Friday, September 14, 2018

Air Bombardment Or “Chemical Attack”: Suspense Surround Idlib Endgame

Air Bombardment Or “Chemical Attack”: Suspense Surround Idlib Endgame
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The Byzantine and Roman sites of Ebla and Idlib, in North West Syria, may well be reduced to dust if an explosion occurs on a scale many expect. Sadly these archaeological losses will not even be noticed. They will be submerged in the looming human catastrophe.

Ever since the manufactured civil war was launched in 2011 to turn the tables on the Arab Spring, the Syrian theatre has seen many climaxes: Homs, Hama, Deraa, Raqqa, Aleppo, 50 kms, North East of Idlib. But there is unanimity that Idlib will shake the region like nothing else has so far. This hyperbole is not based on personal observational, though I have visited Syria in the midst of the civil war.

White House National Security Adviser, John Bolton has been warning repeatedly that the Syrian government was about to use chemical weapons in Idlib. Even before Bolton’s warning, Hassan Nasrallah, much the shrewdest leader in the region, had raised an alarm: we have information that a plot was being hatched to foist on Damascus the allegation that it had used chemical weapons. The alert eye being kept on Idlib by the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US exposes a population of three million to all manner of unpredictabilities.

It is an irony of our times that great and medium powers are riveted on Idlib not because its ancient monuments or the civilian population but because of the 60 to 80 thousand of militants scattered through the governorate. These militants are from half a dozen different groups. There are quarrels galore between these groups claiming proximity to major powers with stakes in the Syrian pie. Among the bewildering range of groups are the Al Nusra Front, Haya Tehrir e Shaam, Turkestan Islamic Front with links to Uigur groups in Xinxian. There are off shoots of the PKK, keeping Turkey on sixes and sevens. Not to be forgotten are the Chechens focused on the Caucasus. Then there is the Free Syrian Front.

For Damascus a militant is a militant and should be eliminated. Turkey, on the other hand, may see some groups – Tehrir e Shaam, for instance – as assets in Ankara’s conflict with Kurdish groups. The US would like most of the militant groups to be protected because they will always come in handy whenever it becomes necessary to mount extra pressure on Bashar al Assad. Washington may be inclined to negotiate the future of some of the assets if Assad allowed them more bases in Syria.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, even far off Kosovo, everywhere, Americans a super power by habit, if not in substance any longer, develop multiple interests. After the 72 day bombing of Serbia, removing Slobodan Milosevic, creating an independent enclave of Kosovo, the US moved on only after they had created Bond Steel, abutting Macedonia, the largest military base since Vietnam. Likewise, they entered Afghanistan ostensibly to remove Osama bin Laden but have, over the past 17 years, developed multiple interests – minerals, UNOCAL pipeline, Helmand Poppy fields, keeping an eye on the world’s only Muslim nuclear bomb in Pakistan, keeping Iran, Central Asian Republics, Xinxian, the Caucasus under surveillance – and within range.

In Idlib too US interests are varied. Notice I have not mentioned Syria because that involvement is of epic proportions. Idlib in Syria is the enclave where all the regional and global stakeholders, have nudged and pushed their respective “militants”, “terrorists” and “moderate groups”. For Syria, Russia and Iran they are all the same and need to be exterminated.

This remedy is anathema to Turkey. The country is already host to 3.5 million refugees. Bombing of Idlib will cause another 2.5 million civilian to cross the Turkish border.

Further, there are among the motley crowd of militants those who will checkmate a “Kurdish enclave” contiguous with the territory the PKK claims. The enclave would be the thin end of the wedge for an expansive Kurdish idea.

The US would like to create just such an enclave. Not only would it like to have bases, an American habit as I have indicated earlier, but it would have another potential state under its control. It would be the second home away from home in West Asia just as Israel is – on a much smaller scale though.

The other, bigger idea is to divide Syria to the satisfaction of Israel and those with a steady gaze on the gas pipelines. The idea of dividing Syria into four is as old as the hills. But all the other powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, for instance – will not allow this to happen. When the three powers met in Tehran last week there was unanimity on one issue: the territorial integrity of Syria.

