Friday, December 4, 2020

Liberal Cleric Sounds Like A Contradiction But Not Kalbe Sadiq

Liberal Cleric Sounds Like A Contradiction But Not Kalbe Sadiq

                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi


Mir Taqi Mir describes his “perfect” man in a rubayee:

“Miliye us shaqs se ke jo aadam hovey

Naz apne kamal par use kum hovey

Boley to usey sunne ko aaye khilqat

Khamosh rahey to ek alam hovey”

(The person to seek out must, above all, be humane.

He must not wear his knowledge on his sleeves.

When he speaks, the world listens to him,

But when silent, he is a universe unto himself.)

The quatrain applied aptly to Saiyyid Kalbe Sadiq, who passed away at 83 in Lucknow earlier this month.

Just as Lucknow has lost so much of the eclectic culture nursed over hundreds of years, the death of Maulana Kalbe Sadiq brings down the curtain on the institution of the “Aalim”, which derives from “ilm” which means “knowledge”.

That this was largely a Shia institution is easily explained: the Nawabs of Awadh were Shia, which is where the patronage came from. This must not detract from the fact that internationally known Sunni institutions like Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema, or the House of knowledge also flourished. There was considerable intellectual rapport between the sects. How else does one explain the masterly “Muazna-e-Anis-o-Dabir”, comparative study of Anis and Dabir, written by one of Nadwa’s greatest scholars Shibli Nomani. Anis and Dabir were famous Marsia writers, a genre focused on the tragedy of Karbala, central to the observance of Moharram, not exclusively but primarily a Shia occasion.

Kalbe Sadiq came from a long line of “Ulema” (plural for Aalim), or theological scholars conversant with liberal traditions of which Sufism was another important part. Saiyid Waris Shah, the Pir of Dewa Sharief, seven kilometers away from Lucknow, had a simple explanation for not going through the rituals of “Namaz”, prayer. “Where is the space to bow in supplication?” The implication was: “He is in me.”

During my school days, a phase of cultural bifurcation between school and home, the two towering “Alims” of Lucknow were Maulana Kalbe Hussain (alias Kabban Sahib), Kalbe Sadiq’s father, and Maulana Ali Naqi (Naqqan Sahib), both brilliant orators whose sermons were much valued at congregations called the “Majlis”. The themes ranged from history, politics, metaphysics, any subject, provided the speaker deftly brought in Karbala, preferably towards the end to clinch the argument.

Lucknow’s celebrated tapestry of manners did find itself frayed even in this limited circle of theologians and their flock of followers. A group, clearly not from among “Naqqan Sahib’s” followers, created what for Lucknow was a major scandal. The group accused the respected cleric of blasphemy and physically assaulted him.

Apparently, Naqqan Sahib had in his researches spotted mention of water in Imam Hussain’s tent. Even a hint on these lines was anathema to a bunch of fanatics. The absence of water in Karbala’s torrid heat heightens Hussain’s tragedy. For that very reason, even a suggestion of water in Karbala would soften the tragic effect. The truth, ofcourse, is that “Naqqan Sahib’ had never said that “water” was available. He had simply cited sources which hinted at such a possibility.

Worst was the treatment meted to poet Yaas Yagana Changezi, a contemporary of Jigar, Firaq and Josh. Yagana wrote:

“Samajh mein kuch nahee ata,

Parhey jaaney se kya hasil?

Namazon mein hain kuch maaney,

to pardesi zabaan kyon ho?”

(What’s the point of reciting namaz

When you do not know its meaning?

The simple question is:

Why should namaz be in a foreign language?)

Put it down to Lucknow’s open mindedness that this affront was tolerated. But in the next instance the pot boiled over.

In one of his “naats” or religious songs Yagana referred to Prophet Mohammad in less than reverent terms. He probably did not know that he had violated one of the unenforced codes:

“Ba Khuda deewana baash-o

Ba Mohammad hoshiyar.”

(Take liberties with God, but be careful with Mohammad)

Dara Shikoh’s Prime Minister, Chandrabhan Brahman broke the code most brazenly:

“Panja dar panja-e-Khuda daram

Man che parwa e Mustafa daram.”

(My hand is in the hand of God:

Why should I worry about Mohammad?)

It reflects in the backward slide of a tolerant culture, that Yagana did not go scot-free. His face was blackened black and he was given a donkey-ride through the old city.

