India Radio, Yehudi Menuhin, great violinist, pointed to musicologist Nicholas Nabokov (brother of Vladimir Nabokov, of Lolita fame) seated opposite him.

“I perform better when Nicholas is in the audience.”

That level of art criticism the Indian media has never aspired for. Professional dilettantes, not critics, has been the order. 

So, Raghu’s plaint stands. In fact when we entered The Statesman on Barakhamba Road, in 1965 for our first journalistic employment, the newspaper boasted of no regular critics for cinema, theatre, music, dance, painting. And The Statesman was numero uno of Indian newspapers those days.

Much before feminism became a vogue, Amita Malik (Amy as we called her) burst upon the scene with her breezy, aggressively Brahmo partisanship, always tipping the scale for the Bengali particularly if there was a Punjabi in the bargain. This probably derived from Amy’s unhappy marriage with a sophisticated broadcaster from Government College, Lahore. She was India’s first cinema, radio and (when TV arrived) television critic. She was, like all critics, not on the paper’s staff. Amy, made a pittance, lobbying mostly with Lakshman, the News Editor’s secretary, to inflate the column inches on the basis of which her cheque of a few hundred rupees was delivered to her every month.

The cultural scene in the media was dominated by a Hungarian of great elegance, Charles Fabri. Maurice Chevalier could have learnt a thing or two from Dr. Fabri’s flirtatious style with some of India’s greatest dancers. Once he turned up in the reporter’s room with a brochure on Indian dance, placed his felt hat on a Remington typewriter and, smacking his lips, turned the pages “Damyanti Joshi, Yamini, Indirani,……” closing the brochure, he looked at us triumphantly. “I have kist them all.”

Fabri was a pioneer in building up the capital’s art and theatre scenes as well. He died in virtual penury.

Kishori had begun to make waves but it was her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, who made a mark on Pandit Shingloo, The Statesman’s Hindustani music critic. He was a tall man of aristocratic bearing, a Java Dawson cigar from Trichy, between his teeth was as much part of him as his long sherwani and matching cap which did not cover the silver-white ringlets upto the nape of his neck. He walked into concerts armed with a pad, pencil, rubber and a torch. No sooner had the “alaap” begun, than Shingloo’s torch was focused on the pad balanced on his knees. His pencil would race along until there was something resembling a false note. Instantly, the rubber was brought into play, making room for more critical adjectives to be inserted.

Shingloo was the darling of the news desk because at 10 pm sharp, at whatever stage the concert may have been, Shingloo’s copy, precisely nine inches in a single column, was delivered to a beaming chief sub, because it was well in time for the city edition.

For Carnatic music and dance, Subbudu was matchless. During the winter “Season” at the music academy, Mylapore, Chennai, a dancer of means would buy Subbudu’s up and down second class train ticket and look after his board and lodging for the duration of what in my experience is one of the world’s greatest festivals of dance and music. Subbudu’s financier would, ofcourse, receive a puff in direct proportion to favours done. But all other performances came in for critical scrutiny by a razor sharp mind.

It did not matter that Subbudu was a Lower Division Clerk in North Block. He was a quintessential Brahmin, steeped in music that is what mattered.

Negligible or zero priority accorded to the music critic by the media magnates impacted deeply on Kishori Amonkar’s emotional make up. Her tantrums became notorious. In fact her pain was deeper. She could not forget the shabby treatment meted out by organizers in days when women singers like Kesarbai Kerkar, Hirabai Barodekar and, above all, her own mother, Mogubai, were shuffling themselves out of their “Bai” identity.

A genius like Kishori would have none of it, almost to the point of being prickly. At a performance in which Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was present, the clattering of saucers, pans and cups would not stop even after Kishori had taken the stage. She furrowed her brow and held the Chief Minister in a fierce gaze: “You are not on a prostitute’s terrace; you are in the Durbar of an artist.”

I would put it down as one of the more difficult assignments, that interview with her. She would not open up until she had reduced us to shaky amateurs. Eventually she psyched us down to where she wanted us to be as her “rasias” or devotees.

I do not know whether she kept up her mother’s tradition to visit “gharana” guru Alladiya Khan’s grave for floral offerings on March 14, his death anniversary.

As for her singing, there will not be another. Momin’s couplet encapsulates it:
“Us ghairat e Naheed ki
             har taan hai Deepak
Shola sa lapak jaaye hai,
              awaaz to dekho”

(Each taan or ascending passage of that singing bird is like the Deepak raga; her notes touch the upper octaves like a leaping flame)

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Did Mandela’s Closest Comrade End Up As Tour Guide?

Why Did Mandela’s Closest Comrade End Up As Tour Guide?
                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

In Ahmed Kathrada’s death in Johannesburg last week at the age of 87, students of South African history have lost a precious resource person with a unique perspective on one of the world’s great national liberation movements – how it peaked, then lost its fizz.