The presence of 1000 European Jihadis in the brew adds further pungency to the vapours of confusion. The great European nations, their noses up, do not wish these “tainted” citizens to return. Should they be put away then? No, say European Intelligence agencies. There are so many “militants”, “terrorists”, “moderate rebels” in Idlib. Let the Europeans gestate among them.

How long will this uneasy status quo last? Already, Russians have detected activity on the “chemical weapons” Front. There are reports that cameramen have already shot little boys being bathed to remove the “chemicals they have been exposed to”. White Helmets, the miracle men who save people by appearing in the epicentre of the attack without being burnt have been seen here and there.

Remember, the eight year old Syrian boy with burnt skin in October 2016, in the midst of the US election campaign. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour flourished a photograph of the boy before Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov in the course of an interview in Moscow.

“Is this not a crime against humanity?” shouted Amanpour.

“Very sad” said an amused Lavrov. This was the first time Lavrov publicly expressed the fear that Americans were helping terrorists in Syria.

When the photograph did not make much of an impression on the Russian Foreign Minister, the very same photograph materialized in candidate Hillary Clinton’s hand during the last Presidential debate in Las Vegas. With expert histrionics, Clinton simulated a lump in her throat for maximum effect.

Is Idlib about to yield a crop of pictures of white helmets and little boys with burns?

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Reflections On The Supreme Court Liberating Gays And Lesbians

Reflections On The Supreme Court Liberating Gays And Lesbians
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Those travelling to England for the first time in the sixties were recipients of a tract from the British High Commission listing the dos and don’ts. Among the don’ts was a paragraph in italics:
“A single woman may invite you to her apartment for tea and refreshments. This must not be taken for license.” That the tract did not warn me about the risks of accepting gentlemen’s hospitality was presumably because Victorianism had not quite faded in the sixties.

In those days the androgynous appeal of Twiggy, the modeling sensation was the big draw. The fashion industry had marketed flat chested girls, looking like boys, as the new sex symbols. The trend had been initiated by the haute couture in Paris. Balenciaga and Givenchy were in love and presumably had copious sex too, as did others in that business. You were a square if you were straight.

If men were going to be so unidirectional, women too were beginning to experience things they called freedom. All generalization are hopelessly inadequate. The freedom was in fact a device to protect self esteem, increasingly bruised by the casual indifference of men. Women’s emancipation clashed headlong with the “femininity” which poetry, thumri, folk songs, love letters had burdened our aesthetics with for centuries.
“Motia hiraye gayee, Rama
Kaise dhoon dhoon, (search)
Dhoondat, dhoondat,
baorae gayee, Rama”
(I have lost the pearl, my father’s gift,
O’Rama, how to find it?
I am going mad searching for it.)
The pearl has been lost in a moment of passionate ecstasy.
:Hiraye aanyein kangana
Gaunwaye aanyein jobana
nadia naarey”
“Defiantly, she surrendered her virginity by the riverside. In the sexual ecstasy, she lost her gold bangle.”
This raw ecstasy in the two folk songs is not the stuff of sex today – when urban emancipation conditions sexual behaviour.

Behari Lal Chaube (1595-1663), describes a “devar” husband’s younger brother, a constant in erotic Hindi poetry, throwing a flower playfully on his sister in law.
“Goosebumps of joy appeared on her limbs,
Mistaking them for insect bites
I hastened with a jar of ointment.
But when she smiled I
guessed the truth
and stayed my hand.”

Even Ghalib (1797-1869) puts his urbanity aside in her presence.
“Is nazakat ka bura ho, woh
bhaley hain bhi to kya
Haath aayein to unhein haath
            lagaye na baney”
(Though wonderful she be, I hesitate to touch her, such is the delicacy of her form)

Even Josh Malihabadi (1894-1982), proud of his several love affairs, is mesmerized by her shyness.
(Haya ki shama jal uthi
harim e dil rubai mein
Ghumaya sar jhuka ke
der tak kangan kalai mein.”
(When I asked for her hand, her eyes were like shyness illuminated.
For a long while she played with her bangles.”