The liberal streak in the “Ulema” of Lucknow comes out in bold relief in an incident concerning Josh Malihabadi. His Marsia titled Hussain and Revolution became a cult poem even in devout circles. Josh became a popular invitee to various Imambaras of Lucknow, indeed across the country. He built up a reputation for Marsia writing, second only to the great Mir Anis. A group of orthodox Shias turned up at the residence of the great Aalim of his age, Maulana Naasir ul Millat armed with a plaint. Josh, devoted to liquor (he called it Kaaba e khaas o aam) should be banned from reciting Marsias from pulpits in “our sacred Imambaras”.

After reading Josh’s Marsias, the Maulana invited the complainants and Josh. What happened next was dramatic. The Maulana spread out his personal prayer mat for Josh and invited him to recite “Hussain and Inquilab”. The message from the Maulana was straightforward: it would be wrong to occupy the pulpit inebriated. Otherwise there is no specific bar on drinking.

This was the open mindedness Maulana Kalbe Sadiq inherited from generations of “Ulema”. From the 1990s he had pleaded: Even if the Muslims win the Ram Janmbhoomi land dispute, they should gift the land to the Hindus. “You will win their goodwill.” His point was that a Muslim can turn towards Kaaba and say his prayers anywhere. “Ram is central to Hindu ethos.” He initiated joint Shia-Sunni Namaz, allowing the Sunni cleric to take the lead.

He traced Muslim backwardness to a singular lack of education and dedicated his life to establishing non sectarian institutions in every possible field. But he died a disappointed man because of expanding communalism and a community trapped in the snare of selfish political leaders.

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Friday, November 27, 2020

The New Team In Washington Surveys West Asia Trump Leaves Behind

The New Team In Washington Surveys West Asia Trump Leaves Behind

                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

For the new team being announced by the Biden administration any innovation can only follow repair work of the considerable wreckage that is being left behind by the outgoing team.

At this moment of transition, what construct does one place on the outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s participation in the cloak-and-dagger meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in the mega city of Neom being built on the Red Sea? The drama of this meeting was heightened by Netanyahu’s office denying the meeting in tones which seemed to suggest that the Israelis were not busting their guts to keep the meeting secret. A pretense of secrecy was essential because otherwise “MBS” would be in “trouble”.

Netanyahu’s Education Minister, Yoav Galant, could not contain his joy at the “amazing achievement” because the “Sunni world” was joining the Israel-US alliance to counter “Iranian Shiite extremism”.

This Shia-Sunni confrontation, real or simulated, has been the game ever since the Shah was toppled in Iran. Why then this secrecy now? Why is MBS so scared being seen in an embrace with Netanyahu on Saudi soil? Because his people will find out? Do his people matter? But it turns out that Human rights is an article of faith with the incoming Secretary of state, Antony Blinken. This may well be a source of anxiety not just for Saudi Arabia but all monarchies and authoritarian systems. Are there any in our vicinity?

A hint about MBS’s source of anxiety was available in the other crucial meeting the Saudi king had with President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The Turkish strongman is part of a quadrangle which both, Washington (the incoming administration) and MBS, Netanyahu too, should by analyzing.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, it was elementary that creating a distance between Moscow and Beijing would remain a US strategic goal. But George W Bush and his deluded neo-cons asked for the moon – full spectrum global dominance into the American century. The financial crisis of 2008 rapped them hard on the knuckles. American decline was well underway when Trump greased the downward slide even more effectively.

The evolving Biden team will contemplate at the menacing quadrangle I mentioned at the outset. To begin with, Moscow and Beijing have never been closer. The duet spotted the potential of Iran too, and included it in the club. After all, Washington is just about to dust up the Iranian nuclear file for a resumption of a conversation with Tehran.

No sooner had Trump lost the election, when Imran Khan was on his maiden trip to Kabul. This, when the US troop withdrawal from the Afghan capital had run into the sort of snags which US representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad was trying to sort out. Was the Pakistan Prime Minister now effectively being positioned to handle the Afghan file? This became a very real anxiety in both Tehran and New Delhi. But Iran being re invited on the nuclear file, mollifies it somewhat. How happy New Delhi should be with its exertions in the Quad (US, Australia, Japan, India) only time can tell. The Japanese Foreign Minister has already clarified: our membership of the Quad is not directed against any country.

So, while the US was on the Trump rollercoaster and coping with the social mayhem and galloping Covid, other countries were moving increasingly in concert. There has been so much continuous chanting of the Shia-Sunni conflict that real and abiding antipathies have been lost sight of.

A convenient point of departure to explain this narrative are the two events in December, 1979, which rattled the Saudis, indeed the world – Ayatollah Khomeini’s return, signaling the Iranian revolution. Around the same date, an anti-monarchy, Sunni, an extreme version of the Muslim Brotherhood, Juhayman al-Otaybi, defied the Saudi state by occupying the holiest Muslim Mosque of Mecca.  

