Monday, August 30, 2010

Farce and Facts for Obama

Farce and Facts for Obama
Saaed Naqvi

When I heard that President Barak Obama would address a joint session of Parliament during his November visit, a chill ran down my spine. Images of President Bill Clinton’s foray into the Central Hall of Parliament during his visit in March 2000, for exactly one such exercise, swam into my ken, vivid and real.

President Clinton was first ringed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, Speaker Balyogi and Ex Prime Minister Dewe Gowda who clasped Clinton’s right hand in both his hands and wouldn’t let go.

This obstructed the US President circulating among the peoples’ representatives, generating panic among them: were they going to miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of shaking hands with a real life US President? Don’t forget, Clinton at that stage had acquired an indescribable aura after the Monica Lewinsky affair.

That this aura or halo is not available to Obama does not in any way diminish chances of scenes being repeated in Central Hall reminiscent of the March 2000 event.

As happens at the Kumbh or distribution of langar at a shrine, one unidentifiable MP broke the imaginary cordon. This opened the floodgates. Pressure exerted by the last backbencher, created waves which first encircled Balyogi, a short man, who got lost in the melee like a ball in a rugby scrum.

Over the speaker’s frame, by now horizontal, hands reached out to touch Clinton like he were a deity or a Dul-dul in a Moharram procession. I am not exaggerating: members clambered onto members for a touch.

That is why I shudder at the thought of history repeating itself when in November Obama is exposed to the exuberance of Indian Parliamentarians.

No such enthusiasm was on show when, say, President Jimmy Carter visited New Delhi in 1979. This was not because Carter did not possess Clinton’s sex appeal. The difference lies elsewhere: Carter represented America in a bipolar world. Also, he represented the US in post Vietnam retreat.

Clinton exuded the confidence of a nation which had defeated the Soviet Union exactly a decade ago.

Also, it should not be forgotten that throughout the 43 year tilt towards the Soviet Union, the Indian establishment, as it were – industry, newspapers – never severed their western affiliations. It is generally not noticed that Indian newspapers never posted correspondents in Moscow, but they did to London and Washington.

This was strange because Indian journalist in those days had no access at any level in either London or Washington. Had there been news bureaus in Moscow, Indian journalists would have had access to the Central Committee. Newspaper owners did not allow then and do not allow now the media to waver away from the West, an attitude probably embedded in the battle of Plassey!

This explains the post Soviet lurch towards the US, sometimes inelegant, as symbolized by that scene in Central Hall.

Compare Ambassador “Tikky” Kaul’s elevated status in Moscow, for example, with the mortifications of an Indian Ambassador in Washington, right upto the 90s. Mortification may be a strong word but that is what it amounted to when someone of distinction, say, Nani Palkhivala, is posted as ambassador to Washington. The red carpet is rolled out to the ramp of the aircraft for the outward journey. But upon landing, the Ambassador looks out for a reception, which is simply not there.

Palkhivala, like others before him, had taken upon himself the task of “sacking” Mister Ganju, lobbyist, media adviser, an all purpose handyman parked in the embassy as B.K. Kaul’s protégé during the latter’s term as ambassador. Kauls came and went but Ganju went on forever.

So, Palkhivala decided to cut him short. Then something predictable happened. A realization dawned on the Indian Ambassador that Washington DC was taking no note of him. As if on cue, Ganju surfaced with his magic potion, the panacaea for ambassadors feeling neglected in Washington.

The lady who resided with Ben Bradlee, the powerful editor of Washington Post, was Sally Quin who, from that vantage point, wrote an influential gossip column. With an imagination that would put Jeeves to shame, Ganju arranged for Sally Quin to materialize at the ambassador’s dinner.

Next morning was, for the ambassador, the sunniest in every sense of the term, ever since he arrived. There, in real print, were glowing references to the cuisine at the Indian ambassador’s residence in Sally Quin’s column dignified by the Washington Post. I believe Ganju stayed on for a few more terms, until Indian economy was unshackled by Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh and India became a big enough player to afford high profile lobbyists on the Hill and elsewhere. The Indian Ambassador became among the most sought after diplomats in Washington.

