Friday, October 21, 2016

How Syrian Boy With Burnt Face Became Propaganda Icon

How Syrian Boy With Burnt Face Became Propaganda Icon 
                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

The four year old Syrian boy with a burnt face found his way to the final debate between Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump and the Democratic Party’s Hillary Clinton at Las Vegas earlier this week.

Clinton simulated a lump in her throat describing the child with burns as evidence of indiscriminate Russian bombing of Civilians.

The pro and anti Russian strand has consistently run through the debates. Clinton has dwelt on Russian perfidy in the West Asian mess while Trump distanced himself from the Cold War rhetoric. According to him, Russian cooperation should be welcome to fight terrorism.

Earlier, Christiane Amanpour of the CNN, thrust the very same photograph of the Syrian boy under Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s nose during her high profile interview in Moscow. This, she said menacingly, is a “crime against humanity”. Lavrov contemplated the photograph with some emotion. “This is a tragedy”, he said without a change of expression.

Lavrov is too suave a diplomat to get into an argument with reporters. I am sure he knew that the painful picture has gone viral on the social media. A multi million dollar propaganda machine has been placed at the disposal of the so called Syrian opposition by an alliance led by the US and which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Propaganda these days will always invite counter propaganda. It turns out that a video of how the “Syrian boy” photograph was manufactured has gone viral too. I have acquired a clip of this video.

A “fixer” lifts the boy on his shoulder and brings him into a trailer which has been set up as a field studio. The boy looking more weary than in pain, is made to sit on a chair. Media is then ushered in for an extended photo session. A hapless toddler is thus brought into focus as an iconic symbol of Russian brutality. As the photo session progresses, the “fixers” and the “minders”, all wearing white helmets, are laughing – they are thrilled at the success of their enterprise.

This sleight of hands is the latest I have noticed in my line of duty for decades as a foreign correspondent.

The uses of the media to advance strategic foreign policy ends can be traced, in recent decades to, say, Radio Free Europe to soften up communist states. This was during the cold war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the use of the media in foreign interventions reached new heights because of lightening advances in technology. But let us abide by the Syria story for our purposes. When I visited the country in August 2011, an imitation of the colour revolutions (Orange “revolution” in Ukraine) was on evidence. In other words, images of slogan shouting crowds were amplified by the media, creating an illusion of a popular, nationwide insurrection.

It is true, there was restiveness in Hama, halfway between Damascus and Aleppo. This was not new. The district has always been a centre for the Muslim Brotherhood. A major uprising in 1982 was so brutally crushed by Hafez al Assad, Bashar Assad’s father, that nearly 10,000 Brotherhood members and sympathizers were killed. But on this occasion when the restiveness in Hama erupted into a demonstration, US ambassador, Robert Stephen Ford and French Ambassador, Eric Chevallier played a role novel in global diplomacy: they joined the demonstration against the government they were accredited to.

Indeed, the duet made appearances in Homs, on the Lebanese border and Dera, near Jordan. When I asked why western ambassadors were being allowed to stoke a revolution, one of Bashar al Assad’s senior advisers threw up her hands:
“This shows how far we have been penetrated.”

The ambassadors did not just provide moral support to the opposition by making a personal appearance in the trouble spots, they also provided the insurrection with state of the art communications technology.

According to James Glanz and John Markoff of the New York Times, “The Obama administration is (in 2011) leading global effort to deploy “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down communications networks.”

The NYT reporters described “one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth floor shop in L street, Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs, looking like a garage band, are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype ‘internet in a suitcase’”. It was all in preparation of an elaborate “Liberation Technology Movement”.

None of this technology has enabled the US and its cohorts to cover themselves with glory in Syria. The so called “moderate opposition” has been an illusion, a sort of cover for terrorist groups like Al Nusra.

Pushed onto the back foot on this issue, Amanpour screwed up her nose and asked with marked aggression:
“You are not suggesting the United States is helping terror groups.”
Lavrov’s non reply was pithy:
“When it comes to the Al Nusra, I am not sure.”

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Friday, October 14, 2016

War Build Up: To Influence US Elections Or Is It Real?

War Build Up: To Influence US Elections Or Is It Real?
                                                                         Saeed Naqvi 

Americans and the Russians are leaping over the threshold in Aleppo – almost.

Note the rhetoric:
US State Department Spokesman, John Kirby, says:

Extremist groups will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there in Syria to expand their operations, which could include attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities. Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags, and will continue to lose resources, perhaps even aircraft,

If the war continues “more Russian lives will be lost, more Russian aircraft will be shot down.”