Unable to flush out Otaybi and his armed supporters, Saudis sought Western help. A situation emerged which to a non Muslim would read like a situation comedy. Since non Muslims are not allowed in Mecca, US and French soldiers had to be converted to Islam to enter the mosque and accomplish the holy task of killing Otaybi and his men. This “rebellion within” gives Saudis nightmares. But they feel more secure externalizing the threat. They have persistently targeted Iran and Shiaism as threats to themselves, Israel, indeed, the West. When did you last hear of the 15 days siege of the Mecca Mosque?

To point fingers at the Muslim Brotherhood (Akhwan ul Muslimeen) as the enemy would isolate most of the GCC Sheikhdoms from the larger Muslim “Umma”. They would then be perceived as only the “Wahabi” sect of the Sunni world.

Incalculable Saudi wealth, particularly after the quadrupling of oil prices following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, had the Western Military Industrial Complex salivating on Arab petro dollars. The oil rich Sheikhs are, by formal agreements, dependent on Western arms. Their wealth plus their links to Israel give them considerable control on Western media which has quite shockingly harped only on the Shia-Sunni conflict.

When the Arab Spring dethroned Hosni Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood’s, Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s Prime Minister. Coming to power of a Brother in Egypt caused the Saudis to load their camels with their billions and turn up in Cairo to stabilize Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s coup in Cairo. Brothers in power in Egypt was anathema to the Israelis too because the Hamas in Gaza would now have help from all sides. Brother in Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. They were ideologically coherent with Hamas.

At the Shia end, the Hezbullah in Lebanon, Iran, the Alawi elements in the Syrian Army, the Shia majority in Iraq, war tried Houthis of Yemen are all supporting the Palestinian cause to the hilt.

No, it is not the Shia Sunni divide which is bothering MBS and Netanyahu. What worries them deeply is the Shia-Sunni combine zeroing in on the Israelis and the Wahabis in unlikely comradeship.

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Friday, November 20, 2020

After Bihar, The Enigma Of Asad Owaisi Deserves To Be Understood

 After Bihar, The Enigma Of Asad Owaisi Deserves To Be Understood

                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

The enigma of Asaduddin Owaisi on the rise in recent years has, after he won five seats in the Seemanchal area of Bihar, acquired a new salience.

Speculation now centres on how he might fare in West Bengal where the Muslim population is estimated to be 30 percent which is the backbone of Mamata’s support. Since the Muslim is presumed to be Owaisi’s hunting ground too, will the Muslim vote be confused? If Amit Shah had not made it his life’s mission to oust or substantially diminish Trinamool and “Didi”, Muslims may well have risked a breach in their absolute support for Mamata. In current circumstances, any bid by Owaisi to fish for a small catch, just enough to open an account in West Bengal, will expose him to the slur that he is a “vote katua”, a vote divider which is what parties, particularly the Congress, like to cast him as. This allegation of communalism against Owaisi, helps the Congress sustain the delusion that it is still with the secular line up. The Congress does not like the refrain: Congress and the BJP, tweedledum and tweedledee. It must ofcourse be admitted that there are differences between the two ruling class, corporate supported parties. Former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh may, admittedly, drink a liter of cow’s urine everyday but his drinking habits do not come into conflict with the secularism a handful of Congressmen swore by in the days of yore.

It is an article of faith with connoisseurs that the non dairy yield from a jet black cow is comparable to “Amrit” or nectar. Congress leader Randeep Surjewala, who declared Rahul Gandhi a “janeudhari” Brahmin during the Gujarat Assembly elections, would have had the electronic media riveted on the cow shed in Rahul’s bungalow had he gifted him with two black cows. Surjewala held the gift back presumably because he may have had the foresight that Rahul would eventually have to move to Wayanad in Kerala where the cow is otherwise contemplated.

To fast forward the narrative, there were no cow vigilantes, no lynchings in the name of the cow, no bar on Love Jihad. The Congress can never be blamed for inaugurating such trends. The charge against them is different: extreme cowardice. When these shameful events happen, the Congress instead of going for the opposition jugular, just shuts up – in case taking sides results in a loss of Hindu vote. Little wonder, the “B Team of the BJP” is a label which has stuck on the Congress.

Take the latest fusillade Amit Shah has directed at the “Gupkar gang” for international conspiracy. The tepid response by Surjewala says nothing. Why does the Congress not come out with a clear stand on article 370?