Remember, Clinton came here as the leader of a victorious West. Obama is saddled with two wasteful wars and an economy which Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says is in “Freefall”. Germany in Europe and China globally are the risen economic powers. Is India somewhere there?

There is another truth the Obama team must have taken note of: India is the only country, along with Israel, with an abiding nostalgia for the Bush years. Why? It would be nice to know from his team – how they decipher this one.

Also, it is becoming ever more transparent, in Washington as well as in India, that governments elected by the people are increasingly immobilized by entrenched establishments which are not answerable to the people. Is this not exactly the opposite of democratic progress?

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Monday, August 23, 2010

A Possible Taleban interlocutor

A Possible Taleban interlocutor
Saeed Naqvi

The unspeakable tragedy of the floods in Pakistan, on a scale unknown to man, has dwarfed much else in the region: 100 shot dead in three days of political, ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi, the cloudburst in Leh, the Koochi (Pushotoon shepherds) and Hazara clashes, ironically, in Kabul’s Darul Aman or haven of peace.

Before I meander, let me focus on just one image, here in Kabul, which may provide a clue (among other such clues) to the Afghan jigsaw.

Through a maze of contacts, I am invited to meet Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef who, at 42, is a veteran of dramatic experiences of a variety that makes fiction riveting. An orphan, he joined the ranks of the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets. He was then 15, fresh from a Madrasa in Pakitan where his relatives had fled to escape the “Soviets”.

Mullah Omar, whom he even today refers to as Amirul Momineen, or the chief of the faithful, became his mentor and friend. Obviously, he left such an impression on Mullah Omar and others in the Al Qaeda – Taleban leadership that when the Taleban came to power in Kabul in 1996, Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef was posted as the Taleban ambassador to Islamabad. There were similar Taleban representations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but not Washington, leaving the US with suitable deniability of any affiliations with the “fundamentalists”. It is another matter that “fundamentalist” delegations made routine beelines to George Bush and his affiliates in Texas. UNICOL, I think, was not quite dead at that stage.

Fast forward to 9/11 and pictures of Donald Rumsfelt at Tora-Bora mountains pointing at the caves, flames leaping out: “Do you think they are cooking cookies in there?” He meant Oslama bin Laden was hatching plots in those caves. He probably was.

Zaeef dutifully addressed press conferences outside his embassy in Islamabad. Then, in December, President Musharraf made a U-turn, joined the war on terror and remained George W. Bush’s “most trusted ally” to the very end.

As a prelude to the Bush – Musharraf romance, the ISI promptly handed Mullah Zaeef to the US Forces who ferried him to Guantanamo Bay. His four year stint at this facility is now a book – in Guantanamo. He then wrote another book on his years with Taleban.

So, here I am at his two storey house protected by armed guards in an officially provided cabin outside the door.

I am escorted to the terrace, lined with flower pots, a green synthetic carpet spread wall to wall.

Mullah Zaeef is a tall, burly man with a thick, bushy beard, blending with his black turban. There are no chairs. Taleban austerity, I suppose. We recline against colourful, rectangular cushions, bloated with extra stuffing of cotton.

As an opening gambit, I settle for the topic most current: negotiations with the Taleban.

Who will you negotiate with: I ask.

“When NATO Generals and ambassadors ask me that question I say: “Americans should negotiate with the people they are fighting – Taleban”.

What about President Hamid Karzai? I continue.

“He is only an instrument of the Americans”.

But Gen. David Petraeus, the US Force Commander, Pakistan’s Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and President Karzai have been meeting to work out the modalities of negotiations.

“Negotiations are possible but only with the Americans” he persists.

Surely, Gen. Kayani and the ISI will insist on a role. After all, the ISI has invested so much in Afghanistan over the past 30 years.

“The CIA has invested; the ISI has spent a fraction of that investment”, he does not even pause to think.