This invites a double fisted punch from Major General Igor Konashenkov, Chief of Information, Ministry of Defence:

 “As for Kirby’s threats about possible Russian aircraft losses and the sending of Russian servicemen back to Russia in body bags, I would say that we know exactly where and how many “unofficial specialists” operate in Syria and in the Aleppo province and we know that they are involved in the operational planning and that they supervise the operations of the militants. But if somebody tries to implement threats (articulated by Kirby) it is by no means certain that these militants (and their minders) will have the time to get the hell out of there.”

In fact Russian missiles have already been fired on the Western led coalition. Read this report from Iranian Fars news agency:

“The Russian warships fired three Caliber missiles at the foreign officers’ coordination operations room in Dar Ezza region in the Western part of Aleppo near Sam’an mountain, killing 30 Israeli and western officers,” Several US, Turkish, Saudi, Qatari and British and Israeli officers were also killed.”

In the midst of all this, the UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura makes a most extraordinary statement. He says, Russian and Syrian forces should immediately stop their “aerial bombing” of Aleppo. After this step, the militants from the Fatah al-Sham Front group -- formerly known as the Nusra Front, which has been linked to al Qaeda, should leave the city.

If the militants lay down their weapons “in dignity” and leave, Mistura would “personally” accompany them out. Why would De Mistura’s lead that group out of the city which U.N. considers a terrorist organization?

It is all hurtling towards the US elections on November 8.

So much part of the election propaganda has Russia become that images of the Russian bear, in Donald Trump’s corner, menacing the US, must be presumed to have been sketched in the minds of many voters. The one who will fight this monstrous ogre is Hillary Clinton. This build up of the “Russian enemy”, according to some analysts, may therefore be advantageous to Clinton.

If, by some miracle, Russian noses can be rubbed in the dust, Clinton supporters outside the last debate between the candidates in Las Vegas on October 19, will blow the trumpet and throw up their hats – just the images the media will rejoice in projecting.

By the same token, would a projection of anything resembling American reversal in Aleppo, boomerang on Clinton? Would such an outcome not make Trump look like a sage? “I told you we must talk to the Russians and fight terrorism.” Should the alliance lose Aleppo, there will be a scramble for Mosul. The propaganda machine is waiting to spin a victory anywhere.

Anyone following US-Russian actions in West Asia, particularly Syria, must come away with one unmistakable conclusion: the US, France, Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, tried their damnedest to bring about regime change in Syria. They destroyed Syria but Bashar al Assad is still President despite their six year long war against him.

Russians entered the war to fight terror groups and protect Assad. If they prevail in Aleppo, they will look like the victorious power. Indeed, when CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov in Moscow earlier in the week, he accused the US of helping terrorism in Syria. One would have expected Amanpur to be on the offensive in her follow up question, but she took it lying down.

Anglo-Saxons, Lavrov continued, were unable to come to terms with the emergence of a multipolar world.

A totally composed Lavrov provided an unsettling contrast to western leaders in the grip of panic. French and Spanish representatives are appealing to the UN Security to impose a no fly zone over Aleppo. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is advising air strikes over Syria. They are all checkmated by the Russians on the ground in Syria and at the UN.

The Russian resolution seeking a ceasefire to enable humanitarian aid to the besieged in Aleppo comes with a proviso: all aid convoys will be checked by Russian and Syrian forces.

Lo and behold, Egypt bolts from the coalition on which the Saudis have spent blood and treasure – Egypt supports the Russian resolution.

Just as the Russian-Syrian combine increases its grip over Eastern Aleppo (so far in rebel – read al Nusra – hands), 62 countries abandon all thought of dethroning Assad; they rush to the Security Council to prevent further deaths in Aleppo. This would be quite unremarkable were it not for a fact of historic importance. Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined the group seeking a “transition according to the Geneva conventions.” Look, who is citing the scriptures! On the eve of US elections, it is all totally topsy turvy.

Supposing Clinton wins the election, will she as President be able to affect the outcome in Syria? Or have the Russians imposed a fait accompli by totally altering the situation on the ground? Remember her imperious wave of hand as Secretary of State: “Get out of the way, Assad.”

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Lumpen Communalism Can Be Shamed, But Will Media Help?

Lumpen Communalism Can Be Shamed, But Will Media Help?
                                                                               Saeed Naqvi 

Kash Hindustan mein hota janam Abbas ka
Barh ke hum Hindu utha lete alam Abbas ka
(If only Abbas were born in Hindustan,
We Hindus would have held aloft his emblem)
                                                                        A “noha” or Moharram dirge from Awadh.

Abbas was Hussain’s younger half brother, known for his valour, loyalty, commitment and character.