Sheikh bhi khush rahey

Shaitaan bhi naraaz na ho

(Keep the agents of God and of Satan equally happy.)

How can the Congress point fingers at Owaisi’s “pro BJP stand” when it reduced senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad to tears during the 2019 elections. “Even district committees of the Congress do not invite me to address rallies.”

This is the pincer in which Owaisi holds the Congress. He taunts the Muslims: “Your consistent support to the Congress has brought you down to the level described in the 2005 Sachar Committee report.” Since then “your condition has become worse.”

The thrust of Owaisi’s argument is that Muslims have been tricked into supporting “pseudo secular” parties like the Congress, and caste parties in UP, Bihar etcetera.

The Muslims have been frightened into supporting these parties. The ogre they have been frightened by is, obviously, the RSS-BJP. Owaisi’s argument is that the so called secular parties seek Muslim support not to defeat the BJP (they are separately incapable of defeating it), but to enlarge their power base, a delusion at best, and end up doing nothing for the Muslims.

With a population of 200 million or 14% of the total population there are 27 Muslims in a Parliament of 543. The ratio in the state assemblies is even more embarrassing. Owaisi’s argument is simple: seven seats in Telangana, two in Maharashtra and now five in Bihar adds upto fourteen seats. Supposing Muslims pick up an average of even one seat in 28 states and 8 union territories, the figure 36 will not look so negligible.

The electoral weakness of Indian Muslims is precisely this: though substantial in an overall sense, they are scattered all over. Quite ironically Covid 19, by linking schools, colleges, businesses, international conferences by the magic of virtual reality will come into play: Members of Assemblies can be in instantaneous contact.

The danger, ofcourse, is that the growth of a Muslim entity will help accelerate Hindu consolidation. How does one obviate that emergency? By allowing the Muslim vote to habitually occupy frayed mattresses in parties like the Congress which are in fatal decline?

The durability of Owaisi in public life denotes the failure of all political parties to paint him in lurid, communal colours, much as they tried. Such a moment did offer itself in 2013 when his younger, much more fire brand brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi made a provocative reference to police support for the violence against Muslims. “Remove the police for 15 minutes and let’s see.” The speech smacked of a sort of Muslim macho, causing the media to go into convulsions.

Since then Akbaruddin has clearly been kept on a short leash. Asaduddin, a barrister, a restrained and skilful speaker, once a medium pacer for the South zone cricket team, and one who anchors his political stance unerringly to the Constitution is an uncommon phenomenon in public life. For right, left and centre, Asaduddin is the exasperating opponent who does not deviate from good manners, logic, the Constitution and, woe of woes, happens to be a Muslim. Well, if he has such qualities of heart and mind, why will sensible non Muslims not turn to him some day?

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Friday, November 6, 2020

American Democracy Loses When Most Popular Candidate Kept From Race Twice

American Democracy Loses When Most Popular Candidate Kept From Race Twice

                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

It was nice to receive mails from friends who had assembled at Lucknow boy Nusrat Durrani’s Dumbo apartment under the Brooklyn Bridge on 3 November 2016, election night, armed with champagne bottles to be uncorked as soon as Hillary Clinton pipped the post.

In the event, the champagne bottles stood in one straight line on the dining table like a row of brooding bishops. Trump had shocked all the guests. A submarine sandwich hurled as a missile by a despairing guest knocked the lamp over.

I have repeated the above story because that is what history is supposed to be – a continuous repetition of facts. So indelibly etched on my mind is that party in Brooklyn that every US election will bring alive that episode.

There is another reason for that episode to be so etched on my mind. I did not wish to be the only one out of synch with the general mood that evening, but I was in a minority of one who expected Hillary to lose. Having arrived in New York a fortnight ago for a discussion in the various campuses of my book, “Being the Other: The Muslim in India”, kept me away from a 24X7 bombardment of punditry on elections.

A cluttering of detail tends to push out of focus the simple, plausible outline conditioning of electoral behaviour. Experience from most electoral theatres had taught me a simple lesson: people were tired of two parties, one indistinguishable from the other.

This was happening at local levels too, even in India. The Aam Aadmi Party’s record 67 out of 70 seats in 2015 was one such wave, smothered by the media which is controlled by the Corporates whose key projects in New Delhi were threatened by the untried party. It did not have the ideological spine to withstand the assault from the main political parties and the corporate media. Therefore, the bubble burst. AAP is now an ordinary party circling around power.

There are comparisons between Joe Biden scraping through and Hillary Clinton losing in 2016: neither were popular candidates. They were candidates that the Democratic Party “maneuvered” as front runners because on both occasions Bernie Sanders was the most popular candidate, but his democratic socialism was anathema to the establishment.