Raghupati Sahai Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982), describes:
“Woh hai ghuncha, ghuncha jo dekhiye
Woh hai choomiye to dahan dahan.”
(Look at her, and she is a half open bud.
Kiss her and she is all mouth.)

John Keats in his letters could address Fanny Brawne as “My dear girl”. Try the patronizing tone, however steeped in lyric, on the professional MBA you are trying to date and she will hurl a paperweight at you.

Make allowance for some exaggeration either way, and the truth remains incontrovertible: gender equality has wrenched man-woman equation from romantic traditions which admittedly engendered inequality. When T.S. Elliot’s single woman, after her one night stand,
“paces about her room again, alone
She smoothes her hair with automatic hands,
And puts a record on the gramophone.”
The boredom of it is palpable.
The emancipated, professional woman is light years away from the village belle who lost her pearl during sex. In asserting her gender equality does the contemporary woman cause her partner to feel inadequate and begin to withdraw from women for emotional security? In brief, the belle who lost the pearl is more relaxing; the emancipated woman, more challenging.

Freudian complexities which attend evolving man-woman equation causes some of the youth of both sexes to find greater comfort, relaxation and friendship in seeking out persons of their own sex for all purpose relationships. The withdrawal of men from the market causes women to move in the other direction.

This sociologically conditioned augmentation of the LGBT community is only a fraction of those who are gay or heterosexual for hormonal reasons.

Social reasons for this increase will cause the stream to join the torrent, a function of many streams, which could lead to unsettling demographic changes. That is possibly the most frightening consequence of the issue the Supreme Court addressed in a historic judgement.

The judgement brings out of the purdah that which was hidden. Does a whole body of poetry on that which was behind the curtain become kosher too? It is great poetry from Chaucer and Iqbal to Jaffar Zatalli, Chirkeen, Rafi Ahmad Khan, Mahshar Enayati, Abba Changezi, Uriyan Hyderabadi. Do we have their Lordship’s permission to bring it all out in the open?

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Syrian Militants Secretly Flown To Afghanistan, China Raises A Battalion

Syrian Militants Secretly Flown To Afghanistan, China Raises A Battalion
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Among the dozen or so guests US Ambassador Frank Wisner was escorting to Bhutan for a holiday was Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN. Wisner had invited a few Indian friends to the long hall of Roosevelt House to meet the group. The year was 1996. The ebb and flow of conversation was interrupted when Holbrooke raised his hand like a Japanese tour leader. “Silent” he whispered audibly. He walked to the far end of the hall to talk on the telephone.

He returned with his mouth full of news. “US-Taleban romance is over” he announced with authority. Until the previous day the US was operating on the assumption that the Taleban was the most organized and muscular group in Afghanistan, who could be relied upon to stabilize the country. TAPI or the Turkmenistan, Afghan, Pak, India gas pipeline would then begin to look feasible to the US oil company, UNOCAL – the principal reason for the Afghan conflict.

What the US had not bargained for was the brutality with which the Taleban applied Shariah law on Afghan women. A series of prime time features on Taleban cruelty against women, telecast by the CNN’s Christiane Amanpour created a sensation in Washington. Without any waste of time, the US decided to distance itself from the Taleban. US officials supportive of the UNOCAL project, did not conceal their disappointment. “US gender politics has scuttled a strategic initiative”.

Fast forward to the great Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud (the lion of Panjshir valley) addressing the European Union in Brussels, in early spring 2001. He alerted the EU leaders, of the information his anti Taleban Northern Alliance had collected: Al Qaeda, helped by the Taleban, were planning a major attack on the US mainland. For this audacity Massoud was to pay with his life. On September 9, two days before the attack on the Twin towers in New York, Massoud was assassinated at his hideout on the Tajik border. It is interesting that the two Tunisian suicide bombers who had approached Massoud disguised as journalists travelled on passports forged in Brussels, the city where Massoud exposed the plot which turned out to be 9/11. At whose behest was Massoud killed?

Had the financial crisis of 2008 not weakened the West, there may have been different scripts for many regions, including Afghanistan. But given the ground realities, President Barack Obama settled on July 2011 as the date on which US troops would begin to withdraw. In August 2011 precisely a month after the Afghan withdrawal date was announced, the Syrian theatre was opened up. Coordination or chaos?