Are you saying that Pakistan has no role in negotiating peace in Afghanistan?

“None whatsoever” he continues. “Afghan Taleban are fighting the Americans; Pakistan Taleban are fighting the Pakistan government.”

“Pakistan Taleban or Afghan Taleban have no quarrel with the Pakistan nation, the people. The fight is with their Intelligence agency, with their government.”

I come to the point directly. The Pakistan Army has been talking to the Haqqani group which is extending its influence in Afghanistan.

“There are no talks with Haqqani”. Who knows, Gen. Petraeus may be right that there is no monolithic Taleban group, just a syndicate of groups. For Mullah Zaeef, the ultimate Taleban leader is Mullah Omar. Can I meet Mullah Omar? I ask him.

“Extremely dangerous these days” he says.

Throughout the 90 minute conversation, what comes across is his total distrust of Pakistan. If you wish to see this cool man lose his composure, draw him out on Pakistan’s control on Taleban in Afghanistan.

“They cannot be trusted. It was from their air bases, that the Americans first struck Afghanistan. They facilitated the US troop movements. And do you think they will let the US leave? Do you know that Balochistan is the critical supply route for US Afghan operations? Will Pakistan ever give up this source of income and, above all, control on the Americans”.

By now he is virtually frothing in the mouth.

“Even Israelis are not as harsh with their prisoners as the Pakistanis are. The torture our people have suffered….”. Remarkably, he said all this on TV.

“First they entertained me as Ambassador, then handed me over to the Americans like an ordinary criminal. Why?” he explodes. The next government in Afghanistan will be neutral between Indian and Pakistan.

For perspective, let me explain where Mullah Zaeef stands in the Taleban hierarchy.w

Quite as important as Mullah Zaeef were Taleban Foreign Minister and Representative to the UN, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil and Abdel Hakim Mujahid respectively.

After the September elections, we may hear these names as possible interlocutors, if there are to be negotiations, that is.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Corruption! What’s that?

Corruption! What’s that?
Saeed Naqvi

There is nothing more anti poetic than the image of Suresh Kalmadi and his alleged shananegans. Yet the mind, that strange instrument, moved mysteriously to Josh Malihabadi one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The link, in my mind, was Josh’s poem on corruption.

The interesting point here is the year in which the poem was written: 1951. It is actually a satirical poem on Bribery which, in Josh’s framework, was at the bottom of that which is now a full blown Oak of contemporary corruption.

The scale of corruption in the first decade of Indian independence stunned Josh. The rot had set in so deep that the harshest administrative measures were deemed not to be effective:
“Mulk bhar ko qaid kar de
kiske bus ki baat hai!
Khair se sub hain: Koi
Do, char, dus ke baat hai?”
(Who can send an entire nation to our many jails?
Because that’s what is required when all else fails!)

Josh Malihabadi’s poem opens up a different vista. Surely corruption was not dormant underground, lying in wait for the British to leave on August 15, 1947 for it to so suddenly zoom on a scale described by Josh.

What the poet describes is something that had been simmering, gestating, growing for atleast a hundred years of British rule.

There were no newspapers, and certainly no 24  7 TV channels to expose bribery and nepotism. It were only subsequent scholars who, while going through land records, located the “patwari’s” boundless land fiddles (for example).

Since Hindus took to Western education while the Muslim elite held on tenaciously to their “language and culture” and largely spurned western education, the educated Hindus (and these were largely Brahmins with a sprinkling of Kayasthas and other “Savarnas” or upper castes), dominated the Civil Service at various levels.

This led to the consolidation of nearly unbreakable caste networks, the fountain source of nepotism. It were these vested interests who were rattled by contemporary electoral politics, generating egalitarianism which threatened to replace the traditional elites from their perch.

A case study of Guntur, in Andhra in the 18th century is most revealing. It is a remarkable work of scholarship Guntur by Robert Fryckenberg.

During Maratha expansion, Guntur came under the rule of the Marathas who brought with them their own pool of administrators.