As soon as it became clear that Sanders was leading the field, the establishment came out, all guns blazing. Thomas Friedman, whom the New York Times values as its star columnist, forgot all decencies of independent journalism and wrote two full columns rooting for former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg and a billionaire several times over, as one of the Democratic front runners. There was no hope in hell that Bloomberg would win (buy) the nomination but, by spending a billion on TV, he would disrupt the game sufficiently for Sanders to advance. “This is a capitalist country” thundered Bloomberg. To protect his credibility, Friedman admitted in his column, that his wife worked for one of Bloomberg’s charities. This is just one of the umpteen tricks employed to obstruct Sanders.

There was a straightforward reason why Clinton was the wrong candidate. The velocity given to globalization after the Soviet collapse gave a fillip to rampaging capitalism. Inequalities broke all barriers. It did not require Thomas Piketty to enlighten as that even in India barely one percent of the rich had cornered 51.53% of the wealth. The picture in the US was worse. Occupy Wall Street became a popular movement. It invited a capitalist riposte – the Tea Party. People were disgusted with Washington, which symbolized the US establishment. A quest began for an anti establishment candidate. Just one such candidate appeared to be Bernie Sanders. People were looking for social welfare, universal health care, education exactly what the Bloombergs of the US thought would kill the initiative which made America great. Quite unabashedly, the Democratic Party gave the impression that it was preferable to lose the White House than lose corporate support.

One hoped the shock reversal of 2016 would have taught the Democrats a lesson. Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn was being likewise thwarted by New Labour. One of their leading lights, Lord Peter Mandelson, had sworn to “undermine” Corbyn. The other day they suspended him. Corbyn was to Mandelson what Sanders was to Bloomberg. This in June 2017 when the latest opinion polls projected Corbyn as the possible Prime Minister. Another example that the establishment trumps the popular will. Whither democracy, then?

At this very time, another reality was allowed to go unnoticed. A Fox News poll showed that Sanders has a +28 rating above politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. At that time, the Guardian’s Trevor Timm wrote “One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling over themselves to be associated with Sanders, especially considering the Party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now. Yet instead of embracing his message, the establishment of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swathes of the country.”

Sanders popularity is now recognized, but after he spelt out the scenario on October 23 in a talk show on how the drama will unfold when votes are counted in these elections, he is well on his way to being prophetic.

“In states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, Republicans are likely to go to the polling booths to cast their votes. Democrats, are likely to mail in their votes. When counting begins, the votes counted first will be Republican votes for that reason. So by 10 pm on counting day, Trump will thank his voters and announce victory. But next morning when millions of mails will be counted, the trend will change. That is when Trump will scream murder: I told you they’ll cheat.” Mayor Rudi Giuliani has already elaborated the case in Philadelphia.

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Friday, October 30, 2020

Macron Walking Around Numerous Minefields Raises Islamophobia To Fight Islamic Terror

Macron Walking Around Numerous Minefields Raises Islamophobia To Fight Islamic Terror

                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

One of our major newspapers, the Indian Express has, on page one, underlined for emphasis something significant: India became the first “non western country” to come out in support of French President, Emmanuel Macron in his fight against Islamic terror.

Less than a week after the macabre beheading of a school teacher, Samuel Paty, by an 18 year old Chechen, terrorists killed three more. The Chechen who had been through a decade of French secular schooling has obviously remained untouched by French grooming. In fact “secular” does not quite describe “Laicite”, or the complete separation of church and state, which has been a very French law since 1905.

The ignition for the spate of massacres was a somewhat inexplicable action by Paty: the teacher showed cartoons of Prophet Mohammad to the class, exactly the ones which had created an uproar in 2015 when two Arabs broke into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killing 12.

The Indian support for Macron on this occasion, though sound, signals something new. Umpteen world events in past decades placed a question mark on where India stood? India’s response was enigmatic silence.

The launch pad for terrorism and the subsequent Islamophobia which followed has not been closely studied: it was Operation Desert Storm in 1992-93. After defeating the Soviet Union, the victorious US went about putting its imprimatur on its status as the sole superpower by first allowing Kuwait to be occupied and then pulverizing Iraq for its misdemeanor. The US, UK combine unleashed unprecedented firepower. And, for the first time in history, on live TV. This heralded the arrival of the global media which would decisively influence and control subsequent world politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too is a beneficiary of the Indian cousins of the same media controlled by crony capitalism.