In a paper for the Observer Research Foundation in September 2010 I had argued that Obama’s exit plans were a pipedream. Do Americans have an endgame planned? Can a superpower, in a theatre of strategic importance, have a linear exit plan when multiple strategic options present themselves? US has been extremely watchful of a nuclear Pak. Is it now willing to walk away leaving the world’s only “Islamic” bomb unmonitored? Let’s not forget, Afghanistan has been the US watch tower on this count.

Moreover, a US being bled by an endless war suits all powers in the region. Demanding American departure but doing everything to keep it tied down in Afghanistan is an elementary game everyone is playing. Would interests in Pakistan wish the logistical supply line from the Karachi harbour to Afghanistan past Baluchistan to dry up? It is a regular source of incalculable earnings.

Would not a possible US departure cause Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and China to contemplate the Afghan real estate as a huge vacuum which each power must rush to fill up before the next one does? Here is a recipe for the mother of all civil wars.

Are the Americans likely to walk away simply because they are exasperated? After having spent a trillion dollars, losing thousands of lives, losing face – so soon after their reversal in Syria – are they really contemplating withdrawal? Will the bosses of UNOCAL suck their thumbs now? Will the priceless poppy fields of Helmand, the oil in the North, the unexplored mineral wealth now become a Russian asset?

Ofcourse not. Absence of consistency has been one of the constants in US policy on Afghanistan. To cloak this inconsistency, amplified in the time of Trump, we have strange reports coming out of the White House. Before Steve Bannon, the President’s Chief strategist was shown the door in August 2017 he had drawn the President’s attention to an outlandish proposition put forward by Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the world’s biggest provider of private armies.

At a strategy session in Camp David, Trump’s Best and Brightest considered the plan: Afghanistan should be administered exactly as the British controlled India – under a viceroy. Is former US ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, to be that Viceroy? He is an ethnic Afghan and is being tipped as special Envoy which is what the Viceroys were.

Ofcourse, the senior military brass around Trump shot down the first Prince proposal. But with Trump beginning to look vulnerable, all manner of risky adventures are being contemplated. The other day National Security Adviser john Bolton leaked the alarming news that Syria was about to launch a chemical attack in Idlib. How did he know? From Hezbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s speech last Sunday? Nasrallah said “data indicates that preparations are underway to stage a new chemical incident in Idlib”. This is the western “ruse to launch an aggression on Syria.”

Meanwhile, there are statements by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, Russian Foreign Ministry and reports by independent journalists like Robert Fisk that militant groups like Jabhat al Nusra, trounced in Syria, are being secretly airlifted to Northern Afghanistan. There are unconfirmed reports of a Chinese retaliation: a battalion being raised in the Wakhan Corridor to block terrorism being transported from Afghanistan. An air strike on the Afghan-Tajik border killed eight militants. According to the Afghan spokesman Khalil Asir, the origin of the aircraft remains unclear. Strange things are happening.

US Presidents have been known to dramatically divert attention when faced with internal crises. Is some catastrophe being manufactured to protect Trump?

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Since Burqa Has No Kuranic Injunction, Why Annoy Host Societies?

Since Burqa Has No Kuranic Injunction, Why Annoy Host Societies?
                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

In normal times Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson’s observation that burqa clad women resemble walking “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” would evoke laughter. But these are not normal times.

Just when liberals were beginning to pelt stones at him, a startling turn to the debate was given by Taj Hargay, Imam of Oxford. “The burqa is a Wahabi fifth column……we will wake up in the Islamic Republic of Britain.”

Johnson’s observation is mischievous, and has a political purpose, the Imam’s an exaggeration. The observations are troubling for an Indian Muslim. I would avoid being judgemental on a community which has been under immense pressure because of rampaging Islamophobia since the 90s. And yet, I cannot help asking: is the burqa a response to nasty Islamophobia or a means of aggravating it?

Aggravation of the problem is surely not our purpose. Then whose purpose is served by Muslim women floating around Oxford Circus in gear which distances them, in geometrical progression, from the host population? The clerics, eager to consolidate their congregations? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these congregations had in their midst scholars, doctors, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, rather than pliant women fitting Boris Johnson’s description.