In AD 680, barely 48 years after Prophet Mohammad’s death, forces of Yazid, who ruled the Arab world from his headquarters in Damascus, surrounded the 72 relatives and friends of Hussain, the prophet’s second grandson on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq. The entourage included women and children. Yazid wanted Hussain’s endorsement for his universally recognized corrupt rule. He needed legitimacy; Hussain said no. He was determined to preserve the sanctity of the prophet’s message of peace and just society.

What followed on the banks of the river is what history remembers as the Battle of Karbala, the central theme of Moharram observances everywhere for the past 1,400 years.

On the 10th day of Moharram, Aashura, Hussain, in consultation with his younger sister, Zainab, announced an important decision: the “standard” (alam) of Ali was to be entrusted to his bravest son, Abbas. Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law had raised this emblem in every battle Mohammad was forced to fight with Arab tribes.

To put extreme pressure on Hussain, Yazid’s troops blockaded the river. In the scorching heat, supply of water was cut off to the 72 in Hussain’s camp. This is when Abbas rode out, fluttering his banner, determined to fill his water bag particularly for his favourite niece Sakeena, fainting with thirst.

Never did Urdu poetry reach such peaks of grandeur in the epics called Marsias written by masters like Munshi Channulal Dilgeer, Mir Anis, Mirza Dabeer, Josh Malihabadi – particularly marsias with Abbas as hero. The emotive power of the Abbas narrative, the way both his arms were cut off, his utter helplessness at the sight of his water bag pierced with an arrow and his standard falling, had popular resonance. Abbas’s alam is therefore a mandatory part of all Moharram processions, accompanied by soulful “nohas” or dirges. In some Qasbahs and districts these processions were led by Hindus.

The dirge quoted above is virtually the theme noha of a Hindu procession. It virtually taunts “Arabs” for their shoddy treatment of “Ahle Bait” or the prophet’s family.

“Oh, if only Abbas were born among us Hindus; we would never have allowed his alam to be so desecrated.” It may be somewhat romantic, but it is an uplifting cross cultural sentiment. And these Moharram processions are going on quite literally today because Moharram observances are in full swing. October 3, after all, was the first of Moharram. It is all building up to a crescendo till October 12, Aashura, the day when Hussain and all the male members of his entourage were martyred. Women were taken prisoners.

It may no longer be as grand as it was in the past but anyone interested in the aesthetics of Moharram should visit Lucknow, Mehmudabad and smaller Qasbahs like Mustafabad to experience the poetry, music and popular dirges sung in large choruses. Naushad, the renowned Bollywood music director, borrowed his “choruses” from the “nohas” of Lucknow and the Qasbahs of Awadh.

Moharram in our Qasbah of Mustafabad was incomplete without a sermon or two by Pandit Brij Mohan Kachar. Today the best known writer of Soz and Salams focused on Karbala is Sanjay Mishra of Lucknow. I deliberately mention all this, even on the pain of being repetitious, because our collective tragedy is that most of the time lumpens run away with the limelight: images of the murder in Dadri or cow dung paste being thrust down the throats of Muslim boys is brought into focus ad nauseam. Such incidents, which frighten (and anger) Muslims, only end up embarrassing an overwhelming number of Hindus.

Lumpens have once again come into focus in Budhana village in Muzaffarnagar. The village happens to be the ancestral home of the brilliant theatre and Bollywood actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He was eager to play a role in the village Ram Lila during Dussehra. Local Shiv Sainiks said this would happen over their dead bodies. Nawazuddin was a Muslim. How can he act in Ram Lila?

This kind of vulgarity does not need to be dignified by public breast beating. If only there was an authentic public service media, or even an independent TV channel with minimal aesthetics, I would have had Josh Malihabadi’s revolutionary couplet, deriving heavily from the Ramayana legend, either sung or recited in Josh’s declamatory style:

Aa rahi aag Lanka ki taraf barhti hui
Aaj Ravan ka mahal Sita ka zindaan hai to kya?
(Raging fires are advancing on Lanka
So what if Ravan’s palace is Sita’s prison today)

I am sure, the Shiv Sainiks of Budhana would have difficulty understanding the couplet, but their political patrons would certainly be embarrassed.

I would then dwell on Abdul Rahim Khan e Khana’s life not so much as Akbar’s courtier but as a Bhasha or an Awadhi poet. I would set to music his Sanskrit verses (with subtitles) on Lord Rama. Patrons of the present government would probably be ashamed when they learn that the scholar on Rahim’s Sanskrit verse on Lord Rama was the late RSS litterateur, Vishnu Kant Shastri.