The global media launched during Desert Storm divided the world into two antagonistic, indeed hostile sets of audiences. The successful West celebrated its victory in its drawing rooms. For the Muslim world it was yet another humiliating defeat. In this situation, where did Indian audiences stand? We are squeamish asking that question because if we sincerely search for the answer we might find the majority and the minority communities having sympathies with opposite sides of the case. In response to an event outside our shores, we are internally divided not quite the fifth column but a surly minority.

Against this backdrop, consider the Indian stand on Macron. A perfectly statesman like support has been made to look biased because of two reasons: the government is perceived as anti Muslim. And there is an absence of a key qualifier; that the brutalities by a few bigots, deserving the severest punishment, has caused the entire community to be tarred.

Another factor must be taken into account. Discussion on terrorism, as on any other contentious issue, will be unconvincing if a taboo is placed on looking at root causes. During the Cold War, when all western arsenal was focused on the Soviet Union, were there recorded instances of Islamic terrorism? It would be instructive to list them if, indeed, there were any. Yes, about the time Israel was in its birth throes there were terrorist outfits like Irgun and Haganah. I have seen Palestinian groups linked to George Habash and Yasser Arafat, bomb Northern Galilee with mortar shells from villages like Hebbariye where one drove via Syria. But that was at the cusp of what was called decolonization everywhere. Wars of national liberation had support from Progressive states.

Imperialism’s great responsibility was to protect Israel, Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Indian passports in those days were not valid for the three countries listed above.

For states that were not “with us” ingenious excuses had to be invented to punish them. Peculiarly unconvincing was Ronald Reagan’s bombardment in 1986 of Benghazi and Tripoli in which Qaddafi’s daughter was killed. The real reason was Libya’s support to the Palestinians but the excuse for the bombardment was almost comical: chatter had been picked up in a Berlin discotheque that Qaddafi was planning some terrorist action. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, always easily persuaded, dispatched to Tripoli a delegation of Non Aligned Foreign Ministers, attending a conference in New Delhi, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Bali Ram Bhagat, as an act of non-aligned solidarity.

After kissing Qaddafi on both cheeks, Arab style, when Bhagat returned to his office in South Block, he nearly fainted in shock. He had been sacked. Rajiv, easily persuaded as I mentioned earlier, received a call from Ambassador Shankar Bajpai in Washington that all the wonderful arrangements for Rajiv’s visit to the Reagan White House in October 1987 would fall apart if Bhagat’s visit to Tripoli was not undone.

It is a nasty way to put it, but Islamophobic reaction to the recent massacres, enables a troubled Macron to shift sufficiently to the Right to neutralize the threat Marine Le Pen may pose in the elections 18 months away, when the yellow vests, pensioners, fuel price hike have all brought down his ratings from 60% to 23%.

The entire Muslim world has attacked Macron because of his inelegant references to Islam. This has caused Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad to completely lose his balance. Far from defending Islam he has unleashed an anti French tirade which clearly justifies for him an extended stay in serious psychiatric care. A desperate Macron meanwhile is flailing his arms in all directions. Behind the scenes, his hand is discernable in installing Saad Hariri as Prime Minister of Lebanon. He is running helter skelter to neutralize Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan bulldozing his way from the Turkish mainland as well as Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus to lay claims to extraordinary deposits of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Indian statement, meanwhile, is clearly the thin end of the wedge. Indian Foreign Policy was generally aligned with the West. The signal now is that it may be trying to outgrow its Brahminical caution.

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Friday, October 23, 2020

Navaratri, Other Systems Of Dieting; But Persian Maxim Trumps Them

Navaratri, Other Systems Of Dieting; But Persian Maxim Trumps Them

                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Corona has taken a toll of my discourses on elementary Hindu virtuals, like Navratra because my yoga guru from the Monghyr Ashram has placed himself under severe restrictions. Last year, between asanas, he was able to slip in the odd recipe centred around tapioca, water chestnut, without grain, meat and the amber stuff.

My man Friday, a Hindu of insufficient Hindutva, a gourmet cook of non-vegetarian delectations, is almost thrilled to forego his dietary excesses during Navaratri. What comes into play is his innate “aastha” or faith: scratch any skin, and it is there.

Two categories of Indians, of any faith, tend to have a link with religion which over the year has become tenuous: those exposed to western education continuously for two generations or those who grew up in a “progressive” household. The “progressives” in my environment represented a confluence of two streams. Their anti-feudal, anti-imperial stance had certain Marxist antecedents. Otherwise they derived from the Urdu poets of the 18th and 19th centuries with their innate abhorrence of religious orthodoxy, a caricature of the Mullah, an elegant irreverence towards traditionalism, committed to social justice a modern outlook, way ahead of self proclaimed liberals reared on John Stuart Mill.