After the British set up their headquarters at Fort St. George, Guntur came under the Madras Presidency.

The British ICS officer posted to Guntur as collector noticed ordinate delays and obstructions in implementation of decisions taken by the collectorate.

Inquires reached a dead end because the files, which would explain the delays, could not be located. It was all so co-operatively orchestrated that it was impossible to identify the culprit.

The exasperated officer approached Fort St. George for superior intervention. Here too, headway was not rapid. Infact it was tardy.

Matters reached the Privy Council in London. Only then was the Gordian knot unloosed.

The Privy Council found that most of the administrators the Marathas brought with them were Desastha Brahmins. When the Marathas made way for the British, the latter retained the middle and lower administrators (because they were brilliant) quite innocent of their caste and class affiliations. This network spread from Guntur to Fort St. George.

What I am arriving at is this: the antecedents of bribery and nepotism, which are at the heart of what goes under the blanket description of corruption, go back deep into the British period and possibly beyond.

During the colonial period the warts did not show. There probably was no great anxiety to bring wrong doing at a lower level into public glare because it would have required delving deep and would cause the British to spread themselves out too thin.

Post independence corruption requires extensive research but, a cursory look, yields some leads.

As I have said earlier, a consequence of electoral politics was egalitarianism. In a society stratified for centuries, this accorded power and proximity to wealth to a class which had never seen either. What followed was an unseemly grab for money.

It shows the earnestness with which the Founding Father launched the democratic project, that as early as 1957, the second general elections, influential Congress leaders threw everything into the contest, including a little bit of corruption. The only way to ensure success, particularly if you were an outsider and not from the constituency, was to ingratiate yourself with the local Congress workers and heads of gram sabhas.

One such, Feroz Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s husband, when fielded from Rae Bareli for the 1957 poll used his influence in New Delhi to bring in truck loads of PL 480 (USAID programme) butter cans and woolen shawls to be distributed among the influential folks in the constituency!

This was the thin end of the wedge. Elections began to demand ever increasing sums of money.

From earliest days of Indian Democracy, there were always a dozen or so members of Parliament beholden to major business houses. Today the number of such MPs has grown. There is poignant symbolism in the fact that Mahatma Gandhi’s stay at Sevagram was financed by Rahul Bajaj’s grand father and the great Mahatma died in Birla House!

But how does one explain Kalmadi, thoroughbred Brahmin, caught with his hand in the till?

Alberuni, who came to India in 1017, and studied every aspect f Indian life for thirteen years, talks of the land’s ethics:

“All things are one and, whether allowed or forbidden, equal.”

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Monday, August 9, 2010

For Cordoba, Salute New York

For Cordoba, Salute New York
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 07.08.2010

Just when the Americans begin to exasperate, they do something so sensationally creative that anger gives way to admiration. New Yorker’s have most imaginatively agreed to build a Cordoba House in the vicinity of ground zero in Manhattan.

This, just when some rabble rousers were being advised by the irrepressible Ms. Sarah Palin to “refudiate” the idea of building a 13 storey community center two blocks from where the twin towers stood. Why this opposition by Ms. Palin and her cohorts? Because the building will be called Cordoba House. So what if the center will have a swimming pool, a basketball court, a 500 seat auditorium among other facilities for people of all faiths. Ms. Palin’s anxieties reside elsewhere: supposing the hall for prayer evolves into a fundamentalist mosque!

I commend to New York’s enlightened Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who supported the Cordoba project, to send Ms. Palin, for her education, a copy of Yale Professor, Maria Rosa Menocal’s masterpiece “The Ornament of the World” on how “Muslims, Jews and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain”. And it lasted 700 years. Which, precisely, is the reason why the Manhattan structure will be so named.

Never in the past century has a project been conceived which, once in place, will go some distance to help remove prejudice left behind by civilizational, cultural and religious conflicts, particularly between the three Semitic religions, at least since the beginning of the crusades.