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Friday, September 30, 2016

In Din Of Indo-Pak War Drums, Some Real Losers

In Din Of Indo-Pak War Drums, Some Real Losers
                                                                           Saeed Naqvi
Shaila died in a Karachi hospital on the day when the Army camp in Uri was attacked. Threatening war drums kept her brother, Nazim, a dear cousin of mine, from traveling for the last rites. That was the best he could have done. Forbidding paper work would have been in the way for Shaila’s burial in the family graveyard in Mustafabad near Rae Bareli. So she was buried in Karachi. Nazim wept on my shoulder in New Delhi.

Joint families have dispersed but the sentiment to get together for marriages and death still lingers. This week, even as you read this column, we shall congregate at Nazim’s house to remember Shaila.

In Dubai, my cousin Shireen’s dilemma is of a different order. With some effort, she could have attended the funeral in Karachi. She decided not to. Shireen lives with a paranoia: she is averse to having her Indian passport stamped by Pakistani immigration. Thereby hangs a tale.

Daughter of left liberal author, my uncle, Saiyyid Mohammad Mehdi, Shireen did her Masters in Sociology from JNU, married a Pakistani cousin Abbas, and had a daughter, Mariam. Given her background, Shireen was obstinately opposed to giving up her “secular” Indian identity for a Pakistani one. Mariam born in India, equally stubbornly clung on to her Indian passport.

These compulsions forced Abbas to find work as a banker in neutral territory – Cayman Islands. In the balmy weather, when Shireen was in the family way again, she decided to hop across to Florida for good gynecological support. Thus came Rabab into this world, not only pampered by the most opulent medical facilities but also with access to a gift from the gods – an American passport. She was born in America.

In Herbert’s great poem, The Pulley, God exhausts all his treasurers on man but keeps for himself the “Rest”. This has multiple meanings. In other words, God’s gifts will come with “repining restlessness” so that man does not forget Him.

Well, Shireen had her share of God’s convoluted gifts. A tall, lovely, 28 year old, on a wheelchair, immobile and comprehensively challenged, is Rabab, carrying the world’s most priceless travel document – an American passport.

For long years, Dubai has been their chosen “neutral” territory from where they branch out to relatives resident in either of the countries for which their papers are valid.

To make life easier for her beloved Rabab, Shireen has kept an option in New Delhi near our daughters, her adoring nieces. The problem is that Rabab needs a visa, which is difficult to obtain when Indo-Pak temperatures are high. But she has an American passport? That does not matter. Her father is a Pakistan citizen. Period. But she is challenged. Doesn’t matter.

God’s other gifts to Shireen were soon to be packaged with further complications. The older daughter, did superbly at university in Canada, fell in love with a Haitian film maker with a Canadian passport. It therefore made sense for her to acquire a Canadian passport, supremely confident of her Indian attachment. She was born in India and if an Indian passport is no longer her “birthright”, (she thought) at least an OCI or an Overseas Citizen of India identity card would be hers for the asking.

It turns out that is not the case. Let me quote the official document that has been handed to her.
“As per the MHA’s OCI ruling no person, who or either of whose parents or grandparents or great grandparents is or has been a citizen of Pakistan, Bangladesh at any time or such other country as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify, shall be eligible for registration as an Overseas Citizen of India Cardholder.

In view of the existing OCI rules, you are not entitled for grant of OCI card facility being one of your parents of Pakistani origin.”

But wait a minute, she was born in India; until two years ago she had an Indian passport. That does not matter. Her father’s nationality trumps every detail in her past. Shireen and Mariam are frantic. Will she get a visa for a wedding in the family in India in November?

I realize more than most people that these are abnormal times. In fact my career as a foreign correspondent would have been impossible without unstinted help, on a personal basis, from friends in the foreign office. Additionally, visas for friends and relatives, on both sides of the border, were there for the asking. My friends were a strand in the vast mosaic that kept the nation’s sanity. Thanks to them visiting relatives from Pakistan envied us for the friends we had. “Bhaiyya, can we buy land here?” It all seems so distant in time.

When some of us accompanied the then India’s External Affairs Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee to Pakistan, I invited colleagues K.K. Katyal and M.L. Kotru, among others, to visit relatives in Karachi. The idea was to share with them the Mohajir experience. A teenage cousin of mine took my breath away:
“Bhaiyya, are they Hindus?”
Yes, but why do you ask?”
“Because they look just like you.” The boot was on the other foot those days.

My mother, an eternal optimist, a great favourite of Shaila, Nazim, Shireen, Abbas, indeed our entire universe, died three years ago, determined to believe that sooner or later mists will lift and peace will descend. The following couplet was an article of faith with her:
“Banda maza us milap mein hai,
Jo sulah ho jaaee, jung ho kar?
(There is great pleasure in the togetherness
Which happens after a big quarrel.)

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