In modern times, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Krishen Chander, Rajender Singh Bedi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Ismet Chugtai, Kaifi Aazmi, Munish Narain Saxena, Niaz Haidar have followed the tradition.

Multiple social malaise continued to haunt Muslims in the grip of the clergy to whom they had been subcontracted by the politician. Those being targeted as “urban naxals” are precisely the sources of enlightenment for a community which would otherwise have sunk further into social backwardness.

By way of diversion, social backwardness has triggered an unrelated episode from my travels to the Connemara coast of Ireland where the great cricketer, Ranjit Singh ji (Ranji) had bought Ballynahinch castle on a river known for the finest river salmon, a paradise for anglers. W.G. Grace and C.B. Fry stayed with him, but for his sister he had made expensive arrangements in the nearby convent with some very strict conditions: she would not be converted to Christianity and she would only wear saris.

From childhood, participation in Diwali, Holi and Dussehra for Muslims and Eid, Bakr Eid and Moharram for Hindus was more or less compulsory among families and their circle of friends. Raksha Bandhan too was a beautiful occasion for cross religious participation. What has surprised me is my lack of acquaintance with, say, Navaratri, on which my yoga guru, absent because of Corona, has been my informal instructor. What I suspect has happened is that during my formative years observances like Navaratri, Ekadashi, pujas for change of seasons, elements, waxing and waning of the moon were either in a low key or confined to the mofussil who were marginal to Lucknow’s mainstream.

Ramzan, the month of fasting, was noticed by non-Muslims in a sensitive way: invitations for lunches or dinners were suspended. Only the closest of the errant friends made clandestine arrangements to imbibe prohibited beverages. There were eccentrics among the aristocracy in the vicinity of Lucknow who broke their fast with a shot of scotch. One instance I am aware of where a family protested at the eccentricity of their elder relative. They were roundly rebuffed for standing between the old gentleman and his God.

Ghalib was the biggest advertiser of his mischievous indiscretions during Ramzan. He mentions in his letters how he snatched a bite of “roti” (bread) here and gulped water there. Excuses he makes for not fasting were almost childish:

“Jis pas roza khol ke khane ko kuchh na ho

Roza agar na khaaye to lachaar kya karey?”

(If someone doesn’t have the means for an elaborate “Iftar”, or breaking of the fast:

He has only one choice: “swallow” the roza.) Swallow here means “end the fast”.

His poor finances and rising costs after 1857 were forbidding. They caused him to write bitterly. “Life in Delhi is becoming impossible; Scotch is selling at Rs.16 per dozen bottles.” There is a subsidiary group of Hazrat Ali’s admirers, among whom Ghalib counted himself, who fast only for three days of Ramzan, beginning 19th when Ali was struck by a poisoned sword in the mosque at Kufa and Ramzan the 21st when he died. My grandfather’s fasting companion during these three days was Pundit Brij Mohan Nath Kachar, a regular at our village during Moharram. His sermons attracted full houses.

The speed with which Hindutva has in recent years transformed faith and practice of religion into religious assertion has left me a trifle shaken. Should my 50 years of commitment films, books, columns on cultural commerce be put away as a chronicle of wasted time? Or should I dismiss these as cow belt excesses exactly as the authors of the Constitution did.

After 1947, the UP Assembly grappled with a list of 20 alternative names for United Provinces. The matter could not be postponed indefinitely because the drafting of the new Constitution was nearing completion and the state’s new name had to be inserted. The Provincial Congress Committee met in Varanasi in November 1947. A majority of 106 members voted for “Aryavarta” as the state’s new names, 22 members voted for “Hind”. Both names were shot down by Nehru.

I had started this column on Navaratri, as nine days of austere dieting. Faith was not an issue at all. Under the guru’s advice, I had been persuaded that it was a healthier way of giving the body a rest than total starvation for 10 to 14 hours which Ghalib found difficult to cope with.

In fact the best I heard on this theme was from my uncle Syed Mohammad Mehdi. He used to recite a Persian maxim:

“Ba har hafta faaqa

Ba har maah qae

Ba har saal mushil

Ba har roz mai”

(Fast every week;

Drink litres of saline water and

Vomit it out every month;

Purgative every year;

Wine every evening.)