Unlike the conflictual narrative of the crusades, the story of Cordoba is a glorious chapter of harmony and intellectual efflorescence. In the 10th and 11th centuries it was “one of the most advanced cities of the world” for many reasons. It was the “world’s cultural, political, financial and economic center”.

For a population of 400,000 inhabitants, the city had a library lined with 1,000,000 volumes. There were dozens of hamams, or public baths at a time when the rest of Europe resorted to “dry cleaning”, a historical consequence of which is the ubiquitous “toilet roll”.

Cordoba actually connotes Islam’s earliest contact with Christian Europe.

On a clear day if you stand at the Tangier waterfront in Morocco, the Spanish coastline can be seen with some clarity, a small stretch of water separating the two landmasses.

It was this distance that in 711 Tariq Ibne Ziyad traversed with a small cavalry and captured the rock which was named after him – Jabal al Tariq. Jabal means “a rock”. It was this rock which the British, centuries later, renamed Gibraltar.

This was the beginning of Muslim or Moorish expansion across the Iberian Peninsula upto the Pyrenees. It might please Sarah Palin to know that some 19th century synagogues even in New York are therefore Moorish in style.

Muslim presence in Spain for 700 years is, at least, known. But there is total amnesia about 400 years of Fatimid rule beginning 831 AD, in Sicily where a column in the Central Cathedral in Palermo, carries Quranic inscriptions by way of a memento.

Tariq Ali, the Pakistani writer and activist in London, has written a novel – “A Sultan in Palermo”. It has received little notice, unlike Salman Rushdie’s the Moor’s Last Sigh based on the Spanish experience.

Averroes or Ibn Rush (1126 to 1198) was a contemporary of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonedes (1135 to 1204) among a host of others who enlivened Cordoba’s intellectual life.

Commentaries on Aristotle and Plato and Ibn Rush’s comparisons with the latter’s thought and Shariah would raise a storm in today’s Islamic centers. He thought that Plato’s philosopher king was similar to the Islamic Imam, a term which has been misused in the contemporary world.

Just imagine the intellectual ferment 400 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (in 1605) exactly the year when Shakespeare was producing King Lear at the Globe theatre.

What continues to attract millions of tourists to Cordoba is the architectural wonder on a scale the world has never seen – the great mosque of Cordoba built in 784 AD.

Its 19 north to south and 29 east to west aisles are like avenues between 850 exquisite pillars.

After the departure of the Muslims from Spain, Christians asserted themselves be erecting a Cathedral inside the mosque which is thronged by worshipers to this day. Modern Spain has worn the Moorish period as an ornament in its history books and tourist literature. It has not concealed the warts either.

Even the brutalities of the Inquisition from 1478 are part of modern public discourse, including the excesses of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada who ordered thousands to be paraded “wearing shirts short enough to expose their genitals” before being publicly flogged and burnt at the stakes. His favourite targets were the “Marranos” or Jews who only pretended to be converts but practiced Judaism in private.

Jews in hundred of thousands, fled the Spanish inquisition to find refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

These forgotten details of history, an era of tolerance and multiculturism or to use the great poet Iqbal’s poem on Cordoba, “Sil Silaye Roz o Shub”, the shadow play of night and day, ebb and flow of civilizations – all of this Cordoba House will evoke.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

The Leak: A Sinking Feeling

The Leak: A Sinking Feeling
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 31.07.2010

Of all the arguments for the US to continue in Afghanistan, despite an embarrassing catalogue of reverses, one most often advanced even by such distinguished strategic thinkers as Henry Kissinger is that American withdrawal, without “completing the job”, would be a shot in the arm for “Jihadism” worldwide.

I am inclined to an exactly opposite view. So long as the Americans remain injected in any Muslim situation against the will of the local population, “Jihadism” will grow and grow exponentially. Authoritarian Muslim rulers, beholden to the US, find their streets turning against them. This is a simple manifestation of anti Americanism fueled by US policies/actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine.