On February 11, 1990, I was among the willing throng of the world’s journalists, waiting outside Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, waiting for history’s most iconic political prisoner to walk free after 27 years in the Apartheid regime’s captivity. It is difficult to communicate the heady excitement of the moment.

It might interest anti meat enthusiasts in India, that the first meal out of prison Mandela asked for was “Indian curry and rice”. His host for the night, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, tossed in a few more item s to make it more decorative. That is when I first met Kathrada or “Kathy” as everyone, including Mandela, affectionately called him. Out of prison Mandela seemed to constantly require by his side a transistor radio set to one frequency, BBC’s Africa Calling, and, if possible, Kathy.

Mandela’s dependence on Kathy manifested itself when he occupied the President’s office in Pretoria. Kathy was given the adjacent room as his adviser. Although, he had become the second most powerful man in South Africa, he was so modest in his mannerisms that he almost looked embarrassed holding high office.

Kathy had spent almost as many years as Mandela in jail most of it in the same prison, Robben Island, a turbulent boat ride away from Cape Town, a more vicious version of Alcatraz from San Francisco.

It was in the yard of the prison where the plot was hatched to smuggle out chapters of the Long March to Freedom. In this project, Kathy became the lynchpin.

In 50 years of journalism, it has remained one of my most cherished stories for a singular reason: Mandela confided in me all the details (they became common later) in his Johannesburg bungalow after he had handed over the Presidency to his successor, Thabo Mbeki. Throughout the narrative (with an impish smile) he played with Amina Cachalia’a hand. I shall dilate on this fascinating digression later.

The conspirators had rationed out the work according to their respective talents. “I would hand over the first draft to Kathy to check out factual details – you see, I have never in my life met anyone with a better memory.” Only after Kathy had edited the draft was it shown to “comrade Walter Sisulu for ideological consistency.”

“All this could be arranged from cell to cell – which overlooked the yard, where prisoners assembled before being taken to the lime quarries for their day’s labour.”

The next step was loaded with high voltage suspense: how was the final draft to be smuggled past the heavily guarded gate to the prisoner’s cages?

The genius for this vital step was Laloo Chiba, with silver hair and eyebrows, a wheatish complexion and eyes which were unexpectedly blue. “He had a talent for very fine, miniaturized writing”. From a matchbox, he would slide out the card-board tray stacked with match sticks. Keep the sticks in a drawer, and carefully steam out the rectangular paper, the size of a large postage stamp.

Chiba would pack a thousand words on the reverse side of this “postage stamp”; another thousand on the cardboard. With grains of cooked rice, the paper was neatly stuck to the bottom of the tray.

At the appointed hour, when there were no guards in the courtyard, the match box was tossed out of the window, to be picked up in the morning by one of the “conspirators”. It was left to the resourcefulness of “Comrade” Mac Maharaj to smuggle the manuscript out of Apartheid South Africa.

Having sacrificed their lives for South Africa’s liberation, did leaders like “Kathy” depart with a sense of fulfillment? He spent his last years as a guide at Robben Island. That was more nostalgia for the years of struggle than a celebration of victory. Yes, the yoke of apartheid was lifted. But, at this distance in time, that was all.

When South African communists (most of them doubled up as The ANC for tactical reasons), returned from the Italian Communist stalwart Enrico Berlinguer’s funeral in June 1984 described by historian Paul Ginsborg as “the greatest spontaneous civic demonstration in the history of the Italian Republic”, there were stars in their eyes. Mikhail Gorbachev, though, still a few months shy of taking over as the Soviet leader, was among the world statesmen at the funeral. The left seemed to be on the ascendant everywhere in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Afghanistan. ANC/Communist leaders like Sisulu, Kathy and Joe Slovo hoped to win riding that crest.

Ironically, Gorbachev lost control of his Glasnost, Perestroika agenda. He supervised the liquidation of the Soviet Empire. History took an unimaginable turn.

There was now no question of any victory for SA leaders. The victorious system’s project was globalization. Freed of the Soviet fear, the West would now, for its own convenience, open the prison doors for Mandela and his cohorts to walk free. They would be brought into focus as pliant victors.

Gavin Relly, chairman of Anglo-American, South Africa’s most powerful company, told me on camera that “Mandela would, we hope, pursue sensible economic policies”. It may not have been a degrading bargain (Kathy protested) but a bargain it was.

The first Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel was not in Robben Island. In fact, in 1994 the World Economic Forum selected him as “Global Leader for Tomorrow.”

Where South Africa has been led is in plain view. Similarities with our own partitioned freedom from a Britain exhausted by war are purely coincidental.

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