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Friday, October 16, 2020

There Can Be No Intra Afghan Talks Unless Ghani Steps Aside

There Can Be No Intra Afghan Talks Unless Ghani Steps Aside

                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

President Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser, Robert C. O’Brien are aching to announce troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as a last minute sweetener for the American voter, rather like floral touches in an Indian wedding. Gen. Mark A Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is probably looking at life beyond Trump, unless there is a second coming. He is talking of ending the Afghan war “responsibility”, which means “not in a hurry”.

When President Barak Obama had set firm deadlines for withdrawal, I made an extensive survey of the country for the Observer Research Foundation. I had concluded that the US is “not leaving Afghanistan today; it is not leaving it tomorrow.” A super power enters a major theatre with one set of interests but, over a period of time, develops multiple compelling interests.

Why would a country, which is directly involved in 14 shooting wars in various parts of the globe, walk away from its longest war ever without any identifiable gain. Withdrawing empty handed would be an admission of defeat. Since this is not on the cards, the only conclusion one can draw is that a plan for the future is not being disclosed for now.

US involvement in Afghanistan has been a great tragedy, but its frequent false starts in a rush to the exit door and announce withdrawal, is material for a spoof by someone like Michael Moore. Take for instance the peace agreement the US signed with Afghan Taleban on February 29 in Doha. So eager was US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to flourish a peace agreement just when the election campaign in the US was picking up, that he would have inserted into the agreement anything the Taleban wished. Read the title headline of that agreement: it is patently absurd.

“Agreement for bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taleban and the United States of America.” The fragility of the agreement is transparent in the pulls and counter pulls that have obviously gone into the headline. There is unbridgeable distance on the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s role, for instance. The Taleban will not talk to Ghani whom they describe quite brazenly as a US “toady”.

Ghani deludes himself if he imagines he is being “firm”. He is coming across to the world at large as a leader with a very thick skin. New Delhi wishes to keep appearances. In the trapeze act, South Block does not wish to be seen loosening the clasp of Ghani’s hand mid air. The zero sum game with Pakistan may operate as a factor but, in deference to realism, not a defining one.

If New Delhi is seen to be digging in for Ghani, it will only find itself embarrassed down the line because it is clear as daylight that intra Afghan talks will not move unless Ghani steps aside. By visiting Islamabad and New Delhi Abdullah Abdullah is positioning himself to step in as soon as the opportunity arises. This is not a process that is likely to reach fruition before the end of the year. So, no confetti on election eve.

One of the advantages the US extracts from its position of being a superpower is to keep making mistakes almost willfully without any fear of being called to account. It is almost a forgotten story that in December 2001 NATO helped by Russia, Iran, India and the Northern Alliance headquartered in the Panjsher valley defeated Taleban and Al Qaeda. Punjsher was also the operational headquarters for the Tajik hero Ahmad Shah Masoud. So strong was Masoud’s opposition to the Taleban and Al Qaeda, that he travelled extensively to acquaint various international fora of the danger that Al Qaeda and Taleban posed to Afghanistan. His address to the European Parliament in the summer of 2001, months before 9/11 was historic by any yardstick. Complete silence on this speech of Masoud’s is surprising. His forces had picked up chatter about a possible Al Qaeda action in the American mainland. He was speaking in Brussels. On September 9, precisely two days before September 11 (9/11) two Arabs, disguised as journalists, visited him in his hideout near the Tajik border for an interview. Their passports it was revealed much later, had been forged in Brussels. These “journalists”, while saying goodbye to Masoud, detonated their vests. All three died instantly. Two days later, the twin towers came down in New York. Is there nothing here that deserves investigation?

Maybe not before the US elections, but is the curtain is about to be brought down on US involvement? Whether Trump or Joe Biden win the election, China, Russia, Iran are likely to remain America’s adversarial concerns.

A little over a year ago, just when US military involvement in Syria was winding down, one common chatter was about Jabhat al Nusra and its variants being flown to newer theatres of action. Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Morgulov Igor Vladimirovich told a high powered conference in New Delhi, with Zalmay Khalilzad in attendance, that militants were being flown from Syria to Northern Afghanistan. “Only the Afghan government and the US controls the Afghan air space.” The blame cannot be placed at any other door. Khalilzad mounted a token protest but nothing more.

The following Friday Iran’s Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei was more specific: Daesh groups were being flown to Afghanistan. The distinguished chronicler of the West Asian scene, Robert Fisk of the Independent made similar allegations. The allegation fitted neatly into the thesis that militants, trained to kill, cannot be sent to the slaughterhouse. They have to be deployed in other theatres where they are proximate to Muslim population into which militancy has to be injected to stir up the Islamic cauldron – Xinxiang, the Caucasus and a handful of Sunni enclaves in Iran.

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