Moreover, what entails “completing the job” in Afghanistan? Militarily defeat the Taleban? Not on the cards. Consolidate Hamid Karzai as the central authority in Kabul whose writ will run across the length and breadth of the land? Such a central authority has historically never existed.

To train sufficiently large Afghan army and the police to control the land? US experience over the past decade is replete with instances of trained hands turning upon the trainers. So this line too does not yield hope.

Saturate every cluster of suspects with excessive droning? Jihadism will multiply in direct proportion to the number of innocent Afghans killed.

Sub contracting Afghanistan to Pakistan’s care? Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Pushtoons, Hazaras, Panjsheris will all get involved, directly or indirectly, in the mother of all civil wars.

Talk to the Talebans but leave out the Al Qaeda? Over the past 30 years, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks have amalgamated with a large section of the local population which has in large measure defected from Sufism and soft Sunnism to hard Salafism? How does one separate the indigenous bloodline from the imported one?

In other words, there is nothing that can be distilled from the Almighty mess that is Afghanistan which is even akin to “completing the job”.

Public opinion in the US will not stand for this debilitating status quo. Will another, bigger war stoke the sort of nationalism when a nation composes its differences because “our men are at the front?”

Anything short of this melodrama, is a straightforward conference on Afghanistan with participants from neighbouring countries, P5 and Germany, Shanghai group to consider Afghanistan’s neutrality.

“Woh Afsana jise anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin,
Usey ek khoobsoorat mor dekar chorna achcha!”
(The story which does not have a logical conclusion,
Should be given a creative twist and ended!)

In an article written in September 2009 Hamid Ansari (since elevated as India’s Vice President) and Chinmaya Gharekhan, former Permanent Representative to the UN, advanced the case for Afghan neutrality modeled on the Laos example attempted in 1962.

Earlier in an article written for the Washington Post in February 2009, Henry Kissinger cited Belgian neutrality in the 19th century. He wrote: “formal neutrality was sometimes negotiated to impose a standstill on interventions in and from strategically located countries”. Belgian neutrality was not challenged for a hundred years.

“Is it possible to devise a modern equivalent?” Kissinger asks.

Since it became clear years ago that both the US and NATO were bogged down in Afghanistan, a body of literature has emerged seeking a non military way out of the mess. Calls for an international conference have been made by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the UN, EU, Germany, UK, among numerous others.

It reflects on the callousness of the World Order we live in that the US Congress did not even pause to consider the implications of the WikiLeaks disclosures on the sorry state of affairs in Afghanistan before signing $58 billion additional funding for Barack Obama’s Afghan war.

Did you notice that the WikiLeaks story dominated the networks the first day? Since day two of the disclosure, the news blackout is remarkably effective. But institutions, media houses, individuals and, or course, the Taleban are in possession of all the details, processed or unprocessed, of six years of a mismanaged war. Consequences of the disclosures must surely fellow.

There will be a hundred aspects of the war that will now come under scrutiny, including such facets as would earlier have been dismissed as conspiracy theories.

Are the Americans and history’s greatest war machine, NATO, in vain pursuit of a man attached to a dialysis machine? Are they in this war to eliminate elements plotting a 9/11 type visitation half way around the globe? Are they in the region to keep a close watch on the world’s only nuclear arsenal in Muslim hands? Caspian hydro carbons, Central Asia, resurgent Russia, Iran, China and why, even an India whose political directions are not always predictable? Are all these in the American ken and have they, therefore, dug in for a long haul. “We are here for a long haul” I was told by senior US officials in Islamabad. “Just training the Frontier Corps will take over a decade.”

The disclosures make such long term projects untenable.

Take this instance: “US Special Forces dropped 2,000 pound bombs on a compound where a “high value individual” was hiding. Locals, however, reported that 300 civilians had died.” This is just one of hundred of such instances.

How will the Americans ever have accurate intelligence in a Muslim country where they are hated across the board. Yes, there is always mercenary intelligence. But mercenary intelligence will pocket the money and willfully mislead those shelling out the cash – in billions of dollars so far.

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