I am troubled for another reason. After extensive travel around the world, I am inclined to cast my vote in recent years for Britain as a society where Human Rights, Rule of Law, Race relations are most secure. That is why I am uneasy at the two observations.

Let me turn to India to bring out my point, by comparison, in bolder relief.

The depths to which Hindu-Muslim relations have sunk in India is attributed by pundits to the brazenly communal politics of the ruling BJP under Prime Minister, Narendra Modi since 2014. If an ancient civilization, embracing 1.25 billion people can be so totally transformed in merely four years, Modi and his cohorts deserve to be celebrated as miracle men. No, the present government has clearly accelerated the communal agenda but the ground for it was diligently laid over 71 years of independence. The ruling party for most of these decades was the Congress.

Social disharmony was built into the manner in which Partition was affected. The Congress was firmly opposed to the two-nation theory enunciated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations. But the Congress accepted Lord Mountbatten’s June 3, 1947 plan for Partition in double quick time.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, former President of the Congress and others warned Pandit Nehru that Partition would mean “unadulterated Hindu Raj”.

By that logic once the Congress Working Committee had accepted a Muslim state, with a small Hindu minority, named Pakistan, it logically followed that the rest of India would be Hindustan or a Hindu state with a substantial Muslim minority. In other words, on August 15, 1947 India glided seamlessly from British Raj to Hindu Raj but Nehru chose not to use the term “Hindu” for a variety of reasons. A “Hindu” state was an affront to his self image. Self image was important to Nehru. In his evolution, there was a phase when he was angry with his father for having hired an English governess for his sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit. “Bhai (brother) was cross” Mrs. Pandit told me, “because British aristocracy those days preferred French governesses.”

The basic reason why Nehru avoided the term “Hindu” to describe the new found state was Kashmir. How could a Hindu state claim the Muslim majority province of Kashmir on the principle of contiguity?

Look at it from the hard core Hindu perspective. After a thousand years of Muslim rule, 200 of British, the Muslim state of Pakistan does come into being. But, alas, no Hindu state. The sophistry of why it is so, is lost on the millions. This is where the Hindu communalist pitches his tent.

It turns out that, over the decades, a compulsive hatred for Pakistan has emerged an acid test for nationalism. Into this bubbling cauldron has been pushed a boulder – the post 9/11 war against terror. The Islamophobia this has generated globally has been grist to the Hindu communalist’s mill too.

I have argued in my book “Being The Other: The Muslim in India” that calling a spade a spade at the very outset would have minimized the social disharmony that has plagued us for 71 years. From day one we should have declared ourselves a Hindu state. This would have obviated the need for an unsettling, double distilled Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation. The Hindu in this “raj” would have been at the steering wheel but the minorities would have struck a stronger bargain for education, seats in Parliament, jobs in the cabinet, Civil Service, Police, Armed Forces and so on.

Detractors raise a howl of protest. How can a theoretic state be secular?

In the recent elections in Pakistan three Hindus, Mahesh Malani, Hari Ram Kishwari Lal and Giyan Chand Essrani, won from general seats in Sind – one for the National Assembly and two for the Provincial Assembly.

The fact that Britain is a Protestant monarchy did not come in the way of Sadiq Khan serving as London’s high profile Mayor. Last year Donald Trump banned travel to the US from several Muslim countries. He was therefore not accorded a “state” visit to Britain because in that event protocol would have involved the Mayor of London. Saving Sadiq Khan this embarrassment was important enough for the organizers to deny Trump a state banquet with the Queen.

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid may not be a practicing Muslim but he is there high in public profile to make a bid for the top job. Two years ago when I watched a test match there were four Muslims in the English cricket team. I have met doctors, teachers, civil servants, entrepreneurs from the sub continent, both Hindus and Muslims, thriving. The Anglican Church never came in their way. In India’s circumstances in 1947, a Hindu India may have been better, than the one cloaked in a hollow and bogus secularism where the police watch on as one Muslim (or Dalit) after another is lynched, some to the accompaniment of expert photography.

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